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Wide open US Masters gets underway; Chelsea gain Porto advantage

5 days in The Irish Times

The 2021 US Masters gets underway later today, and the year’s opening Major looks as competitive as ever, with a number of the game’s heavyweights dominating the top of the betting. Dustin Johnson is favourite to retain the title he won for the first time last November - however five months on Augusta is set to provide an entirely different, more familiar challenge, as springtime brings with it firmer, faster greens. Rory McIlroy is bidding to end his long wait for a Green Jacket and complete the full set of Majors, and as Philip Reid writes this morning he has been willing to adapt in a bid to regain some form: “Winning is a habit and it is one that has escaped McIlroy since lifting the HSBC Champions in 2019, although the addition of Pete Cowen to his team - providing an on-site presence to go hand-in-hand with longtime coach Michael Bannon, or as McIlroy put it, “an extra set of eyes” - may provide the Midas touch in that quest to complete the career Grand Slam.” Philip Reid has also analysed Augusta’s beastly beauties - the four par 3s the field must tame if they want to challenge this week. McIlroy tees off at 3.42pm this afternoon with Shane Lowry off at 5.48pm, and you can follow the action via the Irish Times liveblog through the afternoon and into the night.
It is advantage Chelsea in the Champions League last-16, after they beat FC Porto 2-0 in an away leg which was played at Sevilla’s Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán last night. Thomas Tuchel’s side bounced back from last weekend’s heavy defeat to West Brom through Mason Mount’s first-half goal, with Ben Chilwell extending their advantage late on. In the night’s other game Kylian Mbappé scored a brace as PSG dished out a measure of revenge for last season’s final defeat with a 3-2 win over Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. Tonight the Europa league quarter-finals get underway with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United taking on La Liga side Granada in Andalusia (kick-off 8pm). Elsewhere Arsenal welcome Slavia Prague to the Emirates.
In this morning’s Rugby Statistics column John O’Sullivan has warned of the danger defending European champions Exeter will pose Leinster in their Champions Cup quarter-final clash on Saturday evening. And among those players the province will have to be wary of is backrow Sam Simmonds, who has been curiously ignored by England but whose loss at international level has been the Chiefs’ gain: “When Exeter Chiefs won the English Premiership and Champions Cup double last season Simmonds scored 19 tries in 26 matches, a phenomenal strike rate. In this season’s European campaign his standout statistic is his work in defence, where he leads the tournament with six turnovers in just two matches.” Meanwhile Exeter’s director of rugby Rob Baxter has admitted to watching a lot of Leinster for lessons on how his own side could improve: “Well, I don’t mind telling you that over an extended period I’ve spent quite a lot of time looking at Leinster, particularly as we’ve tried to develop parts of our game.”
In her column this morning Joanne O’Riordan has reflected on the start of the Women’s Six Nations Championship, which arrived to relative fanfare last weekend but opened up with a series of mismatches, due to the playing field between sides not being level. She writes: “So, what could’ve gone wrong? Well, the advertisement for a prime time women’s competition ended up being two thrashings, with the professional team (England) beating (amateur) side Scotland 52-10, while France (semi-professional) beat Wales (amateur) by 53 points. The torrid time France gave Wales became a source of criticism online.”
Vera Pauw’s Ireland are back in action today for the first time since their 3-1 defeat to Germany in the European Championship qualifiers last December, as they take on Denmark in a friendly in Tallaght (kick-off 6.30pm, RTE player). The Danes, ranked 14th in the world, are expected to be tough opposition for Ireland, with the match preceding another friendly away to Belgium on Sunday.
And the GAA is expected to announce the structure and duration of the upcoming intercounty season later today, with training to resume on April 19th and fixtures to follow in mid-May.

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