Posts Tagged ‘Brian O’Driscoll’

So here we are – two matches left, and still everything to play for. Ireland, England, Wales, and France each have 2 wins and 1 loss, and are only separated by points difference: +42, +21, +6, and +1, respectively.  And that order is likely to remain the same – it is hard to see how England will make up that 21-point deficit, assuming they win their final two games (a big assumption, granted). But that’s why this great sport is not played on paper!

Keeping things fairly brief today for the tl; dr crowd – all 3 matches previewed right here.

Ireland v Italy – Saturday March 8,  9:30 AM Eastern – Lansdowne Road, Dublin

The legendary Brian O’Driscoll will play in his final home match for Ireland on Saturday – it is also his 140th Test match, which means he will become the world’s most-capped player.  He is, of course, a national icon in Ireland,  but BOD has won the respect and admiration of rugby fans all over the world both for his heroics on the field as well as his grace and sense of humor off the field. He will be truly missed when it’s finally time to hang up the boots.

Flanker Peter O’Mahony misses out with a hamstring injury, although coach Joe Schmidt admitted that he would have risked playing O’Mahony if it had been the last match of the tournament. The richly talented young Ulsterman Iain Henderson, who can play in the second row as well, takes O’Mahony’s place.

Meanwhile, Italy’s back row is looking a bit spare, as their talismanic captain Sergio Parisse is being rested due to injury.  They were already without Alessandro Zanni, so the breakdown and getting good go-forward will be areas of concern for Jacques Brunel and his team.

Ireland will send off their man in style. Ireland by 21

Scotland v France – Saturday March 8, 12 PM Eastern – Murrayfield, Edinburgh

France are in shambles.  They are missing their first- and second-choice hookers through injury, so Brice Mach will be in the 2 shirt. They are missing their entire first-choice back row – Yannick Nyanga has joined Thierry Dusautoir on the injury list, while Louis Picamoles has been dropped from the team for sarcastically applauding referee Alain Rolland after Rolland sent him to the sin bin in the dreadful 6-27 defeat to Wales two weeks ago.  The 6’7”, 260-pound Sebastien Vahaamahina, normally a lock, will be asked to play blindside flanker even though he has no professional experience in that position. Alexandre Lapandry and Damien Chouly join him in a back row that looks, shall we say, unconvincing.

Moving to the backs, scrumhalf Morgan Parra is banned because of a red card he picked up in the French domestic competition, the Top 14. In the centers, Wesley Fofana, France’s most dangerous player, is out, and coach Philippe Saint-Andre still refuses to start Gael Fickou, instead opting for an uninspiring but experienced combination of Maxime Mermoz and Mathieu Bastareaud, the latter of whom is simply not fit enough to be on an international rugby field.

Scotland, meanwhile, are at full strength, recalling captain Kelly Brown and number 8 Dave Denton to the back row. (Why either of them was dropped in the first place is a mystery only coach Scott Johnson can solve.) Scotland will be desperate to build on the last-minute win against Italy and put on a performance in front of the Murrayfield faithful.

Something has to go right for Scottish rugby eventually, right? France look ripe for the taking. Of course, knowing the French, this could mean that they produce the greatest game of rugby ever played. But I doubt it. Scotland by 3

England v Wales – Sunday March 9, 11 AM Eastern – Twickenham, London

The history of this rivalry combined with the high stakes of the situation is expected to produce a game of the highest quality and the highest drama. The last two Six Nations meetings between these teams is the stuff of nightmare for England fans. In 2012, replacement center Scott Williams ripped the ball from Courtney Lawes and raced away to score a last-minute try which won the game for Wales, while last year, Wales demolished England in Cardiff with the championship on the line.

England coach Stuart Lancaster has made only one change, enforced by Billy Vunipola’s injury. Ben Morgan starts at number 8 with Tom Johnson taking his place on the bench. For Wales, Jonathan Davies is fit to start at 13, so George North moves back to the wing, and Liam Williams returns to the bench. Luke Charteris has picked up a late injury, so Jake Ball starts at lock. Wales will miss Charteris’ height in the lineout, and England should target that area, as they have two fine lineout operators in Lawes and Tom Wood. Under coach Warren Gatland, Wales like to use the lineout as an opportunity for Jamie Roberts to get over the gainline in midfield, so if England can disrupt some of that possession, it could make the difference in the outcome.

There’s nothing much to choose from between these two. Both teams are confident after earning important victories two weeks ago, although Ireland is a much better team than France, so England’s win was perhaps more important.  The match will be decided by the battle of the breakdown and whether the English forwards can continue to provide good go-forward, and how effectively England can contain the lethal Welsh backs with their drift defense and one-on-one tackling.

I just can’t see this England team losing to Wales again at Twickenham. England by 1

Saturday February 22, 11:00 AM Eastern – Twickenham, London

What a match this could be. Having already dismantled Scotland and Wales, a confident Irish team travels to Twickenham in search of the Triple Crown. Standing in their way is a very strong English side, desperate to make a statement of their own. It would be surprising if the game were decided by more than a few points.

These are two of the best packs around, although England’s has been significantly weakened by the loss of Dan Cole, who will miss the rest of the season with a neck injury. Cole is not only a strong scrummager, but also one of the world’s most effective tightheads at the breakdown – for a man of his size, he can get quite low over the ball. While he does not win many turnovers or penalties directly, he makes himself a constant nuisance, slowing down opposition ball and forcing opposing forwards to commit themselves to the ruck. And he is capable of playing the full 80 minutes. Cole’s replacement is David Wilson, who is not a real threat at the breakdown, and is unlikely to play more than 55 minutes because he is not fully match-fit after missing two months with a calf injury. Wilson was pretty honest when asked about his goals for the match: “I’m aiming to do the basics well – scrum well, line-out well, get through that, go for as long as I can and not let anyone down.” Irish loosehead Cian Healy will target Wilson at scrum time, and England can only realistically hope for parity in that area. Wilson’s lack of fitness means that 22-year old Henry Thomas, with just 3 caps to his name, will likely get 25 or even 30 minutes in what will be the biggest match of his life.

The battle of the back rows will be fascinating – England has the most dangerous ball-carrier in Billy Vunipola, while Ireland has the best all-around player in the indefatigable Peter O’Mahony. On the bench, Irish coach Joe Schmidt has picked two ball-carriers in Iain Henderson and the uncapped Jordi Murphy, and he will be expecting them to make a major impact.

At scrumhalf, Ireland’s Conor Murray is probably the better player, but Danny Care is in great form, and that battle could go either way. At flyhalf, Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton is clearly superior to Owen Farrell, and Sexton’s ability to control the game with tactical kicking could prove the difference. Uncapped 20-year old George Ford has replaced Brad Barritt on the England bench, and may have a vital role to play.

In the midfield is an intriguing matchup of youth v experience. The legendary Brian O’Driscoll will tie former Australian scrumhalf George Gregan’s record for Test caps on Saturday, and with 130 caps for Ireland, he has 24 more than all 7 English backs combined. O’Driscoll has partnered Gordon D’Arcy in the centers on 53 occasions for Ireland, which is also a record. Opposite them, Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell have played together for England twice, and have just 12 caps between them. While D’Arcy and O’Driscoll may have lost a step or two in attack, they are very intelligent defensively, and trust each other implicitly. The gaps that do open up will likely be small, so Farrell is going to have to be very sharp to put his backs through them.

In the back three, expect Ireland to make Jack Nowell and Jonny May prove they can handle the high ball. If they can’t, it could be a long day for England.

It’s a very tough one to predict, but for me the loss of Cole and the superiority of Sexton at flyhalf just gives the men in green the edge. Ireland by 3

Below, highlights from last year’s match in Dublin:

Saturday February 8, 9:30 AM Eastern – Lansdowne Road (Aviva Stadium), Dublin

Conditions in Dublin are supposed to be dreadful, which may ruin this match as a spectacle, but either way it will be a fantastic battle, and I can’t see more than a few points in it either way.

Both sides are at full strength as Irish captain Paul O’Connell and Welsh captain Sam Warburton return from illness and injury, respectively, to lead their sides. For Ireland, Gordon D’Arcy replaces Luke Marshall at inside center, mostly for defensive reasons. The speculation is that D’Arcy is trusted more than Marshall by his clubmate Brian O’Driscoll outside him, and his former clubmate Jonathan Sexton inside him. It is no secret that the Welsh love to attack down the 12 channel through the power of Jamie Roberts, so the Irish defense will have to be stout. For Wales, Gethin Jenkins returns at loosehead, and it will be interesting to see whether he can gain an advantage on Mike Ross at scrum time. Elsewhere in the front row, the matchup at hooker between Rory Best and Richard Hibbard, both Lions last summer, is a tasty prospect. They have very different approaches to the position – Best often plays like a fourth back-rower, winning penalties and turnovers at the breakdown, while Hibbard is just a tank who seems to relish massive collisions on both sides of the ball.

Both Best and Hibbard will need to get their throws right, because the lineout will be vital. It will be fascinating to see O’Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones, both  experienced and skilled lineout operators, try to outsmart each other in this area. Wales will miss the height of Luke Charteris, who has a hamstring injury. Andrew Coombs is a fine player, but at 6’4″ is 5 inches shorter than Charteris.  Ireland have their own giant in 6’11” Devin Toner, as well as Peter O’Mahony, who is excellent in the air.  Ireland know that if they can disrupt the Welsh lineout, they will deprive Wales of the perfect platform to attack on first phase through Roberts. Ireland will also seek to establish the rolling maul which was such an effective weapon against Scotland last week, although Wales will provide a sterner challenge.

There’s not much to separate the two packs, although Wales have a slight edge in carrying, as Hibbard and Taulupe Faletau (as Toby now wants to be known) are both immense with ball in hand. Without Sean O’Brien, Ireland have only Cian Healy as a top-class ball-carrier, although he is a major threat as Scotland found out last week. The Irish backrow and O’Connell will need to share the workload.

There is separation at 9 and 10, where Ireland are clearly superior, and that may be the difference in the game. Irish discipline has been good since Joe Schmidt took over, and they have to maintain that because Leigh Halfpenny will kick goals from anywhere. They also have to contain George North – that is the best they can hope for because the big Welshman is impossible to stop entirely. Rob Kearney and the rest of the Irish kick chase can deny him counterattacking opportunities, but the problem is that North has become increasingly adept at coming off his wing to get involved in the game all over the pitch. A nightmare for any defense.

Should be a cracking match, and could go either way. Ireland by 1

Below, highlights from last year’s match in Cardiff:

 

Sunday February 2, 10 AM Eastern – Lansdowne Road (Aviva Stadium), Dublin

The entire rugby world remembers what happened the last time Ireland played a Test in Dublin – that match, an epic 22-24 defeat to New Zealand in which the Irish played some scintillating rugby.  The question is whether coach Joe Schmidt and captain Paul O’Connell can get this Irish team to reproduce the intensity of that famous performance. Ireland finished their last Six Nations campaign with a fairly meek defeat to Italy, and will be looking to erase those painful memories. There was talk at the time that the match might be Brian O’Driscoll’s last for Ireland, but he has decided that, at 35, he has one final Six Nations left in him. Sending the legendary BOD out on top will certainly provide motivation for the Irish – the great man deserves nothing less.

Scotland interim coach Scott Johnson has already named his team – he will be grateful to welcome back British and Irish Lion Stuart Hogg, who missed the Autumn Tests through injury, at fullback. Hogg, still just 21 years old, is the only player in the Scottish team with true game-changing ability. Fellow Lion Sean Maitland moves to the wing to accommodate Hogg, while Sean Lamont occupies the other wing. The center pairing is a very inexperienced one – Duncan Taylor and Alex Dunbar have only 9 caps between them. Midfield has often been an area of weakness for Scotland, so it will be interesting to see what these young guys can do. Competition for places in the pack is strong enough that another Lion, lock Richie Gray, only makes the bench, with Tim Swinson starting.

The Scottish players are in a slightly strange position – they know that Vern Cotter, (who is currently in charge of French club Clermont), is set to take over as Scotland coach in the summer. Their pride in the shirt and their belief in captain Kelly Brown is not in question, but just how motivated will they be to perform for Johnson, with the knowledge that they will have to prove themselves all over again when Cotter begins his reign? Johnson is a charismatic and refreshingly honest figure, but the fact that his role is only temporary can only be a negative in the short term.

Irish coach Joe Schmidt will not name his team until Friday. He has a strong group of players from which to select, although the loss of flanker Sean O’Brien for the entire tournament is hugely significant. The man known as the “Tullow Tank” is irreplaceable in terms of ball-carrying ability and aggression, although Ireland is blessed with a strong leadership group and serious depth in the back row.

It appears Conor Murray will start at scrumhalf as Eoin Reddan has been ruled out with a calf injury. Murray shone for the Lions last summer, but competition for the Irish 9 shirt is fierce – Reddan’s Leinster teammate Isaac Boss has been called up to the squad, and Connacht’s Kieran Marmion is waiting in the wings.

I expect Scotland to come out and fight hard – they may even go into halftime narrowly ahead. But I think Ireland’s class will show when the game opens up a bit after 50-55 minutes. Ireland by 10

Below, highlights from when these two teams met last year, in Edinburgh:

Sunday November 24, 9 AM Eastern – Lansdowne Road (the Aviva, if we must call it that), Dublin

The New Zealand All Blacks are going after a pretty special achievement on Sunday – a win over Ireland would make them the first international team to go through an entire calendar year undefeated. The All Blacks are, as always, loaded with talent. They are captained by openside Richie McCaw, one of the best players of his generation. The pack also features Sam Whitelock, the best lock in the world, and Kieran Read, the best number 8 in the world. In the backs they are without flyhalf Dan Carter, who picked up an injury while winning his 100th cap against England last weekend, but Carter’s boots are ably filled by Aaron Cruden. Powerful and skillful inside center Ma’a Nonu is back to his best, while outside center Ben Smith remains a threat despite playing out of position (he is more comfortable at fullback or wing). Wing Julian Savea is one of the world’s best in his position, and Cory Jane and Israel Dagg combine with him to form a dangerous back three.

Ireland were comprehensively beaten last weekend by Australia, a team the All Blacks have defeated three times this year.  This Irish team has a lot of quality, but they lacked urgency and did not defend the gainline strongly enough against the Aussies. Part of this may be explained by the inherent difficulties of a coaching transition. Joe Schmidt, a New Zealander, faces his biggest challenge in just his third match as Ireland coach. Outside center Brian O’Driscoll and lock (and captain) Paul O’Connell are two legends of the game, and they will have their teammates incredibly motivated for this match amidst a sea of green in Dublin. The back row of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, and Jamie Heaslip has the potential to be very destructive. At flyhalf, Jonathan Sexton is probably the best in Europe – but there are lingering questions over his fitness. Hopefully he is close to 100% for this one, because at his best, he is masterful at controlling a game. Fullback Rob Kearney is one of the best in Europe, although he currently has competition from England’s Mike Brown.

My head says New Zealand will win comfortably, by a couple of tries. But I think Ireland are going to surprise everyone. Their pride will have been dented by the manner of the Australia defeat, and they will relish their underdog status for this match. An All Black victory is being treated as a fait accompli. Ireland has never beaten New Zealand. As Lee Corso of ESPN’s College Gameday would say: “Not so fast, my friend!” I’m backing Ireland to produce a performance reminiscent of their victory over Australia at the 2011 World Cup. Below: it is always good to revisit O’Connell’s famous “manic aggression” pregame speech. That is exactly what the Irish will need to beat New Zealand and ruin their perfect season. Ireland by 1