Random Musings of an Absurd Fool

Last week’s gibbering turned into a bit of a Magnus opus so, not being one for consistency on any regular basis this week I’m going for brevity, today’s main people of interest are the coaches. Stuart Lancaster seems to have reverted to his secondary school persona and is almost dictating England’s game plan in the week leading up to the game and taking any decision making out of the players hands. Lancaster seems to have become so entrenched in his core beliefs that he’s abandoned any thought of adapting his game plan to suit the personnel on the field, last week despite picking Haskell who is probably the best English forward at the breakdown they still involved Haskell in the formation of midfield pods to recycle 2nd or 3rd phase ball that hadn’t even been won at the original ruck yet in the first place, leaving their best flanker stood out in midfield while the more ineffectual forwards struggling against the Samoan forwards.

Michael Cheika has only been in charge of the Wallabies for about a month so I would imagine he hasn’t had enough time to stamp his mark on the team’s play. Instead he has to rely on the players to adapt to situations on the field and trust them to make decisions accordingly, the core of the Australia side is largely made up from the successful Waratahs team (10 in today’s Wallaby squad) who Cheika coached to the Super rugby title in August of this year though so both coach and players are more than accustomed to each other. Cheika’s success as a head coach with both Randwick and particularly at Leinster where he had no hesitation in throwing Jonny Sexton in at Fly Half during their 2009 successful Heineken Cup campaign suggest that contrariwise to Lancaster he’s a coach who is comfortable allowing his players to play what they see in front of them and not to a rigid game plan.

Today would be a really strange time for Lancaster to actually scrap his preeminent game plan and start playing 9 man rugby but it would probably be England’s best shot at beating an Australia side who may not excel at set pieces but do come alive at the breakdown, Chris Robshaw’s going to need all the help he can get to best Michael Hooper so England should be putting as many players as they can into rucks and not leave forwards standing in midfield waiting to for phases to materialise.

Wales South Africa is a bit of a strange game; both teams have players unavailable through injury and more importantly because the game is taking place outside an IRB window so their respective clubs do not have to release them to the National side. It’s also another game where the coaches outward persona’s could be not be more contrasting, Heyneke Meyer is a human firework when he’s watching his charges from the coaches box. He often looks like he’s about to ignite and fly around the room, he spends more time jumping up and down than some his lineout forwards do. Warren Gatland on the other hand doesn’t much adopt the poker face approach as a poker body, nothing seems to change his demeanour, rumour has it he once smiled! The other slightly interesting (to me at least) area of this game is how well all the players involved will stand up to a 4th Test match in 4 weeks, obviously not all have appeared in every minute of every game but Wales have been subjected to some particularly fierce conditioning sessions in an attempt to build up their endurance in time for the 2015 RWC and there have been concerns from South African fans and observers that their players may not be particularly fit and coming at the end of a punishing season for their players this game may only serve to compound those fears.

England’s Red Herring

As a big fan of Occam’s Razor I’d say the simplest way to describe the England rugby team’s biggest problem is that they are sorely lacking a true, ball scavenging open side flanker. That wouldn’t make for a particularly edifying blog though, so here’s why the absence of a number 7 has been such an impediment for what seems to be a very long time (but is probably in actuality about 18 months). Remember last season how the man who bore the main brunt of the critic’s ire was Chris Ashton? Well he’s been replaced by Jack Nowell, Samesa Rokoduguni and Anthony Watson all prodigious talents who have arguably deserved a chance to prove their worth as International rugby players but none have done anything that Ashton couldn’t do or put on faultless displays in a white shirt. The one major difference is that while the 3 people who have replaced Ashton have also suffered from being isolated on the wing and not received any real service form players around him they’ve not really shown any sort of effervescent personality traits that seemed to rub Ashton’s critics up the wrong way. In England’s last 2 Test matches their wingers have recorded 12 touches and 15 touches (it’s difficult to tell if they were passes from their own teammates or kicks they fielded from opponents) but in England’s 3rd Test on the tour of New Zealand (that they lost 36-13) Cory Jane touched the ball 19 times and his All Black wing partner Julian Savea notched a rather massive 21 touches. To put that into context England’s Fly Half Owen Farrell, who has been bearing the brunt of the critics gibes in recent weeks touched the ball just 27 times last week against South Africa. Farrell’s main problem is that he’s only managed limited game time for his club Saracens this season and he may be shying away from taking the ball unless it’s fast and clean another problem which has seemingly been addressed this week has been that Danny Care has been unable to get the ball away from the ruck area with any real sort of pace and has been running ineffectively, managing to gain 22 metres on 9 runs last week (his opposite number Cobus Reinach managed 25 metres on just 6 snipes).
Meanwhile in the forward pack Billy Vunipola, another Saracens player (anybody else see a pattern developing here) has become a target for increased griping about his work-rate and when you’re pushing 20 stone it’s always going to be a criticism levelled at you, but there’s a reason England pick a man mountain at number 8 and it’s not fly around the park and be the first to the breakdowns. The counterargument is that Vunipola is the only part of the backrow actually serving a purpose, he’s one of the most destructive ball carriers England have had for some time but as the 2 wing forward’s he usually plays with for England are both 6.5’s and neither is a real 7 Vunipola is expected to fill in the gaps they leave both in defence and attack (and as previously mentioned he’s a mountain and most mountain’s haven’t moved far since they were formed in the Cretaceous period). At his club Saracens Vunipola is always an effective 8 largely because they have 2 flankers who have defined roles and who fulfil these roles effectively so bringing him into a different environment where one flanker is picked seemingly because he’s a lovely chap and an affable Captain an another picked because he provides a lineout option and a large amount of physicality in defence seems a strange policy.
Once again borrowing a lot from the principle of Occum’s Razor there are 2 keys to modern International rugby, firstly physicality in defence which England have in bucket loads and secondly quick ball (or even better turnover ball) in attack which England have been sorely lacking, Danny Care would probably argue that he was prevented from providing quick ball by the ponderous way his forwards went about their job in the last 2 weeks and if the 9 can’t provide the 10 with the time and space then the whole backline will struggle to make an impression on the game. This week against Samoa James Haskell should undoubtedly make a difference to the speed of England’s ball, however Haskell has been playing 7 for his club Wasps all season but will wear the 6 shirt today. So either England don’t care which flanker does what around the park which could lead to a backrow which is unbalanced as it has been in recent games, which would be extremely dangerous against Samoa’s open side Jack Lam or they really do believe that Captain Chris Robshaw is an International class 7, an opinion which recent history would contradict. I’m expecting Haskell to be the best player in a white shirt today and if England’s forwards can provide quick ball then their new half back pairing of Ben Youngs and George Ford will revel and should lead the team to an impressive win. Knowing who’s awarding the Man of the Match trophy I’d say George Ford is a shoe in to win the champagne. If the forwards struggle against a Samoan forward pack that were comprehensively beaten by Italy 2 weeks ago then it really doesn’t matter which half backs England have picked or isn’t getting the ball on the wing.

NFL International Series 2014 @ Wembley Stadium part III

With the NFL recently announcing 3 games at Wembley next year that even a mother wouldn’t love this game also looks like it’ll be a real test if the International fans endurance. The 1-8 Jaguars host the 6-3 Cowboys, the Jaguars are only held off the bottom of the NFL league table by Oakland whose desperate showing in London lead to their Head Coach being fired. At this point I should point out that there’s a lot to admire about the Jag’s, they have an extremely young squad with just 1 player over 29 (and Marcedes Lewis is just 30), they took over the St. Louis Rams contract to be London’s designated home team between 2013 and 2016 and Jaxson de Ville is the funniest mascot possibly in all sport (how can you not love someone who bungee jumped off the roof at Wembley Stadium?).
Both team’s records speak for themselves with the Cowboys surprising most people and their challenge for the NFC East title is testament to how good Tony Romo has been so far this season with the Cowboys traditional porous offensive line not really helping him too much. Romo missed the Cowboys last game and had to leave their week 8 game against divisional rivals Washington for a period after he was sacked in the 3rd quarter and re-injured his back. Romo is not the only Cowboy player having a standout year though and running back DeMarco Murray leads the league with a whopping 1133 yards after just 9 games averaging 5.0 yards per carry but even he struggled without Romo last week recording just 79 yards, 56 yards lower than his game average this year. The Cowboys defence has also been better than in recent seasons and they’ve allowed just 19 points per game on average.
The Jaguars defence has not been great and has allowed 26 points per game, Jacksonville’s defence might have allowed a lot of points this season but they have managed 27 sacks so far this season, the 3rd most in the league and with the Dallas offensive line allowing 18 so far whoever plays quarterback for them will need to be on his toes. However this game may not be as cut and dried as it would seem (he typed in a fit of optimistic pique), since their first round draft pick Blake Bortles has become the starting quarterback and college quarterback who they have converted to running back Denard Robinson it would appear has fully adapted to his niche the Jacksonville offence has become one of the more dynamic in the league. Robinson has averaged 116 yards from scrimmage in the last 3 games and he’s averaged 5.8 yards per carry since week 6, so the Cowboys defence may well have a difficult task ahead of them tomorrow.
All the talk in the build up has been of Tony Romo’s return to action and if he’s playing and anywhere near his best then this game is the Cowboy’s to lose, they have managed to lose games that seemed pretty straightforward in the past though. The one thing that I can say with any real certainty that with 2 subpar offensive line’s on display and 2 defences who have combined for 39 sacks this year both quarterbacks could be spending a lot of time laying on the cold turf.