James Hume: An emerging talent with a steely purpose

Another chance below to hear the interview I conducted with emerging Ulster Rugby prospect James Hume for http://www.insideireland.ie  :

This piece took a bit of organising. Being a part-time sports journo (blagger some might say-that’s how they say blogger in Belfast, by the way!) can be a challenging preoccupation. I only had a short window to meet my interviewee during a busy pre-season for Ulster Rugby. It was worth it, though.

I arrived at the reception of Kingspan Stadium at half nine on a wet Friday morning in the pouring August rain and was directed with a smile to the players’ training room and meeting facilities. I raced around and found a drenched Henry Speight being put through his paces by a photographer. I wondered to myself if Henry had been warned about the notorious northern Irish weather before putting pen to paper and actually muttered something in that spirit to the affable Aussie winger. Henry, it turns out, is aware of the great summer we’ve been enjoying this year, but alas arrives in Belfast just as the local climate has reverted to type.

But no, Henry wasn’t my interviewee. I’d come to at Ulster’s unrivalled facilities to meet James Hume (you can listen to the full interview below-, an up and coming Irish rugby star who’s sailed through the underage representative ranks. I was immediately impressed with James’s assuredness. The youngster greeted me with a firm handshake and calmly settled into our interview like an old pro. If only I’d been as confident and mature when I was twenty!

In a short but thorough interview, we discussed James’s hopes and ambitions for the new season, his experience with the Irish under 20 set-up-including his recent appearance at the under -20 World Cup-, James’s rugby heroes and the warm way he’s been accepted into the professional fold by his colleagues and teammates.

We also touched on James’s extensive knowledge of incoming Ulster Skills coach, Daniel Soper. For those who don’t know, Soper coached James at Banbridge RFC and enjoyed an extremely successful spell together when Soper guided RBAI, Hume’s alma mater, to three Ulster Schools’ Cup victories in a row. Pretty impressive stuff, although that’s hard to say for a Campbell man! There’s sure to be further glory ahead as Hume continues availing of Soper’s expert tutelage at Ravenhill.

James also revealed his thoughts on the recently announced Celtic Cup competition-the replacement for the now defunct British and Irish Cup-and the potential opportunity it offers young players to gain competitive experience and game-time away from the intense cauldron that is the Pro 14.

The new competition has been conceived as a vehicle to give ‘A’ and Academy players from the Celtic nations and clubs a chance to gain valuable playing exposure before breaking into their first team set-ups. Elite development and the provision of a pathway to professional rugby are essential components of any rugby system and it’s heartening to see Irish provinces benefiting from this exciting development. David Nucifora, in particular, will be delighted.

Hopefully James Hume will be one of many exciting young Ulster prospects to make their breakthrough this season. Young players, after all, are the future of Irish rugby and the health of the game in Ireland rests in their hands. After spending an enjoyable half-an-hour with the talented and articulate Hume, I was left with the abiding impression that Ireland’s new generation is more than up for the task. Our chat ended and James joined Henry and the others for a scheduled walk through in the rain.  As I departed an inclement Kingspan, I was reassured that the weather may be overcast but the future is definitely bright.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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Respect Earned The Hard Way!

‘Passionate.’ That’s the adjective once commonly used to describe the Irish rugby team. The term was particularly prevalent among the rugby giants of the southern hemisphere. Prior to any big game against opponents from south of the equator, rival players would queue up to tell us how respectful they were of the fighting Irish and how they were  wary of the ‘passion’ Ireland always brought to the party. These extremely patronising descriptions made the cream of Irish sport sound more like horny Love Island contestants than elite sportsmen.

The curious thing about the ‘passion’ label is that was applied long after Ireland became genuine and legitimate contenders on the international stage. In the old amateur and semi-professional days such condescension was perhaps forgivable, but even as the golden generation of Irish rugby was strutting its stuff on the Test stage, opponents could still be heard routinely rabbiting on about Ireland and their famed passion.

I used to wonder about this bizarre tendency. It was excusable when Irish results were unremittingly poor, but why did such attitudes prevail when the men in green were regularly winning in the Test arena? The answer was delivered in the context of Ireland’s unremarkable record against the All Blacks-just one win recorded in countless attempts; last November in Chicago. Before a New Zealand Test a few years ago, I read an interview with a former All Black international explaining the apparent lack of recognition afforded to Ireland’s finest. ‘In order to gain our respect,’ he explained, ‘you have to beat us.’

Well, the vernacular surrounding Irish international rugby has changed markedly from the well worn and tiresome platitudes of the past. Opponents from near and far are falling over themselves to fawn over Joe Schmidt’s record breaking outfit. Recent results tell a magnificent and unprecedented story. Three Six Nations Championships, a Grand Slam, a first win over the Springboks on South African soil and the aforementioned maiden win over the world champion All Blacks is a truly formidable record. And now, remarkably, Ireland’s first ever southern hemisphere series win (against a revitalised Australia) contested over three Tests has just been achieved.

And to think there were idiots calling for Schmidt’s head not so long ago. The absurdity! Ireland’s favourite Kiwi has built a relentless and formidable squad, one capable of consistently overcoming anyone in world rugby. Number two in the world and on merit. And this side is taking Irish rugby to uncharted territory; places the golden generation could only dream of.

At the turn of the century, we marvelled at the infusion of youngsters like Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara who entered Test rugby without the fear and inferiority complex that blighted their predecessors. But the current crop is the product of an even more impressive harvest. Today’s youngsters literally expect to win every game they play. Take James Ryan. Ireland’s new dynamo of a second row has only lost one match as a professional rugby player. Consider that for a moment!

But this is what we’re dealing with. Schmidt and his squad of modest and humble superstars are taking Irish rugby to new, exciting places. The overriding concern of the Irish coach post the 2015 World Cup was to build new depth and resourcefulness into the Irish squad. And while some positions remain relatively callow, there’s no doubt Irish rugby is in as strong a position as it’s ever been. Winning plaudits from all corners of the globe and primed for an assault on rugby’s premier competition. The trophies, of course, tell their own tale, but if you need substantive proof of the esteem Ireland’s players are currently held, just listen to the respectful way opponents are now talking about them. Respect that’s been earned the hard way!

PS The football World Cup has kicked off in far away Russia and the tournament has thus far been characterised by a series of upsets and unexpected results. Despite the unpredictable start, few are expecting too many surprises come the business end of the competition. It’ll be the usual suspects in with a chance of ultimate glory. Or will it? They always seem to fall short and are perpetually addicted to underachievement, but England are due to perform in a major tournament one of these days. Maybe, just maybe, 2018 will be the year?

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

No Longer Once in a Blue Moon

They didn’t do it with the style and panache we expected, but Leinster duly prevailed as anticipated on 12 May to win an incredible fourth Champions Cup. The muted celebrations after the game told a tale of relief and quiet satisfaction more than exaltation. Indeed, anyone who didn’t know the outcome would swear that Leinster had lost such was Johnny Sexton’s sullen demeanour. One wonders if the perfectionist Irish fly-half actually enjoys days like this or is he too caught up berating himself over perceived errors and looking ahead to the next challenge to savour the moment?

But Leinster did indeed win and what a magnificent achievement it is. Some of us are old enough to remember Munster’s travails in the early years of this competition (or its predecessor to be more precise), when buckets of blood, sweat and tears were expended in the search for the elusive holy grail. All those great performances and victories only to come up short. So near and yet so far! Leinster on a quadruple? Damn it, Munster fought so hard to win one!

Some are even old enough to remember the glorious time when a team of semi-professionals from Ulster blazed a trail for the Irish provinces in the European Cup in the year the English clubs boycotted the competition. Believe me, it was no average achievement as European giants like Toulouse and Stade Francais floundered in Belfast’s cathedral of pain.

In those days, it seemed absurd, inconceivable that an Irish province would ever win four European Cups. The achievement is put into clear context by the numerous obstacles that were put in place to prevent this very eventuality from occurring. The old Heineken Cup was a truly wonderful rugby tournament, adored by fans all over the world. But the English and French club owners didn’t share the supporters’ affection. Some perceived a Celtic bias.

The Anglo-French clubs, financed by tv sugar daddies and billionaire benefactors, were rattled by the illogical success of the Irish provinces. Despite pouring a fortune into the game, the European Cup was a competition they couldn’t buy easily. Unable to beat the Irish as regularly as they wanted, the Anglo-French owners were left with only one option in their myopic minds: to destroy European rugby’s pride and joy.

Maybe they were jealous of the provinces’ success. Maybe they resented that the old ERC was based in Dublin. Whatever the motivation, the moguls were set on dismantling the Heineken Cup. And when the English Premiership clubs unilaterally sold their European tv rights to BT Sport, the writing was on the wall for the European Cup as we knew it. Determined to get a bigger share of the tv and monetary spoils, the English/French clubs and their sympathisers eventually brought the curtain down on the ERC and facilitated the establishment of the EPCR in its place.

Initially, the ploy worked well. The new competition was dominated by our Anglo-French cousins, the first three tournaments being won by Toulon and Saracens; clubs that are the very embodiment of the new European order. Meanwhile, the Irish provinces struggled to get out of the pool stages and it seemed the days of Irish glory in the European Cup had been permanently consigned to the past.

But then something curious happened. The Irish provinces stormed back into contention, culminating in the superb fourth tournament win by the best team in the continent. You see, as it turns out, there are some things that money can’t buy. Irish rugby’s strength is that it controls its players. Once the IRFU made the bold and visionary decision to centrally contract its star names and ward off the avaricious advances of club owners, it set a template for rugby governance that’s the envy of the world. The rewards are there for all to see: two Grand Slams and six Champions Cups tells its own tale.

In all of this, Leinster lead the way and the province is building a legacy that has the potential to last years. The Blues are currently reaping the benefits of a veritable conveyor belt of talent. Brilliant and fearless youngsters like Jordan Larmour, James Ryan and Dan Leavy are the product of an unrivalled schools system that’s producing not just quality but massive strength in depth. The rest of Europe can only look on with envy at the wondrous production line that is the Leinster Academy.

Massive credit goes to Leo Cullen, a coach who was openly questioned in his first season in charge, but has become the first person to win Europe’s premier competition as player and coach. What a story! Cullen’s double act with the ever modest and self-effacing Stuart Lancaster has delivered the goods time and again. Such vindication for the former England coach after his World Cup nightmare. Few would begrudge his ebullience at the final whistle. How sweet his redemption must taste.

But the real plaudits are reserved for the Irish system. It’s been a testing season for Irish rugby for reasons we all know but the Irish have finally rediscovered the winning formula. It’s an incredible achievement given how the odds are stacked against them. Something tells me that we won’t need to wait for a Blue Moon for the next Irish European Cup triumph.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

By justinhourigan (flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Not Just Zebo Out In The Cold

Much has been made of Simon Zebo’s impending departure to play his rugby in France, for a yet unconfirmed destination-possibly Racing 92. As soon as it was revealed that the Irish winger/fullback had spurned the offer of a new Munster contract, speculation was rife with regard to what his exit would mean for Zebo’s international prospects. As it was, we didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Just days later, Irish coach Joe Schmidt announced an extended squad for the upcoming autumn internationals and in the lengthy list of names there was one noticeable absentee-Simon Zebo.

With Rob Kearney’s best days behind him and Jared Payne struggling to achieve an injury free run, it was widely assumed that Zebo was an absolute shoo- in for the Irish fullback berth this autumn. And yet with backfield options scarce, the Munster man has found himself surplus to requirements. Zebo’s omission has certainly shocked plenty of Irish rugby folk, with teammates and fans alike taken aback at the Munster fullback’s unexpected and sudden exclusion.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, though. In recent years, the IRFU’S policy regarding selection has been abundantly clear. If you move abroad, you’re out! As harsh as it seems, that’s been the immutable rule. With the notable exception of Johnny Sexton (too brilliant to omit), any move outside Ireland has led to the player being sent to Coventry-mostly in a metaphorical sense, you understand, but it also applies literally in the case of Marty Moore! Sexton aside, all high profile movers have been shunned and excluded from Irish selection. It didn’t matter who you were: Ian Madigan, Donnacha Ryan, JJ Hanrahan. If you left the Irish set-up, you paid the ultimate price in terms of test selection.

What makes Zebo’s case fairly unique, though, is the shunning is happening while the player is still here. Remember, he’s not going until next season. In that sense, we can detect a hardening of the Irish management’s position. The policy couldn’t be any clearer: not only will a player not be picked if he moves abroad, it now seems he won’t be selected if it’s clear he’s unavailable for any part of the World Cup cycle. Given the dearth of current options at fullback, the easy option was to pick Zebo. He was the obvious, straightforward choice. In declining to do so, Schmidt has underlined his commitment to the homegrown policy in a devastatingly uncompromising fashion.

Make no mistake about it, Irish rugby is in a bitter fight to hold onto its biggest names. In an ultra-competitive transfer market, it’s simply not possible for the IRFU to compete with the English and French clubs, with their mega-rich benefactors. And as it’s impossible to outbid their Anglo-French rivals, the IRFU has to utilise whatever leverage it has at its disposal. One advantage is the unrivalled way players are looked after within the Irish system. Instead of being flogged to pieces in the Premiership and Top 14, the Irish provinces wrap their star men in cotton wool, sensibly limiting the amount of rugby played.

The other main argument the union uses to encourage players to stay is, of course, selection. Which brings us back to Zebo. This rugby era is unique in that we’re seeing players in their prime abandoning their national systems for the unprecedented riches presently available in the club game. It’s been happening to the All Blacks for years, where even the pull of the hallowed silver fern has been unable to prevent players leaving for Europe with their best years still ahead of them. Think of Charles Piutau at Ulster as a case in point. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before such commercial realities caught up with Ireland.

And the Irish system is particularly susceptible to losing players like Zebo. A fluent French speaker who has often spoken of a desire to broaden his horizons, it’s no real surprise that the Munster man’s head has been turned. Let’s not forget that modern rugby careers are becoming increasingly short. The sport has never been more arduous and players are only ever an injury away from retirement.

And rugby isn’t like football in the sense that superstar players retire without having to work again. Rare indeed is a professional rugby player whose playing career sets him up for life. In this context, it’s quite understandable, then, that players want to enrich themselves and their families in the short time available to them. Simon Zebo is one of the lucky few who has the perspicacity to understand the need to make hay while the sun shines.

For all that, we know what the trade off is. For Irish internationals, their test careers suffer because of pragmatic if understandable choices. Unlike their predecessors of yesteryear such as Keith Wood and Geordan Murphy, the IRFU’s selection policy is no longer allowing players to have their cake and eat it. Players must decide and the choice is stark: remain in the Irish system or risk never playing for your country again.

And although Zebo is the most high profile casualty of this contentious policy, the ramifications extend way beyond any one player. Schmidt may explain Zebo’s omission in his usual loquacious style, but there’s no mistaking the severity of the message. The line is clear and unambiguous. One that’s sent a shudder through every Irish international who values his test career but may have been pondering a possible move abroad. And that’s how it has to be if the IRFU’s policy is to have any meaning. But hey, no-one ever said life was fair.  In the merciless battle to hold onto its main men, Irish rugby just got real tough.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup DSCN4917) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Green march on road to Glory

The waiting is almost over. On Wednesday, Warren Gatland will put players, pundits and arm chair fans out of their collective misery by announcing his squad for the upcoming Lions Tour to the land of the long white cloud. A Lions expedition is always greeted with feverish expectation by rugby fans and the sense of anticipation is more acute when the touring destination is New Zealand. You see, a Lions Tour to New Zealand is the closest thing to mission impossible in international rugby. The scratch representative side has only managed one successful series win in New Zealand: 1971. Other tours to the country have been met with heartbreaking, inevitable, inglorious failure.

Expectations are marginally higher this time on the back of the magnificent series win mustered in Australia last time and the abundance of talent that Gatland and his coaching team currently have at their disposal. Still, no-one is under any illusions about the magnitude of the unenviable task at hand. This is indeed the toughest assignment in rugby. In order to prevail, the Lions need to upset not only one of the greatest rugby squads ever selected but also rugby history in the process. From an Irish viewpoint, there are several certainties for the plane, while others face an anxious, nail-biting wait. In terms of the safer prospects, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jack McGrath, Robbie Henshaw and skipper Rory Best seem virtually guaranteed to make the trip; deserved recognition for their consistent and imperious form in recent seasons.

Where it gets interesting is consideration of the possibles and bolters. One imagines that Simon Zebo, for all his faults and mercurial nature, is likely to travel on account of his versatility, while Iain Henderson’s recent return to form and fitness should see him land one of the keenly contested second row berths. Similarly, Sean O’Brien’s physicality and dynamism could see him grab one of the back row slots, but as with the engine room, the competition there is frighteningly fierce and few will be surprised if Gatland includes a liberal sprinkling of Welshmen to contest what is going to be a mouth watering battle at the breakdown.

O’Brien’s fortune could come at the expense of CJ Stander, as it’s unlikely Gatland will accommodate them both given the bountiful back row resources at his disposal. I notice that many of the preview squads in today’s papers include Peter O’Mahony as a nailed on Test starter. O’Mahony is undoubtedly a tremendous rugby player, but my hunch is that he’ll be lucky to make Gatland’s squad let alone the Test team. The Cork man is certainly a thoroughbred, but may suffer due to the aforementioned competition for back row places and a season frustratingly curtailed by injury. Unjust as it seems, the Munster warrior might have to settle for a place on the standby list.

As regards the captaincy, Sam Warburton appears to be earmarked for the role and seems certain to be named squad skipper provided his recent injury can be shaken off on time. Although it would do my heart good, I can’t see Ireland’s Best landing the cherished accolade. A Lions captain must be not only a supreme leader of men but a guaranteed Test starter. As impressive as the Ulster man has been in recent seasons, he’s far from a certain starter even if he is fortuitous enough to make Gatland’s squad. That said, everyone in Irish rugby will wish Best well in his bid to oust the indisciplined and controversial Dylan Hartley. Cardiff stalwart Warburton is indeed a fine player and trusted captain. If the captaincy predictions are correct, he deserves the opportunity to reprise his leadership role from 2013 when injury deprived him of the chance to lead the pride in the decisive third Test.

As fun as the guessing games are, they will soon be academic as Gatland finally reveals his hand. In terms of composition, England are sure to have a sizeable contingent and history tells us that a Gatland coached Lions squad will contain a formidable Welsh presence.  After all, the Lions’ Kiwi coach will want as many players as possible already schooled in the ways of “Warren Ball.” The smallest contingent will probably come from Scotland, but players of the calibre of Stuart Hogg and Johnny Gray have plenty to contribute if called upon.

However, despite a mixed bag of a Six Nations, there is every indication that there’ll be a strong green tint on the perilous road to potential Lions glory. While that’s wonderful to see, one of the best features of the Lions tours is the manner in which they transcend national and regional rivalries. A unifying force that brings together sports men from Britain and Ireland in common cause. United. Where else would you see it? The task is as tough as ever but no less tantalising for that. To paraphrase the great Jim Telfer, this is their Everest. New Zealand are in a virtually unassailable position atop the rugby world but the 2017 Lions are about to roar.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: By Kiwi Flickr (Kiwi Flickr’s photo on Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/license

 

 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

 

 

Inconsistent Ireland end on a high

The psychology of sport is fascinating. What makes the difference? How did Ireland transform their fortunes from acute disappointment and under-performance last week to yesterday’s acclaimed victory over a much fancied England side? In sport, coaches and players routinely talk about small margins but how can the transformation be so profound? After all, it’s the same group of players. How can we go from being utterly exasperated with our teams to thinking they’re the best thing since sliced bread? And back again! To be a sports fan is to thrust yourself onto a psychological roller-coaster that’s guaranteed to bring extreme thrills; massive highs and lows at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.

In elite, professional sport success, it seems, is only partially related to talent. After all, every player on display is supremely skillful and in possession of rare athletic prowess. At the top end, there’s precious little between opposing teams in terms of talent and skill. That’s why professional sportsmen and women are always looking for an edge, a psychological spur that can give them that decisive advantage over their rivals and opponents. More often than not, the difference is mindset. The top two inches. Analysing performances can be infuriating for coaches and supporters alike. Why did Ireland seemingly blow it against Scotland on the opening day but deliver in emphatic fashion yesterday? The team that struggled in Murrayfield was largely comprised of the same players that conquered the mighty All Blacks in November. What gives? If we accept the theory that the difference in performance relates largely to mindset, why do players deliver on some occasions and freeze on others?

The main problem afflicting this talented Ireland squad is an infuriating lack of consistency. Despite the quantum leap in Irish results in the professional era, there remains a tendency to struggle with the weight and burden of expectation. They’re fine when they’re written off and no-one’s expecting anything. It sits well with the Irish psyche. Ireland still struggle, however, with the tag of favouritism and the expectation to deliver. Think about it. What did the win over England have in common with the heroics in Chicago? Both occasions saw the Irish written off prior to the matches, thus liberating Joe Schmidt’s men from the restrictive burden of expectation. Ireland’s best performances still happen in the context of supporter apathy. Ireland struggle when expectations are heightened, a la the alarming under-performance in Edinburgh.

There’s something about the sight of English jerseys that brings out the best in Irish rugby players. In fact, yesterday’s win was the third time in recent memory that Ireland have denied the red rose a Grand Slam in Dublin; standing alongside the glorious wins of 2001 and 2011. I guess the thought of Eddie Jones’s team sealing a Grand Slam and simultaneous world record on Irish soil was too much for Ireland’s players to bear, inspiring them to their best performance of the championship. The home side lorded in the physicality stakes, meeting fire with fire in thwarting one of the best packs in the world. The Irish dominated their opponents with a controlled aggression that forced England onto the back foot for the majority of an enthralling contest. That’s where mindset comes in. That obdurate desire to physically better your opponent and refusal to concede. The “Mongrel Dog”, as they call it in New Zealand.

It happened more by accident than design, but Ireland’s hastily rearranged back row suited this game perfectly. When Jamie Heaslip cried off in the warm-up, his misfortune allowed CJ Stander to make the seamless transition to number eight. More importantly, Heaslip’s injury catapulted Peter O’Mahony into the side and what a commanding performance the Munster flanker delivered. O’Mahony was absolutely fantastic yesterday, covering every blade of grass in a breathtaking and superb man-of-the-match performance. There’s been some debate recently about whether the Cork man should start for Ireland. Surely the argument has been definitely settled. O’Mahony has to start. If there was a singular difference between the sides, it was the Munster blindside.

Johnny Sexton was his usual sublime self, exhibiting that unique mix of bravery and class. Robbie Henshaw was also outstanding, proving once again that he’s become a genuine leader. It’ll be a travesty if the Athlone man is omitted from Warren Gatland’s Lions’ squad. A special mention must also go to Kieran Marmion. Many feared the worst when Conor Murray pulled out during the week but the talented Marmion proved resoundingly that he belongs in this exalted company. Most satisfying of all, though, was the crucial contribution of Ireland’s inexperienced players. Dan Leavy, Andrew Conway and Luke McGrath stepped into the Six Nations cauldron and every one of them looked to the manor born. And what about McGrath’s wonderful kick to the corner near the end? Sheer class.

Ireland will look back on their 2017 Six Nations campaign with extreme regret. Yesterday’s win should have delivered the title as well as mere bragging rights. Simple as that. In fact, Schmidt’s men could have fallen short against Wales and still been in championship contention if they hadn’t flopped so badly against an improving but inferior Scottish side. Whatever about Eddie Jones’s team, no-one can deny that they’ve been fantastically consistent in the last eighteen months. A consistency that’s steadfastly eluded the men in green. Yesterday’s win was satisfying and cathartic on several levels but Ireland will only reach their true potential when they get back to delivering when it really matters. Champion teams don’t crumble under the weight of expectation. Rather they embrace it. Great squads produce the goods when they’re expected to and deliver optimum performance on a regular basis. Ireland have finished the Six Nations superbly but we know they’re capable of so much more. Once Ireland regain consistency in their game, they’ll be an extremely formidable force.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Reggie Suplido from USA (The fabulous Aviva Stadium) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Crunch Time for Ireland

In the world of rugby writing, there are certain rules and conventions. Most of these are unwritten; some are relatively modern in conception, but all hold true nonetheless. Sort of unspoken rules of engagement, if you like. Riddled with cliche. For example, in modern rugby vernacular, a coaching and management team is universally known as a “brains trust.” I don’t know why. It just is. Sounds good, you see. Fancy. Sophisticated. Similarly, a good old-fashioned clearance kick must now be termed an “exit strategy.” Modern rugby terminology demands it. A Six Nations match involving France, moreover, is invariably referred to as “Le Crunch”. See what I did there? In Anglo-French games, the use of this term is compulsory. Mandatory in previews and sports commentaries. For Ireland-France games, however, use is is optional. Still, you can bet your bottom Euro (I so wanted to say Franc there), that a legion of headline writers will use the hackneyed phrase before the week is out.

Ireland are playing France on Saturday, you see. With both sides having tasted defeat in the championship, the encounter has all the ingredients of a “must win.” While home advantage might prove decisive for Joe Schmidt’s men, you can never rest easy against the elusive, unpredictable French. France. How to make sense of France? Mercurial. Another word synonymous with French rugby and beloved of sportswriters. It’s bound to get several mentions this week, too! Everyone loves French flair, after all. Except France haven’t been so much with the flair in recent years. French sides of recent vintage have abandoned the traditional French modus operandi in favour of a decidedly more structured and formulaic approach. With rather mixed success, it has to be said. Guy Noves’s men haven’t been genuine contenders for quite a while and their fall from grace is a sad sight for those of us raised on the genius of Philippe Sella, Serge Blanco and the rest. France of 2017 have a mammoth pack at their disposal, but not a huge amount else in terms of attacking fluency.

The imminent return of Johnny Sexton after a frustrating spell on the sidelines will bolster an Irish side that’s lacked his direction and guidance in recent games. Paddy Jackson has done a more than creditable job in his absence, but the Leinster man is the best player in the world in his position; the best fly-half we’ve ever had-sorry ROG! Andrew Trimble may also return to the Irish ranks to further strengthen Schmidt’s hand and the Ulster man’s robustness will add extra defensive ballast against the ultra-physical French. If the game is as close as many are expecting, having such experienced and accomplished campaigners on board can only improve Ireland’s chances. It’ll be interesting to see also if Schmidt mixes up his pack for the merciless attrition that’s undoubtedly coming Ireland’s way.

For all the talk of the grand finale against Eddie Jones’s England on 18 March, the men in green have two extremely challenging encounters to negotiate first. Even if France are emphatically dismissed this weekend, a chastened and dangerous Wales lie in wait in two weeks time. To say that these two matches will go some way to defining Ireland’s 2017 Six Nations campaign would be an understatement of epic proportions. The Scottish performance was undoubtedly a massive blot on Ireland’s copybook, but Schmidt’s men are an infinitely better side than that underwhelming display suggested. It’s also wrong to read too much into the facile win over an extremely limited Italy side, but there was enough in Ireland’s performance in Rome to confirm that their Scottish blip was indeed an aberration. Sterner tests await. The first of these arrives on Saturday. There is no room for error. Lose and Ireland’s championship is effectively over. Win well; followed up with a victory in Cardiff, and the dream decider beckons. It’s time to deliver. Allez Les Verts!! 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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