An Irish Lesson

21 03 2011

Re-reading our piece we published on Thursday last previewing the weekend’s rugby, we obviously got it wrong with our prediction that England would prevail by a small margin. That we got it wrong is not much of a surprise – we do after all frequently get things wrong (predictions are a fools game to be honest) – but it was that we got it so wrong that was a surprise.

Up until the final round on Saturday, Ireland had been a distinctly middling side who were lucky not to have been beaten by Italy and lost to both France and Wales. There had been the odd sign of life with a rare sprightly move now and again although too often the good work was undone by some basic errors. If we were honest, the suspicion had been growing that perhaps this was a side on the way down – something that does happen to Ireland in a World Cup year it seems.

Yet, in this final round of matches, Ireland played fantastically well and simply dominated England from the off. It was clinical. It was precise and it was, above all else, powerful. England came to Dublin looking for a Grand Slam only to be shown exactly how far they still have to improve if they want to progress to the later stages of the World Cup.

As a Kiwi friend of the Compulsive Hooker commented to us shortly after the game, Ireland had played similarly to this against New Zealand in the Autumn but still got beaten by 20 points. England didn’t have that extra gear that the All Blacks did that day and so were consigned to defeat although, to be entirely just to Martin Johnson’s team, this comparison is a little unfair as no other team in world rugby – not even the Springboks or the Australians – have the same ability to ‘flick the switch’ as the AB’s currently do.

What does this mean though moving forward for both of these sides?

England will, on reflection, be happy enough with the progress made. They topped the table, something they hadn’t done for 8 years, and on balance are probably still the northern hemisphere side most likely to make an impact at the World Cup in October. This has to be balanced against the fact though that twice in the last few months England have simply been blown away by a more physical side (South Africa in the Autumn and Ireland now) – something that will need remedying.

Ireland too will be happy. They have showed exactly how well they can play – as we implied above, we think they would have beaten both Australia and South Africa playing like this – although consistency is obviously still an issue. The friendlies in the Summer take on a larger significance now as if they can continue in the same vein suddenly a win over Australia in the group stages and an easier route to the semi’s is eminently possible.

So to round up; well played Ireland on Saturday and congratulations to England for winning the Six Nations.

Roll on the World Cup…





A Grand Slam For England?

17 03 2011

What a weekend of rugby lies ahead of us! A possible Grand Slam weekend for England or alternatively what might be a cathartic, Six Nations campaign saving, win for Ireland; a chance for Italy to confirm what must be their most promising tournament yet as a reality or for Scotland to avoid a whitewash; Wales challenging for the title and Lievremont losing his job or France winning and rediscovering some belief.

Whatever happens we cannot, as ever, wait…

It has been quite some time (8 long years in fact) that we as England supporters have been feeling so positive about the state of English rugby. It also happens to be the same length of time since England last went into the final round of the Six Nations as probable winners and Grand Slam challengers.

Ireland in Dublin has possibly been the most difficult away trip in the Six Nations for the most part of the last ten years and we don’t see this changing particularly now. The fact that the white shirt and rose emblem is guaranteed to rile the Celtic nations more than any other is a given but when there is a Grand Slam at stake – the pressure becomes immense. It will be a test of English character as much as anything as, if England play to their full ability, they should prevail.

Where Ireland have an undeniable edge is in midfield with the evergreen Brian O’Driscoll still creating and controlling. Mind you with Tindall injured and D’Arcy hardly in the greatest form of his life, this difference is much smaller than it might be. Tindall’s likely replacement, Matt Banahan, has added a couple of extra dimensions to his game recently and being the lump that he is, should cause some of his own problems.

Up front, however, the battle is likely to be much closer with England likely to dominate a weak Irish scrum. At the line out the proven class of O’Connell will probably keep England in check although the all important back row battle is probably too close to call. Over the years we have been massive fans of David Wallace and rate Jamie Heaslip very highly indeed, however, if we had to call it, we think that the English trio of Wood, Haskell and Easter will just about edge matters.

England’s edge comes in the back three with Ashton, Foden and Cueto providing a clear advantage over their opponents. Ireland have missed the steady but still electric Rob Kearney in this campaign with Keith Earls in particular still to convince at this level.

All that said, this game could go either way and it is highly unlikely that we will see a result similar to the 2003 equivalent where England smashed Ireland in as clinical and exciting a display as we had seen – or indeed the opposite in 2008 when Ireland crushed England at Croke Park.

We don’t think there will be more than one score in it but we are backing England to prevail…

Scotland, on the other hand, must be wondering where their campaign has gone wrong. After a promising match against France (although they were still beaten well) they have fallen apart rather. All the hard work and progress achieved in the Autumn has come to naught  and there have been the odd sign of division within their camp.

Italy, despite a campaign with only one win under their belt, are on the up and will provide a stiff challenge at Murrayfield. If they can gain the upper hand early we believe they might be able to close it out and consign Scotland to a win-less, Wooden Spoon tournament.

In France it is an entirely different story. The French, many peoples choice for the table topping side at the beginning of the championship, have imploded and it will be a remarkable thing in our view if Lievremont makes it to the World Cup. A Welsh win here and his fate is sealed, a France win and he’s still not safe.

Frankly, it would only help France if he was to go and on the basis of the fact we would like France to do well in the World Cup, we hope Wales win this weekend.

For Wales, after a disappointing start against England, a win would represent a real achievement for Warren Gatland and his team. Second, possibly even first place, would be far better than anyone reasonably expected after the dross they served up in the Autumn.

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As an addendum to the above, we would just like to point out that this does not mean we think England are going to win the World Cup. Several times over the past few months the England team have been accused of getting ahead of themselves – yet, if anyone can show me where Martin Johnson or any of his team have said anything which suggests they think this, please show me! Even the average fan is sensible enough to avoid making any grandiose claims…

Reading the comments sections of some of the major newspapers and rugby forums, the amount of vitriol regarding these apparent claims coming from other Celtic nations supporters has been quite remarkable. The fact remains that England are probably the best placed to challenge come October (as of this particular moment) yet their chances of winning, as with all the Northern Hemisphere nations, remain slim.





A Classic Six Nations Weekend

14 03 2011

Yet again, a fascinating weekend of Six Nations rugby with the highlight, rather inevitably, being Italy’s remarkable win over France.

Italy and Nick Mallet have long been criticised for not winning more games, something which in this day and age of results is only to be expected, yet the Italian progress over the past few years can be more easily measured in the fact that enormous defeats are a comparative rarity now. A rather conservative yardstick we realise, yet one that is undeniably true.

If truth be told an Italian win was overdue in more ways than one. Before this fixture their previous three games in this years Six Nations had yielded three defeats yet only to England was that loss comprehensive. Against Ireland they could have won – only a well directed O’Gara drop goal saving Irish blushes – and against Wales they probably should have won. Indeed, and as many far more reputed rugby writers than ourselves have noted, if they had had a better kicker they would certainly have clinched the victory.

When you look at it from that perspective suddenly the campaign looks like a reasonable one. With Scotland still to come there is a good chance the Azzuri could add to their number in the ‘W’ column as, over the years, the Italians have long been a bit of a bogey team for the Scottish.

As with cricket, we are firmly in the ‘give the minnows a chance, funding and regular competition whilst forgiving them the occasional heavy thumping’ rather than the ‘it’s a waste of time playing them’ category. We love rugby and want to see the number of teams who can compete at senior level increase gradually. Whilst Italy still have some way to go we are very pleased that finally here is some evidence that the IRB’s investment and help is paying off.

One final word about Sergio Parisse. We felt most pleased for him as after both the Wales and Ireland matches he looked stricken that they had come so close without quite closing it out. He is an exceptional player playing in a generally poor team which must have more than its fair share of frustrations yet he never stops trying and for that we applaud him. He deserved every second of that win.

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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!





England vs France At Twickenham: A Rugby Feast

26 02 2011

Here we go then for what will probably be the deciding round of Six Nations rugby. At the half way stage of the tournament and, with only England or France looking capable of winning it, the biggest game on the cards tonight it is likely to be a cracker.

France have reinforced their team with the big man Sebastian Chabal in an attempt to fight the perceived English physicality whereas England have resisted the temptation to make any changes as players come back from injury – something that has to be a good thing. We can’t help but think that in this case Marc Lievremont has got it wrong and Martin Johnson has got it right.

Chabal is a fine and hugely popular player but would probably better serve France as an impact player. To move the supremely talented and athletic Harinordoquy to the flank to make room for him seems like one of those half thought through decisions. Last time France were at Twickenham, Chabal was selected to play the hard man role, only to go missing for the entire match and hasn’t started since the drubbing by Australia in the Autumn. A ‘horses for courses’ selection policy rarely works completely with our belief being you should always pick the best players and trust them to do the job.

With most of his front line players available or in cases where they are not, the back ups doing a great job, Johnson has no such worries about his England team. It has been quite some time since an opposing team was partially selected on the basis of what England were doing – something that is a huge compliment to where he has taken England to over the past 6 months. Anyone who has been reading this blog for longer than this will remember how scathing we were about Johnson in the early part of his career as a selector and coach, yet the progress England have made over the past few months has meant he has justified his position. It may have taken two years of Steve Borthwick, annoying press conferences and interesting selections, but finally England are making sustained progress and we love it.

The game today could set either side up for a Grand Slam and so the importance cannot be understated. A disciplined, efficient and exciting England rightly start as favourites but France are probably still the more talented team. If they click you still never know what might happen and this uncertainty is why we cannot wait!

 





Twickenham Zest Adds To Six Nations Joy

21 02 2011

So, who’s excited about this weekend’s matches in the Six Nations?

Silly question of course as anyone with a slight interest in Northern Hemisphere rugby is going to be… With Wales playing their bogey team Italy in the Stadio Flaminio; an under pressure Ireland team coming going to Murrayfield and of course the big one; the two major nations of northern hemisphere rugby clashing at Twickenham.

The Celtic nations may quibble at this description, but, unfortunately for them it is undoubtedly true with this contest so often in the past determining the winner of the competition. With the demise of the English game for almost the entirety of the past decade, apart from the odd clash in world cup situations, this has not been the case with Ireland and Wales having their moments of glory. Yet we are now back to what is as close to a true heavyweight clash that the northern hemisphere can provide and we simply cannot wait.

What was billed as a very open Six Nations before the competition got under way three weeks back has actually panned out in a fairly predictable way. France have had too much for Scotland and Ireland despite probably only playing at around 80% of where they are capable; England look good and appear to be improving although sterner tests await; Wales have flattered to deceive; Ireland look like a side whose core is past its best and Italy have battled but ultimately still been a case of ‘same old story’. The only surprise have really been Scotland who have gone backwards two steps having taken one forward in the Autumn.

Added zest has been given to the Twickenham cauldron this weekend by Marc Lievremont who appears to be causing some ripples with his ‘we do not like the English’ stance. What is most surprising to us though is how much press and outrage it is causing. Comments like these are two a penny in the run up to games – Warren Gatland has in recent years been particularly culpable – and especially given that the average Englishman should be used to the ‘anyone but England’ stance, it’s not really a big deal.

If anything, all it does is give Johnson and Tindall/Moody some pre game ammunition in their pep talk, which at Twickenham, is probably not something the French players will be grateful to Lievremont for. France often do not travel well and Twickenham can sometimes be a particular weak point. Whilst we are not expecting them to roll over by any means, we do think England will have too much for them. We cannot imagine England being quite as generous with the penalties as Ireland were the week before – which if truth be told was the reason the French won.

Johnson does have a few selection decisions to make before the match though with perhaps the biggest call being whether to select Moody over Haskell. We have read convincing arguments in support of both players and we do not think that it would make a huge difference although, saying that, our personal choice would be for Haskell.

For all those involved in the Compulsive Hooker’s fantasy league remember to make your choices wisely this weekend… We can’t see too many tries anywhere so ensuring your picks stay on the field may make all the difference!

Please go to our Facebook page by clicking here and ‘like’ us to get regular Compulsive Hooker updates.

 





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

6 02 2011

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

France 34-21 Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy 11-13 Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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








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