Eastern Promise From A Dramatic Rugby Fortnight


As if the drama of England’s near miss over the All Blacks two weekends ago wasn’t enough, the Springbok’s two tries (one disallowed) in overtime eventually killed off a valiant French challenge in Paris. But more was to come as Ireland finally lived up to a favourite’s billing by downing the men in Black last Saturday evening and installed themselves as the team to beat next year in Japan. Meantime, Wales quietly build momentum and love being under the radar screen. Yes, all six of the above teams in my opinion can win the Rugby World Cup which is a wonderful competitive prospect.

England no longer at sixes and sevens – the old saying was all to do with which Livery company was ranked sixth (1st tier) or seventh (2nd Tier) in the Lord Mayor’s parade and so they took turns. England can cease their 6.5 policy and install Underhill and Curry as their 7’s and worry about the rest afterwards. Underhill was man of the match against New Zealand and is the real deal. However, I am not sure that Jones has learnt too much else this autumn other than he needs to look after Owen Farrell.

Pace and power wins matches – remember South Africa should have beaten England so they could have been 3/3 and are a real threat – a very young side with stunning pace out wide.

Japan rise up – Brighton 2015 was no fluke. Their ball skills, pace and ambition at Twickenham were world class against England who were simply embarrassed and could have been 20 points down at half time (gulp, I also played against Japan some years ago at Twickenham and we were losing at half time so I know the feeling!). The great French teams of the past, the Wales Grand Slammers of the 70’s and the best club sides of any era, Bath included, could only have sat back and admired them. I wonder whether they could threaten a quarter final spot in their home country… this from a team who have regular jobs alongside their rugby – who says you have to train every hour of the day to push the boundaries! And can there be a better flanker in the world than Michael Leitch?

Ireland showed amazing control at the weekend combined with an intensity that sets them apart and Peter O’Mahoney gets a mention alongside Leitch! Their depth also means they will be a serious force for the first time in a World Cup’s latter stages – the All Blacks will lick their wounds and come back stronger after some weeks on beach duty and we should not forget the relative levels of energy of the two hemispheres at this stage in their respective seasons. Being held tryless was heroic by Ireland but that won’t happen very often.

Lastly – player behaviour is slowly changing in the tackle area with one or two exceptions which were left unpunished, which was a step back, but the direction of travel is clear. Onward.

H.

Rugby Wings Take Centre Stage As Beach Beckons


The bad news for England over the weekend comes from an unusual source and will not get any headlines. For the first time in recent memory France showed their true rugby colours and offered a glimpse of what my generation of rugby players experienced every time we saw them take the field. For most of the first half they were irresistible, forwards and backs linking at pace and playing the ball out of the tackle at will. A quite ridiculous piece of referee obstruction cost them momentum and parity with the All Blacks, whose superior fitness and brutal focus on their two game changers, MacKenzie and Ioane, saw them run riot by the end. By the time the World Cup comes along this rate of progress and one or two of their stellar U20 world champions could make them the team to beat – and they are in England’s pool! French holidays on the Cote D’Azur will be laced with optimism for the season ahead.

Elsewhere Ireland have earnt the right to be the form team in the world. It is their match against New Zealand that I await with most anticipation in the autumn. Over-reliance on Sexton and Murray perhaps, but less so, as an avalanche of quality forwards combined with defence based on an indomitable spirit shine through. It was needed as Australia were fearsome and will feel hard done by not to squeeze a victory. Ireland may have raised the bar, with Stockdale now looking world class on the wing, but the men in Gold are not far behind on this evidence.

Argentina is in crisis with three comprehensive home defeats despite the fine performances of the Jaguares in Super Rugby which is counter intuitive and worrying for them with France and England in their RWC pool.

What to make finally of a mish mash ‘last Test’ at Newlands. If it is for the last time, it was a drab way to finish and a forgettable game even if a little bit of history was created for England. We forget that the weather can impact on big matches as we are normally served a diet of free-flowing rugby in bright conditions or covered stadiums. This was an important ‘result’ which allowed Jones and team to call for a resumption of the journey to Japan. Jonny May was the player of the tour, and Cipriani has to start in October – doesn’t he??!! Wouldn’t be so sure.

The statistics show that Jones has picked 100 players during his tenure, falling into the trap of previous England coaches who have surveyed the many resources available to them and done the same. England’s three most successful periods with their greatest players, 1980 (Beaumont), 1991-2 (Carling) and 2001-3 (Johnson) all enjoyed the same characteristics – consistency and loyalty in a shrewd selection process and strong, respected off field management which was spread across different skill sets. It’s not too late – just.

Quite apart from England, I can see six or more settled squads playing an exciting brand of rugby across the world. It bodes well for 2019. Even more exciting is the arrival of stunning wing play wherever you look. Apart from the two Springbok newcomers, Stockdale of Ireland, Marika Koroibete of Australia, Ioane of NZ,  Teddy Thomas of France and Jonny May have all starred in various ways. Ioane in particular is being used to great effect by NZ on running angles almost impossible to defend, as is Mackenzie and these two could be the key for their 2019 World Cup aspirations.

Footnote

Humble, having fun, youthful and ambitious, modest in press interviews, smiling at the world and dreaming of a World Cup – yes, it’s the English Football team who may not have beaten anyone of significance yet but we are all liking their style on and off the field. Bravo!

H.

 

Rugby Greens And Gold Paint A Picture Of Progress


Summer tours have sometimes appeared to be tiresome and meaningless. But not one year before a World Cup. We have in fact learnt a lot about aspiring hopes and that the All Blacks do not have the field to themselves. This final weekend’s rugby, before beaches become littered with bruised International bodies, will not change the fact that some countries are shooting up the rankings while one country goes in the other direction – England. Is that part of a cunning plan, Blackadder-style, to fool the world as well as the All Blacks?

The World Champions in fact have found out nothing this June, other than the fact that a tired French team is no match even for an opposition operating at 50%. I have bored people for long enough about how much rugby a Frenchman plays each season to render these results obvious. Steve Hansen was upset to lose the French fullback to a red card because it left the 2nd Test meaningless. It also allowed him to show sympathy rather than to contrast with the worryingly inexplicable decision in the First Test to ignore one of the most shocking head tackles I have seen for a while. Meantime his victim ended up in hospital with a double head fracture. What will it take?

Encouraging for the French is that their U 20 team have won the World Cup – devastating forward play and imaginative backs with ball in hand. Back to the future?

Wales have leapfrogged England into 3rd place in the world after a fine series win over Argentina with a weakened team. I really fancy them to have a strong World Cup as they not only have depth in key positions through careful player development but a real understanding of how they wish to play the game.

Ireland have had a stellar season and this weekend could top it off, but it matters not other than for Ireland to learn how to win the ’big one’ consistently. With no World Cup track record of note there is nothing to fall back on, but then no pressure either. Their forwards are looking awesome with the ball in hand, probably the best in the world right now. Their opponents, Australia, are also coming along nicely and tend to time their run into World Cups. I fancy that they will be very motivated this November, unlike last year.

Sleeping giants in rugby terms, the USA recorded a memorable win against Scotland, but with their lack of depth the Scots have to experiment and it makes not an ounce of difference to their progression as a top 6 rugby nation.

And so to the Springboks who have surprised everyone with their Blitzbokke (7’s) style of play. Such pace and imagination and real performance from the spine of their team (2, 8, 9, 10, 15) which I suggest has been the key to their stunning wins. In addition they have two packs of forwards who would compete against anyone in the world. How times have changed, and with a back three even quicker than England’s. No-one is celebrating their midfield play and this is still a work in progress. In a year’s time though, this group of players will strongly contest the RWC and you could not have said that a short while ago.

As for England I genuinely thought that their Saracen forwards would carry on where they left off the domestic season and drag England along with them, but no sign of it. In fact to the contrary, a series of performances that have left observers open mouthed at their fragility and poor technique up front. You cannot criticise their attacking back play at times, which has been a revelation, especially Jonny May who looks on top of his game and could play centre on this form!

Looking through the poor defence, ill discipline and lack of concentration, a full-strength squad can still be a threat to the other top nations and you write England off at your peril. However, there is a serious lack of confidence driven by poor form and curious selections, together with the weakest back row I can remember.

This weekend is key for the coaching staff as well as the players. Only a thumping win will do – and could happen as the Springboks have rested at least 5 players in key positions.  The boost they need though is further out – the All Blacks game in November is currently a dark cloud on the horizon but is also a short route to redemption for England to make the world take notice.

H.

No Luck In This Irish Slam!


Why did I imagine that Ireland was not good enough for a Grand Slam – nerveless (40 plays before the miracle Sexton drop goal in Paris), clinical (Italy), and coldly predatory (Scotland and Wales), before rendering the tumultuous St Patrick’s Day clash somewhat academic after 40 remarkable minutes at Twickenham. Trying to stay warm became a major consideration as England struggled to make a statement in the closing stages against an Ireland team which was calmness personified. This group of players can definitely win a World Cup (no pressure because no track record) but for now let us salute some hardbitten forwards, world class half backs and a number of inspirational game breakers who may be highly influential next year – Stockdale, Ringrose, Larmour and Carberry. Worthy Grand Slam Champions without a doubt and a European Cup also awaits if they can keep the intensity (well rested of course, very few of their key players pulled on a shirt this past weekend other than to keep the sun off their backs).

Elsewhere, Wales blooded their youngsters impressively, and Gatland has a spring in his step as he has real depth of quality now in his squad. They feel they should have beaten England (shhh) so the season could have been even better. The Scarlets await La Rochelle this weekend in the Champions Cup and with Cardiff riding high in Pro 14 and quarterfinalist in the Challenge Cup there are reasons to be cheerful in the Land of our Fathers.

France will take heart from their campaign despite no flyhalf in sight, and while more roundhead than cavalier these days they will only get better after a dismal time. I say that because they now have a rock hard defence and at last one or two flair players to celebrate as long as it’s on the field of play. One point defeats to Wales and Ireland – both games they should have won – are a sign of recovery and what may have been.

Which sums up Italy – their winless campaign was misleading and they had plenty to offer this year especially in attack. Parisse is waning, but Negri and Polledri could both make it into the England team, and Minozzi at fullback is a genius.

Scotland produced the half of the tournament against England, and the trio of Russell, Jones and Hogg provide essential star quality to match the reinvigorated forward effort which is bearing fruit at every level now. Their excellence in the back row and midfield is the key, as for any team wanting to be the best in the world.

Which brings me to England and their inability to find mix and balance in those areas. In a world of process and centralised instruction, this is where the coaching and selection matters and we saw little of it. Overtrained, fatigued, lacking leadership and passion are the media’s favourite clamours (after two successive championships mind you) …… something of everything I suppose, on my shopping list is an attack coach which will be a start, the current strategy is not easy to see or appreciate. More generally, forget 5th position and think more about being conclusively outplayed for long periods of the tournament. That is also what’s worrying the powers that be at Twickenham who simultaneously are trying to raise returns while the performance goes in the other direction. England supporters (the right ones) may just be a little more savvy than that.

All in all, the pundits were right so let us raise a glass of the black stuff to our friends across the Irish Sea. Maith thú!

Scotland Await England – In Hope More Than Expectation


You know something is afoot when Sir Ian McGeechan featured some of the greatest Calcutta Cup clashes in his weekly article in the Sunday Telegraph. I happened to have played in six of those games back in the 80’s and 90’s and they were all titanic struggles. The implication is that this weekend will be another one of those but I am not so sure. Scotland appear to have believed their own press from the Autumn Internationals – including mine! A cardinal error which was almost repeated against a French side which hasn’t won in months and had only one player, Teddy Thomas, to thank for a ray of hope thus far in the Six Nations.

England are apparently flatlining with an unconvincing win over a Scarlets-dominated Wales, or are they. Appalling conditions were just what the doctor ordered for the free running Welshmen, within 20 minutes England had scored twice and tactically embarrassed the men in Red. But there it stayed and by the end we were wondering if they were plain lucky after some Welsh near misses. I disagree – you can only beat what is in front of you, this is a fine Welsh team, and everyone is improving so by definition so is England. They just seem to get away with not playing much sustained rugby, with flashes of try scoring brilliance and the peerless Farrell directing affairs. It could be that they are developing the priceless ability to make the opposition believe that they simply cannot win. Is this the real Jones impact?

Is there a case for Scotland against whom England tends to lose only every now and then, usually from complacency? The dry weather forecast will help the Scots, but there is no point eulogising about Stuart Hogg’s class because England will snuff him out if there are no other threats. Finn Russell’s inexplicable ‘laissez faire’ attitude towards the game right now would have him out of the team if there was an alternative but there isn’t. He could have a horrible day at Murrayfield, especially as Eddie Jones has now chosen to big him up, or else all that will backfire and he has a blinder! Bottom line is that if only one Scotsman gets into the England team on merit then there should be only one result, and the psychology of last year’s hammering will be lurking under the surface.

It is ironic that the only in form flair player the French seem to have, Teddy Thomas, has ruled himself out with off field discretions, as if it could get any worse. People forget they were within an inch of being two from two but instead face an unlikely challenge from the desperate Italians, whose partial revival at club level cannot yet match the general uplift in standards of every else. It is their best chance for a win this year – I wonder.

Wales’ season rests on a triumph in Dublin so nothing to lose and they can definitely do it – Ireland has yet to click this season and, if so they will be relentless, but in my opinion it is anyone’s match.

Back to England and their approaching date with history – are they really to be denied their tilt at glory by this Scottish team, talented but maverick and not really of the standard of their great sides of the 80’s and early 90’s when they really did send the English ‘homewards tae think again.’ I think not, but then that’s what we imagined in 1990……..

H.

SCARLET FEVER BREAKS OUT AS PACEY ENGLAND AWAIT


The Six Nations got off to a mixed start last weekend as two cracking openers sandwiched a real stodge of a match in France, where neither side deserved to win or lose in all honesty.
 
Eddie Jones got it right when he said that European form did not matter for his England Squad. However, it absolutely impacted on Wales. The Scarlet influence coursed through the team from front to back – Rhys Patchell may have called the end of the Biggar era, and Steff Evans must already be one of Europe’s top wingers.  Aaron Shingler is a former top cricketer, but no doubting his skills at the Millennium. Perhaps they will make Alun Wyn-Jones an honorary Scarlet for his sensational running performance! 
 
In all truth, back in my day it was not sensible to pick a group of players from the same club to replicate their club form onto the International stage (e.g.Bath or Neath). The gap was simply too wide but not now, as top European performances these days can easily translate into an International one and so it has proved with Wales. Perhaps we can look at Glasgow’s poor away form for a clue as to how Scotland played in Cardiff (or Twickenham last year!). However, a bounce back is certain against a desperate French team, truly ‘Les Misérables.’
 
All the chatter for Saturday is about the Welsh flair and fitness being too much for England and throwbacks to 2015 when they spotted the fatigue of the England pack….. I just don’t buy it, although memories of that day in October Rugby Word Cup year are enough to make you shudder. Likely more to spur England on rather than give them nightmares. England is easily fit enough and will not be outflanked by the free running Scarlet waves. Their use of the bench (this topic needs reviewing by World Rugby) is world class. Mostly because their strength in depth is so awesome that the bench can be better than the starting line up!
 
Anyone who has been reading my ‘blogs’ over the last few years will know I have had little good to say about the England midfield. That changed last weekend, not because Italy are worldbeaters of course. The lines of running and positional play of the outside runners at last was spot on, and our best players were being given the time and space. No coincidence that Mike Brown was marshalling resources from deep rather than spearheading attacks. No more arguments about 12, over 4 years many pretenders have had a go. Owen Farrell is nailed on there and would also be at 10 if another inside centre existed of any quality.
 
Lastly, experience does count. Note Eddie Jones asking about Rhys Patchell’s temperament – canny! He has little knowledge of Twickenham and Aaron Shingler has never been there! These things matter. It will be a huge challenge that an inexperienced Wales put up but England should eventually win comfortably in my opinion. My justified nervousness about the quality of Englands winning performances last year have been put to one side because they simply HAVE to build momentum here. A step back at this stage will be very bad news indeed.
 
What I really want is a thumping Scottish win and a return of all their injured players for the Calcutta Cup on the 24th. What a prospect and this could be England’s biggest test, not facing a rather predictable Irish team at Twickenham.
 
But for now, nothing I like more than a bunch of optimistic Welshmen (Mae’r ddraig yn anadlu tân) beating a path to Twickenham to confront an England team waiting with points to prove.
 
 
H