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:

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.

"You never know which France will turn up" remains a well worn clichĂ©, 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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Are England missing a trick?

England's Six Nations squad, announced today, hardly sets the pulse racing.

There will be the usual debates surrounding the perennial exclusion of Danny Cipriani, of course, and I guess it is mildly surprising that Dylan Hartley and Danny Care are not featured, but there is not a lot to get really excited about.

Yes there are four non-capped players included - Ben Earl, Ollie Thorley, Dan Robson and Jack Singleton - but I'm not sure any of those is likely to make the starting XV in the Six Nations and of the four I'd only really expect Robson to be in the running come the World Cup.

For me, if an inexperienced player is to be included, at least make it someone who can make an instant impact, leave a big imprint on the Six Nations and be a genuine contender for the World Cup squad - someone like Alex Dombrandt, who has simply been sensational in recent weeks, pulling up trees in the Quins back row.

With the inclusion of players like Te'o, Tuilagi. Cokanasiga and Devoto, Eddie Jones appears to be looking to add power to his line-up, and they don't come much more powerful than Dombrandt.

With Chris Robshaw not making the squad through injury, with Brad Shields yet to convince and with the likes of Ben Earl and Jack Clifford still very much unproven, I'd say Dombrandt is certainly worth a punt, even at this late stage.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Wasps - Crisis? What crisis?

What the hell is going on at Wasps?

Of the starting XV that began the Premiership final against Exeter less than two years ago, there are six players - Christian Wade, Danny Cipriani, James Haskell, Matt Symons, Phil Swainston and Matt Mullan - who have left the club, plus another four from the bench - Marty Moore, Guy Thompson, Alapati Leiua and Frank Halai.

Add to that the recent announcements that Willie Le Roux (probably to Japan), Nathan Hughes (to Bristol) and Jake Cooper-Woolley (to Sale) will definitely be leaving for pastures new at the end of this season, plus the heavily rumoured departure Elliot Daly to Sarries - and I really don't think that use of the word CRISIS is entirely overstating the issue.

Something clearly is not right...

Tuesday, 15 January 2019


Although not too upset about its effect on Wales,  I was still sorry to hear that one of my favourite players, Bath and Wales number 8 Taulupe Faletau, is more than likely to miss this year's entire Six Nations campaign, having broken his forearm for the second time this season.

To break your arm twice in a season pretty unfortunate in itself but quite extraordinarily is still one arm break fewer than Faletau's cousin, England's Billy Vunipola, who has suffered three forearm breaks in the last 12 months.

What is it with those Tongan boys? Faletau and Vunipola don't look particularly brittle to me, but five broken arms between them in the last year or so might suggest otherwise...?

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Rugby safety - FFR to lead the way

I'm really pleased to see that the French Rugby Federation is making an effort regarding player safety by announcing a global forum in March alongside World Rugby to discuss player health and the evolution of the game's laws.

This follows the death of a fourth young French player in the last eight months - 23 year old student Nathan Soyeux having passed away in Dijon last week having been hospitalised following a tackle in a match at a student tournament in November.

Soyeux became the fourth young French player since May to die after being injured during a match, following the tragic deaths of Stade Francais youth flanker Nicolas Chauvin (18) in December, Aurillac's 21 year old Louis Fajfrowski in August and 17-year-old Adrien Descrulhes in May while playing for amateur club Billom. 

We all know that rugby has its risks, but four fatalities in eight months is just shocking. Something has to change - so well done to the FFR for taking the lead...

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Whatever happened to: Loyalty?

Transfer speculation - a fact of life in association football for many a year - is now becoming increasingly common in rugby.

In England for instance, from January in each year a player whose club contract is due to expire at the end of the season is allowed to speak to another club about moving to that club once his contract has expired.

And so the transfer rumours begin. Whether it is a Wasps prop agreeing a move to Sale, a Leicester backrower being spotted at Quins' training ground or a Bath centre being linked with Northampton, the transfer merry-go-round is, it seems, in full swing.

It's the way of the world now, I guess, but I do find it all a bit unedifying.

Whatever happened to, I wonder, a little bit of loyalty?

I'm not just talking about a player's loyalty to the club that may have helped develop his career, I'm also thinking of a club's loyalty to the player who has served the club so well over the years. It's a two-way street after all.

However, with the need to earn a living, inflated salary demands, the influence of agents, the pressure of the salary cap and the day-to-day commercial realties faced by clubs, it does seem that the one-club man - the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio or Richard Hill, for example - has become an increasingly rare commodity.

Which, if I'm honest, is a damned shame.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Premiership Rugby not "at war" with RFU

It's official.

Premiership Rugby and the RFU are not "at war" over the question of ring-fencing the Premiership.

Who says? Gamekeeper turned poacher, Ian Ritchie - former RFU CEO and current Premiership Rugby Chairman - says, that's who. So it must be true.

This, despite the fact that the Mail on Sunday appear to have a copy of leaked minutes of a Premiership Rugby board meeting which suggests that the clubs are considering forming a breakaway league, outside RFU control, if the governing body doesn't give way on the issue of promotion and relegation.

Any such move, were it to happen, would of course have huge consequences for the England national set up.

You may have thought Brexit was a mess. You ain't seen nothing yet.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Whither Rugby?

Happy New Year one and all, a year that is likely to be hugely significant for this game of ours.

2019 is of course a World Cup Year, and is therefore a huge opportunity for rugby to showcase all that is good about the game (and the very fact that the tournament is being hosted in Japan - hardly one of rugby's traditional superpowers - is a fine demonstration of the the game's global intentions).

There do remain, however, challenges for rugby to overcome, player safety being to the forefront of issues currently occupying (one hopes) the minds of the powers that be.

In the light of the recent tragic deaths of 2 young players in France and the regular sight of players seemingly constantly leaving the field with significant concussion or other serious injuries, it is clear that rugby is beginning to develop an image problem.

There are those who dismiss such concerns with talk of rugby being a "man's game" but they miss the point, which is that allowing rugby to continue down it's current path will put the future of the game at risk. There have already been calls to ban tackling  in schools and, let's face it, what parent is going to want to actively encourage their offspring to take up rugby after witnessing the brutal nature of the current professional game on TV?

My son plays for the local club Under 16s and even at that level there is a tendency in many teams for physical confrontation at the expense of skill and guile. The size and strength of some of the boys the team faces each week is just frightening.

I have little doubt that the game at most levels has become far more collision based over the years, and it is this area that needs addressing more than any other if we are to reduce the number of serious injuries in the game.

It's almost certainly too late for World Rugby to do anything of significance to address such issues before the eyes of the world focus on Japan in October. All we can do, therefore, is cross our collective fingers and, if we are so inclined, offer up prayers to our deity of choice that the tournament passes without tragic incident.

All that having been said, there is plenty of excitement to look forward to in the coming months including a potentially fascinating Six Nations looming on the horizon. I only hope, in the midst of the unprecedented commercial progress that rugby currently enjoys - the recent £230m investment by CVC Capital Partners in Premiership Rugby being a prime example - that the powers that be have more than one eye on the bigger picture.