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.