Wales Hunt A Grand Slam As Italy Seeks Redemption Against The French


It was said that England lost the Rugby World Cup Final of 1991 against Australia through inflexibility. Our narrative was that we felt our strategy was going to work, and then it didn’t! The Campese deliberate knock down hardly helped but we didn’t mix up our game enough to keep the Aussies guessing when the game was there for the taking.

So it was in Cardiff, when nobody really believed that England’s kicking based approach would work again on it’s own but they persisted and the game slipped away. Why not give that new look midfield a bit of ball. But no. Then on Saturday against Italy the equivalent of cricket’s ‘flat track bully’ (remember Graeme Hick) was in evidence and any side would have struggled against that power. Rumour abounds that Jones wants to try the Ford/Farrell axis again this weekend, well why not perhaps in the last 20 minutes.

Surely people can see what is happening here! Journos have too much space to fill now and are refuelling on new stories wherever they look. Jones seems to be trying to make sure he is equipped for any strategy and of course he has at his disposal the deepest playing resource in the world. As we sit here, England has all the on-field diversity that it needs. The biggest question is whether they can flex the strategy when faced with challenges, as with Wales. That is a mental thing and the answer will not come on Saturday as a feeble excuse for a grudge match unfolds. Scotland is riven with injury and Jones may extract some personal revenge as will the team after last year. With it could come the Six Nations Title of course, lest anyone forget!

NB the Farrell/Tuilagi/Slade midfield is the one they need to win a World Cup.

The big one in Cardiff is tough to call. Ireland is arguably a team which has peaked too early and trying desperately to hold the level, while Wales has already achieved something incredible against their resource backdrop and domestic turmoil. Huge credit to the coaches and the squad. A wonderful end to a tournament which has been disappointing in so many ways. The much anticipated level playing field was tarnished by French ‘laissez faire’, Scottish injuries and an improving Italy failing to match a general upturn in standards. It rendered half the matches meaningless and although I wasn’t there, the second half of the France and Italy games at Twickenham apparently resembled a multi thousand strong drinks and networking occasion rather than a properly competitive atmosphere.

For what it’s worth, I think that emotion and home advantage should see Wales edge Ireland but not by much. In which case they and England will progress to the Rugby World Cup as strong contenders for at least a semifinal place. Make no mistake though, England is the unknown quantity and a team to fear. How things change in a year.

Finally, I wonder if Italy smell an upset in the Rome sunshine against the French. They have offered enough in attack to indicate their capabilities and they know how to sustain their effort. No-one will forget Nick Mallett’s tears as he coached Parisse and his men to glory a few years ago against ‘Les Bleus’ – it was special and could happen again.

H

A Rugby World In Union In 2019?


It was easy to eulogise about the Irish last year – they have the best set up in World rugby and their results were no fluke at National and provincial level. Rarely can Twickenham have been silenced so easily on a big match day as when a chilly first half made Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam aspirations a reality and England disappeared into the March murkiness.

Meantime another first half, this time at sunny Murrayfield, saw Scotland dismember a slow starting England and have the game won by the break. My head was in my hands on why I had gone there against my better judgement (I played 4 times there back in the day and it’s always painful whatever the result), but in the end I was admiring Scotland’s true class.

If 2018 was the last chance to experiment before Japan, then the other abiding memory was the extreme pace and wit of South Africa, winning in NZ and then comfortably seeing off England. Faf Du Klerk and his red-hot Springbok wide runners will light up the World Cup and give them a genuine chance of winning.

I may be giving England a hard time but that was their year. Selection and fitness will be critical now for Japan – no time for anything else, then back themselves for some one-off surprises.

So what about 2019? A couple of early pointers……

CVC’s arrival in rugby is an inflection point make no mistake, and it seems to have given the Premiership a shot in the arm immediately. Drama everywhere and a stirring up Manchester way is attracting attention. Meeting Simon Orange recently, Sale Sharks’ new owner, with the wise old heads of Fran Cotton and Steve Smith not far away, was to sense a real passion and commitment. Steve Diamond divides opinion but his players love him. Talking of Du Klerk he is unleashing their backline which looks the most potent in the Premiership bar none.  It is a small squad, but if they can all stay fit watch out everyone. Oh and Sam James is very very underrated.

It seems counterintuitive given that Les Bleus lost to Fiji last November, but French rugby is on fire. Racing 92, Clermont and Toulouse have taken ‘offloading’ to a different level in Europe and Top 14. Breath-taking to watch and surely France can make something out of all this even if Nakarawa, Zebo and Russell can never be ‘coqs sportifs’.

 

HEALTH WATCH

Tragically, four young rugby related deaths in France over the last year have caused soul searching and across the game at large, at last. Players must change behaviour and also be protected, sometimes from themselves, referees must be given clarity and authority and combine that with some empathy, and administrators turn talk into action through law changes. We are trying hard in Europe but it’s a global issue – come in, World Rugby, as soon as you like. Recent pronouncements indicate action coming.

PS Some stunning clashes coming up in Europe this weekend starting tonight at Gloucester – what Brexit ?

H.