Saturday, July 13, 2013

Le Choc

The great debate has raged since little Bill Webb Ellis caught a football mid game and set off downfield. Two factions have divided sport, each with their own opinions on who is the superior.

On one side of the chasm stands the diving, whinging, ref abusing, fairies of football. On the other is the egg chasing, eye gouging, thuggish brutes of rugby.

Well on the 17th of July at the Stade Felix Mayol in Toulon that chasm will be reduced to a thin strip of white wash as two teams of the rival sports stand either side of the halfway line ready to compete.
In an unprecedented match, football's Olympique Marseille will take on rugby's Toulon in what will literally be a game of two halves. One half of will consist of union refereed by former French coach Marc Lievremont. The other will be football, officiated by Manchester United legend Eric Cantona.

Quite how the contest will take place or how the scores will be kept over two very different games is unclear at best.

It's impossible to imagine uninitiated soccer players packing down in the scrum against the like of Carl Hayman or Andrew Sheridan. There is surely little chance of BenoƮt Cheyrou competing with Steffon Armitage at the breakdown, an area where even regular players and referees are finding themselves confused at times.
In the football half, all the players should at least know the rules and have a little experience, as long as Jonny Wilkinson remembers to put any penalties under the bar rather than over.
 
With the event being for a children's cancer charity, the chances are that European Champions Toulon will take it easy during the rugby half. Too many shoves at the scrum, rolling mauls or barrelling runs from any of several giant forwards would end any sort of spectacle and not at all live up to the billing; "Venez vivre... Le Choc!" In English, "Come and experience... The Shock!"
 
Lizzy Borden - The Shock

*Since the publishing of this piece it has been announced that the rugby half of 'Le Choc' will be touch rugby only.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Home

On a muddy field behind the terraced houses of Lime Street, two rugby posts stretch toward the clouds in front of a modest clubhouse defended by a net. You’ll find no all seater stadium or glorious grandstand here. There is no director’s box or commentator’s gantry. It hardly looks like the integral component of an international success story, but that's exactly what it is.
 
Behind the posts a net hangs, the only line of defence for the clubhouse against the rubber coated bombs that are modern day match balls. A glimpse at the new pavilion here reveals why such barriers are needed. This is Gorseinon RFC, the home of Leigh Halfpenny.
 
The new pavilion was named after the Lions fullback in May, just one of the accolades he has received this year. His Six Nations Player of the Tournament and Lions Player of the Tour are more eminent, but it is testament to the man that this will have felt just as important to him.
For Halfpenny this is his sanctuary, his school and his home. Much of his time has been spent here honing his craft and now it's where he goes to in his mind before every kick against the greatest of foes.
 
When the ball is on the tee Leigh is never in Cardiff or Auckland or Sydney, he's here with his grandfather Malcolm on ball boy duty as long range efforts cannon off the roof or dent cars.
 
It's far more than a dynamite boot that has raised Halfpenny's profile to one of the games best fullbacks, alongside the likes of Kurtley Beale and Israel Dagg though.

His time in Oz proved he had no need to seek out a wizard, he lacks nothing in the way of courage, heart or brain (Nor personality if his One Direction singing antics are anything to go by).
 
Halfpenny may be dwarfed by his fellow players in a game dominated by giants, but his ability and valour makes him a titan on the pitch.
 
Halfpenny has put his body on the line for his country time and again, throwing himself in front of raging attackers in search of the victory. One such instance against Australia in December left him in hospital and vowing to think before committing such heroic acts. However, that’s instinct, the time to think is precious little and the Welshman continues to do all he can to defend his line.

In attack, Halfpenny is clinical. Two assists in the final test showed just how devastating he can be with the ball in his hands, those safe hands that nestle the ball dropping from high kicks with apparent ease and certainty.
 
With Australia on the ropes in the final Lions test Halfpenny stepped in to finish them off, with footwork that would make the Ali shuffle look like a John Sergeant paso doble. Halfpenny collected a loose kick, skirted around Genia, out paced Tomane and set North free to end any thoughts of an Australian fight back. This was just minutes after setting up Sexton to cross the whitewash.


All memories of the agonising final kick one week ago abolished. Leigh Halfpenny was the game changer, the record breaker, the talisman. There is little chance of such superlatives going to his head. When the final whistle blew his team mates popped the bubbly with Daniel Craig, but Halfpenny put champagne with James Bond on ice, he had more important guests.
In the crowd fans, friends and family stood proud with their own piece of home with them; a welsh flag emblazed with ‘Gorseinon RFC.’ The fullback went straight to them for congratulatory cwtches. These people and this club are his past, present and future.
 
And when the champagne no longer fizzes, the fireworks fizzle out and Daniel Craig returns to the film sets, this is where Leigh will return. Back to that pitch next to the cricket ground; just him, granddad Malcolm, the posts and a few dented cars.
 
When Halfpenny leaves home again, to take on the World’s greatest, this is the place he will retreat to in his mind. The home that never leaves him.
 
 Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros - Home

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Top Ten

On the morning of the third and deciding test in Sydney, as two tribes go to war, we look at ten match ups that could prove to be the difference between the success and failure.
 
Corbisiero v Alexander
Things went awry for the Lions scrum in the second test. Mako Vunipola’s giant frame didn’t cope well with Alexander and the Aussie’s ran riot. Now Corbisiero steps back into the fray and the Englishman from New York is a different beast altogether for Alexander to deal with. This is the one place that Gatland has moved away from bulk.
 
Hibbard v Moore
Moore’s performance last week was excellent. He carried well and worked hard in defence. He boasts an excellent tackle rate for a front row player, an embodiment of movement toward hookers acting as flankers in the loose. Moore’s lineout throwing is far from perfect and Parling may target a few timely steals. Hibbard’s lineout throws have been dreadful this tour, but he will know he is capable of better. Hibbard is an equally hard worker in open play and a bone crunching tackler. Without doubt, the most important job will be setting the platform from which to play and the role these two will play will be huge.
AW Jones v Horwill
As if this fixture didn’t have enough spice already, captain on captain stuff in the boiler house. The 2001 tour was eventual won at the lineout with a steal from skipper Martin Johnson, Jones will do all he can to ensure history does not repeat itself. Off the field he alleged stamp in the first test has finally run its course of the field but there may still be some bad feeling harboured on it. Both players will want to keep their cool in what will already be a bubbling cauldron in Sydney. One slip could be enough to gift the series to the opposition.
 
O'Brien v Smith
When has a comeback been this exciting? Lazarus, Jesus, George Smith. After four years the flanker pulls on the gold and green of Wallabies again. Michael Hooper will have right to be aggrieved and impressing in the second test, but nobody can argue with Smith’s talent. The Lions will wish Sam Warburton was fit (despite what Stuart Barnes says), but they have a more than able replacement in Sean O’Brien. A big, bullocking runner built like the cows he farms. O’Brien will need to show prowess at the breakdown to compete with Smith and create quick ball that is vital to Gatland’s tactics. Alun Wyn Jones and Faletau can and will help, but O’Brien’s part is critical.
 
Phillips v Genia
The Welshman needs a much better game than the last time he pulled on the Lions jersey. Not for the first in the past couple of years, Genia ran rings around Phillips, whilst Mike just ran into defenders. Genia is the beating heart of the Australian team and the Lions need to find a way of nullifying his threat. Lydiate will do his best, but Phillips must bring his “a-game.”
Sexton v O’Connor
Robbie Deans knew that playing O’Connor at 10 was a risk, especially with Quade Cooper ready, available and left back in Queensland. So, far it’s an experiment that isn’t working. Sexton hasn’t shown his class yet either, although, the service to allow him to do so has been severely lacking. Sexton needs to take the game by the scruff of the neck and quick ball and a bonafide inside centre should help him do this. That same inside centre may also test O’Connor’s ability on the back foot.
 
Roberts v Leali'ifano
The man so many Lions fans of been waiting to see. The good doctor Roberts is fully fit are raring to go. Christian Leali’ifano was a measure of composure in second, calmly slotting penalty as though he were on the training paddock. How will he cope with a galloping thoroughbred in his channel though? Jonathan Davies ended Leali’ifano’s test debut early with a cannon ball run (79 minutes 8 seconds early in fact), if Leali’ifano doesn’t deal with Roberts his runs could be devastating to the Australian cause.
 
Davies v Cooper
If one man will be under the spotlight of the British press it will be Jonathan Davies. The man who has taken the jersey that seemed, for all the world, to be reserved for a very special Irishman. Davies’ defence has been drawn into question with a couple of missed tackles last weekend, including one leading to the try that took the spoils. Cooper has the ability to punish the Lions if Davies isn’t up to scratch this week, but Davies performs much better in defence with Roberts inside him. A one man blitz machine, prepare for high impact tackles if the opportunity should present.
North v Folau
This is one for the neutrals. Folau currently leads the try count 2-1 in the tests, but North scored a few psychological point last weekend by lifting Folau on to his shoulders to gain a few precious metres. If the nerves don’t get the better of teams and the ball makes it out wide, this could be a humdinger with the promise of DVD highlights for years to come.
 
Gatland v Deans
The most important match up of all, the two coaches head-to-head. Already both have signalled their intent to do things their way to contrasting results. Robbie Deans has been lauded a genius for pulling George Smith out of international retirement for the final test. Meanwhile, the knives have been drawn on Gatland for his decision to leave out Brian O’Driscoll and start with 10 Welshmen. In truth, none of these decisions are too wild, but it’s certainly taken a lot of courage and belief to make them. The tactics of both coaches seem evident, even at this early stage. Ultimately it is these tactics, selections and the use of substitutes come game time, that could tip the balance in their team’s favour…or against.
 
Frankie Goes To Hollywood - Two Tribes

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Summer Reign

Rugby is not a place for sentimentality. Sentiment often proves costly or dangerous. Still, it is hard not to feel for Brian O’Driscoll.
 
Saturday should have been BOD’s Lions swansong, a chance to bring down the curtain on an amazing Lions career spanning four tours! Even better, a chance to do it on a test series victory. Series victories for the Lions have become as rare as players like O’Driscoll have in rugby.
 
Warren Gatland has scant regard for over emotion or reputation. The only feeling the Kiwi cares for is the glorious glow of success.
As a player, Gatland learned to live with disappointment having been considered a constant second best for the All Blacks behind the mercurial and ever present Sean Fitzpatrick. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
 
By comparison, O’Driscoll has been bride so many times it would make Liz Taylor blush. Always first choice, be it for Leinster, Ireland or the Lions, but this time Warren Gatland was the black cloud looming over the church ruining the big day.
 
As a coach, Gatland has never been one to shy away from making the decisions that will disappoint or upset if he feels those decisions are correct. He has left his assistant at home, ended a Welsh legend's international career on 99 caps and started a Welsh game with 13 players from a single region.
 
This time he has decided O’Driscoll will spend the third test adorned in blazer and tie rather than the mud, blood and sweat 'Drico' would prefer. It is a bitter pill to swallow for a man who has done little wrong and has legions of admirers.
With his decision, Gatland has either rained on the wedding or will reign supreme. We will all bicker, argue and debate, but we won't know until around 1pm on Saturday whether the decision is right or not. 
 
However, if you remove all sense of emotion from the situation, it was nothing more than a 50/50 call. Two excellent outside centres raising their hands for selection with one shirt to pull on. 
 
The third test selection; a total wash out or just a storm in a teacup?
 
Guns N' Roses - November Rain

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Sam is the Main Man

To say I often disagree with Stuart Barnes would be to say Israel and Palestine are not best friends. I get on with Barnes' commentary and opinions like water gets on with oil. There are some other pundits and commentators within rugby that I often disagree with, but most warrant respect. Most of my respect for Barnes has been carried off like Israel Folau on George North's shoulders.

In an interview about the Lions with Fox Sport, talk inevitably turned to the injury of Lions captain and openside Sam Warburton. "A blessing in disguise," said Barnes. If you aren't able to imagine the reaction this has received you need look no further than Twitter or the comments on the YouTube video. There the words have flowed fast, free and mostly four letters at a time.
Instead of berating Barnes, however, this will be a celebration of Sam Our Captain as planned after the second test, but before Barnes hit the screen (That was a hard decision though believe me).

In the build up to the Lions tour many shared Barnes' sentiments on the Blues' man. Some still do. The work Sam does though is priceless. This isn't the first time Warburton has had to deal with this though. To most fans, Warburton came from nowhere. As the career of Martyn Williams began to close, Welsh fans feared for what may come next. In a game where McCaw, Pocock and Brussow ruled the roost, Wales appeared to have no natural successor to the only man who fronted up to them. Many fans were not happy when he was given the nod ahead of "Nugget," but Warburton moved from international debutant to international captain and World Cup cult hero in a little over 12 months. Since that first cap against USA in 2010, Warburton has surpassed expectation to compete with the best 7s in the world and become a natural born leader.
His work at the tackle area sets Warburton apart from his piers. Warburton gets to more breakdowns than the RAC and generally rules them. Many people site his ability to turnover the ball as his strength, but his outstanding prowess in ball retention and protection is equally as expert. During the second test at Melbourne Warburton found himself in a ruck with with no teammates for back up, but he held off three Wallaby forwards with text book body position and perfect technique.

Warburton is no one trick pony though, in fact he's no pony at all. Warburton is a war horse, even at the age of 24. He's been to battle and won, the victor at the battle of the breakdown. There at the frontline. And it is from the frontline that he leads. Leading by doing and doing well. His work rate is unquestionable, from tackle to breakdown and back again, he continues to strive for victory. Victory at every minor battle because each victory at the battle, eventually, wins the war.

With Dan Lydiate joining him in the backrow, the defence is as strong as they come. A virtual fortress with an almost telepathic link for the tackle and jackal, a master class in the physicality and precision of the tackle area.
Barnes talked about O'Brien giving the Lions more go forward. The Irishman is a better ball carrier without doubt, although Warburton's ability to carry is much underestimated. The question remains though, what use is a ball carrier with no ball to carry?

Not that openside will ever be the first port of call when looking at the metres made statistics. The Lions inability to play on the front foot is more down to the lack of a recognised inside centre able to break the defensive line, than how many metres a flanker tears up.

Without Warburton, the Lions are definitely a weaker team. Sean O'Brien is an excellent replacement, a player of international quality and outstanding ability. Nonetheless, Warburton has that extra "something" that the world's top players possess; an 'x-factor,' a 'je ne sais quoi,' call it what you will. Much of his work goes on unnoticed and unpraised. However, unrelenting, he keeps on keeping on.

So, Stuart Barnes may believe his injury is a blessing in disguise, but it's hard to see it as anything other than a disaster for the Lions at the worst possible time. In the third test, Sam would likely have been the Lion's king and mane man.

 T-Rex - Telegram Sam