(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…


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!

A Hong Kong Classic: NH Look Out

31 10 2010

What a game yesterday in Hong Kong! A last gasp win for the Wallabies; an end to fifteen straight wins in a row for the All Blacks; and a result that alternately makes us nervous and excited about the Autumn Internationals coming up.

Australia, as they have done several times this year during the Tri-Nations, came out strong and firing on all cylinders. Indeed for the opening 30 minutes the AB’s only touched the ball a handful of times as the Australians heaped on the pressure. Tellingly, and importantly for the end result, the Wallabies managed to open up a 12-0 advantage during this time due to some excellent all round play. Worryingly though, on the few occasions the AB’s did have the ball, Nonu and friends broke the Australian first line defence with such ease that, even with the game seemingly going the way of the men in yellow, we feared for their long term ability to withstand the Kiwi onslaught that would surely come.

And come it did. After some pretty dreadful misses with the boot from either side, a goal line bundle from Cowan and a move of such simple brilliance that led to Corey Jane going over in the corner meant that suddenly the Australians were behind. Compounded thereafter by a Carter penalty and a further Nonu try; the Compulsive Hooker felt that it was only a matter of time before the All Blacks stepped up a gear and turned the match into a rout. Through a combination of hitherto unknown Aussie grit and Stephen Donald the Australians pulled the game back until, as a final coup de grace, James O’Connor provided the final plays of the game by scoring out wide on the right and then calmly converting the kick.

A brilliant game from an Australian’s and a neutral’s perspective – perhaps not so much for the New Zealand supporters, yet, even so – this was running, attacking rugby at its best. For Australia Pocock was brilliant around the breakdown, Kurtley Beale belied his clown status (two horrible penalty kicks aside) by demonstrating exactly why Robbie Deans has such faith in him, Quade Cooper shone brightly in parts, and, even after some dodgy moments in the first half, the Australian pack held up in the scrum.

For the All Blacks McCaw was once more excellent, proving to be ridiculously strong with ball in hand as well as good on the floor; Nonu showed why Sonny Bill Williams’ time has not yet come, and Carter showed that he is virtually irreplaceable.

As English fans we are sometimes guilty of believing that any side wearing the All Black jersey would be unbeatable. Even if they turned up with a team of players no one had ever heard of and who had only picked up rugby the year before – we English would have some qualms. With that in mind we are particularly grateful to Stephen Donald being as he is a reminder that even the men in black can be fallible. The New Zealand team without Carter is an entirely different beast than the one with the great man and the last 20 minutes of yesterdays game will have given Henry and all fans pause for thought. A Carter-less World Cup would be a worrying thing for any AB’s fan and so it would not surprise us to see him wrapped in cotton wool as we approach the tournament next year.

We started this article by saying that this result has made us alternately nervous and excited for the upcoming tour matches against the northern hemisphere sides. Excited because with the All Blacks losing it has reminded us that they are beatable. Nervous because suddenly Australia appear to have picked up some grit which was noticeably absent during the Tri Nations tournament. Previously guilty of looking good and then fading; the Australians look like the real deal now and so a game that previously was the least of our worries (against the big three that is – all due respect to Samoa) is now looking more ominous.

We are going to do a full preview of each northern hemisphere’s sides chances over the coming days so we will not continue in any great depth here on this thread – suffice to say that, after this display of brilliant and attacking rugby, we believe it will be a tough few weeks for the men up north…

A Brilliant Tournament and a Scared Northern Hemisphere

14 09 2010

Round Up of the Tri Nations

What a tournament that was! We are of course referring to the Tri Nations (a few days late we know – and apologise!) which this year has lit up the rugby world in a way that has totally reinvigorated it. With tries coming regularly and mostly at pace, this has been proper ‘running rugby’, the like of which we haven’t seen for quite some time.

Take a step back to this time last year when you only had to open any paper or rugby website to find a piece bemoaning the state of the game and putting forward any number of remedies to save it from the kick fest it had become. Fortunately the solution hit upon, i.e. instructing the referees to give the attacking side the benefit of the doubt and being strict on tacklers at the breakdown, was not a change that bit at the very fabric of the game like the ill fated ELV’s (Experimental Law Variations) and consequently this wonderful game is still the same one we know and love.

Probably entirely predictably it has been the All Blacks that have taken this game to a new level and demonstrated both an extraordinary level of talent and what is an unparalleled ability to finish off attacking moves in the modern game. Justifiably as the best side in the world (by quite some margin we might add) they have been installed as comfortable favourites for the world cup next year in New Zealand and one feels it will only the weight of expectation that trips them up rather than any actual rugby issues.

Australia will have mixed feelings about their campaign. As an Australian friend of the Compulsive Hooker said to us yesterday ‘if a game of rugby was only 40 minutes long we might have won this tournament!’ To an extent this is true as on several occasions, both against the Springboks and the All Blacks, the Wallabies found themselves up at half time – only to be blown away in the second half. Rugby though is a game of 80 minutes (or two halves if you prefer old clichés) and this is undoubtedly something they need to work on in time for next years World Cup. Indeed it is a  strange trait for an Australian side to have, usually, as they are, renowned for their fighting spirit. On the plus side however there is enough there to work with and once a number of automatic choices come back, particularly in the front row area, the Australians should be an altogether tougher prospect. Along with the Kiwi’s they do possess some of the most electric runners with the ball we have seen – Giteau has continued to be a threat with ball in hand and the (mostly) sublime Quade Cooper has been a joy to watch. Coupled with some good runners in the shape of James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale etc out wide they are always likely to be, at the very least, an entertaining side.

Moving onto South Africa it is hard to see where they go from here. You have to go back to 2004 and look at the England side post 2003 world cup to see a side fall comparably far and fast. To us at the Compulsive Hooker; there is not much mystery about this turn of events and almost everything can be laid at the door of coach Pieter De Villiers. As our columnist Dingo succinctly put it during his rant; whilst he is able to ‘enliven any press conference’ his weaknesses as a coach are now more apparent than ever. Indeed it is possible that (and indeed is our argument) that the Springboks have been successful despite him rather than because of him and now, when what is needed is a careful guiding hand and inspired selection, he has been found wanting. The South African team is getting older and several of the truly world class players are not perhaps as dynamic as they once were. Tactically too the South Africans have been found wanting and still attempting to play the ‘kick and chase’ game that they so recently excelled at. Rugby has moved on and if you want to kick the ball away to sides as dynamic as the Kiwi’s and the Wallabies – well then you have to take the consequences, which, in this case, has been bottom of the Tri Nations table.

Favourite Player: A tie this one between Quade Cooper and Isaac Dagg. Cooper has been outstanding and for the most part has kept Australia in contention throughout. Dagg however, despite only being a bit part player for the AB’s, has excited us more than any player we have seen for some time. An unbelievable runner on the ball his try against the Springboks earlier in the tournament was one of the best individual efforts we have ever seen.

What Does This Mean For The Northern Hemisphere?

Ignoring the frankly pointless Bledisloe Cup match scheduled in Hong Kong on the 30th October, the next set of internationals are of course the Autumn Internationals. Over the past five years or so the results have been heavily in favour of the Southern Hemisphere sides and, call us morbid and pessimistic, but we can’t see anything particularly changing this year.

In fact we wouldn’t be surprised if we see some frankly embarrassing scores visited on the Home Nations by the touring Tri Nations sides. New Zealand and South Africa are both going for the Grand Slam and, with the All Blacks in particular, we would be very surprised if they could not find it within themselves to comfortably achieve this. We do believe that the South African’s will be beaten by at least one side – possibly England or Ireland – but other than that it could be yet another disappointing and barren Autumn for the Northern Hemisphere ‘powers’.

The change in refereeing interpretations have also taken effect up here with games becoming more open and more tries generally being scored. What appears to be different however is the skill levels. Watching a handful of the opening games of the Aviva Premiership in particular (and in mitigation it is still very early season so it could simply be Summer rust) it has been apparent that when faced with an overlap or a try scoring opportunity – as often as not the chance is fluffed. In essence – exciting rugby but hardly clinical. By comparison down south – even at Provincial level – these chances are usually taken with alacrity and so it is no surprise perhaps that when this is translated to the national sides the Northern Hemisphere struggle by comparison.

English supporters buoyed by our most recent test in Australia may well take issue with my arguments but we feel this is likely to be a false dawn once more and the folly of keeping Martin Johnson on will be exposed. Ireland may scrape a win or two (against the Boks and the Argies) but they, like the Springboks, are an ageing side with seemingly intractable problems at scrum time. Wales and Scotland will again prove to have lots of fight and not a bit of skill but will ultimately be too lightweight. The only side truly capable of challenging the southern hemisphere superiority may well be the French although, as always with them, you never know which side will turn up.

We would of course love to be proved wrong and we know there are arguments that perhaps the gap will have closed – yet we have a sad and sneaking suspicion that once again this will not be so. What do you think? Can we up north have more reason to hope than we have given?

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