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
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.

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.
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