February 27, 2009
Evans boys and Parisse offer hope of something fun to watch
Posted by Rory Baldwin on 02/27/2009
So far, so poor for Scotland. The Wales match was one sided, while the France match was largely equal in the displays of ineptitude on offer. With Wales and Ireland roaring on to Grand Slam deciders, the remaining Six Nations find ourselves already fumbling about in the mire looking for some positives we will be able to take from the tournament, and we are only two games in. After a stunning (yet winless) start vs Ireland, France are back "building" for the World Cup in 2011 and don't seem to care all that much about current results. Martin Johnson would probably argue the same thing but pressure on him for results is a lot greater given past glories in white shirts.
Which leaves perennial Wooden Spoon fanciers, Scotland and Italy, two teams at the bottom with more in common than one might suspect.
Our once positive hopes for this tournament have been somewhat sacrificed on the twin altars of injury and lunatic selection. Italy might have had a decent chance against England with an actual scrum-half, while we might have beaten France and shown up against Wales with an actual pack.
We both have a classy back row man in exile at Stade Francais. Theirs, Sergio Parisse, is keeping ours, Simon Taylor, stuck in the second row. Which has helped him fit in with Hadden's crazy game-plans but left him a little more subdued than the ball carrier we are used to. We'll need a big game from him tomorrow, much as Italy need Parisse to maintain his current outstanding form - how Harry Ellis was man of that match baffles me.
Our players are trying to get a foothold in the Magners League. Theirs for the first time, in order to expose home-grown Italians to a better standard of rugby, and ours in order to try and gain some respectability rather than being mid-table stalwarts.
Both teams seem to be going backwards despite recent promise. Nick Mallet has been to some extent limited by what's available for him to pick, and the level of rugby they play, while Frank Hadden has done all sorts of things to try and get a winning team together (usually a week too late). In terms of progress, despite the discovery of new talent - for Scotland in the form of the Evans boys and Euan Murray, and on the other hand Luke Maclean looks decent, if not exactly Italian - we both look about the same place we were two or three years ago. Not terrible, but not going to beat Wales either.
Unfortunately for Scotland, 2 years ago means losing to Italy, at home. I hope in that, at least, things will be different this time around.
Rory Baldwin is the Editor of Scottish Rugby Blog.
February 26, 2009
England selection continues to baffle
Posted by James Hutchison on 02/26/2009
Several people have commented that Martin Johnson should be admired for his continuity in selection, avoiding the chopping and changing that seemed to plague his predecessors and prevent any sort of development in the team.
It's a great theory that sticking with the same team will help build a great side...unless of course you got the selection wrong in the first place.
Steve Borthwick is the first name on the teamsheet - sadly though, it's not because he's the best second row available. He is ineffective in the loose and outshone by Nick Kennedy in the lineout, whilst the blame for the penalty count must lie partly at his door since it betrays a lack of leadership. It's time the captain was dropped.
Nick Easter has also outstayed his welcome in the Number 8 shirt, particularly since he was shown up so cruelly by the omnipresence of James Haskell and Joe Worsley at the Millennium Stadium. Easter has such little dynamism that he actually slows the ball down in attack - not ideal when it's usually recycled at snail's pace anyway.
At fly-half, where is Danny Cipriani? His talent is unquestionable and is surely a more suitable long term option that Toby Flood or Andy Goode who have already prove that they are not. He may have his flaws, but if development is the name of the game, Cipriani should be in the side.
And when will we see Paul Sackey look as if he's interested? His lackadaisical approach is mightily frustrating when he is keeping the likes of James Simpson-Daniel and Mathew Tait out of the side, and it's time someone else was given a chance.
If England show no improvement from the last round when they take on the Irish at Croke Park, it would suggest a lack of progression and it would be time for Johnno to admit that his selection has been misguided from the outset.
February 18, 2009
Posted by Barry French on 02/18/2009
Much fuss is being made about the 'defection' to France next season of three Wasps' players and the possibility of Saint Jonny also being a target of a euro-rich French club.
The consensus appears to be that this it not a good thing for English rugby, that taking top players away from the Premiership will dilute its appeal and that the national team will suffer from not having access to such players apart from in agreed IRB windows (thus rendering impotent the hard-won agreement with the English clubs regarding player-release).
I beg to differ.
With the exception of the French national team, I'd say that there are plenty of positives to be drawn from this development.
February 17, 2009
10 things we learned from the first two rounds of the 6 Nations
Posted by Lee Calvert on 02/17/2009
1. It's really easy to win man of the match awards, all you have to do is tackle a Welsh centre a few times and Brian Moore thinks you are the new Michael Jones
2. Gethin Jenkins is a lot less stupid than he looks and sounds - in rugby terms at least
3. Brian O'Driscoll is good again
4. Ireland look like they may finally fulfil their destiny
5. But they probably won't
6. Nick Easter's mostly ponderous international career could be over
7. Scotland are neither as good nor as bad as people would like to believe
8. Lievremont is still barking mad; but France look better than they have done for a while, without looking great either, mind
9. BBC Six Nations punditry is getting worse.
10. Andy Goode is neither the solution nor the problem
Lee Calvert, editor bloodandmud.com
February 16, 2009
Kaplan criticism is unwarranted
Posted by James Hutchison on 02/16/2009
There has been passionate debate on The Rugby Blog since Saturday's game over whether referee Jonathan Kaplan's decisions were biased in the Home side's favour.
Some have argued that he missed a couple of forward passes, that the Welsh defenders were regularly offside when the ball was recycled at every English ruck, and that there was no consistency in his stance on players 'killing the ball'. And perhaps his interpretation of the scrummaging battle shone more brightly on Wales, but how can anyone comment on the goings-on in the dark of the front row?
England's penalty count and their inability to toe the line of the law has been well documented, but can we really pass off another England defeat with the excuse of the one-eyed referee?
The first 15 minutes of the match set the tone for the game, whilst England barely touched the ball and Wales launched wave after wave of attack. Even with the heroic defensive efforts of Joe Worsley, if England hadn't slowed the ball down illegally, it's likely they would have been at least two tries down inside the first quarter.
Their approach was to soak up the attack and avoid conceding tries at all costs, in the hope that Wales couldn't keep up that pace for 80 minutes, and so damage limitation was paramount. The result was a 9-point deficit courtesy of Stephen Jones' boot, and the loss of Mike Tindall to the sin bin quite deservedly - but the situation could have been so much worse.
The cynical start to the game would have confirmed in Kaplan's mind what he would have been reading all week - that Martin Johnson's side had been picked to do a defensive job, and that a negative gameplan might just see them scrape an unlikely victory. Everyone knows that teams try to 'play the referee', but infuriating Kaplan in that first 15 minutes was the best England could do.
It was therefore inevitable that for tight decisions, like at the scrum, or in the grey area at the breakdown, Kaplan would favour the team looking to actually play some rugby, rather than simply to stifle the game.
Let's not take out our frustration on Kaplan, even if he was the guy that didn't punish the infamous spear tackle on Brian O'Driscoll in 2005.
February 13, 2009
St. Valentine’s Day Massacre?
Posted by Barry French on 02/13/2009
OK, so hands up everyone who honestly thought that, when Martin Johnson took over as England supremo, within six months we would end up with a line up that included Joe Worsley, Andy Goode and Mike Tindall?
Come on, hands up...
Back in what now appear to have been wonderfully naive times we were full of talk of Cipriani, Geraghty, Tait and Foden, full of hope for a lightening-quick back line and full of anticipation of a golden age of attacking rugby … and the subsequent appointment as attack coach of Brian Smith, who had transformed the stodgy London Irish into an attacking tour de force, merely served to whet further our insatiable appetite for change and innovation.
The Johnson era, we believed, would be so very different from the muddled confusion and mixed messages served up under the Robinson and Ashton regimes. Clarity of selection, tactics and communication would return once again to the England set-up. No more safety first selections, no more ill-thought out short termism and no more ditching of exciting young talent in favour of hackneyed journeymen.
Oh how adolescent our aspirations now seem - now that the likes of Geraghty, Foden and the extremely hard-done-by Steffon Armitage have been ejected from the squad, their attacking instincts jettisoned for the more prosaic talents of far less talented players.
I honestly never thought I'd see the day when England would travel to Cardiff with the sole intention of keeping the score down, but what else can the selection of this particular England team possibly signal? It appears to be a selection borne out of desperation, a selection made only for its supposed solidity in defence, a selection reliant on the boot of Andy Goode and the heavy tackling of Joe Worsley and Mike Tindall, a selection bereft of a single spark of attacking ingenuity.
England beating Wales in Cardiff this year was always going to be a long shot, but to give themselves any chance they needed to follow the example set by Scotland in the final quarter of last weekend’s game at Murrayfield and work on releasing quick ball to attack the space in the wider channels. Sadly, the bottom line is that England have no chance, not with these players, not with this ridiculously limited team, not with tactics that are rooted in damage limitation.
A St. Valentine’s Day massacre? I fear a cricket score and shall be watching from behind the sofa. Croke Park in 2007 was bad – this could be much, much worse.
February 12, 2009
England fans be afraid, be very afraid
Posted by Lee Calvert on 02/12/2009
Eight years ago I was sat in the Millennium Stadium when England stuffed Wales 44-15. The manner of the victory was crushing and would have been worse for the home side had Iain Balshaw - starting a trend that continues to this day - not dropped the ball with the line at his mercy. Other than the game itself, what I remember most about it was the total confidence England fans had going into that game: we were the best team in Europe at that time, were scoring tries for fun (28 in the 2001 Championship), and would no doubt have won the Grand Slam if foot & mouth disease had not intervened.
This weekend's match is very similar to that played on the crisp day in 2001, the only difference being the form and class is reversed.
Wales are head and shoulders above England, and that was before Johnson decided to go ultra-conservative by picking the blinkered lummox Joe Worsley at seven and dropping all remnants of flair from both the team and the bench. Don't get me wrong, Worsley is a decent player, but putting such a blunt instrument up against the surgeon's scalpel Martyn Williams is akin to Liam Gallagher facing Luciano Pavarotti in an X-Factor sing-off.
The only problem Wales may have is what the psychologists like to term "performance anxiety". Their fans and players will struggle to remember a time when they came into a match against England as such overwhelming favourites and the danger is that this will affect them mentally. In the past, without this coaching team, I may have agreed with them - but not this time. Warren Gatland is a Kiwi and no nation on earth is more comfortable with being the best in the sport of Rugby Union, after all they have had that moniker for 100 years.
As a northern lad myself, I can remember the Wigan team Shaun Edwards played in (how I hated them), and I can give no better illustration of their dominance than this: from the age of 12 to 22 I never saw them lose a cup match, and during that same period I can remember precious few league losses either. Edwards's Wigan would famously smash up their changing room at the end of every season; a symbol (albeit a violent one) that whatever they had achieved that year was over and it was time to win all over again. They usually did. Rest assured Wales fans, he has brought that same attitude to his latest role.
There are no redeeming factors to cling to as an England fan approaching this game. Our once-famous front five looks weak, with Andy Sheridan seemingly having forgotten how to scrummage; the back row is slow and gives away too many penalties; the defensive weakness in the 10-12 channel is red rag for the raging bull Jamie Roberts; and the Welsh kicking game means our often ponderous back three will be in serious trouble. Wales also have the oh-so-terrible scenario of waiting to see if Henson and Ryan Jones are fit, otherwise they will have to stick with the team that mullered Scotland last week. Such problems!
As an England fan myself, I will actually find it hard to take anything but limited joy from a scratchy 12-7 victory, should we miraculously achieve something like it, as it will simply tissue paper over the yawning chasms in the England game. We need to admit and accept that this is a long-term recovery project and treat it as such.
It's a great shame Bill Frindall passed away the other week, we may need him to monitor what I predict will be a cricket score.
Lee Calvert is editor of bloodandmud.com
February 11, 2009
Looking Forward to Scotland vs France? Oui et Non
Posted by Rory Baldwin on 02/11/2009
Scotland coach Frank Hadden announced his team to face France today, and while the inclusion of both Evans brothers is a step in the right direction and should appease the multitude of fans, bloggers and pundits calling for their inclusion, there are still a few worries. It seems to be a little of what we asked for, and a little bit of what the French call I don't know what, to borrow from Dr Evil.
Jason White continues in the second row despite a fairly lacklustre performance against Wales and a shortage of match fitness. A genuine, in form second row in Ally Kellock is once again ignored. The scrum is also a bit underdone with Alisdair Dickinson cementing his position in the front row but Moray Low could prove a useful replacement from the bench. It does mean the pack will be lacking the bulk that the injured Hines and Murray offer and I wouldn't be surprised if Scotland steer away from the set piece - which may play into France's freewheeling hands. Big Al Strokosch also comes into the back row to add a bit of steel to the defence. If he and Barclay can police the breakdown mercilessly as they did in Argentina, then perhaps a repeat of Martyn Williams' free reign to monkey about in that area can be avoided.
In the backs, there are of course the in-form Evans boys who will give the Toulouse players in the French team a little dose of the fear, especially if they can prolong their lucky streak. We all hope their fearlessness translates to the bigger stage. But then there is Ulster's Simon Danielli, who seems a strange choice for Hadden to slip in ahead of the versatile and multi-purpose Paterson or even Sean Lamont. Another "good trainer", perhaps? Ben Cairns is unlucky to lose his spot at 13 - I would have liked to see an Evans on each wing, but I suppose that would be playing people out of position and we don't like that, do we Frank?
All in all it's a tricky one. We at least have some players in to add a bit of zing to the attack - provided Godman is allowed to sit flat and Evans gets more ball than Cairns did. The pack hasn't really been shored up and is going to have to put in a hell of a performance against a French team that have been instructed to toughen up. Last week it was the tactics and performance that let Scotland down. This week they have a slightly better selection but we still don't know what the tactics will be. They get the same benefit of the doubt this week too - but another inept performance from decent players will only increase calls for Hadden to allez.
Rory Baldwin is the Editor of Scottish Rugby Blog.
February 9, 2009
5 Stupid Mistakes From Scotland
Posted by Rory Baldwin on 02/09/2009
1) Only having one lock on the park. With an already weakened scrum, Jason White played with a bit of heart but wasn’t really the answer in the lineout. Gough and Jones were pretty dominant for Wales in an area we had (before the loss of Hines and rash selections) hoped to target. If he had to play a back rower in the second, surely it would be Simon Taylor who has been doing it all season? Ally Kellock has been playing well for Glasgow, with no little amount of fire in his belly. He’s been in the wilderness long enough - surely it is time for him to return and give some grunt alongside big Jim Hamilton?
2) Early substitutions of Cairns and Barclay. Peter Wright apparently left the BBC Radio Scotland commentary box in disgust when Barclay went off. I’m pretty sure “aperplexed” is not a word, but as it combines “apoplectic” and “perpelexed” quite nicely it sums up what was, I am sure, the mood of many. Barclay had been relatively solid to that point, and while his replacement Scott Gray did well, surely one of the cornerstones of our defence and more importantly the one who sets the tone for the forwards (in the absence of Hines and Strokosch) should not come off just when we are getting into the game. The expression on Barclays face as he went off summed it up. I believe the expression was: WTF? While Max Evans did pretty well when he came on, scoring a great try past both Byrne AND Williams, Cairns wasn’t given a chance. I counted about 2 passes he received in 50 minutes. Surely if the crash ball through Morrison wasn’t working he could have been given a bit of a chance, or failing a chance, a pass? Now that Max Evans has made his mark, Cairns would under normal circumstances have to fight for his place back from Evans. I would still stick with Cairns as he has a slight edge defensively but Evans is pushing hard. This being a Frank Hadden team though you could see Andrew Henderson in the team next week for all we know.
3) Not picking Strokosch or Thom Evans. Max’s late try seemed a little like an “I told you so” from the Evans family to Mr Hadden. His pace and lack of fear set a little spark in the crowd which in turn spurred on the team. Imagine what we could have done with two Evans boys in that end period. Strokosch should definitely come in at 6, with Barclay preserved at 7. Without Hines, Scotland were a blunt-edged and not very effective instrument in the forwards. Stroksoch could be the man to return that edge, given his tendency to use anger as a motivating factor. Pick who you like at 8, it’s a tough call between Brown Hogg or Taylor as none of them was outstanding while not being terrible. I’d probably go with Taylor.
4) Playing like headless chickens. So eager to try and fix things after a ropey start, they were knocking balls on, playing Chunk at first receiver (actually not unsuccessful sometimes) or rushing headlong into dangerous tackles. Dr Cross, in particular, will have little to remember (if he can) of his debut cap. Two poor tackles and twenty minutes in and the bench was half empty and the set piece in even worse shape. The Paterson debate was put to bed early as he was forced on to the pitch - where he had a pretty good game and nearly scored two tries. You do wonder though if Evans or Lamont would have had the power to get over for the first of those. Where was the controlled aggression of the Argentina tests or the autumn internationals. Still in Gloucester? Lamont had another off day, and if you were being really out-of-your-gourd inventive you could have an Evans on each wing which keeps Cairns in the backline too. It’s more likely to be another Chris Paterson shuffle though, as we’ll have forgotten that we had confidence in Godman’s goal kicking just 24 hours ago and though he wasn’t tested yesterday.
5) Playing the backline too deep. This was the biggie, the final nail in the coffin of an already consumptive corpse. Godman likes to play on the gain line for Edinburgh, yet yesterday he sat way too deep. On instruction perhaps - was that the plan to beat Wales: to sit off their blitz defence rather than try and get in behind them? Is it any surprise that Parks, Hadden’s stand-off of choice, likes to sit deep too? Morrison had little chance to make an impact on quick ball as the Welsh defensive line had plenty of time to size him up. Cusiter came on and it seemed like he had instructions to get them flatter. And it worked. This one can be fixed simply - allow Godman to play flat. Giving Cusiter a start at 9 might be a good call given his familiarity with the French and the obvious boost he gave to Scotland’s game. We had talked up Mike Blair but he had a curious off day - he’ll be back I’m sure. With Southwell at 15 you have a big kicker who can sit deep if your plan is to kick. But if you are going forward, you want Godman flat where he is much more dangerous. The solution is NOT to bring Parks in and get him playing flat (or deep). Give Godman a decent game plan playing flat and he should be fine. Don’t be too worried about blitz defences, interceptions or any of that. It happens. Trust in the skills of the players - confidence comes from the top. Regardless of what he says in post-match interviews about how confident he is, Mr Hadden’s game plan is not inspiring confidence either in players or fans. I think we are all sick of seeing feckless and overly conservative Scotland teams, yet we know these players can play fired up, aggressive and attacking rugby. So who is not pushing the ignite switch?
Rory Baldwin, Editor - Scottish Rugby Blog
How Ireland, France and Wales saved me from darts
Posted by James Hutchison on 02/09/2009
On Saturday afternoon, I lost 80 minutes of my life that I'll never get back.
Numbly sitting through the England versus Italy debacle - the much-anticipated Six Nations curtain-raiser - I was seriously considering my future as a rugby supporter. Maybe this isn't the all-action, scintillating sport I once followed, and maybe my time would be better spent watching cricket, tennis or maybe even darts.
With Italy playing like a pub team with a flanker at scrum-half and England feeding off their mistakes without being able to create anything of their own, I wondered whether I could really put myself through another four rounds of pain knowing that it would only get worse.
England's problems appear to stem from a lack of confidence, as at least three times we saw the option to spin the ball wide dismissed in favour of switching the play back to the lumbering forwards to crash into Italy's waiting pack. Quickly recycled possession seems very hard to come by for the men in white, and seeing it wasted like this when it finally arrives is a tragedy.
Thankfully, as I considered reaching for the remote, Ireland's game with France restored my faith in rugby and the magic of the Six Nations. End to end stuff that proved that you can produce a decent game despite the ELVs, with the lead changing hands and the Irish eventually securing a well-deserved victory.
The standard of rugby that these two sides produced was significantly higher than anything we've seen in the northern hemisphere for some time, so after a disappointing autumn, this was a hugely encouraging game for Lions supporters everywhere.
So with renewed faith, I tuned into Wales against Scotland on Sunday and was extremely impressed by Warren Gatland's outfit. Occasionally they accelerated into fourth gear, stopping short of fifth simply because it wasn't required, but making it clear that they had further weapons in the armoury. Aggressive at the breakdown, keeping the ball alive in attack, they oozed class to such an extent that Scotland could never get close.
When Lee Byrne, Jamie Roberts, Andy Powell and Alun Wyn-Jones really start to play - as no doubt they will against their loathed opponents next weekend - few teams will be able to cope. There is world-class talent that seems to run deeper than just the starting fifteen and I fear for England at the inhospitable Millennium Stadium next week.
So whilst I'm filled with dread at the prospect of a record defeat to the Welsh, the thought of every other game involving the three top teams is delightful and the Wales versus Ireland Six Nations finale is mouth-watering, ensuring that I remain a rugby fanatic.
By James Hutchison
England win, but it doesn't get much worse than this
Posted by Lee Calvert on 02/09/2009
An unconvincing result at the end of a frankly abysmal match. Never has so convincing a scoreboard victory been so awful to watch and so destructive to the soul. Moreover, this was the opening game of the Six Nations, and as an advert for the championship itself they might as well have focused a camera on some cheese slowly turning rancid.
England were lucky that the entire first half was dominated by the jaw-droppingly bad performance of the poor sod Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half. He was appalling; everything about his game was wrong both tactically and technically and Mallett took mercy on him and his team by replacing him with the youngster Toniolatti at half-time. Yet despite this, Italy dominated possession in the first forty and the 22-6 lead at half time was wholly down to abject Italian mistakes rather than any endeavour on the part of the home team: Bergamasco either flinging possession all over the shop or putting his misdirected boot to it allowing woeful England to seize on the botch-ups to score.
Awful turnover ball was once again the key for Harry Ellis's second try on 53 minutes; and while you have to admire the composure shown by Flutey in the lead up to the try it was yet another example of England relying on poor opposition rather than any crafted inspiration.
Italy eventually played their way back into the game, with the replacement out-half McLean busting the line to set up a sweeping left to right move that eventually saw Mirco Bergamasco touch down. Frankly, if they had started with young Toniolatti at scrum-half, who knows what the result could have been.
Apologies for banging the "John Wells is rubbish" drum, but England look so clueless in contact - they have gone backwards since the Autumn series - that surely somebody in the England setup must be questioning the man's capability by now; and if they aren't then someone should be questioning their capability in turn - I am struggling to remember any phased play whatsoever.
But to single out the forwards would be unfair, the midfield dropped the ball repeatedly (if Jamie Noon plays for England again then it is obvious that he has signed some kind of faustian deal with El Diablo); and every piece of possession won from set-piece, no matter how good or clean, was booted away. Were there any positives? Ellis was busy on his return, Nick Kennedy was solid in the lineout and Cueto looked sharp when he had the ball - but that is about it.
The Ireland vs France game that followed and the subsequent performance by Wales on Sunday should make every England fan very afraid. If they perform like this in Cardiff it is going to be an insurance job - assuming that a team so clapped out could even get a policy in the first place.
Lee Calvert is the editor of bloodandmud.com, one of the UK's leading rugby blogs.
February 3, 2009
Welcome to the Scrum.com FanZone
Posted by Srinivasa Reddy on 02/03/2009
Fans from around the blogosphere will be offering their opinions on this year's Six Nations as the battle for the much-prized northern hemisphere crown plays out across the continent.