Wednesday, 23 June 2010

It's Over.

The final tour game for England took place today, while the country obsessed over the football, my only real interest was in this game against this historic team. The Maori team represent more than just a rugby symbol; they are a proud and significant part of New Zealand as a country. Brand “All Blacks” may be the ultimate rugby team but the Maori are the basis on which rugby in New Zealand was built. I would say in many ways they are the front line of attack, a team of test quality. They are often talked about as the All Blacks second team but I think that does them a great disservice. Yes the names may be the same at times but this is a team based on its own principles and ancestry. If anything the All Blacks are the offspring.

England had in its team it’s very own Maori in the form of Dan Ward-Smith only on the bench but hailing from New Zealand and with Maori heritage, I am sure he made his team aware of the importance of the fixture to the opposition. Moving to the game, England carried on where they left off and opened up their rugby based on a solid forward foundation, scrum and lineout functioned well and let’s face it these are the parts of the England team that rarely fail to do that. It’s just everything else that lets us down and lets other teams in. Let’s not be under any illusion the rugby played by the Southern hemisphere is instinctive rugby, it is based on a solid game plan; don’t get me wrong, but when things happen outside of that game plan. The Players of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and of course the Maori react 2 or 3 seconds quicker all the time. They hit rucks quicker, they run quicker, their brains seem to be tuned to a different frequency than those in the North; A rugby frequency that we have to find in order to beat these teams. The Maori today were on the ropes, but always looked dangerous if that makes sense? When they break they flood the opposition with attacking opportunities that stand defences up. Indecision in defence kills. Today Brad Barrit the South African born Saracens centre was clearly caught out by the defensive system and never put trust in his outside men to make the tackles. This can be forgiven because he was new in the set up. What we must do is persevere with him and ease the likes of Tindal onto pastures new. This was a great game and the Maori were well deserved winners, it could have swung on one or two important moments but it was rugby at its best. It was commitment and passion from both teams and Credit to Chris Robshaw who must be knocking on the door for a test spot. I have to also say, Hosea Gear has to be doing something wrong not to be being picked for the All Blacks. This guy was a force of nature and everywhere. It was one of the stand out performances of the summer tests in my opinion, I hope for his sake Graham Henry in the crowd thought the same.
Hosea Gear

I have put the Maori on a pedestal in my opening paragraph but I want to make it clear that England should have beaten them. The most heavily financed and resourced team in the world game should be able to beat an invitational side. I am not going to pretend otherwise. But the outlook from this tour is good. We have seen many players come into their own and stand up. The future is bright and it is exciting but we walk towards it with trepidation, how far off reverting to the way we played the first Aussie test are we? England has always been pragmatic “winning ugly” was the motto. I think that has to change. We have a solid foundation in out forwards. We still need to shuffle the back row a little I think. But the foundation is there to play some great rugby and rugby that will not only entertain the crowds but challenge the oppositions.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Wales Fails, England Changes and Scotland Grow.

(Carter put in a Phenomenal  performance) 

Here we go. Well I have to say it’s been an exciting rugby day. My alarm was set for 7.30am so I was ready for the big game, Wales V New Zealand. If you want proof of the high intensity that rugby is played at in the South, this was the game. Wales it has to be said were on fire in the first half, even though they went in 15 – 9 down, they had produced some great pressure. Also creating opportunities for themselves to get points, however if you can only do it for 40 minutes then the second half battering they took is all that will happen. The second half of rugby the All Blacks produced was devastating, clinical and soul destroying if you happen to be Welsh. Carter, Rokocoko and McCaw were rampant and the Welsh were reduced to a shambles they didn’t help with shocking tackling, or lack of it, for 2 of the try’s. This was a statement of intent from New Zealand and I am not sure how many teams can stand up to it. It would be wrong of me to dismiss Wales here; they did do some great stuff. Ryan Jones looked like the player we saw on the Lions in 2005 and all round they were filled with endeavour. The truth is though pride and endeavour simply are not enough at the top level it has to be more than that. Wales simply did not look fit enough for 80 mins of top flight rugby a t this tempo and I don’t know how you cure that.

Right here we go……..England. I have to start with a Private Eye type apology. Contrary to what you may have read on this blog about England being a shower of incompetent buffoons they are actually a well-coached and well drilled team brimming with talent……Ok humble pie over.

I had no expectation here, yet I did feel England could win. They did everything that we wanted them to do. They put the ball through the hands; Hape and Tindal combined well and pressured the Aussies. Ben Foden ran some great ball in. Most importantly when they kicked it was accurate. The pack worked its socks off and the gem of a player, Ben Young’s, announced himself on the international stage with a bang. He out shone the much vaunted Will Genia giving England the quick ball they have failed to produce for a long time. There was edge to this game and credit has to go to Australia’s forwards for the work they must have done last week, because the pack that got shunted around last week held itself up to great effect. They stood their ground against the bullying England scrum and it was a joy to see. Now before we get carried away by this win let’s put some perspective on it. Australia could easily have won this game had Giteau not been so inaccurate with the boot. It’s hard on the man who scores all 20 of Australia’s points, including 2 trys, to be the man who misses the ones to win, but that is rugby I’m afraid. England may have started something here. I hope they have but the hard work has to continue as we saw in the wales game this is a tough place to play and England have to keep improving. They face the Māori next week and they will need no motivation to turn over an England team. Boyed by a great performance over Ireland they are a real threat. I don’t think you can underestimate the positives of a win against the Maori next week. It will be seen as the most successful summer tour for 8 years. For now let’s celebrate the win because boy did we need it.

PS. An interesting observation I have of this fixture, England has only won 3 times in Australia and in each occasion Nathan Sharpe has played.

Italy contested the Springboks very well down in South Africa and they could easily have rolled over to this powerful side. Parisse again showed his world class and people really do have to take Italy seriously. England always gets criticized for stuttering against Italy but they are a tough side who grind it out in the forwards and make every game tough.

In closing I have to mention Scotland. Again I couldn’t watch the game which I think is a shambles, but two wins in Argentina against a nearly full strength Pumas side cannot be underestimated. This was a team possessing Gonzalo Tiesi, Felipe Contepomi, Rodrigo Roncero,Mario Ledesma, Martin Scelzo, Patricio Albacete,Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe

and replacements like Leicester Ayerza. This was without doubt a world class pack and some great backs, playing at home. This was a win that sees the end of a long season and one I should imagine sets Scotland on a good footing for the next season. I hope things to continue to improve for Scotland because this series should not be a one off. Maybe next year someone will broadcast it!

Friday, 18 June 2010

Looking forward!

By the time this is posted we will know the result of the first game of the weekend, which is New Zealand Maori v Ireland. I really don’t envy Ireland with this game the Maori are a force which takes its place very seriously. Anyone who saw their victory over the British and Irish Lions in 2005 will know the power of this team. The pride of playing for this historic team for many New Zealanders is as important as playing for the All Blacks themselves. They are steeped in historical significance. ‘Pride in the jersey’ is more than kissing the badge after scoring. This is about the great names that have gone before, the Maori pride in its ancestry and not forgetting its tough as teak players. If Ireland succeed against them, it will be a significant victory, this is no weak Barbarians team this has in its midst Luke McAllister, Hosea Gear, Stephen Brett, Liam Messam and Cory Flynn this is not a team short of options or talent. Set piece will be key for Ireland, because I think this is the only place they will contain this side.

What am I looking forward to most this weekend is seeing Wales in action against New Zealand. One of my personal, all time, favourite games of rugby; was the encounter between these two in the Rugby World Cup in 2003. This week’s hosts won with a massive score line of 53-37 with 12 trys between them. Though the final score doesn’t do them justice, the Welsh really turned the screw on the All Blacks and were in the lead 37-33 just after half time. That Welsh team then ran out of puff and the All Blacks were jolted into action. I actually think the Welsh team that won the Grand Slam in 2008 would possibly have taken that game, but it did see the resurgence of the Welsh and only 2 years later they lifted their 1st Grand Slam in 27 years. So what of this weekend’s contest? I am not sure if Wales can pull it off. This New Zealand team is smart. They will have done their homework on the threat that Jamie Roberts possess and they will be all too aware of the giant half back Mike Phillips. He, if anyone, has the potential to upset the All Blacks, physical, niggling and sharp, on form he could spark this team. The only thing is when you wind the All Blacks up, they always seem to end up getting angry and scoring even more freely. Some teams punch and kick people, the All Blacks take thier aggresion out on the scoreboard. Stephen Jones we know is as dependable as they come, with good ball he can put Wales in the right place to play rugby. ‘With good ball’ is the key here, anytime Ireland looked like getting that it was quickly destroyed by the All Blacks last week. That will be the problem facing Wales. For them to win their forwards have to play their best rugby faultlessly for 80 minutes I am not sure if they can do that. Lee Halfpenny and Byrne at the back give them an attacking threat, missing the little wizard feet of Shane Williams is a tough one though. The biggest problem Wales face is the turnover threat of the All Blacks. To overcome it is simple, all you have to do is, not knock on, make any errors or lose possession...........easy.
(Will they be on their knees this week?)

Ok now onto England......Do I have to?? Well ok, after slating the treatment of Lawes and Barrit this week, Lawes starts on Saturday and Barrit is being flown in. I would like to claim Martin read my blog and saw the error of his ways. Joking aside, I am very pleased to see Lawes in the team but he has been given some hype. We are supposed to expect a smash tackling machine, that runs like wrecking ball through opposition. I don’t think we will see this but I am looking forward to seeing him in action. Ben Young’s also comes in to replace the ponderously slow ball merchant of Danny Care. His little cameo last week gave England some go forward and they looked good. No change in the centre where the white wall of Tindall and Hape will be in action. I am hoping the wall stays up this week and doesn’t fall over so easily. Maybe it would be nice if the wall did a bit of ball carrying itself...........actually this is ridiculous imagery, so I am going to stop now. In short I really want to see Hape and Tindall do more than defend. Let’s see them put this Aussie midfield under some pressure. I really believe England can win, but to do it they have to pass the ball about and put some pace on it. 1 out rugby and pick and go stuff, is not going to challenge any defence anywhere. Quick ball is all that matters. I really want to see how Quiad Copper copes under pressure to, I don’t know why but he looks to me like he has the potential to blow up when things are not going well. I may be wrong.

I can’t work out why Scotland is not on TV maybe the BBC is showing them and I am showing my clear ignorance. Every year I see the Scots as a threat and against England they usually are, it’s the rest they seem to struggle to motivate themselves to beat. Good luck to them on Saturday two wins in Argentina would make their tour the most successful of all the home nations........

Edit: New Zealand Maori 31 Ireland 28

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Andy Ripley

“Dare we hope? We dare. Can we hope? We can. Should we hope? We must, because to do otherwise is to waste the most precious of gifts, given so freely by God to all of us. So when we do die, it will be with hope and it will be easy and our hearts will not be broken.” These are the words of Andy Ripley in the forward to his book ‘Ripley’s World’

Great man and will be sadley missed.

What Goes on Tour?

In the amateur game, rugby tours are about drinking alcohol and avoiding drinking bodily fluids belonging to someone else. You arrive at your destination battered from a long journey and an awful lot of drinking put on your one clean shirt and head to the town’s hotspots. Then for a long weekend you proceed to get pissed, argue, split into warring factions and then wish you had never come away. In the midst of it you probably have to play some form of rugby which no one is really in the mood for and certainly not in any condition for. Then on the journey home you wish you could do it again. You get home and a little piece of you misses those irritating idiots you have shared a long weekend with.
(the kids with dad)

I have no idea if anything like that goes on in the professional era. They face many different challenges, though I am sure they have the warring factions and the arguments. They also find themselves in a place where people know them and probably want to see them lose. They travel around the world on the back of a 13 month season in the case of the Northern Hemisphere following Lions tours. Then they have to talk up their chances of beating people they have either never beaten in 60 years and if they have it was once in 148 meetings. We the fans think “yes, this is the year” blinded by our love of the teams. In truth, we here in England, just have not found a way to consistently perform at the top level, well not since 2003. I think it comes down to one thing........ Youth, and the different attitudes each hemisphere has to it. I am having a hard job justifying this when I think of the aging South African team but bear with me. Australia in particular has the attitude in which they blood their young players on the international stage and let them grow there. Look at Matt Giteau, this man who at 28 is the old head of the Wallaby team was “on debut” in 2002 at Twickenham. He had a nightmare, Jonny Wilkinson smashed him about he kicked badly I think he made more errors in that game than the much pilloried Ian Balshaw did in his whole career. The Aussies though never gave up, they saw a talent, and pursued it. In doing so they have created a true rugby 28! Compare that to the treatment of Danny Cipriani, Matthew Tait, and Courtney Lawes. Now Australia is also bringing in players like Will Genia, Berrick Barnes, James O’Conner, and Quiad Cooper. Guys so young they don’t just need coaches they need nannies to. Australia though is prepared to take risks all these guys have the potential to be better than Giteau and they will flourish under him. Maybe in the long run this attitude will help the much maligned Danny Cipriani in his growth as a player, but would he want to come back to the stifled English approach to rugby?? The All Blacks have a similar attitude; look how they deal with their legends when they find someone to replace them. In England Sean Fitzpatrick would have got his 100 caps because we would have though he deserved them. In New Zealand, they thanked him, shock his hand and sent him to the All Blacks graveyard, or Europe as it is known. They did the same with Tana Umaga and Jerry Collins. Still great players, but they had younger ones in the wings who could carry the mantel, so they forged on, no ceremony just goodbye. Not us, the only thing that keeps Mike Tindall out of England is if his zimmerframe breaks on the way to the ground.

The problem seems to be that we take every game as a must win game and as a result play with a safe, defensive must not lose attitude. Rather than use these tours as a chance to blood people in games where we can see how they perform. In the end they end drafted into important games due to injury and as a result get binned on the back of them. “The tour of Hell” in 1998 saw young players forced to sink or swim as a result of this we found some players who would go on and bring home a world cup. Matt Dawson, Jonny Wilkinson, Josh Lewsey and Phil Vickery all came through this experience better and stronger both physically and mentally.

So whether these tours show us anything I don’t know. Already I am seeing all the attacking flair of Ben Foden being stripped and replaced with kicking machine, assimilated into Borg like English pragmatism. I know one thing I would love to see them go away and do a bit more of what we do in the amateur game, without the accusations of sexual assault obviously, but just enjoy yourselves. We had a kicking ban one year during a game on tour. Maybe that would be the answer. Oh yes and the site of Martin Johnson in the stand with a pink swimming cap on would go down a treat. His great craggy face stretched back like a Californian woman’s following a face lift.........Tour I hate it, where we going next year?

Monday, 14 June 2010

Death of the North......

Ok so the ritual annual humiliation of the Northern Hemispheres best rugby teams started with the poor Irish trying to beat the All Blacks. The Irish decided it was unfair on the All Blacks to play with 15 men so Jamie Heaslip did the honourable thing and tried to knee the head off of Richie McCaw. Now before I add to his humiliation let’s just say anyone who has played the game knows the frustration of try scoring opportunities being squashed by a cynical hand or body. When that same cynical hand belongs to a cynical body and is attached to the cynical head of the most effective cheat in world rugby. The temptation to knee the aforementioned head off of its shoulders is very hard to reign in. However when your actions, could potentially, cost your team an international victory over the one team you have never beaten in you history best to keep your knees to yourself. Now the reality is the All Blacks looked like a team that was never going to be beaten even if Ireland had 17 players on the field. Their pace and power across the park is scary and the list of talent that arrives from nowhere and reduces experienced opposition to shadow chasers is on-going. Graham Henry was bemoaning the disappearance of Kiwi talent abroad for the big buck this week. All I can ask is if this crop of All Blacks is what they are left with then I don’t think they can claim to be scrapping the barrel in fact I am not sure the lid of the barrel has even been removed yet.

We move to the red rose of England, as always the main focus was what happened in Australia in November the 22nd 2003 when Martin Johnson led the most talented group of England players for a decade to a world cup victory. Martin is back but this team is woefully lacking in talent and most importantly direction. Lack of talent might be a strong description, there is talent in England. I am just not sure it is in Australia. So dire was the attacking options of this team they were reduced to keeping the ball in the scrum and waiting for penalties in a way I have never seen before. We are talking about a team being totally in fear of passing the ball out of the scrum because no one knew what to do with it. Well other than kick it away. The England team treated the ball like a dirty bomb and were so desperate to get rid of it at any opportunity I doubt it went through 3 sets of hands twice in the 80 mins. I can’t recall a team looking so uncomfortable in possession in any time in the past. England were devoid of any attacking initiative and more to the point attacking players. Matthew Tait the only England player with an eye for a break and the pace to make it happen continues his benchwarming role. Replaced by the monoliths of Tindall and Hape..........we all know defending is more important than attacking............well there is an argument that defence is vital, but when it doesn’t work which is clearly the case for England then you have to find a way of scoring tries. Compare England’s attitude to turnover ball with that of the Kiwis and you will see where our problems lie. New Zealand turnover ball came from a mistake by the Ireland hooker their instinct and attitude is to move the ball through the hands quickly away from the point of the turnover. They know the defence will not be in place and this will give them an attacking, if not, try scoring opportunity. England turnover ball is passed back to a terrified number 10 who quickly kicks it back to the opposition as if it is unfair to try something so audacious! It is this simple attitude to the ball that suggests something is deeply flawed in the England set up. So afraid of making mistakes the English seem intent on never being in a position to do so. What is most disappointing is that when you have a scrum that is in such a dominant position, which is unusual at international level. What danger is there in putting the ball through the hands and trying to stretch the opposition? If you knock on, you then have the potential for a turnover or a penalty. Too much talking is done by England and not enough seems to actually be happening. It has to change or people have to be made accountable.

Finally I want to talk about France. This was the great blue hope of the northern hemisphere. This was a team with all the potential to take South Africa apart and show the world the New France disciplined, direct and smart. A 42-17 loss at the end suggested maybe it was just the rest of Europe being so bad that was the reason this French team had looked so good in the last year. On the back of a long Lions tour were France in possession of the emperor’s new clothes? To suggest it was all Frances poor play does not give enough credit to the Boks. Every game I am convinced this time someone will tame the green machine. That their try’s are more bad defence than good attack and I am finally forced to admit this Springbok team is everything its results have suggested and more. Filled with physicality and pace once they start to go forward a line of Sherman tanks would struggle to hold them back. Their back row options are phenomenal, if the exceptionally quick Spies is not there they can replace him with the exceptionally quick Konkowski failing in the absence of the sublime John smith they have the power house of François Louw. Then the ongoing Brussow and Burger admittedly the former is currently out with a long term injury but I am sure there are at least 6 capable replacements currently the incredible talent of Dewald Potgieter is filling in. Even Bakkies Botha is no longer missed in this team; then again there are no shortages of 6ft 6”+ aggressive South Africans to fill that role. Whether they can find a replacement for his long term partner in crime Victor Mayfield is another question. On the weekend form the Boks seem to be the only team with the ability to withstand the All Blacks all court game. Australia as good as they are in attack are fundamentally flawed in the forwards. Against the powerhouses of Black and Green I can’t see them being able to contain these two who certainly won’t be as paralysed by the sight of the ball as England were.

I should mention Scotland’s commendable win against Argentina however I was unable to see this game but any victory against Argentina on their home soil should not be underestimated.