The 6 Nations: Game-Week 3 Predictions

England Vs. Wales:

Match of the tournament potential.

With England, the reigning champions of course, coming up against the form team of this year’s championships most true rugby fans will be licking their lips at the prospect of this encounter.

England will look to counter the size and strength of Wales' back-line with the returning Manu Tuilagi

On paper it seems that Wales have the potential to slaughter England and humiliate them on their own patch. England’s form has been no better than solid whereas Wales and their much-vaunted back-line have been rampant in their opening games.

It is true of course that Wales only just achieved victory against Ireland and that it took a considerable period of time before they broke down the Scottish resistance at the Millenium Stadium a fortnight ago but the confidence of their two performances to date has been a far-cry from the edginess and nervousness involved in England’s two gritty victories.

As it stands though, England are level with Wales in the standings and have shown enough to suggest that they are capable of giving at least a half-decent account of themselves at Twickenham tomorrow. Unfortunately for England though, a ‘half-decent account of themselves’ won’t be enough to beat this Wales side and it will take something rather more convincing to cause what would have to be considered an upset tomorrow evening. I think Wales will win, but they will be pushed.

Prediction: England 17 – 26 Wales

Ireland Vs. Italy:

Ireland have found themselves in a rather unusual predicament in this year’s championships after they lost out in last-gasp fashion at home to Wales and then had their second game of the tournament called-off due to a frozen pitch in Paris.

As such, the Irish players and supporting contingent will be looking to kick-start their campaign with a convincing home win over Italy and really this should be within their reach.

Though Italy have certainly had their moments against France and England in their opening two fixtures, they still lack a real killer instinct and failed to capitalise on their real moments of promise. This was particularly evident against England when they could easily have used the momentum of their late first half charge to inspire them to a victory on home turf. Sadly though, some slack play and some poor decision making both from the players and from the coaching staff cost them dear as they went on to lose narrowly.

It is hard to see how a side like Italy with their lacking attacking thrust and the loss of their talismanic front-row stalwart Martin Castrogiovanni to injury, can compete with a balanced side like Ireland’s where their attacking threat and defensive strengths are evident all across their line-up. I think Ireland will bag a few tries and get themselves the morale-boosting victory they desire.

Prediction: Ireland 30 – 14 Italy

Scotland Vs. France:

Scotland are a much improved side in many ways from a couple of years ago, but they still lack the ability to take full advantage of promising attacking situations and as long as that is the case it is hard to see them defeating any of Europe’s top International sides. They need to continue playing with the same solidity and determination, but they simply must add a more potent attacking threat to their list of strengths. They would do well to learn from this weekend’s opponents France who at times can be utterly indifferent with their form but still always carry a real threat when going forward.

Andy Robinson's Scotland side will need to be more clinical if they are to push the French

France’s opening game win over Italy was a great example of this as they struggled to keep control of the game for long stretches, but ultimately they won by a convincing margin due to their defensive composure and their clinical attacking rugby which consistently utilised their limited try-scoring opportunities.

It is a shame for France that their second game against Ireland was postponed due to poor conditions, as they would have liked to bag a home victory and reaped the rewards of a run of good results and the momentum that would have come with it. However, I still think they have enough to beat Scotland at Murrayfield. It will be a tough day’s work but I can foresee another wasteful Scottish attacking display undermining their work ethic and defensive capabilities and thus allowing France to steal a fairly narrow win.

Prediction: Scotland 11 – 18 France

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A week in sport: Haye-Chisora, AVB’s continuing misery, Cycling Success, Carlos’ U-Turn and an ODI Reprieve for England

Too little, too late from Tevez…

He may have finally apologised for his pitiful behaviour over the past few months, but the sulkiest Argentine in Manchester has left it far too late for me.

Carlos Tevez, one of the most outstanding footballers in world football and a spoilt brat to boot, has behaved so apallingly for one so privileged throughout this season (one which he has contributed next to nothing to on the pitch) and he has been a figure-head of controversy ever since arriving on British shores.

His initial stint at West Ham came under intense scrutiny for the manner of the deal that brought him to England, but his stunning end of season form was enough to pretty much single-handedly keep the hammers in the Premier League. For that, much of the British public (West Ham haters aside) really took to him. He then went on to play a big part in his first season at Manchester United where his on-field industry and talent made him an immediate hit with the fans.

Since then though, Tevez’s likability has plummeted. A second season with United became dominated by contractual disputes and stewing on the sidelines before he eventually opted to cash in on a lucrative move to United’s fierce rivals, Manchester City. At City he has enjoyed great personal and team success when motivated but unfortunately he has done a good job also of maintaining a firmly irritating persona off the field.

His persistent cries of home-sickness and of dislike of the City of Manchester drew little sympathy given his £200,000-a-week pay-packet and this miserable nonsense continued into the summer of 2011 where he was subject to much transfer speculation. Unfortunately though for Tevez his efforts to find a way out of Manchester failed tand he was left to stew in the City he presumably reckons is ‘hell on earth’.

After failing to find a buyer, the ever-charming Mr.Tevez then sunk to his lowest professional ebb as he forgot that he was being paid a ridiculous amount of money to play football, as he refused to warm-up and enter the field of play when his team were in need of his services on a big European night.

All in all, Tevez is a gloriously talented footballer but perhaps more apparently, he is a pretty immature and dislikable chap when not on a football field. His antics in Munich are in serious danger of becoming the defining moment of his career and though he may finally have eaten some humble pie I think he has left an indelible, negative-stain on English football.

Carlos, my dear friend, you are a magnificent footballer but I suggest you bog-off to back to Argentina pronto so we don’t have to stomach any more of your tripe. Rant over.

‘KP’ and ‘Chef’ turn on the style as England salvage some pride in the ODI’s

With England’s reputation as the strongest side in Test Match cricket left looking rather debatable and even worthy of a little ridicule in the wake of their white-wash series defeat against Pakistan, it was down to our reliably unreliable ODI squad to restore some pride. Thankfully they did just that and the big names came into their own.

Having both restored their reputation’s as truly world class Test batsmen through their outstanding performances in 2011, Alistair Cook and Kevin Pietersen  both suffered enormous reality checks in the embarrassing recent Test Series defeat against a rejuvenated Pakistan side. Both men struggled to find any sort of form with the bat in the Tests but teamed up beautifully at the top of England’s batting order in the white-wash ODI series win over the same opponents which was sealed yesterday with a fourth consecutive victory.

Both men scored two match-winning hundred’s each and Cook too scored an important 80 to accompany Pietersen’s first century of the series in the third ODI. These knocks marked very timely returns to form amidst press and public murmurings about the security of both of their roles in the England setup, as Pietersen’s all round form was under scrutiny and Cook’s one-day captaincy was still under intense observation given his relative lack of experience and form in the format.

Both of England’s match-winning batsmen were beautifully supported by their bowlers en-route to a satisfying series win and it was the prodigiously talented Steven Finn who really impressed with the ball in hand.

The young Middlesex pace-man has worked tirelessly to add greater pace, threat and sharpness to his bowling since losing his regular place in England’s Test line-up during the Ashes last year and the work is certainly reaping it’s rewards. His form this series has provided a great reminder of his talents and has shown a real willingness to try and impress when given the opportunity to do so and as such he may have earned him self a re-call to the Test XI as well as securing a position in the One-Day team.

Cycling successes provide some momentum going into ‘The Games’

I hardly profess to be a cycling enthusiast but what better time to start getting into it than just a few months before the Olympics in London.

This week’s cycling World Cup (and Olympic Velodrome test event) provided early signs of some major success that could be set to come our way this summer. With the likes of Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton back in form and amongst the medals at the test event it seems that cycling will once again be a major strength for us at ‘The Games’.

We need all the success we can get this summer and the cycling World Cup has helped our charges gain some vital momentum in the build-up to their respective battles for personal and team success this summer. Success breeds success, so let the winning feeling continue.

British Boxers disgracing the rest of British sport

In a year of great excitement and promise for British sport, the last thing we need is morons like David Haye and Dereck Chisora ruining it for the rest of us. There is little that can be said about the embarrassing scenes in Munich the other day that hasn’t been said already, but here are my brief thoughts on the matter…

I’ll start by saying that I think the BBBC should revoke Chisora’s license and should decline any potential future attempts from David Haye to renew his should he decide that he wants to come out of retirement. To coin a famous phrase ‘there are two sides to every story’, and sadly for British boxing and the entire British sporting community both sides to this story are utterly pathetic and humiliating.

I was once a real fan of Haye’s but his persistent attempts to gain self-glorification were already wearing thin before this mess and now his actions in Munich have well and truly consigned him to the waste bin of my sport-filled brain. If you have read your way through my ramblings today then you may well be aware that Carlos Tevez resides their too.

Even worse though and even more irrelevant in my eyes is Dereck Chisora who has made a total backside of himself this past week. After a stuttering start to his career Chisora should have been wholly grateful for his opportunity to fight Vitali Klitschko for his World title but instead he opted to act like a complete yob. His pre-fight slap was bad enough, as was his apparent efforts to spit a mouthful of water at Klitschko’s younger brother Wladimir (how moronic can you get?), but apparently he could better himself in the idiocy stakes.

Though I believe Haye was once again exceptionally stupid and irritating throughout his contributions to the piece in Munich, Chisora, for me, has managed to come out of the event in an even worse light due to his disgusting threats and his inability to stay out of a row that should hardly have been a concern to him.

Chisora has often spoken of his desire to “slap” people that he takes a disliking to. Well, Mr. Chisora, I dislike you and if I could choose a sportsman to “slap” then it would probably be you (Haye would be a close second and Tevez third in case you were wondering…)

Just a quick word on Vilas-Boas’ predicament at Chelsea

5 games without a win is a considerable drought for Chelsea’s manager given their modern era of success but I hope Chelsea don’t get rid of Andre Vilas-Boas.

I for one think he was foolish to leave Ashley Cole, Michael Essien and Frank Lampard out of his starting line-up against Napoli yesterday evening but those decisions aside, he is smart, talented, interesting and incredibly eloquent. He is a breath of fresh air amongst some of the more placid and forgettable managers in the English game and I believe that in the long run that he could be a very good fit for Chelsea.

Things might not be working at all well at the moment for AVB but if Chelsea decide to back their man then they may well be rewarded strongly in the long run. Hopefully we will get to see the best of AVB in the near future and hopefully it will be enough to keep him in his job. Sadly though for Vilas-Boas, it appears that those involved with the club aren’t far away from a ‘final straw’ mindset… I wish him good luck, he might well need it!

Turbulent week highlights the current South-South divide

In a week where the up and coming forces of Southern football are looking forward to ‘glamorous’ FA Cup ties against Premier League opposition, another of the South’s footballing forces, Portsmouth, have sadly gone into administration for the second time in just three years.

The ambition and excitement surrounding Sussex clubs Brighton and Hove Albion and Crawley Town could hardly be further from the doom and gloom descending on Fratton Park once again, as Pompey’s slump from Premier League status and two FA Cup final appearances into the depths and misery of financial strife continues to gain momentum.

After weeks of failure to pay their players and major press speculation, the writing was sadly on the wall for Portsmouth and their fans as they knew they would have to suffer the indignity of going into administrative control again. Things have reportedly got so bad that they haven’t been able to access their frozen accounts and as such haven’t been able to release the funds necessary to get a scan on captain Liam Lawrence’s calf injury.

Of course, this move into the administrative control of Trevor Birch does bring with it some hope of a silver lining to the very ominous clouds gathering overhead at Fratton Park. The moves that will be made by Birch will be targeted at clearing up the financial ruins at the club and will seek to make the club a sustainable force when moving forward from this incredibly precarious situation. Such improvements will make the endangered club a far more attractive investment prospect and if the administrators can engineer a successful sale of the club to a ‘fit and proper’ buyer then they will at least in the short term have brought the club back to it’s feet.

Hopefully for the sake of Southern football and British football as a whole, Portsmouth will bounce back from this latest huge slump but even with their now increased chances of finding a new buyer the club is set for an enormous challenge. The 10 point penalty hanging over their heads as a punishment for going into administration will bring them right down into the very heart of the Championship relegation battle and it will take one hell of a comeback to avoid the drop.

Not only will this period of administrative control lead to the loss of playing and coaching staff due to the inability to pay their wages but relegation too would have a major effect on the levels of quality and depth in their squad, as their strongest players will almost certainly seek the opportunity to jump-ship. The club will effectively be in survival mode for a period of time and will, for the foreseeable future, be something of a sitting duck as rival clubs will have license to raid the club of their best and most promising players without little resistance.

This position of enormous vulnerability is in stark contrast to that of Brighton and Crawley who are not only performing strongly in their respective leagues but are also about to enjoy the privileges of having enjoyed major scalps in the early rounds of the FA Cup.

League Two promotion hopefuls Crawley have already weighed in with a victory over Championship side Hull and will be looking to take advantage of a potential European night hangover when they host Premier League and Europa League outfit Stoke City this Sunday. Brighton are also in action in this weekend’s FA Cup 5th Round when they face up to a real ‘glamour’ tie against Liverpool at Anfield after having felled an in-form Newcastle in the 4th Round.

The exciting progression of these two Southern clubs doesn’t provide the only potential success stories south of the capital this season though, as AFC Bournemouth are flirting with the League One play-off places and Southampton are currently occupying one of the two automatic promotion places in the Championship.

Sadly though, the significant strides being made by several of Southern football’s resurgent forces and ‘new kids on the block’ are being put in the shade by Portsmouth’s high profile troubles. The South-South divide is developing at an alarming rate and it is fair to say that the Crawley and Brighton’s fans will be far more buoyant than Pompey’s even if they were both walloped 10-nothing this Sunday.

 

Relegation Watch: ‘Big Mick’ Perishes as Steve Kean battles on

Having succumbed to a horrific 5-1 derby defeat at the weekend, Wolves have decided to part company with Mick McCarthy after a stay of five and a half years.

McCarthy was left apologetic in his last public appearance as Wolves boss

McCarthy’s period of charge at Molineux has on the whole been a positive one for the football club given that they were a Championship club when he joined, but ultimately a lack of Premier League progress is what has cost the former Republic of Ireland manager his job.

It took ‘Big Mick’ three years to drag Wolves through what initially seemed as if it would be a difficult period for the club and up into the Premier League and though it seemed they had established themselves in the top flight over the past couple of campaigns, this season has proven very tough.

It is often very easy for the directors of a football club to apportion the blame for a lack of progress on the manager, but this move to dismiss McCarthy can’t exactly be described as a ‘knee-jerk reaction’. It may have come in the wake of a humiliating performance and defeat at the hands of one of their fierce rivals but really this decision had been in the offing for some time.

After two successive seasons of survival upon their return to top flight football Wolves, under McCarthy’s tutelage, invested strongly in the most recent summer transfer window in a move to try and move the club forward from persistent scrapes with relegation.

Birmingham stalwart Roger Johnson was brought in  for a sizeable £7 million despite rumoured interest from far more glamorous clubs and the future of Jamie O’Hara was secured in the wake of a very promising loan spell at the club. These two signings were seen as the move that could make-or-break McCarthy’s future at the club and so it has proved.

O’Hara has struggled with form and fitness in his quest to replicate his significant contribution whilst on loan from Tottenham and Johnson ,who was brought in and immediately made captain of the club by McCarthy, has too struggled to match up to the lofty reputation that preceded his arrival from rivals Birmingham City.

While these introductions have failed to settle, established forces from within the Wolves squad have also struggled to find their best. Stars from previous campaigns such as Kevin Doyle and Matt Jarvis have been short of any level of consistency and Doyle in particular has been bereft of his best form throughout the campaign. Such difficulties have led to Wolves failure to move on from being a club entangled in relegation worry and McCarthy’s struggles to cope with his squads stuttering form have eventually led to his removal.

Meanwhile, the season’s most maligned Premier League manager Steve Kean continued on his unlikely rescue mission by guiding Blackburn to a crucial 3-2 home win in their relegation ‘six-pointer’ against fellow strugglers QPR.

Kean's faith in Yakubu and his own managerial ability is paying off for now

This most recent victory was most timely and it elevated Blackburn to a slightly rosier position outside of the ‘relegation zone’. Wolves, formerly managed by McCarthy of course, were the team that slipped into the dreaded drop-zone in place of Keane’s resilient Blackburn who continue to owe an awful lot to Yakubu who scored again on his continuing, to this point, season-long run of goalscoring form. Once again ‘Yak’ scored a vital goal in a huge win for the club, the sort of conquest that might see them overcome all the odds to reach their end-goal of survival come May.

This victory of vital significance in their relegation battle provided the perfect response to their 7-1 hammering against Arsenal just a week earlier and was further proof of Steve Kean’s unrelenting determination to defy his numerous and volatile critics that have been baying for his blood over the past few months. If Blackburn and Yakubu in particular, continue to pull results out of the bag in this tricky mid-season period then they may well just do enough for the club to stay in the league and for their manager Steve Kean to avoid the same fate as Mick McCarthy at Wolves.

6 Nations: Game-week 2 Predictions

Italy Vs. England

Italy played with great courage for long periods last week but simply couldn’t break through the French wall in defence, whereas England’s chances for glory were few and far between in a fairly messy game at Murrayfield yet they came away with the win and the points.

Stuart Lancaster’s side managed to edge out the wasteful Scots in his first game in charge and will be hoping for a little more go forward  against the Italians. England will of course go in as favourites and I do expect them to win but, just as they did to France last week, I expect the Italians to go after England and force them to work hard for their victory.

Prediction: Italy 14 – 24 England

 

France Vs. Ireland

Though they were made to look second-best for the majority of the game against Wales last week, Ireland should ultimately have closed the game out and landed a significant opening victory. As it is though, Ireland will surely have to win away to France today if they are to have any hope of placing themselves in serious contention to win the tournament.

France were awesome in defence against a spirited Italian offensive last week and when they needed to turn the magic on attack they did so. Their clinical and timely finishing kept the Italians at bay in a game that really deserved to have been made a lot more interesting in terms of the scoreboard.

If this game were being played at the Aviva then I would have fancied their chances of a first win in this year’s tournament but I am going for a narrow home win for the French in what I expect to be a very entertaining game of rugby. Ireland have little to lose having already taken a notable slip in their challenge for the title, but France have an enormous amount to play for and will be looking forward with ambitions of Grandslam if they land a win here.

Prediction: France 25 – 21 Ireland

 

Wales Vs. Scotland

Wales will be overwhelming favourites going into this one.

Though they were literally seconds away from losing their opener against Ireland, Wales were effervescent in attack with Mike Phillips running the show and the likes of Jonathan Davies and George North providing more than able support as the Welsh lines flooded forward time and time again. Though they were almost irresistible at times, if they had lost the game then perhaps they, like Scotland in their home match against England, would have been accused of being wasteful. Difference is though, that Wales just about made enough of their ambition and the chances that came with it whereas Scotland came out of their opening weekend with another confidence shattering defeat.

Scotland were pretty decent throughout against England and not many would have had any complaints about the result had they come away with something from it. They didn’t though and I simply can’t see them keeping with this Wales side.

I think Scotland resist the early thrusts of the Welsh attack but I can envisage Wales running in four or five as the game wears on.

Prediction:

Wales 31 – 14 Scotland

‘If I were Harry Redknapp, I wouldn’t take the England job’

If I were Harry Redknapp I wouldn’t take the England job.

Harry probably is the right man, but he has such a good thing going with Spurs...

I know this is controversial and I know this easy to say from my position of being an armchair fan and not the man who has always been touted as a ‘players-manager’ who has the skills necessary to lead the national side, but, from my objective position I honestly think that Harry should stick with Spurs. He is enormously popular with the Spurs fans and the British footballing community as a whole, he has a chairman who has backed him throughout his stay of power and he has created a team capable of challenging for serious silverware without the spending power of a team like Manchester City. In Spurs he has found his ideal fit and though the lure of the national team must be enormous for a proud Anglofile and football man I think he could be on the verge of something pretty special at Tottenham.

In his time as Spurs boss Harry Redknapp has transformed the club. He took the job with the club right at the bottom-end of the Premier League and with the strong support of his chairman he has returned Tottenham to the glamorous heights of the English top-flight, a far cry from the situation he inherited.

In the years leading up to Harry’s appointment as boss, the likes of Martin Jol had flirted with Champions League qualification and the re-establishment of Tottenham as one of English football’s major forces but, ultimately, he fell short of taking the club to the crest of the wave. Redknapp though, has taken Tottenham all the way to the Champions League and not only did he take them there but he inspired a refreshing, open and attacking Spurs side to go all the way to the last eight in their first ever attempt at the competition.

If Harry were to leave for the national job then this would be his legacy. He would leave behind him some enormously fond memories and though he may not quite have taken Tottenham right the way to the top, he has undoubtedly given them an almighty push in the right direction. He would depart the club on the very best of terms and would leave his successor in the role with some outstanding tools in place to work with. Without the mentorship of Harry Redknapp would we, for example, think so highly of players such as Gareth Bale and Luka Modric? Sure, they are extraordinary talents that would struggle not to blossom anywhere and under anyone’s guidance but could anyone have handled such precocious talents with the care and enthusiasm of Mr. Redknapp? I think not.

It is this potential legacy of Redknapp at Tottenham that would make it such a shame if he were to go. He has lifted the club off it’s knees and to the verge of a second Champions League qualification and an outside shot at a title challenge. The turnaround has been enormous in his reign of power at the club, and if their success is to continue then they would be forever indebted to his services.

Sadly though for Spurs fans, the writing does appear to be on the wall. In one extraordinary day Harry Redknapp has gone from facing up to a potential prison sentence for alleged tax evasion, to being fully cleared of any charges against his name and to being the undoubted front-runner for the job that would forever consign his reputation as merely a “wheeler-dealer” to the history books. To be offered the national job when in his sixties would mean the world to Redknapp given his lifelong passion for the game and it would provide such an affirmation of his success and public appreciation that I can’t see him turning it down.

I can, however, see him approaching his expected talks with the FA with enormous caution and with a determination to carry out negotiations on his own terms. By this, I mean that I would expect him to demand great authority and freedom as well as the luxury of being able to remain in charge of Spurs at least until the end of the season.

Harry has done too much good work over the past few years at Spurs to just leave them at the drop of the hat and just a month ago things seemed as though they would come together naturally after the season and after the Euros. Fabio Capello was set to guide England through the tournament and to leave at the end of his contract and Harry Redknapp was well set up to part with his beloved Tottenham side having secured Champions League qualification and potentially having landed some silverware. An enormous amount of water has of course passed under the bridge since then and in yesterday’s dramatic twists and turns of events a greater sense of urgency has been forced upon the situation.

I think the FA will ask Harry to take the job with immediate effect on an England-only basis but if Harry wants to stay with Spurs until May before taking the post on this basis then I think he is well positioned from a bargaining point of view to do so. The FA are in desperate need of a popular English manager and Redknapp is the very epitome of this. The FA will want Harry and though I don’t think he should, I am pretty certain that he would take the job.

6 Nations: Predictions (with the benefit of opening round hindsight)

Usually, I and many other sports enthusiasts and writers, make the foolish mistake of trying to predict things as accurately as possible without the benefit of hard, and topical evidence. Having learnt the error of my ways, I have taken it upon myself to predict the outcome of the 6 nations with the benefit of some hindsight and, hopefully, some half-decent foresight.

Wales opened up with a last-gasp win in the pick of the weekend's action

With one game down and England, Wales and France all off the mark in the wins column here is my prediction for the outcome of this year’s tournament:

Wins       Losses

1. Wales                 5                 0

2. France               4                 1

3. England             3                 2

4. Ireland              2                 3

5. Scotland            1                 5

6. Italy                   0                6

 

Wales:

Predicted – Grandslam Winners

Against Ireland, Wales played with a similar determination and attacking prowess as they did throughout their highly praised World Cup run. They may well have had to rely on a controversial-ish last gasp penalty to get the job done but an away win against Ireland is a big scalp and I think their attacking threat deserved to see them through in the end. Jonathan Davies’ hard-run lines in the midfield caused havoc while Wales were in full flow, and as ever Mike Philips dictated the game beautifully at 9. They may no longer have the prolific Shane Williams amongst their ranks, but George North’s performance at the weekend was one of a true heir to the Williams throne. He has the strength, character, hands and pace of a world beating winger and he is continuing to prove why he is one of the hottest young properties in the world of rugby.

I have Wales as my favourites to win, not just the tournament but another Grandslam, because they play with real flair and the character shown to rescue the game at the Aviva was very impressive. If the likes of Philips are at their best then Wales will be the team to beat.

France:

Prediction – 2nd

The French enjoyed a fairly routine victory in their opener as they faced up to the team that everyone would like to start their competition against. The Italians, of course, are a lot stronger than their earliest years in the competition but they are still a little of the pace when it comes to the more dominant forces of European rugby and they tend to provide decent competition for the opposition to break themselves into the tournament.

France weren’t at their fluent best and Italy actually played very well for long stretches in the opening game but the difference between the two sides was to be found in their defences. France’s defence was tight, compact and unforgiving, whilst their attack found just enough holes in the Italian rearguard to take them to  a reasonably comfortable win.

Up next for France are Ireland and this will almost certainly provide a stiffer challenge, but, Les Bleus will be confident of making it two from two on home turf.

England:

It wasn’t exactly glamorous and it wasn’t exactly dominant but Stuart Lancaster’s new-look England side just about did enough to prise victory in the Calcutta Cup. There was little on show at Murrayfield worthy of great note as it was a game left bereft of really outstanding moments but England showed enough to suggest that they will at least bag themselves two victories in this 6 nations campaign.

England’s debutants all played fairly well against Scotland, with the two new centres Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt taking most of the credit for assured first outings, as well as Chris Robshaw for his characteristically workman-like showing in just his second game for his country and his first as captain.

I have a sneaking suspicion that England will beat one of the other members of the ‘big four’ and I think that win will come at home to Ireland in a few weeks time. If they manage to beat Italy next time out and take at least one of the big teams then a top 3 finish is on the cards.

Ireland:

Prediction – 4th

It is amazing how much one minute of rugby can impact upon a team’s success in the 6 nations ’round-robin’ format and Ireland are this year’s hard-luck story from the opening round of fixtures.

Had the game finished just one minute earlier then Ireland would have a victory of huge significance under their belt and all the talk would be of potential Grandslams, as it turned out though they are amongst a group of three teams on the bottom of the table and will be left feeling a little damaged.

For periods of the game they were overwhelmed by the Welsh attacking threat, yet they still managed to keep the scoreboard ticking over and just a little more composure in the dying seconds might have seen them triumph. I think this defeat will hit them hard and though I expect a decent reaction in Paris, I think they will come up narrowly short again and could then be left struggling for motivation when it comes to facing England at Twickenham later in the tournament.

Scotland:

Prediction – 5th

Scotland might have shown enough at home to England to suggest that they should avoid the wooden-spoon but their inability to take advantage of their very decent attacking opportunities against England will be a huge concern for Andy Robinson.

Sadly for Scotland, this has been the problem for way too long now and it must be getting very tedious indeed for their coaching staff and indeed the rugby enthusiasts that pack out Murrayfield consistently  to provide one of the greatest atmospheres in world rugby. I think they will have enough to beat Italy but their achilles heel of lacking composure in attack is too blatant for me to foresee them beating any of the major forces. 5th it is then…

Italy:

Prediction – Wooden Spoon

A predictably decent but ultimately disappointing day for the Italians saw them open up with a loss against the World Cup finalists, France.

For spells they were the better team and they had France going backwards and making simple errors in the midfield early on, only for them to be undone all too easily by one cohesive French move resulting in Aurelien Rougerie’s opening try.

Though the Italians continued to battle hard, they fell quite a long way short in the end and their inability to make pressure really count was undone by France’s contrastingly clinical show in the final third. I can’t see the Italians finishing any higher than 5th and in truth I think Scotland will probably beat them in the battle to avoid propping up the rest of the table.

 

England heading for a whitewash defeat and the batting stats don’t lie

Another day, another poor show with the bat. Couple this with the first underwhelming English performance with the ball on this tour and we have for the third time this series a predicament which sees England staring a Test Match defeat directly in the eye.

Pietersen has been just one of many disappointments against Pakistan

England’s paltry 141 with the bat was perhaps slightly excused after Pakistan were skittled for 99 on day one, but today’s show of solidarity from Azhar Ali and Younis Khan proved that the pitch was, in fact, fairly innocuous and provided the perspective necessary to highlight just how poor England were again throughout their first innings.

Though the bowlers too struggled on day two of the third and final Test, it is hardly fair to apportion much blame in their direction. It has after all been their efforts, almost in isolation, that have spared England complete humiliation in their first Test series since being named the world’s leading side in the format.

Today, the most notable of the negated England bowling threats was that of Graeme Swann whose usually  very effective off-spin was made to look entirely impotent by Pakistan’s star performers on the day. It may sound a little cliched to say that Younus Khan and Azhar Ali succeeded with the bat due to their ‘patience’ early on and their progressive build towards ‘taking the attack’ to England, but that just about sums up the majority of the day’s play.

Aside from this show of resilience from Pakistan and England’s first slip of the series into the realms of ineffective bowling, the current cause for major concern must be the lacklustre batting displays which are a world away from Down Under at the start 2011 and the run-thirst demonstrated on home turf against India in the summer.

The clearest indicator of the fall from grace for England’s batting line-up on this tour is the comparison of their averages so far in the three match Test-Series with those put together during India’s visit in the summer, where England of course dished out a whitewash series victory of their own.

During England’s ‘Indian Summer’ the vast majority of their batting line-up enjoyed huge success and it was Alistair Cook at the top of the order who led them out of the blocks in style, carrying on from his outstanding form away to Australia in the Ashes. His average in the India series was very healthy, up in the high fifties, even if that was courtesy of an outstanding knock of 294 at Egbaston. This stunning contribution in Birmingham meant that his series average was nearly 40 runs-per-innings higher than his collective contributions against Pakistan this winter.

Cook’s partner in crime, Andrew Strauss, didn’t have quite as healthier average as his fellow opener but the captain did manage an average in the high thirties which is better than his low thirties average so far this series.

Jonathan Trott, the recent recipient of the ICC’s top award at their yearly celebration of all things cricket, may have suffered a series ruining injury over the summer against India but prior to this he had chipped in with a series opening 70 before a slump which saw him average in the mid-twenties. His form with the bat in this series has actually seen an improvement on his contribution in the summer, with his average up in the thirties but three scores of sub-twenty out of five innings is still a cause for concern.

Kevin Pietersen who seemed to have returned to something like his dominant best against India with a world-beating average of 89, has too struggled throughout the present tour. After some worrying early indicators in the warm-up matches, KP has continued to struggle against the Pakistan attack managing a measly 49  collective runs scored over his five innings’.

Along with Pietersen, it was Ian Bell who really shone over the summer with an almost as imperious average of 84. Sadly though for Bell who’s summer was seen as something of an affirmation of his world-class status as a Test performer, his role against Pakistan has been far less glamorous. In alarmingly similar fashion to Pietersen, he has sunk without trace on the current tour contributing even fewer runs than his team-mate; a total of just 41 runs from his five visits to the crease.

The fledgling member of England’s supposedly match-winning batting line-up, Eoin Morgan, is one of the only batsmen worthy of a little sympathy for his torrid time out in the middle this series given his lack of Test Match experience. However, his lack of runs has also been a worry given the faith shown to select him ahead of the talented (even if not entirely reliable) Ravi Bopara. Morgan has averaged more than 20 runs less-per-innings during the present tour when compared to his contributions against India on home turf.

The common theme for England’s batting line-up is clearly that they have failed to deliver anywhere near as strongly as they did at home to India in the summer, with the exception being Jonathan Trott who’s average has actually been an improvement. There are of course several reasons for such a rapid decline in form and I am not going to bother claiming that I am next in line to Graham Gooch on the batting guidance front, but the foremost explanations are two-fold.

First, the England batsmen are ‘ring-rusty’. This may sound a little pathetic when they are meant to be top-class performers but a few months out of Test action is a long time and although they may have needed it for the sake of their long-term sanity, it hasn’t exactly helped them in the short-term. Also, there appears to be some serious deficiencies in their approach to batting on Sub-Continental pitches, which have seen the batsmen resorting consistently to either negative and tentative reliance on the back-foot and, alternatively, if all else fails, they have been lured into loose shots designed in vein to relieve pressure.

So then, there is an enormous amount for England to work on in the coming weeks and months but in the short-term a second innings of composure and positivity would go some way to restoring the apparently fragile confidence of their batting contingent.

 

Terry loses the captaincy again; Have the FA made the right call?

The breaking news this morning that John  Terry has been removed from his post as England captain for a second time will no doubt be a matter of significant debate up and down the country today, but regarding England’s and the FA’s long-term well-being I think that the right decision has been made.

Of course, everybody will have their own opinion on the matter but I think his position of leadership and huge responsibility had become entirely untenable in light of recent events.

Many will argue that ‘he shouldn’t be stripped of the captaincy unless he if proven to be guilty’ but the truth is that this decision has been made with the best interests of all parties in mind. At least in the short term this decision has moved to appease those baying for Terry’s blood and it has removed Terry from the sharpest glare of the media and the public in the build-up to the Euros.

Many will view this move from the FA as a punishment for Terry but really this decision has been made for his own good. He is a world class centre-back who has been terrific on the field for his club and country but this move to strip him of the captaincy will hopefully enable him to play his best, uninhibited football if and when called upon in the lead up to European Championships.

In spite of my belief that the FA have made the right call, I am under no illusions as to how big a risk this was from them and I’m sure that they’ll be painfully aware of the significances too. Whether they like it or not, this decision has called into question their support of Terry who has after all been captain of their country for two lengthy periods. They may not be going as far as to say they doubt him, and the decision to stand him down from the captaincy may well have been made with great integrity in order to protect him but neither does it demonstrate a huge show of faith in his innocence either.

Now the question has been answered as to whether he will remain as England captain, there remain many questions still unanswered about Terry’s future and the future of England without his leadership. Will he even be a part of England’s forthcoming squads for friendly matches and the European Championships? Who will take over the captaincy for England? Will Rio Ferdinand shake his hand when they come head-to-head in the Chelsea-United game this weekend? Will Terry’s remaining presence in the squad mean that Ferdinand will retire from international football? And, will the England players be able to function as a squad while he is present and under such intense pressure?

For now of course, we will have to wait for the answer to these huge questions to unfold but here are my brief views on the highlighted issues…

I think Terry will be taken to the Euros and in terms of his ability he more than deserves his place in the squad, however, his presence will surely ruffle a few feathers and Capello is just fortunate that there are no QPR players likely to be in his plans (bar Bobby Zamora who is only a recent recruit at Loftus Road).

I  think that Rio Ferdinand will shake his hand if he plays against Chelsea this weekend as he is, generally speaking, very professional and will go ahead with the formalities regardless of what has gone before. I do however think that Ferdinand will find it hard to play alongside Terry at international level if asked, as his only public murmurings on the subject seem to suggest that he is firmly in support of his brother and it is hard to see how such support will manifest itself in a way that will see him partner up with Terry in England’s defence again.

Regarding Capello’s next choice of England captain, I hope he opts for Scott Parker even if it is just on a short-term basis given his advancing years. Parker is a real ‘leads-by-example’ sort of skipper and has led notoriously difficult clubs such as Newcastle and West Ham with great dignity. He also seems to be a dead-cert to make England’s starting line-up this summer if fit and well so that makes him a very strong candidate.

Other contenders include experienced options like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, though I would argue that both of them are far from assured of a guaranteed place in the starting line-up, which is perhaps the most important of all the criteria needed to lead the side. Other interesting candidates include Rio Ferdinand, if he can stomach playing alongside Terry (and if he even makes the squad) and Joe Hart who like Scott Parker is relatively inexperienced on the international stage but is confident, popular and possesses great quality. If Parker doesn’t fit the bill for Fabio, then I hope Hart is given a crack at leading from the back.

Whatever does happen regarding the Terry-racism-saga over the next few months, we know it will be very interesting indeed. For what it’s worth, I commend the FA for their handling of the situation so far but this story is clearly one left ‘To Be Continued..’