A New Rugby Season: A Live Report From Twicker’s

6 09 2010

This is a first contribution from another guest contributor, Si, who writes:

A crowd of over 70,000 packed into a sunny Twickenham to welcome in the first two matches of the new season for the London-based Premiership teams – the first match a potentially open, free-flowing contest between London Irish and the somewhat more belligerent, rugged style of a strongly South African flavoured Saracens team. The mood was one largely of optimism, although the atmosphere at HQ seemed a little peculiar. Despite being one of the healthiest attendances for a club game, the mix of supporters around the ground led to a somewhat subdued atmosphere, with a background hubbub of talking, and a noticeable disinterest in some of the rugby on display from the non-involved supporters.

One cannot help but feel that this reflects rather sadly on the overall spectacle of the games; the first half of the Irish/Sarries affair being an error-strewn, largely scoreless affair, with two relatively clumsy tries that seemed heaved over the whitewash with bluster, a lot of hot air and rather less finesse than perhaps we were expecting, notwithstanding a nice blind pass behind the head from Chris Wyles to send Joubert over for the first try. Both teams eventually trundled off for a half-time regroup and chance to reflect on the first forty minutes as perhaps a ‘loosener’ to shake off the rust of the summer.

Irish emerged by far the more alert of the teams after the break and immediately started to cause problems for Sarries, with the impressive Delon Armitage crossing for a well-worked overlap try in the corner. Armitage looked sharper by far than in his last, somewhat lacklustre Six Nations which should be heartening for all England fans; he demonstrated a return to the security under the high ball, deftness of touch and speed of feet that makes him certainly a contender to form part of the England back three for the Autumn.

Three further tries for Irish wrapped up quite a comprehensive-looking victory on paper, although this was helped in no small part by two yellow cards for first the Sarries fly-half Goode and then the replacement Kevin Barrett for a senseless push on a diving Topsy Ojo in the act of scoring.

It is always a little premature to draw too many great conclusions from opening games, especially where both sides are effectively away from home and before the ravages of a long season and international duties start to take their inevitable toll. That said, the two striking differences between some of the domestic rugby played in the Southern Hemisphere and that on display yesterday was pace. Time and again, the ball ended up being dragged into a slow, plodding, forward oriented slug-fest from phases 2 onwards; this being made all the more depressing as it typically followed some quite precise and pacy (albeit rarely line-breaking) first phase play. Our feeling is that in order to develop this fast-flowing, media and crowd friendly game that is being called for, teams have to play with more width throughout the latter phases, resisting the temptation to use the pack to cut back inside for short passes and then set up interminable, inevitable slow ruck or maul ball. Offloaded ball in the tackle, creating running at broken defensive lines is really the only way to achieve the high speed, high-octane game the northern hemisphere seems to be craving.

The second game featured London Wasps against local boys Harlequins who seem to be at last breaking free of the shackles of “Bloodgate” and trying to focus the media scrutiny on their brand of rugby, rather than the authenticity of any on-field injuries.

The game started brightly; with an early try for Easter following smart work by Care at the base and Nick Evans, the fly half. This seemed to snap Wasps awake, and they responded with two penalties, followed by two tries, the first a smart, powerful series of surges towards the Quins line culminating in new signing Andy Powell galumphing over the whitewash; followed by a smart interchange between Riki Flutey, playing in a less familiar fly-half role, and the poacher supreme, Tom Varndell, who latched onto spilled ball from the tackle to quickly turn the scoreline on its head.

Thereafter, the match seemed to sag somewhat, culminating in a rather tepid series of half-hearted Mexican waves rolling around the Twickenham stands, which then degenerated into the (one can only assume) deathly bored crowd throwing anything they could into the air and towards the pitch during the Mexican wave, including plastic bottles, toilet rolls (?) and cardboard beer carriers.

To long term, staunch rugby fans like ourselves, this childish behaviour, never seen before by the author at any other rugby ground, let alone Twickenham, seems to be part of a worrying slide away from the spectator standards one would come to expect from a rugby crowd. Granted, the match was grinding towards a fairly dismal, yet ultimately fair 29-29 draw, and this may have just been idiotic behaviour started by a minority. One would hope this doesn’t become a regular feature at rugby matches where the atmosphere is often lauded and cherished as being far more sportsmanlike, more genial, and less threatening than in some other sports.

Overall, the first weekend of the newly-dubbed Aviva Premiership seems to be less revolutionary than some may have expected, although newcomers Exeter Chiefs’ win at local rivals Gloucester raised a few smiles in the Twickenham stands. It still remains to be seen if the quality of top flight English Rugby can be high enough to support, nourish and develop the national side into World Cup contenders in 2011 and if the problems inherent in the “English” style and ethos of play can be overcome. This said, we await the following Premiership rounds and a packed Autumn International fixture list with keen interest and a healthy sense of perspective…..





Some Questions

14 03 2010

It is hard to write this piece without it descending into a diatribe of epic proportions against England and particularly the England management. Nevertheless, we will try and provide a few opinions as objectively as possible regarding the game we have just watched.

Ending in a draw, which to our eyes seemed a fair result considering the sheer inadequacies present on both sides, it underlined the shortcomings mentioned ad nauseam in previous articles on this site. To a large degree we are willing to exempt the players from blame; not totally you understand as there is far too much experience within the team and poor execution in the game to do so, but on the whole we feel they are handicapped by poor selection and an atrocious game plan from the England management.

Before we go any further, and to attempt to stem the flow of negativity straining to unleash itself from our fingertips, let us have a look at Scotland. On the whole, Andy Robinson, will be relatively pleased with a draw although this still leaves Scotland likely wooden spoon winners. Yet this was a game that Scotland could, and possibly should have won. There were definite positives in several key areas; the 6,7,8 combo continues to impress with Beattie in particular vying with Jamie Heaslip for the title of the best number 8 in the home nations, and out wide Scotland again showed intent and variation. Unfortunately the final pass went astray too often for them to be truly effective but importantly the desire was there.

Despite results not going their way, Scotland have improved over these past 4 games. They remain hamstrung by a small player base which means they are always going to be a smaller nation, yet under Andy Robinson they have showed more structure and played more rugby. We hope that the Scottish board sticks with him as with a bit more luck and certainly a little more nous the results in this tournament could have been quite different. It was interesting to see the Scottish full back punching the ball into touch once Toby Flood’s attempted drop goal has been charged down, willing this time to settle for the draw. Lessons have clearly been learnt from the Wales game.

And so, back to England.

There are two overriding emotions present here at the Compulsive Hooker so let us deal with them one at a time. Firstly frustration. Here is a list of things in England’s favour which in theory should mean England should not be in this current malaise.

  • England are blessed with one of the largest player bases of any senior test match rugby nation.
  • Even despite the recent economic downturn, the financial status of the RFU and most English clubs has remained healthy.
  • The facilities available throughout these clubs and at headquarters remain some of the best in the world.
  • The wealth of the clubs has been able to ensure that the majority of the star players stay in England and are not tempted overseas for more lucrative rewards creating a player drain. The recent strength of the Euro and the wage caps imposed in the UK, has made this a greater challenge than before, yet France is hardly far away….
  • The ability to attract foreign talent for the financial reasons above. This of course can be argued both ways, but really and truly the standard of the Guiness Premiership would not be half as good as it is without many of these players playing. (There are some exceptions to this rule but not many).

Yet despite all these compelling reasons (and we are positive there are many more) why England should, from a support point of view be one of the best teams in the world, yet come to naught when you look at results.

The second emotion is puzzlement. To explain this we have composed a list of questions below which go some way to elucidating this feeling. (In no particular order….)

  • Where has Riki Flutey disappeared to? We know he’s a good player (3rd test of the Lions tour, France and Wales matches in last years 6 Nations are all examples of his abilities), yet in the last 3 games he has been extraordinarily innocuous and totally invisible. Did he touch the ball before the 57th minute today? We missed it if so….
  • Steve Borthwick? Really?
  • Louis Deacon? And Steve Borthwick? Together?
  • Will Steve Borthwick ever fail to use the adjective ‘fantastic’ in relation to another dreary England performance? We haven’t seen the post match interviews with him but we’d be willing to bet he said the word somewhere….
  • Delon Armitage? Which dastardly character has stolen his mojo?
  • Why the aversion to exciting and dynamic young players? (Dan Coles excepted). Ben Foden, Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs? It’s as if they have been put on the bench as a token gesture to appease the angry press and near to rioting fans but nothing more.
  • Why does Jonny stand so deep? Is it really the game plan ‘so lay off him’, as Johnson told the media earlier in the tournament, or was he simply protecting his talisman?
  • What does Rob Andrew do for his exorbitant wages? (This is a very interesting point and one which we will tackle at some point in the near future).
  • Does Rob Andrew possess big enough ‘cahones’ to sack the man he appointed to be England’s saviour?
  • Will Martin Johnson admit defeat and resign, therefore saving him the trouble?
  • Who can sack Rob Andrew? Why won’t whoever it is that can do so?
  • Where has Mark Cueto’s pace gone?
  • Where can we apply to join the England back room team? It’s well paid, amazing job security with almost no performance related targets to hit and on top of that masses of great England gear…..
  • Above all, England have good players. We know this. But why, oh why, can they not play rugby together?!?!
  • Etc
  • Etc

There are many, many more questions where these came from. There are also answers to many of them, but somehow the men to whom all these frustrations and performance issues come back to, appear to be supremely oblivious to the either the problems, solutions or both.

Please Johnno! We loved you as a player and as a fearsome man of iron; but please don’t ruin your reputation or tarnish our still (but only just) pure adoration for you. It’s time to get out whilst you still can…..





Six Nations Round 2 – Thoughts

15 02 2010

England, England, England*.

This was supposed to be the game where, with all Johnson’s first choice players available, England would cut loose, throw off the shackles and prove to the rugby world they can play. A combination of a resurgent Italy and extraordinarily muddled game plan ensured that England struggled and Italy in many ways appeared to be the better side.

Italy did all that was expected of them, getting up into England’s faces and spoiling well at the break down. England, however, after a good start in which Armitage almost went over in the corner, retreated to the aerial kicking game that is all too familiar to England supporters.

The best sides in the world all employ a kicking game. These are built around other aspects of the game plan which in turn create space for them to kick to. By drawing players into contact situations and sucking in the defence this creates gaps behind into which kicks can be placed and territory gained. England’s kicking is mainly down to a lack of other ideas, which means that almost always the opposing team has players covering and any potential advantage is lost. Factor in the poor quality of much of the kicking and often England are simply handing back the advantage to the opposition.

Delon Armitage had a second poor game and seems to have lost confidence since his stellar performances last year. An important facet of his play was his ability to run the ball back, often beating two or three men and putting England on the front foot. In the last two games he has been fallible under the high ball and then, more often than not, simply put boot to ball in a fairly aimless fashion. England need the old Armitage back as otherwise Ben Foden provides an attractive alternative.

On a positive note, Wilkinson stood a great deal flatter and several times initiated wide attacking moves with Monye twice and Flutey making lengthy breaks down field. The extraordinary thing was that despite a clear demonstration that this tactic was working, for much of the first and second half England reverted to type and the boot. Variety is the spice of life and England just keep getting it wrong by doing the same thing again and again.

Coming into this game Flutey was supposed to be the man who could set England’s backs alight. As noted above, whilst there were instances of this (more in this one game than the entire Autumn series combined), Flutey needs the ball in hand (and his in particular) to do this. After a couple of deft touches in the opening minutes, it was the 38th before he touched it again, at which point his lovely angle cut open the Italian midfield. It was telling that England’s best moments came with him involved and should be something Johnson considers over the next fortnight.

In many ways Italy were the better team on the day and had clearly set out to play with some invention themselves. Their backs, which previously had been impotent, burst into life and genuinely threatened on a couple of occasions. Mallett would be a great deal happier after this performance than Johnson, although he is no doubt ruing the missed opportunity to take what would be a serious scalp in world rugby.

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France have been reaffirmed as favourites to win the championship and potential Grand Slam winners. Indeed if they play as they did against the Irish in Paris there is little chance of anyone even competing and we would have backed them against any side in the world. Dominant at the breakdown, brilliant in the backs and with Parra and Trinh-Duc playing probably their best games for France, Ireland stood no chance.

Despite odd individual moments of brilliance from Darcy and O’Driscoll the Irish found themselves repeatedly hitting what appeared to be a solid blue wall, such was the French defence. Coupled with set pieces that achieved parity at best and the Irish back row being second to the break down on most occasions it was always unlikely once France had gone into the lead. Ronan O’Gara was also poor, missing kicks and tackles which when combined with his insistence of standing 15 yards behind the gain line when receiving meant that the Irish backs had little chance of making any impressions. Jonny Sexton will likely return for England at Twickenham which for both teams is a must win game and having Sexton’s superior attacking ability will help unleash Ireland’s undoubtedly talented backs.

It is important Ireland regroup to win the remainder of their games as with only 18 months to go prior to the next world cup, it is crucial they keep their momentum going. France, on the other hand, appear to once more have an embarrassment of riches and with Lievremont appearing finally to be settling on his preferred combinations they are going to be a genuine threat to the southern hemispheres superiority.

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Having sat down to watch the Wales Scotland game with some trepidation at the prospect of a low quality game we were pleasantly surprised by what turned out to be the game of the tournament so far. Despite suffering injuries to Thom Evans and Chris Paterson Scotland stormed into the lead and with only 6 minutes remaining were 10 points clear. Wales however produced a fantastic period of play to deny Scotland what would have been a cathartic win for Andy Robinson’s team.

When Wales play like they did in the final minutes they are seriously dangerous and it must be a huge frustration to Warren Gatland that they cannot do it over an 80 minute period. Shane Williams looked like he is back to his best, creating two on ones and worrying the Scots every time he got the ball. Likewise Jamie Roberts had his best game since the Lions and was the main focal point for Wales going forward.

For Scotland the back row were brilliant, particularly in the first half, with Barclay and Beattie carrying well and competing on the ground. A second positive was back play which looked more full of initiative and threat than it has done for quite some time. If Scotland can carry this form over to Rome they should be fairly confident of winning.

The major frustrations of course come from losing a game that they should really have won. It seemed an extraordinary decision by Blair to restart the ball into play with the scores level at 24 all when a simple kick into touch would have brought the end of the game although equally you could applaud them for gambling and going for the win.

*Our frustrations are probably all too apparent in this article and so we apologise if we sound bitter – its just so appalling being England rugby fans at the moment!





6 Nations Weekend Preview

11 02 2010

With the pick of the 6 Nations matches at the weekend being France versus Ireland, Declan Kidney has surprised a few people by picking Ronan O’Gara at fly half again despite Jonny Sexton’s return from injury. Had Sexton been fit last week the likelihood is he would have started, however it appears that ROG’s performance in that match has reaffirmed Kidney’s faith in him. Sexton is likely to make a substantial second half appearance and it will be interesting to see how Ireland’s game changes on his introduction. There is little doubt he offers more going forward than ROG and it will be interesting to see how much faith is placed in him if the game is tight.

With the only other change being Earls for Trimble on the left wing, our prediction is an Ireland win by 5 to 10 points and for O’Driscoll to remind Bastereaud that he is still a little wet behind the ears.

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England versus Italy promises to be a very stodgy affair if England don’t break loose. Flutey returns for Flood and Dan Cole, who the Compulsive Hooker has been pushing for some months now, will make his first start. The scrum was definitely more assured last week upon Wilson’s substitution for Cole and we can look forward to a similar all action game to which he regularly plays for Leicester from the young 22 year old.

If Wilkinson cannot show more spark inside the creative Flutey we fear that his reputation will be further tarnished. As mentioned previously the hope is that with an inside centre more in the Greenwood mould, Wilkinson will be forced to play more on the gain line. The Compulsive Hooker will remain faithful in our declaration of JW as the ‘greatest living Englishman’ but we feel for the rest of the world to acknowledge him once more he needs to lift his game.

Italy have made some changes to their side although sad to say these are likely to be fairly inconsequential to the result. More limited than they have been in the past, it is time to play with a game plan that is less about spoiling the oppositions game and more about playing positive rugby themselves. Our prediction is for an England win along the lines of 35-8.

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Wales host Scotland in the third weekend game and Gatland has shown a softer side than expected with his decision to include Alun Wyn-Jones. After Jones’ trip on Hartley last weekend, Gatland had been apoplectic with rage and the player must have feared for his life let alone his place. (Anyone who has seen the latest Lions documentary ‘Living with the Pride’ will appreciate what we mean with Gatland!) Wales have the chance to show what they can do against a limited Scot side whose ambitions, like Italy’s, often seem to stretch no further than spoiling the oppositions ball.

Chris Paterson is winning his 100th cap and this is an achievement that should certainly be applauded in the modern day rugby world, where durability and the ability to remain injury free is something only a few can claim. In our view he has been a much underrated player and is probably the best kicker in world rugby off the ground. We can’t find the stat exactly but we think he hasn’t missed a kick in the 6 Nations since 2007. Is this correct can anyone help us?

Our prediction is for Wales to have too much for the Scots and to win by 15 points.





England 30-17 Wales: Post Match Analysis

7 02 2010

What follows is a collaboration between our first guest contributor Mr. Follett and Bradders:

England started their 6 Nations campaign with a good result yesterday, beating Wales by the comfortable margin of 13 points. Whilst the margin of victory was large, it was ultimately flattering to England and Wales will have been disappointed that, with the scores at 20-17, they were unable to press for the win.

Starting in the forwards, there was both good and bad on show. Haskell fully deserved his man of the match award, putting in a performance to silence his persistent doubters. Nick Easter had a solid match and provided a game breaking moment with his charge into the Welsh 22, enabling Care to pick up and score near the posts. Moody, whilst not at his omnipresent best, as he was in the autumn internationals, was industrious and helped ensure England did not go backwards in the loose. With the Welsh lineout operating astoundingly poorly for much of the game, Borthwick and Shaw were able to take advantage, stealing Welsh throw in ball on more than one occasion. The bad, however, came predictably in the form of England’s scrum, which on more than one occasion creaked alarmingly. Whilst never being in full retreat, England escaped lightly as on at least two occasions Wilson was not penalized for pulling the scrum down. Cole’s emergence in the second half immediately appeared to shore things up and he should start next weekend’s game against Italy.

Danny Care had one of his better games for England, scoring an excellent try he illustrated why Johnson had picked him. The same problems of speed of service remain however and he must share some of the blame for the lack of quick ball at the breakdown. This lack of regular quick ball ensured that attacking opportunities for England’s backs were limited. Compounded by Wilkinson’s tendency to stand a little deep and Flood’s lack of pace in the 12 channel suggests that a Wilkinson – Flood combination is probably not the answer. With Flutey expected to recover in time for next week’s game we hope that he will inject some much needed urgency and creativity. Wilkinson’s place kicking could not be faulted however and his kicking out of hand was vastly improved on the dire offerings of the autumn. This is not to say England kicked well as a whole, with there still being far too many aimless and misdirected kicks. With the back three looking threatening on the rare occasions they had the ball and clearly being one of the strengths of this England team, it is imperative that they get the ball in attacking situations more often.

Overall the win was all important and should provide confidence to this beleaguered England team. Undoubtedly the victory margin was flattering and ball in hand the Welsh looked infinitely more threatening although England did display some of the required clinical ability with Haskell’s second try.

Wales on the other hand, whilst looking more of and attacking threat ball in hand, were unfortunately guilty of too many disciplinary faults conceding several penalties. Alun Wyn-Jones was the main offender however with his calculated and crazy decision to trip Dylan Hartley meaning that he spent 10 minutes in the sin bin either side of half time. In this period Wales conceded 17 points and from that point on the game was as good as lost. Gatland has been astonishingly but justifiably forthright in his post match comments, strongly criticizing Wyn-Jones’ and practically blaming him for the loss.

Despite this, Hook scored a coruscating try, eluding 4 men to score under the posts and give Wales a sniff of victory. Unfortunately their adventure undid them in the end, with Jones throwing the pass that Armitage intercepted to put Flood, then Tait and then Haskell in for the last try.

All is not lost for Wales in this campaign, although the feeling remains that with the amount of talent and game breakers they have in their side, they should be doing a great deal better. Somehow Gatland needs a way to unleash Jamie Roberts, as since his return from the Lions tour he has been a strangely subdued player. Only once last night did he break the line as Wales pressed in the final 10 minutes. Lee Byrne also had a game to forget and it is possible that the will he, won’t he nature of his participation in the game may have affected him adversely.

With Scotland next weekend, Wales will have to pick up their performance substantially to ensure that they have what it takes to beat a defence minded Scottish side.





One Kiwi Down, One Kiwi In

6 02 2010

Bad news for England yesterday in the shape of Riki Flutey pulling out of the Wales game this weekend. Flutey was likely to be an integral part of the midfield although Johnson has had the luxury of pulling in a second Kiwi to replace him in the form of Hape. Flood starts, but Hape’s bench inclusion ensures our quota of one disaffected kiwi for the match. The more we think about it, the more we are convinced that it is wrong that Hape should be playing, and for that matter Flutey. For the record we love Flutey’s fast feet and hands, however two men, one who has played for the Kiwi Maori side and the other for the Kiwi rugby league team, probably have no place representing England. We can understand it if Hape was to have an English parent but we disagree with the residency qualifications which is the route both players used.   

Mind you, if someone is a British passport holder then you can’t really deny them, even if it feels wrong. This is far from a new conundrum and is one which is likely to grow and grow as the world become a smaller place.

On the subject of Flood’s selection we are slightly worried. A little like Bangaladesh in cricket, we have been firmly in the ‘give him a chance, he’s good really’ with Flood. A quote by that deity of rugby coaches, Ian McGeechan summed him up for us however. Geeks said “I just can’t get excited by the way he plays” which is fairly damming and has knocked our faith in him.





Attacking England and Other Rules

2 02 2010

Encouraging article for all England fans written by Mick Cleary in the Telegraph today, in which he suggests that Martin Johnson is going to commit England fully to ‘attack’ mode. According to Cleary the England back line will read Care, Wilkinson, Monye, Flutey, Tait, Cueto and Armitage. With the possible exception of Care’s selection at scrum half, the Compulsive Hooker will be extremely pleased if this comes to pass.

Care is the faster player and this is perhaps why he is being leaned towards. In our opinion the crucial factor is speed of pass and willingness to move the ball quickly from the bottom of the ruck which is why we would rather see Hodgson given his head. Care has a habit of taking a couple of steps and then passing which means that the 10 has a crucial split second less than he might have done with a quicker pass.

The article sums up more or less exactly what we think so click here to have a look.

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SANZAR have given direction to all referees officiating in the Super 14 this year that they must sort out the tackle area and prevent defending players from slowing the ball down. In their own words they are trying to bring ‘clarity’ to an area which over the past two or three years has been anything but clear. Having looked through their guidelines there is nothing new, although they are attempting to take the advantage away from the tackler by telling the ref’s to be quick to penalise the defending player.

It strikes us as odd though that this guideline has come from the localised governing board rather than the IRB. As we enter into a 6 Nations likely to be beset with a plethora of kicks and lack of running rugby it seems that up north, we may also benefit from similar guidelines. If the IRB could take the lead on refereeing standards and guidelines worldwide it would help everyone including, and most importantly, the spectators.

These attempts to straighten out the mess created by some very wishy washy laws, particularly regarding the tackle area, are inevitably only papering over the cracks and probably won’t be too effective. The attempt is to be applauded though and shows up the IRB’s decision last year to maintain the status quo and effectively deny there is a problem.

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As nervous English supporters we are pleased to see Lee Byrne out of the Wales game at Twickenham this weekend. Byrne is a hugely dynamic and threatening player and without him Wales lose some of their cutting edge which is fantastic news for aforesaid Englishmen. We do not believe though that his actions really justify his ban as you have to wonder what the official in charge of the substitutions was doing. A fine perhaps is more suitable as to miss two 6 Nations games is a steep penalty to pay.








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