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.

On the Loose with Mark Roche

Posted: November 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

Mark Roche currently plays for Irish Rugby’s 7s team and agreed to answer ten quick questions about his life in sport.

1. What’s your favourite rugby memory?

MR: Favourite rugby memory has to be when Ireland won the grand slam in Cardiff in 2009.

2. Irish Sevens seems to be going from strength to strength. What’s the ultimate aim?

MR: It has and the ultimate aim is to qualify for the 2018/2019 World Series by winning the Hong Kong series in April next year.

3. Who’s the best Sevens player you’ve played with and against?

MR: Best player I’ve played with is Hugo Keenan because he’s got a great work ethic, he is a reliable teammate, effective in everything that he does and one of the best tacklers on the team.

Best sevens player I’ve played against would be Australia half back Maurice Longbottom. He’s got speed, footwork that beats defenders with ease and a dangerous player when on the ball.

4. Do you think Sevens is receiving the support and coverage its due?

MR: Yes I think it is, the IRFU are fully behind the sevens programme they have given the players a lot of support and still continue to do so, the coverage is getting there as we had to start at from division C and work are way up to the top.

The IRFU have done a great job getting tournaments on live stream on the website so that family, friends and supporters of the game can watch the games.

5. You won a number of AIL titles. What makes club rugby so special for you?

MR: Yes, I have won 2 AIL titles with Lansdowne back in 2013 & 2015. What makes it special for me is the new friendships you make coming out of school into this whole new environment.

The competition is greater as you are competing against guys that are older and younger which makes it a challenge in itself as you’ve always been competing with guys that are the same age in school.

6. Do you think the AIL/club game should be promoted ahead of the B&I Cup?

MR: I feel that it is getting there. I think both competitions are important to Irish rugby and that they both should always be looking to improve from the year previous and get the country aware of both competitions.

AIL has been promoted a lot more this year as there certain rewards for try of the month and player of the month and it’s about recognising the talent Ireland are producing in the AIL.

7. What’s was the toughest part of transitioning from 15s to Sevens?

MR: The toughest part was definitely adjusting to the speed of the game and how fast it is and different it is with 7 players on the field. Same space with less numbers and constantly working for 14 minutes is tough and there’s no room for error in this game.

8. What advice would you give anybody who wants to break through in the Sevens game?

MR: I’d encourage everyone to play as it’s a game that improves basic core skills. It gets everyone involved and you always have a job to do as there’s only 7 on the field.

You also get to play against a number of teams in the tournament as you play 3 group games on day 1 and 3 knockout games day 2.

9. Who’s the best coach you’ve ever played under and why?

MR: The best coach I’ve played under would be Mike Ruddock. I had Mike coach me for a number of years with Lansdowne and the Ireland u20s. I think he is brilliant at managing his players and keeping the team morale high, knows what’s best for the team.

He’s a very honest coach and when he talks to you about your performance he will tell you exactly what you need to know for you to improve your game and he always gets a performance out of the players.

10. You’ve trained with the Women’s Sevens team on numerous occasions. Is the Women’s team receiving the funding and the support they deserve in all codes of the game?

MR: Yeah, I think they are getting the funding and support they need. They are a World Series team and are doing a great job and the IRFU are in full support in getting the players to where they want to be.

Bonus Questions:

Would an octopus wear gloves or socks?


Worst roommate you’ve ever had?

Nick Timoney as I roomed with him once and he is a messy guy.

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.


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.

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.