Wales v England 2015

Even Brian Moore thinks England have no chance in Cardiff and with their many and frequent injuries there will certainly be chances for Wales to exploit a number of new English combinations, but if there’s one accusation that could be levelled at England and in particular the English coaching team in recent times it’s that they may have become a little stale so the enforced changes could freshen them up. With the furore surrounding the roof (of all things) there’s a few personnel aspects that seem to have gone slightly under the radar.
For a start one can’t help feeling that Warren Gatland has missed a trick by not selecting Gareth Anscombe for his Welsh debut on this game, albeit it would have been off the bench but England’s incumbent number 10 George Ford has 1 very bad memory of Anscombe from the 2011 Junior Rugby World Cup final when Anscombe’s New Zealand U20’s side aka the Baby Blacks came from behind to beat Ford’s England team with Anscombe scoring 18 points. A more pressing concern for Welsh fans in Gatland’s omission is that he has instead chosen Rhys Priestland whose talent’s should by no means be discounted but when Anscombe & Priestland met head to head in the Pro 12 Anscombe scored 11 points as the Blues ran out 21-9 winners. Another worry for Priestland is that when he has played without a creative force in midfield, usually in the shape of Gareth Owen the Scarlets’ attacking play has looked severely blunted this season and the Welsh midfield is a lot of things but creative is not in their lexicon. If Wales need somebody to change the game in the last 20 minutes you could argue an ex Baby Black would bring the little bit of assurance and even swagger needed to wobble what is sure to be a determined and resolute English team. It would seem to prudent to mention in passing that Owen Williams has been very impressive at 10 for Leicester Tigers for almost 2 seasons now but his omission from the entire 6 Nations squad and not just the game day 23 must be entirely politically motivated.
The addition of a rejuvenated Danny Cipriani to England’s match day squad is more than a slight headache for both of Wales’ Fly Halves who would both rather defend against a less dynamic number 10, preferably one who is just going to guide his forwards around the pitch with his tactical kicking a la George Ford. If Cipriani is to be England’s Superman then Wales’ defense coach and Cipriani’s former head coach (and before that backs coach) at Wasps Shaun Edwards may well be his kryptonite, Edwards will surely have a few tricks up his sleeve to negate Cipriani’s potency (if he was going down the predictable route he may well just throw Justin Tipuric on to add to some extra pace to the Welsh cover defence). An outside half who actually challenges the defensive line provides more difficulties than a midfield ball carrier would since Wales’s defensive Captain is inside centre Jamie Roberts and both Roberts and centre partner Jonathan Davies (who have 107 caps between them) are experts on knowing when to drift or blitz and in doing so preventing any incisive breaks in midfield. Wingers George North and Alex Cuthbert have come in for some, mainly unwarranted criticism for perceived defensive frailties but the back 3 players who have scored tries against Wales in the last 12 months are a pretty impressive group; Wille Le Roux, Cornell Hendricks, Israel Folau and Julian Savea have all had a pretty exceptional 12 months so to criticise defenders for not stopping such clinical finishers seems like carping for the sake of it. Fullback Lee Halfpenny is becoming known for his trademark try saving commitment, which as often as not ends up with him relying on his body more than his technique and occasionally results in him popping off the pitch for a quick “head injury assessment”.
With such a solid Welsh defence out wide the close quarters battle between each team’s respective packs will be key and Warren Gatland’s decision to leave out Bradley Davies who has been in a rock in the Wasps pack this season is strange unless it’s a purely politically driven decision (although Luke Charteris who has taken the 3rd lock spot is another who plays his club rugby outside Wales in Paris for Racing Metro). Davies has been an expert at splitting driving mauls when defending for Wasps and along with England’s blind side (although he’s clearly a more destructive force as a 7) James Haskell he’s been one of the main reasons that Wasps sit 4th in the Aviva Premiership. Davies has been key in Wasps scrums too this season in the “engine room” and when he hasn’t been on the field their scrum has looked a lot less stable. Incidentally Haskell will be one of the most influential players on the field and unless Wales can open up the English defence and score some tries the penalties that Haskell is bound to win at the breakdown may well give George Ford the chance to win the game with his boot.
Possibly Wales brightest star in the squad is tight head prop Samson Lee who is set to make his 6 Nations debut in this game, Lee is a fierce scrummager and if the pitch (which has been replaced at a cost of £1.7 million to the tax payer, allegedly) can hold up and French referee Pascal Gauzere can establish a grip at the set piece Lee may well be the cornerstone for a dominant Welsh pack. Lee has good memories of playing against England loose head Joe Marler as his Scarlet’s team met Marler’s Quins in the last Heineken Cup with Lee’s side providing the upset of the tournament as the Scarlets turned over Quins at the Stoop 26-33, although he did get a yellow card in that game so he’s no angel.
Although the roof is a massive red herring the atmosphere inside the Stadium will undoubtedly be electric and extremely noisy (Stuart Lancaster can’t seriously think, or even hope opening the roof will instantly turn it into a library) but this doesn’t always play into the home team’s hands. Wales have been known to feel the wrath of the local fans and particularly against their bitterest of enemies if they don’t get off to a fast start by playing some exciting rugby (which is not always Gatland and Howley’s forte) then 70,000 supporters (we’re letting a few away fans in, right?) will voice their displeasure. I for one hope the home team are lifted by the fervour and noise and not crushed under the weight of expectation, but don’t believe all you read it’s definitely a 2 horse race.

6 Nations 2015

France haven’t won the 6 Nations since they did the Grand Slam in 2010 which, allied to the fact they’re 4th favourites with the bookies, makes my fancying them to do it this year even more irrational than most of my ideas. The return of Captain and former IRB Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir should galvanise Philippe Saint-Andre’s side and combined with the fact that Saint-Andre appears to have settled on the makeup of what had been an ever changing backline Dusautoir’s return should coincide with a turnaround in “les bleu’s” modest 6 Nations record. Dusautoir will command a lot more respect from his players than last year’s replacement Pascal Pape did last season and they should be a more disciplined outfit who don’t concede as many penalties and collect as many cards as they have done in the past. One of the key players in the French backline will be Clermont Auvergne’s fly half Camille Lopez, who ironically is a player of impish flair like Saint- Andre was, his ability to make space for the expert finishers out wide like Teddy Thomas, Yoann Huget, Lopez’s club teammates Wesley Fofana and the new boy (new to the 6 Nations at least) Noa Nakaitaci will be crucial, Lopez will also bring a consistency to the goal kicking that France have not always enjoyed.
Writing off England is never a good idea but as we’ve all heard, they will be missing 13 players for the first game in Cardiff and whilst expecting Wales to do anything is as daft as writing off England is 13 is quite a few! England will be looking to give players who wouldn’t usually be thrown into competitive Test match rugby experience in World Cup year and while James Haskell has been in the form of his life for Wasps and backs like Danny Cipriani and Jonathan Joseph can leave defenders grasping at thin air they could find it difficult to play their natural games behind a front 5 missing the World’s best loose head prop in Alex Corbisiero and 2 exceptional lock’s in Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury.
Ireland haven’t won back to back 6 Nations Championships, well technically ever, their last consecutive tournament victories were in 1948 and 1949 when it was the 5 Nations Championship. Joe Schmidt may well provide to be the catalyst to turn that run around this year but they face France in Dublin and they haven’t beaten the French in Ireland since they moved to the Aviva Stadium. Ireland also have to take on Italy where they lost in 2013 and traditionally become in a forward dominated struggle playing straight into Italian hands. Ireland also have to visit the Millennium Stadium where Wales and Warren Gatland will have more than 1 score to settle after the men in green trounced the valley boys by 20 points in the first half 2 years ago.
Scotland are on un upward curve under new coach Vern Cotter and have been boosted by the return of British Lion Ryan Grant to their ranks (after he was cleared of being involved in an assault). Having only managed to defeat Italy in last year’s last year’s tournament they surely have to improve on that performance but whether they can challenge France in Paris and England in Twickenham remains to be seen.
Wales, despite what Warren Gatland and the rest of his coaching team say are solely focused on improving their fitness for the upcoming RWC and if their Autumn International campaign is anything to go by then they will struggle in the early rounds, especially in Cardiff against a depleted English side who will certainly be fired up and may not hit their straps until they play Scotland in round 4, or at all.
Italy are always impossible to predict, more often than on find themselves on the end of contentious refereeing decisions and like Wales suffer from having a very unreliable surface at their home stadium. One thing you can say with any certainty is they have a pack that will cause most teams in the world trouble and as their November clash with the Springboks showed they are not far away from taking a big scalp.

Super Bowl XLIX

Controversy has reigned over both team’s build up to this game and to fully discuss who did or did not lower the air pressure of the balls used in the AFC Championship or to try and even contemplate why Richard Sherman thinks all neutral football fans will support a Seahawks team who have a very sketchy record of failed PED test’s in their recent history AND were fined $300,000 for conducting extra contact sessions during preseason would take aeons.
Statistics wise the Seahawks can boast the best running back in the postseason in Marshawn Lynch who has 216 yards on the ground at an average of 108 yards per game, the Patriots leading rusher LeGarrette Blount has just 149 yards (74.5 yards per game) but he does have 3 touchdowns in the playoffs, 2 more than Lynch. The Patriots have averaged a rather astonishing 40 points per game in the postseason and have the best receiver playing in this game in Julian Edelman who has 17 receptions for 172 yards, Danny Amendola and Tight End Rob Gronkowski are 2 of 3 players in the game with 2 postseason touchdown receptions, the third being the Seahawks Jermaine Kearse who only has 4 receptions in the playoffs but 2 of them have resulted in touchdowns! The Seahawks have instead relied on their defence to win them games all season and into January so while they have averaged 29.5 points per game they have only allowed 19.5 per game.
Bizarrely 2 players in the “greatest show on earth” have a perfect passer rating during the playoffs but neither of them are Quarterbacks, Seahawks Punter Jon Ryan has thrown 1 pass for a touchdown and Patriots receiver Julian Edelman (who Tom Brady says can do everything) has also recorded a touchdown pass although Edelman’s was a whopping 51 yarder compared to Ryan’s rather modest 19 yarder (but Edelman’s was thrown to fellow wide receiver Amendola whilst Ryan’s was caught by an Offensive Tackle). Another strange statistic is that both teams have only made 1 successful Field Goal during the postseason, there’s more than a reasonable chance that will change tonight since the “greatest show on earth” very rarely encapsulates the greatest game and this game will have a long way to go to live up to the tension of the NFC Championship game or to the point scoring of the Patriots AFC Divisional round game against the Ravens.
According to the numbers the Patriots should be able to score enough to prevent the Seahawks from becoming the first team to win back to back Super Bowls in a decade but anybody who saw just how terribly the Seahawks played in the NFC Championship game against the Packers knows that they have the strength of character to find a win in the most unlikely of places. Tom Brady will be desperate to win his 4th ring in his 15th year as a professional but there’s more than a chance that all the talk of “deflate-gate” has put unwanted pressure on a Patriots outfit who have been reminded of previous indiscretions. I’m going for a Seahawks victory but with Richard Sherman’s partner extremely close to going into labour, Kam Chancellor suffering an injury in Friday’s practice session and Earl Thomas suffering a separated shoulder in the NFC Championship game the “Legion of Boom” could be more like the “Legion of Gloom”.