Autumn Internationals: World XV

1 12 2010

As a bit of fun (but primarily due to a lack of other ideas today) we have decided to put together our World XV from the recent Autumn Internationals. We are trying to pick this team from the last four weeks only so please bear this in mind when commenting. This is not, perhaps, a list of the best players in the world – just the best players of the last four weeks!

With that in mind let us know your thoughts – who would you have picked?

15. Mils Muliaina

A shoe in quite frankly. Only Kurtley Beale came close to challenging this remarkable All Black. Never has a bad game and, in his way, is as crucial to the Kiwis as Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.
Honourable mention: Kurtley Beale. After these two – daylight.

14. Chris Ashton
Pace, power and will be part of what should be an excellent back three for some time to come.
Honourable mention: George North

13. Conrad Smith
Another obvious selection and a crucial ingredient to the AB’s back line.
Honourable mention: Adam Ashley-Cooper.

12.  Sonny Bill Williams
We know he was less effective against ireland, we know he played one game at 13… But, still, he was hugely exciting to watch and gets our vote!
Honourable mention: Nonu – another AB 12 which just shows the difficulty that Graham Henry is likely to have over the coming year!

11. Hosea Gear
Surely the AB’s first choice winger for some time to come. Had an excellent trip up north and is a devastating finisher.
Honourable mention: Drew Mitchell

10. Dan Carter
Who else?
Honourable mention: Toby Flood

9. Ben Youngs
Excellent Autumn series barring a slightly stop start performance against South Africa behind a battling pack. Showed he’s here to stay.
Honourable mention:  N0 one else stood out for us – maybe Will Genia?!

8. Kieron Read
Powerful, dynamic and part of the best loose forward combination in the world.
Honourable mention: Jamie Heaslip

7. Richie McCaw
Hardly a surprise!
Honourable mention: Pat Pocock

6. Jerome Kaino
One of the few consistently good Springboks over the last four weeks.
Honourable mention: Juan Smith

5. Victor Matfield
Silenced any critics who suggested he might be getting too old.
Honourable mention: Sam Whitelock

4. Courtney Lawes
Couldn’t resist putting him in… Excellent series and still in his early 20’s Lawes is a serious prospect.
Honourable mention: Brad Thorne

3. Martin Castrogiovanni
A serious prospect for opposing scrums, the Italian sneaks into the mix in a strongly contested spot.
Honourable mention: Adam Jones

2. Bismarck Du Plessis
Excellent work throughout the Autumn from the South African hooker. Carried all before him against England.
Honourable mention:  Kevin Mealamu for want of other options despite his 2 match ban.

1. Tendai Mtawarira
An awesome player who gets our vote against some very strong opposition in this position.
Honourable mention: Tony Woodcock

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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.





Sweet Chariot: Outstanding England

14 11 2010

England 35-18 Australia

Well that was encouraging!

You may have noticed that the Compulsive Hooker has had its fair share of issues with England rugby since the blog’s inception. We have castigated Martin Johnson, Steve Borthwick and, more recently, Nick Easter and Mike Tindall mercilessly – the years of ‘rebuilding’ and hurt took their toll you see. However, faced with a result that is as impressive on paper as it was in the performance; we feel that it is time to set aside the negativity and once more take pride in England rugby.

Southern hemisphere supporters (and possibly anyone non-English) will undoubtedly laugh at the headlines and lead paragraphs in almost all English media reports on the game this morning. Without fail there is some mention of the World Cup and how England have sounded ‘a World Cup warning’. Whilst this is still probably jumping the gun until the levels of consistency have been raised to close to 2003 levels, it is not entirely an unfounded statement. The rest of the world are of course very familiar with the English media’s propensity to get over excited (just look at the football team!) but in many ways you can’t blame them – it was truly an awesome performance and one that was genuinely exciting.

It is rare to see a northern hemisphere side dominate a Tri Nations team. Even in the glory days of English rugby back in 2001-3 when England didn’t lose to any of these sides for 3 years, the games were not often as one sided as yesterday. Using memory alone, the only examples of this we could come up with were when England put 50 points on South Africa in 2002, and possibly the test in Sydney just prior to the World Cup when England ran out winners 25-17 in an entirely dominant display. There may well have been more – our memory is not perfect – but certainly with wins rare over the past 7 years, the manner of it was entirely unexpected.

In our pre-match predictions we had suggested that England had a reasonable chance and would secure a win by one score. With England playing some of the finest rugby we have seen from men in shirts bearing the red rose (we quite liked the ‘anthracite’ shirts ourselves…), the result of the game was never really in doubt from the moment Ashton crossed for his first try and England went 10-0 up.

The catalyst, as always these days, in good things from England was the 20 year old Ben Youngs. Deservedly Man of the Match, he did not take an incorrect decision all game and excelled in that old rugby adage of  ‘playing what’s in front of him’. His vision and step to put first Lawes and then Ashton away down the right was audacious and, quite simply, breathtaking.

Ashton, after a quiet game against the All Blacks, was excellent and showed outstanding pace to beat Drew Mitchell to the line on his 80 yard dash for his second try. Whilst he was undoubtedly brilliant, it was the other winger in the form of Mark Cueto who appeared to have been reborn and caught our eye. Over the past couple of years Cueto has been a solid, intelligent but unexciting presence on the wing – rarely providing the go forward of yesteryear. At Twickenham yesterday he was back to his inventive and dangerous best; on several occasions breaking through holes in the Aussie defence and generally being very difficult to put down.

In truth this was a great team performance and it would be wrong to pick out individuals too much but others that caught the eye included Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes, Ben Foden and Shontayne Hape. Even the victim of many a rant on this website, Nick Easter, provided a good link and go forward when he had the ball. Our doubts about him remain – he is too slow and still seems to knock on too much – but until Haskell or someone similar puts their hand up, he’s fine. Tindall, too, had a good game after a particularly average showing against the AB’s and despite looking ponderous on occasions provides an experienced head. Similarly to Easter, it would be nice to have a dynamic young 13 coming through but until this happens  Johnson should continue selecting him.

Australia will be bitterly disappointed but they were simply not allowed to play. In the backs the outstanding Kurtley Beale played what amounted to a lone hand whilst only Pocock was in evidence in the forwards. As England know only too well, playing with a pack going backwards is almost impossible. All this despite the much vaunted weakness of the Australian game, the front row, not being in evidence at all! They are obviously not a bad team overnight and remain a highly dangerous outfit – albeit one that lacks the necessary consistency.

Finally, a word on the architect of England’s win, Martin Johnson. It is fair to say that we have been fairly damning about Jonno’s regime over the past year. For the first 2 years in charge his lack of experience, coupled with a strange fascination for Steve Borthwick and an aversion to youth, ensured that we were sceptical his credentials. Too often one good performance was followed by three dire ones – but with evidence having been mounting since the France game in March that, just perhaps, it was different this time, we are going to gracefully withdraw from this position. It is clear that now whatever balance Johnson was seeking has been achieved. Most importantly he knows who his first XV is – something that for a long time was simply not clear – and with the timely emergence of Youngs, Foden, Ashton and Lawes there is that added bonus of having some potentially (in Youngs case, already) world class players to pick from.

From our point of view at the Compulsive Hooker, we would also like to say what a pleasure it is to be feeling positive about England rugby once more. To be able to write something without a burning knot of frustration in your stomach is a novel experience and one that we hope England have managed to banish for quite sometime. So well done England, well done Martin Johnson and bring on the Springboks!





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.





England vs Australia Preview

11 11 2010

We are in the unusual situation of having, whilst not an over powering level of expectation, certainly a larger dose of it than in any time in recent years. For the first time in several years we are consciously entertaining the possibility of an England win without recoiling in turmoil at the possibility that, simply by thinking it could happen, England will have even less chance.

We like to think of ourselves as a reasoning, thinking and logical collective at the Compulsive Hooker – Dingo excepted perhaps – and this sporting superstition does not sit well with us although, try as we might, it is impossible to ignore.

The reasons why England could win are numerous after a game which, despite the loss to the All Blacks (and in spite of our extremely negative write up perhaps), there were a number of positives to come out of it. The scrummaging was obviously exceptional and it was a joy to behold the old and the new in the forms of Sheridan and Cole packing down together; Australia are surely worried at what these two behemoths may do to their fragile pack.

Youngs continued to show promise and for the periods when England were going forward was most impressive. Flood, Hape, Ashton and the impressive Foden have another opportunity to showcase their undoubted talent against a backline who love playing rugby as much as the All Blacks. The difference being this week is that at England should have the edge up front making it easier for Flood to get everyone going forward.

Equally, Australia would be pretty disgusted with themselves should they lose this game. Yes they’re playing at Twickenham; yes they havent’t got much of a scrum – but quite honestly, they’re the holders of the Bledisloe Cup and have played virtually without a scrum for years so this won’t bother them!

Where they are strong, as always, is in their back row and all across the back line. Indeed in Pocock, Genia, Cooper and James O’Connor they have some of the foremost talents in their respective positions. England scrum half, Ben Youngs, expects the Aussie backline to be more dangerous than the All Blacks – praise indeed considering who plays for the men in black – although to be fair, this might be all part of a weird love in that is occurring between the two sides at the moment.

Summing up; the Australians remain favourites although, unlike last weekend’s air of sheer inevitability, there is a real feeling that England might have just enough to get over the line.

Prediction: England 24-22 Australia

Look out for: Lots of play acting around the scrum as Australia attempt to show that England are scrumming illegally. Pocock to be the first to almost every breakdown. Tindall to be shown up on the outside/inside as his lack of pace tells. Ashton, Foden and Youngs to provide England’s attacking threat. England to just do enough.





Autumn Internationals: England 16-26 New Zealand

7 11 2010



Analysing rugby is almost always an entirely subjective matter with two people watching in different parts of the world almost often having an entirely different view point – even if they are supporters of the same team – despite having watched the same match. Normally, however, amongst the ‘experts’ of the media, many of whom are ex-players themselves, a sort of consensus emerges. After yesterday’s trio of matches it is safe to say that this is certainly not the case.  With the first round of Autumn Internationals completed; almost every report you read in the various outlets have often strongly contrasting viewpoints and, being as we are in the business of writing sports opinion, it is our duty here and now to add to this mix…

Call us pessimists, call us cynical (or possibly even miserable) but for the Compulsive Hooker it appeared to be same old story. All ‘huff and [very little] puff’. Sport is ultimately about results and time and time again the Southern Hemisphere powers show that. Despite a lack of home advantage, they are usually comfortably better than their Northern Hemisphere opposition in almost all facets of the game. This is not to say that there was not a glimmer of hope for all three of Ireland, England and Wales during yesterday’s games; but in the end class told and once again it was 3-0 to the south.

England 16-26 New Zealand

Some of the biggest disparities in the press have come in the analysis of this match with, particularly in the English press, what we would regard as some fairly major fallacies being peddled.

This game was undoubtedly a game in which, for short periods at least, England’s much vaunted improvement of recent times was evident. In truth the scrum was the only part of the game where England could be said to have dominated their opposing numbers, yet pleasingly for some England supporters there were signs of a better game plan and a certain amount of ambition on show.

Unfortunately for the cynics (of which we count in their number) England’s positive steps are really, perhaps, just a demonstration that the very basics of the game are finally being grasped. That it should have taken 7 years and three coaches to get back to this stage is not exactly a great thing.

Putting on our ‘positive head’ though, we were pleased with Ben Youngs’ performance at nine as on the occasions where England were able to secure ball on the front foot, it was his distribution and initiative that led to much of the good work. Hape also had some good moments although it was fair to say that in more than one instance the pairing of Nonu and Williams exposed some limitations – he remains a work in progress. Tom Croft was industrious and showed glimpses of why he was so successful for the Lions in 2009; his forward partners and brothers of the front row, Sheridan and Cole, were excellent and provided a platform that a better side could have used to good effect. Foden, too, showed glimpses of his form against Australia in the Summer.

In amongst this several players were mired in a morass of ineffectiveness and an unfortunate lack of precision. Flood was the forerunner in this group; not exactly bad – just totally unable to imprint himself on the game. Ashton looked lightweight and fell off several tackles whilst offering little in attack. On the opposite wing, Cueto, looked off the pace – an intelligent footballer to be sure, but not one that holds any terrors for the opposition any more. Ashton in particular has shown enough promise to be worth sticking with but with Cueto should go.

In the third category of players who in our opinion are holding England back is the opinion polarising Nick Easter and the veteran centre Mike Tindall. Easter is the archetypal safe bet. A solid, dependable but crucially slow and curiously undynamic character; he capped yesterdays performance by a series of panicked errors in the run up to half time that showed, to us at least, that the return of James Haskell cannot come soon enough. At very least the word ponderous cannot be so freely applied to the Stade Francais man.

Tindall, again, is another safe but limited player who we hesitated in putting into this category although, once we realized this was out of loyalty to his past achievements, we added him to the list. Shown up by the AB’s centre pairing on more than one occasion, we have rarely seen him looking so laboured. The problem that Johnson has is one of who would you replace him with; there are few English 13’s around putting their hands up for this role and so for the short term at least he is a safe bet to retain his place.

New Zealand were a frustrated side for most of the game (credit which should be given to England for the manner in which they put the AB’s under pressure) but still had comfortably enough in the tank to make this victory one that was never really in doubt.

The centre partnership of Nonu and Williams, whilst lacking the finesse and communication of regular partners, was a success on the whole. On debut Williams showed enough good touches to show that he is unlikely to find a lack of class an issue at test match level. Gear was electric on the wing and has surely showed Henry enough reasons to stick with him for the time being.

The one area of concern might be in the scrum as Franks in particular was shown up on a regular basis by the combined power of the English forwards. This was not ultimately a factor, being as it is a less important factor in the modern game.

So, in summary, despite some good things, particularly the pressure and the spoiling that England were able to achieve, in the end class and efficiency told and the AB’s ran out comfortable and deserved winners.

Ireland vs South Africa to follow…





England vs New Zealand Preview

4 11 2010

England come into this game as huge underdogs. Nothing unusual there then. The All Blacks, despite last weekend’s unexpected and narrow defeat to the Australians, come into these Autumn tests with an unbeaten Tri Nations under their belt and a brand of fast paced and highly skillful rugby that should wow all those that have the opportunity to see them play.

England, whose last game was the single point win over Australia, have picked much the same side as that match and look set to, attempt at any rate, to stifle New Zealand rather than play with any great ambition themselves. Mike Ford, England’s much maligned defence coach, has accused the recent Tri Nations matches  of not being ‘proper test rugby’, a claim that quite frankly beggars belief whilst  only serving to wind up the AB’s. Instead Ford has promised a return to ‘old fashioned rugby’.

This is a prospect that has us groaning to be quite honest as it seems to signify a game plan of little width and interminable drives around the fringes. At least with Ben Youngs at 9 we can expect quick service and a certain amount of desire to spread the ball on occasions.

Playing the AB’s is always difficult – particularly with a backlash likely following their loss to the Aussies – and you can understand why England would not want to employ the game plan they used against Australia in June – i.e. throw it around and get it wide. With the running abilities of the AB’s this could backfire dramatically.

The key as ever is a balance. Disrupt McCaw and friends at the source and once you have your hands on the ball play a mixed game – keep it tight before spreading once you have sucked players in. Sadly we suspect this balanced approach is unlikely to happen as with Johnson’s England it is usually polar opposites – slow and undynamic tight play or caution to the wind wide and wild rugby.

What England need to do is pay attention to the dynamism and speed with which the AB’s, and indeed all Tri Nations teams, hit the breakdown areas.  As with most sports, speed creates problems and if a tight disrupting style is their game plan on Saturday – this is crucial to their chances of success.

Finally from England’s perspective, it is encouraging to see Johnson sticking with the Foden and Ashtons of this world. These players, along with Youngs, are genuine game breakers and should not be scared to run the ball back at the AB’s. As Australia showed last week the New Zealand defence is far from infallible.

As far as the Kiwi’s are concerned, providing they shore up these aforementioned problems in defence this should be, whilst not quite a walk in the park, certainly only a moderate jog. They have the class, they have the game breakers, they have the speed and, perhaps most importantly, they have their aura. A young England side (Tindall and pals excepted) without having any experience of beating the men in black might find this ultimately is the deciding factor. Unwavering belief after all counts for a lot.

With the New Zealand team not named yet there is still doubt about Sonny Bill Williams involvement. For our part at the Compulsive Hooker we would be very pleased to see him as part of the team – he is after all a seriously exciting prospect.

Prediction: New Zealand 34-12 England

Look Out For: An excess of penalties conceded by England around the breakdown as they try to disrupt AB service. Muliaina to be back to his devastating best as he returns poorly directed punts from England’s back line.

 








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