New Zealand 60, Ireland 0: What the hell happened to Ireland??

After almost racking up their first non-defeat by the All Blacks last weekend in Christchurch, with the All Blacks winning the game on a last minute drop-goal by Dan Carter, Ireland decided to get the whole pesky “end of game” collapse out of the way in the first 20 minutes of their third Test Saturday in Hamilton. The 60-0 final score was the worst defeat ever by the Irish at New Zealand’s hands, just seven days off from having almost beaten the All Blacks for the first time ever.

Ireland’s collapse started off strong, giving away four tries in the first 22 minutes to the All Blacks, including a back-to-back pair to… wait for it… (no not Gavin Henson)… reputed soon-to-be-returning to Rugby League star Sonny Bill Williams.

The Irish never appeared to be very comfortable, especially once New Zealand took such a commanding 26-0 lead in the first quarter of the game. Ireland were never able to capitalize after captain Brian O’Driscoll started to engineer a drive into New Zealand territory. At the half, Irish fullback Rob Kearney intercepted a pass that would have led to yet another New Zealand try, but the ref decided he deliberately knocked it on, gave  Kearney a 10-minute yellow card, and gave a penalty for the All Blacks, who tacked on a three-point penalty kick to go into the half leading 29-0.

The second half looked no better for the Irish, as the All Blacks picked up where they left off, charging through a battered Irish defense time and again to score nearly at will. By the time it was over the Irish looked dejected, bewildered, wondering if anyone got the name of the train that ran over them in Hamilton.

Unfortunately, last week’s question of “what could have been” has been replaced by “what the hell happened?” Both are questions that will take a long time to answer.  And the way the tour schedule is firming up for the future, Saturday was the last time in the next 12 years that Ireland had a chance at gaining their first win against New Zealand, outside of any possible faceoffs in the World Cup.

Brian O’Driscoll, Injuries, and the “Club vs. Country” Debate

Ireland center Brian O’Driscoll might become the latest Rugby World Cup casualty to take an extended leave of absence from the rugby pitch.

After gutting through the Rugby World Cup, thanks in large part to cortisone injections according to ESPN Scrum, O’Driscoll, 32, is at risk of having to get surgery for an injured shoulder so he can play for RaboDirect PRO 12 team Leinster. According to Leinster coach Joe Schmidt:

“He’s a fairly precious commodity, BOD, so we want to make sure we don’t play him in the condition that’s going to affect him in the future and we look after him as best we can. Because if we can get him right, he’s a fairly handy fellah to have.”

This brings up the question of club vs. country once again. It’s considered the greatest honor for a player to be selected for their country, but in an age of professionalism teams have to ask how best to balance both commitments for players. These professional teams are paying thousands of dollars/pounds/euros for the services of these players,and have as much of a right to these players’ efforts.

If they aren’t available because of injuries sustained in the line of their international duty, then I’m sure many of these teams feel that steps need to be taken. Whether it’s the professional team being compensated part of their salary spent on the player by the country, or another agreement between the competition, teams and country.

I’m sure there are those who have a counter opinion, that national team matches are more important than professional team expectations. They might even wish to point to soccer or basketball as an example, that it is possible to play for both team and nation.

As anyone who has ever been on the rugby pitch knows, rugby is a more physical sport than either of those two sports. Placing the same expectations on a rugby player that fans might have on a soccer player are more likely to wear down the rugger, increasing the chances for additional injuries.

Professional rugby players already have a too-long season to contend with, but to pile on additional national team duties, or visiting international tours on top of that might be pushing these athletes to, or beyond, their physical limits.

How Fare the Mighty Eagles Thus Far? #rugbyworldcup

The Rugby World Cup continues to charge on, a couple of weeks into the extravaganza that happens every four years. The United States National Team has a lot of pride on the line if they want to show improvement over their 2007 World Cup nightmare, where they lost every match. They are two games in, and surprisingly the Eagles have shown more than just a strong heart and a desire for “a good showing.”

Ireland 22, USA 10

It’s hard to tell which narrative is more true in this game – was the U.S. that inspired, able to hold #8 Ireland to a 12-point victory, or was the Irish play really that off, not able to score more than 22 points against a nation that is still (as I’m sure many rugby nations are truly thrilled with) just a small moon in the great Rugby Universe.

(“That’s not a moon… it’s a space station.”)

As is usually the case, it’s a little bit of both.

The Eagles, led by captain Todd Clever on the openside flank, anchored a pesky defense against Ireland in the first half, holding Ireland to a 10-0 lead at halftime despite the fact that Ireland’s forwards dominated the U.S. at each set peace. Clever was a one-man swarm around the ball in the first half, stuffing Ireland’s rucks and backing up U.S. runners on the rare occasions they had the ball.

But this was the case where a team that had more time training together would eventually prevail – Ireland’s pace, fitness and working as a unit eventually ground down the U.S. pack, who fought this losing battle almost completely inside their own side of the pitch in the second half, and the three Irish tries came out of forward play.

USA 13, Russia 6

This tenacious US defense continued when they faced Russia.  In their most recent game, the Eagles squeaked away their third victory ever in the Rugby World Cup with a 13-6 win over the mighty Russian Bears – the lowest scoring World Cup match since Australia’s 12-6 win over England in the ’91 finals, and a far sight from New Zealand’s 145-17 victory over Japan in the ‘95 World Cup.

“Delighted with the win and the performance of the team. We retained our intensity and work rate from the Ireland game. We knew Russia would play to the very end, and we prepared for that eventuality. We had Russian under pressure on numerous occasions, but they defended really well and made us work for every score we got,” said Eagles Head Coach, Eddie O’Sullivan.

The only try of the game came from Eagles’ scrumhalf Mike Petri, off of a pass from first five Roland Suniula and who crossed the try line 20-minutes into the game, carrying a Russian tackler on his back.

This was an important game for both sides, not just because it was seen as the only game that either team might win, but also because the two teams are ranked right next to each other in the IRB World Rankings – with the USA ranked 18th and Russia 19th. In recent matches where the US was ranked just above their opponent, such as Georgia and Tonga, the US came out on the losing side, then flipping places with their opponent.

The Eagles now have to prepare for their toughest match of the tournament, their Sept. 23 showdown with Australia in Wellington. A game that the United States is not likely to be competitive in, while Australia is expected to rest some of their starters.