6 Nations: : Lions Watch

After a few Blog-less months (caused by the stresses and strains of a journalism course which has somewhat taken over my life the past few months…), I am pleased to make my return and what better excuse to do so than the 6 Nations and the forthcoming Lions tour.

The British and Irish Lions have a mouthwatering summer tour of Australia lying in wait and as is always the case in a 6 Nations tournament in the lead-up to a Lions tour, competition for places is starting to hot up.

Gatland has much to consider after the first weekend of action

The opening weekend had all British rugby fans wishing that the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse were not Italian and were English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish dynamos instead as they helped inspire Italy to a stunning victory over France.

The opening weekend also saw a rejuvenated Ireland conquer Wales who are continuing their free-fall from their Grandslam-winning pedestal, and England demonstrating the sort of attacking verve en-route to victory against Scotland that helped them defeat world champions New Zealand in the Autumn.

As is nearly always the case in a Lions year, the opening weekend provided a fascinating insight into who might make the trip and who might not.

It threw up the usual blend of ‘dead-certs’ confirming their status as being such (e.g Dan Cole, Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Chris Ashton), former favourites for selection on the wane (Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies, the latter seemed to just have an off-day) , and young unexpected contenders throwing their hats into the ring for selection (e.g Joe Launchberry, Billy Twelvetrees.

Anyway, now that the dust has settled on the wonderful opening round of this year’s tournament it is time to look ahead to this weekend’s action and I have decided to highlight some of the key British and Irish players and clashes to look out for this weekend.

Cian Healey Vs. Dan Cole:

Come the first test match against Australia this summer these two could well be partnered as the first-choice tight-head and loose-head props for the Lions but this Saturday they will be head-to-head and it promises to be a snarling battle. Both were true to form on the opening weekend and proved why they are both regarded amongst the very best in the world in their respective positions.

Ben Youngs Vs. Danny Care:

This is an ‘in-house’ battle within the England setup and one which seems to drive both players on rather than inhibiting their performances. They are both world-class, both exciting, both energising, but unfortunately both are still pretty young and each have a tendency to undo some of their fantastic work with some clumsy errors. They are however both in the running for a spot in the Lions squad as well as being locked in a battle to wrestle the number 9 England shirt from one another. Hopefully this battle can continue to inspire the pair of them and we can look forward to a big 60 minutes from Ben Youngs this weekend and an exciting cameo from Care in the last 20.

Justin Tipuric:

 

Justin TipuricLess than a year ago it seemed that Sam Warburton could do nothing wrong. He had performed and led the Welsh side superbly at the World Cup in late 2011 and then he flourished again as skipper as Wales went on to Grandslam glory in 2012. He has however been a steep downwards slide since then and so have Wales as a collective unit. Captain Sam is missing this weekend though and at the moment this actually seems to be a positive for the Welsh as it opens up a space for the dynamic Justin Tipuric. Prior to last weekend I had heard an awful lot about him but hadn’t seen much of him myself, however, his performance after coming off the bench against Ireland made me sit up and take note. Could he be the answer to Wales’ desperate prayers of late? Could he even be Lions material? We might just find out against the French this weekend…

Brad Barritt Vs. Brian O’Driscoll:

Brian O' Driscoll 6 Nations 2013This week Sir Clive Woodward conceded that in England’s last Grandslam winning year in 2003, when Brian O’Driscoll was at his dazzling best, that he earmarked no less than three England players to nullify the Irish master’s threat. If last weekend is anything to go by then Stuart Lancaster may have to follow Woodward’s lead in his team instructions as O’Driscoll returned from injury in stunning fashion. Barritt playing alongside Billy Twelvetrees in the England midfield will surely be charged with such a task this weekend at the Aviva Stadium and the whole game could well hinge on this battle.

Other things to look out for this weekend:

The Irish back-three (even without the absent Tommy Bowe), the battle of the two fly-half Lions front-runners Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell and the development of Scotland flyer and Lions full-back hopeful Stuart Hogg who made a great impression at Twickenham last Saturday.

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6 Nations Review 2012 and Team of the Tournament

So, what has the 6 Nations taught us?

Wales:

Wales Grandslam 6 Nations

Super-Sam Warburton lifts the trophy for Wales

Wales have been fantastic. They may have suffered their fair share of scares along the way, think the Ireland, England and France matches, but ultimately they overcame every obstacle thrust in their way and they have landed another Grandslam.

Consequently, Wales are in a state of rugby-based euphoria once again but questions remain about the timing of their success, have they yet again peaked too early? Their three recent Grandslam wins have never come within a year of the start of the World Cup, in fact, both this weekend’s triumph and that of 2008 have come in the immediate aftermath of Rugby’s showpiece event.

For now Wales have every right to live in the moment and enjoy their hard-earned Grandslam glory but it is yet to be seen whether they can build on this and become one of the stand-out favourites for the World Cup in 2015, which must surely be their aim going forward.

England:

Second placed England have too been fantastic. After a sluggish but typically gritty and successful start

Stuart Lancaster England Rugby

Lancaster has helped restore pride for England

England have grown into the tournament with arguably one of their best performances coming in their only defeat of the tournament, against Wales.

Much has been made of England’s poor showing on and off the field at the World Cup and many thought that interim boss Stuart Lancaster would struggle to re-build and galvanize the troops but how wrong were they?

Lancaster has arguably been the success story of the entire tournament and the manner in which he has gone about his business has been truly admirable. He has demonstrated all that you need to be a success in the world of management in international rugby, from his media savvy to his raw enthusiasm and appreciation of the privileged position in which he has found himself, he has demonstrated extraordinary composure en route to guiding England to a pleasantly surprising campaign.

Three wins out of three on the road (a 6 Nations record) and two very creditable home performances in the narrow defeat by Wales and the romping victory against Ireland has made for a far more rosy outlook for English rugby. This tournament has been a far cry from the World Cup exploits of the touring party and that alone should be enough to ensure that Lancaster is favourite to grab the job on a full-time basis.

Ireland:

Ireland 6 Nations

Tommy Bowe has one of only a few exceptional performers for Ireland

Ireland managed to pretty much replicate their World Cup performance. They once again showed great promise but they lacked the bottle and killer instinct necessary to get themselves into real contention.

The performance against England was entirely regrettable, but arguably more disappointing were the failures to put away Wales and France when they had engineered themselves winning positions. They may feel a little aggrieved at the nature of their defeat against Wales given that there were some questionable decisions from the referee that contributed to Wales’ eventual triumph but really they need to focus more on their inability to close out games.

Wales were the better side in their head-to-head with Ireland, yet Ireland manufactured a match-winning lead going into the very final moments only to let an ounce of indiscipline undo all their hard work which should have earned them an improbable victory. To coin the old report-card classic… Ireland: ‘Could do better…’

France:

Saint-Andre France

Saint-Andre must find a better attack-defence balance for France

France’s first campaign under the tutelage of Phillipe Saint-Andre was rather bizarre. They were, as per usual, pretty unpredictable but the real surprise came in the way that Saint-Andre seemed to set them up in terms of their tactical approach to games.

The joy of French rugby has always been that though they are capable of implosion at any moment that they always look for a way to get on the front foot and take the game to the opposition and more often than not with the ball in hand, trying to produce flowing and exciting rugby.

This campaign saw an entirely different emphasis though. Saint-Andre had clearly tried to impress on his troops that defence was the priority, and for the most part their defence was indeed fairly decent (the first half against England aside).

The problem for the French though was adapting to this new style of play. Their more able attacking forces seemed inhibited and, as a result, their plan to hit teams on the break with counter-attacking rugby fell flat on it’s face at times.

Maybe Saint-Andre should stick to what the French know best. They have always been a bit of an all-or-nothing team and perhaps that is what they must remain. Turning the French into a disciplined and defensive unit is like turning England into a lethal, fast-paced team founded upon their thirst for try-scoring and flowing backs moves. It just doesn’t seem to fit. Lancaster seemed to get that in his first tournament in charge of England but sadly for France this didn’t appear to be the case for their new boss.

Italy:

Fifth-placed Italy deserve enormous credit once again for their efforts in avoiding the wooden-spoon.

Venditti Italy Rugby

Venditti crashes over to avoid the wooden-spoon

Their solitary win against the Scots may not have been attractive but it was ruthless. In Rome they gave Scotland a painful lesson in taking your chances when they come. Venditti may have resembled a baby rhino lacking in any natural running technique when he went over for the decisive score but the fact remains that he was the only person who managed to do so all game.

Italy’s campaign wasn’t though entirely based upon their final day win as they also performed well against England and France. They may have ultimately succumbed to defeat in both games but their willingness to take the game to France and the attitude they showed to come back from an early deficit and go in at half time with the lead against England suggests that the gap between them and the rest is shortening year on year. It is hard to tell just how much the Italians are progressing at times but I think they have shown enough in this year’s tournament to suggest that they are moving forward.

Scotland:

Scotland flattered to deceive. An opening day performance of decent promise against England was ruined

Scotland Rugby

Plenty of promise for Scotland, but ultimately failure

by a lack of composure, their great resistance in the early stages against Wales was eventually ground down and overwhelmed and they again had their moments against France en route to defeat.

It has been a very strange tournament for them really. The past few weeks have seen them receive plaudits for their much-improved style of rugby which will have made Coach Andy Robinson a very proud man but ultimately they have lost all five of their games and their performance against Italy was pretty sub-standard.

The likes of Richie Gray, Dave Denton and Stuart Hogg have shown in this tournament some real rays of light for Scottish rugby but Andy Robinson may pay for his side’s lack of killer instinct. Robinson does seem to me to have the right ideas to take the Scotland side forward but the lack of positive results may well cost him his job.

The Conclusion:

Wales are fantastic and have to now use this success as a foundation towards bigger and better triumphs in the long term.

England do still have a side with the potential to build towards 2015 and should stick with Lancaster after a very encouraging first taste of job.

Ireland need to learn how to win big matches and need to learn what life will be like without the killer instinct of Brian O’Driscoll, which they have sorely missed throughout the tournament.

France are better off being cavalier and arrogant than they are being resilient. Lievremont experienced something of a mutiny within his ranks at the World Cup but somehow they still nearly won it, Saint-Andre targeted unity and discipline and it seems as if this ended up blunting the French threat en route to a disappointing 4th placed finish.

Italy need to keep on plugging away. They are perhaps still a little too reliant on the likes of the brilliant Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni but they are making strides in certain areas and they appeared a little more threatening going forward in this year’s Championship.

Scotland need to either show great confidence in the new Andy Robinson ethos and accept that it might take a while for it to truly reap it’s rewards or alternatively they must move on to a new Coach with a new style immediately, they can’t afford to stick with Robinson in the short term and then get rid of him after losing their next couple of games. Their have been real signs of life in their ranks this tournament and it has been refreshing to see them taking on the opposition but no wins in five suggests there is still an enormous amount of work to be done.

My Team of the Tournament:

Coach – Stuart Lancaster (My apologies to Mr.Gatland who has obviously done a great job as well…)

Front Row – Gethin Jenkins, Dylan Hartley/Rory Best, Dan Cole

Second Row – Alun Wyn Jones, Richie Gray

Back Row – Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, Tom Croft/Sam Warburton

Half Backs – Mike Phillips, Owen Farrell

Centres – Wesley Fofana, Jonathan Davies

Wings – Alex Cuthbert/George North, Tommy Bowe

Full Back – Leigh Halfpenny

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

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

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.

 

An Ode to Jonny ‘That night in Sydney’ Wilkinson

The word legend is often used to freely in the realms of sport, but it would simply be unfair to describe Jonny Wilkinson as anything other than a Rugby legend. The man with the golden left boot has made the decision to hang up his boots in the international game and has left behind him one hell of a legacy.

The Early Years

‘That night in Sydney’ was the moment that made him worthy of legendary status, even if he being his modest self was a little underwhelmed with his own personal performance. He even rather infamously described his last-gasp, tournament winning drop goal (slotted under enormous pressure with his wrong foot) as a “dead duck”. This lack of interest in self-glorification and personal success is what has made him such an incredible asset to his nation and one of the finest players of all time.

For a man so humble about his abilities and his inspirational character he has amassed some seriously impressive individual achievements. Now we know that he is never to don the red rose again we are left looking back at such examples of his brilliance and the impact he has had upon the world of international rugby. This impact is probably demonstrated most clearly by his incredible tally of 1,179 points from 91 caps which places him second only to Dan Carter on the all-time top scorers list, and a clear leader of England’s own list of top point scorers.

These statistics are beyond impressive in their own right but Wilkinson will know more than most that it could have even more incredible had his body been able to keep pace with his talent. Staggeringly, Wilkinson managed to achieve all that he has in international and domestic rugby having had to endure the most miserable of periods out of the game with multiple serious and not so serious injuries, that in effect wiped out the four years of his career which could well have been his prime.

Between the successful World Cup Campaign in 2003 and the near-miss in the 2007 tournament, Wilkinson was sadly removed from the England international set-up due to such afflictions as a fractured shoulder, a recurrence of the same shoulder injury, an extended recovery period following reparatory surgery on his shoulder, a torn bicep, an upper arm haematoma, removal of his appendix, severe damage to his groin muscles, a torn adductor, torn knee ligaments and a lacerated kidney to name but a few…

The all too familiar sight of a Wilkinson injury

We will unfortunately never know just how many points he might have accumulated had he not spent so long in the rugby wilderness or just how good the England side could have continued to be had he been there to contribute and oversee this era as captain. Nevertheless, his achievements are right up there with the all-time greats and this is exactly how he should be remembered in the wake of his international career.

It is plain for all to see that Mr.Wilkinson hasn’t ever quite hit the heights of 2003 again in his playing career but he must be greatly admired for the courage and determination he has continued to demonstrate since the return from his darkest days prior to 2007.

When Jonny returned to the England side as a regular in the 2007 World Cup he helped inspire a quite frankly rather lacklustre troop of players to reach a second consecutive final and very nearly a second triumph on rugby’s greatest stage. His ability to control the game with his metronomic goal-kicking and more often than not immaculate tactical kicking will go down in history and it remained a terrific asset throughout this campaign. It served as a reminder for the world of rugby about just how much they had missed his presence.

Though his game has arguably suffered as a result of his long-term absence in terms of his pace and his adaptation to the ever-evolving way in which rugby is played, his touch of class has remained and as such he has ended his international career as England’s first choice fly-half.

Though the most recent England World Cup campaign was far from successful and wasn’t exactly befitting of Wilkinson’s final bow on the international stage, Jonny himself will be enormously proud that he was still a key player in an England side at the World Cup right up to what has turned out to be the finishing point of his glorious international career.

This retirement doesn’t of course mean the end of ‘Wilko’ as a top class rugby player, and as he has proven since his high profile transfer to Toulon he still has an awful lot to offer. The legs might not quite be what they once were, but his game management is still right up there as is his unrelenting effort and commitment on the pitch. He’s still a pretty handy goal kicker too….

It feels strange to know that Jonny will never play for England again while his domestic career will continue, but there is no doubt that his time as an international rugby superstar will be remembered with enormous fondness. I personally will always remember Wilkinson as England’s iconic number 10, who with his own brand of hard-work, modesty and complete lack of respect for his body (ie- his seemingly unquenchable thirst for pain and self-sacrifice on the field) became the model professional in the world of Rugby.

Thanks for the memories Jonny; a true legend of the game and a national hero to boot. Bring on the Knighthood.

Well Done NZ, but wasn’t it an underwhelming tournament?

Maybe I am struggling to detach myself from my rather futile support of England’s dismal campaign but am I the only one who has been left feeling a little underwhelmed by Rugby’s showpiece event?

As a result of our football’s sides apparent desire to ruin every second summer of mine, the Rugby World Cup has throughout my life as a sporting fanatic become my most eagerly anticipated sporting date on the calendar. As per, I went into the tournament with great optimism about what was in store, not necessarily from the perspective of being an English fan, but more about the competition as a whole.

Would New Zealand put pay to their seeming run of 24 cursed years on home turf? Would reigning champions South Africa find something from deep within to mount a challenge with their much criticised ageing squad? Would the exciting young Australian squad show why they managed to overcome an admittedly understrength New Zealand side in the Tri-Nations? Could the Pacific Islanders mount their first serious challenge for a place in the latter stages of the competition?

These were the main questions to be answered with regards the Southern Hemisphere, as for the Northern Hemisphere… Could England take their 6 nations form into the World Cup? Could the ever-mercurial French find their elusive best? Could Ireland find the form that saw them ruin England’s 6 nations Grandslam? Would Wales’ late 6 nations promise and exciting young back line take them towards bigger and better things?

All of the above questions were there to be answered and in the most part the honest answers would either have to be no’s and unconvincing yes’.

Reigning champions South Africa flattered to deceive with their unbeaten run through the group (not that it went without a hitch), only to lose out to an unconvincing Australia side in the last 8. The Wallabies who had promised so much in the lead up to the tournament surprisingly lacked a spark which many thought would place them in pole position if the All Blacks were to partake in their seemingly ritual choking act. As well as the Southern Hemisphere’s headline acts struggle to find their form, their Pacific Island representatives also struggled to impress themselves upon the tournament. Fiji barely showed up. Samoa performed better than their results might suggest but ultimately didn’t deliver, and Tonga shocked the world with a great win against France but sadly barring a miracle of epic proportions they were already consigned to the fate of a first round exit.

In addition to the disappointing displays of the majority of the Southern Hemisphere outfits, there have also been let downs a plenty for the Northern hemisphere. With regards England’s campaign I’ll keep it short and sweet. It were rubbish. Like South Africa they flattered to deceive with a 100% record in the group only to follow it up with a capitulation against the French.. ‘Nuff said really…

Having been drawn in a tough group alongside England and Argentina, Scotland failed to maintain their run of making it to the last 8 of every World Cup competition. Their performances were as ever committed, which is more than could be said of some of England’s, but their continuing lack of conviction and try-scoring potential came to the fore once again as they struggled their way to a first round exit.

In contrast, Ireland undoubtedly produced the best we’ve seen from them in a while but again failed to make it beyond the last 8. They progressed strongly through the group stage including a shock victory over Australia in one of the best matches of the tournament, but they fell at the next hurdle. They might count themselves a little unlucky to have come up against the form team of the tournament, Wales, but they again failed to push on into the business end of the tournament in what was quite possibly the last chance for many of their old-timers.

Ireland’s conquerors Wales were arguably the side that came out of the tournament with the most admirers. Their performance’s throughout were full of adventure, heart and incredible team cohesion and spirit. Their young back line fired on a consistent basis whilst their forwards, led by their brilliant Captain Sam Warburton, were also outstanding. Coach Warren Gatland had gone into the tournament with several critics for his failure to push Wales on from their Grandslam glory of a few years ago, but he has left as a national hero once more. His inspiration along with that of Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards encouraged the Welsh side to play with more courage, fitness and desire than any other side in the competition. Had they not been on the wrong end of a controversial red card in the Semi-Final then they would probably have been rewarded for their immense efforts with a place in the final against the All Blacks.

As it turned out though France were the Northern Hemisphere’s representative in the final, and in spite of their at times comical stumble through the competition they pushed the victorious All Blacks all the way, and on the day at least, they looked like worthy finalists.

In a fashion now rather typical of French rugby sides, they managed to overcome on and off-field disputes within their camp and a couple of humbling group stage wins to extend their stay all the way up until the final in Auckland and saved the best for last. A committed if not irresistible performance saw them battle back from the early setback of conceding a try, to a final result which saw them deservedly only losing out by a point. Captain Thierry Dussatoir must be praised for his man of the match performance in the final which inspired the rest of his charges to put their differences with eccentric coach Mark Lievremont behind them and concentrate on running the All Blacks as close as they possibly could. Though they just missed out on their first World Cup victory they once again put the frighteners on New Zealand who very much consider the French to be their greatest threat in World Cup rugby. For this they deserve enormous credit, but if their overall campaign is anything to go by then new head coach Phillipe Saint-Andre has an enormous amount on his plate.

In spite of the many tales of under-performing and under-achieving at the World Cup there were another side than Wales that managed to do themselves justice. Any guesses who? That’s right.. New Zealand. FINALLY, the Kiwi’s managed to return (officially) to the top of the International game after a 24 year World Cup winning drought. It is unbelievable that they have managed to go quite such a long time without winning the World’s premiere competition given their domination outside of the competition, but this time around they have won it again and not many could question whether they deserve it. Years of attacking brilliance and defensive strength have continually come undone as a result of one seriously slack performance every four years but this year’s crop of players have dug deep in mental and physical reserves to come up trumps on home turf. Without a doubt home advantage has played a huge part in their success over the past six weeks, but few would begrudge their triumph at home in the wake of last year’s tragic earthquake in Christchurch. Led superbly once again by captain Richie McCaw, the All Blacks performed with supreme confidence and solidity throughout the tournament and overcame the seismic loss of star man Dan Carter (excuse the pun). Of course the major sadness of their victory was that Carter had cruelly been denied his defining moment by an injury sustained in innocuous fashion during kicking practice.

Carter’s absence was one of several disappointments for me over the past six weeks matched only really by Wales’ unjust semi-final exit. Maybe I am just being a sinic, but the competition has this time seemed to drag on a bit. New Zealand and Wales produced some exciting rugby, but the majority of other sides in the tournament were well below their best. Maybe it was the greasy and windy conditions that caused most sides to play within themselves, but even the better matches in the tournament were tight, tense, low scoring and captivating rather than exhibitions of fine attacking rugby. Anyway, enough of my pessimism… Though I felt they weren’t quite at their majestic best, New Zealand more than deserve to have their mits back on the Webb Ellis Trophy so congratulations and good luck with your quest to stay at the pinnacle of the game over the next four years!

My team of the Tournament:

Tony Woodcock, Kevin Meleamu, Adam Jones, Lionel Nallet, Brad Thorne, Sam Warburton, Jerome Kaino, Imanol Harinordoquy, Mike Phillips, Rhys Priestland/Dan Carter, Jamie Roberts, Aurelien Rougerie, Cory Jane, George North, Israel Dagg

My Player of the Tournament:

Israel Dagg

 

Can the stuttering French once again shock the All Blacks?

If France can only edge past a 14 man strong Welsh side by a point, can they really expect to beat New Zealand in ‘their’ World Cup on their patch? Honestly, it seems like a seriously long shot after their comparative performances in the semi-finals this weekend, but when the heat is on New Zealand have been known to choke.

History would suggest that France have been a thorn in the side of New Zealand’s World Cup chances, but this weekend has highlighted a greater mental strength about this All Black’s side. Their performance against Australia on Sunday was based upon mental toughness and a defensive quality greater than we have seen in a long time from a New Zealand side on the World’s biggest stage.

Usually the All Black’s are praised for their forward thinking rugby full to capacity with free flowing back’s moves and invention. Sunday though was all about the forwards’ ferocious appetite at the break down and the composure demonstrated by the backs to control the tempo of the play. The strength and consistency of the platform provided by the forwards allowed the backs to play simple efficient territorial rugby, pinning back the Australian’s and ruffling the feathers of their mercurial fly half Quade Cooper.

Nonu goes over for the game's only try

Richie McCaw in spite of his fitness worries led by example and was visibly proud in his post-match interviews. He knew more than anyone that his side had shown a lesser known side of themselves, a side which will have struck more fear into any side than that caused by their more renowned attacking genius. Not often have the All Black’s played with such nerve and cohesion in a World Cup match and Graham Henry too will be thoroughly proud of his charges.

In comparison to New Zealand’s clinical dismissal of the Wallabies, France’s lack of conviction against Wales’ fourteen men was alarming. Though they managed to initially assert their numerical advantage, the lack of spark, control and attacking threat from the French in the second half was far from worthy of a place in the final. However, by hook or by crook they are there and they will seek to upset the form book by once again inflicting a defeat upon the overwhelming favourites. If their big players such as Imanol Harinordoquy get their firm grasps upon the game as they did in the first hour against England then they do indeed have a slim chance of winning the competition for the first time and could prevent New Zealand’s official return to the peak of World rugby.

On paper there seems to be little contest though. Not only are New Zealand on home turf, not only did they beat the French with ease in the group stage, but they are almost without question the stronger side both player for player and as a cohesive unit. To put it in perspective, I would find it hard to name a handful of players in the French side worthy of a place in New Zealand’s line-up. The likes of Harinordoquy and Lionel Nallet would have a chance of a place in the All Black’s pack, and maybe you could argue that Dimitri Yaschvili and Morgan Parra (both as 9’s) would push Piri Weepu for his place along with Vincent Clerc or Maxime Medard on a wing but that’s about it.

In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the lingering doubt over New Zealand’s history of fragility under World Cup pressure remains like the unreachable itch on the spine and will do unless they are standing tall as champions of the World this time next week. The question on everyone’s lips is ‘Can the All Blacks bring to an end 24 years of hurt?’ And the answer is ‘Probably’, but maybe, just maybe, the French spark can bring the Kiwi’s to their knees yet again.

End of the Road for Martin Johnson?

And so the post mortem begins… Saturday’s poor performance against the French was just one in a succession of lacklustre showings and it begs the question; Has Martin Johnson taken this England team as far as he can?

It certainly isn’t the first time that Johnson has faced major scrutiny for his coaching ability since taking over the National side but this time it could prove fatal to his hopes of taking this current crop any further. At the start of his reign he was criticised for leading the side with a lack of invention, but in truth he was hampered by a lack of emerging exciting talent.

When he took up the post Danny Cipriani was the emerging talent of British rugby and Johnson gave him every chance to prove his worth both on and off the field but sadly Cipriani’s rather apparent shortcomings as a character and injury problems cut short any plans Johnson may have had to build an energetic and exciting side around him. Johnson initially received criticism for exiling Cipriani from his plans, but in time this has decision has become increasingly justified by a string of indisciplines from the former London Wasps man.

Since Cipriani’s rather fractious character blew Johnson’s first shot at bringing invention and creativity into the back line he has worked hard on enhancing England’s attacking threat and has made several very positive introductions. Under his tenure players such as Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft, James Haskell, Ben Youngs, Ben Foden, Delon Armitage, Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi have come to the fore as International players, which is testament at least to Johnson’s desire to make some attacking team selections.

Such introductions have over the past eighteen months begun to reap rewards and the victory over Australia in last year’s autumn internationals stands out as the prime example. This attacking intent seemed to carry on in to the 6 nations campaign at the start of the year, with the likes of Ashton, Foden and Youngs continuing to develop nicely as International players. Though this campaign ended on a sour note with a disappointingly tame defeat against Ireland, Johnson it seemed was beginning to win over his critics.

How sad it is then that England have carried the form demonstrated in the Ireland match on into their World Cup warm-ups and then the tournament itself. Finally it appeared that Johnson had overcome many of his doubters, finally it appeared that an England side under his tutelage had become capable of balancing attacking intent with defensive stability and a winning mentality but after a poor World Cup  the public have again been left to feel underwhelmed by his ability to take this team forward and utilise the potential at his disposal. England now appear to have regressed by a year to the period before the incredibly exciting victory over the Aussies at Twickenham, and sadly the World Cup has left a feeling that they are back to square one again in their preparations to challenge strongly once again on the World’s biggest stage.

It is in fact arguable that England have regressed further than just back to the pre-autumn international era in 2010. This is because of the worrying off-field actions of the players throughout the tournament which continued recently with Manu Tuilagi’s moment of madness jumping off of a ferry. He was rightly questioned by the authorities for his incredibly stupid actions and sadly it was just one of a long line of on and off-field misdemeanours.

How England go forward from here is very much down to the RFU and the post-World Cup review that will be headed by Rob Andrew. Andrew himself knows full-well that Martin Johnson can be a fantastic leader having played alongside him at International level and then having worked with him throughout his few years as Coach, but the question he must answer is whether Johnson is the right man to take England’s current squad where they need to go. It is not unreasonable to set a target of winning the next World Cup for the current pool of English players but if this is to be the ultimate aim for the next few years then Andrew must come to a decision as to who is best equipped to lead England to this goal.

Martin Johnson has spent his entire period of charge defending his strategy and selection. If this is to be the end for him as England Coach then his time leading the side in this capacity won’t be remembered as fondly as his years of captaincy. He has been fighting a losing battle in trying to emulate his playing achievements and sadly to this point he has come up short. Another consideration for the RFU may well involve releasing Johnson now with a view to reinstalling him further down the line when he may have learnt from his shortcomings and may have achieved highly in charge of a domestic club side such as his beloved Leicester Tigers. The future is very uncertain for Johnson and English rugby, but the RFU can be sure that they have an exciting squad in the making if only they are given the best guidance on offer.

 

 

RWC 2011: Saturday’s Quarter Final Predictions

England Vs. France

With an under-performing England side coming up against a French camp that is reportedly in ruins it is almost impossible to call, but I am going to back England to prosper.

In what is likely to be an error-strewn contest it is essential that both sides convert their chances with the boot. Failure to convert penalties into 3 points could be the difference between two nations which have hardly inspired confidence thus far at the World Cup. I think Johnson has picked wisely by replacing Mike Tindall with Toby Flood at inside centre as it provides flexibility for their back line. With Flood and Wilkinson equally as comfortable in the 10 shirt it could prove a very useful option to have interchanging playmakers. Wilkinson is praised for his outstanding defensive qualities at fly half and Flood is arguably more of an adventurous and threatening 10 on the break, thus they will have the luxury of switching between the pair in accordance with the course of the match.

The other major benefit of the Wilko-Flood combination is that they can share the kicking duties if needs be. Wilkinson has history with France in the World Cup and as such I expect him to shoulder the goal-kicking burden from the start. If he slots his first couple of kicks then I suspect he might well be back to his metronomic best and he could kick the French to death.

Though I do expect England to do enough to achieve victory it is utterly essential that they don’t get complacent. The French are arguably the most dangerous team in world rugby and at times they can be utterly devastating. If (and it is a big ‘if’) they manage to keep their discipline and get their set-piece working well then they could well cut England to shreds with their talented back line. They have mercurial talent in abundance in addition to some of the world’s finest finishers. If the likes of Vincent Clerc get the service they thrive upon then it could be a long hard evening for England’s usually strong defence.

Score: England 24 – 21 France (2 Tries apiece and England edging it on kicks at goal)

Ireland Vs. Wales

Two of the most convincing performers of the tournament will face-off in the early hours of Saturday morning. Ireland and Wales have both impressed throughout the group stages and have had notable performances against Southern Hemisphere opposition. Though Ireland actually achieved their prized scalp and Wales fell agonisingly short of their own crowning moment, I believe that Wales will come out on top tomorrow morning.

Wales have been outstanding in the group stages and perhaps deserve to have achieved a 100% record like tomorrow’s opponents. Their campaign started strongly with a painful defeat at the hands of reigning champions South Africa and has gone from strength to strength since. In world rugby a moment of great poignancy isn’t often as significant as the final whistle in Wales’ match against South Africa and the message that was immediately voiced by the Wales camp was that they would learn from this defeat and be stronger for it. It truly was a ‘make or break’ moment for them and it was yet to be seen whether they would live up to their admirable reaction to events that night. As it turns out they have indeed kept their word and have played tremendously well for the remainder of the group stage, with a fantastic win over the dangerous Samoans and then a crushing 66-0 humbling of Fiji. Inspired by their young but utterly outstanding captain Sam Warburton they have exceeded expectations and are looking like they could even make the final of the World Cup.

Ireland too have exceeded expectations. Their perfect record (including their outstanding win over the Aussies) proves just how good a side they can be at times and it will no doubt slightly frustrate their fans that haven’t come to the fore like this in recent major tournaments. However, it isn’t exactly the worst time to find your best form is it? They are potentially two victories away from the ultimate date with rugby destiny and who’s to say they can’t come good and mount a serious challenge? To this point their outstanding back-row have played out of their skin and they will have to again if they are to negate the threat that Wales pose and mount dangerous attacks themselves.

With both sides on the crest of a wave and really firing this could be a great match of rugby. I have Wales to win but it really could go either way.

Score: Ireland 23 – 28 (Both sides score 2-3 tries, but Wales hold on to win)