Monthly Archives: May 2012

Tuohy Deserves His Shot

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Dan Tuohy rises highest in Ulster’s defeat to Leinster last weekend. (c) Ken Bohane.

Declan Kidney has picked four second-rows in his squad to tour New Zealand: Donncha O’Callaghan, Dan Tuohy, Donnacha Ryan and AN Other. Paul O’Connell will take that AN Other slot if he recovers from a knee injury as expected. Devin Toner is unlucky to miss out, as is Mike McCarthy. If he is fit, then O’Connell is obviously one of the first names on the team sheet. I’m confident that he won’t miss this tour. So who should pack down alongside POC in that first test on the 9th of June? The battle for the second-row could be one of the tightest calls Kidney has to make.

The continued selection of O’Callaghan during this year’s Six Nations was the foundation of much of the criticism aimed at Kidney. It was certainly justified. The fact that O’Callaghan hasn’t been commanding a starting place at Munster, coupled with the form of Ryan, Tuohy, McCarthy and Toner made it hard to understand. Kidney’s loyalty has been infuriating for Ireland’s supporters, and O’Callaghan is prime evidence for the accusations.

First off, let me say that I’m not a fan of slagging off individual players. Donnacha O’Callaghan has been a legend for Munster and Ireland. He clearly cares passionately about playing for both teams and it’s obvious that he gives 100%. At his peak he was hugely effective. But he’s now 33 and is past that peak. If that’s so obvious the majority of Ireland fans, then why does Kidney keep picking him? There must be something behind this other than blind loyalty.

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O’Callaghan has been a true stalwart for Munster and Ireland. (c) Liam Coughlan.

Trying to get inside the mind of Declan Kidney is not an easy thing to do. Clearly his decision to keep faith in O’Callaghan is swayed by their previous shared successes. Kidney also probably feels that O’Callaghan gives his pack a better balance. With ball-carriers in Healy, O’Brien, Ferris and to a certain extent O’Connell and Heaslip, Kidney probably feels that a workhorse like O’Callaghan is necessary if there’s going to be anyone committing to rucks.

O’Callaghan is probably a good scrummager too, particularly if you judge from his attempts to give Tom Court some helpful advice during the Twickenham Demolition. If that’s the case, and O’Callaghan does give a serious shove from the second-row, then it may go a little further to explaining why Kidney chose him during the Six Nations. But the time has come for O’Callaghan to step aside. The simple fact is that Ryan and Tuohy can do everything that O’Callaghan does, and plenty more.

Ryan will feel that he has earned the starting role alongside O’Connell after his Six Nations displays. He added serious aggression and bite to Ireland’s game each time he played (2 starts, 3 off the bench). Allied to that, the Tipperary man has finally nailed down a definitive starting role at Munster at the age of 28. Ryan surely believes that he has done everything in his power to be named in Ireland’s XV for that first test against the All Blacks.

Donnacha Ryan's lineout copy

Ryan had an impressive Six Nations in what has been a real breakthrough season. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Ulster lock Tuohy has been excellent for his province for the entire season. His ball carrying has been increasingly dynamic, his lineout work superb, and he can offload too. The Bristol-born second-row would have been aggrieved that Kidney called up Connacht’s Mike McCarthy as bench cover when O’Connell picked up a knee injury during the Six Nations. The fact that McCarthy had the most recent international exposure was the deciding factor, as appears to be be the case very often with Kidney.

Tuohy kept his head down and continued to excel for Ulster as they earned their place in last weekend’s Heineken Cup final. The 26-year-old was one of Ulster’s standout performers in the 42-12 loss. He made his tackles, hit rucks and secured lineout ball without fuss. On top of that he carried powerfully, something O’Callaghan doesn’t do. The manner in which he bounced off a Sean O’Brien tackle was a surprising and welcome highlight. To top off a strong all-round display, Tuohy popped up out wide to finish after Paddy Wallace’s intelligent offload.

Ryan and Tuohy are the men with momentum and confidence behind them. O’Callaghan’s days as a first-choice international lock are surely now at an end, despite his inclusion in the squad to tour NZ. O’Connell’s complete skills mean that whichever of Ryan or Tuohy are picked, Ireland’s second-row will still have balance. Personally, I’d go for Tuohy and O’Connell for the first test, with Ryan giving versatility and a real impact off the bench.

Would you go for Tuohy or Ryan? Are there any O’Callaghan fans out there? If O’Connell doesn’t recover, would a second-row of Tuohy and Ryan work? As always, feel welcome to leave a comment with your views!

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Photos courtesy: Liam Coughlan, Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan.

The Master and the Apprentice

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Brian O’Driscoll celebrates after Leinster’s magnificent Heineken Cup win on Saturday. (c) Ken Bohane.

There’s plenty of coverage in today’s media of Leinster’s incredible win over Ulster in the Heineken Cup final on Saturday. There’s really no need for me to cover the game in a general sense, because it’s all been said by now. Instead, I’m going to focus on one of the key individual battles which Leinster won. They came out on top of most of these positional match-ups across the field, although Paddy Wallace, Dan Tuohy, John Afoa and Craig Gilroy all impressed.

Having played in the centre myself, the midfield area usually draws much of my attention. Saturday’s game saw a really interesting battle of the master versus the apprentice at outside centre. Brian O’Driscoll is a legend of the game, a once in a lifetime player. Opposite him was Darren Cave, of whom I’m a big fan and had previously suggested worthy of a place on Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand. Cave’s performance on Saturday was excellent, but O’Driscoll proved far more decisive.

Ulster had a strong start to the game, flying out of the blocks and looking more up for it than Leinster in the first five minutes. Cave made a scything break after just 3 minutes (11.50 mark on the video below) as he dummied to an inside runner, completely bamboozling Leo Cullen. Cave almost got around Rob Kearney for the opening score of the game, but the fullback just held on to him. Cullen recovered well to illegally steal the ball and Leinster got away with their early lack of concentration.

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(c) Ken Bohane.

It was a clear indicator that Ulster’s outside centre was up for this game. In the piece linked above, I wrote that Cave needed some standout displays on the big stage to win over the doubters and the 25-year-old was definitely intent on leaving his mark. He continued to pose a threat to Leinster’s defence for the remainder of the game, with his 11 runs leaving him behind only Ferris and Afoa in Ulster’s carrying stakes. Cave topped the charts for his side in terms of metres gained while in possession, with 41.

Defensively, the main highlight for Cave was his try-saving tackle on Eoin Reddan in the 22nd minute ( starting at 33.20 on the video below) when he came from a long, long way back to grab the scrumhalf after Gilroy had missed his own tackle. Cave has been defensively excellent all season long, with missed tackles a rarity. He reads the game well and more often than not, puts himself in a good position to make his hits. But shackling O’Driscoll was a far greater task than what he had faced previously.

O’Driscoll again proved himself a medical freak to be playing at all. Once again, massive kudos to Leinster’s backroom staff for enabling him to take to the field. The effort was hugely worthwhile, as BOD was a class above almost everyone else on the pitch. There were only two occasions when he got one on one with Cave, but both times he got around his opposite number. O’Driscoll doesn’t possess the same top-end pace as he once did, but his footwork was enough to show Cave that he has a distance to go if he is to challenge for Ireland’s number 13 jersey.

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O’Driscoll’s performance bodes will for Ireland’s prospects in New Zealand. (c) Ken Bohane.

Both times, O’Driscoll shifted his feet, forced Cave to sit back on his heels, then got outside him with a little burst of acceleration. As I said above, Cave’s defensive positioning is a strength and against any other opponent he would have completed the tackles. But O’Driscoll just slipped past him twice. It’s exactly the level that Cave would want to be tested at, and the experience will have been of great benefit to him. (The best example is at 37.36 in the vid below).

O’Driscoll added some world-class touches throughout the game to really stamp his mark. That offload in the build-up to Cian Healy’s try showed exactly how much intelligence and vision Drico possesses. Watch it again from 43.20 in the video and you can see that the Leinster centre knows exactly what he’s going to do  even before the ball is in his hands. Genuinely talented players go through the game with their heads up, scanning the defence and immediately recognising what’s on. It’s yet another example of O’Driscoll’s genius.

Cave appeared to be inspired by the master’s demonstration of skill and even threw in his own little flick pass in the second half, when he ran a switch with Trimble. The flick wasn’t really necessary, but it was encouraging to see that Cave had the confidence to bring it off. And this inspiration is exactly what Cave should be looking to get from the tour to New Zealand now that he has been selected.

He has certainly earned his place on the plane, after what has really been his breakthrough season for Ulster. This is an incredible opportunity for the twice-capped midfielder to take his game to the next level. Training against and learning from O’Driscoll every day will almost certainly show him exactly what he needs to do to push through at international level. Just as playing opposite O’Driscoll on Saturday brought Cave to new heights, touring alongside him is the next step in his learning curve.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane.

All Blacks Watch – Forwards

All Blacks - Richie McCaw

Richie McCaw made his first start of the season for the Crusaders last weekend. (c) Geoff Trotter.

New Zealand have named a 35-man training squad ahead of June’s three-test series with Ireland. The omissions of Robbie Fruean and Andre Taylor are particularly surprising for fans of Super Rugby, as those two have been in spectacular form. The injury to Richard Kahui last weekend may mean a late call-up for one of them. Several of the other young players highlighted in last week’s look at the backline options for New Zealand were also left out, but there’s 11 new players included.

So, following on from last week’s look at the backs, let’s check out the form of the forwards Steve Hansen has selected in his training squad. Some of these guys will miss out when the All Blacks management cut the squad to 30 on the 3rd of June. There are some tough decisions to be made.

World Cup-winning loosehead prop Tony Woodcock returns despite the Blues awful season. The 31-year-old has actually been one of the few positives at Eden Park after taking an extended off-season. He has been a force at scrum-time, although niggly injuries have limited him to just 5 starts so far this season. Hansen will be hoping that Woodcock can steer clear of further problems as the crucial months of the season approach. When fit, Woodcock is one of the world’s premier looseheads.

Mils Muliaina, Stephen Donald & Ben Franks

Ben Franks (right) can prop on both sides of the scrum. (c) Geof Wilson.

Behind Woodcock in the loosehead depth chart are Wyatt Crockett and Ben Franks. Crockett has been in solid form for the Crusaders again this season. The 29-year-old is unlucky to be around at the same time as Woodcock, meaning he has been restricted to just a handful of All Blacks caps. His fellow Crusader Franks is an asset to any squad with his ability to play both sides of the scrum. That versatility can also count against him in that it makes him so suitable for the bench, where he is likely to start from against Ireland.

Hansen has selected only two hookers in the 35-man squad, both of them over 30 years of age. Kevin Mealamu is now 33 and if truth be told, his form for the Blues suggests that age is finally catching up with him. He has had a recurring calf injury recently and that hasn’t helped his level of performance. Andrew Hore is likely to start in the middle of the front-row. Despite being the same age as Mealamu, Hore has started all but one game for the Highlanders, getting around the park well.

At tighthead, World Cup Final starter, and brother of Ben, Owen Franks has done enough to retain his position. The 24-year-old has been part of the dominant Crusaders front-row  alongside his brother and Crockett. Competition at tighthead was to come in the shape of Charlie Faumuina and the gigantic Ben Tameifuna. 25-year-old Faumuina has been part of a good Blues scrum and was set for his first cap. Cruelly, a calf tear has ruled him out of this summer’s test series.

Jerome Kaino, Cory Jane & Owen Franks

Owen Franks (right) is likely to start at tighthead. (c) Geof Wilson.

20-year-old Tameifuna represented NZ at the Junior World Championship just last summer and wasn’t expecting much Super Rugby action this season at the Chiefs. But injuries to Ben Afeaki and Toby Smith gave the 138kg prop a chance which he has eagerly taken. He’s started 10 games already as the Chiefs have risen to 2nd in the table. It’s not only his sheer size and strength which have impressed, but also his skillful contributions around the park. Apparently he used to play outhalf back in his school days. He’s definitely one to keep an eye on, particularly as some New Zealanders reckon he could cover hooker too.

In the second-row, Sam Whitelock and Ali Williams return after their involvement in the World Cup last year. Whitelock is still only 23, and having started the World Cup final and shown up well for the Crusaders this season, he will be confident of his starting position. Williams is lucky to be in the squad at all. The 31-year-old has been poor all season for the Blues. However, his experience at international level means he is retained. Hansen will hope Williams’ influence on rookies Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick is positive.

Crusaders man Romano is something of a late developer, getting his first call-up at the age of 26. He started this season on the bench for his club side, but swiftly beat off the challenge of Tom Donnelly to make himself a starter alongside Whitelock. Romano made giant leaps under Rob Penney for the Canterbury ITM Cup side in recent seasons. The new Munster coach said that Romano has the ability to be a Brad Thorn-like figure for the All Blacks.

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20-year-old Retallick is an absolute certainty to represent the All Blacks sooner rather than later. The Chiefs man is in his first season of Super Rugby having won the U20 World Cup alongside Tameifuna last year. Retallick’s sheer size is frightening. Standing 6’8″, he has actually had to shed bulk recently, dropping down to 120kg in order to increase his lineout ability. In a recent fitness test, Retallick beat Brad Thorn’s long-standing beep test record for second-rows (he scored 19.3 for those interested!). This is a machine of a young man, destined for test rugby.

So to the back-row. Of the trio that started the World Cup Final, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read are back. Not much needs to be said about that pair. McCaw has recovered from a foot injury and made his first start of the season in the Crusaders loss to the Reds last weekend. Read has captained the Crusaders with distinction in McCaw’s absence and is a world-class operator at No.8. World Cup blindside flanker Jerome Kaino has moved on to Japan, so his All Blacks career is over for now.

The outstanding candidate to replace him is the Highlanders’ Adam Thomson. The 30-year-old has been in superb form, excelling in each of his 10 starts so far this season. He has carried with aggression, impressed in the lineout and scored 4 tries. He deserves his chance. Victor Vito, who has been playing at No.8 for the Hurricanes appears to be Thomson’s main competitor. 25-year-old Vito has the advantage of youth on his side, and has looked physically stronger this season.

All Blacks - Adam Thomson

Adam Thomson deserves to start in the No.6 jersey. (c) Geoff Trotter.

Vito’s fellow Hurricane, Brad Shields, is the third option at blindside in the squad. The 20-year-old was another of last season’s World Junior Championship winners. Shields has made 8 appearances for the Hurricanes this year, but only 1 of them was a start. At 6’4″ and 112kg, Shields is another young player earmarked for a lengthy international career, although this summer’s test series may come a bit too soon for him.

There were two more rookies called-up in the back-row. Sam Cane is yet another of last year’s Junior World Championship-winning side. The 20-year-old openside flanker has continued his impressive form this year with 11 appearances for the Chiefs, 4 of them starts. His potential clearly marks him out as McCaw’s long-term successor at No.7. With McCaw still on the recovery path, Hansen may be tempted to expose Cane to the international game this summer.

Luke Whitelock is the younger brother of second-row Sam, and his teammate at the Crusaders. The 21-year-old was captain of the U20 All Blacks last year, forming an incredibly talented back-row with Cane and Shields. Whitelock can play at 8 or 6, but the fact that he has made just 2 Super Rugby starts this season makes him a surprise call-up, particularly with the omission of Liam Messam. Again, the impression is that Hansen simply wants to integrate Whitelock into the All Blacks set-up as soon as possible.

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It’s unlikely that the All Blacks coach will opt for too much youth up front, especially in the first test. I’d predict a starting pack of: 1 – Woodcock, 2 – Hore, 3 – Owen Franks, 4 – Romano, 5 – Sam Whitelock, 6 – Thomson, 7 – McCaw, 8 – Read. The likes of Cane, Retallick, Tameifuna and Shields will be desperately hoping for first caps from the bench. Again, the major point here is that the All Blacks have plenty of competition for places, with so many players in good form. Ireland will have to be at their very best to compete.

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Photos courtesy: Geoff Trotter, Geof Wilson.

Leinster Through, Munster Embarrassed

Ospreys 45-10 Munster

Fri 11th May @ Liberty Stadium

Ian Keatley prepares to come on

Keatley’s early try gave Munster fans false hope. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Munster’s season ended with a whimper as the Ospreys cut them to pieces in Swansea. Despite a strong start, with Ian Keatley dotting down inside the first couple of minutes, Munster were comprehensively outplayed in every aspect of the game. The Ospreys were in superb form and scored some spectacular tries from inside their own half. Justin Tipuric continued his excellent season as he ruled the breakdown. Munster’s attacking play was once again devoid of imagination.

The lack of fight shown by Munster was another worry. Kahn Fotuali’i’s try on the stroke of half-time seemed to drain the last morsels of belief from Tony McGahan’s side and they were blown away after the break. All the big hits and incisive plays came from the Ospreys, who showed far more aggression. Rob Penney will now be fully aware of the task facing him at Munster. For the likes of Mick O’Driscoll, Lifeimi Mafi and McGahan, this was a depressing way to say their goodbyes.

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Leinster 19-15 Warriors

Sat 12th May @ The RDS

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A break by Isa Nacewa set up Dave Kearney’s try. (c) Ken Bohane.

Leinster got the job done in Dublin, ensuring their spot against the Ospreys in the PRO12 Final in two weeks’ time. That match will also take place at the RDS. Joe Schmidt’s men weren’t at their sparkling best on Saturday night, but never looked like losing. But for typically solid Warriors defence, the scoreline would have told a far more comfortable story in the home side’s favour. Johnny Sexton kicked 14 points in total, with Dave Kearney’s second-half try finally settling the game as a contest.

The Warriors did manage to get over for two tries in the last 5 minutes, but they had left it too late at that stage. Leinster’s attention now turns to Saturday’s Heineken Cup final. Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy and Gordon D’Arcy should all be fit to take their places against Ulster. Last Saturday night was simply about getting past the spirited Warriors, regardless of the performance, and that’s exactly what Leinster did.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan.

PRO12 Semi-Finals Preview

Ospreys vs. Munster @ Liberty Stadium

Fri 11th May, 19.35 (RTE2)

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Munster beat the Ospreys at this stage last season, with Danny Barnes scoring a brace. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

It’s 2nd versus 3rd in the first of the PRO12 semi-finals tonight. Munster will be desperate to advance in the hope of salvaging something from this campaign, but they face a tough task in Swansea. The Ospreys have been impressive all season in this competition and come into the game on a 5-game winning streak which started with their 23-22 victory over Leinster at the RDS in March.

Ronan O’Gara returns to the Munster bench, meaning Ian Keatley is back in at outhalf. This is a huge game for the ex-Connacht and Leinster man. After a strong start to the season, his form has tailed off and he needs to show that he is ROG’s long-term successor. The rest of the Munster team is as expected, with Keith Earls back at outside centre and keen to show Rob Penney that 13 is his best position. Ivan Dineen comes onto the wing due to a late Felix Jones injury, with Johne Murphy moving to fullback. Dave Kilcoyne is on the bench following his promising recent form.

Up front, the knee injury to Paul O’Connell means Mick O’Driscoll gets another outing before retirement. With James Coughlan still out with a hand injury, Peter O’Mahony continues at No.8. Without O’Gara and O’Connell, Munster haven’t looked the same side this season, so it’s crucial that the likes of Mafi, O’Driscoll, O’Callaghan and Botha step up to the leadership mark.

Mafi magic as Sexton and O'Gara eyeball

Mafi will be out to ensure this isn’t his final game for Munster. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

The Ospreys side is largely as predicted, with Dan Biggar set to steer the ship at 10. Interestingly, coach Steve Tandy has gone for Kahn Fotuali’i at scrumhalf rather than the talented youngster Rhys Webb, who is likely to have an impact off the bench. The centre partnership of Ashley Beck and Andrew Bishop has been effective for the Ospreys this year, with 22-year-old Beck looking to earn a place on Wales’ summer tour to Australia.

Up front, the Ospreys are highly experienced. The front-row of Paul James, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones have been around the block once or twice and will be confident of scrum dominance. Behind them, Joe Beardman is the only of the five who is not a Welsh international. Openside flanker Justin Tipuric has had a fantastic season, showing that Wales have depth behind Sam Warburton.

It’s a strong, solid, grizzled Ospreys team who have been doing the business all season. The Welsh side have lost only 3 of their 17 home fixtures, and they’ve already beaten Munster home and away. With the likes of Mafi, O’Driscoll and coach Tony McGahan all set to leave Munster, the province will be keen not to end their season on a losing note. However, the Ospreys appear to have too much. Verdict: Ospreys.

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Leinster vs. Warriors @ The RDS

Sat 12th May, 19.35 (TG4)

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Leinster’s record vs. the Warriors this season is P4, W2, D1, L1. (c) Ken Bohane.

Joe Schmidt will be ignoring the unfounded speculation of a return to New Zealand as Leinster look to stay on course for an historic double. They host the Glasgow Warriors is the second semi-final on Saturday night. The Scottish side confirmed 4th place with a 24-3 win over a disappointing Connacht last weekend. Regardless of the teams Sean Lineen and Schmidt pick (as yet neither side has been revealed), Leinster should have too much quality to be overcome by the Warriors.

The Scottish side have obviously been doing something right to find themselves at this stage of the competition. Lineen has built a solid, unspectacular outfit who are difficult to break down. They have obvious limitations in attack, highlighted by the fact that they have only bettered 3 other teams in terms of tries scored in the PRO12. The main attacking spark they possess is Stuart Hogg at fullback.

The 19-year-old Scottish international has lightening quick feet and pace to burn so Leinster will need to watch him closely. Duncan Weir has been given the nod over Ruaridh Jackson at outhalf. Weir offers more solidity in the 10 jersey, as well as a reliable boot, but expect to see the creative Jackson off the bench if the Warriors have to chase the game. Lineen’s backline really won’t strike fear into the Leinster squad. Big Graeme Morrison at 12 will look to put dents in the Irish side’s defence but is limited.

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Richie Gray will be a danger to Leinster’s lineout. (c) Ken Bohane.

Up front, Richie Gray and Ally Kellock form a complete second-row, which will cause problems for Leinster at the lineout in particular. At No.8 John Barclay has ball-carrying ability, but his form has been patchy this season. For Leinster, the only real surprise is that Eoin O’Malley starts at 13. This season’s PRO12 stalwarts in Devin Toner and Dave Kearney have earned their right to start. Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney are in competition for a H-Cup final spot so expect big efforts from both

Schmidt has picked a team that’s close to full strength, in what doubles up as a test run for the Heineken Cup final. It would be foolish to completely write off the Warriors. Despite the two wins for Leinster in Pool 3 of the Heineken Cup, the Warriors beat Schimdt’s side at The RDS in September and Leinster could only manage a draw in Firhill in February. However, Leinster should be close to full strength and the Warriors cannot match that quality. Verdict: Leinster.

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane.

All Blacks Watch – Backs

All Blacks - Dan Carter

Carter will be back, but possibly in the centre. (c) Geoff Trotter.

With just over 4 weeks left until Ireland and New Zealand kick-off their 3-test series on the 9th of June in Eden Park, now is as good a time as any to take a look at how the All Blacks are shaping up. With 10 rounds of Super Rugby played, it’s safe to say that most of the players who will be involved are coming close to peak form. While the Blues have struggled badly, having won just one game so far, the other four NZ sides are going well.

Perhaps the best way to anticipate how the All Blacks might line up is to go through each position on the field. While there is the chance that new Head Coach Steve Hansen will take an experimental approach to this test series, he will probably feel more comfortable fielding his strongest available team for what will be his first competitive games in charge.

Israel Dagg was first-choice fullback at RWC 2011 and one of the standout players of the tournament. He is the man is possession of the no. 15 jersey, but the scintillating form of Andre Taylor for the Hurricanes will put some pressure on. 24-year-old Taylor leads the Super Rugby try-scoring charts with 8 in 10 games. His searing pace and incisive counter-attacking mark him out as a definite All Black. Still, Dagg has also been performing consistently well, with 4 tries in his 10 outings.

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A third option at the back is the Highlanders Ben Smith. The 25-year-old earned two All Blacks caps back in 2009, but hasn’t featured since. His performances this season will have made Hansen take notice. Smith’s ability to beat defenders and create scores for his teammates has helped the Highlanders to win 7 of their 10 games.  In addition, Smith has the versatility to comfortably cover the wing and even centre. While Dagg will be favourite to start at fullback, Taylor and Smith offer exciting alternatives.

Corey Jane and Richie Kahui were the World Cup wingers and both played key roles in New Zealand’s victory. Kahui has been playing outside centre for the Chiefs this season. His partnership with Sonny Bill Williams has been one of the key reasons that the Chiefs lead the overall Super Rugby table. Hansen stated this week that he still considers Kahui as an option on the wing, so the signs are good for him.

Hurricanes man Jane hasn’t lit up in terms of try-scoring just yet, although 3 in 9 is not to be sneered at. The 29-year-old’s overall displays have been top-quality. His link play with Andre Taylor is impressively intuitive so if the pair of them are selected together, it’s worth keeping an eye on. Jane has reiterated his passion for the All Blacks and he will fight hard to keep his jersey. So who are the other options out wide?

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The Chiefs’ Lelia Masaga has been in sparkling attacking form, with 5 tries in 7 appearances. His willingness to come off his wing in search of the ball has been eye-catching, and his intelligent trail running has led to several scores. His ability to dougie is also top-class! He was capped by against Italy back in 2009, so has some international history. Elsewhere, Zac Guildford of the Crusaders looks to have put his drinking problems behind him for now. The 23-year-old has plenty of time to redeem himself but will hope for a swift return to the All Blacks set-up. He is a talented attacking force.

Hosea Gear of the Highlanders was unlucky to miss out on the World Cup Squad last year. While he has only notched 1 try in 10 games so far this season, his physical power has been striking. He will be desperate to add to his 8 international caps. 21-year-old Julien Savea is in his second season with the Hurricanes and his role in part of a talented back-line makes him worth keeping in mind too. Jane and Kahui have done enough to keep their places, but if Hansen looks to experiment, there are options.

Similarly, there is plenty of competition for the centre slots. Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith have been the best midfield partnership in the world for some years now, but there is a strong possibility of it being broken up, with Nonu’s place in question. Smith’s form and leadership in captaining the Hurricanes has been nothing short of brilliant. He has led by example in his typically subtle way. He’s a world-class outside centre and the only thing between him and the 13 jersey is Robbie Fruean.

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The beastly Crusaders man has picked up where he left off last season. He has been almost unstoppable in attack, with 6 tries in 10 starts. At 6’3″ and around 110kg, he is a wrecking ball. Question marks remain over his defensive reading and his distribution. Those worries, along with his phenomenal ability with ball-in-hand, have led to speculation that his future may lie on the wing. Wherever he lines out, if he does play this summer, Ireland will have to chop him low and early.

At 12, there’s another difficult decision to be made. Nonu has been New Zealand’s inside centre since 2008 but the Chiefs’ Sonny Bill Williams has been one of the most effective players in Super Rugby this season. His physicality, ability to break the gain-line and sumptuous offloading skills have been impossible to ignore. He can’t do much more to earn selection.

Nonu has been part of a weak Blues team, who have lost all but 1 of their 10 fixtures. While no one stands out in a team like that, Nonu hasn’t shown the leadership you’d expect. He has looked a little disinterested at times, and his decision-making has been poor. That said, Nonu in the black jersey is a different proposition. His imposing strength will always keep him in consideration.

Ali Williams & Ma'a Nonu

Will Nonu retain the no. 12 jersey? (c) Geof Wilson.

The latest from New Zealand is the possibility of Dan Carter lining out at 12, as he has been doing for the Crusaders in recent weeks. Carter is still feeling the effects of the groin injury which denied him World Cup glory. While he’s fit enough to start games, he still can’t place-kick without pain. That’s meant a shift out to midfield, with Tom Taylor playing at 10 and taking the shots from the tee. Hansen has stated that Carter is first-choice outhalf, but if he still can’t kick by June then he would consider him at 12. The level of competition New Zealand have in midfield is enviable!

If Carter doesn’t play at outhalf, then Aaron Cruden will almost certainly be the man to run the show. He has been superb in leading the Chiefs to the top of the table, place-kicking well and even chipping in with two tries. His attacking game appears to have developed rapidly, and the 23-year-old is playing with justifiable confidence. At just over 80kg, he is slight, but he’s brave and the All Blacks have enough beef elsewhere to compensate.

At scrumhalf, there are plentiful options too. Piri Weepu was the man at the World Cup, but he has not had a good season so far. Part of the Blues dismal form, Weepu has looked badly out of shape even by his own standards. That wouldn’t be an issue if his form was better, but he has been benched on several occasions and his even his own teammates have taken issue with his condition. He has shown several glimpses of his playmaking ability around the fringes, but not consistently enough for a World Cup winner.

Piri Weepu

Piri Weepu has been part of a struggling Blues side. (c) Geof Wilson.

Andy Ellis has been ever-present for the Crusaders and has been reliable as ever. If Weepu is dropped, then Ellis looks to be the man to take over at 9. Behind him, there is some exciting young talent waiting in the wings. TJ Perenara has burst onto the scene in his first season of Super Rugby. 5 tries in 9 appearances are the obvious highlight, but it’s the 20-year-old’s confidence and decision making that have stood out. Such has been his importance to the Hurricanes, Perenara has been pulled from next month’s Junior World Cup.

At the Chiefs, Tawera Kerr-Barlow is also in his first full season of Super Rugby. The 21-year-old has been equally impressive in the Chiefs’ strong run of form. His sniping game is equal to Perenara’s. This summer may have come too early for the young scrum-halves but New Zealand finally look like they have unearthed some potentially world-class options at 9. Aaron Smith of the Highlanders is another who shouldn’t be discounted. The 23-year-old’s passing is excellent and he has already been capped for the Maoris.

It’s clear that the All Blacks have a frightening number of options across the backline. Personally, I’d go for a starting line-up of:  9 – Perenara 10 – Carter/Cruden 11 – Masaga 12- SBW 13 – C. Smith 14 – Jane 15 – Taylor. If you’ve been watching Super Rugby, or even if you haven’t, please leave a comment with the backline you think the All Blacks should or will go for. Who would you least like to see lining up opposite Sexton, O’Driscoll and Kearney? Only 4 weeks left, I for one cant wait!

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Photos courtesy: Geof Wilson, Geoff Trotter.

The Plight of Irish 7s

Land Rover Dubai Rugby Sevens 2010  35

The Irish flag is not being flown at events like the Dubai Sevens on the IRB World Series. (c) landrovermena.

The following is a guest blog by Cian Aherne.

As the last ball sailed into touch in the Shamrock Warriors’ semi final of the Kinsale 7s, meaning they missed out on the final by one score, one couldn’t help but think the IRFU were breathing a sigh of relief. Another chance for promotion of the game of 7s in Ireland gone, another chance for a summer’s 7s funding disappeared and another reason to get 7s off the ground in this country down the drain.

No one sees that the Shamrocks were playing against a fully funded Susie’s Exiles team who had several fringe English 7s players on their side, no one sees that they were made up of AIL players, 90% of whom had never played 7s before, and no one sees that they had actually convincingly beaten every other team in the tournament (including another fully funding touring British side). To think that this group of AIL players, who had only met for the first time on Saturday morning, were as close to winning in Kinsale as an almost fully professional Irish 7s team 4 seasons earlier, shows the enormous potential for a cheap but competitive Irish 7s squad.

Because Ireland have not entered a 7s team in this year’s European Championships, 2013 will see the first 7s World Cup, since it’s inception in 1993, without an Irish team. This is a colossal step backwards despite the fact that 7s has now become an Olympic sport, that Irish rugby greats like Alan Quinlan, Malcolm O’Kelly and Denis Hickie have endorsed the game, that Matt Williams has written a letter to the Taoiseach pleading its economic merits, and that Ireland now has an official 7s club.

The last 7s World Cup and IRB World Series have shone further light on Ireland’s potential. In the European Championships, 4 years ago this summer, Ireland came within extra time and sudden death of beating the Welsh 7s team in Denmark. Between then and the World Cup a year later, Ireland met for a couple of weeks training, changed 90% of their team and were knocked out in the group stages. Wales, on the other hand, had taken part in the World Series, kept most of the same players and went on to win the World Cup.

USA Sevens

Kenya have a successful 7s team in the IRB World Series. They sit 11th coming into the final leg in London this weekend. (c) Chris Dickey.

The IRFU maintain that Ireland cannot compete at the same level as other national 7s teams yet at almost every major tournament they’ve entered, Ireland have taken scalps over seasoned 7s sides without having had a regular 7s team themselves (France and Samoa in 1993, Portugal in 1997, Tonga in 2005 and Australia in 2009). You could argue that Ireland don’t have the resources of the player base to compete in the World Series like New Zealand, England and South Africa but surely we have as much funding and players as the likes of Scotland, Wales, Australia, Samoa and Fiji.

A common myth about Irish 7s is the lack of funding to be competitive. Let’s make this clear, the IRB pay for teams’ accommodation and travel to World Series events. That means all the IRFU would have to pay for is a coaching team to travel. Players could either be paid through their existing provincial contracts or, as I’m sure is the case with the majority of club players, not be paid at all. We don’t need full time professional 7s players to compete, the majority of the Australian 7s team, who recently won the Japan 7s leg of the World Series and the London leg in 2010, are amateur players playing at the same standard as the AIL in Ireland. Ireland currently only have 4 player bases in the 4 provinces, a 7s squad could offer an extremely cheap fifth.

If the Shamrock Warriors can get a group of Irish club players together on a one-off basis to compete against and beat seasoned 7s semi-pros from the UK then the IRFU can get the best Irish club players together to compete on a world stage. In fact, they are already doing this with the Club International side who have beaten the English Counties team on 3 of the last 4 occasions. Here again is a demonstration of the funding myth.

The Irish Clubs team recently brought together 30 players and coaching staff for 2 international clubs matches. They beat Scotland in Dublin but the result of the second match was not even broadcast on the IRFU website. If the IRFU can afford to pay for 30 players and coaching staff to fly to England, to kit them out, feed them, stay in a hotel for the duration and not even put the result of the game on their website then surely they can afford for less than half of that amount of players to travel to at least one leg of the IRB World Series.

National Guard sponsorship of USA Rugby

The majority of the Australian 7s team, who recently won the Japan 7s leg of the World Series, are amateur players playing at the same standard as the AIL in Ireland. (c) The National Guard.

Furthermore, at the 7s European Championships and World Cup in 2008 and 2009, when Ireland were eventually knocked out and encouraged to walk their lap of honour, in spite of never having played these circuits before, there were thousands of fans in the stadiums waving the green, white and gold of Ireland. Ireland is a popular country worldwide and no more so within the festival atmosphere of a 7s tournament. A touring Irish side would offer massive financial windfall in terms of Irish kit sold and the potential for an Irish stop on the IRB circuit.

The IRFU’s current stance is that they are trying to promote 7s from a grass root level with provincial 7s tournaments. These have been a flop. They’ve been hosted the weekend after the club league has finished, have seen little, if any, first choice club players playing and most of the top clubs have not even entered teams. Players are not motivated to play if they don’t see potential for success with shabbily run tournaments on the weekend after a long season and no national team to aspire to. It’s a disservice to Irish rugby players that there is an Olympic sport at their doorstep but they are not being given the opportunity to represent their country.

The top 7s countries, such as England and New Zealand, have national 7s series’ that top club players are motivated to play in because they know, if they’re good enough, they’ll be selected for the national side and possibly go on to gain professional contracts. Whether it’s seen as a viable option in itself or a feeder system for professional Irish teams, the potential for the success of 7s in Ireland is endless. To promote 7s in Ireland, a team needs to be entered in the World Series for even 2 or 3 legs a year.

That would give young Irish players a carrot to chase, a reason to take part in provincial tournaments and pick up vital competitive 7s experience with the chance of actually being scouted and picked for their country. As the IRB Series ends in London this weekend, the goal for the IRFU has to be to enter a team in as many of the circuit’s legs next year as possible.

Final food for thought, a list of senior Ireland internationals who have also played for the Irish 7s team: Eric Elwood, Mick Galway*, Paddy Johns, Denis McBride, Vinnie Cunningham, Alain Rolland, Richard Wallace*, Jonathon Bell, David Humphreys, Denis Hickie*, Niall Woods, Eric Miller*, Niall Malone, Ben Cronin, Kieron Dawson, Aidan McCullen, Conor McPhillips, Matt Mostyn, David Quinlan, James Topping, Niall Ronan, Tomás O’Leary*, Kieran Campbell, Felix Jones, Darren Cave, Brian Carney, Ian Keatley, Keith Earls* and Chris Henry (* = Lions Tourist).

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Get following the Shamrock Warriors on Twitter – @ShamrockW7s

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Photos courtesy: Chris Dickey, landrovermena, The National Guard.