Thursday, 21 March 2019

England Rugby's Flowerpot Men

BILL & BEN
So, according to the media, Billy Vunipola and Ben Te'o have had to make a "grovelling apology" to team mates after returning to the team hotel late and the worse for wear for drink following a night out after the 38-38 draw with Scotland on Sunday.

That's two grown men going out, letting off some steam and getting a bit pissed AFTER the conclusion of the Six Nations tournament.

No one was hurt, no damage was caused, no laws were broken, no one was arrested.

How times have changed. I mean, it's hardly Dean Richards and John Jeffrey and a severely dented Calcutta Cup it it?

Move along ladies and gentlemen, nothing to see here.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Whither England 2019?

Ok, a few days has passed since the most ridiculous game of rugby I have ever witnessed, so time to reflect a little more calmly on England's performance during the 2019 Six Nations.

Not that I have calmed down that much, and the news today that spoon-bending publicity junkie, Uri Geller, is urging Eddie Jones to take him to the World Cup as the answer to England’s psychological problems tells us just how ludicrous Saturday's implosion was.

First of all let's be honest - England's second half performance against Scotland at Twickenham was the stuff of nightmares as a 31-0 lead somehow became an unbearable burden to the extent that it was squandered by a team that panicked at the first hint of a Scottish revival. We are talking about hardened professional rugby players who lost all semblance of shape, control or discipline. It was truly, truly shocking and no amount of positivity about how well England attacked at times during this competition can disguise that.

That there is an underlying mental frailty - also demonstrated in Cardiff - cannot be in doubt. But for Eddie Jones to lay this at the door of England's premature exit from the 2015 World Cup is simply disingenuous. Jones has had four Six Nations competitions (and indeed won his first two) to iron out any World Cup hangovers and this team is very different from the one that failed in 2015, so the only conclusion to draw is that Jones is just trying to pass the buck. Next thing you know he'll be blaming Sam Burgess.

On the plus side, the England squad as a whole looks stronger than it has done for a while.

England now have some great front row options with the emergence of Ben Moon to cover Mako Vunipola at loosehead and with Kyle Sinckler establishing himself a potentially world class number 3. There are plenty of quality locks - with Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes to return - and the backrow now has proper balance with Curry and Wilson, although I do have my concerns about Billy Vunipola's diminishing returns. What the pack does lack is someone to take control and get hold of the game. Dylan Hartley? Perhaps, but I'd be surprised if his form could merit a return. 

In the backs England look to be in fine fettle with the exception that Manu Tuilagi still looks decidedly uncomfortable at 12 and Elliot Daly remains unconvincing as a fullback. There are, however, classy wings in abundance (including the now superb Jonny May) and Henry Slade now looks to the manor born. The main issue appears to be at half-back. Ben Youngs, despite his 85 caps, seems incapable of properly shaping a game at scrum half while Owen Farrell - good player that he is - has worryingly lost the plot tactically on the two occasions that England have been put under real pressure.

Unfortunately it is almost certainly too late for Eddie Jones to change tack now. I'm sure he has most of his 31 man World Cup squad pencilled in (barring injuries). All he can say is that he will bring in someone to fix England's psychological issues - as if it's that easy.

Let's just hope that someone is not Uri Geller!

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

England Women's Grand Slam - congrats and a warning...

Many congrats to England's women on their Six Nations Grand Slam which was never really in doubt.

With a points difference of 233 and an average score per match of 55-9 this really was as straightforward as it gets, not massively surprising given that England were the only fully professional team in the competition.

It's great that England's women are being rewarded, but given their utter dominance it is incumbent on the powers that be to ensure that standards are raised across the board - a title sponsor for the Women's Six Nations would be a good start.

After all, while the England women can, in the short term, bask in their much deserved success, without meaningful competition the women's game will simply atrophy in the longer term.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Six Nations 2019: Champs & Chumps



Here it is, the moment you've been waiting for, the Champs and Chumps of the 2019 Six Nations...

CHAMPS:

15. Liam Williams - faultless.
14. Josh Adams - outshone his more illustrious wing partner.
13. Henry Slade - now a fully fledged international centre.
12. Hadleigh Parkes - colossus in the Welsh centres
11. Jonny May - now world class.
10. Finn Russell - touch of genius.
9. Antoine Dupont - a chink of light amidst French darkness .
1. Cian Healy - a warrior for Ireland
2. Jamie George - Dylan who?.
3. Kyle Sinckler - getting better and better.
4. Alun Wyn Jones - currently the world's best lock.
5. George Kruis - back to his best.
6. Josh Navidi - superb.
7. Tom Curry - England finally have a proper openside.
8. Ross Moriarty - now undroppable.

CHUMPS:

15. Robbie Henshaw - totally exposed by England's kicking game.
14. Angelo Esposito - apparently "esposito" is Italian for turnstile.
13. Mathieu Bastareaud - France will never progress until they stop picking a prop at 13.
12. Bundee Aki - opposition now appear to have him worked out.
11. Yoann Huget - defensive liability with horrible attitude.
10. Camile Lopez - Sexton and Farrell were disappointing, but Lopez was truly awful.
9. Morgan Parra - AWOL at Twickenham and French career seemingly over. Ben Youngs a close second.
1. Andrea Lovotti - whatever happened to fantastic Italian scrummaging?
2.  Leonardo Ghiraldini - only contribution now is stroppiness.
3. Dan Cole - not quite sure what he's doing back in the England fold.
4. Jonny Gray - just making tackles is no longer enough.
5. Sébastien Vahaamahina - briefly French captain without knowing it!! 
6. Arthur Iturria - general loose cannon.
7. Sean O'Brien - nowhere near the levels he's previously achieved.
8. Sergio Parisse - sadly the light has faded. Tight call with Picamoles.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Six Nations 2019 - Final Round Verdict

So, here I am, feeling quite bereft after another Six Nations comes to an end. In many ways it was a championship  full of surprises. In others it was all too predictable. One inescapable conclusion though is that the best all round team finished top and thoroughly deserved their Grand Slam.

A few thoughts and observations:

WALES

Calm, ruthless, efficient and brilliantly competent - Wales utterly dominated the final match against Ireland to seal the Grand Slam. This is not the most exciting Wales team there has ever been - and I suspect they will need to add a few more strings to their bow to make an impact at the World Cup - but I don't think I've seen a more effective Welsh line up who think so clearly under pressure. The coaching staff can take huge credit for this but ultimately it is the players who take to the field and make the decisions. Hats off to them - their success is well deserved.

ENGLAND

I guess 2nd place is a big improvement on 2018's showing, but I can honestly say that the second half against Scotland on Saturday was the worst I've known an England team play for many a year, a total and utter embarrassing shambles. For periods during this Six Nations England looked the best team in the competition - compelling and overwhelming attack combined with ferocious defence - but clearly there is an underlying fragility when the pressure comes on. Worrying.

IRELAND

What the hell happened to Ireland? Defeat to England in the opening fixture appeared to dent confidence to such an extent that they never really rediscovered their mojo and against Wales in Cardiff they were utterly outfought and out-thought. It was all looking so good for the Irish in November but there will have to be a great deal of soul-searching for this squad now. Time for Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell to really start earning their corn...

FRANCE

France - a total basket-case - somehow managed to finish 4th in the championship despite the players at times looking like they had barely met. Their performances at Twickenham and in Dublin were simply an embarrassment and, despite the injection of some exciting young talent into the team, I feel more major surgery is needed - probably at the top - before France can become a force again. 

SCOTLAND

Although Scotland's comeback from 0-31 down at Twickenham was remarkable in many ways, it does somewhat mask Scotland's failings in this year's championship. Yes, the Scots suffered horribly with injuries, but a fifth place finish is still a disappointment and mistake-ridden performances against  Ireland, Wales and France, plus abject defending in the first half at Twickenham, should still be causes for concern.

ITALY

There comes a point when you just have to say enough is enough. Italy have some decent players,  played well in patches and probably did enough to beat France in the final game, but there was never any realistic belief that Italy could muster a win in this year's competition and if there is no prospect of victory then what's the point?

Team of the week:

15. Liam Williams 14. Darcy Graham 13. Henry Slade 12. Hadleigh Parkes 11. Josh Adams 10. Finn Russell 9. Antoine Dupont 1. Rob Evans 2. Ken Owens 3. Tomas Francis 4. Alun-Wyn Jones 5. Adam Beard 6. Josh Navidi 7. Justin Tipuric 8. Ross Moriarty

Champs & Chumps to follow later...

Friday, 15 March 2019

Six Nations 2019: Final Round Predictions


So, here we are, a preview of the final weekend of the Six Nations of 2019, a time of anticipation and excitement tinged with sadness and the realisation that it will all be over for another year. I guess we'll have to make do with the Rugby World Cup later this year 😉

Anyway, here we go - my predictions for the weekend

Italy v France
Bragging rights are up for grabs at the bottom of the table. If Italy can produce the rugby they showed  the last time they played in Rome (v Ireland) and France produce the utter pap they have displayed away from home so far in the championship, then victory awaits for the Italians. I have a sneaky feeling, however, (and I hope I'm wrong) that the French, seeking to redeem themselves yet again, will do enough to win this one. France by 9-12.

Wales v Ireland
I have tipped against Wales throughout this championship and they keep proving me wrong (this obviously being their primary motivation). There's little doubt in my mind that the Ireland team of November 2018 is better than this Wales team, but so far the Irish have failed to hit those heights in this Six Nations. It will be tighter than a gnat's chuff but Wales - I feel - could very well sneak this by 3-6 points. Or maybe even a draw?

England v Scotland
Complacency could be England's biggest enemy on Saturday, especially if Wales seal the deal in Cardiff. On paper there is no way this depleted Scottish squad, whose recent form has been indifferent, should get anywhere near this England team (even accounting for Eddie Jones' perverse selections) who have so far been imperious at home. Although Scotland's winless streak at Twickenham (dating back to 1983) must end at some point I honestly can't see this squad beating England and ultimately this should be a comfortable home win. England by 15+.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

England Rugby: No go for Big Joe

Sorry, I just don't get it.

Following a much deserved Man of the Match performance against Italy, Joe Cokanasiga now finds himself out of the match day squad entirely for the final fixture against Scotland on Saturday, replaced by Jack Nowell.

I am a big fan of Nowell - his industry, workrate, defence and aerial game are excellent - but you have to ask yourself, if you were a Scottish winger, who would you rather face?

Eddie Jones knows all he needs to know about Nowell who, barring injury, will no doubt be on the plane to Japan later this year. Big Joe, however, still needs meaningful game time to demonstrate that his rich talent can and should play a significant part in the World Cup.

This selection suggests to me that Eddie, bizarrely, is far from convinced that Cokanasiga should go to Japan - either that or it's a case of Jones just being perverse -  irritated by Cokanasiga being compared to the great Jonah Lomu last weekend - and  has decided to give the fans and the media the middle finger.

It also suggests a return to the kicking game for England, despite the recall of Henry Slade in the centres.

For crying out loud, he's even included Ben Teo ahead of Cokanasiga on the bench - which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

As I say, I just don't get it.


Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Manu Tuilagi: I take it all back...

News just in this morning that Manu Tuilagi has in fact rejected Racing 92's lucrative offer and has signed a new deal with Leicester Tigers.

I therefore hereby take back my previous comments.

A question I have previously posed is: whatever happened to loyalty?

 I think we now have our answer.

A petition to expel Mr Tuilagi from the Total Flanker Hall of Wazzocks will be considered in due course.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Six Nations 2019: Eddie Jones should tone it down

I can’t say I’m particularly impressed by comments from Eddie Jones ahead of Saturday’s Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham.

Jones appears to be calling for ‘hostility’ when the Scots come to visit, saying that “we would certainly like to reciprocate the welcome we got up there last year” – referring to the abuse he and some of his players received before, during and after last year’s game at Murrayfield.

In light of some of the issues with fan behaviour currently being experienced by the round ball game, and given how last year Jones attributed some of the abuse he suffered – in particular by Scotland supporters at a Manchester railway station the following day – to inflammatory pre-match comments from the likes of Gavin Hastings, I’m surprised that Jones has chosen to stir things up in this way.

Although Jones has sought to limit his call to action to “on-field hostility”, the tone of his comments appears very much directed towards exacting revenge for the way he perceives he and his team were treated in Scotland a year ago.

It's all so unnecessary and I can only hope that Jones’ poor choice of language does not therefore lead to unintended consequences…

Monday, 11 March 2019

Six Nations 2019: a Grand Slam for Wales?

Warren Gatland is a wily old bird. Prior to this year's Six Nations he claimed that a Welsh win in Paris on the opening weekend set his team on the way to a Grand Slam and so it has proved, with Wales set to attempt to seal the deal against Ireland in Cardiff on Saturday.

Throughout this Six Nations I've been tipping Wales to lose (other than against Italy). I believed that France would prevail in the opening fixture (not banking on a French second half implosion), that England would prove to be too strong in Cardiff (not anticipating the English tactical howler that followed) and that the Scots would get it right against Wales at Murrayfield (not taking into account the current Scottish propensity for making costly errors). Wrong on all counts.

What Wales have done so far is to stay in games and not concede too many points when under the cosh - and then, when opportunities have arisen, they have taken them. There is much to be admired about this - the ability to win tight matches in which the tide is against you for long periods is not to be underestimated and is borne from the confidence that a 14 match unbeaten brings.

What Wales haven't done, however, at any point in this Six Nations so far is to cut loose and set the championship alight. Nine tries (the same as France and Italy) and no bonus points from 4 games is a pretty meagre return. It's almost as if Wales have taken the concept of "Warrenball" and made it even more functional, more efficient, more error-free and more hard-nosed. It's nothing special to watch, but it's difficult to knock given how effective it has been.

And so to the Grand Slam decider against Ireland. I'd like to be able to predict a more expansive Welsh performance but my expectations are that this will be another tight, tough, bruising encounter. Ireland, seemingly having played their way back into form, will provide one hell of a final hurdle for the Welsh but I am expecting more of the same from Wales and certainly wouldn't bet against them completing the clean sweep.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Six Nations 2019 - Round 4 Verdict

The verdict is in...

Scotland 11-18 Wales
Hmmm. The Welsh Slam is still on after another relatively ordinary performance against an error-ridden and seriously injury-depleted Scotland. While I have to respect and acknowledge this winning run from Wales, the lack of a single bonus point in their 4 matches in the championship so far tells us all we need to know about the way Wales are playing. Will they win the Grand Slam? I wouldn't put it past them.

England 57-14
Italy may have been poor, but you can only beat what's in front of you and no one else has put the Italians to the sword in this way in this year's Six Nations. Still not at all convinced by the idea of a Teo and Tuilagi midfield combo and there were periods in the second half when England were pretty ordinary, but in Joe Cokanasiga we may well be looking at a future world superstar.

Ireland 26-14 France
Never has a scoreline so misrepresented a game of rugby. Ireland's domination of this game was so absolute that I can't recall France even getting into Ireland's 22 until the last few minutes when the 2 French tries were scored. Ireland, for the most part, are looking like their old selves but France, I'm afraid, once again just looked clueless.

Team of the week:
15. Jordan Larmour 14. Joe Cokanasiga 13. Manu Tuilagi 12. Hadleigh Parkes 11. Keith Earls 10. Johnny Sexton 9. Connor Murray 1. Alan Dell 2. Jamie George 3. Kyle Sinckler 4. Iain Henderson 5. George Kruis 6. Josh Navidi 7. Hamish Watson 8. CJ Stander

Friday, 8 March 2019

Six Nations 2019: Round 4 predictions

After what seems like an interminable gap, round 4 of the 2019 Six Nations is finally upon us and what follows is what almost definitely, probably, possibly is going to transpire this weekend...



Scotland v Wales
This is a huge game for Wales given that they remain the only unbeaten team in the championship. How comfortable the Welsh are as front runners, and whether they can lift themselves to the heights of their performance against England, remain to be seen but I think they will have to as Scotland at Murrayfield are no pushovers. This could be a massive potential banana skin for the Welsh, especially given the unwelcome WRU "Project Reset" distraction. I therefore think Scotland might sneak this by 3-6 points.

England v Italy
Although the Italians are definitely improving they were still relatively comfortably beaten by a mediocre Ireland last time out. I can see them causing problems for England, who have selected a midfield with plenty of heft but lacking pace, but probably not enough to secure that elusive victory. England need to bounce back after the defeat in Cardiff, so I'm going for a home win by 10-15. 

Ireland v France
There's no doubt that France recovered some of their mojo last time out against the Scots, but I still think that some the old guard are holding the team back and would like to see more bravery in selection. Ireland have yet to really hit their straps in the championship, but a home fixture against traditionally poor travellers offers the Irish the chance to get back on track and I suspect this will end up being relatively comfortable for the men in green. Ireland by 15+.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

England Rugby: What is the point of Dan Robson?

Whatever the merits of the changes Eddie Jones has made to the England team to face Italy this weekend, his most baffling call is the decision not to start Dan Robson - arguably the best number 9 in the Premiership over the past couple of seasons - at scrum half.

Having selected Robson ahead of the likes of Danny Care and Richard Wigglesworth for this year's Six Nations, Jones has since allowed the Wasps scrum half little more than 10 minutes international rugby, against a well beaten France, with Robson merely gathering splinters in his arse on the bench for the rest of the campaign.

Given's Robson's lack of international experience it is beginning not to bode well for his chances of making the World Cup squad later this year. After all, if Jones only rates him to this extent then you have to ask why Robson is in the squad.

In other words: what is the point of Dan Robson?

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Wales Rugby: "Project Reset" a huge distraction

The timing of “Project Reset” – a plan to merge the Ospreys and the Scarlets into one West Wales entity – could not really have been worse.

The plan itself – which would still leave four professional teams in Wales with the proposed (risky) introduction of a team into North Wales – is a little baffling given that Ospreys and Scarlets have in recent years tended to be the more successful of the teams in Wales and there appear to be no equivalent plans to merge Cardiff Blues and the Dragons into an East Wales outfit.

Whatever the merits, however, to be discussing this so openly and publicly in the middle of the Six Nations has to be hugely distracting for a Welsh squad who are three fifths on their way to a Grand Slam.

I suspect Warren Gatland will not be a happy bunny.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

France Rugby: encore la même équipe

France head coach Jacques Brunel has unprecedentedly named an unchanged side for this weekend's Six Nations encounter Ireland in Dublin.

This is the first time the French have named an unchanged team since their introduction to the Championship in 1910 😉

It is reported that hundreds of French rugby supporters are undergoing therapy having suffered nervous breakdowns following today's team announcement and it is understood that the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, will address the nation on television this evening in an attempt to reassure the public in the face of anticipated civil unrest...

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Manu Tuilagi: alternative viewpoint

Thanks to Paul Howes who sent me the following email in response to my recent post about Manu Tuilagi's possible move to Racing 92 (as yet unconfirmed, I should mention):
Dear Mr Flanker

In the real world outside of sport. Let’s say a person joins a Company as an apprentice carpenter. That individual is then trained, nurtured, promoted, looked after when he is injured on site, welcomed back when they are fit to return to work, sent on courses, offered a supervision role, promoted to management until they are eventually they reach a senior role. This person is then offered a chance of a move to another Company that offers them more money doing the same role. People would not bat an eye lid. They would congratulate them on using their skills and hard work to secure a better future for themselves and their family.

In sport players looking after themselves don’t get treated the same. Careers, in what is becoming an increasingly physical sport are becoming shorter and early retirements are becoming more frequent. They need to make hay whilst the sun shines. Not wait. An injury that could end a career could be just round the corner. Rob Horne for example.

Just saying

Regards

Paul Howes
Thank you Paul - all good points, well made. I guess we do hold sportsmen, and in particular rugby players, to a different standard, largely I think because of two factors:
1. the emotional investment that we, as supporters, make in the game - thus we expect the same of our players; and
2. the amateur traditions and values of rugby, loyalty being right up there...

Friday, 1 March 2019

World League for Rugby is a crap idea

I'm pleased that the likes of Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton have spoken out against World Rugby's plans for a World League, largely because it's a crap idea.
Not only would the concept - a league of 12 teams playing each other once each year with semi-finals and a final to be held in the northern hemisphere in December - actually increase the physical and mental burden on players, with way too much travelling involved, the actual format being proposed is also utterly unacceptable.
The proposed 12 team league would consist of the current Six Nations teams, the four teams from the Rugby Championship plus USA and Japan - therefore excluding the likes of Georgia and the Pacific Island nations. What's more, it is proposed that there will be no promotion or relegation for 12 years!
So, in summary, a shit idea that ignores player welfare issues by increasing the amount of international rugby played and which utterly fails to grow the game globally by pulling up the drawbridge and excluding tier 2 nations (unless they happen to have a large economy).
Clearly it's just all about the money...

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Happy Retirement Mathew Tait

This blog's best wishes go to Mathew Tait who sadly has been forced to quit the game through injury, aged 33, following 15 years in professional rugby.

I always rated Tait who, after being prematurely selected and subsequently dumped from the England team by Andy Robinson in 2005, went on to establish himself as a superb attacking outside centre and, aged 21, was arguably England's best player in the 2007 World Cup final.

Unfortunately a combination of injuries and selectorial ignorance kept Tait out of the national set up after his last cap in 2010, something of a tragedy in my eyes given some of the donkeys who occupied the 13 shirt subsequently - and even a successful shift to fullback with Leicester failed to revive his international fortunes.

Rumour has it that he's now planning to become a commercial pilot - good luck to him...

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

England Rugby - déjà vu all over again?

In the same way that it would have been wrong to overreact to England's excellent opening two performances of the 2019 Six Nations, so it would be an error to overly criticise England's failure to beat the Welsh at the weekend.

Nevertheless, there are questions that we do need to ask:

1. Was Saturday just a blip, a case of a bad day at the office? Or is there a wider malaise?

2. Shorn of the services of Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje - does England's power game begin to fall apart like a cheap suit?

3. Actually, if plans A, B and C are just to kick the ball in behind the defence, where is the evidence that England still have a power game? Or any other game at all for that matter?

4. Why, when England were struggling for possession at times on Saturday, were they so prepared to kick the ball to the opposition rather than putting the ball through the hands? Having selected a balanced midfield, why did the centres barely see the ball?

5. Did England - as it seemed at the time - really think that they could just sit on a 7 point lead?

6. Why, when England fell behind on Saturday, did Eddie Jones not deploy the likes of Dan Robson and George Ford to try to change the game?

7. If Eddie Jones rates Dan Robson to the extent that he has only played a couple of minutes off the bench against France with the game already won, why is he in the squad?

8. Is it the case - as with last year's Six Nations - that the longer the competition progresses, the worse England seem to play?

Monday, 25 February 2019

Six Nations 2019 - Round 3 verdict


What the heck do I know - all three predictions for the weekend wrong!!!

France 27-10 Scotland
A much improved France ended up winning reasonably comfortably against a largely inaccurate Scottish team who were just missing too many players to be properly competitive. In Ramos, Ntamack and Penaud, France appear to have unearthed a few unpolished gems, while Gael Fickou, finally selected in his proper position, held the midfield together admirably and Demba Bamba looks some prospect at prop. Now if they could just get rid of Huget, Bastareaud and Vahaamahina, France could be back in business.

Wales 21-13 England
Full credit to Wales for hanging on when under pressure and finishing England off clinically (thanks in no small part to the introduction of Dan Biggar) - but let's not beat about the bush - England could and should have won this game. For once I agree with Warren Gatland - England choked when the pressure came on. Eddie Jones should be a worried man - the sight of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell, with England 3 points down and with 10 minutes to play,  still kicking the ball to the opposition - suggests that the team is still very much playing in a tactical straightjacket, which doesn't auger well for the World Cup.

Italy 16-26 Ireland
"Don't worry' said my son, "England will still win the Six Nations as Wales will lose to Ireland." Not if Ireland play like this. I acknowledge that injuries are playing their part, but Ireland look a long way off being the world's best team right now. Italy played some great stuff and will genuinely fancy their chances at Twickenham in two weeks, whereas Ireland will just be mightily relieved to have escaped Rome with a barely deserved bonus point.

TF Team of the week:

15. Liam Williams 14. Josh Adams 13. Jonathan Davies 12. Gael Fickou 11. Jacob Stockdale 10. Dan Biggar 9. Tito Tebaldi 1. Dave Kilcoyne 2. Guilhem Guirado 3. Demba Bamba 4. Cory Hill 5. Alun Wyn Jones 6. Peter O'Mahony 7. Tom Curry 8. Ross Moriarty

Friday, 22 February 2019

Six Nations 2019 - Round 3 Predictions


So here I go again with my malfunctioning crystal ball ahead of Round 3 of the 2019 Six Nations:

France v Scotland 
Given how amateurish France were last time out against England and the continuing madness that is Jacques Brunel's selection policy, I'd say Scotland - despite losing key figures such as Russell and Hogg to injury - must start as favourites. And yet the French can't possibly be as bad again, can they? Or can they? I'm going with a rare Scottish away success by 6-9 points.

Wales v England
The Welsh have shown nothing thus far in the Six Nations to demonstrate that they can derail England's 2019 chariot, but it's apparent that Wales do improve the more time the team spends together (while the opposite sometimes appears true with England). You also can't hide the fact that the absences of Mako and Maro do weaken this English team, despite their replacements being more than able. Everything about this fixture is screaming at me to be cautious. I'm therefore perversely going for England by more than 10.

Italy v Ireland 
If Italy couldn't beat a second string Welsh XV a fortnight ago then what hope do they have against a fired-up Ireland team trying to play its way back into form? An Italian win, especially given the injury absence of Sergio Parisse, is unthinkable. I can't see anything other than a comfortable Irish victory - and it could easily be a 20 point plus pasting.


Thursday, 21 February 2019

Manu Tuilagi - Whatever happened to Loyalty?

If the news that Manu Tuilagi has decided to leave Leicester to join Racing 92 next season is true, then I'm really quite disappointed in him.

Although I'm sure he cares not one jot about what I think, it's a poor state of affairs if, indeed, Tuilagi has decided to turn his back on the club that has nurtured him since he was a teenager and stuck by him through thick and thin during several prolonged injury absences, paying him a small fortune in the process.

Likewise, with the move to France making him ineligible for England selection, this feels like a kick in the teeth for the succession of England coaches who have stuck by him through his many injuries and multiple off-field misdemeanours.

Look, I get that Racing have offered Tuilagi an obscene amount of money and understand his desire to provide for his family, but his relatively lucrative earnings from Leicester and England hardly leave him on the breadline. 

And he is still only 27 - plenty of time to cash in later when in his rugby dotage.

As I say, very disappointing. Whatever happened to loyalty?

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Gatland for England?

According to the Telegraph, sources within the RFU have claimed that Wales coach Warren Gatland is now the front runner to replace Eddie Jones as England head coach.

Despite never having been Gatland's greatest fan, his track record has to be acknowledged and I can totally see how he might appeal to the RFU given his vast experience on the international stage and his previous success at Wasps.

How this might pan out after this year's World Cup, with Eddie Jones scheduled to stay on to mentor a new head coach until his departure in 2021, is anyone's guess.

I suspect that the timing of this story, a few days before Wales take on England at Cardiff, is no coincidence...

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

RFU appoint Sweeney

"Get yer trousers on, you're nicked"

Six Nations 2019 - Un réarrangement des chaises longues


So, it appears that France's abject defeat at Twickenham was all the fault of the half backs, as Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez have been ejected entirely from the French 23 to face Scotland in Paris this weekend.

While Dupont and Ntamack (albeit out of position, will Brunel ever learn?) are undoubtedly enterprising selections, the chopping and changing at half back is symptomatic of all that is wrong with the French national team currently.

Otherwise it is a case of shuffling the deckchairs (or chaises longues) with the hapless Huget and ponderous Bastareaud somehow inexplicably retained.

For all their injuries Scotland must - amazingly - be favourites for this one. So maybe it's worth a cheeky punt on France?!

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Six Nations - Keep it terrestrial

With this year's Six Nations kicking off with a bang and with TV audiences looking more than healthy (I read somewhere that the Ireland v England match attracted north of 5.7m viewers on ITV, for instance), the unions of the Six Nations have - according to a report in the Daily Telegraph - been discussing a proposal to pool broadcasting rights for all of their home fixtures - including the Six Nations and November internationals - in an attempt to drive a better deal.

That's all well and good, as long it does not result in the Six Nations being lost to terrestrial TV when the current deals expire in 2021.

The Six Nations' plans will come as a kick in the teeth to World Rugby and Agustin Pichot who has tabled a proposal - discussed last month at a World Rugby summit in Los Angeles - to set up a new World League backed by a single broadcaster looking to secure TV rights for the Six Nations, Rugby Championship and November Tests.

Without wishing to go in to the merits of Pichot's proposal for a World League (fundamentally a bad idea for all sorts of reasons), the fact that all international rugby - including the Six Nations - would consequently more than likely end up on pay TV makes such a proposal, for me, a non-starter.

If World Rugby had real aspirations to grow the game long term it would understand the benefit of having the showcase tournaments available to all on free-to-air terrestrial tv.

Unfortunately World Rugby appears seduced by dollar signs and short-term financial gain - and I can only hope that the Six Nations unions, in their discussions, recognise how short-sighted that approach actually is.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

England Rugby - chickens should not be counted

England gave France a damned good thrashing on Sunday but I'm still not getting carried away. No chickens are being counted here.

Think back 12 months - an impressive opening performance away from home (vs Italy) was followed by an excellent first half (at home against Wales) and then an indifferent second half.

Sound familiar?

England then went to Murrayfield, had their trousers taken down unceremoniously by the Scots, and thus the season suddenly imploded.

So, will Cardiff in two weeks time prove to be another Murrayfield experience?

I hope not, and indeed there is evidence to suggest that history is not about to repeat itself, not least the fact that England are far more robust in their backrow and midfield this year, they appear all to be on the same page tactically and they are clearly all enjoying defending under the watchful eye of John Mitchell.

I am not necessarily saying that England will win in Cardiff - as Mike Tyson once said, "Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth" - but I would be very surprised if they were to sink to the depths of ineptitude on display 12 months ago...

Monday, 11 February 2019

Women's Six Nations 2019 - England at a canter

This year's Women's Six Nations now looks to be a forgone conclusion with England sitting at the top of the table having scored a grand total of 15 tries in their first two fixtures - against Ireland and France (last year's champions).

With England's remaining fixtures being, with respect, against weaker opponents in Wales, Italy and Scotland, it is difficult to see anything other than the championship heading England's way.

This is, of course, to be expected given that the English women are the only full-time professional squad in the Six Nations.

And while professionalism is obviously currently great for England's women, I'm not sure that such disparity in standards is at all healthy, both in terms of the overall quality of the competition or, indeed, for the long-term development of the England team.

What is needed is greater competition and quality throughout with overall standards raised, and it is incumbent on the powers that be to explore how such an ambition might be funded.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Six Nations 2019 Round 2 - Verdict


The verdict is in for round 2 of the Six Nations:

Scotland 13-22 Ireland 
Redemption of sorts for the Irish but this was one Scotland could and perhaps should have won. Too many errors at crucial times was the undoing of the Scots, and they were not helped by Stuart Hogg having to leave the field injured following a blatant (but unpenalised) late tackle. Ireland were dogged, determined and made fewer errors and ultimately deserved the win.

Italy 15-26 Wales
Absolutely dire game of rugby in which a largely second string Welsh XV, without ever looking like losing, managed to scrape a win against the spirited but limited Italians. Very little quality on show however.

England 44-8 France
Big win for England who were out of sight with a bonus point by half-time. Impressive at times but this French team was one of the worst I think I've ever seen and a very flat final quarter will mean that there will be plenty to work on for England before heading to Cardiff in two weeks time.

Team of the week:
15. Rob Kearney 14. Jacob Stockdale 13. Henry Slade 12. Manu Tuilagi 11. Jonny May 10. Owen Farrell 9. Ben Youngs 1. Cian Healy 2. Jamie George 3. Kyle Sinckler 4. Courtney Lawes 5. Johnny Gray 6. Mark Wilson 7. Jamie Ritchie 8. Billy Vunipola

Friday, 8 February 2019

Six Nations 2019 - Round 2 Predictions

So last week (surprise, surprise) I wasn't quite on the money with my predictions. France should have beaten Wales but blew it, Scotland did manage a reasonably comfortable victory against Italy and England performed well above expectations against Ireland.

And so to Round 2:

Scotland v Ireland
If Scotland can replicate the physicality shown by England last week then they'll be in with a shout against Ireland. Although I do expect the Irish to be far more successful on the gainline this week, you can't discount a vibrant Scottish attack (assuming their pack can secure enough possession) and, although the weather forecast is not great, if Scotland can get their all-court game functioning I can see them sneaking this one by 6 points.

Italy v Wales
Warren Gatland, quite rightly, talks about how momentum can propel a team forward to win the Championship. And so, with momentum having shifted  Wales' way during a remarkable second half last week in Paris, Gatland has now made 10 changes to his team to face Italy who, incidentally, finished strongly at Murrayfield. It's either a brave or foolish move by Gatland as Italy nearly always perform well in their first home game of the tournament. Wales to win, I think, but only just - possibly by less than 7.

England v France
Will the real France please declare themselves. Outstanding the in the first half last week, if the French find their rhythm early doors then England will be in for a long afternoon. Fortunately, for the most part (South Africa in November aside), Eddie Jones seems to have his team coming out of the blocks pretty quickly these days and early scores against Les Bleus could bite deep into the French psyche. On that basis I'm going for England by 9-12 points.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Positional switch for Mathieu Bastareaud?

I’ve long thought Mathieu Bastareaud too slow to command a place in the French backline and now it appears that former France outside half Thomas Castaignede agrees with me.

I don’t, however, share Castaignede’s belief that the Toulon centre could launch a new international career at number 8, nor agree with his ludicrous assertion that Bastareaud “could be even better than Louis Picamoles.”

I’ve no doubt that Bastareaud could learn to play number 8, given time, but any suggestion that he could be good enough to play there at international level is, I suggest, fanciful and serves only to illustrate Castaignede’s knowledge of backrow play.

In any event, I always thought Bastareaud would make an excellent tighthead prop 😉

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Rugby X

I’m not sure what to think of plans by World Rugby to introduce a new format of rugby – Rugby X – later this year.

Apparently plans are afoot to debut the new format indoors at London's O2 Arena in October.

The new version of the game, which former England and Fiji Sevens coach Ben Ryan is reported to have helped develop, is due to feature five-a-side teams, 10 minute games, no half-time, uncontested three-man scrums, quickly taken line-outs and tap-and-go restarts from the try-line.

So, an exciting new venture designed to appeal to a brand new audience, or just a gimmick?

Given that we already have a perfectly successful shortened version of the game in Sevens, and the fact that the planned timing of the launch pretty much coincides with the Rugby World Cup, I am inclined to suggest the latter.



Tuesday, 5 February 2019

England Rugby - chariot needs more tests to pass M.O.T.

Enough already.

Yes, England were bloody good in Dublin at the weekend but any talk of a Grand Slam, or of England now being New Zealand's main challengers at the World Cup in 7 MONTHS time, is as silly as it is premature.

It can only be hoped that the England team are not indulging in the ridiculous self-congratulatory back-slapping which has been evident amongst the English rugby media who, it appears, have very short memories.

Pride, after all, comes before a fall and England are certainly going to have to be on their mettle this weekend if they are to avoid a rather large banana skin in the form of a French team intent on righting the wrongs of a self-inflicted defeat to Wales in Paris on Friday evening.

Let's enjoy last weekend's win but, for goodness sake, let's wait for a little more evidence of consistent quality from England before getting too excited.

Monday, 4 February 2019

France Rugby - the farce that keeps on giving...

The extent of the muddled thinking amongst French ranks in the second half of Friday's match against Wales - which saw Les Bleus blow a 16-0 lead - has been highlighted further by the admission of Sebastien Vahaamahina that he had no idea he was France's on-field captain during the closing stages of the game.

Vahaamahina, who threw the ludicrous cut-out pass that was intercepted by George North for the the winning try, has admitted that he only found out that he had taken over the captaincy - following the withdrawal of Guilhem Guirado - when informed of the fact by referee Wayne Barnes when being asked what he wanted to do with a penalty award.

You really couldn't make it up...

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Six Nations 2019 Round 1 - the verdict is in


France 19-24 Wales
I mentioned in my Six Nations preview the old cliché that you never know which France will turn up, but Les Bleus took this to another level on Friday evening, such was their advanced degree of schizophrenia. Warren Gatland may claim that the Welsh have "forgotten how to lose" but it is near on impossible to lose when the opposition hand the game to you on a plate. It was almost as if the French team had been on to the bookies at half-time and bet their match fees on a Welsh victory.

Scotland 33-20 Italy
I predicted that the Italians would "give it a right good go" and they did - well, at least they did for the last 15 minutes, by which time Scotland had the game wrapped up without having to be anything other than competent. As usual the Scots looked good in parts and distinctly ordinary in others. But it was a comfortable win first up, so the Scots are still very much in with a shout.

Ireland 20-32 England
Woah. Hand on heart, I was not expecting a performance by England of anywhere near the intensity and accuracy on display from the men in white in Dublin. Ireland tried to play their normal high tempo, physical game but were smashed time and time again behind the gain line by the rabid English defence. If this is the blueprint for the foreseeable future it's going to take a bloody good team to overcome Eddie's boys.

Team of the week:
15. Liam Williams 14. Jonny May 13. Henry Slade 12. Sam Johnson 11. Blair Kinghorn 10. Finn Russell 9. Guglielmo Palazzani 1. Mako Vunipola 2. Jamie George 3. Kyle Sinckler 4. James Ryan 5. Mari Itoje 6. Mark Wilson 7. Tom Curry 8. Louis Picamoles

Friday, 1 February 2019

Six Nations 2019 - Round 1 Predictions


Here again with my utterly unreliable crystal ball ahead of the weekend's Six Nations fixtures.

Anyone familiar with this blog will know that my track record isn't exactly flawless, but here goes...


France v Wales: Friday night in Paris, a feeling in my waters that this has to be victoire pour Les Bleus - France by 6-9 points.

Scotland v Italy: The Italians to give it a right good go, but a comfortable victory for the Scots at Fortress Murrayfield, eventually by 15+ points.

Ireland v England: Flying in the face of logic and almost certainly a case of wishful thinking, but I'm going for a narrow English win - probably by less than 6.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Six Nations 2019: The Total Flanker Preview

Come on folks, it's that time of year again and what you really need now is a wise and insightful guide to the forthcoming seven weeks of Six Nations action.

That may be what you need, but unfortunately this is what you get - my somewhat biased, prejudiced and, frankly, ill-informed preview of what to expect over the next couple of months as the giants of the northern hemisphere (plus Italy) lock horns for bragging rights as to who can regard themselves as the top dogs of Europe.

Despite Ireland starting clear favourites in many people's heads (and deservedly so), my feeling is that potentially this could be one of the most difficult Six Nations to call. The championship is rarely predictable - after all, who honestly foresaw England finishing a horrible 5th last year - and in 2019 it will feature teams ranked 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the world, which suggests a more competitive competition than ever.

Turning to the participants in alphabetical order:

ENGLAND
Who knows? By the end of last year's Six Nations England looked rudderless, lacking in focus, tactically inept and physically drained. Was it a just case of post-Lions fatigue exacerbated by a brutal club schedule, or was it a case of the 2 year Eddie Jones "dead cat bounce" just petering out? England have a talented squad but, bar a handful of players there still remains major uncertainty around what the best England XV looks like and, while a positive result in Dublin is not impossible, it is highly unlikely. Hope springs eternal that England can win the championship but anything below 2nd would, for me, be disastrous.

FRANCE
"You never know which France will turn up" remains a well worn cliché, although to be fair in the last few years the French team has been more reliant on perspiration than inspiration and has been distinctly lacking in joie de vivre. That said, the inclusion of Romain Ntamack in place of Mathieu Bastareaud for the opening fixture against Wales suggests that coach Jacques Brunel starts the Six Nations opting for the rapier ahead of the bludgeon but, such is the lottery that is French selection, that could all change the following week. Difficult away fixtures in Dublin and Twickenham mean that I'd expect no more than a mid-table finish from the French but, to be honest, who knows?

IRELAND
Deserved favourites. Joe Schmidt has built a formidable squad over the last few years with hardly any weaknesses. John Mitchell's comment that Ireland would try to "bore the shit" out of England should be taken as the compliment it was intended to be. The Irish team has mastered the basics of rugby to such an extent that any mistake is a collector's item and a team that makes no mistakes is a very difficult team to beat. It's not boring, it's just ruthlessly efficient and mightily effective. As with any team they are of course beatable but, much like against New Zealand, the opposition now need to play out of their skins to do so.

ITALY
Wooden Spoon certainties. It is difficult to know how Italy can make progress. Italian club teams are improving, as is the national team, but not enough to make an impression on the championship this year. Traditionally Italy start well, but a first-up trip to what is rapidly becoming Fortress Murrayfield is a daunting opener, leaving their best hope for a victory being at home to the Welsh in round 2. Talisman Sergio Parisse will attempt to carry his team once again in the twilight of his stellar career, but sadly I suspect the results will be all too familiar.

SCOTLAND
In with a shout. No doubt that the Scots are the most improved Six Nations team over the last couple of years and their home form, in particular, has been very impressive. Both Ireland and Wales travel to Murrayfield this year, which could well give the bookmakers something of a headache, and I can see Scotland winning at least one of those games, as well as a regulation home win against Italy. Injuries could really test the squad's depth, however, and I would be surprised if Scotland derived any joy from difficult away trips to Paris and Twickenham.

WALES
Gatland's final fling. I have to admit I don't really know what to make of Wales. Much is being made about a successful November but the jury remains out as far as I am concerned. I do confess that I am green with envy over the Welsh openside flanker production line - where they seemingly churn out quality number 7s at the same rate as they used to produce world class number 10s - but the rest of the pack merely looks competent and it has been a while since we have seen fireworks from the Wales backline. Warren Gatland is right, however, when he says that a victory in the opening match in Paris could set them on their way, because subsequent home fixtures against England and Ireland are, although difficult, still winnable. You just never know...


Monday, 28 January 2019

Is scrapping rugby tackle trial a backward step?

I was disappointed to learn that the RFU has abruptly decided to end the trial of a new tackle height law in the Championship Cup whereby players were not allowed to tackle above the armpit.

I understand that there was a an increase (rather than the hoped for decrease) in instances of concussion - from an average of 0.6 per game in the regular Championship to 1 per game in the Championship Cup.

The increase in concussion, however, appears to be only in respect of players tackling opponents who were bent at the waist carrying the ball (with concussions from upright tackles actually falling) so I do wonder whether the RFU's action is somewhat precipitous.

Any change to tackle laws is going to require a period in which players and coaches have to adapt, change behaviours and learn modified techniques - and any trial, I would have thought, needs to give players and coaches the time to do just that.

Yes it's difficult, yes it's challenging, but there was never going to an instant solution to the problem and to abandon a trial at the first sign of difficulty really doesn't help...

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Should Rugby be quite so brutal?

Both Joe Schmidt and Eddie Jones agree, the Six Nations is going to be "brutal".

Schmidt is warning his players to brace themselves for a “brutal” encounter with England on 2nd February while Jones predicts his team will be "brutal" in their pursuit of the Six Nations title.

Brutality has become the watchword for rugby these days and it's all rather depressing.

They could have use words such as "competitive" or "skilful" or "electrifying" - but no, "brutal" is the word of choice.

It may just be a word or perhaps just a way of hyping up a big game, but the choice of language is important - after all, if I'm a parent of a young child, do I really want to introduce my offspring to a sport that is known for its brutality, a sport that has seen four young men die on the rugby pitch in the last 8 months?

Because the sad fact is that the use of the word "brutal" is becoming more and more appropriate when describing the game of rugby. Across the game players continue to get bigger and stronger year on year, collisions get heavier and injuries get more frequent and more serious. And, unless this is addressed - either by changes to the laws or to coaching philosophy - it is only going to get worse.

Those who have followed this blog for a little while will know that I am somewhat rugby-obsessed - I love what has always been a tough, physical game. It is, and always has been, a sport not for the fainthearted, but there will come a point when participation is just not worth the risk, and when the public vote with their feet.

I'm not sure how close we are to that point, but rugby ignores the warning signs at its peril.


Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Woman behaving badly...

England and Saracens flanker Marlie Packer is one lucky woman.

It emerged this week that Packer was convicted of drink driving in November – fined £461 and banned from driving for 17 months – following an incident in September when she collided with another vehicle on the way back from a Saracens pre-season game.

Despite this being her second such offence, the 29 year old Saracen - having been supported by the Rugby Players Association and by England Women’s coach, Simon Middleton - has managed to escape sanction by the RFU and has retained her England place, something that male counterparts like Danny Care and Danny Cipriani, for instance, were not able to do in similar circumstances.

Still, in a way I guess it is comforting to know that it is not just the men behaving badly.

Let's hope that Packer, who to be fair does appear to be remorseful, can learn from this and move on...

Friday, 18 January 2019

Eddie Jones back on form

The suggestion by Eddie Jones that he is considering playing Exeter wing Jack Nowell at openside flanker has to be mischief-making of the highest degree.

And yet the England coach's comments have clearly had the desired effect, as the national media are lapping it up, apparently taking Jones at face value.

It's pretty clear to me that he's just taking the piss. After all, there is no way on earth that he would seriously contemplate selecting a player at flanker at international level who had no experience whatsoever of playing the position, having played all of his rugby at wing or fullback.

Or would he?