Six Nations 2016. France 10 – Ireland 9.

rbs 6 nations

Ireland lost to France by a single point today in the Stade de France. 10-9 was the score and it probably scuppers our chances of winning the Six Nations for a record three times in a row, resulting in a flood of criticism from the commentariat, the supine armchairiat who’d be hard-pressed to know one end of an inflated elongated spheroid from the other. People who’d be pushed to describe what hard physical exercise feels like are now telling us that the backs let us down, the forwards let us down, we were too lateral, we didn’t do the set-pieces well, we weren’t physical enough, the scrum didn’t work, the lineout was shaky and a whole lot of other guff besides.

Listen. We went to Paris and we were beaten by a single point in a hard-fought game. One lonely point. We lost three or four vital players due to injury and we fought the French every inch of the way on their own home turf with la Marseillaise resounding through the stadium. And we only lost by a single point.

Do you remember the old days, when Ireland supporters had far more modest expectations?

I do.

I remember when we hoped for a good first-half display from the Irish, knowing that in the second half we’d be trounced. It wasn’t easy to watch and the certainty of defeat didn’t begin to dissipate until sixteen years ago when a young man called Brian O’Driscoll burst through the French defence not once, not twice but three times to clinch victory in Paris. And it’s true that we suffered massive defeats at the hands of other nations in the following years, but we also celebrated  massive victories over them.

The days of the wooden spoon are long over. What people are mourning today is not yet another humiliating defeat consigning us to the bottom of the pile as usual, but the fact that we lost the chance to win three Six Nations in a row. If that was an easy goal, it wouldn’t be worth chasing. No team has ever achieved it, so let’s get a grip and realise that we’re facing the big boys on equal terms and they know it.

Let’s remind ourselves that things weren’t always so.


Munster Rugby — a time for hard decisions

Munster rugby

What can you say about Munster’s  crushing defeat to a fourteen-man Stade Francais?

There’s no end to the superlatives: abysmal, humiliating, disgraceful, appalling.

My personal choice is shite.

Munster were shite.

They couldn’t even beat a team that was missing a player for the entire second half. In fact it was hard to know which side was down to fourteen players. They failed for the second year in a row to make the play-off stages of the European Cup, and whatever we might think the reasons are for that, there’s no doubt where the buck stops.

The fact is that Anthony Foley and his management team have failed to deliver what they were hired to deliver and you might say that’s because they don’t have the resources, or you might say it’s because they don’t have the players, but that would only be making excuses. The fact is that they have failed, whatever the reasons, and pretending otherwise will do Munster rugby no good.

But don’t listen to me. Listen to Alan Quinlan.


And while you’re at it, see what CJ Stander had to say after the game.


We rightly place a high value on loyalty here, as well as doggedness, determination and a little bitterness to keep an edge on things, but loyalty is one thing, while blind, unquestioning allegiance is quite another. Such uncritical belief  does us no good as we risk slipping into obscurity, long removed from the glory days of not so long ago.

We can’t do this.

Let’s have the debate and let’s have the discussion.

Was Foley the right choice to take over from Rob Penney?

Did Foley choose the right people for his management team?

Do some people have a divine right to manage Munster simply because they were once great servants of rugby?

How did the plan go so disastrously wrong? And let’s be straight about it — failing twice in two years to reach the knock-out stages is a disaster.

Speaking personally, my only question is this: since Foley and his management team have twice demonstrated their inability to deliver a result, should they have the opportunity to fail disastrously for a third time?

Isn’t it time to make our cows a little less sacred?



Rugby World Cup. Ireland needs to learn the lesson.

Who predicted New Zealand’s defeat of Australia in the final of the Rugby World Cup?

Well, all right then. Everyone did.  Bookies weren’t even taking bets any more. I met a man today who told me he had €50 on New Zealand winning by six or more points and yet the Aussies kept us guessing almost to the end.  After scoring 14 points during an New Zealand sin-binning, they came within three points of equalising and some would argue that if they hadn’t fluffed an obvious try opportunity they might have nudged themselves into the lead. But in truth, as the ultimate victors took control of the game in its dying minutes and throttled the life out of the Australian challenge, everyone took to their feet to cheer the extraordinary style of the New Zealanders.

They were just better.

They were better in the planning, in the preparation and in the execution.

They were faster, stronger and more skilful than everyone else.

New Zealand left us Irish churning in our stew of hubris as we reflected on the misguided notion that we might ever challenge their supremacy in 2015. I suspect we might not feel confident to challenge them in 2019 or 2023 for that matter unless we conduct a fundamental re-think of how we play the international game of rugby, not only in Ireland but in the entire northern hemisphere.

How does it come about that the top-class leagues of England and France and the elite European Cup are unable to produce a single international squad capable of reaching the semi-finals of the rugby world cup?

We should be grateful to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina for reminding us that we are now in the second tier of world rugby. We should learn the lesson of Argentina who moved from the pedestrian European model to the expansive, creative, athletic southern hemisphere way of doing things and in the process, effortlessly brushed aside the Irish team, even if that team was admittedly robbed of talent and leadership by its bruising encounter with France the previous week.

It’s not enough. Excuses aren’t good enough.

We failed to beat Argentina because they were better than us and that’s all there is to it.

Ireland, France and Wales failed to progress because they simply couldn’t do it. Drawing a gentle veil across the England performance, only Scotland can have a genuine sense of grievance for referee Craig Joubert’s appalling decision to award Australia a penalty in the final minute of the game, but even then, reality has to intrude. If Scotland had really made it to the semi-final, they’d have been minced up and spat out by Argentina.

We can’t begrudge New Zealand their victory. Every one of them deserves credit, starting with the much-reviled Richie McCaw who has done nothing more than every self-respecting open-side ever did in the history of the game, operating on the fringes of legality, testing the referee’s abilities and leading his team with commitment and pride.

Who are we in Munster to judge? Our own Alan Quinlan fulfilled exactly the same role for years and we treated him as a hero with a nudge and a wink every time he bent the rules.

Let’s raise a glass to Richie, the best of the best, and another glass to Dan Carter, probably only equalled by Jonny Wilkinson in the out-half hall of fame. Let’s hail Ma’a Nonu, that mad heroic bastard and Sonny Bill, the gentle, religious, heavyweight boxing champion.

They’re legends, these guys, every one of them and we should point them out to our children, as our fathers pointed such heroes out to us.

But at the same time, we should be looking at them and asking, How can we be like them?

New Zealand has a population almost exactly the same size as Ireland’s, though it’s true we don’t have as many Maoris, which is undoubtedly a drawback. And it’s also true that, unlike New Zealand, we play many more sports, thereby reducing the pool of players, but still. It seems to be about more than numbers.

Judging by the New Zealand performance in this rugby world cup, it seems to be about attitude.

And let’s be honest, wouldn’t the world much prefer a Riverdance to a Haka?


Argentina 43 – Ireland 20

Argentina 43 – Ireland 20.

Oh God.  Do you even want to look at that scoreline? It’s harder than watching Dave Kearney’s dislocated finger being pulled back into shape. Aargh!

We got hammered and there’s no escaping it. We got trounced.  Argentina played us off the park, and all we can do is wish them well. They were fast, skilful and creative. They were better than us and that’s an end of it, or almost an end, provided we ask certain hard questions.

What went wrong for us?

Probably a combination of things. We were without our four best players in Paul O Connell, Peter O Mahony, Jonny Sexton and Sean O Brien. On top of that, we lost Tommy Bowe to injury after 12 minutes.  In losing O Connell, we didn’t just shed a great second-row, but also a leader who reads the game, organises the players, allocates resources where they’re needed and sets priorities. This is not the sort of contribution we see on the ball or on the television, but that’s how important Paul O Connell is to Ireland.  We lost a field marshal.

As if that wasn’t enough, in Peter O Mahony we lost a fighting general, a man willing to throw himself into the battle with no thought for his own safety while leading his men at the same time.

And of course in Jonny Sexton we lost our tactician, the man who, by an intervention here or there, decides the shape of the battle and ultimately its outcome.

In Seán O Brien, we lost the ultimate foot-soldier through his own indiscipline against France, but still the sort of hand-to-hand fighter we needed to win this war of attrition.

People will say that we lay down under the Argentinean onslaught but of course that’s untrue. Certainly in the first half hour, it looked as though they were going to destroy us but gradually Ireland fought their way back into the game and by the time we reached the final ten minutes, the struggle could have gone either way.

Did Joe Schmidt use his bench to best effect? I don’t know, but I’m at a loss to understand why he didn’t use Simon Zebo as a means of prising open the Argentinean defence.

For me, the decisive moment came when referee Jerome Garces cut off his television official in mid-sentence, choosing to ignore the second half of the advice he was receiving. It happened when tighthead Ramiro Herrera was in danger of receiving a second yellow card for charging. The question to the judge was whether Herrera had used his hands in attacking the ruck, and the TMO’s response was nuanced — He used his left arm going into the ruck but he used —

At that point, Garces cut him off, deciding not to award a second yellow card and therefore a sending-off.

I think that if Garces had allowed his TMO to continue explaining what he saw on the video, he would have been told that Herrera had charged an Irish player for a second time and he would have had no option but to give the prop a red card. It seems to me that Garces did not want to be faced with that possibility and therefore took the easy option. That’s just my opinion, but I think the decision decided the outcome of the match at a time when Ireland were beginning to impose themselves on the opposition.

Naturally, of course, we can’t begrudge the Argentineans their win, especially with their extraordinary running around the outside. Buffalo Gals rugby if ever we saw it, but at the same time, rugby is a game of rules and today, the referee didn’t necessarily follow them as he should have.

Were they better than us? Certainly.

Does that make them worthy winners? Only if they won legally.

Did they win legally? I think the referee made some crucially-important mistakes.

That’s all. They showed the sort of flair, panache and élan that the French could only dream of in their most extravagantly Gallic days of inspiration and what’s more they demonstrated a new Southern-hemisphere insouciance, a lack of fear, the sort of casual confidence that might allow them to trample over any opposition.

Could Ireland have beaten Argentina if they had their full complement of players? I don’t know. Argentina have grown into a serious rugby power and for all we know, they could go on to win this Rugby World Cup  though one suspects not. After their demolition of France, New Zealand look like the team that has it all.

But still, Ireland lost to a worthy victor. Northern hemisphere countries have a bit of thinking to do.





Ireland 24 — France 9

rugby world cup 2015

Ireland beat France 24 points to 9, winning their pool group in the Rugby World Cup, 2015. They did it with determination, with grit and with courage in a performance unmatched in the history of Irish sport but is this the most complete Irish team in history? You’d have to suspect it is.

After all, what did they do when they lost the great Paul O’Connell and world-class out-half Jonny Sexton?

Simple. They brought on Iain Henderson in the second row, who somehow managed to raise the intensity of the onslaught against the French, if such a thing was possible, and Ian Madigan who calmly took over the Number 10 role and carried on where Sexton left off before ending the game with a tearful celebration that earned him two million potential new girlfriends in Ireland and the nickname Gazza from his team-mates.

Is there anything not to like about this outfit?

What’s not to like about a rugby team that helps our men to get in touch with their feminine side? Go on, Rob Kearney, you sexy, sexy man, tweeted one male supporter as the Cooley Commando glided over for a nonchalant try, setting Ireland up for decisive victory against les Bleus.

Sadly, we’ve lost Paul O’Connell to a very nasty hamstring injury, we’ve lost Peter O’Mahony, the world’s busiest back-row, to some sort of knee ligament tear and we’ll probably lose Sean O’Brien to a citing after he punched Papé in the abdomen for no obvious reason. Fingers crossed on that. Oh, and we’ve lost Jared Payne due to a broken foot, but what matter? We have a dozen centres fighting to take his place and Rhys Ruddock has already arrived to take up Peter O’Mahony’s back-row duties.

What have we learned from this so-destructive encounter with the French?

Well obviously, we learned that Johnny Foreigner doesn’t like it up him, but apart from that, we’ve laid down a marker. We beat them off the park, to be blunt about it, and if you don’t believe me, that was also Keith Wood’s assessment of it. So there! We beat them off the park. That puts France in their place, but paradoxically, we might be pleased about it since they happen to be New Zealand’s bête noire,  Les Grenouilles having dismissed NZ from two previous World Cups and challenged them for the last one, only exiting thanks to one or two questionable refereeing decisions.  Les Grenouilles will not fear the sheepshaggers and they might well do a number on them next Saturday.

Naturally, everyone in Ireland will be watching and hoping that France put New Zealand to the sword so that we can dispatch them a second time if we manage to get past the gristle-grinding contest that Argentina will most likely serve up, but nothing is easy from here on and these boys know it.

At the same time, I’ve never seen such a complete Irish squad in all the years of following Irish rugby. Complete in the sense of being well-coached. Complete in the sense of being fit. Complete in the sense of being talented.

But more than any of that, complete in the sense of being one, of being united towards a common goal.

And of course complete in the sense of having the best coach any team could possibly hope for: Joe Schmidt.

I won’t predict anything in this competition, especially not an Irish victory but they have the guts, they have the skill and they have the determination. They have the manager and the strategy. They have the brains. But most of all, they have the sort of pride in the jersey that makes them cry like babies when they win a match and where would you buy that?

Ireland to go all the way.



Ireland’s mediocre performance against Italy only a trick to put France off guard


Ireland’s mediocre performance against Italy only a trick to put France off guard

Now look, said Joe Schmidt, get out there and play the crappiest rugby you can. Just don’t lose the game, all right?

The Irish squad shuffled awkwardly as the coach’s instructions rang in their ears. They knew he was right, but they didn’t have to like it.

Show nothing out there, Schmidt went on. I don’t want Novès finding out anything about us and I sure as hell don’t want Hansen to know what we have. So get out there and win ugly. Make plenty of mistakes, lots of handling errors  and let’s have a bit of indiscipline.

The coach grinned. Ok guys? Any questions?

There was a long, uncomfortable silence in the Ireland dressing room. Far above, the players knew, an expectant Irish crowd would be gathering in the Olympic Stadium, eager to see a thorough thrashing of the Italian upstarts.

Coach? It was the captain, Paul O’Connell.

Yeah, Paulie. What is it?

Coach, can we have one moment of brilliance?

Schmidt thought for a moment. Sure. Why not? Earlsy, Robbie, I want you to pair up and engineer a world-class try, as good as anything New Zealand could pull off. But only one, got it?

Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw glanced at each other and high-fived.

One, I said, boys. Just one, to send out a message.

Ok boss, Just one.

Peter, the coach turned to the Number 6. I want you to pull off one brilliant try-saving tackle.

O’Mahony grunted. Count on me, boss.

And Peter?

Yeah boss?

I want you to do the moment of silly indiscipline too.

What, boss? Me?

Yeah, you. I want you to shoulder-charge someone and get binned with ten minutes to go.

The flanker shook his head ruefully but said nothing.

Right, said Schmidt brightly. That’s about it, guys. Get out there and play like shit. We’ll keep the Frogs and the Kiwis guessing. Just remember to win.


Also on BTR:

Ireland 24 — France 9



Japan 34 – South Africa 32

Did I ever think I’d find myself shouting GO ON JAPAN?

No.  That’s not something that ever crossed my contemplation. That’s not a thought I had as recently as this morning when I rose from my bed to bathe in my customary flower-scented waters before donning my kimono for a hard day’s work of origami and bonsai.

Even as I consumed my sushi breakfast it didn’t occur to me that the Japanese rugby team might somehow defeat the South Africans, and that’s why I didn’t let the thought take over my entire day. As a matter of fact, I thought so little of it that I watched Ireland’s demolition of Canada with certain misgivings and then went home, planning only to follow the France – Italy match later on, but what happened instead?

Simple. A team of underdogs, a bunch of actually small men, put it up to giants of world rugby, both literally and figuratively, took them on as equals, outplayed them and finally defeated them, to the great delight of the entire rugby-watching world.

This was no fluke. The Japanese matched the South Africans score for score and play for play, shadowing them all the way to 32-29, a three-point game. The Japanese were just as good as the South Africans at every point of play, much to the horror of the Antipodean supermen, but then, to pile insult on anxiety, they worked the dying minutes of the game to nail the result at 34-32.

South Africa have never lost to a Tier 2 team while Japan have only ever won a single match in the Rugby World Cup.

Which of these things is more satisfying for Japan and more infuriating for South Africa?  You decide, but for the rest of the world, it seems that schadenfreude is the order of the day as rugby supporters everywhere cheer the unlikely victory.

I don’t know about you, but I found myself laughing like a madman as Japan ran over their winning try. And the more the camera dwelled on the disbelieving South African players sitting on the ground, the harder I chuckled.


Who knows?

The Japanese seem an unlikely crowd to be shouting for, given their famed attitude to us Gaijin, so maybe it comes down to the rest of the world simply not liking South Africans, for reasons we can only surmise.

Who wouldn’t love a South African, after all?   Their legendary friendliness, humility and modesty all make them prime candidates for Most Loved Nationality, and yet they never seem to win the trophy.

Hard to understand why, but that’s people for you.



Ireland Needs a New Rugby Anthem

If you’re one of those people whose toes curl into knots at the very mention of the appalling Ireland’s Call, you might have a bit of sympathy for what I’m going to suggest.  And if you believe we should sing Amhrán na bhFiann at all matches, just restrain your inner Derek Warfield for a moment or two while I explain what”s going through my mind.

You see, contrary to popular belief, only two of the six northern-hemisphere nations actually play official anthems at matches.

God Save the Queen is not the national anthem of England.

Flower of Scotland was written by Roy Williamson of The Corries.

Cwm Rhondda is a hymn.

While on the face of it, you might imagine that Ireland plays  its national anthem at home games, in reality it does not, since Amhrán na bhFiann is the anthem of the Republic, not of the unified entity that.almost uniquely, rugby has achieved.   Therefore, it’s not a national anthem either in this context, and even if the island became politically unified, there’s no possibility that this song would become the agreed anthem.  Besides, it’s an awful depressing dirge.

Now, whatever you might think of the Marseillaise lyrics, it’s hard to deny that this is the best national anthem in the world.  Everyone knows the tune.  It’s stirring, it’s lively and it’s the obvious choice, though on the other hand, the less said about the Italian anthem the better and you can see where they get in the Six Nations.

What am I getting at?


If Germany joined a new Seven Nations competition, they’d have the marvellous Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser and we need something equally stirring.

There’s no need for a political anthem to represent Irish rugby, which is one of the least political movements in modern Ireland and one of the most genuinely unifying.  Therefore, instead of insisting on the Soldier’s Song, why not find a rousing, stirring, passionate rugby anthem that all supporters could adopt, just as the Scots adopted Flower of Scotland?

Ireland’s Call is not that song, but maybe we here in Limerick have the answer.

What would be wrong with The Isle?


Ireland Wins 2015 RBS Six-Nations

You couldn’t make it up.

Three countries going for the Championship, and a fourth with an outside chance, all competing on the same day but not at the same time.

Wales to go first against Italy, Ireland to follow against Scotland and finally England to meet France, knowing exactly what their target was after seeing the first two games.

We knew it was always going to be a whole day of sport, but did we ever think we’d end up sweating little nodules of depleted uranium as time slowed down to a crawl and the clock ticked ever-more-slowly towards its endless, unattainable destination at Twickenham?  Did we ever suspect that rugby football was capable of distorting the space-time continuum?

Now, as it happens, I found myself in Nancy Blake’s, a fine establishment operated by staff of sympathy and knowledge much like corrida aficionados but without the cruelty.  A very Limerick pub, in other words, where customers and crew are united in a deep-seated obsession with rugby football and where it’s entirely possible that your barman might leap over the counter in a sudden fit of sport-inspired fury, or materialise at your shoulder to mutter some insightful words.  We’re fucked.

That sort of thing.

Today was the most astonishing thing ever.

I was in the same establishment six years ago when Ireland beat Wales to take the Grand Slam and I’ll confess that I shed a manly tear, but it had nothing on the heart-shredding excitement of today’s three-cornered fight to lift the cup.

The Welsh must surely have thought they had it nailed when they pounded Italy 61-20, but then Ireland came out and beat Scotland 40-10 in a complete sickener for Wales but also a target for England who faced France in the final game.

Those of us watching the Ireland game in Nancy’s, especially those of a sceptical disposition, muttered, brooded and crunched our knuckles when Ian Madigan ended the game with a shave-close miss of a penalty.  It could come down to this, we narrowed our eyes and warned each other.

And so it could, when England met France at Twickers and slowly ate into our 26-point lead.

I have to tell you, this England-France game was one of the finest matches I have ever witnessed in my entire life, even if England finally won 55-35.  If they had achieved that final converted try to win the Championship, I would have stood up and applauded them like everyone else because they would have deserved it.  They were magnificent, just as France were, and it made the Irish victory all the better, emerging from such a competitive fight.

Nevertheless, leaving all that aside, my poor old heart isn’t the better of it as England slowly nibbled their way into the points margin until eventually they were within a converted try of stealing the crown from us, and then with seconds to go, when the French could have kicked the ball dead in the 80th minute, they decided to run it one more time.


Because they weren’t playing for Ireland.  They were playing for France. But the decision still enraged the large French crowd of visitors in Nancy’s, all of them singing La Marseillaise, not to mention our indigenous French friends who live here all the time.

I caught the eye of my friend Guillaume and sent him a quizzical Gallic shrug.  Pourquois?

He replied with a shrug considerably more Gallic than mine, being French himself.  C’est la vie.  Or words to that effect.

As it happened, the final French upsurge came to nothing.  The Brits didn’t get their final try or their conversion but Jesus what a game of rugby.   One of the best I have ever seen in my entire life, and full credit to both teams.

What a great Six Nations.

Shouldn’t everyone be proud of it?


Rugby Sport

Pascal Papé Gets Five-Week Reprieve After Apologising on Twitter for Injuring Heaslip

French second-row, Pascal Papé,  has received a fifteen-week ban after breaking three of Jamie Heaslip’s vertebrae with a deliberate knee to the back.  The ban was reduced to ten weeks when Papé’s Twitter apology is taken into account.

Imagine that.

You assault somebody so viciously that you break three of their vertebrae.  If you did it in the street, he’d get three years in jail, but when you come before an RBS disciplinary committee, you get a third of your punishment cancelled because you said sorry on fucking Twitter.   After injuring a fellow player so gravely that you might well have ended his career, not to mention the possibility of crippling him.

Doesn’t this say a lot about the RBS and how much they care about the welfare of players?

pape yellow card

Jamie Heaslip could have been paralysed by Papé’s attack on him, an attack that referee Wayne Barnes considered worthy of only a yellow card.  Admittedly, Barnes was trying to oversee a game in progress and he could easily have missed the nasty little stab that incapacitated Heaslip, but at the same time, he saw enough to sin-bin Papé, so the question has to be asked: why didn’t he understand what he saw?  Why didn’t he recognise a deliberate attempt to injure?

It was an ugly incident, and the RBS decision to take Twitter into account makes it even uglier.

Of course he apologised when he saw what was plain to the whole wide world.  He was caught and he held his hands up.  So what?

He put some nonsense on Twitter.  So what?

He followed the advice of the French spin-doctors, tweeted some insincere bullshit and got a five-week break as a result, while Jamie Heaslip has to endure the pain of a serious spinal injury.

Imagine turning up in front of a judge and explaining that you were completely drunk, you drove that stolen car at 150 mph and you definitely stabbed the cop who tried to arrest you, but at least you apologised on Twitter.

Good luck with that.

What sort of nonsense is this?