United Rugby Championship round 10 review and Ireland Wales Six Nations preview.

Scarlets 7 Munster 42

Leinster 47 Benetton 18

Cardiff 12 Connacht 16

Ospreys 19 Ulster 17

 

The three matchups against Welsh sides could have served as a good aperitif ahead of the Ireland Wales match next weekend, but in the end, they left a slightly sour taste. Munster only had to play well for perhaps 25 minutes of the second half to put a poor Scarlets side away. Connacht made very hard work of defeating a dogged Cardiff side that was down to 14 men for 65 minutes, and 13 for 10 of those. It was the worst Connacht performance I can remember.

Family commitments prevented me watching the Ospreys Ulster match, but the highlights were not inspiring, and the match reports also portray an error strewn match. Ulster had put out a reasonably strong side, and beating the Ospreys, even away, should not have been beyond them. Ulster’s inconsistency remains a matter of concern.

Leinster also put in an average performance against Benetton for most of the first half but pulled away impressively in the second half. Even with 19 internationals in Ireland camp, they can put out a strong side, and it was their bench which finally demolished Benetton.

 

Scarlets 7 Munster 42

Munster fielded the tallest second row in URC history with two 6’9” locks in Snyman and Ahern who are also a lot more than lanky lads. Snyman is the World Cup winning off-load king and the 23-year-old Ahern was recently included in Ireland’s training squad and does most of his best work on the wing. He used to play full back at school and has genuine pace. He can also play 6, and together with Jack Conan, Ryan Baird, and Cian Prendergast, forms part of a lengthening queue for Peter O’Mahony’s spot in the Irish back row.

For the most part Scarlets were dire with only full back McNichol offering some resistance in the first half. Munster weren’t much better and led 0-14 at half time thanks to two close in tries scored by their outstanding No 8, Gavin Coombes, who can’t even get into the Ireland squad with Doris and Conan standing in his way. Not surprisingly the Munster line-out dominated, and the Jager/Snyman axis on the tight side of the scrum had the Scarlets scrum in deep trouble.

The second half started quite differently with Munster losing two lineouts. and allowing Joe Roberts to race past four would be tacklers from far out straight after a line-out. Munster finally roused themselves with some sustained attacking and a Murray try was disallowed for a Scarlets player being held back at a scrum. However, Jack O’Sullivan scored another close range try from a 5-metre penalty soon afterwards for a 7-21 lead. That was three tries from less than 5 metres.

In fairness Scarlets were defending with real commitment and it took some excellent Munster running and passing in open play for Ahern to score their bonus point try running the trail line after Munster had outflanked the Scarlets defence. The Munster backline then started to click, and O’Brien scored his first try for Munster on the wing. Carbery, who had been perfect off the tee, nailed the touchline conversion to make it 7-35.

By then it was Scarlets who were looking like the team trying to play down the clock – to no avail – a slick blind side move featuring Carbery created a try for substitute Shay McCarthy. Munster will be satisfied with their 7-42 bonus point win. They only had to rouse themselves to play well for half the second half to destroy this poor Scarlets side. Carbery also showed what a loss he will be to Irish rugby next season.

 

Leinster 47 Benetton 18

This was a first versus second top of the URC table clash with Leinster missing all of their nineteen strong current international contingent but Benetton including six of the Italian XXIII who featured against Ireland. Frawley was a late withdrawal from the Leinster team as he had been called up by the Ireland squad as cover for the injured Keenan. Ross Byrne and Jamie Osborne returned from injury, and academy players Jack Boyle, Ben Murphy and Ben Brownlee got their chance to impress. Henry McErlean, straight off last year’s grand slam winning Irish u. 20 side and in his first year in the Leinster academy, made his debut at fullback.

Benetton were by no means intimidated by playing Leinster in their Ballsbridge lair and scored an excellent try wide-right after McErlean misjudged his first high ball. Ross Byrne didn’t help matters with a hospital pass to McErlean soon afterwards, but Leinster attacked well against a determined Benetton defence and soon level matters.

Holly Davidson, an impressively clear referee, took the view that the Leinster scrum was dominant and awarded Leinster several scrum penalties which enabled Luke McGrath to make the line after an Osborne pass had wrong footed the Benetton defence. A slick move off set piece led to a 30 metre run and try for Turner but Benetton responded with some determined running by Gallo leading to another fine try. Umaga closed an entertaining if not always high-quality first half with a wind assisted 59 metre penalty for a narrow 21-18 Leinster lead at half time.

Academy loose head prop Jack Boyle had a good half, but sadly young props of his quality are a rarity in Irish rugby at the moment. Mike Ross said in a podcast recently that the reason Ireland aren’t producing more good young props is because the rules for schools’ rugby don’t allow a scrum to move forward more than 1.5 metres for understandable safety reasons. However, this means that there is no incentive for coaches to develop and pick strong props if there is no advantage to be gained from a dominant scrum. Coaches will focus on and select more mobile and ball playing forwards instead.

Leinster started the second half much more accurately, and then brought on a strong bench. Ruddock is not a bad sub to bring on, and Ben Murphy scored as the Leinster pack asserted their dominance. Ross Byrne has been competent if not error free on his return from injury, but Prendergast transforms the Leinster attack when he comes on against a tiring Benetton team. Osborne gets MOTM and must be close to regaining his place in the Ireland squad. All in all, a very satisfactory end to the match, with only an injury to Tommy O’Brien a matter of concern to Leo Cullen. Leinster are down to playing academy players in their backline as it is.

 

Cardiff 12 Connacht 16

This is traditionally a tight fixture but Cardiff were missing 9 internationals while Connacht were missing only Aki, Bealham and Hansen. Both sides are mid-table and badly need the points to make the play-offs. Cardiff have managed to attract a capacity crowd and are clearly up for the match but on 15 minutes Rey Lee-Lo ships a red card for a dangerous head on head tackle on Shane Bolton who has to go off for a HIA and doesn’t return.

Despite this Cardiff are clearly the better side in a match riddled with mistakes and Ben Thomas scores the first try for Cardiff after poor defence by Connacht. Connacht seem asleep at the wheel and almost concede a second try which is only disallowed for a forward pass on review. Connacht are lucky not to be further behind and can’t seem to get out of their own 22.

Cardiff ship another yellow for a seatbelt tackle by Timany, and Forde is then held up over the line. Connacht can’t seem to do anything right – throwing the ball into touch and then knocking the ball on with the line at their mercy. JJ Hanrahan finally knocks over a penalty for 7-6 because Connacht cannot trust their line-out and maul and haven’t been able to get the ball wide past a 13-man Cardiff. It was headless chicken stuff and possibly the worst half of rugby from Connacht I have ever seen.

The second half wasn’t much better with Connacht conceding penalties at the breakdown, line-out and maul and even against a 7-man scrum. Timany scores a second try for Cardiff to extend their lead to 12-6 while Connacht knock on within sight of the line. Finally, Connacht start playing but don’t have the ballast up front to make the gain line, are getting held in the maul, and are being successfully counter rucked by Cardiff. The subs come on and make an impact, with Connacht finally getting over the line to lead 12-13.

Connacht again butcher an open try line chance but Hanrahan nails a penalty for 12-16 – he’s at over 90% success on his place kicking, which is one of the reasons he’s preferred to Carty. Connacht throw in crooked despite having had few problems in the line-out. Why? Connacht hold on to the end but that’s two hours of our lives we won’t want to remember and won’t get back.

It is difficult to say why Connacht were so poor. Connacht can be inconsistent, especially away from home but have also given Leinster, Munster, and Ulster a hard time this season. Perhaps they enjoyed themselves too much during the mid-season break. They lacked discipline, cohesion, and energy.

It can sometimes be almost harder to play against 14 men, because the opposition have nothing to lose and can throw caution to the wind. Players get over-anxious to score and panic when things go wrong, try to do it all on their own, and lose their rhythm and shape as a team. A little more patience and confidence, doing the basic things well, and this should have been an easy bonus point win against a very average Cardiff side. Instead, Connacht were fortunate to win.

 

Ireland Vs. Wales, Lansdowne rd., Saturday 2.15pm.RTE

Overall, the omens for next Saturday against Wales aren’t great based on this week-end’s matches. Only Leinster and Munster played well for most of the second half of their matches. Ulster were caught at the death, and Connacht were lucky to win against a 14-man Cardiff side missing 9 internationals. Wales have lost their first two matches but were leading against England 5-14 at half time and almost overcame a 27-point deficit against Scotland, scoring 26 unanswered points in the second half. If they could put together an 80-minute performance, they could give any side a tough game.

However, Wales are in crisis. Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, and Dan Biggar have retired. Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Jake Ball, Ross Moriarty, Joe Hawkins and Tomos Francis have moved to play their rugby in New Zealand, Japan, Exeter, and Provence and are thus unavailable. Louis Rees-has decided to pursue a career in American football.

Jac Morgan (knee), Ken Owens (back), Taulupe Faletau (back), Christ Tshiunza (foot), flanker Taine Plumtree (shoulder), flanker Josh Macleod (knee), hooker Dewi Lake (hamstring), outhalf Callum Sheedy (knee), Alex Cuthbert (foot and calf), Leon Brown (shoulder), Archie Griffin, and James Botham are injured.

Only 18 of Wales’ 33-player World Cup squad have been retained in their Six Nations panel of 34, which has an average age of just 25, including five uncapped players, and another eight who have never previously played in the 6 nations championship. Only six starters from last season’s match against Ireland (Josh Adams, George North, Rio Dyer, Tomos Williams, Gareth Thomas and Adam Beard) along with two replacements that day (Jenkins and Tommy Reffell) played in Twickenham last week.

Ireland, by comparison, have picked 26 of our world cup squad and are missing only Mac Hansen, Jimmy O’Brien, and probably our most consistent player, Hugo Keenan of our first-choice players through injury. We are unfortunate in that they are also probably our three first picks at 15. Frawley was withdrawn from the Leinster squad to provide cover. With Ringrose back fit my preference would be to play Aki, Ringrose, and Henshaw at 12, 13, and 15. Henshaw is too good a player to leave out and started his career as a 15. He didn’t have an auspicious game against England playing at 15 some years ago but is a much more experienced player now playing in a settled team and system.

My team against Wales would therefore look something like this:

Forwards: Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Joe McCarthy, Peter O’Mahony (captain), Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Backs: Jamison Gibson-Park, Jack Crowley, James Lowe, Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose, Calvin Nash, Robbie Henshaw.

Bench: Rónan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, James Ryan, Jack Conan, Craig Casey, Ciarán Frawley, Jordan Larmour.

Reserves: Tom Stewart, Jeremy Loughman, Tom O’Toole, Iain Henderson, Nick Timoney, Ryan Baird. Conor Murray, Harry Byrne, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale

Not considered: Hugo Keenan

Stuart McCloskey would again be unfortunate to miss out after a fine performance against Italy. However, there are already four centres in the match day squad if you include Frawley, although he is primarily there to cover 15. I think Craig Casey has edged out Conor Murray, based on recent performances, and his style is more in keeping with Ireland’s all action attacking style. Larmour is there to provide specialist cover for the wings but might be sacrificed if Farrell goes for a 6:2 bench split to accommodate Baird. Henderson is also unfortunate to miss out, although he came off injured in the Osprey’s match and may be unavailable in any case. Bealham is arguably playing better than Furlong, so it will be interesting to see who starts. I would prefer to play Beirne at six to accommodate Ryan. But that would mean dropping the Captain, O’Mahony, to the bench, which I doubt Farrell will do.

Overall, Ireland are the most settled squad in the six nations and have been playing by far the best rugby. However, the uneven performances of the provinces this weekend are a reminder that you can never take anything for granted. Gatland has a good track record against Ireland and will presumably have a few tricks up his sleeve. In fact, it is remarkable how well his callow side have been playing, and they could well give Ireland a run for our money until the last quarter, when our stronger bench should prevail. However, if we allow our status as overwhelming favourites to cause us to become complacent or overanxious in our play, anything is possible. All it would take is an early red card, and all bets would be off. Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to a bounce of the ball or a capricious refereeing decision.

 

 


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