An Irish Lesson

21 03 2011

Re-reading our piece we published on Thursday last previewing the weekend’s rugby, we obviously got it wrong with our prediction that England would prevail by a small margin. That we got it wrong is not much of a surprise – we do after all frequently get things wrong (predictions are a fools game to be honest) – but it was that we got it so wrong that was a surprise.

Up until the final round on Saturday, Ireland had been a distinctly middling side who were lucky not to have been beaten by Italy and lost to both France and Wales. There had been the odd sign of life with a rare sprightly move now and again although too often the good work was undone by some basic errors. If we were honest, the suspicion had been growing that perhaps this was a side on the way down – something that does happen to Ireland in a World Cup year it seems.

Yet, in this final round of matches, Ireland played fantastically well and simply dominated England from the off. It was clinical. It was precise and it was, above all else, powerful. England came to Dublin looking for a Grand Slam only to be shown exactly how far they still have to improve if they want to progress to the later stages of the World Cup.

As a Kiwi friend of the Compulsive Hooker commented to us shortly after the game, Ireland had played similarly to this against New Zealand in the Autumn but still got beaten by 20 points. England didn’t have that extra gear that the All Blacks did that day and so were consigned to defeat although, to be entirely just to Martin Johnson’s team, this comparison is a little unfair as no other team in world rugby – not even the Springboks or the Australians – have the same ability to ‘flick the switch’ as the AB’s currently do.

What does this mean though moving forward for both of these sides?

England will, on reflection, be happy enough with the progress made. They topped the table, something they hadn’t done for 8 years, and on balance are probably still the northern hemisphere side most likely to make an impact at the World Cup in October. This has to be balanced against the fact though that twice in the last few months England have simply been blown away by a more physical side (South Africa in the Autumn and Ireland now) – something that will need remedying.

Ireland too will be happy. They have showed exactly how well they can play – as we implied above, we think they would have beaten both Australia and South Africa playing like this – although consistency is obviously still an issue. The friendlies in the Summer take on a larger significance now as if they can continue in the same vein suddenly a win over Australia in the group stages and an easier route to the semi’s is eminently possible.

So to round up; well played Ireland on Saturday and congratulations to England for winning the Six Nations.

Roll on the World Cup…





A Grand Slam For England?

17 03 2011

What a weekend of rugby lies ahead of us! A possible Grand Slam weekend for England or alternatively what might be a cathartic, Six Nations campaign saving, win for Ireland; a chance for Italy to confirm what must be their most promising tournament yet as a reality or for Scotland to avoid a whitewash; Wales challenging for the title and Lievremont losing his job or France winning and rediscovering some belief.

Whatever happens we cannot, as ever, wait…

It has been quite some time (8 long years in fact) that we as England supporters have been feeling so positive about the state of English rugby. It also happens to be the same length of time since England last went into the final round of the Six Nations as probable winners and Grand Slam challengers.

Ireland in Dublin has possibly been the most difficult away trip in the Six Nations for the most part of the last ten years and we don’t see this changing particularly now. The fact that the white shirt and rose emblem is guaranteed to rile the Celtic nations more than any other is a given but when there is a Grand Slam at stake – the pressure becomes immense. It will be a test of English character as much as anything as, if England play to their full ability, they should prevail.

Where Ireland have an undeniable edge is in midfield with the evergreen Brian O’Driscoll still creating and controlling. Mind you with Tindall injured and D’Arcy hardly in the greatest form of his life, this difference is much smaller than it might be. Tindall’s likely replacement, Matt Banahan, has added a couple of extra dimensions to his game recently and being the lump that he is, should cause some of his own problems.

Up front, however, the battle is likely to be much closer with England likely to dominate a weak Irish scrum. At the line out the proven class of O’Connell will probably keep England in check although the all important back row battle is probably too close to call. Over the years we have been massive fans of David Wallace and rate Jamie Heaslip very highly indeed, however, if we had to call it, we think that the English trio of Wood, Haskell and Easter will just about edge matters.

England’s edge comes in the back three with Ashton, Foden and Cueto providing a clear advantage over their opponents. Ireland have missed the steady but still electric Rob Kearney in this campaign with Keith Earls in particular still to convince at this level.

All that said, this game could go either way and it is highly unlikely that we will see a result similar to the 2003 equivalent where England smashed Ireland in as clinical and exciting a display as we had seen – or indeed the opposite in 2008 when Ireland crushed England at Croke Park.

We don’t think there will be more than one score in it but we are backing England to prevail…

Scotland, on the other hand, must be wondering where their campaign has gone wrong. After a promising match against France (although they were still beaten well) they have fallen apart rather. All the hard work and progress achieved in the Autumn has come to naught  and there have been the odd sign of division within their camp.

Italy, despite a campaign with only one win under their belt, are on the up and will provide a stiff challenge at Murrayfield. If they can gain the upper hand early we believe they might be able to close it out and consign Scotland to a win-less, Wooden Spoon tournament.

In France it is an entirely different story. The French, many peoples choice for the table topping side at the beginning of the championship, have imploded and it will be a remarkable thing in our view if Lievremont makes it to the World Cup. A Welsh win here and his fate is sealed, a France win and he’s still not safe.

Frankly, it would only help France if he was to go and on the basis of the fact we would like France to do well in the World Cup, we hope Wales win this weekend.

For Wales, after a disappointing start against England, a win would represent a real achievement for Warren Gatland and his team. Second, possibly even first place, would be far better than anyone reasonably expected after the dross they served up in the Autumn.

******

As an addendum to the above, we would just like to point out that this does not mean we think England are going to win the World Cup. Several times over the past few months the England team have been accused of getting ahead of themselves – yet, if anyone can show me where Martin Johnson or any of his team have said anything which suggests they think this, please show me! Even the average fan is sensible enough to avoid making any grandiose claims…

Reading the comments sections of some of the major newspapers and rugby forums, the amount of vitriol regarding these apparent claims coming from other Celtic nations supporters has been quite remarkable. The fact remains that England are probably the best placed to challenge come October (as of this particular moment) yet their chances of winning, as with all the Northern Hemisphere nations, remain slim.





A Classic Six Nations Weekend

14 03 2011

Yet again, a fascinating weekend of Six Nations rugby with the highlight, rather inevitably, being Italy’s remarkable win over France.

Italy and Nick Mallet have long been criticised for not winning more games, something which in this day and age of results is only to be expected, yet the Italian progress over the past few years can be more easily measured in the fact that enormous defeats are a comparative rarity now. A rather conservative yardstick we realise, yet one that is undeniably true.

If truth be told an Italian win was overdue in more ways than one. Before this fixture their previous three games in this years Six Nations had yielded three defeats yet only to England was that loss comprehensive. Against Ireland they could have won – only a well directed O’Gara drop goal saving Irish blushes – and against Wales they probably should have won. Indeed, and as many far more reputed rugby writers than ourselves have noted, if they had had a better kicker they would certainly have clinched the victory.

When you look at it from that perspective suddenly the campaign looks like a reasonable one. With Scotland still to come there is a good chance the Azzuri could add to their number in the ‘W’ column as, over the years, the Italians have long been a bit of a bogey team for the Scottish.

As with cricket, we are firmly in the ‘give the minnows a chance, funding and regular competition whilst forgiving them the occasional heavy thumping’ rather than the ‘it’s a waste of time playing them’ category. We love rugby and want to see the number of teams who can compete at senior level increase gradually. Whilst Italy still have some way to go we are very pleased that finally here is some evidence that the IRB’s investment and help is paying off.

One final word about Sergio Parisse. We felt most pleased for him as after both the Wales and Ireland matches he looked stricken that they had come so close without quite closing it out. He is an exceptional player playing in a generally poor team which must have more than its fair share of frustrations yet he never stops trying and for that we applaud him. He deserved every second of that win.

**********
England scraped through against a fired up Scotland team in rather poor fashion although it is encouraging that they can play as poorly as that and still win. For all Scotland’s endeavour (and Evans’ bit of brilliance to score his try excepted) we never really felt in danger of a Scotland win. England go now to Dublin where a far sterner test await. If they can win there – well suffice to say the Grand Slam will be well deserved!

One other thought that came out of the England match was the difference that Jonny Wilkinson made when he ventured on to the field. Flood has had an excellent season and has deserved all the plaudits he has got, yet yesterday he struggled and looked like he was trying to force it. Wilkinson, by comparison, showed that far from being the limited fly half some of his detractors have more recently accused him of being, he still has what it takes to get the game flowing. Both the move prior to and the move that led to the try itself were courtesy of some tremendous vision and exceptionally executed passing meaning.

England are lucky to have two players of this calibre.





England vs France At Twickenham: A Rugby Feast

26 02 2011

Here we go then for what will probably be the deciding round of Six Nations rugby. At the half way stage of the tournament and, with only England or France looking capable of winning it, the biggest game on the cards tonight it is likely to be a cracker.

France have reinforced their team with the big man Sebastian Chabal in an attempt to fight the perceived English physicality whereas England have resisted the temptation to make any changes as players come back from injury – something that has to be a good thing. We can’t help but think that in this case Marc Lievremont has got it wrong and Martin Johnson has got it right.

Chabal is a fine and hugely popular player but would probably better serve France as an impact player. To move the supremely talented and athletic Harinordoquy to the flank to make room for him seems like one of those half thought through decisions. Last time France were at Twickenham, Chabal was selected to play the hard man role, only to go missing for the entire match and hasn’t started since the drubbing by Australia in the Autumn. A ‘horses for courses’ selection policy rarely works completely with our belief being you should always pick the best players and trust them to do the job.

With most of his front line players available or in cases where they are not, the back ups doing a great job, Johnson has no such worries about his England team. It has been quite some time since an opposing team was partially selected on the basis of what England were doing – something that is a huge compliment to where he has taken England to over the past 6 months. Anyone who has been reading this blog for longer than this will remember how scathing we were about Johnson in the early part of his career as a selector and coach, yet the progress England have made over the past few months has meant he has justified his position. It may have taken two years of Steve Borthwick, annoying press conferences and interesting selections, but finally England are making sustained progress and we love it.

The game today could set either side up for a Grand Slam and so the importance cannot be understated. A disciplined, efficient and exciting England rightly start as favourites but France are probably still the more talented team. If they click you still never know what might happen and this uncertainty is why we cannot wait!

 





Six Nations Round-Up: France Dominate With Italy Agonisingly Close

6 02 2011

What a brilliant opening weekend of Six Nations rugby, beautifully topped off by a coruscating France Scotland match at the Stade De France late (UAE time!) last night. There was something for everyone this weekend with a purists encounter in Rome almost giving Italy their first win over a poor Irish team; a fast game of running rugby to please the masses and of course the more limited but still exciting England win at the Millennium Stadium.

France 34-21 Scotland

Scotland will be looking at the score line with a slightly bemused expression although it would not surprise us if there was a major dose of relief in there too – it could conceivably been much worse. On one hand Scotland can be extremely pleased with some of the things they did; their backs and back row forwards all showing that the much quoted criticism that they cannot threaten opposing defenses is false. Thinking about it, it has not been since the days of Gregor Townsend that we have seen as much threat as this from the Scots going forward – of which of course they can be proud.

Yet it was their misfortune to come up against a French side at home, on the rebound from an appalling defeat to Australia in their last match and clearly out to make a statement. This they did from almost the first five minutes when after all the opening possession had gone Scotland’s way, a turnover ball meant that suddenly the irresistible Maxime Medard was over under the posts.

Medard was brilliant all night and surely has to be the first choice winger going forward for France. His strength, pace and awareness are simply world class and we hope he doesn’t fall victim to Lievremont’s raffle style selection policy.

Probably the scary thing for the rest of the Home Nations (and possibly even for the Kiwis who have Les Bleus in their World Cup group) is that there is room for some serious improvement still. Elements of their play were still not as efficient as it might be, the odd pass going astray or simply being dropped – something that meant that perhaps a further three opportunities to score went begging.

France though were not all about pace and passing; their scrum in particular was exceptional, regularly troubling Scotland and winning a penalty try. Scotland did sort themselves out towards the end of the game in this department, yet, for a side who are themselves known for their scrummaging power to be so dominated will cause serious worry for Andy Robinson, not mention Martin Johnson, Warren Gatland et al.

Richie Grey, Scotland’s 21 year old lock, despite the Scotland pack’s travails, must get a mention for an all encompassing performance and can conceivably be disappointed not to receive the man of the match award – despite finishing on the losing team. Whether it was going forward ball in hand, making extraordinary cover tackles or simply competing in the loose, it was a performance that announced the arrival of a major new talent.

After the opening three games of the tournament you would have to say that France have, yet again, played themselves into the position of favourites, with the only potential banana skins being away trips to Dublin and Twickenham. They still don’t travel particularly well much of the time, but one feels that, should they be able to replicate this form, they will be sitting atop of the table after the final weekend.

Italy 11-13 Ireland

This was agonizingly close for the Italians. They were three minutes and one dropped restart away from what would have been a famous and first win over the Irish. Who knows what would have happened, but, following Bergamasco’s missed conversion, had Italy been able to gather the ballit is likely that Ireland may simply have been squeezed out of the game. In the event though Ireland seized on the ball and Ronan O’Gara, after some excellent approach work by the Irish pack, knocked over a straightforward drop goal to win the game.

This had been a poor performance by the men from the Emerald Isle. True they did show some adventure and pleasing passing moves in several periods throughout the game showing that all is not lost from an Irish point of view, but Kidney will be worried about their inability to finish off moves. On several occasions they got close to the Italian line only for a knock on to scupper their efforts.

Italy should be praised however for their efforts. Yes it is true they played with little ambition until later in the piece, yet they sucked Ireland into a bruising and tight battle which at the very least they offered parity. Parisse was again excellent and we could not help feeling sorry for him at the end of the match. It must be a frustrating thing to be a world class performer in a side that rarely wins.

While on the subject of number 8’s, as excellent as Parisse was for the Italians, Sean O’Brien was also on top form for the Irish. If they can find a way to accommodate both him and Heaslip upon the Leinster man’s return, the Irish back row will assume genuinely fearsome ball carrying proportions.

For the Italians there is a genuine base to work from however and we hope that this performance will inspire them, providing a springboard into a Six Nations campaign that gives them a couple of wins and avoids the wooden spoon.

Ireland too can regroup knowing it wasn’t a disaster yet that they will have to improve significantly to meet the challenge the Frances and possibly even the Englands will provide. Fortunately for them these matches are both home fixtures meaning that with a little luck things could still fall into place for them.





Wales 19-26 England: Exciting Start To The Six Nations

5 02 2011

As much as we are not a fan of Friday night fixtures in the Six Nations (mostly from selfish reasons once you take the time difference into account in the Middle East) last night’s game was one to savour. The quality was mixed with both Wales and England making elementary rugby errors on occasions but the passion, the occasion and the players commitment could not be faulted.

Despite the various claims by Welsh players and management that they ‘could have won the game’ we felt England were deserved winners having controlled the game for longer periods. The architect of England’s victory was the much maligned Toby Flood and throughout his time on the pitch was the central figure in England’s quest for the win.

Flood is not a showy player, neither is he the type to make a sixty yard break a la Dan Carter, yet he is becoming expert at picking the holes and importantly keeping his hands free so as to put other players away. Ashton’s first try resulted from Flood seizing a mismatch between backs and forwards before putting Ashton away on the inside and on several other occasions valuable yards were gained by Flood’s half breaks and intelligent off loading. For all the claims Jonny Wilkinson has to the starting role (and it must be remembered we are die hard fans of the great man’s) Flood is the correct choice for the moment and probably the entire Six Nations.

Outside Flood the England were backs were again industrious although they did not quite show the same fluidity as perhaps against Australia back in the Autumn. Hape had good moments going forward although he was at fault for Stoddart’s eventual try and could run straighter on occasions. On the wings Ashton of course scored two tries, demonstrating a happy knack to be in the right place at the right time with Cueto again excellent although his hunt for a try must go on.

Quibbles? Well yes we have a couple. Tindall, again, while solid looked far from threatening and slow in the 13 channel. We have always had an immense amount of respect for him yet it remains a simple truth that if there was another half decent option in that position he would probably not be in the squad. Should England and Johnson unearth a potential heir to the World Cup winner over the next few months – someone who has some speed and the capacity to do the unexpected – it would certainly not hurt England’s chances.

Secondly, a minor point about Ben Foden. Foden is a player with a myriad of supporters in the English press and amongst the fans who appreciate his willingness to run the ball back at the opposition rather than indulge in kick tennis. We too admire him for this, although we do wish he wouldn’t tuck the ball under his arm quite so readily. A defender watching an opponent running at him will see this and immediately know that, even despite the presence of supporting runners, Foden is simply going to have a go himself.

If you watch the great full backs, for example Mils Muliaina of New Zealand, they always keeps the ball available for the pass (unless of course the gap is massive and he is simply motoring through untouched), so spreading an element of doubt in the defenders mind. At least once last night Foden was also guilty of carrying the ball in the wrong hand which meant he was penalised for holding on when he was tackled – so ending what had been a very promising and sweeping England attack.

This is a minor quibble only though, we hasten to add, and one which we can live with as we would rather have Foden’s sense of adventure coupled with his safety defensively rather than any of the alternative selections.

Up front England were solid if not devastating with Easter, debutant Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley all having good evenings. It was the unsung Tom Palmer who again stood out for us most though as his excellent work at the line out, combined with a crucial turnover and generally excellent work in the loose, meant that he is rapidly becoming a lynch pin to this England pack.

By no means a perfect performance, the result and the knowledge that there was much excellent work to build on will give England heart. With three home games to come there is no reason to think at this stage why this cannot be an excellent tournament for Martin Johnson’s side.

Wales on the other hand have little to write home about. Imprecise, repeatedly taking the wrong option by kicking when there was space out wide to work with and losing out in the scrummage battles, it was the same old story for Wales. There comes a point in any coaches career when you feel that no matter what they do they are not going to either sort out the problems or reinvigorate the players. It happened with Ireland’s Eddie O’Sullivan and also for Andy Robinson during his time as Head Coach for England and now we feel it might be happening to Gatland.

They have had the same problems for the best part of 18 months now and there seems to be little signs of any resolution to this. It is true that there will be people who said ‘they could have won’ and perhaps if they had been cleverer on the ball this might have even been the case. The fact of the matter is though that they created almost no clear cut opportunities; the chances being cited by pundits and fans alike generally still requiring a substantial amount of work to be done and hardly fall into the category of final pass gone wrong missed opportunities.

As Jonathan Davies said afterwards in the post match round up, there was very little Wales could take out of this game although we would suggest that Morgan Stoddart on his debut was one. He appeared to be a strong, pacey and willing player who consistently looked a threat to England’s defence (despite his first knock on) and also finished his try superbly.

It is doubtful whether the WRU having given Gatland a lucrative contract until 2015 will part ways with him any time soon, but in our eyes the rumbles of discontent will surely grow if, as we predicted, Wales finish contesting the Wooden Spoon with Italy.





Six Nations XV’s (Good and Bad!)

23 03 2010

Since everyone else is doing it – we thought we would too!

  1. Thomas Domingo (France)
  2. William Servat (France)
  3. Nicholas Mas (France)
  4. Alistair Kellock (Scotland)
  5. Lionel Nallet (France)
  6. Stephen Ferris (Ireland)
  7. David Wallace (Ireland)
  8. Johnnie Beattie (Scotland)
  9. Morgan Parra (France)
  10. Francois Trinh-Duc (France)
  11. Keith Earls (Ireland)
  12. Yannick Jauzion (France)
  13. James Hook (Wales)
  14. Tommy Bowe (Ireland)
  15. Clement Poitrenaud (France)

The split is as follows: 8 Frenchman, 4 Irish, 2 Scottish, 1 Welsh

We started this task thinking that it would be easy to pick a team yet we were stuck in a number of positions for some time. The front row picked itself with only Euan Murray coming close to consideration here. Nallet was an easy pick although the other second row spot gave us food for thought, in the end we plumped for Kellock as he put in some genuinely dominant performances, particularly in the last game against Ireland. Of all the decisions to make the back row was at once both the hardest and the easiest. Harinordoquy, Barclay, Heaslip and Dusatoir can all feel hard done by not to be in the side although we feel that the 3 selected have just edged them over the championship.

Moving to the half backs, the French pairing were givens in our eyes. The only (and hugely unlikely challenge) coming from Scotland’s Dan Parks for his performances in adversity. Jauzion, Bowe and Poitrenaud pick themselves but the 11 and 13 shirts gave us serious pause of thought. O’Driscoll is perhaps the obvious choice with Bastereaud as a possible alternative although we have chosen Hook for some coruscating performances throughout the 6 Nations. He is not without flaw in this position and certainly not the finished article, yet he is a game breaker and can be relied upon to do the unexpected. In the 11 shirt we have, after much deliberation, gone for Earls who we feel has really come through after his Lions nightmare of last Summer. Many pundits have chosen Williams from Wales but we feel that his best days are gone and he provides the occasional bright flash, but not too much more.

Lining up against this all star team we have a side we can safely say, with Steve Borthwick as captain, would struggle against an Under 9’s girls team….

  1. John Hayes (Ireland)
  2. Rory Best (Ireland)
  3. Cian Healey (Ireland)
  4. Steve Borthwick (England)
  5. Louis Deacon (England)
  6. Ryan Jones (Wales)
  7. Joe Worsley (England)
  8. Nick Easter (England)
  9. Dwayne Peel (Wales)
  10. Jonny Wilkinson (England)
  11. Ugo Monye (England)
  12. Riki Flutey (England)
  13. Matthew Tait (England)
  14. Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
  15. Delon Armitage (England)

Being totally serious for a second, players such as Monye, Halfpenny, Peel and Best would probably be right in feeling aggrieved as they weren’t awful but simply not quite at their usual best. On the other hand the Irish props and English second row and centres have no such excuse…..

The Italians are notable by their absence. This though is more a reflection on their mediocrity and therefore lack of qualification for the Star XV as much as the fact they have less far to fall and so qualify for the poor XV.

Thoughts  anyone?








%d bloggers like this: