Throwback Thursday : #IREvENG from 2015

For our latest #ThrowbackThursday we look at Ireland playing England at the Aviva in 2015 which was interesting for many reasons, like it was also before a World Cup, and it was Joe Schmidt v Stu Lancaster. It may not have been decisive for the five-win distinction that Ireland are playing for this coming weekend, but as regular readers/listeners will know we’re avoiding that phrase here at Harpin Manor right now.


Stuart Lancaster did mention his side’s lack of discipline in his post-match press conference alright.  And in true rugby fashion, the English press were happy to pick up that ball and run with it as the primary reason for this result.

But to be fair to the English coach, that wasn’t the only reason he gave, and I certainly don’t believe it went anywhere near explaining just how this match went.

Preparation was always going to be the prevailing theme of this contest.  It’s not so much that talent was irrelevant, more that talent was only going to get you so far in  the approach for either side.  And right from the very kick off, we could see what England’s plan was…territory over possession.

And to be honest, who can blame them?  Since these teams last met, Ireland had won every time they took to the field and while there were always little strategy tweaks made to suit the opposition, there were greater themes to be noted like power plays, lineout/mauls and yes, even that blight on the game called the choke tackle (which didn’t help Ireland this weekend but ironically DID help Wales at one stage in their match).

So for the English to come to Dublin with a plan in place to put the ball as deep as they could in Irish territory in order to try and force a mistake makes perfect sense.

But here’s the thing…particularly in those key opening exchanges, we barely made a significant mistake, and my contention is that if the English hadn’t conceded the kickable penalties that had us 6-0 up with 95% possession after 7 minutes, the margin could very easily have been 14 or even more.

And while we’re at it, what say we look at themes other than discipline – like experience.  George Ford certainly has the qualities to not only make that white 10 jumper his own but also to have success with it, but on this day, he was made look like a schoolboy by his opposite number.

In other areas where England had talent, like on the wing with Anthony Watson, they had some bright spots which were outdone but some not so bright ones like getting caught offside after a knockon, possibly one of the most frustrating things you can be pinged for.  But much like Ford, that’s not to say his coaching staff should lose all faith in him for the future based on this display – imagine if Ireland had given up on Simon Zebo?

Speaking of Zebo, it was his strong tackle on Watson that led to the lone Irish try.  And oh, what a try.  We’ve all seen it a gagillion times even just a couple of days later, but I could easily watch it that many times again. The first thing to stand out for me is the reaction of Conor Murray to the penalty advantage.

The scrum half has enough to process going to the base of every ruck as it is without having a play like this one ready to roll out should the ref stick his arm out.  But when Craig Joubert called the high tackle on Kearney, Murray had no hesitation in looking sideways to give the call.  Right on cue, not only did Henshaw get himself where he needed to be to get the perfectly-weighted kick, but also his centre partner Jared Payne was running in support just in case Robbie felt knocking it to a team-mate was a better option than catching it.

Of course before we get to the try itself we mustn’t ignore the build-up – Zebo’s tackle was strong but wouldn’t have led to much if he didn’t have the support of his forwards to swarm over Watson and win the ball back, and in the half a dozen or so phases that followed, all 15 in green jerseys were involved in finding soft shoulders, clearing out, and even when someone the calibre of Robshaw found a way through to disrupt, tidying up before Kearney drew the penalty advantage and Murray put up his kick.

But once up in the air it was all about Robbie Henshaw.  Alex Goode wasn’t a guaranteed starter for England but he was certainly one of their best, most consistent performers on the day so the Connacht star’s task was to compete with both him and the dead ball line and then both catch the ball AND touch it down.  Would have been a tough ask for someone with 100 test caps, but he made it look like he had all those and then some.

And it wasn’t just the try which earned Henshaw the man of the match award.  The statman credited him with 6 missed tackles, but he still led the side with 14 made, and some of the ones he missed wouldn’t have even been attempted by most test 12s – he was a man on a mission and one of the keys to Ireland’s success so far in this year’s Six Nations is his partnership with Payne which is looking more and more like an inspired selection with each passing game.

Then we have another key partnership, at halfback.  I have already highlighted Murray’s excellent role in things but someone needs to link up the Munster man with the Connacht and Ulster centres and what can I say about the job Mr J Sexton is doing that pretty much every commentator in the game hasn’t already said?  When you show disappointment in an outhalf for pulling just one placekick wide and putting one garryowen a tad too deep into the opposition 22 then you know you have someone special pulling your strings.

My personal favourite Sexton moment in the match was his crossfield kick to Tommy Bowe in the opening minutes.  You’d think in rugby union that any plan which involves putting boot to ball constituted a risk but every aspect of that kick shows the intense technical detail that went into the planning of the move.  Sure – it needed skill and accuracy, but at this level, that is demanded anyway and Goode was left with absolutely no choice but to run the ball dead after his catch given the trajectory it took and the way Bowe challenged for it.

I could go on in my praise for Irish performances…Rory at hooker was living up to his surname,  Jordi Murphy almost had you asking “Jamie who?” and Tommy O’Donnell pretty much did the same re: Seanie after he was forced from the action.  Our locks were as devilish as ever around the park with Paulie the consummate leader and Toner stealing lineouts one minute and playing stand-in scrum half the next.

But once again in my writeup for this great Irish team, I cannot ignore the glue that is keeping them together.

Of course even now you’ll get curmudgeons like George Hook saying this isn’t the type of rugby they would ideally like to see.  But when you stop watching through goggles from the amateur days and appreciate the realities of the modern game you can most definitely see the beauty in how Joe Schmidt has his squad operating.

You can turn to someone watching with you and say : “See this lineout?  Watch how two phases later we’ll be ten metres further up the park with England on the back foot” and that’s what will actually happen.  

You can admire all the hard work put into banishing all our demons in this fixture from the scrum for good not just by technique, but also by tailoring our game to keep them to a minimum.

And most importantly, you can look at all three of our performances in this year’s tournament and appreciate that what we have seen so far isn’t necessarily what we’ll see in future contests so the upcoming opposition are bound to be kept on their toes as they prepare.

Hopefully when you use that lens you will see Joe Schmidt’s Ireland for what it is – a constantly evolving project which has its players growing more and more accustomed to success with every second spent at Carton House.

Sure, with a makeshift team towards the end on Sunday we let the visitors come back at us.  And that is always a possibility for the final 20-odd minutes of any test match but if I had a plan which gave me a 16-point cushion when I get to that stage, whatever personnel I had on the park I’d fancy my chances against any team on the planet, at any venue and in any competition.

Now for all the gushing, it is worth noting that of those 10 wins in a row we keep hearing about, 6 of them were at the Aviva and our next two are away so cliché or no, there’s much rugby to be played yet before this Six Nations is done.  But can you think of anyone else you’d want in charge?

#TrustJoe #ShoulderToShoulder #COYBIG JLP

Throwback Thursday : IREvITA 2018

For the latest dip into the Harpin archives we go back to when we played Italy in 2018, maybe not the perfect choice ahead of Saturday’s clash in Rome since 1) we were at home then and 2) we’re ‘outlawing’ the full use of the GS phrase on the Harpin platform for the forseeable future, but I thought it was interesting in that there are kind of parallels with Robbie H & Tadhg F picking up injury concerns. Plus it’s an opportunity to compare the Farrell and Schmidt eras, not necessarily to see which one was better, rather to notice the differences.


O what we wouldn’t give to see Robbie still able to do that with a rugby ball right now!  And to have Tadhg Furlong fit and ready to face Wales.  AND to have prevented the Italians posting their highest ever points total at the Aviva Stadium.

[Update – just getting word from the Irish camp before posting, not good news for Robbie but it looks like Tadhg will be ok so that’s another plus]

Yet here at Harpin Manor we seem to have something of a reputation for accentuating the positive, so I don’t see any reason for changing when it comes to this match.  Much better to focus on the 56 points more than the 19, the eight tries for more than the three against and the quality of our performances more than the quantity of our injuries.

I mean, when all is said and done, this result is overall a good thing for Ireland?  Right?  Time to scatter a few headings down the page and tack on a few paragraphs to each…


Loads of Irish online comments were negative at full time, but I’m wondering how much of that was down to the fact that our second half, and thus the most recent in the memory, was far inferior to the first.  Yet even that forty minutes was won 28-19 with a bonus point won even not counting any scores from the first half.

But when taken in isolation, I’m not sure we could possibly hope for a better demonstration of the way Joe Schmidt wants test rugby played than minutes one through forty.  Fine, maybe the opposition wasn’t exactly world beating, but do I really have to dig up the phrase ‘you can only play what’s in front of you’?  I guess I do.

The Italians took the opening kickoff and right off the bat we were able to settle into our familiar pattern, getting front foot ball here, creating space for the backline there, before we get all the way to the visitor’s 22.  Yes, they were soon able to clear, but the resulting lineout being still in their half was very much a contingency of our initial exit strategy.

Over the next couple of minutes, some things didn’t go to plan – a knockon from Aki running a hard line for example – but when that happened and Italy tried to get going, we were able to seamlessly revert to defensive mode and it wouldn’t be long before we were on the attack again.

Before long we’re winning a penalty, getting back into their 22 and then we’re hammering away at their line…Conor Murray gets over and is held up but not to worry, after the following scrum Robbie Henshaw is running a line with more than enough momentum to get him over.

Just 11 minutes gone, it’s already 7-0 and just four minutes later Sexton is already lining up another conversion after some great link play between Stockdale and Conan puts Murray over in the corner…and not surprisingly our star outhalf made light work of the touchline extras.

By the end of the first quarter, we’ve a third try in the bag after maul gets to the line and Bundee Aki gets his first for Ireland with a similar line to that of Robbie earlier, now it’s 21-0 and time for the game’s longest spell without a score – eleven whole minutes!!!

During that time Conor O’Shea’s men tried to make some headway yet found yards after the tackle extremely hard to come by until eventually Dan Leavy burrows the ball out of a ruck before putting Aki through and with Earls in support it becomes an easy finish.  It hardly feels like we’ve broken sweat and we’ve the try bonus wrapped up already.

Whatever the opposition, that was a dream first half.  They won’t come oftenat test level but when they do it should be applauded.  The only drawback in that time of course was the early removal of Furlong but it came as no surprise to Leinster fans in particular that Andrew Porter was ready to step in and put in a decent shift in his place.


Is there any chance I can suggest Robbie Henshaw deserved man of the match without anyone thinking I’m only saying that because he’s Leinster and the actual winner Conor Murray is Munster?  Well I guess I’ll just have to take that risk but in my defence I was tweeting the opinion as he was being stretchered off before the award was given.

The guy has world-class ability, world-class work rate, world-class knowledge of the game, and he is clearly getting world-class coaching.  I sincerely hope nobody has him in their ideal XVs at full-back anymore…he belongs in the centre and is first choice there when fit.

However – since he’s now unavailable for a while, we need to crack on.  If we really think we can reach the final four of a World Cup, we have to be able to handle absences like this.  So who do we go for?


Here’s another Irish starter at the peak of his powers.  It would have been more surprising if Earls WASN’T among the tries when we got as many as eight, but his contribution will be most remembered for ‘that tackle’ at the very end.

Is there any chance I can suggest that Mattia Bellini missed a trick in his run that could have resulted in a try without anyone thinking I’m trying to take the shine off of yet another Munster player’s achievement?  Well I guess I’ll just have to take that risk.  

Actually I think Earls did everything he could do to catch the Italian, picking where he thought his prey would be caught in a straight line, and setting off at full pace hoping the sight of him in the rear view would cause Bellini to panic.  For me, that’s exactly what happened – a quick step at the 22 could well have gotten around Keith but the overall intimidation factor plus the actual tackle which still had to be made were a delight to watch.

Perhaps Chris Farrell is a more ‘like for like’ replacement for Robbie in the 13 jumper against Wales but my instincts tell me Earls is the way to go, assuming Ringrose won’t be ready of course.  He has played there before for Ireland, he has already spent about half an hour there with Aki, he has two whole weeks to prepare, and he’s in the form of his life right now.  Plus, we have plenty of wingers to take his place.


Bundee Aki looked like he belongs in Joe Schmidt centre pairing from the opening minutes against the Springboks, and he seems even more settled as he goes along.  I still think ‘Henrose’ is our ideal pairing but like I say it’s all about having alternatives and Aki is a huge part of our plans for the rest of this championship.

Jacob Stockdale played like someone who was keen to put Paris behind him, especially the way he took his second try.  I was delighted he got another chance to start and now I see no reason why he should relinquish his starting jersey just yet.  And towards the end we got a little taste of what Jordan Larmour can bring though I really do believe he needs to playing in a more central position to fully display his talents.

And I have one more of these…is there any chance I can suggest that Luke McGrath is a better option to play with Joey Carbery off the bench without making it look like I can’t let go of my Leinster bias?  I guess I’ll have to take that risk.  The pair of replacement halfbacks started well when they came on but I just feel Luke has done better with his test chances than Marmion.

Meanwhile our pack was relatively quiet by their standards, with only captain Rory Best getting his name on the scoresheet among them, though as I suggested earlier it was the prolonged cameo from young Andrew Porter which was the highlight.  The decision to swap him to tight head might go down as one of the more important ones in recent Irish rugby history if he keeps going the way he has been.

Also once the numbers were crunched we were 8/8 in scrums, 15/15 in lineouts, a mere six tackles missed in total and just three penalties conceded so if that’s not a good day at the office for the forwards I don’t know what is.


Of course we can’t ignore the mini Italian fightback, one which very nearly earned them an unlikely try bonus point.  The likes of Leavy, Larmour and Stockdale will all have defensive questions to answer at the DVD session on Monday, but I’d much rather let Joe handle those technicalities, especially when we had as many as six converted tries on the board before our guests had as much as one.

But can I make one point about those three Italian tries…I really do think they should have seen yellow at some point and I very much doubt their score gets near 19 if that happens.  It’s like we had a homer ref in Paris and one sympathetic to an inferior away side in Dublin.

Devin Toner had two knock ons in the space of a few minutes at the start of the second half…I point that out not because I wish to have a pop at him, rather than because overall errors were so few and far between that his were head and shoulders above most of the others [pun intended] although neither really cost us.

After the injuries, the only other negative I can think of from this match is that the poor quality of opposition made it difficult to prepare for the Triple Crown contests that lie ahead for us, but that’s hardly our fault.


Now it’s time to evaluate where this leaves us in the Championship.  Two wins out of two and nine match points out of ten is exactly where we want to be.  And I really don’t know what to say to those who look at our displays against France and Italy and say ‘Well you wouldn’t want to do that against Wales or England’ because the simple fact of the matter is that we’ll be set up differently on those days.

Elsewhere on the second weekend, England had some great individual performances yet overall were as vulnerable at Twickenham as I have seen them in a long while, Wales should be forgetting that ‘try that should have been’ and instead ask themselves why the couldn’t get over the line with their other chances, while Scotland will be on a high after a slew of second half penalties seem to have eliminated the French.

All of the above tells me the road ahead for Ireland is only going to get tougher as we travel along, as if we didn’t know that going into this Six Nations.  We will need to make the most of the two-week break but on the evidence of these opening matches, I have seen plenty to make me believe that we have a squad of players that are up to the task, with the right coaching staff at the helm.  Bring on those Welsh.  JLP

Throwback Thursday : Leo Cullen, Lengthy Contracts & Leinster Culture (July 2015)

To commemorate the news of Leo Cullen staying on at Leinster’s helm for another two years, I’m posting this article I wrote back in July 2015 just before it was officially announced he was taking on the role.


I have put off writing this post for long enough…although nothing has been formally announced, there have certainly been enough rumblings around the media to suggest that Leo Cullen is to be the new head coach for Leinster, so I suppose it’s about time I gave some thoughts on it.

Of course to anyone who knows the game, the move would be considered a risk.  Though I find some of the comparisons being made to appointments in the past to be very baffling.  Steve Staunton?  Eh, no.  Chalk and cheese, mate. 

Sure, Stan made a bucketload of appearances for and was a part of the successful times for the team he was taking over, but his involvement with the Republic of Ireland consisted of about a dozen or so appearances per season while the rest of the time he was with his club of the day.

In Leo’s case, we are not only talking about a club with which he has spent the bulk of his professional career, however unfortunate or indeed unfair his limited Ireland caps total may be, it means he has probably clocked more working hours around the provincial set-up since the start of our “glory days” than any other.

Or to put it another way…if we were to confer the title “Mr. Leinster Rugby” on any individual, I can think of no better man to receive it. 

So when it comes to stepping into this role, one big advantage he has over Staunton is a near perfect knowledge of virtually every aspect of the organisation surrounding the head coach’s chair without ever actually having sat in it.

If we must compare this appointment to an iffy decision from history, I’d be more inclined to go for Martin Johnson’s for  England (yes, that actually did happen, as much as the press across the water tries to airbrush it out of history).  I mean the similarities are very easy to find…legendary lock/skipper who led the side to the highest honour his team could achieve. 

But even that comparison has flaws – I mean, for one thing, I doubt we’ll be hearing stories of dwarves being tossed around Krystle night club any time soon!!!  Joking aside…the assumption around the RFU’s decision with Johnson seemed to be that he’d be an instant success.  That the spirit of 2003 was one that could be bottled and spread to future generations of players.

I think it’s pretty widely known that Leo was never the first choice for the job, and we have all heard the Who’s Who of Rugby Coaches that has been linked with the post.  And given his personality I’m sure he will approach the position with an air of pragmatism as opposed to the air of arrogance that went with Johnson.

So that brings us to the next area we need to consider…how the decision of who gets the job is actually made.

With the success of Leinster and Munster in Europe since 2006, the two provinces are quite rightly considered up alongside the great outfits in European rugby like Toulouse, Leicester Tigers, Wasps and of course most recently Toulon.  And it’s hard not to cross-over to the round ball game and draw comparisons to Champions League greats like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United.

There is absolutely no doubt that the head coach role at any of those institutions is one of an importance near to (if not more so in soccer’s case) international equivalents, and whenever those positions go on offer, the debate over who will fill them is extensive.

But here is where we must draw attention to one very important distinction.  Toulouse, Wasps and Man Utd are CLUBS.  The Irish provincial teams are not, at least not in the traditional sense.  They are branches of the national rugby union.  Many soccer clubs answer to shareholders alright but never to their football association.

At Leinster, Mick Dawson as CEO leads an extensive organization that has a mountain of work to get through from spreading the sport around the 12 counties to organizing match days to putting plans in place for improvements to the RDS Arena.

But when a big decision like a head coach appointment comes around, while I certainly wouldn’t say it’s “out of their hands”, it does need to be looked at through an IRFU-wide lens rather than simply a Leinster one.

The reason I was reluctant to do this post was that I had hoped that my last one on Matt O’Connor meant I could put the matter in a box and file it away in the HoR archives to gather dust but here is where I must drag it up again if only briefly.  As far as its head coaching position is concerned, Leinster Rugby together with the Leinster Professional Games Board and the IRFU had a plan already in place for this coming season…namely the last year of O’Connor’s 3-year contract.

And putting the disgruntled Leinster supporters aside just for a moment, this arrangement seemed to be one that suited everyone, given that right now, in the summer of 2015, the Prime Directive of Irish Rugby has to be preparation for our assault on the Rugby World Cup – and I sincerely hope nobody has any argument with  that!

Yet now we must bring the supporters back into the equation.  We can look at them two ways…the reality is that over the past 12 months there have been extremely varying opinions on Matt O’Connor’s tenure at Leinster and these have all been expressed on this site by several different contributors.  Then there’s the perception that the Leinster fan base is all of one mind and never wanted O’Connor in the first place.

That external perception would still seem to hold to this day, and to be fair, when Leinster had their worst dip in form of the season during the Six Nations, more and more fans were warming to the idea that change was needed and even coming within the width of a goalpost of defeating Toulon and reaching another European final wasn’t enough to claw it back.

Given that wave of what I called “Anti-Matter” opinion, the Leinster management could well be entitled to raise an eyebrow when those same fans have qualms about anyone who assumes the role. (“Leo Nay-Sayers”?)

Say you’ve been waiting for a table at a busy restaurant and they offer you one but you don’t want to sit there because it’s too near the kitchen, so the maître d goes out of his way to find you another one, only for you to complain about that for a different reason.

Given it’s a World Cup year, the coaches with CVs worthy of a 3-time European champion outfit are all either in contracts or at least are on career paths that revolve around the four-year World Cup cycle…meaning the summer just before one is a marketplace similar to the busy restaurant I mention above.  And I suspect those involved in the Leinster decision were well aware of this when they installed the word “interim” in Leo’s title, just in case.  It would appear the “in case” has happened.

If we like, we can convince ourselves that we have been “stuck” with Leo.  We can doom his tenure to failure before it even begins.

Or…we could pay attention to someone like Bernard Jackman, himself a table in that restaurant that is already taken.  I strongly recommend you listen to his contribution on Second Captains’ Monday edition but here are some of the things he had to say in Leo’s favour…

“Leo Cullen’s great strength is in powering others”

“Culture is what wins you championships and Leo Cullen is very clued into that”

“His skill set probably suits being a head coach more than being a unit coach”

I also suggest you read this post from Big Joe Shep here on this site looking at the new Leinster coaching ticket more as a “collective”.  With hopefully a quality backs coach appointment on the horizon (preferably from the outside) to finish it off, it actually is quite a decent mix of talent and with someone who both “gets” the Leinster culture and has been heavily involved in making it work within the Irish framework at the helm, I definitely cannot classify the move as a “disaster” as some suggest.

On the point that he was part of the coaching staff responsible for the disappointing effort last season, it’s hard not to concede that as a negative but a bit like the point Berch makes, if we’re going to tag Leo with the ills of our pack last season then this new set-up has given responsibility to someone else so we’ve every reason to expect an improvement.

And talk of a 2- to 3- year deal also seems baffling when hearing it first, but once more we have to consider all the angles…Leinster will want the matter decided sooner rather than later, and no doubt Leo’s representatives in the negotiations will do what they can to get the most security out of the deal.  It’s simply how the modern game works.

Finally as fans we have to look at our expectations for the future in general, and this coming season in particular.  Are they the same as they have been in recent years?  Is it really silverware or bust for us in the 2015/16 campaign?  I’m not so sure.

And given all the variables surrounding the province this season…so much talent being away for the first couple of months,  the possibility of some getting injured at the World Cup, the absolute stinker of a Rugby Champions Cup pool, the likelihood of limited integration time before it kicks off, the necessity of blooding a raft of promising youngsters into the senior squad…I’m not sure there’s a head coach out there who could walk fresh into the job and make it an instant success – and yes, I’m including Joe Schmidt in that list.

If I had to set a minimum target on the results front, I would go with a return to the final four of the Pro12 and at very least a decent effort to get out of that Euro pool.  Does this mean Leo should lose his job if we don’t make that goal?  Absolutely not.  There are several other factors like the style of rugby we play and the type of team selection decisions we make to consider, but it would certainly be nice to have more than one match in May again.

So before we look away from these Leinster headlines and back towards the World Cup ones (which is absolutely what I will be doing after this post!), my advice to fellow fans would be to consider the big picture for Irish rugby at this particular time and get behind our teams both blue and green in every way we can.

Not so much a “wait and see” approach, rather a much more interactive and constructive “Come On You Boys In Blue” one.  JLP