Jonny Retires: A Thank You

13 12 2011

Writing a blog is a curious thing and much like going to the gym. You get all fired up over the initial honeymoon period – sometimes writing multiple articles a day – before sliding slowly backward through one article a day, two 3 or 4  a week until before you know it you are ‘occasional’ at best. A fate,  regular readers and anyone who followed our gym analogy, will be more than aware of the Compulsive Hooker’s fate.

It takes a serious piece of news to move us from this blogging stupor but, last night, with the news that the Great Man of English Rugby, Mr. Jonny Wilkinson, is retiring from international rugby we felt compelled to write a small homage to him.

Jonny, it must be said was past his best and truth be told had not been the player we grew up with for some time. You could tell the mind was willing but limitations imposed upon him by a frequently ailing body and team mates who for the last 7  or 8 years couldn’t even aspire, let alone play, to the level of the Great Man meant that to some his record has been tarnished. To us Jonny remains comfortably the best English fly half of the professional era and not too far behind Dan Carter as the second best world wide during that period.

We will of course remember his drop goal to win the world cup in 2003 as one of those unforgettable, spine tingling and hair raising moments of sport that come round every so often – yet our favourite memories are his play during the Autumn Internationals from 2002 and the Six Nations Grand Slam of 2003. Surrounded as he was by some of the finest England players ever to play for their country, Jonny stood out and marshaled them superbly.

We could go further and talk about his record in depth but we did that before (click here for that) and others will do it again. Instead I would like to point you in the direction of a couple of videos which if you watch in full are notable for his fantastic distribution, his ability to put others into gaps, phenomenal tackling and a dynamic edge that even we had forgotten he’d possessed.

Firstly, England beating the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2002 – Jonny’s involvement is obvious through out but his try at 21 minutes (of the Youtube vide0) and the his involvement at 18 minutes are two examples of simple things done brilliantly.

The second example is the deciding game against Ireland in the 2003 Grand Slam. In our view this was the game where Jonny put in a more or less perfect performance and England played at the peak of their powers. Some of the play is simply breathtaking.

Well played Jonny and thanks for all the pleasure you have given us.





Johnson Out – Please Let Rob Andrew Follow Him…

17 11 2011

So England’s dire performance in the World Cup last month has taken its toll and the first casualty amongst the coaches has gone. Martin Johnson, England legend and dignified as always stepped down from his position as England Manager citing the fact that England’s world cup results have made it impossible for him to continue.

We, as England fans, feel mixed emotions about this. True the Compulsive Hooker had been calling for him to be moved aside almost ever since the inception of this blog (here and here to give you two examples). We had always felt that he wasn’t the right man for the job and as such feel this is the right thing to have done albeit belatedly, but, we do still feel  for Johnson.

The honesty and straight talking nature of the man himself – his frustration palpable to see when asked about the latest yellow card, innumerable penalties that lost a game or the inability of his team to combine into a decent rugby unit – combined with the apparently inept RFU and the betrayal of trust in him by such established players as Mike Tindall means that we do have some sympathy.

Obviously his wasn’t an easy job made harder by some of the idiots around him. However, the fact remains that his appointment was a flawed one – more subject to a popular vote from the media it seemed than any logical reasoning. We have always felt that the head coach/manager – call him what you will – should above all be a brilliant selector. Someone who can spot talent, nurture it and develop it. This was something that Clive Woodward was brilliant at, often plucking players from near obscurity or others who were unfashionable and turning them into world beaters. Johnson’s stubbornness over certain players – the names of Borthwick, Hape and Tindall spring to mind – is well known and undoubtedly held England back at various points over the last three years.

Yet, having said all that, every so often Martin Johnson’s England team clicked and produced excellent displays of rugby (remember the 34-10 demolition of France in 2009, the 35-18 win over Australia a year later just after winning down under too) and each time there was the hope that England had turned a corner but sadly this never happened. Jonno has gone, England are once more in a state of flux and the England fans lot is no better than at any point over the last 8 years.

For us though, much of the blame of the last 6 years should rest fairly and squarely on Rob Andrew’s shoulders. Andrew has presided over the hiring and firing of three coaches (although to be fair he didn’t hire Andy Robinson) and each time he has handled it ineptly. The firing of Brian Ashton in particular was a disgrace. We are informed by the people over at wikipedia that his nickname is ‘squeaky’ which seems about right – currently he is ‘standing firm’ and we would not be surprised to find him still in control in 3 years time. Nothing sticks to him.

For England moving forward we believe the there should be a clear out from top to bottom of the coaching staff – and unfortunately for Andrew that includes him, the man who employs those coaching staff. He has to take responsibility for the last 6 years. He came into the role as the Elite Perfomance Director and we would suggest that some of England’s performances (a country with more resources and players than almost every other) have been less than elite. Quite apart from the man management issues, it’s time for him to go.

There is however no reason to be all doom and gloom as there are some very bright young players in the England set up; Tom Wood, Ashton, Lawes, Dan Cole to name but a few and with the U20 sides being so strong too there is no reason to think that come 2015, England won’t have a reasonable chance. Out with the old, Tindall, Hape, Moody etc and in with the new.

We do realise of course it is very easy to sit here and criticise but the honest truth is that England should be doing better and we as England fans are not happy to see such mediocrity game in, game out.

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.





All Round England Outclass India

26 07 2011

What a start to the series that was! Hard, competitive cricket during which England ultimately asserted their superiority – and even allowing the difference that Zaheer or a fully fit Tendulkar might have made – the final margin of 196 runs was telling. It will be a surprise if England cannot press home their advantage at Trent Bridge.

Much has been made of the injuries/illnesses to the Indian players (and this includes Sehwag of course), however the match was really lost when they allowed England to get away from them in their first innings during what what was the best bowling conditions of the entire game. One wonders what England’s attack might have achieved in the same conditions… You only have to look at Broad’s performance in the first innings and the collective England seamers effort in the second to realise what might have been.

As unabashed England supporters here at the Compulsive Hooker, perhaps the most pleasing thing was the way in which almost everyone contributed in some way – Morgan and Cook the exceptions. Trott made a valuable fifty under pressure in the first innings, KP was man of the match, Bell made an important forty odd, Prior was probably unlucky to lose the match award to KP and of course all the bowlers did their bit with Broad and Anderson to the fore. Strauss, too, did his bit captaining which means all in all, in a game that is based around individual battles, this was as complete a team performance as we can remember.

The balance of this England team is nothing short of exceptional and far better than the Indian side – stuffed to the rafters though it is with great batsman. We feel compelled to agree with what those excellent pundits, Michael Vaughan and Phil Tufnell, were saying on TMS; namely that they couldn’t see this Indian side taking 20 English wickets. Something we all know is crucial to winning a test match.

This however is not to write India off. We know they had almost no warm up and were/are depleted. We also know that in the last few years they have made a habit of winning or drawing series having lost the first test – an admirable fighting trait and is why, quite apart from the innate talent, they are now the number one rated side in the world.

Tendulkar, Dravid and Gambir will score runs, Mukund looked useful and Laxman will compete as he always does (incidentally it was Laxman that held the most fear for us on the final day – he has repeated the backs to the wall miracle once too often to enable us to sit comfortably in that situation) and Raina looks like he has a similar spirit. It’s the bowling that would worry us as Harbajan, apart from an incisive spell on the fourth day, bowled one day darts and Zaheer is injured. Ishant obviously bowled a dangerous spell but that was 6 overs out of 54 in the match! Until he can do it regularly he will only be an occasional destroyer and otherwise be fairly innocuous.

It was Dhoni however who mystified us most. Towards the end of the England second innings he appeared to have given up – along with, it has to be said the Indian fielders. The passage of play where England raced from around 170-6 to 269-6 was bizarre. Yes England were approaching a 400 lead and therefore what was probably an impregnable position, yet one wicket would have slowed things down and made it easier in the long term for India to save the match. Fielding well would have done the same job too but during this period India represented, at best, a village 3rd XI so poor was their fielding.

They weren’t helped by Dhoni’s fielding positions though. An example of this was on the fourth day with Prior in the 90’s but Broad on strike and Raina bowling his part time off spin, Dhoni brought up the field so everyone was on the one. What this then allowed Broad to do was hit fours at will. We assume he was trying to prevent Prior getting his hundred – but this was at the cost of allowing England to score at 10 runs an over… Similarly with his decision to bowl himself… Strange!

Dhoni has long been a captain for whom you might ‘run through a brick wall’ if he asked (as Phil Tufnell put it) yet on the basis of this he lacks a little tactical nous.

This is all obviously our opinion and, to look at it from the other side, you can make a strong argument for India bouncing back once the injuries have cleared up. Yet with Zaheer probably out and, in English conditions with a home bowling attack on song, we can’t see anything other than an English series win.

A closely fought and thoroughly engrossing contest for the entire Summer – but ultimately an English win.

 





England vs India: Thoughts

18 07 2011

It’s probably obvious – but we at the Compulsive Hooker love cricket. Not just a little bit, not as a passing interest but, like many other millions of people, as an all consuming passion for the game that, had we been IT specialists, would have seen us dismissed as nerds. Actually, in all honesty, this has been accusation leveled at us in the past anyway but because its cricket – a sport – you are somehow excused the finer perils of ‘nerddom’.

Whether this is fair or not is an entirely different argument but what is certainly worth mentioning is the fact that we have not been so excited/nervous/happy at the prospect of a test series since 2005 (and that’s even including this last Ashes series in Australia.) Whilst this isn’t exactly a clash of the titans (since the demise of the great Australian side titans have got considerably smaller) it is a battle for the number one status in world cricket.

We live currently in an era where no one side dominates and where home advantage plays a key part of any game. It is true that over the last 18 months India has probably the biggest claim to the number one spot – something that is born out by the ratings – yet if England were to win this series by two tests suddenly they are on top.

Of course the ratings are only ever really an indication of form and, as such, unless there is a clear gap between first and second, not too much can or should be drawn from it (other than a 500 word article of course…) If England beat India well this Summer then they can probably justifiably call themselves the best side in the world. Likewise, if India triumph, then they too can argue very fairly that they deserve the title.

For us at the Compulsive Hooker though it is less about the ability to call yourself the best in the world and more about watching Anderson or Zaheer Khan on an overcast day, perhaps on a green track, bowling to Tendulkar or Pietersen and watching the contest unfold.

England and India are both very fine sides and cricket is richer for the competition the current situation affords.

For our money we have England as slight favourites – the ability of the English batting to cope with the Indian bowling we think is  higher than the reverse – something we credit to the fact that England undoubtedly have the best current bowling attack in world cricket and English conditions are totally foreign to the Indians.

Thoughts?





An Apathetic Start To The Summer

21 06 2011

Early Summer Wash Out?

There is something about early Summer test matches that fails to excite anyone but the most hardened cricket fan. Here at the Compulsive Hooker we have been excited (you would hope so as we’re taking the time to write a blog about it), but the average cricket fan, certainly the average man and fair weather cricket supporter, seems to be so apathetic that the series may as well not have taken place.

Attendances were pretty poor throughout; the lack of ‘fair weather’ will of course have been a major factor perhaps above all; but there is the sneaking suspicion that unless England are playing Australia no one really cares.

This, we believe, is doing a major disservice to Sri Lanka. You would think that a side ranked 4th in the world would be enough to excite the cricketing public – especially as it comes on the back of a famous Ashes win – yet this hasn’t happened and it worries us.

The alleged reasons for this decline in interest are familiar to most cricket fans with diminishing quality being one of these and with it therefore the inference that Sri Lanka are not a good enough side to hold the cricketing public’s interest.

This Sri Lankan team is full of talent though, particularly in the batting and, barring a collapse of epic proportions at Cardiff, would probably have drawn the series – i.e. they remained reasonably competitive throughout. Yes England were the better side, yes the rain probably prevented a 2-0 scoreline but when in the past did this matter?

We are tempted once more to suggest that it is the scheduling rather than any lack of quality that is causing people to stay away. The argument that test cricket has dropped in standards, whilst maybe true, in our opinion would not be the key reason why the tests were poorly attended.

In the old days (those halcyon days of the ’90’s and early 2000’s) you knew where you were with a Summer. There would be an ODI series of 3-5 matches followed by a 5 or 6 test series spread out over the Summer. You knew that the ODI’s were merely an hors d’oeuvre and as such the simply whetted the appetite for the main event. Even in a Summer of two opponents it was structured in a way to ensure the tests were the main course.

These days  with the test series coming first and usually after the briefest of warm ups for the opposing team, the public simply aren’t ready for it. A friend of the Compulsive Hooker, who we would normally have counted on to know what is going on in the world of cricket, e-mailed us to say that the third test was on before he’d known the series had started. (He actually blamed us as our irregular output but that’s bye the bye.)

Of course the simple reason behind it is that the valuable nature of ODI’s to the coffers have made them the main event (at least in the eyes of the accountants) and so they are played later in the Summer. We’re pretty sure though that if you want to ensure test cricket’s primacy that quite the opposite needs to happen.

***************************

Standards?

Elaborating on this standards argument slightly for a moment, we read a tweet the other day that also struck a chord with us. Essentially it said (and we are paraphrasing as we cannot remember who said it):

‘When, in the entire period of cricket’s history, has there ever been a situation when all the cricketing nations of the world were strong.’

People make reference (and we are guilty of this to an extent too) to Murali’s record minus his wickets against Bangladesh or Zimbabwe or perhaps to Mohammad Yousuf’s record minus his runs against those respective nations.

Yet no one ever argues the line that Wally Hammond’s record is somehow inflated by his 336 not out against New Zealand or his hundreds against India -both of whom were minnows of the game at the time.

 








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