Wales’ Woe and Some Thoughts On Referees

15 10 2011

Well this world cup gets more contentious every weekend! And, sadly, the referees are at the centre of it once again.

We at the Compulsive Hooker always seem to be in a minority when it comes to referees. Where the rest of the world (or certainly outraged fans commenting on reports on the net) consistently demand perfection in their decision making, we have long taken the line that referees are human and these things happen. This rather sanguine attitude can obviously have its flaws as it is important to seek out mediocrity and improve it in all things. Yet, when you have a normally reasonable character such as Jonathan Davies calling for the head of a chap who only 80 minutes before was acknowledged to be one of the finest referees in the game, we feel its gone too far the other way.

Combine the following factors and what do you get? Referees are essentially human. Rugby is a seriously hard game to referee as so much of it is subjective in areas such as the breakdown.

A huge great mess is the answer on occasions which leads less than impartial pundits and fans to overreact. The irony of this situation is that with the IRB under consistent pressure to raise refereeing standards they have tried to take as much of the uncertain grey middle ground out of aspects of the game such as the tackle. One of these of course is the tipping of a player so that he is the wrong way up when he lands having been tackled and lifted – exactly what happened today.

It seems that the ref’s can’t win – if they follow the law makers instructions (to start with a red card and move backwards from there) they get castigated for being too harsh or, had the decision gone the other way, possibly had masses of French favouring supporters clamouring that Rolland is biased. To remove the grey and create something black and white you have to remove the subjectivity and as such, in our opinion, you cannot blame Rolland.

If there is ire to be directed then perhaps it would be better directed at the IRB themselves who dished out the initial advice on reds. Possibly better advice would be to suggest a yellow as a starting point unless there is clear malicious intent when a red becomes due – although that, once again is bringing the human element of subjectivity into the equation.

Few people today would argue that Wales were unfortunate in the grand scheme of things in this game with their second half performance being huge in terms of character and no little skill. Sadly, however, the fact remains that even given the problems of being one short they should have won this match. Three kicks were missed with at least one of these being more or less a given at international level.

The eventual winners, France, were so poor that it feels wrong simply writing that they won, now move onto a final where either the Tri Nations champions or the best side in the world await. However one thing that you can say for this French side – as disorganised, chaotic and lacking in game plans they may be – is that you simply don’t know what they’re capable of and this is perhaps their best weapon. The All Blacks for one may well be nervous facing a side written off but who so often has become their nemesis.

It is a shame when so much of the post match discussions are taken up by one decision by one man yet for us, in real time, our immediate response was ‘red card’ and so that fact alone was enough for us to exonerate Rolland of the majority of the blame. Subscribers to the ‘The Great Conspiracy to Defraud the Springboks of the World Cup’ and their sister group who seem to be springing up using Rolland’s French heritage as evidence of bias will undoubtedly feel differently.





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…

 





World Cup Wrangles: Brilliant Ireland

20 09 2011

Well – what a brilliant couple of weeks this has been for rugby fans all around the world. For us, perhaps the most gratifying thing has been the way in which the less well known rugby nations have competed: Georgia, Japan, Romania and more all having reasons to be pleased with their efforts. Before the tournament there was much noise about how the southern hemisphere would run riot and be nigh on unstoppable, that the so called minnows would roll over and present the opposition with cricket like scores and the ‘also rans’ from the Six Nations would remain just that. Fortunately this has not happened although, as Australians are now so fond of saying, this is just the group stages and there is a long way to go.

Highlights So Far:

Predictably, we have to start with Ireland’s win over Australia. Like most up north, Ireland have flattered to deceive with only the very occasional beacon of hope lighting up the mire, however a few people, including us at the Compulsive Hooker, remembered Ireland’s demolition of a Championship winning England side at the Aviva Stadium in March and so always felt they had a big win or two in them.

What was so impressive was the way in which Ireland stopped Australia playing. For all those Aussies bemoaning the fact that Australia were ‘shocking’ (definitely the ‘mot de jour’ in the Aussie media), in our book it was Ireland who were brilliant rather than the other way round. Hopefully Ireland have proved to themselves as much as anyone else that they are a serious team and one who deserves respect. Being a northern hemisphere rugby fan you swiftly get inured to the criticism emanating from down south (much of which we must add has traditionally been justified) but victories like this add fuel to the feeling that the gap in standards is not as wide as is widely touted.

Brilliantly too, should the rest of the pool games follow expectations, this result more or less guarantees a northern hemisphere finalist and Ireland, Wales, France and England will all be eyeing a rare opportunity.

A second highlight was the fight shown by Georgia – surely a call into the Six Nations can’t be too far away. As the Georgian man of the match said following the England game ‘we need more games like this’. They have shown they can compete and it is not too much of a stretch too imagine them beating any one of the big European sides. As with cricket, we at the Compulsive Hooker are particularly keen on the rugby world being broadened and in our mind Georgia have shown enough that they deserve a regular place at the top table – it remains to be seen however whether the ruling cabal of nations are open minded enough to let them in.

In terms of players there are a few who have caught our eye with Sam Warburton, Sonny Bill Williams, Richard Kahui, Jamie Roberts, the aforementioned Georgian, Gorgodze, and the hirsute Canadian (who amusingly said in an interview this week ‘I miss my face…’) Adam Kleeburger being amongst the most prominent.

Best Team So Far:

A difficult one this. In terms of results then Ireland have a reasonable ask to be included here yet their disappointing performance against the USA counts against them. South Africa too have belied the doubters to play some good rugby and achieved an excellent win against the dangerous Fijians recently. However, it is the hosts who in our opinion have played the best rugby and therefore the All Blacks are our team so far and still the most likely to lift the Webb Ellis trophy.

What About England?

A question that perhaps Martin Johnson is still asking himself. On course to qualify top of the group bar a slip up against the Scots, the rugby has been inconsistent with occasional flashes of quality being swamped by a general mediocrity. With Ireland having beaten the Aussies England’s possible route to the final has been made marginally easier but we feel England will have to improve dramatically to actually achieve this.

Youngs has made a difference, his speed of service and general dynamism being a boon, yet certain combinations still are far from certain. Tuilagi has helped resolve one half of the centre issue but who to partner him with? No one demands inclusion. The back row too have issues with balance and selection. For us Tom Wood is fast becoming undroppable alth0ugh normally a 6 perhaps play him at 7, add Croft’s athleticism into the mix and perhaps the question is who might play number 8? Haskell maybe…

Our wager that England will reach the final is far from secure at this stage and we look forward to signs of improvement in the weeks to come.

The Reffing:

Pretty good in our opinion! People will always complain and perceive bias against the teams they favour and so it’s impossible to be entirely objective – yet to us all seems (mostly) rosy and these brave souls should be applauded.

Going Forward:

New Zealand to beat France comfortably on Saturday, Argentina to edge Scotland and Italy to push Ireland hard. Still think there is another upset to come.

Thoughts?





World Cup Thoughts and Kiwi Pre-Tournament Build Up

4 09 2011

The news that the NZRFU (the Kiwi’s board of control for the uninitiated) has been going door to door in the Land of the Long White Cloud asking people to remember that rugby is ‘only a game’ has finally compelled us to take up pen (or keyboard) and put our thoughts to paper once more with specific regard to this upcoming World Cup.

Quite apart from the obvious chokes – sorry jokes – that could be made about that – it does seem to suggest that Graham Henry and his team might need extended breaks/jobs in the Northern Hemisphere should the All Blacks fail. Fortunately for them they would probably be welcomed with open arms – a top kiwi under that amount of pressure might even be cheap enough for the Aviva Premiership clubs!

We don’t think that this is likely to happen though given that under Graham Henry the AB’s win percentage is somewhere around 90%. Simply by the laws of averages the All Blacks are likely to win their next 8 or 9 games which, by our reckoning, takes them all the way through to World Champion status. Factor in that several of the opposition in these games are way below even the worst team in the Six Nations and suddenly you have, statistically anyway, something that is almost a certainty.

With this in mind, during the Tri Nations we actually found ourselves in the unusual position of supporting New Zealand based on this very reasoning; if they had swept all before them, the rest of the world would have had to deal with possibly a more complacent side.  Simply put, New Zealand, despite their losses, are certainly still the best side in the world and one against whom any victors would have to play out of their skin. Australia included.

This obviously does not mean that another side couldn’t win it and, say it quietly, we think England or France have a very reasonable shot – more so perhaps than South Africa. Assuming that as threatened Lievremont puts out a weaker side against the AB’s in Frances group encounter they should finish second in their group. England by contrast should win theirs meaning that it will be a quarter final between these two old enemies with probably Australia standing in their way in the semi finals. Both England and France aren’t scared of the Aussies with England in particular having an excellent record in knock out situations against them.

Looking purely at the form book it should be a New Zealand vs Australia final but we have sneaky feeling that a northern hemisphere side might upset the odds. If you can get to the final then anything can happen.

With regards to the other sides, none of them apart from perhaps Ireland or, less likely, Wales look to have the quality to cause any serious upsets. Scotland must realistically be happy with a quarter final berth – something that is not even close to being assured with Argentina and England as group mates and Italy will struggle although they will be eyeing up their fixture against Ireland as a potential route to the quarters.

Ireland’s campaign hinges on their game against Australia in the group. Win the group and they probably face Wales. Lose they’ll probably play South Africa with New Zealand to follow if they cleared that hurdle. We don’t think it that unlikely that Ireland could beat one Tri Nations side but more than that is pushing it. They have been exceptionally poor in the warm ups and must be thanking their lucky stars they have the USA up first before the newly crowned Tri Nations champions. However, dig deep, play like they did against England at the end of the 6 Nations and suddenly they have a real chance of a semi final match.

Whatever happens, we can’t wait.





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.

******

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.





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.

********

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!





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.

 








%d bloggers like this: