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…