Tuesday, 31 December 2019

The Total Flanker Awards 2019

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mesdames et Messieurs, Signore e Signori, Damen und Herren, Damas y Caballeros, a warm welcome to you all to the 13th Annual Total Flanker Awards ceremony as we once again recognise and celebrate the ups and downs of the world of rugby over the past 12 months...

Hard to believe, I know, that another year has flown by and that 2020 - a year that seemed impossibly far into the future when I started playing this wonderful game of ours - looms large on the horizon.

Without further ado, let's hurtle headlong into the awards, starting with the TOTAL FLANKER DEADLY DUO AWARD. Ever since the halcyon days of Neil Back and Richard Hill, English rugby has been searching for an openside flanker worthy of the shirt. And now we have two. Step forward the Kamikaze Kids - Sam Underhill and Tom Curry - who combined to devastating effect in the England back row this Autumn. Injuries and selectoral foibles permitting, England may just have found a world class flanker combination for the next two World Cup cycles.

Next we have the TOTAL FLANKER LET'S MAKE A DRAMA OUT OF A CRISIS AWARD.
This gong is awarded to Premiership Rugby for its handling of the Saracens salary cap breach. I'm sorry, I still don't understand why a breach, which the independent enquiry accepted was not a deliberate attempt to cheat, still deserved the maximum punishment available? The lack of transparency - the details of the case have still not been published - is particularly troublesome, as is the suspicion that one club is being made an example of whilst others appear to be able to make superstar signings at will. I suspect we have not heard the last of this...

Hey ho, moving along, our next award is the TOTAL FLANKER WTF IS GOING ON? AWARD. This particular prize is awarded to former Australia fullback Israel Folau. Having posted some horribly bigoted and homophobic comments on social media - not for the first time - he somehow managed, having rightly been dismissed by Rugby Australia for a serious breach of their code of conduct, to paint himself as some kind of martyr being persecuted for his religious beliefs and was even able to drag an apology out of his cash-strapped governing body as part of an ill-deserved settlement. He may be a bigot, but that was quite some performance from Folau and his legal team.

On a less confrontational note, our next award is the TOTAL FLANKER PEFORMANCE FROM THE GODS AWARD. Where it came from I have no idea, but England's display against the All Blacks in the World Cup semi final was simply fantastic and one for the ages. From as early as the V-shaped response to the Haka you could sense that the England players were about to produce something special - and so they did. It's just a shame - for England fans at least - that (as predicted by Warren Gatland) they failed to reach such heights again the following week. Nevertheless, a performance worthy of this prestigious award.

Our penultimate award this evening is the TOTAL FLANKER YOU WILL BE SORELY MISSED AWARD. This award is shared between a couple of very prominent kiwis, Messrs Warren Gatland and Steve Hansen. Gatland's impact on Welsh and British rugby can not be underestimated, consistently managing to make silk purses from sows’ ears time and time again, while Hansen has presided over unprecedented All Black success with calmness, equanimity and good sportsmanship and without the sanctimony of his predecessor. You will be greatly missed, gentlemen, and have set the bar incredibly high for your respective successors.

And finally to our top award of the evening - the TOTAL FLANKER WELCOME TO THE TOP TABLE AWARD. There can only be one winner - so please step forward Japan, not only for the exciting brilliance of your national team's rugby during the World Cup, but also for the way you dealt with the effects of a devastating typhoon, embraced our wonderful game and hosted a quite magnificent tournament. Japan are now, for me, a Tier One rugby nation in every sense and I hope you get your deserved rewards in the coming months and years.

And that, my friends, is that. 2019 is done and dusted and we now look forward to a fascinating post-RWC 2020. Frankly, I can barely wait!

Thanks to all for your continued indulgence and support as I wish you a very Happy New Year...


Thursday, 19 December 2019

Memories?

I read this week that England tighthead Kyle Sinckler apparently has no memory of the Rugby World Cup final, having been knocked out in a collision with Maro  Itoje’s hip in the opening minutes.

To which the only obvious response is I wish I could say the same.

Monday, 16 December 2019

HUGE Congrats to Doddie Weir

It was an honour and privilege to watch Doddie Weir be awarded the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Helen Rollason Award on TV last night.

The award is given annually "for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity" - something for which Weir is eminently qualified, having thrown himself with typical gusto and good humour into raising more than £4m for research into Motor Neurone Disease and to help those suffering from the disease since his own diagnosis with MND in late 2016.

Much of Doddie's struggle - as well as his life as a rugby player straddling the amateur/professional eras - is documented in his excellent autobiography - My Name'5 Doddie - which I have recently read and which I heartily recommend.

Good luck with your continued fight against this dreadful, debilitating disease Doddie - your award last night was so richly deserved.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Lions in jeopardy?

Much is being made about Premiership Rugby's refusal to bring forward the date of its final in 2020-21, thus further hampering the already tight preparation time for the British and Irish Lions ahead of the South Africa tour next summer.

Many make the point that such intransigence jeopardises the future of such a commercially lucrative enterprise as the Lions.

My point is this: if the Lions is so commercially lucrative then the answer is relatively simple. Either:

- simply make Premiership Rugby a financial offer they can't refuse; or

- demand that the host nation (in this case South Africa, but it applies equally to New Zealand and Australia) - who benefit hugely from the income generated by more than 30,000 travelling fans - create a tour itinerary which allows for sufficient preparation time.


Monday, 9 December 2019

Folau settlement stinks

I am sure that Rugby Australia's decision to reach a settlement last week with Israel Folau was a matter of financial expediency, but it still stinks.

What really sticks in the gullet is the fact that, as part of the settlement, Rugby Australia were made to apologise to Folau's family.

Chief Executive Raelene Castle has hardly covered herself in glory on this one...


Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Rugby Post-gate

On the search, as ever, for a slightly left-field rugby story, I came across the discussion surrounding an innovative tactic, employed by Edinburgh against Munster at the weekend, of lifting the protective padding around the goalposts to prevent the scoring of a try.

The tactic, employed twice by Edinburgh by props Pierre Schoeman and Pietro Ceccarelli, is clearly dangerous and there is no doubt that World Rugby need to make it abundantly clear that such practice is illegal.

That said I have always found the law that enables a try to be scored when a player grounds the ball against the opponents’ goalpost (or surrounding padding) to be grossly archaic, ridiculous and unfair, as it rewards teams for not crossing the whitewash and, from a breakdown on the line and next to the goalposts, makes it impossible to defend the posts without being offside.

World Rugby could do everyone a favour by ruling that the ball must touch the goal line for a try to be awarded...

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Grassroots Rugby - Game On


I am really quite impressed by "GAME ON" -  the new initiative soon to be launched by New Zealand Rugby.

Brought in to try to avoid matches being defaulted, from next season school or club teams can turn up with a minimum of 10 players and, with the agreement of the opposition, still play a match.

GAME ON is designed to apply to all levels below senior first XV and therefore hopefully will help  address the drop off in playing numbers, especially in the late teen age grades.

With flexibility around match duration, uncontested scrums and rolling subs also part of the initiative,    I think it's a smart and innovative way to keep people playing rugby - which, after all, is the whole point of grassroots rugby.

This is something the RFU should seriously consider plagiarising!!




Tuesday, 26 November 2019

England lose Wise Man (tel)

With sincere apologies for the awful headline, the loss of Scott Wisemantel from the England coaching staff could turn out to be a huge blow for Eddie Jones.

Given how Wisemantel has transformed the English attack since joining the coaching team in the summer of 2018, I would have thought it imperative that the RFU move swiftly to re-secure his services posy World Cup.

As ever, however, the RFU have been caught napping and it is likely that Dave Rennie and Australia will benefit, Wisemantel having been tipped join the Australia set-up.

Wisemantel is the second member of England's staff to seek pastures new after scrummaging coach Neal Hatley who left to rejoin Bath and, while England's scrummaging performance in the World Cup Final suggests that Hatley's departure may not be such a huge loss, I do fear for England's attacking prowess without Wisemantel's input.

It will be informative to see who, if anyone, replaces him. Personally I'd like to see a bit of left-field thinking from Eddie Jones and the the likes of former Fiji 7s coach, Ben Ryan, given the gig...

Monday, 25 November 2019

Melbourne Magic

Magical news from down-under where Melbourne Rebels have announced the signing of wing wizard (see what I did there?) Harry Potter.

The English-born former Hogwarts Quidditch seeker has apparently been in spellbinding form for Sydney University and will hope to make his Super Rugby debut for the Rebels in 2020.

In other news it is expected that the Brumbies will this week announce the signing of former University of Queensland lock Tom Voldemort...

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Good luck Tom Smith

This blog's very best wishes go out to Tom Smith and his family, as the 48 year old former Scotland and Lions prop battles against stage four colorectal cancer which has spread to his liver and brain.

One of my favourite rugby memories was watching - on a small screen in a local pub - the relatively diminutive Smith, Keith Wood and Paul Wallace take on the mighty South African front row of Du Randt, Drotske and Garvey on the 1997 Lions tour and emerge victorious.

Smith's performances on that tour were typically brave and he will need all the bravery that he can muster this time around.

I am sure the entire world of rugby will rally round in support of Tom Smith and his family.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Saracens accept sanctions

I'd like to think that that the statement by Saracens that the club will not contest the recent ruling of the independent panel in relation to salary cap breaches will draw a line under the whole sorry saga.

I'd like to think so, but I doubt it will happen.

If it is true that the independent panel accepted that the club have “not deliberately sought to circumvent the regulations” - then the £5m+ fine and 35 point deduction remains, for me, utterly draconian and vindictive.

It seems that the club has, however, decided to accept the punishment in the hope that both they and the English domestic game can move on.

There will still be those who will continue to bang on about "systematic cheating" and demand that Sarries be stripped of their titles won. Perhaps, however, those people should start looking closer to home before making such demands.

And, Saracens being such a close-knit bunch, it wouldn't surprise me at all if their England contingent decided to put club before country this coming Six Nations to try to help ensure Premiership survival.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Folau plumbs new depths of bigotry

I can't express just how disgusted I am at Israel Folau's latest comments linking Australia's bush fires to the country's same-sex marriage laws.
Folau has described the fires - which have claimed several lives - as a "little taste of God's judgement".
Let's be clear. This appalling man is not a Christian. He is merely a bigot.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Shaun Edwards - il est Bleu!

So, with the announcement this week that Shaun Edwards has joined the French national set up as defence coach, it looks like England will miss out on his services for at least another 4 years.

I've previously touted Edwards as a possible successor to Eddie Jones. After all, how may other coaches out there (a) are English; (b) have extensive international coaching experience (with Wales and the Lions); and (c) as Head Coach have a CV which includes winning the Heineken Cup, European Challenge Cup and 3 Premiership titles?

Who knows? Perhaps it will all go a bit pear-shaped in France (the arrival of Edwards will certainly be something of a culture shock for the French players) and it's anyone's guess right now how long Eddie jones will remain in situ. 

As things stand, however, it looks as if the RFU have, once again, missed the boat.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

In support of the Blazers...

Interesting article over on the In The Loose blog, highlighting an apparent stagnation within grassroots rugby and the need for those in charge of grassroots and community clubs to either evolve or face extinction.

The piece contains some valid points, but my main 'beef' (to use a phrase my son might use) with it is the overriding implication that the current situation is somehow the fault of the "aged and backward" volunteer committee men and that unless younger people are involved in the decision-making process at club level then grassroots rugby is somehow doomed.

What the author (who happens to be 20) fails to acknowledge, it seems, is that without the selfless dedication of the "Blazers" and the many others who volunteer their time to perform all sorts of unglamorous tasks behind the scenes, grassroots and community rugby clubs simply would not exist.

It is the same for all amateur sports - past players staying involved and 'giving back' to the sport by volunteering their time to ensure that the club thrives for future generations.

This evening, for example, I am attending a meeting for the youth section of my rugby club. All of those attending will, I'm sure, be middle-aged (men and women), mainly because the youth section is, for the most part, run by volunteer parents. The committee for the senior section of the club does feature a slightly younger cast but, in the main, again it is dominated by people who have the necessary time, interest and willingness to offer their time and services free of charge.

Yes, ideally it would be nice if there was a "changing of the guard" but I guess my point is that there exists no lengthy waiting list of 20-somethings desperate to volunteer their services. It's hardly that surprising - they almost certainly have far more interesting things occupying their lives - but, believe me, if such a list existed they would all undoubtedly be welcomed with open arms.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Basta - Back and Forward?

According to the headlines, coach Eddie Jones has devised a new playing position - "back and forward" for Mathieu Bastareaud ahead of the Barbarians encounter with Fiji at Twickenham this Saturday.
Which is all a bit self-evident really as the former French international centre has been (successfully, it seems) turning out in the back row while on loan Lyon (prior to his move to Rugby United New York next year).
And, anyway, we all know that at heart he's a frustrated tighthead prop. 😂

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Jungle James

Time to get serious now.



It has been announced that one of this blog's favourite characters - James Haskell - will feature in this year's "I'm a Celebrity - Get me Out of Here".

Ahead of his proposed MMA debut in 2020, Haskell will enter the Australian jungle next Sunday alongside the likes of Ian Wright and Caitlyn Jenner, amongst others.

Given the likelihood of significant weight loss whilst having to survive on rice, beans and kangaroo's gonads, perhaps Haskell is contemplating life as a middleweight?

Let the entertainment begin...


Monday, 11 November 2019

Unpleasant

Yesterday morning I, as usual, ran touch for my son's rugby team - away at a club that shall remain nameless.

Now, normally when I'm flag-waving I share a level of friendly and light-hearted banter with those on the sidelines - opposition coaches, parents, spectators etc - and, at least in the early part of yesterday's match, it was business as usual.

As the match progressed, however, and as it became increasingly obvious that the home team were likely to lose a closely-fought contest, a combination of opposition parents plus boys who were supposedly on the bench ( I say "boys" but at Under 18 level that's not really the case), grew increasingly loud and aggressive, patrolling up and down the touchline, criticising refereeing decisions, abusing our team and and winding up their own boys playing on the pitch.

Not far short of a baying mob, to be honest, and the final act - me raising my flag to indicate a player being pushed into touch - was met also met by a torrent of abuse.

Our boys, to be fair, kept their composure and saw out the win, but it was a thoroughly unpleasant and depressing experience, at least for me.

The worst part, I think, was that the coaches on the sidelines, whilst not actively involved, did nothing to discourage behaviour which does nothing for their club's reputation. I know for certain that similar behaviour from our boys (or their parents) simply would not be tolerated.

So much for the spirit of rugby...

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Whither England (post-RWC 2019)?

A week on from the disappointment of last Saturday, where do England go from here?

As previously mentioned, England can look back upon the 2019 World Cup with a certain degree of satisfaction, despite the gut-wrenching disappointment of failing to perform on the biggest stage of all against the Springboks in the Final.

The high point for the England squad was without doubt their semi-final performance against the All Blacks, when all the stars aligned as Eddie Jones’ men played very close to the perfect game. That they couldn’t replicate that performance in the Final will, however, be of immense frustration to the players and the management.

Nevertheless, from a playing personnel perspective England undoubtedly remain in a good place – with very few players being north of 30. Most of the squad (fitness and form permitting) will probably be available in 4 years time and so on the face of it there is little need for a post-RWC cull.

The question is, though, how soon does Eddie Jones move on from those players unlikely to be around in France in 2023? Post World Cup he has already said that this England team is “finished” and that he will “make a new team for the Six Nations” but what does he mean?

It is clear that scrum half is a position that needs addressing given that Ben Youngs is currently 30, and his RWC deputy, Willi Heinz is 32. It’s a position in which Jones failed to build depth over the last 4 year cycle – with only the discarded Danny Care (another 30-something) getting any significant game time other than Youngs. Jones – assuming he stays – will not want to make the same mistake again.

Other players the wrong side of 30 are Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes and Mark Wilson. While I can’t see Cole featuring again, the latter two still have plenty to offer, at least in the short term, so I would be surprised if they were jettisoned early doors.

Eddie Jones being Eddie Jones, I am sure we will get a few curve balls when the squad for the 2020 Six Nations is announced. Following that performance against the All Blacks, however, England could come bottom of the Six Nations and, quite frankly, all would be forgiven.

Aside from whether players will be around in 4 years time, the issues facing Jones are pretty much the same as he has faced for the last few seasons, namely:

- Lack of depth at scrum half (see above)

- Over-reliance on Billy Vunipola at 8 – Billy didn’t have a bad World Cup, but did appear to coast at times and could do with some genuine competition

- Deciding on his optimum midfield – will the Ford/Farell axis continue and what is his best 12/13 combination?

- Fullback – as things stand it can’t possibly remain Elliot Daly, can it?

- Leadership and how certain players react under pressure.

There is also the question of what effect Premiership Rugby's 35 point sanction on Saracens might have. I can quite see for instance, should the sanction stand, Saracens players choosing to prioritise their club this season, which could decimate the England squad.

Finally there remains the question of how long Eddie Jones will stick around. He is contracted for another 2 years but, with the Aussies sniffing around, could he be tempted home? Even if he stays, should the RFU push for him to sign up for the full 4 year cycle? And if Eddie does go, what next?

Friday, 8 November 2019

Dylan Hartley retires

Good luck to Dylan Hartley following the announcement that he has retired from professional rugby after failing to recover from a long-standing knee injury.

Not everyone's cup of tea, Hartley's playing career was beset by a litany of on-field disciplinary issues, but off the field by all accounts he was a gent, and England owe him a great debt of gratitude for his leadership post 2015 World Cup.

I suspect we'll see him coaching before too long...

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Rugby World Cup 2019: the Legacy?

One of the lasting legacies of RWC 2019 in Japan is, one would hope, the recognition that so-called tier 2 nations need to be exposed to a higher standard of rugby on a more regular basis.

This follows the series of remarkable performances by host nation Japan who defeated both Ireland and Scotland in the pool stages before finally succumbing to eventual champions South Africa in the quarter finals.

Quite rightly there have been noises from both the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship about inviting Japan to join their competition.

But it seems that the thinking has progressed beyond merely rewarding Japan.

Earlier this year World Rugby proposed launching a global “Nations Championship” consisting of 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 and with promotion and relegation to and from the league.

Rather short-sightedly I labelled the proposal a “crap idea” owing to the extra burden it would put on already overworked players and, lo and behold, the proposal was duly abandoned – not, I hasten to add, owing to player welfare concerns, but because certain northern hemisphere unions refused to countenance the risk of relegation. 

Now, however, talk of a world championship series is back on the table, with a seemingly less demanding playing schedule, involving the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams plus Japan and Fiji.

All good, one might think, if it creates more opportunities for the leading nations to play one another and establishes a more coherent international calendar. 

The crucial difference to the previous proposal, however, is that the competition would be ring-fenced, excluding the likes of Georgia, USA, Samoa and Tonga – which is hardly going to improve the lot of tier 2 nations in general.

So in other words, plenty of extra revenue for the top table, while the rest continue feed off the crumbs…

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Saracens in deep water

As if defeat in the World Cup Final wasn't bad enough, the likes of Owen Farrell, the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George, Jack Singleton, Eliot Daly and Ben Spencer have returned to the UK to learn that their club - Saracens - has been handed a 35-point deduction and fined £5m+ after having been found to have breached Premiership Rugby salary cap regulations.

Whilst still subject to appeal, the seemingly draconian punishment not only ends Saracens' chances of making the Premiership play offs this season (effectively they will play Gloucester this weekend on -26 points), relegation is now a real possibility and the £5m+ fine must surely threaten the club's financial viability and thus its very existence. Not to mention the potential effect on the England squad going forward. 

Whilst other clubs may be rubbing their hands in glee, such a punishment sets such a potentially dangerous precedent that I doubt any of the clubs can be 100% sure that their own financial arrangements are watertight. 

If the sanction stands it will be biggest scandal ever to hit English rugby.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Rugby World Cup 2019: the Verdict is in

Some brief reflections on Rugby World Cup 2019:

The Hosts – Huge congratulations to the Japanese hosts - you put on a fantastic tournament which was embraced the length and breadth of your country. Even the terrible tragedy wrought by Super Typhoon Hagibis could not dim your enthusiasm nor dampen your spirits. Thank you, it was remarkable, and you should be hugely proud of your efforts.

Japan - I had a sneaking suspicion that the Brave Blossoms would set this competition alight and was delighted to be proved right. Japan now deserves its place at the top table and it is incumbent on World Rugby and on all of the tier one nations not only to accommodate Japan into a tier one competition, but to also provide a pathway for the likes of Fiji, the USA etc who are also not a million miles away (more of this in another post).

The Final - not the greatest game (unless you you happen to be South African), spoilt by a combination of certain England players crumbling under pressure as well as maddening inconsistency from Monsieur Garces. That's not an excuse, by the way, England were clearly second best in nearly every facet of the game on the day and South Africa, fuelled by potent cultural forces, were simply superior and never looked like losing. Congratulations to them - richly deserved.

Whither England? - to be dealt with in a different post but - despite the disappointment of defeat in the Final - in the cold light of day Eddie Jones' men can look back on the World Cup with a degree of satisfaction. Yes, the Springboks were a step too far but, in making their 4th Rugby World Cup Final, England remain one of only five nations ever to have graced that stage. And, with one of the youngest squads out in Japan, the future should be bright so long as the World Cup hangover does not linger too long.

The Future - talk of increasing the number of participating teams to 24 is premature. What this tournament showed is that the gap between the tiers is narrowing (no thrashings even approaching 100 points this time around) and continuing this trend should be the priority. What this World Cup also showed was that hosting the competition outside the traditional rugby superpowers was an inspired choice and should be explored again for 2027. Personally I'd like to see it in Argentina.

TF Team of the Tournament15. Beauden Barrett 14. Cheslin Kolbe 13. Virimi Vakatawa 12. Damian De Allende 11. Josh Adams 10. Handre Pollard 9. Faf de Klerk 1. Tendai Mtawarira 2. Shota Horie 3. Frans Malberbe 4. Maro Itoje 5. Lood De Jager 6. Ben Curry 7. Sam Underhill 8. Duane Vermeulen.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Small mercies

At least yesterday's result means that we won't have to endure any more of this BOLLOCKS...


Friday, 1 November 2019

Rugby World Cup Final Preview

So, with the slight irrelevance of who came third out of the way, here it comes - the Final of the Rugby World Cup 2019.

As I type this I'm beginning to feel slightly sick - a case of peaking way too early. I can only hope the England boys handle nerves better than I do.

Back in early August I opined that South Africa would win the World Cup. And now here they are in the Final, which would be a totally scary prospect had I not got so many predictions wrong during this tournament.

Based purely on the semi-final against the All Blacks, it has to be England (doesn't it?) except that history shows that knocking the All Blacks out of the World Cup does not necessarily lead to being champions - see France in '99, Australia in '03, France in '07 as examples.

Could it be that Warren Gatland is correct - that England may have already played their final? I hope not - and a re-watch of the semi-final against New Zealand does show a number of missed first-half opportunities by England in the All Black 22, so there is definitely still room for improvement and for this team to get better. Let's hope that they do that on Saturday.

As for South Africa, we all think we know what they will be bring and I seriously doubt that, unlike England in the '91final, they will be duped into attempting to play a significantly more expansive game than we've seen so far. Their threats are obvious - a monster pack, a solid midfield, Faf de Klerk and Cheslin Kolbe.

It is likely to be tense. It is likely to be close.

The heart says England.

The head says England.

But in reality it's a 50/50 game.

I'm firmly on the fence and, frankly, I'm bricking it.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Haka fine makes World Rugby look silly

Much has been made this week of England being fined a "four figure sum" for their V-shaped response to New Zealand's haka last Saturday.

I'm sure the RFU can afford it but I honestly haven't seen a single comment, whether from New Zealanders or otherwise, where anyone had a problem with the England team's actions.

Other than World Rugby, of course, who continue impose ludicrous, artificial protocols on how the Maori challenge ought to be received.

Contrary to popular belief I have no issue whatsoever with the All Blacks performing their haka - it is often great theatre (last Saturday being a case in point).

But for World Rugby to continue to legislate on how the opposition should behave during this choreographed showpiece is just silly.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The Game Nobody Wants to Play

The "make sure he enjoys the third and fourth place play-off" jibe aimed by Eddie Jones at Warren Gatland, after Gatland had suggested that England had already played their World Cup Final in beating New Zealand last week, was right on the money.
Because, after seven long weeks,  no one - not the players, not the coaches and not even the fans - are interested in a fixture to decide who comes third. I mean, who really cares?
After a semi-final defeat I'm sure the vast majority of players simply want to slope off home. I know I would.
The third-fourth play off is the game nobody wants to play.
World Rugby should seriously consider canning it for future tournaments.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Wales depart wondering...

If I was a Welsh rugby fan - which I'm not - I'd be a little bit angry this morning.

Not because Wales lost to South Africa yesterday, per se, but because they ultimately departed the World Cup barely firing a shot.

I simply don't buy the "we gave it our all and played our hearts out for 80 minutes" argument - that's the bare minimum I'd expect. No, what would annoy me intensely would be the fact that Wales failed to do much more than phase, phase, kick throughout the game.

The one occasion they risked their hand - from a scrum in the Springbok 22 - they scored a well-worked try. Surely that should have been the blueprint for the game rather than the kicking fest it turned out to be?

I appreciate it was difficult but the Welsh do have players who can play expansive rugby and yet stuck to a kick and chase strategy (one wag on Twitter noting that the ball probably gained enough airmiles for the flight home) which was palpably failing.

Yes, they came close and, who knows, playing a more expansive game may also have failed, but the galling thing is that they'll never know.

There must be an overwhelming and lingering sense of a massive missed opportunity and I know that I would be seriously disappointed had England gone out in a similar fashion.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Dear Eddie Jones...

Dear Eddie

There have been times, especially during the dark days of 2018, when I have questioned the direction in which you were taking your England team and when talk of being the no.1 team in the world and of winning the World Cup seemed utterly fanciful at best and seriously delusional at worst.

I have questioned selections, I have questioned tactics and I have questioned training methods.

I take it all back.

Yesterday's utterly dominant performance against the All Blacks was, quite simply, one for the ages. New Zealand are a seriously great rugby team and yet were made to look ordinary. At no stage did they ever really look like scoring and, but for one mis-thrown lineout, would almost certainly have scored no points at all. That's how much of a stranglehold your team had on the game. It was simply brilliant.

No matter what happens now, whoever England face in the final and whatever the outcome, that one performance against New Zealand will forever define your era as England Head Coach.

Well done Eddie.

Yours sincerely

Total Flanker

PS - whoever it was that whispered in your ear that it might be worth combining Sam Underhill and Tom Curry on the flanks for England must be in line for a seriously humongous bonus.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Rugby World Cop 2019: Semi-Finals Preview



And then there were four - although admittedly not the four that I forecasted last week.

My fears last weekend that an undercooked England would succumb to a fired-up Australia proved to be unfounded, largely thanks to a magnificent defensive shift put in by the English and the "just chuck it about and see what happens" strategy adopted by Michael Cheika's men. England ran out deserved winners but will need to crank it up another level or two this weekend if they are to match the All Blacks who were at their clinical and ruthless best against a lacklustre Ireland last time out.

England vs the All Blacks should be one heck of a test match but, although my heart says England, I'm afraid my head is saying New Zealand by 9. Here's hoping that I'm as accurate as I was for England's quarter-final.

As for the other semi-final, Wales are going to have to show a massive improvement from their frankly awful performance against France if they are to make their first ever World Cup final. I'm afraid I just don't buy the "they've forgotten how to lose" and "somehow they found a way to win" rhetoric. The only reason Wales are in the semi-final is that the quarter-final was handed to them by Sebastian Vahaamahina's idiocy. And even then they needed a decidedly dodgy decision from Jaco Peyper to seal it.

As for South Africa - they played the role of party-pooper against Japan with a ruthless intensity and I'd expect more of the same vs Wales. The Springboks will undoubtedly, however, miss the electrifying talent of the injured Cheslin Kolbe but Wales will need a fully fit and firing Jonathan Davies back in the team if they are to stand a chance of progressing further. 

That said, before the tournament started I thought the most likely outcome would be a New Zealand vs South Africa final and, sad to say, I've seen nothing to convince me otherwise. South Africa to therefore beat Wales by 7+.



Wednesday, 23 October 2019

South Leicester RFC - a cautionary tale

Away from the build up to the Rugby World Cup semi-finals, I am sorry to learn about the plight of South Leicester RFC who have endured an awful start to life in the Midlands Premier league having last season been relegated from the national leagues.

Having already conceded over 100 points on 5 occasions this season, South Leicester's season reached rock bottom last weekend as they went down 240-0 to Bromsgrove, conceding 36 tries (at a rate of nearly 2 tries per minute) in the process.

Relegation last season led to a loss of sponsors, meaning the club could no longer pay players, with over 30 players subsequently departing a club who now struggle to put together a team.

Remarkably South Leicester are not, at the time of writing, bottom of Midlands Premier - that honour goes to Peterborough Lions (also relegated from the national leagues last season) by virtue of the fact that they have been docked points for failing to fulfil a fixture. A third relegated team, Birmingham and Solihull, has been forced to drop out of the league entirely and now play in the Birmingham Merit Leagues.

All of which highlights the ultimate folly - as I have previously mentioned - of clubs below the elite level paying their players, something which more or less inevitably leads to an over-reliance on sponsors.

South Leicester, to their credit, are attempting to re-build the club on a sustainable model and you have to admire those players who continue to turn up week after week despite taking hammering after hammering. At some point in the not too distant future hopefully the club can find its proper level, rediscover the joys of amateurism, and thrive as a self-funding, community-based organisation.

I wish them all the luck in the world...

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Sayonara Vahaamahina

Interesting to see that French lock, Sebastien Vahaamahina - following the most idiotic red card in Rugby World Cup history - has decided to retire from international rugby.

Vahaamahina, who thought it might a splendid idea to swing an elbow viciously into the face of Welshman Aaron Wainwright - with France ahead and in control in the second half against Wales in Sunday's quarter final and with a driving maul edging forward in the opposition's 22 -  has obviously taken the decision to jump before being pushed.

I said at the time of the incident that Vahaamahina should never play for France again and it looks as if that may well happen.

Vahaamahina's day was hardly improved, however, by match referee Jaco Peyper who, having sent the Frenchman off and then awarded a decidedly dodgy try to decide the game in Wales' favour, posed for this picture - mocking Vahaamahina's actions - with Welsh fans afterwards.



One of those that may have seemed funny at the time but on reflection...

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Eddie blinks first

It is just possible that, by dropping George Ford and breaking up the Ford-Farrell midfield axis, Eddie Jones has made his first mistake of this World Cup.

I hope I'm wrong, but it smacks of uncertainty and is reminiscent of Stuart Lancaster's decision to omit Ford from the 2015 Pool game against Wales, throwing Sam Burgess into the fray at inside centre (and the rest is history).

It also leaves Manu Tuilagi to fill the 12 shirt this time around and, while a huge fan of Henry Slade at 13, I'm not convinced that Tuilagi is entirely comfortable in the inside centre channel, particularly in defence.

Jones may have been saved, however, by Michael Cheika's decision to hand 19 year old Jordan Petaia the 13 shirt for Australia. Petaia is a huge talent, no doubt, but to expect him to play outside centre internationally for the first time in a World Cup quarter final is a huge ask.

I guess we'll wait and see...

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Rugby World Cup 2019 - Quarter Final predictions

So my Pool predictions didn't quite work out to plan, although at least my call on Japan making the final eight was bang on the money.

Now it is time to look ahead to the weekend's quarter finals:

England v Australia
Hmmm. This one concerns me. There's nothing I've seen from Australia so far that should worry England on Saturday but, equally, the English have been somewhat flat in their serene progress so far. If England can go up through the gears they certainly have enough to beat this Australian team. I have a horrible feeling however that this could be the Aussies' day. I really hope I'm wrong, but Australia by 9.

New Zealand v Ireland
There's little doubt that the Irish, bit by bit, are closing in on the form that saw them beat the All Blacks in 2016 and 2018 and New Zealand will be wary of a repeat. Since then, however, both England and Wales have demonstrated that if you deny the Irish go-forward ball there appears to be no Plan B and the lesson will not have been lost on Steve Hansen. Improved as Ireland may be I can only see an AllBlack win here - by 12 to 16 points.

Wales v France
The simplest of predictions. If Wales have any ambitions to be World Champions they must see off the French team comfortably. While France do have some talented individuals, as a team they remain shambolic. Wales, on the other hand, lack individual spark but are organised, ruthless and tactically very smart. Wales should have this one wrapped up by half time and eventually win by 20+.

Japan v South Africa
For anyone who isn't Scottish, it is truly fantastic to see the Japanese in the last eight - richly deserved after a series of high-octane, eye-catching performances, culminating in a wonderful final Pool victory over the Scots. And now for South Africa - perceived wisdom is that this will be one game too far for the Brave Blossoms, with the Springboks just too big, too powerful and too experienced. Hmm, I'm not so sure. There is a certain momentum behind the Japanese now - with the entire nation behind them - and I'm not sure that even the mighty Boks will be able to derail that. Against the odds I'm going for a narrow Japan victory by 4 points.


Monday, 14 October 2019

Rugby World Cup: That was the weekend that was

Firstly, sincere sympathies and condolences to all those in Japan who have suffered loss during the devastation caused by Super Typhoon Hagibis. 

The fact that any rugby was played at all was a remarkable achievement by all concerned. And what fantastic rugby we all witnessed as the weekend came to a climax with a quite astounding clash between Scotland and Japan. 

Any suggestion beforehand that the Japanese would have been happy to have the game cancelled in order to progress serenely to the quarter-finals was laid to rest as Japan tore into Scotland with a simply magnificent first half performance. That Scotland stayed in the game and made a fight of it was a credit to them, but Japan were just superb and proved once and for all to the world of rugby that they deserve a place at the top table. Brilliant.

Earlier in the day Irish legend Brian O'Driscoll had suggested, following Bundee Aki's red card against Samoa, that "the big hit is gone" from the game as a consequence of World Rugby's continued crackdown on high tackles.

I don't think that's strictly true - witness Semi Radrada's perfectly timed hit on Liam Williams in the Wales v Fiji clash - but what is correct is that players do now have to re-model their technique and not risk any tackle which might be reckless or dangerous which, in my humble opinion, can only be a good thing and has been a long time coming.

Back to Hagibis, and chapeau to the Canadian rugby squad who, having had their match against Namibia cancelled owing to the devastation caused by the storm, decided to roll up their sleeves and assist with recovery efforts in Kamaishi.

Good to see that the spirit of rugby remains alive and kicking.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Scotland lack perspective

There was something more than a little distasteful about the fuss made by Scotland when faced with the prospect of having their pool match with Japan cancelled owing to the effects Super Typhoon Hagibis.

As things turn out, the game is going ahead, but for the Scots to be threatening legal action had the game been cancelled showed an alarming lack of perspective.

Hagibis has killed at least 18 with many more injured and lives ruined.

Yes, going out of the World Cup owing to the weather would have been unfair. Sometimes, however, that's just the way life works out.

At the end of the day it is just rugby.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Super Typhoon Hagibis impacts Rugby World Cup


If Super Typhoon Hagibis hits Tokyo on Saturday - as it is scheduled to do - then the decision to cancel the the England v France and New Zealand v Italy matches on safety grounds is, surely, the right call.

Clearly you can't play rugby in a super typhoon, although whether the organisers ought to have had contingency plans to play the fixtures elsewhere is another matter.

As things stand, the cancelled fixtures do not have a significant bearing on the tournament with qualification from pools B and C already settled (more or less).

Pool A, however, is a different story.

If Japan v Scotland on Sunday is cancelled then Japan go through as pool winners and Scotland go home.

Scotland would, effectively, be knocked out of the World Cup by the weather.

Which would be as unfair as it would be extraordinary.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

England: Focus on France

The school of thought that suggests that it might be a good idea for England to lose to France this Saturday, thus coming 2nd in their Pool and avoiding a possible semi-final against New Zealand, is a school that deserves to fail any OFSTED inspection miserably.

If England have any realistic ambitions to be World Champions they simply have to aim to win all of their matches, no matter the opposition. 

Plotting a more strategic route to the final, while all very clever in theory, would still mean getting past (probably) Wales and South Africa. Hardly easy, especially once that elusive winning momentum has been sacrificed.

No, England's sole focus for now has to be on beating France any which way they can. Then, and only then, should they turn their attention to their next opponents, whoever they may be. 

Eddie - pick the strongest team available to you to play the French - you know it makes sense.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Lavanini red card 100% correct

I was surprised to read various below-the-fold comments over the weekend suggesting that Tomas Lavanini's head shot on Owen Farrell on Saturday was deserving of anything other than the red card he received.

The comments appeared to suggest that Farrell was somehow complicit in nearly having his head removed from his shoulders and that Lavanini's actions were somehow accidental.

Nonsense. When we coach players how to tackle one of the things we tell them is to look at the target. Watching the footage of Lavanini's tackle it is clear that he looked Farrell straight in the eye before launching his shoulder at Farrell's head. There was nothing accidental about it whatsoever.

Yes, the incident spoiled the game as a spectacle and pretty much ended Argentina's chances of victory there and then.

But World Rugby's stance on such dangerous, reckless and illegal tackles is absolutely 100% correct.

Players simply have to change their behaviours and coaches have to stop making irresponsible comments defending players who transgress (yes, I'm talking to you, Mr Cheika).

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Total Flanker: the Rugby Clairvoyant strikes again

All Black flanker Ardie Savea will become the first player to wear goggles in a Rugby World Cup game when he runs out against Canada on Wednesday.

Savea apparently has poor vision in his left eye and says that a fear of sustaining damage to his other eye, and risking blindness, is the reason he will now wear the specially designed goggles.

Which is fair enough, but what is not generally known is that I, in my own facetious way, saw this coming years ago…

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Uruguay make history

WOW.

Just WOW.

Fiji 27 Uruguay 30.

Safe to say that no one, but no one, saw that coming. One of the most incredible results in World Cup history.

I'm certainly now regretting my decision not to get up at the crack of dawn (I only caught the last 20 mins or so) for this one.

Watch out Wales and Australia!


Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Rugby World Cup - referees' tolerance of dangerous tackles cannot continue

What on earth does it take to get sent off at this Rugby World Cup?

Today two blatant and brutal first-half head shots in two minutes on Russian skipper Vasily Artemyev, by Samoa's Rey Lee-Lo and Motu Matu’u respectively, were somehow only deemed yellow card offences by referee Romain Poite who bizarrely decided that there were "mitigating circumstances".

The only mitigating circumstance in each case as far as I could see was that Artemyev's head somehow remained on his shoulders.

Lee-Lo then returned to the field later to rub salt into Russian wounds by scoring one of Samoa's six tries.

There's little doubt that, had the correct decisions been made and red cards issued, Russia - leading 6-5 at the time - would have had a great chance of a famous World Cup upset.

More important, however, is the precedent that this sets. 

Whilst supportive of referees' desire not to unduly influence games by issuing unnecessary red cards, players simply have to be protected from such dangerous, reckless and illegal tackles before something catastrophic happens.

World Rugby has to get much tougher on this issue. And lengthy suspensions for Lee-Lo and Motu Matu’u, and for Australia's Reece Hodge, would be a start.