103 days ‘til the Rugby World Cup. But who’s counting? (cont.)

rugbyGroup B seems to be more of a one horse race than Group A with South Africa seemingly destined to easily win the group and progress to a Quarter Final in Twickenham. The battle for second in the group however is much more interesting with the teams ranked 9th, 10th, 13th and 16th all in with a chance of sneaking into the Quarter Finals. Samoa are the highest ranked of the teams battling it out for second place. They stand 1 place ahead of Scotland with Japan currently ranked 13th and the USA in 16th, although there are less than 8 ranking points separating all four of the sides.

Samoa are one of the Pacific Island teams who, like Fiji are bursting with talent but struggle to adapt to the structured nature of International rugby. However they have beaten Wales (who they could face in the Quarter Final stage) twice in previous World Cups and once more as recently as November 2012 in Cardiff, so they certainly won’t fear any opposition this autumn. If they can manage to compete at set piece time then a backline including the likes of former New Zealand 7’s representative Tim Nanai-Williams, Northampton Saints’ brothers Ken and George Pisi and the cousin of the late, great Jerry Collins Newcastle Falcons Sinoti Sinoti (who has notched up 10 tries in 27 appearances this season) will threaten opposing defences from all angles.

It’s difficult what to know what to expect from Scotland, in the Autumn of 2014 they were talked about as being a resurgent force under the stewardship of Kiwi coach Vern Cotter but during the 6 Nations they were beaten by everyone and ended the tournament with a resounding 40-10 thumping at the hands of tournament winners Ireland. Cotter responded by including 8 uncapped players in his initial World Cup training party including South African born W.P Nel and Josh Strauss and New Zealand born Hugh Blake who has only played 3 professional games in Scotland since he moved there last year. Scotland’s main problem is that their best 4 players are all scrum halves and they can’t seem to find an outside half who can consistently provide the structure needed to provide scoring opportunities for their potent outside backs like Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser.

Japan and the United States are in similar positions as the Pacific Island nations in as much as they have an array of talented players but they are spread across a large number of foreign countries as they ply their trade in different top flight league’s so they often struggle for consistency both in selection and in terms of team cohesion. The USA however have made serious improvements in recent years and with 7’s now being an Olympic sport Rugby Union is becoming increasingly popular and the money on offer for playing top flight rugby is attracting the interest of athlete’s who do not quite make in more traditional American sports like American Football and Athletics, particularly sprinters like Carlin Isles and Perry Baker who have been recently seen ripping defences to shreds on the IRB 7’s tour. If Rugby continues to enjoy support in the States and it should do after they won the Twickenham leg of the IRB 7’s series this year then the USA will become a serious threat in future World Cups.

South Africa would have suffer an unusual number of injuries to not win all of their group games and qualify for the Quarter Finals and I think that Samoa should have the individual flair to finish second, but as all the other teams really have the same weakness, a lack of organisation and a 10 who can consistently make good decisions and provide an accurate tactical kicking game there really is a Quarter Final spot up for grabs in this group.

103 days ’til the Rugby World Cup. But who’s counting?

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Predicting who will win a tournament that doesn’t start for over 3 months, a full month before the Rugby Championship has even began in the Southern Hemisphere and when no coaches have even finalised their squad’s would be utter madness, but hey there’s not much going on in my world at the moment, so here goes.
Group A seems a logical place to start and when it was drawn it was immediately given the moniker “group of death” (original, eh?) but for me it has since become more of a group of opportunity with the winner facing a Quarter Final against either Samoa, the USA or Scotland and a possible Semi Final against Ireland. 3 of the top 6 teams in World rugby will be vying for 2 qualification spots so one of the big teams will miss out and with Fiji currently 11th in the world rankings and Fijian players standing out in Super Rugby, the Top 14, the Pro 12 and the Aviva Premiership it’s hard to rule them out of contention in the group either.
Australia, England and Wales are 3 of the top 6 teams in the World at the moment (according to the World Rugby rankings) and as somebody who’s taken a keen interest in the Super Rugby season I can honestly say I can’t remember a more disappointing showing from the Australian franchises in recent times. Australia are currently ranked 6th with Wales 5th and England 4th, so theoretically Australia should be the team to miss out however English player’s are doing their damndest to make Stuart Lancaster’s coaching job neigh on impossible.
Between Wales selecting players who could have been in England’s squad and English players getting themselves injured, banned or arrested England (who should be favourites with home advantage) are now having to cobble together a team from players who even 6 weeks wouldn’t have been expecting to make the training party let alone starting against Fiji in a little under 15 weeks.
This leaves Wales who showed why it’s impossible to predict what they will do in this year’s 6 Nations tournament. After a mediocre last 60 minutes against England which resulted in a 16-21 loss in Cardiff they improved progressively, building to a crescendo when a Liam Williams inspired team thrashed Italy 61-20 in Rome in the final round of games.
The major concern for Wales is the injuries they have accumulated over the last season. Samson Lee was injured in their first 6 Nations game and has been recuperating and rehabbing from an Achilles tendon operation for 5 months, fellow tight head Rhodri Jones has not played during the second half of the season after dislocating a shoulder, Outside Centre Jonathan Davies has been ruled out of the World Cup after rupturing his cruciate ligaments playing for Clermont and the highest profile injury (possibly in World rugby) George North. He’s the youngest Welsh player to win 50 caps at the unfeasibly young age of 22 has not played since March after suffering a 3rd concussion in 4 months and as he’s yet to pass all the concussion protocols his health is rightly taking precedent over his career. Injuries are probably less of a concern for Wales than they are for most teams though because their current style of play is designed to be more about the system than the personnel in that system, the one area of real concern is the front row and if Samson Lee and Rhodri Jones are unable to play any part in the tournament then Welsh chances will almost evaporate in front of them.
Fiji are and always have been a team comprised of fantastically talented individuals who are not always able to become a team that matches the sum of their parts. If they can maximise their talents then with players like the 6ft 5 inch and 20 plus stone Nemani Nadolo, 6ft 5 and near 19 stone Taqele Naiyarovo will be almost unstoppable for opposing wingers, just as they have in Super Rugby this season.

Beyond the fact that they have 2 players who ply their trade in Pro D2 in France and that they only have 2 players over the age of 30 in their squad there’s not really much to say about Uruguay but hopefully this tournament will serve as a learning experience for their young squad or maybe a shop window and more of them will be seen playing in top European league’s in the not too distant future.  For the very near future though I fear they will be the whipping boys of the group.
I’m hoping that the Wales are at full strength and their level of performance in all of their group games is the same one they met in Rome in March, but as everyone knows Wales, good fortune and major tournaments are very rarely in the same place so I suspect home advantage will be enough to see England topping the group of death (I’m also predicting no actual deaths will occur in the group). The second place team will have a terrifically difficult Quarter Final ahead of them, probably against South Africa who love a World Cup and the likely winner of this dubious prize will be whoever wins when Wales meet Australia in Twickenham on Saturday October the 10th. Unless Australia’s players have a serious turnaround in form and fortune then Wales should be the ones who get to look forward to the tough Quarter Final at Twickenham the following Saturday.

The inevitable England v Wales blog

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With the weather (forecast to be) set fair, the 2 top teams from last year’s 6 Nations table renew their much overhyped, by the English media at least, rivalry. I can’t remember a day this week when the newspapers haven’t carried an article with one English player quoted as saying something along the lines of “last year’s defeat still hurts”, new boy Jack Nowell said “we know Wales hate us” (as if England’s main goal on the pitch is to win over their detractors and make lifelong friends), whilst I can only remember 2 Welsh players being cited. Adam Jones said something very understated along the lines of “it’s great to play at Twickenham but we’re not scared of it” and the returning Jonathan Davies said he would “embrace the hostile atmosphere”.  Not exactly “are you looking at my missus” in their aggression are they?  It’s obviously difficult to tell if the hype has been ramped up back in the land of my fathers, but given the effort the press put into finding something possibly controversial in Warren Gatland’s press conference I think that it would have been pointed out by some desperate hack had any of the players said anything even slightly contentious.  All they managed to get from Gatland was him questioning why England were favourites when Wales have won on the last 3 games against England, once again hardly rhetoric worthy of a Vladimir Putin speech.

For what it’s worth I think Wales will probably succumb to a reversal of last year’s result where England were “drubbed” as the Daily Star (I know, I thought the Daily Star only did football and wrestling too) put it 30-3.  Maybe it’s just paranoid pessimism getting the better of me but I can’t imagine a team would spend quite so long dwelling on a past result, or even be allowed to let something quite so ancient rankle so much, unless they were using as the ultimate motivational tool.

Now, motivation, just like Scott Johnson, is a funny old thing and speaking as someone who could never tell if he was “up for it” to borrow the vernacular or about to throw up on the pitch until a game had kicked off I can tell you it’s totally unquantifiable.  Sports psychologists on the other hand they love a good (or bad) theory and by far the best example of this is the “inverted U theory” of Yerkes and Dodson which they developed in 1908 (or so say those adorable little rouges at http://pe-arousal.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/inverted-u-theory.html).  Technically Yerkes and Dodson claimed there’s was a theory of “arousal”, but motivation is essentially the same thing (not to mention more family friendly), their theory states that there is a peak level of motivation midway between being totally lacking in motivation (me every week day morning) and being so motivated you completely lose focus and become distracted from your main goal (me every night when I’m trying to sleep).  Dylan Hartley in the 2013 Premiership Final is a prime example of a player who was well passed the optimum level of motivation for a game and proceeded to show how unfocussed he was by berating referee Wayne Barnes until he was sent off in less than 40 minutes.  Under motivation is very difficult to notice, just ask Dimitar Berbatov.  This is a very long and meandering way of asking if all these England players who have been so keen to offer their thoughts on how they still hurt or how much disdain their opponents proffer from across the Severn Bridge have been putting far too much emphasis on what is essentially 1 game of rugby?  Maybe Dylan Hartley and friends would have been better starting off under motivated instead of risking the chance of blowing their top’s before the half time oranges are even out of their netting by working themselves into a frenzy days before they even have to compensate for their coach parking in the wrong car park at Twickers.

The bookmakers have England as favourites, something that Brian Moore seemed to neglect to mention when he tried to pile the pressure on Wales in his newspaper column outlining how Wales need to face up to being favourites.  It is a little strange considering Wales have won 5 of the last 8 meetings and baring in mind England can only call on 3 forwards who made last summer’s Lions squad (and Dylan Hartley missed the entire tour through a ban) and 2 of those in Tom Youngs and Mako Vunipola are only substitutes.  Conversely Wales’ whole Lions front row will start the game on Sunday. 5 of their Lions backs will start too, including the back 3 who could trouble a relatively inexperienced English back 3 and with Mike Phillips and Justin Tipuric on the bench Wales can boast 14 Lions in their match day 23.  Wales’s front row should attain them a certain advantage in the scrums and with the referee from the 3rd Lions Test Romain Poite in charge of proceedings they may even sneak the penalty battle too.  Controversial figure Steve Walsh, who refereed the Millennium Stadium steamrollering last season is also one of the officials on Sunday, so there’s always that excuse for the English to cling to in the event of a 4th consecutive loss.

I still can’t bring myself to disagree with the bookies over the result, the one area where I can’t quite see eye to eye with them is the winning margin.  They have England to win by less than 5 points as their favourite score line but I can only see the victors walking all over their opponents, 18-20 points should be the final winning margin.  England have been telling everybody for what seems like weeks that they have a point to prove, so anything less than an utter domination will make them look rather silly.