French Flair, Irish Intelligence and Scotland’s Silly Errors

This weekend was always going to be just that little better than usual as the crème la crème of sporting events got underway in Cardiff.

I speak not of the Super Bowl in Miami, but instead of the Northern Hemisphere’s rugby showpiece where long-time supporters and long-suffering girlfriends (or boyfriends) alike were treated to two days of sporting festivities to rival Christmas.

Three encounters in three European cites each earned their place on a rugby-esque Richter scale from a small tremor on Saturday afternoon to a rather more ground shaking affair the next day in Paris.

Wales 42-0 Italy: Wayne’s Wales get off to the best possible start:

The Principality in Cardiff was treated to five Welsh tries in a dominant if slightly routine victory for Wayne Pivac’s men against an Italian side which lacked cohesion and structure.

The Azzuri travel home with no points registered and a Six Nations losing streak which has now stretched to 23 games as the Six Nations opener proved a barely competitive match up.

This year’s meeting between the two sides included open rugby but was turgid in its outcome, albeit the hosts struggled to add their much-needed bonus point after having a George North try chalked off by the TMO in the final quarter of the match.

North was eventually able to add the all-important fourth try as he powered over from close range with the assistance of an Alun Wyn Jones push. The battle bruised 34-year-old leading his side from the front with endless energy once again.

This was followed by a Josh Adams score at the death to take the hosts over the 40-point mark which completed the 24-year-old’s hat trick. The World Cup’s highest try scorer (seven) once again proved a vital finisher as he crossed the whitewash twice in the first half to give his side a commanding lead.

Adams’ second on the half hour mark was noticeable for Dan Biggar’s majestic pass through his legs to the winger who finished the move from close quarters to give the hosts a 21-0 lead at the interval.

There were other stand-out performances within the hosts’ ranks, including that of man of the match, Justin Tipuric who worked tirelessly in the Back Row with the ever-present Aaron Wainwright and the returning Taulupe Faletau.

Tomos Williams also put his hand up for selection in Dublin next week after a fine performance at scrum half.

Meanwhile, Franco Smith’s Italy aren’t likely to find a trip to Paris any easier as they look to brush themselves off.

They will need key players such as Tommaso Allan and Jake Polledri to be at their best if they are able to prove more challenging opponents to the French on Sunday.

 

Ireland 19-12 Scotland: Similar Shortcomings for Scotland as Ireland hold firm in Dublin:

Despite the pressure being heaped on Gregor Townsend and his charges, there was little expectation that Scotland would leave the Aviva Stadium with a result.

And unfortunately, but perhaps predictably for travelling fans, this hunch proved true as a strong Irish defensive performance made Scotland pay for a catalogue of missed chances and errors.

Errors which have so often put pay to the plentiful desire and skill which Gregor Townsend’s men have offered in the past and offered again in Dublin.

The Scots showed desire in bucket loads as they looked to banish the nightmare start to last year’s World Cup which had ended in an embarrassing loss to the Irish.

Townsend made ten changes from November’s loss to Japan and his much-changed side played with plenty of flair and passion, but failed to convert chances into tries.

Punters will point to a Stuart Hogg clanger as the clear and obvious error and one that could have proved a gamechanger.

In truth Hogg’s mistake was rugby’s equivalent of an open goal as the captain dropped the ball over the line after a catalogue of hard, reward less work from his forwards who were impressive throughout.

But a measured approach to this rare error from the full-back is to consider it as one of countless Scots try scoring opportunities throughout.

Eleven times the Scots entered the Irish 22 without scoring and that will worry Gregor Townsend. Perhaps this had something to do with the absence of Finn Russell. We’ll never know.

In fairness his replacement, Adam Hastings, strung a solid if not overly impressive performance together at stand-off, but maybe just maybe, Scotland needed Russell’s unyielding tenacity to unlock a prolonged and tireless Irish defensive effort.

To give them their due, Ireland defended with brutal aggression and controlled the game well, Sexton’s clinical first half finish proving crucial in an enthralling affair at the Aviva Stadium.

It was of course unfortunate that the promising prospect, Caelan Doris was forced with injury early on, but his replacement wasn’t too shabby in the form of Peter O’Mahony. A player who was at his impenetrable and streetwise best for the hosts.

His team’s opposition could have learned a thing or two from his intelligent manipulation of referees at the breakdown where a long absent Rory Sutherland and debutant Nick Haining impressed amongst Townsend’s charges.

Ireland will host Wales in a battle of the best defences while Scotland will need to work on their streetwise factor when they host England on Saturday.

 

France 24-17 England: French flair overwhelms Eddie’s England:

Even after crossing the English Channel, Eddie Jones’ England looked lost at sea for large parts of their championship opener in Paris.

Le Crunch is always an event not to be missed and its inclusion in the opening round this year added an extra dimension to an already mouth-watering match-up.

England have enjoyed an illustrious five years under Jones. Two Six Nations titles have spent time in Twickenham’s trophy cabinet and three months ago Jones’ men were 80 minutes away from winning a second World Cup.

Cheslin Kolbe’s scintillating footwork and a South African team full of passion to the brim stopped prevented a second Webb Ellis trophy from returning to West London, but England had received many a coin for some absorbing performances in Japan.

These included a rarely witnessed performance of the utmost dominance against New Zealand after France had travelled home after a calamitous second half display against Wales in the Quarter-Finals.

And yet France were expected to prove tough opposition to a more experienced, more successful, but perhaps more predictable English side.

That being said, no one surely expected the 80 minutes which followed Nigel Owens’ first blow of the whistle in a cauldron like Stade de France which never quietened.

Vincent Rattez kick started the onslaught, taking an intelligent inside pass from Romain Ntamack to cross from close quarters on five minutes. A Manu Tuilagi injury did little to help in the aftermath of this opening, as his team mates’ white shirts became splattered with blood and mud in the light drizzle.

Then on 19 minutes Charles Ollivon took advantage of a moment of English confusion and crossed for their second. Jonny May et al thought the 26-year-old captain had knocked on in the build-up to the try and stopped in their tracks.

His team looked shell shocked, distraught and lost amongst the cacophony of sound provided by French supporters starved off success and the changing rooms couldn’t come quick enough for their visitors who found themselves 17-0 down at the break.

This was most unexpected from a French side which were significant in their youth and dominance in recent under 20 world championships. Led by a captain who had never previously started in a Six Nations match and with a commanding lead this was quickly becoming their game to lose.

However, the hosts’ collapse against Wales in similar conditions in last year’s opener will have been playing on the more conservative of French supporters’ minds. Last year they had been leading 16-0 at half time. The final score? A Welsh win by 21-16. They were far from winning it yet.

After an improved England were able to finally throw some punches, the visitors soon found their nightmare becoming worse. A strong French lineout was followed up by direct running from the ever-present Antoine Dupont who set up Ollivon for his second to give France a 24-0 lead after the conversion with 25 minutes remaining.

Surely, they had won it now and would settle to hold their opponents to nul points? That of course isn’t the French way and in all fairness to England they regained some of their shape at scrum time which improved tenfold after the inclusion of replacements like Ellis Genge.

Then Jonny May scored two ingenious tries, the winger creating nothing from something on both occasions, dragging his comrades to almost within striking distance of the French in just eight minutes.

For the first May somehow weaved his way between countless French defenders with the use of his boot after performing an outrageous chip and chase in the little room he had to play with on the right wing.

The second was almost equally as impressive as the 29-year-old ripped the French defence to shreds, using his lightening pace to gas Virimi Vakatawa from a similar position. The visitors had brought it back to 24-14 with 15 minutes remaining. Was another epic comeback on the cards at an increasingly nervous Stade de France?

Despite this the hosts’ defence remained resolute against stout English attack and the world cup runners up were unable to come away with anything more than an injury time penalty. The visitors claimed a losing bonus point through the boot of Owen Farrell who had spent the previous 80 minutes looking slightly off colour.

One round in and all bets are off already. Although, French odds will surely be higher in a Six Nations in which they could finally prove their potential is worth something more than a bottom half finish and will be big favourites to beat Italy on Sunday. The task is more stark for their English counterparts who travel to Scotland far from assured of a win.

Six Nations 2020 Preview: Ireland

When wandering down some of Dublin’s busiest streets its difficult to ignore the countless electoral posters which line the streets in their hundreds. Each one stars a TD or party leader front and centre. The subject of the personal political campaigns either smiling wryly or poising in an authoritative stance in order to gain voter trust.

Even when travelling out of the city, main roads and even country lanes are peppered with the same posters, battling each other for space on muddy verges. When passing through Ireland’s countryside around three weeks before the country goes to the polls, they are difficult to make out on a cold, misty January day. Election day is pencilled in for the 8th February as the current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, faces a battle to retain his position in the Irish Parliament. On that same afternoon 23 of his country’s best rugby players will also face a battle in Dublin against Wales. Their victory is no more assured than Varadkar’s position as they welcome the Grand Slam champions to Dublin.

Lets park comparisons between politics and sport for now though, and consider the difficult selection that Andy Farrell had to make when he was deciding who would be wearing green this Spring. On the 15th January the former dual-coder, announced his 35-man squad and selected the experienced Jonny Sexton to be at the helm.

The group selected includes five uncapped players with the most eye-catching of these arguably being the English born Billy Burns. The fly-half struggled for game time at Gloucester after the Cherry and Whites signed Danny Cipriani in 2018. A fresh start proved appealing for Burns and he discovered this across the Irish Sea, finding an impressive patch of form at Ulster.

The Bathonian now has the chance to participate on the international stage, a goal he would have been unlikely to have fulfilled in the current English side. We could perhaps expect the 25-year-old to make an appearance of the bench when Italy come a calling in the fourth round. Unless the much-trusted war horse of Sexton has a nightmare, it’s unlikely he will find himself at Number 10 this time around and will more realistically be trying to wrestle the Number 21 jersey off Ross Byrne.

At 34-years-old and with 88 caps to his name, it will be interesting to see how Sexton handles the added burden of carrying the captain’s armband. With a solid record from the boot, there has been discussion surrounding an apparent drop in form in recent performances from the Leinster man, but much of this looks to have been exaggerated and perhaps, unjustified.

After all, 2018’s world player of the year has on countless occasions led from the front at regional level and on the international stage. His cold and calculated 83rd minute drop-goal after 41 phases against France not only left the Stade de France in a state of shock, but also kept Ireland in the running for the Grand Slam which they then delivered.

That year proved to be an historic one for the men in green as they followed a Grand Slam with a series victory in Australia, before triumphing against New Zealand for the first time on home soil. After a painful history of being knocked out of world cups with a whimper, it looked as though the Irish had finally peaked at the right time to make an impact at last year’s tournament.

Unfortunately for those watching on the Emerald Isle, this hope failed to materialise into clear cut success when Japan 2019 came calling. A less encouraging, but not dreadful Six Nations Campaign was followed by a hammering at the hands of a rampant New Zealand side in the Quarter Finals. This followed some unconvincing performances at the group stage after defeating a truly terrible Scotland side and doing what they had to against Russia and Samoa. Indeed, it was Sexton who experienced a galling debut as captain as his side went down 19-12 to Japan in Yokohama after looking like they would ruin the hosts’ party early on, before squandering a 12-point lead.

Andy Farrell will take on Joe Schmidt’s gauntlet with this recent drop in form in mind, but also with a clear focus on finding success in his step up from assistant to head honcho. His team selection certainly combines exciting and younger talent with some players from the old guard remaining central to his plans.

Farrell’s starting XV for the opener against Scotland encompasses debutant Caelan Doris who has shown his worth at Leinster and the uncapped Ronan Kelleher on the bench. Experienced faces such as Cian Healy, Ian Henderson and CJ Stander are also selected in the forwards as Ireland look to dominate their Celtic brethren up front, with Tag Furlong being an unstoppable force in the front row.

Meanwhile, the resurgent John Cooney will be disappointed to not be starting but is assured of replacing the weathered Conor Murray at some point during those first 80 minutes. With Bundee Aki and Gary Ringrose sitting outside Sexton and Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway on the wings, the hosts have no shortage in attacking firepower. They will also look to give the ever dangerous Jordan Lamour a lease of life at full back and it will be interesting to see how the 22-year-old deals with any attack Scotland can muster.

Ireland Vs Scotland – Saturday 1st February @16:45:

It is difficult to see Ireland losing this affair at the Aviva Stadium and there is likely to have been some quiet relief when it was announced they would be facing the Scots first up at home. The omission of two of their opposition’s most influential players, Finn Russell and Darcy Graham, will also give Ireland more confidence that they can come up trumps from this affair.

It has been ten years since Dan Parks proved the unlikely hero as he prevented an Irish Triple Crown at Croke Park with a late penalty to win the game 23-20 in Scotland’s favour. Since then however, Ireland have only lost three times (two in the Six Nations) in this fixture. They were dominant against their woeful World Cup opponents in September and have often left their plucky visitors bruised and battered in competitive, but controlled performances in Dublin.

A bonus point victory wouldn’t be an unrealistic target for the men in green, but they may face some battle from a Scotland side who will either fly or freeze after having to deal with a less than ideal preparation in the run up to this game. Ireland will likely push on and find gaps through brute force and skill. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ireland gain a bonus point victory. My prediction – Ireland by 15.

Ireland Vs Wales – Saturday 8th February @14:15:

This clash of Celtic giants has so often proved to be an entertaining affair and in honesty, the game I most look forward to viewing as a neutral. Always competitive and usually played between two sides contesting the Six Nations title and is very rarely not an enthralling contest. Ireland have claimed 13 of these 22 encounters since the inaugural Six Nations championship in 2000.

In last year’s edition, Gareth Anscombe kicked his Irish counterparts to death in the final round. But the games of recent times are more commonly open-ended affairs. During Ireland’s title run in 2018, an entertaining match ended 37-27 in their favour as Stockdale made a crucial interception to prevent a late Welsh attacking threat to score at the other end.

Indeed, the last time Wales found any gold at the end of the Aviva Stadium rainbow was in 2012 when they triumphed 23-21 over an Irish squad that won only two in that year’s championship. However, this year’s showdown presents another intriguing battle between two teams with new coaches at the helm in the form of Farrell and Wayne Pivac respectively.

Both sides are expected to win their opening ties which will perhaps provide them both with some more confidence if there was any in short supply before this match. Expect another open match with lots of running rugby and a great atmosphere to match the occasion. My prediction – Ireland by less than five.

England Vs Ireland – Sunday 23rd February @15:00:
The radio crackled as my father carefully navigated his way over the treacherous Cairn O’Mount in thick mist on the 24th February 2007. We were travelling home from Murrayfield after witnessing a thoroughly depressing Scottish performance as the hosts were resoundingly beaten 37-17 at the hands of Italy.

Suddenly the sombre mood in the car was lightened by the pure enthusiasm and excitement radiating from the Irish commentators on the radio as Issac Boss ran in Ireland’s fourth try in their 43-13 demolishment of England at Croke Park. It was rare to see an Irish side pile that many points on England, though the roles were well and truly reversed at Twickenham last year.

In that last meeting between the two sides, the English ran out 57-15 winners in a nightmarish world cup warm-up match. This followed a 32-20 English victory at the Aviva Stadium as the visitors overwhelmed their hosts in the first half with a barrage of attacking play. However, when these sides last met at Twickenham, Ireland were runway victors as they completed their Grand Slam campaign.

These occasions in themselves are clear examples of how volatile and unpredictable these match ups are, and I would suggest this year’s encounter will be no different. However, I have a feeling a confident England will dominate this encounter and will feed of Ireland’s failure to a get a grasp hold in the last two meetings between the sides. My prediction – England by 15.
Ireland Vs Italy – Saturday 7th March @14:15:

If you briefly delve into recent records of this fixture you will see a clear indication that the Italians have struggled against Irish opposition since their participation in the Northern Hemisphere’s biggest competition began. On six occasions the men from the Emerald Isle have scored a half century of points against the Azzurri and are known for giving the Italians a bit of a beating in Dublin’s fair city.

In 2018 it ended 29-10 in Ireland’s favour, while in 2016 Ireland were able to put 58 points on their Italian opposition. Sandwiched between these two fixtures was a resounding 63-10 win for the Irish at the Stadio Olimpico in 2017 and Ireland’s only defeat came in the shape of a 22-15 reverse in 2013.

In recent years this seems to have become a fixture which Ireland enjoy playing in and if their tournament hasn’t been going quite like they would have wanted it to, Andy Farrell and his men aren’t likely to take any prisoners against the Italians and a bonus point victory is likely to be in the offing. However, be prepared to see some changes come into force as the Head Coach may choose to rest some of his players for the Super Saturday showdown in Paris. My prediction – Ireland by 40.

France Vs Ireland – Saturday 14th March @20:00:

For Ireland’s final match of the campaign they travel to Paris, a city which used to be a huge thorn in their side but one that has proved a less intimidating place for them to travel to in recent years. Between 2003-2008 the Irish had to settle for a Triple Crown as they failed to overcome the French and even went 13 years without a win at the Stade de France between 2000-2014.

But now the tide has seemingly turned, and it is Les Bleus who find themselves without a triumph against their Irish rivals, their last one coming in the shape of a 10-9 victory four years ago. They have of course come close with the pre-mentioned Sexton drop goal raining on their parade in 2018’s championship. Ireland will however, carry the confidence of a convincing 26-14 triumph last year.

However, with this in mind they will perhaps find the going more difficult this time round against a French side with some exciting young talent which might just grow into the tournament as it goes on. With a finishing position in the championship in the balance, my gut says France will edge this one and recapture some of the stonewall confidence which they used to have when playing in this fixture.
My prediction – France by 5.

My Prediction for Ireland – 3rd place with 15 points

An Irish Guinness Please

With a sense of intrepidation, I climbed the narrow steps leading to the small Aer Lingus flight which would be taking my Dad and I to Dublin. I’d describe it as smaller than a small plane. The mini bus of planes if you like.

Boarding the propeller plane, I rembered I’d previously convinced myself that it’s important to feel at least a little nervous about flying. It’s almost as if I feel I’ll be tempting fate if I fly with stonewall confidence. A confidence that this miraculous and almost non-sensical invention with all its intricate moving parts will actually work.

The take-off was most likely textbook and I still found myself worrying, becoming increasingly nervous as the prop launched itself into the skies above Aberdeen at an astonishing rate. It was a beautiful winter morning and we got a good view of the Granite City as we turned to go inland.

Carefully combining an uncomfortable nap with unnecessary worrying about normal inflight sounds meant the journey  went quickly and it wasn’t long before we were lining up with the runway at Dublin International. While we descended, a flat calm Irish Sea glistened in the sunshine below and the pilot was able to make a smoother than smooth landing.

Arriving in the Irish capital I was struck by how much larger Dublin is than I thought it would be. Stepping of the bus in the city centre, I was greeted by the sights and sounds of O’Connell Street. A seemingly less miserable version of Aberdeen’s Union Street if you will.

From there we strolled down the street to the rather peculiar Spire. An 120 metre steel monument which towers over the surrounding buildings. Alongside its slightly absurd location and shape, it is unusual that there are little to no information boards at the base of the structure.

A quick Wikipedia search reveals it is also referred to as the Monument of Life or the An Tur Salais in Gaelic. I thought it resembled the top of Thunderbird One, but that’s probably just my left of field imagination. Judgements on its aesthetics aside, standing at the bottom of the Spire and looking up certainly made me feel rather dizzy.

It being a Sunday morning, I was slightly disappointed to not see the inside of the renowned General Post Office. Remaining as the Irish Postal Service’s headquarters, it is known for the significant role it played in the Easter Rising of 1916. To this day bullet holes remain in its impressive, but weathered columns.

Wondering away from the city’s main drag and we came across the grounds of Ireland’s oldest university, Trinity College. From there was decided an open bus tour was in order, forgetting to account for the cold breeze which would accompany this activity on an already chilly January day.

Managing about halfway around the bus tour, the old man and myself both simultaneously succumbed to the cold and hopped off when the bus returned to near the city centre. It was insightful yet delivered in a downbeat and slightly dutiful fashion. Though I’m quick to admit I would find it near impossible to juggle dozens of historic accuracies while attempting to navigate Dublin’s busy streets with a bus.

From the driver’s commentary I learned that around three million litres of Guinness are produced at the 64 acre brewery in the city. On several occasions we travelled past the famous black gates associated with the dark stout.

The bus also took us through the vast Phoenix Park which is home to Viceregal Lodge. This grande building set off Chesterfield Avenue being the Irish President’s house.

Passing the large brewery again, I was reminded of the only time I’d tried Guinness previously. It was at a summer test at Murrayfield on a warm Edinburgh day. The drink was presented in a plastic cup and was overpriced and warm.

However, following the tour we decided to warm up in a sports bar which was showing European Champions Cup rugby action. A half-pint later and I’d changed my mind about Guinness.

My girlfriend suggested I’m a changed man when I broke this news to her later that day, though the more realistic theory is that Guinness does really taste better in Ireland. It was also refreshing to see the rugby given priority over the football. This would be a rare occurrence in Scotland.

After enjoying Dublin’s fair city where I’m not at liberty to describe whether the girls are pretty, we set off into the countryside on the bus. Our destination was the midsts of County Wicklow and into Baltinglass.

Travelling through darkness for the best part of two hours, we were eventually dropped off in the small town where we’d be staying for the next couple of days.

The next morning we arose to a hard frost, wrapping off before driving into the Wicklow mountains to find the roads slick with ice. Experiencing some hairy moments on slippy roads, we arrived at the Glendalough Visitor Centre and the starting point of our planned walk shaken but not stirred.

Walking along the Upper Lake we made our way uphill and out of the cooling shade at the floor of the valley. For around 125 years the Glendalough valley was home to the a lead mine and this is indicated by the old ruins of a miner’s village. I can imagine this would be quite a haunting spot at night and this is furthered by the old graveyard we passed at the beginning of the hike.

Lunch at the head of the valley was followed by an often stomach churning walk alongside a ridge with steep drops to one side. This trail on the southern side of the lake amazingly encompasses around 600 railways sleepers ending in steep steps when it eventually descends to the valley floor.

Following this stunning walk we made our way to Dublin again, taking the coastal route to hopefully avoid anymore sketchy roads. The seaside town of Bray provided a pleasant place for us to stop-off for a hot drink. Although it was surprising to see ice creams being consumed in temperatures little over 5c.

We didn’t spend long in Dublin this time and experienced the city’s rush hour. This proved equally insightful as witnessed countless risky manoeuvres and several kamikaze cyclists on their commute home. I’m glad I wasn’t driving or worse, cycling.

Soon our last day on the Emerald Isle came around and I awoke this time to discover a thick mist blanketing the surrounding landscape. We had a relatively quiet day, travelling to nearby Carlow, a larger town of around 24,000 residents.

A brief tour of the town was carried out in less than ideal weather and if pushed I’d compare it to an Irish Inverurie. A place where your Grandmother likes to go shopping, but not somewhere that might be at the top of your destination list.

Poorly grounded judgements aside and the next day was our cue to travel back to sunny Scotland. Surviving the plane journey again through distracting myself from thinking about the physics of flight, I was pleased I’d visited Eire proper and pledged to return.

I had only visited a small part of this island nation, but would like to see more of the country in the summer when it will surely be warmer. Three days well spent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Nations 2020 Preview: Italy

When thinking of Italy as a country or an entity if you will, the mind might likely conjure images of warm beaches, vineyards full of grapes and great food. For most of us these images are likely to be appetising if not slightly patronising to a more realistic outlook on the Italian national identity. For someone inhabiting Aberdeen in January it is definitely an appetising idea to escape Scotland’s winter for the warmer climes of Italy’s Mediterranean coast.

National stereotypes aside, these images are a polar opposite to the images conjured when Italian rugby is added to the equation. Italy enter this year’s Six Nations on the back of a 22-match losing streak which began after they beat Scotland in Rome, during another championship which us Scots would like to forget.

There’s been several of those forgetful years for Scottish supporters and Italian supporters are perhaps more likely than others to be sympathetic to our plight. Though they may even be a little jealous that the team they’ve beat the most in the tournament have at least recorded some, if little success in recent years.

Returning to the tribulations faced by the Azzurri, and their unfortunate run is perhaps more frustrating by the fact they looked to be making real progress under Conor O’Shea. The Irishmen said as much when he resigned from the role last November after four years at the helm.

The run of results during the O’Shea years may not suggest an obvious improvement in fortunes for this football mad nation, but Italy’s two regional sides, Benneton and Zebre have both come on in this time. This can be seen in Benneton’s third place finish in Conference B of the Guinness Pro14 last season which is coupled with much improved performances in Europe.

It is also perhaps encouraging for the development of the game in the Mediterranean country that 31 of their 35 player Six Nations Squad play for these two sides. This is alongside the talent of players such as Jake Polledri, who is a regular starter in the back row for Gloucester.

Despite the talent of other key players including Tommaso Allan, Matteo Minozzi and Alessandro Zanni, there is a certain talisman which the Italians are likely to miss. Sergio Parisse planned to retire at the end of the world cup but wasn’t quite granted his wish as in an act of god, Typhoon Hagibis prevented the 36-year-old from having the send-off he wanted. The Azzurri’s final pool match in Japan against New Zealand being cancelled.

However, the former captain and formidable Number Eight has suggested he could return to the starting line-up to face England, Scotland or both. This despite being omitted from Head Coach Franco Smith’s squad for the upcoming championship. With 142 international appearances to his name, the third most capped player in rugby history would almost definitely be welcomed back by the Italian supporters.

The former full-back and Harlequins Director of Rugby, O’Shea has been replaced by Smith on an interim basis as the Italian Rugby Federation search for someone to take the reins full-time. The South African faces a baptism of fire when the Italians travel to Cardiff for their Championship opener against the reigning champions and world cup semi-finalists. Perhaps the Bok couldn’t have asked for a more challenging start to his regime.

Wales Vs Italy – Saturday 1st February @14:15:

Italy haven’t beaten Wales since 2007 when a controversial referring decision prevented the Welsh from taking an attacking line-out at the death after Chris White changed his mind about how much time was actually left after James Hook had decided to kick for touch. Search the match on YouTube if you want to see a rightly fuming Gareth Thomas. That 23-20 win is one of two occasions when the Azzurri have triumphed against their Welsh counterparts, the other coming in 2003 while Welsh rugby experienced a rather torrid time at the start of the decade.

However, Wayne Pivac and the Welsh aren’t likely to take any prisoners this time round and the Italians will need a huge, if not historic performance to come away with a win on the 1st February. Although this statement sounds harsh, Italy are yet to beat any other side than Scotland away from home. The closest they’ve come to this achievement being in 2006 when they played out an 18-18 draw with Wales in Cardiff.

A losing bonus point would be a more realistic for target for Smith and his men, but this looks unlikely. In my view, a feasible outcome would be for the visitors to leak tries in the second half, with the positive note being a couple of tries created by some Italian flair. My prediction – Wales by 20.

France Vs Italy – Sunday 9th February @15:00:

Next up for the Azzurri is a trip to the city of romance, although the atmosphere in the Stade de France is likely to be less welcoming than the sites of Paris. Although this game is often overlooked and forgotten about by the

home nations fan base, last year’s outing in Rome was exciting until the very end. This being until the home supporters had to watch Damien Penaud seal an unconvincing French win in the 78th minute.
Italy have beaten the French in 2011 and 2013, alongside a closely run 23-21 loss in Paris in 2016. On this occasion however, its my view that a French backline which is sparkling with talent will overcome an Italian side which would love to travel back across the Franco-Italian border with an unlikely result. I have been wrong before though. Very wrong. My prediction – France by 15.

Italy Vs Scotland – Saturday 22nd February @14:15:

From the outset Italy’s goal has to be record a victory this year and put a stop to a slump which has provided them with four consecutive wooden spoons and the unwanted record of having the longest losing streak in Six Nations history. This goal must surely be achieved if they want to smother the debates raging around the role which the 12th ranked side in the world play in the championship. When the Scots come a calling in Rome, Italy will have hope that they can deliver that elusive win. And why shouldn’t they be hopeful?

In the 12 victories which the Azzurri have recorded since the turn of the century, seven of these have come at the hands of Scotland. Their largest victory in the Six Nations being a 37-17 victory at Murrayfield in 2007, which was of course the Nixon family’s first outing to the rugby. Through misty eyes full of tears, we watched Italy storm into a 21-0 lead after just six minutes, as two of Chris Cusitier’s passes were miserably intercepted by the poaching Italians.

Eleven years after that sombre Scottish display, Italy should have beaten us in Rome. The Italians led the Scots 24-12 with 60 minutes remaining at the Stadio Olimpico after dominating their final match of the 2018 championship. Despite this, they some how blew their lead as Greig Laidlaw’s men managed to grab a victory from the jaws of defeat as a late Laidlaw penalty meant the game finished 29-27 in favour of the visitors.
Scotland’s away form has been below par for a long time and Italy have recorded five of their seven wins against the Scots in Rome. I predict another close one in the third round, but I’m going to say less than confidently that Scotland will steal it in a similar fashion to that match-up two years ago. I reckon it’s going to be pretty tight. My prediction – Scotland by less than five.

Ireland vs Italy – Saturday 7th March @14:15:

The record books show the Italians have struggled against Irish opposition since their participation in the Northern Hemisphere’s biggest competition began. On six occasions the men from the Emerald Isle have scored a half century of points against the Azzurri and are known for giving the Italians a bit of a beating in Dublin’s fair city. In 2018 it ended 29-10 in Ireland’s favour, while in 2016 Ireland were able to put 58 points on their Italian opposition.

Sandwiched between these two fixtures was a 63-10 battering at the Stadio Olimpico in 2017. Not a fine day to be an Italy supporter, though perhaps they can find some hope in re-watching Italy’s 22-15 victory against Ireland in 2013. Again, however, it saddens may to say that the best Italy can probably hope for is to salvage a losing bonus point from their trip to the Aviva Stadium.

Similarly, to the Welsh game, I predict Italy will be good value in that they should be able to snatch a couple of tries but will also likely leak a few. This is a game Ireland like to go all out in and if their tournament hasn’t been going quite like they would have wanted it to, Andy Farrel and his men aren’t likely to take any prisoners in this fixture. My prediction – Ireland by 40.

Italy vs England – Saturday 14th March @16:45:

It could just be the fairy-tale ending for a stalwart of not just Italian rugby, but of European rugby and the game on a global scale if Italy beat the English in Rome. This is of course dependent on the inclusion of Sergio Parisse into the Italian squad and more significantly, on a perfect rugby display by the hosts.

During 20 years of Six Nations action, the Italians have failed to better the English. This despite running them close on a few occasions and in 2017’s infamous ruck gate performance where the Italians attempted to use an unconventional method to challenge England in that encounter. It certainly left their visitors slightly befuddled and as so often in these fixtures, Italy were still in the running until around the 45-50-minute mark, before the Red Roses ran away with it.

From this year’s game I expect to a see similar structure being played out with England running away with it in the second half while Italy cross the whitewash two or three times. Expect it to be less close if the championship is going down to the wire like it did on Super Saturday five years ago. My prediction – England by 20.

My prediction for Italy – 6th with one point.

Word Associations:

Tommasso Allen – Sad he didn’t play for Scotland.

Conor O’Shea – He will be missed within the Italian coaching set-up.

Scotland – There for the taking in Rome.

Sergio Parisse – It would be great to see him pull on a light blue shirt for a proper send-off.

Rome – I would love to see a game there one day, though not a Scottish one. I’d rather it would be one I could actually enjoy without biting through all my finger nails.

Man Up – Re-post

I originally posted this on the 15th May during Mental Health Awareness week. I thought I would re-write in for World Mental Health Day which was on the 10th October. Reading the previous post I thought my writing could have been more concise and less sweary, so I  decided to implement these changes.

It was with some misfortune that I woke up early one morning last week. This wasn’t merely unfortunate because of the early hour which I’ve become unaccustomed to as a lazy, half employed student on his summer holidays. Instead, the real misfortune lay in this student’s decision to watch television while eating his breakfast.

Recently the TV in my student halls has been playing up and we have only had certain ITV channels at our disposal. Of course, this isn’t a huge issue as there’s plenty of good quality content to find on ITV. However, at 6.30 am ITV 1 viewers are watching Great Morning Britain, the channel’s attempt to rival BBC Breakfast on weekday mornings. These viewers are greeted by the sounds of a certain loudmouthed and obnoxious presenter.

This presenter and journalist adores the outrage and attention he receives for his repugnant views. Perhaps, he should even be applauded for achieving a very similar form of notoriety to the likes of Katie Hopkins. Like Hopkins, Piers Morgan has successfully created a paradoxical situation in which the more discussion surrounding his controversial opinions is always a win-win for the 54-year-old.

On this morning I was sitting in my worn-out running shorts enjoying a bowl of piping hot porridge. This is typical millennial snowflake behaviour I suppose. Meanwhile, the discussion on GMB had moved onto the topic of mental health.

I won’t take the time to recount the exact details of the discussion here as you can probably view it on STV player or YouTube if your so inclined to. I also think the tail end of the televised conversation is likely the most fascinating and stinging part.

It all ended with Mr Piers Morgan concluding that as a society we all needed to “man up” a bit. This really hit home with me and here’s why. I don’t take issue with using the pre-mentioned words per say as I’ve often used them myself in jest.

However, there is one setting where I think these words and the advice to “man up” should be avoided at all costs. This is when speaking to people who are struggling with their mental health.

As well as those with diagnosed mental health conditions, I would also refer to anyone who hasn’t been feeling quite themselves of late. This is easily all of us at given times in our lives and I’m convinced that when his massive ego allows it, even Mr Morgan admits he’s feeling down in the dumps. Maybe he feels some sadness at the realisation that he’s almost like a puppet. A puppet for outrage who spends his waking hours shouting like a dying dinosaur at the younger generations because they experience human feelings.

It was the documentary maker, Michael Moore, who described Donald Trump and everything he encompasses as being like the “sound of dying dinosaurs” in 2016. That being the politically infamous year Morgan’s friend was on the precipice of becoming the President of the United States.

It’s a good soundbite from Moore but I remain unconvinced about its actual validity. As we now know, President Trump was riding on the crest of a populist wave which may return at the next US elections in 2020. Neither is it perhaps valid when examining the views of the former Daily Mirror editor.

Many of us like to believe we now inhabit a mutually tolerant society which treats issues like mental health with the relevance and respect which they deserve. When it comes to telling anxiety sufferers to “man up”, however, I fear Morgan’s misplaced advice isn’t coming from the mouth of a dying prehistoric creature.

For me this is hugely concerning as using this rhetoric is not only plainly unhelpful, but also dangerous. Although I am of course hypocritical as everyday I tell myself to “man up”.

Feeling sad Finn? Man up. Finding it hard to concentrate on the simplest of tasks Finn? Man up. Worrying yourself into an uncontrollable frenzy Finn? Man up.

Coincidentally, the rest of that given day wasn’t a good one from my perspective. From Piers Morgan’s perspective it might have been a good day. He probably went home and watched a film or read the comments section under his column on Mail Online oblivious to the countless others who are having a bad day. Though perhaps he was having a bad day as well. We’ll never know.

I spent a large part of that day playing out the man up battle in my head. This hadn’t been specifically triggered by the insensitive discussion on GMB that morning but was more because that always how I’ve convinced myself I should cope with an anxiety that I often experience. An anxiety which returns every now and then like an annoying friend your unable to quite cut ties with.

When I struggling to control the anxiety in my complex headspace the last advice I need is to “man up”. I can’t be the only one who tells themselves that their feelings of intense negativity are non-sensical and a waste of other people’s time. I know I’m far from being the only one.

In my opinion, manning up doesn’t equate to having resilience. Today this has seemingly become an equation that is promoted by those who forever hark for the good old days when we all had a stiff upper lip and just go on with it apparently.

There is no doubt freedom of speech is paramount to the foundations of our society, but I shouldn’t be labelled an ultra-politically correct snowflake if I call you out for being horrible. I think telling people with poor mental health to ‘man up’ is quite clearly horrible.

We are reminded during this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week that suicide is currently the largest killer of men between the ages of 15 and 35. Men who on receiving Piers Morgan’s callous piece of advice might not go to their local GP practice when they’re not feeling quite right. Men who will likely factor in feelings of shame and emasculation when considering whether they should open up to their friends and families. Lives are at stake.

This specific age group is often who the older generations seem to enjoy taking aim at. We are labelled weak snowflakes who can’t look after themselves. We are told we don’t have any resilience and any idea how to grow up to be breadwinners for our families.
I was lucky however, as my bad day passed and the next day was great. I went to the beach with my girlfriend and we had ice cream. The sun was shining and for once I was happy to just be living in the moment.

I’m not that naïve though. I realise there is another bad day coming and that I will try my best to face it with all the resilience I can muster. Despite my best efforts, I’ll likely telling myself to man up again and that I should stop being silly. I’ll beat myself up in inside because I’m feeling anxious and a bit miserable.

I guess my overall point is that we don’t need any help with identifying the degradation and attempted normalisation of how we are feeling. We have that part all but nailed on. Instead, we need someone to talk to. Someone who won’t belittle us because we’re not tough enough in their eyes. And by we I mean all of us.

Away Days – Taking the Ferry to Shetland

As I left my flat on a grey Aberdeen afternoon, my legs decided they wanted to take me on a long, winding route to the harbour. It was a Thursday and I should have been attending a lecture like a good student does. However, there was a good reason for my absence as the time had finally arrived to go and visit my girlfriend.

Usually it would have taken me 20 minutes or less to walk to Leah’s flat which is ironically located near the ferry terminal. On this day, however, it was going to take slightly longer and was going to involve a huge test of my pretty non-existent sea legs.
My lack of sea legs had let me down when travelling to the Hebrides in the past and when boarding the Yasawa Flyer to the Fijian islands among other boat-related experiences. I didn’t entrust a huge amount of confidence in them at this point in time, realising it would be an even longer journey if I couldn’t stomach the often unpredictable North Sea waters.

You see Leah is on placement in the Shetland Isles, but more specifically she is on placement in Lerwick, the isles’ largest settlement and a town which is home to the northernmost Tesco in the British Isles. Obviously, this was slightly less exciting than the chance to see Leah again, but it’s a fact worth noting in my opinion.

I boarded the boat a good hour before she was set to leave on her 14-hour voyage. I was very excited, but also hugely nervous. Nervous because I had no sea legs. Nervous because I didn’t know how I was going to keep my ever-restless body entertained for 14-hours. And nervous because I had stupidly been reading up on the shipping forecast and it said it was going to be a little rough.

Just before 5pm the large roll-off role-on ferry left its berth and I was able to take some good photos of the old pilot’s house, my late grandfather’s former place of work. As we left the harbour’s sea wall behind, I realised I wasn’t too displeased at all to be leaving Aberdeen behind for a few days. The Granite City was looking as grey as ever and my mind needed sometime away from the urban sprawl.

Not long after passing the new and more modern pilot house I wondered if my grandfather would have thought I was pathetic for feeling slightly seasick already as we encountered the first North Sea breakers. Having approached my reserved reclining seat nearer the bow of the ship, I quickly realised I wouldn’t be able to stay there for long as a staggered around helplessly, suddenly feeling sick to the gills.

Eventually I was able to steady myself as I became more in tune with the motion of the boat, plonking myself down in the dining area, located near the vessel’s stern.

Occasionally I would step out onto the back deck, the fresh breeze helping as I watched the coastline north of Aberdeen in the fading light. I have no doubt it could have been a lot rougher, but the occasional larger swell would sometimes result in other passengers losing their footing to the cacophony of crashing silverware in the nearby kitchen.

As the Northlink ferry steamed away from the coastline, I was even able to eat something as I gradually began to feel less queasy. My concerns where transferred from my stomach to the adventures of Winston Smith as I dived into reading ‘1984’. I haven’t read many novels in recent years but had completed 200 pages of George Orwell’s terrifying dystopian masterpiece by the time we reached Lerwick.

More importantly, it kept me busy during a long sleepless night in the dining area. I had again attempted to no avail to return to my reclining seat, but despite the calming seas, I was unable to stomach any significant time spent away from my camp out near the vessel’s stern.

At around midnight the MV Hrossey had reached Orkney. I watched the lights of Kirkwall flickering from out on the deck as a sniffer dog smelled me curiously. I wondered how easy it would be to smuggle illegal substances into the Northern Isles, though this dog was more interested in my polos in my pocket.

After departing Kirkwall, the remainder of the journey was punctuated by short cold and uncomfortable bouts of sleep and reading. Unsurprisingly, ‘1984’ wasn’t doing much to lighten the mood as I sat alone, trying to ignore the noticable motion of the boat.
Throughout the night, I often wondered out onto the back deck, shivering uncontrollably as I watched the slight outline of the vessel’s wake as it cut through the icy cold North Sea waters. There was very little else to see except the frequent emergence of the stars in the night sky when the clouds would temporarily clear.

However, I found peace in looking out into the dark abyss as I searched for any distant lights of other boats, land or oil platforms in a natural darkness unlike any other I had ever experienced. There was something mysterious and slightly magical about it all as I looked out into the seemingly never-ending darkness. I almost felt like the world was my oyster, a feeling which had escaped me in recent months.

Eventually, the darkness faded into light as we passed the southern tip of the Shetland mainland, before Lerwick came into view on the starboard side of the boat. My poor stomach was finally able to relax as the Captain skilfully manoeuvred his boat into its berthing spot in the town’s harbour. I had somehow survived the journey without throwing my guts up. Perhaps I do have some sea legs after all.

Before I knew it I was on dry land again and with Leah, having experienced what getting the boat to Shetland is like. It had been a long, tiring journey while being an adventure which had reminded me about how exciting travelling can truly be. It was also worth every second as Leah reminded me when she gave me a big hug in the ferry terminal.

Race Report – Highland Cross 2019

The word ouch can be used to describe any race which I have previously taken part in. The Lumphanan Detox. Ouch. In fact it could be used in many different contexts in my day to day life.

Going over the handlebars on my bike and hitting my head. Ouch. Having my homework thrown into the bin by my IT teacher in a very public display when I was 15. Not forgiven or forgotten Mrs R. Ouch.

Even my easy run today in the sun was pretty sore at some points. However, there is no other word that so aptly sums up this year’s Highland Cross. It hurt. A lot.

My preparations for my third crossing hadn’t been ideal ( getting the excuses in early). I had struggled to train consistently and was gutted that I had decided to sit out the Edinburgh Marathon in May due to a lack of miles in the legs.

In the weeks leading up to the 50 mile duathalon I’d also struggled with the old foot injury which has occasionaly caused some bother for me since running became a hobby. It was touch and go as to whether I would be on the start line in Morvich, but luckily I recovered in the few days before the event. Phew.

This year the set up was different. Our team was composed of My Mum, Auntie Marie and yours truly. It was an absolute family affair and we were all staying in Inverness on the Friday night before.

As usual I didn’t sleep. The seagulls seemingly circled my Holiday Express room window as I tossed and turned throughout the mild summer solstice night.

I wasn’t however, anywhere near as anxious as I had felt before the Cross during the previous two years. I knew what to expect. I knew it was going to be tough.

The next morning I managed to  bypass the usual sickness which made eating difficult and had some porridge around 6.30am after seeing Mum off. She would be walking the route before hopping on her bike for the last 30 miles. This had been tempting as I stressed about my (lack of) fitness in the seven days previous.

Travelling with Marie and Stuart, who was participating as part of another team, we hopped on a bus at Beauly bound for the West Coast.

The journey lasted around two hours as we arrived near Morvich after travelling through some stunning scenery on the road to Kyle of Lochalsh. The rugged mountains, lochs and glorious sunshine acted as a good distraction from thinking about the pain which was now just around the corner.

At 11:00am a gunshot sent us off in a mad scramble for position during the first few miles of double track before the climbs started in earnest. I took it fairly easy, knowing I didn’t have the endurance to sustain such a fast pace that early on.

The heroics could be saved for the last few miles of the run when I thought it likely I’d have to dig deep. And man did I have to dig deep.

After 15 miles of endulating and challenging running I set foot on the Yellow Brick Road. A section of track which is always a struggle as I carried my tired body over seemingly endless track and then tarmac. I was desperate for the transition point to come into view.

I was desperate to get on my bike as my legs tried to convince me to stop. This Yellow Brick Road may not lead to the Emerald City, but it does provide the 700+ runners and walkers with a certain degree of courage.

Knowing the course relatively well this year was both a bonus and a curse as I found myself getting ahead of myself at some points. This meant some sections felt like a drag, albeit through some stunning Highland scenery. I shouldn’t complain really but the run was tough.

Eventually the transition point came into view as I uttered a celebratory “thank f***”. It sounds weird, but I just needed a seat. Even if that seat would be on an uncompromising bike saddle for nearly 30 miles. I don’t just wear lycra shorts to be fashionable you know.

At the transition point the staff, as always, were amazingly helpful as an older man held my bike as I changed my shoes and put my helmet on. He said some encouraging words as I set off down the twisty descent which begins the second leg of the crossing.

It was on this technical descent that I lost concentration and nearly came off on a nasty corner. That had been the second squeaky bum time moment of the day after I stumbled during the run.

Fortunately I was able to correct before I landed in a ditch at speeds in excess of 30mph. Once again, I’d been lucky.

Carrying on towards Beauly I was able to slipstream for a while before riding away from the competitors I had been working with in a short lived chaingang. My legs started to fail me on the last few short climbs as I struggled to stay focused on completing the last few miles towards the finish line.

My motivation wasn’t to beat my best time as by this point I was pretty sure this was now unattainable. Instead, my main motivation was finishing.

The extra motivation being that my girlfriend had travelled to Beauly especially to see me. Even after  had warned her about the lycra. Ultimately, this kept me going as waves of low blood sugar infused nausea and pain washed over me. Ouch.

As I tentatively rounded the last bend into Beauly my main concern was an unusual one. I knew I’d now finish and hopefully in a decent enough time.

Instead, I was concerned I would throw up the content of my breakfast when I arrived in the square. For this reason I was really hoping Leah wasn’t standing beside the finish line.

Fantastically my wish wasn’t granted and I was welcomed across the line by a beaming Leah who gave me a big hug before I wondered through the crowds to receive my medal. I had survived another year and hadn’t thrown up in front of my girlfriend and the other spectators. Life was good.

A flat coca cola later, and my nausea was gone as I watched Marie finishing in a decent time. Our team had done well as I unfortunately missed Mum coming in.

Mum had also done brilliantly as I met her after the event, interrupting her from a very messy but well deserved chocolate eating session. There must be something good in Granny Helen’s soup.

All in all it was another great crossing and I would love to return next year, perhaps with the same team if they can convince themselves to face the tough challenge which is the Highland Cross. Ouch.

Distance: 48 miles (77 km)

Time: 4:33:07