Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Total Flanker Guide to: Rugby World Cup 2011

OK, back in Blighty after a ridiculously relaxing fortnight and here it is at last - what you've all been waiting for - the TF guide to what may or may not happen as Rugby World Cup 2011 begins to unfold...

A word of warning. Please do not expect anything particularly insightful from what follows. I have about as much clue as the next man as to what is about to transpire. Although my preview of the 2007 tournament was spookily accurate in some respects it was also miles wide of the mark in others. Such is the reliability of pure, unadulterated guesswork.

Anyroadup, not very long ago the tournament seemed an age away, with all the talk being of Super Duper Rugby, Tri Nations, pre-season training camps and warm-up matches but suddenly that's all behind us, the phony war is over, the tournament is imminent and before you know it some lucky captain will have his mitts on the Webb Ellis trophy.

But which captain will that be?

Taking an investigative peak at the qualifying pools:

Pool A - Canada, France, Japan, New Zealand, Tonga

Once again New Zealand find themselves in a pool unlikely to provide much serious competition. 'Sacre Bleu' - I hear you say - 'surely the French will provide a stern test?' Frankly I doubt it (and don't call me Shirley). Actually I very much doubt that Monsieur Lièvremont will even bother to field his strongest line up against New Zealand (assuming he knows what that is). He may prove me wrong but, despite recent hiccups, all I see here is the All Blacks strolling through. A possible danger is that that they may yet again be undercooked come the latter stages, but I suspect recent defeats may provide the required kick up the jacksie. France to secure an easy second spot, with Japan making history by securing two wins against Canada and Tonga respectively, who will fight it out to decide who props up Pool A.

Pool B - Argentina, England, Georgia, Romania, Scotland

Tough, tough pool for England. Argentina first-up is potentially the stuff of nightmares, Scotland are nothing if not awkward buggers and both Georgia and Romania are likely to present an overtly physical challenge. Assuming everything goes to plan and England win the pool (not a foregone conclusion by any means) they'll enter the knockout stages either in a state of battle-hardened readiness or battered, bruised and exhausted. Those players on standby would be wise keeping themselves fit. I'd expect Argentinian nous to be too strong for Scotland, who may also struggle against the tough Georgians. The once upon a time dangerous Romanians, I suspect, will end up bringing up the rear.

Pool C - Australia, Ireland, Italy, Russia, USA

I have, for some time, had a nagging feeling that the Aussies are going to have a good tournament and their recent TriNations triumph has done nothing to quell my unease. The question is, might this also be the year when the Irish finally get things right? Recent results suggest not and Declan Kidney is going to have to manage BOD's fitness very carefully while trying to coax a few more stellar performances out of the likes of POC and DOC if they are to have a chance. Italy's fearsome scrummage provides an opportunity to gatecrash the top two's party, while Russia v USA will provide a unique contest within a contest as they re-enact Cold War hostilities.

Pool D - Fiji, Namibia, Samoa, South Africa, Wales

Let's just assume for one minute that the senior South African players largely decide to ignore their coach and run their own campaign, the main question for this pool will be whether Wales can see off their Pacific Island dual nemeses, having been dumped out of previous tournaments by both Fiji and Samoa. I suspect that Fiji will struggle to overcome their well-documented problems but Samoa, more or less playing at home, will have a great shot, and I remain unconvinced that Wales have what it takes mentally to see off the Samoan storm heading their way. Sadly, I think Namibia are destined to be the tournament's whipping boys - keeping the score respectable and their players safe will need to be their priority.

Conclusions?

New Zealand start as clear favourites and it's difficult to see much beyond them as champions. Doubts do persist, however, about how they might handle the pressure once the serious stuff takes over - although failing to secure this year's TriNations may turn out to be a huge blessing in disguise. What's patently obvious is that a fit Dan Carter will be essential to the cause. A Springbok victory isn't out of the question, but it would be in spite of (rather than because of) the efforts of their coach. My nagging feeling about the Aussies refuses to go away whilst England's ability to play knockout rugby can never be discounted (if the 2007 team could reach the final then really anything is possible). Anyone else? Not really. It's a well worn cliché, but who knows which French team will turn up, whilst for an elderly Ireland team the latter stages of a Rugby World Cup are simply virgin territory.

So, with my head on the block and being startlingly unoriginal, New Zealand it is. Maybe.

Friday, 12 August 2011

My bags are packed, I'm ready to go...

Just a note to inform you that Total Flanker will be off-air again for a couple of weeks from tomorrow while I and the family escape riot-ravaged England and head off to sunny Fuerteventura for a couple of weeks.

Our second holiday this year is admittedly (1) a tad extravagant/foolish in the current financial climate and (2) crap timing from the point of view of missing the RWC build up - but I doubt either will worry me unduly as I wake up to a glorious view of the beach on Sunday morning.

I very much doubt that I’ll have the time or inclination to keep up with events while I’m away (if previous experience is anything to go by) but fully expect to return to Blighty in a fortnight to stories along the lines of:
  • utter confusion as Fiji withdraw from the tournament at the 11th hour;
  • mass panic in New Zealand as Dan Carter breaks a finger nail; and
  • huge controversy as Gavin Henson declines his place in the Wales squad so that he can appear on Celebrity Big Brother.
Adios!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Oh Mo!

Confirmation yesterday that Japanese international fly half Ryohei Yamanaka has been banned for two years after testing positive for steroids which, he claimed, he used inadvertently in a cream to help grow a moustache.

Seems a tad harsh but, on a positive note, it does give him plenty of time to work on his upper lip growth.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Now you see me...

In an extraordinary turn of events, it emerged today that England have decided to dump both its controversial black change kit AND the traditional white kit for the forthcoming Rugby World Cup.

The decision has been taken following an official protest from the New Zealand Rugby Union relating to the black kit and in response to recent reports which suggest that England’s penalty count dips by 25% when they are not wearing their white kit.

Instead, the RFU have commissioned Nike to produce a camouflage kit for use in all matches during the World Cup.

“We’re very excited about the proposed new kit,” claims an RFU insider. “Our scientific advisers assure us that, with the referees more or less unable to see the players, England’s penalty count will be all but eradicated, which gives us a huge advantage going into the tournament.

“Although the colour white has traditionally been worn by England teams, when you think about it our troops have been going into battle wearing khaki for over 100 years, so we believe the shirt will be a fitting tribute to them. If anything it will be even more traditional than the traditional white shirt.”

The connection with the armed forces doesn’t stop there. The new shirt is said to be made from military grade fabric and will be the strongest shirt that Nike have ever produced whilst also providing improved sweat evaporation, enhanced freedom of movement and superior shape retention. The shirt will also work with the body during exertion to provide compression to support muscles and improve circulation and has a unique 4D grip zone on the chest to enhance ball grip.

Initial tests on the kit in training by the England squad, however, have not been a complete success, with players complaining that they have been unable to locate their colleagues when attempting to pass the ball. Unconfirmed reports suggest that this potential drawback has not affected Mike Tindall’s game in the slightest.


Drink Police

And now for something completely different.

TV3 in New Zealand report that drunk Maori will be specifically targeted during the Rugby World Cup by a 50-year-old law that allows Maori wardens to enter bars and remove them.

According to the report, the wardens were trialled after the South Africa v All Blacks game in Wellington a fortnight ago and the plan is to use them around the country during the Rugby World Cup.

Despite claims that the initiative is out-dated and racist, here's how I see it working. Imagine the scene in a city centre bar:

MAORI WARDEN: Mate, you're drunk. You Maori?

DRUNK MAORI: Nah mate - Samoan.

MAORI WARDEN: Right ho. Carry on.

Can't fail.

    Tuesday, 9 August 2011

    Colour Blind

    According to the Grauniad, unofficial stats (which I guess could mean that they are just made up) show that England's penalty count drops by 25% when they wear a shirt colour other than white.

    "Interesting" is my middle name.

    No Moody Blues

    At least not yet.

    News today that England skipper Lewis Moody has, following a scan, been diagnosed with a "mild" medial ligament strain in his right knee.

    Officially the RFU is still "optimistic" about him taking part in the World Cup although, perhaps tellingly, no target date has been set for his return by the England medical team.

    I have my doubts. It’s the same knee that was crocked ahead of the 6 Nations, Moody’s not getting any younger, he's no stranger to injury and getting him back up to speed isn’t going to be easy. Unless absolutely 100% fit, I’d say there’s no sense in taking him to New Zealand ahead of Hendre Fourie or Chris Robshaw, despite the undoubted leadership qualities he brings to the group.

    Monday, 8 August 2011

    Danny Cares

    Well done to Danny Care on Saturday. Not for his performance particularly, but for the way in which he managed to get ref Steve Walsh to stop the game so that Morgan Stoddart’s horrendous broken ankle could be attended to.

     “Great sportsmanship from Danny Care, great to see,” tweeted Welsh centre, Jamie Roberts and quite right too, especially as it seemed as if Care had to argue with Walsh who appeared to be telling him to play on.

     “Anybody would have stopped the play”, says Care, and perhaps he’s right. It doesn’t make his actions any less impressive though.

    Care by name…

    Sunday, 7 August 2011

    The weekend that was...

    The RWC phony war is well and truly underway, with Tri-Nations and northern hemisphere warm-up internationals competing both for column inches, and our viewing attention.

    And what have we learned this weekend?

    1. that New Zealand are currently right in the groove, more than a month ahead of when they'll need to be;

    2. that no one seems either willing or able to give the All Blacks a decent game - which, if I was a Kiwi, would concern me hugely;

    3. that Ireland's strength in depth is surprisingly half-decent;

    4. that Scotland's strength in depth just isn't;

    5. that Wales look to be in desperate need of a coach who will loosen the tactical straightjacket; and

    6. that England in black didn't look so bad after all.

    Wednesday, 3 August 2011

    Bonkers

    South African head coach Peter de Villiers deserves a medal after 4 years in charge of the Springboks.

    So says South African head coach, Peter de Villiers!

    "And a big one too," he adds.

    He is also "90 per cent sure" that South Africa will win the Rugby World Cup, is confident that the moon is made of cheese and insists that the IRB is actually under the control of shape-shifting alien reptiles who require periodic ingestion of human blood to maintain their human appearance.

    Only the latter claim has any credence.

    Tuesday, 2 August 2011

    And then there were 40…

    Currently surplus to Johnno’s requirements are:


    JOE WORSLEY – frankly a shock that old Melon-Head made the initial 45 man squad. Piano skills not enough to save him.

    THOMAS WALDROM – surprised that the Tank Engine has returned to the depot so soon. Decision will no doubt pacify some of the Little England brigade.

    GEORGE CHUTER – always going to be a tight call with Lee Mears. Leicester connection and beard-growing ability obviously not enough.

    JAMES SIMPSON-DANIEL – sadly destined never to be a force at international level.

    DAVID STRETTLE – no longer looks like he was separated at birth from the Mayor of London. Nevertheless, has lost out to the mostly over-rated Ugo Monye and the largely unknown Charlie Sharples (possible surprise late RWC bolter).

    Monday, 1 August 2011

    (Baby it's) All White Now

    There are some that might say that I’ve become a tad kit-obsessed.

    You’d be disappointed, therefore, if I didn’t at least acknowledge the launch of England’s new rugby kit today.

    I may have mentioned previously my general disgust at how the RFU tends to launch a new England kit every 10 minutes but, while I stand by previous comments, I must say that the new all white kit – as white as the driven snow – is a pleasant surprise.

    When France launched their new Nike kit for the World Cup, the portents were not good. It does appear, however, that the Nike design team were denied all access to mind-altering substances when given the England brief. Put simply, this is what an England shirt should look like.

    Minor Quibbles:

    - call me old-fashioned (and many do), but I would have preferred a collar; and

    - white socks? The only way is Essex.