Le Crunch time

Image

France v England is one of oldest rivals in International rugby, they first played in 1906, so just the 108 years ago then.  This weekend’s game though is more interesting than most though with France needing to bounce back from heir dismal wooden spoon season last year and England trying out some new backs, apropos of nothing Stuart Lancaster went on record saying he’d only give players debuts if he thought they looked ready during the weeks leading up to this game and Anthony Watson looks to have far more stardust in his boots than Nowell or Burrell to me, Lancaster could left looking foolish in 24 hours.  Here’s a quick breakdown of both team’s assets and restrictions

England, the good –

§  That pack, Dylan Hartley is not a man you’d want dating your sister, or driving your car for that matter but against a French front row who will be up for a battle there’s not many tougher cookies than Hartley and with 2 of Saints teammates alongside him England’s forwards should more than stand up to the test.

 

§  Owen Farrell’s goal kicking is right up there with the best in the world and with a pack that will pressurise a French team in their own backyard it will be a valuable asset.

 

§  Jack Nowell and Jonny May, I can’t imagine either are household names in France and with both lining up against players who prefer at 15 they have a chance to make a mark on International rugby.

 

§  Billy Vunipola, if the 7 forwards ahead of him can get him a solid platform he could run rings around his opposite number, the lumbering behemoth Louis Picamoles.

 

The bad –

§  Both Nowell and May have a propensity to get in awkward positions to defend and particularly when it comes to tackling, both can be susceptible to ungainly tackles that lead to yellow cards.

 

§  Nigel Owens is not a referee who likes “encouragement” from the players on the pitch and Danny Care in particular does to love to voice his concerns to officials. Aggravating any ref is never a good idea but particularly not Nigel Owens.

 

§  Will Carling tweeted today that Paris is a great place to make your debut, in relation to Huddersfield born Luther Burrell.  Will Carling can count his lucky stars Mathieu Bastareaud wasn’t playing when he was.  Burrell may be a revelation in the English backline but Bastareaud is even bigger than the 17 stone Burrell, not many will be standing between those 2.

 

§  Joe Marler & Dan Cole will be coming up against 2 of the best scrimmaging props in the world in Nicolas Mas & Thomas Domingo and while both Cole & Marler are more mobile they will have the devil’s own job if they try to drive straight at scrum time.

 

Now for the unpredictable (to say the least) French, the good –

§  Well they’ve picked a backline with plenty of flair, very much in the image of the coach Philippe Saint-Andre Dulin, Huget, Medard and Pilsson could change any game.

 

§  The front row, they have 116 caps between them and they’ll be looking to use that experience in the scrums, they may struggle to keep up with England’s more dynamic props during open play though.

 

§  The back row, more importantly the 2 back row replacements on the bench, if England do try to play an expansive and fast game using their new backs fresh legs in the back row could be vital and England’s only back row cover is number 8 Ben Morgan.

 

§  Wesley Fofana, he’s the top French try scorer in the Top 14 this season with 10, only his ASM teammate Naipolioni Nalaga who plays outside him has scored more.

 

The bad –

§  That backline might tackle like Saint-Andre did in his pomp (not very well).

 

§  Discipline could be a problem, any team whose captain already has 5 yellow cards and a red this season could be slightly “overenthusiastic” at the breakdown.

 

§  The French have recently taken to playing 9’s at 10 and vice versa and Saint Andre has selected Jean Marc Doussain at 9.  Doussain is a great player and one with the rare claim to fame of playing in a Rugby World Cup final just months after playing in a Junior RWC for the French U20 side, but he has been playing at 10 for his club team Toulouse in recent weeks and is even listed on Wikipedia (the online home of inaccuracy) as a “Fly half”, he will probably adapt, but it could be a risk and he may take a while to settle.

 

§  Jules Plisson maybe a great rugby player but he’s not the first choice Fly Half at his club after the big money arrival of Springbok fly half Morne Steyn, incidentally the reason that Doussain has been shuffled around his team is due to big money foreign imports, so dilution of the French talent pool is a serious issue, especially where halfbacks are concerned.

 

§  There’s has appeared to be a serious disconnect between Saint-Andre and his charges ever since he took over from Marc Lievremont (even more than the tradition dissent French players show their boss), either Saint-Andre can’t express his ethos to his players before they take the field, or he’s picking players who incapable of fulfilling his game plan and this is why I can only see England winning this game.

Super Bowl Schmooper Bowl

Image

If I were to write a blog about the Super Bowl it wouldn’t undoubtedly outline how the Broncos have the best offence and the Seahawks have the best defence and outline how each time Tom Brady & Peyton Manning meet in the playoffs the victor wins the at big show.  But every Bronco and his Seahawk has, or will opine about what an epic clash of top seeds this will be, I however have an alternative offering.

The story of this NFL has been one an almost countless number of injuries and some pretty substandard officiating. The story of the NFC has been of how fortunate the Seahawks have been to lose only 1 veteran player to injury for the season, wide receiver Sidney Rice was placed on IR on October 30th and how opposition offences have played right into their hands and afforded them the opportunity to make 28 interceptions during the regular season, I mean the Seahawks backfield has been dominant but somebody has to throw the ball for it to be intercepted.  Another reoccurring theme, though not just this season, has been Richard Sherman’s ungracious (at best) remarks.  During the 2012 season he bode farewell to Tom Brady as they left the field in Seattle with a rather unsavoury taunt of “You mad bro?” as the cornerback followed Brady off CenturyLink Field.  In last season’s playoffs Sherman taunted Washington Redskins offensive lineman Trent Williams after the Seahawks beat the Redskins 22-14, Williams however chose not to ignore Sherman’s unnecessary goading like Brady did and hit Sherman squarely in the face starting an unsightly fracas.  Now all this maybe just be an oversensitive Brit mistaking good ol’ fashioned American “Trash Talk” as an affront to my old fashioned “airs and graces”, but here’s the kicker; Sherman is 1 of 6 Seahawks who have been found guilty of Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) offences since 2011, 4 of these players are play in the Seahawks much vaunted defensive backfield, Sherman along with fellow cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond and the free safety Winston Guy have all been banned, Browner for a year.  In June 2012 Sherman was even quoted as saying “it seems that way” when asked if the Seahawks had a PED problem, call me old fashioned but if I’d hope a player under such scrutiny and from a team under such a cloud would maintain a shred of humility.

That’s the main reason I’m not a huge Seahawks fan, here’s another Pete Carroll celebrates everything like it’s part of his master plan.  The Seahawks could have lost their previous 4 games, in actual fact they only lost 1 to divisional rivals the Cardinals.  Had Saints wide receiver Marques Colston stepped out of bounds and left the fancy passing stuff to his quarterback Drew Brees the Seahawks wouldn’t have progressed to the NFC Championship game and had the Rams who beat the Chicago Bears 42-21 arrived in Washington state instead of the “bad St Louis Rams” who appeared at CenturyLink Field in week 17 the ‘Hawks wouldn’t have finished top of the NFC West.  Without injuries to 2 of the 49ers most crucial players and some pretty mystifying officiating the 49ers would have been playing in the Super Bowl and not their northerly division rivals.

During the regular season the Broncos outscored the Seahawks by a total of 606 to 417 points and Peyton Manning is surely destined to equal his brother Eli’s number of Super Bowl rings.  But the Seahawks have managed to win games they’ve had no right to win over the last month and a half so I can’t see how they’ll lose this one.  I for one wouldn’t mind seeing Wes Welker “pick” Richard Sherman with the sort of vigour he showed on Aqib Talib though.

Captain’s Table

Image

Using very little imagination (and on occasion just the 1 eye) I thought I’d explore the possibility that the deciding factor in the 2014 6 Nations could be the on field leadership of each nation.

Wales’ skipper Sam Warburton has just been unveiled as the first player to sign a “central contract” with the WRU just 1 week before the 6 Nations campaign begins in against Italy in Cardiff.  Whether or not a settled future will affect Warburton remains to be seen, George North certainly returned to his best, devastating form once his protracted move to Northampton Saints was concluded, but Warburton has shown no signs that off field factors have impacted his performance.

The Wales and Lions captain has won 11 of his 15 6 Nations games and is yet to lose to Italy in his young career, while he has not always played at his best for Wales he appears have the uncanny knack of galvanising his team for the most important games and with the penultimate game of this campaign being vital, not just for a potential record breaking 3rd 6 Nations title in a row, but also in the build up for the next Rugby World Cup (it will be the last competitive fixture Wales play at Twickenham before the Pool A clash on the 26th of September 2015) the 2014 championship looks like the sort of vigorous test Warburton relishes.  Warburton’s experience allied with the fact that he and understudy Justin Tipuric kept his English counterpart Chris Robshaw out of the Lions touring party must make Wales solid favourites to claim a 3rd title in 3 years.  The one question mark over Warburton is his fitness, he missed the decisive Lions Test with a hamstring injury and the first 2 games of the Australia tour with a knee injury, and with 1 week before the tournament kicks off he hasn’t played since suffering a shoulder injury in November.  Fortunately for Wales they have a readymade replacement in Alun Wyn Jones, the man who led the Lions to victory on July’s 3rd Test.

England’s leader Chris Robshaw is the proud owner of an impressive 80% win record in 6 Nations rugby, but the 27 year old has played just 10 6 Nations games and the last one in the Millennium Stadium must still irk him.  His team seemingly had a Grand Slam in their grasp until a Wales team who needed to make a mends for a dismal start to the campaign against Ireland achieved a level of physicality that is rarely seen in Northern Hemisphere rugby.

While the lingering questions over Robshaw’s captaincy that came to light after he opted to kick a penalty with his team 4 points behind with less than 2 minutes to play back against South Africa back in 2012 may have disappeared after he lead his team to a rare victory over New Zealand some to remain to be convinced over Robshaw’s role in the team.  Stuart Lancaster’s failure to consistently pick an out and out number 7 would appear one of the main reasons that a potentially dynamic back line so rarely fires on all cylinders, “experts” like Jeremy Guscott may choice to single out winger Chris Ashton as the man who’s at fault for England’s stuttering attack but if Ashton was causing players inside him to become indecisive and ineffectual he wouldn’t be the leading try scorer in this season’s Heineken Cup, would he?  Lancaster picked a specialist open side flanker in Matt Kvesic during the summer tour of Argentina and England cantered to 2-0 Test series win scoring 11 tries in the process.

Ireland’s decision to rely on talismanic old stager Paul O’Connell as their leader in the upcoming campaign is a clear indicator that their new crop of youngsters are either not good enough, or haven’t had enough faith shown in them by the previous hierarchy and so have not been afforded an opportunity to prove if they are good enough or not.  O’Connell is an icon, not just in Irish rugby but also in British rugby after his heroic effort to complete the first Lions Test despite breaking his arm during the match.  He will undoubtedly be everything that’s good about the Irish effort in the 6 Nations, however he will also be symbolic of the weaknesses of the Irish squad too, he will provide physicality and power but he’ll lack the pace and handling which younger tight five forwards from other countries will display.

Pascal Pape, like O’Connell symbolises everything that his French teammates will do well yet also highlights where they are sadly lacking.  It’s important to mention Pape is only captaining the French because 2011 IRB World Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir will miss the entire tournament injured, the loss of Dusautoir will almost certainly impact the tempo that France are able to play at but Pape’s abrasive approach should provide the exciting French backs with front foot ball with which to create scoring chances.  Pape however is not renowned for his regard for the laws of rugby and the disciplinary system, his own record of 4 yellow cards and a red card in the Top 14 added to another yellow card in the Amlin Challenge already this season appear a fairly ominous sign to a casual bystander and could make it difficult for him to reprimand any teammates for their indiscretions.

Sergio Parisse is probably the exception that proves this (at best sketchy) rule, if the team with the best player as captain were to win the 6 Nations then Italy would have dominated the championship for the last 10 years.  Parisse is a phenomenal athlete and almost certainly the most skilful player on show in the 6 Nations, however the other players at Italy’s disposal are nowhere near as capable as him, they will provide Wales with a tough test in the opening game as the Welsh scrum has not quite been the same since the new engagement rule came into being at the start of the season and Italy’s front row could be the strongest in the competition, however the Italian’s ability to score with the ball their forward’s provide them is sadly lacking.  Strangely for a country obsessed with football the Italian’s have always struggled to find a consistent place kicker, the selection of 20 Tommaso “Tommy” Allan may have solved that problem, if he can perform to the level he’s capable of then Wales may well find themselves with a sticky start a second successive 6 Nations campaign.

Kelly Brown is, like Parisse, the best player in his national team by a country mile, but as an open side playing alongside a pack that will likely be shunted from pillar to post his effectiveness is seriously hampered by his teammate’s limitations.  There are bright spots for Scotland in British & Irish Lion tight head prop Ewan Murray, second row and former captain Alastair Kellock and Dutch born winger Tim Visser but all 3 of these players will miss the tournament with injuries.  Several of the Scotland squad, just like the Scottish head coach Scott Johnson look to be just keeping seats warm until the cavalry arrive, although when you’re considered the second best option behind Clermont Auvergne’s least successful coach in recent years there’s an inevitability to a wooden spoon as the old “sitting duck syndrome” permeates from the coaching staff to the players.

NFC Championship Game San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks

Image

Momentum is one of those things that most coaches like to believe doesn’t exist, but most sports fans will tell you that whether it’s confidence, belief or even some bizarre adaptation of destiny momentum is a palpable force, especially in knock out competitions.  Since the Seahawks lost to the 49ers in San Francisco back in December they have laboured to 3 wins and suffered a shock home defeat to the Cardinals.  The 49ers haven’t lost since they beat the Seahawks 5 weeks ago; in fact their winning streak now stands at 8 games, their last defeat coming by just 3 points in New Orleans on the 17th of November.

Now there are plenty of statistics to prove just how good these two teams have been, but the major indicator of their success is that they’re both just 1 game away from the Super Bowl!  The 49ers have not been victorious in Seattle since 2010 when 1 touchdown from Frank Gore and 4 field goals saw them run out winners 19 – 17.  In recent meetings in Seattle Colin Kaepernick has struggled to run the 49ers in the deafening noise created by Seattle’s “12th man”, the nickname they give their home fans.  Another key factor for the 49ers is the run game, they’ve had a tendency to abandon it if they fall behind early in the game but as Frank Gore has been the leading rusher in 10 of their 12 wins this season the faith in their all time rushing leader must not waiver.  The Seahawks will be reliant on their star running back Marshawn Lynch to do most of their heavy lifting on offence; they scored 2 touchdowns last week both by Lynch with 3 field goals eventually proving the difference between them and a Saints team who seriously stifled the Seahawks offence.  The Seahawks managed just 277 yards of total offence, 143 of which were recorded by Lynch.

Both teams have strong defences and the 49ers 4 goal line stops against the Carolina Panthers all but assured them of a place in the Championship game, only once this season has a team scored more than 24 points against the 49ers and that was Green Bay in week 1.  Since the their week loss in San Francisco the Seahawks have scored more than 24 points just once and that was against a St Louis Rams defence, who on average, conceded 23 points per game during the regular season.

Maybe it’s the old romantic in me, but it would seem that all signs point toward San Francisco stopping the rot on the road in the Pacific Northwest tonight.  But here’s the problem, the Seahawks should have lost both of their last games but when teams step onto the grassturf at CenturyLink Field strange things happen.  The 49ers know that Seattle have the best secondary in football and throwing the ball would be like throwing Kaepernick into the Grizzly Bear enclosure at Seattle’s Woodland Park zoo, but that hasn’t stopped them on their last visits.  The Saints proved last week that Seattle’s offence is fairly 1 dimensional and easy to contain, but if Marshawn Lynch can turn “Beastmode” twice in 2 weeks then a spot in an outdoor cold weather Super Bowl is theirs.  I’m sticking with the romance though and I think the 49ers momentum can carry them through what will surely be a fiercely competitive, bad tempered Ice Hockey brawl of a Championship game.  The pain of losing last year’s “Harbaugh Bowl” should focus the 49ers collective minds just long enough to stop fighting and win a game of football, one way or another controversy is almost guaranteed.

AFC Championship game New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos

Image

This game sees the Playoff leading running back take on the regular season’s record breaking Quarterback.  Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount is the highest scorer in the Playoffs with 24 points, 2 more than his nearest rival San Francisco 49ers place kicker Phil Dawson.  Blount’s 4 rushing touchdowns against a particularly shaky Colts rush defence emphasized just how Patriots Head Coach Bill Bellichick will identify his opponent’s weaknesses and exploit them.  Broncos Quarterback Peyton Manning threw 55 touchdown passes during the regular season breaking the previous record of 50 set in 2008 by his opponent this weekend Tom Brady.  Manning also broke the record for most pass yardage in 1 season that was previously held by Drew Brees, Manning’s 5,477 yards surpassed the 2011 mark by just 1 yard.

So it’s fair to say that both teams have highly potent offences at their disposal, they were the best 2 AFC teams in terms of points per game during the regular season and neither side will have any worries if the game turns into a shootout.  However on the other side of the ball it’s been a very different story with both defences struggling on one facet of play, the Patriots run defence was ranked 30th in the league at the end of the regular season after allowing an average of 134.1 yards per game, they did only concede 11 rushing touchdowns in their 16 games though and they did force 6 fumbles and recover 3 of them.  The Patriots defence did make 17 interceptions during the regular season to add to the 4 they gathered in last week, throwing the ball against them is a dangerous task, even for an experienced play maker like Manning.  The Broncos defence on the other hand struggled in the pass game during the regular season and were ranked the 27th best team in the league after allowing an average of 254.4 yards per game, last week they allowed 184 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air in the 4th quarter alone.  The Broncos defence has been difficult to run against this season and their 101.6 average yards allowed during the regular season saw them ranked 6th in the NFL.  The Broncos also made 17 interceptions during the regular season, but their 16 lost fumbles during the season left them with a turnover ratio of 0.

This game will almost certainly be decided by the coaching staff on the sideline and after Peyton Manning extolled the virtues of the Patriots Head Coach Bill Bellichick the latter will surely want to make sure the former is proved correct in Denver.  The Patriots had around 25 undrafted free agent signings in their squad of 52 last week and even with 11 players on Injured Reserve including Vince Wilfork and Rob Gronkowski the Patriots have more ways to win a game than the Broncos have ways to stop them.

AFC Divisional Playoff Game 2 – San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos

Image

There’s absolutely no reason to suggest that the Chargers will win this game, but that doesn’t mean they won’t.  During the regular season the Chargers finished with a 9-7 win – loss record compared to the Broncos league leading 13-3 and the only facet of play that the Chargers outperformed the Broncos in was the rushing attack and that’s largely because the Broncos passing game was so dominant that they rarely felt the need to run the ball.

The Chargers however did beat the Broncos by 7 points in Denver just 4 weeks ago so they don’t face a completely hopeless task.  Ryan Matthews ran for 127 yards on that occasion and Danny Woodhead, Ronnie Brown and Quarterback Phillip Rivers combined for a further 50 yards on the ground.  The Broncos managed to commit 6 penalties for a total loss of 43 yards in the game and Peyton manning had a rare bad game where he completed just 65% of the 41 passes he attempted and he committed the only turnover of the game throwing an interception that was taken by Linebacker Thomas Keiser.

Both teams have injury issues and the Chargers could be without as many as 10 starters (not including their 9 players on IR), the Broncos on have 8 injury concerns heading into this game and 6 on Injured Reserve, but having not had to play during the Wildcard weekend they shouldn’t be missing too many.

The Broncos have averaged 37.9 points per game this season and this is simply there’s to lose, but the Bengals folded in front of the Chargers eyes last week and Peyton Manning is only human so maybe he will feel the pressure that makes the Playoffs so special.

NFC Divisional Playoff Game 2 – San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers

Image

1 point separated these teams when they met at Candlestick in week 10 so it’s fair to say they’re fairly evenly matched.  The similarities are many and easy for most people to see; they both finished the regular season with 12 – 4 records, both have very strong defences the Panthers were ranked 6th in the NFL in terms of passing yards conceded and 2nd the league when defending the run.  The 49ers were 7th and 4th in the same categories. 

Both offences are lead by exciting young Quarterbacks who have powerful arms but can also use their feet to move the sticks.  Cam Newton of the Panthers threw 24 touchdown passes this season and 13 interceptions; he also scored 6 rushing touchdowns and averaged 5.3 yards every time he carried the ball.  The 49ers Colin Kaepernick threw 21 touchdown passes with just 8 interceptions and he scored 4 rushing touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per run.

Both offences have veteran receivers leading their receiving corps, 34 year old Steve Smith for the Panthers is a veteran of their 2003 Super Bowl winning campaign but this season he has suffered from injuries and his appearance in this game is questionable.  He has made just 64 catches all season and only scored 4 touchdowns but he has averaged 11.6 yards per catch so his presence could be vital in the Panthers ability to keep the chains moving.  San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin is bidding to be the first player to win a Super Bowl with 3 different sides following the rings he collected with Arizona and Baltimore last year against the 49ers.  The 33 year old has held the pass offence together most of the season as Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis have suffered injuries and only made limited appearances between them.  Boldin made 85 receptions and caught 7 touchdowns this season; he has recorded 1,179 yards at an average of 13.9 yards per catch, the most since his 2006 season for the Cardinals.

Pass catching Tight Ends are a feature of the offences too and the Panthers veteran Greg Olsen leads them with 816 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns on 73 catches this season.  Vernon Davis for the 49ers is usually the guy described as “the fastest man on the field” during commentary and he has the pace to be split out as a wide receiver, but after an injury hit season he only has 52 catches this season, it hasn’t stopped him catching 13 touchdown passes though becoming the first Tight End to catch at least 12 touchdown passes in consecutive seasons.

Both offences have elite running backs at their disposal too the Panther ground attack has been lead by DeAngelo Williams this season as he has racked up 843 rush yards but the Panthers have used a whole battery of running backs to aid Williams, Johnathan Stewart has 48 carries this season, Mike Tolbert has scored 5 touchdowns on 101 carries and even receivers Ted Ginn Jr and Brandon LaFell have been used in the running game this season.  Frank Gore is the crown jewel in the 49ers offence and when he’s at his destructive best with the ball in his hands they invariably win, this season he has a massive 1,128 yards and 9 touchdowns, he has been ably assisted by Kendall Hunter who has 358 yards and 3 touchdowns this season, LaMichael James whose pace hasn’t really been unleashed to any great effect this season but his average of 5.9 yards per carry shows how effective he can be.

Ultimately this will be a very close battle and 1 individual error or piece of outstanding play from one of the many stars on show will decide who progresses to the NFC Championship game in Seattle. The 49ers are the bookmakers favourite and as they have built up a lot of momentum and overcome some serious adversity in the form of arctic temperatures last weekend they could have what it takes to make it all the way to the Super Bowl.  A 49ers rematch in Seattle next week would be a mouth watering game but a Panthers defence who have only allowed 4 rushing touchdowns all season will have a lot to say about it and middle Linebacker Luke Kuelchy and Defensive End Greg “Kraken” Hardy have both got the ability to win this game for the Panthers.  While for the 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree and pass rusher Aldon Smith will want to show what they bring to the party after both missed the regular season match up.  For what it’s worth (nothing) I think the Panthers will win another nail biter, but it’s far from cut and dry.