Semi Finals and Conspiracy Theories

13 10 2011

You may think that considering results  in the last round of matches that our interest in this World Cup has waned, yet, and perhaps a little bizarrely, our interest has simply grown.

With injuries meaning New Zealand putting any world class 10 on the field is nigh on impossible (it remains to be seen where Cruden fits on the quality scale) and other injury concerns as well; a French team who may turn up and blow a side away or alternatively fold like a particularly soggy card house; a quite brilliant Welsh team playing better than anyone (even themselves) could possibly have expected; and an Australian team who seem to have found the fighting spirit their cricketing counterparts have lost, this is the most open World Cup we can remember ever witnessing.

There may be some supporters (particularly South African) who might claim this is bad for rugby as one of the best sides in the world has not made it through – yet to us we think it is fantastic. To think that Wales have a genuine and reasonable opportunity to win the World Cup is surprising to say the least but something that is wonderful for the game.

Pre World Cup there was a great deal of chat from down south about the supposed widening gap in standards between the two hemispheres – well, doesn’t look more than a crack to us…

But anyway, a quick thought on the remaining teams:

Wales

What a performance that was against the Irish. Despite conceding vast amounts of possession their defensive play was incredible and gradually, as they grew into the game, their attacking play showed off some sharp and scintillating edges too. Ireland, like South Africa, paid the price for sloppy finishing although even if this had not been the case Wales would probably still have one.

Never have Wales had a more realistic chance of reaching a final and possibly even more. They need to play at their best to beat a resurgent French team but we see no reason why this shouldn’t happen. Warburton, Roberts and North remain key and with the news that James Hook will play at 10 at least their attack shouldn’t suffer.

Our new favourite team and one of the teams of the tournament.

France

France, as ever, are an enigma. Who will turn up on Saturday? A team who have played their ‘one big game’ of the tournament as the New Zealand commentators kept mentioning last week – or a side with new found resolve and inner steel.

No more needs to be said. A team capable of winning the World Cup might play or might not. Who really knows?

Australia

The surprise package of the semi’s in that they were clearly second best to South Africa last weekend in every area save finishing off their opportunities and at the breakdown. Many platitudes should be heaped on David Pocock’s shoulders as almost alone (the ref did unwittingly help too) he ensured the Bok’s were on the next plane home.

If they are to progress against the All Black’s however Quade Cooper needs to step up. He has, in our opinion, been so poor throughout this tournament that on many occasions he is verging on being a liability. A Cooper playing well is a force to reckoned with – a Cooper playing badly is a force to be exploited.

New Zealand

Kiwi’s the world over must be as nervous as they have ever been before a game of rugby. Their team appears to be crumbling before their eyes, their two giants of the game McCaw and Carter are either struggling or out – back ups are injured and (horror of horrors) Stephen Donald has been called up into the fold… Anyone who remembers the game in Hong Kong last year will know what we mean.

Truth be told however they are still the team to beat and will remain favourites going into this weekends game. The problem is that Australia cannot be discounted and recently have a respectable record against the men in black. We can’t wait…

Finalists?

Australia vs Wales…

There we said it. We’re backing the Blacks to choke and Wales to comfortably see of France. From thereon in – anything could happen!*

The Great Conspiracy to Defraud The Springboks of the World Cup

Bryce Lawrence is clearly a mole for ABSA (Anyone But South Africa). How else can we explain the fact that the Boks won’t win this and every other World Cup to come. We mean, surely, winning world cups is a god given Bok right? Isn’t it? Maybe?

Or perhaps not. Yes we agree Mr. Lawrence didn’t have his greatest game. Yes Pocock and others could have been blown up more than once and on another day may have been.

Yet, despite this, the Bok’s butchered chance after chance and quite simply as a result didn’t deserve to win. Stop complaining, accept it happens and please stop persecuting old Bryce via social media.

Oh, and it was clearly forward.

* After only correctly naming 50% of the semi finalists last weekend we are happy to accept a similar success rate here…

 





Autumn Internationals Review: Ireland, Wales and Scotland

30 11 2010

Ireland

This has been a difficult and mixed Autumn campaign for the Irish in which, unfortunately, the major scalps of New Zealand and South Africa evaded their willing hands. Ireland, it has to be said, whilst the best of the three Gaelic nations, remain half a level below the major powers of world rugby. Capable of sneaking a win here or there but rarely dominating and, until they get a forward pack powerful enough to compete and really take charge of the exchanges up front, this is unlikely to change.

The Autumn did not get off to the best start with a two point defeat to South Africa at the new Aviva stadium at Lansdowne Road – a game they would have been furious to lose. Unfortunately a combination of early season rust, a poor game plan in the wet, and an obdurate South African display meant that the proud Irish record over the Boks at home over the past decade meant nothing at all.

A scrappy win followed over Samoa with a slightly experimental team and then it was the turn of the All Blacks. With all due respect to Argentina and Samoa (and possibly even South Africa) it was this game, as with all the home nations, that showed just how far they have to travel to be genuine world cup contenders come October next year. That the Irish forced the AB’s to play in top gear occasionally and even caused them problems (for about 30 minutes) is credit to the men in green, yet despite playing out of their skins the Irish eventually went down by 20 points – as sobering a result as any in their recent history.

Argentina finished off the Autumn but never presented a challenge being as they are a fairly limited outfit. Ireland will be pleased with their victories but the two losses mean much more unfortunately than the wins.

To step up to the next level it is paramount that Declan Kidney finds some men in the tight five who are really capable of taking the fight to the southern hemisphere. Without this base the undoubted class of the outside backs will never be able to shine fully.

Heaslip, Ferris and Wallace remain a top quality back three but they need back up and some ball carrying support from the locks and front row. O’Callaghan needs to step up to the plate here in the absence of O’Connell.

Out wide it is clear that despite a good showing against a very limited Argentinian team, Gordon Darcy has had his day. For a long time he has been a shadow of the player he was, for ever such a brief period back in 2006 or so, and the 12 slot remains Irelands biggest weakness out wide. We recall Trimble moon lighting there – perhaps that is something they could look at more seriously?

Ireland have, as ever, the potential to be a really good side but there are a couple of crucial ingredients missing and until these are fixed look destined to be quarter finalists at best down under.

Wales

Wales’ problems are in many ways similar to Irelands. Apparent quality across the board but a results board of three losses and one draw indicates that something is seriously wrong. Zero wins is simply not good enough. When you consider that the draw came against Fiji you realize just how deep the depths the Welsh plumbed are.

Against Australia they never looked like winning although there was a enough grit there to keep things close. Fiji as we have said was an unmitigated disaster; South Africa was a game they should have won until the old Welsh failing of forgetting a game is 80 minutes long took hold; and New Zealand were never in any serious danger.

If you look back at the history of Wales’ games against Tri Nations teams over the past decade, it is obvious that there are many matches in which one of two things happened. Either they came out hard and were in contention or even possibly leading at half time only to fade in the second half – or an abysmal 65 minutes was masked by an excellent and thrilling last 15.

Against South Africa they managed the former although in fairness they only collapsed in the last quarter. Versus New Zealand, despite what Ieuan Evans may have said in the Daily Telegraph, they were never seriously in the hunt although it was a much improved performance. Had Dan Carter kicked his goals the Kiwis would have been out of sight long before half time although, as it proved, they always have an extra gear when needed in these situations.

Like Ireland the talent is there, but unlike their neighbours across the Irish Sea, they seem to lack any grit at all and certainly any ability to close out games. Looking ahead to next year a quarter final spot is appearing to be a distant dream at this stage.

One last thing – the consensus is that Warren Gatland is a good coach – yet his win record is increasing poor. When do people start questioning him or is he, boasting as he does a brand new contract through to 2015, untouchable?

Scotland

Bizarrely, despite the hammering against New Zealand there were probably more plus points for the Scottish team than negative. Andy Robinson continues to do a good job and 2010 has now been a very successful year for them. They are playing with a game plan, some excellent defence (apart from the Kiwi game) and a handful of top quality players now in evidence as well as them being the only Home Nations team to have a positive win loss record this Autumn.

The win over South Africa is of course the major achievement of the Autumn campaign and one that was fully deserved by all accounts. Clearly the answer is to embarrass themselves the week before as without a sound thrashing they don’t appear to get worked up enough to compete at the top table. Problems with depth of talent and quality persist but they deserve praise for making the most of what they have.

Due to clashes in scheduling we missed all the Scottish games and so have less to say on the them than the others but one thing is for sure, anyone travelling to Murrayfield is certainly not going to take them lightly in this year’s Six nations. World Cup will be a different story however and they look like being quarter finalists at best.

Conclusion

Same old same old on the whole for the Gaelic nations. Some good moments but when it comes down to it – not enough quality or consistency to really trouble the best or put away the minnows.





Autumn Internationals Round Up: England

29 11 2010

After a depressing end to what had previously been an encouraging Autumn International series we are not sure exactly what conclusions to draw. Whilst some questions have been resolved there are many that are still outstanding; amongst them – are England truly a side capable of challenging for the world cup next year? What does their defeat to South Africa mean? Is two out of four really good enough?  In an attempt to answer some of these questions we will split the arguments into positives and negatives.

Positives:

In our eyes the most obvious one, despite his relatively poor game against South Africa, is the young Leicester man, Ben Youngs. Watching him play it has been easy to forget just how youthful and inexperienced he still is. This time last year he had only just started playing regularly for the midlands club following injury to Harry Ellis but has already established himself as surely a fixture in the side for the next five to ten years. In fact he was so integral to England’s attack that it was noticeable how, with huge South African pressure at the breakdown and at scrum time, England as a whole lost their shape.

Flood too had a good series and his half back partnership with Youngs is now an effective one. Never flashy or extravagant, Flood has done enough to justify his continuing selection as first choice fly half.

Outside these two there are further success stories. Hape has been increasingly creative and was one of the few bright spots against the Springboks. Cueto has had a quite exceptional Autumn despite not having scored for close on twenty tests now. Inventive, sharp and continually asking questions of oppositions defence he was as key to England’s revival as anyone else. On the other wing Ashton was electric in attack and solid in defence and is part of the younger brigade of players who look like being the core of the team for some time to come.

Foden, at full back, was on balance good although he had one or two hairy moments, particularly against South Africa. It is a hugely refreshing thing to have a running full back although we would rather he keeps the ball in two hands a bit longer – by tucking it under his arm he immediately shows the opposition he is going himself rather than potentially releasing any supporting runners. A minor thing however and he deserves a pat on the back for his efforts.

Up front there were more positives with the entire pack doing well. Courtney Lawes, Dan Cole, Tom Palmer, Andrew Sheridan and Tom Croft were all brilliant at points but most importantly performed consistently well. This is an excellent pack and one which will only grow in stature as time goes by. Easter had his moments in the last two games although turned over too much for our liking against the Kiwi’s and the Aussies. He remains the best we have in that position. Moody was consistent if not outstanding but led the team well and so remains comfortable first choice seven.

Perhaps more encouraging than any individual performances was the nature of the way England played the game. This of course reached an apogee against the Australians in what was the finest England performance for quite some time (certainly seven years or so) and then tailed off gradually. The fact that England were trying to play with pace and width and on several occasions actually succeeded demonstrates that, at the very least, Martin Johnson is moving them in the right direction.

Negatives

Pleasingly less negatives than positives – something that we haven’t been able to say when reviewing a series for what seems like eons – but there are still question marks remaining. Most glaringly is the outside centre conundrum. Tindall was reasonable and provides a solid and experienced presence, yet he is hardly a game breaker as someone like Conrad Smith is for the All Blacks. His replacement for the Samoa game, Matt Banahan, didn’t do enough to suggest he is ‘the man’ moving forward although he wasn’t without his own plus points. A class 13 is priority now for Johnson.

A second worry would be the way that England were blown off the park against the Springboks on Saturday. In mitigation a couple of England’s key players went off injured – yet it looked like the sheer physicality of the South African’s simply overpowered them and at points there was an element of panic and a forced nature about the English play.

To tell the truth it was likely to be a case of inexperience and a young side not knowing how to go back to basics (plus the Boks were awesome at the breakdown) and so hopefully this will improve over time.

Finally, what we will say is that England still need to be more efficient and take their chances better. It was certainly improved this November yet one feels that had it been the All Blacks in a few of their try scoring opportunities that went begging – the score lines would look all the more impressive.

Conclusion

A decent if not outstanding Autumn but still short on actual results. England were beaten by a better side on the day against the Boks and by a genuinely brilliant side in the All Blacks but will still feel that it was a November which could have gone better. This being testament to raised standards and correspondingly raised expectations, it is actually no bad thing and for that alone, Martin Johnson would probably be pleased on balance.

To answer the question posed in the opening paragraph regarding the world cup we would suggest that at this stage England are probably not world cup challengers. Yet, if they put together a good 6 Nations, they could take the final small steps that will put them right up there and who is to say after their game against Australia this isn’t possible?





(Almost) Invincible New Zealand; Riches to Rags England

22 11 2010

An interesting article in the New Zealand Herald today which illustrates not only how good New Zealand have always been at rugby, but secondly, how extraordinarily good they have been under Graham Henry. Here is a list of the top 10 nations in the world by win percentages in descending order.

  1. New Zealand – 74.95%
  2. South Africa – 63.20%
  3. France – 55.42%
  4. England – 52.93%
  5. Australia – 51.89%
  6. Wales – 51.23%
  7. Scotland – 42.42%
  8. Argentina – 41.95%
  9. Ireland – 41.83%
  10. Italy – 28.22%

According to the article, the AB’s need only one more win to go to the unbelievable record of winning three games in every four over their entire history. Credit too must go to Graham Henry as it is down to him that they even have a shot at getting to this level. Since he has been in charge they have won an incredible 86% of their matches. Riches indeed.

Also interesting on this list is the fact that France and England are above Australia and that, perhaps most surprisingly, Wales are only a few decimal points off the men in Green and Gold.

What we wondered however was that since the dawn of professionalism when it is fair to say the southern hemisphere domination truly began; which teams have had the best record? Well the answer is, unsurprisingly given Henry’s record, still New Zealand, but with some change in the order following as the sides jockey for positions. (Tables are courtesy of scrum.com’s excellent ‘statsguru’).

Win Percentage from Aug 1995 to current day

Australia, France, England, Ireland and Argentina have all advanced their cases substantially with the notable losers being Wales and Scotland. South Africa, who maintained their pre professionalism record, slip down to fourth in the table simply by virtue of the others improving.

As English fan’s and being only too aware of their failings for the majority of the past decade, it is a bit of surprise seeing England riding so high with a 61% winning record. It is testimony, of course, to Clive Woodward’s England that they achieved this as, for 5 years from the ‘Tour of Hell’ in 1998 onto the end of the world cup, England’s record was an astonishing 84.12% and comfortably the best in the world over that period.

In what was an astonishing drop in standards, England have only won 45% of their matches since those halycon days with even Wales being above them. Notably in this table (reproduced below) Ireland are above Australia and France have sneaked into second place.

Winning percentage from December 2003 to current day.

From an English point of view then it is encouraging to see Johnson’s team finally show signs of turning the corner and hopefully improve these more recent figures dramatically.

To New Zealand we must simply say well played and give the rest of us a chance! It is truly astonishing when you look at these numbers that they haven’t won more world cups…





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.





Sweet Chariot: Outstanding England

14 11 2010

England 35-18 Australia

Well that was encouraging!

You may have noticed that the Compulsive Hooker has had its fair share of issues with England rugby since the blog’s inception. We have castigated Martin Johnson, Steve Borthwick and, more recently, Nick Easter and Mike Tindall mercilessly – the years of ‘rebuilding’ and hurt took their toll you see. However, faced with a result that is as impressive on paper as it was in the performance; we feel that it is time to set aside the negativity and once more take pride in England rugby.

Southern hemisphere supporters (and possibly anyone non-English) will undoubtedly laugh at the headlines and lead paragraphs in almost all English media reports on the game this morning. Without fail there is some mention of the World Cup and how England have sounded ‘a World Cup warning’. Whilst this is still probably jumping the gun until the levels of consistency have been raised to close to 2003 levels, it is not entirely an unfounded statement. The rest of the world are of course very familiar with the English media’s propensity to get over excited (just look at the football team!) but in many ways you can’t blame them – it was truly an awesome performance and one that was genuinely exciting.

It is rare to see a northern hemisphere side dominate a Tri Nations team. Even in the glory days of English rugby back in 2001-3 when England didn’t lose to any of these sides for 3 years, the games were not often as one sided as yesterday. Using memory alone, the only examples of this we could come up with were when England put 50 points on South Africa in 2002, and possibly the test in Sydney just prior to the World Cup when England ran out winners 25-17 in an entirely dominant display. There may well have been more – our memory is not perfect – but certainly with wins rare over the past 7 years, the manner of it was entirely unexpected.

In our pre-match predictions we had suggested that England had a reasonable chance and would secure a win by one score. With England playing some of the finest rugby we have seen from men in shirts bearing the red rose (we quite liked the ‘anthracite’ shirts ourselves…), the result of the game was never really in doubt from the moment Ashton crossed for his first try and England went 10-0 up.

The catalyst, as always these days, in good things from England was the 20 year old Ben Youngs. Deservedly Man of the Match, he did not take an incorrect decision all game and excelled in that old rugby adage of  ‘playing what’s in front of him’. His vision and step to put first Lawes and then Ashton away down the right was audacious and, quite simply, breathtaking.

Ashton, after a quiet game against the All Blacks, was excellent and showed outstanding pace to beat Drew Mitchell to the line on his 80 yard dash for his second try. Whilst he was undoubtedly brilliant, it was the other winger in the form of Mark Cueto who appeared to have been reborn and caught our eye. Over the past couple of years Cueto has been a solid, intelligent but unexciting presence on the wing – rarely providing the go forward of yesteryear. At Twickenham yesterday he was back to his inventive and dangerous best; on several occasions breaking through holes in the Aussie defence and generally being very difficult to put down.

In truth this was a great team performance and it would be wrong to pick out individuals too much but others that caught the eye included Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes, Ben Foden and Shontayne Hape. Even the victim of many a rant on this website, Nick Easter, provided a good link and go forward when he had the ball. Our doubts about him remain – he is too slow and still seems to knock on too much – but until Haskell or someone similar puts their hand up, he’s fine. Tindall, too, had a good game after a particularly average showing against the AB’s and despite looking ponderous on occasions provides an experienced head. Similarly to Easter, it would be nice to have a dynamic young 13 coming through but until this happens  Johnson should continue selecting him.

Australia will be bitterly disappointed but they were simply not allowed to play. In the backs the outstanding Kurtley Beale played what amounted to a lone hand whilst only Pocock was in evidence in the forwards. As England know only too well, playing with a pack going backwards is almost impossible. All this despite the much vaunted weakness of the Australian game, the front row, not being in evidence at all! They are obviously not a bad team overnight and remain a highly dangerous outfit – albeit one that lacks the necessary consistency.

Finally, a word on the architect of England’s win, Martin Johnson. It is fair to say that we have been fairly damning about Jonno’s regime over the past year. For the first 2 years in charge his lack of experience, coupled with a strange fascination for Steve Borthwick and an aversion to youth, ensured that we were sceptical his credentials. Too often one good performance was followed by three dire ones – but with evidence having been mounting since the France game in March that, just perhaps, it was different this time, we are going to gracefully withdraw from this position. It is clear that now whatever balance Johnson was seeking has been achieved. Most importantly he knows who his first XV is – something that for a long time was simply not clear – and with the timely emergence of Youngs, Foden, Ashton and Lawes there is that added bonus of having some potentially (in Youngs case, already) world class players to pick from.

From our point of view at the Compulsive Hooker, we would also like to say what a pleasure it is to be feeling positive about England rugby once more. To be able to write something without a burning knot of frustration in your stomach is a novel experience and one that we hope England have managed to banish for quite sometime. So well done England, well done Martin Johnson and bring on the Springboks!





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…








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