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.

Advertisements

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.

 

 

Has the penny finally dropped for England @ The RWC?

A few tough weeks are not yet forgotten, but England’s performance against a poor Romania side this morning provided some significant respite. Less unforced errors, fewer moments of silly indiscipline and a more assured and confident day with the ball in hand all added up to a much improved showing from Martin Johnson’s men, and it was about time.

Though the opposition were at times staggeringly poor, it was vital that England treated the game with respect and that they did. From their early decision to slot three nerve-easing points from a penalty to their late attempt at what would have been an incredible breakaway try, England performed with total professionalism and hunger as finally they laid down their marker for the tournament.

In a week where South Africa and Australia silenced their critics it was the perfect time for England to make an impression and this result may not have sent out shockwaves, but it certainly will have made a few teams sit up and take note that England aren’t a team in total disrepair.

No matter how poor their opposition were it was encouraging to see England playing with far greater intent and this was helped dramatically by their improved handling throughout. Ben Youngs dictated the pace of the game very smartly at 9 and got the England backs firing right from the word go and he was well supported by Jonny Wilkinson in the first half and Toby Flood in the second. The combination play between the half-back pairings was neat, tidy and efficient and brought England’s try-scorers into play on a consistent basis.

It seemed that England knew a simplistic approach would suffice if they injected pace into their attacks and the vast majority of their tries came as a result of this approach. England were strong up front and endeavoured to provide Ben Youngs with the quick ball he thrives upon and this enabled the likes of Manu Tuilagi to play a starring role.

Tuilagi revelled in his greater involvement in attack

The young Pacific-Island dynamo was invited to play at his dangerous and brilliant best this morning with the quick service allowing him to take the ball on the shoulder of Wilkinson and Flood right up on the gain-line. For me he was the real star of England’s display and he was demonstrative of everything that England did right in attack today. His support running was fantastic and his hands consistent as he continuously made breaks through Romania’s defensive line and provided the simple hands necessary not just to score himself but to provide assists for others. In England’s previous games they haven’t played with enough confidence and conviction to bring Tuilagi and their other devastating supporting runners like Chris Ashton in from the fringes of the game, but today was a totally different story.

Has the penny finally dropped for England in New Zealand? It seems it has. Simple and strong rugby played at pace usually does for the minnows in tournament play and boy did it work today. Romania’s display was committed as was expected, but their error-strewn handling, shabby set-piece play and their inability to keep pace with England’s relentless execution of the basics meant that they failed to keep touch with their far more able opponents. From now England’s remaining matches in this World Cup will all be against truly world class opposition. Their next opponents Scotland have a huge match against Argentina tomorrow and whatever the result is they will be coming for England’s blood next week.

It is fair to say that England’s more direct and simplistic approach was suited better to today’s task rather than their upcoming encounters, but they would be well advised to take note that uncomplicated rugby does work if executed with confidence. England’s more exciting performers like Youngs, Tuilagi, Ashton and Ben Foden are the key to their potential success at the World Cup, but the way to utilise them most effectively is to get the basics right in the first place.

 

Familiarity breeds contempt, and Haskell can’t bottle it up any longer

Another day another stuttering victory for England. Another day another bout of criticism, only this time it has come very firmly from within as well as from the media and supporting public. James Haskell’s frank dressing-down of England’s display was on one hand refreshing and on another entirely worrying. It is rare for a sportsman to come out and speak with such bluntness and clear dismay at the performance of their under-fire team mates so in that sense it was a strange and rather wonderful spectacle. However, the very thinly veiled harshness of Haskell’s message is indicative that much is not right within the England camp at present.

An angry Haskell felt obliged to air his misgivings yesterday

Usually you would expect members of the side and the coaching staff to support an unconvincing showing provided that it brought with it a solid victory, as was the case today. Whilst offering aid to the cause it is often common place to hear acceptance that things weren’t quite up to the mark but that they soon will be. Haskell’s appraisal of the current state of play though was far less sympathetic as he stated that they can’t possibly “win the World Cup” if things remain as they are, an opinion which was publicly shared by Martin Johnson. One has to wonder whether Haskell’s words were directed entirely at the on-field efforts given the difficult week that the England camp has endured under the scrutiny of the world and it’s wife in the wake of off-field troubles.

I think it is wise to steer clear of an in-depth analysis of the week’s off-field dramas other than to say that things clearly got out of hand. You would expect Martin Johnson to defend his men unless huge misdemeanours came to light and this was the case with his moment of tabloid gold in saying “rugby player drinks beer…shocker!” This was a defiant line designed to demonstrate his contempt for the ‘excessive’ media coverage of events but ironically it was lapped up like sweet nectar by the press. His message is understandable and there was a dry-ness to it that provoked a chuckle, but maybe given the furnace-like pressure amidst World Cup fever it would have been wiser to avoid such a provocative remark.

Anyway, moving on to yesterday’s match itself… It is fair to say that the game provided a little more optimism than the opener against Argentina but not enough to satisfy the doubters. There was a familiar pattern to the previous match in terms of the game being littered with errors and ill-discipline hence the frustrations that were vented by Haskell and Johnson. Though these are certainly issues to be dealt with before matches against Romania and Scotland there were at least some real positives to be taken from the game.

Ashton flying again?

In attack there was a greater intent and desire to move the ball through the hands, which is highlighted by the fact that wingers Chris Ashton and Delon Armitage shared three tries between them. Shontayne Hape and Manu Tuilagi in the centres were also given greater invitation to run attacking lines and this resulted in them each getting on the scoresheet as well. The increased opportunities for the back-line runners must be attributed to the greater urgency and distribution provided by Leicester half-backs Ben Youngs and Toby Flood who were re-introduced as the starting playmakers in the line-up. Flood also must be credited for a stronger goal-kicking performance than Jonny Wilkinson’s against Argentina under the roof at the Otago.

There is certainly reason for ongoing concern given that yesterday’s opposition were considerably weaker than Argentina, but Georgia did play beyond their means and England did  manage to put forty points on them. The mistakes were again there for all to see and they were alarmingly similar to those present in the nail-biting win over Argentina, but certainly in attack there were signs of improved conviction and invention which should hopefully serve them well going forward. A tough week has now come to an end and England have managed to produce a victory with the always helpful addition of a bonus point for their greater assault on the try-line. Minor improvements there were, but major scope for improvement remains. The England camp will be praying on a quieter week this time around and with it a comfortable win over Romania should be achieved. Familiarity breeds contempt and the off-field dramas need to stop as do the indifferent performances.

Big Weekend For British Sport; You Win Some You Lose Some

Isn’t it brilliant when things work out sweetly for you? Last week I salivated over the prospect of a big weekend for British sport and so it turned out to be. Furthermore, I put my journalistic neck on the line and predicted that would David Haye would dominate Audley Harrison, though I would concede that the outcome was fairly obvious. However, I am most proud of my foresight regarding English Rugby and the need for us to play to our strengths and let our youngsters fly. Perhaps a certain Mr.Johnson did indeed stumble upon my blog and take heed from my thoughts as I wished for in my previous post…

Our first big winner of the weekend was the Hayemaker himself. Such hype, such build-up and such hysteria preceded the battle of the British Heavyweights, which indeed ended up being as “one sided as gang rape” as Haye himself so distastefully stated it would be. It took Haye little over seven minutes to stop Harrison in menacing and convincing fashion. The fight started at snails-pace with Haye dancing around the ring and Harrison vigilantly watching on. But when the referee stepped in to tell the fighters to start boxing in the second round Haye set to work and crushed the Olympic Super Heavyweight gold medalist. Haye sent Harrison tumbling to the canvas at the start of round three with a torrent of fierce blows only for Harrison to regain his footing after an eight count. This resistance was short-lived as Harrison was seconds later prevented any further torment by the referee after another flurry of weighty connections. Many would argue that Haye should never have taken the fight with Harrison as there was nothing he would learn from the bout. He may be a hollow-victor in some eyes, but he is a victor nonetheless and clearly Haye was fighting to put some personal ghosts to bed.

Second big winners of the weekend were the England Rugby team. Not only did they win, but they won with a swagger unfamiliar even in the days of Clive Woodward and World Cup glory and broke their scoring and winning margin records against the Aussies. What England and Martin Johnson desperately needed was a slick, stylish and clinical display in order to get the critics off their back and boy did they get it. Such a transformation from the negative and sloppy outfit that lost out to the All Blacks the week before England looked like and proved to be world beaters.

Each and every one of England’s generally young and pretty exciting when given the chance side seemed to enter the fray with an entirely different and necessary mentality and it paid dividends. An unwritten rule of such performances is that the whole team were men of the match, however, one young man shone brighter than all those brave performers around him. Ben Youngs was simply magical. His ability to dictate the game from 9 was sublime and the genius and sheer confidence of his performance was encapsulated in that most glorious of moments when on his own try line he dummied and stepped before releasing the ball which found its way to Ashton on the wing and the rest is history. English rugby fans will take this performance into the remainder of the autumn internationals starting this Saturday against Samoa.

We’ve had the winners and now for the losers. Where else to start other than poor old Audley? The moment he has waited for all his career falls rather fortunately into his hands at the age of 38, it is against a man who he is emotionally tied too and his training camp went as well as ever. So what went wrong? Well no one can possibly explain why his performance was so dour. Why wait an entire career for your moment and only throw a single jab and not one of your famed big left hands. Surely Harrison has not only lost this fight but finally come to the end of such a disappointing career.

Other notable British losers this weekend were Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. Admittedly both drivers needed an awful lot to go their way in order to steal in on the title but neither driver even forced their way into the top three drivers for the season. Hamilton in particular will be left ruing his back to back failures to finish when coming into the home straight of the F1 season, not exactly what is expected of a former champion. The composure shown by German Sebastian Vettel was worthy of that of a man who has now usurped Hamilton as the youngest ever F1 champion.

Final loser of the weekend of British sport was me. I placed five pounds on Haye defeating Harrison in the fifth round in addition to the £14.95 spent on seeing the probable end of Audley Harrison’s career. Seems that I should have staked my money on Haye’s recommendation of a third round knockout…

Another Autumn of Discontent For English Rugby?

English rugby has stuttered and stumbled its way through the years that have elapsed since their awe-inspiring battle through to the final of the 2007 World Cup. However, following the victory against Australia in their own back yard and the narrow, spirited loss to the All Blacks last weekend many have started to believe once more that England can compete come 2011.

On the contrary, I believe that spirited is all that can be said of England’s most recent showing. On the face of it a 26-16 defeat at home to the best side in the world is arguably a decent result but I believe that England blatantly lacked the sharpness, threat and clinical nature required to seriously worry the top nations.

All too often England resorted to the grunt and grind of negative forwards rugby, stumbling and stuttering their way up-field before repeatedly wasting all that effort when within metres of the line. Some would argue that the very fact that we were within striking distance of New Zealand throughout the second half is encouraging but in truth the All Blacks weren’t really on top of their game. Moments of inspiration were there from the likes of Carter, Rokocoko, and Gear as they always are when the Kiwi’s take the field but there did appear to be something lacking on their part. Surely when playing at home against a team performing a little under par a ten point deficit is not good enough, whether it be against the best team in the world or not.

English rugby sports the marvellous record of having won the World Cup in 2003 and having been the beaten finalists in 2007. In addition to this we have the richest rugby governing body in the world in the form of the RFU. These make up the foundations of a nation that should be going into every Test Match expecting victory, so why aren’t we?

Well the jury is out on that issue, but I would argue that currently our greatest strengths are our exciting young backs Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs. Last weekend they weren’t given the necessary freedom until it was too late and New Zealand were cruising to victory. This weekend against arch-rivals Australia we need a new game plan. We simply cannot afford to let the game get away from us before we let our talented youngsters fly and take the fight to the opposition.

Sadly I fear that World Cup Hero turned England Coach Martin Johnson is to blame for a three year period of inconsistent performances. If you happen to have stumbled across this Mr.Johnson, Sir, I implore you to give our exciting players the license to play with the freedom which they exhibit so regularly in domestic Rugby.