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.