Tuesday, 26 June 2018

England need to master eight

England's back row, or the balance thereof, has been the subject of debate for many a year, with the combination reaching its nadir in this year's Six Nations when it featured a second row (Lawes) at blindside flanker, a blindside flanker (Robshaw) at openside, and a Billy Vunipola-lite option (Hughes) at number 8.

In Eddie Jones' first year in charge Billy Vunipola's power game, ably supported by two 6½s (Robshaw and Haskell) was instrumental in getting England on the front foot and affording space to the half backs.

Clearly Plan A for Eddie Jones.

Unfortunately, in Billy's frequent injury absences since 2016, there does not appear to have been a Plan B other than to ask the inferior Hughes to do the same job but not as well or to give the seriously rapid Sam Simmonds a go but not alter the gameplan accordingly.

What Jones and his coaches must surely understand is that - in the continued absence of the overlooked Ben Morgan - there is no suitable like-for-like candidate to replace Billy.

Ergo, the gamelan must change.

It is perfectly possible to play international rugby without a big bruising number 8 making the hard yards. After all, Kieran Read, for instance, plays a much more fluid game for New Zealand, as does Toby Faletau for Wales - just two examples.

And given that England can field a back three including the the likes of May, Watson and Daly, it's not exactly rocket science to suggest that a faster back row, including a seriously mobile number 8, might be the way to go?

As for candidates for the role - I'd look at Zach Mercer, or Sam Simmonds, or perhaps Don Armand, or maybe Brad Shields, all of whom could bring something a little different to the position. Partnered with one or both of the Curry twins, or Sam Underhill perhaps, England might then just be able to play at the tempo required for international rugby.

Monday, 25 June 2018

10 things we've learned from the June Rugby Internationals

1. Let's not try to pretend that England are anything other than in crisis, notwithstanding ending their losing streak in a dead rubber, in wet conditions, on a slow track, against an understrength Springbok side in Cape Town.

2. Jonny May, however, is now a fully-fledged international class winger.

3. Jury is out on the Springboks. The core of a very good team is there but the Rugby Championship will tell us more.

4. Wales will be very happy with a 2-0 series win, having rested several senior players, albeit against a poor Argentina team.

5. Whether Wales are now (according to an overly smug Warren Gatland) "poles apart" from England remains to be seen. Don't forget Eddie Jones was in exactly the same position 12 months ago.

6. Scotland remain an enigma - spectacular on occasion but still horribly inconsistent.

7. The significance of the USA's first victory against a tier one nation (Scotland) should not be under-estimated.

8. Ireland are now an admirably efficient and ruthless outfit. Can they maintain their form through to the World Cup and will efficiency and ruthlessness, in the absence of a splash of inspiration, be enough?

9. Australia don't look that far away from being a more than decent team - and again I guess the Rugby Championship will reveal more.

10. After a routine and relatively comfortable series win for New Zealand (albeit with some generous officiating at times) against a competitive but limited France, the All Blacks remain the benchmark...

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Whatever happened to: Diversity?

I look at rugby today and wonder when it all changed.

When, exactly, did everyone become so massive? Whatever happened to diversity?

Once upon a time rugby was a sport for all – whatever your shape, size or personality there was a place for you in the team.

Short and gobby? Scrum half.

Like a pie and a pint? Why not try propping? 

Nuggety psycho? Hooker’s your position, old chap.

Lanky with no co-ordination? Try the second row mate.

Barely ten stone wringing wet? Let’s keep you out of harm’s way on the wing, son.

This principle even applied at the elite level where all that was required was the addition of a generous splash of talent and a modicum of fitness and dedication to make it to the top (ok, so I’m exaggerating here for dramatic effect, but you know what I mean). Think Gareth Chilcott or Mike Slemen, for instance, for examples of players at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Nowadays everyone – certainly in the professional game – is a finely tuned athletic specimen of muscle and sinew, able to squat and bench press obscene amounts of weight and, when required, run through brick walls. Scarily it is becoming increasingly common for backs at the top level to be bigger and stronger than the forwards that played internationally when I was a lad. That’s just not right and proper.

Even at grassroots level, at any amateur junior club with any ambition whatsoever physical conditioning is beginning to play a major part, with abs replacing flab at an alarming rate.

The only refuge from this unrelenting spiral into physical perfection appears to be the category of the game known as “coarse rugby” – the basement levels of the game, the bottom of the league structure and the equivalent 3rd or 4th XVs, where shape, size, age and proclivity are irrelevant so long as you turn up approximately on time for kick off and make sure you buy a round in the clubhouse afterwards.

It is the continued existence of this level of the game that gives hope to this overweight former backrower in his fifties, with the turning circle of an ocean liner and all the pace of a tectonic shift, that he may one day take to the rugby field again to play a match with his much younger, fitter, faster and way more talented son.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Welcome Jacob Vunipola - a star is born?

Congratulations to Mako Vunipola and his partner Alex Johns on the arrival of their son, Jacob.

I wonder what the odds are of Jacob Fe'ao-moe-Lotu Vunipola starring in the 2043 Rugby World Cup?

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

High time Eddie Jones rediscovered the plot

Apologies for droning on about England and Eddie Jones (I do realise that there are other teams in the world currently playing rugby) but England's head coach does have a way of capturing one's attention.

His latest offerings:

- that he is "absolutely loving" the situation in which he finds himself;

- that England's chances at next year's World Cup are somehow enhanced by the fact that the team has just lost five test matches on the bounce; and

- that it is when things are not going well that you find "which players in your team can really stand up to pressure” 

are arguably the most bizarre yet, especially as:

no one else remotely connected with English rugby is enjoying this one little bit, Eddie;

- no one with the remotest grip on reality now gives England any chance in Japan next year; and

- on the evidence of the last few weeks Jones can therefore rely upon a maximum 3 or 4 players. 

Time to find the plot, Eddie, and quickly.

Monday, 18 June 2018

England Rugby - If not Eddie, then who?

Oh dear.

Enough has been written elsewhere about where the England rugby team finds itself after a sixth consecutive defeat.

When the team was winning it was easy to ignore the selection foibles, the training methods, the injuries in camp and the brash utterances of the Head Coach. After all, Eddie knew best.

Now that England are unable to buy a victory all of these issues bubble to the surface and Jones and his team find themselves in an incredibly uncomfortable place.

The ridiculous talk of “greatness”, of being no.1 in the world, of winning the World Cup are all now a distant memory and discord appears rampant throughout the set up.

Win or lose, the third test in Cape Town is almost an irrelevance – England will return to these shores in crisis, there is no other way to describe it.

The problem facing the RFU is that they have little choice but to stick rather than twist. After all, with the World Cup on the near horizon, if not Eddie then who?

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Brad Shields ≠ Lock

I truly hope that the rumours that flanker Brad Shields is due to start in the second row for England in Bloemfontein on Saturday, are just that - rumours.

If true I'm not sure what it says about England's selection policy.

Eddie Jones has selected four locks for the tour, one of whom (Joe Launchbury) has been injured. So that leaves three locks, two of whom should start and the other used as a bench option. It's not rocket science.

From shoehorning three second rowers into the starting XV for the Six Nations to just picking one specialist lock to face South Africa would just be perverse.

If Shields does play he should replace the pedestrian Chris Robshaw.

Selecting players out of position, however, appears increasingly to be a Jones habit.

And it's worked so well so far, hasn't it?

[UPDATE: It appears that Joe Launchbury is fit for selection for the 2nd Test after all. Move along now, nothing to see here...]

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Springboks thinking outside the box

Rassie Erasmus is already showing signs of being a very clever international coach.

The two players who triggered South Africa's comeback from 3-24 down on Saturday were both from the Premiership - Sale Sharks' Faf de Klerk and Wasps' Willie Le Roux.

So it make perfect sense to add to the Springbok squad another clever operator from the Premiership - the recently retired Schalk Brits.

Brits is a fabulous player, ideally suited to South Africa's high octane game and armed with vast knowledge of the English players via his many years at Sarries.

If ever there was a perfect example of thinking outside the box, this is it.

Monday, 11 June 2018

England at Ellis Park - the Verdict is in...

Two days later and I'm still not at all sure what to make of the most bizarre of rugby games at Ellis Park on Saturday.

A stunning start by England, with plenty of front foot possession for George Ford to orchestrate the attack.

Then, 24-3 up, mistake after mistake after mistake - Billy Vunipola drops the re-start, Ben Youngs misses touch, Maro Itoje misses a tackle on the excellent Faf de Klerk, Elliot Daly fails to ground a kick and South Africa have 2 tries and are right back in the game and it's panic stations all round.

Did playing at altitude play a part? It seems likely, but it's still difficult to explain how a game that England were comfortably controlling could so quickly slip from their grasp.

The Springboks played some great stuff, but what is clear is that England's defence is being opened up way too easily. Query whether the departing Paul Gustard should even be on the trip, but when the main defensive strategy appeared to be to try to decapitate de Klerk, something is clearly not right.

Eddie's attempt to stem the flow by, before half time, sending on flanker Brad Shields in place of a lock, the unfortunate Nick Isiekwe, was also very odd, serving only to de-power the England forwards. If anything it was the back row that were struggling, with Robshaw and Vunipola conspicuously off the pace.

And then subsequently to blame defeat on the players' collective mentality was very poor from Jones. What happened to the coach taking full responsibility?

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Kolisi appointment pivotal for Springboks?

Whatever the outcome of England's forthcoming three test series in South Africa (and, while hopeful of English success, I do fear it could get quite messy), the significance of Siya Kolisi becoming South Africa’s first black captain should not be underestimated.

Much has been written about the controversial quota system in South African sport but what does not appear to be in any dispute is that Kolisi fully merits his appointment.

There is the very real possibility that this could turn out to be a pivotal moment for Springbok rugby and only adds to my uneasiness about England's chances...

Friday, 8 June 2018

Back in Touch (2018)

Regular readers of this blog - all 3 of you - will recall that usually at this time of year I am to be observed frolicking around the playing fields of Chesham playing Touch Rugby.

This year is no exception.

Dave's Dad's Dog's Dead are now four games into the 2018 Chesham Premiership 'season' and, with a record of played 4, won 3 and lost 1 (by one try at that), we are relatively happy. As usual we are fielding a combination of young pacey talent and several old gimmers such as yours truly and are managing to hold our own against much younger, fitter teams who really should be be wiping the floor with us.

My personal contribution to the cause is, it has to be admitted, fairly limited although I do find that cunning and treachery still have a place in the game - my sole try coming when the opposition stopped marking me after I'd signalled that I was ready to be subbed! I almost asked the ref not to award the score but I am ashamed to admit that the realisation that this may be my only try of the campaign took precedence 😉.

For those not familiar with Touch Rugby I would heartily recommend it - either as a way back into playing rugby, or for the fitness, or just because it's bloody good fun. This is my 13th season and, although I'm not getting any younger (I was an old twat when I started at the age of 41), my decrepit old body, despite creaking alarmingly at times, is still just about holding together.

Stayed tuned, if you can bear it, for the next instalment...

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Rugby headline of the week

All Black denies alcohol was to blame for entering stranger's apartment at 5 a.m. and eating McDonalds

Step forward Jordie Barrett...

Monday, 4 June 2018

Who is the real Donald Trump of rugby?

I have to say I’m beginning to find the public utterances of Eddie Jones a little tiresome.

His latest, labelling Bath owner Bruce Craig the “Donald Trump of rugby,” is just plain rude.

Craig had questioned Jones’ training methods after Bath prop Beno Obano was ruled out for up to 12 months after suffering "multiple ligament and hamstring tendon damage" while training with the England squad.

Given that Obano was the 15th player to pick up a training ground injury while on England duty under Jones’ stewardship – including a career-ending injury for Wasps’ Sam Jones – I really don’t think it is unreasonable to question whether Eddie’s methods are appropriate.

The England boss may not value the input of the Bath owner but he could simply have ignored it or dismissed it as irrelevant.

Instead he chose to resort to crass, playground insults. Which, when you think about it, is all a bit Trump-esque.