Jonny Retires: A Thank You

13 12 2011

Writing a blog is a curious thing and much like going to the gym. You get all fired up over the initial honeymoon period – sometimes writing multiple articles a day – before sliding slowly backward through one article a day, two 3 or 4  a week until before you know it you are ‘occasional’ at best. A fate,  regular readers and anyone who followed our gym analogy, will be more than aware of the Compulsive Hooker’s fate.

It takes a serious piece of news to move us from this blogging stupor but, last night, with the news that the Great Man of English Rugby, Mr. Jonny Wilkinson, is retiring from international rugby we felt compelled to write a small homage to him.

Jonny, it must be said was past his best and truth be told had not been the player we grew up with for some time. You could tell the mind was willing but limitations imposed upon him by a frequently ailing body and team mates who for the last 7  or 8 years couldn’t even aspire, let alone play, to the level of the Great Man meant that to some his record has been tarnished. To us Jonny remains comfortably the best English fly half of the professional era and not too far behind Dan Carter as the second best world wide during that period.

We will of course remember his drop goal to win the world cup in 2003 as one of those unforgettable, spine tingling and hair raising moments of sport that come round every so often – yet our favourite memories are his play during the Autumn Internationals from 2002 and the Six Nations Grand Slam of 2003. Surrounded as he was by some of the finest England players ever to play for their country, Jonny stood out and marshaled them superbly.

We could go further and talk about his record in depth but we did that before (click here for that) and others will do it again. Instead I would like to point you in the direction of a couple of videos which if you watch in full are notable for his fantastic distribution, his ability to put others into gaps, phenomenal tackling and a dynamic edge that even we had forgotten he’d possessed.

Firstly, England beating the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2002 – Jonny’s involvement is obvious through out but his try at 21 minutes (of the Youtube vide0) and the his involvement at 18 minutes are two examples of simple things done brilliantly.

The second example is the deciding game against Ireland in the 2003 Grand Slam. In our view this was the game where Jonny put in a more or less perfect performance and England played at the peak of their powers. Some of the play is simply breathtaking.

Well played Jonny and thanks for all the pleasure you have given us.





Johnson Out – Please Let Rob Andrew Follow Him…

17 11 2011

So England’s dire performance in the World Cup last month has taken its toll and the first casualty amongst the coaches has gone. Martin Johnson, England legend and dignified as always stepped down from his position as England Manager citing the fact that England’s world cup results have made it impossible for him to continue.

We, as England fans, feel mixed emotions about this. True the Compulsive Hooker had been calling for him to be moved aside almost ever since the inception of this blog (here and here to give you two examples). We had always felt that he wasn’t the right man for the job and as such feel this is the right thing to have done albeit belatedly, but, we do still feel  for Johnson.

The honesty and straight talking nature of the man himself – his frustration palpable to see when asked about the latest yellow card, innumerable penalties that lost a game or the inability of his team to combine into a decent rugby unit – combined with the apparently inept RFU and the betrayal of trust in him by such established players as Mike Tindall means that we do have some sympathy.

Obviously his wasn’t an easy job made harder by some of the idiots around him. However, the fact remains that his appointment was a flawed one – more subject to a popular vote from the media it seemed than any logical reasoning. We have always felt that the head coach/manager – call him what you will – should above all be a brilliant selector. Someone who can spot talent, nurture it and develop it. This was something that Clive Woodward was brilliant at, often plucking players from near obscurity or others who were unfashionable and turning them into world beaters. Johnson’s stubbornness over certain players – the names of Borthwick, Hape and Tindall spring to mind – is well known and undoubtedly held England back at various points over the last three years.

Yet, having said all that, every so often Martin Johnson’s England team clicked and produced excellent displays of rugby (remember the 34-10 demolition of France in 2009, the 35-18 win over Australia a year later just after winning down under too) and each time there was the hope that England had turned a corner but sadly this never happened. Jonno has gone, England are once more in a state of flux and the England fans lot is no better than at any point over the last 8 years.

For us though, much of the blame of the last 6 years should rest fairly and squarely on Rob Andrew’s shoulders. Andrew has presided over the hiring and firing of three coaches (although to be fair he didn’t hire Andy Robinson) and each time he has handled it ineptly. The firing of Brian Ashton in particular was a disgrace. We are informed by the people over at wikipedia that his nickname is ‘squeaky’ which seems about right – currently he is ‘standing firm’ and we would not be surprised to find him still in control in 3 years time. Nothing sticks to him.

For England moving forward we believe the there should be a clear out from top to bottom of the coaching staff – and unfortunately for Andrew that includes him, the man who employs those coaching staff. He has to take responsibility for the last 6 years. He came into the role as the Elite Perfomance Director and we would suggest that some of England’s performances (a country with more resources and players than almost every other) have been less than elite. Quite apart from the man management issues, it’s time for him to go.

There is however no reason to be all doom and gloom as there are some very bright young players in the England set up; Tom Wood, Ashton, Lawes, Dan Cole to name but a few and with the U20 sides being so strong too there is no reason to think that come 2015, England won’t have a reasonable chance. Out with the old, Tindall, Hape, Moody etc and in with the new.

We do realise of course it is very easy to sit here and criticise but the honest truth is that England should be doing better and we as England fans are not happy to see such mediocrity game in, game out.

Thoughts?





All Blacks Measure Up

17 10 2011

No choke there then! For the first time since 1987 The All Blacks finally gave a world cup performance of substance and style when it counted befitting their illustrious reputation and record in world rugby. Indeed so emphatic was their victory and so poor their opponents for the biggest prize the IRB are probably already getting the words ‘New Zealand’ engraved on the rugby’s biggest prize.

As dominant as the All Blacks were, it was all the same a mystifying tactical performance from the Australians. Blessed with exceptional backs, the Australian’s seemed to forget this and decided to play a close game more reminiscent of the departed England team than the Tri Nations champions of whom we were familiar pre world cup. Whether this was an attempt to control the normally mercurial talents of Quade Cooper or possibly a desire to test the willingness of the new boy Cruden in the tackle or half a dozen other things – it palpably failed.

Even when Australia were 10 minutes away from elimination and needed two scores to win – a time when we would normally have expected the electric Cooper and Genia to start throwing caution to the wind, spreading it wide and testing the AB’s in ways in which they hadn’t done all game – there was no ambition. This was a world cup semi final and to us it looked like Australia either forgot or, whisper it quietly, did what people have been expecting the Kiwi’s to do and choked. There was no leadership, little urgency – even when a penalty was awarded 5 yards out with 3 minutes to go Genia faffed around for crucial seconds – and quite simply no invention.

Although a great deal of the press has gone to Quade Cooper’s role in proceedings, some wags claiming he was the best Kiwi player on the pitch, it was Genia that disappointed us most. Yes he was behind a struggling pack and generally getting back foot ball but it was the lack of control and leadership he demonstrated even given these difficulties that was most telling. Genia has over the past couple of years been one of the Australian leading lights, a player they look to for inspiration and decision making, yet so many times yesterday he looked s0 lost and bereft of ideas that he could have been an imposter.

None of this should take away from New Zealand’s performance though. Clinical, yet played with flair, they proved that the loss of Carter isn’t quite the loss that many people (including us it must be said) thought it might be. Whether it was the incredible Dagg creating something from nothing, Corey Jane mopping up yet another aimless high ball or the excellent Kaino dragging plaintive Australian’s along this was surely a performance of World Champions. It is true that the ‘French’ factor might yet play a part but to our mind they could expect to win the upcoming final nine times out of ten.

Thoughts?





Wales’ Woe and Some Thoughts On Referees

15 10 2011

Well this world cup gets more contentious every weekend! And, sadly, the referees are at the centre of it once again.

We at the Compulsive Hooker always seem to be in a minority when it comes to referees. Where the rest of the world (or certainly outraged fans commenting on reports on the net) consistently demand perfection in their decision making, we have long taken the line that referees are human and these things happen. This rather sanguine attitude can obviously have its flaws as it is important to seek out mediocrity and improve it in all things. Yet, when you have a normally reasonable character such as Jonathan Davies calling for the head of a chap who only 80 minutes before was acknowledged to be one of the finest referees in the game, we feel its gone too far the other way.

Combine the following factors and what do you get? Referees are essentially human. Rugby is a seriously hard game to referee as so much of it is subjective in areas such as the breakdown.

A huge great mess is the answer on occasions which leads less than impartial pundits and fans to overreact. The irony of this situation is that with the IRB under consistent pressure to raise refereeing standards they have tried to take as much of the uncertain grey middle ground out of aspects of the game such as the tackle. One of these of course is the tipping of a player so that he is the wrong way up when he lands having been tackled and lifted – exactly what happened today.

It seems that the ref’s can’t win – if they follow the law makers instructions (to start with a red card and move backwards from there) they get castigated for being too harsh or, had the decision gone the other way, possibly had masses of French favouring supporters clamouring that Rolland is biased. To remove the grey and create something black and white you have to remove the subjectivity and as such, in our opinion, you cannot blame Rolland.

If there is ire to be directed then perhaps it would be better directed at the IRB themselves who dished out the initial advice on reds. Possibly better advice would be to suggest a yellow as a starting point unless there is clear malicious intent when a red becomes due – although that, once again is bringing the human element of subjectivity into the equation.

Few people today would argue that Wales were unfortunate in the grand scheme of things in this game with their second half performance being huge in terms of character and no little skill. Sadly, however, the fact remains that even given the problems of being one short they should have won this match. Three kicks were missed with at least one of these being more or less a given at international level.

The eventual winners, France, were so poor that it feels wrong simply writing that they won, now move onto a final where either the Tri Nations champions or the best side in the world await. However one thing that you can say for this French side – as disorganised, chaotic and lacking in game plans they may be – is that you simply don’t know what they’re capable of and this is perhaps their best weapon. The All Blacks for one may well be nervous facing a side written off but who so often has become their nemesis.

It is a shame when so much of the post match discussions are taken up by one decision by one man yet for us, in real time, our immediate response was ‘red card’ and so that fact alone was enough for us to exonerate Rolland of the majority of the blame. Subscribers to the ‘The Great Conspiracy to Defraud the Springboks of the World Cup’ and their sister group who seem to be springing up using Rolland’s French heritage as evidence of bias will undoubtedly feel differently.





Semi Finals and Conspiracy Theories

13 10 2011

You may think that considering results  in the last round of matches that our interest in this World Cup has waned, yet, and perhaps a little bizarrely, our interest has simply grown.

With injuries meaning New Zealand putting any world class 10 on the field is nigh on impossible (it remains to be seen where Cruden fits on the quality scale) and other injury concerns as well; a French team who may turn up and blow a side away or alternatively fold like a particularly soggy card house; a quite brilliant Welsh team playing better than anyone (even themselves) could possibly have expected; and an Australian team who seem to have found the fighting spirit their cricketing counterparts have lost, this is the most open World Cup we can remember ever witnessing.

There may be some supporters (particularly South African) who might claim this is bad for rugby as one of the best sides in the world has not made it through – yet to us we think it is fantastic. To think that Wales have a genuine and reasonable opportunity to win the World Cup is surprising to say the least but something that is wonderful for the game.

Pre World Cup there was a great deal of chat from down south about the supposed widening gap in standards between the two hemispheres – well, doesn’t look more than a crack to us…

But anyway, a quick thought on the remaining teams:

Wales

What a performance that was against the Irish. Despite conceding vast amounts of possession their defensive play was incredible and gradually, as they grew into the game, their attacking play showed off some sharp and scintillating edges too. Ireland, like South Africa, paid the price for sloppy finishing although even if this had not been the case Wales would probably still have one.

Never have Wales had a more realistic chance of reaching a final and possibly even more. They need to play at their best to beat a resurgent French team but we see no reason why this shouldn’t happen. Warburton, Roberts and North remain key and with the news that James Hook will play at 10 at least their attack shouldn’t suffer.

Our new favourite team and one of the teams of the tournament.

France

France, as ever, are an enigma. Who will turn up on Saturday? A team who have played their ‘one big game’ of the tournament as the New Zealand commentators kept mentioning last week – or a side with new found resolve and inner steel.

No more needs to be said. A team capable of winning the World Cup might play or might not. Who really knows?

Australia

The surprise package of the semi’s in that they were clearly second best to South Africa last weekend in every area save finishing off their opportunities and at the breakdown. Many platitudes should be heaped on David Pocock’s shoulders as almost alone (the ref did unwittingly help too) he ensured the Bok’s were on the next plane home.

If they are to progress against the All Black’s however Quade Cooper needs to step up. He has, in our opinion, been so poor throughout this tournament that on many occasions he is verging on being a liability. A Cooper playing well is a force to reckoned with – a Cooper playing badly is a force to be exploited.

New Zealand

Kiwi’s the world over must be as nervous as they have ever been before a game of rugby. Their team appears to be crumbling before their eyes, their two giants of the game McCaw and Carter are either struggling or out – back ups are injured and (horror of horrors) Stephen Donald has been called up into the fold… Anyone who remembers the game in Hong Kong last year will know what we mean.

Truth be told however they are still the team to beat and will remain favourites going into this weekends game. The problem is that Australia cannot be discounted and recently have a respectable record against the men in black. We can’t wait…

Finalists?

Australia vs Wales…

There we said it. We’re backing the Blacks to choke and Wales to comfortably see of France. From thereon in – anything could happen!*

The Great Conspiracy to Defraud The Springboks of the World Cup

Bryce Lawrence is clearly a mole for ABSA (Anyone But South Africa). How else can we explain the fact that the Boks won’t win this and every other World Cup to come. We mean, surely, winning world cups is a god given Bok right? Isn’t it? Maybe?

Or perhaps not. Yes we agree Mr. Lawrence didn’t have his greatest game. Yes Pocock and others could have been blown up more than once and on another day may have been.

Yet, despite this, the Bok’s butchered chance after chance and quite simply as a result didn’t deserve to win. Stop complaining, accept it happens and please stop persecuting old Bryce via social media.

Oh, and it was clearly forward.

* After only correctly naming 50% of the semi finalists last weekend we are happy to accept a similar success rate here…

 





Quarter Final Thoughts: Part 2 (and a word on the press)

6 10 2011

Following on from our piece the other day, here is the second half of the draw and our opinions on them:

Australia vs South Africa

Along with Wales vs Ireland, this game is the pick of the weekends match ups. Two heavyweights of world rugby have unexpectedly found their route to the final tougher than might have been imagined at the start. Ever since Ireland constricted Australia’s supply of ball to win their pool game there has been the prospect of one of these sides going home early.

Again, at the start of the tournament Australia would have walked into this game as reasonably strong favourites, however, a resurgent South Africa have once again proved that they are a force in World Cup situations and now it is nigh on impossible to pick the winner out of this.

To us it hangs on two factors. Can Australia achieve parity up front at the set piece and will Pocock or Brussow prevail at the battle of the breakdown? In our opinion the answers are yes and Pocock leading us to the conclusion that Australia will edge the game. However, if this is not the case and the fragile Cooper is being delivered slow ball on the back foot then South Africa and Morne Steyn will take their toll. We realise that this last caveat is essentially a cop out but picking a winner here is honestly that difficult.

Given enough ball the Australians, possessors of one of the finest back lines around going forward, should have too much even for the dogmatic South Africans.

Being entirely selfish about this as England supporters, we would rather play Australia in the final than either the Kiwis or the Boks and as such we will be supporting them. We also believe that Australia would have more chance beating the All Blacks than anyone else and, Dan Carter or no Dan Carter, we as a representative of the north  would dread any Six Nations side playing the hosts in the final.

So, not an analysis really – more of a wish…

New Zealand vs Argentina

Obviously the easiest of all the weekend’s games to pick with the Argentine’s dream of a second semi final likely to come to a grinding halt. We do feel that this will not quite be the cake walk (just struck us what a strange expression that is – what, after all, is a cake walk?) that most are proscribing. The standard thinking in this game states that the All Blacks will win by 30 points plus and generally run riot. We remember the grittiness of the Argies and think that almost by tenacity alone they might cling on and make it closer than one might think.

Our prediction is unless the Kiwis get off to a flyer and run a couple of early tries in, this game might be reasonably close up until the 60 minute mark when the AB’s will pull away to eventually win by 15 points.

The fact of the matter is that, despite the valid claims that rugby is a team game and one man can’t make that much difference, Dan Carter’s absence is a huge blow to the men in black. It is hardly an original statement that considering how well lauded he is, yet he simply doesn’t make mistakes. Slade and Weepu, whilst they played reasonably well, both made several mistakes last weekend – even if it was as simple as a pass not going to hand. Against the best teams like Australia or South Africa these could end up as costly mistakes – whether the Argentines have the same ability is still to be seen yet we feel it would be a mistake to write them off too early in the piece.

With the added pressure of a 24 year drought the physical style of the Argentina could do more damage than perhaps many think…

Having said all that – New Zealand by 15 or more.

And Now For The (English) Press…

This world cup, as with any, has never been far away from scandal – the English team causing perhaps the majority of it with a deferential nod to Samoa and France too. Whilst we don’t condone much of it, we do feel that the majority of the moralising and sensationalist articles that have been written in the English media just represent the worst of what modern sportsman have to go through.

In the past some rugby players going out for a few beers would scarcely have raised an eyebrow – let alone weeks of national debate – and this from our supposed serious and quality broadsheets. The Daily Telegraph in particular has descended to levels that normally only the Daily Mail occupies.

There used to be an idea that journalists had a responsibility to the truth yet, these days, in an age where newspaper sales are dwindling leading to an increase in both sensationalist headlines and reporting whilst the vast spaces available online for the banal, patronising and moralising ‘comment piece’ journalists increase –  here at the Compulsive Hooker at any rate, we get progressively more sick off reading them.

There – its off our chest – and back to the rugby…

Any thoughts?





Quarter Final Thoughts: Part 1

4 10 2011

The quarters await us and some teams are in better shape than others. Here are a few thoughts on the first two clashes:

Wales vs Ireland

This promises to be an epic game. Both sides are playing unusually well for a World Cup, both have exciting backs and dynamic packs and, for probably the first time in their rugby histories, both have a realistic chance of going all the way to the final. Depending on what media outlet you read both have been named as having the slight edge over the other – yet for us it is Ireland who will go in as slight favourites.

The main reason behind this leaning is the Irish back row. Yes it is true that in Warburton Wales have one of the players of the tournament but Ireland have arguably the best 6,7,8 combination at the world cup along with New Zealand. Led by the extraordinary Sean O’Brien (a player that even the Kiwi commentators are drooling over) plus the proven excellence of Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip, this is a powerful force to have on your side and as a result the crucial breakdown area should go Ireland’s way.

In the backs things are less clear cut although Wales probably have more strength. They have more dynamism, a higher ability to break the line, certainly more youth and the hugely impressive George North. The men in green have Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll and potentially more experience in the all important fly half channel (if they pick O’Gara that is) but, if a measure of the quality of the two sides is working out a composite team, then Wales definitely have the slight edge here. Phillips, O’Gara, North, Roberts, O’Driscoll, Bowe and Byrne – four Welsh, 3 Irish would make our favoured team.

The O’Gara / Sexton battle has long been an interesting one and in the past we have usually come down in favour of the Leinster man – yet now, in a winner takes all scenario, we would suggest the veteran and Ireland’s leading point scorer is the right man for the job. Goal kicking will become all important and as much as Sexton offers more around the park, ROG seldom misses from the tee – something that cannot be said for Sexton. For Wales youth has won the order of the day it seems and Priestland (who could easily slot into that composite back line) will be looking to continue his excellent World Cup so far.

The two players we are most looking forward to see however are Bowe and North. Bowe has been acknowledged to be one of the world’s finest wingers ever since the Lions tour of 2009 and his line breaking, creativity and excellent angles of running are crucial to Ireland’s cause. He truly is a joy to watch. North on the other hand has, like O’Brien, got the Kiwi commentators purring. Strong, huge and quick he is someone to reckon with and has shown some very deft touches over the last few weeks. The tussle between these two could be worth the entry fee alone.

For both sides they know that a win here would mean a semi final meeting with an inconsistent albeit winning England or a hopelessly misfiring French side. Something that both sides would relish in the form they are in. We’re going for Ireland, just, but both are playing so well that it would not be a surprise if the result was reversed.

Ireland by a single score.

England vs France

A quarter final that in some quarters has been described as a travesty and a bad thing for the world cup. True Tonga beat France and so perhaps the French are slightly lucky to be there but really, in our eyes, it would have been travesty if they hadn’t been there. You want the strongest sides contesting the quarters and this is how it has turned out. England on the other hand have not exactly impressed in terms of the type of rugby they’ve played, yet they have won all four and crucially have displayed the dogmatic attitude that carried them through the 2007 World Cup.

England go into this game as clear favourites but they will surely be worried about a player inspired French backlash. There is too much strife in the French camp to go all the way sadly for them but one more win is far from inconceivable.

It seems that every one of the surviving 6 Nations teams is having fly half selection quandaries of some sort. For France the Parra experiment is set to continue although to us Trinh-Duc’s selection would have seemed more sensible. Parra is a fine footballer although his game management has not been nearly as effective as an experienced fly half’s might be and France are suffering. England of course have the seemingly perennial Wilkinson/Flood debate. Although Jonny came in for a lot of flack during the Scotland game, bar his kicking, we didn’t feel he did too much wrong and tackled brilliantly. Despite this Flood is the man we’d pick as going forward he is more creative with his ability to make the half breaks and offload in a tackle very useful.

It’s about time the England and French really clicked into gear. Hopefully the threat of a knock out game will give these two sides the impetus they need to raise the standards and give the many naysayers (both English, French and international) something to chew on.

England by 10.








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