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.



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.

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.

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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Six Nations Round-Up: France Dominate With Italy Agonisingly Close

6 02 2011

What a brilliant opening weekend of Six Nations rugby, beautifully topped off by a coruscating France Scotland match at the Stade De France late (UAE time!) last night. There was something for everyone this weekend with a purists encounter in Rome almost giving Italy their first win over a poor Irish team; a fast game of running rugby to please the masses and of course the more limited but still exciting England win at the Millennium Stadium.

France 34-21 Scotland

Scotland will be looking at the score line with a slightly bemused expression although it would not surprise us if there was a major dose of relief in there too – it could conceivably been much worse. On one hand Scotland can be extremely pleased with some of the things they did; their backs and back row forwards all showing that the much quoted criticism that they cannot threaten opposing defenses is false. Thinking about it, it has not been since the days of Gregor Townsend that we have seen as much threat as this from the Scots going forward – of which of course they can be proud.

Yet it was their misfortune to come up against a French side at home, on the rebound from an appalling defeat to Australia in their last match and clearly out to make a statement. This they did from almost the first five minutes when after all the opening possession had gone Scotland’s way, a turnover ball meant that suddenly the irresistible Maxime Medard was over under the posts.

Medard was brilliant all night and surely has to be the first choice winger going forward for France. His strength, pace and awareness are simply world class and we hope he doesn’t fall victim to Lievremont’s raffle style selection policy.

Probably the scary thing for the rest of the Home Nations (and possibly even for the Kiwis who have Les Bleus in their World Cup group) is that there is room for some serious improvement still. Elements of their play were still not as efficient as it might be, the odd pass going astray or simply being dropped – something that meant that perhaps a further three opportunities to score went begging.

France though were not all about pace and passing; their scrum in particular was exceptional, regularly troubling Scotland and winning a penalty try. Scotland did sort themselves out towards the end of the game in this department, yet, for a side who are themselves known for their scrummaging power to be so dominated will cause serious worry for Andy Robinson, not mention Martin Johnson, Warren Gatland et al.

Richie Grey, Scotland’s 21 year old lock, despite the Scotland pack’s travails, must get a mention for an all encompassing performance and can conceivably be disappointed not to receive the man of the match award – despite finishing on the losing team. Whether it was going forward ball in hand, making extraordinary cover tackles or simply competing in the loose, it was a performance that announced the arrival of a major new talent.

After the opening three games of the tournament you would have to say that France have, yet again, played themselves into the position of favourites, with the only potential banana skins being away trips to Dublin and Twickenham. They still don’t travel particularly well much of the time, but one feels that, should they be able to replicate this form, they will be sitting atop of the table after the final weekend.

Italy 11-13 Ireland

This was agonizingly close for the Italians. They were three minutes and one dropped restart away from what would have been a famous and first win over the Irish. Who knows what would have happened, but, following Bergamasco’s missed conversion, had Italy been able to gather the ballit is likely that Ireland may simply have been squeezed out of the game. In the event though Ireland seized on the ball and Ronan O’Gara, after some excellent approach work by the Irish pack, knocked over a straightforward drop goal to win the game.

This had been a poor performance by the men from the Emerald Isle. True they did show some adventure and pleasing passing moves in several periods throughout the game showing that all is not lost from an Irish point of view, but Kidney will be worried about their inability to finish off moves. On several occasions they got close to the Italian line only for a knock on to scupper their efforts.

Italy should be praised however for their efforts. Yes it is true they played with little ambition until later in the piece, yet they sucked Ireland into a bruising and tight battle which at the very least they offered parity. Parisse was again excellent and we could not help feeling sorry for him at the end of the match. It must be a frustrating thing to be a world class performer in a side that rarely wins.

While on the subject of number 8’s, as excellent as Parisse was for the Italians, Sean O’Brien was also on top form for the Irish. If they can find a way to accommodate both him and Heaslip upon the Leinster man’s return, the Irish back row will assume genuinely fearsome ball carrying proportions.

For the Italians there is a genuine base to work from however and we hope that this performance will inspire them, providing a springboard into a Six Nations campaign that gives them a couple of wins and avoids the wooden spoon.

Ireland too can regroup knowing it wasn’t a disaster yet that they will have to improve significantly to meet the challenge the Frances and possibly even the Englands will provide. Fortunately for them these matches are both home fixtures meaning that with a little luck things could still fall into place for them.

Six Nations Thoughts And A Preview Of Sorts

3 02 2011

We love this time of year.

Throughout the year there are several months or period of weeks that, because of the regular international sport, we particularly look forward to. Late in the year there is the Autumn Internationals where you are assured of high quality rugby every weekend for a month. During August there is the headline test series of the English Summer which provides weeks of entertainment and, of course, probably our favourite single annual competition, the Six Nations about to start now.

Thinking about it this is a funny thing as on many levels the Six Nations as a pure rugby competition is inferior to the Southern Hemisphere’s version, the Tri Nations. The standard of play is invariably lower, the games are often grittier, attritional affairs punctuated only rarely by periods of attractive running rugby, and it is often played in the most appalling conditions.

Yet, despite all this, it remains our favourite annual rugby competition and we look forward to it hugely. So much so that when midway through the competition there is one weeks break and a well deserved rest for the players before hostilities resume the following weekend, we always feel an irrational sense of frustration that we are being denied yet more rugby…

The Six Nations is of course steeped in history and traditions and it is this that makes up for the lack of quality year in year out. Few Englishman mind losing too much to the All Blacks, yet, lose to the Welsh – well that is an entirely different matter. Equally, in reverse, the Welsh and the Scots will be doing their utmost to defeat the men in white (or grey or purple – these days you never can tell…) as these are the games that in the end matter the most when you take the old rivalries into account.

And so on to our thoughts as to how it will all pan out…


Momentum is a word we have learnt to be very careful of in the course of writing this blog. On numerous occasions we have given into the prevailing wisdom and thought that, just because a side has won its previous two games, they will automatically be favourites in the next. England’s defeat to South Africa was a case in point, as was the Ashes series when Australia won at Perth before being trounced twice in succession at Melbourne and Sydney. We are pleased to say we called the cricket correctly although the South Africa rugby match was one we got horribly wrong.

Looking at the Autumn Internationals it is probably fair to draw the following conclusions:

  • England are probably the most dangerous when on form of the northern hemisphere sides.
  • Scotland are much improved and in a dogfight are in with a more than fair chance.
  • Ireland have gone backwards, have a struggling and ageing pack, although their backs remain dangerous with enough ball.
  • France are anyone’s guess. Quality throughout but possess a tendency to implode at the slightest sign of trouble.
  • Wales are a side without enough central steel to close out games but can still threaten unless they are out muscled.
  • Italy lack sufficient quality to trouble top sides.

Yet despite these reasonable assumptions it would be a rare Six Nations not to throw up a surprise here or there and so upend the expected order. We do think that, even despite the injuries, this could be England’s year – probably not for the Grand Slam but hopefully a table topping finish. Anything below that in our eyes would be a failure.

France, despite their various injuries and interesting selection decisions, will probably have a successful campaign and be tussling with England for the top spot. We do however anticipate a fairly embarrassing result for the French somewhere along the way, possibly at the hands of Ireland.

The Irish are an interesting side and in many ways are the Australia of the north. Weak up front they possess an attacking backline if only they get enough ball. Much will rest as always on the shoulders of the old warriors, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and David Wallace – players who have much to prove after fairly middling seasons for a variety of reasons. We anticipate a mid table finish again, something that will be a failure for a side with aspirations of at least a semi final place in the World Cup.

Scotland, Wales and Italy will in all likelihood contest the final three spots although it would not be a total surprise if Scotland possibly jumped above even the Irish into third.

Whatever happens, we can’t wait and we look forward to six weeks of rugby weekends. True heaven indeed…


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