Archive for February, 2014

6 nations preview.

The 6 nations is back this weekend and back with a major Bang!

Before the last round of games the Ireland vs Wales game was tipped to be the title decider. Unfortunately (for the Welsh amongst us) that didn’t seem to be the case.

Three pretty big games this weekend will change the shape of the whole tournament. Wales vs France, England vs Ireland and Scotland vs Italy will all impact the tournament in major ways.

Wales vs France

Wales will be looking to bounce back against France after a disappointing couple of games to start the tournament. Gatland, true to form, has stayed with the majority of the team, the only casualty from the Irish demolition job being Mike Phillips. Luke Charteris returns after a hamstring injury and should solidify the Welsh lineout (at 6ft 11 if he can’t there’s something wrong). The back row, which in my opinion needed to be changed, remains the same. Sam Warburton again captains the team despite his shocking record as captain. In my opinion Justin Tipuric must be the unluckiest player in the world, he’s in form, he’s one of the best opensides in the Northern Hemisphere but he’s unlucky that Gatland (stubborn as he is) has pinned his flag to the mast by making Warburton his captain.

I have to mention the bench too where James Hook must be close to breaking point with impatience. The inclusion of Dan Biggar alongside him (who can only play outside half) basically means that he will not be used at 10 and is on the bench only because he has the ability to cover every position in the backline.

France, on the other hand look more settled and are playing better rugby than since they won the grandslam in 2010. They’ve got a nice blend of hard edge up front and flair in the backline. Outhalf remains the major bone of contention in the team with Saint Andre seemingly unable to decide who to pick. They’ve looked good so far this tournament, with a last minute win over England and a comprehensive win over Italy. But they’re French, and as such there is always going to be questions over their ability to show up and perform away from home.

There’s going to be some big match ups in this game. George North vs Bastareaud in the centre, the scrum is going to be massive and the battle of the back threes will be something special. If France can keep their discipline and not allow Wales any go forward ball then I can see a French win. However, in Cardiff on a Friday night with 80,000 daffodil wearing mad taffs screaming hyms and arias I can see Wales making a proper fight of it. I think this will go to the wire with the Cardiff factor seeing Wales win by 2-3 points.

England vs Ireland.

This is my match of the weekend. I think this is going to be a war. I don’t expect anything too flash from either team but it will be intense, gripping, a battle. From Ireland’s point of view they have to win to keep up the chance of a grand slam, England have to win to hold to a chance to win the tournament.

Unlike that homophobic dinosaur, Neil Francis (if you haven’t read what this stone age cretin had to say about gay people playing sport you should go check it out here) I don’t think Ireland will “smash” England’s scrum at all. Yeah they’re missing Dan Cole but Wilson is by no means a bad scrummager and was seriously impressive when he played for England in Argentina last summer.

The English pack is settled, dominant and powerful. Vuinipola at number 8 has added the hard carrying edge that they’ve lacked in recent years. Their lineout is strong and they won’t get steam rolled like the Welsh pack did. I expect England to play alot up front. They’re not an expansive exciting team (they never will be with Farrell at 10 and Twelvetrees at 12) but they’re direct, physical and intense. Mike Brown at full back has been awesome so far this tournament and while they may not play the most rugby they’re very difficult to beat…expecially at Twickenham.

Ireland under Joe Schmidt have been more than impressive. They’ve played differently every game and that makes them a very hard team to beat. They can play the tight, physically dominant game (see the Wales game), they can play intense and expansive (see the New Zealand game), without doubt Schmidt will have done his homework and will have a game plan to beat England. O’Driscoll’s thirteenth and final test against England should provide some extra fireworks.

Again this is going to be a very, very close game. I’d love to say Ireland will win and I will say Ireland will win. But it’s going to be their toughest test yet this tournament.

And finally we have the wooden spoon decider…again. Scotland and Italy.

After an impressive start against Wales Italy were poor against France. I can just never see where they’re going to win games. They have a great (although aging slightly) pack but there’s just nothing outside of them to get excited about. A flaky (at best) half back pairing, unremarkable centres and a blunt attacking back three. Outside of the driving maul, pick and drives and scrum I just don’t see much of a threat from the Italians. Parisse is outstanding, has been for years, and carries the team.

Scotland…well…I don’t know where to start. It seems like every season before the 6 nations there’s an optimism around Scottish rugby that always fails to deliver. Terrible discipline, poor skills and a lack of cohesion. After their performance against England there were actually calls for them to be dropped out of the 6 nations.

Their pack for a few seasons was physical, they were defensively solid and had great discipline (think back to that win against Australia in the hurricane). But recently they’ve just gone backwards (if that was possible), there’s so much passion, and desperation to play well that it’s sad to see how bad they are. Vern Cotter must be regretting agreeing to take that job.

This game might actually be entertaining. Two bad teams playing against each other, desperate for the win might provide some entertainment. I think Italy might actually sneak this one.

So there we have it. Wales, Ireland and Italy (maybe) to win.

Anybody agree or disagree?

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A Welsh post mortem and Irish celebration.

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There’s an old cliché used in sport, ‘you don’t become a bad team overnight,’ but there’s another which says ‘You’re only as good as your last game.’ Let’s hope for Wales’ sake at least that they’re far better than what happened on Saturday in the Aviva.

Warren Gatland described it as the “worst performance since I’ve been involved,” and dear God is he right. Wales were completely outplayed in every facet of the game. I don’t remember a Wales team being outplayed and beaten so comprehensively since 2007.

So what happened? Well to put it simply, Wales were completely stuffed up front. I thought Wales would edge the tight five battle, I was wrong. I thought the Welsh back row would at least gain parity, wrong again. I thought Wales would crash over the gainline…can you see a pattern developing here?

A shoddy lineout, terrible discipline, inability to defend a maul and a bad kicking game were ultimately what defeated Wales. While Wales kicked long and tried to defend, Ireland kicked high and pressured the catcher, or kicked to touch and put huge pressure on the shaky Welsh lineout.

While Wales were unable to put any phases of play together, Ireland were outstanding (while still not stringing many phases together themselves). They dominated absolutely every facet of the game. Pragmatic and clinical, they nullified Wales’ power game by simply not letting them put any phases together, O’Mahony and Henry were magnificent at the breakdown and Jonny Sexton’s kicking game was fantastic.

Alot of credit has to go to Joe Schmidt for putting a game plan in place that would do what no other northern hemisphere team has been able to do since Gatland took over, and that is not allow Wales any momentum at all.

Wales gave away 15 penalties, Ireland gave away 9 and crucially only allowed Leigh Halfpenny one kick at goal all game. And the only chance Wales did have to score a try they blew their load too early and got penalised for a double movement.

The single biggest factor though was the driving lineout. Ireland had previously shown glimpses of being good at this but haven’t dominated a game with it like this before. 20 of Ireland’s points came either directly or indirectly from the maul. The Irish game plan was executed perfectly.

So why were Wales so bad? Well for one Ireland didn’t allow them to play. Wales missed 16 out of 101 tackles (I would not like to be in the room when Shaun Edwards reveals that little stat). While they only lost 2 lineouts (a completion of 87%) the lineouts they did win were to the front and scrappy, not ideal for launching big runners into the midfield.

Wales also suffered (in my opinion) by playing two players who have played barely any rugby this season. Sam Warburton hasn’t played a match since the Autumn internationals against Australia and international rugby is not the place to gain match fitness. There’s no need to play him when someone of Justin Tipuric’s calibre sits on the bench. Gethin Jenkins, similarly has barely played any rugby this year. Also, why, when Priestland was clearly having a shocker and the Welsh team could have used an infusion of spark, was James Hook left on the bench? Again Wales suffered from having no Plan B. Although it’s very rare that Plan A isn’t effective.

Ireland on the other hand missed 9 of 131 tackles, won 94% of their lineout, stole 2 of wales’ lineouts cleanly and won 10 turnovers.

Wales actually made more passes and carries but they were all ineffective and gained no quick ball. Ireland continued where they left of against New Zealand and were clinical, effective and brutally physical at the breakdown, have I mentioned how incredible Peter O’Mahony was?

They took their points when they were afforded to them and closed out the game with a professionalism and effectiveness that I haven’t seen from any Ireland team in a long, long time. Everybody thought Shcmidt was going to mould Ireland into an international version of Leinster where they played in the wide channels with tempo and a multi phase game. I guess on that count everybody was wrong.

I’d expect Ireland to now go on and finish either top, or in second place. While I think Wales will do well to finish third unless they can seriously up their game.  

Everybody thought that the poor Welsh performance against Italy was beginning of the tournament rustiness, doesn’t look that way now. Maybe teams have figured out how to beat Warrenball? And it’s not by playing flowing, fancy, attacking rugby. It’s by being aggressive, nullifying any position and an accurate kicking game and amazing discipline. Not very attractive, but very effective. Ireland showed this, let’s just hope that nobody shows anybody French or English the game tape. 

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Wales vs Ireland. A preview

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Rules for reading this.

  • Every time Brian O’Driscoll is referred to as a legend, drink.
  • Anytime I allude to Warren Gatland vs Brian O’Driscoll, drink.
  • Any time I’m unfairly biased, go fuck yourself.

I get more nervous before Wales vs Ireland 6 nations games than any other time of the year. Being Welsh and having grown up in Ireland I’m going to get a lot of abuse no matter who wins. However, I’m going to pin my colours to the mast now and say I want (crave) a Wales win and I always will. I’m sorry that’s how it is.

For once I thought I’d do something other than just make dick jokes in my writing and actually write about something I (somewhat) know about. Rugby. So here goes, the first piece I’ve ever written about rugby.

Wales vs Ireland games have never been the most friendly of games. The two have been the most successful home nations teams in the last 10 years, with both sharing the lion’s spoils of representatives on the last two British and Irish Lions’ tours, as well as both tour captains coming from either Wales or Ireland (Paul O’Connell in South Africa and Sam Warburton in Australia.)  So, on paper at least, this should be a fairly passionate, intense, hate filled game of rugby.

So how do the teams match up?

On paper I’d argue that Wales are the stronger team, I think there’s less obvious weaknesses in the Welsh team than there is in the Irish team. But, (and it’s a big but) both teams seem to up their games when they face each other. The Irish will have the added inspiration of Brian O’Driscoll trying to prove a few things in his last season of professional rugby. Both sides have the look of a settled team, with combinations all over the park that have played a lot of high level rugby together. Also, these teams know each other inside out, playing against each other in the Rabo, Heineken Cup and the majority of the players played together on the Lions’ tour this past summer.

I think Wales shade it slightly in the tight five, Mike Ross doesn’t compare to Adam Jones and Devin Toner continues to be a 6’10 waste of international rugby space. However, Adam Jones hasn’t adapted well to the changes in the scrum law and Gethin Jenkins has played the same amount of international rugby in the last 9 months as me (ie. None but Warren Gatland gets a hard-on every time he says his name).  Hibbard is always good for some big hits and carries (and his hair is glorious) while there are still questions about his lineout throwing. Rory Best, while less of a carrier and tackler makes up for it by being a better thrower of the ball, woeful Lions’ tour aside. Alun Wyn Jones and Paul O’Connell are pretty much the same player and Andrew Coombs from the Dragons in the Welsh second row is a hard grafter but not as useful at line out time as Devin Toner.

In the back row I actually think Ireland edge it slightly after last week’s performance against Scotland. Heaslip was in better form than he has been in years (unsurprisingly because O’Brien wasn’t playing and the two of them do not play well together), Chris Henry was fantastic and dogged as ever and Peter O’Mahony was my man of the match, winning numerous turnovers and being a gigantic pain in Scottish asses (as any good 6 should be). Wales, with the return of Sam Warburton are fielding Gatland’s wet dream of a back row. Warburton at seven is one of the best turnover winners in the modern game (Clive Woodward said his second test performance for the Lions’ was the best performance he’d ever seen by a lion), Dan Lydiate will chop tackle everything that moves into submission, while offering little in attack and Taulupe (Toby) Faletau does everything that a top quality number 8 should do, quietly and efficiently.

Half backs is where I surprised myself when I thought about it. At the moment the Irish half backs are definitely superior (sorry Dad). Conor Murray along with Danny Care, (I hate myself for saying that) are the form scrum halves in Europe at the moment, while Mike Phillips has struggled for form since the Lions’ tour, you could argue he was struggling for form before the Lions’ tour too. Murray has come on leaps and bounds in the last season or so, his box kicking is outstanding and he controls his pack of forwards very well. Teams seem to have figured out Phillips. He’s made less line breaks in the last year than ever before and he seems indecisive. While he will always be competitive and rise to the big occasion I feel like Murray is going to come out on top of this battle. Welsh attack coach, Rob Howley, has come out and said Phillips needs to focus on his own game instead of his battle with Murray, which doesn’t instill confidence in me.

At out-half Ireland get the nod too. Sexton is in great form, Priestland, on the other hand is struggling to find consistency and there have been cries from Welsh fans that Dan Biggar or even James Hook should be wearing the 10 jersey. Sexton’s kicking game pressurizes the opposition in a way that Priestland just can’t match, both out halves like a run too so I’d expect some fireworks and fancy footwork from this area. However, an out half is only as good as the centres outside him and Roberts always plays better with Priestland taking the ball flat and bringing him on to it than Biggar, who sits deeper or Hook who is difficult to read (and that’s why Gatland doesn’t pick him.)

In the centres I think it’s pretty evenly match. Roberts looked to have gained some form again against Italy and D’Arcy has been in great form this season (and has a fantastic beard). Scott Williams for Wales has a knack of scoring tries but he’s up against O’Driscoll, and while he may have lost a yard or two of pace and is less influential in attack, he is still one of the (if not the) best defensive 13’s in world rugby. He will also have a point to prove after being dropped by Gatland in the summer (drink). And with it being the last time he faces Wales I’m sure he’ll lift his game. I’m not going to say any more on the O’Driscoll vs Gatland issue because it’s been done to death and I’m bored of it, I’m also not going to call him a legend or iconic because that just goes without saying (drink).

The back three is the only area of the pitch that I see Wales having an obvious advantage. Alex Cuthbert is one of the most predatory finishers in world rugby despite having his defensive deficiencies. George North is probably the best winger in the world at the moment and has had uncountable articles devoted to his scintillating form this season. He just seems to get better and better. And Leigh Halfpenny…well there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times, the most solid full back in the world and a kicking game that is second to none. The Irish back three will have their work cut out for them. I don’t rate Dave Kearney, I think he’s a poor imitation of his big brother, Trimble can be an exciting runner but we haven’t seen enough of that lately. Kearney is in great form and his aerial battle with Leigh Halfpenny will be one of the highlights of the game for me.

The benches are going to have a huge impact on this game, bigger than most people give credit to. In this I think Wales edge it. Cronin will come on and make an impact. The two young props Ireland have on the bench are very good players but they need a few years to develop yet. I don’t expect Dan Tuohy to feature but if he does he will do a job, I was fairly impressed with him last week against Scotland. Tommy O’Donnell has been outstanding this season and is probably Ireland’s only out an out openside flanker. Boss and Jackson don’t impress me and McFadden will always be distinctly average at international level.

The Welsh bench has similar issues, Paul James will come on ad scrummage the game into submission, Rhodri Jones is very young at tight head but did a good job in the Autumn in the absence of Adam Jones. Ken Owens has won almost all of his caps from the bench and has never let anybody down. Jake Ball is raw and robust and if he comes on will win his first cap. Justin Tipuric could be the player to come on and change the game, he’s been outstanding and is very unlucky not to be starting. Rhys Webb and James Hook could have a huge impact in the lifting the pace of the game from the bench and Liam Williams will probably fight anybody that comes near him (think Peter O’Mahony on the wing).

After going through it I’m still no closer to deciding who I think is going to win. My heart says Wales but the head says “Let me go back to sleep.” So I’m going with a Welsh win by 4-7 points (go fuck yourself).

Schmidt’s first game in charge against his fellow kiwi, Gatland, is going to be very interesting. Ireland will know what to expect from Wales. Warrenball is not known for its free flowing style and exuberance but is extremely, direct, physical and effective. Ireland under Schmidt will be something of an unknown entity, you can’t read too much into last week’s games as both oppositions were fairly poor, even though Italy nearly gave Wales a serious scare.

Whatever happens expect some fireworks after the hour long build up with 17 anthems and a leprechaun shaking everybody’s hand. Also, watch out for Michael D talk to DevinToner, funniest thing I think I’ve ever seen.

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