6 Nations bold predictions

Every dog and their man has come up with their own 6 Nations preview this week and since the final standings all seem the same (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy) I thought I’d try something different, hopefully humorous and, in a break from the norm, remotely interesting.

Wales v Scotland

Bold prediction – this one finishes as a draw

On paper this game involves 2 teams full of skill and attacking intent and a referee who has very little time for either of the above. Pascal Gauzere can be one of the most frustrating referees to watch because he doesn’t appear to have any feel for the game and has no hesitation in checking as many incidents as possible with the TMO (who is David Grashoff and he has been known to take an interminable length of time just to make incorrect decisions).

Josh Adams makes his Wales debut on the wing meaning that Wales have a back line comprising of 5 Scarlets and a former Scarlets academy winger but Rob Howley insists they are not going to play Scarlets rugby. Rob Howley was an excellent scrum half in his playing days but scrum halves rarely make good backs coaches and it must have something to do with how playing at 9 mainly involves what sport psychologists call “closed skills”, you box kick, you snipe around the fringes or you pass to the first receiver and let them do the fancy stuff. Everyone else in the back line has to respond to external stimuli such as defenders, support runners, their proximity to the touchline as well as the decisions the 9 has to make (kick, pass or keep running) and generally scrum halves who coach backs have no appreciation for any of these factors at all, my own personal belief (and concern) in this was reinforced by Howley’s use of the phrase “Welsh play book” this week because you can really only have a play book for closed skills.

All the talk about Scotland this week has been about how injured their front row is but they have selected one of the best props from the 2017 6 Nations and the stand out hooker from the Autumn Internationals in Gordon Reid and Stuart McInally, Scotland will presumably be looking to play like Glasgow Warriors have been in the new Pro 14 league this season (they’ve 12 out of 13 and recorded 10 bonus points too) and that’s why everyone has great expectations for this game.

I’m expecting fraught defensive coaches on both sides because for all the attacking talent on display (Adams, Evans, Davies for Wales and McGuigan, Harris, Seymour, Hogg in particular for Scotland) there are a number of new combinations and inexperienced Test match players who will provide opportunities for their opponents to expose. If the Welsh fowards can get the upper hand then Scotland will have to wait longer than 16 years to win again in Cardiff, but I can’t see Gauzere and his cohorts allowing anyone to dominate this game.

France v Ireland

Bold prediction – France’s noveau riche start like a house on fire and build a big enough lead to hang on to.

Jaques Brunel isn’t going die wondering in his first game as France coach, he’s starting an 19 year old at Fly Half and if that doesn’t work he’s got a 21 year old to come off the bench to save the day. He’s also got a 21 year old scrum half on the bench (who is seriously quick), two 23 years old’s in the pack and 4 24 year old’s on the bench alongside him so maybe (just maybe) the excitement is back in French rugby?

Now, on paper Ireland should crush these French youngsters like great, big, experienced things crush new, smaller, younger things but since 2008 Ireland have only once in France (by 2 points in 2014) and they’ve drawn once whilst losing 4 times. In fact since 1954 Ireland have only won 3 times in France so Ireland at 2/5 on with the bookmakers almost seems to be a minor oversight.

Brunel has gone for an injection of youth because France are perceived to be one of the unfittest teams in the 6 Nations and Ireland are almost mechanical in their dedication to strength and conditioning work so they should be able to outlast their hosts and with both Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens on officiating duty at the Stade de France the chances that this one is decided by an error are pretty slim. Nigel Owens does like a game to flow though so rucks will be hotly contested and there may be some bodies flying in all directions. If France make a good start, and they do have a team full of ball carriers who like to offload, this game could be a real nail biter but if Ireland can keep their heads (and they rarely do in Paris) the bookies are right.

Italy v England

Bold prediction – it’s hard to make any prediction that doesn’t involve England winning, but how about England winning with 14 players on the pitch.

This is the game where England always look a bit scratchy, don’t thrash Italy as conclusively as they should but Owen Farrell will make sure they win by at least 30. In theory the relentless, spirit crushing threshing machine that is the England tight 5 should provide England with enough clean ball to win this by 100 points but Italy are always ul for their first game at home and something weird usually happens, it snowed one year!

Italy are in a seemingly perpetual “transition phase” possibly because they appear to pick their team out of a hat, admittedly they’re missing players like Venditti (who doesn’t love a 17 stone winger? <well Dean Richards didn’t, but I’m talking about normal people>) and Leonardo Sarto (who doesn’t love a 6 foot 3 winger?) but they do have players like Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Gori and Maxime Mbanda on the bench when they should all be starting.

The one hope Italy have is that Eddie Jones’ England and discipline are rarely easy bedfellows and English discretions may give the Azzurri a glimmer of hope, but they usually kick at the post with all the accuracy of a North Korean missile launch so even that’s a slim hope.

2017 6 Nations preview

England haven’t won back to back Grand Slams since 1991 and 1992 back in the days of the 5 Nations, in fact nobody has won back to back Grand Slams in the 6 Nations era, so that indicates what a difficult task lays ahead for Eddie Jones’ men.  It’s not entirely out of the question, after all where there’s an Eddie there’s a way (or something like that), but with them facing a potential Grand Slam decider in March at the Aviva, where they lost 19-9 last time it will be tough.  Allied to the unfavourable schedule (France up first followed by a trip to Cardiff for Wales’ first home game of the Championship) they will be without key players like Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Watson and most importantly Mako Vunipola who are long term injury concerns and there will also be doubts over James Haskell and Jack Clifford who were recently injured on club duty (and Dylan Hartley’s been banned since December, so who knows what state he’s in physically).  The missing back-row players won’t be particularly missed if the tight 5 can provide a stable platform for them work from whoever England pick at 6, 7 and 8 will perform the tasks they are required to, Mike Williams may well make his debut but if your 4th choice is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 18 stone then there’s nothing wrong with squad depth.  The question mark will be over whoever plays at loose-head because whoever it is won’t be able to do what Mako can, his ability to act as a first receiver in attack and disrupt opposition scrums will leave a whole in the game plan somewhere.

Since March 2013 the only team beat Ireland in a competitive match in Dublin have been the All Blacks, in 2013 with a heartbreaking last second conversion and in 2016 a rather banged up Ireland side lost 9-21 with the assistance of some rather lenient officiating, so it’s hard to see them losing to a Northern Hemisphere in the fortress-like Aviva this year.  Ireland open up their campaign in Edinburgh where they were impressive 30 point winners last time out but their visits to Murrayfield are usually much closer affairs, they’ve won 3 and lost 3 going back to 2007 and those 6 games have been decided by a total of 29 points, so this may very well be the game that decides the Championship.  Ireland’s other away game is in Cardiff in round 4 and Ireland haven’t won consecutive games in Cardiff since 2009, with the last 4 meetings being shared evenly but in their last visit to the Millennium Stadium they scored 5 tries on their way to a 22-35 victory, so they should be in confident mood as they cross the Irish Sea.

France are very much the surprise package of the 6 Nations, even to themselves.  Last year they had a chance to prevent England’s Grand Slam in the final game in Paris but despite making more line breaks and conceding fewer penalties than their visitors their inability to cross the whitewash saw them fall to a 21-31 loss.  England outscored France 11-3 in the last 29 minutes of that game and it raised the age old question of exactly how well conditioned are Guy Noves’ charges?  Since the start of last year’s 6 Nations France have won 4 games out of 10 and just one of those 4 games were outside France, so recent history doesn’t provide mu hope for les bleus but in their last 2 games they pushed both Rugby World Cup finalists close with a 2 point loss to Australia followed a week later with a 5 point loss to the All Blacks, so maybe they’re about to turn the corner?

The rarely seen optimistic Welshman in me couldn’t be happier about the introduction of the bonus point system into this year’s 6 Nations, allied with the introduction of Alex King as an “attacking guru” if you believe some publications (skills coach to the rest of us).  If any team in the Championship can benefit from the incentive to score tries it’s the team who had last year’s top try scorer George North out on the wing, Wales scored 17 tries last year (9 of them came in round 5 against Italy and since then they’ve largely been awful) so if they can summon up some confidence and the coaches actually allow them to play with freedom instead of strictly adhering to a prescriptive game plan that would confuse Professor Stephen Hawking there’s a chance they could upset a few apple carts in the coming weeks.  The major talking point in Welsh recent rugby has been Alun-Wyn Jones taking over the captaincy from Sam Warburton (who hasn’t been in great nick for the Cardiff Blues but will almost certainly feature at 6 0r 7 for Wales), Jones has been touted as the Lions captain for the tour to New Zealand in the summer but in order for that to happen one would imagine he’d have to be playing in a successful Welsh team.  Jones is not guaranteed a place on the tour at the moment with Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Richie and Jonny Gray, Luke Charteris and Devin Toner all playing well so far this season (Jake Ball and Tim Swinson have also been in great form for their respective team’s but both face a fight for game time in the follow weeks), so he will need to stand out as both player and leader.

Scotland have seemingly developed the ability to play very well in Autumn Internationals but then crumble and eventually capitulate completely after Christmas, they have improved under Vern Cotter and under Jonathan Humphreys their forward pack has become one to be reckoned with, but this will be Cotter’s last season in charge of Scotland so exactly how that plays out remains to be seen.  Since November 2014 they have run the All Blacks and Australia close at Murrayfield (losing by 8 to the All Blacks in 2014 and by a solitary point to the Wallabies last October) so with 3 games in front of their spirited supporters you have to believe they will have a say in who eventually wins the title.

Italy managed the incomprehensible combination of beating South Africa and losing to Tonga in consecutive weekends before Christmas so which Italian team turn up on a week by week basis is anybody’s guess!  Connor O’Shea must have believed that he was making progress after they defeated the Springboks by 2 points but having made a few changes to play a team ranked below them they conspired to lose to the Islanders by the same total.  The arrival of Dr. Brendan Venter as their permanent defence coach may solidify the sometimes unorganised Italian defensive line and with Carlo Canna looking like the 10 they’ve been missing since Diego Dominguez retired in 2003 the Italian’s may well provide an upset or 2 during the next 2 months, they have beaten France in 2 of their last 3 meetings on home soil, so that game could be fascinating and Wales face a tricky start away to the Azzurri in round 1, they have struggled against Italy before and although they haven’t lost to them in Rome since 2007 they will come up against an Italian pack who will be desperate to rediscover the form that vanquished the Springboks.

Personally I’m not sure how much difference the bonus point system will have on the tournament, particularly at the top of the table.  Head Coaches will still be more focussed on winning games than they will be on throwing the ball around wildly and chasing 1 extra point, there’s a very real chance that the team who wins the Wooden Spoon will be a team who records no bonus point’s and that could mean that a team who loses a few games by fewer than 7 points could finish above a team who wins one game (which would be a bit weird).  There’s a very strong possibility that Ireland will follow up their famous victory over the All Blacks in Chicago with a second Joe Schmidt Grand Slam (which would make Warren Gatland’s appointment as Lions Head Coach look a bit weird too).  Last season I predicted that the Grand Slam wouldn’t be won and Eddie Jones proceeded to show that with a decent Head Coach and a fully fit squad it’s almost easy to build momentum in a short tournament and this year England are still the bookies favourites to remain undefeated, so who knows? Certainly not me.

It’s way too early to select a starting XV for the 1st Lions Test, so here goes….

rugbyUnless you have the misfortune of being a Top 14 player the 2016/17 rugby season doesn’t start for about 3 weeks but since people have been picking their Lions teams to tour New Zealand since the last tour finished in Australia I thought I’d finally succumb and join in.

Providing Eddie Jones isn’t the coach (and he has said he’s got zero interest in it|), pragmatism will rule and assuming there aren’t a string of catastrophic injuries (but with all the rugby matches they play these days there probably will be) and trying to forget that 11 years ago Sir Clive Woodward used 51 players on the corresponding tour these are the 15 players who I can see starting at Eden Park at the end of June –

  1. Jack McGrath (who doesn’t love a 19 stone loose head?)
  2. Dylan Hartley (it’s practically written in the stars, Kiwi stars for Lions v All Blacks!)
  3. Kieran Brookes (he’s suffered terribly with injuries but he’s pushing 20 stone of man mountain)
  4. Maro Itoje (probably the skipper, definitely the first name on the team sheet)
  5. Jonny Gray (he tops the tackle stats and rucks hit for club and country, the 22 yr old is a machine)
  6. Sean O’Brien (the tackle area will be trench warfare, might as well pick 2 7’s)
  7. John Hardie (he’s been instrumental in Scotland’s improvement under Vern Cotter)
  8. Taulupe Faletau (he’s used to playing behind 2 awfully soft packs, any parity and he’ll be in his element)
  9. Rhys Webb (he’s a try machine and without Biggar’s ego to get in his way he’ll be a constant threat)
  10. Owen Farrell (he may not be Barry John but he won a Grand Slam, the Premiership and the Champions Cup last season)
  11. Jonny May (remember that try he scored against the Kiwis at Twickenham in 2014? Well that!)
  12. Robbie Henshaw (He’s 6 feet 3 and over 16 stone. Also Warren Gatland is the only person who thinks he’s a 12 and Manu is unfortunately too broken as he terrifies the All Blacks)
  13. Scott Williams (he may well end up pushed into 12 by Jonathan Davies return to Parc Y Scarlets, but when he’s fit he’s too fast not to be in the outside channels)
  14. Jack Nowell (twinkling toes and 15 stone of BOOM make him a defenders nightmare, although I’m a big fan if Chris Ashton’s ability to romp down the middle of the park under the sticks)
  15. Mike Brown (he’s a very angry man, just what you need when you’re going to New Zealand to meet 15 very angry men. Plus Halfpenny is going to take a while to get back to full fitness and Stuart Hogg is a car crash waiting to happen in his own 22)

A chaotic 6 Nations preview

RBS-6-NationsBacking Scotland is always a risky business because they usually thrive when they’ve been written off and not after they’ve been within a hare’s breath of beating Australia (incidentally Craig Joubert has been appointed to referee England v Wales at Twickenham, what could possibly go wrong?) and making a RWC semi final, but I’ve just got a feeling that Vern Cotter might finally have a squad that can win the 6 Nations (they’re last win was in 1999 when it was still the 5 Nations).
W.P Nel and Ben Toolis added to the Gray brothers should provide a solid front 5 and if the Scottish pack is able to even attain parity against their opponents then a back row which should include John Hardie and could include David Denton and Josh Strauss will be more than a match for anyone. Greig Laidlaw is one of the safest pairs of hands in European rugby at scrum half and with the possibility of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne coming off the bench to test tired defenders it’s hard to imagine Cotter’s side won’t score tries. Scotland do have a few injury concerns (as all the Nations do after a gruelling International season) and while Alex Dunbar will miss the first 2 games and Mark Bennett may not be available to play England Scotland are in the unusual position of having about 5 Centre’s who could start. With Peter Horne, Matt Scott, Duncan Taylor and Sean Lamont desperate to play if Vern Cotter needs to call up reinforcements Scotland have more than a few options to cover those missing. For a change Scotland have even got 2 contrasting Fly Halves to call upon with the steady Ruairidh Jackson having a good season for Wasps (he kicked 13 points as Wasps won in Dublin & scored 15 as they beat Toulon) and the exciting Finn Russell who is renowned for getting a backline moving.
Scotland are 4th favourites for the Championship behind England who have a new coach and seem to be making some inexplicable selection decisions and France who, despite having a new coach haven’t made wholesale changes and have selected 7 Toulouse players (Toulouse are 2nd in the Top 14 but won just 1 European Champions Cup game and finished bottom of Pool A, below Oyonnax with a -88 points difference) so they’ll be looking to rely more on individual flair than on collective performances, “plus ca change” an all that.
England are actually the bookmakers favourites, which would rather contradict Eddie Jones’ assertion that Scotland are favourites to win the Calcutta Cup on Saturday and Warren Gatland’s statement that Ireland must be favourites (that one actually makes sense since Ireland do have 3 home games against Wales, Italy and Scotland). Eddie Jones called up a number of talented youngsters to his training party but then sent most of them back to their club sides late last week so who knows what he’s got planned? If England win in Scotland then they will have a solid base to build from but with consecutive home games against Ireland and Wales Eddie Jones hasn’t got much time to settle on a squad and if he doesn’t trust the younger players to stand up to pressure then it might be a long 2 months for him. As a slight aside in the last 5 years England have scored 97 tries at home and 51 away from home (21 more than Ireland who were second of the 6 Nations teams) so Stuart Lancaster was hardly the albatross around the English rugby that some would have you believe.
Wales’ last 2 Grand Slams have been won in season’s were they had 3 home games and visits to Ireland and Twickenham to contend with but even my most optimistic parts can’t see that happening this season. The residual damage from the ill fated “condition programme” they undertook pre- World Cup will have a big impact on their chances. Scott Williams will be a big miss because he was the only real try threat Wales possessed in September and October (Cory Allen was the other but with Jonathan Davies fit and Gatland’s bizarre belief that George North can play 13 Cory’s not getting a sniff any time soon). Wales have averaged roughly 1.8 tries per game in the last 5 years and that’s not going to be enough to win the Championship, let alone a Grand Slam.
Ireland would be my second favourite for the Championship but they’ve got a slight injury crisis and with Paul O’Connell retiring from international rugby (he would have been injured too if he hadn’t retired) Ireland will start the tournament without Cian Healey, Mike Ross, Ian Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry and with Fly Half Jonny Sexton seemingly ever only 1 heavy blow away from a HIA Ireland will face an uphill struggle to beat England in Twickenham and France in Paris.
Italy are 500-1 shots to win the Championship and you’d have to imagine that’s largely down to their witting duck status with everyone knowing their coach will leave return to France at the end of the season. Their seemingly eternal struggle to find an Outside Half who can both kick and run doesn’t help but if their pack is as strong as it has been in the past they’ll cause some teams problems (Wales particularly) and I can’t imagine Guy Noves will get much sleep this week knowing that Italy love to pull out all the stops when they arrive in Paris.
Rather interestingly you can odds of 40-1 on France finishing bottom of the table which isn’t totally out of the question, under Noves Toulouse (with the exception of Theirry Dusautoir) have often had questions raised over their conditioning and if they’re not ready to battle for 80 minutes they could find themselves on the receiving end of nail biting results. You can also get 10-1 on France winning a Grand Slam, which seems almost impossible to me since they’ve only won 8 of their last 28 away games (29%) and they’ve average 1.4 tries per game away from home in the last 5 years (2.03 per game at home).
In conclusion, just keep your money in your pocket and enjoy the ride, with so many newcomers to this 6 Nations (some from other continents and with Guy Noves maybe even from different planets) a Grand Slam hasn’t been won since Wales did it 2012 and it’s highly unlikely anyone will do it this year but I’m still backing Scotland to win an exciting Championship.

96 days to go now….

rugbyPool C features the perennial number 1 team in the World in New Zealand and nobody else in the top 7 teams of the current World Rugby rankings, so the All Blacks should cruise through as the top team. Argentina (who are ranked 8th in the world) however always save their best performances for World Cup games against the Kiwis, so there is 1 potential banana skin for Richie McCaw’s boys to avoid. Argentina should be the other qualifier in this group as the other 3 teams in Pool C are Tonga, Georgia and Namibia who all have excellent players in their ranks but not in the depth that the All Blacks and the Pumas (Jaguars. Tomato, tomato. yadda, yadda etc). Tonga vs. New Zealand at St James’ Park on a Friday night in October is almost certain to be a fiery affair and with Argentina’s last group game being against Namibia the All Blacks could need a convincing win to secure top spoor in the group. Jacques Burger leading his Namibian side against the All Blacks at the Olympic Stadium will be scintillating viewing too, if World Rugby’s player of the year Brodie Retallick didn’t know who Courtney Lawes was before the All Blacks played England last summer then he won’t know who Burger is. He definitely will by the 25th of September.
Only 15 ranking places separates the team’s in Pool D, with Ireland currently ranked 3rd , France standing at 7th, Italy 15th, Canada 17th and Romania 18th. Ireland have been in a phenomenal run since Joe Schmidt took over as their head coach picking up consecutive 6 Nations titles for the first time ever and won 17 out of 25 Test since the start of 2013 beating South Africa and Australia along the way. Ireland are not always at their most comfortable during World Cup tournaments though but with 2 games in London where there will surely have a raucous following should make them feel slightly more at ease than they have done in previous World Cups in France and New Zealand. France are the most unpredictable team in World Rugby, the fact that their coach will be leaving following this tournament should be an indication of exactly how disappointing they have been recently though. They should have enough to get past Canada and Romania although the Canadian back row and outside backs could well pose more than a few problems for a French backline who are regularly tinkered with by Phillipe Saint-Andre and the Romanian forwards will relish the challenge that Les Bleus forwards will provide them, so that might be a bit of a dog fight in the Olympic Stadium. Italy will have to battle the fact that they have a fairly old squad now with the occasional sprinkling of youth and with 4 games in 22 days they will do well to keep the squad intact let alone compete in every outing. The one they have got going for them is that their first game will be at Twickenham against the French so they should be able to give their Garibaldi Cup opponents both barrels and if they can upset Les Bleus then the Azzuri may very well finish 2nd in this group.
The first Quarter Final will almost certainly be contested between New Zealand and France in the Millennium Stadium, so if Wayne Barnes is reffing the ALL Blacks are toast! In all seriousness I can see France pulling out all the stops to upset the apple cart in Cardiff à la 2007. I can’t imagine that New Zealand will want a repeat of that result, but with the possibility of a few ageing bodies in their squad having to play 4 games in 19 days (finishing off with a bruising tussle with Tonga), no Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett coming off an injury spoiled season they are far from infallible. For the purpose of this flight of fancy we’ll say that the All Blacks will make it past the French and advance to a semi final in Twickenham. The second Quarter Final will in all likelihood be between South Africa and Wales in Twickenham (well it saves travelling too far for the semi’s) and while Wales have recently made a habit of getting dangerously close to the Springboks (and putting my own personal optimism to one side) they have never beaten them outside of Cardiff so I suspect the team who will face the daunting prospect of a meeting with the All Blacks in West London will be South Africa, with so many Springboks unlikely to play in another RWC they won’t to go out with a whimper in the first knockout phase. Quarter Final 3 will be played in Cardiff and should see Ireland take on Argentina, which could be tricky for an Irish side who won’t want to become embroiled in a forward battle with the Pumas I imagine the team who maintains discipline will be the victor here and while that will be a bit of a lottery and largely dependent on who is refereeing I’ll say Joe Schmidt will guide Ireland through to the semi final in Twickenham where they will meet England who should do a number on Samoa on their home field.

South Africa and New Zealand in a RWC semi final in Twickenham is a mouth watering prospect and certainly worthy of a RWC Final (remember 1994?) they have played some absolutely fantastic matches in the last 3 seasons and if Nigel Owens is refereeing then it might be time to get the abacus out to keep score. I think South Africa might just have enough forward power to upset the favourites (this is a World Cup remember, there has to be an upset somewhere along the lines) and advance to the final. In the second semi final England could actually face the prospect of playing a RWC semi final on their home pitch whilst being underdogs. Ireland have beaten England in 8 of their last 13 meetings and while England squeaked past the Irishmen 13-10 the last time they played at Twickenham I’m backing Ireland to send England to the Olympic Park for a 3rd and 4th playoff against New Zealand.
South Africa v Ireland in the RWC final then, since the 12th of June 2004 they have played each other 8 times and both have 4 wins so this could prove to be an intriguing finale to any tournament. You’d say South Africa would be favourites having had a more difficult path to the final but after battling with New Zealand having played Samoa and Wales they very well be depleted by the time they get to Twickenham on the final day of October so if Ireland are to win their first RWC this would be a perfect time. I still can’t shake the feeling that experience is more vital in a World Cup final than it is in any other big game so the trophy should be headed south of the equator as the Springboks scoop the big prize for a third time.
Oh yeah, does anyone care who “wins” 3rd place? No? I didn’t think so.

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

rugby

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.

Sam Burgess’ Mission Impossible

This might be the wild optimism of a Welsh fan in action but I’m struggling to find enough positives to make me believe that Sam Burgess will be a success at the 2015 Rugby World Cup held in England, which he longs to play in after his experience in last year’s home Rugby League World Cup.  Maybe it’s the anti-capitalist in me hoping that Rugby hasn’t turned into football where buying players is considered the norm ahead spending time and money on developing talented individuals like Sam Hill and Tom Stephenson, both winners of World Cup’s for England at age group level.  Recent history does after all show that even the payers who switch codes rarely go on to become super stars in both codes, only 3 really spring to mind; Sonny Bill Williams, Israel Folau and Jason Robinson.  England have tried to convert a few League players to Union Centre’s, with mixed results, Andy Farrell was hampered by injury, Henry Paul managed just 6 caps for England’s senior side excelling instead at 7’s, Chev Walker played just 6 games of Union, Shontayne Hape received 13 caps but during a particularly successful time for England and Kyle Eastmond is currently occupying the 12 jersey for Bath, which Burgess is due to fill and fill amply next season.  Eastmond has 2 England caps and looks more than promising, but the recent news has cast a fairly hefty shadow over his International prospects.

There’s no doubt he’s a phenomenal athlete there are umpteen YouTube videos to attest to that, he’s just 25, he is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weights over 18 stone, so he’s bigger than Jamie Roberts.  His League upbringing means that he has the ability to offload whilst being tackled by 2 or more players but on the adverse side of that, not many players are going to try and tackle him above the waist and once he’s on the ground his offloading will be largely negated.  Former Bath Centre and cross code International Shontayne Hape called Sam “Great Britain’s Sonny Bill Williams” when Burgess was just 17 years old, now I’m not sure of that’s a positive or a negative, he’s already got an awful lot to live up to and he’s yet to even play Rugby Union.

The negative points are that even England head coach Stuart Lancaster has gone on record saying that Burgess faces a “difficult transition” in order to be ready to represent England in the 2015 Rugby World Cup with under 12 months between his expected arrival in Rugby Union and the first game of the World Cup in Twickenham.   Positionally it will be an interesting move, partly because in League Burgess is a forward and in Union he’s expected to play as an Inside Centre but also because by and large successful cross code players have tended to be outside backs, or at least inside backs in League.  Normally in Union the 12 will lead the defensive line and since most Union defences are coached by former League players I can’t imagine Burgess will have a problem with that, where he may have an issue is standing so far away from the breakdown in the defensive line.  With more players committed to the breakdown area in Union the inside backs aren’t as close to the action as forwards are in League.

One slight concern could be Burgess’ penchant to be over physical in defence, he received a 2 game ban from the NRL for a “squirrel grip tackle”, he has also received separate 1 match bans for other tackles, once in the NRL for a grapple tackle on Canterbury full back Ben Barba and in the World Cup for a high tackle on Sam Thaiday which some commentators would have been punished with an 8 game ban had it been in the NRL.  During his time on Australia Burges has also missed time with injuries, a shoulder injury required surgery and saw him miss a month in 2011 and an ankle injury prematurely ended his 2011 season.

I’m slightly confused as to why England would feel they need another Centre at the moment, they’ve unearthed a gem in Luther Burrell who has scored 2 tries in his 2 starts in Test match rugby and they have Manu Tuilagi to come back from injury who himself has notched up 10 tries in 20 starts.  All the talk has been of a creative influence needed in midfield and unless I’ve seriously misjudged just how much decision making League forwards are involved in Burgess won’t be the new Will Greenwood that the media seem intent on finding.

The last point is the most pernickety by far and not really anything to do with Burgess, more a matter of circumstance, Stuart Lancaster said in an interview he expected Burgess to be aiming for a Lions tour and the 2019 Rugby World Cup.  Burgess’ deal with Bath is only a 3 year contract, which would take him to the Lions tour of New Zealand and a possible showdown with the aforementioned Sonny Bill Williams, but not to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.