Summer Internationals Preview: Rugby

10 06 2010

Once again it is that time of year when the northern hemisphere national teams head down south with a mixture of trepidation and what usually turn out to be false hopes. There are some intriguing battles over the next few weeks but, unfortunately, we suspect that by the end of these fixtures the balance on the win ledger will be firmly in favour of the southern teams.

This gap in standards and abilities, which has only ever been closed on brief occasions in the past, is as wide as it ever has been, no matter that Australia for one are still rebuilding, or that South Africa and New Zealand are choosing to experiment slightly. For most of the NH teams the same problems are still present; a lack of fluidity and adaptability in England’s case; a lack of a front row in Irelands; simply no depth in Scotland’s case meaning an innate lack of quality and with France, well, you never know if they’re interested in playing until they start. Wales are alone out of the home nations in not having a game this weekend having kicked off their Summer with a home game against the Springboks last weekend, in which they came thrillingly close, but couldn’t quite close it out.

England vs Australia (Perth)

Out of all the teams playing southern hemisphere opposition this weekend England have as good a chance as any. Australia are firstly a side of whom they are not scared (which silly as it may seem can be a factor in these tours) and are also a side going through their own rebuilding process. That they have managed to keep sneaking the odd win against the Boks and the All Blacks during this period whilst also winning most of their games against other opposition suggests that their coach is doing a better job than Johnson in his rebuilding process.

England come into this game with a couple of selections creating interest in the Aussie press, not least the selection of Toby Flood on the bench ahead of Jonny Wilkinson. A surprise perhaps to them but to any England supporters this news is hardly worth raising an eyebrow to. Flood, having come in at the tail end of the 6 Nations in March, is the man in possession and quite honestly (and this is tough to say as JW is one of our favourites here) currently the better game manager. Jonny will be back, of that we have no doubt, but he is not the 2003 super hero deluxe model any more.

The other interesting selection is Shontayne Hape, the ex All Black rugby league player, who comes in at 12 for the injured Riki Flutey. One Kiwi for another then. Here at the Compulsive Hooker this selection of foreign born players for England is a regular conundrum with which we wrestle; it now being common in many sports but particularly cricket and rugby. Truth be told it is nothing new and England are far from being alone in doing it, yet we do feel that a line should be drawn when that player has already represented a different country at senior level in another sport. Therefore, whilst we have nothing against Hape, we hope that Ollie Barkley has his own opportunity to state his case whilst still on tour. This seems unlikely to happen though as he appears to be several rungs down in the pecking order.

We are glad to see Tom Croft back in the team having come in for Joe Worsley. Croft is a serious talent and you feel would thrive if he was playing for any other team than England, enjoying as he does the wide open spaces and a quick game, and we hope Johnson can accommodate him properly.

We are also pleased to see Ben Youngs on the bench although we would much rather he was starting. We believe that he will end up being first choice England scrum half for the next five years once he fights his way into the team. He will however have to get past Martin Johnson’s strange love affair with Danny Care.

Turning on the TV last night we watched England play Ireland in the Junior World Championships currently being played in Argentina and what a joy it was. These players are still young enough that they are simply playing ‘heads-up’ rugby. Literally playing what they see in front of them rather than getting bogged down in the slowly worked and usually ineffective set piece moves and game plans so beloved of the England senior team. If senior England can show the level of invention and simply the willingness to play rugby as the junior side did, well – even a loss would be easier to stomach.

It’s time for your team to start delivering Johno – don’t let us down now.

Prediction: Australia 35-13 England

A quick look at the other two big games:

New Zealand vs Ireland

This is likely to be a difficult tour for Ireland as not only are they battling history, never having beaten the All Blacks home or away, but are also battling their own front row. This is of course overstating it a little bit, John Hayes would never do anything to harm Ireland’s cause on purpose, yet his very selection is worrying. For the last year or more the Irish pack has gone backwards regularly and spectacularly at scrum time as age finally tells on Hayes. On the other side of the scrum is Cian Healy, dynamic in the loose but still learning at scrum time and regularly out scrummaged. It is testament to Ireland’s other players and their fighting qualities that during this period they have been so successful, but we feel against the might of the AB’s only pain will follow.

Otherwise the Irish side is really as good as it’s possible to be, injuries permitting. Mick O’Driscoll is in for O’Connell and will surely do a solid job and Trimble in for Earls. O’Gara is picked ahead of Sexton whose place kicking at international level is suspect, even if the rest of his game is not, and against the All Blacks you need assurance that, when there are points on offer, they are taken.

Prediction: All Blacks 32-19 Ireland

South Africa vs France

Similarly to England, France have a reasonable chance of a win as South Africa have named an interesting team for Saturdays game. The Bok’s showed their World Champion qualities last week against Wales, doing just enough to win, yet the challenge will be that much tougher against France this week.

France have come off a 6 Nations where they demonstrated exactly how powerful an outfit they are, winning in style and well. If they can continue this form then there is no reason why they cannot beat South Africa at home. It really depends which French team turns up as even in this professional age you can never guarantee a performance from them. (Witness their win in the Autumn against South Africa, only to then get trounced by New Zealand the following week). We actually think they might win this series and it would be impossible to understate the value of this leading into world cup year in 2011.

Prediction: South Africa 21 – 29 France



An English Sporting Rant

2 06 2010

Prepare yourself for more spin than ever before in the next few weeks. Prepare yourself for a team, that has not lived up to expectations for quite some time, having its chances of winning being talked up by captain, coaches and managers. Prepare yourself for that team to be supported with much love but, ultimately, hopelessly from the public. Prepare for this same team to be ripped apart by the media when they fail for the umpteenth time.

Prepare yourself, in short, for Martin Johnson’s England rugby team and their tour of Australia. You may have thought that we were writing a piece about England’s world cup football chances, but let us reassure you, by comparison to the English rugby team, we are hugely positive on the likelihood of them having a successful tournament.

What has brought on this mini-tirade is a Daily Telegraph headline which reads as the following ‘Simon Shaw: summer tour could propel Martin Johnson’s  England to greatness’. As you can imagine, this immediately caused our blood to boil, as England are about as far from greatness as it is possible to get (and certainly more than one tour away!). To do justice to Simon Shaw, a modern leviathan of the scrum and one of the few straight talkers in the England team, reading on, this isn’t exactly what he said. The gist of his words being (to paraphrase) ‘this is an important tour and everyone is looking to lay down a marker etc, etc’. Usual England PR rubbish in short given an ounce of credibility due to it being imparted by Shaw rather than the usual culprits.

The world cup is now approximately 15 months away. In this time Johnson has to take England from being no-hopers to challengers, and quite frankly, anything less than a semi-final place should be regarded as a failure. In the past 2 years since he took over, the level of progress achieved by England could be best illustrated by a flat line graph or, even on occasions, one that has dipped. There have of course been the odd high, England vs France in 2009 for example, but this was nothing more than a fluke it seems and business as usual was soon resumed.

This tour should be all about winning. Nothing else. The fact that after two years of ‘building’ and ‘trying out combinations’ etc, no progress has been made and, quite honestly, as an England fan it hurts.

Leicester Do It Again & England vs Barbarians

30 05 2010

In a brilliant  and pulsating Guinness Premiership final last night, Leicester got their hands firmly back on the trophy for the sixth time since the advent of professionalism in the union game. It is also the third time in the past four years demonstrating the level of domination they have enjoyed in recent times.

Rarely, however, can Leicester have played with such verve as they did yesterday though and it was a marked change from their early season performances in which they (and Saracens incidentally) were criticised for dull and try-less rugby. Saracens also played excellently and were in many ways unfortunate to lose. Indeed one feels that had Saracens come up against any other English side and played the way they did; they would have probably won by somewhere in the region of 20 points.

Finals are often dull affairs with the really exciting rugby usually being played in the semi finals. This phenomenon usually occurs because there is simply too much to lose by playing the higher risk but more exciting rugby needed to put on a spectacle for the fans. Yet, in yesterdays game, the execution and generally incredibly high skill levels came together to ensure that this was not the case.

With the scheduling of this game meaning it started immediately after the Super 14 final; the pessimist in us, here at the Compulsive Hooker, worried that it would compare unfavourably. You know what you are going to get with the Super 14; lots of running, high levels of attacking skill, the odd missed tackle but generally rugby at an almost international level of intensity. With English rugby generally being considered to be in the doldrums at the moment, last nights game was a welcome tonic with all the same facets of play present. With players such as Toby Flood, likely to be key components of England’s summer tour to Australia excelling yesterday, perhaps all is not lost from a national point of view.

With several notable performances from both sides including both scrum halves, the aforementioned Flood, Geordan Murphy and Andy Saull, we were left wondering how Martin Johnson has not included Alex Goode in his elite squad to tour Australia. Goode, recently voted in at full-back for the premiership team of the season, was a constant threat and always totally secure. If we have so many high quality 15’s in the English game that Johnson can afford to ignore him in a squad of over 40 players – English rugby is lucky indeed!


England vs Barbarians

This excellent weekend of rugby continues today when England play the Barbarians in what should be a good game. Whether it can live up to the above match in levels of intensity is a different question; but there are several players on both sides with something to prove. For the Barbarians; Paul Sackey should be relishing his chance against David Strettle having been the forgotten man of recent English rugby history.

For England; Shontayne Hape makes his debut at 12 alongside Mike Tindall in what should be a bruising partnership. The Compulsive Hooker has written about what we think of this ex-kiwi national rugby league player’s presence in the side before (suffice to say we don’t agree with his inclusion) and so we hope he has a shocker and is substituted for the deserving Olly Barkley early on. Barkley has had an excellent season upon his return from injury for Bath and we feel should be given a shot at the 12 position.

The dreaded Charlie Hodgson lines up at 10 and we are positive that, with the pressure of a full international off, he will probably play very well. We just hope that this does not cloud Martin Johnson’s vision of who should be lining up at 10 in the upcoming months…

Super Clive to the Rescue

24 03 2010

Hallelujah! Some rugby god somewhere is apparently in the process of solving English rugby problems detailed in the article ‘Rob Andrew’s Madness’.

The Times has led its rugby news today with a piece entitled “Woodward lined up as Andrew’s replacement”, in which the following can be found.

‘Speculation is mounting that Rob Andrew’s future as the Rugby Football Union’s director of elite rugby is on the line — and that Sir Clive Woodward could be sounded out as a possible replacement.

After another disappointing RBS Six Nations Championship campaign, Andrew’s position is under intense scrutiny. One source told The Times last night that in the aftermath of Francis Baron’s decision to step down as chief executive: “I understand Andrew is next on the list.” ‘

If this were to happen, the Compulsive Hooker would be willing to suspend our campaign to have Martin Johnson replaced by an experienced coach, as the Woodward-Johnson partnership has worked before and it is possible it could work again. With Woodward’s experienced hand guiding Johnson, perhaps we could see a genuine England improvement.

Alternatively Woodward arriving could see a swift exit for Johnson as Woodward seeks to imprint his image on the set up. Either way we can’t see how his arrival can be any worse for England!

So Clive, only one tiny request – come to our rescue, save England and help restore all of our faith.

For the full Times Online article click here.

Six Nations Round Up

22 03 2010

1. France

France celebrate their win

A Grand Slam year for a truly exciting and deserving side. Throughout the Championship, France have been the side to beat, only threatening to undo all their good work with a nervous win over a resurgent England side at the final hurdle. With the world cup only 17 months away, Marc Lievremont can surely be confident that he has a side that can genuinely challenge for world supremacy. With world class players dotted liberally throughout the pack (Harinordoquy in particular underlined his status as the leading number 8 in the world), and a seemingly endless choice of classy wings and centres, it is the consistency of performance from numbers 9 and 10 which have impressed. Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc have played with a skill and purpose sadly absent in many of their northern hemisphere rivals and Lievremont’s days of chopping and changing in this position appear to be over.

Verdict: Brilliant, powerful and quick rugby leading to a deserved win for France.

2. Ireland

A highly disappointing end to a pretty disappointing season for this Irish team. After contributing the most players to the Lions tour last Summer it is perhaps inevitable that they should suffer a drop off in the 6 Nations after. Yet there are several aspects of their play this year which, if they are to serious contenders for the world cup next year, need to be fixed.

The most obvious is John Hayes and his continuing travails in the front row. It is true that in the modern game it is possible to win matches without a competitive scrummage, yet the extent to which Hayes goes backwards is damaging to Ireland. In the backs Tommy Bowe excelled again, underlining his position as one of the worlds top wingers and Keith Earls also showed some deft touches. The one position that is likely to fuel debate over the next year and a half is undoubtedly that of fly half. The battle between Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton had not been conclusively settled due to the younger mans kicking ‘yips’. Sexton missed several kicks throughout the championship including crucial ones in the final game against Scotland, yet in our view he should be persevered with. In attack with ball in hand and in his ability to defend the 10 channel, Sexton offers far more than O’Gara ever has and one feels that if he can only get his kicking up to O’Gara’s levels, then the argument will be settled for all parties.

Verdict: Outclassed against France, Ireland have gone backwards yet retain many of the crucial components they need to challenge the worlds best.

3. England

One good game does not make a championship and we strongly hope that England don’t get carried away with this. Particularly when their best game was in a losing cause. Here at the Compulsive Hooker, you will all be aware of our distaste for the style of play Martin Johnson’s coaching methods produce. We still stand by the verdict that Martin Johnson is the wrong man for the job and that a first half in which we outplayed France does not make a coaching record.

Problems remain all over the park with precision and the production of quick ball being the most obvious. Several times throughout the 6 Nations breaks were made and try scoring opportunities gained, yet the number of tries scored was amongst the lowest in the Championship due to the final pass going astray. At the breakdown England frequently came off second best meaning that the quick ball needed to threaten defenses was not produced.

Verdict: Rubbish, with the rubbish on the pitch only exceeded by the rubbish given out on a regular basis during England press conferences.

4. Wales

Probably the most frustrating team from a neutrals point of view in the 6 Nations. There are world class players dotted throughout the team sheet yet this year they have failed to put it together consistently. The highlight of their campaign was the win over Scotland, yet even in this game they only really ‘played’ for the last 8 minutes.

It was good to see Jamie Roberts come through to something near his Lions form and his partnership with Hook looks to be full of promise. Hook, like all versatile players down the years, has suffered somewhat due to his ability to play anywhere. Given an opportunity to nail down the 13 shirt, he produced some outstanding game breaking moments earlier in the tournament. It is an experiment worth continuing with.

Like England, the management team led by Warren Gatland has the most to worry about. There have been the first murmurings in the press as to whether Wales are progressing as fast as they should, and whilst this is only natural it is too early to make any kind of judgement on this. Unlike Martin Johnson, Gatland has at least the pedigree and a track record including a Grand Slam to fall back on.

Verdict: An inconsistent tournament with flashes of brilliance, ultimately though highly disappointing.

4. Scotland

This has been a strange campaign for the Scots with an away win over last years champions Ireland and a loss to Wooden Spoon winners Italy. Andy Robinson’s influence has been seen as generally positive and with the last two results against England and Ireland there is evidence that the results are beginning to come. Factor in the game against Wales where, with a little more nous, the Scots would have c0me away with at least a draw and the championship was not such a bad one.

Where Scotland are able to compete and even better the best is in their highly skillful and powerful back row trio. Brown, Barclay and Beattie have proved to be a highly dynamic duo as both Ireland and England can attest. Beattie in particular would be challenging Heaslip for the title of the best number 8 out of the home nations.

The one blot on the copybook was of course the aforementioned defeat to Italy. Always destined to be a war of attrition the game was hardly the best advert for flowing fast paced rugby. Undoubtedly devastated by the result, the Scottish responded well and there is enough evidence of progress for Andy Robinson to be pleased.

Verdict: Definite progress, more line breaks needed though.

6. Italy

Handicapped by the loss of their talismanic captain and 8, Sergio Parisse, this years 6 Nations was always going to be tough for the men in blue. There had been disquiet in the press and amongst many fans that Italy were not progressing as quickly as they should, yet similarly to Scotland, there is now evidence that things might be improving.

Craig Gower is growing into his play maker role and, for the first time since Italy’s promotion to the top table in the north, they actually look to be a threat out wide. Indeed in the Paris game, despite the heavy loss, in the second half some of the rugby they played outshone even the French. Also coming through was Italy’s replacement number 8 who proved that Parisse is not the only man who can make the hard yards.

Verdict: Difficult tournament once again although there is enough to suggest that they are moving forward.

Rob Andrew’s Madness

19 03 2010

“England are on the way back, no question about that”.

This piece of wisdom comes from the RFU’s Director of Elite Rugby, Rob Andrew. For those of you who don’t know, Rob Andrew is the man to whom Martin Johnson reports, and consequently the only man who can save English rugby from this mess.

At the time of Andrew’s appointment there were many people who questioned the decision, as Clive Woodward, the only other candidate for the job was felt to have the better qualifications. With the obvious benefits of hindsight taken into account, these people are surely now justified in telling everyone ‘I told you so’.

Any England fan will be only too accustomed to the ridiculous PR and positive gloss put on each and every woeful performance of recent times. Brutal honesty is rare, with only Lewis Moody and Mark Cueto of recent times admitting the truth. To a degree this attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the English rugby nation is fair enough, it is only natural to attempt to sell your own worth after all. Yet when the big boss is trying it too, it becomes obvious that English rugby is not in the right hands.

The Compulsive Hooker had been clinging onto the (already unlikely) hope that Rob Andrew would possess the strength of mind and character to admit his error in appointing Martin Johnson. Appointed as the legendary figure within the game who could inspire his average charges to great things, Johnson has proved that he is unable to do so. Andrew’s claim that progress is being made suggests that even if England lose to France heavily on Saturday, his job is safe for the foreseeable future.

Woodward has been criticised over the years for being autocratic, impulsive and someone who over complicates matters. Yet this type of attitude is perhaps what England need right now, someone unafraid to make the necessary decision and with the confidence to remove even a legend like Johnson.

For the second week in the row, the Compulsive Hooker finds ourselves in the terrible position of wanting England to lose so that change occurs, Rob Andrew permitting or not.

Lievremont Shows Johnson The Way

15 03 2010

What a contrast last night’s France versus Italy game was. Not only did France play quite sublimely on occasions, the Italians showed a willingness and level of invention which has been missing from their game for some time. Indeed with the Italians playing in this fashion, the title for the 6 Nations ‘Least Inventive Team’ is a straight fight between Scotland and England. Considering the dynamism of the Scottish back row, we will plump for England.

For probably the first 20 of his 25 matches in charge, Marc Lievremont, has been heavily criticised for the manner in which he chopped and changed his squad. What has been interesting throughout this tournament, is that he appears to have finally settled on his core group of players who can take him through to the World Cup next year and he must be feeling a certain amount of vindication. When you consider, also, the quality of players not involved in last nights game, Cedric Heymans, Maxime Medard, Damien Traille to name but three, we feel that France will probably be the only northern hemisphere team capable of challenging for the World Cup title.

It might be early, perhaps, to compare his regime with Clive Woodwards highly successful time with England, yet there are parallels. Early in Woodward’s time in charge, he often plucked players out of relative obscurity who either thrived or often sank without trace after a couple of caps. The key was that he wasn’t afraid to pick a player on a hunch, perceived potential or even after only a couple of good performances. Lievremont, one feels, is cut from much the same cloth. Some of his selections have caused a collectively raised Gallic eyebrow amongst the French media, yet he has shrugged his shoulders and carried on anyway. Certainly we feel that Martin Johnson could probably learn a little bit from these attitudes although England’s well documented problems are as much to do with the way they are trying to play, rather than who is playing. You do feel though, that was Lievremont coaching England this season, players such as Lawes, Youngs and Ashton may have been given their head for a couple of games at least with the license to play.

Nick Mallett’s job, which involves attempting to create a competitive team from a very small pool of mediocre to good players, is not an easy one. He had also been roundly criticised before the start of the tournament as to the apparent backward steps, Italy as a team had been taking. Yet with victory over Scotland, a close run defeat to England and a spirited effort against France yesterday there is cause for optimism.  As we mentioned above, the two tries scored late in the second half were as good as anything the French produced. Yes the game was lost, but it showed that they are capable of scoring in more ways than the pack picking and driving. With Wales in disarray, the Italians must fancy their chances of pulling off a second win in the competition, or at the very least running them close.

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