2010: International Rugby Review

5 01 2011

This is obviously a far from comprehensive review (being as it is based on our own personal ideas) so please feel free to let us know your own thoughts about the year just past.

First of all some Highlights…

New Zealand’s Tri Nations Performances

New Zealand have been brilliant all year but none more so than in the opening two fixtures of the Tri Nations.  Playing probably the most exciting high precision rugby we have ever had the pleasure to witness, the All Blacks destroyed  South Africa twice on consecutive weekends before going on to be unbeaten in this years competition. After a middling year in 2009 they showed once more they are the team to beat and with the World Cup coming in October of this year it would take a fairly imaginative piece of reasoning to suggest that they will not break their one remaining hoodoo.

Led by the evergreen and ever excellent Richie McCaw, marshaled by the incomparable and newly crowned leading point scorer in world rugby, Dan Carter, and sporting other such once in a generation talents as Mils Muliaina they are a side to be treasured as one perhaps verging on rugby perfection.

Despite this, Kiwi’s are a bunch who are particularly hard to please when it comes to rugby – the curse of being a side who win 75% or more of their games is that people do expect error free performances played in style – and won’t be happy with anything less than being world cup champions later in 2011. Yet, we do feel, admirable as it is to strive for more and coming as we do from a less richly talented rugby nation, that they should simply appreciate the AB’s a little more for what they are…

Scotland’s Win Against South Africa

At the other end of the rugby playing spectrum of quality, precision, pace and guile are Scotland. It is true they have improved beyond recognition under the intelligent coaching of Andy Robinson and have a pretty good set of loose forwards, yet even their most ardent supporters would admit they are a side of limited means. Brushed aside in the most dismissive of fashions by a New Zealand team who barely got out of second gear, they came up against the Springboks the following week.

In a performance filled with all those traditional Scottish attributes that the rugby media in the Northern Hemisphere love to wax lyrical about, Scotland defended brilliantly while taking all their available scoring opportunities. Dan Parks, in years gone by a derided and flakey figure, led the way and like the year before, Scotland had a famous victory to savour.

England Dominate Australia at Twickenham

From an English point of view there were one or two major highlights over the course of the year including the away win over the Aussies back in June. Yet the one that stood out for most fans would have been the 35-18 home win at Twickenham where England simply played Australia off the park in a style most would normally equate with southern hemisphere sides. Dominant in all aspects of the game and capped off by a remarkable long range try from Chris Ashton, this was one of the finest days to be an England fan, certainly over the last 8 years if not ever.

English Pride

Being an English fan has been hard for the last few years. Ever since the euphoria of that glorious night in Sydney back in 2003 died away and the cold reality hit of a changed regime and lesser players, it has been one disappointment after another. Coupled with an apparent desire to play the most unattractive rugby possible, frustrating selection decisions (Steve Borthwick anyone?!) and repeated obfuscation by the men in charge of England rugby, it has not been a happy period.

With Martin Johnson appearing to have finally found his feet in the coaching world and England now at least having a discernable sense of direction as well as a couple of good wins over southern hemisphere opposition under their belts, we have felt our pride returning. With many people offering England up as favourites for the Six Nations and a possible semi final place in New Zealand, we hope that our nascent confidence is not dashed immediately after this upwelling of national fervour.

And Now For Some Low Lights…

Southern Hemisphere Dominance

Despite one or two positive results in the Autumn along with a few close calls, it is fair to say that there is still a sizeable gap in quality. All the Celtic nations flattered to deceive with a distinctly average South Africa and young Australia side getting away with three out of four wins whilst France were frankly appalling. It is unlikely that on current evidence it will be a northern side lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in October and, quite frankly, it is business as usual.

France’s Failures

France entered the Summer internationals and the Autumn Internationals as Six Nations champions and the most likely team to upset the southern hemispheres hegemony. A dreadful tour of South Africa followed by a distinctly poor home series in the Autumn means that once again they find themselves in a very French form of disarray. Probably the most talented northern side on paper, Lievremont is now being left with an enormous amount to do if they are going to challenge down under come October.

Most Entertaining Player

Dan Carter. Probably the best ten ever, worlds record point scorer and a player whom we could watch all day long. Only other player we considered for this honour was his New Zealand team mate, Sonny Bill Williams whose off loading game was a joy to behold on the Blacks’ northern tour.

Heroes of the Year

Mils Muliaina. As key to the All Blacks as his captain and fly half, he goes on and on whilst never letting his standards drop.
Ben Youngs. Young, exciting and brilliant, this has been a breakthrough year for the Leicester scrum half. Long may it continue.

Villain of the Year

Pieter De Villiers. Singlehandedly does more to bring the South African rugby team’s name into the mud than anyone in the history of the game. A poor coach and a ridiculous man.

Any thoughts?

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Autumn Internationals Round Up: England

29 11 2010

After a depressing end to what had previously been an encouraging Autumn International series we are not sure exactly what conclusions to draw. Whilst some questions have been resolved there are many that are still outstanding; amongst them – are England truly a side capable of challenging for the world cup next year? What does their defeat to South Africa mean? Is two out of four really good enough?  In an attempt to answer some of these questions we will split the arguments into positives and negatives.

Positives:

In our eyes the most obvious one, despite his relatively poor game against South Africa, is the young Leicester man, Ben Youngs. Watching him play it has been easy to forget just how youthful and inexperienced he still is. This time last year he had only just started playing regularly for the midlands club following injury to Harry Ellis but has already established himself as surely a fixture in the side for the next five to ten years. In fact he was so integral to England’s attack that it was noticeable how, with huge South African pressure at the breakdown and at scrum time, England as a whole lost their shape.

Flood too had a good series and his half back partnership with Youngs is now an effective one. Never flashy or extravagant, Flood has done enough to justify his continuing selection as first choice fly half.

Outside these two there are further success stories. Hape has been increasingly creative and was one of the few bright spots against the Springboks. Cueto has had a quite exceptional Autumn despite not having scored for close on twenty tests now. Inventive, sharp and continually asking questions of oppositions defence he was as key to England’s revival as anyone else. On the other wing Ashton was electric in attack and solid in defence and is part of the younger brigade of players who look like being the core of the team for some time to come.

Foden, at full back, was on balance good although he had one or two hairy moments, particularly against South Africa. It is a hugely refreshing thing to have a running full back although we would rather he keeps the ball in two hands a bit longer – by tucking it under his arm he immediately shows the opposition he is going himself rather than potentially releasing any supporting runners. A minor thing however and he deserves a pat on the back for his efforts.

Up front there were more positives with the entire pack doing well. Courtney Lawes, Dan Cole, Tom Palmer, Andrew Sheridan and Tom Croft were all brilliant at points but most importantly performed consistently well. This is an excellent pack and one which will only grow in stature as time goes by. Easter had his moments in the last two games although turned over too much for our liking against the Kiwi’s and the Aussies. He remains the best we have in that position. Moody was consistent if not outstanding but led the team well and so remains comfortable first choice seven.

Perhaps more encouraging than any individual performances was the nature of the way England played the game. This of course reached an apogee against the Australians in what was the finest England performance for quite some time (certainly seven years or so) and then tailed off gradually. The fact that England were trying to play with pace and width and on several occasions actually succeeded demonstrates that, at the very least, Martin Johnson is moving them in the right direction.

Negatives

Pleasingly less negatives than positives – something that we haven’t been able to say when reviewing a series for what seems like eons – but there are still question marks remaining. Most glaringly is the outside centre conundrum. Tindall was reasonable and provides a solid and experienced presence, yet he is hardly a game breaker as someone like Conrad Smith is for the All Blacks. His replacement for the Samoa game, Matt Banahan, didn’t do enough to suggest he is ‘the man’ moving forward although he wasn’t without his own plus points. A class 13 is priority now for Johnson.

A second worry would be the way that England were blown off the park against the Springboks on Saturday. In mitigation a couple of England’s key players went off injured – yet it looked like the sheer physicality of the South African’s simply overpowered them and at points there was an element of panic and a forced nature about the English play.

To tell the truth it was likely to be a case of inexperience and a young side not knowing how to go back to basics (plus the Boks were awesome at the breakdown) and so hopefully this will improve over time.

Finally, what we will say is that England still need to be more efficient and take their chances better. It was certainly improved this November yet one feels that had it been the All Blacks in a few of their try scoring opportunities that went begging – the score lines would look all the more impressive.

Conclusion

A decent if not outstanding Autumn but still short on actual results. England were beaten by a better side on the day against the Boks and by a genuinely brilliant side in the All Blacks but will still feel that it was a November which could have gone better. This being testament to raised standards and correspondingly raised expectations, it is actually no bad thing and for that alone, Martin Johnson would probably be pleased on balance.

To answer the question posed in the opening paragraph regarding the world cup we would suggest that at this stage England are probably not world cup challengers. Yet, if they put together a good 6 Nations, they could take the final small steps that will put them right up there and who is to say after their game against Australia this isn’t possible?





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!





Is It Too Late For Johnson?

17 03 2010

Encouraging news from the England camp with Delon Armitage amongst others being released back to their clubs for the final weekend of the 6 Nations. The team hasn’t been announced yet, so the Compulsive Hooker cannot report that the obvious and much needed replacement, in the shape of Ben Foden, will start. Neither can we rule out that Martin Johnson will ignore this obvious solution and do something else extraordinary. At the very least we can be assured that Ugo Monye won’t be asked to fill the 15 shirt again, as he has been released back to his club due to injury.

Joking aside, these are positive steps as it gives Johnson an opportunity to throw Chris Ashton into the mix. Matt Banahan has come back into the reckoning as a further left wing option, yet his lumbering style is not what England need at this moment in time. To the Compulsive Hooker, his selection was always a homage to size over skill and pace where it counts. A return to this path would represent a further backwards step for England.

Another difficult decision will be whether to select Jonny Wilkinson at 10 considering his knock last week and Flood’s deft touches standing flat when he came on. In our opinion and as we have stated before many times, the problems do not begin and end with Jonny, good as Flood was when he came on, so therefore Johnson’s loyalty in this case will hopefully continue.

These are all difficult decisions and we hope that Johnson makes the ones that represent positive steps forward. For most England fans, win on Saturday or not, Johnson’s time is up and only a performance of sheer brilliance could bring a stay of execution.





Six Nations Thoughts – England

26 01 2010

When beginning this piece, we found ourselves unsure of how to begin. There seemed to be so many frustrations and a veritable litany of complaints about the current England team and coaching staff, that it is almost too overwhelming for an England fan to write about. With this in mind we are going to start with the positives and see how it goes from there….

When compared to the Autumn internationals, where England were missing almost an entire first team due to injury, things have improved dramatically. The extraordinary lack of props in November has partially been resolved due to players coming back from injury and the emergence of one or two others. Dan Cole of Leicester has been in sparkling form in what is virtually his debut season and is surely a man for the future. The only slight cloud that remains here is the continuing absence of Andrew Sheridan. Matt Mullan of Worcester has also been promoted from the Saxons squad which seems to indicate that Johnson is firmly looking to the future.

Nick Easter’s return to the squad provides a welcome sober head to the side. Easter has never been the quickest or most dynamic player on his feet but he provides a much needed solidity and can be relied upon to make the hard yards. Unfortunately Tom Croft’s injury has deprived Johnson of his services until the second half of the tournament although it is doubtful that he would have started. So dynamic for the Lions, Crofts open field game has never been suited to an England under Johnson who are intent on keeping it tight and rarely threaten the wide open spaces. It is instructive to think that the only time Johnson’s England has broken the shackles (against France last year) Croft was at the forefront of all that was good.

Here at the Compulsive Hooker we have covered the second row conundrum and Johnson’s predilection for Borthwick before so we won’t go into details (but you can find our rant here). Suffice to say that we would like to see a Shaw – Lawes combination which would combine the best of the old and the new, conveniently forgetting the mediocrity in the middle. With the announcement last night that Johnson is to retain Borthwick as captain this will clearly not happen although you have to hope that Borthwick isn’t immune from a 60th minute substitution just because he is skipper.

In the backs Flutey’s return means an increased ability in attack once more. The Compulsive Hooker’s admiration for Wilkinson is well documented and we hope that the return of Flutey will help him stand flatter. The real key to this of course is making sure that England are playing on the front foot and not trying to create from behind a retreating pack. With Armitage surely returning at 15 and the promise of Ashton on the wings, suddenly the back line appear to be more of a threat. Scrum half will be interesting and we would like to see Ben Youngs of Leicester given a run out at some point. Foden, eternally the unlucky man in Johnson’s squads, appears to be the one to miss out again although perhaps his continued retention will eventually get him some game time. A more instinctive attacking English talent there probably isn’t so a chance is overdue.

As mentioned yesterday England do appear to suffer when compared with the talents on offer in Ireland and France although undoubtedly there is a strong core running through the side. With the resources available to England both on and off the pitch there is no excuse for them not to be challenging for honours year in year out. Something has gone wrong though over the last 6 or 7 years and for our money, Johnson is not the man for the job. To justify his retention as Team Manager, England need to finish at least 2nd in our eyes. Anything less and England will have gone backward.

Prediction: 3rd. The fixture list is kind to England with two easy (in theory anyway) away games to Scotland and Italy and only one tricky one (France). England though will probably also lose to Ireland so a middling campaign only with two losses is our prediction.





England’s Retreat From Europe…

25 01 2010

Worrying times for England rugby after the weekends Heineken Cup results. England have only 1 semi finalist in the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup; Northampton slipping into the reckoning due to London Irish’s inability to finish Leinster off.

It is fitting that the only side to qualify are one of the few young and dynamic sides in the Guinness Premiership. Young guns such as Geraghty, Ashton and Lawes all have the ability to be future England stars and the Heineken Cup will provide them with exactly the development that they need. It does not come much harder than an away quarter final to Munster although due to a freak of qualifying they have only just lost to Munster on Friday so they will know what is required.

Munster by beating Northampton 2 days ago ensure that they qualify for the 12th straight year. Truly a proud record and one that traditional European heavyweights like Leicester or Toulouse would envy.

Despite Munster’s record and the obvious threats from France, we are going for Leinster to retain their crown. There back line is probably one of the best in the world and given enough ball from the forwards will cut anyone open with regularity.

With 4 French teams, 2 Irish, 1 Welsh and 1 English, this pretty accurately reflects the current concentration of talent in the northern hemisphere. Using this as a guideline it should make France favourites for the 6 Nations. We have already gone for Ireland earlier in the blog and we’re sticking with it – but don’t be surprised if its France’s year.





Hopes and Expectations

14 01 2010

Captain Terrible

Johnson clearly does not read the Compulsive Hooker. If he was a reader of this blog, which no one I know calls ‘the most influential voice in rugby today’, surely Steve Borthwick’s name would have been missing in yesterdays Elite Squad. Surely? Or perhaps not. Every single rugby pundit the length and breadth of England’s green and pleasant land, has been calling for Borthwick’s head more or less immediately after he was named captain of the England rugby team in February 2008 and this hasn’t yet affected Johnson’s thinking.  Although he wasn’t originally Johnson’s choice, the error has been compounded by his resolute defence and refusal to consider alternatives since Johnson took over for the tour to New Zealand in 2008. The only caveat in Johnson naming Borthwick is that he has not been confirmed as captain. Yet.

Before readers of this site begin to think there is a personal vendetta against the man let us give you some reasons why he should be banished to the lower divisions of club rugby.

  1. Borthwick has gone backwards in aggregate yardage in almost every match he has played since taking over as England Captain bar the New Zealand game at the tail end of 2009. This anomaly can be explained by a freak occurrence when Borthwick found himself with the ball in space and charged forward 20 yards before being brought to ground.
  2. His speciality is supposed to be in the line out where apparently he is a clever reader of the opponents throws and outwits them on England’s. The problem with this is that the England line out has rarely been secure itself in the last 2 years (although the hookers must take part of the blame) which belies the latter half of the reasoning. On opponents throws, by our reckoning, Borthwick has probably only won half a dozen against the head in 2 years of being captain with the majority coming in that New Zealand game.
  3. By selecting Borthwick, Johnson creates a larger problem in the second row. Like other positions (e.g. centre, scrum and fly half) on the field the second row is a partnership. The Bok partnership of Botha and Matfield being prime example. Botha is the hard man flying into rucks and mauls and generally getting involved in the nitty-gritty whereas Matfield is the brains in the line out and often plays almost as an extra flanker. Borthwick sadly is neither the brains or the engine room which limits options alongside him. Probably the most dynamic young lock in the country is Courtney Lawes of Northampton but due to Borthwick’s limitations he is unlikely to play.

Johnson appears to have a blind spot when selecting locks if you consider the continued selection of Louis Deacon and omission of Nick Kennedy. A partnership of Deacon and Borthwick was proved to be the least dynamic partnership in decades during the Autumn internationals yet they both retain their places. This inability to select well in this position is doubly strange given Johnson’s status as one of the greatest locks of all time.

Prop is another area in which England are struggling at the moment and unfortunately the selections of Tim Payne and Julian White are equally mystifying. Anyone who watched Dan Cole’s destruction of Tim Payne in the Leicester Wasps game a week ago (see report here) can see that Payne’s better days have long gone. Amusingly, Tim Payne’s wikipedia article sums it up perfectly. The full page can be found here.

Timothy Adam N. Payne (born 29 April 1979 in Swindon) is a rugby union footballer who plays at prop for Wasps.r.

Unusually for an international prop, he cannot scrummage very well at all, but remains in the England squad because he’s been in it before when they were desperate.

Shontayne Hape.jpg

England's 3rd Kiwi

The most notable selection in the squad is Shontayne Hape from Bath. Whilst in all honesty Hape is a name that is unfamiliar to the Compulsive Hooker, the very fact he is eligible for England seems wrong. This is a man who has played 14 times for the New Zealand Rugby League team and this as recently as 2006 against Great Britain. Hape qualifies through 6 years residency in the UK but due to his representation of New Zealand in a national sport within the last 6 years this rule needs to be looked at. This is a situation familiar to all England cricket and rugby fans and needs to be reassessed before it gets out of control.

On a positive note Johnson finally seems willing to let Matthew Tait have a run at outside centre and the call up of Chris Ashton provides legitimate competition for the Monye, Banahan, Cueto hegemony.

As you may have gathered we are not overly positive about England’s chances in the 6 Nations as the frustrations with Johnson still remain. As a player we loved him, as a coach we doubt him.

Any comments?








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