Saturday, December 3, 2016


Connacht continued their fine run of home form as they ran in seven tries against the Guinness PRO12’s basement side Benetton Treviso to win 47-8.
Tom McCartney’s first-half double and scores from Danie Poolman and Denis Buckley secured a try-bonus-point before half-time, and a commanding 28-3 lead for the hosts.
And John Cooney, Quinn Roux, and Jack Carty completed the scoring as Connacht eased home, meaning Braam Steyn’s try for Treviso was no more than a consolation.

The Irish outfit were unbeaten in four Guinness PRO12 games at the Sportsground prior to the match, but were dealt a blow when they lost Matt Healy in the warm-up with Poolman coming in on the wing.
The visitors started well, probing for an early try on the Connacht five-metre line after Jake Heenan was stripped of the ball, but while the home side’s defence stood firm they were pinged and Ian McKinley made it 3-0 from the tee.
Connacht forced a turnover and then a penalty deep in Italian territory, with Marnitz Boshoff kicking to the corner the Guinness PRO12 champions decision to turn down a routine three points was justified when McCartney rumbled over on 12 minutes to give the hosts the lead – Cooney making no mistake with the conversion.
But while Cian Kelleher immediately saw yellow after accidentally taking out McKinley in the air, Pat Lam will have been thrilled to see his side absorb Treviso’s pressure for the duration of his time on the sidelines.


Buckley got in over the ball to win a vital turnover on 23 minutes, which led to Connacht’s second try of the afternoon.
Bundee Aki found Nepia Fox-Matamua, and the Kiwi-born flanker’s beautiful flicked pass was gratefully grasped by Poolman who ran in to score, with Cooney nailing the conversion again.
Things went from bad to worse for Treviso as Simone Ferrari saw yellow for persistent fouling at the breakdown, and just after the half-hour mark John Muldoon was just held up after crossing the whitewash.
But Connacht’s pressure told and they got their reward when McCartney doubled his tally for the afternoon in the right corner.
And the Galway outfit had their try-bonus point before the interval as Kelleher, Cooney and Aki put the ball through the hands for Buckley to score.
Cooney’s flawless kicking continued as he converted both to make it 28-3 at the interval, and while Treviso stabilised slightly after half-time, ten minutes into the second half Connacht were over again.
A brilliant training ground move off the back of a lineout just outside Treviso 22 saw Poolman come off his wing and offload for Cooney to score under the posts, and Roux added try number six from a five-metre scrum moments later.
Lam rang the changes for the hosts around the hour mark, and Treviso began to threaten when they won a penalty at scrum time, and after setting up a five-metre rolling maul knocked the ball on over the line on 65 minutes.
But just a minute later the Italians got their first try for their efforts, using their strength up front to drive Connacht back over the line and Steyn touched down at the back of the scrum.
McKinley’s conversion attempt was unlucky to hit the right post, and there was still time for Carty to go over for Connacht’s final try of the afternoon under the sticks.

Sunday, November 27, 2016


 Ireland completed a hat-trick over the big three of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in this calendar year. Remarkable stuff.
Ask the average Aussie his impression of November internationals in Dublin and chances are rain and cold will feature in the first sentence. Not this time. It was a perfect setting for rugby: still and mild and yet another full house in a stadium that is sold out for Ireland's games until the end of the season.


And the quality of the contest was first class. For the first 39 minutes Ireland were as close to optimum performance as was reasonable to expect from a side minus O'Brien, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw. When coaches talk about injuries being an opportunity for others they dream of stuff like this. Josh van der Flier was man of the match, and Garry Ringrose had a tremendous game.

Perhaps the best bit for Joe Schmidt was that his side looked beaten in the third quarter, by which stage their backline had been hastily rearranged and the fuel tank looked perilously low. At that point there was a clinical look to the Aussies who made light of the fact that they've been bouncing around departure lounges since August. This was their 14th test since early June. Perhaps that's why, from the outset, Ireland passed up shots on goal in favour of going to touch and forcing their opponents to defend without rest.

Three times in the opening 12 minutes they chose the corner instead of the sticks. By the time we got to the hour mark, however, they looked like they would gladly settle for a shot on goal. The alarm had been set with a lovely set-piece try for Dane Haylett-Petty just before the break, giving the Aussies a sniff at 7-17, and then they set about an Irish side who came out for the second half with a makeshift backline. At that point, with Bernard Foley launching forwards down the middle before hurting Ireland out wide, you could only see an away win.

And yet Ireland, as they had done in Chicago three weeks ago, rallied with a try when they needed it most. When Keith Earls got over in the corner on 66 minutes, to put his side 27-24 ahead, we didn't think it would be the last score.
You could feel the tension as both sides put bodies on the line trying to change that picture.
For Ireland it was an appealing vista for almost all of the first half. The binning of Dean Mumm for tipping Tadhg Furlong when cleaning him out was crucial.
Ireland took immediate advantage, going to touch, mauling for 30 metres and then shifting wide where a lovely little combination between Earls and Iain Henderson saw the lock get over from 20 metres. Jackson's conversion put the home team 10-0 in front.

By the half-hour mark Michael Cheika lad lots to worry about: the scoreline, the penalty count (1-6 in Ireland's favour; it would be 3-13 by the finish); and two choke tackles conceded, which killed their momentum. The scrum was also beginning to lean in favour of Ireland.

Constantly Ireland were looking to get the ball out the back and motor down the wide channel. Mostly this involved Andrew Trimble, who for all his qualities lacks the gas to scare opponents at this level. He hobbled off on 31 minutes which meant Joey Carbery slotted in at full back with Zebo shifting to the wing.

Even when things went wrong for Ireland they went right. When they put their fourth kickable penalty to touch, and botched the line-out, Ringrose managed to scoop up the loose ball that followed and with a great finish evade Mumm to touchdown, the conversion made it 17-0.

Had it stayed that way until the break it would have completed as good a 40 minutes as Ireland have produced, anywhere, anytime. The gloss was taken off it, however, in the 40th minute when a horrible kick from Jackson gave the Wallabies a decent platform 40 metres out, and from there they produced a lovely set-piece move to put Haylett-Petty over by the posts. A scoreline of 17-7 had an altogether different feel to it.

And that was exacerbated by the non-appearance after the break of Jared Payne. The rearranged backline now featured scrum-half Kieran Marmion on the wing and Keith Earls at centre. Marmion did well to interrupt a certain looking try for Henry Speight a couple of minutes into the second half, but a few minutes later the Wallabies were over in the same spot through Tevita Kuridrani. And with Bernard Foley's conversion, a three-point game.

Jackson pulled three back for Ireland but on 57 minutes Foley was standing over another conversion, this time replacement Stefania Naivalu scored out wide within a minute of coming on. And with that the Aussies were a point ahead. He made it four with a penalty on the hour mark.

It didn't stay that way. When they needed it most Ireland managed that lovely try for Earls on 66 minutes, and Jackson goaled to put his team 27-24 in front. Remarkable it stayed that way until the finish, an appropriate tribute to captain Rory Best on his 100th cap. The hooker has rarely been better.

Saturday, November 12, 2016


Ireland's first ever victory on Austrian soil has opened the door to a world of possibilities. 
2016 was a major tournament year, but this result could have a significant impact on Martin O'Neill's ambitions to bring Ireland to another one in Russia in 18 months time.

The last away triumph in a qualifier of this magnitude came in Scotland back in February 1987. These are the games that Irish sides are not supposed to win.
And, while time froze in time added on when the unmarked Marc Janko headed wide in a crowded goalmouth, this was a result that Ireland earned.
James McClean's 48th minute effort did the job and the most satisfying aspect of the outcome for O'Neill will be the fact that if there was a period where his team rode their luck, it was before the goal as opposed to afterwards.
His patched up side responded to adversity to grind out a crucial success over an Austrian group that is already staring elimination in the face.
At the end, they had run themselves into the ground. Jon Walters could barely walk. Seamus Coleman crawled after David Alaba in the late drama. But they stood firm at key junctures to make a big statement.
It didn't look likely earlier in the evening.

Ireland were level at the break after a chaotic opening half at the Ernst Happel Stadium where the loss of Glenn Whelan forced a tactical switch that was unable to affect the general flow of proceedings.
Specifically, it was Austrian pressure and frantic defending from the visitors that bordered on the agricultural.
Not that Austria screamed assurance.

What they had was the urgency that comes with being under pressure following a tardy start to the group, so they pressed high and their movement was sharper in the early exchanges as their full backs wandered forward to expose the absence of width in Ireland's diamond.
They had three chances inside the opening five minutes that left Ireland on the back foot knocking the ball behind for corners and hanging on for dear life. Lumbering attacker Janko tested Darren Randolph from their clearest opening.

Whelan suffered a thigh issue that forced him off with the SOS sent out for David Meyler. He spent a couple of minutes at the base of the diamond in front of the back four but it clearly wasn't going to work so competitive debutant Harry Arter was switched inside next to him with McClean and Jeff Hendrick splitting wide and Wes Hoolahan operating behind lone striker Walters in a 4-2-3-1.

McClean had started the match playing off Walters and did get away one right footed shot but Ireland were struggling to execute the plan.
Still, they had to live on their nerves in the new set-up with a brilliant last ditch Coleman tackle denying Arnautovic before Ciaran Clark made a goalline clearance to block Janko after Marcel Sabitzer almost capped a slick passage with a deft chip over Randolph came back off the bar.
Ireland did have a reasonable spell before the interval, though, and they could have seized a lead against the run of play from an excellent team move with Robbie Brady getting forward from left full to engineer a one two with Norwich colleague Hoolahan and then send in a terrific cross that Walters scooped over the bar from close range. A glorious chance.
The fear was that Ireland wouldn't create another.

But that view paid too much respect to an Austrian operation that have creaked since they travelled to France with high expectations and failed miserably. Their star turn, David Alaba, is out of sorts and the fault lines were evident before the break.
It was just a matter of Ireland being good enough to expose them. And, three minutes after the restart, they struck with a rapid fire break.
Meyler started the move by gaining possession in his own half, pushing red shirts aside and cleverly switching the ball inside Hoolahan. Austria were stretched, and Hoolahan took the time to gather himself and spot McClean racing unguarded down the left side with Florian Klein dragged out of position.

The weight of his through ball was perfect - this again proves the playmaker can make his presence felt on the road - and it invited McClean to bound into the area and drive the ball through the legs of Ramazan Ozcan and into the net. Every element of the goal was fantastic.
Austria were rattled and, suddenly, Ireland played with composure.
Hendrick lifted his performance level several notches and Arter showed a combative streak by getting stuck into proceedings. Walters had a goal disallowed and Hoolahan did waste another situation where Austria had overcommitted and Ireland had men over.
Ciaran Clark's header was hacked off the line in another scramble with Brady's set piece deliveries threatening - he would later blot his copybook with a silly caution for kicking the ball away which rules him out of Wales in March.

That was rash, yet Austria's overall discipline was  dreadful with skipper Julian Baumgartlinger setting the wrong example by fouling himself in the book and risking a second caution for indolently choping down Hoolahan.
Irish teams have a bad habit of ceding the ball in this position and looking for trouble but, as the game entered its final quarter, they had managed to keep the Austrians at arm's length and restrict them to speculative shots from distance.
Hoolahan was replaced by David McGoldrick and a tireless shift from McClean, who had lifted the away end with a rousing run just beforehand, ended due to injury with five minutes remaining. Aiden McGeady got the nod.
Austria huffed and puffed without breaching the line. Shane Duffy won headers, Coleman hustled and harried, Arter and Meyler closed space and Walters bravely attempted to run down the clock.

At the death, the good work was nearly undone when a cross shot found its way to Janko but he was facing the wrong direction and sent the ball off target. The Irish celebration started seconds later, conscious that they are now headed in the right way, sitting top of Group Don 10 points, two clear of Serbia who drew 1-1 in Wales.

Austria: Ozcan, Klein, Dragovic, Hinteregger, Wimmer (Ilsanker 78); Baumgartlinger, Alaba; Schopf (Schaub 58), Sabitzer (Harnik 73), Arnautovic; Janko
Ireland: Randolph, Coleman, Duffy, Clark, Brady; Whelan (Meyler 22); Hendrick, Arter; Hoolahan (McGoldrick 78); McClean (McGeady 85), Walters