Autumn Internationals: Pithy Previews

12 11 2010

Scotland vs New Zealand

Scotland get their Autumn International series underway with a testing, and one might say nigh on impossible, mission against the All Blacks. It is true that the AB’s have had two difficult games; and it is equally true that Scotland have improved massively under some inspired leadership from Andy Robinson – yet the gulf in talent remains huge and a more or less full strength Kiwi side should have more than enough firepower to dispose of the troublesome Scots…

Prediction: Scotland 13-45 New Zealand

Look out for: Scotland’s three B’s going toe to toe with the AB’s back row. Williams to be a handful and create a series of try scoring opportunities in his position at 12 this week. AB’s to score most of their points in the second half.

Ireland vs Samoa

After a tough day at the office last week against the Springboks, Ireland will be looking to get their first win of the season on the board. Ireland will have felt that they should have won last weeks game and Samoa could be in for a backlash this week. Despite naming what has been called an ‘experimental’ side in some quarters, the Irish team still possesses quality all over the park and should have a comfortable win. Samoa have named a strong side and will be smarting after their reserve side was beaten by Connaught in their mid week tour game. In what will be a hard and physical match, Ireland will be as much concerned by the possibility of injuries to key players as by scoring tries.

Prediction: Ireland 43-22 Samoa

Look out for: Big hits and strong runnning (providing its not raining) from Samoa. Young flanker Sean O’Brien whom many people thought should have been playing last week. Giant lock Devin toner being lifted high on his debut.

Wales vs South Africa

The weekend’s other big game – Wales will be hoping that they can take advantage of South Africa’s recent troubles to record what would be their first win over Tri Nations opposition for several years. Wales were scratchy last week but with Hook having moved to 12, and therefore more in the action, they will be looking to achieve more fluidity. South Africa too will be looking to build on the good signs from last week. It will be interesting to see who comes out on top in the scrum as Jones takes on the ‘Beast’ once again.

Prediction: Wales 19-23 South Africa

Look out for: An almighty battle upfront. Fast pacey action out wide from Wales and some fast paced but slightly more direct play from the Boks. Likely to be a helter skelter game.

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Some Questions

14 03 2010

It is hard to write this piece without it descending into a diatribe of epic proportions against England and particularly the England management. Nevertheless, we will try and provide a few opinions as objectively as possible regarding the game we have just watched.

Ending in a draw, which to our eyes seemed a fair result considering the sheer inadequacies present on both sides, it underlined the shortcomings mentioned ad nauseam in previous articles on this site. To a large degree we are willing to exempt the players from blame; not totally you understand as there is far too much experience within the team and poor execution in the game to do so, but on the whole we feel they are handicapped by poor selection and an atrocious game plan from the England management.

Before we go any further, and to attempt to stem the flow of negativity straining to unleash itself from our fingertips, let us have a look at Scotland. On the whole, Andy Robinson, will be relatively pleased with a draw although this still leaves Scotland likely wooden spoon winners. Yet this was a game that Scotland could, and possibly should have won. There were definite positives in several key areas; the 6,7,8 combo continues to impress with Beattie in particular vying with Jamie Heaslip for the title of the best number 8 in the home nations, and out wide Scotland again showed intent and variation. Unfortunately the final pass went astray too often for them to be truly effective but importantly the desire was there.

Despite results not going their way, Scotland have improved over these past 4 games. They remain hamstrung by a small player base which means they are always going to be a smaller nation, yet under Andy Robinson they have showed more structure and played more rugby. We hope that the Scottish board sticks with him as with a bit more luck and certainly a little more nous the results in this tournament could have been quite different. It was interesting to see the Scottish full back punching the ball into touch once Toby Flood’s attempted drop goal has been charged down, willing this time to settle for the draw. Lessons have clearly been learnt from the Wales game.

And so, back to England.

There are two overriding emotions present here at the Compulsive Hooker so let us deal with them one at a time. Firstly frustration. Here is a list of things in England’s favour which in theory should mean England should not be in this current malaise.

  • England are blessed with one of the largest player bases of any senior test match rugby nation.
  • Even despite the recent economic downturn, the financial status of the RFU and most English clubs has remained healthy.
  • The facilities available throughout these clubs and at headquarters remain some of the best in the world.
  • The wealth of the clubs has been able to ensure that the majority of the star players stay in England and are not tempted overseas for more lucrative rewards creating a player drain. The recent strength of the Euro and the wage caps imposed in the UK, has made this a greater challenge than before, yet France is hardly far away….
  • The ability to attract foreign talent for the financial reasons above. This of course can be argued both ways, but really and truly the standard of the Guiness Premiership would not be half as good as it is without many of these players playing. (There are some exceptions to this rule but not many).

Yet despite all these compelling reasons (and we are positive there are many more) why England should, from a support point of view be one of the best teams in the world, yet come to naught when you look at results.

The second emotion is puzzlement. To explain this we have composed a list of questions below which go some way to elucidating this feeling. (In no particular order….)

  • Where has Riki Flutey disappeared to? We know he’s a good player (3rd test of the Lions tour, France and Wales matches in last years 6 Nations are all examples of his abilities), yet in the last 3 games he has been extraordinarily innocuous and totally invisible. Did he touch the ball before the 57th minute today? We missed it if so….
  • Steve Borthwick? Really?
  • Louis Deacon? And Steve Borthwick? Together?
  • Will Steve Borthwick ever fail to use the adjective ‘fantastic’ in relation to another dreary England performance? We haven’t seen the post match interviews with him but we’d be willing to bet he said the word somewhere….
  • Delon Armitage? Which dastardly character has stolen his mojo?
  • Why the aversion to exciting and dynamic young players? (Dan Coles excepted). Ben Foden, Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs? It’s as if they have been put on the bench as a token gesture to appease the angry press and near to rioting fans but nothing more.
  • Why does Jonny stand so deep? Is it really the game plan ‘so lay off him’, as Johnson told the media earlier in the tournament, or was he simply protecting his talisman?
  • What does Rob Andrew do for his exorbitant wages? (This is a very interesting point and one which we will tackle at some point in the near future).
  • Does Rob Andrew possess big enough ‘cahones’ to sack the man he appointed to be England’s saviour?
  • Will Martin Johnson admit defeat and resign, therefore saving him the trouble?
  • Who can sack Rob Andrew? Why won’t whoever it is that can do so?
  • Where has Mark Cueto’s pace gone?
  • Where can we apply to join the England back room team? It’s well paid, amazing job security with almost no performance related targets to hit and on top of that masses of great England gear…..
  • Above all, England have good players. We know this. But why, oh why, can they not play rugby together?!?!
  • Etc
  • Etc

There are many, many more questions where these came from. There are also answers to many of them, but somehow the men to whom all these frustrations and performance issues come back to, appear to be supremely oblivious to the either the problems, solutions or both.

Please Johnno! We loved you as a player and as a fearsome man of iron; but please don’t ruin your reputation or tarnish our still (but only just) pure adoration for you. It’s time to get out whilst you still can…..





Johnson’s Spy Network, Rugby Rules and Terrible Stats

12 03 2010

Martin Johnson is in the papers today rebutting claims from Andy Robinson that England effectively cheat with their use of American Football style ‘blockers’, which supposedly enables them to open up space for their midfield, in turn creating space out wide. Two things here:

Firstly England’s midfield has been pretty poor during this 6 Nations, only coming into its own during turn over ball situations (more on which in a minute). The ‘blockers’ that Andy Robinson is referring to, are effectively dummy runners who are just enough in the way of the defenders to prevent them from making crucial tackles, and are only really employed as part of set piece moves which have been practised on the training park. The Australians have been using this tactic brilliantly for years now, and the Lions also did so effectively last Summer.  What Andy Robinson is forgetting, however, is that from a set piece move, England are as inept as any Under 9 team and have not threatened at all.

Secondly, this concern of Andy Robinson’s clearly backs up yesterdays Compulsive Hooker article, and shows how effective Martin Johnson’s spy ring truly is. Obviously Cusiter has been inveigling his supposed concerns regarding England’s pace out wide into Robinson’s mind, and so consequently Scotland will mass defences to combat these threats leaving England’s forwards a clearer path on which trundle.

The selection of Joe Worsley is really the give away in all this, strong and brutish he is a clear indication of limited game England intend to play. Cusiter is the double agent and Andy Robinson his unwitting tool. Some may accuse Robinson himself of being in on this plan, but we feel he is probably so bitter after his time as England Head Coach he would be supporting the Scots anyway, whether coach or not!

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The use of blockers though is a valid concern along with much else that is going on in rugby today. Watching today’s Super 14 games, the number of forward passes, crooked feeds into the scrum, players offside when chasing kicks, indeed offsides in any given context which were not picked up either by the referee’s or linesman is astonishing. Rugby is based upon certain tenets, of which these are amongst the most defining and without which you may as well call it something completely different.

We must also say that it is not simply southern hemisphere rugby that has these problems, but rugby as a whole. Everyone, from your classic armchair expert (a category which we proudly fall into…) to the professional rugby journalists, both ex players and not, seem to have ideas about new laws and regulations that will improve rugby as a spectacle. We have an idea too.

How about the linesman are told to watch for forward passes, players in front of the kicker etc? The ref has enough to deal with at the breakdown and at the set pieces meaning that inevitably he will miss defending players creeping into offside and unfair positions. In top level rugby a yard is crucial and usually weights the balance unfairly in the defenders favour. Essentially, lets apply the existing laws, and particularly the central ones that define rugby, stringently. These laws were devised originally with the idea of keeping the contest a level playing field – by becoming lax on the policing of these laws the game has degenerated into a defensive game rather than the attacking affair it was conceived as.

This years Super 14, it should be said, is an exception to this rule that defensive systems are on top. However in our view, concessions have been made in other areas, such as the quality of the tackling which in many cases has been atrocious. Watching the Waratahs run in 10 tries today against the Lions was not the sort of rugby we are interested in quite frankly. The Lions players seemed to have given up by midway through the second half with tackling purely an optional extra.

It is still a valid point though that tries are what make rugby exciting and so something has to be done. With England and Scotland (along with Italy) all so excruciatingly bad going forward, we are approaching this Calcutta Cup match with some trepidation. We seriously think though that if rugby was refereed how it is designed to be, within a relatively short period of time rugby as a spectacle would improve.

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Coming back to the turnover situation and England as promised above. On the few instances that England have made telling breaks up field in this 6 Nations tournament, they have almost all come from turnover ball. The Times have today published rather a telling set of statistics which underline England’s problems….

They are last in the table of turnovers won with 5 in 3 games. That is not enough in the modern game when with defences so well organised this is one of the few situations when they have the opportunity to create something with a defence in disarray.

Allied to this they have only offloaded 16 times out the tackle which when you compare it to Clive Woodward’s tenure is appalling. Back in 2002/3 they would have come close to this in a single game, let alone three.





Six Nations Round 2 – Thoughts

15 02 2010

England, England, England*.

This was supposed to be the game where, with all Johnson’s first choice players available, England would cut loose, throw off the shackles and prove to the rugby world they can play. A combination of a resurgent Italy and extraordinarily muddled game plan ensured that England struggled and Italy in many ways appeared to be the better side.

Italy did all that was expected of them, getting up into England’s faces and spoiling well at the break down. England, however, after a good start in which Armitage almost went over in the corner, retreated to the aerial kicking game that is all too familiar to England supporters.

The best sides in the world all employ a kicking game. These are built around other aspects of the game plan which in turn create space for them to kick to. By drawing players into contact situations and sucking in the defence this creates gaps behind into which kicks can be placed and territory gained. England’s kicking is mainly down to a lack of other ideas, which means that almost always the opposing team has players covering and any potential advantage is lost. Factor in the poor quality of much of the kicking and often England are simply handing back the advantage to the opposition.

Delon Armitage had a second poor game and seems to have lost confidence since his stellar performances last year. An important facet of his play was his ability to run the ball back, often beating two or three men and putting England on the front foot. In the last two games he has been fallible under the high ball and then, more often than not, simply put boot to ball in a fairly aimless fashion. England need the old Armitage back as otherwise Ben Foden provides an attractive alternative.

On a positive note, Wilkinson stood a great deal flatter and several times initiated wide attacking moves with Monye twice and Flutey making lengthy breaks down field. The extraordinary thing was that despite a clear demonstration that this tactic was working, for much of the first and second half England reverted to type and the boot. Variety is the spice of life and England just keep getting it wrong by doing the same thing again and again.

Coming into this game Flutey was supposed to be the man who could set England’s backs alight. As noted above, whilst there were instances of this (more in this one game than the entire Autumn series combined), Flutey needs the ball in hand (and his in particular) to do this. After a couple of deft touches in the opening minutes, it was the 38th before he touched it again, at which point his lovely angle cut open the Italian midfield. It was telling that England’s best moments came with him involved and should be something Johnson considers over the next fortnight.

In many ways Italy were the better team on the day and had clearly set out to play with some invention themselves. Their backs, which previously had been impotent, burst into life and genuinely threatened on a couple of occasions. Mallett would be a great deal happier after this performance than Johnson, although he is no doubt ruing the missed opportunity to take what would be a serious scalp in world rugby.

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France have been reaffirmed as favourites to win the championship and potential Grand Slam winners. Indeed if they play as they did against the Irish in Paris there is little chance of anyone even competing and we would have backed them against any side in the world. Dominant at the breakdown, brilliant in the backs and with Parra and Trinh-Duc playing probably their best games for France, Ireland stood no chance.

Despite odd individual moments of brilliance from Darcy and O’Driscoll the Irish found themselves repeatedly hitting what appeared to be a solid blue wall, such was the French defence. Coupled with set pieces that achieved parity at best and the Irish back row being second to the break down on most occasions it was always unlikely once France had gone into the lead. Ronan O’Gara was also poor, missing kicks and tackles which when combined with his insistence of standing 15 yards behind the gain line when receiving meant that the Irish backs had little chance of making any impressions. Jonny Sexton will likely return for England at Twickenham which for both teams is a must win game and having Sexton’s superior attacking ability will help unleash Ireland’s undoubtedly talented backs.

It is important Ireland regroup to win the remainder of their games as with only 18 months to go prior to the next world cup, it is crucial they keep their momentum going. France, on the other hand, appear to once more have an embarrassment of riches and with Lievremont appearing finally to be settling on his preferred combinations they are going to be a genuine threat to the southern hemispheres superiority.

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Having sat down to watch the Wales Scotland game with some trepidation at the prospect of a low quality game we were pleasantly surprised by what turned out to be the game of the tournament so far. Despite suffering injuries to Thom Evans and Chris Paterson Scotland stormed into the lead and with only 6 minutes remaining were 10 points clear. Wales however produced a fantastic period of play to deny Scotland what would have been a cathartic win for Andy Robinson’s team.

When Wales play like they did in the final minutes they are seriously dangerous and it must be a huge frustration to Warren Gatland that they cannot do it over an 80 minute period. Shane Williams looked like he is back to his best, creating two on ones and worrying the Scots every time he got the ball. Likewise Jamie Roberts had his best game since the Lions and was the main focal point for Wales going forward.

For Scotland the back row were brilliant, particularly in the first half, with Barclay and Beattie carrying well and competing on the ground. A second positive was back play which looked more full of initiative and threat than it has done for quite some time. If Scotland can carry this form over to Rome they should be fairly confident of winning.

The major frustrations of course come from losing a game that they should really have won. It seemed an extraordinary decision by Blair to restart the ball into play with the scores level at 24 all when a simple kick into touch would have brought the end of the game although equally you could applaud them for gambling and going for the win.

*Our frustrations are probably all too apparent in this article and so we apologise if we sound bitter – its just so appalling being England rugby fans at the moment!





Six Nations Thoughts – Scotland

23 01 2010

Despite the best Autumn international series for many years, here at the Compulsive Hooker, we are finding it very difficult to be particularly positive with regard to Scotland’s Six Nations prospects. Strength in depth in Scotland is sadly lacking and with only two professional sides to choose from it is difficult to see their prospects improving much.

There are however some positives as both Edinburgh and Glasgow are riding high in the Magners League. How much this is to do with the Welsh and Irish (in particular) teams focus on the Heineken Cup, rather than the innate quality of the Scottish sides, it is difficult to say. Evidence perhaps can be found in the fact that neither Scottish side will again qualify for the quarter finals of this competition.

Much maligned as England Head Coach, Andy Robinson, does appear to have instilled a sense of purpose and a steel core into the Scottish team. This approach has been based on creating a rock solid defence and worrying about attacking play later. Famously this approach reaped massive reward when in their game against Australia at Murrayfield, the Scots won despite having only about 30% of the ball. This was in the end more due to Australia’s failings but it was a wonderful boost for the players and Scottish supporters who have suffered many an indignity in recent years.

In attack it is crucial that whoever Robinson chooses at fly half plays more positively than in recent games. Phil Godman did a job in the Autumn but how the fans must be willing a similarly mercurial talent as Gregor Townsend to come through. In the Evans brothers they have threats out wide along with the ever willing and still dangerous Chris Paterson. In the eyes of the Compulsive Hooker, Paterson is one of the most underrated players of the last decade. His kicking of course remains nigh on faultless.

Prediction: 5th. Scotland to struggle although they will fancy Wales as a possible scalp. England too should be careful.








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