Tony Ward: Farrell’s lack of impact means Sexton should start – but it’s still a mammoth task
It was without doubt the best performance of the tour, and still the Lions were hammered. I say hammered because while the difference in...
It was without doubt the best performance of the tour, and still the Lions were hammered. I say hammered because while the difference in...
God be with the days when you dare not change a winning side or further back again when the Irish team was harder to get off than to get on.
Whatever your views on the concept, there is no denying that tomorrow's first Test between the...
The purpose of the exercise in Hamilton yesterday was to accentuate the positive for the Lions and in almost every respect the midweek 'trackers' did...
As Test rugby goes, the USA was a doddle. Just what the doctor ordered for Joe Schmidt in terms of performance and result.
By common consensus, tomorrow's clash with the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua represents the unofficial fourth Test. As dress rehearsals for the Lions go, this is as big as it gets.
In the end it represented a second defeat in four and yet it has been a good five days for the Lions ahead of the games of consequence - the Test series. Do I like watching the best of the four home countries play the game in the manner they have been doing so far on this tour? No, but I understand why.
Many first-choice names might be either injured or on Lions duty but the Ireland team picked by Joe Schmidt to take on USA Eagles is a statement of intent.
The easy option for those outside the sacred circle is to stick the boot in. My own feeling on Wednesday when watching a second shapeless Lions performance - particularly in attacking terms was one of sadness.
As false starts go - short of losing - let's hope this is as false as it gets. Given the gulf in class and experience in Whangarei, the Lions were putrid. That they will improve beyond recognition is a given; for the simple reason they have to.
On a May Monday morning back in 1980, I received three urgent messages at my then place of work in Limerick.
I heard it suggested in the immediate aftermath of the Guinness Pro12 final that although the Scarlets deserved to win, the Welshmen were flattered...
Since 2010 when the Guinness PRO12/Celtic League returned to the knockout format fo the season finale, Leinster had (prior to last weekend)...
While the Pool draw for the 2019 World Cup could scarcely have been any kinder, it is also unfortunately a double-edged sword.
All rational evidence points to one outcome at Murrayfield today. Whereas football doesn't, as a matter of course, translate territory or indeed possession into anything tangible, positional supremacy in rugby tends to see the scoreboard ticking over. In that key respect, no team right now plays the percentages better than Saracens.
The timing of tomorrow's World Cup draw in Kyoto is not ideal, coming more than two years before the tournament kicks off, but it's a reasonable compromise.
A rising tide lifts all boats - or so the aphorism goes. Such might be the case from time to time in economic language but certainly not where rugby is concerned and most definitely not in club terms.
There's something rotten in the state of Ulster. Generally, it has been a good season for the provinces, with Leinster and Munster reaching the last four of the Champions Cup and guaranteeing home semi-finals in the Guinness PRO12.
Given that we're almost at that time of the year when the provinces give out the gongs for outstanding performances, we thought we would get our retaliation in first and nominate our top ten performers from all four over the course of the season to date.
No sooner has the Six Nations finished, the Lions squad been announced and the Champions Cup finalists for 2017 decided and the World Cup draw for Japan comes firmly into view. World Rugby and the Japanese organising committee will host the Pool draw for 2019 tomorrow fortnight, May 10, in Kyoto's State Guest House - the same venue used to host the G7 summit in 2016.
So for the fifth year running we have a Champions Cup final minus an Irish presence. In a frank and honest assessment of the weekend semi-finals Munster were comprehensively outplayed while Leinster could and perhaps should have got to a fourth final. Just where does that leave Irish rugby? In as good a place as it did before either went into semi-final action.
Despite all the doom and gloom of recent seasons - reaching a nadir last season when no Irish side reached the Champions Cup quarter-finals - we are 160 minutes away from an All-Ireland final.
Tomorrow the white smoke will finally rise above the Hilton Hotel in London as Warren Gatland unveils his initial 37-man Lions squad for the tour to New Zealand.
Early on Tuesday morning Christy Cantillon informed the Munster team of 1978, courtesy of WhatsApp, that former coach Fergus Walsh had unexpectedly passed away. The reaction across the board was one of shock, allied to fond memories of the lovely man that Fergus was.
On Wednesday, head coach Warren Gatland will announce his British and Irish Lions squad for 2017. Central to that eagerly-awaited presentation will be the unveiling of the player chosen to lead the Lions on what is their greatest adventure but also the most difficult tour of all.
On Saturday at Myreside, Steve Crosbie kicked 17 points in Connacht's 22-19 win over Edinburgh.
Over the weekend SANZAAR announced the reduction of Super Rugby teams from 18 teams to 15.
I suggested ahead of Munster's kick-off with Toulouse, that the biggest game for the southern province in recent times represented the ideal opportunity - in practical and psychological terms - for Rassie Erasmus to nail his colours firmly to the red mast.
For sure Irish rugby is back at the top end of the European game - not that we had ever gone away.
According to Rassie Erasmus, rumour linking him with a return to South Africa "is really speculation"
Leinster and Munster have had very different build-ups to the biggest games of their season today.
They say the cream rises to the top and yesterday in much improved weather at Donnybrook it certainly did. Pre-tournament favourites St Michael's deservedly captured the Leinster Junior Cup for the fourth time in the school's history.
Last Thursday, the Irish Independent announced its Leinster Schools Senior Cup Team of the Tournament.
There is no good time for bad news, but for Munster, confirmation that Donnacha Ryan is to leave is hardly ideal preparation ahead of the biggest game of their season.
For the second year running CJ Stander looks set to be voted Irish Player of the Year. Whether it is IRUPA (players) or RWI (rugby writers) making that award, the adopted Munster man has been the epitome of consistency and our outstanding international player by a country mile. Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong come closest, with Johnny Sexton also hitting top gear in his three games played.
Invariably when people select their best teams from a tournament the most recent in the memory tends to have the most obvious impact. So in an attempt to be fair we'll try and stretch it out over all five rounds.
All rational evidence ahead of the chariot's arrival pointed to one logical outcome. Oh, we of little faith. I've been in that dressing room on a number of occasions with the English down the corridor and I know what that means. But even by 'auld enemy' standards this was special.
For the second year running and 12th time in all, the cup made its way north of the Liffey as Belvedere defended their title with incredible resilience and no little discipline at a wet and windy RDS yesterday.
Those of a certain vintage will recall the Frankie Goes To Hollywood hit of the early eighties. As soon as Eddie Jones announced his team and Joe Schmidt followed suit, the refrain from 'Two Tribes' - when two tribes go to war - was rattling around inside my head.
For the third year running Belvedere will grace the Leinster Schools Senior Cup final as Max Kearney's talented squad look to make it back-to-back success for the first time since 1971/72 against Blackrock.
Back in 1970 a Rockwell team that included future Ireland international Paul McNaughton broke Glenstal hearts.
For the second year running, it will be a Blackrock v St Michael's Leinster Schools Junior Cup final and, on this impressive evidence, the Ailesbury Road school will need to be on top of their game if they are to wrest the title from the reigning champions.
This is a class St Michael's side, probably the best ever to emerge from the Ailesbury Road school, but yesterday at Donnybrook they were rattled by a gallant Newbridge effort as they reached their 11th Junior final.
After a defeat as disappointing as the one Ireland suffered in Cardiff on Friday night, there's often a clamour for change but it's pointless bringing in young players just for the sake of seeing fresh faces.
The home of Welsh rugby in the heart of the Welsh capital is a stadium like no other on big match day. Roof on or off, the atmosphere in the Millennium Stadium is electric.
I hate the removal of the traditional Five/Six Nations holy day. Saturday was, and I believe still should be, the sacred playing day.
I must confess to having mixed feelings about Ian Madigan's latest move.
For the third year running, the black and white of Belvedere will adorn the final as the holders overcame great Jesuit rivals Clongowes at Donnybrook to qualify for the St Patrick's Day decider.
What is the key position on a modern-day rugby team? Some would argue tighthead, others scrum-half, many out-half, perhaps the No 8?
I won't reveal his name but well do I recall an Irish replacement chewing on a lump of cake when he was called into action some years ago.
I hope I am wrong, but for all the talk of a new attacking direction for French rugby under Guy Noves, I just don't see it. I will head to the Aviva today on the back of two decent Gallic performances hoping for the best but fearing the worst.
The failure to leave the traps in the first half at Murrayfield showed that Ireland are an inconsistent, still developing team. The upshot of that defeat is that every game is effectively a knockout in terms of our title hopes.
At the start of the season when I was browsing through the French squads before for the Champions Cup, I was slightly taken aback when I came to Bordeaux-Begles.
To say the last two weeks have been confusing is an understatement. Ireland are neither the over-hyped mugs, as suggested in some quarters post-Murrayfield, nor indeed are we favourites for the next World Cup post-Rome.
When the rumour mill had it that Jono Gibbes was set to replace Pat Lam in the Connacht hot-seat, I thought, wow, the Westerners couldn't have done any better. That rumour was soon scotched and the void remains.
I'll stop short of saying they've repaid the debt in full, but certainly those given the chance to make good the loss in Murrayfield did so to telling effect. Rome wasn't built in a day, and certainly this squad has still a bit to go to get back where it was on that memorable afternoon in Chicago.
Ireland started the Six Nations in the running for three trophies and, thanks largely to 50 listless minutes, we are already out of two of them. Losing the chance at both Grand Slam and Triple Crown at Murrayfield was a high price to pay for what was a most 'un-Joe Schmidt-like' performance.
It's been a sad few days for rugby at home and abroad with the passing of former South African great Joost van der Westhuizen and the Leinster chief medical officer for the best part of 20 years, Professor Arthur Tanner.
Let's cut to the chase. For the guts of 40 minutes in Murrayfield on Saturday we were awful. The final flurry wasn't too hot either, but in between we got a glimpse of what this squad is capable of producing.
Close to two years ago, on March 21 to be precise, we were treated to the most exciting day in Five/Six Nations history.
With due respect to schools and club rugby, they represent the calm before the storm as the Six Nations comes firmly into view. Just days to go and already anticipation is at an unprecedented high, particularly in this neck of the woods.
Following a most productive autumn campaign the contentious positions are at full back, a second-row partner for Devin Toner and (as ever) balance in the back row.
I was never great at maths in school but one thing I'm pretty sure about is that three into one won't go. Yet in Joe Schmidt's utopian world of coaching that is the Holy Grail.
Twelve months on from the doom and gloom that followed Ireland's World Cup exit and the subsequent provincial wipeout in the Champions Cup, things could not be looking much better for Joe Schmidt.
There have been a number of key pieces to the Connacht jigsaw but, relative to what has been achieved in recent times, two men stand apart.
Just to refresh the memory: last year, with the Irish sides out of it, 19 proved the magic number in the Champions Cup, with Northampton and Stade Francais going through as second and third best of the Pool runners-up on that mark.
The fixtures continue to come hot and heavy as the cream of European rugby (with the odd exception) go at it with all guns blazing over the next two weekends.
Let's begin with the absolute positive: this was the Munster of old in Europe. The two-time winners could hardly have honoured their fallen coach in a more fitting manner.
I guess we all have many and varying memories of that extraordinary few days in our lives back in October. When news came through from Paris that Munster head coach Anthony Foley had passed away in his hotel room overnight I guess it didn't register straight away. Certainly that was the case with me.
The winner of the festive interpro segment? Without a doubt Munster. Nine points out of ten, including a win at the home of the Pro12 champions, is as generous as Santa could possibly have been, given the circumstances.
From a Munster perspective, and as the late great Moss Keane might have put it, "the first half was even, the second even better".
Between the opening international in Chicago against New Zealand and the final Test of the November series at home to Australia, Joe Schmidt used 20 players in his run-on team.
What a difference a year makes. Pardon the festive pun but this time last year our Champions Cup goose was already cooked, and so it came to pass, with no Irish representation in the knockout stages for the first time since 1998.
Rugby should be on a high. With three wins from four for the provinces last weekend and the return legs of the double-headers to come today and tomorrow, the European buzz is back.
Before Round 3, I expressed the view that winning the Champions Cup might prove beyond the capability of our teams this season.
Back in the day, I played in an exhibition game in Bermuda. The main event, involving many of the prominent internationals of the time, was preceded by a warm-up match between two ladies teams over from the USA.
This time last year the game here was on the deck. After the World Cup and our ignominious exit to Argentina, it was as if our rugby Hindenburg had been deflated. Injuries to key players ultimately put a halt to our ambition but, if we're brutally honest, we were all guilty of raising the bar much too high in advance of a tournament mapped in Irish minds to the final or at least to an unprecedented semi-final.
I don't get the timing of this announcement at all. Let's get one thing clear: Pat Lam has revolutionised Connacht Rugby. Not only has he brought a winning mentality, and with it a first ever trophy, but he has engineered a style of play that is now the envy of teams everywhere.
What is it about Joe Schmidt? Back in August 2010, I happened to bump into Frank O'Driscoll, dad of Brian, as the pre-season was well under way. Needless to say, we discussed all things rugby at the time but the main point from that particular conversation was his comment in relation to his son.
There have been many great Irish performances and many great Irish victories down through the years but few if any to compare with the 80 plus minutes of heroic rugby we witnessed in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
From the frying pan into the fire. We don't want to tempt fate but this evening's Guinness Autumn International against Australia - the 33rd between the countries - has all the ingredients for another bruising encounter not a million miles from what we witnessed at the Aviva just seven days ago.
In all the excitement surrounding the All Blacks' visit to Dublin, Florence didn't really register, yet when the result came through that Italy had defeated South Africa, my heart skipped a beat.
As coincidence would have it I bumped into Gay Byrne in the RTE Radio centre on the Sunday following Ireland's win over the Canadians.
In four days' time at the Aviva Stadium, we have the opportunity to complete the most incredible calendar year in Irish rugby history.
Let me clear up a couple of myths. No matter what the outcome this evening what transpired at the Soldier Field in Chicago a fortnight ago can never be erased. The result, the score but more than anything the manner of the victory is indelibly etched in Irish sporting folklore.
It's been an extraordinary few weeks for Irish rugby with such a range of emotions packed into such a short period.
Put yourself in Joe Schmidt's shoes. You've just achieved the greatest 'friendly' result in the history of Irish rugby and you're facing the same world champion opposition in seven days' time. In between, as in later today at the Aviva, you're taking on the ever-developing Canadians. Do you opt for a large dollop of continuity or do you field a shadow 15 - those players on the fringe and not involved in the starting line-up in Chicago?
Let's try and keep a bit of perspective here. Beating New Zealand for the first time doesn't mean we are going to win the next World Cup.
Sporting friends are for life. In Chicago, I had the pleasant surprise of bumping into one of my team-mates from my first game for Munster, back in 1976.
Today Ireland take on New Zealand for only the second time on neutral territory - the Chicago showdown will, I suspect, lead to many more coffer-filling 'friendlies' of this nature.
So it's advantage Munster and Leinster as thoughts turn to the ultimate challenge in Chicago in four days' time.
A squad of 34 for the upcoming Autumn Internationals, and I guess specifically the Chicago leg of the All Blacks games, was declared by Joe Schmidt on Wednesday. It is built largely upon expected lines and yet crucially the door is still open following the latest series of interprovincial games, last night in Belfast and later today at the RDS.
They say timing is everything, and while it may not have been the best-kept secret in the world, the news that Joe Schmidt has signed a new contract with the IRFU to continue as head coach up until the end of the 2019 World Cup could hardly be better timed.
In all the tributes paid to Anthony Foley, there was one use of the word 'great' that really captured my attention. It was used by Axel's former skipper and mentor with Shannon and Munster, Mick Galwey, when describing the celebration of Anthony's life in St Flannan's church in Killaloe as one of attending "a great funeral".
Thomond Park has hosted some extraordinary occasions since the first game was played there in 1934. Not for nothing was the official history of the great Limerick ground titled Where Miracles Happen.
As I write this, it's not yet 24 hours since the words 'Anthony Foley dies in Paris hotel' ran across the bottom of my TV screen. Like many, I was watching the Ulster game in Bordeaux, eagerly awaiting the Munster match in Paris to kick off straight after.
Sometimes words just fail. Yesterday at around 2pm when news came through from Paris of Anthony Foley's tragic passing, I, like I'm sure so many, found myself bereft of logic. I mean what do you say about a recently retired professional sportsman with his full life to live and still only starting out on that exciting journey beyond playing?
Hard to believe I know but this is the 22nd playing of what is now the European Champions Cup. The trophy, albeit in its previous ERC Heineken Cup existence, has made its way to these shores at the climax of six of those tournaments.
The issue of performance-enhancing drugs in rugby has reared its head yet again with the doping controversy surrounding Racing 92 trio Dan Carter, Juan Imhoff and Joe Rokocoko, who all tested positive for corticosteroids after the Top 14 final victory over Toulon.
So much for the posturing, this is the real thing. Leinster v Munster has been the biggest club rivalry in the world since the game went pro.
If Sam Maguire's victory parade marks the official end to the GAA championships, then Munster rocking up against Leinster represents the real start to the rugby season - with the big European fare following hot on the derby's heels.
Today in Belfast and Cardiff the top four meet, with Ulster entertaining the Ospreys and the Blues taking on Leinster at the Arms Park. It is still very early days but the most noticeable feature is a massive gap of some seven points between sixth-placed Glasgow and the Newport Gwent Dragons in seventh.
Things are looking pretty good for Ulster, Leinster and Munster as the more serious stuff comes into view - particularly Ulster.
Warren Gatland's 2017 tourists are apparently set to become the highest-paid Lions in history.
On Sunday, the greatest team in the recent history of Gaelic football had a blip. It happens. Two weeks earlier, the Kilkenny team that had dominated hurling for so long was dethroned.
When Bill Beaumont and Agustin Pichot were elected World Rugby chairman and vice-chairman in May, the big issues facing them were the rugby calendar and the three-year residency rule, which is making a mockery of international rugby.
You can't really argue with the appointment of Warren Gatland as head coach for a second successive Lions tour.
There was a time not so long ago when even the hint of a southern hemisphere accent was a passport to a coaching job in this country.
Clearly it wasn't part of any masterplan from within Leinster, yet my immediate reaction on hearing of Stuart Lancaster's arrival as 'senior coach' was 'masterstroke'.
On Sunday I was privileged to be part of a Croke Park full house that witnessed one of the great Gaelic football matches of this or any other generation.
Where is Marty McFly when we need him most? Oh to be able to turn back that clock.
In the end it proved a hurdle much too high as England comfortably lifted their third World Rugby U-20 title. We were gutsy to a fault, but that summing up has echoes of the days when Irish rugby teams gave their all only to come up short and be described in the aftermath as 'plucky'.
Later on today in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and soon after in Manchester, England an extraordinarily long rugby season comes to an end. A long overdue end but what a climax for Irish rugby. Turn the clock back to this time last year and the excitement was palpable. The build-up to Rugby World Cup 2015 was under way and, if we're honest, our expectations far exceeded our...