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…

 





World Cup Wrangles: Brilliant Ireland

20 09 2011

Well – what a brilliant couple of weeks this has been for rugby fans all around the world. For us, perhaps the most gratifying thing has been the way in which the less well known rugby nations have competed: Georgia, Japan, Romania and more all having reasons to be pleased with their efforts. Before the tournament there was much noise about how the southern hemisphere would run riot and be nigh on unstoppable, that the so called minnows would roll over and present the opposition with cricket like scores and the ‘also rans’ from the Six Nations would remain just that. Fortunately this has not happened although, as Australians are now so fond of saying, this is just the group stages and there is a long way to go.

Highlights So Far:

Predictably, we have to start with Ireland’s win over Australia. Like most up north, Ireland have flattered to deceive with only the very occasional beacon of hope lighting up the mire, however a few people, including us at the Compulsive Hooker, remembered Ireland’s demolition of a Championship winning England side at the Aviva Stadium in March and so always felt they had a big win or two in them.

What was so impressive was the way in which Ireland stopped Australia playing. For all those Aussies bemoaning the fact that Australia were ‘shocking’ (definitely the ‘mot de jour’ in the Aussie media), in our book it was Ireland who were brilliant rather than the other way round. Hopefully Ireland have proved to themselves as much as anyone else that they are a serious team and one who deserves respect. Being a northern hemisphere rugby fan you swiftly get inured to the criticism emanating from down south (much of which we must add has traditionally been justified) but victories like this add fuel to the feeling that the gap in standards is not as wide as is widely touted.

Brilliantly too, should the rest of the pool games follow expectations, this result more or less guarantees a northern hemisphere finalist and Ireland, Wales, France and England will all be eyeing a rare opportunity.

A second highlight was the fight shown by Georgia – surely a call into the Six Nations can’t be too far away. As the Georgian man of the match said following the England game ‘we need more games like this’. They have shown they can compete and it is not too much of a stretch too imagine them beating any one of the big European sides. As with cricket, we at the Compulsive Hooker are particularly keen on the rugby world being broadened and in our mind Georgia have shown enough that they deserve a regular place at the top table – it remains to be seen however whether the ruling cabal of nations are open minded enough to let them in.

In terms of players there are a few who have caught our eye with Sam Warburton, Sonny Bill Williams, Richard Kahui, Jamie Roberts, the aforementioned Georgian, Gorgodze, and the hirsute Canadian (who amusingly said in an interview this week ‘I miss my face…’) Adam Kleeburger being amongst the most prominent.

Best Team So Far:

A difficult one this. In terms of results then Ireland have a reasonable ask to be included here yet their disappointing performance against the USA counts against them. South Africa too have belied the doubters to play some good rugby and achieved an excellent win against the dangerous Fijians recently. However, it is the hosts who in our opinion have played the best rugby and therefore the All Blacks are our team so far and still the most likely to lift the Webb Ellis trophy.

What About England?

A question that perhaps Martin Johnson is still asking himself. On course to qualify top of the group bar a slip up against the Scots, the rugby has been inconsistent with occasional flashes of quality being swamped by a general mediocrity. With Ireland having beaten the Aussies England’s possible route to the final has been made marginally easier but we feel England will have to improve dramatically to actually achieve this.

Youngs has made a difference, his speed of service and general dynamism being a boon, yet certain combinations still are far from certain. Tuilagi has helped resolve one half of the centre issue but who to partner him with? No one demands inclusion. The back row too have issues with balance and selection. For us Tom Wood is fast becoming undroppable alth0ugh normally a 6 perhaps play him at 7, add Croft’s athleticism into the mix and perhaps the question is who might play number 8? Haskell maybe…

Our wager that England will reach the final is far from secure at this stage and we look forward to signs of improvement in the weeks to come.

The Reffing:

Pretty good in our opinion! People will always complain and perceive bias against the teams they favour and so it’s impossible to be entirely objective – yet to us all seems (mostly) rosy and these brave souls should be applauded.

Going Forward:

New Zealand to beat France comfortably on Saturday, Argentina to edge Scotland and Italy to push Ireland hard. Still think there is another upset to come.

Thoughts?





World Cup Thoughts and Kiwi Pre-Tournament Build Up

4 09 2011

The news that the NZRFU (the Kiwi’s board of control for the uninitiated) has been going door to door in the Land of the Long White Cloud asking people to remember that rugby is ‘only a game’ has finally compelled us to take up pen (or keyboard) and put our thoughts to paper once more with specific regard to this upcoming World Cup.

Quite apart from the obvious chokes – sorry jokes – that could be made about that – it does seem to suggest that Graham Henry and his team might need extended breaks/jobs in the Northern Hemisphere should the All Blacks fail. Fortunately for them they would probably be welcomed with open arms – a top kiwi under that amount of pressure might even be cheap enough for the Aviva Premiership clubs!

We don’t think that this is likely to happen though given that under Graham Henry the AB’s win percentage is somewhere around 90%. Simply by the laws of averages the All Blacks are likely to win their next 8 or 9 games which, by our reckoning, takes them all the way through to World Champion status. Factor in that several of the opposition in these games are way below even the worst team in the Six Nations and suddenly you have, statistically anyway, something that is almost a certainty.

With this in mind, during the Tri Nations we actually found ourselves in the unusual position of supporting New Zealand based on this very reasoning; if they had swept all before them, the rest of the world would have had to deal with possibly a more complacent side.  Simply put, New Zealand, despite their losses, are certainly still the best side in the world and one against whom any victors would have to play out of their skin. Australia included.

This obviously does not mean that another side couldn’t win it and, say it quietly, we think England or France have a very reasonable shot – more so perhaps than South Africa. Assuming that as threatened Lievremont puts out a weaker side against the AB’s in Frances group encounter they should finish second in their group. England by contrast should win theirs meaning that it will be a quarter final between these two old enemies with probably Australia standing in their way in the semi finals. Both England and France aren’t scared of the Aussies with England in particular having an excellent record in knock out situations against them.

Looking purely at the form book it should be a New Zealand vs Australia final but we have sneaky feeling that a northern hemisphere side might upset the odds. If you can get to the final then anything can happen.

With regards to the other sides, none of them apart from perhaps Ireland or, less likely, Wales look to have the quality to cause any serious upsets. Scotland must realistically be happy with a quarter final berth – something that is not even close to being assured with Argentina and England as group mates and Italy will struggle although they will be eyeing up their fixture against Ireland as a potential route to the quarters.

Ireland’s campaign hinges on their game against Australia in the group. Win the group and they probably face Wales. Lose they’ll probably play South Africa with New Zealand to follow if they cleared that hurdle. We don’t think it that unlikely that Ireland could beat one Tri Nations side but more than that is pushing it. They have been exceptionally poor in the warm ups and must be thanking their lucky stars they have the USA up first before the newly crowned Tri Nations champions. However, dig deep, play like they did against England at the end of the 6 Nations and suddenly they have a real chance of a semi final match.

Whatever happens, we can’t wait.





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…





Autumn Internationals Review: Ireland, Wales and Scotland

30 11 2010

Ireland

This has been a difficult and mixed Autumn campaign for the Irish in which, unfortunately, the major scalps of New Zealand and South Africa evaded their willing hands. Ireland, it has to be said, whilst the best of the three Gaelic nations, remain half a level below the major powers of world rugby. Capable of sneaking a win here or there but rarely dominating and, until they get a forward pack powerful enough to compete and really take charge of the exchanges up front, this is unlikely to change.

The Autumn did not get off to the best start with a two point defeat to South Africa at the new Aviva stadium at Lansdowne Road – a game they would have been furious to lose. Unfortunately a combination of early season rust, a poor game plan in the wet, and an obdurate South African display meant that the proud Irish record over the Boks at home over the past decade meant nothing at all.

A scrappy win followed over Samoa with a slightly experimental team and then it was the turn of the All Blacks. With all due respect to Argentina and Samoa (and possibly even South Africa) it was this game, as with all the home nations, that showed just how far they have to travel to be genuine world cup contenders come October next year. That the Irish forced the AB’s to play in top gear occasionally and even caused them problems (for about 30 minutes) is credit to the men in green, yet despite playing out of their skins the Irish eventually went down by 20 points – as sobering a result as any in their recent history.

Argentina finished off the Autumn but never presented a challenge being as they are a fairly limited outfit. Ireland will be pleased with their victories but the two losses mean much more unfortunately than the wins.

To step up to the next level it is paramount that Declan Kidney finds some men in the tight five who are really capable of taking the fight to the southern hemisphere. Without this base the undoubted class of the outside backs will never be able to shine fully.

Heaslip, Ferris and Wallace remain a top quality back three but they need back up and some ball carrying support from the locks and front row. O’Callaghan needs to step up to the plate here in the absence of O’Connell.

Out wide it is clear that despite a good showing against a very limited Argentinian team, Gordon Darcy has had his day. For a long time he has been a shadow of the player he was, for ever such a brief period back in 2006 or so, and the 12 slot remains Irelands biggest weakness out wide. We recall Trimble moon lighting there – perhaps that is something they could look at more seriously?

Ireland have, as ever, the potential to be a really good side but there are a couple of crucial ingredients missing and until these are fixed look destined to be quarter finalists at best down under.

Wales

Wales’ problems are in many ways similar to Irelands. Apparent quality across the board but a results board of three losses and one draw indicates that something is seriously wrong. Zero wins is simply not good enough. When you consider that the draw came against Fiji you realize just how deep the depths the Welsh plumbed are.

Against Australia they never looked like winning although there was a enough grit there to keep things close. Fiji as we have said was an unmitigated disaster; South Africa was a game they should have won until the old Welsh failing of forgetting a game is 80 minutes long took hold; and New Zealand were never in any serious danger.

If you look back at the history of Wales’ games against Tri Nations teams over the past decade, it is obvious that there are many matches in which one of two things happened. Either they came out hard and were in contention or even possibly leading at half time only to fade in the second half – or an abysmal 65 minutes was masked by an excellent and thrilling last 15.

Against South Africa they managed the former although in fairness they only collapsed in the last quarter. Versus New Zealand, despite what Ieuan Evans may have said in the Daily Telegraph, they were never seriously in the hunt although it was a much improved performance. Had Dan Carter kicked his goals the Kiwis would have been out of sight long before half time although, as it proved, they always have an extra gear when needed in these situations.

Like Ireland the talent is there, but unlike their neighbours across the Irish Sea, they seem to lack any grit at all and certainly any ability to close out games. Looking ahead to next year a quarter final spot is appearing to be a distant dream at this stage.

One last thing – the consensus is that Warren Gatland is a good coach – yet his win record is increasing poor. When do people start questioning him or is he, boasting as he does a brand new contract through to 2015, untouchable?

Scotland

Bizarrely, despite the hammering against New Zealand there were probably more plus points for the Scottish team than negative. Andy Robinson continues to do a good job and 2010 has now been a very successful year for them. They are playing with a game plan, some excellent defence (apart from the Kiwi game) and a handful of top quality players now in evidence as well as them being the only Home Nations team to have a positive win loss record this Autumn.

The win over South Africa is of course the major achievement of the Autumn campaign and one that was fully deserved by all accounts. Clearly the answer is to embarrass themselves the week before as without a sound thrashing they don’t appear to get worked up enough to compete at the top table. Problems with depth of talent and quality persist but they deserve praise for making the most of what they have.

Due to clashes in scheduling we missed all the Scottish games and so have less to say on the them than the others but one thing is for sure, anyone travelling to Murrayfield is certainly not going to take them lightly in this year’s Six nations. World Cup will be a different story however and they look like being quarter finalists at best.

Conclusion

Same old same old on the whole for the Gaelic nations. Some good moments but when it comes down to it – not enough quality or consistency to really trouble the best or put away the minnows.








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