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.

Can Johnson’s Wisdom guide England To Glory?

England embark upon another World Cup campaign on Saturday morning, and for now the weight of expectation is surprisingly manageable. The general consensus seems to be that England are short of the mark in comparison to the likes of hosts New Zealand who kick things off tomorrow morning, and as such they are going in unfazed, but also prepared and ready to try and slip under the radar as they did four years ago in their defence of the title. Perhaps it is the rather surprising run to the final four years ago which should inspire belief amongst the supporters, but for now it seems that qualification from the group is all many are expecting for the time being.

Four years ago England went into the tournament out of form, low on confidence and struggling to settle on the right line-up. This time around things appear to be a little more comfortable for them having dominated the 6 Nations earlier in the year. Though this campaign fell short with a Grandslam ruining defeat to Ireland, the level of performance leading up to the fall at the final hurdle was very encouraging.

Flood and Wilkinson are set to battle for the 10 shirt throughout the tournament

One of the successes of England’s opening four victories in the 6 Nations was the role played by Toby Flood at fly-half, where he played a higher attacking line and fulfilled his role as a playmaking 10 with confidence and verve. Four games into the campaign Flood will have been forgiven for thinking that he was a nailed on selection for the first XV come the World Cup, but as today’s announcement has revealed he hasn’t made the cut and 2003 hero Jonny Wilkinson is back at outside half. This turnaround in selection over the past six months is indicative of the highly competitive and hungry squad which Martin Johnson has at his disposal.

Other signs of strength in depth are also evident in Johnson’s selection for the Argentina match. Perhaps the strongest indication comes in the form of Delon Armitage who has gained a recall to the line-up at the expense of injury ‘risk’ Mark Cueto on the wing. Having endured a tough period in his career since an outstanding burst on to the International scene in 2009,  Armitage is back in England’s first choice Test side and though he is suprised to have got the nod he is determined to prove himself worthy.

Martin Johnson himself has admitted that Cueto would be able to play the match if entirely necessary and I guess his decision not to play him is testament to the reserve power which he believes England have in abundance. Something England have done well over the past couple of years has been to demonstrate versatility and flexibility in the face of adversity. The likes of Courtney Lawes have stepped up strongly when given the opportunity to impress and as such they have kept their places and go into the World Cup as first choice players.

Insert Lewis Moody Here...

So it seems that England’s strength going into the World Cup lies with their ability to pull together as a squad and fill in where and when needed. Whereas overwhelming favourites New Zealand and second favourites Australia boast ‘big name’ players with an ‘X-Factor, England’s squad is made up of more understated performers each of whom are interchangeable with the secondaries in their given positions without much damage ever being done. Martin Johnson is more aware than most of how you go about getting your hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy and it seems that his focus is quite rightly upon the importance of rugby being played as a squad game. If England are to spring a surprise and land a second World Cup title, it will be surprising if most of the squad don’t feature somewhere along the road.

At present it seems that England’s squad have found a fine balance of realism and optimism which should serve them well. I think the majority of the camp would be modest enough to accept that they perhaps lack the star quality of the tournament hosts but I imagine that they like Johnson back the depth and spirit of their ranks to rival any other side that they come up against over the next few weeks.

The feeling seems to be that maybe this World Cup has come to soon for England’s developing squad but young dynamos such as Ben Youngs, Manu Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes will benefit hugely come 2015 if England go deep into the tournament this time around.

30 Man Game

Opening Round Predictions:

Group A:

Winners – New Zealand, Runners Up – France

Group B:

Winners – Enlgand, Runners Up – Argentina

Group C:

Winners – Australia, Runners Up – Ireland

Group D:

Winners – South Africa, Runners Up – Samoa

Will the most open World Cup in memory serve up England’s greatest triumph?

England’s quest for the completion of an incredible year has this week reached the quarter-final stages of the World Cup. To complete the treble of Twenty20, Ashes and World Cup glory would have to be considered a year of unprecedented success, however, in order to achieve this they must first overcome Sri Lanka at fortress Premadasa.

England’s campaign thus far has been far from convincing. Defeats at the hands of associate side Ireland and the horribly out-of-form Bangladesh have called into question the fatigue-levels and mental state in the camp off the back of a busy winter, but England will know their work is far from done. They must keep in mind just how huger achievement it would be to complete this mission and that the end really is in sight. Their mentality in the bigger games has appeared committed thus far and that is the way things must remain.

England have demonstrated a major weakness against spin and the challenge of the master Muttiah Muralidaran, the famed ‘mystery-spinner’ Aganta Mendis and the in-form Tilekeratne Dilshan could well prove too much. ‘Murali’ and Mendis in particular can win this match single-handedly, couple that with the rampaging threat of Lasith Malinga and the task presents it’s own case. Though England undoubtedly boast match-winners too, it seems that Sri Lanka’s stars are far more fresh and in-form. In fact, some of England’s ‘X-Factor’ players such as Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad have already succumb to injury and left for home. Is it really possible for England to win this tournament without arguably their best one-day batsman and arguably their best one-day pace-man? The jury is very much out.

One thing is for sure, even if England do progress there is still a mountain to climb to win the tournament. With favourites South Africa the likely semi-final opponents and the prospect of the in-form Pakistan, hosts India, or reigning champions Australia waiting in the final it is clear for all to see that England are far from being crowned champions. Captain Andrew Strauss will be praying that the ‘dark-horse’ tag hanging round England’s necks at present will work in their favour as they seek some serious improvements going into these knock-out stages.

It has been a fantastic tournament so far, founded primarily upon the trials and tribulations of England’s campaign. They have been involved in arguably five of the greatest games of the tournament out of the six they have played, and have provided outstanding entertainment, if not any level of consistency. Players and fans alike will be hoping for victory this Saturday, but in truth I think the task is just too much for them. I tip Sri Lanka for victory and progression to a final against India. If this is the case then I believe India will rule triumphant on home-turf.

Whatever the outcome eventually is, it seems we are set for yet more excitement and hopefully a couple more surprises along the journey. England will hope to continue slipping under the radar and finding crucial victories from somewhere in the murky depths of the imagination, which so far they have stretched to it’s fullest extents. Perhaps only New Zealand are less favoured for glory, but Captain Strauss would be wise not to focus on this. They have one objective now and that is to win, we await to see if this is in fact achievable or whether it is more just a romantic pipe-dream.

Good but not good enough for England’s Grandslam chasers

Saturday evening saw a disappointing climax to England’s 6 Nations campaign, but lets not get too down about it. Indeed, the Grandslam was there for the taking against a previously out of sorts Ireland side, but all in all to have won the championship with an injury-hit and inexperienced side is still commendable.

Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll scores

The absence of England’s Captain, Lewis Moody, and Vice Captain Mike Tindall cannot be underestimated. A nervous looking England never got the bit between their teeth and struggled for a foothold, whilst the Irish turned the form-book in it’s head taking to the field in barnstorming fashion.

For the vast majority of the game the Irish appeared to have intimidated their opposition, with an admirably high intensity level matched only by their skill and clinical finishing. It was a performance of such high-class and control, epitomised by the young outside-half Johnny Sexton. His seeming lack of composure in pressure moments and inexperience have been highlighted in his more recent outings, but no such negatives were apparent this time out. What a luxury it is too for the resurgent Irish to have the hugely experienced dictator Ronan O’Gara there to call upon as the more than able deputy. His ten minute cameo demonstrated all you need to know about the Munster-man; passion, composure and a touch of real class under-pressure. His deft prod to the corner with the outside of his boot in the closing stages was nothing short of sublime, and conveyed beautifully the ‘midas-touch’ possessed by the Irish on the night.

England were however crowned champions of the tournament and have reason to celebrate this. It is an achievement perhaps not of the substance with which Grandslams are made of, but commendable nonetheless. The defeat itself must be taken as the Autumn defeat to South Africa was; a learning curve for an inexperienced squad striving to ensure they are ready to make an impression at the World Cup come this autumn.

The signs prior to today have been positive; the closing out of tightly contested matches against Wales, France and Scotland, and the clinical deconstruction of the Italians. Have no doubts that this defeat was a missed opportunity, but it was as much about Ireland’s rejuvenation as an attacking force as it was about England’s lack of nerve. All teams have good days and all have bad ones. This performance in isolation was well-below par, but Martin Johnson will do well to reinforce the positives to have come out of this campaign.

The fly-half partnership of starting 10 Toby Flood and class-act deputy Jonny Wilkinson has provided depth and balance, as has the emergence of youngster’s Tom Wood and Alex Corbisiero. Depth is so crucial when it comes to World Cup year and with the likes of Moody, Tindall, Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes and Andrew Sheridan ready to return in the Autumn it seems England have this base covered. The only major concern for the England selectors must be the consistently anonymous performances of Shontayne Hape, and the lack of alternative options in the centres, demonstrated by Matt Banahan’s pretty one-dimensional threat in the defeat.

Ultimately, it has been a good couple of months for ‘Jonno’s’ boys and it remains to be seen whether such promise can amount to a higher level of consistency. Never mind the disappointment of not quite finishing off the job, they have been leagues ahead of their Northern hemisphere competitors over the course of the tournament and appear to have to edge over the old-enemy Australia in recent times. The jury is out over whether we can compete with the All Black flair and the power of reigning World Champions South Africa, but with the exception of their most recent showing, England appear a force to be reckoned with.

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.