January 31, 2012
Jumping into the great unknown
Posted by tom.hamilton on 01/31/2012
The Azzurri will kick off their 2012 Six Nations campaign defending their hold of the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy, but they are, at best, long shots to do so.
The French display incredible depth in the backs and will field a squad made up of the bulk of the team which came within two points of becoming world champions against the almighty All Blacks. Most of Italy’s Six Nations men also played in the World Cup - but the way they didn’t fare as well as their north western neighbours is symbolic of their strengths and weaknesses.
Italy’s become a respectable side with the forwards at the forefront of everything they do well, namely Marco Bortolami, big Bergamasco, Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni. However, the backs department is at least a notch below any other of the top-tier nations. This means that a couple of line breaks from the opposition, especially in the earlier minutes of any given Six Nations match, will be enough to establish a commanding lead and break the spirits of the Italians.
For the Azzurri to repeat the feat of being Giuseppe Garibaldi champions, their forwards will have to be at the top of their game, as usual - but they will have to do so without the suspended Antonio Pavanello. It will be interesting to see how Monsieur Brunel deals with that while cutting the squad to 24 prior to next Saturday. Moreover, the mostly inexperienced backs must not make any mistakes and, at the same time, counter the Trinh-Ducs, Yachvilis, Rougeries et al. The French backs will also have to do their own part by experiencing an off night. And all of that at Saint Denis - neither an easy task nor a likely turn of events.
The team I would like to see is Castrogiovanni, Ghiraldini and Lo Cicero in the front-row with Bortolami and Geldenhuys packing down behind them. Bergamasco, Parisse and Zanni would be my first choice back-row with Orquera, Canale, Sgarbi, Benvenuti and McLean all featuring in the backs.
It is noticeable that apart from the exports to the English and French top Leagues, the remaining starters are all from either Aironi or Benetton Treviso, and amongst the 30-man squad named by Brunel, 11 come from the former and 14 from the latter. Predicting the extra nine - in addition to the 13 named above - who make the cut and start the match on the bench would be too wild of a guess, but it’s safe to say these Italian sides will provide most of the reserves for Saturday as well.
This comes as no surprise that for what these players might lack in caps, they make do with Heineken Cup experience, especially on the backs side of the team. The exception that proverbially justifies the norm is the just-recently-bearded – youngster would be an understatement – Angelo Esposito, who plays for Ruggers Tarvisium. One could contemplate the fact he doesn’t hail from either Aironi or Treviso as indicative of Monsieur Brunel’s faith in his play. I, for one, foresee him making his debut at home, as being thrown in at Stade de France midway through the second half with the mission of rallying against Les Bleus sounds a little more than what an 18-year old - who hasn’t yet been described as the next Jonah Lomu - could handle.
All in all, we should expect an entertaining match, both on the part of the Azzurri and of Les Bleus. As the tournament progresses, Italy hosting both England and Scotland at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico will be a brilliant sight. Hopes are high that they will overcome the Scots at home again, and what a story it would be to accomplish that at the Olimpico! Embarrassing the current European champions would be the perfect fairy-tale, and there’s no harm in dreaming.
But for the opening day of the competition - here’s hoping that Italy will dominate the scrums and line-outs and will get on the scoreboard. But, who knows, anybody who can count on arguably the most rugged rugby players of the world – Castrogiovanni - has a chance of winning a rugby match. Plain and simple.
Daniel Bergamasco is a third generation Italian Brazilian who played rugby as a youngster and has been a keen follower since. He has no relation to nor displays any of the playing prowess of the Brothers Bergamasco, but it is a safe bet that their respective ancestors all hailed from the same northern Italian, Lombard province! Follow him on Twitter, @Doubles666.
Robinson seeks the right mix
Posted by tom.hamilton on 01/31/2012
This year, Scotland could win a Grand Slam. There, I said it.
Apologies for the spluttering mess you just made of your keyboard/ monitor/ smartphone, but it is true. Scotland can beat every team in this tournament. The problem is, pretty much every team can beat every other team in the tournament. Ireland or Wales could win a Grand Slam, even England might be capable of it. France definitely are, especially with a coach that is even halfway sensible. Italy might be stretching it, but they've beaten everyone save Ireland or England in the Six Nations and are increasingly influential on the tournament outcome. It's trying to string those performances together into a couple of months' worth of matches, rather than a couple of years, that makes the Six Nations harder to call with every year.
In this post-World Cup year a lot of teams are in transition, possibly with the exception of Ireland (who should be). With this the furthest possible distance from the next one, now is the time to restart the building process for many. New coaches for some, new players for all. Scotland are no different. The question north of the border is: how fast will Andy Robinson make the changes the team needs and the fans want?
The unexpected try-scoring success of the Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup and Glasgow's sudden discovery that they can win games they shouldn't really be in are both facets Robinson will hope to transfer to the national team. Many have called for him just to pick everyone who has had a half decent game in the last few months and stick them in a navy shirt. England will be similarly untested, so why not us too?
Robinson, of course, is not that crazy. A large part of Edinburgh's success is down to a rampaging Fijian, a rampaging Dutchman and an Irish coach. Al Kellock, the nuggety leader of Glasgow who inspires them so well may no longer be one of the two best second rows. So change for change's sake is unlikely to be his mantra just yet.
Some of his selections in the World Cup were a little conservative and he has clearly learnt from his choice of captain by picking Ross Ford, who is guaranteed a slot in the team. He has a nice blend of experience and youth in the training squad, but the problem remains which exact blend we will see come the 4th of February.
The front 5 pretty much picks itself: Allan 'Chunk' Jacobsen, Ford, Murray (Cross if it's a Sunday), Gray and Hamilton is most likely the first string. That should give any opposition coach cause for concern at the set piece and in the loose. The back row is trickier.
With the injury to Kelly Brown, David Denton looks a lot more likely to make the team, most likely at number 8. Despite a wealth of talent, Robinson's problem will remain who to pick and where, with Rob Harley, Al Strokosch and Denton all possible blindsides but our options at 8 strangely reduced of late with Johnnie Beattie's drop in form. Many in Scotland hope for the excellent and athletic Ross Rennie to finally claim his place at openside but questions remain over his fitness, and if Robinson has to pick an inexperienced 6 or 8 (or both) he may well opt for the experienced (but out of sorts) John Barclay there. Me, I'd love to see a Strokosch, Rennie, Denton back row.
Greig Laidlaw is clearly the form standoff (1st 5/8 for our fraction loving New Zealand cousins) in Scotland, despite only having played there for Edinburgh occasionally since last year, having been a scrum-half to that point. He's proven brilliant at running a game from 9 or 10, and is a nerveless goal kicker. There is a groundswell of opinion calling for his inclusion in the team, but Robinson may well prefer to opt for the experience of Dan Parks. They are almost polar opposites: the quietly effective Borderer with a love of running; the talky Aussie with the mercurial boot. 10 may be Laidlaw's best chance of caps this time round anyway - Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair have both found form at the right time, and Rory Lawson is in the mix too. I'd go with Cusiter, but I wouldn't argue with giving Laidlaw and Blair the nod.
10 aside, as usual our problems will lie in the midfield. With Steven Shingler denied to us by the miserly Welsh, Graeme Morrison and Sean Lamont are the most likely choices at 12 but while they break the line often, also display a worrying unwillingness to pass the ball. So it might not matter who gets the nod outside them. If Joe Ansbro is fit, combining him and the resurgent Nick De Luca in the centre could be the best option. There are also the young guns Stuart Hogg and Lee Jones who offer pace and fearlessness to the back three. Jones may find it harder to get in the squad once Tim Visser qualifies. If he gets a chance, he'll look to take it now. I would imagine though that Robinson will go with Morrison, De Luca, Evans and the Lamonts. It might not be the most future-minded selection but if he also picked some new back-rowers and gave Laidlaw his chance at 10, we'd probably accept that.
Okay, maybe the Grand Slam is a trip to Dublin too far, but we're quietly optimistic that the right selection from this group of players can do well in the tournament.
That level of optimism could, however, be tempered by the Scotland team announced on Tuesday.
Rory Baldwin is the editor of The Scottish Rugby Blog
New found pragmatism under le Goret
Posted by tom.hamilton on 01/31/2012
Even by French standards the last World Cup brought with it a whole new level of unpredictability. It's still frustrating to think we were just two points from finally winning a world title but three months have eased the pain. Since then little has changed on the playing side of things but there is a new coaching staff in place.
Nobody will ever compete with Marc Lièvremont on the eccentricity front but the man known as le Goret (the pig) could make France a more consistent team. Philippe Saint-André has made his name through having strong packs with big ball carriers and a good kicking fly-half to organise the game.
His modus operandi might seem ironic given some of the exciting teams he played in, but Saint-André really is the prop in winger’s clothing par excellence. We have already been warned not to expect French flair, good discipline and a strong set-piece are more likely to be the order of the day.
We’ll have a good idea of how conservative he is going to play it when he names his fly-half.
The worry is that Saint-André will go with Beauxis, but even his safety-first approach should see the better runner, passer and tackler get the nod, especially after Trinh-Duc’s boot set up all four Montpellier tries in their thrashing of Stade Français on Friday. There has been a favourable response to Saint-André’s appointment in the UK, but in France his stock is perhaps a little lower after an underwhelming stint in Toulon under big-spending, maverick owner Mourad Boudjellal.
But after the ever-entertaining regime of Lièvremont, perhaps a little stability wouldn’t be a bad thing. In terms of selection there have been a few surprises, and the loss of Thomas Domingo to injury and poor form of Fabien Barcella mean David Attoub and Vincent Debaty could both get chances in the front row. Debaty is a great ball carrier but widely derided for his ability at the coalface in the scrummaging haven that is the Top 14, Attoub offers less dynamism but is less of a gamble in the scrum.
Yoann Maestri and Wesley Fofana should make their debuts, the former has long been touted as the next great French second row, the latter has been shredding backlines domestically and in Europe for Clermont. For the rest it is much of the same, not surprising when you have the talent of Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy to call on.
Expect to see more of Louis Picamoles who is having a barnstorming season for Toulouse, and the return of Julien Malzieu is well-deserved. The worries could come up front with William Servat not quite the force of old, though not ready to be written off just yet, and the aforementioned dearth of props behind Jean-Baptiste Poux and Nicolas Mas.
The schedule is kind with England and Ireland both travelling to Paris and an early chance of revenge over Italy, while we’ve only lost once in our last seven at Murrayfield and once this millennium in Cardiff. As ever with Les Bleus it’s impossible to know what will happen but anything less than four wins would probably be disappointing given the schedule and the experience of the squad.
Preferred team: Medard, Clerc, Rougerie, Fofana, Malzieu, Trinh-Duc, Parra, Poux, Servat, Mas, Papé, Maestri, Dusautoir, Harinordoquy, Picamoles