Wednesday, February 11, 2015

England Ruin Gatland's Plan

In the weeks building up to Friday much of the talk centred around Wales beating England two years previously, snatching the title from under the noses with a clinical victory in Cardiff. However, there was a great white elephant in the room. Between the Millennium mauling and Friday’s tournament opening, was a Sunday game at Twickenham that England dominated from start to end.

It was a game where England hassled and harried Wales, subduing their “little brother” in a show of power and guile that nullified the men in red. For much of Friday, the story was the same.

After a pre match show that looked like it had been bussed in from a Pasha and a tunnel stand off that was only rhythmic finger clicking away from a scene from West Side Story, the teams got underway a little over 5 minutes later than scheduled. It was part of the mind games, part of the plan.

Wales immediately hit the ground running with Leigh Halfpenny slotting a kick that was further testament to his incredible ability from the kicking tee. Then Halfpenny and Dan Biggar combined to drive England back to their own try line with two perfectly executed kicks and similarly excellent chases.

It presented Wales with a scrum in the danger zone, but it would only prove to be the start of a torrid night at the set piece. Faletau saved the blushes of Welsh back in reverse by burrowing into the scrum like a demented mole to come away with the ball. His sheer determination was only surpassed by his incredible offload. Rhys Webb scampered over for the try before ear-burstingly loud dance music blared around the Millennium Stadium and drown out any real atmosphere the fans may have created. The Welsh scrum would only deteriorate further from there.

It was clear that Samson Lee was still suffering from injury. It was a game too soon prop and possibly a stubborn decision too far for Gatland. Lee proved his worth in the Autumn Internationals, playing more minutes than any other prop and not giving away a single penalty. On Friday he was man handled by Joe Marler, a man who had been on the wrong end of Samson’s strength when playing for Harlequins.

After Friday, Dan Cole may consider a bigger wallet in order to save him having to keep Gethin Jenkins in his pocket. It’s unclear how many chances Jenkins will get or why he has been afforded so many already. However, after Adam Jones’ treatment by Gatland, Gethin appears to have more lives than a whole cattery. England had done their homework and the Welsh loosehead was in trouble. 

So too was the Welsh right wing. Stuart Lancaster and co had clearly focused on Alex Cuthbert’s weaknesses in defence. Mike Brown picked out the Bluesman when running from deep, exposing the frailties we’ve become all too aware of.

Brown would be one of England’s brightest stars on a crisp, clear Cardiff night alongside an unrelenting James Haskell. Brown consistently put England on the front foot, just as he had done in the reverse fixture last year, and his kick through for Anthony Watson to score was just reward. Gatlan'd plan was coming undone.

Wales went in at half time with an eight point lead. Then, after being 5 minutes late for the first half, Wales didn’t bother turning up for the second.

England captain Chris Robshaw and Haskell bossed the breakdown with aplomb. Ben Youngs and George Ford turned the possession into something dangerous, something punishing.

Whilst Wales kicked for safety, England kicked with intent. With ball in hand England work diligently, patiently. They marched toward the Welsh try line with relentless purpose and patience. With the exception of Richard Hibbard and Sam Warburton, Wales stood with lifeless acceptance in defence as England built their try brick by brick.

It took Wales 50 minutes to get Jamie Roberts galloping down field. A back ball at the lineout saw play shifted quickly and Roberts make hard yards. However, Wales appeared so shocked by the quick recycle that followed the ball was promptly handed back over to England.
By the time Ford kicked the final points England should have put the game further out of sight. The TMO ruled out Dave Attwood's try and Haskell almost went through the Welsh defence, posts and protector to score. Such was England's passion and hunger - exemplified by Haskell - you wouldn't have bet against him succeeding.  

After the game Haskell said, "There are no names automatically on the team-sheet, except perhaps the captain’s but that is the end of it. It is very difficult to stay in there. If you have one bad game, you are out. We are all aware of that."

Contrast that with Wales who managed to set three national records for partnerships starting together. The centre pairing of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies have started together 33 times whilst both the backrow trio and back three have started together 21 times. That gives eight players a virtual monopoly on their positions as the most in form players sit on the bench, in the stands or - most criminally - back at their regions.  How much would Scott Williams, Josh Navidi or Phil Price have loved to have been involved with Wales struggling in midfield, at the breakdown and in the scrum?

As Wales struggled for verve and attacking instinct, Liam Williams and Justin Tipuric festered on the bench; hopelessly redundant as their colleagues looked little more than hopeless. Even as George North suffered two headshots, even as Cuthbert struggled to contain England in defence, even as Haskell and Robshaw bossed the breakdown; a duo as dynamic as Williams and Tipuric were reduced to watching from the sidelines.
Then, as the clocked ticked closer to full time and Wales needed a hero, a spark of inspiration to salvage the game; Gatland's plan was to replace Rhys Webb with an ailing, one dimensional Mike Phillips.

After Scotland’s increasingly impressive performances, Warren may need a new masterplan.

Oasis - The Masterplan

Friday, February 6, 2015

Wales v England Preview

Forget mind grenades, retractable roofs and loud speaker systems. Do away with Cardiff 2013, Twickenham 2014 or Rugby World Cup 2015. It is all about today, all about the now. 6th of February 2015 is all that matters. At 20:05 tonight everything else will slip away and only what happens on the hybrid pitch of the Millennium Stadium will count for anything. So where will the game be won and lost? Here are the 5 most important facets:

The Set Piece
For all the talk of dominance in the last two games, the team who has won the set piece – in particular the scrum – has won the game. There have been some question marks over Gethin Jenkins’ scrummaging in the past and he had a torrid time at Twickenham last year, but any weaknesses have been greatly exaggerated. However, Dan Cole is a good scrummager and Jenkins can’t let him get the upper hand.
On the other side of the scrum Samson Lee is the tighthead incumbent. Where previously it was difficulty to envisage anyone bar Adam Jones in the Welsh 3 shirt, Lee has made it firmly his own. Lee has already proven he is more than capable of competing at the highest level and got the better of Marler when Harlequins faced off against the Scarlets in Europe last term. Gatland’s strange omission of Jones from the squad has seen the Hairbear retire from international rugby and, while there can be no doubting Lee’s ability, that’s left Wales a little shallow for cover.
Lineout’s will be a mixed bag. With Parling, Lawes and Launchbury England have been very effective, but they enter the game without the trio. Meanwhile it’s an area where Wales have always struggled against the top nations. It could end up being a mixed bad, but expect both teams to go outside the second row receivers to secure quick possession from which to launch an attack.

Such an important facet of the modern game. Quick ball or turnovers reap tries so the breakdown is not important, it's vital.
England tend to approach it with ruthless efficiency. Hit the ruck quickly and with huge force, but minimal numbers. That always the forwards to join the attack, rather than get tied up. They don't over commit, but they do occasionally under commit and leave themselves susceptible to the turnover or the counter ruck.
When Ireland played them at last year's tournament they slowed the ball down and England's reluctance to commit extra men should have cost them the game. In Sam Warburton, Wales have one of the world's finest jackals and if England don't move him quickly, they won't move him at all.
However, on their own ball, Wales can get a little loose or sloppy at the ruck. England could find themselves able to counter too, if Wales do that tonight.
The 10/12 Channel
With Owen Farrell at 10 England had a player who was dependable. He sometimes lacked creative flair but rarely put a foot wrong and was defensively sound. In George Ford they have the opposite. Ford is much more creative, a dangerous man with ball in hand. However, questions remain over his defensive ability at this level with his diminutive size.
That isn't helped by the man outside him also being a little lacklustre in defence. At international level, Luther Burrell has missed 22% of tackles and for Northampton this season he has missed 30% of his tackles. That poor defence was never more evident than when Northampton took on Racing Metro and Burrell came up against the man he faces tonight, Jamie Roberts.
That weakness gives Wales scope for Roberts breaking the gain line as he is very capable of doing. If Jonathan Davies or George North can provide support, it could be lethal. England then have to decide whether to assign a flanker to help out and run the risk of Rhys Webb sniping around the ruck.
For Wales the defence in that 10/12 channel was a high point of their autumn. Dan Biggar and Roberts produced defensive displays that the world's finest would be proud of and their stats read more like a backrow forward. The completion rate run in double figures and players like Sonny Bill Williams and Christian Leali’ifano were suffocated out of the game.
However, if England can snuff out Roberts' charges early, Wales struggle with a Plan B. Just ask Joe Worsley.

Roof open or roof closed, Cardiff is an intimidating place to travel for any away team. That's amplified ten fold when the away team are the old enemy. The atmosphere in the stadium can put pressure on the players of both sides to perform.
Whomever can take that pressure and condense it into positive energy will find it's the fuel for a win.

Rugby is no longer a fifteen man game. The replacements - and how well a coach uses them - can often be the deciding factor in close encounters.
Despite England's injuries the front row replacements look better on paper. However, Wales have two in form regional players among the backs in the shape of Rhys Priestland and Liam Williams.
The two players really capable of turning the tide their way are Justin Tipuric and Tom Croft. Athletic and dynamic; either have the capacity to punish loose play against tired legs. It will be an intriguing battle if both men come on into the backrow.

The margins between the teams are small and the little things could end up deciding the game. It's difficult to venture a prediction; it's closer than much of the press will have you believe. One prediction I'm sure of is, no matter who wins, it will be a riot.
Kaiser Chiefs - I Predict a Riot

Monday, February 2, 2015

A Little Bit Psychological

It's less than a week until Wales and England clash at the Millennium Stadium and it's all getting a little bit psychological.

Warren Gatland made the first move in his press conference after he announced his Six Nations squad. The Kiwi suggested Stuart Lancaster didn't know what England's best side was. Then he laid down the gauntlet to England; dare they play under a closed Millennium Stadium roof?

Truth be told, there was little in the way of a challenge at all. It is true that with the roof closed the atmosphere in the Millennium Stadium could be measured in PSI, such is the pressure upon players. That pressure is too much for some to take; they crumble and crack. However, without pressure no diamonds would be made and - in a World Cup year especially - England need diamonds. 

England lock Dave Attwood says he plans to block out the home crowd. However, the greatest players thrive in the hostility; they flourish in the inhospitable like lilies growing in the Baja desert. Will Greenwood has often spoke of the unique atmosphere of the Millennium Stadium and the true fondness he holds for it.

In 2001 Greenwood took part in the first Wales-England game to be played under the retractable roof and on top of the hallow turf. It's was Scott Gibbs 50th cap and the first time Wales had hosted the old enemy since he had broken English hearts in the Welsh 'home' game on English soil.

In an article for the Telegraph Greenwood said, "The stadium roof was shut, the crowd reacted like I have never heard before. It was the most incredible wave of noise bouncing around the stadium, and, as England players, we absolutely loved it." 
Talking of being on the field before kick off that day Greenwood said, "Martin Johnson stood in the middle of our huddle with an enormous grin on his face, the rest of the lads smiling like Cheshire cats because you just know right then there is no other place in the world you would rather be." Greenwood silenced the vitriolic Welsh crowd that day with three tries as England ran rampant.

As much as the crowd will boost Wales and try to carry them over the line, so too the idea of silencing the partisan crowd should boost their rivals from across the bridge.  Every boo, every cat call, every utterance of derision should fuel the fire in the belly of anyone with a red rose on their chest on Friday. It should spark the desire to silence every supporter in red that fill the stand and those outside the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium hoping and waiting on bragging rights. 

The game's deciding factor will not be whom the support is for, merely who deals with it best. The pressure on both sides will be immense. This isn't a game; Wales-England is never a game. 

However, this match is so much more too. It's not just present, it's past and future. Its more than the result; it is the springboard to Six Nations success and a prerequisite to the World Cup's group of death. It is historical, political and dutiful. Every player will carry that on their shoulders, but those that can carry the load of expectation from the assembled fans too will walk out the victors.

Clive Woodward told the Daily Mail that the secret to victory in Cardiff is to keep cool. Players must "tread the line between never taking a step backwards and not getting distracted or involved in anything that puts you or your team-mates off their game."

Last weekend we learned that serial offender Dylan Hartley has been seeing a psychologist to curb his infamous temper. Hartley has served suspensions for biting, gouging, striking opponents and swearing at an official. His reputation precedes him.

Such visits to sports psychologists and shrinks are hardly rare in modern sport; whether it be to combat aggression, depression or just mental attitude. However, Lancaster will weary of a red mist descending on Hartley as a Red Sea sweeps through the turnstiles of the Millennium Stadium. 

The atmosphere on Friday will be fraught and not one for players with any mental frailties. If there are any cracks in Hartley's psyche, the Welsh players and fans will try to chip away at them. Mike Brown can expect similar treatment with his short fuse now infamous.

England have been preparing themselves for the Millennium Stadium with large speakers set up in training, but that will have about as much use as Usain Bolt preparing for the Olympics by racing his mother to the shops. 

Gatland's challenge was little more than flimsily veiled mind games to remind England of their last visit to Cardiff. However, if England want to be taken seriously as World Cup contenders, it's a challenge they must accept. The pressure of winning a World Cup final in your own back yard won't be any easier just because it's your own fans applying it.

England's technical play has moved on massively since the 2013 defeat. However, Friday won't be a test of where their skill is at, as much as where is their mind?

The Pixies - Where Is My Mind?