Saturday, December 28, 2013

Gladiators Battle Overshadows Union Pantomime

The tradition of Boxing Day comes from employers giving boxed gifts to their servants. Modern day, the tradition is to hit the sales or else nurse hangovers and gorge on day old turkey. Welsh rugby has started it's own traditions with annual Boxing Day derbies where any Christmas spirit is felt at on the bus and goodwill takes it's leave until the final whistle blows.

Before kick off both sets of fans were united as together they stood firm in the face of uncertainty. Bitterest rivals, bonded by their love of their regions and the uncertain future they face amid rifts with the WRU. As the empire threatened to crumble, the gladiators entered the Colosseum. Off the field things were less gladiatorial and more pantomime.
The home fans had already cast their panto villain on the pitch though and voiced their opinion every time Hanno Dirksen touched the ball. 

For every villain there must be a hero and Liam Williams strode confidently, if a little bow legged, into the role. Williams is building something of a cult status at Parc Y Scarlets and only further enhanced with an all action opening.

Many of the Ospreys usual influential stars looked some what off colour. The usually dependable and talismanic Hibbard played his team into trouble early on with a miss placed pass near his own line. Later Aaron Shingler, who was in fine form, rode a hit from the Port Talbot wrecking ball and managed to put the blonde hooker on his backside.

Scarlets, Ospreys, Pro 12, derby, Wales, Welsh, rugby, Parc Y Scarlets

Ospreys scrum half Rhys Webb sniped around the ruck to dart through a red line of defenders, but found few in support. All the while Rhys Priestland put the Scarlets first points on the board before Kiwi winger Frazier Climo rattled the posts with a long range effort that almost shook the sosbans from the top.

At the other end, Dan Biggar had opportunities to level the scores. After 35 successful attempts at goal, a penalty went wayward and the Ospreys were left ruing their deserting luck. Their forwards continued to reign at the breakdown however to dominate possession and the tactical kicking of Biggar and Sam Davies meant they seized the majority of the territory too.

The game continued at a relentless pace. Any pressure relieving kicks were run back fast and strong. Tap penalties and quick line outs gave no time for respite or breath catching for player, fans or commentators. 

Defenders shot out of the line like human cannonballs and slammed into attackers, forcing errors and preventing either team building any sort of momentum. Both sets of defences were impressive and appeared unbreachable whilst the niggle of a derby bubbled away under the surface. Adam Jones clashed with Rob McCusker, Dirksen and Liam Williams renewed their rivalry whilst Alun Wyn Jones and John Barclay taunted and tormented all game.

Alun Wyn Jones, Ospreys, Scarlets, rugby, Parc Y Scarlets, derby, rugby, Wales, Welsh, Pro 12

In the stands the fans were just as equally matched; Every chant of "Scarlets" countered with an "Ospreys," every "Ole" drowned out by an "Yma O Hyd."

When the half time whistle went the players were grateful for the break, but the fans were thirsty for more. The low 3-0 scoreline betrayed the thrill and excitement of the first period.
After the break, the battle took it's toll; Liam Williams and Hibbard departed with injuries and Ken Owens would later follow. Priestland added three more points whilst Biggar's run of consecutive successful kicks turned into two consecutive misses.

With no Liam Williams to counter act him, Dirksen seized the opportunity to take centre stage. Beck, Biggar and Davies combined to set the South African into acres of space to run in a try. Kristian Phillips and Scott Williams with all their might to stop him, but the winger dived over. 

Hanno, Dirksen, Scott Williams, rugby, Scarlets, Ospreys, TMO, no try, Parc Y Scarlets, Pro 12, Derby, Wales, Welsh, Boxing Day

The Scarlets appealed to the officials that the peroxide 'Bok was in touch. "Oh no he wasn't," the Ospreys opined. "Oh yes he was" ruled the TMO, no try. The scores remained 6-0, at least until Biggar found his kicking boots to bring the Ospreys within three points and it was the Welsh outside half would decide the game's fate.

With the clock running down, Biggar spiraled a kick into touch near the Scarlets line. A catch and drive sent Ian Evans crashing over with Biggar adding the extra. The visitors led by four points with five minutes remaining.

The task laid down for the Scarlets was a big one, but they set about it immediately with rolling mauls of their own. One maul followed another as Ospreys tried to repel attacks and captain Alun Wyn Jones saw yellow for his attempts to prevent a match winning try.

Rugby, Lineout, Scarlets, Ospreys, Derby, Pro 12, Wales, Welsh, Parc Y Scarlets

The resultant penalty meant a final lineout and a final Scarlets attempt to cross the whitewash. They bombarded the Ospreys line for 21 phases before Sam Lewis turned the ball over and slammed it off the park.

Another example of so close yet so far for the Scarlets as another victory for the Ospreys who move to second in the league. However, both drew attention away from all that has happened off the field, in boardrooms and press conferences and to the real entertainment on the pitch.

Skindred - Trouble

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ireland Play Like Heroes

Last weekend, just before Saturday turned to Sunday, George Groves entered the MEN Arena to a cacophony of boos ahead of his showdown with Carl Froch. However, he was carried out of there on a chorus of cheers having had the fight unceremoniously ripped away from him with a controversial intervention.

Roll on Sunday, the day of rest. Nobody had told the Gods of Sporting Injustice though, they were working a two day weekend and so it was onwards to Dublin. An All Blacks team, unbeaten in 2013, visiting Ireland who were soundly beaten by Australia just eight short winter days before. The result seemed a mere formality; not so much a case of who would win as by how many?

Before kick-off, match day commentator Brian Moore tweeted "Can the Irish beat ABs for 1st time? Doubt it." At the time few would have argued. Ireland have never beaten New Zealand; 27 meetings since 1905, one draw and 26 Irish defeats. The silver fern has always overshadowed the shamrock. Since lifting the William Webb Ellis Cup in 2011, the Kiwis' had suffered just one defeat to Norovirus and Manu Tuilagi England. For 2013 they were one win from perfection; one big 'W' from a record.

In Dublin The All Blacks would be without the mercurial Carter, but Ireland appeared to be without hope.
Ireland, New Zealand, Haka, rugby, All Blacks
That's the joy of sport. Sometimes when you think you know exactly what's going to happen it surprises you, more than any film twist or TV character death. 

As the Irish players faced the haka, you could see it under the surface and in their eyes. Passion and emotion burned inside them, they believed and it showed. Ireland played with high levels of intensity, daring to take on the All Blacks at their own game (as Groves had promised Froch he would too).

The game had barely begun when Nigel Owens confirmed the TMO's decision; Conor Murray had not only put Ireland on the front foot, but on the scoreboard too. The Mighty All Blacks floored in minutes and unsteady on their feet.

The game pinged back and forth like a squash ball, but within six minutes Ireland had crossed again. Another Irish surge, another Murray attempt at the line. This time he was short, but Rory Best finished what the scrum half couldn't. Ireland were in dreamland, New Zealand were rattled.

The boys from the Emerald Isle upped the intensity to breaking point, forcing All Black errors. For every attack, there was an Irish counter punch. The usually flawless Israel Dagg knocked on. Opposite number Rob Kearney was on the end to race away for Ireland's third, cheered to the line like Arkle on the home straight. 17 minutes on the clock, nineteen Irish points on the board.
Rob Kearney, Ireland, New Zealand, All Blacks, rugby,
The champions were doing all they could to keep themselves in the scrap, but like all experienced champions they neither panicked nor rested on their laurels. They attacked in waves, pushed Ireland onto the defensive, searching for gaps. Aaron Cruden spotted a hole in the guard and jabbed through a kick that let Julien Savea land a sucker punch.

Ireland came forward again in contest like two heavyweights standing toe-to-toe and swinging. The sound of heavy impacts were extreme, not leather on flesh, but rather bone on muscle. Ireland were winning the exchanges as New Zealand hung on until half time.

Half way to paradise, Irish ill-discipline began to slip in. A crooked scrum feed, a silly obstruction, hands in the ruck. Tiredness? Over excitement? Panic? Ireland had to keep their focus and they would need to do it without their talisman Brian O'Driscoll, removed from the field with concussion and unable to return.

Ireland entered the closing rounds still ahead, but stuttering as their visitors built up steam. Ireland stood strong, but the Kiwis continued to pummel them in close quarters until Ben Franks crossed with 15 minutes remaining. Ireland 22 - New Zealand 17.
rugby, try, Ireland, New Zealand, All Blacks, Ben Franks,
The exchange of blows continued with the play sweeping end-to-end. Attack followed by counter attack with neither team able to land the knock out blow they needed. A Jonny Sexton penalty whistled past the sticks and in the final round it could still go either way, but the All Blacks would need something special.

However, this was the All Blacks and something special is their forte, their party trick. They ate up almost 80 metres in as many seconds and Ryan Crotty grounded the ball. A kick would seal a perfect campaign for the All Blacks, but Cruden's kick drifted wide.

Then came a referee's intervention, this time a correct one. Ireland had charged too soon (not for the first time) and Nigel Owens ordered a retake. Cruden lined it up again and this time it was perfect.

It was the second time that weekend a last gasp try had sealed a New Zealand victory. The day before Shaun Johnson crossed the whitewash at Wembley with 20 seconds remaining, the resultant conversion set up a Rugby League World Cup final against their Antipodean neighbours and broke English hearts. This time Ireland were the losers and,  after such an amazing game, the winner was rugby.

The World champions were victorious, but it was the challengers that captured the hearts and imaginations of the neutrals. Much like Groves less than 24 hours before, Ireland were clapped and cheered from the arena. They were winless, but in the eyes of all that witnessed, they were heroes.

David Bowie - Heroes

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Wales v 'Boks: Where the Game Was Lost

One game, one defeat. No embarrassment in losing to the second best team in the world, but for Welsh fans it's a piece of history that has been repeated more than 'Only Fool's and Horses' on UK Gold. So, where did it go wrong?

Alun Wyn Jones, Wales, South Africa, Defeat, rugby, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, International
One Up Runners
Ironic that with so many Welshmen touring with their British and Irish counterparts this summer, it was South Africa who acted like lions. When a Welshman wasn't properly supported they sensed his isolation from the pack and pounced. 
Nineteen turnovers speaks volumes for just how well the Springboks acted at the tackle area, especially when you see how strong Warburton looked when present at the breakdown. The support may have come just a second behind, but a second is enough against such a proficient backrow and Wales paid the price.
Alun Wyn Jones, Wales, South Africa, Defeat, rugby, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, International
Injuries
It's easy to pin the blame on injuries, but any team who lose so many influential players so early would feel the effect. Adam Jones is the lynchpin of the scrum and Liam Williams brings some much needed fiestiness to the backs, but Lions centre Jonathan Davies was the biggest loss. 
The man they call Foxy showed more attacking prowess and offensive guile than any other player in the Welsh 23. Davies evaded capture like the Scarlet(s) Pimpernel, where other Welsh attack resembled the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town.
Jonathan Davies, Foxy, Wales, South Africa, Defeat, rugby, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, International
Wasted Chances
Wales took the lion's share of possession, but failed to score a single try and threatened the white line less than Tony Montana. 
Be it over coaching, lack of vision or too much commitment to Gatland's plan; Wales butchered opportunities with a few bad choices that could have changed the game. They refused to throw the ball wide when the 'Boks defended narrow and Fourie followed de Villiers as though tethered to his captain. Instead they stuck rigidly to earning the right to go around, even if South Africa couldn't have made it more inviting if they had laid a red carpet and offered canap├ęs.
Though ironically, Wales' lack of vision and invention was best summed up by going wide too soon. James Hook was presented with acres of space guarded either side by two forwards from the tight five. Instead of using dancing feet that would make Fred Astaire drool, Hook failed to commit a man and threw an inaccurate pass behind Ashley Beck. Play disrupted, chance gone and the men in red consigned to defeat.
A bit more thought, a bit more confidence and a bit more composure and the result could have been different. 
James Hook, Wales, South Africa, Defeat, rugby, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, International
Out Muscled
South Africa may have added some expansive rugby in their back division, but that doesn't mean they have lost any brute force from the pack. Wales have spent much of the Gatland era playing a highly physical, collision based game (the fabled Gatlandball). However this is where the Springboks are kings and rarely are South Africa bullied, but that is what Wales set out to do. The game could have deteriorated into a slugfest and arguably did a little in the second half.
Wales have had success with this tactic against the same opponents before at the World Cup, at least in terms of game performance if not result. Again they decided to stand toe-to-toe and trade heavy blows with rugby's heavyweights with Hibbard throwing the biggest haymakers. Wales found themselves floored three times, but failed to do anything more than bloody South African noses.
Wales though, have the ability to be boxers as well as fighters - they can use lateral movement and footwork to wear down opponents. The All Blacks are the only team to beat South Africa and did so by opening up the game and playing with a little flair. Next time, a little more Ali and a little less Foreman is needed.


George North, Wales, South Africa, Defeat, rugby, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, International
The Truth...
We weren't too bad. It's not too long ago that Wales were a giant leap behind the boys below the equator, but now we are just several small steps behind the Southen Hemisphere sides.
As it stands, we are trying a little too hard and not believing quite enough. A win or two and the shift will come and then Wales can count themselves among the best in the world. 
Until then, it's just a little bit of history repeating.
 
Propeller Heads and Shirley Bassey - History Repeating

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Wales v South Africa Preview

Wales v South Africa. On paper it is possibly THE match of the Autumn Internationals. 

South Africa are arguably the second best team in the World after adding a flair behind their brutal pack. The Springboks are back to near their best and have the ability to humiliate any team that turn up and give anything but theyirall.
 
Wales are undergoing a similar resurgence. After a disappointing run of defeats, something clicked at half time in Dublin. On the day a fight back fell short, but in the long run it culminated in another Six Nations title and dominated the Lions.

Wales are on a high, ready to do battle and itching to draw blood against Southern Hemisphere opposition. It could be a close one, so let's break things down a little further.

Wales, South Africa, rugby, anthems

Front Row
Some of the world's finest packing down in a newly revitalised scrum that has replaced the hit with technique. Hookers may have to earn their stripes with the strike at the scrum.
Bismarck Du Plessis is considered to be the best hooker in the world and Wales will be weary of the ability of the Sharks' hooker.
Ritchie Hibbard is capable of as much ferocity as Du Plessis, as Joe Marler found out. Hibbard has finally shook off the doubts over fitness or ability to claim the Wales' 2 shirt.
Injury to baby Du Plessis, prop Jannie, means it's youth versus experience on one side of the scrum as Frans Malherbe makes his debut against 99 cap veteran Gethin Jenkins. There can be no questioning Jenkins' work in open play, but a few have raised doubts over his scrummaging ability. Malherbe has been around the South Africa squad for sometime and will thrive on the opportunity to prove himself.
It is the opposite side of the scrum where the mouth watering battle takes place with Adam Jones taking on Tendai Mtawarira. It's The Hairy Bear versus The Beast and Mtawarira is 1-0 up in the scary nickname stakes, but Jones tamed The Beast for the Lions in 2009. This is a battle that fans of the scrum will relish, two of the world's finest scrummagers head-to-head.

Bismarck, du Plessis, South Africa, New Zealand, Hooker, Tackle, Dan Carter, Sharks

Second Row
South Africa have always boasted strength in the boiler house; their World Cup winning team was built on Botha and Matfield as much as on Habana and Butch James. Eben Etzebeth is the new generation of Springboks second row; strong, powerful and yet graceful. He has the ability to carry well, tackle hard, disrupt the opposition and leap like a young Michael Jordan.
Opposite Etzebeth is Alun Wyn Jones. AWJ is slowing becoming a cult hero in Welsh rugby with his no nonsense style on the pitch, enhanced by the musings of rugby's favourite Buddhist Dai Lama.
Bradley Davies and Flip van der Merwe start as the other second rows and are capable of having an influence on the game. Both will want a big performance with hopes of clinging on to their starting spots.

Back Row
The prospect of another mouthwatering contest. Wales finally have their dynamic trio back in action and the timing could not be better. It's been over 17 months since they lined up together in a Wales shirt and their first test is certainly a resolute one. The Welsh backrow are a perfect balance of Lydiate's tackling, Warburton's jackling and Faletau's carries.
Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen are contenders for the best back row in the world with a blend of force and guile akin to the finest pugilist.  
Dan Lydiate, Wales, Flanker, Newport, Gwent, Dragons, Lions

Half Backs
Morne Steyne is a match winner in the true sense of the word. Whether it be his ability with ball in hand or from the kicking tee. Rhys Priestland returns to international rugby refreshed and revitalised from injury with the ability play on the gain line which is vital to Gatland's plan.
Another battle that will continue from the Lions tour four years ago at scrum half. Flourie du Preez and Mike Phillips was an excellent sideshow to what was a superb tour. Since then the South African moved to Japan whilst Phillips sought his fortune in France before being dismissed last month, meaning the Welshman may be a little sharper.

Midfield
Wales will miss Jamie Roberts' direct and forceful style against the wall that is Jean de Villiers, but if Scott Williams performs he could cement his status of Welsh hero he built after his enemy defeating try at Twickenham.
Jaque Fourie will also need to prove his worth after a long international sabbatical and move to Japan. Fourie will have to hit the ground running in his return against Jonathan Davies who has continued improve his standing as one of the World's best centres and will have a great understanding with fellow Scarlet, Williams.
Scott Williams, England, try, Wales, Twickenham, Scarlets

Back Three
Leigh Halfpenny is fresh from being named World Player of the Year in France and has been near perfect for Wales. Under the high ball, in front of the posts or breaking the line Halfpenny is a well rounded fullback. Pat Lambie is an undoubted talent but has far more experience at 10 than 15, which Wales may exploit.
On the wings it's pure entertainment. Japan based JP Pietersen is a speedster with an eye for the try line whilst Liam Williams is an old fashioned player with more skill than patience. He has lit up the Scarlets attack and is ferocious in defence, a real gem if he keeps his cool.
The main event though is Bryan Habana and George North. Habana has raced a cheetah and an aeroplane, but North is an altogether different breed. A giant of a man who can reek havoc against the best of defences, he bagged 2 tries against the 'Boks on his debut as an 18 year old just 3 years ago. If there is to be magic it's likely to come from here.
 
Verdict
Win the break down, win the set piece, win the game. Both sides will also need impeccable discipline with Halfpenny and Steyne on hand to punish any misdemeanours and numerous players on hand to exploit any lapses on concentration. If both teams play as we know they can it could be a classic encounter. My head says South Africa by 5-8 points, but my heart says Wales by a single score.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wales' Greatest Produce

British industry output suffered a massive dip in August on the back of an equally large decline in manufacturing output.

However, there is a little is a factory in the valleys where production is still running high. No need for disputed nuclear power stations or controversial fracking here either; an abundant seam of raw materials has obviously been unearthed. The workers at the 'Outside Half Factory' are working harder than ever.

The Welsh number 10 shirt is more coveted than keys to the Brains Brewery or a night in the company of Katherine Jenkins and as the dark nights are drawing in, so are the first autumn internationals. That means the competition for the outside half position is at fever pitch.

As it stands, the pivotal and iconic role within the Welsh team is in the possession of Dan Biggar. Biggar made the role his own in this year's Six Nations, having made 11 appearances previously but never starting two on the bounce.
Dan Biggar, Wales, Outside Half, 10, Rugby, Kick
The Ospreys based outside half made a shaky start against Ireland, but so too did the 14 other men in red shirts that started that day. Biggar proved the doubters wrong though, as he grew in maturity to become a vital part of a successful campaign.

Now the Ospreys have dealt him a blow in the build up to the opening test against South Africa, starting him at fullback with the prodigious Matthew Morgan filling the 10 slot.

Morgan himself has been earmarked for Wales, but it is far too soon for him as things stand. There is no doubting Morgan's ability in attack; at times he has left defences trying to stop him resembling Dick Dastardly and Muttley trying to stop the pigeon. Questions remain over his defence and organisation however.
Scarlets' Rhys Priestland has returned to the Llanelli based club looking quicker, sharper and stronger than before.

Until his injury, Priestland was Gatland's first choice. He justified that selection at the World Cup in New Zealand and was one of the players to shine in an impressive Welsh run. On the back of the tournament, Priestland was front runner for the Lions tour, but wavering form cast doubt on his place before injury ended any hoping of making the trip down under.

The Scarlets medical staff may have access to George's Marvellous Medicine or some other elixir though, because Priestland looks ready to take the world on if given the opportunity.

Another Rhys, this time Patchell, will want his shot too. Patchell has been a bright light in the often gloomy world of the Cardiff Blues. It's not just the shock of ginger that has stood out at the Arms Park, but also the composed head it rests upon.

Patchell's talent is clear and his physique also fits Gatland's blueprint for monsters of men who could salsa dance on a shilling.

Footwork is James Hook's strong point and he finds himself in the squad alongside messers Biggar, Priestland and Patchell. Had Gavin Henson taken a few pointers from Hooky he would have had Strictly sewn up and Len Goodman lost for words.

Hook himself has never lived up to the 'next Barry John' tag line though (not that anybody ever could). He is great when given room to manoeuvre, but the modern day fly half isn't about waltzing past defenders or pirouetting out of tackles. These days a 10 is an orchestrator and conductor, where as Hook has a tendency to become a flute solo.

Hook has also suffered the same fate as Biggar, dropped back to cover 15 having spent much of his career playing second fiddle.

Newport-Gwent Dragons are the only region without a representative at outside half, and for that, Jason Tovey can consider himself unlucky. After his short spell at the Blues proved an undoubted failure, Tovey has rediscovered his form at Rodney Parade alongside an equally revitalised Ritchie Rees.

Tovey may be forced to await injury or bad form to get his chance, whilst Sam Davies, Steven Shingler and maybe even Jordan Williams await a little more experience of playing 10 at senior level.

Perhaps the most welcoming note (or scariest for the opposition) is just how young these players are. Nobody mentioned above is over 30 and only Priestland and Hook are over 25. The average age of the 9 players mentioned is under 23 and the four selected in Gatland's squad average 24.5, but already have over 100 caps between them.

So, those wheels are still turning quickly and there's a whole line of trams on the rails, as that little factory 'neath the mountain keeps making outside halves for Wales.
10 Out of 10 - Paolo Nutini

Friday, October 18, 2013

Can Jordan Fill George's Boots?

The first round of European matches has been and gone in the blink of an eye. There will be mixed emotions at regional level in Wales; the Ospreys were left disappointed against Leinster and the Blues humiliated in Exeter. The Dragons were boosted with a second Italian win in as many weeks, but it was the Scarlets flowing, counter attacking win at the Stoop that stole the headlines.
 
Had the game against Harlequins been played 12 months ago, George North would have been pulling on a Scarlets jersey. However, North has now moved himself over the Severn Bridge and may not be available to panic Wallaby defenders this autumn as the game falls outside the IRB window. Should North not be released, Warren Gatland will need to find a replacement in the left wing slot.
 
Man-for-man, North is virtually impossible to replace; the man nicknamed 'Gogzilla' is unique. Equally as quick and elusive as he is strong and abrasive, North has the capabilities to terrorise even the best defences. In the summer he carried Israel Folau on his shoulder like a farmer with a bag of spuds and pointed at Will Genia as he crossed the line, like a father chastising his wayward child.
George North, North, Wales, British Lions, Lions, Rugby, Genia, Try, Point, Australia
One player who firmly put his hands up to fill the 11 shirt was Jordan Williams (although he will need a smaller size). His playing style and his stature could not be further from that of North or Cuthbert; you'll find no fireman lifts or crash balls in Williams' game. Instead he is a will-o'-the-wisp of a back three player whose star has been rising in West Wales for some time. However, injury has limited his appearances at Parc Y Scarlets.
 
Williams' rise to prominence around the country came this summer with his performances in France's Junior World Cup. His quick stepping runs launched Welsh Under 20s attacks on route to the final and Ruck 'n' Roll named him as one of our talented Welsh youngsters to watch before the season started. He is living up to the billing. 
Jordan Williams, Wales, Under 20s, Junior World Cup, Rugby
Williams has already been compared to league convert and World Cup winner Jason Robinson and countryman and name sake Shane Williams. Perhaps the most flattering comparison though, came from the most respected of sources. 92 times capped All Black and expert pundit Sean Fitzpatrick compared the fleet footed back to another All Blacks legend, Christian Cullen. 
 
The comparisons don't appear to have fazed Williams, as he continues to keep playing his high-octane counter attack game with some aplomb. His try against Harlequins has now brought him to the prominence of even the casual rugby follower as he bounced off defenders, tight rope walked the in field area near the touchline line and stepped the last man to cross the try line and earn him the moniker "Pinball Wizard."
 
With that try Williams announced his arrival on the big stage. No longer a junior player trying to make a step up, he is now the real thing. Some will say its too soon for Williams to pull on the red shirt of his nation, but George North made his first Wales start just 12 weeks after his Scarlets debut.
Harlequins, Scarlets, Jordan Williams, Rugby, Try, Wales, Europe, Heineken Cup
Williams will face some stiff opposition for a starting place as a number of other rising stars will battle it out with him. Fellow clubman Liam Williams has impressed and has already made his international debut. Ospreys' flyer Eli Walker, Blues' Harry Robinson and Dragons Hallam Amos (who also impressed for the Wales Under 20s) will all stake their claims for the jersey.
 
Gatland is not afraid to give people a chance and Jordan may find himself thrust into the spotlight and the floodlights for the Friday night game against Tonga on 22nd November. If he performs well, he may find himself lining up against the gold and green of the Quantas Wallabies 8 days later.
 
 The Who - Pinball Wizard

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Heineken Cup: Pools 4-6

On the weekend of the 19th (and possibly final) Heineken Cup, Ruck 'n' Roll take a look at the group stages of this year's tournament.

Pools 1-3 are here and below are pools 4-6;

Pool 4: Clermont, Harlequins, Racing Metro, Scarlets
Not quite the 'group of death,' but it's not far away.
Clermont-Auvergne reached the final last year and are among the best club rugby has to offer. They haven't really done much to strength in the summer, but haven't really needed to. They beat the Scarlets convincingly twice last season, who have arguably deteriorated since.
There has been success at the Stoop in the past few years, but little of that has come in the Heineken Cup. They will need a fast start to build confidence, but qualification may be beyond them in such a difficult pool.
The big spenders of rugby, Racing Metro's recruitment policy has resembled the picking of a fantasy rugby team. Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Sexton and Dan Lydiate were all vital cogs the Lions test in the summer and will hope to build a build of history for the club that has little experience in Europe.
Talk of the Scarlets demise has been greatly exaggerated. They lost some big game players, but have played some good rugby at the start of the Pro12. They have been wasteful though and that has ultimately cost them. They would need to be more clinical or run the risk of being embarrassed. The first game at the Stoop could be vital for them.
Verdict: Another group were its doubtful more than one team will make the knockout stages. It's difficult to look past Clermont, but all teams have the ability to upset on the day.
Winner: Clermont-Auvergne 
Runner-up: Racing Metro
Napolioni Nalaga, Clermont-Auvergne, rugby, Heineken Cup, Europe

Pool 5: Treviso, Leicester, Montpellier, Ulster
It would be a great error for anyone to underestimate Treviso. They will be looking for a scalp and are more than able to get it. Where once an Italian side meant bonus points galore, that has now changed and overconfidence could leave any team with egg on their face.
Leicester Tigers will go into every game with the ability to win them, but each comes with it's own perils. If they go in over confident it will give Cockerill something to crow about.
Were it not for an injury to Trinh-Duc in the quarter final last year, Montpellier may have replace Clermont in the semis and maybe even the final. They are on the rise and maybe a force to be reckoned with.
Ulster are a team grounded in their consistency. They narrowly missed out on the top tier rankings and have won 3 from 3 against Leicester at Ravenhill. They are good enough to compete against the best on offer.
Verdict: A group that it is more competitive than it looks on paper. Teams may have to scrap for every point.
Winner: Ulster
Runner-up: Montpellier
Tommy Bowe, Ulster, rugby, Heineken Cup

Pool 6: Edinburgh, Gloucester, Munster, Perpignan
Edinburgh are struggling in the Pro 12 and sit rock bottom of the table. That is not the form you want to enter the Heineken cup in.
The talk of this group will be the return of the Miracle Match at Thomond Park. Gloucester and Munster will meet again in repeat of what was arguably the most unbelievable game of rugby ever played.
Of late both Munster and Gloucester have struggled consistency and Munster find themselves without their finest European performer. Ronan O'Gara has hung up his kicking boots in favour of a coach role in France.
Gloucester have stuttered at the start of their Aviva campaign and slipped up home. Such form would be disastrous in this competition. They have real class in their ranks though and an opening game win could be the start of a decent run for Glaws.
Another team struggling with form and the loss of experience is Perpignan. Blooding new players will serve them in the long run, but they don't appear ready yet. They are good enough to get out of this pool, however, as long as they turn up.
Verdict: All teams in this pool are struggling with any sort of form. Any team that can find something close to consistency will qualify.
Winner: Gloucester 
Runner-up: Perpignan
Henry Trinder, Gloucester, Glaws, Rugby, Europe, Heineken Cup, Amlin Challenge Cup

The tournament promises to one of the best in a long time, let's hope it's not the last time.

The Rolling Stones - The Last Time

Heineken Cup: Pools 1-3

On the weekend of the 19th (and possibly final) Heineken Cup, Ruck 'n' Roll take a look at the group stages of this year's tournament.

Here are pools 1-3;

Pool 1: Castres, Leinster, Northampton, Ospreys
It seems that every competition has to have a "Group of Death" and Pool 1 fits the bill with ease. You won't find such a prospect of entertainment from so many Lions without a trip to Longleat, even the French club have one of Gatland's boys in their ranks.
The European form and domestic form of Castres don't match up. Last year's Top 14 champions have trouble away from home and while that is par for the course in France it doesn't wash in Europe. That's why the French title holders are ranked 25th in the ERC rankings. It also means that they are the tier 4 team in the group. 
Conversely, Leinster top the ERC rankings. European success has flowed through Dublin like Guinness. Three Heineken Cups in five years is a testament to just how tricky an opponent Leinster can be. Even last season's injury ravaged poor performances eventually led to an Amlin Challenge Cup title. Leinster are going through something of a transition, but in Brian O'Driscoll's final year, they will want to send their talisman off in style.
Northampton are a team on form at the moment. Powerful upfront, strong and skilful behind, The Saints are a team to be reckoned with. After they reached the Aviva Premiership final last season they have started this campaign in similar form and added to of the summer's most lauded players in Alex Corbisiero and 'Gogzilla' George North.
Swansea based Ospreys are perhaps Europe's biggest underachievers. 4 times 'Celtic' League winners and chocked full of internationals and Lions, the Ospreys have rarely cut the mustard on the continent. If they click the Ospreys have the ability to compete with any opponent, but they will need to do it quickly to have any chance of progressing.
Verdict: So difficult is this group it's virtually impossible to see two teams qualifying. Winning bonus points will be few between, but don't rule out the the runner-up winner the Amlin Cup. 
Winner: Northampton Saints
Runner-up: Leinster
George North, Gogzilla, Northampton, Saints, rugby, Aviva Premiership,
 
Pool 2: Blues, Exeter, Glasgow, Toulon
The Blues are a perfect example of the phrases "great on paper, but not on grass" (or plastic in their case), with the likes of Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert in their ranks. The Blues are struggling to find any sort of form and another poor performance this year could convince some of their internationals leave for Gallic shores. Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins have bolstered a weak pack, but it's an area where the have the depth of a puddle in August.
At the other of the scale are Exeter, a team bigger than than their individual parts. With little in the way of superstars, The Chiefs are a collective force who deserve their place in this years show piece. They will have learnt from their debut last year, but it will be a big ask against in form Glasgow and the Northern Hemisphere's Galacticos. 
Glasgow remain undefeated this season and are yet to concede a first half try. They have rode their luck at times though and scrapped through last weekend as Scarlets squandered chances. They will need to upset Toulon on get big bonuses if they want to qualify and I cannot see it happening.
What can be said of Toulon? A veritable who's who of rugby. Their players read more like a hall of fame than a squad list. They enter the tournament as champions and it will take a brave man to bet against them repeating that feet.
Verdict: It difficult to look past Toulon in this group and it could descend into a race for an Amlin Cup spot between Glasgow and Exeter.  
Winner: Toulon
Runner-up: Glasgow
Delon Armitage, Toulon, try, celebration, Heineken Cup, Final, Winners, Europe, Winners

Pool 3: Connacht, Saracens, Toulouse, Zebre
It would be a shock if two teams didn't progress from this group. Saracens and Toulouse will be expected to tear their way through this group.
Over the seasons Connacht have done little to shake their tag as Ireland's fourth team. They have stole home victories against Harlequins and Biarritz before though so it could happen again.
Saracens are purveyors of direct rugby, playing in relentless waves of physicality. All three opponents may not be able to cope with the London club's strength.
Toulouse have got progressively worse since they won the tournament in 2010, but it would take something drastic for that trend to continue and them to not at least reach the knockout stages. 
No Italian club has made a mark on the competition yet and it is unlikely Zebre will do it this time around. The Parma based team have improved significantly over the past 12 months and finally got a "W" to their name, but there is precious little chance of the finishing in the top two. They will give it their best though and even one European win would a huge success.
Verdict: Saracens and Toulouse to do the business. Any upsets are unlikely but not impossible.
Winner: Saracens
Runner-up: Toulouse
Chris Ashton, Saracens, rugby, Europe, Heineken Cup
 
So, there's the first three pools. Pools 4-6 are here.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Cardiff Blue, but Zebre Earned Their Strips

Perspective is a strange creature. It can vary greatly from person to person, it's easy to lose sight of and can cloud judgement, especially when you lose it.

A lot of people lost perspective this weekend after Zebre picked up their first competitive win in their short history, beating the Blues and Cardiff Arms Park. As Zebre won the game some fans and journalists instantly lost perspective. The reaction at the final whistle were akin to the Blues being defeated by an 11 man Holyhead.

Some responses (and by no means do I mean all) from radio pundits and via Twitter bordered on arrogance. Talks of the Blues "being better than this" and the "eleven internationals" they had playing dragged on far beyond the echo of the referee's whistle and the singing of the Zebre fans on Westgate Street. 
People who at the start of the season told me their new signings had made them ready to compete, now bemoaned their recruitment policy. Sane, sensible Blues fans tried to talk them down from their soap boxes, but it was too late. Their perspective had left them, packed it's bags and flown to Parma.

The truth is the Blues haven't become an awful team. Missing quality in a few key positions? Maybe. Inexperienced? Definitely. Awful? Certainly not.

Zebre have become an increasingly good team though. Last season they came close to an elusive victory many times. Almost half their defeats reaped a losing bonus, not a bad show for a team formed just 3 months before the season began giving them little time for preparations or recruitment.

Signs of a brighter season this time around were evident even before a ball was even kicked. Shrewd signings coupled with new coaches meant the Italians entered the new season on the front foot. Indeed Andrea Cavinato has a history of creating the upset, he coached Rugby Parma to victory over Brive in Challenge Cup.
A Zebre victory looked on the cards earlier in this season. The boys in black and white led Munster at half time in Parma before a second half blitz from the Irishmen put paid to any talk of an upset. By the time the players trudged off at the Stadio XXV Aprile it was clear they were a bigger, better, strong animal than 12 months previous.

Of the new recruits, no signing will be more influential at Zebre (Or possibly the whole Pro 12) than Brendan Leonard. An experienced scrum half who proved his credentials at Super Rugby's Chiefs and at one time was challenging Piri Weepu for the All Blacks "9" jersey, he is the key to unlocking a talented backs division behind an experienced pack that contains the likes of Mauro Bergamasco, Quintin Geldenhuys and Marco Bortolami.

Leonard's direction and experience coupled with Luciano Orquera's flair and exuberance are the lynchpin of the team. To counter the Blues "11 internationals" the halfback pairing were themselves two of 9 internationally capped players in the Zebre starting XV with another 4 sat on the bench.
Andries van Schalkwyk and Dion Berryman aren't capped. Like Leonard however, they also have Super Rugby experience, all be it in differing degrees. Meanwhile, Samuela Vunisa looked set for big things in the South Hemisphere after being name Taranaki's most promising player two years. He choose to pursue professional rugby in Europe, but even at the tender age of 24, the Fijian looks more than capable in the back row.

Flying David Odiete's promise means it's more a case of when then if he will play for Italy. His try in the Welsh capital will only further enhance his campaign for an international call in the near future and Dario Chistolini cut his teeth at Gloucester and is already an 'Italian A' player.

With that kind of talent, only the foolish or the brave would bet against the Parna club taking another scalp or two this season.

And, with a slightly different perspective, it's easy to see that this has nothing to do with the decline of the Blues. This was all about Zebre, earning their stripes.


Johnny Cash - Stripes

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rugby Canada: Hit of the Summer

September has started with the promise of a calendar packed with the club competitions in the Northern Hemisphere and the Rugby Championship dominating proceedings south of the Equator. One nation though will surely be happy to spend a little longer basking in the warm glow that came with August.

Canada finished the summer with a flourish. Back-to-back victories against the USA in a two legged tie ensured The Canucks a spot at the World Cup in two years time, whilst condemning their rivals south of the border to a tricky tie against Uruguay to keep their World Cup hopes alive.

They had all bar guaranteed qualification with an 18 point victory of the Eagles in Charleston before they confirmed it on home soil a week later at Toronto's BMO field, continuing their impressive run of victories against the US.
Rugby Canada, Rugby, Canada, Line Break, USA, Eagles, RWC 2015, CanAm
The Red Nation also impressed at this year's Pacific Cup boasting victories against Fiji and Tonga with scrumhalf Phil Mack looking like he could test the defences of any team on his day. Meanwhile, big things are also expected of backrow specialist Tyler Ardron and his progress should take an upward curve having signed with Swansea based region the Ospreys. Ardron is joined at the Liberty Stadium by fellow countryman Jeff Hassler, a winger with a try scorers instinct.

And whilst Kieran Crowley's men were busy booking their spot in the RWC 2015 the women were storming their way up the IRB rankings helped with an impressive showing at the Nations Cup.

Canada's Women's Under 20s were already Nations Cup holders when the senior team entered their tournament. Excellent performances from winger Bianca Farella and the sure boot of Magali Harvey saw them beat the much fancied England for the second time in a week and secure the title for the first time.
Rugby, Rugby Canada, Women's Rugby, Ashley Patzer, World Cup, USA
The success of the cup has boosted their standing, pushing them up the IRB rankings into the top 5 to just one spot behind their rivals from the USA.

Success has come in the 7 player form of the game too. The Canada Women's 7s grabbed silver at the Sevens World Cup in Moscow, succumbing to New Zealand in the final. It's another signal of their increasing power in the women's game under coach John Tait and influential captain Jen Kish after they were also named as one of the six core teams for the World 7s Tour.

The Rugby Canada Centralisation Programme has announced it's latest plans for 2013/14 and, with the Olympics in mind, it's the Sevens game that has been given priority. After the women's relative success in the reduced numbers game they get the majority of the funding. 
Langston BC, Rugby, Rugby Canada, Line out
Some 24 women and 18 men have received funding from Sport Canada with each person receiving between $900 and $1500. On top, Own The Podium has paid $2.45m toward the Rugby Sevens programme with the hope of results in Rio 2016.

Such funding can only help to serve the Rugby Canada in both codes and push them further forward in international rugby terms and make them more likely to compete against union's big guns. All there hopes and ambitions of a continually brighter future will be aided by the purpose built and increasingly impressive facilities on offer at Rugby Canada's home in Langford BC.

So, as autumn starts to set in and the leaves begin to fall, the maple leaf is on the rise. Rugby Canada and the Red Nation is the feel good hit of the summer.

Feel Good Hit of the Summer - Queens of the Stoneage