Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Best Fortnight in the Rugby Calendar

Some of my recent posts could arguably be considered a touch controversial (I’m telling you, Scotland will beat England in the RWC). So this time I’m going to make a point that is absolutely in no way controversial. Rounds 3 and 4 of the Heineken Cup are objectively the best fortnight in the rugby calendar.  
I fear I might be preaching to the choir a little here, but for my few readers who aren’t big fans of the game trust me when I tell you that this is the time to tune in. Forget the Six Nations, it may be full of passion, but most of the time it seriously makes me doubt the title of my blog. The Six Nations is just too intense. The fear of making mistakes and the pressure cooker environment usually prevents it from being an impressive display of skills.
That is why club rugby is so exciting. It puts the best players in Europe in an environment where the pressure is not quite as high, and so the quality of rugby is better. Just look at this try by the Scarlets in round 1, there is no way this would have happened in an international.  I don’t care how much of a purist you are, this is the kind of rugby everyone wants to watch.
The beauty of the Heineken Cup is that the stakes are still very high, the crowds are big and the atmospheres are great. In other words it’s a perfect compromise between the intensity of internationals and the expansiveness of lower pressure domestic games. Besides, some of the games this weekend will have 25+ internationals on the pitch.
Rounds 3 and 4 are so special because the fixtures reverse, i.e. teams play each other twice in a row. The nature of tournament and the timing of the games means that losing both matches almost certainly knocks you out of the tournament, and winning both games usually leaves you in a strong position to get out of the group. There is just no better sporting poetry than getting an immediate opportunity to redeem defeat.
The 2008 ties between Harlequins and Stade Francais are the perfect example of how special this fortnight can be. Quins stole a shock victory out of nowhere in front of 80,000 in Paris and then followed up by beating Stade with possibly the most dramatic drop goal ever.This knocked out the Parisians and gave Quins a place in the last 8 (although perhaps in hindsight they’ll wish that they had missed the kick as it gave them a place in the infamous bloodgate game).
If your a little unsure about rugby please give this next two weekends of the Heineken Cup a chance. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

England Will Lose To Scotland in the RWC

I'm a little unsure how to evaluate England's November. If the Autumn Internationals told us anything it’s that any major nation can be beat anyone else (New Zealand aside) and no team summed this point up more than the English.
There was a lot to be positive about, but it's too easy to put the change in fortunes from the Wallaby game to the Springbok game solely down to inconsistency. I think there’s a bigger point to be made, that this England side struggle when they are dragged into a scrap.
This might not seem like a deep piece of analysis, but bear with me for a moment. You see this England team are a side in the process of redefining their identity. They are rightly leaving the days of turgid 10-man rugby behind and replacing it with a more ambitious game plan.  But England have so far only been able to apply this new philosophy against opponents who let them play, they haven’t yet worked out how to apply it against teams who set out to disrupt. The Springbok test showed us this.
Why is this point so important? Well I can think of two teams in the World Rugby who are more adept than most at turning games into disjointed, messy affairs: Scotland and Argentina. Coincidentally both in England’s World Cup group.
If England play well they should have no problem dispatching either the Scots or the Argentinians, no doubt about that. But in September the pressure will all be on England, the venue will be neutral, and the opposition will be doing everything in their power to make a mess of the breakdown and to slow the tempo of the game. In these conditions I can see England being dragged into an error strewn kicking duel, giving both Scotland and Argentina a real chance of springing an upset.
My prediction is that England will beat the Pumas in a close affair, but lose to the Scots. Andy Robinson really has got his boys playing for each other and rising to the big occasions. And if the game does descend into a kicking duel I’d be backing Dan Parks over anyone in World Rugby.  
This loss would leave England second in their group. Which would most likely lead to a quarter final against the Allblacks, undoubtedly ending their World Cup.
It may be early to start making World Cup predictions, but sometimes you’ve just got a hunch, remember this on 1st October 2011.

Friday, 26 November 2010

England's Most Important Game Since the Rugby World Cup Final

Recalled England captain Lewis MoodyI’ve been watching highlights of England games from the past few years all morning and I’ve just realised something: This is England’s biggest game since the 2007 world cup final.
I know what your thinking, ‘Don’t be be ridiculous, the Six Nations is much bigger than the Autumn tests, just look at the attendances’. You would of course be correct in thinking this,  but as a one off match this is bigger than any Six Nations game in a long time.
Why? One simple word... momentum.
Its a word I hark on and on about, but for good reason, momentum is unfathomably important. It’s how promise and potential becomes reality and it is something that has eluded England for an awfully long time.
Momentum is incredibly hard to gain in international rugby as games only come in groups of 4 or 5. To do it you need to pull out a big performance in one of the 1st matches of the period and then take that confidence forwad.
England have won some big games in the last few years but they tended to come at the end of period of games (notably  beating Ireland 33-10 in the last game of the ’08 SN and France 34-10 in the 2nd last game of ’09 SN). England’s failure to win games early in match cycles has prevented them from putting together a string of results. In fact the Rugby world cup was the last time England Won 3 games in-a-row in a period of consecutive games.
This set of Autumn tests have presented an opportunity to England that they have not had in a long time. The Australia game was their best performance in years, there is no debate about that. But to take any real momentum into the Six nations, to actually begin to turn their potential into a reality, and to do this in time for the World Cup... they MUST win on Saturday.
England need to play with the ambition and accuracy that they did against the Australians, do this and I have no doubts that they will win.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Tom Croft: Not Getting Enough Credit

I have to admit that I’m feeling a little smug today. In my last blog post I dared to suggest that England might actually have an edge on the Aussies in terms of mobility in the pack. Naturally I was completely panned for this in the forums.

Tom Croft playing for England
Croft: World-Class

 Now I’m not saying that I predicted the result at Twickenham (certainly not the margin), but frankly I am yet to see another journalist or blogger on the planet who even hinted that England could win using anything other than forward grunt.
Ok, gloating over.
There’s been a huge amount of focus in the press on the young additions to the England team (namely Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden), and rightly so. It’s certainly not a coincidence that England’s performances have improved with the introduction of four players with such dynamism.
But I believe that there is one player in the England side who is being grossly underappreciated right now. Tom Croft. gave him a 7/10 for his performance at the weekend, a respectable score, but not so impressive when compared to the 7.47 team average that was handed out. I know there were some huge England performances, but can you seriously argue that Tom croft was a below average performer at the weekend?
Often these ratings only really note memorable incidents and key moments. But nonetheless surely a stunning offload for the first try and a sublime take on the 2nd half kick-off were enough to illuminate his quality to even the least perceptive viewers. His all round performance was composed and extremely mobile, in other words it summed up England at the weekend.
Croft is one of the most influential sixes in world rugby. Compare him to the alternative, James Haskell, who played instead of the injured Croft in the last six nation’s campaign. The gap in skill level and game intelligence between the two is actually quite scary. There is simply no doubt that Crofts return to the England set up in place of a talentless gym-monkey like Haskell has played a role in reigniting England. The difference between Croft and Haskell is the difference between England at the weekend and England Vs Scotland in the Calcutta Cup. (The link takes you to a match report, not a highlights video, there were no highlights). More intelligent, more accurate, more creative.
And all of this is without even mentioning the fact that he is one the best lineout forwards on the planet. His mere presence allows Johnson the freedom to pick two huge locks in Lawes and Palmer without sacrificing lineout options.
This current England squad has a few young guys who could well turn out to be world class, but right now Tom Croft is the one player in the England team who I would seriously consider for a place in a world XV right now.

James Haskell has just been named in the starting XV vs Samoa this weekend, so once again my opinions will be put to the test. Needless to say I'm not expecting much from him.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Stephen Moore: a Potential Weakness

Stephen MooreStephen Moore has been included in the Australia team to play England this weekend, the only change from the side that beat Wales.

Take a look at the Allblack tries in Hong Kong a couple of weeks back (highlights here). Their First try is eventually scored by Cowan because Moore is too slow to get up (this is a little harsh, I know, but he is far more at fault for the next two). The second try happens when Keiran Read gets outside him, and the third comes from a straight mismatch between Moore and Nonu.

None of the scores were entirely Moores fault, I'm not arguing that, but this evidence suggest that naming him in the Australia XV will create mismatches for England at the weekend. His inclusion is understandable as he does improve the struggling Aussie scrum (He can't exactly make it much worse), but in a team that tries to stretch the game as much as possible Moore's lack of mobility becomes a bigger issue.

England are probably the wrong team to expose it, but Moore's mobility is a problem. With the inclusion of the more mobile Dylan Hartley at Hooker, perhaps England won't just have an edge at scrum time.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Mealumu's Ban is a Complete Joke!!

Don’t get me wrong, I am delighted that Mealamu won’t be available for the rest of the All Blacks tour. He is a class act and Scotland needs every bit of luck they can get. But objectively the decision to ban him for four weeks is a total joke. (Check out the incident here)

Hartley andMealamu: Inconsistent treatment

 Firstly why was Dylan Hartley not cited for a similar incident? (Check it out here, thanks to the rugbydump guys for putting it up for me). Both incidents went unpunished on the field and if anything Hartley’s was more malicious. There is a total hypocrisy here and New Zealand are right to feel aggrieved. Also, I wonder if his ban would have been shorter of he had got a yellow card for the head butt during the game, I think it would. Is missing two test matches really equivalent to missing 10 minutes of a game?

The citing guys have generally gone a bit mental in the past couple of years. There is a big difference between the petty stuff and the really dangerous stuff. I am not criticising the huge bans that have been handed out for stuff like eye-gouging (David Attoub, Julien Dupuy and Juan Manuel Leguizamon). That is something that must be stamped out of the game. But players losing their cool at ruck time is always going to be part of the game.

The sheer intensity of test match rugby is what sets it apart from all other levels, of course it’s going to boil over from time to time. If players cheat then they should be punished, and if they cheat badly then they should be given bans, but let’s not treat the odd cheap shot as a huge crime. These days every time someone puts a foot wrong in a ruck they have to sit out for month, it’s a joke. Mealamu should be given a one week ban, and so should Dylan Hartley.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Why is Cueto Still in the England Team?

Mark Cueto
Cueto: Not good enough!!
I’m a Sale Sharks supporter (for my sins) and it was brilliant to see Sheri back in an England Jersey, the dodgy Aussie scrum ought to be pretty nervous. Naturally I also had my eye on the other Sale man on the pitch, Mark Cueto. If you have ever had the displeasure of watching the Sale Sharks you’ll have noticed (if you weren’t already asleep) that we don’t exactly have the most exciting backline in the world. Now I promise I’m not blogging about Sale’s woes,  let’s be honest, nobody really cares. No, I wanna ask a question, why the hell is Mark Cueto still in the England team?

I repeat, I’m a Sale Fan, and a huge admirer of Cueto. But the guy doesn’t score tries, doesn’t counter attack, doesn’t make hard yards in midfield, doesn’t really do much with the ball, at least not at the highest level. He is a great kicker, He’s positionally aware, solid in defence, but that’s not enough. Compared with Foden and Ashton, who were constantly looking for work, his lack of spark was seriously shown up yesterday 

By the Way Cueto is not the worst player in the England team. Personally I give that mantle to Mike Tindall. I don’t care what he has achieved, you can’t be in the centre at test level and not possess basic handling skills (although I suppose Paul Scholes has had a pretty useful career as a midfielder without being able to tackle).

The reason I’m picking on Cueto is that England actually have options out wide. Either Armitage or Foden (depending on who’s wearing 15) could do a better job. David Strettle offers more pace, so does Ugo Monye and the in-form Topsy Ojo. All these guys have caps already and have played well for Engalnd on one occasion or another. More importantly all these guys (with the possible exception of Monye) are playing for teams with confidence. All the ‘risky’ selections of the last twelve months (Youngs, Lawes, Foden and Ashton) have paid off. These are the guys who are making England look remotely dynamic.

People are right to be positive about England yesterday, but they still lack cutting edge in attack. There were some positive signs, but they also failed to create a single clean break. England’s backline problems run deeper than one player, there is no doubt about that, but this is one issue  with a simple solution. It’s a total no-brainer, Cueto needs to go.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A bad week for the Welsh Rugby Union

Just a short post today, supposed to be working, but a quickie word on the events of the last week or so around Warren Gatland’s new contract. Announced last monday, the headlines told us it would keep him in Wales until 2015.
I wrote about it the day it was announced. I made the point that while the contract was not worth the paper it was written on it served as a big vote of confidence from the WRU to Gatland, a clever tactic in a world cup year.  
The Problem is this ‘vote of confidence’ has totally dissolved in the revelations about the details of the contract. It started the day of the announcement when the WRU chief executive admitted there were ‘safeguards’ for both sides in the contract. Then it came out that there was a clause allowing Gatland 5 months leave to take the Lions job. Now, it has come out that there is a clause allowing the WRU to sack him if Wales have a poor World Cup.
It makes a bit of a mockery of the smiley-faced handshakes of last week.  And it has certainly ruined any message of confidence that the WRU would want to portray in a World Cup year. Instead it piles the pressure on Gatland and his team by reminding him and everyone that his job is gone if he screws up.
Add this to news that Lee Byrne, Ryan Jones and Leigh Halfpenny are alll out of the Australia test, I think it's fair to say it has not been a great week for the WRU.

Wales coach Warren Gatland
Gatland: Under pressure

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Hong Kong? Really?

The Lions have announced they will be playing a game in Hong Kong before heading to Australia for the 2013 tour. Listen, I have absolutely no problem with unions trying to make a bit of money. Healthy balance sheets make for a healthy sport. But not the Lions, please not the Lions.
Before I hear any of you making the ‘but its spreading the gospel of rugby’ argument let me remind you a bit about Hong kong. Thats Hong Kong the former british colony with a huge ex-pat community. Thats Hong Kong home of the Hong Kong sevens, only the biggest and most established sevens event on the planet. So don’t tell me that anyone is spreading any gospel, coz if thats the goal they are already preaching to the choir.
So obviously it’s about money. But does it have to be? I cannot believe that the TV money, the sponsorships and the shirt sales don’t pay for the trip several times over. So what’s wrong with making a bit of cash on the side? It’s the Lions, it’s pure, it’s a beautiful remnant of an amateur era where money didn’t matter. Most players would still pay to go on a Lions tour, it means that much.
The strength of the Lions is its ability to harness the amateur spirit in professional surroundings. Clive Woodward’s failure to grasp this was his downfall as Lions coach. My question is this, Why not Tokyo? When the Bledisloe cup was played there they packed out a 50,000 stadium. The Lions could make a few quid while actually spreading the word of rugby to a country that is developing into a real rugby nation.
Playing in Hong Kong isn’t the worst thing to ever happen, but it strikes me as both mercenary and a missed opportunity. If the Lions management are amongst my readers, I beg you to move the game to Tokyo. But something tells me my plea won’t be heard.

A packed rugby stadium in Tokyo, truly great for the game.

Monday, 18 October 2010

WRU play clever confidence game

Warren Gatland has signed a new contract that keeps him in charge of Wales beyond the 2015 World Cup. This in itself is a good thing for rugby. Great faith has been shown in a man who has a mixed record in the Wales job. Rugby has slipped too close to its football cousins in the lack of patience shown to head coaches. 3 of the bottom 4 Guinness premiership clubs sacked their managers at the end of last season.
The key to sacking coaches is knowing when you’ve got the right man and when you’ve just got it wrong. Take the example of Kingsley Jones, who was sacked from the Sale Sharks after one season in the job. Getting rid of Jones was absolutely the right thing to do; he just never truly gained the belief of the players. Similarly Wales are doing the right thing backing Gatland. The results are irrelevant, it’s clear that the players have bought into his approach, and with that the results will come.  
This is why the deal with Gatland is so clever, it’s about belief. The WRU Chief executive has admitted that the contract has 'safeguards' in place. These will protect the Union and Gatland from being put in the situation that the English FA are in with Fabio Capello, where they cannot afford to break his contract. The truth is sporting contracts are barely worth the paper they are written on. This deal doesn’t keep Gatland with Wales till 2015 any more than ‘I’ll be there before midday’ actually meant that the lazy fucking electrician would come before midday (he came at 5, if your interested).
The contract is a headline, a vote of confidence (and not the kind of vote confidence that usually come two days before a football manager gets sacked). It says to the press, the Welsh public and most importantly to the players that Gatland is the man to believe in. In a World Cup year belief and confidence are more important than anything else. Momentum is such an important factor in sport. The WRU understand that a strong Autumn will lead to good Six Nations and a successful World Cup.
This is why they have sorted out Gatland’s contract just before he announced squad for the November tests. But I’m willing to bet any money that he won’t be living in Wales in 2015.
Roger Lewis and Warren Gatland
A resounding vote of confidence

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Will Cipriani resurrect his England career?

This morning Jonny Wilkinson tipped Danny Cipriani for a huge England future. It got me thinking, just how talented is Danny Cipriani?
I’ve raided the old Youtube archives and one thing is clear, we all got carried with his talent for a good reason. Do not forget his spectacular performance Vs Clermont in the Heineken Cup or his outstanding Six Nations debut.
These were by no means complete performances, but they confirm that he’s a bit special. These performances told us that he has more than the Ryan Lambs and Olly Barkleys of this world.
But it went wrong. That’s beyond debate. We will never know whether it was the injuries, the pressure or the partying but the fact is Wasp’s backline was  devoid of ideas for most of last season. They finished in the bottom half of the table in points scored, tries scored and try bonus points gained.
So will Melbourne and Super Rugby be the tonic Danny needs to get his career back on track? There are several problems with trying to answer that question. Apart from Michalak and Goode there is little precedence of Europeans at that level. And no one has a clue how the rebels are going to fare. This is a huge risk for Cipriani, perhaps this is a reckless move. Maybe he's playing Russian roulette with his career.
What we do know is that Australia is a great choice of country for him. Rugby union is far from the top of the Aussie sporting agenda, especially in Aussie rules dominated Melbourne. Cipriani is only one of a host of high profile signings. All of this, added to the fact that the Rebels are a brand new franchise, means that he will get the kind of patience that he needs to settle down and establish himself, whether it’s at 10 or 15.
Then there’s the super 15. A league with a skill level that makes the premiership look amateur. A league of hard and dry pitches where running rugby is always encouraged. And a league with no relegation and therefore lower stakes.
 Sounds to me like a perfect place to get your confidence back, get your love of the game back and eventually get your form back. I’m going to agree with Wilkinson here. I expect Danny Cipriani to start at 10 for England in the 2015 world Cup. of course all this is assuming he can get a bloody visa.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

A Revolution Has Begun!!

Let me assure you from the start that this blog is not only purely an ego based exercise. I am a huge sports fan, I live and breathe rugby and I regularly sacrifice relationships and grades following the game at all levels all over the globe.
Let me be honest with you... I really rate my own opinions (and with good reason, I am rarely wrong) but this is not why this blog exists. I promise with all my being that this blog will serve a greater purpose than a mere pulpit for my ego.
I want a higher quality of rugby Journalism in Britain. I want to see proper analysis of club rugby, I want the Aviva, Magners, Heineken and top 14 to get the exposure they deserve. Anyone who watches these competitions will tell you that they offer a more entertaining brand of the game than the pressure cooker six nation.
 The BBC is undoubtedly the biggest culprit here. Its rugby site can go for days without updating and   the blogging is low quality at best. All too often you get the feeling that the comments in the forum make more sense than the articles.
So welcome to my revolution!! (of sorts. You gotta think big) Please get involved, tell me I’m wrong, but do it with knowledge,
And if you question the title ‘The Truly Beautiful Game’ watch the Rhys Priestlands vs Perpignan try last weekend. It should convince you.