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.

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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…

 





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.





West Indian Madness, IPL Blues and ICC In Seeing Sense Shocker

20 04 2011

An Empire No More

We came across a wonderful documentary the other day called ‘Empire of Cricket: West Indies’. As a history of the West Indian game and a commentary on how the game developed, grew, came to an intimidatingly excellent level in the 1980’s before sliding into it’s present mire, we haven’t seen anything else that does it better.

Interlaced with fantastic old footage of the greats including Learie Constantine, George Headley, Sobers and of course the more modern pantheon of Sir Viv, Lloyd and their fast bowling machines it is well worth a watch. As with many pills and medicines, this reminder of glory days past had a distinctly disappointing side effect though as, inevitably, the final 10 minutes of the documentary focused on the regions current cricketing woes. A state of affairs that as cricket fans depresses us deeply.

The West Indies have been in the news this last week or so once more for two reasons. Firstly the blogging world’s version of Wikileaks, WICBExpose, has come to prominence (thanks to Jrod of Cricketwithballs for highlighting it to the wider community) and then, secondly, the WICB announced their squad for the upcoming ODI and one off 20/20 international series against Pakistan leaving out Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shiv Chanderpaul.

Apparently the board are keen to promote youth and build a team for the next world cup in 2015. A glance at the team they have selected though would probably have caused Learie Constantine to blanch had the great man been around to see it though. With the honourable exception of the Bravo brothers, the rest of them are probably journeyman at best and it is difficult to see them presenting much of a challenge to even the most fractured Pakistani team.

By removing these three experienced players the West Indies board have deprived the team of what little experience and possibly class they have (a look a the batting statistics across all three forms over the last two years backs this up). A team that is looking to recover from the doldrums of the last 10 years can ill afford to rid itself of this sort of ability (even if as the rumblings say the players in question are not perhaps as motivated as they should be) and, to us at least, this is more evidence of mismanagement of cricket in the Caribbean.

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IPL Blues

It can hardly be a good thing when only two weeks into a seven week tournament we are already suffering fatigue at the incessant nature of the event. Readers who have been with us for a while will know that the IPL is not our favourite cricketing event around to start with, yet this year the never ending branding, commercials and sheer razzmatazz is effecting us earlier than usual.

Part of the blame for this it has to be said can be put down to Danny Morrison particularly, although some of his co commentators are blameless either. It is a strongly held view of ours that Morrison should never be allowed near a microphone ever again. Not only is his over hyped and over excited brand of commentary irritating, it is actually managing to detract from the cricket. We understand that the IPL organisers want people to engage with the cricket – and the commentary is a crucial part of that – yet the opposite is actually happening in our case.

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Good News For Associates?

A Cricinfo piece today tells us that the ICC may well be rethinking their decision exclude the associate nation teams from the next cricket world cup in 2015. The ICC are apparently going to reassess in response to strong and widespread criticism of the decision to make it a ten team event. To tell the truth even we at the Compulsive Hooker were surprised by the level of dismay at the ICC’s decision and are pleased that it may yet be rectified.

Ireland will of course be happy but, if as Sharad Pawar suggests, it might be a 12 team tournament instead, our outside bet for the final slot would be Afghanistan…





ICC In Hopeless Decision Shock!

5 04 2011

After what, in our opinion, has comfortably been the best cricket world cup for some time – anyone doubting that think back to the dreary nature of the last two or three – the ICC has unbelievably ratified the decision to make the 2015 World Cup a glorified Champions Trophy and only allow 10 teams entry to the competition. Not only have they limited it to ten teams but the ICC have also refused to allow any of the Associate nations even a chance to qualify giving the test playing nations automatic entry.

A more self serving and hopeless decision by the ICC’s full members with the future of cricket in mind there can rarely have been.

For more go to Cricinfo or here to see an Irish reaction to the news. Ireland of course can feel particularly hard done by with their performance over the last two tournaments being outstanding and competitive. It is debateable that Zimbabwe for example and possibly even Bangladesh, who by virtue of this decision both get in as a full members, would beat Ireland in a series of cricket in any format.

Obviously it is also not just the Irish who are going to suffer here but also previous semi finalists in Kenya not to mention the other sides like the Dutch who have also fought well recently. This of course isn’t even mentioning the Afghanistan’s of this world whose progress no one knows where it might stop.

Judging by the reaction in the media as well as in forums and comment sections the ICC have got this wrong. Jrod from Cricket With Balls has started a campaign to let the ICC know how everyone feels about this so please go to his article and follow the links he gives on how to do this. As he rightly mentions, it is unlikely that anything will come of it, the ICC being as inflexible and hopeless and organisation as ever there was, but if you love cricket and want to see it spread, develop and grow – it seems right to let them know.





An Irish Lesson

21 03 2011

Re-reading our piece we published on Thursday last previewing the weekend’s rugby, we obviously got it wrong with our prediction that England would prevail by a small margin. That we got it wrong is not much of a surprise – we do after all frequently get things wrong (predictions are a fools game to be honest) – but it was that we got it so wrong that was a surprise.

Up until the final round on Saturday, Ireland had been a distinctly middling side who were lucky not to have been beaten by Italy and lost to both France and Wales. There had been the odd sign of life with a rare sprightly move now and again although too often the good work was undone by some basic errors. If we were honest, the suspicion had been growing that perhaps this was a side on the way down – something that does happen to Ireland in a World Cup year it seems.

Yet, in this final round of matches, Ireland played fantastically well and simply dominated England from the off. It was clinical. It was precise and it was, above all else, powerful. England came to Dublin looking for a Grand Slam only to be shown exactly how far they still have to improve if they want to progress to the later stages of the World Cup.

As a Kiwi friend of the Compulsive Hooker commented to us shortly after the game, Ireland had played similarly to this against New Zealand in the Autumn but still got beaten by 20 points. England didn’t have that extra gear that the All Blacks did that day and so were consigned to defeat although, to be entirely just to Martin Johnson’s team, this comparison is a little unfair as no other team in world rugby – not even the Springboks or the Australians – have the same ability to ‘flick the switch’ as the AB’s currently do.

What does this mean though moving forward for both of these sides?

England will, on reflection, be happy enough with the progress made. They topped the table, something they hadn’t done for 8 years, and on balance are probably still the northern hemisphere side most likely to make an impact at the World Cup in October. This has to be balanced against the fact though that twice in the last few months England have simply been blown away by a more physical side (South Africa in the Autumn and Ireland now) – something that will need remedying.

Ireland too will be happy. They have showed exactly how well they can play – as we implied above, we think they would have beaten both Australia and South Africa playing like this – although consistency is obviously still an issue. The friendlies in the Summer take on a larger significance now as if they can continue in the same vein suddenly a win over Australia in the group stages and an easier route to the semi’s is eminently possible.

So to round up; well played Ireland on Saturday and congratulations to England for winning the Six Nations.

Roll on the World Cup…








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