Posts Tagged ‘Paul O’Connell’

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