Autumn Internationals: Pithy Previews 2

19 11 2010

Ireland vs New Zealand

The weekends big game (with due respect to Scotland South Africa) sees a stuttering Irish side take on what is surely one of the most well oiled rugby machines around, if not ever. The All Blacks arrive in Dublin with history behind them, never having lost to the men in green, and a sense that it would be a major shock should Ireland summon the wherewithal to beat them. Not, you understand, that Ireland are not capable of it – they have some exceptional players – yet they appear rusty and unsure of themselves. Factor in the winning ‘hoodoo’ the AB’s have on them and we sadly cannot see anything but a comfortable All Black victory.

For Ireland the returning Kearney will be key. One of the best 15’s around his running and positional play will be important. Sexton returns at fly half in a surprising move after his woes against South Africa – yet one feels that if Ireland are to win, they will need a man with a little more in the way of vision and pace than Ronan O’Gara.

Upfront Ireland can expect to go backwards in the scrum but compete at the breakdown – the trio of Ferris, Wallace and Heaslip remain amongst the best in the world. Their battle against Kaino, McCaw and Read will as ever be crucial.

For the All Blacks, Sonny Bill Williams drops to the bench after his virtuoso performance against the Scots last week leaving Nonu to rejoin Smith in the centres. Otherwise they are much as you would expect – until Stephen Donald comes on, quality all the way through…

Prediction: Ireland 14-36 New Zealand

Look out for: Nonu to have a storming match to remind Henry exactly what he’s capable of and to hold off the threat of Williams for his starting jersey. Ireland to have a good deal of possession but to repeatedly run into what is an impenetrable black wall time and time again. Ireland to struggle at scrum and line out time.

Scotland vs South Africa

Scotland are a chastened and disappointed side after their limp performance against the AB’s last week. Blown away by a far superior team; it will have shown just how far they have to go to compete with the best sides in the world – something one feels that will have brought their whisperings of possible victories over Tri Nations sides back down to earth with a serious bump.

Against a South African side who, remarkably, are still going for the Grand Slam, they will have as good a chance as they will this Autumn for a major scalp. The Boks have come off two close wins – games which we feel they should really have lost had Ireland and Wales shown less rustiness and finishing ability respectively – and will probably have one eye on England next weekend. Scotland can take advantage of this lack of attention and push them all the way. After all – as shown against Australia last year – you never quite know what could happen if the game has one score in it at the end.

Prediction: Scotland 9 – 20 South Africa

Look out for: Scotland to play with more fire this week and provide a sterner test for the Springboks than they would feel comfortable with. De Villiers 55 minute mark substitutions to have a marked impact on the game as he takes off the Bok’s best players. The Boks to ultimately have too much quality. Scotland not to score a try.

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Autumn Internationals: Ireland 21 – 23 South Africa

7 11 2010

This match can best be summed up as follows:

  • Ireland: Poor, messy, imprecise and disorganised – they struggled all over the park with only the introduction of Ronan O’Gara providing some much needed stability around the 60 minute mark.
  • Springboks were better but were still hardly firing on all cylinders. They can count themselves lucky not to have met Ireland on a day in which their minds and game were in working order.

We said before this game that we expected to win and to do so fairly comfortably. Even in hindsight this was not an unreasonable idea as at home and with the year the Boks were having, it could be argued that Ireland were the stronger team on paper. Unfortunately one of the least good Irish performances put pay to these assumptions and a golden opportunity to extend the 10 years unbeaten run at home slipped through their fingers.

That the difference was one intercept try suggested a fighting spirit which at least will give the Irish some cheer. Serious questions need to be asked, however, with Declan Kidney in particular answerable to a good few of them. The Irish went out with the desire to play a more open game – a decision that should have been altered as soon as the rain started coming down. Even a school boy with only three years experience knows that, as soon as it starts raining, you keep it simple and play the percentages. That an Irish team apparently didn’t know this suggests a headless attitude that needs to be fixed if they are going to take the next step up from a side talked about as ‘possibles’ to ‘probables’.

South Africa’s overwhelming feeling will undoubtedly be one of relief having won a game which, whilst they should never have lost once they gained their 14 point lead,  would have been severely worried at the prospect given Irelands late resurgence. Pieter De Villiers  has a rather worrying habit, particularly if you are a fan of the Springboks, of changing crucial players around the 60 minute mark – a move that often misfires as the opposing team then sniff a way back in.

Moving forward both sides are going to have to improve massively if they are going to get anything much out of the next couple of weeks. South Africa will be pleased with the win but not with the performance, whereas for Ireland things are only going to get tougher with a match against Kiwis in two weeks time to worry about. A huge improvement is needed if they are going to challenge the All Blacks, fortunately however a game against Samoa next weekend will give much needed respite and a chance to gel.





Ireland vs South Africa Preview

4 11 2010

Across the various rugby websites there have been several polls running along the same theme although posed in several different ways. What they all concur with however is the likelihood that, if any Northern Hemisphere side is going to win this weekend, it is likely to be Ireland. There is fairly solid reasoning behind this general consensus and it is not one that we, here at the Hooker, can really find fault with.

Ireland are at home, have almost their entire first choice side playing and, on paper at least, have a good enough side to win for the second November test match in a row. With the South African’s still clinging to their beloved kicking game the world class back three of Fitzgerald, Bowe and Kearney can run the ball back with interest should a wayward punt come their way. The scrum back three remains solid as ever, despite the slight consternation amongst Irish supporters at Sean O’Brien’s omission, and Paul O’Connell’s replacement, Mick O’Driscoll, will not let anyone down – just ask a Munster supporter.

The worries come as ever in the front row where Buckley needs to prove that he has the skills to provide some much needed solidity at scrum time. We cannot remember a time over the last two years when the Irish scrum went anything but backwards and this remains one of the major worries leading into world cup year.

The other potentially weak links are at 9, 10 and 12. Reddan has rightly been picked over Stringer although O’Leary will be sorely missed. His half back partner, Jonny Sexton, despite having one of the names crucial for a great fly half, tends to lose his kicking game at the wrong moments a la Matt Giteau. He has proved he has the running game to succeed and once he harnesses that to his place kicking Ireland should have found themselves a formidable weapon. Outside him is D’Arcy at 12 who these days does not provide the carrying and off loading skills he once had. He needs to fire if Ireland are going to win in any way other than through penalties.

The other reason why South Africa should be perceived as slight underdogs is the bad run of injuries that Pieter De Villiers men are suffering. Problems in the pack but particularly in the backline, as far as selection goes, coupled with a poor 2010 mean that Ireland should be dissatisfied with anything other than a victory.

Prediction: Ireland 22-15 South Africa

Look out for: Tommy Bowe – surely one of the best wingers around today. Sexton’s running and passing although hold your breath if he’s got the place T out. South African’s are yet to name their side but Matfield and the experienced heads are likely to be key if they are to win. PDV’s post match press conference should anything controversial happen whatever happens.





Autumn Internationals: Only Two Victories?

25 10 2010

A quick thought: New England Chief Executive John Steele has set what he believes to be a ‘realistic’ target in the fast approaching Autumn Internationals. His stated aim for Martin Johnson is to win two of England’s four games against variously New Zealand, Samoa, Australia and South Africa.

A tough four games undoubtedly; but we do not believe that a fifty percent record is enough. In the Compulsive Hooker’s view we would like to see three out of the four games won as, anything less than that, would not be engendering the necessary winning habit. For a long time (indeed ever since 2004) England have been a side ‘in development’ with the ‘performance of the team’ being more important than the result – or so the various England coaching staff members and teams would have us believe. This though is, quite frankly, rubbish.

Like Robbie Deans and Pieter De Villiers have both said over the past few days; going into a world cup year – winning’ is everything’. By being ‘realistic’ Steele is not setting the bar high enough for Johnson and is in danger of letting this current malaise of mediocrity continue. England are (and should be) a powerful and wealthy rugby nation with a huge player base and, crucially for the tournament next year, have a potentially brilliant set of youthful stars coming through. This Autumn is as good a time as any to ask them, when combined with the more senior and experienced players, to start performing and start judging the players by results – not a more subjective ‘performance’ measure.

In theory one win is more or less assured with England likely to be too powerful and organised for Samoa. Equally in theory one loss is more or less assured as the All Blacks have been playing some quite breathtaking rugby. Australia and South Africa are the games England should target having beaten the Wallabies in their last meeting and with the Springboks in disarray and suffering injuries.

After all, you would never see even a poor Australian or South Africa side contemplate anything other than a victory when playing at home. Twickenham, whilst not being the fortress it was at the beginning of the decade, is still a difficult venue for opposing teams to come and play at and, with that in mind, nothing less than three victories will suffice in our eyes…





PDivvy and the Dancing Orange

28 09 2010

P Divvy Retains His Job

Despite an appalling Tri Nations campaign (and 2009 Autumn Internationals before that), the ‘most ridiculous man in world rugby’, Mr. Pieter De Villiers, has kept his job as Springbok Coach after his annual performance review. Being English rugby supporters we are able to laugh at this turn of events (and even applaud as we believe it can only help England’s chances should we meet the Boks in the World Cup) yet we do feel sorry for the average South African fan.

This is a man who inherited a world cup winning team, rode this wave into the 2009 Tri Nations and Lions Tours, and has since then been unable to arrest what at this stage appears to be an irreversible slide. To a degree this dip in performance was always going to happen as key players got older, however, a good coach would try to off set this by a mixture of clever selectorial decisions, the introduction of fresh young talent and personal inspiration.

Whereas PDV is clearly lacking on the first two aspects – his innate conservatism always seems to come to the fore – it is the third issue of inspiration we feel he most lacks. A man who so frequently causes outrage, anger or sometimes sheer wonder that he has actually said what he said, can hardly be an inspirational figure to the players you would think. The players are not stupid and one surmises that it is often simply their need to toe the party line that stops them publicly disagreeing with his statements. Of course it is possible that he is a wonderful orator in the dressing room and particularly adept at firing the players up in the manner of a Jim Telfer say, yet we have read or heard of no reports along these lines which would suggest he is not known for this either.

In short it appears to be another political decision in a country where these are still rife. What do the readers think – particularly any South Africans who may be reading this?

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The Dancing Orange

The never ending saga of the most orange man in rugby with the perfectly coiffed hair continued yesterday. After months of will he, won’t he, whats going on with him style stories in the press, Gavin Henson, still technically an Osprey despite 18 months unpaid leave, has been invited to play for the Barbarians against South Africa at Twickenham on December 4th. Clearly Henson has not ‘been in a good place’ during his time out of the game, as that modern cliché goes, and one hopes that this could inspire his full time return to the game.

Over the past few weeks Henson has let it be known, much to the chagrin of the Ospreys management, that he would like to return to rugby but, due to his children with ex-wife Charlotte Church now being based in London, he would like to play in the capital. Fine – except he is still under contract with the Ospreys who have reacted angrily to these suggestions.

Sadly for Henson, his stock, which was already diminishing in a couple of seasons of poor rugby prior to his self enforced absence from the game, has seemingly sunk to all new levels and the Baa-Baas game may well be his last chance at rugby salvation. In the Compulsive Hookers view, Henson had long been a highly overrated player who despite being hailed a new Welsh ‘wunderkind’ never lived up to his billing and only gained such fame due to his personal life. This view, although admittedly combined with the fact that he has hardly got a reputation for reliability and responsibility and the possible transfer fee involved due to his contractual obligations, seems to be borne out in the lack of interest shown by the London Aviva Premiership clubs. By calling the response to his stated aim to move to London ‘lukewarm’ would be overstating it by some margin.

In fact the only club to have reportedly offered him a ‘lifeline’, as these things are inevitably called in the press, has been London Welsh who currently reside in the Championship – one below the top division. Nothing more appears to have come of that so perhaps this too will fail to bear fruit.

One thing’s for certain – we do hope he comes back as the game is undoubtedly more interesting with him and, as we said in our previous article, gives us, as Englishmen, a reason to ‘hate’ a Welsh rugby team who increasingly under the leadership of Ryan Jones seem very pleasant.*

Providing he can prove his fitness, the Baa-Baas game will provide him with an opportunity to show case his talents to the world again and could prove to be his route back into rugby. Despite our derision of him we would never wish him ill and hope that he sorts out his problems although we do believe his appearance on this Autumns ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ suggests he still has some way to go in his decision making.

* Of course we don’t hate the Welsh in actual fact – we actually quite like them, particularly the way they play, but recently the they have been lacking a figure like a Neil Jenkins, a Colin Charvis or a Scott Quinnell – in short some one to direct our traditional English-Welsh rivalry against…





Dingo’s Rant

7 09 2010

Our resident Aussie contributor, Dingo, comments on why characters and the unexpected are good for sport in the first of what he assures us will be a regular feature. Feel free to disagree with him…

Freddie making things interesting

Andrew Flintoff is a wonderful cricket player. If you were to merely glance at his statistics you would notice that they were not amongst the best of all time – yet still he is considered a great cricketer. If you didn’t know better you would be forgiven for asking why and to me it comes down to two incidents. One of course is during the 2005 Ashes – everybody remembers the immortal picture of Freddie consoling a distraught Brett Lee instead of celebrating victory with his team mates. Assuredly a powerful image. The second incident came during the 2007 world cup at the unusual time of about 3am in the morning following a defeat to New Zealand; drunkenly falling off a pedalo after a drinking session that went on a little too long – brilliant as far as I’m concerned.

You see I love sport. I’m a huge fan; watching, playing, discussing. Love it. However I’m not the guy who remembers every statistic. I don’t actually care who won the last premiership, who has the most gold medals at  the Olympics, who has the best stats for any given season – I love it because it’s fun. It’s fun like getting drunk and falling off a pedalo.

Now don’t get me wrong; I understand sport is not only a game but also a business. You represent your country, your team mates and your sponsors (hang on while I yawn). But crucially sport also desperately needs characters as this is when it becomes more than just a bunch of numbers. When sport becomes a reflection of human frailty it suddenly becomes interesting.

Don’t tell me you would have enjoyed watching cricket more if the Aussies didn’t sledge. Do you remember, for example, this classic: With Australia playing Zimbabwe and the great Glenn McGrath bowling at a chubby part time cricketer, part time farmer, Eddo Brandes who also happened to be the Zimbabwe No 11; unable to get him out he enquired of Brandes, “Why are you so fat?” Quick as a flash he replies; “’cause every time I make love to your wife, she gives me a biscuit.” Even the other Aussies were in hysterics.

Undoubtedly there is room for frivolity and ridiculousness in sport. The same reason, I for one, don’t want to see Springbok coach, Pieter DeVilliers go – because he’s funny and is guaranteed to enliven any press conference. When other coaches read straight from the dull interview handbook of trite, repetitive comments, he enlightens us with tales of conspiracy theories and personal attacks. I love it.

In Australia right now the two biggest sports domestically are in a battle for media and financial supremacy; rugby league and Australian Rules. Yes the action is exciting on the field, but the real selling point to both these sports is the drama off it. Every day the tabloids are filled with with tales of adultery, nightclub brawls and betting scandals. In a funny way it’s what links us to our heroes (not that I’ve destroyed a hotel room or brawled in a pub I assure you), but it’s that they’re human and, subject to that, make mistakes on and off the field often with hilarious consequences. The more they behave like humans, the more we are drawn into their lives.

I believe sport would suffer without its characters. It would suffer without its heroes and its villains. Everyone wants to see a hard fought contest but they also want to see that same guy do something ridiculous when you’re least expecting it.

So here’s a thank-you to Andy Powell and his golf cart; Freddie with his pedalo. Here’s a thanks to Pakistani no-balls and Ponting tantrums. To Rooney and his prostitutes and David Hayes eternal gloating. Thank-you Tiger Woods. Thank-you Bakkies Botha. Thank-you John McEnroe. Thank-you to the real reason sport is so addictive – its characters.





Tri Nations Brilliance

5 09 2010

What a game yesterday’s South Africa versus Australia was. All tournament long there has been fantastic running rugby on show, particularly from the Antipodean pairing and yesterday was no exception. In a game in which South Africa found themselves 31-13 down at the break, in the end it came down to the very last kick of the game – taken with aplomb by the previously hapless Kurtley Beale.

At half time any most people would have been forgiven for wondering just how many points the Australians were going to score. Lead by a brilliant first half performance from Quade Cooper, the Australians broke through the only recently impregnable South African defence seemingly at will. Miss passes, switches and simply some outstandingly evasive running lead to three of the sweetest and simplest tries you could imagine . However, the South Africans did not win all three of the world’s top prizes over the previous couple of years simply by accident and there was always the spectre of a Springbok comeback. Victor Matfield showed he wasn’t your average second row with a beautiful chip, regather and off load to set up a try for Jacques Fourie just before half time and suddenly it was game on.

The Australians, for all their grace and fluidity with ball in hand, can still be said to lack something. Over the past year or more they have been either up or dominant in games only to  find themselves on the wrong side of the score sheet at the final whistle. This is a most uncharacteristic trait as over the years the Aussies have proved themselves to be a side who are rarely beaten until its all over and simply cannot be written off. Yesterday threatened to be another one of these more recent occurrences however but, with the final kick of the game, up stepped Kurtley Beale and the Aussies sneaked over the line.

Beale is a strange case and is someone who we at the Compulsive Hooker cannot make up our minds about. A beautifully balanced runner, anything looks possible when he gets ball in hand. Unfortunately he manages to combine this with some unfortunate decision making and is frequently out of position. Whilst Robbie Deans obviously knows his business we cannot help but think that there are safer options than Beale to be chosen for the 15 shirt. Full back is such a crucial position that come the world cup next year, Australia would be seriously handicapping themselves by persevering with Beale in his current form.

For South Africa this was yet another disappointing match in what has been a chastening campaign. It has been a sudden and precipitous fall from grace which is all the more surprising considering the team is much the same as it was this time last year. The first hints of this slide came during the Autumn internationals when they failed to beat anyone other than perennial Six Nations wooden spoon contenders – Italy. In our view the blame can be squarely laid at the door of incumbent coach, Pieter De Villiers. A man who makes more headlines for the ridiculousness of his comments than anything else and who, in our view, only managed to win a World Cup, Tri Nations and Lions series through the innate skill and leadership of his players is now finding life very tough indeed. With some of the players getting past their best, now is the time when the coach needs to show proper leadership, demonstrate some good ideas and selection ability (previously this in particular was very suspect) and sadly (for the Boks at any rate) this is lacking. Time to go PDV…

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For everyone English or Kiwi who may not have realised – the Womens Rugby World Cup Final is on later today live from the Twickenham Stoop. New Zealand are favourites (naturally) but England do have a real chance in what has so far been an excellent tournament full of very good rugby. We can’t find the time of kick off anywhere so if someone knows it and could comment we would be very grateful!








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