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.





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.

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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.





Hook, Jones and Wilkinson…

9 03 2011

Wales and Warren Gatland cannot seem to make up their mind about James Hook. Is he a 10? Is he a 13? Or even, possibly the biggest waste of his talent, perhaps a 15?

It is the curse of many a multi talented player that they end up being viewed as a ‘utility’ back, someone who can slot in at a moments notice to a number of positions – Austin Healey is one who suffered as such appearing on both wings, scrum half, 13 and even on one famous occasion in South Africa at 10. However Wales and Gatland need to heed this message before too long as to waste a talent as large as Hook possesses would be nigh on a criminal offence.

To be entirely fair to his competitor to the fly half slot in the Welsh XV, Stephen Jones, Hook has rightly been kept out of this role for some time. Jones, for all that some regard him to be quite a limited player, has been at the heart of the best of Welsh play for some time although now, with the older man faltering, it is the right thing to do to bring Hook in.

During last year’s tournament, Hook played exceptionally well at 13 showcasing exactly how dangerous a player he is going forward. If he can get extended game time in the ten position for club and country over the next 6 months, there is no reason at all why he should not transfer this to his new position and be Wales’ starting stand-off at the World Cup.

One thing is for sure – he has the ability.

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A massive game this weekend for England at Twickenham. The Scots, so often England’s nemesis when a Grand Slam threatens, are in town and despite a poor tournament so far will not be a push over.

England are clear favourites for both this game and the tournament as a whole and if they play as they have done, there is no reason why they cannot put 30 points plus on the Scottish. This game is primarily a test of nerve, of character and inner steel which, should England pass, Ireland and a potential Grand Slam will await in Dublin.

On the subject of fly-halves, Martin Johnson will be pleased to have Flood back from injury for this encounter although we as ‘Jonny Lovers’ would like to see the Great Man get a starting berth before the end of the tournament.

It is true that Flood is playing excellent and exciting rugby yet we feel that Wilkinson’s time has not passed yet and that he was unfairly lampooned by a number of well known pundits and columnists over the first couple of years of Johnson’s regime. It was almost as if England’s problems, which clearly extended far past one player, were being laid almost entirely at the Toulon man’s door. One pundit in particular who shall remain nameless (although I will say he played at 10 for Bath)  really tore into him.

However, just consider what else has gone right for England recently – a fully functioning line out and the emergence of some genuine world class players such as Dan Cole at scrum time, the maturing and increasingly authoritative play of players like Croft and Wood, the discovery of by far the best scrum half since Dawson retired and two flying wide players to go with the ever solid Cueto. Put Wilkinson in that mix and undoubtedly he would look good too…

Just a thought!





Some Jonny Loving

28 02 2011

For those of you who feel we have been a little lax on any Jonny loving lately, you, similarly to the entire Twickenham crowd who roared so loudly upon his arrival, could do with reading Ian Chadband’s piece in the Daily Telegraph.

It carries this delightful little story at the end of the piece reproduced below:

For Wilkinson still carries an aura. To foe and friend alike. Ashton, admitting how the man had lived up to the legend he had always imagined, was left astonished in training last week when, defending against a Wilkinson chip, the flat crossfield kick floated fractionally over his head and inch-perfect into the path of Delon Armitage for a try. “Never seen anything like it before,” reckoned Ashton,.

Even Wilkinson could not resist a smile. “I should have told Chris it was just luck, which some of it was, but instead I played the big man and said ‘Yeah, that’s what hours of training do for you!’ ” Great stuff.

Because, of course, the modest Wilkinson does not have to play at being the big man. He still is the big man.

For the full piece click here.

For those of you who can’t understand the Jonny loving I’m afraid you’re going to have to grin and bear it. It’s not going away any time soon…





Wales 19-26 England: Exciting Start To The Six Nations

5 02 2011

As much as we are not a fan of Friday night fixtures in the Six Nations (mostly from selfish reasons once you take the time difference into account in the Middle East) last night’s game was one to savour. The quality was mixed with both Wales and England making elementary rugby errors on occasions but the passion, the occasion and the players commitment could not be faulted.

Despite the various claims by Welsh players and management that they ‘could have won the game’ we felt England were deserved winners having controlled the game for longer periods. The architect of England’s victory was the much maligned Toby Flood and throughout his time on the pitch was the central figure in England’s quest for the win.

Flood is not a showy player, neither is he the type to make a sixty yard break a la Dan Carter, yet he is becoming expert at picking the holes and importantly keeping his hands free so as to put other players away. Ashton’s first try resulted from Flood seizing a mismatch between backs and forwards before putting Ashton away on the inside and on several other occasions valuable yards were gained by Flood’s half breaks and intelligent off loading. For all the claims Jonny Wilkinson has to the starting role (and it must be remembered we are die hard fans of the great man’s) Flood is the correct choice for the moment and probably the entire Six Nations.

Outside Flood the England were backs were again industrious although they did not quite show the same fluidity as perhaps against Australia back in the Autumn. Hape had good moments going forward although he was at fault for Stoddart’s eventual try and could run straighter on occasions. On the wings Ashton of course scored two tries, demonstrating a happy knack to be in the right place at the right time with Cueto again excellent although his hunt for a try must go on.

Quibbles? Well yes we have a couple. Tindall, again, while solid looked far from threatening and slow in the 13 channel. We have always had an immense amount of respect for him yet it remains a simple truth that if there was another half decent option in that position he would probably not be in the squad. Should England and Johnson unearth a potential heir to the World Cup winner over the next few months – someone who has some speed and the capacity to do the unexpected – it would certainly not hurt England’s chances.

Secondly, a minor point about Ben Foden. Foden is a player with a myriad of supporters in the English press and amongst the fans who appreciate his willingness to run the ball back at the opposition rather than indulge in kick tennis. We too admire him for this, although we do wish he wouldn’t tuck the ball under his arm quite so readily. A defender watching an opponent running at him will see this and immediately know that, even despite the presence of supporting runners, Foden is simply going to have a go himself.

If you watch the great full backs, for example Mils Muliaina of New Zealand, they always keeps the ball available for the pass (unless of course the gap is massive and he is simply motoring through untouched), so spreading an element of doubt in the defenders mind. At least once last night Foden was also guilty of carrying the ball in the wrong hand which meant he was penalised for holding on when he was tackled – so ending what had been a very promising and sweeping England attack.

This is a minor quibble only though, we hasten to add, and one which we can live with as we would rather have Foden’s sense of adventure coupled with his safety defensively rather than any of the alternative selections.

Up front England were solid if not devastating with Easter, debutant Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley all having good evenings. It was the unsung Tom Palmer who again stood out for us most though as his excellent work at the line out, combined with a crucial turnover and generally excellent work in the loose, meant that he is rapidly becoming a lynch pin to this England pack.

By no means a perfect performance, the result and the knowledge that there was much excellent work to build on will give England heart. With three home games to come there is no reason to think at this stage why this cannot be an excellent tournament for Martin Johnson’s side.

Wales on the other hand have little to write home about. Imprecise, repeatedly taking the wrong option by kicking when there was space out wide to work with and losing out in the scrummage battles, it was the same old story for Wales. There comes a point in any coaches career when you feel that no matter what they do they are not going to either sort out the problems or reinvigorate the players. It happened with Ireland’s Eddie O’Sullivan and also for Andy Robinson during his time as Head Coach for England and now we feel it might be happening to Gatland.

They have had the same problems for the best part of 18 months now and there seems to be little signs of any resolution to this. It is true that there will be people who said ‘they could have won’ and perhaps if they had been cleverer on the ball this might have even been the case. The fact of the matter is though that they created almost no clear cut opportunities; the chances being cited by pundits and fans alike generally still requiring a substantial amount of work to be done and hardly fall into the category of final pass gone wrong missed opportunities.

As Jonathan Davies said afterwards in the post match round up, there was very little Wales could take out of this game although we would suggest that Morgan Stoddart on his debut was one. He appeared to be a strong, pacey and willing player who consistently looked a threat to England’s defence (despite his first knock on) and also finished his try superbly.

It is doubtful whether the WRU having given Gatland a lucrative contract until 2015 will part ways with him any time soon, but in our eyes the rumbles of discontent will surely grow if, as we predicted, Wales finish contesting the Wooden Spoon with Italy.





Vote For Swann!

14 12 2010

With that weird but strangely compelling award, the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, due to be awarded on Sunday evening, we thought we would write a small piece in support of Graeme Swann’s nomination. SPOTY, as it is known, is an award that is misnamed being as it is that ‘personality’ does not much come into it.

In reality it is a roll call of the most popular sportsman throughout the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland – a popularity gained through their achievements in the past year. Character or ‘personality’ obviously helps the winner garner votes but is hardly the defining factor. Indeed, it is a rare thing for a player of genuinely interesting character to win the award despite what it’s title might be. As even the most committed Jonny Wilkinson fan could testify (and we rank pretty highly amongst them here at the Compulsive Hooker) as popular as he was back in 2003 due to his spine tingling drop goal down under, he was hardly what one would call ‘a personality’.

One person that lives up to both the original ideas of the competition by performing with sustained excellence as well as fulfilling the modern guise of the award by having what one might call an irrepressible and engaging character is obviously England’s finest, Graeme Swann. There is obviously something about spinners as Monty Panesar was also nominated back in 2006 – as much for his exuberant celebrations and rapid cult status as much as anything else – although in the end he failed to even come close.

Swann on the other hand appears to have a real chance and therefore we advise you to get behind him and vote in his favour when proceedings open.

For anyone doubting his aforementioned ‘personality’ have a look at his video diaries posted at the ECB website although they can also be found on Youtube. For ease we have included his fourth installment below – they are well worth a watch!

 





Carter Slips Past Wilkinson: Lest We Forget…

23 11 2010

With Dan Carter needing only one more kick to overhaul Jonny Wilkinson’s all time points scoring record of 1,178 points in test match rugby, we thought we would take the opportunity to write something about both of these wonderful players and particularly, Compulsive Hooker favourite, Jonny.

Wilkinson’s record was always likely to be overtaken by this extraordinary All Black, particularly given Jonny’s injury woes over the past 7 years, and it is a tribute to Carter’s ability to avoid injury that he has reached this mark so quickly. It is a generally undisputed opinion that Carter is, if not the best fly half ever, certainly the best of the professional era – beyond that it gets difficult to say with the game having changed so substantially. Whilst at this point we will say that we probably agree with this argument – it is also fair to say that people are only human, and the majestic nature of Wilkinson’s form from his debut in 1998 through to the World Cup final has simply faded from the memory in an onslaught of All Black perfection.

The thing of course that Wilkinson had in common with Carter between 1999, say, and the end of 2003, was that the team he was playing for were, on the whole, the best in the world. (At this point I hear Springbok fans shout in outrage but even they have to admit this point – apart from 2009 the Boks couldn’t lay claim to have this title). During this time Wilkinson averaged 15.5 points per game and wracked up 853 points in 55 tests. Post world cup, and at the helm of a dire England team whilst his own performances were being interrupted by regular injury, his record dropped off to a moderate 325 points in 31 matches – an average of just 10.5 points per game.

Carter has had the luxury of never having played in a poor team and has usually been provided with the ball on the front foot and a collection of brilliant backs outside him. Whilst, on balance, we would never begrudge him his title as best of the professional era (and indeed rate him as one of our favourite players ever) it is an interesting but ultimately academic point to see what sort of impact he would have had on an England team circa 2008 (or ’05, ’06, ’07 etc for that matter…).  For our money he would have remained an outstanding player but even the great fly halves rely on players outside them and a pack going forward to really showcase their talents properly.

Carter’s average points per game is 14.9, a mere half point behind Wilkinson’s record when he and England were at their peak, but comfortably ahead of the England 10’s overall record of 13.7. Had Carter played in poor teams this would have inevitably come down – 0r perhaps a better way of saying it is – had Wilkinson played in better sides / not been injured so frequently his record would probably have maintained itself somewhere close to the incredible levels back in 2003.

One area where Carter is clearly far ahead is in the numbers of tries scored; 29 to Wilkinson’s 6. This bears out the fact that Wilkinson was more of a kicking fly half as opposed to Carters classical running style, yet it is important to remember that the England player could also run. Up until 2003, England scored an average of 3 tries a game* – and that is only against the Tri Nations and 6 Nations sides – a large part of which was down to Wilkinson’s ability to open up a game with his brilliant passing. No matter what people say, he could definitely do that too.

Carter, with his slightly more rounded game, is probably the better player of the two – yet we believe that people are already writing off Wilkinson’s achievements unfairly and calling him, in an ever so slightly derogatory manner, ‘just a kicking fly half’. He was more much more than that – one aspect, for example, where he shades Carter is his tackling – and quite frankly, it should be enough that both deserve to be called great.

*All stats are from Scrum.com’s statsguru tool.








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