Friday, November 23, 2018

Ewan MacKenna or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Beating the All Blacks

“An individual crying? I think holding that up as some exemplar of our entire nation’s flakiness is really unfair.”
“I don’t.”

Since I was born, Wales have played New Zealand 23 times. Of those games, Wales have won… ZERO!

We have lost 23 games, in 10 different cities across 5 countries and 3 continents. I was 16 years old before we got into double figures in a game; Jamie Robinson and a penalty try, adding to 7 points from the boot of Stephen Jones and Scarlets cult figure Regan King scoring one of the All Blacks 4 tries.

Of those 23 games, Wales failed to score a try 9 times.

But, at 32 years old, I am far from the oldest person never to witness Wales defeat the mighty All Blacks. A man born on the day Wales last beat New Zealand at rugby will be eligible to claim state pension in March.

If you are looking for a Welshman alive for two wins you needed look at anyone under 85. In 1935, Stanley Baldwin became Prime Minister, the board game Monopoly was invented, the Dust Bowl hit America, George Formby released “Fanlight Fanny” – different times – and Wales beat the All Blacks.

You can guarantee when we win next time; we will celebrate, we will drink and we will get carried away.

If you are Irish, you will not have even started school to have lived through two victories. A 111 year wait ended in Chicago in 2016 and - last weekend – Ireland added a double between World Cups to close the gap between the top two in the world. With less than 12 months to go before the Webb Ellis trophy goes up for grabs in Japan, Ireland didn’t just beat the All Blacks, they dominated them.

The Irish could be forgiven for getting carried away, for letting loose and for believing they might just be able to challenge anyone on the rugby world’s biggest stage. But, not if you are Ewan MacKenna.

With the hangovers barely worn off and the Berocca still fizzing in the glass, MacKenna had already had enough of this happiness nonsense. MacKenna stomped onto the Off the Ball podcast with all the euphoria of Morrissey with a head cold at a barbecue.

Having attempted to pre-emptively piss on Ireland’s parade on Friday with a two-bit article on why the second round repechage game between Germany and Canada was more important than what he describes as a game that’s “not QUITE a friendly” between the top two nations in World rugby; MacKenna started his post match festivity urination promptly after the historic victory  exhibiting the levels of fun that make Droopy D look like Mr Tumble.

Seemingly having used his Sunday to turn up at children’s birthday parties to pop balloons and tell kids that Santa isn’t real, MacKenna was quickly back to rugby and why beating the best team in the World – arguably in any sport – is not a reason to be excited.

MacKenna was unhappy that the fans and media should enjoy the win against the All Blacks – Ireland’s first on home soil, second in history and second in as many years – for fear it would take the team’s eye off the ball; as though Joe Schmidt and the team were the ones responsible for these articles themselves. The truth about the reaction from inside the Irish camp came from The Rugby Pod, where Leinster hooker Sean Cronin admitted they had a slight celebration after the game, but he didn’t even drink alcohol.

Nothing so sensible from MacKenna though, who took the opportunity to question the mentality of the entire nation based on previous World Cups and – most notably – the emotional reaction of Ian Madigan at the 2015 World Cup.

MacKenna used this as an example of Ireland’s “soft” and “fragile mind-set” and questioned whether the incident was “the sign of a strong mentality.” Unperturbed by the fact that Madigan hasn’t even played for Ireland since 2016 and Ireland themselves now look more than comfortable with that favourites tag – MacKenna sucked the fun out of Ireland with a level of absorbency usually reserved for adverts containing mysterious blue liquid and branded kitchen towels.

In a rant that grasped at straws more than a ham fisted McDonald’s worker restocking the drinks station, it became clear this was little more than a thinly veined attack on the sport as MacKenna rambled his way through subjects such as comparisons to football and GAA, Paddy Jackson’s morality and Bundee Aki’s nationality.

By the end of the 51 minute pod it would be easy to feel the life being sucked from the Irish like a dementor in Harry Potter. But the Irish spirit won’t be dampened by this. The optimism they will take to Japan is warranted, so for now, they can enjoy the ride.

And Ewan MacKenna… cheer up cheeky chops! This one’s for you…

Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now – The Smiths

The Great Jonny Sexton Myth?

We often hear how Irish outside half Johnny Sexton plays less games than his compatriots, but is it entirely true?

If we look at the appearances of World Rugby player of the year nominees; the players at the very pinnacle of their game – minus Tadhg Furlong #JusticeForTadhg #PropGate – it paints a very different picture indeed.

Below are the total number of games played since the 1st January 2018 to date (23rd November 2018).

Appearances for 2018
Beauden Barrett
Malcolm Marx
Reiko Ioane
Faf De Klerk
Jonathan Sexton

Sexton has played 4/5 games less this calendar year. Not a lot in terms of a full season. Even that doesn’t paint the full picture though.

Three of the players will play one more game in 2018. Marx, Barrett and Ioane will play their last games of 2018 this weekend against Wales and Italy respectively. While Sexton and De Klerk will enjoy a much earned rest. However, whilst Super Rugby ended in August, the northern hemisphere season continues.

It’s not known whether Sale Sharks will play scrum half Faf this weekend against Northampton – but given the Premiership’s attitude toward player welfare it's likely they will – but Sexton definitely won’t appear for Leinster against the Ospreys.

However, you can, at very least, expect Sexton to play in  Leinster’s two Champions Cup pool games in December against Bath and the derby game against Munster at Thomond Park over the Christmas period.

Even if Sexton doesn’t turn out against Dragons at Rodney Parade – which I would suggest he probably won’t – or against Connacht at the RDS – which he very much could – that would still mean that Sexton would have played just two less games than Beauden Barrett and one less than Malcolm Marx and Reiko Ioane in the calendar year.

Perhaps more surprisingly, it would mean that the “protected” half back would have played the same number of club games as All Blacks try machine Reiko Ioane and just one less than Beauden “See I Told You I Could Drop Kick” Barrett and, the most beautiful hooker since Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Malcolm Marx.

Faf De Klerk, meanwhile, will continued to be flogged and fought over until his flowing mane of blonde locks become a matted, sweaty mess and premature baldness takes hold.

So, there we have it. Jonny Sexton plays just as many games – even at club level – as his counterparts. However, there is no evidence to suggest he isn’t a slightly overacting, penalty milking, over protected by referees, whinger.

Johnny B. Goode - Chuck Berry

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Lions Call Ups

One thing is for sure, Warren Gatland and co. are no strangers to controversy. Nor are they ones to court favouritism; always willing to make the calls others would shy away from - See James Davies, Martyn Williams,  Justin Tipuric, Dan Evans and Brian O'Driscoll for more information. The latest call from the Kiwi and his crew has again jammed in the craw of many, but it's one they have got right.

Firstly the decision to ring fence the the squad for the first test - and likely the second test the week after - more than makes sense and whilst the decision to call up players for the mid week games may well have been premeditated, it doesn't make it wrong. The players Gatland has shipped in are perfect for the role he wants them to play too. Whilst many are unhappy with Gatland's selections, they DO make sense.

Gatland has already cited the obvious issue of geography. It's an easy cop out, but it's also true. Wales' first test was rearranged for Auckland after Tonga's facilities were deemed unfit. Scotland, meanwhile, were just over the water beating Australia in their own backyard. Of course it's logical to call up players who are already on your doorstep, just ask Dai Young, Shane Williams, Andy Nicol and Ryan Jones. 

Conversely, England are 30 to 40 hours away in Argentina, which throws up questions of the feasibility of calling up anyone in time for the Chiefs game. That would mean playing a test on Saturday, immediately setting off for New Zealand, travelling by coach and plane for a day and half with no post match recuperation, completing one training on Monday and learning set piece moves by Tuesday's game. That's before jet lag and 15 hours time difference comes into play.

By contrast, Cory Hill has already trained with the Lions at their Hensol base before setting off across the equator. Not only has he taken part in Lions set pieces in training, he has called the lineouts and completed analysis on them. 

As well as the logistical and technical, there's the mental. Firstly, there is the clear message that the camp are sending out, "we are happy with our progress." Calling up the likes of Hartley and Launchbury may have been seen as panic within the ranks, worry that their initial selections may not be strong enough. At very least, it would be easy for Steve Hanson to spin it that way. With these choices, the selectors are showing they have faith in their players and - whether you agreed with it or not - their system.

Then, there's the harmony in camp. It's clear that Gatland runs a very tight ship, of which he likes to be in control. What he says goes and his leaders are expected to back him. Players step out of line at their own peril as the likes of James Hook, Tom James and Alix Popham found out. 

In 1997 big personalities helped make the tour successful, but that was the early days of professionalism. Since then we have had the England strike of 2000, which saw player power truly flex it's muscles. When Graham Henry's Lions tour derailed in 2001 he quickly pointed to rogue players and the press. In 2005 Clive Woodward and his bloated glut of staff managed to disenfranchise just about the whole squad. Modern Lions coaching seems to be as much about keep some egos in check as it does creating the confidence in others. 

Before coaching the squad to victory in Australia four years ago, Gatland spent the best part of a year with Ian McGeechan to analysis errors in tour gone by - that 2005 tour in particular. With this move Gatland has righted Sir Clive's biggest wrong. Now the Tuesday team doesn't feel like a rag tag group of players cast aside a left like unwanted children and shut out of their own team's meetings. They are a team grateful to be there and happy to have the opportunity to pull on the jersey and receive their unique cap number. They are delighted to be a Tuesday team.

With that he also minimises a repeat of Henry's failed campaign. A diary by Matt Dawson and an Austin Healey article ghost written by Eddie Butler causing a stir within the camp. Don't expect to see any Cory Hill diary entries in the Telegraph or Tomas Francis bemoaning the lack of harmony. These are players Gatland knows and trusts, players who will get their head down and get on with it. These call ups are unlikely to win the Lions any test, but they certainly won't create a disruptive figure could certainly cost them either and that is what matters most. 

While we will want to be competitive in midweek games, it's the tests that truly matter. Nobody cares that we lost to Northern Transvaal in 1997, only that we beat the Springboks. We forget the defeat to the Brumbies four years ago because we ended our barren run in the test series. We aren't proud that we only lost twice in South Africa in 2009 because both those defeats were test matches that cost us the series.

So, whilst people talk of the these selections devaluing the Lions jersey, we must ask what value there is if the Lions aren't competitive? And, if they aren't competitive, will there be a Lions jersey at all to value in the future?

Adam and the Ants - Feed Me to the Lions

Friday, February 3, 2017

Since Justin Tipuric last missed a tackle...

  • Britain has had a new PM and voted to leave the EU
  • An orange, TV personality in a wig was voted President of the United States of America
  • £1.8m people sign a petition to stop an orange, TV personality in a wig who was voted President of the United States of America from visiting Britain 

  • Ian Duncan Smith resigned as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
  • Stephen Crabbe was appointed Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
  • Stephen Crabbe was caught in sext scandal
  • Stephen Crabbe resigned as  Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
  • Roy Hodgson was sacked as manager of the England football team
  • Sam Allardyce appoint manager of the England football team
  • Sam Allardyce sacked as manager of the England football team
  • Gareth Southgate appointed manager of the England football team
  • England won a Grand Slam
  • Ireland beat New Zealand in America (and claimed victory of the big three Southern Hemisphere teams) 
  • An American president visited Cuba
  • Leicester City won the premiership 
  • Wales football reached the semi final of a major competition 
  • National Living Wage comes into force
  • The Panama papers were released
  • Junior doctors went on strike 
  • Primary school children went on strike 
  • London got its first ever Muslim mayor
  • Manchester United's final game of the football season was cancelled after a suspicious package was found. It later turned out to be a training aid with the word "bomb" sellotaped to it
  • The Chilcott Enquiry was finally released
  • Labour Leadership election held after a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn won.
  • Trident was renewed
  • The last VHS video recorded was produced
  • A summer Olympics was held in winter...and Britain finish second
  • A 58 year old war ended in Colombia
  • Bob Dylan won a noble prize
  • The Queen turned 90
  • An unlawful killing verdict delivered in the Hillsborough Disaster case
  • Great British Bake Off left the BBC
  • Nigel Farage resigned as leader of UKIP 
  • Diane James named as UKIP leader
  • Diane James resigned as UKIP leader
  • Paul Nuttalls is named leader of the UKIPs
  • Two UKIP MEPs have a fight at the European Parliament leaving Stephen Woolfe hospitalised
  • A gorilla escaped for its London Zoo enclosure and with his new found freedom drank 5 litres of Vimto and passed out
  • Muhammad Ali, Prince, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Fidel Castro, Gene Wilder, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Ronnie Corbett, Arnold Palmer, Johan Cruyff, Andrew Sachs, John Glenn, Rick Parfitt, Liz Smith and Caroline Aherne, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Graham Taylor, John Hurt, Nancy Reagan, Pete Burns, Anton Yelchin, Merle Haggard, Harper Lee, two thirds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Mr Fuji, Chyna and Boutros Boutros-Ghali sadly died.
  • 128,880,000 children have been born 
  • 843 new words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary 
  • 7 new stars were born in our galaxy
  • Cristiano Ronaldo has earned approximately £69 million pounds in wages and sponsorship
  • Beauden Barrett has scored 380 points for the Hurricanes and New Zealand
  • Dylan Hartley has managed to get suspended just once.

Well done Dylan.


Six Nations 2017: Preview

It's a cliche that's trotted out annually, but this year's tournament promises to be the closest yet. Sometimes though, cliches are based on fact and splitting the teams is no easy task.

It's especially more complicated now that bonus points come into play, which may not just affect the final table, but the tactics and psychology along the way.

So, how will the teams perform?

Can England capture back-to-back titles? Will Ireland spoil their party? Are Wales as bad as the public think? Are Scotland competitive once again?  Have France improved or is it just that infamous French inconsistency? Can Italy spring a surprise and stun one of their counterparts?

Choose a nation below to take a look at how they are shaping up ahead of the tournament.

Six Nations 2017: Wales

Last year 
Lies, damn lies and statistics for Wales. On paper 2016 was a largely decent year, in reality it was a year of discontent. Second in the Six Nations, three wins from four in autumn and competitive in their tests against the All Blacks; Welsh fans used to long for such years. However, performances were mediocre at best and flair all bar non-existent. 

With Warren Gatland again away on Lions duty, Rob Howley steps into the breach. Coach of Wales is often a thankless job and Howley is already not everyone’s first choice (or second, third or fourth for that matter), despite being in charge when Wales last lifted the title. The Welsh public feel that Wales have stagnated and they have a good point. If Howley wants to win over the public and secure the role in the future, now isn’t the time to play safe. His selection of 7 uncapped players and a new captain suggests he may throw caution to the wind…and so he should.

Under Gatland, Sam Warburton has proven to be a fantastic captain for both Wales and the Lions, however, questions still hang over his head with regards to that starting spot. Wales have a ready-made replacement in talismanic second row Alun Wyn Jones though. Jones already has two test wins as captain for Wales and series clincher for the Lions and is likely Wales’ mostly likely player to be starting in New Zealand this summer. 

Star player
It's fair to say Scott Williams has been patient in waiting for international opportunities, but his chance must be now. His form has been exceptional for the Scarlets and he's already written himself into Welsh rugby folklore with his try at Twickenham in 2012. 

One to watch
There are seven uncapped players in the squad, but game time will be limited for them. Sam Davies will likely play understudy to Ospreys teammate Dan Biggar, but he will make for a fantastic impact player from the bench and could be the secret to Wales getting their rugby flowing again.

The Welsh back row is particularly strong and the debate for openside is the new Barry or Benny for your Wales XV.

There's little depth at centre and neither Jamie Roberts or Jonathan Davies are forcing themselves into a starting spot. Creativity has been hard to come by too and Wales will need to find their mojo as the game evolves more towards attacking prowess. 

Wales certainly have issues, but reports of their demise may be greatly exaggerated. Howley has chance to freshen up the squad and seven uncapped and Alex King as attack coach may just do that. Wales will relish being underdogs in Cardiff against England and it could make for an interesting encounter. 

Catatonia - International Velvet

Six Nations 2017: Scotland

Last year

A disappointing fourth place finish despite impressive victories over France and Italy. A decent  autumn with two wins against Japan before victories against Argentina and Georgia. It was heartbreak against Australia again though with a 1 point defeat.

The results don't tell the tale of Vern Cotter's time in Scotland. Just two Six Nations victories to his name so far. Scotland have made big improvements in those two years. This tournament will be Cotter's last for Scotland before he hands the reins to Gregor Townsend and his players will want to send him off in style.

Scrum half Greig Laidlaw has been an excellent player for some time for Scotland, but has often not received the credit he deserved. That's changed since his 2015 World Player of the Year nomination and rightly so.

Star player
Scotland have struggled for star quality for a period but that has changed. Lightning quick Stuart Hogg is capable of magic from anywhere on the pitch, Huw Jones added creativity to their midfield whilst Finn Russell continues to prove himself among the best half backs in the game. 

One to watch
With the injury to WP Nel Scotland will turn to young prop Zander Fagerson to shore up their scrum. Fagerson has been impressive for Glasgow Warriors and his four caps at prop aged just 21 is testament to that. 

Scottish rugby is on a wave of positivity with Glasgow reaching the quarterfinals in the Champions Cup, a fine Autum and the development of truly international quality players. Couple this with Cotter last year in charge and Scotland could be dangerous.

Defence let Scotland down last year and coupled with the lack of a killer instinct lost winnable games.

Sometimes rudderless in the past, their halfbacks and midfield now have enough quality and creativity to make them contenders for the top three. Ireland up first at home will be a test for both teams.