6 Nations Coaching Class (pt 2)

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Scotland are definitely the wild card of the 2013 6 Nations and it’s nearly impossible to predict what they, or any team Scott Johnson coached side will do, but with the addition of the scintillating Sean Maitland to the already impressive back 3 of Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg then must surely look to get the ball wide at every opportunity.  With a back line that could include Max Evans and Peter Horne fresh from his “dazzling last-gasp try” (BBC Sport’s words, not mine) combining with a back row with the likes of Johnnie Beattie, Richie Vernon, Lions hopeful Dave Denton and marauding lock Richie Gray Scotland should have no shortage of dynamism about them and their quick strike ability should see them overawe the likes of Italy and Wales.  As a player Johnson was an “enigmatic” back, but he played 10 or 12, so even with his addition of Dean Ryan as forwards coach I can’t see him wanting to take on the big forward packs of the other 5 teams and he knows as well as anyone that losing 42-35 to anyone in the 6 Nations will do more for the profile of Scottish rugby than winning 9-6 against Australia (in a hurricane it should be pointed out) did in June 2012.

Italy are an interesting exception to the rule of these teams playing in the mould of their coaches, Jacques Brunel is a former Fullback and stalwart of club rugby in France, he began his coaching career with FC Auch Gers after his playing career finished in 1988 and after spells at 3 other French sides and a 7 year stint as assistant to Bernard Laporte for the French National side he was offered the head coach role by the Italian federation.  The Italian’s lack a quality Fly Half and that will seriously limit their game plan during the tournament.  The one area where they don’t lack is in the forwards and with the likes of Castrogiovanni, Lo Cicero, Zanni, Barbieri and skipper Sergio Parisse they will challenge most teams at the breakdown and at set piece time.  Wales’s recent inability to dominate the breakdown should give Italy one of the wins they usually miss out on by the odd point, but after a victory over Tonga and another near miss against Australia in the autumn they will not want on the confidence front.

Wales have suffered what could be described as a nightmare 12 months since they recorded their 3rd Grand Slam in 5 seasons.  The departure of Warren Gatland to oversee the 2013 Lions tour has seen “attack coach” Rob Howley in charge and never before has the cliché “a good number doesn’t make a good number one” been so applicable, Howley’s tenure has made Steve McLaren’s stint as England football manager seem like an unquestionable success.  He has observed 7 losses since he stepped into the breach and from the outside has appeared to have absolutely no influence over proceedings from his position, culminating with him using to his post game press conferences in the autumn to moan about just how bad the that he had selected and “prepared” had performed.  The farce that has been the Welsh coaching set up combined with their inability to pick a settled team for most of the last 12 months due to injuries has seen Wales fall from 4th in October 2011 to their current position of 9th, behind perennial minnows Samoa.  With the chances of Howley becoming an International rugby coach of worth overnight the Welsh chances of breaking their losing streak seem slim to nonexistent at the moment and with Wales missing their first choice number 10, blindside flanker and 3 first choice second rows (and possibly having to play 2 others who aren’t fully fit) they should begin the 6 Nations as favourites to win the wooden spoon.

6 Nations Coaching Class (pt 1)

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The 2013 6 Nations should separate the men from the boys in coaching terms.  England’s performance against the All Blacks in December has seen their odds of winning the tournament slashed to 15-8 and with 3 home games including their first against Scotland and the often pivotal game against France in the third week of the Championship they are perfectly placed not only to win but also to do the Grand Slam, which they are 5-1 favourites for.  The game against the All Blacks showed that the squad have settled onto the new regime which only really began in earnest 10 months ago after he took temporary charge for 2012’s 6 Nations campaign, leading the team to second losing only to Wales in their Grand Slam year.  Lancaster’s measured approach and ability to deal with pressure and fight his corner when necessary are all facets that his team share and after close defeats Australia and South Africa in the Autumn many had written off their chances against the World Champions New Zealand, but with nobody expecting much they powered to a 38-21 victory, scoring 3 tries on the process.  With everybody sitting up and taking notice they now face a different challenge, an opening game against an unknown quantity, where they are 20 point favourites.  Recent history tells us Lancaster’s methodical approach will ensure the players respect their opposition enough to first secure the win before they try to repeat their last display against the All Blacks and the players displays in the last 10 months have proved they will take the message on board.

France’s coach Phillippe Saint- Andre is often described as “enigmatic”, which usually a word people use when they can’t decide if somebody is brilliant or hopeless.  As a player he was undoubtedly a very graceful and skilful player, but as a winger he was often at the mercy of the rest of his French team and as modern French wingers like Wesley Fofana will tell you being the most exciting player in Europe is pointless if the other 14 players on your team fail to provide you with any possession with which to demonstrate your abilities.  The French wingers had no such problem during their autumn campaign as they recorded 3 tries between them in 3 Tests; most of the inspiration was provided by Frederic Michalak who racked up 58 points in those 3 Tests.  The only real sign of the French inconsistency appeared when they scored 18 points and conceded none against Australia in the last 59 minutes of that game and then proceeded to go 0-7 behind to Samoa in the opening 15 minutes of their final Test of the autumn.  France are second favourites to win the Championship and while they should ease to victories in their 2 home fixture, but their away trip to Twickenham will be their toughest as England have twice as many of their encounters in Middlesex (26) as the French have (13), this single loss should see the French finish second, 2 places above their final position last year.

Ireland’s coach Declan Kidney is painted as the quite man of the 6 Nations and sometimes that’s exactly how his team perform.  The returning Brian O’Driscoll alongside Leinster teammates Brian Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy will look to provide some much needed BOOM to the Irish performances in this tournament.  If Ireland’s forward can provide their exciting backs, which could include Lions hopefuls Craig Gilroy, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls with some ball they will compete with England and France for the top spot in the table.  Injuries to Richardt Strauss, Stephen Ferris combined with their search for 2 dominant props will however limit the effectiveness of their pack and Tommy Bowe’s ability to turn defence into attack with his interceptions will also be sorely missed.  France’s desire to maintain their unbeaten streak in the Aviva and what’s bound to be an impassioned meeting with England in Dublin should prove too much for a depleted Irish side but their ability to beat the 3 weakest teams in the tournament should see them to a 3rd placed finished for the second time in 2 years.  As a former maths teacher Kidney appears to be ultra cautious and conservative in his approach and that often rubs off on the players, this wouldn’t be a problem if Ireland’s pack could consistently assert its dominance over opposing packs, but they struggle to do it with any regularity and as a consequence their results against the stronger sides have suffered from a similar inconsistency.

Attack, is it the new defence?

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Maybe it’s the new tackle laws that allow more turnovers at the breakdown, maybe it’s the IRB’s appointment of an Australian CEO (maybe that’s just my natural cynicism shining through) but the days of teams grinding out victories in test matches by kicking penalties and tackling their heart’s out seem to be gone.  The last test match played on these shores proved that while having an accurate place kicker is a must in modern International rugby the ability to score tries will more often than not prove to be the deciding factor.  Wales lead Australia in Cardiff until Kurtley Beale broke the try scoring dead lock between both sides with the last move of the game snatching a 14-12 victory over their hosts in what had been an ugly battle of a test match.  Just a week earlier Scotland had fallen victim to one of the biggest upsets in recent memory against a Tongan side who outscored their host’s 2 tries to 0 in a 21-15 victory and on the 24th of November England dominated their test against South Africa only to lose 16-15 as South Africa’s behemoth back rower Willem Alberts crashed over for the game’s only try.

The new tackle laws should suit Wales and a squad that includes 3 outstanding open side flankers in their captain Sam Warburton, Osprey’s Justin Tipuric and Warburton’s Cardiff Blues team mate Josh Navidi should be ideally placed to provide their monstrous back line with plenty of ball.  However having failed to register a single win in their last 7 test matches they need to adapt their tactics to suit the new rules.  Traditionally Wales have always been known as one of the better teams with ball in hand but since Warren Gatand’s reign as head coach has began they have become more known for their physicality in defence and pressurising opposition into making mistakes and conceding kickable penalties.  Gatland has been Wales’ head coach since 2007 and while it’s difficult to criticise someone who’s presided over 2 Grand Slams and a World Cup semi final the laws have changed even since the last Grand Slam in 2012.  Gatland’s involvement with the Lions (and a freak accident) has meant that he has not been able to have his usual influence over the team for many of the last 7 games but the team have been left in the hands of Rob Howley who Gatland is taking on the Lions tour so Gatland clearly feels that Howley is a capable replacement.  It’s not just Wales’ coaching staff who will be missing a key component, Dan Lydiate won’t play any part in the first few games of the 6 Nations (and could miss the whole tournament) and Wales will be without 3 first choice lock forwards (Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies and Luke Charteris for most, if not all of the competition), but Andries Pretorius should prove to be a more than capable replacement for Lydiate and set piece play has never been Wales strong point so the forced addition of a second row that could include Ryan Jones and Aaron Shingler would add to the running ability and skill level that Wales will need to show if they are to compete with teams like Ireland and England who will come to dominate slow and forward driven matches.

Decision making will play a key role in Wales 6 Nations success, or lack of.  The decision of who will play in the 10 shirt will be crucial and the decision of making of that number 10 will also determine how fruitful their campaign is.  Conservative selection has stifled their ability to score tries which is why they have not won a competitive test match since the end of the 2012 6 Nations and if they are to adapt to modern International rugby they should ditch the inconsistent Jamie Roberts at 12 who is selected purely for his defensive capabilities and shuffle the back line to allow the Osprey’s fleet footed winger Eli Walker to bring a touch of magic and try scoring threat to a team that sorely lacks it.

AFC Wild Card game Indianapolis Colts v Baltimore Ravens

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The romantic pick for the AFC this season, and possibly even the Super Bowl this season must be the Colts, nobody expected them to perform particularly well as they seek to transition from the “Peyton Manning era” to the “Andrew Luck era”.  They began the season with 2 losses and a win before their bye week in week 4 and when newly appointed Head Coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with Leukaemia at the end of September many people predicted a difficult season would become even more arduous.  The Colts however had other ideas and as Pagano began his treatment at the start of October the team, lead by impressive rookie quarterback, caused the upset of the NFL season by inflicting the Packers second away defeat of the season with a Luck touchdown pass with just 35 seconds left on the clock.  That victory provided the Colts with the confidence to remain undefeated at home for the rest of the season and lifted them to an 11-5 record, just 1 win away from the AFC South winning Texans.  Character and determination, along with the talent of Luck have got the Colts this far, but perusing the figures shows that the Colts have scored on averaged just over 22 points per game, which ranks them 18th in the NFL while on defence they have allowed slightly more than 24 points per game, making them the 21st best defence in the league. Luck’s passing and scrambling has provided the main threat for the Colts offence this season (he has been responsible for 168 of the Colts 357 points this season), fellow rookie T.Y Hilton has been his favourite red zone target and he’s caught 7 touchdown passes, while veteran Reggie Wayne has weighed in 5 scores and racked up 1355 receiving yards.  The problem with the Colts offence this season has been that they have not protected Luck well, he has been sacked 41 times in the regular season and a Ravens defence with names like Ngata, Paul Kruger, Terrell Suggs and the fit again Ray Lewis will be focussing on getting in the rookie’s face.

 

The Ravens offence has not been the most high powered in the NFL this season by a long way and they usually prefer to allow their defence to win the game for them, but quarterback Joe Flacco has only failed to throw a touchdown in 3 games this season, including the final game of the regular season when he only attempted 8 passes before being rested. Running back Ray Rice is their biggest threat on the ground and a sizeable danger in the passing game too despite his diminutive stature; he stands just 5 feet 8 inches tall.  He has scored 10 touchdowns this season, but in his last 3 games of the regular season he didn’t score a rushing touchdown and just managed to catch 1 touchdown pass.  In those last 3 games tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith have combined for 5 touchdowns so while Rice is responsible for 29% of the Ravens offensive yards they have multiple red zone threats.

A Colts win would be a huge upset as the Ravens have an extremely strong record at home, since John Harbaugh took over as head coach they are 33-7 at M & T Bank Stadium and while the neutral fans will be hoping the Colts spirit can carry them to a possible reunion with Peyton Manning the Ravens pass rush should be too much to allow Luck to stamp his mark on the game.

AFC Wild Card games

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Unlike their NFC counter parts these 2 games are much easier to predict and don’t require endless hours of trawling through statistics.  There are however a few numbers and facts that provide big clues as to who will progress to the next round of the play offs. 

Saturday’s game in Texas is a repeat of last year’s Wild Card round and pits the waning Houston Texans against the Cincinnati Bengals, whose star is very much on the rise.  Not only have the Texans lost 3 of their last 4 games, their offence has almost ground to halt, only once have they scored more than 16 points and in total they have only scored 65 points in total, quarterback Matt Schaub has suffered a serious dip in form of late and in his last 4 games he has thrown just 1 touchdown pass and 2 interceptions. The Texans have 2 main threat’s offensively, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson has been one of the stand out players in his position since he was drafted in 2003 and this season he has amassed an impressive 1598 yards, but he has not provided much threat in ht red zone as he’s caught just 4 touchdowns.  Tight end Owen Daniels has been more effective as a red zone threat and his 6 touchdown catches lead the team, but he hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since the 22nd of November.  Running back Arian Foster has shouldered the burden of the Texans offence since his break out year in 2010 and this year he has weighed in with 15 rushing touchdowns and 2 more through the air, but his last touchdown pass was on the 11th November and he only rushed for 1 touchdown in his last 3 games.  If the Texans are to win then Foster will need to work his magic and it will be a tough task as defence has been crucial to the Bengals winning their last 4 road games.

In their last 4 games away from home the Bengals have not conceded a rushing touchdown and only 1 team has rushed for 100 yards against them.  Their strength of their run defence has allowed their defensive front to create pressure on opposing passers and they have take 4 interceptions in these last 4 games, returning 1 for a touchdown, they have also recovered 5 fumbles over the course of those 4 games.  In their last 8 games the Bengals have conceded more than 13 points just twice, in week 14 they allowed 20 points at home against the Cowboys and last week at home to the Ravens they conceded 17, so not insurmountable totals by any means.  In addition to throwing 3 interceptions the Texans have lost 3 fumbles in their last 3 home games too, so the Bengals defence will be looking to capitalise on any chance to turn over the ball. 

On the offensive side of the ball the Bengals could be without their starting running back BenJarvus Green- Ellis, which could force them to throw the ball more than they would like to, while Green- Ellis has not always been at his best this season (he recorded just 14 yards on 15 carries the last time he played) he does have valuable playoff experience with the Patriots and this could be valuable to an offence with a second year quarterback and 2 rookie wide receivers.

The Bengals defence should be able to stifle a stuttering Texans offence and record a 7th away win this season, but the Texans have been anything but predictable this season but since the loss of defensive star Brian Cushing in week 5 have not looked the impressive, dynamic team they did at the start of the season and their struggle to beat the Jaguars 43-37 in overtime were echoed in their last home game when they were demolished 23-6 by the Vikings.  Recent form points it being a low scoring arm-wrestle of a game and that’s just how the Bengals and their impressive second year quarterback Andy Dalton like it.  Dalton’s rapport with fellow second year player wide receiver A.J Green is the foundation of the Bengals offence and after their displays last season’s Wild Card game (Dalton threw 3 interceptions and Green only made 5 grabs from his 12 targets) they owe the Texans one .

NFC Wild Card games – Seattle Seahawks @ Washington Redskins

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This is the tie that virtually nobody expected at the start of the season.  In fact it’s safe to say  even the most optimistic of Seahawks fans wouldn’t have predicted that rookie Russell Wilson would become their starting Quarterback and lead them to a 5 game winning streak on their way to the play offs this season.  Wilson was drafted in the in the 3rd round as a 75th overall pick and was expected to backup Matt Flynn who signed as a free agent to a contract worth $26 million.  Flynn went on to complete 5 of the 9 passes he attempted this season and recorded -5 rushing yards in the 3 games during which he featured.

The Redskins have their own rookie quarterback who has set the league on fire, but as the overall first pick in the 2012 draft Robert Griffin III or RG3’s success was widely expected, having said that the Redskins were 10-1 outsiders to win the NFC East title before the regular season had started.  The Redskins have an even more impressive rookie on their offense in the form of running back Alfred Morris who last week broke the franchise record for running yards with 1,524 yards, breaking Clinton Portis’ 2005 mark of 1,516 yards.  Morris was drafted in the 6th round, so to even become a starter was a noteworthy achievement, to break a franchise record is astonishing.

Both teams have been running the “option” offence this season, which relies on the quarterback’s ability to read the defence and freeze pass rushers with play action passes or stretch plays, where the running back, or quarterback run to the outside of the oncoming defenders.  The Seahawks rushing offence is ranked 3rd in the league, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, 161.2 yards per game and scoring 16 touchdowns during the regular season.  They have however also fumbled 7 times and 3 of those fumbles.  Marshawn Lynch is predominantly their biggest threat and he recorded 1590 yards during the regular season at an average of 5 yards per carry, Russell Wilson had the second highest number of rushing yards with 489 at an average of 5.2 yards per carry and registering 4 touchdowns.  The Redskins rushing offence ended the regular season top of the rankings with 2709 yards, an average of 169.3 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry, making 22 trips into the end zone.  Morris was obviously the epicentre of the Redskins rushing offence, but RG3 weighed in with an impressive 815 yards, averaging 6.8 yards per carry and scoring 7 touchdowns to add to Morris’ 13, the second most in the NFL.

Russell Wilson has a pass completion rate of 64.1% and has thrown for 3118 yards and 26 touchdowns with 10 interceptions; he has been sacked 33 times.  The Redskins defence has made an impressive 21 interceptions this season and recorded 32 sacks, their pass defence has been slightly boom or bust though and they have allowed 4511 yards this season, the 3rd most in the league. RG3 has an extraordinary similar pass completion rate of 65.6% and number of yards with 3200 yards combined with 20 touchdown passes and 5 interceptions, he was sacked 30 times.  The Seahawks pass defence has allowed just 3250 yards in the regular season, the 6th best record in the NFL with 18 interceptions and they have recorded 36 sacks.

With two such high calibre quarterbacks and similarly effective offences defence should be the key to this game.  The Seahawks have conceded 8 rushing touchdowns this season and on average allowed 103.1 yards per game they have however forced 8 fumbles, recovering 3 of them.  The Redskins have allowed 11 rushing touchdowns this season and on average of 95.8 yards per game, forcing 11 fumbles and recovering 4.

Both these teams are in excellent form, with the Seahawks having won their last 5 and the Redskins ending the regular season with a run of 7 wins.  The Seahawks have only won 3 games away from home this season and I think the deciding factor in this game should be home field advantage, while the Seahawks do play in an outside stadium and the weather in DC won’t be too dissimilar to Seattle, albeit slightly drier and a touch cooler, the grass field is vastly different to the turf that Seattle play on.  FedEx field was looking to be quite heavy on the legs last week when the Cowboys visited and while the Redskins metaphorically ran all over the Cowboys defence the Cowboys running game struggled to 100, 174 yards fewer than the Redskins racked up.

NFC Wild Card game – Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers

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It’s hard to separate what will happen during these games with what should happen, particularly in the Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers.  With the weather forecast predicting temperatures of between -5 and -8 degrees Celsius at kick off time in Lambeau Field the Vikings should try to run the Packers defence all over the field and the last time they played in Wisconsin (December 2nd) Adrian Peterson amassed a whopping 210 yards on the ground at an average of 10 yards per run.  In Christian Ponder the Vikings also have an in form Quarterback with the second highest passer rating in the last 4 games of the regular season and a running back with 1139 yards in his last 7 games in the form of Adrian Peterson.  The Vikings are also unbeaten in those 4 games while the Packers only loss in the last 5 weeks was the final game of the season loss to the Vikings so there’s not going to be much between the teams this week either.

The Packers 11-5 record makes them the better team and their home record of 7-1 is even more impressive, their single defeat coming in week 1 against a 49ers team who finished 2nd in the NFC, when the 49ers rushed for 186 yards and 1 touchdown.  Aaron Rodgers is undoubtedly the star of the offence, he threw the second highest number of Touchdown passes in the NFL this season, a staggering 39.  However just 6 teams in the league have scored fewer rushing touchdowns than the Packers this season though, so Rodgers arm has really been their only dangerous weapon.  In the sub zero conditions throwing and catching the ball could prove to be extremely difficult Rodgers will of course be used to the conditions though and in his last 2 home games he has thrown for a combined 515 yards along with 3 touchdowns, although they were against 2 of the NFL’s worst defences, Detroit and Tennessee.  Visiting passers have had more turbulent times though, in the same 2 games they combined for just 404 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, so it will be important that the Vikings don’t go behind early and try to chase the game.

James Jones and Randall Cobb, who missed last week’s game with the Vikings, have caught 22 of Rodgers 39 touchdown passes between them, so it’s imperative the Vikings keep a close eye on them, however Greg Jennings has been the Vikings biggest problem this season, in 2 games he has 166 yards and 2 touchdowns, although in the Vikings last visit to Green Bay he only managed 4 receptions for 46 yards.

Ball security has been a slight issue for the Packers in recent games with them losing 4 fumbles in their last 4 games while the Vikings have only lost 1 fumble in their 5 games, but both teams have defences who are capable of creating turnovers, with the Packers forcing 23 all season and the Vikings coming up 22 of their own.

The Vikings defence has however been particularly susceptible to passing offences and having allowed 28 receiving touchdowns they are ranked joint 23rd in the NFL.

Home field advantage could play a key factor in this game in another way as the Vikings have only won 1 game outside all season and they’ve only won 1 game on grass all season too. 

Ultimately this game will a great indicator of which coaching team has paid the most attention in the previous 2 meetings and while I can see how the Vikings can win this game, by starving the Packers offence of possession and managing the clock with short passes and the formidable pair of running backs who are Peterson and Gerhart I think the home crown and extreme conditions of Lambeau will see the Packers home, not by much though.  Withstanding that 3-1 for a Vikings win is a very tempting price though!