England beat Wales in 6 Nations opener

Mike Brown leads England victory celebrations in Cardiff

Mike Brown leads England victory celebrations in Cardiff

WALES: 16 ENGLAND: 21

England's World Cup year gained lift-off at the Millennium Stadium as they launched their RBS 6 Nations campaign by recording a stirring victory over Wales.

Unlike in 2013 on their last Cardiff visit when England were humiliated by a record 27-point margin, this time Chris Robshaw's men delivered when it mattered.

Despite falling 10 points behind early on to a Rhys Webb try, plus a Leigh Halfpenny conversion and penalty, England built on some mighty work by their forwards as Bath backs and Six Nations debutants Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph both claimed touchdowns.

Fly-half George Ford added three penalties and a conversion – his second strike after Wales wing Alex Cuthbert had been sin-binned – while Wales failed to score in the second period after another Halfpenny penalty and a Dan Biggar drop-goal had given them what appeared to be a solid advantage.

The teams meet again in a crunch World Cup pool game at Twickenham on September 26, and England struck a psychological blow by outmuscling Wales up-front as flanker James Haskell, number eight Billy Vunipola and prop Dan Cole all produced five-star performances.

It was arguably the most notable and important win of Stuart Lancaster's coaching reign, especially given the number of players he lost beforehand through injury, with England now set up for a major tilt at Six Nations silverware.

Wales, though, will need to take a long hard look at themselves ahead of what promises to be a testing encounter against Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday week.

After the match, it emerged that captain Chris Robshaw responded to Welsh mind games in the tunnel moments before kick-off as he held back his players from running out at the Millennium Stadium until the last possible moment.

Stuart Lancaster's men had been told to run out on to the pitch but with Wales still in their changing room, they knew they would be kept waiting on a bitterly cold night at the Millennium Stadium.

In scenes that evoked memories of Martin Johnson's refusal to move his England team at Ireland's request as they lined up before completing a Grand Slam in Dublin 12 years ago, Robshaw told his players to remain in the tunnel.

"We wanted to have a bit of control. We didn't want to be out there. You saw when we actually were out there the lights were off," Robshaw said.

"I'm sure Wales would have made us wait for five minutes in the field. There was a little bit of that, but we stood our ground and went out when the referee said we needed to.

"We just didn't want to go out on to the pitch 10 minutes before they came out, it's as simple as that

"We didn't want to play any tricks or mind games, we just wanted to go out when they did.

"The referee didn't make us go out. We didn't want to wait and play sportsman's tricks, so we waited in the changing room and then in the tunnel together for as long as possible.

"When the referee said it was time to go, we went. He came out with us. We weren't going to be told to go out 10 or 15 minutes before they came out."

A Feast of four Grade 1s including the Hennessy Gold Cup this Sunday

Boston Bob will be at Leopardstown this weekend

Boston Bob will be at Leopardstown this weekend

Leopardstown will host four Grade 1 races with prize money of half a million this Sunday on Hennessy Gold Cup Day, one of the highlights of the national hunt season in Ireland.

Only two weeks ago, Champion trainer Willie Mullins created a piece of history at Leopardstown with Hurricane Fly and now he will bid for a potential 10th win of the Hennessy Gold Cup, a record which is unprecedented and unparalleled.   He will run both Boston Bob and On His Own in the €150,000 contest while First Lieutenant, trained by Mouse Morris, flies the flag for Gigginstown House Stud. 

Recent Leopardstown winner Foxrock will take his chances as will John Kiely’s Carlingford Lough.  Jim Culloty will run last season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere.  Noel Meade will run Texas Jack, while Henry de Bromhead’s Home Farm completes the declared field of eight runners. 

The €85,000 Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase, formerly run as the Dr. P.J. Moriarty Novice Chase, has a field of nine contestants and looks to be a cracker.  Again, Willie Mullins looks to have a strong hand with three entries including Valseur Lido and Jarry D’Honneur, the recent Punchestown winner and Adriana Des Mottes, a Fairyhouse winner last November.  Another notable entry is Le Vent D’Antan, a Christmas Festival Winner for Liz Doyle.

A total of 9 horses will run in  the €90,000 Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle headed by the recent Naas Grade 1 winner Mckinley and Mullins’ Alvisio Ville, who impressed at the Leopardstown Christmas festival.  Dermot Weld will be represented by Silver Concorde and Windsor Park.

A field of eight horses will compete for the €85,000 Grade 1 Gala Retail Spring Juvenile Hurdle. Noel Meade’s Officieux made all the running to win at Fairyhouse last time while Chatham House Rule scored in good style for Gordon Elliott at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve.  Elliott also has his Limerick winner Vercingetorix in the race and Willie Mullins has two horses running with Kalkir and Petite Parisienne. 

Ireland name team for 6 Nations opener

Sean O'Brien fit for Ireland

Sean O’Brien fit for Ireland

Sean O’Brien will start Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations opener in Rome – just eight days after his first action in five months.

The combative British and Irish Lions flanker will play his first Test since November 2013 against Italy on Saturday, to offset the absence of Jamie Heaslip.

Vice-captain Heaslip misses out through shoulder trouble, so O'Brien's experience will ease the pressure on four-cap number eight Jordi Murphy – a Six Nations debutant.

Munster's Ian Keatley has held off the challenge of Ian Madigan to start at fly-half, the 27-year-old taking his Six Nations bow in what will be his fourth cap.

Leinster flanker O'Brien featured in Ireland Wolfhounds' 18-9 defeat to England Saxons in Cork on January 30, ending 14 months battling two shoulder reconstructions.

Now the 30-cap loose forward can reignite his Test career that has stalled since he first damaged his shoulder in Ireland's 24-22 New Zealand defeat in the autumn of 2013.

Leinster's hugely talented back-rower Murphy slots in for Heaslip, with Ireland keen not to risk one of their most experienced stars as he recovers from a shoulder niggle.

Ulster's Jared Payne partners Connacht battering ram Robbie Henshaw in the centres, with Ireland boss Joe Schmidt confirming the duo as his first-choice midfield pairing for the first time.

Payne and Henshaw worked in tandem in the autumn, but Gordon D'Arcy's injury absence allowed Ireland to defer the decision on the long-term replacement for the now-retired Brian O'Driscoll.

Henshaw has long been pencilled in as record caps holder O'Driscoll's successor, but could now ultimately end up replacing D'Arcy in Schmidt's greater scheme.

New Zealand-born Payne has featured at full-back most regularly for Ulster this term, but will pick up where he left off from Ireland's autumn at outside centre.

Veteran midfielder D'Arcy's omission from the entire match squad indicates the size of the task facing the 34-year-old to force his way back into contention.

Stalwart front-rower Mike Ross starts at tighthead despite lagging behind Marty Moore in Leinster's pecking order in recent weeks.

The 35-year-old remains Ireland's only ever-present selection under Kiwi boss Schmidt.

Ross fended off a month of groin trouble to feature in all three autumn Tests, and continues to remain one of Schmidt's most trusted lieutenants.

Ireland team to face Italy at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday (kick-off 1430GMT): R Kearney (Leinster), T Bowe, J Payne (both Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), S Zebo, I Keatley, C Murray (all Munster), J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross, D Toner (both Leinster), P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony (both Munster), S O'Brien, J Murphy (both Leinster).

Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), J Cronin (Munster), M Moore (Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), T O'Donnell (Munster), I Boss, I Madigan (both Leinster), F Jones (Munster).

Ireland given Conor Murray fitness boost

Conor Murray fit for Ireland

Conor Murray fit for Ireland

Conor Murray has been passed fit for Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations opener against Italy in Rome.

The British and Irish Lions scrum-half has battled neck trouble for the last month but is back in full training and ready to start Saturday's Stadio Olimpico clash.

Ireland team manager Mick Kearney admitted "some small doubt" over number eight Jamie Heaslip, who is carrying a shoulder injury.

Fit-again Sean O'Brien is fit to face the Italians if required, though Ireland may choose not to risk the combative flanker who is finally past 14 months of shoulder problems.

Cian Healy remains in line to return from a long-term hamstring injury to face France in round two, with Johnny Sexton expecting the all-clear on Thursday for the Dublin clash with Les Bleus on Valentine's Day.

"Conor Murray trained well on Friday and he progressed to full contact training," said Kearney. 

"He has seen a specialist, we had an open training session in the Aviva (Stadium) on Friday and Conor took a full part in that.

"There was some minor contact in that session but he came through it really well, and we would expect that Conor would be available for selection."

Munster scrum-half Murray's fitness will be a clear boost when Ireland launch the defence of their Six Nations crown against the Azzurri this weekend.

Only last week boss Joe Schmidt was sweating on injuries to both front-line scrum-halves – Murray and Leinster's Eoin Reddan – but now both could face Italy.

Racing Metro fly-half Sexton will miss Saturday's tournament opener as he completes his enforced 12-week lay-off after a string of concussions.

Ireland bosses expect the Lions playmaker to receive the all-clear in time to train fully next week, in a bid to return against France on February 14.

"Jamie Heaslip continues to rehab his shoulder and we are hopeful that he'll train fully tomorrow," said Kearney. "I would say there's probably some small doubt about him, but he's recovered really well.

"Jamie being the professional athlete that he is, he really does look after his body extremely well and would have worked on it over the weekend.

"So I suppose the next day or two will tell a lot, but there would be a small degree of doubt about him, maybe, yes. We are hopeful Cian Healy will return to full training at some stage this week.

"Depending on how he goes this week, if he comes through some tests he will be allowed to train fully for the rest of the week.

"I suppose if that happens with Cian, given the athlete that he is, I would expect that he would be in consideration for the French game, yes.

"Eoin Reddan is making good progress from a knee ligament injury and we're hopeful that he'll train tomorrow also. Jonathan Sexton is seeing his neurologist in Paris on Thursday.

"I must say he's been in camp all last week, he's trained really well, very focused, taking a full part except for the full contact.

"So he'll see his neurologist on Thursday, hopefully he'll get a clean bill of health and it will be all systems go for the following week."

Wing Dave Kearney is expected to be fit for selection against Italy despite suffering a nasty shoulder injury in Leinster's 20-20 Champions Cup draw with Wasps on January 24.

Lock Mike McCarthy has not been ruled out of the Italy clash despite suffering a heavy concussion in Friday night's Ireland Wolfhounds match, while Luke Fitzgerald has recovered from illness.

Ireland team boss Kearney also confirmed flanker O'Brien came through the Wolfhounds clash unscathed.

"Sean came through really well, he's a little stiff and sore as you'd expect after his first game back in, what, six months and going straight into a pretty competitive international-type match," said Kearney.

"But he came through it really well, he's in good form and he's really happy to be back obviously in the mix."

Victorious McIlroy admits he still gets nervous

Rory McIlroy holds the trophy after winning the Dubai Desert Classic golf tournament

Rory McIlroy holds the trophy after winning the Dubai Desert Classic golf tournament

World number one Rory McIlroy admitted he was looking for the solid rather than the spectacular as he won the Dubai Desert Classic for a second time.

The Northern Irishman won by three shots ahead of Alex Noren with a final round 70 securing his 10th European Tour title.

Six years ago, a teenage McIlroy captured his first professional title at the event and after coming close a couple of times since, the 25-year-old was delighted.

"It is always great coming back here, it is nice to put my name on trophy once again," he said at the trophy presentation.

"I felt like I was finishing second every time I was teeing it up, so it was time for a change, obviously the only way I wanted to go was one better and thankfully I was able to do that today.

"I played very nicely all week. I did what I needed to do today to keep my nose in front and be able to win.

"I still get nervous, a little tentative, we've seen what can happen to big leads.

"I was making sure I wasn't making any mistakes and to play a solid round."

Noren, who played just two events in 2014 due to tendinitis in both wrists, finished second after an impressive six-under final round of 65 saw him leap up the leaderboard from eighth to finish on 19 under par.

Noren was not thinking about victory at the start of the day and after missing so much time due to injury of late, the Swede was delighted with his showing.

"It was an amazing day, an amazing week," said Noren, who finished ninth at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters last week.

"I missed it so much it was really nice. I never, ever thought of winning. He (McIlroy) is playing so good, I was trying to get a nice finish.

"I just tried to keep making birdies and keep up with the other guys."

Stephen Gallacher, who won the tournament both in 2013 and 2014, failed to replicate the form he showed on the first two days.

Gallacher finished with four birdies in the back nine, but dropped shots on the first and 14th meant he finished third on 16 under.

England's Andy Sullivan failed to finish strongly with a bogey on 15 bringing an end to his challenge, while a dropped shot on the last meant he finished in fourth, with a two-under final round of 70.

Martin Kaymer was the day's big mover as he closed with a final-round 64 to jump 30 places and finish level with Sullivan on 15 under par.

France's Gary Stal also finished in fifth after four under on the final day, with Bernd Wiesberger also finishing 15 under.

Morten Orum Madsen, who started the day in second, was left ruing a seven on the opening hole and two dropped shots on the back nine as he finished on 15 under.

Graeme McDowell closed with a 70 to finish 14 under par, good enough for ninth.

His countryman McIlroy never looked like losing control.

He only hit four fairways in regulation on the third day, with his superb play with the putter seeing him through.

And McIlroy needed his hot club to get through the first unscathed after another loose tee shot, while good work in the sand on the third saw him claim his first birdie of the day on three.

McIlroy dropped his first shot in two days on the seventh.

The group behind were closing, with Madsen moving back up the field with three birdies while Noren was also moving up the field after four-under-par scores in the opening seven.

Another sand save from McIlroy, this time on the 10th, saw him pick up another birdie before another poor approach, this time on 12, meant he had to work hard again to save par.

Sullivan birdied 13 and Madsen 14 to keep the pressure on the leader, while Lee Westwood, who began the day in third, was having a nightmare, with a bogey at six, a double bogey at nine and another dropped shot at 12 meaning the end of his challenge. He finished with a level-par 72 to finish ninth.

McIlroy's approach on 13 was far more palatable, as he claimed another birdie to stretch his lead back to five.

Noren made birdies at 17 and 18 and a final round of 65 would have been well received after spending so long away from the sport late year.

Madsen bogeyed both 15 and 16 to end his challenge and with McIlroy consistently making pars, the title was his.

Ireland trim Six Nations squad

Joe Schmidt says some of Ireland's Wolfhounds will have another chance to impress

Joe Schmidt says some of Ireland’s Wolfhounds will have another chance to impress

Ireland have trimmed their squad to 38 players for the opening two rounds of the Six Nations Championship, due to injuries and a number of Wolfhounds returning to their provinces.

Joe Schmidt's side open their Six Nations defence against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday, before hosting France at the Aviva Stadium the following weekend.

"Jack Conan and Michael Bent did well (on Friday night for the Wolfhounds) against the Saxons but will return to Leinster, as will Noel Reid who was restricted to a brief cameo as he was covering a number of positions," Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt said.

"Rob Herring returns to Ulster and will look forward to having an opportunity for further game-time. Fergus McFadden has a rib cartilage injury, while Craig Gilroy will follow the return to play protocols after a concussion in the Wolfhounds game."

Dave Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald are expected to be fully fit to train in preparation for Italy, while Eoin Reddan and Jamie Heaslip are progressing well and are likely to be available to train fully on Tuesday, the Irish Rugby Football Union said on Sunday.

Mike McCarthy suffered a concussion during the Wolfhounds game and will stay with the squad while completing the return to play protocols. Cian Healy continues to make very promising progress post his hamstring injury.

Conor Murray trained well on Friday and is expected to be fit for the Azzurri clash.

Rory McIlroy too good for the rest in Dubai

McIlroy on fire in Dubai

McIlroy on fire in Dubai

Rory McIlroy has won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic by three shots after a closing round of 70 saw him finish the tournament on 22 under par.

McIlroy's first ever professional win came at the tournament six years ago and after four consecutive top-10 finishes the Coffee Pot Trophy once again belongs to the 25-year-old.

Rounds of 66, 64 and 66 had given the Northern Irishman a four-shot lead into the final day and although he registered his first bogey since the opening round on Sunday, no one could come close.

A birdie on three got the ball rolling and although he bogeyed the par-four seventh, under-par scores at 10 and 13 extended his advantage.

McIlroy was consistent as he parred the remaining five holes to capture his 10th European Tour win.

Alex Noren, who played just two events in 2014 due to tendinitis in both wrists, finished second after an impressive six-under final round of 65 saw him leap up the leaderboard from eighth to finish on 19 under par.

Stephen Gallacher, who won the tournament both in 2013 and 2014, failed to replicate the form he showed on the first two days.

Gallacher finished with four birdies in the back nine, but dropped shots on the first and 14th meant he finished third on 16 under.

England's Andy Sullivan failed to finish strongly with a bogey on 15 bringing an end to his challenge, while a dropped shot on the last meant he finished in fourth, with a two-under final round of 70.

Martin Kaymer was the day's big mover as he closed with a final-round 64 to jump 30 places and finish level with Sullivan on 15 under par.

France's Gary Stal also finished in fifth after four under on the final day, with Bernd Wiesberger also finishing 15 under.

Morten Orum Madsen, who started the day in second, was left ruing a seven on the opening hole and two dropped shots on the back nine as he finished on 15 under.

Graeme McDowell closed with a 70 to finish 14 under par, good enough for ninth.

His countryman McIlroy never looked like losing control. He only hit four fairways in regulation on the third day, with his superb play with the putter seeing him through.

And McIlroy needed his hot club to get through the first unscathed after another loose tee shot, while good work in the sand on the third saw him claim his first birdie of the day on three, before the Irishman dropped his first shot in two days on the seventh.

The group behind were closing, with Madsen moving back up the field with three birdies after a disastrous seven on the opening hole, while Noren was also moving up the field after four-under-par scores in the opening seven.

Another sand save from McIlroy, this time on the 10th, saw him pick up another birdie before another poor approach, this time on 12, meant he had to work hard again to save par.

Sullivan birdied 13 and Madsen 14 to keep the pressure on the leader, while Lee Westwood, who began the day in third, was having a nightmare, with a bogey at six, a double bogey at nine and another dropped shot at 12 meaning the end of his challenge. He finished with a level-par 72 to finish ninth.

McIlroy's approach on 13 was far more palatable, as he claimed another birdie to stretch his lead back to five.

Madsen showed his recovery skills after an impressive shot from the bunker on 14 led to a par, but with the holes running out, the Dane was needing to pick up shots quickly.

Noren made birdies at 17 and 18 and a final round of 65 would have been well received after spending so long away from the sport late year.

Madsen bogeyed both 15 and 16 to end his challenge and with McIlroy consistently making pars, the title was his.