My earliest memories of rugby are sitting in the old Thomond Park. I wouldn’t be in the stand; I’d be on the pitch with my back to the old cement wall that acted as a partition, tipping sherbet straws into my mouth while watching games.

I remember my best friend’s dad would bring us, and afterwards we’d sit in the car home comparing autographs.

I remember running up to Ronan O’Gara for an autograph as he walked to his car, and I remember Anthony Horgan giving his socks to my friend after reaching the tunnel. Smelly, sure, but they were a treasure to us.

High balls in Thomond Park were my favourite. Some time around 7.40pm, ROG or Dutchy would boot one up, and the whole crowd would “whoooa” in unison toward the poor misfortune under the ball. God bless and save him if he dropped it. It was only when I got older that I realised the few pints beforehand caused half the noise.

I remember watching ROG’s final kick versus Northampton drift away, and witnessing the heartbreak of thousands in both the stadium and at home. To be honest I didn’t really understand what it meant at the time, but by God I understood that heartbreak only too well as the years passed.

The Hand of Back.

The Try That Never Was.

Come to Limerick and say both occasions were overplayed. I dare you. But at the same time we know well if it were Quinny who did it we’d be broke from buying him pints. Back did something we’d all have done.

I won a ticket in school to see Munster host Stade Francais. Walking to Thomond Park via Salesions, a guy offered me a hundred pounds for a schoolboy ticket.

Sorry, bud. It’s mine.

Leinster coming to town was the real treat. Growing up it was a chance to see the likes of O’Kelly et al put in a shift, but if a Munster win followed the place bounced. But as I grew up and met friends from the province in college, it was a source of pride. Bragging rights were key.

One of my favourite memories of the rivalry stems from a couple of Christmas’ back, just because it sums up all that’s good about the fans.

Munster v Leinster, Thomond Park, St Stephen’s Day three or so years ago. The year escapes me but it’s irrelevant. Munster are well ahead leading into the last ten or so minutes when Leinster win a penalty in front of the Munster posts. The game is beyond reach, but a call of “take the points!” rings out. Even the Leinster fans beside me chuckled.

In essence, I’ve grown up a Munster fan.

I’ve sang the Fields more times than I’ve had hot dinners. I witnessed the Miracle Match. I remember that special game versus Saracens in Thomond Park. I listened to the old fellas telling me why they call it “Thumond”. Christ, at this stage I feel I was there on that fateful day in ’78, ten years before I was born.

But to Leinster’s credit, who’s chuckling now?

Watching this year’s Champions Cup final, I found myself thinking that it should be us there. After the final whistle, as happy as I was for friends of mine who support Leinster, my fiance included, I couldn’t help but think that it should be my team up there.

Some will call that being pigheaded. Some will say I’m delusional. Call it what you want, but it’s a fan’s desire.

They want their captains lifting trophies. They want the players they applaud week in week out parading the field with gold medals around their necks. Fans want bragging rights. Fans want their team to be the best of the best.

And to be honest, that’s what kills me.

I’ll never forget where I was when Munster became the European champions in ’06 and ’08, and I guarantee thousands of others won’t either.

But watching Leinster beat Munster in the PRO14 hurt for a different reason.

Commentators on Sky Sports questioned why Leinster didn’t have the fourth star sewn onto the jersey. They praised James Ryan’s 22 professional game winning streak (which is absolutely incredible, and thoroughly deserves the recognition). Leinster players were referred to as “four star generals”. Players such as Lowe, Furlong, Ryan, Porter, Carbery, and Ringrose were described at exceptional. Deserved plaudits.

How did I feel hearing this? Jealous. Bitter. Envious. You name it. I guess that’s what rivalry is. But if we’re honest about it I wish we could have the success Leinster are currently enjoying.

It’s impossible not to have respect for what Leinster have achieved so far this season. They are currently European champions, and you’d be hard pushed to find a club team in the world to beat them. A hell of a statement.

The sign of a great team is one which grinds out wins without playing exceptionally well. Racing 92 stopped Leinster’s game, but it made no odds. They prolonged the inevitable. Leinster found a way.

Against Munster, Leinster had to go to the well to grind out a win and, again, they did. Just like Exeter at home at Christmas. They’ve gone to the well so many times this season Jack and Jill wouldn’t get a look in.

Contrast that to slow Munster starts, narrow defeats, not coming from behind to beat Racing 92 in the semi-final. Like I said, I envy their fans. They’ve earned bragging rights.

Even the “four-star generals” nickname could be short lived, as with their production line it could well be five next season.

Leinster have depth in every position. The best tighthead in the world is backed up by another Grand Slam winner. They have oodles of backrowers. You can’t swing a cat in the UCD gym without hitting an outhalf. They’ve so many that they’re almost giving them away.

Leinster are on a podium at the moment and it’s not simply because they’re European champions. It’s because of their depth, their academy system, their style of play, the confidence of their players.

They currently have a conveyor belt of players pouring through. When McFadden got hurt in the semi-final, they are able to push Jordan Larmour in. The wheel kept turning. We’ve not even seen much of Tommy O’Brien (centre or wing, and captain of last year’s Irish U20 side) or Caelan Doris (backrow and captain of the Ireland U20 World Cup side) this season, and they are only two of many very young players to mention.

For a man who wears red so often, green is not a nice colour on me. But I can’t help be envious of what Leinster are enjoying.

Advertisements

Leinster-R92 Preview

Posted: May 8, 2018 in Uncategorized

There is not much time left for both Racing 92 and Leinster to fine-tune their game plans before Saturday’s European final, and you would have to admit that everything seems to be pointing in the direction of a Leinster win.

Losing Maxime Machenaud over a week ago is a devastating blow to the French outfit. He ruptured his knee ligaments playing against Bordeaux Begles, and will be out of action for six to nine months. European finals seem to bring bad luck to the French general; he was forced to leave the pitch early in the 2016 final versus Saracens with concussion.

The scrumhalf has scored 85 points in this year’s competition, and was central to everything Racing 92 did well. His presence will be hugely missed.

A lot has been written about the size of Racing 92’s pack. Ian Cameron from Rugby Pass recently wrote that they could start a pack weighing over 1,000kg. A front row of Johnston, Ole Avei, and Tameifuna would weigh 384kg on its own. Frightening.

Donnacha Ryan has shone again and again for Racing 92 this season, and was magnificent in the semi-final win versus his old teammates. He will be relishing the chance to go up against Leinster, and he will be a driving force and major motivating factor heading into kick-off.

But Racing have an added advantage again.

If you rewatch the 2016 PRO12 final between Leinster and Connacht, you’ll notice a certain Connacht player standing at first or second receiver for 80 minutes. That player is second row Aly Muldowney, who happily shifted the point of contact, or pulled balls back to a back looking to create space.

For Racing 92, that danger will come from Leone Nakarawa.

The Olympic gold medallist is a footballer of the highest calibre. He looks to offload at every opportunity, and wants to keep the game flowing constantly. In essence, he looks to play the Fijian style of rugby that has won him admirers all over the globe. Leinster will need to contain him from the off.

Lately on The Hard Yards, a story was told how, in preparation for the semifinal, an academy player wore a blue cap (mirroring Tadhg Beirne) and looked to disrupt the Leinster ruck. Anytime that player in the blue cap came close, he was whacked.

I pity the unfortunate soul in the Leinster camp who gets the honour of being nicknamed Leone this week.

But in the end, Leinster did a fantastic job of containing Beirne (and James Davies to boot), and they succeeded in creating ultra-quick ball for their backs. They will be looking to create the same tempo on Saturday, and they have the firepower to accomplish that goal.

Leinster are firing on all cylinders and are peaking at the perfect time.

It is a real shame that Fergus McFadden will not be involved in a playing capacity this weekend. He was a bundle of energy in the first 40 minutes versus Scarlets and, bar one dropped ball, had a near-perfect half. But McFadden’s loss will be another’s gain, and Leinster have the depth for this injury not to cause a major headache.

James Ryan has yet to lose a professional game of rugby, be it provincial or international. He has Young World Player of the Year written all over him, and is a physical freak for someone so young. He will be looking to finish his season with a gold Champions Cup medal to hang beside his Six Nations Championship. Not to mention he is still in the hunt for a PRO14 title too. An envious treble.

Jordan Larmour is another player with youth on his side and will be looking to make a statement if he is involved. Andrew Porter is going from strength to strength after switching from one side of the scrum to the other.

Add in the experience of Fardy, Sexton, Kearney, Nacewa, Toner, Healy, Cronin, to name but a few, and you have a very intimidating side.

You can’t name a Leinster player at the moment who isn’t worth his salt, and you can’t look behind the couch in the Leinster team room without finding a Grand Slam winner. They have class in every position, and will be looking to send off the likes of Nacewa with the perfect ending.

Racing 92 will give Leinster a hell of a game on Saturday, and it will be a tightly contested affair (as most finals usually are). But for me, it will be a Leinster win for one reason and one reason only:

The elders know how to win, and the youngsters don’t know how to lose.

By Greg Boon
The knives are out and a host of people are lining up to tell you the wheels have come off England’s chariot. It’s a favourite saying for fans and pundits alike. In two games England have gone from world-beaters to write-offs, proof that you really are only as good as your last game.

First, some perspective.

England have lost away from home in hostile environments against teams that historically save their best for the old foes. Scotland were outstanding in every aspect, France were admittedly average. But they are average monsters. England’s back row looked on in awe of the breakdown prowess of the French pack.

England are still one of the best teams in the world with a fantastic win loss ratio, which includes a host of Southern Hemisphere scalps. They boast some of the best players in the world and a player pool the envy of most nations.

Time and time again they have shown that they can find a way to win, against both the run of play and their own form. Despite seemingly being unable to retain the ball for more than eight phases against France, they still came close to leaving Paris with a win.

They are mentally strong, with a well drilled defence that will offer a challenge to the best attacks in the world – but no defence is impenetrable.

Their attack is stuttering but no real cause for concern.

Did we expect too much of England’s exciting back three? Daly is just back from injury, and Watson is still new to the 15 shirt at Test level. It’s worth noting that England’s game plan is far better suited to Brown at full back. If changes were made to get the best out of Watson, they will take time to bed in. If not, then Watson was at a disadvantage.

We’ve not seen Joseph’s Guscott-like ability to glide onto the ball, but selected now instead for his skill in defence. But those skills remain.

Ford is out of form. He is England’s attacking maestro; the conductor of their attacking orchestra. He remains a rare talent whose prowess comes not from Cipriani-like flair but control and time, so much time he must own a secret TARDIS. Teams become harder to breakdown as the phases rack up, and Ford is alone in his ability to breakdown these defences.

He is also without his Leicester teammate Ben Youngs, playing instead with self-styled ‘finisher’ Danny Care.

Perspective established, why has the sweet chariot come across rocky ground? Sadly, Eddie as the man at the helm must shoulder much of the blame. The seeds of the losses to Scotland and France were sewn before the start of the Six Nations.

Sadly, Eddie as the man at the helm must shoulder much of the blame. The seeds of the losses to Scotland and France were sewn before the start of the Six Nations.

Selection is one of the most important decisions any coach will make, perhaps the most important.

Following the World Cup, English Rugby was at a dangerous low. Stage one of a long term project leading to the next World Cup was to establish an identity, confidence, and some momentum.

Stage two had to be to create a team that would lift the Webb Ellis Cup. Have England moved on from stage one?

Even being the fantastic leader and influencer that he is, is Dylan Hartley the hooker to start in Japan?

Chris Robshaw is one of the most underrated servants of English rugby. His work rate is second to none. He has a better all round game than many players, equally capable of tackles as he is offloads. Robshaw is a work horse, but is he ever going to dominate a side?

Where are we going to find an open side flanker?

Is Nathan Hughes really the best option at eight in the event England are without the titanic Billy Vunipola?

Danny Care? Mike Brown?

Eddie Jones said before the Six Nations that he doesn’t see the Ford–Farrell combination starting for England in Japan.

The Australian is fond of mind games but there’s a strong argument to see Ford benched. If England are looking for a try, then there are few better fly halves in England to look to. If Eddie needs control, or to play the conditions, then England have shown they are quite comfortable with a Ford-Farrell axis.

There can be no argument that the team that has started under much of Eddie Jones reign will be the team try to lift the World Cup. The key is when are we going to see these changes.

Schmidt’s Ireland has slowly been building, at times unfairly overshadowed by England. Not once have Ireland settled with their success as England did on their winning run. They have continued to develop and Schmidt has continued to build his world-beating side. He has brought in new players, better players, into a side that is winning, Stockdale and Leavy to name just two.

Could Ben Te’o be settled into England’s midfield, with Joseph settled outside him? You only have to compare the environments Leavy and Armand have been introduced into to see that Jones has ignored the opportunity to offer his players the luxury that Schmidt did his.

Scrum Time

Posted: March 13, 2018 in Uncategorized

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

People who say the scrum should be abolished clearly don’t appreciate the dark arts as much as they should, but there’s nothing worse than an exciting game being killed by reset scrum after reset scrum.

I understand, sometimes it’s unavoidable (either due to standard of front rows, conditions, etc) but the time ebbing away can cause frustration for everyone involved, viewers or players.

In the 2016 Six Nations, there were 266 scrums throughout the competition. According to Wales Online, there were 241 minutes, the equivalent of three games, lost to the competition as a result. In the game between France and Ireland alone, 27 scrums took place.

Different alternatives have often been discussed: give the attacking team 60 seconds to restart the game or the defending team are awarded a free kick; uncontested scrums (many would prefer to come up with a different concept of restarting the game than this). I don’t agree with any of them.

I think there is a very simple way to deal with the time lost to restarting the games and the curse of reset scrums.

Why not stop the clock when the whistle is blown for a knock on, and only restart the clock once the ball is used from the back of the scrum, either by the number 8 or scrumhalf.

It may not make much of a difference in some games, but in others it could. It would also mean time can’t tick away due to reset scrums in close contests.

This brings the issue of what happens with time back on in regards a pushover try. Again, there’s a number of solutions.

Seeing as those tries are usually scored from 5m out, or a penalty try, the referee could simply say “time back on” if he thinks the scrum is moving sufficiently, or in the case of penalty tries, the clock restarts once the whistle is blown to award it.

If the scrum collapses, time stops again.

The main aspect of this would mean the “ball in play” time increases. This means players have to work harder, and also fatigue more. The workload for every player increases.

Fatigue means a decrease in communication levels amongst players defensively. It means gaps in defence and the game opening up more.

The scrum should always remain a pillar of the game. But why not give the clock a rest?

An obvious disadvantage of this would be TV scheduling and the impact it may bring, but the game should be more important than the fact an advert has to be shown.

Ireland – Scotland

Posted: March 11, 2018 in Uncategorized

I tweeted yesterday about a young boy on the DART to the Aviva stadium. His conversation with his dad about the players was one-sided and excited, and when he saw the Aviva appear his face lit up. He was in complete awe.

Getting off the train he continued his one-sided dialogue, talking a mile-a-minute of how Keith Earls was “the man”. He skipped rather than walked.

I saw the same kid a little while later getting an Ireland flag tied around him by a random fan. His smile was infectious. You could see, regardless of the score later on, that this day was going to stay with him for a long time to come.

That experience set the tone of the day. In the Sandymount Hotel before the game, both sets of fans supped pints quietly, chatting about the game to come, and cheering two early Rashford goals. It was a place for Scots, Irish, and Mancunians.

The atmosphere was one I’ve not witnessed at Lansdowne Road for a while.

Upon reaching the stadium, I found that my seats were in the middle of a large group of Scotland fans. To say this was a blessing in disguise is an understatement.

They sang Flower of Scotland as if they were in Murrayfield. Loud, confident, and oozing with pride, it was almost a challenge to find out who loved their country more.

About ten minutes into the game, a shrill blast of a set of bagpipes almost gave me heart failure. The unexpected blast turned into a rendition of Molly Malone, and the crowd sang and clapped and laughed, and applauded the musician fondly.

His repertoire was almost as impressive as his lung capacity.

Another group of Scottish fans (and eventually everyone) decided they were going to get a wave from Stuart Hogg, and chants of “Hoggy Hoggy Hoggy-Oi Oi Oi” and “Come on Hoggy give us a wave” rang out until Hogg, smiling, turned and obliged to a monstrous cheer. It’s worth noting Scotland were 21-3 down on the scoreboard at this stage, but they were winning hearts of fans all around them.

One Irish fan decided to tell the bagpiper to stop (he was on his own, which doesn’t come as a surprise when you think about it) and was duly slaughtered. A reply of “you’re winning you miserable git, enjoy yourself” and chants of “we only sing when we’re losing” duly followed.

After the game, the Irish and Scotland fans continued to sing and laugh with one another and, whilst walking to Ballsbridge, one Scottish piper played Ireland’s Call while Irish fans accompanied him.

This continued outside Mary Mc’s pub, where for two hours, every Scottish and Irish fan became French for two hours. Upon the final whistle, which sealed the Championship for Ireland, the place erupted. Irish fans cheered and sang; Scottish fans were in the middle of it.

Bagpipes were played inside the pub and the band that night sang Flower of Scotland to huge reply. You wouldn’t think Scotland lost. You wouldn’t even think you were in Dublin.

The day belonged to Ireland, due to the win and clinching the Championship. But huge credit has to go to the Scotland contingent who travelled.

They added hugely to the spectacle, and the day wouldn’t have been half as enjoyable without them. Cheers.

Photo: Rob Robertson

Six Nations Weekends

Posted: January 28, 2018 in Uncategorized

In six days time, one of the greatest rugby tournaments in the world will begin. Train, plane, boat, and bus journeys have been booked, jerseys ironed, hats and gloves dug out jacket pockets along with old ticket stubs. It’s a competition that brings an element to the game that not many other competitions can.

As a kid, I remember waking up on Saturday mornings and immediately looking forward to the games of the day. I’d sit chewing a Tayto sandwich and absorb as much as possible about every player. Not much has changed.

I remember studying England when they played in Twickenham, just before they became champions of the world, and trying to calculate how they swept teams aside so easily.

Comedian Tommy Tiernan tells an anecdote of how people enjoy seeing England being beaten “in things such as sport…and war!” and while true, as an Irishman, I was forced to respect the way England went about their business. True, sometimes they failed to win the Slam, but so has every other team at times.

I remember the Bull crying in Croke Park, and thinking for the very first time, that sport truly does transcend above all else. People often say that it was a day for history books, but I believe that doesn’t even come close to describing the occasion.

I was never the quickest kid on the pitch, but that didn’t stop me trying to emulate Shane Williams on Sunday mornings, trying to step and twirl out of tackles while running full belt. Gravity was the only defender needed in those days. Tripping up became the tackle.

Offloads on Sunday mornings would drive underage coaches all over Europe demented. Why pass normally when the French can do it one handed? Not to mention hookers becoming quarterbacks at lineouts like Ibanez.

Who can forget that final day of rugby three years ago, when it all came down to points difference. If ever there was an exhibition day for the tournament, that was it. Unless you were French, English, or Irish you were treated to an absolute belter of a game to top it off.

Unthinkable moments happen in the Six Nations: last minute wins; underdog victories; fingertip catches for last gap tries. And I’m sure this year will be no different.

England’s chances of a Slam are being talked down by Eddie Jones, but as Conor O’Shea pointed out in his humorous manner, they’ll be tough to beat. When you have characters like Owen Farrell in the squad, losing does not become an element in the equation.

Ireland will have one eye on the title too, and a Paddy’s Day decider in Twickenham is being heavily tipped as the decider. Irish players are in flying form at the moment, with three provinces involved in European quarter finals. Schmidt is a man who can take that form to the next level again.

Scottish fans will be more excited for this tournament than ever. The reigning Five Nations champions are on the up under Townsend, and Finn Russell has stated they’re no longer happy to just target home games. Expect a big tournament from the Scots.

Wales will be heading into the tournament without the likes of Faletau, Biggar, Davies, Warburton, Ball, Lydiate, Webb, and Williams. Whereas Gatland has strength in depth, any team in world rugby would miss those players and it will prove to be a mountain to climb. But this is the Six Nations and stranger things have happened.

France are a shambles. With new coach Brunel taking the reigns he will be lookong to put his stamp on the team, and Ireland will be privately pleased they face France first. Odds are they’ll be unsettled and unbalanced and, as a result, undercooked.

And finally, Conor O’Shea’s Italy. Personally I can’t wait to see what tactic is employed this year to give them the edge. Who can forget the almost comic responses from Poite to bewildered England players. But on a serious note, O’Shea’s influence is bearing fruit, which can be seen through Treviso’s European campaign this year. I expect them to manage two wins this year, and would love to be surprised with more.

I’m unsure if French children grow up with the same fear of the wooden spoon as Irish children, but I predict French players this year will feel its sting. They will struggle against structured and organised attack, and new combinations will mean lapses in defence and poor communication in attack.

To all those travelling abroad for games, and to those who have managed to secure tickets by hook or by crook, my advice is to enjoy every second. You may forget the game, but you’ll never forget the craic. You may as well take the Monday off too while you’re at it.

The Six Nations is my favourite annual international tournament and, in my eyes, next Saturday and the Tayto sandwiches can’t come fast enough.

On the Loose with Census Johnson

Posted: December 4, 2017 in Uncategorized

Census Johnson is is a tighthead prop who has played international rugby with Samoa, and at club level with Taranaki, Biarritz, Saracens, Toulouse, and currently Racing 92.

1. You’ve played countless games with a number of different teams, be they international or club level. What’s your all-time favourite rugby memory?

My all time favourite memory was winning the Heineken cup back in 2010 in my first season with Toulouse. We were littered with world class french internationals at the time, but you would’ve never noticed. Everyone was down to earth; no egos, just a bunch of guys working towards one goal: winning trophies.

2. Who’s the best player you’ve played alongside and the toughest player you’ve ever faced?

A few to name but Thierry Dusautior. Just a hard worker.

Also, again a few to name, but Bakkies Botha was pretty tough and I don’t think many would argue.

3. What’s your favourite part of playing in France?

The pre-match meals, the fans, and I love the french culture.

4. What lessons did you take from club to club?

Lesson I took was things change, situations change, you have to adapt wether it’s good or bad.

Things happen for a reason. Remember all good things… There are people worse off than you are.

5. Who was the best coach you’ve played under, and why was he such an influence on you as a player?

I have 2 coaches to name. Eddie Jones and Guy Noves. Different styles but some similarities. No nonsense attitudes, they either loved you or disliked you but brought out the best in you.

Both gave me confidence and believed that I could be one of the best tightheads.

6. What’s the single funniest incident you’ve ever seen in a dressing room?

First year in Biarritz, the prematch rituals of head butting, slapping, and yelling was pretty funny at the time until I got an unexpected slap on the chest that hurt like hell.

7. Including yourself, what’s the best 1-8 you’ve played in?

Poux, Servat, Lecoules, Maestri, Tekori, Dusautior, Picamoles, Nyanga.

8. What do you think needs to be done to help Pacific Island rugby?

We need a fair funding model where unions have to share a certain percentage of what they make at gates.

Tier 1 teams need to play in the islands more.

World Rugby need to provide more funding, helping pacific unions with more resources and coaches for local talent.

I could go on and on.

9. How would you like the rugby world to remember you?

A prop that could do everything.

10. Do you have ambitions to move into coaching when the boots are hung up?

I didn’t at the start tobe honest. But having a chat with a few people [they] convinced me to try and stay involved in the game and get into scrum coaching.

So I thought to myself that it would be nice to share a lot of the things I’ve learnt over the years.

People want to know:
What’s the loosest night you’ve had with any team?

I don’t have many loose nights these days but If you’ve done a tour in the Barbarians you definitely in for a few loose nights.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

Fly so I can just take off on holiday when I want and it’s cheap.