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.