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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Wales’ Woe and Some Thoughts On Referees

15 10 2011

Well this world cup gets more contentious every weekend! And, sadly, the referees are at the centre of it once again.

We at the Compulsive Hooker always seem to be in a minority when it comes to referees. Where the rest of the world (or certainly outraged fans commenting on reports on the net) consistently demand perfection in their decision making, we have long taken the line that referees are human and these things happen. This rather sanguine attitude can obviously have its flaws as it is important to seek out mediocrity and improve it in all things. Yet, when you have a normally reasonable character such as Jonathan Davies calling for the head of a chap who only 80 minutes before was acknowledged to be one of the finest referees in the game, we feel its gone too far the other way.

Combine the following factors and what do you get? Referees are essentially human. Rugby is a seriously hard game to referee as so much of it is subjective in areas such as the breakdown.

A huge great mess is the answer on occasions which leads less than impartial pundits and fans to overreact. The irony of this situation is that with the IRB under consistent pressure to raise refereeing standards they have tried to take as much of the uncertain grey middle ground out of aspects of the game such as the tackle. One of these of course is the tipping of a player so that he is the wrong way up when he lands having been tackled and lifted – exactly what happened today.

It seems that the ref’s can’t win – if they follow the law makers instructions (to start with a red card and move backwards from there) they get castigated for being too harsh or, had the decision gone the other way, possibly had masses of French favouring supporters clamouring that Rolland is biased. To remove the grey and create something black and white you have to remove the subjectivity and as such, in our opinion, you cannot blame Rolland.

If there is ire to be directed then perhaps it would be better directed at the IRB themselves who dished out the initial advice on reds. Possibly better advice would be to suggest a yellow as a starting point unless there is clear malicious intent when a red becomes due – although that, once again is bringing the human element of subjectivity into the equation.

Few people today would argue that Wales were unfortunate in the grand scheme of things in this game with their second half performance being huge in terms of character and no little skill. Sadly, however, the fact remains that even given the problems of being one short they should have won this match. Three kicks were missed with at least one of these being more or less a given at international level.

The eventual winners, France, were so poor that it feels wrong simply writing that they won, now move onto a final where either the Tri Nations champions or the best side in the world await. However one thing that you can say for this French side – as disorganised, chaotic and lacking in game plans they may be – is that you simply don’t know what they’re capable of and this is perhaps their best weapon. The All Blacks for one may well be nervous facing a side written off but who so often has become their nemesis.

It is a shame when so much of the post match discussions are taken up by one decision by one man yet for us, in real time, our immediate response was ‘red card’ and so that fact alone was enough for us to exonerate Rolland of the majority of the blame. Subscribers to the ‘The Great Conspiracy to Defraud the Springboks of the World Cup’ and their sister group who seem to be springing up using Rolland’s French heritage as evidence of bias will undoubtedly feel differently.





Semi Finals and Conspiracy Theories

13 10 2011

You may think that considering results  in the last round of matches that our interest in this World Cup has waned, yet, and perhaps a little bizarrely, our interest has simply grown.

With injuries meaning New Zealand putting any world class 10 on the field is nigh on impossible (it remains to be seen where Cruden fits on the quality scale) and other injury concerns as well; a French team who may turn up and blow a side away or alternatively fold like a particularly soggy card house; a quite brilliant Welsh team playing better than anyone (even themselves) could possibly have expected; and an Australian team who seem to have found the fighting spirit their cricketing counterparts have lost, this is the most open World Cup we can remember ever witnessing.

There may be some supporters (particularly South African) who might claim this is bad for rugby as one of the best sides in the world has not made it through – yet to us we think it is fantastic. To think that Wales have a genuine and reasonable opportunity to win the World Cup is surprising to say the least but something that is wonderful for the game.

Pre World Cup there was a great deal of chat from down south about the supposed widening gap in standards between the two hemispheres – well, doesn’t look more than a crack to us…

But anyway, a quick thought on the remaining teams:

Wales

What a performance that was against the Irish. Despite conceding vast amounts of possession their defensive play was incredible and gradually, as they grew into the game, their attacking play showed off some sharp and scintillating edges too. Ireland, like South Africa, paid the price for sloppy finishing although even if this had not been the case Wales would probably still have one.

Never have Wales had a more realistic chance of reaching a final and possibly even more. They need to play at their best to beat a resurgent French team but we see no reason why this shouldn’t happen. Warburton, Roberts and North remain key and with the news that James Hook will play at 10 at least their attack shouldn’t suffer.

Our new favourite team and one of the teams of the tournament.

France

France, as ever, are an enigma. Who will turn up on Saturday? A team who have played their ‘one big game’ of the tournament as the New Zealand commentators kept mentioning last week – or a side with new found resolve and inner steel.

No more needs to be said. A team capable of winning the World Cup might play or might not. Who really knows?

Australia

The surprise package of the semi’s in that they were clearly second best to South Africa last weekend in every area save finishing off their opportunities and at the breakdown. Many platitudes should be heaped on David Pocock’s shoulders as almost alone (the ref did unwittingly help too) he ensured the Bok’s were on the next plane home.

If they are to progress against the All Black’s however Quade Cooper needs to step up. He has, in our opinion, been so poor throughout this tournament that on many occasions he is verging on being a liability. A Cooper playing well is a force to reckoned with – a Cooper playing badly is a force to be exploited.

New Zealand

Kiwi’s the world over must be as nervous as they have ever been before a game of rugby. Their team appears to be crumbling before their eyes, their two giants of the game McCaw and Carter are either struggling or out – back ups are injured and (horror of horrors) Stephen Donald has been called up into the fold… Anyone who remembers the game in Hong Kong last year will know what we mean.

Truth be told however they are still the team to beat and will remain favourites going into this weekends game. The problem is that Australia cannot be discounted and recently have a respectable record against the men in black. We can’t wait…

Finalists?

Australia vs Wales…

There we said it. We’re backing the Blacks to choke and Wales to comfortably see of France. From thereon in – anything could happen!*

The Great Conspiracy to Defraud The Springboks of the World Cup

Bryce Lawrence is clearly a mole for ABSA (Anyone But South Africa). How else can we explain the fact that the Boks won’t win this and every other World Cup to come. We mean, surely, winning world cups is a god given Bok right? Isn’t it? Maybe?

Or perhaps not. Yes we agree Mr. Lawrence didn’t have his greatest game. Yes Pocock and others could have been blown up more than once and on another day may have been.

Yet, despite this, the Bok’s butchered chance after chance and quite simply as a result didn’t deserve to win. Stop complaining, accept it happens and please stop persecuting old Bryce via social media.

Oh, and it was clearly forward.

* After only correctly naming 50% of the semi finalists last weekend we are happy to accept a similar success rate here…

 





A Grand Slam For England?

17 03 2011

What a weekend of rugby lies ahead of us! A possible Grand Slam weekend for England or alternatively what might be a cathartic, Six Nations campaign saving, win for Ireland; a chance for Italy to confirm what must be their most promising tournament yet as a reality or for Scotland to avoid a whitewash; Wales challenging for the title and Lievremont losing his job or France winning and rediscovering some belief.

Whatever happens we cannot, as ever, wait…

It has been quite some time (8 long years in fact) that we as England supporters have been feeling so positive about the state of English rugby. It also happens to be the same length of time since England last went into the final round of the Six Nations as probable winners and Grand Slam challengers.

Ireland in Dublin has possibly been the most difficult away trip in the Six Nations for the most part of the last ten years and we don’t see this changing particularly now. The fact that the white shirt and rose emblem is guaranteed to rile the Celtic nations more than any other is a given but when there is a Grand Slam at stake – the pressure becomes immense. It will be a test of English character as much as anything as, if England play to their full ability, they should prevail.

Where Ireland have an undeniable edge is in midfield with the evergreen Brian O’Driscoll still creating and controlling. Mind you with Tindall injured and D’Arcy hardly in the greatest form of his life, this difference is much smaller than it might be. Tindall’s likely replacement, Matt Banahan, has added a couple of extra dimensions to his game recently and being the lump that he is, should cause some of his own problems.

Up front, however, the battle is likely to be much closer with England likely to dominate a weak Irish scrum. At the line out the proven class of O’Connell will probably keep England in check although the all important back row battle is probably too close to call. Over the years we have been massive fans of David Wallace and rate Jamie Heaslip very highly indeed, however, if we had to call it, we think that the English trio of Wood, Haskell and Easter will just about edge matters.

England’s edge comes in the back three with Ashton, Foden and Cueto providing a clear advantage over their opponents. Ireland have missed the steady but still electric Rob Kearney in this campaign with Keith Earls in particular still to convince at this level.

All that said, this game could go either way and it is highly unlikely that we will see a result similar to the 2003 equivalent where England smashed Ireland in as clinical and exciting a display as we had seen – or indeed the opposite in 2008 when Ireland crushed England at Croke Park.

We don’t think there will be more than one score in it but we are backing England to prevail…

Scotland, on the other hand, must be wondering where their campaign has gone wrong. After a promising match against France (although they were still beaten well) they have fallen apart rather. All the hard work and progress achieved in the Autumn has come to naught  and there have been the odd sign of division within their camp.

Italy, despite a campaign with only one win under their belt, are on the up and will provide a stiff challenge at Murrayfield. If they can gain the upper hand early we believe they might be able to close it out and consign Scotland to a win-less, Wooden Spoon tournament.

In France it is an entirely different story. The French, many peoples choice for the table topping side at the beginning of the championship, have imploded and it will be a remarkable thing in our view if Lievremont makes it to the World Cup. A Welsh win here and his fate is sealed, a France win and he’s still not safe.

Frankly, it would only help France if he was to go and on the basis of the fact we would like France to do well in the World Cup, we hope Wales win this weekend.

For Wales, after a disappointing start against England, a win would represent a real achievement for Warren Gatland and his team. Second, possibly even first place, would be far better than anyone reasonably expected after the dross they served up in the Autumn.

******

As an addendum to the above, we would just like to point out that this does not mean we think England are going to win the World Cup. Several times over the past few months the England team have been accused of getting ahead of themselves – yet, if anyone can show me where Martin Johnson or any of his team have said anything which suggests they think this, please show me! Even the average fan is sensible enough to avoid making any grandiose claims…

Reading the comments sections of some of the major newspapers and rugby forums, the amount of vitriol regarding these apparent claims coming from other Celtic nations supporters has been quite remarkable. The fact remains that England are probably the best placed to challenge come October (as of this particular moment) yet their chances of winning, as with all the Northern Hemisphere nations, remain slim.





A Classic Six Nations Weekend

14 03 2011

Yet again, a fascinating weekend of Six Nations rugby with the highlight, rather inevitably, being Italy’s remarkable win over France.

Italy and Nick Mallet have long been criticised for not winning more games, something which in this day and age of results is only to be expected, yet the Italian progress over the past few years can be more easily measured in the fact that enormous defeats are a comparative rarity now. A rather conservative yardstick we realise, yet one that is undeniably true.

If truth be told an Italian win was overdue in more ways than one. Before this fixture their previous three games in this years Six Nations had yielded three defeats yet only to England was that loss comprehensive. Against Ireland they could have won – only a well directed O’Gara drop goal saving Irish blushes – and against Wales they probably should have won. Indeed, and as many far more reputed rugby writers than ourselves have noted, if they had had a better kicker they would certainly have clinched the victory.

When you look at it from that perspective suddenly the campaign looks like a reasonable one. With Scotland still to come there is a good chance the Azzuri could add to their number in the ‘W’ column as, over the years, the Italians have long been a bit of a bogey team for the Scottish.

As with cricket, we are firmly in the ‘give the minnows a chance, funding and regular competition whilst forgiving them the occasional heavy thumping’ rather than the ‘it’s a waste of time playing them’ category. We love rugby and want to see the number of teams who can compete at senior level increase gradually. Whilst Italy still have some way to go we are very pleased that finally here is some evidence that the IRB’s investment and help is paying off.

One final word about Sergio Parisse. We felt most pleased for him as after both the Wales and Ireland matches he looked stricken that they had come so close without quite closing it out. He is an exceptional player playing in a generally poor team which must have more than its fair share of frustrations yet he never stops trying and for that we applaud him. He deserved every second of that win.

**********
England scraped through against a fired up Scotland team in rather poor fashion although it is encouraging that they can play as poorly as that and still win. For all Scotland’s endeavour (and Evans’ bit of brilliance to score his try excepted) we never really felt in danger of a Scotland win. England go now to Dublin where a far sterner test await. If they can win there – well suffice to say the Grand Slam will be well deserved!

One other thought that came out of the England match was the difference that Jonny Wilkinson made when he ventured on to the field. Flood has had an excellent season and has deserved all the plaudits he has got, yet yesterday he struggled and looked like he was trying to force it. Wilkinson, by comparison, showed that far from being the limited fly half some of his detractors have more recently accused him of being, he still has what it takes to get the game flowing. Both the move prior to and the move that led to the try itself were courtesy of some tremendous vision and exceptionally executed passing meaning.

England are lucky to have two players of this calibre.





England vs France At Twickenham: A Rugby Feast

26 02 2011

Here we go then for what will probably be the deciding round of Six Nations rugby. At the half way stage of the tournament and, with only England or France looking capable of winning it, the biggest game on the cards tonight it is likely to be a cracker.

France have reinforced their team with the big man Sebastian Chabal in an attempt to fight the perceived English physicality whereas England have resisted the temptation to make any changes as players come back from injury – something that has to be a good thing. We can’t help but think that in this case Marc Lievremont has got it wrong and Martin Johnson has got it right.

Chabal is a fine and hugely popular player but would probably better serve France as an impact player. To move the supremely talented and athletic Harinordoquy to the flank to make room for him seems like one of those half thought through decisions. Last time France were at Twickenham, Chabal was selected to play the hard man role, only to go missing for the entire match and hasn’t started since the drubbing by Australia in the Autumn. A ‘horses for courses’ selection policy rarely works completely with our belief being you should always pick the best players and trust them to do the job.

With most of his front line players available or in cases where they are not, the back ups doing a great job, Johnson has no such worries about his England team. It has been quite some time since an opposing team was partially selected on the basis of what England were doing – something that is a huge compliment to where he has taken England to over the past 6 months. Anyone who has been reading this blog for longer than this will remember how scathing we were about Johnson in the early part of his career as a selector and coach, yet the progress England have made over the past few months has meant he has justified his position. It may have taken two years of Steve Borthwick, annoying press conferences and interesting selections, but finally England are making sustained progress and we love it.

The game today could set either side up for a Grand Slam and so the importance cannot be understated. A disciplined, efficient and exciting England rightly start as favourites but France are probably still the more talented team. If they click you still never know what might happen and this uncertainty is why we cannot wait!

 





Twickenham Zest Adds To Six Nations Joy

21 02 2011

So, who’s excited about this weekend’s matches in the Six Nations?

Silly question of course as anyone with a slight interest in Northern Hemisphere rugby is going to be… With Wales playing their bogey team Italy in the Stadio Flaminio; an under pressure Ireland team coming going to Murrayfield and of course the big one; the two major nations of northern hemisphere rugby clashing at Twickenham.

The Celtic nations may quibble at this description, but, unfortunately for them it is undoubtedly true with this contest so often in the past determining the winner of the competition. With the demise of the English game for almost the entirety of the past decade, apart from the odd clash in world cup situations, this has not been the case with Ireland and Wales having their moments of glory. Yet we are now back to what is as close to a true heavyweight clash that the northern hemisphere can provide and we simply cannot wait.

What was billed as a very open Six Nations before the competition got under way three weeks back has actually panned out in a fairly predictable way. France have had too much for Scotland and Ireland despite probably only playing at around 80% of where they are capable; England look good and appear to be improving although sterner tests await; Wales have flattered to deceive; Ireland look like a side whose core is past its best and Italy have battled but ultimately still been a case of ‘same old story’. The only surprise have really been Scotland who have gone backwards two steps having taken one forward in the Autumn.

Added zest has been given to the Twickenham cauldron this weekend by Marc Lievremont who appears to be causing some ripples with his ‘we do not like the English’ stance. What is most surprising to us though is how much press and outrage it is causing. Comments like these are two a penny in the run up to games – Warren Gatland has in recent years been particularly culpable – and especially given that the average Englishman should be used to the ‘anyone but England’ stance, it’s not really a big deal.

If anything, all it does is give Johnson and Tindall/Moody some pre game ammunition in their pep talk, which at Twickenham, is probably not something the French players will be grateful to Lievremont for. France often do not travel well and Twickenham can sometimes be a particular weak point. Whilst we are not expecting them to roll over by any means, we do think England will have too much for them. We cannot imagine England being quite as generous with the penalties as Ireland were the week before – which if truth be told was the reason the French won.

Johnson does have a few selection decisions to make before the match though with perhaps the biggest call being whether to select Moody over Haskell. We have read convincing arguments in support of both players and we do not think that it would make a huge difference although, saying that, our personal choice would be for Haskell.

For all those involved in the Compulsive Hooker’s fantasy league remember to make your choices wisely this weekend… We can’t see too many tries anywhere so ensuring your picks stay on the field may make all the difference!

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