Wednesday, August 21, 2013

USA v Canada

America 1. That's what it is all about. Old foes battling for a place at the 2015 World Cup, battling to be the first direct qualifier and battling to fill the slot that currently reads "America 1."
In New Zealand 2011 both the USA and Canada failed to win the two games needed to automatically qualify for the tournament in England in two years time.

Now the two playoff for a place in Pool D alongside all European opponents. The winner will line up against Ireland, France, Italy and "Europe 2." The loser faces a tricky tie against Uruguay to book a spot at RWC 2015.

The first half of the two leg tie took place in Charleston, South Carolina in front of over 5,000 North American rugby fans. Canada were on a run of 5 straight victories against their nearest rivals going into Saturday's match and it didn't take long for them to build on that run.
Phil Mack's superb chip and chase opened the scoring with the game barely underway and Canada would eventually run out 27-9 victors, Harry Jones and DTH van der Merwe adding a try a piece for the men north of the border. James Pritchard added 12 points from the tee, whilst all of the Eagles 9 points came through the boot of fullback Chris Wyles.

The second leg takes place next Saturday in Toronto with Canada clear favourites and carrying a rather comfortable 19 point cushion into the game. However, the result isn't beyond the Eagles with the players like Samu Manoa, Toby L'Estrange and Takudzwa Ngwenya at their disposal.

The deck is certainly stacked in Canada's favour, but the Americans have plenty of fight in them and, for now at least, the battle rages on.
Deep Purple - The Battle Rages On

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Top 14 Transfers

It may not be the £100m fees being banded around football players or the weekly wages comparable to the GDP of small nations paid out to the stars of American Football, but the clubs of France’s Top 14 pushing the professional era of rugby to the next financial level with some high profile deals.
In modern sport, money talks and the French clubs are shouting from the rooftops. On the opening weekend of the Top 14, here is a breakdown of some of the most notable transfers in France club-by-club.
Aviron Bayonnais
Bayonne mostly spent the summer plundering relegated SU Agen of their treasures, including Scarlets target Opeti Fonua. Some may remember Fonua for a rather bone smashing tackle on Johnny Wilkinson that was enough to make his marrow ache.
Their top signing may well be Stephen Brett, however. Kiwi Brett spent a long time as understudy to the mercurial Dan Carter. Injury put paid to his Crusader career and Brett eventually ended up in Japan. Now, with so many players making their way to the land of the rising sun, Brett moves the other way and gets the chance to cut his teeth against some of the world's finest once again.
One departure of note is French flyer Cédric Heymans. A record breaking four times Heineken Cup winner, Heyman has decided to hang up his boots at the age of 35.
Biarritz Olympique
The very definition of 'multicultural,' Biarritz have players from 12 different nations in their current squad. Addison Lockley became the fifth Brit when he signed from Mosley this year; Ian Balshaw, Aled Brew, Ben Broster and Magnus Lund the others.
This summer they also added to their South African contingent with the capture of Joe Pieterson from the Stormers. Pieterson can feel unfortunate to have not yet been capped by the 'Boks. A consistent player at fullback with a sound defence and fine ability in attack, but perhaps most impressive is his powerful and deadly accurate boot. He will certainly be pushing the rejuvenated Balshaw for a starting place.
The club have lost Wenceslas Lauret to Racing Metro to, however. Bar for injury the young flanker could be a French regular by now. Argentine international Marcelo Bosch has also departed to head across the channel to Saracens, whilst giant lock and 54 times capped Frenchman Jérôme Thion has called time on his career.
Union Bordeaux-Bègles
Not too many household names brought through the door at Bordeaux. English rugby fans may recognise Taiasina Tuifua from Newcastle Falcons, but it is Jandré Marais who may be the one to watch. Marais has impressed critics with performances for the Sharks and the many were unhappy when the young lock continued the exodus of South Africans on their way out of the country.
Super Rugby fans may remember Poutasi Luafutu from his days at Queensland Reds. An all rounder in the backrow he scored a brace against the Highlanders to grabs the Reds a two point win. He joins the club from Brive.
They will be hugely disappointed to lose Camille Lopez to USA Perpignan. Lopez ousted François Trinh-Duc from the starting France XV for the summer tests in New Zealand and will be sure to put pressure on James Hook at his new club.
CA Brive
With many complaining about the loss of Welsh stars to France, Kieran Murphy’s move from went unnoticed by many. Murphy has a bright future though and will hope to emulate Alix Popham’s successful stint at the club.
A player with a whole different type of potential is Alfi Mafi. A Tongan winger who learnt his trade in Australian, Mafi started 2013 strongly, but a number of disciplinary issues saw him fall out of favour mid-season. He chose Brive over Japan and will need tries to cement that decision.
British pair Mike Blair and Jamie Noon leaving the club. Blair is heading to the Newcastle Falcons whilst Noon drops down the French leagues to play for SC Tulle.
Castres Olympique
For British fans the main signing at Castres has to be Richie Gray. Injury stalled Gray’s career in his season at the club and he was disappointed not so start the Tests for the British Lion, but he is still yet to reach his 24th birthday (yes really) and nobody would bet against him going from strength to strength as one of three Scottish second rows in the Top 14 France along with Nathan Hines and Jim Hamilton.
Argentine outside half Santiago Fernandez also comes in from Montpellier.
The loss of Marc Andreu is a big one and though Rémy Grosso was top scorer in Pro D2 the step up for him may be too big. They will miss Samoan lock Iosefa Tekori too and the retention of the title will not be easy.

ASM Clermont Auvergne
If it ain't broke don't fix it. Clermont finish top of the table and had the past attack and defence. Thierry Lacrampe comes in but will be unlikely to trouble Morgan Parra for a starting spot. Gavin Hume can cover most positions in the backs division but is unlikely to start before the likes of Brock James, Wesley Fofana and captain Allain Rougerie.
Some ageing players may feel this is their last shot at silverware and coach Vern Cotter departs for Scotland next year. Some have already called it a day, legend David Skrela has left for Pro D2 side US Colomiers in a large list of departures.

FC Grenoble
Grenoble started last season with some fight in the dog but ended like a puffed out pooch and losses of Lucas Dupont, Jonathan Pélissié and Joaquin Tuculet will not have helped their cause.
They have spent well though. Dan Palmer and Peter Kimlin arrive from Brumbies to shore up the forwards whilst backs experience comes in the form of England international Olly Barkley and Benjamin Thiery.
Nicolas Bézy is an exciting prospect for scrum half at just 23 and is already a Top 14 winner with Toulouse. The signing with the potential to set the league alight, however, is Ratu Raitini. Raitini has lightening pace and a clinical finishing. His 7s exploits have garnered YouTube fame and, if he can recreate it in the 15 man game, Grenoble may have a star.
Montpellier HR
A club that has completed a virtual metamorphosis in the summer. 19 players have exited including England cap Shontanye Hape and Worcester Warriors bound Agustin Creevy.
In place of departed comes players of the highest calibre. French prop Nicolas Mas joins for his last season before retirement with Australian Sitaleki Tamani and Scottish international 'Big Jim' Hamilton add some quality and grunt in the boiler room.
In the backs a South African centre pairing of Wynand Oliver and JP du Plessis give the team forward/back balance.
Montpellier's most exciting signing has to be Rene Ranger. The New Zealand man is equal measure strong body, fleeting feet and soft hands. Ranger is a player with the X-Factor and may be enough to push Montpellier into contention for silverware.

New promoted and with expectation on their shoulders. Oyonnax blitz the Pro D2 finishing with an amazing 111 points from 30 games. A fine mix of players have been assembled to strengthen the squad blending youth and experience from France and abroad.
Most departures have been painless with players dropping back down a division, but the loss of Fabien Laurent will hurt them.

USA Perpignan
A constant in the French top flight, Perpignan have a history to maintain and changed their style in recent years in order to do it. No longer a team built a brutal defence but rather on attractive offence and their new recruits will help that. Camille Lopez was France's first choice flyhalf for their test against New Zealand in the summer and may push James Hook for the 10 jersey whilst Dewalt Devenage and Tommaso Benvenuti have skills and experience all their own. Questions remain a to whether they are good enough to cut it at the top however.
With the loss of players like Nicolas Mas, Adrien Planté and Farid Sid as well as the loss of David Mélé and Jéröme Schuster to Leicester Tigers, the season could be a long one.

Racing Métro 92
A club who have spent money like Elton John in Interflora and a new era beckons for the club. Many of the clubs long term players have left or retired, including Ruck 'n' Roll favourite Andrea Lo Cicero.
In their place come some of the world's finest talent, prized assets prised from clubs. On all Lion 10/12 pairing will be the lynch pin with Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Roberts completing big money moves. Fellow Lion and tackling machine Dan Lydiate joins them at the club. Along with the Celtic trio Wenceslas Lauret, Soane Tonga'uiha, Juandré Kruger and Marc Andreu arrive at the club with high levels of expectation on their shoulders. Off the pitch, another Irish outside half has been recruited. Ronan O'Gara is the new kicking coach for Racing.

Stade Français
The Parisian glamour kids are best known to non-rugby fans for their outlandish pink kits, cheerleaders and mega star 'Godmothers,' but they didn't live up to their billing last time out. This time they have already signalled their intent for a top 6 finish.
Signings have reinforced that intention with Richard Kingi, Heinke Van Der Merwe, Davit Kubriashvili and Meyer Bosman coming in.
Their biggest name signings come in the form of pneumatic legged Morne Steyn and Australian break dancing try machine Digby Ioane. 

No big losses.  Gavin Williams, Nicholas Bézy, Stan Wright, Francis Fainifo and Morgan Turinui leave, Paul Sackey and Paul Warwick head back across the channel to the Premiership, Tetaz Chaparro joins the Dragons and Argentine icon Felipe Contepomi retires.

RC Toulonnais
Ultimately left disappointed without the Top 14 title last season despite winning the Heineken Cup. This year anything other than a double this year will leave them disappointed.
To achieve it they have cut the deadwood, but it's mostly homegrown players who have left, although Simon Shaw and Davit Kubriashvili have left and Gethin Jenkins as resigned for Cardiff Blues.
However, the club have bought some mega star foreign internationals including Martin Castrogiavanni, Ali Williams, Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell, which has left them close to their 45% foreign player quota.

Stade Toulousain
Another disappointing season last year for Toulouse a they slide continued and the departures of Jean-Baptiste Poux, Jean Bouihou and Yannick Jauzion will not help to turn it around.
They have recruited some French players with potential in Yacouba Camara and Jean-Pascal Barraque, but as with most clubs, foreign stars are the order of the day. Samoan 8 Iosefa Tekori, the brilliantly named hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle and flying Kiwi Hosea Gear.
Pink Floyd - Money 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Future of the Dragons

Gwent is a sleeping giant and it's about creating the environment to maximise that potential. - Lyn Jones

For sometime the Dragons have been Wales' fourth region. The region has struggled to make an impact on domestic or European competition. Pro 12 also rans and Amlin Cup regulars, the Dragons recent history has been terribly unspectacular.

Any sort of headway the Newport based region have tried to make has been scuppered by the pillaging of any star players the region has produced. In recent years Luke Charteris, Aled Brew, Jason Tovey and, most recently, Dan Lydiate have departed. The lure of Heineken Cup rugby and large wages have been more than the Dragons can compete with.

That tide may be starting to turn however. Jason Tovey has called an end to his Cardiff experiment and moved back to Rodney Parade, whilst their remaining diamond in the crown Toby Faletau has extended his contract despite interest from France.
Alongside them next season, Richie Rees, Kris Burton and Netani Talei will be pulling on the black and amber for the first time. Some much needed (and very talented) experience to add the squad.

Youth is one area of the squad that they will have in abundance this season. Over a quarter of the Welsh matchday squad for the Junior World Cup final were affiliate to them with players like Tom Prydie and former Ebbw Vale prop Aaron Coundley already looking to be the pillars on which the future will be built.

The greatest assets to the Dragons may lay off the pitch though. In an overhaul of staff at Rodney Parade, Lyn Jones, Kingsley Jones and Gareth Davies have been brought in to reverse the regions fortunes. With them comes not only a new style or new tactics, but a whole new attitude.

At a recent kit launch, Jones stated he doesn't want "second rate overseas players" when he could give the young Welsh players a chance.

A quote from Lyn Jones in an article on this very site read, "If they go, they go. There is another Luke Charteris up the valley. Just go look for him, get him involved and give him chances and they'll perform." Jones' quote is from an article posted in December 2011.

This promotion of young local players is exactly what is needed, not just by the Dragons, by all four regions.

Jones also understands the true meaning of 'local' in regional rugby terms. The kit launch that Jones spoke at was in Caldicott, away from the familiar surroundings of Newport. With the clubs new training facilities are due to be sited in Ystrad Mynach and plan to play an LV Cup game at Ebbw Vale's Eugene Cross Park, the Dragons really seem to taking rugby to the community.
Jones' language is also evident of his belief in a need to change the current style. Where many talk of Newport in terms of the Dragons, he says Gwent. Already he has broadened the spectrum and widened the fan base.

That is what regional rugby should be all about. The towns and cities of the stadiums are little more than a base, an HQ from which actions take place. Regions can survive by attracting fans in the vacinity, but to thrive the must more further afield. They must stretch out their arms to the whole region to gather fans and players to strengthen their foundations.

That said, do not underestimate how excellent a base Rodney Parade is for a region. An old fashioned ground made for rugby, intimidating for visiting players and officials alike. No soulless football stadia or all seaters here, just a good old rugby ground with a rich history and unabashed atmosphere come game time. Hopefully that atmosphere will survive the redevelopment plans.

With new coaches, a new batch of talent players and a whole new attitude to boot, the future looks bright for the Dragons. The future looks black and amber.

Richard Ashcroft - Future's Bright