Aki’s Residency

Posted: October 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

Bundee Aki played one of his best games for Connacht in a long time against Munster on Friday night. Deft hands helped set up a wonderful score for Tiernan O’Halloran, and his defensive reads throughout the game helped Connacht to a four point win.

It’s not the first time Aki has been lauded for a performance in a green shirt. It certainly won’t be the last. It’s the issue of which green shirt that seems to bother people.

Aki took part in an Irish Rugby training camp at the end of the summer, and was included in the latest Irish squad (one that had a number of questionable omissions) for the November internationals. His form and style of play is enough to ensure his inclusion.

But every rugby fan knows Aki. He doesn’t step back. He doesn’t give up. He doesn’t like to come off second best.

Much has been written about the residency laws in the last number of years. Payne bore the brunt of articles, as did Stander. When the B&I Lions were announced, some people couldn’t wait to take to social media to air their graces.

Aki is the latest to be subjected.

I read an article earlier in the week that stated Aki will be eligible to play for Ireland simply because he boarded a plane three years ago, travelled thousands of miles to somewhere he’d probably heard very little of, and played rugby for three years. I paraphrase, but that was the idea.

Nothing was written about him having to leave his family, including his daughter, who reside in New Zealand.

Nothing was mentioned about his arrival to a team who were, at the time, struggling to perform in their domestic league.

Nothing was written about the fact he left his home, friends, culture, and way of life thousands upon thousands of miles behind him.

In fact, it was written that Aki’s decision to emigrate and ply his trade abroad offered him the chance to play international rugby, something that would not have been possible if he had stayed at home. This being despite the fact Richie McCaw and other New Zealand alicadoos openly stated they wanted him home.

If Aki earns a regular starting Test spot in an Ireland jersey, it is simply because he is the best available Irish qualified player in that position. Simple as.

He has broken no laws. He is not being snuck in. He is not being afforded preferential treatment to the expense of an Irish-born player.

A number of arguments have been made that his inclusion blocks the path of players born in Ireland. The same was said about Stander and Payne. But let’s take a look at that.

CJ Stander came to Munster and took time to acclimatise. It took him a long time to earn a a starting place for Munster, but took him no time at all to appreciate and respect the Munster culture. He adopted it so much, in fact, he has captained them on numerous occasions.

Upon gaining (or earning, as would be the appropriate verb in my eyes) his Irish residency, he earned a starting spot in the Irish squad. Many said he shouldn’t be in the Irish team. But why not?

He, too, left his family, friends, and culture behind and boarded a plane to take a chance to further his career.

And is he blocking Irish born players from a Test spot? He was the best player in his position whenever he played for Ireland. And with at fully fit Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, and Jack Conan heading into the autumn internationals, will he retain that starting spot? It looks doubtful. So who is he blocking?

Perhaps in credit to those who begrudge the law, I was surprised to see Rory Scannell omitted from the last squad. But not due to Aki’s inclusion, but McCloskey’s. Aki, for me, would be my choice beside Henshaw in the autumn internationals.

Aki has earned his spot. If it was about the money, Aki wouldn’t have resigned with Connacht when he could have played in France or England for a considerably higher sum than offered by Connacht.

These players earn the right to represent their adopted countries. It is not as simple as boarding a plane and playing ball.

These players are human. They have families, friends, memories, and cultures all left behind. They make a very difficult decision to emigrate in order to further their professional life. Unless you have been in that position, and faced these problems, who are you to bemoan them?

The new incoming law change will see a player need to play in their chosen country for five years rather than three. The change has done some good to quell to never-ending criticism of overseas-born players but plenty would still like to see it pushed to ten.

Ten is far too long. It would mean a player, moving at 21 years of age, wouldn’t be capped until they were at least 31.

How many players in world rugby have celebrated international careers which began in their third decade? A law stating ten years suits those who believe you should be born in the country you wish to represent. It doesn’t take the human side into account.

People travel the world in the hope of bettering their lives, be it professionally or personally. Yet when when a rugby player makes the choice to travel to do that, some feel the need to let them know they’re not, nor will ever be, truly Irish, English, or whatever.

England

Recently, the powers that be in England have asked World Rugby for help in stopping other clubs from poaching their young players into playing their rugby outside of England.

Given Hartley, their captain, their loosehead and number 8 and a number of other players in their team were not born in England, it makes me laugh a little bit.

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Ireland’s Autumn Teamsheet

Posted: September 23, 2017 in Uncategorized

An interview with Bundee Aki plays in the background of a Dublin pub while two Connacht fans discuss their odds versus Cardiff in the PRO 14. One of them reckons they have a good chance, while the other hints the team are still transitioning to the new management’s structure.

Both, however, agree that Bundee Aki will be their main talisman behind the win.

He is an explosive, charismatic centre who became a cult hero in the west throughout Connacht’s PRO 12 winning season, and remains a fan favourite. He has bought into the culture of the west and is quick to change out of a Galway jersey and into a Mayo one, depending who’s playing.

I reckon his never say die attitude also has something to do with it. Even Richie McCaw wanted to get him home.

It would be quite good for him to come home ‘cos I always thought that when he left, if he’d carried on playing the way he is over here, he would have been knocking on the door as an All Black.

In the aforementioned interview, Aki discusses how he got his nickname, his early rugby days, and the different players and places he encountered along the way. He’s quick to smile and is honest in everything he answers.

Aki will qualify for Ireland in October and took part in the Ireland training camp for the first time in august. Anyone who has watched him knows how competitive he is, and how badly he wants his team to do well.

In other words, when he’s on the pitch, he is all in.

Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw, who looks to return from injury for Leinster against Edinburgh Friday, has stated that he would relish playing for Ireland with Aki.

It’ll be great to have him there because he is a world class player and I think he’d add value to the group as well. I’m really looking forward to having him in and hopefully he gets as run out.

His voice on the pitch is really good, and his knowledge of the game, his vision. He’s not just a straight line runner or a bash-it-up player, he’s well able to distribute and put guys into space.

I suppose his off-loading game and his game of being able to pull something out of nothing, that’s where he’s most dangerous.

As I type this, Aki pinches a turnover in his own 22 after making seven tackles in the opening 25 minutes at outside centre.

Should Schmidt select Aki in the centre during the autumn internationals? Absolutely. Garry Ringrose’s injury has ruled him out of the autumn internationals and Jared Payne has yet to return to play since suffering headaches throughout the Lions tour. Why not give Aki his chance?

Ireland are set to play South Africa, Fiji, and Argentina on consecutive Saturdays in November and Schmidt has no problem blooding new players in these games. Aki’s physicality and skill set would also suit Ireland against that opposition.

People knows what Aki brings. Given space and he’s gone, but run at him and you’re in trouble. He played the last few games of Connacht’s winning PRO 12 season with a leg injury, and refused to let it rule him out of the final.

With that hunger, he’ll be welcomed with open arms into the Irish team.

Lions Selection 

Posted: April 19, 2017 in Uncategorized

At 12.05pm today, thumbs across Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales were tapping furiously on Twitter to share their thoughts on Warren Gatland’s latest Lions’ squad. Most were pleased, with Scotland fans being the opposite. Justifiably so.

The following players will, touch wood, board a flight to New Zealand in the coming weeks:

The most notable omission for me was Joe Launchbury. He’s been in spectacular form for club and country of late, and can feel aggrieved that George Kruis (who didn’t play a minute of Six Nations rugby this year) will wear the jersey instead. The Wasps captain will use that disappointment to fuel the end of the domestic season, and will probably be first to be called upon if injury strikes the second row.

Simon Zebo is the second. He’s playing the rugby of his life for Munster at the moment, but it’s his international scoring record that has let him down. Unfortunate, as Ireland’s style of play does not suit the Corkman. But such is life.

It’s that lack of try scoring that has opened the door for Jack Nowell. The Exeter player is nothing short of electric, and you need five and seven pointers to beat the All Blacks. Threes aren’t enough. 

Ben Te’o can count himself lucky to be on the plane. He is not a creative presence in midfield, and crash balls only offer so much. Hopefully he keeps the elbows down.

However the squad, as a whole, is very strong. 

Warburton is the right choice for captain. He won a Lions’ tour as captain four years ago and obviously has a good working relationship with Gatland. He leads by example in every game, and is sure to continue that trend. With Warburton’s place in the Test team now guaranteed bar injury, I reckon he’ll play 7, with CJ Stander and big Billy Vunipola at 6 and 8 respectively. 

Jared Payne is a super inclusion. He knows what it takes to get over the line against New Zealand, he is incredibly versatile with the ability to play 13, wing, and 15, and is a defensive organiser of the highest degree. His inclusion was a masterstroke. 

Dylan Hartley became the third England captain in a row to miss out on a Lions’ spot (Borthwick and Robshaw being the other two) and it’s no harm. He’s not even the best hooker in England. Rory Best would be my starting hooker, and the Ulsterman is a leader that everyone can follow.

The backs possess a plethora of talent. There was plenty of talk that Jonathan Joseph wouldn’t tour, and I’m delighted it was unfounded. If he can play in the same manner in which he played against Scotland in all three Tests, the midfield will tick over. 

Sexton should start at 10, with Farrell at 12. Having two kicking options is a huge plus, but both are world class playmakers. Add that to Conor Murray’s standard of box-kicking and distribution and you’re laughing. 

The back three players selected are all very clever choices. Eliot Daly is going from strength to strength, George North has won a Lion’s Series before, Seymour’s on fire, and Jack Nowell is a great finisher. Halfpenny and Hogg will go head to head for the 15 position. And Liam Williams can go wing or 15. But Hogg, Williams and Daly would be my choice of back three starters.

All in all, with all the stick Gatland gets, he has selected a very strong squad. He’s never going to please everyone, but that’s not the name of the game. 

Prediction: 2-1 to New Zealand. 


“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often”. 

This phrase encapsulates a mantra all teams live by. Just like Tiger Woods changing his swing when he was World Number 1, a team at their peak must change their game in order to stay on top. 

The Heineken Cup ended three seasons ago, and thus, the Champions Cup was born. Throughout its infancy, there has been many complaints about the new-look European competition. Being honest, last year’s competition failed to excite me in any real way. But this year is different.

In the penultimate round of this year’s competition, every game seems to be bringing about a change in the top eight. The qualification table has changed a number of times since Friday evening and will continue to do so until the final game is played next week. This is what the fans of European rugby want; a competition in which their team must continue to produce at the highest level in order to qualify.

But there are still a couple of problems in this competition, problems which can be easily eradicated to both the players’ and fans’ benefit and enjoyment.

I’ve long campaigned that Treviso and Zebre should not have a place in the Champions Cup unless it has been earned through merit, and this has been more obvious than ever this weekend.

Connacht have suffered a high number of injuries this season. So many, in fact, that I reckoned that Zebre (after conceding seventy points to Leinster the week previous) may be in with a shout in their second European meeting. Connacht proved me to be magnificently wrong.

Playing with a scrum-half in the outhalf position, Connacht put 66 points past a poor Zebre side to go from third in their group to first and stormed their way into the qualification table. Between their two clashes, Connacht won 118-28. Not to mention Zebre also shipped 82 points to Wasps in their opening round.

I’m not here to poke fun at Zebre’s ability, but I am highlighting that the Italian teams are way out of their depth in this competition. As Andy Goode tweeted this week, this competition is for the European elite, and having poor Italian teams included just belittles the competition. 

Fine, you can argue that Northampton and Montpellier both shipped big losses to Leinster this season too, but it’s not the same argument. Neither side have been consistently poor in Europe.

The Champions Cup organizers need to change the qualification process for the Pro 12 teams. Including Zebre because they finished above Treviso in the league isn’t saying the stronger Italian team is being included; it’s saying the better loser is.

Both teams should be included in the Challenge Cup until strong enough to compete with the European elite. Simple as. This would strengthen the competition and avoid more embarrassment to players who, you can be assured, are doing their best. It would also end the idea that teams lucky enough to draw an Italian team are guaranteed circa ten points.

Zebre may not even be a team next year, as a centralized team in Rome is the aim for Italian club rugby  at the moment. But that newly-formed team, whenever it may come, should be forced to prove itself in the Chllange Cup before gaining entry into the Challenge Cup. Organizers should be learning from mistakes.

The second problem is the division of games between Sky Sports and BT Sports.

As I type this, I am missing Toulon v Sale, a game which has some of the world’s best players on show. Why? Because I’ve already paid a subscription to one sports channel.

European rugby is an expensive business for fans. New jerseys seem to be coming out every year, meaning parents are under pressure when their kids see their idols’ new uniforms. Away games can mean expenses such as plane tickets, accommodation, match tickets, food, etc. Home games aren’t cheap either. But that’s accepted. It’s part and parcel. 

What’s unacceptable is that fans who stay home are forced to fork out two subscriptions to two different channels in order to watch one competition. 

Champions Cup organizers should not divide the rights to the competition. It adds an extra cost to fans who already give their all to follow their teams, and put simply, it is unfair to impose that extra cost on fans to pay the wages of pundits they never wanted in the first place. 

The TV rights are up for renewal this summer and apparently they will not be shared again between two subscription channels. This needs to be imposed in order to continue to win over the public. It would be a very simple solution to what is a big issue.

The Champions Cup has been going from strength to strength and is finally capturing the imagination of fans again. But there are changes to be made. After all, to change is to improve.

Ireland’s Young Guns

Posted: November 12, 2016 in Uncategorized

Before the last Rugby World Cup, the New Zealand coaching staff had a huge decision to make. Nehe Milner-Skudder was tearing it up in Super Rugby, had earned two international caps, and Hansen had to decide whether he was worthy of selecting him over previous World Cup winner, Israel Dagg. The phrase “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” prevailed, and Dagg was omitted. Veteran Cory Jane also missed out.

Milner-Skudder went on to score four tries in the RWC before getting injured, and was also awarded World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year. The risk paid off.

In the same World Cup, Ireland reached the knockout stages. They suffered a few injuries, one player was suspended, and they lacked the strength in depth to overcome Argentina. Competition over.

The upshot is that Ireland coach Joe Schmidt took from that experience. There’s a saying, coined by Albert Einstein, that states “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Schmidt is far from insane.

On Saturday, the 5th of November, Schmidt coached an Irish team to arguably their biggest win in their history against New Zealand. They put 40 points on the scoreboard. An unbelievable performance that was hailed by Steve Hansen himself.

Ireland won that game without Sean O’Brien, Mike Ross, or Peter O’Mahony. Tadhg Furlong, 24, started at tighthead. Jordi Murphy, 25, started at seven, and, when he injured himself, was replaced by 23 year old Josh van der Flier. 21 year old Joey Carbery debuted from the bench.

Of the 23 man squad that made history, nine were 25 years of age or younger. To think that most of these players achieved something the likes of Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll, or Keith Wood could never achieve on their first try is amazing. Granted, Ringrose and Marmion didn’t make an appearance, but still, the future is bright.

The All Blacks will never instill the same fear in these players that they do others; these Irish players know the All Blacks are not untouchable. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll respect them. But fear won’t enter the equasion. As CJ Stander said:

I won’t say there has always been a mental block but now that barrier is broken, we have to start thinking about what we can achieve as a team, to put in a shift, make it two from two – that would be stuff you can write in your book one day.

A week later, 23 players were named to face Canada. Of these 23 players, 13 were 25 years old or younger. Not only that, but eight of the 23 man squad earned their first cap. Young Ultan Dillane earned Man of the Match. Ireland put 52 points on the scoreboard. Not too bad either.

Schmidt was often criticized for Ireland’s lack of running rugby and Heaslip’s try against Iraly in the Six Nations was probably the most exciting try Ireland scored for a while. Yet in their last two games, one of them being against back-to-back world champions, they scored a total of 92 points, scoring 13 tries.

On Saturday, Ireland will face the All Blacks again. Win or lose, it’s the performance that matters most. A win would be an awesome achievement, but you can guarantee Ireland will push themselves to the limit. But let’s look at some of the younger players, starting with the pack.

Jordi Murphy can deem himself extremely unlucky to be ruled out for an extended period. He was rewarded with the seven jersey by Joe Schmidt for a great summer tour. Although he has a lengthy spell ahead in rehab, he will come back swinging. 

Josh van der Flier has had a fantastic couple of seasons with Leinster, and when he replaced Murphy against the All Blacks, the red scrum cap could be seen all over the pitch as he tackled everything that moved. 

Ultan Dillane, who won the Pro 12 with Connacht last season, made an appearance off the bench against the All Blacks, and carried very well. The Kerryman went on to win Man of the Match against Canada the following week, putting his hand up for selection against the All Blacks. I’d select him.

Finlay Bealham, another Pro 12 winner, played 23 minutes against New Zealand, and was very impressive against Canada, offloading beautifully to set up a Tiernan O’Halloran try. Not to mention the hits he put in.

Tadhg Furlong became the master of the choke tackle and was praised nationally. Jack O’Donoghue, James Tracy, and Dan Leavy were all impressive against Canada. John Ryan is having a monster season for Munster and got his reward versus Canada. 

Moving on to the backs, and Robbie Henshaw scored the try that out the nail in the All Black coffin. He was also very impressive in the last World Cup. He is still only 23.

Joey Carbery had the debut one could only dream of, beating the All Blacks in his first international appearance. Nine games previous, he was playing for Clontarf RFC in the AIL. Quite a rise, but as Steve Hansen will tell you, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. And trust me, he’s good enough. 

We were forced to wait to see Garry Ringrose on the international stage, and I’m sure he was itching to get the opportunity. He played well against Canada, ghosting around defenders at times and certainly didn’t look out of place. I’m even willing to forgive him for the fact I bet on him to score twice. I’m sure the idea of moving Payne to 15 to open up a spot for him will cross Schmidt’s mind more than once this week.

All in all, these young players stepped up to the plate and performed. Creating history wasn’t a daunting prospect, and scoring fifty plus against Canada, although scrappy at times, was not out of their reach.

Carbery is improving with every passing week, and is now the third choice 10 behind Sexton and Jackson. Henshaw is one of the first names on the teamsheet, and Ringrose will continue to knock on the door. Nine remains a problem, as there is still too big a gap between Murray and Marmion, but give it time. I’m especially excited to see Niyi Adeolokun, another Pro 12 champion, get more game time. He’s electric, and a fantastic finisher.

The depth in the Irish pack is impressive. To quote Neil Treacy, Ireland have so many quality looseheads you could probably find one down the side of your couch. The ever present Mike Ross is now third choice tighthead. We have a plethora of second row and back row players, so many that Joe Schmidt will have a serious headache selecting a seven to join Stander and Heaslip in the backrow.

The game against Argentina in the last World Cup was a step too far because Ireland lacked the strength in depth needed. That weakness is now being assessed with every passing Test, with players stepping up when asked to.

Schmidt isn’t doing the same thing over and over again, hoping something will change. He’s ensuring that history doesn’t repeat itself. 

A special shout out has to go to Billy Holland. He may not be a young man, but he worked tirelessly to achieve his dream. Congratulations, Billy. It’s well earned. Enjoy it.

Before this weekend’s Champions Cup fixtures kick off, we remember what the competition brought us last week, thanks to @RugbyScribbler.

You may remember me writing an article at the tail end of the last season about how it was a record season in Europe for the Pro12- the first time that not one team from the competition has qualifi…

Source: A good start for the Pro12 in Europe

Zebre kicked off their Champions Cup campaign against Wasps the past weekend in the Ricoh Arena, Coventry. The Champions Cup is a competition in which the best clubs in Europe get to compete against each other for the ultimate prize in northern hemisphere club rugby. Yet it includes a team that has struggled to compete in its own league since joining.

Zebre scored two tries against Wasps: a driving maul when they had a forward in the bin (which is slightly worrying for Wasps when they face a higher calibre of opposition) and an interception. But they also conceded twelve.

History in the competition proves that a group containing an Italian side usually produces the best runner up for the knockout phases of the competition. This is a very polite way of saying the Italian teams are the whipping boys of the competition. 

Many people took to Twitter saying these teams shouldn’t be involved in the competition, which proves it’s not just an afterthought on a Saturday afternoon. It’s a genuine problem.

I asked earlier in the day if having one centralised team would improve the situation, such as the Jaguares in Argentina. Most agreed, few didn’t.


One argument was that many said the same of Connacht for years; they were once the whipping boys of the Celtic and Magners league, but look at them now. Surely Zebre and Treviso could come alive in the same manner as Connacht? I agree; maybe one of them could. But not both. Another argued that a number of weeks ago, Zebre very nearly beat the current Pro 12 champions in Italy. Which is also true. But unfortunately for them, the game was called off, and all the history books will say is that the game was called off to be replayed. Nothing more.

Zebre will have learned a couple of lessons on Saturday: their defence needs work, they need to be fitter, they have to work harder than their opposition to have any sort of chance. All very glaringly obvious lessons. But these lessons they learn week in, week out, in the Pro 12. What happened was that Wasps simply embarrassed them. Considering they also have Connacht and Toulouse in their group, it’s not like they’ll be reaching the knockout stages this year.

Before anyone jumps on me for counting unhatched chickens, I know European miracles happen. I was at the Munster Gloucester Miracle Match. I’ll never forget the second-half comeback by Leinster in their final against Northampton. Even Saracens win away to Toulon on Saturday could be chalked up. But we’re not comparing like with like.

Munster, at that stage, were a team well versed in grinding out victories. Leinster were a team peppered with Grand Slam winners and international stars. Saracens did the double last year. Zebre? They almost beat Connacht.

I understand the necessity of having an Italian team in the competition; it is a European cup; it has to include them. But the Challenge Cup is also European.

The winners of last year’s Challenge Cup, Montpellier, narrowly lost out to Northampton on Saturday. The other finalists from last year, Harlequins, hammered Stade Francais on Friday night in the Challenge Cup (to add to the argument, Stade were the French Top 14 champions just a couple of years ago).

In my eyes and the eyes countless others, there’s no way Wasps would have put 12 tries past either Harlequins or Montpellier, no matter how good or bad a day either team were having.

Maybe I’m being tough focusing on Zebre alone, so a quick mention on Treviso this weekend-they conceded 41 points to La Rochelle in the Challenge Cup. Hardly inspiring either.

I want to point out that I am not laying the blame at all on Zebre or Treviso. Their players, coaching staff, and backroom staff, do their very best every weekend, and of course they’re going to take the opportunity to play amongst Europe’s elite when offered. Why wouldn’t they?

But it simply isn’t fair to them or to teams not drawn in their group. Wasps against Zebre and Gloucester (who hammered Bayonne) against Treviso just shouts “5 points! Get your five points here!”, with other clubs fighting on a weekly basis to qualify.

Is there a way around it?

The Italian federation could amalgamate both teams, with a central base in Rome. With money invested the correct way, and guidance from a Graham Henry type figure (much like was done in Argentina) on the structures that should be in place academy wise, they’d become a much stronger force. There is bound to be a ground in Rome willing to share a venue, and the gate would probably take in a substantial amount. But that’s a pipe dream.

Another idea, presented by @TheBlack_n_Red, and I’m sure shared by others, suggested that all Champions Cup spots be down to league position and not preassigned spots to include every country. This would mean teams are qualifying off their own success every time. I don’t think many would be too happy with that system, as four Irish teams finished in the top six last year, which would have left only two places for Wales, Scotland, and Italy.

But how about having Zebre and Treviso compete in the Challenge Cup until such a time that they can compete with the big boys. I know the Champions Cup wouldn’t have an Italian representative, but it would make it more what it’s meant to be, which is a competition of Europe’s elite. And the Italian teams would still be competing in a European competition.

To fill the void of the missing team, both finalists of the Challenge Cup should qualify (or have the opportunity to qualify) for the Champions Cup, rather than just the one.

It would make the Champions Cup more competitive, eliminate the “easy points” in certain groups, and both Italian teams would be learning more, rather than being embarrassed by teams like Wasps.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe a miracle will happen and I’ll be forced to admit defeat. But as they say, David and Goliath was a once off; the smart money is always on the giant.