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!

Irish Triumph Would Be The Grandest of Slams


Ireland is on a five day party in England!  Cheltenham first then on to Twickenham to pitch for a Grand Slam – which would be an incredible achievement against a wounded England who are the two times defending Six Nations champions. That would hurt beyond hurt for the hosts and be an all time achievement in my mind for the men in green. Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to remind ourselves of a few glory-bound teams being undone on the final day of the 5/6 Nations…

Scotland came to Twickenham chasing a Triple Crown in the final match of 1987 against a winless England lacking 5 players who had been banned for fighting, including the Captain. Scotland were thumped 26-12.

England went to Murrayfield on a triumphal march in 1990 to claim the Grand Slam and instead it went to Scotland. No-one is forgetting that one.

England travelled to Cardiff and Dublin in recent years for the ultimate prize and were comprehensively undone on both occasions.

Ireland would do well to remember all this as they try to impose their relentless style of play built on possession and low error count. I have always loved Ringrose as an attacking talent, and together with the Sexton link play there is try scoring potential. But last year it was the pack which subdued the English challenge, which to be fair did not consist of much on the day. I suspect the same approach again lies in store and this year the Irish forwards are brimming with confidence and world class operators.

For England, they should look to play with some organised chaos, old Ireland style. The pack have to play with ferocity and aggression for the first time in the Championship – Kruis has a chance for redemption as does Haskell. Sinckler will be a handful, so will Itoje who owes England a big one. Farrell is a supreme passer in midfield and now will have first shout on the distribution and no-one will come down his channel confidently. He will feed the pace out wide better than Ford. Te’o and Joseph have plenty to prove in my opinion, but they may not be the influential players on the day.

Bottom line England must rip into Ireland and keep it up for 80 minutes, disruption being the order of the day. There is enough anger and hurt in this team surely to deliver the first real performance of a tournament they have barely turned up for. Eddie Jones keeps saying it is his coaching that has failed when England loses – I don’t buy that, it’s a cheap distraction and for another day to wonder whether he should be the attack coach as well as everything else. This is down to the players, and whether you wear white or green I simply cannot call it – but if I had to, then a big hearted England performance can surely be enough at home – just.

Talking of parties, whoever wins tomorrow the party will be long and hard as with all England Ireland contests, and I should know!

H.

‘Le’ Crunch Time For England


I should have known better than risk a visit to Murrayfield with a Scottish team ready to hand out a reminder to England and others that they are a sustainable force again in world rugby. No doubt about that, and it was in the way they won rather than just the result. A cloudless sky and not a breath of wind would not traditionally favour a Scottish team let us be honest. But by the end you had to imagine that they took so much more from the game in terms of their World Cup development.
For England it was both sobering and worrying that they lost key battles in the back row and midfield. All that Italian promise unconverted. The lack of quick front foot ball was one reason (analysed to death by the media but given the back row picked totally obvious) and a lack of leadership another, as in Ireland last year. You think back to a few games in which Eddie’s men have pulled the game out of the fire with some smart ‘finishing’ and it leaves you with that nagging doubt of a team flatlining not developing as expected. 
 
France will build themselves up for the England match by stoking the fires of hostility legendary in Brian Moore’s day when we came up against the full force not only of Gallic strong-arm tactics but unmatchable flair. Not much of the latter these days (except for Teddy Thomas), but they also defend well so England have to find a special inner strength which they say they have. We will see, and if Bastareaud’s new status as leader and line breaker – 18 carries went 34 metres against Italy! – is the benchmark then this is a game which surely carries no fears especially into the last 20 minutes when we know the French will be feeling the pace.
 
Has Ireland ever gone to Twickenham to win the Grand Slam on St Patrick’s day? That is a wild notion but entirely possible if they down the Scots this weekend – who themselves can lift the Six Nations title if certain results go their way. The word I am starting to use for Ireland is relentless, based on the Leinster model of holding the ball for minutes at a time. But this doesn’t look like a Grand Slam team to me, and a pumped up England team (especially if they lose to France) will be playing for their World Cup futures so become very difficult to beat.
 
Finally, Wales’ new open style will allow Italy to express themselves and they will look back at the Treviso performance against Scarlets in the Champions Cup and take heart.
 
The Six Nations has been true to predictions, wafer thin margins between defeat and victory. Wales could be unbeaten, so could France…… I sense more surprises to come but nothing which is really causing the All Blacks to reach for the smelling salts – yet.
H.

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

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.
 

A Chill Autumn Wind Blows for the South


Now that the Domestic and European programme has finished its first phase, excitement is building for the Autumn Internationals, tempered however by the various unavailabilities through injuries or simple resting of key players.

My take on the season so far has been a welcome move to find creative influence in the middle of the field. Coaches are finally realising that the well timed pass or piece of vision can be the difference between winning and losing.  Toomua and Ford at Leicester have shown this in abundance, as have Lyon in France and Newcastle in England.  Glasgow and Scarlets also play with vision and, with Leinster, remain market leaders in the Pro 14 – although Euro success eludes the first two to date.  However, all is not lost because the doubleheaders in December are a winner takes all across the pools – Saracens/Clermont, Bath/Toulon and Leinster/Exeter home and away possibly whet the appetite more than the Autumn Internationals dare I say it! 

Talking of which, the All Blacks arrived in town to play the Babas at Twickenham at the weekend and it was wonderfully entertaining, lots of creativity and not a head injury in sight – if you don’t play head-on rugby, that tends to be the outcome.  More special was the Barbarians support of wounded service personnel through placing the Help for Heroes logo on their shirt and an invitation by their sponsors Paysafe to a number of soldiers to attend the match.  A wonderful reflection of rugby’s true values linking up with those who deserve all our support – topped off by an impromptu rendition of the Haka post match in the changing rooms for their visitors.  It would have been a memory to cherish.

It was nice of Twickenham to organise an All Blacks trial at the Home of Rugby, given that 10 of the Barbarians team were New Zealanders. They have forty of their best players here to allow Steve Hansen to run the rule over fringe players, and all the nations have adopted the same strategy. That is why if you exclude the All Blacks then Southern Hemisphere wins could be a rarity over the coming weeks given their last opportunities to experiment. Scotland and Wales will be fancying their chances, Ireland are nigh unbeatable at home as England found out, and the strong revival in Italian rugby under Conor O’Shea bodes well for their chances. This is all caveated by the tactics adopted as all Southern Hemisphere teams can swing the ball around dangerously, as the rugby Championship showed – Australia in particular look to have found a team for their World Cup after a couple of years of chastening results, especially against England and New Zealand.

Talking of England – their Argentina tour unearthed rare talent and a new way of playing. But it is not uniform across their squad. Certain key players lack pace – Hartley, Robshaw, Cole and Brown spring to mind. Jones has some tough calls to make for the core of his team and some positional.  Last years Six Nations saw good results but the performances were lacking. He won’t mind that as long as the team kicks on from here – all his main competitors are on sharp curves upwards. There are constant attempts to keep feet on ground – not fit enough, not enough leaders on the field etc. Remember, there was a “no excuses” culture adopted by Woodward in 2001 which became a real mantra and his 2003 winners were by now already the best in the world.

Still, let us not compare or recall history. The All Blacks never do, and they remain the benchmark.

H.