Thursday, 29 March 2018

Not Guilty

I've refrained, so far, from commenting on the rape trial of Ulster and Ireland players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, the matter being sub judice after all.

Now that the Not Guilty verdicts are in, however, I'm not quite sure what to make of it.

Clearly there was insufficient evidence to convict, but equally there was obviously enough to bring charges and the fact that the trial lasted eight-and-a-half weeks suggests that there was certainly a case to answer.

However you look at it, the behaviour of Jackson and Olding (and the other other men charged in connection with the incident) doesn't look great and quite rightly the players remain relieved of all duties until a review into the incident by IRFU and Ulster Rugby is concluded.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Elephant in the Room

It appears that next month's Professional Game Board meeting at Twickenham will consider an RFU proposal to introduce a play-off in May 2019 between the bottom team in the Premiership and the top team in the Championship, with the winner being guaranteed a place in the Premiership for 5 years.

During that period there would be no relegation - thus allowing Premiership clubs a degree of financial stability. Of course, the ramifications for the losing team in the play-off would be huge - no prospect promotion to the Premiership for 5 years would make attracting sponsors, backers and players extremely challenging and I guess there will consequently be an inevitable widening of the commercial gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Although that does seem a little harsh - and the likes of London Irish are probably more than a tad concerned at the prospect - ultimately something had to be done to address the fact that (as I've stated on more than one occasion) that there simply isn't enough money in club rugby in England to sustain 2 fully professional leagues of 12 teams.

Whether this proposed solution is the right solution is debatable and I would have thought that it can't be beyond the wit of man to devise a format to accommodate all of those teams who have the structure and financial wherewithal to operate successfully as a professional rugby club.

That said, at least it looks as if this particular elephant in the room is finally being addressed.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz


As we're on the subject of try celebrations, I have to say I was very amused by how Maro Itoje celebrated his try against Harlequins at the weekend by feigning being asleep - in reference to the claims by various scribes (including yours truly) that he needed a rest.

Whilst admittedly Itoje's try-scoring performance against Quins was full of energy, it does not (in my humble opinion) detract from the argument that his workload over the past 18 months has been somewhat excessive and that, once the season is done and dusted, he should be allowed to spend a prolonged period on a beach somewhere rather than be subjected to 3 arduous Tests in South Africa.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Sheeeeeeaaaarrrerrrrrr!!!!

As a long time (and long-suffering) follower of of the fortunes and misfortunes of Newcastle United, I have to admit was tickled pink by Niki Goneva's "Shearer" celebration of his try against Northampton at St James' Park on Saturday...


Thursday, 22 March 2018

Rugby on the Telly

An important part of the Six Nations is that it has always been (and hopefully always will be) broadcast on free-to-air terrestrial TV in the UK (with the BBC and ITV currently sharing the rights).
While Pay TV money has been a major factor in the funding of rugby since the sport turned professional in the mid-nineties, it is also vital for the development of the grassroots game that rugby is available free-to-air to as many people as possible.
That’s why I’m delighted that Channel 5, who made history in December by broadcasting the first Premiership Rugby League match on terrestrial TV, has announced the further 4 fixtures that it will be broadcasting this season, beginning with the Saracens vs Harlequins clash this Saturday from the London Stadium.
Also encouraging is the news that from next season Channel 4 has announced that for the next 4 years it will screen one live match per round during the Champions Cup pool stages plus one live match from each of the knockout rounds.
It may not sound that much but every little helps…

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Pain in Spain caused mainly by Romanian

Away from the hullabaloo of the Six Nations, it  really wasn't good to read about the unedifying scenes of Spanish players furiously chasing after Romanian referee Vlad Iordachescu following their controversial 18-10 defeat in Brussels to Belgium at the weekend - a defeat that cost them automatic World Cup qualification.

That said - and while in no way condoning the players' actions - Spain were red hot favourites to beat Belgium and qualify, Iordachescu did apparently penalise them TWENTY EIGHT times compared to Belgium’s eight, and the country that stood most to benefit from a Spanish defeat was, yes, Romania who now qualify automatically for Japan 2019 while Spain are left to negotiate the play offs where they are likely to face Samoa.

So I can understand why the Spanish players might have been a tad upset, although the behaviour of some them was simply unacceptable.

Why a Romanian referee was allowed to officiate is anyone's guess and, for the sake of propriety, I would have thought that the case for replaying the fixture - without, I hasten to add, the participation of the offending Spanish players - is pretty persuasive.

Time to send for Nigel Owens?

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Whither England? - a Post Mortem (and a 10 point plan)

Much has already been written about England's failings during this year's Six Nations and I would hardly be breaking new ground if I used words such as fatigued, muddled, indisciplined or incompetent.

There were all sorts of issues with this England team which admittedly were not immediately apparent as early points were racked up in Rome but which came crashing to the fore in the second half against Wales at Twickenham and then continued in Edinburgh and Paris before the denouement on home soil against Ireland.

Chief among these were a diminishing ability to attack space and a confused approach to the breakdown, but these weren't the only issues. A paucity of pace in the forwards - especially when Sam Simmonds was absent - caused England no end of problems, as did an unconvincing scrummage (despite the much heralded session with the Georgians), an ineffective driving maul and a pedestrian midfield.

Selection - the achilles heel of former head coach Stuart Lancaster - was also a problem. Two years ago Eddie Jones selected cleverly to get England firing and competitive again and was rewarded with great initial success. What he has failed to do, however, it to recognise when it is time to evolve the team and to reward those whose form merits inclusion ahead of those who appear to be treading water.

Add to that a propensity for flogging desperately tired players to death in training in some misguided attempt to make them "40% fitter" (whatever the hell that means), and you can see how it all adds up to spell disaster.

So, what is to be done?

Well, for what it's worth here's a 10 point plan for Eddie to consider:

1. Take responsibility, acknowledge mistakes and accept that you got it wrong. Particularly with selection. Stop all the BS about "moving forward" and accept that it was a disastrous campaign leading to a crisis of your own making. And stop all the rhetoric about winning the World Cup, it just sounds silly.

2. Decide who to jettison. You've said certain players may have played their last game for England. Make that decision and move on. I know who I have my eye on but it's not up to me, is it?

3. Rest. Mako, Itoje, George and Farrell all look shot. Leave them out of the South Africa tour and let them recharge the batteries. (Incidentally they are all Saracens - so work with the club to get these guys back to their best). While you're at it, have a rest yourself. Have a holiday. Chill.

4. Coaching team - is it as good as could be? Get the best guys in - Lord knows the RFU can afford it.

5. Fresh blood - the Argentina tour last summer showed the benefits of introducing new, young, fresh talent into the squad. Isiekwe, Mercer, Ben Curry, Marcus Smith - all could have played some part this Six Nations. The opportunity was missed - don't repeat that mistake.

6. Billy. Don't rush him back if he's not 100% ready. If there isn't a like-for-like replacement (and there isn't) - play differently.

7. Identify a group of English openside flankers and then work with them to develop them to the required standard. Currently I'm thinking the Curry twins, Sam Underhill, Ben Earl, Jack Willis, Matt Kvesic, Luke Wallace, Will Evans and there are probably others. Get them in, get a specialist in to work on their skills, pick the best 2 to tour South Africa, but work with that group over the next 18 months.

8. Selection - if he's fit and available, pick Henry Slade. He's been great all season. Likewise Dan Robson. And pick players in their proper positions. For example blindside flankers rarely make good opensides. I explain why here.

9. Tactics - are we seriously limiting the way England play to kick, chase and bosh? Somewhere between Rome and London the concept of creating and attacking space appears to have been mislaid. Bring in whoever you need to in order to fix this - see point 4.

10. Make it fun. The England boys constantly look under pressure with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Lighten the heck up.


Monday, 19 March 2018

Six Nations 2018: Final Round Verdict plus Champs & Chumps

Another Six Nations has come and gone and, while the quality was variable at times, there was certainly no shortage of excitement or controversy and it all ended with a much deserved and fitting Grand Slam for Ireland on St Patrick's Day.

Here are a few thoughts about where the last couple of months of rugby leaves the respective competing nations:

IRELAND

Champions and Grand Slam Winners and deservedly so. Ireland flirted with defeat in Paris and wobbled a little at home to Wales and Scotland but on each occasion pulled through and were then comfortably clinical at Twickenham in a match they never looked like losing. Joe Schmidt has developed a formidable squad who must surely fancy their chances against New Zealand in November. Whether they can maintain momentum through to Japan in 2019 is another matter, but they are now firmly established as the World's number 2 team and will be setting their sights higher.

WALES

A second place finish is nothing to be sniffed at but if Warren Gatland is honest with himself he'll realise Wales were a distant second and, other than in the opening match against Scotland, were never particularly convincing. Reverting to Dan Biggar for the French game showed Gatland's true colours and I can't help feeling that Wales are going to have to embrace fully the Scarlets' attacking philosophy if they ever want to be more than also-rans.

SCOTLAND

Very impressive at Murrayfield but much less so elsewhere and were quite fortunate to escape with victory in Rome. There is the basis of a good team there, with a potent backline and very mobile back row, and in Gregor Townsend Scotland have an exciting and progressive coach. Achieving consistency will be the next big challenge ahead.

FRANCE

OK, so my prediction that chaos would prevail and France crowned champions did not quite come to pass but actually France were not that far away. The French are by no means a great team but they are robust and competitive and defensively very sound. It took an incredible Johnny Sexton drop goal to beat them in Paris in the opening fixture and the French would definitely have won in Cardiff if not for a second-half comedy masterclass from Francois Trinh-Duc. Something to build on...

ENGLAND

Poorly selected, knackered, over-trained, over-coached, lacking energy and rugby nous, England fully deserved their worst championship finish since 1983. There's no lack of effort but it all looks horribly misdirected at the moment. Eddie Jones needs to take responsibility for this and stop spouting the "moving forward" BS. Nowhere near good enough.

ITALY

Although the Italians are once more propping up the table having again been whitewashed, there are signs that they are not a million miles away from being competitive again. Italy really should have held on to beat a lacklustre Scotland this weekend, had their chances against Wales and France and played some good rugby throughout. Some good young players coming through does bode well for the future, especially in the back row where Sergio Parisse now has some much-needed support.

TF Team of the Week:

15. Matteo Minozzi 14. Keith Earls 13. Garry Ringrose 12. Mathieu Bastareaud 11. Jacob Stockdale 10. Johnny Sexton 9. Connor Murray 1. Cian Healy 2. Rory Best 3. Tadgh Furlong 4. Alun-Wyn Jones 5. James Ryan 6. Sebastian Negri 7. Jake Polledri 8. CJ Stander

And so to the Champs & Chumps of the 2018 Six Nations...

First up, the Champs...

15. Matteo Minozzi - discovery of the tournament. 
14. Steff Evans - excellent first Six Nations and one for the future.
13. Garry Ringrose - gives Ireland midfield the X Factor missing since BOD's retirement.
12. Huw Jones - a few wrinkles to iron out, but his performance against England was one of the competition's best.
11. Jacob Stockdale - new kid on the block took international rugby in his stride.
10. Johnny Sexton - simply the best.
9. Maxime Machenaud - just why did Brunel keep substituting his most influential player?
1. Cian Healy - brilliant, even when clearly concussed.
2. Rory Best - consistent and relentless as ever.
3. Simon Berghan - shored up the Scottish scrummage and strong in the loose.
4. Alun-Wyn Jones - hugely consistent and a surprising finder of midfield holes.
5. James Ryan - a great new prospect for Ireland.
6. John Barclay - will dine out on that performance v England for years to come.
7. Josh Navidi - another proper open side from the Welsh production line.
8. CJ Stander - appears to improve every time he plays. Remarkable.


And now, sadly, the Chumps...

England. Nuff said



Friday, 16 March 2018

Six Nations 2018: Final Round Predictions

I've been holding back on my predictions this week until the team selections for the final round of this year's Six Nations were published. The following forecasts are therefore made using precise criteria and proven algorithms to ensure maximum reliability.

Or, alternatively, I'm just guessing as usual.

And so, without further ado, to the final three courses of this year's Six Nations feast (see what I did there?):

Italy v Scotland




The only thing that can prevent this being a try-fest on Saturday is wet weather. Otherwise I see Scotland winning by a significant margin with Italy also crossing the whitewash regularly. Want me to be more specific? Oh, ok then, 53-25 to Scotland.

England v Ireland




Hmmm. Ireland will be as ruthlessly efficient as ever and I just can't see them letting this one slip unless England can somehow summon up a Lazarus-like transformation. England won't just lie down and no doubt it will be competitive, but I'm going for Ireland by 6-9 points.

Wales v France




This one could be a humdinger with neither side wholly convincing but both buoyed by encouraging recent performances. France have proved that they can be awkward buggers and, despite Wales being the more fluent of the two teams, will make life difficult for the Welsh. I've been predicting French chaos to prevail all competition so why change now - France by 3.


Thursday, 15 March 2018

Oi - Jones - No!!!

Frankly the last thing Eddie Jones needed this week - as he tries to salvage something from the wreckage of this year's Six Nations - was for details to emerge of a talk he gave to RFU sponsors in July 2017 in which he described Wales as a "shit little place" and referred to our friends from the Emerald Isle as  the "scummy Irish".

No doubt he thought at the time that it might raise a laugh. Who knows, despite being crassly unfunny, maybe it did? However, if he honestly believed that comments like that would never see the light of day again then he was being, at best, horribly naive.

He has, apparently, apologised unreservedly, no doubt hoping that a line will be drawn under the whole affair. I'm afraid I'm not convinced he will get off so easily...

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Sunday Youth Rugby Lifts The Gloom...


Having witnessed Ireland set the bar fairly high in Dublin on Saturday only to endure the utter failure by England to come anywhere near it in Paris, my weekend's gloominess was, fortunately, dispersed by two things:

- attending Rob Brydon's stand-up show on Saturday night - a very funny man indeed; and

- the performance of my son's Under 15 team in their penultimate league match of the season on Sunday morning.

Up against the early-season pace setters who boasted a quite enormous and somewhat mature-looking pack of forwards, our boys - unbeaten so far this season - played some of their best rugby, defending superbly, tackling their hearts out, contesting the breakdown (so it CAN be done) and moving the ball wide at every opportunity.

A 31-0 victory, although probably not reflective of the physical nature of the game, was nevertheless deserved and guarantees us promotion to the division above for next season. Only a few matches left to go now this season, including the chance to win our division and also contest the County Plate Final. The boys' unbeaten run now stretches to 21 matches from midway through last season and they can all be very proud of the huge effort they have put in and the improvements they have made. I know that we as coaches certainly are...


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

England - Another Inquest

With the dust settling on Saturday's defeat in Paris I do wonder what Eddie Jones is thinking now he has the benefit of hindsight.

Has he, for instance, asked himself why he selected a lightning-quick back three against France but then didn't employ any kind of cohesive strategy for getting the ball to them?

Has he thought about why he selected a strong running inside centre with a limited passing game to play at 13 where he was, predictably, ineffective?

Has he justified to himself why he chose to persist with a lock playing at blindside flanker and a blindside flanker at 7, especially given that the same combination had failed so spectacularly at Murrayfield two weeks previously? What did he think they would do differently? [Incidentally, both played well enough individually and would probably have been very effective in their proper positions].

Can he, hand on heart, honestly say to Wasps DoR Dai Young that Nathan Hughes was fully fit to play international rugby?

By labelling Jamie George's performance in Paris as "workmanlike" does he really think that England's abject performance would have been better had Dylan Hartley been available to play - notwithstanding that Hartley had been in charge of the Murrayfield fiasco?

Can Eddie explain just why England have started the last 2 matches with so little intent? Is the gameplan really just to kick away possession and wait for the opposition to make mistakes?

Has he considered the wisdom of physically flogging players in between Six Nations matches, many of whom have been on a non-stop rugby treadmill for around 18 months and are obviously knackered?

Does he really believe that the solution to England's problems is just more power? Has he considered how the likes of Scotland and Wales have created scoring opportunities through pace and guile?

Does he honestly believe that the England rugby team are not, or cannot be, athletic enough to play a fast-paced running game?

Having taken charge of England's attacking strategy himself, does he consider himself accountable for it's abject failure?

Has he stopped to wonder just how ludicrous his public statements about winning the World Cup and being World No 1 - alongside many others about being brutal, ruthless etc - now sound?

Publicly Jones appears to be attributing England's travails purely to having issues to resolve at the breakdown and, while clearly there are challenges to meet there, my concern is that England's problems at the ruck are beginning to look as if they may be symptomatic of a wider malaise...?

No wonder he's saying it could take 18 months to fix.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Six Nations 2018 - Round 4 Verdict

So, unless you're Irish - in which case your eyes will be smiling in anticipation of a Grand Slam next weekend - Round 4 of this year's Six Nations was all a bit anti-climactic (ok, maybe not so much if you're French).

In Dublin Ireland wrapped up the Championship with a bonus point win that was all a little bit too comfortable. Scotland were game but were not allowed the leeway at the breakdown they enjoyed at Murrayfield two weeks ago, either by the Irish back row or by the referee. The Scots did butcher a couple of gilt-edged try scoring opportunities but Ireland were more than good value for their win. A Grand Slam almost certainly awaits.

Ireland's result meant that England needed a bonus point win in Paris to keep the Championship alive.  In 2016, even last year, they would have fancied their chances, but it was pretty clear from the early decisions to kick for goal (even from within their own half) that confidence was at a premium. What followed was a turgid, frustrating and, at times, frankly incompetent effort against an energetic and powerful French outfit. Amongst all the disappointment it is only right to congratulate France on a deserved victory, but right now England have big, big problems.

And finally to Cardiff for what effectively was a dead rubber. Wales looked sharp in parts and were predictably comfortable winners, while the Italians had their moments but once again could not sustain enough of them for long enough periods to stay in the game. Wales v France next week now looks like it could be interesting...

TF team of the week: 15. Matteo Minozzi 14. Blair Kinghorn 13. Garry Ringrose 12. Mathieu Bastareaud 11. Jacob Stockdale 10. Johnny Sexton 9. Maxime Machenaud 1. Jefferson Poirot 2. Rory Best 3. Tadgh Furlong 4. Cory Hill 5. Devin Toner 6. Yacouba Camera 7. Dan Leavy 8.Taulupe Faletau

Friday, 9 March 2018

Six Nations 2018: Round 4 Predictions

Although my track record as an oracle so far during this Six Nations hardly inspires confidence, here anyway are the TF predictions for Round 4:

Ireland v Scotland




If the Scots perform at the levels they reached against England at Murrayfield then they are in with a real shout against an Ireland team that was not wholly convincing last time out. I'm not convinced, however, that Scotland will be able to overcome their collective agoraphobia away from Murrayfield - Ireland therefore to win by 9-12 but with no bonus point.

France v England




My pre-Six Nations prediction that France would embrace chaos this year and take the tournament by storm has been laid bare by the fact that in reality the team just isn't very good at all. England really should win this one comfortably but the result in Edinburgh, aided and abetted by the re-selection of a back row with all the pace (and possibly the breakdown nous) of a three-toed sloth, makes me very nervous indeed. So much so that I'm going for France by 3.

Wales v Italy




Wholesale changes to the Welsh team by Warren Gatland suggest that he isn't really taking the Italian challenge very seriously at all, but as it turns out this looks a better Welsh team than that which took the field last time out against Ireland. Unless Conor O'Shea can pull a rabbit out of a hat in Cardiff on Sunday I honestly can't see anything other than a Welsh bonus-point win.

There you go. If you're partial to a wager and have any sense at all you'll put your money on precisely the opposite outcomes of those predicted above...

Thursday, 8 March 2018

England in Paris - Good News/Bad News

Jamie George replaces the injured Dylan Hartley, with Luke Cowan-Dickie on the bench. Finally the two best hookers in England are in the match day 23 ๐Ÿ‘

Elliot Daly starts on the wing with Anthony Watson replacing Mike Brown at full-back ๐Ÿ‘

Courtney Lawes remains at 6, Chris Robshaw at 7, and England persevere with the slowest back row in the history of Christendom ๐Ÿ‘Ž


Saturday, 3 March 2018

Things that make me feel old #5

It just occurred to me that I am older than the head coaches of 50% of the Six Nations national teams with only Messrs Jones, Gatland and Brunel having the decency to be more senior than me.

It's equally as bad in the Southern Hemisphere, with both Michael Cheika and new Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus both having fewer miles on the clock than yours truly.

It appears that a career in international rugby coaching may just have passed me by...๐Ÿ˜ข

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Eddie Jones shocker

The abuse of Eddie Jones by so-called Scottish rugby fans (from the looks of them I doubt very much that they had anything to do with our game) at Manchester Piccadilly station on Sunday is quite shocking.

Even more shocking, however, is Eddie's admission that his England squad do not have the athletic ability to win playing "pattern football."

“I’m not a magician, mate,” says Eddie. "I can’t suddenly make them more athletic. All I can do is try to maximise the players we have. We’ve got good players but we don’t have the ability to be athletically better than other teams.”

Erm, what happened to the team being 40% fitter than two years ago?

Why, if the current squad is not (and cannot be) athletic enough, have players not been added to the squad who can fulfil those requirements? 

Because what is becoming abundantly clear is that England cannot and will not win a World Cup (or maybe even another Six Nations) without, at the very least, a vast improvement in their collective speed to the breakdown.

Remember the 2003 England pack were rather unflatteringly labelled by the Kiwi press as "white orcs on steroids" but still featured a back row of Hill, Back and Dallaglio - one of the quickest and most athletic loose trios of the time. 

So if Jones has conceded that England's forwards are never going to be faster and better over the ball than their opposite numbers then the problems are far bigger than I first thought.

Unless, of course, this is just another example of Eddie Jones being Eddie Jones...