Thursday, 28 February 2008
At first I believed that the introduction of fresh talent to the French squad post-Rugby World Cup was a good move. In many ways I still do and, in Morgan Parra and the number eight Picamole for instance, it looks as if France have unearthed a couple of decent players for the future. However, in making a further 8 changes to his squad following defeat to England, including bringing in another 5 brand new faces and dropping some of his better performers, I fear that the French coach has now lost the plot.
Lièvremont justifies all this by saying that he wants to "open up the squad, to see new players," and many might claim that all he is doing is building squad depth, but just chucking potential players en masse into international rugby for a game or two does no such thing. The players that he's left out include Morgan Parra (arguably France's most effective player against England) Thierry Dusutoir (top tackler at the weekend for France), Julian Bonnaire (who dominated the lineout) and Cedric Heymans (France's best strike runner). The return of Yannick Jauzion is a plus point for France, that of Harry Ordinary less so, but how, by removing the better players from the squad, is this going to help the new players coming in?
It's possible that Lièvremont's attitude is coloured by the fact that it's "only Italy" up next - but by throwing in rookie forwards against the Italian pack France just might get seriously found out.
We all thought Bernie Laporte was mad, but this Lièvremont fella is now beginning to look like a proper mentalist!
Wednesday, 27 February 2008
Tuesday, 26 February 2008
Instead the Oscar went to another rugby player as Javier Bardem received the Academy Award for his performance as Best Supporting Actor in No Country for Old Men.
And this rugby-player-turned-actor phenomenon isn't limited to Hollywood (or, in Kemp's case, Brentwood). No indeed, over in India they have their very own rugby player in Rahul Bose who is not only a hugely famous Bollywood star but also played 14 times for the Indian national rugby team from its recognition as an official rugby-playing nation by the IRB in 1998 until the Rugby World Cup qualifiers in 2005.
Don't say you never learn anything on this site!
Monday, 25 February 2008
1. My Six Nations Fantasy Rugby team went well this weekend with Messrs Nallet, Horan and Shanklin each scoring once and Ickle Shane Williams bagging a brace.
2. Congratulations to the England Women's team for a thumping victory over their French counterparts which leaves them three fifths of the way to an unprecedented third consecutive Grand Slam.
3. Eccentric preformance of the week must go to Mr. Ian Ballsup of England. Never was a man so aptly named. On the two occasions he was called to field high kicks he disappeared without a trace and after the second occasion appeared to be screaming obscenities at his team mates. Surely it must be time now for Brian Ashton to disinherit his lovechild?
3. Total Flanker scored his first try since 1993 - more of that to follow...
Friday, 22 February 2008
Thursday, 21 February 2008
What's occupying my thoughts right now is the anticipation of another appearance by yours truly on a rugby field in Buckinghamshire this weekend, as the fourth fixture of our packed season looms large on the horizon.
Yes, on Saturday I'm off to Beaconsfield to pit my wits, my fitness and my ageing body, alongside those of my colleagues from Chesham, against the might of the local Veterans' team.
From a fitness perspective I don't really have a clear idea of where I stand - I've been a semi-regular at the gym since my last outing against High Wycombe and have also managed a few road runs but, until I have to peel myself from the mud following a pounding at the hands of the opposition pack, I won't really know what sort of shape I'm in. In the early part of the season I could assess my fitness at club training, but the inclement weather plus a need to nurse various aches and strains through the season (still struggling with a groin problem and have had a few issues with my right shoulder of late - must be an age thing) has meant that my last attendance at training was back in November. Just as well really as training for a Vet is widely regarded as tantamount to cheating.
One thing I have noticed is how much more nervous I am before playing these days. I'm sure I used to be much more relaxed before a game, unless it was an important league fixture in which case I'd have a few nerves but that was more of a case of wanting to play well and not let anyone down - whereas now it's a case of being nervous about how much it's going to hurt!
As it's my first season this century I've no idea what Beaconsfield are like as a team -I'd be surprised if they were as good as High Wycombe or Ruislip - the two teams we've faced so far - but you just never know. Hopefully we'll get that elusive first win of the season and it would be nice to feature on the scoresheet for the first time since 1993!
Who am I trying to kid? Getting through it one piece is, still, the priority.
One thing I won't be doing is charging down kicks...at least not like this bloke:
Tuesday, 19 February 2008
I guess the first thing to note is that, as yet, I'd say no team has really made a compelling case to be installed as favourites to win the 2008 championship. This may all change this weekend, of course, where an emphatic French victory in Paris would make it difficult to bet against them but, as many pundits forecasted before the tournament started, for the moment the title race really does appear to be wide open this year, with only Italy and Scotland looking to be completely out of contention.
Looking at the progress of each team so far:
FRANCE: - "Gloriously bonkers" is how I've previously described new France coach Marc Lièvremont's approach to this tournament, but somehow it's worked and, with a game strategy based around making the most of the potent talents of Cedric Heymans and Vincent Clerc, he has almost instantly re-invented the joie de vivre for which French rugby is best remembered. It looks like weaknesses in the front row could end up being France's undoing, but Lièvremont's willingness to blood new players must be a huge encouragement for French rugby fans. If the French pack can overcome the English forwards in Paris this weekend they'll start to believe that a Grand Slam is on the cards.
WALES: I have to say that the Welsh performances to date have been incredibly difficult to assess. Credit is due for the way they clung on for dear life in the first 40 minutes at Twickenham and then pulled themselves together sufficiently to apply pressure on England in the second half. That England then completely folded under the pressure is something the Welsh couldn't possibly have planned for but will have surprised and delighted Messrs Gatland and Edwards nonetheless. The routine win against Scotland also told us very little, other than the Hook-Henson-Shanklin midfield axis is in good working order and that Martyn Williams is a class apart. Gatland's main challenge now will be to get the tight five and lineout working to a level that can cope with what Ireland, France and, indeed, Italy have to offer.
IRELAND: The Irish will be encouraged by their second half fightback in Paris but I'm still not convinced that there aren't serious problems in the Irish camp. Something just isn't clicking and they look like a team desperately searching for an identity. Conservative Eddie has made changes to his team, but it's obvious that these changes go against his instincts and he simply doesn't look comfortable with his decisions. Nevertheless, the changes (for example the introduction of Heaslip and Jackman into the forwards and playing Trimble in the centre) might just have refreshed the Irish campaign sufficiently to bring respectibility to this campaign. The home match against the Welsh will be key, leaving a trip to Twickenham (which holds no fears for the Irish) as a possible championship decider.
Monday, 18 February 2008
Lomu, who was said to be "working through issues" with his wife and business manager Fiona back in December, is (allegedly) now shacked up with married property manager Nadene Quirk - the source of this information being none other than Ms Quirk's understandably upset husband, Auckland Blues winger Jarek Goebel.
Goebel is said to be "angry, upset and shocked" by events, which is fair enough really.
"I am pretty private and I don't really want to bare my soul about how I really feel," Goebel is reported to have said. "It's been a hard time. I could make Jonah look a dick, but I'm not going to."
Er, you just did Jarek.
NB - for legal reasons I should point out that Nadine Quirk should not be confused with former Birds of a Feather actress Pauline Quirke (pictured right) ;)
Friday, 15 February 2008
I remember that the annual match was portrayed very much as an opportunity for pupils to wreak vengeance on their least favourite teacher but, in fact, was quite the opposite - bitter teaching staff seeing it very much as a chance to crush boys who had made their professional lives hell...
Wednesday, 13 February 2008
Last year, of course, the competition was pretty much ruined by Graham Henry's decision to hold back his beloved All Blacks from the fray for first half of the tournament, insisting instead that they undertake a physical conditioning programme specifically tailored to ensure that winning the 2007 Rugby World Cup would be a mere formality. Hmmmm.
This year the fly in the ointment is that Super 14 players are being used as guinea pigs to trial the pithily named Experimental Variation Laws (ELVs) that have been doing the rounds in various junior rugby leagues for some time now. To add a touch more confusion, some of the ELvs are not being trialled, including the frankly insane proposals that teams may collapse mauls and handle in rucks.
Commentators, mainly from Australia it must be said, insist that the ELVs will make the game more open and exciting (I've had my say on this previously so won't bore you with further rants) and will help revive the sport of Rugby Union. Of course we've been hearing for years anyway that the rugby played in the southern hemisphere is of a far higher quality and excitement than up here in the north, which begs the question: Why exactly does the sport needs reviving? Judging by the attendance figures that both the club and international games attract in Europe I'd say that rugby is in a positively rude state of health here. Dare I suggest that, rather than a lack of excitement, it's a lack of success that accounts for the game's travails down under? No wonder they want to change the rules.
Anyway, setting aside the issue of the ELVs (which, incidentally, turn any predictions as to the competition's outcome into a lottery) here's a a rather unique view of the forthcoming Super 14 from from Jed Thian of the Alternative Rugby Commentary:
Tuesday, 12 February 2008
It's just not that simple.
I am a huge admirer of Jonny Wilkinson and have to say that he had fine first half against Italy - his creation of the first try, in particular, was top draw.
However, if we are dealing with facts you have to admit that Wilkinson's form for Newcastle this season has been indifferent, compared to Cipriani who has, for the most part, been sensational for Wasps. Equally you have to admit that Wilkinson was in general very poor against Wales and made some poor decisions in the second half against Italy, aimlessly kicking away what little possession England won.
The problem is that criticism of Wilkinson appears to be regarded by many as some kind of heresy - an attitude which is incredibly unhealthy if England are to move on.
In the end I think Wilkinson probably did enough against Italy to justify his place in the team but who is to say how Cipriani would have fared in that first half? On the front foot, with his array of attacking skills, he may well have torn Italy apart. You certainly can't make a judgement based on the last 13 minutes.
It has to be good news that Wilkinson's position is now under pressure and the fact that there is a debate as to who should play 10 for England has to be healthy. Either Jonny will rise to the challenge and see off the pretender or we'll see an exciting new talent directing the English game. And don't forget Messrs Geraghty, Lamb and even Hodgson are also busy forming an orderly queue to stake their respective claims for the position.
Monday, 11 February 2008
What is it that takes a reasonably dynamic first half performance from an English pack of forwards and turns it into a disorganised shambles for the second 40 minutes?
What causes a previously assured pair of half-backs to decide to either kick what little ball they get back to the opposition or try some ridiculous high risk move when it's obviously not on?
Why is it that England do not appear to be able to score more than 3 points in the second half?
And why, in a team already shorn of experience, does Brian Ashton think it's a good idea to start removing his team's leaders from the fray just as the brown stuff is beginning to hit the fan?
Answers on the back of a postcard please...
Friday, 8 February 2008
Thursday, 7 February 2008
"It's true...it's all my fault," confessed the ageing coach. "After the 36-o disaster against South Africa in Paris in September I'm ashamed to admit that I entered into a diabolical agreement with a character calling herself The Wicked Witch of the East Stand. The deal was that we would get five matches-worth of fantastic luck, but then would suffer an eternity of misfortune. The spate of injuries we are now suffering is obviously a manifestation of the old hag's curse."
When asked why the good luck had not extended to the decision of TMO Stuart Dickinson not to award the now infamous Cueto Try in the World Cup final, Ashton was non-plussed.
"Good point," he said. "But if he had given the try we'd have won the World Cup which, when you think about it, would have been ridiculous - not even evil magic is that strong."
Despite the recent setbacks Ashton is confident that he can defeat the curse this weekend.
"We've taken decisive action and have cancelled all training between now and kick off on Sunday," he said. "Furthermore we will quite literally be wrapping each member of the squad in cotton wool."
In a separate announcement the RFU today confirmed a major new 4-year sponsorship deal with Acme Cotton Wool Ltd.
Wednesday, 6 February 2008
The staid pragmatism of the Bernard Laporte era has well and truly been exiled to the barren wastelands of conservatism as, both in terms of selection and tactics, Lièvremont has returned France to the good old, mad old days.
Not only did his first international team selection to play Scotland at Murrayfield contain four players making their debuts (including both props and the fly half); not only did his team then try to run the ball from some clearly insane field positions against the home team; and not only did they get way with it spectactularly with a 27-6 victory - Lièvremont has now taken it upon himself to make 6 changes to that winning team, including replacing Vincent Clerc on the wing, despite the Toulouse man bagging a brace of tries and the Man of the Match award at the weekend.
My only gripe is that Clerc, along with hooker William Servat (also dropped to the bench) currently features in my Fantasy Six Nations XV which will now require urgent surgery before hostilities recommence this weekend.
That aside, Lièvremont's approach to his job is just so gloriously bonkers that it just might work, and what it does demonstrate is a boldness and a bravery to try things, to take risks, to look beyond the short term.
Brian Ashton, please take note.
I've just seen the team announcement and, must confess, am absolutely staggered.
Admittedly Brian Ashton has had to deal with having several players ruled out with injury - Andrew Sheridan being the latest apparently - but that's no excuse for the utter horlicks he's made in selecting this team.
Iain Ballsup, unfortunately, isn't injured and so is given yet another chance to prove his competence as an international fullback, despite all evidence to the contrary. Likewise Jamie Noon is restored to the outside centre position ahead of the infinitely more talented and effective Mathew Tait. What must Tait be thinking? How can he have gone from being England's most potent runner (as well as their most effective defender) in the final of the Rugby World Cup to now being third choice outside centre (at best) behind such limited players as Tindall and Noon?
Meanwhile, Saint Jonny somewhat predictably keeps his place despite currently probably being, on form alone, no better than the 5th best English outside half. They say that form is temporary and class is permanent but I'm not sure that applies any longer to Wilkinson who really isn't performing anywhere near the same level as Cipriani and company at present.
Upfront I accept that Ashton was more or less faced with Hobson's choice, but Tim Payne's selection does nothing for the ball-carrying ability of the pack and the inclusion of Nick Easter, who is yet to play any rugby in 2008, smacks of desperation. The omission of Tom Croft (assuming that he's fit, which he might not be) also continues to be a puzzle.
As for the composition of the bench, will Ashton never learn? Apart from cover for the specialist positions of prop, hooker and scrumhalf, what's needed on an international bench are players who can (a) cover more than one position and (b) make an impact. In Cipriani and Tait (despite the fact that both should be starting), Ashton has it right. In Ben Kay he most definitely does not. Not only is Ben Kay only a lock forward, he is only a middle-jumping lock forward. If Saturday taught Ashton anything it was that he needed a Martin Corry-type on the bench, someone who could play lock or in the back row - someone like Tom Croft or Jordan Crane. The fact that lessons are not being learned is, perhaps, the most worrying aspect of this team selection.
Many commentators have said that a knee-jerk reaction to England's defeat by Wales at the weekend would have been a mistake but I beg to differ. A knee-jerk reaction is exactly what was required to shake English players and coaches alike out of this complacent mentality that, a couple of errors aside, we more or less won Saturday's match. We didn't. We executed poorly and then we fell apart. Ashton needed to be brave with this team selection and has patently failed to be so.
ENGLAND: I Balshaw (Gloucester); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), T Flood (Newcastle), L Vainikolo (Gloucester); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), A Gomarsall (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), M Regan (Bristol), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath), J Haskell (Wasps), M Lipman (Bath), N Easter(Harlequins).
Replacements: L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), L Narraway (Gloucester), R Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks), D Cipriani (Wasps), M Tait (Newcastle).
For the record, Scott Base won the match 12-0, maintaining it's unbeaten record against McMurdo. The game was dedicated to Sir Edmund Hillary, who established Scott Base in 1957 and who died last month, and several players wore black arm bands (although how you could see a black armband on a black shirt is anyone's guess).
Tuesday, 5 February 2008
Monday, 4 February 2008
The wise words of Brian Ashton MBE.
Of course Brian Ashton won't go down this route, but here's who I'd select for the weekend's encounter in Rome:
Tight five: Leave untouched, unless Regan's neck injury rules him out, in which case I'd promote David Paice from the A team with Dylan Hartley on the bench. Lee Mears, to me, just doesn't have the physicality. Vickery had a good game at tight head and as skipper and removing his leadership skills from the fray in the midst of the England implosion on Saturday was just crass by Ashton.
Back row: With Rees and Moody both crocked I'd shift Haskell across to openside (where he's played for Wasps) and, unless Nick Easter's knee injury has healed 100%, hand debuts to the physically imposing Jordan Crane and, if fit, Tom Croft. Luke Narraway worked hard but failed to impose himself and seize the initiative when the game began to slip away from England in the second half.
Scrum Half: According to many match reports Andy Gomarsall had a decent game but I beg to differ. I lost count of the number of times I screamed "NO!" at the TV as he kicked away hard won possession. He's not been in form for Quins and his decision making was just abysmal. Wigglesworth to start.
Fly Half: Is it possible? Can it be? Could it happen? Will Saint Jonny be dropped? I seriously doubt it, but I feel it really is time now for Ashton to think the unthinkable. The citing officer may make the decision for him, of course, but in any event Danny Cipriani should be given his first start.
Centres: With Tindall out with a bruised liver (that's gotta hurt) and Hipkiss for some reason out of favour it's time to bring the prodigal Mathew Tait back into the outside centre position. Toby Flood probably did just enough to keep his place at inside centre (and plays regularly with Tait) but is under pressure from Shane Geraghty who was excellent for the A team on Friday.
Wings: It's a risk but, with Strettle out, big Lesley Vainikolo to start on the left. On the right wing Paul Sackey played half-reasonably on Saturday but Tom Varndell is currently in better form so, on the basis of "in for a penny, in for a pound," I'd pick Varndell.
Fullback: Again, many newspapers report that Ballsup had a good game overall on Saturday but, despite a few runs which ultimately came to nothing, I thought he was poor and his defensive game in particular was riddled with doubt and uncertainty. For the sake of solidity I'd bring back the even more prodigal Josh Lewsey.
Bench: Matt Stevens, David Paice/Dylan Hartley, Luke Narraway (Crane to cover lock injury), Michael Lipman, Paul Hodgson, Shane Geraghty, James Simpson-Daniel (if fit - if not, Nick Abendanon).
Go on, Brian - you know it makes sense.
Saturday, 2 February 2008
Friday, 1 February 2008
That's the mighty Cook Islands (yes, you read it right the first time) who, despite having a combined population of just 21,000, were obviously too good for our professionals from the Premiership.
The humiliating defeat, combined with losses to Wales (15-7) and Fiji (17-7), means that England now "progress" to the consolation bowl quarter-finals where they face Canada.
England Sevens coach Ben Ryan labelled the team's performances as "disappointing."
No sh*t Ben.
First he suggested that Brian Ashton, by virtue of his rolling contract, didn't enjoy the confidence of his employers at the RFU.
Then he stated that Wales would be prepared to turn the match at Twickenham this weekend into a "bloodbath".
Next in the firing line was Ian Balshaw, with whom Gatland was "not impressed" - and then came the revelation that Lewis Moody gave away the occasional penalty.
As far as "mind games" go, it's all rather pathetic. We all know that only England's performances over the next 12 months will determine how safe Ashton's position is - whatever the length of his contract - and I'm pretty confident that the world and his wife would conclude that if Wales do try to turn Saturday's game into a "bloodbath" then there's only likely to be one winner - and they won't be wearing red shirts. And if you were to ask your average English rugby fan (who, strangely enough, is very rarely a gin-swilling, Barbour-wearing toff - contrary to the tired and dated image still portrayed by lazy Western Mail journos) and he'd be more than happy to point out his misgivings over the selection of Mr. Ballsup and acknowledge the occasional headless chicken antics of Mad-eye Moody.
In the words of a quality Australian news publication: "Is that all you've got?"
Say what you like about Brian Ashton - and I'd be the first to say that the jury's still out on his capabilities as head coach despite the relative success of the World Cup campaign - but, so far at least, he hasn't indulged in any of this pre-match nonsense when talking about the opposition.
Back when it was Clive Woodward v Eddie Jones the pre-match banter was considered to be all part of the entertainment but it's been carried to new levels over the intervening years by the likes of Bernard Laporte, Graham Henry, Jake White and now Warren Gatland and, frankly, it's getting very, very boring.
I'm sure that Warren Gatland will turn out to be a very good coach for Wales but I respectively suggest that he shuts up for a minute and let his team's rugby do the talking.
The host of the 'Friday Night Project' host, who originally comes from Northampton (where his father, Graham, once managed Northampton Town Football Club) said: