RUGBY World Cup RED ALERT as Japan expects


So, not too many surprises this weekend other than a courageous Tongan effort against a French team with quarterfinals on their mind. The real fun starts with the host nation coming together for an improbable shot at the knock out stages at the expense of Scotland, for whom this is also a watershed moment. A team that should have made the semifinals in 2015 will really find out about themselves this coming weekend.
Meantime, matches are being decided on red cards which was inevitable I suppose.
A feisty Italian team saw its hopes disintegrate with a mindless double tackle which could have resulted in two reds instead of just one – in 1991 I played for Harlequins when Micky Skinner and the late Richard Langhorn were sent off in the same rucking incident and I cannot remember a repeat possibility until Friday. The following morning, England’s redshirted warriors needed all their self control while Argentina put up their physical challenge and then relaxed somewhat as a swinging tackle to Farrell’s head reduced Argentina to 14 and brought an early end to the contest. Until defence coaches take off their blindfolds and start coaching better tackle techniques this will continue to happen and so be it. Farrell himself was the originator of the more draconian laws being brought in after his Twickenham efforts but he went back to school to learn and ironically now he is the victim ( remember the USA match).
More worrying for England is that Farrell looked pedestrian which may have been the head tackle he suffered – if Ford’s great form continues then Jones will think it is a sacrifice worth paying to continue Farrell at 12 . Not sure myself as when the pressure comes on Ford can get lost. Conversely the outside backs look so dangerous that it may not matter. More generally , England is playing only as well as they need to and my pre tournament prediction holds firm.
There is in some corners a suggestion that runner up in their pool is a preferable route and the French may feel that way given their relative vulnerability and inexperience. Let us hope that they don’t pick a team for that outcome because it would be a shame but noone will remember if it serves them well for the KO stages…..
So, Japan v Scotland will get this World Cup to come alive in a big way, fingers crossed that red cards are not the determining factor of a stunning contest in prospect.
S

Rugby World Cup paints the town RED


I am clearly adding the stunning Japanese win over Ireland on Saturday to the list of major World Cup surprises I featured last week! In fact this would be to diminish a pacey and eye-catching  performance which the Irish were quick to acknowledge. Honesty has always been a top quality in their post match analysis over the years. It proves that ‘phase rugby’ gets you nowhere near a World Cup podium finish – and how many centres in the world could have delivered the pinpoint under pressure transfer from Matsushima to win the game for Japan. Someone sign up that player. The pace and angles of attack team wise were of the highest order, so good to watch. Scotland will need their A+ game when the time comes. As for Ireland, there is no real historical pressure so I would pick the pace merchants with energy like Larmour and Conway and challenge the pack to regain some of the intensity of the last 12 months. Nothing to lose and their response will be fascinating.

Meanwhile, Wales dug deep to get their win against the Wallabies in a quite breathless encounter and I am not sure that anyone else would have won that game apart from the All Blacks. The Aussies were that good – if they can recover mentally I have them as a potential semifinal team. The way that Alun Wyn-Jones is galvanising his men is a World Cup story in the making, a nation will start to expect and I was very impressed with the performance of the bench. Their overall defensive commitment was something to behold, it felt like Shaun Edwards was out there himself.

The furore over high tackles won’t go away. Reece Hodge a clear red, sorry Sir Clive. Samoan hits we shall see but horrible to watch. The mindless hit on Farrell was an easy decision. Patchell went in too high on Kerevi and was asking for trouble so should have been spoken to – Hooper was right, terrible tackling technique by Patchell. Bottom line is that you have to change behaviour in the tackle, it’s that simple. Coaches can complain and be embarrassed but need to understand that they do not suffer the longterm damage that their players will. I find myself agreeing again with Pichot, although WR is late to the cause because of previous reticence but don’t stop now!

By the way, statistics apparently show that tackling low creates more injuries. So what. That is the game of physical contact and good tackling technique has to be coached  but that comes back to whether you want to play rugby or not.  Creating possible long term neurological damage through intentional or reckless hits to the head will never be acceptable.

On a high note, the tears of joy from Japan and Uruguay’s wonderful wins and the general competitiveness of the less resourced rugby nations tell us a story of hope and further development which has to be meaningfully assisted.

Any more surprises in store? I hope so!

H

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

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.

2018 – A Rugby Year For The Brave


What kind of vintage was the Rugby Year of 2017 in the context of Japan, land of the Rugby World Cup 2019?
 
Apart from the British and Irish Lions performance against the odds, admittedly enhanced by Sonny Bill Williams foolhardy head tackle in the second test, this year was all about consolidation and preparing for the real tests ahead rather than any life-changing excitement. 
 
Without really breaking sweat, the All Blacks stayed ahead of the pack and have developed the depth they need, losing a couple of games along the way which all great teams have to suffer. 
 
England keep winning with the Grand Slam fading to a Championship, hardly a disaster. In leaving a nagging doubt that they just don’t play with enough sustained excellence, they have finishers, and how. If they can stay in a game they can win every time. Smart but risky. 
 
Ireland look very dangerous and they can beat anyone on their day – the best resource management in the world without doubt and all their best players are centred in a few provinces which makes a huge difference.
 
Let people not think Australia is an easy touch because England and especially Scotland sent them home to think again – they will peak for the World Cup and are a definite semifinalist with all their quality. 
 
France and South Africa are broken by their own internal issues and surely cannot recover in time – tragic, because they have such talent at their disposal. 
 
Scotland is the wild card which excites me – pace and power and a very very smart coach who is getting them to win games again (don’t mention the All Blacks). Organised chaos was their watchword in the 80’s, good enough for Grand Slams and World Cup semifinals. Here they come again. 
 
Sad to say, Wales and Argentina are riven by fatigue and injuries, undone by scheduling and a punishing game which demands deep resource or much better player management. But they are proud nations so expect a World Cup bounce whatever happens this year.
 
Fiji have so many outstanding individuals playing all round the world you must think they will spring a surprise if they can hold onto the players, or will that be the preserve of the hosts? Who can forget Japan v SA 2015!
 
All in all, most teams are marking time Internationally while domestic and European club rugby grows stronger and stronger – more on that another time.
 
My hopes for 2018 
  1. Coaches and players continue to push the boundaries of skill which are producing such high quality matches currently (reference Leinster, Exeter, Wasps, La Rochelle)
  2. World Rugby finally introduces new limits on high tackles and bans the clear out. The dangers are accelerating worryingly and defence coaches should also be held to account.
  3. Less well resourced nations like Fiji and Samoa are finally given the financial help they deserve and not just from World Rugby.
  4. If the right people are not put round a table to sort out the global season structure in 2018, we will have a real crisis and the main sufferers will be the players. Unacceptable. It is not made easier by the discussions likely over the domestic structure of the two club powerhouses of the Northern Hemisphere, England and France.
  5. A world class Six Nations for the first time in years, driven by a rampant Scottish team and somehow a French revival – or am I dreaming on that one?
  6. La Rochelle to break into the big time by challenging the best in Europe.
Lastly, somewhere soon somehow a scrum half will put the ball in straight – oh ok, only a joke.