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?

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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?





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.





Team By Team World Cup Previews

19 02 2011

So the Cricket World Cup, a tournament that doesn’t finish until the improbable date of April 2nd, gets under way today with a match between the favourites India and the nation applauded by many for giving the tournament back it’s soul, Bangladesh, with what was apparently a passionate and moving opening ceremony. In the best traditions of English cricket supporters and ODI cricket, we have been pretty ambivalent up until this point (regular readers may have guessed due to the lack of comment on this website) about it. Now, however – and as it always does eventually, the world cup bug has grabbed us and we are looking forward to two months of regular, meaningful limited overs cricket.

Therefore here are some short previews and predictions of how the various teams will go:

Australia

Have a better chance than many think. It really comes down to whether their all out pace attack can do the same job as it did in the West Indies four years ago. Tait and Lee are older and more broken than they were back then but still remain excellent bowlers. The batting is a concern and they will need Shane Watson in particular to be the star man in much the same way as Hayden was in the previous tournament. However our pick as a star man is David Hussey who will surely seize his chance and perform in his brother’s absence. Quarter Finalists.

Bangladesh

Over the past year or so there have been definite signs of improvement in this Bangledeshi team although it is hard to argue they have left their frailties behind entirely. Have the ability to spring an upset and could easily end the West Indian’s dreams of success before they even start. As always Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan will be key men with the captain being our pick as the star man. Have every right to believe they can progress and we have them down as quarter finalists.

Canada

This is likely to be a painful tournament for the men from North America. From a cricketing minnow’s point of view they are probably the weakest team but will be hopeful that they can at least beat the Kenyans. Showed in the warm up game against England that they can compete and have a player of good ability in Rizwan Cheema – our star man for the Canadians. Unfortunately we don’t think they will win a game and will go out prior to the knock out stages.

England

Have the potential to be winners although form and injury worries give the feeling that perhaps this might be a tournament too far for them. Morgan’s absence is a massive blow but at least they have the returning (and on form) Stuart Broad to lead the way with the ball. Much will depend on the captain, Andrew Strauss, and a rejuvenated Paul Collingwood, although our pick as star man after a move to the top of the order is Kevin Pietersen. We have argued before that this might not be a bad plan and if he has a good tournament you simply don’t know how far England could go… Semi Finalists*

India

Hardly an unoriginal choice as winners of this tournament, yet this this where the smart money lies. Devastating batting, bowling suited to their home conditions, one feels that if they play to their potential they are likely to be too much for the others. However they are not so far and away the favourites that it is a given and their bowlers in particular need to fire. Tendulkar is our (obvious) pick as star man in what would likely be his last tournament. Winners.

Ireland

Will be desperate to  to show that the decision to exclude associate teams from the next world cup is very short sighted by creating an upset or two. Buoyed by the returning Ed Joyce (the CH’s star man), they will believe they can beat Bangladesh, West Indies and the Netherlands with possibly even England also in their sights. It is unlikely that they would qualify for the latter stages yet like all Irish sporting teams they are combative and should not be discounted. We think they have one upset in them although this will probably not be enough so it is simply the group stages for them.

Kenya

Once seen as the next associate side most likely to be given test status, they have regressed in recent years. They do however possess some talented players with exposure to success at World Cups and will believe at any rate that they could beat both Canada and Zimbabwe. Having transformed himself from the leg spinning hero that took Kenya to the semi finals back in 2003 but who then developed the yips, Colins Obuya has turned himself into a good middle order batsmen and is our star man. Group stages is as far as they will go however.

Netherlands

The eternal ‘almost team’ but still one who opponents take lightly at their cost – just ask England. Have one or two talented players with the stand out being Essex’s excellent Ryan Ten Doeschate who has the potential to be quite brilliant. Like Ireland, will be eyeing up wins against Bangladesh and the West Indies as potential upsets – something that would be quite exceptional – but in all likelihood it is the men from the Emerald Isle who will be their most likely win.  Group stages.

New Zealand

We don’t know what has happened to the Kiwi’s over the past year. They appear to have imploded and, whilst you would be unwise to write them off, it is lucky for them that they are not in Bangladesh’s group. Even Zimbabwe on current form will be a test. Much as always depends on Taylor, Vettori and McCullum (our star man) although it is time for the support acts, Southee, Guptill and Ryder to step up to the plate. Unfortunately we do not see them going past the group stages as we believe Zimbabwe may cause an upset.

Pakistan

Anything could happen quite honestly and it probably will! Led by Afridi and with a bowling attack that can run through anyone on their day (even despite the bans to Amir and Asif) it is the batting that will be crucial to Pakistan. In recent times it has been this aspect of their game that has let them down badly. Star man for us will be the veteran Abdul Razzaq, whose batting is crucial in the late order and can snatch games from the jaws of defeat. Quarter finalists.

South Africa

The team who if only for themselves may well have won two world cups, will believe that with the demise of Australia, this may be their year. Studded with talent in both departments including the interesting choice of Imran Tahir as their attacking spinner, they will be a handful for anyone. Despite the claims of Amla we have plumped for Steyn to shine. Again in this most open of world cups it is far from a given that they will progress past the quarters even as their previous habits of folding under pressure show, yet we believe they will be losing finalists.

Sri Lanka

Possible winners, the Sri Lankans are bound to benefit from home support, familiar pitches and a wealth of talent and it would be a fool who would write them off. We have picked the upcoming Angelo Matthews to be our star man, a player of immense ability, although the old stagers of Sangakarra, Murali, Jayawardene  – not to mention Dilshan et al – will push our choice all the way. We believe they will be Semi Finalists.

West Indies

Of all the teams in the world cup we will be hoping that the West Indies do well. As we all know cricket is struggling in that part of the world and a successful world cup would do wonders for the teams confidence. Anything from semi finals onwards would represent real achievement – something that would mean Chris Gayle has had an excellent world cup. Darren Bravo is our pick as star man although in all honesty Quarter finals is likely to be as much as they can achieve.

Zimbabwe

The men from Southern Africa have been on an upward spiral of late and should not be taken lightly by anyone. We have already called a possible upset against New Zealand and providing they can win the other games they are expected to, this should be enough to put them in the quarter finals. Something that would represent a major achievement. As star man we are going to go for Brendan Taylor although players like Chigurumba or Taibu will push him all the way. 
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Thoughts On The Pakistani Spot Fixing Sentences

8 02 2011

First of all, let us start by saying that cricket is a game that we love. We love the fact it is a game more complex than most others; we love the simplicity of the contest between batsman and bowler – an individual contest in amongst a team game; we love all the cultural differences that come to the fore when fans from different nations come together in celebration and support of the game; and most of all, we love believing that the contests we are watching are genuine encounters with opposing teams doing their utmost to win.

With the scandal involving the three Pakistani cricketers, Amir, Asif and Butt, it is this last reason and covenant with the paying public that has been broken. For many, including us at the Compulsive Hooker, the subsequent lack of trust engendered by the actions of these players had caused a fairly deep rift between us and the game itself – something that even pulsating series in South Africa and Australia since then have not been entirely able to heal.

In some ways we are relieved that some of the wilder claims of Mazhar Majeed involving other players have not been found to have happened, yet, the suspicion still lurks that perhaps this is for a lack of evidence (or possibly even lack of will) as much as anything else. Unfortunately, and this is the crux of what we believe with regard to the sentences imposed on the three players, the deterrent to spot fix, match fix, call it what you will, is simply not there – even now and, as sure as eggs are eggs, it will happen again.

It is that most human of failings, greed, which of course lead to the situation cricket finds itself in today. Butt, Amir and Asif found the lure of the lucre too hard to resist and so they find themselves in trouble today. It is possible to sympathise with these players on some level – they are relatively poorly paid and can see their neighbours in India earning astronomical sums and this is surely something the Pakistani board have to address moving forward. After all, one of the reasons why you can believe in the Indian, Australian or English teams honesty is that, simply put, they have much more to lose than gain.

However, even despite these mitigating factors, we do believe that these players needed to be held up as an example to the rest of the cricketing world so that we do not get a rerun of this situation in five years time. The argument that it is ‘only a few no balls’ holds no water. It was a matter of principle that needed addressing but sadly has not been completely so. Five year sentences are simply not enough in our eyes and the prospect of Salman Butt, for example, playing test cricket again is not one that we will savour.

 





Morgan Missing As Marathon Tour Ends

7 02 2011

England have finally finished their tour down under and, quite honestly, not before time either. We cannot think of anyone, certainly not anyone English, who would have wanted the tour to finish over a month after the last test match. This means that some of the English players have been away from home for three months and have a matter of only five days at home before heading off to the World Cup in India for another tour that, if they are successful, will last almost two months in its entirety.

The only people that may have benefited from this extended series, the Australians, would also probably acknowledge the folly of a seven match series so close to the World Cup. They have of course regained some confidence in their own game and have had the added advantage of playing at home, yet, even for them, the benefits are not enough to justify a series of such length.

Perhaps the most telling thing for us is that we here at the Compulsive Hooker, as we are sure you all realise, are very committed cricket fans – yet in the past month we have struggled to write about it. The interest levels have not been there to the extent that, quite frankly, we could not care less who won yesterday’s game. Or the game before. Or the game before that.

Obviously this is far from a scientific survey of fans views, yet when people who would normally (and have even over the past month) sit quite happily to watch New Zealand vs Pakistan in the middle of the night cannot be bothered to watch England vs Australia – there is something seriously wrong.

The highlights of yesterdays game showed quite clearly that none of the players wanted to be there. Both sides were going through the motions with England in particular clearly not interested in being there. We won’t bother telling you what happened as we know you don’t really care…

*********

What has happened, inevitably one feels, is that six of England’s fifteen man selection for the World Cup are injured. The latest to be added to the list is the Middlesex batsman and England’s star man in the middle order, Eoin Morgan. England could probably get round losing Tim Bresnan for example, certainly Ajmal Shahzad and even Stuart Broad, yet like Graeme Swann, Morgan’s injury could be a mortal blow to English chances.

Morgan has not done much over the last month in Australia – perhaps the competitive juices he obviously thrives on were not flowing in what was, as we mentioned above, a dreary contest; or perhaps the lack of cricket over the preceding two months took its toll – yet he remains key to England’s batting. With him England believe they can win from almost any situation. Without him and suddenly the belief needed to get you over the line will sometimes fade away.








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