Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dominant England Bring Down Wales

What a difference a year makes. 12 months ago Wales basked in the warm glow of a victory of monumental proportions, snatching the Six Nations title from the grasp of the old enemy with a display that took no prisoners.

On Sunday, even under the blazing sun of Twickenham, all connected with Welsh rugby were left feeling cold in the shadows of a far superior England. Such was England's dominance on Sunday, Wales should forget analysts and call in pathologists to further scrutinise the massacre.

The build up was stuffed full hyperbole from the respective media and plenty of talking from both camps. However, when the first whistle blew, England made it clear they were ready for action.

Wales, England, Twickenham, Rugby, Rhys Webb, Owen Farrell, Chris Robshaw, Poite, Jonathan Davies, Taulupe Faletau, Richard Hibbard

England immediately put Wales on the back foot with the kind of quick, ambitious and inventive play that the boys in red have lacked for too long. England were alive and alert while, on a much lamented Sunday fixture, Wales seemed to clinging to their day of rest.

As the game drew on it would become clear Wales had problems at half back, with a barely tried and completely untested partnership. There would be no such problems for England however. Owen Farrell looked the epitome of cool, perpetually calm and was helped no end by the man inside him.

It's no secret that Danny Care as suffered for his actions in the past, both on and off the field. The scrum half has relished the opportunity to once again prove himself on the international stage and is a contender for player of the tournament.

Danny Care, England, rugby, try, Celebrate, Twickenham, Wales, Six Nations

Care has been crucial in England's transformation from boring one trick ponies into a team with pace, style and attacking verve. A purveyor of heads up rugby, the Leeds born scrum half showed his class from the off. Care pressed and probed at the defence before clinically finishing a close range penalty with a quick tap, while the defence had switched off. England taking the lead thanks to the incisive Care, whilst Welsh title ambitions languish in intensive care.

If England's attack was the games silver lining, Welsh tactics was the cloud; a constant and predictable kicking display that sought make England run back to a Red Sea of defenders. It was a sea so easily parted by Mike Brown, he made Moses look a rank amateur.

The stats say that kick returns reap penalties, the stats don't account for Mike Brown who covered 156 metres with ball in hand. Still Wales plowed on with a faltering game plan that was starting to crumble.

Mike Brown, Dan Biggar, England, rugby, Twickenham, Wales, Six Nations

Even as Wales found themselves in promising positions they couldn't help but put boot to ball. George North squandered an overlap by chipping ahead as Dan Lydiate steamed up the outside like a diesel train. Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts would also waste chances just as precious by opting to use their laces when it called for hands, both occasions when the poor decisions were compounded by dreadful execution.

If either had wondered how it should be done, they need look no further than Billy Twelvetrees' master class. Alex Cuthbert shot out of the line and the Gloucester centre delicately eased the ball on to his foot and coaxed it through the gap to be pounced on by a galloping Luther Burrell.

Half time left many questions to be asked of Wales. What was the game plan? Why weren't they changing it? How could they motivate themselves? The biggest question, however, remained how the hell were they still in the game and only 5 points behind?

Jonny May, George North, England, rugby, Twickenham, Wales, Six Nations

The answers in the second half came thick an fast as Wales showed their game plan still revolved around aimless kicks and they had no plans to change it. The only thing to function worse than their 'attack' was their scrum which England dismantled like Godzilla in Legoland until Romain Poite sent Gethin Jenkins to the stands not to return (by his own request).

England truly had come of age, boys turned to men, turned to warriors who promptly stormed Wales castle and shook it to it's very foundations. Ben Morgan barreled between and through defenders as Courtney Lawes delivered hits with the force of meteor impacts.

The game finished 29-18 and two tries to nil. As the old adage goes, Wales were lucky to get nil. The result flattered Wales who would have found themselves even further adrift were it not for the boot and bravery of Leigh Halfpenny, who again put his body on the line even though the cause was lost.

Leigh Halfpenny, injury, dislocated, shoulder, England, rugby, Twickenham, Wales, Six Nations

Many will talk of the 'Quins factor and the influence of Care, Robshaw and Brown was not so much stamped on the match as engraved to it's very core. The Glaws factor should not be underestimated though as Ben Morgan and Billy Twelvetrees were as important as almost anyone in white on Sunday. That said, almost any of the English players who took to the field can say they were impressive and better than their opposite number.

The next time these two meet at Twickenham will be at the World Cup and England will be grateful for the confidence boost this demolition will give them.

For Wales their whole game plan, the crudely named 'Warren Ball,' has been torn apart and, just as the regional game looks at it's most fragile, the seemingly unbreachable walls around the national team are beginning to crumble.
Babel - Mumford & Sons

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Time for Talking is Over

After a week of talking, the time for action is upon us. No more talk of hate or of history, just the teams who will take to the field at Twickenham. On paper the difference between them is slim and on the day it could be the little differences that separate them.

In the first two games Wales' kicking was looser than the morals of the cast of 'The Valleys' and if they continue that way they will be punished. England fullback Mike Brown rarely fails to make ground and Johnny May has the ability to steal tries from the smallest of opportunities. 

The Welsh kick chase will need to be near perfect especially as tired legs start to kick in. Forget penalties, freekicks or sin bins, that is a real test of a player's discipline especially as the fuel tank empties.

Meanwhile, Johnnie Sexton showed England how to play the kicking game against Wales; kick to corners, pin Wales back and turn them around. They gobbled up the territory like a fat man in a pie shop and sapped Wales' energy. It also tied up the Welsh backrow in the tight channels and made them much less effective.

That's very important to England because they don't like to commit men to rucks. They play fast, clear out quickly and get the ball away. They rarely commit more than two or three to a breakdown which maximises their strike runners around the ruck. 

However, it also leaves them exposed to the counter ruck and jackal. Against Ireland, even when the ball was slowed down, they didn't commit extra forwards and that allowed Ireland to force the turnover. If Lydiate and Warburton can rekindle that almost telepathic link of years gone by, as they started to against France, they may get some results at the breakdown.
Turnovers are a rich source of tries and so is the set piece. Make no doubt about it, the platform for Wales' victory over England last year was built upon the scrum. Adam Jones tore through England's scrum with ease and raised questions about England's apparently domineering pack. In turn Graham Rowntree asked questions of referee Steve Walsh, but it was clear that Wales were better on the day.

Fast forward 12 months and things may be very different. Wales' favourite Hair Bear has struggled to cope with the change of engagement process and some still question the scrummaging ability of Gethin Jenkins. Meanwhile, England find themselves without their two best scrummagers in Corbisiero and Coles, that left them on the wrong end of a one sided affair against the Irish scrum. It could be a lottery at Twickenham, but if either team can get on top at the scrum, it could decide the winner. 
Elsewhere, England will put pressure on Wales' lineout which is liable to malfunction (something Courtney Lawes will relish). Wales have also lost human skyscraper Luke Charteris, but have plenty of line out options so need to secure their own ball and defend well against England's rolling maul. Wales have a weakness in the defence of the maul and a good organised English pack could punish them there if they work together and communicate.

In fact England's best chance is to forget individuals anywhere on the park; the only way to beat Wales is with a collective performance. Their defensive line has to be quick and organised and they have to make the first up tackles. Roberts, Davies, Cuthbert and North will all be wanting a chance to prise open the line of white shirts like a corned beef tin and the Welsh backrow wouldn't mind a go either. If England miss a tackle, or even over commit to cover, Wales will punish them.

But, for now, the talking stops. No more press conferences, an end to interviews, sound bites cease. 

It's time for a little less conversation and a little more action please.
A Little Less Conversation - Elvis vs JXL

Monday, March 3, 2014

Brave Saint-Andre to be Admired

The modern game is all about results. On occasion we may take solace in being gallant losers, but we will be losers just the same. When coaches come to be evaluated, nobody will take into account the manner of defeats, only that there defeats and no trophies were won.

Coaches are often put under the microscope. Lost games are now rarely considered the fault of the players; fingers point at the coach in the stands like the general in the war room. A coach’s career can hinge on a single stat; win ratio. The difference between a contract until the next World Cup and being resigned to the scrap heap.

With that in mind, Phillipe Saint-Andre appears to be a brave man; a very brave man indeed. It is also clear though that he is man of integrity and a man with a love for his sport.
Phillipe, Saint-Andre, France, rugby, Six Nations,
Saint-Andre saw his hard work unravel against Wales. With two wins from two games to start the campaign it appeared the French coach had engineered a complete reversal from last year's dismal tournament. The pressure on Saint-Andre had been relieved.

That was until France were out gunned in Cardiff and as the floodlights were turned off on a cold Friday night at the Millennium Stadium, the spotlight came back on Saint-Andre.

In turn he illuminated the actions, or at least the reactions, Louis Picamoles. With a little over a hour on the clock in Cardiff Picamoles was sent to the bin. Though the offence may have been minor, the fallout is potentially huge.

Picamoles was angry and frustrated at the card shown by Allain Rolland in the Wales-France game (something Welsh fans will sympathise with greatly). As the Toulon number 8 exited the field he sarcastically applauded and flashed a thumbs up at the Irish-French ref in a fit of annoyance and petulance. It was too far for Saint-Andre.
Picamoles had been the star of France's first two victories in the Six Nations, so it is at least fitting that his fall from grace coincided with the France's change of fortunes. However, with Wesley Fofana ruled out for the remaining games, you feel Picamoles would have been France's match winner and one look at his performance in the Top 14 against Clermont shows how important he is.

To any outsiders looking in it would appear absurd. In football such behaviour is a weekly occurrence to which an eye lid is barely batted. However, as Nigel Owens is happy to point out, this is not soccer. Respect has to be the last thing to go. It is within the game’s foundations and it is difficult to see how rugby could function without it.

Many within the game think the move is some what heavy handed too and some French fans have been incensed by the decision. There can be no doubt that Picamoles is one of their best, most consistent performers and the fans of Les Bleus are not happy that they will enter what is undoubtedly a very important game without him.
Louis, Picamoles, France, rugby, Number 8, Six Nations
Saint-Andre has taken a risk, but it is almost impossible to be any thing other than impressed by his commitment to doing what he believes is right for France and for rugby as a whole
"The essence of our sport is control and respect for the referee's decision," said Saint-Andre after declaring "certain attitudes on the ground vis-a-vis match officials have no place in our sport."

With Northern Hemisphere rugby threaten to tear itself apart in a struggle for power and greed, it is refreshing to see such attitudes still remain in the modern game. Regardless of nationality or affiliation, I for one hope Saint-Andre's bravery, courage and conviction pays off.

Good luck Phillipe and (dare I say) vive la France.
Johnny Hallyday - La Bagarre