Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Phillips Fails to Keep Up with Roadrunner Genia

Before the first Lions test, many experts were predicting a pivotal battle between the scrum halves on show. As far as predictions go, it's up there with death, taxes and Lions fans hitting the bar pre and post match.

I'm often reminded by (mostly) female rugby fans of what a beautiful creature Mike Phillips is. There is no denying Mike's rugged good looks, husky eyes and strong, abiding confidence.
The Bancyfelin man is more than a handsome exterior though. He is the most physical and powerful of scrum halves, his strong runs able to decimate defences. Despite what his critics say he is capable of the traditional scrum half work of orchestrating attacks from rucks, mauls and set plays. Phillips rarely has good games, they are either great or... well, not. The first test was not.

Phillips Lions tour started in barnstorming fashion. In the cloying humidity of Hong Kong, he left the Barbarians gasping for air and grasping for anything as he powered his way through their defensive line and over the try line.

By contrast, Phillips was somewhat muted in the Lions first test against Australia. The Wallabies backrow had done their homework; they knew Phillips' game, they knew Phillips' runs, they knew Phillips. The Lions not so secret weapon was nullified, regardless of how many futile attempts he made to prove otherwise.
In comparison to Phillips, Will Genia was the pure definition of opposite. Opposite team, opposite number, opposite style and, most importantly, opposite performance. 

Standing at just 5'8" and 13st, across from the giant frame of Phillips, Genia could not rely on physicality or strength to leave his mark. Fortunately, he had no intention of doing so.

Genia was all about speed. Not just the speed of his feet on the ground, but the speed of thought in his head. Where as the Australians knew Phillips' every move two days in advance, nobody knew what Genia was about to do next.
It is said that World Championship snooker players think 5 shots ahead. Lord knows how many phases in front of everyone else Genia was able to think on Saturday. 

Wherever the ball went Genia was waiting. Like a villain in a horror movie Genia was waiting at every door, stalking at every window. The Lions were his unsuspecting victims.

When the Lions switched off for just a second, Genia pounced. In a flash of gold and green, he was away. Teetering defence turned to meaningful attack, a direct run that tied Phillips up in knots and deft a kick to set Folau free to bag his first international try in the 15 man code. Phillips and co trailed in his wake like perplexed Wyle E. Coyotes outfoxed by roadrunner.
Genia was Australia's chief orchestrator, composer and brass section to boot. If one person did not deserve to be on the losing team, it was Genia.

Phillips' failed to conjure similar levels of magic or invention. His tactics never changed and he continually careered into Australian flankers with all the determination and nous of a moth crashing into a light bulb. 

However, Genia didn't bother himself with anything as mundane as light bulbs. Why bother with light bulbs when you have the ability to light up the whole game yourself?

Don't write Phillips off yet though. Those who do, usually end up wearing eggs as facial adornments. However, for the second test, Robbie Deans will be happy to let people have the beauty and the brawn of Mike Phillips because what is beauty without brains? And the brains belong to Will Genia.

The Animal - Roadrunner

Friday, June 21, 2013

In Grogg We Trust

Rugby has its fair share of traditions. Tradition is why the All Blacks perform the Haka with terrifying menace before each game. Tradition is why players wear club socks for the Barbarians. Tradition is why Stuart Hogg is currently babysitting a giant cuddly toy named Bil in Australia.

One unusual Welsh tradition though, revolves around six inch ceramic icons from the Rhondda Valley.
In the 1960s, fed up of creating ceramic figures of giants from Welsh folklore, sculptor John Hughes moved to creating giants of Welsh rugby lore instead. Starting in a garden shed in the depths of the valleys, Pontypridd RFC fan Hughes became nationally renowned for his Groggs. So too did his World of Groggs in Treforest, a proverbial Aladdin's cave of clay delights where even the autographed walls are a timeless collection of the talented and famous to have the honour of being 'Grogged.'
As the reputation of Groggs grew, so did the catalogue. Branching out from rugby to include the biggest stars from music, the silver screen and beyond. Through the glory days of Welsh rugby in the 1970s and the lows of the 1990s, Groggs thrived among rugby fans and lovers of pop culture in Wales and further afield. 

With jinking hips of The King of Fly-halves next to the shaking hips of the King of Rock 'n' Roll and Tom Jones standing next to Tom Shanklin, the World of Groggs has something to offer everyone. These miniature statues of great icons are much sought after in many homes in Wales and around the World. 
Groggs have become part of Welsh culture. They are as synonymous with the national sport as Bread of Heaven, Max Boyce and half time faggots and peas (fear not my American readers, of which I know are numerous. Faggots are something completely different here is Wales).

With each mould only having the ability to be used a small number of times, new moulds are essential even with the quantities of each Grogg limited. With each mould having it's own unique quirks, two identical Groggs are rare.

Speaking of Gareth Edwards Groggs to the BBC, Hughes stated he know of people with "fifty Gareth Edwards's and they are all slightly different." This uniqueness of each Grogg adds to their charm and collectability.
As time passed, demand grew and John's health declined. The work on the effigies moved onto the next generation with son Richard completing the design and pottery, while daughter Catherine applied the paint work.
On the 19th June 2013, after a long battle with illness, John Hughes sadly passed away, though he will always live on through his creations.
So, this time, no song. Instead we raise a glass of bitter ale to John Hughes, the man who made little, big celebrities.

Take a look at all John, Richard and Catherine's creations at www.groggs.co.uk.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What Player Drain?

Much has been made of the "player drain" from Wales and the apparent negative effect on Welsh rugby. The Welsh rugby doomsdayers foretell that it will be the death of regional rugby and leave the national team underprepared and overused.
What about the other side of the coin though? Big name players leaving their regions does open up spaces and wages for young, talented players that may otherwise miss out on the opportunity. All the while the apparent stars still play regular competitive rugby thus expanding the pool of professional players in Wales.
With that in mind, here are a few players who may now get a well deserved chance to play for their regions next season.
Cardiff Blues
Cory Allen for Jamie Roberts
Many wondered how the Blues will cope when man mountain of a centre Jamie Roberts announced his intentions to move to France. Fortunately for the capital's region they have another gigantic and hugely talented centre waiting in the wings. 
At 6'3" and almost 16 stone, 20 year old Allen is made from the same mould as Wales' current backs. Another product of the Welsh 7s system, Allen is strong, evasive and very quick. The 7s route is one that has already work will for Wales and Cardiff with another giant back, Alex Cuthbert. Allen's regional career has been limited so far, but he has proven himself suited to the 15 man game with impressive performances for the Under 20s.
Still not sure about Allen? Maybe this will help change you mind? 

Newport-Gwent Dragons
Ieuan Jones for Dan Lydiate
Any sport would be better with more Dan Lydiates in it. Lydiate is a man willing to put his body on the line for the better of his team. He is physically and mentally tough to a level rarely seen, giving 100% effort, 100% of the time. It's that attitude that has booked him a spot in Gatland's Lions squad despite missing the majority of the season and it's no secret that the Dragons will not want to lose him to Racing Metro. Lydiate has gone though, and that leaves a gaping hole in the backrow along side Lewis Evans and Toby Faletau. Tom Brown has regularly filled that gap in Lydiate’s absence, but as the season gains momentum and injuries and international duties mount more cover will be needed. Step forward Ieuan Jones. 
Jones' stock is slowly rising as the 19 year old former carpenter from Aberbargoed continues to impress when given the opportunity, not least against Bayonne in the Amlin Cup before Mike Phillips eventually broke the Gwent Men's hearts. Jones has had to balance his time with Wales under 20s with covering for injuries at Rodney Parade, but should his form continue in this vein he can expect more first team appearances in the coming season.
Jordan Williams for George North
As the Rabo Direct Pro 12 drew near its conclusion, the talk around Welsh rugby should have been the enthralling and nail biting battle between West Walian rivals for the final playoff spot. Instead, a shadow was cast over the whole thing. At 6'4" and over 17 stone, George North has the ability to cast a shadow big enough on his own. This time though it was Gogzilla’s impending move to Northampton that eclipsed any sporting spectacle at the Parc Y Scarlets or Liberty Stadium. North is a jewel in Welsh rugby's crown and the loss of him to a club of the bitter rivals over the bridge signalled a low point in the exodus of Welsh talents. It’s near impossible to find a direct replacement for North. He has strength in abundance and pace to burn. He is as happy to run direct and take contact as he is able to be evasive. North is a freak in the nicest possible sense of the word.
His position will need to be filled at the Scarlets though and Jordan Williams may be the man. Not a man of monstrous strength, Williams is as good on his feet as Hermes. A fast and evasive runner with an eye for the try line, Williams is best deployed at fullback where he has appeared regularly for Llanelli and Wales under 20s and camoed for the Scarlets. With modern rugby blurring the lines of the back three either he or, most likely Liam Williams, could take adjusting to the wing slot in their stride with the other at 15.
Tom Habberfield for Kahn Fotuali'i
The Ospreys have a history of playing overseas players at scrum half; Jason Spice, Justin Marshall, Jamie Nutbrown, Ricky Januarie and Kahn Fotuali'i have all pulled on the black number 9. Italian scrum half Tito Tebaldi is the latest name added to the list of multinational nines playing their trade at the Liberty. With Fotuali'i leaving Swansea for pastures new many felt Rhys Webb would be the one fighting for the half back position, but injury has rules Webb out of the start of the season. That signals a move up the pecking order for Bridgend boy Tom Habberfield in order to put pressure on Tebaldi and he is more than capable of doing so.
A scrum half forced to cover the wing toward the end of the season, little has been seen of Habberfield and regional level in his favoured position. His performances in the red of Wales for both the Under 21s and 7s have been impressive though and the injury to Webb may give him the boost he needs to finally grasp the role at 9 having spent a long time learning from Fotuali'i and waiting in the wings.
Though Wales may be losing some big names, there are some stars at the start of an exciting journey just coming out of the starting blocks. Young, vibrant and talented, these kids aren't alright... They are much better than that.
The Offspring - The Kids Aren't Alright

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Kearney Cover

Without even managing to get a grasp on a match ball, Rob Kearney may be about to return from Oz. The Leinster man was one of the stars in South Africa four years ago, but this time Irish eyes may not be smiling on Kearney as a torn hamstring threatens to end his tour early.

Hopefully the fullback will pull through, you would not wish the cruelty of a tour ended this early on anybody. However, if Kearney doesn't pull through, who can expect a call from Gatland? Here are some people who may be waiting nervously by the phone for the coming days.

Jonny Wilkinson
Not a naturally a fullback, but "Wilko" is bound to be mentioned as a replacement. Such is the excitement for the Toulon fly half to join up with the Lions, the only surprise is that he wasn't mentioned as a replacement for Dylan Hartley. Jonny may join up with Gatland's men later in the tour, but surely not as cover for fullback.

Lee Byrne
An in form fullback who is continually over looked for international duties of late. Byrne has gone from strength to strength since his switch to France, finding some of the best form of his career at Clermont-Auvergne. He has featured rarely under Gatland for Wales though, so will he get the break he needs on an even bigger stage?
James Hook
Another Welshman exiled to France. Hook's biggest strength isn't his dancing feet or dynamite boots, but his verastility. Hook has spent much of the season playing at 10 for Perpignan, but has experience in the centre and at fullback. He could be a useful tool on such a gruelling tour, but is arguably not the best out and out fullback of the options available.

Mike Brown
Harlequins fullback Brown does prefer to ply his trade at 15 and it is where he plays best. Stuart Lancaster, however, decided to switch Brown to the wing for the 6 Nations. The change did Brown's Lions hopes no further, especially as a rampant Alex Cuthbert ran riot on the final day. Has the damage been done to Brown's reputation or can Gatland spot the true talent Brown holds as a fullback?

Ian Madigan 
Also an outside half by trade, but Madigan has put in some impressive displays in a 15 jersey. Madigan has continued to progress and impress in the Pro12 and Europe. Guy Easterby thinks Madigan is the "whole package," but will Gatland by put off by his lack of experience, with just two substitute appearances for Ireland to his name?

Liam Williams
A fan favourite at Parc Y Scarlets for his tough tackling and no nonsense attitude, "Sanjay" has quickly risen through the ranks at regional and international level. Defensively sound, good under the high ball and a strong runner, Williams has certainly attracted attention and his Wales appearances have only highlighted him further. Currently in Japan with Wales, he is easily accessible and on Gatland's radar. His temperament is questionable though. Talking of his "short fuse" Rugby World's Paul Williams tweeted "Liam Williams doesn't have a short fuse. There is no fuse. Detonator connected straight to the bomb."

Alex Goode
If some of the fullback options have split personalities, unsure which position is their own, Saracens' Alex Goode is perhaps the most schizophrenic of all. A fly half pushed to fullback due to lack of options, he made the position is own for club and country only to be told he would provide cover at 10 on England's tour of South America. Will the portrait of Goode as reliable and dependable, but not prolific in attack (even if the stats suggest otherwise).

Delon Armitage
Another player with a questionable temperament, but can be no questioning Armitage in terms of talent. The Toulon fullback is quick, confident and capable, but he has a list of misdemeanours longer than a Paul Thorburn penalty including night club fights, pushing doping officials and use of the knee. Any hope that France will have helped him mature is so far short lived and a recent Twitter spat with Brian Moore only serves to emphasise the point. Will Gatland be willing to test another bad boy after getting his fingers burned by Dylan Hartley?
Iain Balshaw
Yet another Brit plying his trade on the other side of the Channel. Balshaw has found a new lease of life in the Basque sunshine of Biarritz and is playing the best rugby of his career and at 34 Balshaw is playing like a man ten years his junior. He continues to be overlooked by Stuart Lancaster, but with no long term future to look at a call into the Lions setup could a shrewd move by Gatland. Such a move would be highly unlikely though.

With Kearney's future on the tour hanging in the balance which of these men will be lucky enough to have Warren Gatland call them?

Call Me - Blondie