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« October 2010 | | December 2010 »

November 30, 2010

Wet behind the ears

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/30/2010

Are Martin Johnson's side too young to lift the World Cup? © Getty Images

Chris Hewett believes that England's bright young things are too green for World Cup domination in New Zealand next year in The Independent.

"Let's talk numbers. England have eight matches left to them – five of them serious tournament fixtures, three of them low-rent runarounds of the warm-up variety – before they face Argentina in the first of their World Cup pool games next September, and while Martin Johnson has a far better idea of his first-choice combination now than he did seven months ago, there is no obvious similarity between his state of readiness for a global gathering and Clive Woodward's position in 2003. If Woodward fancied himself as some kind of sporting Henry V, his successor has more than a touch of the Ethelreds about him.

"In Woodward's last eight games before boarding the Australia-bound plane and launching his successful campaign for the Webb Ellis Trophy, he saw his team stick 40 points on Italy, another 40 on Scotland, and 42 on Ireland in Dublin in a performance worthy of the Grand Slam. He then watched them face down the All Blacks in Wellington, run rings round the Wallabies in Melbourne, make a truly horrible mess of Wales in Cardiff and put one over the French at Twickenham before crossing the water for a return match, fielding an experimental side and losing by a point. The word "wow" was the only legitimate response at the time, and remains so to this day."

The work starts here

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/30/2010

David Kelly offers his report card following Ireland's mixed November series in The Irish Independent.

"Unlike official Ireland, sport demands accountability. Ireland's November Series started and ended with a whimper; there was a bit of a bang in between, but blink and you missed it. Ireland hit the heights only in defeat to the world's best, and slumped to dispiriting lows when more was expected from them.

"Yet, imperceptibly, there is progress. Thirty players were used this November; 30 players will be required at the World Cup. With Paul O'Connell and Tomas O'Leary to return, the maths seems pretty simple."

Fear and self-loathing

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/30/2010

The Australian's Emma-Kate Symons reviews the media response in France to the national side's hammering at the hands of the Wallabies.

"Following their "pulverisation" (59-16) before a capacity crowd at the Stade de France by "les Australiens", newspapers, public debates and online chatter are awash with the story of the collective national shame over "A Terrible humiliation", as Le Figaro lamented.

"The French awoke yesterday to the announcement of two grim and seemingly linked phenomenon: the nation threatened by the debt crisis that is driving the Euro to record lows, and "the total failure of French rugby", in the words of Sud Ouest newspaper.

"Plucked like chickens!" L'Equipe screamed in one of multiple references to the French national symbol of le coq, or the rooster. The team was even likened to squashed pate and petrified chickens."

Best of the best

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/30/2010

Wynne Gray selects his All Black 'team of the decade' following their latest Grand Slam success in The New Zealand Herald.

"Since the All Blacks and Graham Henry coincided, they have bowled along at a success rate which has peaked at 85.7 per cent.

"It is extraordinary to consider that in seven seasons together, they have felt the pain of defeat just 13 times in 91 internationals. That record suggests Henry's crew would dominate an All Black team of the decade.

"But if we chew through the performances of those who have worn the famous black jersey with distinction this past decade, starting in 2001, we might be surprised.

"The current pack would dominate many of the selections and debate for that XV and, given their sparkling enterprise and triumphs, you would suspect most of the backs would also command serious attention."

November 29, 2010

Cold war

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/29/2010

Gordon D'Arcy says hello to Martin Scelzo © PA Photos

Vincent Hogan reviews the cooling of hostilities between Ireland and Argentina following a lukewarm Lansdowne Road showdown in The Irish Independent.

"Mario Ledesma looked like just another eccentric, elderly relative, mumbling banal courtesies as he hurried from the cold, a heavy, beige rug pulled across his shoulders.

"At the mouth of the tunnel, Felipe Contepomi wrapped a brotherly arm around Jonny Sexton. In the world's biggest freezer unit, the rogue hormone of friendship was slowly breaking out.

"So much of what these teams understand about one another has generated only boiling antipathy. Somehow, the last decade pushed them ceaselessly into one another's faces and, routinely, they found themselves doing things and saying things that pretty much brought dialogue back to the cave."

Humble pie

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/29/2010

Brian Moore tucks in to some humble pie in The Daily Telegraph following South Africa's win over England.

"The report of my death was an exaggeration" – Mark Twain – juxtaposed with the world order of rugby this would be the response of the Springboks to my recent partially inaccurate pontificating on their state of health.

"Saturday's physical annihilation of England at Twickenham showed that against all but the very best, South Africa have the sheer willpower and strength to prevail. The sustained belligerence and controlled aggression was as much a master class in bloody-minded character as it was in the often ignored technical adeptness required to subjugate an opposition pack for an entire game.

"I maintain that against a team who are able to come close to matching their forward effort and who can tackle on the gain line, the Springboks do not have enough guile or subtlety in attack."

Scrum spin won't paper cracks

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/29/2010

Greg Growden hails Australia's attacking box of tricks but draws focus back to their scrum after a massive win over France in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"It's pretty simple, really. If your scrum resembles melting jelly, not even Mandrake the Magician at five-eighth can save you. But if your scrum maintains its shape, anything is possible.

"The Wallabies' record Test victory over France was the perfect example of that. Has there even been such a dramatic contrast between the first and second halves of a rugby match? In the first half, the Wallabies scrum was castigated by New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence over and over again, and suffered the indignity of a penalty try in the 30th minute.

"The three minutes before that was one of the most humiliating an Australian scrum has experienced in recent times. Unlike the England Test in Perth, when a rookie Wallabies pack of Ben Daley, Saia Faingaa and Salesi Ma'afu was pulverised, the seasoned front row that encountered France - Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore and James Slipper - was supposedly Australia's best."

North lagging behind

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/29/2010

Peter Bills believes that the south can again claim to be streets ahead of the north in The New Zealand Herald.

"The All Blacks might have been several notches below their best and Wales might have shown considerable courage. Yet it's hard to argue with a five tries to one score line. Fact is, Wales's players are just not used to playing with the same intensity, precision of execution and powerful physicality that the New Zealanders bring to all their games.

"It is even tougher to dispute the Wallabies' whopping 59-16 annihilation of the French on a bitter night in Paris. The French simply do not know how to play this new, attacking game. The country whose rugby men once gave the world such pleasure with their ball handling skills, invention and intelligence, now have only physical might to offer."

November 28, 2010

Grand Slam thank you ma'am

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/28/2010

New Zealand celebrate completing their fourth Grand Slam tour of the UK & Ireland © Getty Images

The Herald on Sunday's Gregor Paul reflects on the All Blacks latest Grand Slam glory - secured with victory over Wales in Cardiff.

"This was proper Test football and the All Blacks had to work much harder than the score might suggest. There were periods where they were loose, unable to get their hands on the ball and scrambling to stop the Welsh. There were other periods where the All Blacks were magnificent - so accurate, so clinical, so fast that Wales didn't know what had hit them. That was the difference really - the All Blacks made everything pay - they converted their opportunities. And how they needed to.

"If the Welsh are a team in disarray, at war with their coach, then they hid it superbly well. Like Ireland the week before, they had passion, enterprise and width.

"Unlike Ireland the week before, they didn't find a second wind - their first lasting for long enough to kindle hopes 57 years of misery could end. But like so many Welsh teams before them, they just couldn't keep the pressure on."

Bok 'corpse' has strong pulse

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/28/2010

The Springboks have reminded the world that when they put it all together, they can still fend off just about any comers, according to Sport24's Rob Houwing.

"So what will the doomsayers make of this, then?

"Let us not be guilty of suggesting all is suddenly hunky-dory again in Springbok rugby: it isn’t. But there are also times when the pessimists must be banished, humiliated, to the back seats for a while and a special weekend – “finish and klaar!” -- be savoured by those who doggedly keep the faith.

"Considering the swirling cloud of negativity after the Scotland debacle only seven days earlier, and the general mood of public disenchantment with both the touring Bok team and their head coach of late, beating England by an emphatic 10 points at Twickenham on Saturday was a riposte of some force."

Wallabies turn on the razzle dazzle

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/28/2010

Les Bleus meet their Paris match on Saturday night according to the Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden.

"The Wallabies went on a wild second-half points scoring spree to enjoy their biggest win over France to end their spring tour the best way possible with a 59-16 trouncing at Stade de France in Paris today.

"...The Wallabies decided to show all their backline tricks with their wide, expansive passing from all quarters of the field and astute chip kicking reaping seven tries including three to winger Drew Mitchell. The Wallabies other winger James O'Connor also enjoyed a great night out finishing with 29 points from a try, six conversions and four penalty goals. O'Connor also consolidated himself as Australia's number one on goalkicker missing only two from 12 attempts.

"Outside-centre Adam Ashley-Cooper had an exceptional game. Where everything seemed to be falling apart in the first half, Ashley-Cooper held it together by scoring the first try of the game and then making endless charges at the line to allow the Wallabies to stay level 13-13 with the then dangerous French."

Wales could have won

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/28/2010

Former Wales international Ieuan Evans believes Warren Gatland's side could have claimed a famous triumph against the All Blacks had they shown greater composure. Read his thoughts in the Sunday Telegraph.

"A real plus point after the performance against Fiji last week was that Wales denied New Zealand the chance to impose their game plan. When Wales have their first team playing, they are a match for anybody. However, they need to rediscover the ability to get over the finish line and to do that, they need to play for 80 minutes.

"A lack of composure has been a recurring theme. Under pressure, their decision making has let them down. But I don't want to be too negative because this was a very competitive game of rugby.

"The likes of Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton, in particular, really stood up well as did the tight five forwards who went well again, in the scrum. It was also good to see us finishing on a high with Lee Byrne's stoppage time try.

"It's certainly a platform on which Warren Gatland can work and I have no doubt that some of these players have not only laid down a marker, but are in line to play a major part at the Six Nations and World Cup campaign."

All Blacks ruthless when it counted

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/28/2010

Writing for the Sunday Telegraph, Brendan Gallagher reports on Wales latest defeat at the hands of the All Blacks.

"New Zealand, not always at their best but clinical and ruthless when it counted, completed their third northern hemisphere Grand Slam since 2005 against a Wales side that gave it everything but still came up well short. That’s 24 consecutive defeats now against the All Blacks, a horrible statistic for a rugby nation that once considered themselves the equal of Saturday's opponents.

"...Dan Carter, enduring a poor half with four missed kicks at goal, did locate the target with a beautifully struck effort from 49 metres to pass Jonny Wilkinson’s previous world record mark of 1,178 Test points.

"It says everything you need to know about the All Blacks team ethic and focus on the job in hand that not a single New Zealand player went to congratulate him on such a landmark achievement."

Problems Dan Parks can't kick away

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/28/2010

The Scotland on Sunday's Iain Morrison analyses a major problem facing Scotland coach Andy Robinson.

"In one of his more lucid insights into the human condition Homer Simpson once declared: "Beer, the cause of, and the solution to, all of life's problems".

"For "beer" read Dan Parks and you get some idea of the conundrum facing Andy Robinson after three EMC autumn internationals. The Australian playmaker is the crux of Scotland's recent run of excellence (overlooking the All Blacks fiasco) and he is at the heart of Scotland's woes.

"Parks showcased his match management abilities against South Africa just as he had previously done in Argentina and Dublin. Courage comes in many guises and if he is not the bravest soul on the planet with a giant breakaway blocking out the sun, still the fly-half is nerveless when lining up crucial kicks in the sort of weather that would make the AA advise you to stay indoors.

"But there is a flip side. With Parks pulling the strings for Scotland the outside backs get the ball 15 metres behind the gainline with almost all of their momentum lateral rather than forward."

Fleet-footed England sunk by the Bismarck

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/28/2010

Martin Johnson's England side were scuppered by brute force of Springbok forwards and early injuries to key players Croft and Flood.The Independent on Sunday's Hugh Godwin reports.

"A couple of escalators outside Twickenham seized up a few minutes before kick-off and England suffered a similar breakdown in their upward progression. South Africa's muscularly indomitable Springboks blew the composure of Lewis Moody's side to smithereens, and but for Ben Foden's late interception there might have been a few boos welling in HQ's voiceboxes. This was South Africa's seventh straight win over England.

"The 10-point defeat replicated England's first result of the autumn, against the All Blacks, to create sobering bookends either side of the wins over Australia and Samoa. It was the last chance to get one up on the southern hemisphere heavyweights before the World Cup; the eight matches England have before the global set-to in New Zealand next September will be against Six Nations opposition.

"England were fragile, undermined by forces of physics as familiar to Martin Johnson as Isaac Newton. Whereas the Australians had played fast and loose, encouraging the English second rows, Courtney Lawes and Tom Palmer, into exciting dynamism, the South Africans stifled all that at source. The world champions were missing nine top-line players and had blown their Grand Slam bid in Scotland but they showed no fear at close quarters and handled England expertly out wide. Schalk Burger, John Smit and Heinrich Brussow were among the absentees; still their pack was strong enough to make monkeys of anyone who thought this would be a walk in the safari park for England."

Shunted by the Springbacks

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/28/2010

The Springboks showed no mercy at Twickenham but England still have good grounds for optimism according to The Observer's Paul Hayward.

"Softened up by this imperious muscularity, England fell to a 21-11 scoreline that was rendered more respectable by Ben Foden's late breakaway try. Tom Croft and Toby Flood were wiped out before half‑time. Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes soon followed them to the spectator seats. South Africa were in primal mode. Not dirty, just merciless, man‑on‑man. Instinct must have told them England had grown giddy on their new expansive style and needed to learn about subjugation.

"From this, much gloom will follow. The more pessimistic analysts will say England tricked us with that conquest of the Wallabies. They will talk of soft centres and old flaws. Many recruits have walked the path from early praise to damnation since 2007. Will this lot join them? Not if there is to be justice and logic in the end-of-term report on a side who displayed ambition against the All Blacks and Australia and great fortitude against the South Africa of Victor Matfield and Pierre Spies, before the barricades splintered with tries by Willem Alberts and Lwazi Mvovo. Too many penalties were conceded, too many mistakes made, but through the fog of disappointment you look for evidence that a new team are emerging – and there has been plenty of that over the past four weeks."

November 27, 2010

Second row showdown

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/27/2010

Will England's Courtney Lawes rise to the challenge of South Africa's Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha? © Getty Images

The Daily Telegraph's Will Greenwood believes England's Courtney Lawes and Tom Palmer face a big test against their Springbok counterparts Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.

"Brad Thorn, of New Zealand, has been pushing hard for the title of rugby enforcer over the past 18 months, but if you asked me who I would fear the most, it is still Botha.

"I once compared his partner in crime, Matfield, to Lee van Cleef. He strolls into town, ready to do what must be done, confident that the opposition will blink first.

"A basketball athlete with the leap of a bucking bronco and the hands of a centre. Old hands, Botha and Matfield have seen it all and done it better than pretty much anyone. Today, however, the old hands will come up against a young partnership who have shown their steel in the past couple of matches.

"England have Tom Palmer and Courtney Lawes in their second row and they have added a new dimension to the England team. Dynamic, powerful, athletic, nasty, with some pretty tasty hands of their own."

World Cup hopefuls have 245 days

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/27/2010

The New Zealand Herald's Wynne Gray believes there is still time for fresh faces to force their way into the All Blacks' World Cup squad.

"The vastly experienced Henry acknowledged some World Cup choices would become clearer through the Super Rugby competition, but he said that 80 per cent of the tournament squad was emerging. Perhaps, but the growing contribution of players such as Hosea Gear, Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Whitelock who have pushed into the main frame on this current tour may have tweaked other selection plans for Henry and Co.

They always speak about adapting playing styles and bringing in new ideas. The same could be said for some players to keep the heat on the incumbents. You can name others left in New Zealand, some new names and others retreaded, who might deliver similar pressure upon the incumbents if they keep playing strongly or recover completely from injury and find their Super sides on form too.

"Think of some such as Robbie Fruean, Rene Ranger, Luke McAlister, Colin Slade, Mike Delany, Aaron Cruden, Brendon Leonard, Rodney So'oialo, Victor Vito, Matt Todd, Tanerau Latimer, Bryn Evans, Isaac Ross, Jason Eaton, Toby Smith and Jamie Mackintosh."

Quick-fire Stringer holds key for Kidney

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/27/2010

Writing for the Irish Independent, Tony Ward sings scrum-half Peter Stringer's praises ahead of Ireland's clash with Argentina.

"Peter Stringer is in alongside Jonny Sexton, not because he is playing a whole lot better than Eoin Reddan, but because he brings a different dynamic to the position and the team. Stringer's undoubted strength is his wrist-driven speed of pass and on a day when moving opposition man-mountains around is the primary concern, it is the most logical way to go.

"Stringer is not back in the scrum-half role to snipe around the edges or act as some sort of extra wing-forward a la Tomas O'Leary. The extra split-second the speed of his passing delivers will enable the likes of Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll to take the Pumas to wider areas they do not want to go.

"...It is a tricky balancing act for the head coach. He knows he must win, but he also recognises he cannot do so by being conservative. That would play 100pc into Puma hands. The key is in meeting the juggernaut early and quickly establishing a platform to go on and win the game."

All Blacks can overcome their wobbles

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/27/2010

As the international season winds up, the Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden rates the top competitors before next year's World Cup in New Zealand.

"Strengths: The All Blacks are the most complete team going around, and boast two crucial elements - the world's No.1 openside flanker in Richie McCaw and five-eighth in Daniel Carter. Every World Cup winner has a great No.10, and Carter is in that category. McCaw is also the smartest captain going around. As shown this season, they have the varied game plans to overcome most conditions and oppositions. The Wallabies did beat them once this year, but most times finished deep in their shadow.

"Weaknesses: They have a terrible habit of falling apart at World Cup time. There is also the pressure of performing at home, because the expectations among the New Zealand community are enormous. As they have worked so hard on getting a consistent, settled line-up, they could struggle if injuries hit their attack. The All Blacks must work out where to put Sonny Bill Williams, because if he appears in the wrong spot, the balance could be badly affected.

"What needs to be fixed: Not much.

"Where they have gone in rankings in a year: Remained first.

"Prediction: World Cup victors."

Isolated glory is no longer enough

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/27/2010

The Scotsman's David Ferguson previews Scotland's final outing of the autumn against Samoa.

"Coaching a Scotland team to victory when the backs are to the wall and a dose of humiliation has been injected into the heart is invariably one of the lesser demands of a national coach in this part of the woods, but Andy Robinson is acutely aware that he faces that stiffer challenge this afternoon of creating winners from winners in Scotland's final EMC Autumn Test match of 2010.

"The nation last week moved up to sixth position in the IRB world rankings, but even if they win at Pittodrie this afternoon - the SRU is very confident the game will go ahead despite heavy snow in Aberdeen yesterday - they are likely to fall back to seventh at the close of the weekend. The points gap between them and Samoa in 11th is such that Robinson's side cannot improve on their tally today, whereas the winner of Ireland and Argentina in Dublin tomorrow will gain points and move back above Scotland.

"However, Robinson was quick to make clear yesterday just how much this game matters in terms of altering a common meandering path through the last decade of rugby history in Scotland. He and his fellow coaches and players are on the trail of consistency, the holy grail of Scottish rugby in its elusiveness."

Attack is best form of defence

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/27/2010

Writing in The Independent, Brian Ashton questions the evidence behind the belief that "Defence is the best form of attack."

"I'm not suggesting for a moment that strong, aggressive defence is worthless, but I do think some people have stopped seeing the wood for the trees. A couple of weeks ago, I visited Gresham's School in Norfolk – the Alma Mater of the England scrum-half Ben Youngs – and asked a group of 10 and 11-year-olds what key word they would choose as a defensive rallying call. One of them removed his mouthguard and said: "I'd choose the word 'attack', because attack is the best form of defence."

"How wonderful that a young player with no received wisdom, no historical rugby baggage, should come up with a little gem like that. He was absolutely spot on, because he was saying, in essence: "What are we seeking to achieve in defence? We're seeking to prevent the opposition scoring, and trying to pressurise them to the extent that they lose possession and give us an opportunity to mount an attack of our own." This might sound too simple for words, but I know of one team who base their entire game around this principle and do so to devastating effect. Yes, I'm talking about the All Blacks, and if it's good enough for them..."

Flood rising

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/27/2010

England fly-half Toby Flood has emerged from the shadows of Team Wilko to cement his place in Martin Johnson's set-up according to The Guardian's Rob Kitson.

"The 25-year-old with the theatrical genes has been maturing in front of our eyes. We have all been enthusing, rightly, about Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton and admired the way England's tempo has been raised by a couple of notches. But ask Brian Smith, the attack coach, to analyse the reasons and he gives you a knowing look. "Floody's been a massive catalyst. He's so aggressive in terms of his personality. In the middle of training you don't want to get too close because he's on fire. He's running things and he's a really strong, dominant personality."

"Aggressive? He is certainly a more authoritative figure. Austin Healey wrote the other day about Flood "terrorising" the gain line against Australia, suggesting England had found their No10 for the long haul: "I came away not wondering when Wilkinson will be fit, but whether he will be called upon when he is."

"Martin Johnson has been similarly impressed by the way his fly-half has "driven the attacking game". And then there has been his goal-kicking. A record 25 points against Australia, another 16 against Samoa, barely a miss among them. It is the sort of consistency that might even satisfy a certain perfectionist playing for Toulon."

November 26, 2010

Perfect 10 lines up to make history

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/26/2010

New Zealand's Dan Carter is set to become the all-time leading Test points scorer this weekend © Getty Images

Brilliant All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter needs just one penalty to take Jonny Wilkinson's Test points record and Wales are in the firing line tomorrow. The Independent's Simon Turnbull tells his remarkable story.

"The first time that Dan Carter got the chance to put points on the board for the All Blacks, he lapsed into a trance. It was at the Waikato Stadium in Hamilton on the evening of 21 June 2003, and Doug Howlett had scored a try close to the touchline, leaving the debutant inside-centre with a tricky conversion attempt.

"It seemed that the 21-year-old rookie was frozen in time. Perhaps he was picturing the mini set of goalposts his father, Neville, had rigged up in the back garden of the Carter family home in Southbridge, 30 miles from Christchurch in the farmlands of New Zealand's South Island. The young Daniel – or Danny, as he is still known in Southbridge – became so proficient with his pots at goal he had to line up his kicks further and further back until he ended up taking aim from across the road.

"Danny Boy had to be given a "hurry up" warning from referee Alan Lewis before he snapped out of his reverie and swung his left boot to land his first points in the international arena. That night there were 20 in all – which included six conversions and a penalty – in a 55-3 victory over Wales. The rest is history – well, almost."

A tale of two coaching styles

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/26/2010

The New Zealand Herald's Dylan Clever reflects on two key incidents this month and what they say about the coaches involved.

"There is no greater contrast than the harmony, whether contrived or not, that exudes from the All Blacks camp and the dysfunction and angst of Wales.

"More specifically, you can point to two incidents that were emblematic of their November campaigns: the Keven Mealamu citing and the Ryan Jones sacking. Mealamu made a mistake and the All Black coaches stood by their man; Jones made a mistake and was thrown under a bus by Warren Gatland.

"...All Black players know they can take nothing for granted in terms of selection - just ask Cory Jane.

"But at the same time, they know they're not going to be humiliated by the men who hold their fate in their hands. Welsh players do not feel the same."

Fully fit and ready to impose himself

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/26/2010

The Irish Times' John O'Sullivan talks to the Ireland flanker Denis Leamy who is under no illusions about what to expect from Argentina this weekend.

"Team sport demands a certain selflessness in terms of mind and body but arguably the most difficult compromise is when a player stockpiles injuries but continues to play. Denis Leamy would empathise because, by his own admission, he’s been playing injured for a considerable part of the last two years.

"The pains and aches, strains, pulls and tears aren’t for public consumption so supporters, denied the background evidence, often find it difficult to reconcile reputation and performance.

"In the past 13 months Leamy has played four Test matches for Ireland, starting two and coming on as a replacement twice; a meagre return when held up against his 45 Irish caps.

"Injuries have been a consistent scourge during that period but for the Munster flanker, who celebrates his 29th birthday tomorrow, there are no fitness constraints at present. “I’m probably as good as I’ve been in two or three years. The last two years I played a lot while injured, whether I did admit it or not at the time."

Australia must muscle up and stay patient

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/26/2010

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, former Wallabies star Matt Burke gives his views on how to beat France.

"There is nothing quite like playing the French. I remember watching Didier Camberabero put the Wallabies to the sword at the Sydney Football Stadium with a sublime kicking display, and France's team try against England sparked by the great Serge Blanco from behind his own goal line.

"What you don't want is to be part of one of those ''remember when'' games. The Wallabies will want to finish their spring tour on a high with a confident display of rugby.

"The French have a classic unpredictability about them. There will be moments on the field when they keep it tight and rumble their way upfield through the forwards. Then, without warning, they will break and shift the ball when, by traditional thinking, it shouldn't be allowed to do so. They see something and go for it. They possess structure to their game to get around the park, but many of their players have an innate penchant for having a go whenever they desire.

"What lies in store for the Wallabies? If their defence is off at all, it will be a long night. Should they look after defence and trust their system, it will go a long way towards stifling the French attack."

How to beat South Africa

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/26/2010

Martin Johnson's men must tackle the lineout and the opposition fly-half if they are to overcome the world champions tomorrow according to Shaun Edwards in The Guardian.

"The first thing is to sort out how you want to play. Allowed the choice, the Springboks would be happy to go from set piece to set piece, lineout to scrum, their big men – and they have a habit of picking packs with second rows and back rows all 6ft 5in-plus – doing what they do best. So with the Lions we moved them around, kept the ball in play, kicking long rather than into touch, with the aim of making sure the ball was in play for at least 40 minutes in any game.

"Next you have to nullify their drive. The Boks drive more lineouts than any other side in world rugby, particularly out of defence where the drive eats up ground before the scrum-half box kicks ahead of his forwards for a strong kick-chase. Habana is often the man doing the chasing and his absence tomorrow will temper the threat from the drive. Another answer is to be ready for it.

"You can't always see the drive coming, but you get a big hint when the Boks call a reduced lineout – probably five-man. It's more or less certain when one of the "missing" forwards steps into the scrum-half seat. If you compete in the lineout, it's initially a six-man drive against five. Don't compete and, when the jumper comes down to earth, you're ready for the drive."

November 25, 2010

All Blacks ignoring Cup experience?

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/25/2010

Will the All Blacks miss Nick Evans' Heineken Cup experience? © Getty Images

Paul Rees evaluates the merits of the All Blacks' selection policy as we near the dawn of World Cup year in The Guardian.

"The New Zealand coach, Graham Henry, this month mused on whether any All Blacks currently earning their livings abroad would be good enough to make his World Cup squad. He singled out the prop, Carl Hayman, before mentioning, in parenthesis, the Harlequins outside-half, Nick Evans, but neither will be considered because they are no longer based at home.

"It is a policy New Zealand should reflect on. In the history of the World Cup, only one team has never been beaten at the pool stage, something that should be significant given that all six winners have had a 100% record in their groups.

"The All Blacks have played 20 pool matches and won the lot, but they have only seized the World Cup once and appeared in two finals: they have won eight and lost five matches in the knock-out stage. England have lost four group matches, but they have made it to three finals. South Africa were not involved in the first two tournaments, but they won in 1995 and 2007. Australia have contested three finals and they have won more knock-out matches than anyone else."

Referees are to blame

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/25/2010

Brian Moore criticises the game's referees for allowing scrummaging to descend into farce in The Daily Telegraph.

"It used to be that what happened was of general import only when one pack destroyed the other giving a psychological and sometimes numerical advantage from penalties extracted from hapless opponents.

"The talk of a game within a game was apposite and sometimes front rows on the losing team really did come off the field inwardly satisfied that they had won the real war.

"This is the case no longer; there are no dark arts any more, it is just pushing and poor refereeing."

McCaw a saint next to McBride

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/25/2010

Peter Bills recounts Andy Haden's response to Willie John McBride's recent condemnation of the All Blacks' style at the breakdown in The Irish Independent.

"From far-away New Zealand comes a message, a friendly sharp tap on the shoulder for your columnist. Andy Haden, one of the most renowned of All Blacks, digested my story of last weekend regarding Willie John McBride, and offered a counter-argument.

"As ever, Haden sought to make his point with reasoned logic, but with Andy these days you never quite know whether to expect to see his tongue emerging through a cheek.

"The man's sense of humour is subtle. McBride, readers may recall, made the point that the New Zealanders' approach was not necessarily his own. He mentioned Richie McCaw and averred that, in his view, the All Blacks captain was offside most of the time at the breakdown."

Scrum machine

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/25/2010

Greg Growden learns a little more about the French scrum, and their state-of-the-art scrum machine, from Didier Retiere in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"Since June, the French team has been packing in against a state-of-the-art robotic scrum machine, which can simulate every set piece imaginable, even to the extent of re-enacting collapsed scrums. It is also able to take on the characteristics of an opposition Test scrum, and allows France to bore in on the props and hookers at varying angles.

"At the team's luxurious training headquarters, 25 kilometres east of Paris, the machine, which cost €200,000 ($276,000) to build, is being used this week to ensure that the French pack is up to whatever tricks the Wallabies scrum might try.
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"Among those heavily involved in the machine's construction is France's forwards coach Didier Retiere, who said yesterday that the original reason for building the scrum simulator was for safety."

November 24, 2010

Second-rate cart horses

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/24/2010

All too easy: Kieran Read scores against Ireland © Getty Images

Chris Rattue believes that the All Blacks shouldn't bother playing the 'second-rate cart horses' of the north in The New Zealand Herald.

"This column should be about the glories of another impending, triumphant, all-conquering, heroic and historical Grand Slam march by the mighty men in black but ... well, let's just say the feeling's gone.

"England, snooooooooooze, Scotland, zzzzzzzzzzz, Ireland, yaaaaaaawn, Wales, zzzzzzzzz ...
Trudging off to the northern plains to fight these second-rate cart horses every year isn't floating the boat any more.

"South Africa's travails against Scotland have restored a bit of lustre to the All Blacks' achievements. And you can't blame the All Blacks for winning so easily all the time."

Spare us the moral blackmail

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/24/2010

Richard Williams objects to the growing links between rugby and the military in The Guardian.

"While strolling along the A316 towards Twickenham in a crowd of rugby fans on Saturday afternoon, I bought one of those Help for Heroes wristbands from a couple of girls with a stall on the pavement and was happy to do so, although it seems a perversion of basic decency that successive governments should be willing to send young men and women to defend our liberty – so they say – without taking the full responsibility for what happens to them in the course of their service, leaving it to charities to provide appropriate care and rehabilitation. But it was what happened a couple of hours or so later that activated a lurking thought about the increasing convergence, at least on public occasions, between the military and sport.

"As usual before an England international at the RFU's headquarters, flags were paraded and laid down around the pitch. The duty was performed by uniformed members of the armed forces: representatives, according to the programme, of the Royal School of Military Engineering, the Royal Engineers, the Army recruiting staff, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and the Guards Division."

Time to test Ross

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/24/2010

Hugh Farrelly believes that Sunday's meeting with Argentina is the perfect opportunity for Ireland to test the prowess of Leinster prop Mike Ross in The Irish Independent.

"Opportunity knocks for Ireland to put Mike Ross' scrummaging prowess to the test against Argentina this weekend following John Hayes' release from the international squad.

"Hayes has returned to provincial duties ahead of Friday's assignment away to the Dragons, leaving Ross as one of four props in the Ireland squad as scrum coach Greg Feek and forwards coach Gert Smal prepare to face the power of the Puma pack.

"Tony Buckley is one of those four, along with Cian Healy and Tom Court, the duo who started the 18-38 defeat to New Zealand last weekend, but Buckley has not played since damaging his hip against South Africa three weekends ago."

Some boys coming home

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/24/2010

Alasdair Reid talks to Samoa's Seilala Mapusua about the continued lack of support from tier one nations for the Pacific islands in The Daily Telegraph.

"So distorted have the values of rugby become, so driven by the avaricious financial demands of the sport's so-called major nations, that Mapusua and his fellow islanders have consistently been denied the chance to play worthwhile games in front of their own people.

"New Zealand, disgracefully, have never played in Samoa. Nor have Australia. The Antipodean superpowers have exploited the rich playing resources of the tiny Pacific island group there, but they have never returned the favour by actually pitching up and playing a Test match there.

"The Celtic nations have a better – though not much better – record, but the last tier one Test side to play in Samoa was Ireland in 2003."

November 23, 2010

We have been warned

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/23/2010

Mario Ledesma will not be taking any prisoners on Saturday © Getty Images

Tony Ward previews a difficult week ahead for Ireland as the Pumas arrive in town in The Irish Independent.

"Motivation is an integral part of the modern-day professional's life. Getting it for the visit of the All Blacks would have taken little effort. Playing New Zealand at any time is special. For some it represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for others -- however experienced -- the chance to take performance to another level.

"New Zealand, just like Brazil in football, have that aura of something magical and, aside from the small matter of winning World Cups, they seldom let us down.

"We all celebrate to some degree when the Wallabies, Springboks or, most particularly, the French put one over them at the World Cup, yet when the All Blacks exit the big jamboree, so much goes with them. They are the yardstick by which other teams are measured and yet again on Saturday they delivered."

The contract jinx

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/23/2010

Mick Cleary salutes the reappearance of the contract jinx as Warren Gatland's Wales continue to flounder in The Daily Telegraph.

"It may well be that Warren Gatland will come to merit the extension signed only a few weeks ago which takes him through to the 2015 World Cup. The mood in Wales, though, is bleak, and that in a country that has done its fair share of wailing and breast-beating. It knows its scales of desolation to the last teardrop.

"The arrival of New Zealand among them this week is only likely to render things All Blacker. Several generations have been raised now at granddaddy’s knee hearing tales of the last victory over the Kiwis way back in 1953. That’s a lot of time and a lot of hurt. Wales are floundering in their third worst sequence of results in their 129-year history: six Tests without a win. It’s alarming stuff."

Newcomers deserve another shot

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/23/2010

Spiro Zavos believes that the Wallabies' newcomers deserve a further shot against France after the win over Italy on Rugby Heaven.

"During the worst days of the First World War, the beleaguered French military justified the execution of deserters "pour encourager les autres" (to encourage the others not to desert). This same principle of salutary justice was behind coach Robbie Deans's decision to move forward from the England defeat by dropping several players who have been part of the core starting side for the Wallabies this season. So for the Test against Italy at Florence, Matt Giteau, Mark Chisholm and Benn Robinson were dropped to the bench. And Dean Mumm was dropped from the squad. Did it work?

"There has been criticism of the reshaped Wallabies' 32-14 victory over Italy. And already there are dire predictions about what France will do to the Wallabies in Paris on Saturday. My reading of the Test, though, is that all the replacements brought in played well enough to justify selection in the starting side against France. Berrick Barnes, for instance, with his six successful penalties, most of them from a long way out, seems to have solved a chronic problem for the Wallabies this season. The losses to England at Sydney and at Twickenham would probably have been reversed had Barnes been on the field to kick the penalties that were missed in those Tests."

Bark is worse than his bite

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/23/2010

Peter Bills bemoans the performance of referee Marius Jonker during Ireland's loss to New Zealand in The New Zealand Herald.

"Stephen Ferris did the unthinkable at the weekend. He publicly criticised a referee for his performance, inferring that the official in question, South African Marius Jonker, had been deficient in part of his handling of the Ireland v New Zealand game.

"The Irish and Lions flanker bemoaned Jonker's willingness to allow the New Zealanders to kill or at least slow down Irish ball at the breakdown, especially, in the final quarter of the game. Funny thing, that. Midway through the second half in the media box at Lansdowne Road, I wrote a note in my book. It said simply "Jonker's bark is worse than his bite".

"Jonker, you see, had spent much of the game volubly warning players that he wasn't going to stand for any nonsense. He'd be tough but fair and he wanted both teams to abide by the rules (my words, not his exact ones). Trouble was, he then actually did nothing."

November 22, 2010

As hard as nails and as funny as they come

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/22/2010

Windsor awaits a lineout during the British & Irish Lions' tour of New Zealand in 1977 © Getty Images

Wales and Lions legend Bobby Windsor talks to the Wales on Sunday's Simon Thomas about life at the sharp end, his hardest rivals and why he’d love life on the front row today.

"Ask Bobby Windsor whether he was afraid before a match and he replies with an immediate, “No.”

But then, after a brief pause, he changes his mind “I was frightened about playing out in France,” he admits. “I had to get an aeroplane! I didn’t like that.”

"And that’s Bobby in a nutshell, a man who can deliver a punchline as effectively as he could deliver a punch.

"The reason for our conversation was to let him know that he’d been chosen as No 1 in our list of Welsh rugby’s hard men.

"Seldom has anything I’ve written ever produced such a response as my piece on the top 50 tough guys, with thousands upon thousands of hits on our website and a deluge of comments. People have come up with loads of suggestion of players who might have made the list, while others have questioned the running order.

"But no-one had argued with my choice of Bobby as No 1."

Time to rest McCaw?

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/22/2010

The New Zealand Herald's Chris Rattue asks whether the All Blacks would be best served by resting their talismanic skipper.

"Go on Graham Henry. Send the All Blacks out against Wales without Richie McCaw because that's the only way to get a handle on the state of this team and learn priceless World Cup lessons.

"The selectors won't drop McCaw, partly because the man himself would be livid. Great sports leaders want to make a stand, not sit in one. And yes, it's a bit rich suggesting this move while being among the many who condemned the old rotation policy.

"This is the time, though, to sit McCaw down even if it gives the Welsh wobblies a teeny-weeny sniff of victory. Not everyone, or probably hardly anyone, will agree with this "Give Richie a Rest" sentiment, and one prominent voice has already put forward a strong counter-argument."

Not All Black for Ireland

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/22/2010

The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly believes the battling spirit Ireland showed in defeat to the All Blacks is a reason for hope.

"Funny old game, alright, when you can consider how a 20-point beating can put a spring back in the step of Irish rugby a week after a 10-point win left us mildly depressed.

"It's a strange thing to explain how losing by two points to the world champion South Africans and beating a Samoan side that subsequently gave cock-a-hoop England a proper fright in Twickenham cannot compete with a performance that, on paper, looks like a hammering.

"But this was a display that confirmed that Declan Kidney has the players and the capacity to bring Ireland to their first World Cup semi-final next year. The foundation of such an assertion is the recognition of just how good New Zealand are -- this is an awesome rugby team, a level above the competition and one that."

Time for Boks to go for broke

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/22/2010

Writing for Sport24, Gavin Rich throws the gauntlet down to the Springboks ahead of their clash with England.

"With the Grand Slam dream left behind in the dark Murrayfield mud into which they were unceremoniously trampled by buoyant Scotland, the Springboks will start the final week of the Test match part of this tour needing to make a couple of massive decisions.

"There are in fact several huge decisions to be made across several levels of South African rugby in the coming weeks, but the one that should concern Bok coach Peter de Villiers right now is what game he wants his team to play against England at Twickenham on Saturday.

"Many would say he has used up his last chance already, for many a Bok coach has been sacked for far less than what De Villiers has been allowed to get away with. But there is a chance of some form of redemption if the Boks beat England."

Storm and Rebels share Joey Johns

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/22/2010

Melbourne Storm have put out the welcome mat for their cross-code rivals Melbourne Rebels, agreeing to share rugby league great Andrew Johns, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

"The Rebels, who will join the expanded Super rugby union competition next year, will piggyback on the Storm's use of the former NSW and Australian skipper.

"Rebels head coach Rod Macqueen approached Storm football manager Frank Ponissi and asked if they could use Johns as a coaching consultant on his visits to Melbourne to work with the NRL side.

"He's done one session so far," Johns' manager John Fordham said. "If he's able to fit in a couple more in the pre-season mode he will. He's going to work with the Rebels' halves ... but his priority is the Melbourne Storm."

'Papa' McLaren inspired us to victory

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/22/2010

Captain Rory Lawson and the Scottish team took inspiration for their shock 21-17 win over South Africa on Saturday from Scotland's most famous uncapped rugby figure, the skipper's late grandfather Bill McLaren. The Scotsman's David Ferguson writes.

"McLaren, the former Scotland trialist, journalist and "voice of rugby" commentator, died in January of this year and there was something fitting in the way his 29-year-old grandson was handed the captain's role in the last Murrayfield Test of 2010, recovering from injury and slipping back into the No 9 jersey with Mike Blair out with concussion, for Saturday's gritty triumph.

"McLaren did not have it easy, battling tuberculosis contracted during a horrendous wartime battle, just missing out on a Scotland cap and losing a daughter to cancer, but he became one of the most respected figures in world rugby. Lawson decided to add to his eve-of-match speech by handing out McLaren's legendary Hawick Ball sweets to team-mates.

"...It was a neat touch from a popular player who has worked incredibly hard for his place at the top table. He came to the pro game at 22, under-studied Blair at Edinburgh for three years with few opportunities to play and left for Gloucester on a relatively paltry salary, with the promise of it being enhanced if he could earn a first-team slot inside a year. He grasped that challenge and has become a central figure in Gloucester's improvement, and having missed the game with the All Blacks due to an injured hand - which was still painful on Saturday and strapped up afterwards - his leadership was a key plank of Saturday's win."

England a work in progress

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/22/2010

Martin Johnson's England squad show they are still a work in progress despite victory over Samoa, according to the Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary.

"The slovenly, wayward kid is having to grow up fast. The pains of that development were clear to see on Saturday, much as the knowledgeable old bird of English rugby, Martin Johnson, had forewarned. Words are one thing; experience quite another. The value is in the sharp-end learning. England are wiser men this morning, aware that slack finishing and half-baked work at the breakdown can prove costly. Victory has to be earned, not assumed.

"This was a proper test for England, and they came through. Not with ease or with plaudits but in the long term this will be as significant an outing for them as that giddy, landmark performance against the Wallabies. It is a "a wake-up call," according to fly-half Toby Flood, mindful that a repeat against world champions South Africa will cost England dear, the Springboks' Murrayfield woes notwithstanding. England are not the real deal yet."

From turmoil to vindication

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/22/2010

Steadfast England manager Martin Johnson has guided England to what now seems a genuine reviva, according to The Guardian's Richard Williams.

"A year ago a cynic would have made a pointed comparison between Martin Johnson's faltering tenure as manager of the England rugby team and Fabio Capello's confident qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup. How fast things can change.

"The transformation in Johnson's mood and demeanour is as pleasing as it is obvious. No one enjoyed watching the agony of his first two years in charge, when his fingers twisted restlessly as he talked and his characteristic glower darkened with every mediocre, directionless performance. An authentic national hero was being put through the wringer.

"In the wake of Saturday's difficult win over Samoa he was quick to smile and there was a lightness to his sardonic brand of humour. A week after the euphoria of his players' stylish victory over Australia he was more than relieved to see that they could confront a different type of challenge and come through with flags flying."

England players face Twitter 'education'

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/22/2010

The Rugby Football Union are set to have a little word with England and Quins scrum-half Danny Care after an ill-advised outburst on Twitter. The Guardian's Evan Fanning reports.

"England players may face a clampdown on their use of Twitter following Danny Care's decision to use the social networking site to criticise the referee Wayne Barnes.

"Jeff Blackett, the RFU's disciplinary officer, will meet with Rob Andrew today to determine whether Care should face action for publicly questioning some of Barnes's decision-making during Harlequins' 18-13 defeat by Leicester on Friday, and Blackett was warned that the England squad may require "wider education" in the use of sites such as Twitter.

"...Care, one of several England players who use Twitter, apologised to Barnes on Saturday after writing: "Does Wayne Barnes want to give any more shocking decisions to help the Leicester home team out?!! No shock there!!"

"The 23-year-old later posted: "Wayne Barnes... hang your head pal!! Reward the team who want to play rugby, not just kick penalties!!!"

November 21, 2010

All Blacks: Eight wonders of the world

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/21/2010

Would New Zealand's Richie McCaw be a worthy captain of a current World XV? © Getty Images

Writing in the New Zealand Herald, Gregor Paul believes eight of he current All Blacks can lay claim to being the best players in the world in their position.

"...13: CONRAD SMITH - Those who haven't seen Brian O'Driscoll play for a while always talk of the Irish captain as being the best centre in the world. Those who have seen O'Driscoll recently talk of Conrad Smith being the best centre in the world. Smith is sharper, more involved and in possession of more weaponry. O'Driscoll can't break on the outside any more and his game is all about his presence. That's not enough whereas Smith is a line-breaker, a distributor and a defensive organiser.

"...10: DAN CARTER - Quade Cooper would love to believe he is close. The Wallaby No 10 can certainly use the ball - he picks his options well and that step ... But he can't tackle and he's not certain when he has to use his long kicking game to build the pressure. Jonny Wilkinson is long gone as a major force and Morne Steyn can win the kicking duel with Carter, but that's all the South African can do. Toby Flood is improving and Stephen Jones is a neat and tidy player but neither is in the same league as Carter. The only man who gets close to having the same all-round portfolio is Juan Martin Hernandez but he seems to be permanently injured.

"...7: RICHIE McCAW - David Pocock has come of age this year and shown a rare skill at the breakdown and an ability to compete. But he can't run like McCaw. He can't anticipate like McCaw. He can't make the same smart decisions as McCaw. He can't link the play like McCaw. The Wallaby is fast improving and impressive, but he's still got a long way to go to take McCaw's best-in the-world billing."

All Blacks leave nothing to chance

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/21/2010

The Irish Times' John O'Sullivan joins a long line of admirers of the 2010 All Blacks following their clinical win against Ireland.

"The All Blacks have reached a standard in performance to which Ireland must aspire and while there were glimpses that the home side might be capable of negotiating a large tranche of that journey, it will take a little while yet. Ireland produced cameos of sheer excellence but unlike their opponents they didn’t have the precision or ruthless execution to capitalise.

"A flawed decision here, a handling error there denied them probably three excellent try-scoring chances that they could ill afford to spurn. However coach Declan Kidney will be pleased with the creativity of his side. Ireland produced a display in an attacking capacity that was light years ahead of the fare on offer in the two previous matches.

"Adopting a more fluent and expansive approach, the team showed that they are capable of playing the patterns that will be rewarded in the modern game. There is still some distance to travel but at least they have embarked on the journey. Kidney will know more after this match about the individuals who are capable of broaching the requisite levels."

Heat on Div as Boks go cold

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/21/2010

Sport24's Rob Houwing picks through the pieces of South Africa's defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield.

"So where does all this leave embattled Bok coach Peter de Villiers and his lieutenants?

"Only the head honchos at SA Rugby know whether achieving the Grand Slam was the essential requirement for De Villiers to get a passport through to the World Cup after the Tri-Nations near-fiasco a little earlier in the year.

"Whether this was the case or not, bungling the challenge at the supposedly modest Scottish hurdle will not be absorbed in a particularly compassionate manner back at headquarters in Newlands, you can be sure.

"Maybe, too, some cynical observers will be tempted to say that the Boks had only got to the halfway stage unscathed in their Slam bid through sheer grit and mongrel anyway – not because they showed any genuinely exciting new dimensions."

Barnes boots Wallabies back to winning ways

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/21/2010

The Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden witnessed a welcome return to winning form for the the Wallabies side when against Italy but he feels the victory was still deeply flawed.

"For most of the game the Wallabies were well off their game endlessly pushing the pass which saw them waste numerous good attacking opportunities.

"At times they seemed confused while their scrum was again a major problem area with the referee Christophe Berdos penalising their set piece six times, including on the Australian feed.

"The home crowd gave Italy the courage to continuously rattle the Wallabies, who never really settled during a very flaky international performance.

"In the end, the Wallabies had to rely on their new goalkicker Berrick Barnes to keep them well ahead with the inside centre tallying 22 points from six penalties and two conversions."

It is rude and disrespectful

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/21/2010

For the second time in three matches, Twickenham rang with the strains of Sweet Chariot as an opposition team set about its pre-game war dance and the Sunday Telegraph's Paul Ackford has had enough.

"Two weeks ago, it was New Zealand’s Haka that received the bird. On Saturday, it was Samoa’s Manu Siva Tau, similar in tone and movement to the Haka, that was drowned out by 70,000 voices.

"New Zealand are a power in the game, were a real threat to England, and have previous for using the Haka provocatively. As such, there is the merest smidgen of an excuse for a fired-up, partisan crowd to try to drown them out. But Samoa, with all due respect, are none of those things, yet the crowd continued with their boorish behaviour.

"And it’s not just people attending Twickenham who do not know how to behave. The Rugby Football Union is culpable too. When the Samoans had finished their dance what came out of the Twickenham PA system? Only another chorus of Sweet Chariot, quite the most ridiculous rugby anthem it has ever been my displeasure to hear.

"No doubt the RFU will argue that it was trying to “get behind the team, willing the boys on” or some such nonsense, just like they pretend to when they play Jerusalem, or get some sad old opera singer to sing so-called patriotic dirges before kick-off. It is making the start of rugby matches farcical."

Parks humbles Springboks

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/21/2010

The Scotsman's Iain Morrison is left a little dumbfounded by Scotland's reversal in fortunes that saw a side thrashed by the All Blacks one week go and beat the Springboks the next.

"It seems vaguely appropriate that the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was produced by one of Edinburgh's favourite sons, for the same city witnessed a transformation every bit as astonishing as anything from the imagination of Robert Louis Stevenson.

"The woeful rabble of last weekend morphed into yesterday's giant killers who claimed the world champion Springboks' scalp for only the fifth time in history. What a pity that just 35,000 fans chose to brave the elements to witness this jaw dropping drama. Andy Robinson's record with Scotland against the big three from the Southern Hemisphere now reads played three, won two.

"Go figure!"

Samoa make England go back to the basics

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/21/2010

Martin Johnson's changed England side were made to huff and puff against a tough Samoa side and struggled to match performance of a week earlier, writes the Independent on Sunday's Hugh Godwin.

"An acceptably adequate victory over an emerging nation, or a dispiriting afternoon's huff and puff after the euphoria of defeating Australia? The verdict is bound by the straitjacket of expectation. If you believe England should put away the likes of Samoa by dozens of points, and never mind the four changes made from the team which did for the Wallabies a week previously, this was a disappointment; a step backwards. If the mess that passes for a set scrummage is taken into account along with the Samoans' defensive approach, perhaps not. Either way this was no headline-grabber – more a quietly instructive exercise for two teams with wildly divergent world views and ambitions.

"Whereas England have been playing Australia regularly for 101 years it was only their sixth meeting with – and sixth win over – the Samoans. Three of those were engineered by the comparatively modern phenomenon of the World Cup. It is worth mentioning, then, given the positive records reeled off seven days previously, that this was England's lowest score in the series and the equal of the smallest winning margin."

Cueto proves a big hit

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/21/2010

Samoa have improved greatly, as they showed at Twickenham, but England demonstrated a new adaptability according to The Guardian's Michael Aylwin.

"It might even be possible to argue that England played better here. Certainly there were individual performances to compare with those that shook up the morbid mob at HQ – Shontayne Hape played better this week than last, and Hendre Fourie has put Martin Johnson's captain, Lewis Moody, under severe pressure. How he must wish he could play with this lot every week.

"It did not stop there – Mark Cueto has suddenly rediscovered the form that made him the Premiership's finest try-scorer a few years ago. OK, his try-scoring drought at international level stretches on, but he has rediscovered an appetite for the ball in hand, rather than off the boot, that had deserted him at this level. And this weekend he was dealing with some serious tacklers.

"Cueto was involved in an incident midway through the second half that neatly summed up the difference. He received the ball from Ben Foden off a Samoan punt. He thought about the long pass to Chris Ashton, which seemed the sensible thing, but, the cheers of last week no doubt echoing through his head, chose to run it back at the phalanx of Samoans who were approaching. Well, it was a policy that worked last week, so why not?"

November 20, 2010

Martin Johnson turns to Bill Shankly

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/20/2010

Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly was a big influence on England boss Martin Johnson © Getty Images

England manager Martin Johnson has called on his side to confirm their character against Samoa on Saturday, The Guardian's Rob Kitson writes.

"It is legitimate to argue that Samoa, per capita of its 179,000 population, produces more talented rugby players than any other country on earth. Proving it against a revitalised, revved-up England at Twickenham tomorrow will, as ever, be more difficult. The Samoans have quality individuals but, compared with Martin Johnson's team, their collective preparation time remains a drop in the Pacific Ocean.

"There is also no danger of a side managed by Johnson suffering from complacency following last week's Wallaby romp. Johnson, a long-time Liverpool fan, was even moved to quote Bill Shankly today as he urged his players to treat triumph and disaster just the same. "You need moral courage to play Test rugby," England's team manager said. "People have to have the right character, you can't play at this level without a huge amount of that.

"What did Bill Shankly say? 'Managers don't make players, parents do.' Shankly – and [Bob] Paisley – was a god in my house when I was growing up. People's character isn't defined by us. We can help with rugby stuff but they have to mature and enjoy winning. Can you change people that much? I don't know deep down. But we've got some very good characters."

All Blacks speed will wear Ireland down

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/20/2010

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley fears for the worst when Ireland tackle New Zealand in Dublin.

"Sport's place as a magnificent irrelevance has rarely been more evident, but 80 minutes or so of magnificent irrelevancy could do nicely this evening. Or then again, could it? With the overwhelming weight of history and form in mind, one can rarely recall a more foreboding mood among Irish supporters, who clearly expect the magnificence to be black.

"It’s been a while since Ireland went into a home game as 8 to 1 or 15-point underdogs, yet – this not being a time for fanciful punts – what spare change has been invested on this encounter appears to have been loaded onto the almighty All Blacks.

"A thrashing akin to the last meeting, or even a bloodless coup like a year ago, would make the homecoming month virtually a write-off and the Aviva Stadium synonymous with rip-off Ireland.

"In the circumstances, a win would be remarkable, but, failing that, Irish rugby could certainly do with a restorative performance."

Lomu: 'Anything could happen at the RWC'

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/20/2010

New Zealand legend Jonah Lomu believes next year's Rugby World Cup in his homeland could be the closest yet. Sport24 reports.

"Lomu was in Florence to publicise his rugby camps and took time out from entertaining budding young rugby players to look ahead to next year's global showpiece.

"And despite being a veteran of 185 points in 63 matches for the All Blacks, he wasn't prepared to tip them for glory, even on home soil.

"Honestly this World Cup's probably the most open that there can be, you just have to look at the teams that got knocked over at the weekend," he said. "The All Blacks got knocked over by Australia and then you look at England who knocked over Australia itself, so it's anybody's ball game."

Wales slump against Fiji

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/20/2010

The Daily Telegraph's Graham Clutton reports from Wales' dismal showing against Fiji in Cardiff.

"Wales were denied a first victory in six matches when veteran outside half Seremaia Bai converted an 82nd minute kick after Jones strayed offside at a ruck near his own posts. For Jones, who has since apologised to his side for his misdemeanour, it was the end of a dismal night. Gatland said he will replace him as skipper with the Scarlets hooker Matthew Rees when Wales face the All Blacks next Saturday might and Jones’ place in the side might also be in jeopardy.

"The victory was celebrated wildly by the Fijians and it was no more than they deserved after an absorbing performance that was high on tempo and equally high on star quality. They dominated the breakdown, upset Wales at the line out and showed far greater ingenuity with ball in hand."

Toulon chase star Wallabies

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/20/2010

Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal will be in Paris next week for meetings with several leading Wallabies players and their agents about the possibility of them joining his club after next year's World Cup, Rupert Guinness and Greg Growden report for the Sydney Morning Herald.

"It is believed the list of players targeted by Toulon includes four of Australia's most attacking players - Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell, Quade Cooper and James O'Connor.

"Giteau and Cooper have in recent years hinted there has been serious interest in French clubs for their services. Boudjellal's plan was revealed when he outlined his intention for Toulon to reciprocate the visit to France by the ACT Brumbies.

''We hosted the Brumbies last year, and if everything goes to plan, we could be in Australia [to tour],'' Boudjellal told the Herald. ''There will perhaps be new Australian players at Toulon [then].''

"Boudjellal would not name which players he was interested in, but confirmed he would travel to Paris in the week of the Wallabies-France Test for talks with Australian targets. The club president confirmed he had already been in contact with several players.

"The charismatic multi-millionaire cartoon publisher lauded the Wallabies, despite their loss to England last week, although he felt next year's World Cup might come a year too early for them.

Youngs the catalyst

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/20/2010

Writing in The Independent, former England coach Brian Ashton hails the infuence of the current young brigade.

"As far as I'm aware, the flawless game of rugby – the perfect game – is a figment of the sporting imagination. It doesn't exist, and it never will exist. Rugby of real ambition depends on individual decision-making, allied to an immediate response from the other 14 players in the side. Only in this way can a genuinely positive approach be kept on track, and the challenge is considerable. We may be talking about a simple game, but it places great demands on those attempting to play it with a high degree of adventure.

"Saturday's game marked a translation into action of a change of mindset first hinted at in Paris last March, when England played the Grand Slam-chasing French in the final round of Six Nations matches – a contest that followed hard on the heels of a miserable dirge at Murrayfield seven days previously. There were also indications that a switch had been flicked during the Test against the Wallabies in Sydney in June. Again, it had been preceded by a poor performance, in Perth a week earlier.

"In both Paris and Sydney, the team pieced together some of the components of the game we saw last weekend, but only for 20 or so minutes at a time. It seemed they had neither the belief nor the capability to go the whole hog. Last Saturday, those missing elements were very much in evidence, and it seemed to me that the discovery of them coincided with the fact that the much talked about younger players – Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes – had a little more Test experience to draw on. I said in these pages before the New Zealand game that these relative newcomers could be the agents of change in English rugby, and I'm happy to stand by that prophecy."

November 19, 2010

Lines are drawn, now for the hard part

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/19/2010

Ireland boss Declan Kidney is the latest coach tasked with shackling the All Blacks © Getty Images

How do Ireland go about tackling the world's best team - New Zealand? The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley previews the clash.

"But picking the team was one thing. Now comes the hard part: specifically, how to go about taking on the best side in the world.

"There’s been speculation Ireland might revert to a conservative, low-risk game, such are the perils of being caught out off turnover ball. The theory goes that, in the All Blacks’ last two European tours, the bolder approach was taken by France in Marseilles last year and Scotland last week, and all it got them were 39-12 and 49-3 pastings. The key, surely, is to combine the two.

"...In making nine changes in personnel from the team which played Samoa, Kidney has reverted to the team which started against South Africa, save Tom Court starting at tighthead in place of the injured Tony Buckley.

As an aside, this lowers Munster’s representation to three, the same as Ulster, along with eight Leinster men and Tommy Bowe. It looks a calculated gamble, not least with the lineout which malfunctioned so badly under intense pressure against the Boks."

Boks must show some fluency

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/19/2010

Sport24's Rob Houwing throws the gauntlet down to the Springboks ahead of their clash against Scotland.

"Saturday at Murrayfield here would be an ideal time for the Springboks to remind the rugby world that they are capable of doing more than crashing and bashing their way to dogged victories.

"That may sound a little cruel, with the Grand Slam dream halfway to realisation and by a weakened squad, but the respective victories over Ireland and Wales were both nail-biters and marked more by great South African resilience and physical relish than any special, consistent attacking wizardry.

"Indeed, at the Millennium Stadium last weekend the Boks positively butchered a few wonderful try-scoring opportunities when these did present themselves, leading some neutral commentators to suspect they are particularly vulnerable to surrendering their World Cup crown in New Zealand next year."

More questions than answers

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/19/2010

The Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden believes there have been more questions than answers on the Wallabies current tour.

"And so Deans finds himself on another end-of-season tour, attempting to douse bushfires. In recent years, northern hemisphere Wallabies tours have not been simple, confidence-building affairs. Instead, they have regularly conjured up new dilemmas, especially last year when the tour went off the rails in Edinburgh, where the Wallabies suffered an inexplicable loss to an average Scotland outfit. How they lost that night at Murrayfield is still among Australian rugby's most baffling questions.

"A year on, there is the potential for this tour to take the same negative path, and it will require enormous willpower from Deans and his players to ensure that doesn't happen in the final two weeks when they meet Italy and France - neither of whom are easybeat opponents.

"What is most disconcerting about this tour is that it began in such spectacular fashion when the Wallabies defeated the All Blacks in Hong Kong. It has since undergone a now customary slump with a loss to England at Twickenham, followed by the Wallabies B team being completely overwhelmed by Munster in Limerick.

"It was an extremely subdued group that arrived in Florence on Wednesday night, after a spectacular flight across the French Alps."

Scottish roots remain key to proud Bok Lambie

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/19/2010

The Scotsman's David Ferguson chats to South Africa's Patrick Lambie as he reacquaints himself with his Scottish heritage.

"Lambie, who can also play at centre and full-back, has been honing his skills under the watchful eyes of Springbok coaches, including the legendary Percy Montgomery and current fly-half Morne Steyn in Edinburgh this week and yesterday the 20-year-old met up again with Peter Brown, the former Scotland captain, whose grandmother was the sister of Lambie's great-grandmother, and Sanny's wife.

"But we need not dust down the archives to find the new Springbok's Scottish connections as his dad Ian was born to Scottish parents, Jack and Neeta Lambie, and spent his early childhood in Troon, something Patrick is well aware of.

"My dad (Ian) lived here for the first 12 years of his life and his parents were from Scotland," he said. "My dad was actually born in England, but he grew up here until he was 12. He has been in South Africa for 40 years so he is definitely South African now!

"When I got my British passport a couple of years ago that was when the family connections really came up. My dad was keen on my brother Nicholas and myself getting a British passport and I think it's a nice thing to have. My dad played a few games for Natal in the 1980s, as a wing/full-back, and my mum's dad Dr Nick Labuschagne played hooker for England and the Barbarians, so there is definitely rugby in the genes."

Wales must play to their strenghts

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/19/2010

Writing in the Western Mail, Gwyn Jones reviews Wales' defeat to South Africa.

"The performance against South Africa was much better. Wales played with pace, imagination and a fair degree of skill. We scored three tries and could have scored more. The only disappointment was the result.

"Wales are a handling side. The mentality is to run and pass. IRB statistics show that Welsh forwards are second only to New Zealand in the number of passes. If the pack are comfortable throwing the ball around, it’s bound to be a fast and open game.

"One player who fits that description better than most is Andy Powell. He made an impressive return after his enforced exile. He is clearly a physical specimen but has surprising agility for his size. He gave a lift to the carrying game. There’s a perceptible change in pace when Powell takes the ball up and rather than plough on regardless he always tries to sidestep.

"He runs in an upright position and is able to ride the hit due to his strong core and quick feet. Therefore he is always well balanced and with his head up he is invariably looking to offload."

It was pretty special stuff

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/19/2010

Writing in his column for The Independent, Toby Flood reflects on England's victory over Australia.

"All the guys are well-grounded individuals and for us it wasn't necessarily a massive stand-out performance against Australia. It was more a case of getting the job done than anything else.

"I think we see it as a big tick in the box, for sure. And obviously we played some of the best stuff we've played in a while. But in terms of our evolution, it's something that we've been pushing towards for a while. We played some nice stuff in parts in the second Test against Australia in Sydney in June. We started slowly against New Zealand a fortnight ago but played some nice stuff in that game too.

"It's important for us to keep our foot on the pedal in terms of playing like that. I don't think anyone will have their heads in the clouds this week, with Samoa to play at Twickenham tomorrow. It's a massive game in every respect – in terms of what we're about and how we go forward – and our concentration will need to be spot on. We're fully aware of the challenge that comes with playing against Samoa. It's a hell of a physical battle, coupled with the fact that they have got some stand-out players in their team."

Attacking rugby is the way forward

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/19/2010

The next Rugby World Cup will be won with attacking rugby according to Guardian columnist Shaun Edwards.

"After Australia in 1999, England in 2003 and the 2007 South Africans won with their pressure games, the next winners will buck the trend by scoring more tries than anyone else. It won't be laugh-and-giggle rugby, there will be plenty of tight games, but halfway through the autumn internationals I'm convinced the kind of rugby we first saw in the Tri-Nations will be the dominant force in New Zealand next year.

"Why did it take so long for the penny to drop? Well, we've all seen South Seas bubbles before. This time, however, it looks as though referees as well as players are committed and in the balance of risk and reward, the scales have tipped the way of the attackers."

November 18, 2010

IRB defend scrum sequence

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/18/2010

New Zealand pack down in training ahead of this clash with Ireland in Dublin © Getty Images

The scrum re-set has been a huge problem in this autumn's internationals but IRB referees' chief Paddy O'Brien insists the blight on the game is being reduced thanks to their often-criticised engagement sequence. The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reports.

"As he reiterated last week, O’Brien is keen for the referees to ensure strict application of the crouch, touch, pause, engage sequence at the scrum, and backs up his edicts with statistical evidence to show that this has reduced the number of collapsed and reset scrums.

“The 2010 Tri-Nations saw a 40 per cent decrease in the number of scrum resets compared to the 2010 June tier one Tests, so this area of the game is improving. The coaches have all expressed their support of the referee leading the crouch, touch, pause, engage scrum sequence and the sanctioning of players who fail to follow the calling of the engagement procedure, particularly early engagement. The message to the referees is clear. We require greater consistency at the elite level and compliance is critical in this key area of the game,” said O’Brien.

"Interestingly, the IRB game analysis also highlights that the 2010 Tri-Nations saw a 50 per cent reduction in scrum collapses compared to the 2010 Six Nations, despite some refereeing crossover between the hemispheres, although perhaps this supports the view that Southern Hemisphere referees apply the scrum engagement sequence more deliberately."

What is wrong with the All Blacks' scrum?

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/18/2010

Although Prince William and Kate Middleton's regal announcement inevitably created worldwide interest, the All Blacks are obsessing over another form of engagement. Chris Barclay reports for the New Zealand Herald.

"Finessing their scrummaging has been a priority after rugby Grand Slam test victories over England and Scotland were marred by technical infringements at the set piece, predominately on the opposition's feed.

"The All Blacks forward pack has struggled to adjust to the interpretations of northern hemisphere referees - Frenchman Romain Poite and England's Dave Pearson - in successive weekends, prompting All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen to seek clarification on the timing of the four-step engagement process and the distance teams should be separated before the hit.

"Hansen said he planned to discuss the issues with International Rugby Board referees boss Paddy O'Brien and also have routine discussions with Marius Jonker, the South African who controls Sunday's (NZT) test between the All Blacks and Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. Hansen emphasised the All Blacks worries were not unique."

Five key decisions Kidney needs to get right

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/18/2010

The Irish Independent's David Kelly lays it on the line for Ireland coach Declan Kidney ahead of his side's clash with New Zealand.

"If the soundings within the Irish camp are to be believed, the paranoia surrounding one of Declan Kidney's most important team selections ever has reached absurd levels.

The team has already been picked; there have been no training sessions since Tuesday, so no player has had the opportunity to further announce his claims.

Unless, that is, the Irish management decide upon a novel approach by assessing players on how they spent their down day. Would Mike Ross, for example, lose out to Tom Court because he watched a 'Friends' DVD instead of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'? Might Devin Toner take an even bigger leap in the standings by supping coffee in Costa, rather than Starbucks?

Sadly, the Irish management cannot indulge in such flights of fancy; yet, to beat the All Blacks will require as much mental dexterity from the coaches as it will physical durability and psychological strength from the players."

Taking a leaf out Grey's book

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/18/2010

Sport24's JJ Harmse congratulates Grey College on their eight Boks to face Scotland and urges government to get more black kids to play rugby.

"It's absolutely unbelievable that one school could produce as many internationals as Grey College does, but it is even more so that you can have so many involved in one Test match.

"...So what do Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, CJ van der Linde, Adriaan Strauss, Flip van der Merwe, Frans Steyn, Deon Stegmann, Ruan Pienaar and Coenie Oosthuizen (who is in the Bok travelling party) have to do with this article if it is not to punt Grey?

"It all has to do with our new minister of Sport and his recently announced plans to ‘transform’ rugby. I liked what I heard from the former ANC Youth League man. In fact, I almost presumed that he was on the sports field himself until recently, but then I remembered that age is not necessarily an issue if you are a Youth League leader!

"Anyway, coming back to our new minister, his idea of transforming rugby is a great one. He wants more kids to play the game, especially more black kids. What a great idea, although not that new.

"SARU has had this transformation charter for years now, compiled after a massive effort from the likes of Dr Willie Basson. One of the cornerstones of their studies and findings was exactly what the minister wants – bigger participation from the black youth. The fact that all nine Grey boys are white, does tell one truth about the realities of schools rugby and where the real challenge lie for SARU and government."

Paterson keen to get rid of his ton weight

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/18/2010

Scotland's Chris Paterson has revealed a desire to rid himself of the '100 cap wonder' label as quickly as possible, The Scotsman's Bill Lothian reports.

"The 32-year-old Edinburgh utility back returns to the squad against South Africa in Saturday's EMC Autumn Test at Murrayfield for the first time since becoming the first Scot to achieve the magical ton against Wales in February.

"Injury ruined that big day - Paterson split a kidney in a potentially career threatening knock - and that is why this call up after being left out of the 22 for last weekend's match against New Zealand is all the more special to him.

"To reach 100 caps was one of my main aims for so long. When there was an opportunity that was all I wanted, and the biggest goal of my life," said Paterson.

"Having been lucky enough to achieve it I now want rid of it as quickly as I can. I'm delighted to be in the match-day 22 and my role is as a replacement, hopefully I will get on."

Banahan out to pack a punch

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/18/2010

Writing in The Independent, Chris Hewett explores the decision to deploy Bath's Matt Banahan in the England midfield for the clash with Samoa.

"The England coaching team may be developing a taste for freethinking rugby as played by Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton, the two men who did most to bamboozle the Wallabies at Twickenham last Saturday, but there are things they still love more: namely, size and aggression. Hence the selection of Matt Banahan, the Bath wing, at outside centre for this weekend's meeting with Samoa, ahead of Delon Armitage, the London Irish full-back. Any wannabe midfielder who identifies with David Haye and Manny Pacquiao rather than Brian O'Driscoll or Jeremy Guscott must have a touch of the route-one about him.

"At 6ft 7ins, Banahan certainly has height on his side, and while a new conditioning programme has helped him shed some weight in recent months, he still tips the scales at 18st, which means he will bring more poundage to the centre position than he ever brought to the scrum during his formative years as a second-row forward. As for aggression... well, you pays your money. It was Brian Ashton, the former Bath and England coach, who suggested he might consider a move into the back division on the grounds that he wasn't tough enough to mix it with the hard-heads up front. There again, there is online footage of the Jersey-born Banahan performing a semi-convincing Haye-Pacquiao impersonation during a Channel Islands derby dust-up with Guernsey."

World Cup is about more than who reaches the final

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/18/2010

It is such a shame that Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and their performances seem to be forgotten between World Cups, so writes Paul Rees in The Guardian.

"Fiji are in Cardiff on Friday night, only their sixth meeting with a Tier 1 nation since knocking Wales out of the 2007 World Cup in Nantes, while Samoa face England at Twickenham the following day, again their sixth encounter with a top country in three years. As for Tonga, who came closer to beating South Africa in the last World Cup than anyone and who gave England the hurry-up, they have only had 11 Tests since 2007, not one against the big boys. It's scandalous, as if they are rugby's version of an eclipse, seen once every four years.

"Rugby is a business, not a charity, and the major unions are concerned with bank balances, not offering leg-ups. New Zealand have, over the years, plundered the South Seas islands for players, but they have never been bothered about reparation: since 2007, they have played Samoa once, Fiji and Tonga not at all. The Junior All Blacks were in the Pacific Nations Championship, but pulled out this year. Tonga will get a fixture next year but only because they are in the same World Cup pool as New Zealand."

November 17, 2010

Thomond Park fiasco

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/17/2010

Australia's Anthony Faingaa is shown yellow in Limerick © Getty Images

Greg Growden laments a miserable evening for the Wallabies in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"It was so ridiculous it became hilarious. But, sadly, the Thomond Park fiasco has sunk the Wallabies players into despair.

"The Wallabies B team headed to one of rugby's proudest provinces hoping to revive their Test aspirations and provide a psychological boost after the horrors of Twickenham last weekend by showing their skills against the might of Munster.

"Instead they left dishevelled, distraught and close to drowning after they floundered in the most inhospitable conditions imaginable, allowing Munster to enjoy another monumental victory over an international touring team. To add to the humiliation, the Wallabies were beaten by an Australian, with Queensland's Munster five-eighth Paul Warwick kicking them to victory with three penalties and two field goals."

Singing the blues

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/17/2010

Frank Keating revisits the faded grandeur of Oxford and Cambridge against 'the men of Major RV Stanley and MR Steele-Bodger' in The Guardian.

"It's the biggie this afternoon: Oxford University v Major RV Stanley's XV. Well, it was the big one not so long ago, the bill‑topping rugby fixture of the week if not, so far, of the whole season, when all eyes turned to the all-star dress-rehearsal tune-up for the dark blues in readiness for the first week of December's University match. MR Steele‑Bodger's XV, which plays Cambridge a week today, has served the light blues' preparations similarly for more than 60 years.

"Once upon a time, the respective university grounds were full to bursting for these two November matches, school parties a-tizz with shrill excitement and the touchline press bench packed tight with the Fleet Street No1s in their greatcoats, knowingly puffing on their pipes and pontificating on each team's chances for the upcoming match at Twickenham.

"The Stanley and Bodger 30 still turn up. But the outside world is oblivious: the public prints will carry not even a one-liner fixture note today; certainly no match report tomorrow. Doubtless a few Messrs Chips schoolmasters, olde tyme devotees, still steer a crocodile of shiny-faced charges to look and learn, just as we did, mittened and mufflered in a tingle of anticipation, at Oxford's Iffley Road a few still vividly memorable times in the early 1950s. Does the major's selection still play in, as the programme had it, "old burgundy shirts"?"

England can finally flourish

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/17/2010

Peter Bills believes that England's promsie was there all along prior to last weekend's win over Australia in The Independent.

"You read it here first. I said months ago, not just England but several countries in the northern hemisphere had the players to embrace the new attack-based game plan possible under the new law interpretations.

"You could see against France in Paris last March that the England players were there. At times that night, if you were not familiar with the jersey colours of the two teams, you would have thought the French played in white, England in blue.

"The French were plodding, forward obsessed and attempting to play risk free rugby. The way England came pouring out of their own half, time and again, on the counter attack, with Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto prominent, it was clear that England had the personnel to play this ‘new’ game."

You say you want a revolution...

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/17/2010

Chris Rattue believes that the waves caused by Sonny Bill Williams will be felt for some time to come in The New Zealand Herald.

"Sonny Bill Williams is leading a rugby revolution. The former league star is a once-in-a-lifetime player - both on and off the field - and the New Zealand Rugby Union should get ready to empty its vaults if that is what it takes to keep him after next year's World Cup.

"All doubts have been washed away, even though Williams is capable of so much more. That's the beauty of this trip, because we ain't seen nothing yet.

"It may be hard to totally match Williams' effect on rugby, but others can certainly follow the path and utilise league skills to beat defensive lines."

November 16, 2010

Wallabies must tackle defensive frailties or they're in for trying times

Posted by Mark Doyle on 11/16/2010

England lock Courtney Lawes breaks through the Wallaby defence during Saturday's game at Twickenham © Getty Images

Writing on Rugby Heaven, Greg Growden bemoans the number of tackles missed by Australia in Saturday's defeat by England at Twickenham.

"The Wallabies say they were victims of what they consider the best England performance in recent times, but have at least conceded their flimsy defence is not up to the required standard.

"Wallabies players and management tried to downplay a 17-point loss to England by arguing they were overwhelmed by a team that performed to the peak of its abilities at Twickenham on Saturday night.

"However, match statistics glaringly show where the Wallabies were inadequate. While their inability to consistently win the physical battle is a serious concern, they are also missing too many tackles.

"On Saturday night, the Wallabies were involved in 163 tackles. Of those 142 were successful, but 21 were missed - almost 13 per cent. In contrast, England were involved in 97 tackles, and only three were missed."

Bad time for the wobbles when northern rivals are just warming up

Posted by Mark Doyle on 11/16/2010

Spiro Zavos of the Sydney Morning Herald was hugely impressed by England at Twickenham on Saturday but mystified by the tactics employed by the vanquished Wallabies.

"Early on in the England-Australia Test at Twickenham, one of the commentators suggested we were watching a preview of next year's Rugby World Cup final. Perhaps, but unlikely. The two teams are in the same half of the draw for the cup. They are seeded to play each other, if they win all their matches, in the semi-final.

"Judging by their forthright and sometimes brilliant play against the Wallabies, England are on track to have a strong tournament. This was far and away England's most impressive display since the glory days of 2002 and 2003.

"It is an ominous fact that since they lost the World Cup final in 1991, England have put the Wallabies out of the tournament in 1995, 2003 and 2007."

England's ability can finally flourish

Posted by Mark Doyle on 11/16/2010

Chris Ashton's second try embodied everything that was good about England's performance at Twickenham © Getty Images

Writing in The Independent, Peter Bills hails England for their scintillating display in Saturday's victory over the Wallabies at Twickenham.

"You read it here first.

"I said months ago, not just England but several countries in the northern hemisphere had the players to embrace the new attack-based game plan possible under the new law interpretations.

"You could see against France in Paris last March that the England players were there. At times that night, if you were not familiar with the jersey colours of the two teams, you would have thought the French played in white, England in blue.

"The French were plodding, forward obsessed and attempting to play risk free rugby. The way England came pouring out of their own half, time and again, on the counter attack, with Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto prominent, it was clear that England had the personnel to play this ‘new’ game."

McGahan talks up the 'Earls factor'

Posted by Mark Doyle on 11/16/2010

Ian Bransfield of the Irish Independent previews the intriguing clash between Munster and Australia at Thomond Park.

"If it's romance you're after, then Limerick is probably the place to be tonight.

"Sixty-three years on from their first encounter at the Mardyke in Cork, Munster and Australia go at it again this evening in yet another seductive showdown at Thomond Park.

"Close to 26,000 supporters are expected to be tempted along for their own piece in history as Munster bid to do something they have never done before and beat the touring Wallabies in the Treaty County.

"They've beaten them in Cork, of course, three times. The first triumph came in 1967, when they became the first Irish province to beat a major touring nation."

It's good to have All Blacks and haka back

Posted by Mark Doyle on 11/16/2010

In his weekly column in the Irish Times, Gerry Thornley looks ahead to Ireland's clash with New Zealand in Dublin.

"The All Blacks are here and, as whenever they are in town, there’s an extra frisson in the air. The levels of anticipation go up a notch more so than when the Springboks and Wallabies are about.

"Of course, economic factors are a consideration, but they will draw a much bigger crowd and a badly needed sense of occasion to the Aviva Stadium this Saturday than South Africa did, in the same way the presence of the Wallabies cannot replicate that full house and unforgettable night in Thomond Park two years ago.

"In the same way that it would be a remarkably duller world without the French in an otherwise Anglicised or entirely English-speaking elite end of the game, so it would be comparatively lacking in colour, as it were, without the All Blacks.

"New Zealand are to rugby what Brazil are to football."

November 15, 2010

Pinetree had the paw, SBW has the claw

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/15/2010

The SBW Trademark: Sonny Bill Williams off loads the ball in the tackle during his side's romp against Scotland © Getty Images

New Zealand's rising star Sonny Bill carries Colin Pinetree Mead's one handed legacy, according to the New Zealand Herald's Wynne Gray.

"Remember that iconic 1970 footage of Colin Meads in South Africa, sidekick Grahame Thorne in tow, mesmerising the Border defence with the ball like a peanut in his right mitt.

Forty years on, Sonny Bill Williams is doing a decent impersonation of the great man. Frequently.

Jonah used to clasp the pill in one duke too, but he scarcely looked to pass or needed to. Every now and then there was a deft offload or skyhook lob when the big man was squeezed for room but generally he ploughed on, over or through tacklers with devastating effect.

Williams is the hybrid, a fascinating mix of skill and power. He is an unpolished product, but clearly learning about rugby at such a rate of knots that, if his progress continues, he looms as a great weapon for the All Blacks."

Ireland need to find something for ultimate test

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/15/2010

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley fears for the worst against the All Blacks having seen Ireland labour to victory over Samoa.

"Ireland, indeed, have much on their plate this week; ie, get their set-pieces right, add much more variety to their attacking game, sharpen up their footwork and off-loading, speed up their ruck ball and fill holes in their defence. Improved work-rate off the ball, not least in offering some scope for counter-attacks, would be nice too.

The entertainment quotient wasn’t helped by the interminable number of collapsed and reset scrums at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday. Kidney estimated that each engagement, from crouch through touch – and not forgetting pause – all the way through to belated engage, took about six seconds. That he felt compelled to time three of the late put-ins tells you everything.

Arising out of IRB chief Paddy O’Brien calling all the officials together last week, Kidney said the feedback from their own sources had warned them. Nor does it explain why Ireland were penalised eight times at scrums. Matters improved after Tom Court switched to tighthead and Cian Healy and Rory Best were introduced, but Kidney intimated that, as with last week, the positive impact of the bench had to be taken into context."

From champs to chumps

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/15/2010

Wallabies coach Robbie Deans has trouble on his wary hands according to the Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden.

"What a waste! After such encouraging signs in Hong Kong and Cardiff, the Wallabies came to Twickenham and showed they are well short of the finished product when their many inadequacies - and in particular an inability to win the physical contest - enabled England to beat them at their own game.

Again the Australians got ahead of themselves by reading their own press and believing they were the magicians of the world stage, but didn't have the grunt, leadership or Plan B to work their way out of trouble when it got tough.

A triumph at Twickenham in front of a sell-out crowd would have been a defining moment for the tourists. However, an audience expecting entertainment from the Wallabies instead witnessed their soft underbelly, as England won the big collisions and advanced over the gain line almost every time they were in possession, and knocked Australia back when they were in attack."

England can approach World Cup with confidence

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/15/2010

Former England international Brian Moore believes there is more to come from England - read his thoughts in the Daily Telegraph.

"The romantics will fashion an argument that this was a triumph for boldness over conservatism; youth over experience; width over narrowness. It was, in fact, nothing of the sort; it was because England played with purpose and precision when it mattered and because they were unafraid to play what they saw develop in front of them.

Chris Ashton said of his thrilling, length-of-the-field try that he just saw a lot of grass and then he ran. You could see this as a sign of the declining educational standards of modern players or, more properly, the honest reduction of what happens on an international field to its simplest and most prosaic.

The fact that the attack was launched from a turnover forced by the impressive Tom Palmer and from two yards from the England line was not due to derring-do. It happened because the mercurial England scrum-half, Ben Youngs, instinctively felt his intended clearance kick might be charged down by an Australian defender and his pass to Courtney Lawes was given because Lawes was in the better position.

This was not Barbarian-style attack at all costs; it was recognising the right option and taking it, wherever and whenever the play occurs."

North is new Wales star

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/15/2010

The Western Mail's Simon Thomas talks to Wales' new wing sensation George North following his outstanding debut in defeat to South Africa.

"At the end of last season, George North was playing for his school side and dreaming of turning out for the Scarlets.

Fast forward six months and he is a new star of Welsh rugby, having scored two tries on his Test debut against South Africa at the weekend.

The 18-year-old took just five minutes to make his mark on the international stage with his first touchdown and struck again midway through the second half to set up a thrilling finale.

“It was a great debut and fantastic to score two tries. I was really happy about that,” said the Rhyl Youth and Llandovery College product

“It’s hard coming from playing schoolboy rugby six months ago to facing the world champions . It is an amazing change."

Five things England learned in victory

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/15/2010

The Guardian's Paul Rees reflects on England's 35-18 victory over Australia at Twickenham

"1. Youngs is one for the ages - ...Ben Youngs missed the last 25 minutes of the match after being taken out late by the Wallaby prop Ben Alexander but the scrum-half laid the foundations for victory.

2. Cooper is no big hitter - ...Australia had hidden Cooper against Wales but his six missed tackles were by far the most by any player on Saturday, contrasting with his opposite number, Flood, who made eight out of eight.

"3. England are not the All Blacks - ...England were New Zealand-lite in their "anthracite" grey change jerseys. But while some of their play was All Black-esque, they were not flawless. They conceded 13 penalties or free-kicks and Australia's second try came from a wonky lineout throw.

"4. Hape looks happier - ...England had struggled to mask Shontayne Hape's unfamiliarity with the inside-centre position against New Zealand but on Saturday they used him to take up slow ball and tended to miss him out when a counterattack was on.

"5. Scrums are not vital - ...The scrum was perceived to be England's strongest weapon but it was an incidental feature of the game. There were only seven set scrums and all but one of them resulted in a free-kick or a penalty."

Youngs the precocious commander

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/15/2010

If ever anyone deserved a lifting of pressure, a sense that there is more than a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, then it was surely Martin Johnson, The Independent's James Lawton writes.

"It is always dangerous to build too much around a single performance but it would be less than giving unto the young warriors – the wing Chris Ashton and lock Courtney Lawes were not far behind Youngs in their impact and influence – what is their due, after a brilliant defeat of Australia and their all singing and dancing back division, not to accept the possibility that we may have just seen the first signs of the end of a downward cycle.

"With the World Cup just a year away, confirmation of such promise will have to come in something of a rush now but the encouragement on a grey, cold autumn afternoon went beyond the precocious generalship of Youngs, the try-scoring surges of Ashton and the immense presence of Lawes.

"It was also to be found in the refusal of the long-besieged coach and former legend, Martin Johnson, to step away from the reality that one near-perfect performance is still less than a foundation on which to believe he has created a new rugby empire."

November 14, 2010

Simply Stunning

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2010

England celebrate a score against the Wallabies at Twickenham © Getty Images

The Sunday Telegraph's Paul Ackford was mightily impressed by England's victory over Australia at Twickenham.

"An epic performance by England, easily the most productive of Martin Johnson’s era, and one that confirms them as genuine contenders for next year’s World Cup. And d’you know what? There wasn’t a scrum of any significance in the entire match.

That was one of the more astonishing aspects of this exhilarating, frantic and thoroughly entertaining encounter. It didn’t resemble a northern hemisphere Test match. England played as if they came from Down Under. Their pace, tempo, work-rate, honesty and guts simply blew the Wallabies away.

At times it was car crash rugby. When Kurtley Beale scored the second of Australia’s two tries, his mates had to navigate their way through a pile of fallen English bodies, some awaiting treatment from the medics, to give him the space. That was the carnage which the incredible physicality of this game created. It was a match for hard, brave men, and this England team had those in spades."

When does a slump become a crisis?

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2010

Ireland may have beaten Samoa but are not moving in the right direction according to the Irish Times' Noel O'Reilly.

"Ireland may have avoided the ignominy of a seventh straight defeat, at the hands of Samoa of all teams, but the performance failed to convince many that this is a team moving in the right direction.

Granted, there were bright spots for Kidney to salvage ahead of next weekend’s match against the All Blacks. Luke Fitzgerald did all that was asked of him at fullback, and a little bit more besides, Devin Toner provided a much-needed option out of touch, while Seán Cronin proved what a fine player he is in the loose.

But the negatives will weigh heavily on the coach’s shoulders and the reality is that if Manu Samoa had a goalkicker of real quality they could have come a lot closer to Ireland on the scoreboard.

Against game, but limited opponents, Ireland lacked direction. Time and again the scrum was demolished, and you genuinely fear for whatever frontrow Kidney deploys when the Kiwis come to town, passes were misplaced at the crucial moment and attacks fizzled out to nothing."

Appalling Ireland stare down barrel of disaster

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2010

After watching Ireland labour to victory over Samoa, the Irish Independent's George Hook is dreading the confrontation with New Zealand.

"What we had to endure yesterday was a terrible performance by Ireland in front of a tiny crowd. The cost of watching this team is totally disproportionate to the entertainment delivered. It is time for an assessment for the management, selection and coaching of this group of players. It was indicative of how low Ireland has gone that Stephen Ferris was reduced to exaggerating an assault by a Samoan in a despicable attempt to get a red card for his opponent.

Ireland go into next week's game against the All Blacks with the unenviable record of being without a win in 23 matches in the 105 years of the fixture. Declan Kidney does not look to have the players at his disposal to break that sequence.

Last week's South African game and June's joust with New Zealand proved that this Irish team is good when the cause is lost. In New Plymouth, Ireland were 45 points in arrears and down to 14 men before they started to play.

The suspicion always lingers about opponents' feet coming off the gas or, as certainly was the case with Peter de Villiers, substitutions weakening the opposition resolve. This time around the prospect of a humiliating defeat concentrated the minds of the Irish who eked out a totally undeserved victory."

Spirit keeps Bok dream alive

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2010

Writing for Sport24, Rob Howing passes judgement on South Africa's battling victory over Wales in Cardiff.

"An imperfect performance, and then some. But South Africa are halfway to the Grand Slam ... that’s what matters most.

Wales threw the kitchen sink -- plus the fridge, oven and bin! – at the Springboks in a frenzied assault just ahead of and then significantly after the hooter, but the tourists’ defences somehow held for a heart-stopping 29-25 win at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.

The Boks were outscored 3-2 in tries and owed a little bit, too, to the relative kindness of southern hemisphere referee Steve Walsh for ending on the right side of this ding-dong tussle – some of his decisions significantly irked the crowd.

...And I think this slightly fortuitous victory actually strengthened, rather than weakened, their psychological hold over these opponents, bearing in mind that they will meet again in pool play at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

Somehow Wales just don’t seem to be able to close the deal against the Boks in tight home battles of late, and the prospect of meeting next on neutral turf south of the equator, rather than before their passionate Cardiff faithful, cannot be especially appealing right now."

Swing low: Wallabies suffer record loss

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2010

The Wallabies went back to their terrible old ways and were justifiably smashed by England at Twickenham, so writes the Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden.

"After such encouraging performances against the All Blacks in Hong Kong and Wales in Cardiff, today's international was the ultimate let down when the Wallabies showed off their many frailties.

Wallaby goalkicker James O'Connor had a dismal night with the boot being successful with only three of his seven kicks which saw Australia missing out on a possible 11 points.

But this is not where the Wallabies lost the game.

Their defence was at times embarrassing, with England successfully strolling through Quade Cooper, time and time again, make great ground through his defensive channel

But Cooper was only one of many Australian culprits, with numerous other players falling off tackles and giving England easy territory.

The Wallabies composure was near non-existent at times and they were involved in numerous idiotic plays."

Progress shudders to a halt

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2010

The Scotsman's Tom English reports on Scotland crushing loss to the All Blacks at Murrayfield.

"Andy Robinson has brought Scotland blinking towards the light in his time in charge of Scotland, but the progress made was but a distant memory last night as the coach got enveloped by darkness in the wake of this tumultuous pummelling.

...Scotland needed to produce a miracle match to beat the All Blacks. A hundred years they've been at it and it still hasn't happened. No surprise, given the series of improbable events that need to occur for the run of failure to end. Scotland needed to be foot-perfect in every sense; monstrous in the tackle, clinical in the set-piece, quick and ruthless at the breakdown.

They needed to blast Richie McCaw to kingdom come and halt his offloading warriors at source.

After eight minutes we knew that the dream had become a delusion."

I’ve been left in agony

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2010

Wales wing Shane Williams shares his thoughts on his side's narrow loss to South Africa and the performance of debutant George North with the Wales on Sunday's Delme Parfitt.

"I want to say a word about young George North. The only pity is that his contribution wasn’t part of a win, which it deserved to be. But we have only ourselves to blame for that.

However, I have to say I’m well chuffed for George, not just because he scored two nice tries but because everything else he did was solid and reliable.

The best compliment I can give him is that he looked like he belonged at Test level. It was a hugely mature and accomplished display to give on his Test debut. George didn’t shirk a thing and I expect him to go on from this."

England reignite spirit of 2003

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2010

The England fans at HQ had something to cheer after years of pain as Australia were put to the sword at Twickenham, writes the Obserbver's Paul Hayward.

"Just after 3.30pm on a thrilling afternoon, England faced their most important 40 minutes since the 2007 World Cup final, or even the great triumph of four years earlier in Sydney. They had led 16-6 at the break and this was their moment to cease being a dull work in progress and assume a fresh identity as a team capable of electrifying Twickenham.

Rare indeed it is for a side to reach such an easily identifiable crossroads. A collapse against these Wallabies would have sent English rugby back under the duvet for a generation. But a continuation of the spirit and audacity of their first-half performance would re-establish Martin Johnson's perkily rebuilt side as a global force again.

The answer was profound and exhilarating. Six minutes into the half they forced a turnover near their own goalline. Ben Youngs, a real star in the making at scrum-half, side-stepped his way out of defence and flicked it to Courtney Lawes, who then off-loaded it to Chris Ashton, who had 90 metres of turf ahead of him."

Ashton's fire reduces Australia to ashes

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2010

England wing Chris Ashton pointed the way to the World Cup for an England side suddenly bristling with attacking intent, according to the Independent on Sunday's Hugh Godwin.

"The finger of triumph raised twice by England's double try-scorer, Chris Ashton, the likeable Wiganer who is fast becoming the new hero of the Barbour set, was mimicked in the post-match karaoke bars as something close to delirium broke out. Some of those particularlyaverse to Australians, and mindful of the imminent Ashes series, might have chosen the middle digit to wave the Wallabies away after a record-breaking defeat.

"It was England's first win over a Tri-Nations side at Twickenham in four years and it was done with a flourish which Australia had been thought most likely to provide and which had been absent under Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton and, since 2008, Martin Johnson. The revellers cheered a fortress far from restored – not with the All Blacks' victory a week earlier – but with a few bulwarks rebuilt."

November 13, 2010

Meads remains a humble big Kiwi

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/13/2010

Meads became only the second All Black to be sent off against Scotland in 1967 © Getty Images

Ahead of Scotland's latest clash with New Zealand at Murrayfield, The Scotsman's David Ferguson talks to All Blacks legend Colin Meads.

"He still lives for sport and particularly rugby, yet, he will never be able to forget the day when, with three minutes to go and New Zealand leading Scotland 14-3, Meads became the second man in international rugby to be sent off. The first was also a New Zealand forward, Cyril Brownlie, dismissed at Twickenham during the 'Invincibles' tour in 1925 for 'foul play'.

Clearly, still, after laughing and joking about his life now and an incredible wealth of great memories, the quiet, sombre tones that descend on the conversation when we reach that 1967 game, only the fifth meeting of the nations, reveal a lasting sadness that Meads will take to his grave. "It was very difficult," he says, beginning slowly, "and still it is difficult to talk about because although it was a long time ago and I am one for just getting on with life, taking what comes, the shame I brought then still hurts.

"I always considered myself a fair player, hard yes, in what is a hard game, but fair and I always respected the game of rugby, our opponents and the All Blacks jersey and New Zealand more than anything in the world. So, I knew instantly, when the referee said I was to get off, that this was a moment that would bring shame on New Zealand and the All Blacks, and my family. I couldn't believe it at the time, but it was real, and to walk off a great place like Murrayfield that way was just awful. I thought that was the end of my career, the end of rugby for me."

Robinson has learned to smile again

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/13/2010

After three straight wins, former England coach Andy Robinson is loving life north of the border – and Scotland enjoys having him around. The Guardian's Mike Averis reports.

"Not many Englishmen treat Murrayfield as their home from home but Andy Robinson was bouncing around its business suites and conference rooms this week like a man who owns the place.

A television interview here, radio over there, a few pictures for the sponsors and the local newspapers before he ran through his side to play the All Blacks tomorrow with a dozen rugby correspondents, beaming at their questions, playfully side-stepping anything too obviously barbed. Was he worried that … "No." Did he have any qualms about … "No."

It helps if you are basking in the glow of three straight wins and all away from home – rare indeed if you are the Scotland coach – but for anyone who remembers his final days looking after England it was hard not to make comparisons. The eyes are still hooded, but now they sit above a semi-permanent smile, even when the questioning comes from those based south of the border. A year on from his first game in charge of the full Scotland team and Robinson is clearly enjoying the experience. More importantly, Scotland clearly enjoys having him around."

Bold Wallabies will not beat the odds

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/13/2010

Writing in The Independent, former England coach Brian Ashton is impressed by the Wallabies' endeavour but thinks they will come up short against his former charges.

"Which brings me to today's Twickenham visitors, the Wallabies, who continue to fly in the face of orthodoxy and accepted rugby logic in producing some breathtaking attacking play while spending much of their lives under the cosh at the scrum, which has been regarded since time immemorial as the foundation stone of the game. The Australians were completely stuffed in this area by Wales last weekend, just as they had been by England in Perth back in June. (They won that one, as well.) How the hell do they manage it? The explanation is simple, even if the act itself is supremely demanding. They have committed themselves body and soul to playing dynamic rugby, imbued with a sense of attacking purpose, irrespective of what they may or may not achieve at the set piece.

The Will Genia-Quade Cooper-Matt Giteau triangle is at the heart of what they do, and I can't help admiring the variation, the flexibility and the subtlety these exceptional players bring to the game. Add to this the X-factor contribution of a full-back like Kurtley Beale and a wing like James O'Connor, and you begin to understand why the Wallabies feel they can win any match with 30-40 per cent of the ball. It is as though they have set their face against the twin gods of rugby: the god of quality possession and the god of territorial dominance. You have to credit them for their boldness.

In Cardiff, Cooper was again the orchestrator-in-chief, playing his own version of hide and seek, sitting behind the attacking line before appearing quite suddenly in the firing line with all guns loaded. Through this unique approach to positional play, he has been able to develop his general "game sense". For instance, his decision-making when it comes to kicking – when, where and how – has become an important factor in keeping the Wallabies on the front foot even when they're on the back foot at scrum time.

Having said all this, I take England to beat the Aussies this afternoon. Surely, the tourists cannot continue to defy belief, to fly in the face of all tradition, to keep on pulling rugby rabbits out of the hat by winning major Test matches while losing the set-piece contest hands down, conceding territory at every turn and shipping penalties by the dozen? Can they?"

Radical thinking paying off for Scots

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/13/2010

Scotland has a new weapon. It is a radio-controlled helicopter called Cyberhawk. The New Zealand Herald's Dylan Clever reports.

"It is usually used to assess damage on electricity pylons, but which Scotland's video analyst is instead using to get a new perspective on the game. When it hovers next to players during training, the coaches get to witness the game almost through their eyes.

It is a radical new training tool from a team that throughout history has relied on old-fashioned methods to try to beat the All Blacks: fire in the belly, a furiously energetic start, followed by kicking, chasing and harrying.

Guess what? In 27 tests over 105 years, those old-fashioned methods have never worked. Time to reinvent that particular wheel."

Ructions over tickets run on

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/13/2010

Writing in the Irish Times, Gerry Thornley believes the Irish Rugby Football Union have missed a trick - again.

"Although 35,000 tickets were sold for today’s game as part of the package with last week’s match with the Springboks, and 3,000 more tickets have since been bought for today’s encounter, many of those supporters are not expected to travel from around the country.

This is partly because of next week’s game against the All Blacks and a full round of All Ireland League matches today.

Although tickets for today’s game can be purchased from the IRFU offices up until kick-off at the original prices of €50 for adults and €10 for schoolchildren, would-be supporters have been given little additional incentive.

Martin Murphy, the Aviva stadium director, yesterday intimated that tomorrow’s FAI Cup final could conceivably draw a bigger crowd than today’s game."

Elsom plays down drama of the lead role

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/13/2010

Australia captain Rocky Elsom rejects the gung-ho approach as he builds on the legacy of Nick Farr-Jones and John Eales. The Daily Telegraph's Ian Chadband reports.

"We claw with our fingernails for that inch 'cause we know when we add up all those inches, that's going to make the ------- difference between winning and losing, between living and dying

This is Al Pacino in full ham-tastic cry in Any Given Sunday, playing Tony D'Amato, the pumped-up American football coach in the locker room, roaring his pre-game team talk to its macho crescendo.

"You know that speech?" asks Rocky Elsom, bringing up Hollywood out of the blue. "People love that speech. They say 'Jeez, I'd run through a brick wall if I heard that'. Well, they might feel that way until they got to the brick wall.

"I watch that speech and think 'if someone was saying that to me, I'd tune out right at the start'. Younger players could lose their way listening to that. You want clearness in the head, a bit of direction."

Right, so if the Australia rugby captain is unimpressed by the shouty, gung-ho approach to leadership, then could we instead categorise him in that Mick 'Crocodile' Dundee mould of strong, silent Aussie types who inspire by deed not oratory? Nope. Try again."

November 12, 2010

Slapped, raked, thumped, kicked, pulled

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/12/2010

Leo Cullen and Alan Quinlan are separated © Getty Images

In an extract from his book, Munster flanker Alan Quinlan explains the end of his British & Irish Lions dream in The Irish Independent.

"You b*****. What the f*** are you at?" My hand is slapped away.

"I'm looking at Leo Cullen but I'm not paying much attention to him or what he's shouting. Somebody's always shouting in the middle of a game like this. It's another way of saying, "Hello sir, how are you today? Would you like a bang on the ear or a kick in the arse to go with your double moccachino?"

"I should know. I've been slapped, raked, thumped, kicked, pulled, yanked and stamped on enough times to understand how this game is played. Bad language is a helluva nicer way to be insulted than most rugby alternatives."

Eminem and X-Box

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/12/2010

Scotland wing Sean Lamont gets the Small Talk treatment in The Guardian.

"Tip-top Sean and thanks for asking. So then, the big one at Murrayfield is coming ... [Still cheery] It sure is ...

"Yep, Bon Jovi in the flesh: you must be very excited ... [Not cheery] Really? Actually I didn't know they were playing there.

"Now that you know, are you going to hurry out and nab some tickets? [Cheery again] Well obviously they've got some fantastic songs but I wouldn't say I'm a massive fan. So I'll have a look to see what else is on around that time before making up my mind. I guess some of the boys will go, but as for myself, it's unlikely.

"What sort of music do you listen to before heading into action? A bit of Eye of the Tiger perhaps? A mix really, it depends what I've got. Recently I've been listening to a bit of Eminem's new album and I love Muse – they'd be my go-to pre-match artists, as it were."

Stand up for yourself

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/12/2010

Former Wallaby Matt Burke believes that it's time their pack stood up for themselves and their backline in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"I once played in a Newcastle back line that boasted England internationals Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood, Jamie Noon and Mathew Tait. When we were able to get the ball the results were devastating. The only regret was that we never really experienced success.

"The reason for that was because we didn't have the right balance between the forwards and backs. Our forwards were limited. The product of that is that, as a back, you have to make something out of nothing because of the inconsistencies of the delivery up front. Counter-attack becomes a weapon as it is ''free ball''.
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"This is the unenviable position the Wallabies find themselves. They might have won back-to-back games in Hong Kong and Cardiff, but a lot of soul-searching has taken place during the week. There is a way of winning, and then there is a way of winning well."

Can't take Scotland seriously

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/12/2010

Former All Black Inga Tuigamala is not losing any sleep over their appointment with Scotland in The New Zealand Herald.

"The All Blacks are obliged to say they are taking Scotland seriously, but I don't think too many others are.

"The Scots play with pride and passion, but they have never beaten the All Blacks and I doubt they ever will. These All Blacks are a class above and will win this test well.

"I quite like the changes that have been made. Liam Messam's inclusion on the blindside will add a whole new attacking dimension and it will be like having an extra back on the field."

November 11, 2010

Closing the fly-half factory

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/11/2010

Dan Carter - the only modern great? © Getty Images

Peter Bills mourns the death of the northern hemisphere's fly-half production line in The Irish Independent.

"Riverdance? Forget it. If you wanted to see real footwork, magical stepping and great movement, all you had to do was peruse the rugby fields of the world over the last 50 years and enjoy a long list of world-class out-halves.

"Consider some of the candidates for a lead role: Jack Kyle and Cliff Morgan from the 1950s; Scotland's Gordon Waddell from the 1960s, Mike Gibson, Barry John and Phil Bennett from the 1970s, Jonathan Davies in the 1980s...

"But alas, there is no current vintage of northern hemisphere players worthy of inclusion in such a list. Some think it a mystery as to why. For sure, one southern hemisphere out-half justifies inclusion in such an esteemed list. Dan Carter of New Zealand is a supreme talent: calm, authoritative and a shrewd, visionary reader of the play. Australian Quade Cooper is a one-off, a dynamic attacker but not quite yet the all-round performer that Carter is."

In a spin

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/11/2010

Brian Moore is critical of the PR campaign that has accompanied Keven Melamu's headbutt in The Daily Telegraph.

"For Mealamu, and rugby generally, it was fortunate that the incident was not shown on the stadium screens at Twickenham and his cheap-shot was left for the consideration of the few hundred thousand viewers watching on Sky.

"Had the act been replayed several times, as happened with a headbutt delivered by Springbok Bakkies Botha on Kiwi Jimmy Cowan this year, there would have been an outcry with Mealamu being barracked for the rest of the game.

"Had it been live on the BBC, the PR battle would have been even harder because the outcry would have also come from a few million casual watchers, thereby tainting the image of rugby in general. From the video evidence and to anybody who has played rugby, this was a simple case of nastiness."

All Black hypocrisy

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/11/2010

Marc Hinton lays into the All Blacks over their 'hypocritical' appeal against Keven Mealamu's ban on

"The All Blacks can be hypocrites at times and the outrageous claims of injustice around Keven Mealamu's headbutt at Twickenham is a further example of that.

"They certainly haven't done their reputation any good with some of the comments that have floated about in the aftermath of Mealamu's attack on England's Lewis Moody last Saturday.

"No one but Mealamu can truly know the intent of his actions, but viewed dispassionately, the hooker's low, driving butt into the back of a prone Lewis Moody's head did not look good by any stretch of the imagination. If we didn't know Mealamu better – and he is a genuinely decent bloke, that's beyond debate – we would even describe it as thuggish."

It's our problem

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/11/2010

Rugby World Cup chief Martin Snedden takes a look at the problems that surfaced at last weekend's rugby league Test between Australia and New Zealand at Eden Park in The New Zealand Herald.

"I could argue till I'm blue in the face that it was a game of league, not rugby. And that none of the Rugby World Cup 2011 security or alcohol-management plans were being tested, and that what happened at Eden Park on Saturday night was simply not our problem.

"But it is. Running something as major as next year's event is just as much a confidence game as it is about getting things dead right operationally.

"Eden Park, as host of the final (and eight other matches) is our most crucial venue. Public confidence in the venue has been dented for the moment. It is something that we must take serious notice of and learn from."

November 10, 2010

Sonny Bill the flanker?

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/10/2010

Could Sonny Bill Williams be in line for a switch to flanker? © Getty Images

Could the rising star of New Zealand rugby - Sonny Bill Williams - find that his future lies as a flanker and not a centre? The New Zealand Herald's Chris Barclay reports.

"That's seemingly incongruous notion has been floated since the Bulldogs ball-playing second rower abandoned the National Rugby League for French rugby in 2008 - and All Blacks assistant coach Wayne gave the concept further credence today.

The All Blacks coaches have been so impressed with the 25-year-old's physical attributes, Smith envisaged Williams could be utilised on the blindside flank of a Crusaders loose trio already comprising Kieran Read and Richie McCaw.

"During Super rugby he may have a crack at other positions, he had six weeks at (No) 6 for Toulon," said Smith as the squad adjusted to a frigid Edinburgh ahead of Sunday's (NZT) test with Scotland at Murrayfield.

"He's a different sort of athlete, he's an athlete where we've just go to see what best suits him - and the team."

Another feather in the cap for Connacht

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/10/2010

Connacht claimed an impressive scalp in the form of Samoa on Tuesday night - the Irish Times Keith Duggan reports from the Sportsground.

"IF ERIC Elwood had the luxury of picking any victory of his fancy from this season’s schedule, it would probably not have been this midweek international.

But on a rare break from the pressure and grind of the competitive season, Connacht delivered a rousing performance in the Sportsground and the club now has another international feather to put in its cap.

The night could hardly have gone more perfectly for the Irish team. To begin with, the evening was bone dry.

John Muldoon, released from international duty for the evening, came into the match with just under half an hour to play and gave a huge forward thrust to a tremendous effort from the pack.

At outhalf, Miah Nikora responded to this start with a flawless kicking exhibition and orchestrated a three-quarters line humming with adventure and confidence all night. Troy Nathan also had a fine time operating at fullback, utterly steady under the high ball and delivering several inch-perfect clearance kicks when Connacht were under pressure.

But it was the younger lights such as Shane Monaghan, Eoin McKeon, Cillian Willis and the outstanding Eoin Griffin – deserved recipient of the after-match bubbly – who made the crowd of 2,300 glad they had turned out on what was a cold night."

Wallabies feel Beale effect

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/10/2010

Once upon a time, the Wallabies' backs would hover around David Campese in the hope of either being inspired or getting some scraps. Now it seems Kurtley Beale, the new Australian fullback, has taken on that role. The Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden reports.

"Three days after his exceptional man-of-the-match performance against Wales in Cardiff, his Australian teammates were still talking about Beale's special moments in that Test, particularly when he came close to scoring a second-half try by leaping to catch a high ball before swivelling out of the tackle, grubbering through and regathering only to lose control centimetres from the line.

It was a passage of brilliance that proved Beale is finally comfortable on the big stage and that he is ready to push his talent to the extreme in the green and gold, as he did during his acclaimed schoolboy days with St Joseph's College in Sydney, where he dominated the ranks."

Belief in ourselves is key to success

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/10/2010

Scotland have a squad to face New Zealand as big, strong and quick as any that has taken to the field in recent years and, with the team now picked, instilling self-belief is the next priority for head coach Andy Robinson ahead of the autumn series. The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports.

"Jim Telfer, the Scotland coach of the 1980s and 1990s, used to talk about the "top three inches", in reference to brain-power, and that is a big part of the challenge facing Scotland when they take on New Zealand on Saturday.

"Robinson is building on a rare Scotland achievement of three Test wins in a row, all away from home, against Ireland and Argentina (twice). It lifted the team to seventh in the world and is worthy of recognition, but this weekend opponents six places higher hove into view. The All Blacks are the only team the Scots have never beaten."

England must cut out the 'if onlys'

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/10/2010

Writing in The Independent, Chris Hewett reports that England manager Martin Johnson remains as grumpy as he ever was.

"The guys have to understand that this is a step up from club rugby – that at this level, you are not able to do as much, as often or as well as you do in the Premiership. It is a fact of life. In a way, Test rugby is simpler, more basic. You have one chance to do your job. You don't get a second bite."

For a man of relatively few words, this was a State of the Union moment, a recognition that at this late point in the World Cup cycle, there was no earthly point in doing anything other than tell it how it was. Johnson needs a victory against the Wallabies this weekend, and needs it badly. One win in six Tests, his current record, is lamentable enough: one win in seven would be the worst run since 2006, and we know what happened to the former manager Andy Robinson after that catalogue of calamities."

November 9, 2010

Rugby reaping rewards of rule change

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/09/2010

James O'Connor was among the players taking advantage of a new adventurous attitude that is dominating the international game © Getty Images

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Spiro Zavos argues that last weekend's international matches reflected an upsurge in the quality of rugby at the top level.

"The opening week of the southern hemisphere rugby invasion of the north gave us three pulsating and well-played Tests, with the visitors all repulsing last-minute challenges. None of the sides played in exactly the same way. But they all played real rugby, generally creating pressure and breakouts with ball-in-hand play.

Some of the statistics compare what is happening now on the field with the game in the 1980s. The findings provide the evidence that ''rugby football'' has evolved into ''rugby''. The ball is now in play 50 per cent longer. Rucks and mauls are up 400 per cent. Passing is up 400 per cent. Kicks each game are down 50 per cent, with the Wallabies averaging only 15 a match. Scrums are down 50 per cent, to an average of 14 a match. Lineouts are down 58 per cent from 52 to 22.

With the ruck and maul now being refereed to give the runner all the placing rights, teams are retaining the ball for longer periods of play. One consequence of this more handling and more ball-in-play game is that 57 tries were scored in this year's Tri Nations compared with 27 last year. We saw the impact of these changes in the approach of Wales, England and Ireland towards the end of their Tests as they tried desperately to score enough points through tries, not penalties, to snatch unlikely victories."

Lynagh backs countrymen to beat England

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/09/2010

Former Australia international Michael Lynagh believes that the Wallabies' exuberant backs will be too much for England at Twickenham on Saturday, according to the Daily Mail.

"If Australia get enough ball, England simply cannot cover all their threats. They are so dynamic and unpredictable, I don't think it's possible to contain them.

Quade Cooper has had an unbelievable year. He is just so exciting. If you put him under pressure he can make odd decisions, but he can also win games with a moment of genius. Kurtley Beale has been playing really well at full back. I first saw him as a fly-half at school and he just did whatever he wanted. He was a child prodigy who won games on his own and it seemed as if the other players were only there to give him someone to talk to. He struggled to step up to professional rugby, but he is really on song now. England should be very wary of kicking the ball to him.

James O'Connor is almost a veteran at 20. He is so confident and that was clear from the way he ran around Shane Williams twice last Saturday in just a yard. He is so quick. That's another one England have to watch and we haven't even mentioned Matt Giteau!"

Wales need Henson's dancing feet

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/09/2010

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Steve James insists Wales need Gavin Henson to return to rugby sooner rather than later.

"Henson may even be starting to believe he can dance. And, for all our scepticism, we forget at our peril how good he was at rugby. He was hugely influential when Wales won two Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008. His passing and kicking games then cannot currently be matched in European rugby.

The trouble is that Saracens want him to play at fly-half. His dance partner, Katya Virshilas, even wore 10 on her back last weekend. He is OK in that position, but he can be world-class at inside centre.

Further trouble comes because his dancing popularity is improving. Taking his shirt off to reveal a chiselled physique has wooed the feminine vote. Incorporating a rugby ball into his routine even wooed the judges last weekend.

But I'd rather he was voted out swiftly. Let's just see him playing rugby again. Goodness, after their dreadful lack of creativity against Australia last Saturday, Wales could do with him. Ah, a centre partnership with Jamie Roberts!

Comebacks rarely work, but it's time to discover if this one can."

Mighty Sheridan will decimate Aussies

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/09/2010

Mick Cleary believes that Andrew Sheridan will run wild against Australia if the Wallabies fail to fix their ailing scrum - The Daily Telegraph.

"Although garbed in grey, Andrew Sheridan will be a familiar sight to Australians on Saturday, a hulking spectre in their thoughts even in England's faddish anthracite-coloured 'change strip' that they will be parading for the first time at Twickenham.

Sheridan remains Sheridan, a player who has twice done irreparable damage to Australian hopes of Test victory, at Twickenham in 2005 and again in Marseille in the World Cup quarter-final. He is likely to make the same sort of impact on Saturday against a side who still have ring-a-ring-roses tendencies in the tight scrummage, the front row all falling down at the first sign of real pressure.

It happened in Perth in June when England scored two penalty tries from Australian ineptness in the scrum, unprecedented in senior Test rugby. The Wallaby hopelessness was there again at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday with seven penalties conceded at the scrum. That is pitifully inadequate for a major Test nation."

November 8, 2010

Balancing act

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/08/2010

Tight margins: Shontayne Hape is smashed into touch © Getty Images

Brian Moore believes that England showed balance between power and flair for the first time in a long while against the All Blacks in The Daily Telegraph.

"He will know that ultimately the stark recitation of statistics will be sufficient to justify either his deification or decapitation. For Johnson as a person and England as a team there can be naught else, unless we are going to wallow in another bout of that most invidious of English traits – accepting defeat if we came near and tried jolly hard.

"The above legitimately stated, it should also be recognised that for the first time under Johnson there emerged a semblance of balance, both in terms of age and experience, and power and creativity. In losing England at least looked coherent and, if we are making hard calls about Test rugby, this was more than South Africa did in the recent Tri-Nations."

We needed that one

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/08/2010

Gavin Rich toasts an important win for the Springboks on Supersport.

"You just had to look through the Irish newspapers and watch British television in the build-up to understand why Saturday’s match to celebrate the opening of the new Aviva Stadium was so important to the Springboks.

"The Boks have slumped so far in the international estimation over the past year that it seems bizarre sometimes to think back to just 14 months ago, when almost everyone was making them favourites for the World Cup. South Africa had so many rugby trophies that the administration organised a tour of the country to show them off.

"Of course, the game itself is not in bad health in South Africa. The Bulls are the Super rugby champions, having now won the title two years in a row, and the Dublin test match did seem a significant step down in pace and intensity from the excellent Currie Cup final we saw seven days earlier between the Sharks and Western Province."

The brat pack

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/08/2010

Greg Growden reflects on the exciting future facing the Wallabies' young guns in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"About 20 minutes after they had kept the Welsh dragon at bay, a key member of the Wallabies brat pack headed back on to the Millennium Stadium pitch.

"While the rest of the team congratulated themselves in the dressing room for at last showing they could back up a special victory with a gritty triumph rather than falling in a heap, Wallabies goalkicker James O'Connor and coach Robbie Deans had some pressing duties to attend to.
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"Deans stood directly under the goalposts, while O'Connor, with kicking tee and ball in hand, moved to different parts of the field to practice his shots at goal. For about 15 minutes, Deans retrieved the ball after O'Connor had guided them through the posts. In between shots, Deans would point out where O'Connor had to work on his approach and follow through. Eventually, everyone was happy, and they disappeared back to the rooms."

Gap in class

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/08/2010

Peter Bills believes that the gap between England and New Zealand is bigger than Saturday's 26-16 scoreline suggests in The New Zealand Herald.

"The very different levels of precision and attention to detail of the New Zealand and England rugby teams were laid bare at Twickenham on Saturday.

"New Zealand might have had to negotiate some tricky moments, and a 10-point victory hardly suggests a rout. But a great chasm separated the sides in terms of expectation, clinical finishing and poise, power and decision-making at critical moments.

"Overall, I thought this was a fairly ordinary New Zealand performance."

November 7, 2010

Don't underestimate England

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/07/2010

Sean Fitzpatrick believes that England will be a force at the World Cup © Getty Images

Sean Fitzpatrick believes that England will mount a challenge at next year's Rugby World Cup in The New Zealand Herald.

"By the time this is read, we'll know the result of the test against England but, regardless of that outcome, no one should underestimate the strength of the English challenge for next year's World Cup.

"They are going through some changes in the game, which most of us assume will place them at some disadvantage compared to the All Blacks, but that isn't necessarily so. Let's go back to that test match against Australia in Hong Kong last weekend. I learned a few things there.

"Being there live made me appreciate even more the skill levels and the intensity with which both teams played the game. It was quite phenomenal. The speed, the pace of recycling and the physical play at the contact area ... again, it was breathtaking sometimes."

What a difference a game makes

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/07/2010

Adam Freier is excited by rugby's rediscovered capacity to thrill in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"The sprinkle of rain on the tin roof of Australian rugby in 2007 quickly became a three-year northern Queensland monsoon, but now that the clouds are starting to dissipate and the sun begins to shine, the sport isn't in as bad shape as most experts thought.

"A courageous and wonderful Hong Kong night was the turning point for rugby union in the land down under. Not because it was the night the Wallabies broke a 10-game losing streak against the All Blacks, but the night all sporting fans sat back and said: ''Hey, that game was actually entertaining."

"A year ago, it was safe to say the perception of rugby could not have been much worse. But now the tide is slowly starting to turn."

This team's problems cut deep

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/07/2010

George Hook lays into Ireland following their defeat to South Africa in The Sunday Independent

"This was an unmitigated disaster as a hapless Irish team lost to a South African team playing below its best. Victor Matfield won the man-of-the-match award but there probably was not one Irishman in a shortlist of six players.

"Declan Kidney's losing run will probably end against Samoa but the coach faces more occasions like last night as his best players grow old and the replacements are callow.

"The game could have been prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act and caveat emptor certainly would have applied to anybody that paid €100 to watch substandard rugby. Spectators were streaming out of the ground with 20 minutes to go and missed the late flourish that almost delivered a totally undeserved draw."

Budgen the tank

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/07/2010

Hugh Godwin meets Exeter's Chris Budgen, the Premiership's soldier, in The Independent on Sunday.

"You know what they say about owners growing to look like their dogs, but does it apply to tanks? There is something harmonious in the sight of Chris Budgen, the redoubtable tighthead prop for Exeter Chiefs, alongside the mode of transport in his other day job as a Lance Corporal in the British Army: the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

"The Warrior is a squat and powerful armoured machine, manoeuv-rable to the point of turning on its caterpillar tracks through 360 degrees on the spot, but happiest going straight forward at up to 60 miles an hour, delivering seven fighting men to the heart of the battle. Small arms fire might bounce off it, much like the tackles of dumbfounded opponents as Budgen, who may not quite move at 60mph but, two months short of his 38th birthday, continues to thrive as the only Premiership rugby player serving in the armed forces.

"He lives and spends his days off from Exeter's stunningly successful first season in the Premiership at Tidworth Garrison on the edge of Salisbury Plain. Meeting him there is to encounter, in the first instance, a popular player in the Royal Welsh Regiment Second Battalion's rugby team, who have won the Army Cup three times in the last four seasons."

England lagging behind All Blacks

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/07/2010

Eddie Butler believes that England still have some way to go before they can match New Zealand's skill set in The Observer.

"Even if the rugby-playing population of England were to take to the beach and spend the next nine months concentrating on nothing but elusiveness in their movement and dexterity in their ball-handling, they would come nowhere near matching the New Zealanders for natural talent. It is in the genetic code of the Kiwi to be able to spin a rugby ball on a finger tip, spin his feet any which way and stay on them in contact.

"They also have a natural lust for contact born of a good technique in the tackle and growing up in a ferocious competitive environment from an early age. This is an inheritance from the pioneers of old from these parts, from the spirit of the Maori who are rivalled for natural talent only by the islanders who have been an essential ingredient in maintaining a tiny nation's pre-eminence in a contact sport.

"In fact, New Zealand have made this a combat, not a contact, sport, where eye-watering collisions live in stark contrast to silky skills. Sonny Bill Williams, at 6ft 4in and 17 stone, is an embodiment of this blend, a rhino and yet a purveyor of poetic one-handed passes from the heart of the mayhem."

November 6, 2010

Having a ball

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 11/06/2010

Former Wallaby Matt Burke runs the rule over Wales ahead of Australia's visit to the Millenium Stadium, on Rugby Heaven.

"This Welsh team has gone through a revival under coach Warren Gatland. About a decade ago, the Welsh were considered a team against which you might improve your stats. Yet a change of direction, some say inspired by Scott Johnson, means this team passes the ball more than any other, allowing continuity of play.

"The result of the ball being kept in play is more tries. More tries means winning more games. This is not limited to the backs, either. The forwards have focused on providing the link between a dying ball and keeping it alive. Success quickly followed with Six Nations glory. Wales were no longer the team that ''just turned up''. The strength of the Welsh team will be their ability to play quick rugby; that is speed of ball movement, speed of recycling the ball, speed of players and speed of defence. Such speed puts other teams under pressure. It is a high risk-reward scenario but can be pretty to watch."

You don’t walk away from Munster and forget

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 11/06/2010

The Irish Examiner's Barry Coughlan caught up with Jean de Villiers and found the Springbok still has feelings for an old flame.

"With a grin, de Villiers said: "I’ll certainly be wearing the South African jersey and that’s uppermost in my mind, but if I manage to get a big hit on any of the Leinster guys, I might just put it down to getting some revenge in for Munster too."

"He admitted that Munster and Limerick had tugged at his heart-strings before he made the decision to go back and fight for his World Cup place with the Springboks. "Look, Munster is now a part of my life beyond rugby. I don’t regret a single minute, I made a huge number of friends, so did my wife Rachel and she’s over here now and staying on after I get back home; honestly, you don’t walk away from Munster and just forget.

"It really was a very tough decision; people won’t understand how hard it was. If I arrived in Ireland and hated everything, didn’t enjoy the team I was playing in and didn’t enjoy the culture then it would have been an easy decision but this was totally different and totally special. Yes, there was the temptation to stay another year, but I wanted to play in the upcoming World Cup. Had I waited, it would probably have been too late and too big a risk."

All Blacks in another class

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 11/06/2010

Will Greenwood reflects on his experiences of facing the All Blacks © Getty Images
Writing in The Telegraph, former England centre Will Greenwood reflects on his experiences against the All Blacks.
"Want an insight into the mind of an All Black? They don’t swap shirts at the end of games. Or at least they didn’t when I was playing. It was almost as if they were saying that their whole lives had been about getting a black shirt, why the hell would they want a white one? They have a mindset that is unique. It’s what sets them apart. They don’t do physical pain. I was laughed at in the tunnel when I twisted my knee and was on crutches in 2002. When I got winded earlier in the same match, they walked past and said all manner of things about my manliness, none of it pleasant."

"John Mitchell, the former England forwards coach and the first Kiwi I really spent time with, used to have a favourite phrase when talking about the contact area: “Let the dogs see the rabbit.” He loved it. It was physical confrontation, doing the tough jobs. It was what he was about, the rugby DNA that runs through the national side from their first tour of the British Isles to the team England face today."

"I could have watched the quite staggering game of rugby between New Zealand and Australia in Hong Kong last Saturday 100 times. I know the forwards will tell me that one team can’t scrummage, Australia, and the other can’t win a line-out, New Zealand, but oh my goodness. Pace, intensity and lung-busting desire. The game was a frightening gauntlet thrown down to all the players in the northern hemisphere."

Springboks are there for the taking

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 11/06/2010

Former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan questions the Springboks' abilities in his Irish Independent column.

"The Springboks need a big-game win on this tour and that probably equates to victory either at the Aviva or against England at Twickenham. They are probably even more vulnerable than when shot down in the freezing fog of Croke Park a year ago, not -- mind -- that they aren't capable of hitting the ground with all guns blazing today.

"I just question whether those guns possess their customary firepower. Life, clearly, isn't all sweetness and light in the camp after finishing bottom of the Tri Nations pile with one win out of six and conceding an average of 30 points in each game. Marry that to the depleted nature of the squad they have brought to these shores and it has to translate into a big opportunity for Ireland.

"The Tri Nations highlighted massive concentration issues for the Boks. They blew a 'dead rubber' match against New Zealand with a 12-point turnaround in the closing five minutes and then messed up trying to run down the clock with 30 seconds remaining in the game with Australia at Bloemfontein. This was light years removed from the cold efficiency that defined the Springboks' mastery of the Lions in 2009, a series in which they had the luxury of resting front-line players for the third and, already redundant, final Test. Historically, confidence has never been an issue for South African rugby, but events of the last six months can't but have left little deposits of worry."

All Blacks will be the acid test

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 11/06/2010

The Guardian's Paul Hayward looks ahead to the Twickenham clash between England and New Zealand and says it is time for Martin Johnson's project to deliver.

"The emasculation of England's greatest captain since Bobby Moore has been a painful running theme in the country's troubles since the losing World Cup final appearance of 2007: itself a mirage, in the sense that Brian Ashton's team reached that Paris climax through sheer brute stubbornness before returning to disorder.

"Johnson, who has been more media-friendly of late (he still hates questions about his own emotional processes or how he might have "changed as a person"), leads the way to a quiet corner at the team's plush Pennyhill Park base in Surrey and delivers a statement more powerful than it might sound: "You've probably got a narrower focus now on who you know you want to have around."

"A straight-talker turned diplomat, Johnson confirms England's open secret. Finally these are his men, this is his team, with no room for dilettantes or one-cap wonders. The sifting has been long and awkward and sometimes embarrassing. But now Johnson feels empowered to say: "What you need is a group of players who are the England team – and we haven't had that for a long time. We've had so many players in and out. You need to know who the England squad are. We're getting that way now.""

November 5, 2010

Common enemy provides vital lessons

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/05/2010

Will the All Blacks bounce back to winning ways against England? © Getty Images

Contrasting fortunes in their respective last tests will be key motivational drivers for the All Blacks and England this Sunday, so writes the New Zealand Herald's Gregor Paul.

"In a quirk of fate, Australia are the team both New Zealand and England last encountered, with the former receiving a sharp reminder about the need for focus and intensity and the latter believing their victory in Sydney five months ago to be the start of something special.

The All Blacks, with 15 consecutive wins before that defeat in Hong Kong, have already shrugged off the demons. They have identified where they went wrong and most of their problems are fixable.

Defeat has brought an edge to training this week, put some competitive tension back in the squad and earned an extra half-hour of hard work on Tuesday under the watchful eye of Graham Henry.

The All Blacks appear to have drawn a similar amount of intelligence from England's last encounter. Despite England having barely a 40 per cent win ratio under manager Martin Johnson, there is a sense of them having turned a corner."

The changing face of "Twickers"

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/05/2010

Writing in the New Zealand Herald, Peter Bills reflects on the history surrounding England's HQ - Twickenham.

"Images abound ... of great and glorious deeds of derring do, of spectacular tries, for sure.

But there is and always has been more to Twickenham than just exploits with a rugby ball.

The home of English rugby - home of the game itself, say the more
pretentious of the Rugby Football Union's most insufferable brigade and brigadiers - has always represented as much a theatre of England and itssocial nuances as a plain old rugby ground.

New Zealand's return to the ground this weekend, anevent now increasingly devalued by the game's sell-out to satellite television and the consequent glut of international games, offers another reminder of this famous old ground's role in the history of British society."

O'Gara's days as leading man far from over

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/05/2010

On the eve of his 100th appearance in an Ireland shirt, the Irish Independent insists there is more to come from Ronan O'Gara.

"Throughout 2010, pundits and punters have repeatedly made the assertion that Jonathan Sexton is now the acknowledged first-choice out-half and his selection for tomorrow's clash was widely expected -- but not by O'Gara.

His form for Munster this season has been superb. In the seven games he has featured in, O'Gara has been at his game-controlling best, steering Munster to the top of the Magners League as well as their difficult Heineken Cup pool.

There is not much more that he could have done to force the hand of the Ireland coach but Sexton, despite his relative lack of game time (three starts and 24 minutes off the bench against Munster) and solid rather than spectacular showing against Connacht, still got the nod.

Sexton has come through fantastically well over the past two years, his attitude and all-round game are perfectly attuned to international rugby and Kidney is right when he says he is fortunate to have "two world-class out-halves" to choose from."

Habana to guide youngsters

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/05/2010

Bryan Habana is on the verge of setting a new try-scoring record for the Springboks, but says his focus is rather on guiding South Africa’s young players in Saturday’s test against Ireland in the Aviva Stadium. Sport24's Stephen Nell reports.

"“The last thing on my mind now is the try-scoring record. I’m the kind of person that prefers to put the team first,” said Habana, who shares the South African record of 38 test tries with Joost van der Westhuizen.

“I was disappointed with my form during the Tri-Nations, but the conditioning programme has been good for me and I’m enjoying my rugby again.

“I want to make a contribution. We have a few young players who need older heads around them. I have played 66 tests, Bjorn Basson 2 and Gio Aplon 9. It’s important that I help ease the pressure on them so that they can play to the best of their ability.”

North and south poles apart on magnetic rugby

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/05/2010

How apt that on a day when Britain was drenched with rain, the Wallabies were reminded the great rugby divide between southern hemisphere adventure and northern hemisphere attrition still exists, so writes the Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden.

"After the early week enthusiasm for the International Rugby Board report on this year's Tri Nations, which showed the tournament had enlivened the game through fast, expressive ball-in-hand play, the naysayers from the north produced their usual moaning over whether it was truly Test rugby.

The statistics show the number of tries in the Tri Nations nearly doubled in a year, the number of passes increased by 35 per cent, the kicks out of hand dropped dramatically and the average ball-in-play time increased by 2½ minutes a Test. The figures didn't impress those northerners who have a stronger passion for defence-oriented dogfights dominated by rolling mauls, territorial kicking, an emphasis on the set piece and repeated attempts to slow the ball down at the breakdown. It is not a recipe for spectator satisfaction.

As the British press aptly put it, England defence coach Mike Ford was reading from rugby's Old Testament when he reacted to Tri Nations statistics by complaining: ''There were three games in the Tri Nations that produced an average of 77 points and that, for me, isn't Test rugby.''

Hall of Fame honours Scottish icons

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/05/2010

A group of Scottish rugby heroes had their legendary status officially stamped at Murrayfield last night - and The Scotsman's David Ferguson was there too.

"Gavin Hastings was revealed as the winner of the public vote for the player of the 1990s, edging out his brother Scott, Grand Slam skipper David Sole, Alan Tait and scrum-halves Gary Armstrong and Bryan Redpath, while Finlay Calder, the British and Irish Lions captain of 1989 and a key member of the 1990 team was chosen as the player of the 'Eighties'.

The judging panel, chaired by John Jeffrey, and featuring his fellow former Scotland caps Sir Ian McGeechan, Norman Mair, Chris Rea and John Beattie, had stated in recent weeks that the task of choosing the first inductees had been a hugely difficult one, especially with a rule having been agreed that no-one currently playing or employed by the SRU could be yet honoured.

That ruled out a number of players in the 2000 'Noughties' decade, and so the judges opted to launch that particular era by recognising McGeechan due to the fact that he ended his involvement with Scottish rugby in 2005 and received his knighthood at the end of the decade."

Can Gear put England in reverse?

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/05/2010

Writing in The Independent, Chris Hewett analyses the All Blacks line-up that will face England at Twickenham.

"On the face of it, Graham Henry was in high good humour as he named his New Zealand side for tomorrow's set-to with England at Twickenham, delivering his wisecracks with a rat-a-tat rhythm that Jackie Mason himself might have admired. "A lot of people have been pressing us to play Hosea Gear," he said when asked about the Maori wing's promotion to the starting line-up. "My wife has been telling me to pick him; even my mother asked me why he wasn't in the team. Finally, I've bent to the pressure. It's a pain in the arse, this job."

It was an easy joke for the All Blacks coach to make, given that Gear is anything but a laughing matter as far as the English are concerned. (The man from Gisborne scored three tries in inspiring the Maori to a famous victory over the red-rose tourists in Napier last June, all of them jaw-dropping.) Henry was equally jolly at the prospect of Sonny Bill Williams making his Test debut at centre. "When I spoke to him while he was playing in France with Toulon, he told me he would come back to New Zealand and go after the All Black jersey only if he thought he was good enough," he said of the celebrated rugby league international. The accompanying smile ensured that the obvious follow-up question went unasked."

How are the World Cup contenders shaping up?

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/05/2010

With less than a year to go until New Zealand 2011, Shaun Edwards offers his take on the world's 10 best teams. Check out his thoughts in The Guardian.

"Cast your minds back a year to some advice about what you might do with any spare fiver you had knocking about. Back then you could have got Australia at 10-1 to win the World Cup. Today it's 4-1. That win in Hong Kong last weekend might not have knocked the All Blacks off the top spot in the world rankings organised by the international board, or with the bookies, but I bet it set alarm bells ringing in Wellington and Auckland because while Australia always seem to go to World Cups nearing peak form, New Zealand have a habit of leaving their best behind.

"... New Zealand - World ranking 1 World Cup odds 8-11

Racing favourites and rightly so. After 15 successive wins you shouldn't suffer too heavily because the side you've beaten 10 times on the bounce edges a game you should have won. That said, Hong Kong and the Australia victory once again highlighted the All Blacks' reliance on Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. With Carter off the pitch, they shipped 12 points in 13 minutes and with memories of 2007, Cardiff and France still fresh in the memory, the whole of New Zealand will be praying that their fly-half and the captain both stay fit."

November 4, 2010

Look further afield

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/04/2010

Ireland take on South Africa on Saturday © Getty Images

Paul Rees draws the attention of British papers to the fact that there are three games this weekend, not one, in The Guardian.

"A month of international rugby in Europe starts this weekend, although given the nature of media coverage these days you could be forgiven for thinking it was all about England, starting with New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon.

"Wales face Australia in Cardiff at the same time, followed by Ireland and South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. At least Twickenham will be full: the grand slam winners in 2008 and 2009, Wales and Ireland respectively, ravaged by the recession, will have thousands of tickets unsold.

"Wales have saturated the international market in recent years, arranging an extra Test outside the official window in November as well as June. They need to pay for a deal they reached with their four regions over player release, but the estimated crowd for the Wallabies, in what should be, in terms of attacking intent, the game of the day is 20,000 below capacity."

A no-win situation

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/04/2010

David Kelly looks at the problems facing Peter De Villiers prior to South Africa's arrival in Dublin in The Irish Independent.

"Even when he's winning, it seems like he's losing. As South Africa's permanently embattled coach Peter de Villiers pitches up in Dublin today, it brings to mind the old line from Tommie Smith during the build-up to his emotional Mexico Olympics podium protest.

"If I do something good, then I'm an American, but if I do something bad then I am a Negro," Tommie said.

"Ever since 53-year-old De Villiers was charged with leading South Africa's rugby fortunes nearly three years ago, his reign has been viewed largely through the prism of his country's thinly veiled difficulties in adjusting to life beyond apartheid."

History repeating

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/04/2010

Gavin Rich debates the wisdom in the Springboks fielding players out of position against Ireland on Supersport.

"The bad news is that history appears to be repeating itself in a way that can hardly be described as positive for the Springboks ahead of their date with Ireland in Dublin on Saturday.

"As in 2006, injuries have forced changes in some areas, and as was the case four years ago, it appears that the coaches are set to field players out of position in this crucial first match of a four-test tour.

"And if the crowd that goes to Lansdowne Road on Saturday to celebrate the opening of the new Aviva Stadium get a sense of dejavu, it would be understandable."

The best combo?

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/04/2010

Toby Robson debates the merits and drawbacks of a Ma'a Nonu-Sonny Bill Williams midfield for the All Blacks in The Dominion Post.

"Power is an alluring force, but the All Blacks must be careful not to tip the balance too far in their search for game breakers.

"The sight of Ma'a Nonu and Sonny-Bill Williams running together in the midfield at training yesterday was awe-inspiring. Pity the opponent who has to face up to these 100kg-plus balls of pace and muscle was the thought on every onlooker's mind.

"The potential is enormous. If the pair is selected to play England, Dan Carter will have at his disposal two of the most powerful athletes in the game. The theory is sound, but it is no guarantee to success."

Handled with aplomb

Posted by Huw Baines on 11/04/2010

Wayne Smith hails the maturity of Wallabies midfielder Matt Giteau following his decision to hand over kicking duties to James O'Connor on The Australian.

"It's always a test of character when the older generation gives way to the new, but Matt Giteau handled it with aplomb yesterday.

"It would have been no easy thing for him to relinquish the goalkicking for Australia. He has always relished the singular, solitary nature of that job, the pressure that goes with it and, let's be honest, the knowledge that all eyes are upon him.

"Most players shrink from that harsh spotlight, content to share in the collective praise when things go right, relieved to be taking on only a portion of the blame when they don't, but that has never been Giteau's way. Precocious right from the start, playing Test football before he had even made his Super 14 debut, he has always been the star of the show."

November 3, 2010

All Black selectors plotting a mysterious path

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/03/2010

Will New Zealand head coach Graham Henry call for some replacements next week? © Getty Images

Writing in the New Zealand Herald, Wynne Grey is puzzled by the behaviour of the All Blacks' coaching team.

"Unusual. How else do you describe the All Blacks' decision to stick with their diminished numbers for their latest tilt at the Grand Slam?

Especially when one of their original wing choices, Sitiveni Sivivatu, fell over before his warrant of fitness assessment in Waikato's semi-final of the ITM Cup.

When Cory Jane was wounded in the Hong Kong test the All Blacks were down to 28 fit players and just a couple of wings, Hosea Gear and Joe Rokocoko. Yet this All Black selection group, with its history of taking bloated squads on the end of year trips to Europe, has not called for any replacement."

O'Driscoll pleads but game will not sell out

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/03/2010

On the day that Irish Rugby Football Union chief executive Philip Browne acknowledged that Saturday's Test against South Africa would not be a sell-out, Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll stressed the importance of playing in front of full houses. The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly writes.

"The IRFU's ticketing policy has caused widespread anger and the lack of demand for the November Internationals forced the Union into a climb-down on their sales policy this week, following concerted pressure from the clubs.

"I think it's fair to say we're not going to have a capacity crowd at the opening match on Saturday," said Browne yesterday. "We've put our hands up. We have made a mistake relating to our ticketing strategy."

Not being able to fill the new Aviva Stadium, which has a capacity of just over 50,000, against the world champions is an embarrassing situation for the IRFU given that 75,000 attended last year's fixture at Croke Park. And O'Driscoll, who was yesterday named in the side to face the Springboks after recovering from a hamstring injury, stressed the importance of playing in front of capacity attendances.

"We want, as a team, to be playing in front of as many people as we possibly can," said the Ireland captain.

"We want to be supported by packed houses because that's what you get your buzz from. They can be a worth a score to you at vital times but we're certainly not going to get caught up in the ins and outs of what has been going on with the ticket affair."

All Blacks consider gigantic midfield

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/03/2010

Ma'a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams appear set to form the largest and most powerful midfield Test pairing the All Blacks have seen in their grand slam opener against England. The Sydney Morning Herald's Tony Robson reports.

"The Nonu-Williams combination was a fearsome sight at the Latymer School on Tuesday where they were paired together for the duration of a long and physical training session. Leading into the Twickenham Test, it seems the All Blacks selectors are considering changes to the side that started the 26-24 loss to Australia in Hong Kong. Hosea Gear is likely to come on to the left wing for Cory Jane.

Alby Mathewson shared time with Jimmy Cowan at halfback, and might come in for his first Test start after two brief appearances off the bench, while Sam Whitelock is pushing hard for a well-deserved start in the forward pack in place of Tom Donnelly.

The biggest talking point, however, is clearly what role Williams will play and whether he will be named as a starter or on the bench when the side is named on Thursday.

At 1.91 metres and 108 kilograms, Williams is a daunting figure in the backs, and alongside Nonu, 1.82m and 104kg, he creates a mammoth midfield. In fact, it would be a gigantic back line if Gear, another 100kg of muscle-bound power, gets his third Test cap and Joe Rokocoko, who weighs in at 104kg, is on the other wing."

Scots roots of new South Africa sensation

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/03/2010

When one of South Africa's hottest new talents Patrick Lambie takes his bow on his first UK tour, there will be many watching on from Scotland wondering "what if". The Scotsman's David Ferguson writes.

"Lambie is one of seven uncapped players in South Africa's 30-man squad, and there is a good chance he may feature in the Murrayfield international.

Former Scotland captain Peter "PC" Brown, who led Scotland to the only back-to-back wins over England inside eight days, in 1971, is one person hoping that is the case, as he is a relation.

"We are all very excited," he told The Scotsman. "Another branch of the family has come good! We are very pleased and proud to see another member of the family doing well in rugby. If only we had persuaded him to play for Scotland."

Lambie has two Scottish grandparents, a grandfather from England who also played for England, and a grandmother from South Africa. His Scottish great-grandmother Don Lambie (nee Bell) was Peter's grandmother's sister.

Patrick's great-grandfather Sammy Lambie was also pretty well known in Ayr as he owned a chip shop around the corner from Somerset Park."

Referee has crucial role at Twickenham

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/03/2010

Writing in The Independent, Peter Bills hints that referee Romain Poite could be a firework waiting to go off when England play New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday.

"England’s worry centres around their fear that Poite, like so many French referees this season, will allow many of the old tricks and skulduggery at the breakdown. Justifiably, they point to the chaos on show at most of the French Top 14 matches this season where players have been able to get away with either killing or slowing down the ball at the breakdown, or even diving over the top in many cases without sanction.

"Watching French club rugby this season has been like finding yourself in a time capsule. Did the game really change? Were new law interpretations really brought in to improve and speed up the play? Did not the All Blacks in particular, but also Australia, play some dazzling, attacking rugby in this year’s Tri-Nations under law interpretations in which almost instant re-cycling of the loose ball at the breakdown was paramount? If you have watched much French rugby, you will have concluded that all the above was a mere dream, an illusion, a fantasy."

The original All Blacks

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/03/2010

New Zealand's arrival for the autumn internationals prompts thoughts of their trail-blazing tour of Britain in 1905 for The Guardian's Frank Keating.

"Those New Zealand pioneers in 1905 had left Wellington aboard the liner Rimutaka on 30 July and 42 days later had been greeted at Plymouth dockside by the RFU secretary, Rowland Hill. Within a week they were facing Devon at Exeter's County Ground. It remains in dispute whether the Daily Mail first christened them All Blacks through their original all-black uniform or because of their novel "all-court" style of 15-man running play and the term "all backs" was transposed to "blacks" by a Fleet Street telephonist.

For sure, however, every schoolboy (of my generation anyway) knows when at teatime on 16 September the final score – Devon 4 New Zealand 55 – was received by the London sports news agency, the unbelieving subeditor confidently presumed a transmission error and reversed the result to Devon 55 New Zealand 4."

November 2, 2010

Australia's win over New Zealand shows fortune favours the brave

Posted by Mark Doyle on 11/02/2010

Australia's players celebrate their dramatic victory over the All Blacks in Hong Kong © Getty Images

Mick Cleary of the Daily Telegraph argues that rugby's new zeitgeist is, 'Bold is in, caution is out.'

"Wimps will not prosper. Teams who sit back, play the percentages and wait for mistakes will be left in the slipstream of the turbocharged southern superpowers. That was the clear message coming from Hong Kong on Saturday as the Wallabies managed to pockmark the armour of the seemingly dent-proof All Blacks.

"It may have taken a nerveless conversion from baby-faced Australian wing James O’Connor, the last act of a breathless game, to seal the 26-24 win but it was as if he had landed his boot in New Zealand’s nether regions so deflating was the outcome for Kiwis the world over.

"Australia deserved their moment of exultation (their first victory against the All Blacks in 11 Tests) for the simple reason that they refused to wither and fade. They came, and they came again, chancing their arm with slick, fast and often unstructured rugby."

Appetite for destruction!

Posted by Mark Doyle on 11/02/2010

England's abrasive lock Courtney Lawes tells the Daily Mail that he is eagerly awaiting this weekend's visit of the All Blacks.

"No fear. Two small words, one massive meaning. Courtney Lawes says it softly, in a matter-of-fact way, as if it simply would not occur to him to worry about the All Blacks. He is too busy spreading fear to feel it.

"Today, the Northampton lock will be named by Martin Johnson in England's starting XV to face New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday. He is 21 and this is only his third Test appearance, but he has already made a name for himself.

"Lawes (below) is a prototype modern forward blessed with athleticism, speed and assured handling, but it's the tackling that he is famed for, particularly from re-starts and dropouts. He is like a heat-seeking missile - a one-man weapon of mass destruction."

Kidney has little to fear against struggling Boks

Posted by Mark Doyle on 11/02/2010

In his column in the Irish Independent, former Ireland fly-half Tony Ward argues that while the Springboks are beatable, Australia and New Zealand could cause the northern hemisphere's finest all sorts of problems this month.

"Judging by Saturday's pulsating clash between Australia and New Zealand in Hong Kong, the northern hemisphere teams are in for a rough ride in the coming weeks.

"If the Wallabies and the All Blacks can repeat the unshackled, incessant attacking rugby they produced in the Far East, then they are going to be extremely tough for any European side to live with.

"Much will depend on a consistent standard of refereeing but, if Alain Rolland's performance last Saturday is to be the yardstick, then we are in for a fascinating pre-World Cup clash of the hemispheres over the next few weeks."

Not one for passing up career chance

Posted by Mark Doyle on 11/02/2010

In an interview with the Irish Times, Leinster scrum-half Eoin Reddan talks about competition for places at provincial and international level.

"A vehement, wholehearted Eoin Reddan can sometimes present an intense public side when he speaks about his highly pressurised job.

"The Leinster and Ireland scrumhalf has been subject for most of his career to the philosophy of modern coaching, one that ensures no player should feel at all comfortable in his position. Reddan’s is a life of, work, rest and play and weekly judgment."

November 1, 2010

Rugby needed this result

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/01/2010

Australia's James O'Connor dives over to score a crucial score in Hong Kong © Getty Images

Australia's victory over New Zealand in Hong Kong was a good thing on many levels according to the New Zealand Herald's Chris Rattue.

"Rugby as a whole needed this result. More specifically, battling Aussie rugby was crying out for victory. A loss will even do the All Blacks good, giving them renewed vigour and desperation, plus a clearer picture of where they are straying if these coaches are capable of a little humility.

Those of us who have extolled the brilliance of Robbie Deans' coaching will feel vindicated again after periods of doubt.

Blame for the defeat lies firmly with Graham Henry, who may end up sinking through a belief he can walk on water."

Clock ticking for Ireland

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/01/2010

Writing in the Irish Independent, David Kelly previews Ireland's autumn campaign.

"Today officially marks the first day of winter. The recurring mild temperatures that continue to tip into the teens are refusing to send a bitter chill down Declan Kidney's spine.

It is only a year since we all gathered around the still-glowing, rose-cheeked Corkman after the previous season's weighty deliverance of expectation in the form of a belated Grand Slam triumph.

Success was not his alone, of course, but was undeniably shaped in his image and forged through his good nature and the ability to confer responsibility and authority with a most delicate confection of delegation and deference, through the prism of players and coaches alike.

Twelve months on, the world still turns but his world is, it seems, in a state of flux not seen since he first met with this group of Irish players and found himself scooping their depressed confidence from the floor in the late autumn of 2008."

A victory for the true believers

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/01/2010

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Greg Growden reflects on Australia's thrilling victory over New Zealand in Hong Kong.

"Arm in arm, the Wallabies team stood as one near the halfway line, willing over a goal kick that would provide reward after months of toil. And James O'Connor, the youngest player in the Wallabies touring squad, was up to it.

He struck the conversion attempt of his own try perfectly and after 26 months and 10 straight trans-Tasman losses, the Wallabies discovered the benefits of sticking solid because at last they could boast a victory over the All Blacks.

As in Bloemfontein, when Kurtley Beale ended a 47-year drought on the South African highveld with a last-minute penalty goal, the Wallabies used Hong Kong Stadium to prove they can also overhaul the world's best in the final seconds of a Test. By ending New Zealand's 15 Test unbeaten streak with a dramatic 26-24 win, the Wallabies will enjoy an enormous boost in confidence and self-belief."

England up against it

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/01/2010

Australia’s 26-24 win against New Zealand shows how tough it will be for Martin Johnson's side this month - the Daily Telegraph's Brian Moore writes.

"What the match, which Australia won 26-24, also demonstrated was that the target set for Martin Johnson's England team of a minimum of two wins from the forthcoming autumn internationals against those two countries plus South Africa and Samoa is far from the certainty it ought to be, given the cycles reached in rugby in the conflicting hemispheres.

There is nothing unacceptable about the minimum set; after two years in charge and entering the final preparation stage for the World Cup, Johnson is being treated gently. If this modest goal is not reached the portents for England progressing beyond the World Cup quarter-finals are not auspicious.

There are few supporters who do not desire success but, equally, there are few who can see the way in which the required victories will be fashioned.

Whenever words such as passion, intensity and commitment are summoned as areas in which a team can prevail, you know that the users of such generalities have not identified the specifics by which wins will be achieved."

Wales have ability to stop the Wallabies

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/01/2010

After Australia’s stunning win against New Zealand in Hong Kong on Saturday, how worried should Wales be about facing the Wallabies this Saturday? The Western Mail's Delme Parfiff writes.

"Leaf through some sections of the self-congratulatory Australian press yesterday and you’d be forgiven for concluding Wales may as well not bother turning up at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.

"If you did happen to go online and read any of it, the easiest assumption to make was that, as the Wallabies were always going to pose an almighty threat anyway, now, after their 26-24 defeat of New Zealand in Hong Kong at the weekend, surely it’s a mere damage limitation exercise for Warren Gatland’s troops in five days time.

"Well, if you have arrived at that thought, you are wrong."

Six Nations receive chilling warning

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/01/2010

Australia's win over the All Blacks made the northern nations' task in the autumn internationals look much, much harder. The Guardian's Rob Kitson writes.

"The trouble with southern-hemisphere teams is that they never stand still. England's rugby players awoke on Saturday morning feeling pretty good about themselves after a productive week's training, cautiously optimistic about what might lie ahead. And now? Let's just say that Australia's breathless 26-24 victory over New Zealand in Hong Kong has not so much raised the bar as pole-vaulted the autumn visitors into a different league.

It was less the result that will bother Martin Johnson as the nature of the game. The All Blacks never need a second invitation to pile into the old country, although the loss of their 15-Test unbeaten record will certainly sting a bit. Australia also have every incentive to stick it to the Poms on Saturday week. No, it was the pace and intensity of the contest which will have struck Johnson straight between those famous brows. If both touring sides keep that up at Twickenham, it could be a chastening fortnight.

This is not to say that England – or Wales, Scotland and Ireland – should abandon all hope and prepare for ritual floggings over the next month. There is every reason to believe that the English, in particular, are in better shape than 12 months ago. The November weather and softer pitches are also a frequent leveller. But what was evident in Hong Kong is that the Wallabies and the All Blacks are committed to making a bold statement, 10 months out from the World Cup. Get it right now, Graham Henry and Robbie Deans are urging, and the benefits will be felt throughout 2011."

Rumba and tango or rough and tumble

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/01/2010

Writing in The Independent, Dom Joly takes a light-hearted look at Gavin Henson's plans to resurrect his rugby career.

"Having eavesdropped on his telephone calls for a couple of days, I'm not convinced he's fully motivated for a return to the rough and tumble yet.


"Gavin, mate?"

"Who's that?"

"It's Warren."

"Warren... Warren Beatty?"

"No, you big gullah, Warren Gatland – the coach of your national rugby team... Warren Beatty, you big poof, why would Warren Beatty be ringing you?"

"Oh, I've just written a musical of the film Shampoo, you know, the one with Julie Christie in the Seventies... I really want to play Beatty."

"Whoaa... rewind. You've written a flaming musical?"

"Well, Charlotte did most of it, like... but I gave all the songs their names."

"Well, I thought you were going to Saracens, not poncing about in a musical."

"I've got various interests, rugby is just one facet of that. I love musicals, dancing, sleeping in the Arctic, hair-care products, tanning salons..."

"All right, I get the picture. I've got the whole nation on my back telling me that I've got to put you in the national squad and you're behaving like Judy Garland on ecstasy. For Christ's sake, Gav, get a grip. Start doing what you're good at, not all this poncy nonsense. Tell you what, why don't you pop down and join the boys for a training session next weekend?"

"Weekends are really bad for me because of Strictly, Warren."

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