Thursday, November 10, 2016

Doom and Gloom

Almost from the first kick of last weekend’s game against the Wallabies, it was evident it would be a long day for fans in red rather than gold. With barely a minute on the clock, Australia were making ground with ease. The men from Down Under burst through a Welsh defensive line with utter ferocity, whilst Wales looked as ferocious as John Barrowman in a tutu.
Rugby League turned Aussie Rules turned Union convert Israel Folau was able to find more space than Yuri Gagarin and offload with ease. Australia managed to get themselves on the board while Wales looked like they were still on the bus. By the 13th minute, Australia had made 101 metres; Wales had made zero. Like Usain Bolt winning gold while Justin Gatlin hangs about in the blocks to get the best view. It was the tortoise versus the hare... Except the tortoise had died and resuscitation wouldn’t help. On the hour mark, Wales still hadn’t reached what the Wallabies did in that first 13 minutes, making just 96 metres; by this time Australia had racked up 543 metres and counting.
Wales had 9% possession in the first quarter of an hour. That means you were statistically more likely to meet an American who can't find their own country on a map, a Briton who trusted the government or a cat that doesn't prefer Felix, than see a Welshman holding a rugby ball. Not that Wales created much when in possession. For as much as they were frail in defence, they seemed clueless in attack. This was all the defensive weakness of the summer tour to New Zealand, but with none of the improved attack to justify it. Whilst Australia recycled ball at will and speed, the sloths from David Attenborough’s ‘Planet Earth’ would have been impatiently hitting fast forward on their Sky remote were they able to watch.
Time wore on and patience wore thin; the already ready quiet fans had become all bar silent. If Martyn Phillips can market this at the increased price of tickets, maybe he should go back to his old employers B&Q to charge customers for a new viewing area in the paint aisle and let the drying commence.
Wales’ performance was best summed up in a short spell where a penalty in their favour left them baffled as to who was skipper, a resultant 4v1 overlap was ignored in favour of continually recycling through the forwards into the previously formed ruck until the overlap was eventually spotted and an agonisingly slowly, looping miss three pass was thrown slow enough for the defence to realign and repel Wales. It was less an onslaught and more of a tickling contest. The frustration grew and a pass to absolutely nobody was picked off for a length of the field try for the sickly icing on a very disappointing cake. Lessons learned from the World Cup last year = zero.
Few players can come from this with any sort pride. Justin Tipuric managed to be better than most of his teammates – although that is hardly a compliment – but it is Ross Moriarty who comes out head, shoulders and most of his chest above the rest. With ball in hand he made the most carries, for the most metres and beat the most defenders for Wales; without it he was the top tackler on the field, completing an impressive 18 tackles.
So, we again sit and discuss the legendary ‘slow Welsh start’ and some pundits and experts quickly took aim at a familiar target. The story goes that the “uncompetitive” nature of the Pro 12 means that players aren’t battle hardened come Autumn International time. Don’t blame it on the sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, blame it on the regions. However, nobody told Ireland that was the case and in Soldier Field, Chicago they put the All Blacks to the sword having taken players from the same competition with extra travelling time and less preparation.
Without doubt, the players have to take a large portion of blame, they simply didn’t turn up. The coaches too have their villainous role to play. Rob Howley did little to endear himself to already angry fans. This was is first game back in the hot seat, but fans have memories – if not recurring nightmares – of the catastrophic slip in the IRB rankings and the dreadful tour to the Far East. Many have questioned Howley’s tactics as attack coach before as Wales played with a predictable monotony that was easier to read than a Ladybird Classic and how his contract – along with a few others - got extended is baffling.
However, Wales had begun to shake off the shackles in New Zealand and played with a flowing intent that had been missing previously, the mystical “Welsh Way” of playing rugby. It’s also easily convenient to forget that Howley was at the helm when Wales won the Six Nations in 2013 and bested the old enemy in convincing and dramatic fashion on the final day.
In fact, the torturously slow start predates Howley, predates the regions and predates the Autumn International Test Series themselves. The fact has been bounced around the last time Wales won an open Autumn International was against Romania in 2002 at Wrexham. If we look at tier one teams, the reading is even more grim. The last coach of Wales who won the opening Autumn Test against a tier one team was John Lloyd in 1981. To put that in some rugby perspective; Gethin Jenkins was one year old, Tyler Morgan wouldn’t be born for 14 more years and Rob Howley was in his final year of primary school, blissfully unaware of the effects the teacher's strike would have in four years time.
In that time Wales have only witnessed victories in their opening Autumn fixture against Romania, Samoa, Fiji, Japan and USA, mostly in the 90s - although embarassing defeats against four of those five have been felt before. In that time, however, defeats have come against the Barbarians, Argentina, twice against France and the All Blacks, six times against Australia and seven times against the Springboks. To say Wales struggle in the opening test is an understatement.
Nothing can be done this Autumn to rectify the damage already done to Wales or their coaches. Even with Japan's new found giant killing status and Argentina running with the big dogs in the Rugby Championship, defeats would - rightly or wrongly - be viewed as disasters. The Springboks meanwhile are struggling; so much so, their World Cup winning former star Joel Stransky has described them as "very average" and even worried for their fate against Italy.
Wins against any – or all three – would still not eradicate the memories or questions posed on Saturday. Defeat may damage them irreparably So, for now, it’s damage limitations and a small morale boost before the Six Nations in February where huge home tests against a rampant England and an All Black defeating Ireland await. Can Howley’s much changed lineup take a step on the road to recovery against Argentina? Or will it be all Doom and Gloom?
The Rolling Stones - Doom and Gloom

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Alive and Kicking

When Rob Howley announced his team this week, selection was dictated as much by his fellow coaches as it was by circumstance.

While questions abound over who would pull on the 12 and 15 shirts, fate rather than Howley made those decisions. Wales' list of unavailable players counted to grow as the week stretched on. Captain Sam Warburton, Talupe Faletau, Scott Williams, Jake Ball and Rob Evans, were joined by Liam Williams - who failed a fitness test - and personal tragedy ruling out Alun Wyn Jones. Save for one or two surprises, the squad pretty much picked itself.

There were other decisions to be made however. With both Warburton and Alun Wyn ruled out, Gethin Jenkins seemed the obvious choice to take the armband. But what of the kicking tee.

Since Leigh Halfpenny was scuppered by the Millennium Stadium turf twelve months ago, Dan Biggar has become the place kicker incumbent for Wales. Before that fateful Italy game that ended the World Cup dream for Halfpenny - and Rhys Webb - the Toulon man had a reputation for his dead eye goal kicking.

On Thursday Howley announced that Halfpenny would again assume the mantle, despite Biggar's impressive kicking performances for Wales, Internet flooding kick routines included.

But is the decision a correct one?

It's somewhat difficult to compare the two due to Halfpenny's injury taking him out of the majority of last season. That means the last full season we can look at started in the summer of 2014 when David Bowie, Lemmy and Prince were still with us, Donald Trump was barely more than America's Alan Sugar and Brexit wasn't even a word. With that in mind, it may be difficult to judge to much on the statistics, but that won't stop us trying.

Some pre World Cup stats showed that Biggar was actually in better club/region form than Halfpenny, but doesn't give the full story. Looking solely at league stats, Biggar was indeed more accurate (86% v 76%). While some will suggest this is due to Halfpenny's range making kick more difficult, Biggar also pipped his Wales teammate solely on conversations (83% v 81%).

However, solely viewing league form seems like giving partial data. When European games are added, it changes drastically - reflected in Toulon romping to to their third Euro title in the inaugural competition post Heineken Cup.

With these included Halfpenny becomes the most accurate kicker from Saturday's match day squad with an 88.3% success rate. Sam Davies boasted an 86.8% success rate, but took significantly less shots at goal than his counterparts (39 less than Biggar and 24 less than Halfpenny). Biggar meanwhile sits in third place, but still has an 84.8% success rate. Halfpenny does however still trail in the conversion stakes, but he more than makes up for it with penalties.

However, some may say - and rightly so - that players should be picked on form rather than reputation. So, with the season still in it's infancy, who has started the 2016/17 campaign brightest?

Leigh Halfpenny has struggled slighted with conversions again, missing 3 of the 10 he has taken. His penalty rate has been exceptional though; he has scored more penalties than Biggar and Davies have attempted between (16 penalties from 17 attempts). That gives Halfpenny an overall success rate of 85.1%.

For Biggar that rate is just 80.9%; missing 3 of his 14 attempted conversions and 2 of his 7 penalties.

It's the young prodigy who is firing on all cylinders this season though. 23 year old Sam Davies is currently running at an average of 92.3% success rate. That's made up from scoring 90.4% of his conversions  and not missing a single penalty. That  makes Nigel's boy, statistically, far and away the most accurate kicker in the Wales squad.

There is a fourth place kicker in the extended Wales squad, who hasn't made the Welsh 23 for Australia. Unfortunately, the stats don't read well for Gareth Anscombe.

In his first season at Cardiff Arms Park he managed an 83% success rate. However that that has fallen to 73.7% this season. However, there is still plenty of time to turn things around for Anscombe and make sure his Six Nations hopes are alive and kicking.

Simple Minds - Alive and Kicking

Friday, September 2, 2016

Pro 12 Preview 2017

This season’s Guinness Pro12 kicks off this weekend, promising to be the most exciting and competitive yet. Here’s a team-by-team guide suitable for everyone, from avid fans to those who need a little help deciphering their Zebre from their Munster.

Benetton Treviso
Treviso endured a terrible season last year – finishing rock bottom – that they should easily better this time around. A combination of international additions on the field and new coach Kieran Crowley off it should boost them. Suffered badly during the World Cup and didn't recover.
Best Signing:  The international quality of Tito Tebaldi, Tommaso Allan, Tommaso Benvenuti will help their cause, but Kiwi former miner Marty ‘Screech’ Banks is a real class act at 10 or 15.
Biggest loss: Centre Sam Christie was a potent attacking instrument for the Italians, but has returned back to his native Waikato.
Key player: New Zealand fullback Jayden Hayward racked points for the Italians to finish the league’s second top points scorer for 2015/16, they will need that reliable boot from the tee and hand again this time. Alongside it comes attacking ability that boasted 4 assists, 22 clean breaks, 29 offloads and over 1,400 metres gained. Not bad for a man in a team that finished last.
Likely finish: Won't worry any of the teams fighting for a top 6 finish. A mini league with Zebre will be their first target, but Crowley will want more. Eighth would be an achievement, but is possible.

Cardiff Blues
Something is quietly building at Cardiff Arms Park. Head coach Danny Wilson may just be one of the best in the hemisphere and the Blues started to come together under him last season. Intelligent summer signings should give Blues fans something to be happy about. The tight five looks a little light, but Wilson has a knack of turning packs into beasts (see Scarlets, Wales and Bristol for details).
Best Signing: Matthew Morgan is an exciting runner and Nick Williams an ox, but hot stepping centre Willis Halaholois on a different planet with an average of six defenders beaten per game.
Biggest loss: Whether fly half or fullback Rhys Patchell looked fantastic last season - creative in attack, strong in defence and consistent with the boot - and backed it up on the tour to New Zealand. 
Key Player: Back row turned lock Josh Turnbull had an incredible season; 254 tackles, 86 lineouts won and 20 turnovers putting him high up the stats charts. How important will he be this time around?
Likely Finish: Could be the Pro12's surprise package. They finished last season strongly and have recruited superbly since; the playoffs may be possible.

What an incredible feat from Connacht last season. Once the fourth Provence of Ireland and seen as little more than a development team, they stormed their way to the Pro12 title. Any defence of the title will be tough this time around, especially with injuries already going against them.
Best Signing: The signing of South African Marnitz Boshoff seems to be the perfect replacement for AJ McGinty who has left for Sale.
Biggest loss: As well as McGinty's move, losing Rodney Ah You to rivals Ulster is a big loss. However, it is centre Robbie Henshaw's departure that may just hit hardest.
Key Player: Connacht performed well as a unit last term. That said, Bundee Aki was named the league's player of the year for good reason; 276 carries, 88 defenders beaten, 25 offloads, 6 tries,  5 assists and 18 turnovers.
Likely Finish: Despite last year's heroics, it's difficult to see Connacht mounting a bid for the title again. Expect a battle for a top six finish and a Champions Cup spot... But then who thought they would win it last season?

With the leanest defence in league Edinburgh, still one managed to finish 9th which proves just how toothless their attack was. Move from Murrayfield in January could provide a boost of not having to play in a largely empty stadium.
Best Signing: The pivot that Duncan Weir offers will be vital. If he can be consistent and get Cornell du Preez playing on the front foot, Edinburgh can prosper.
Biggest loss: Scottish international centre Matt Scott has been in fine fettle and his move to Gloucester will hurt.
Key Player: Excellent in attack and key to Edinburgh’s rock solid defence, Cornell du Preez is vital to the cause.
Likely Finish: Typically mediocre. Don’t expect them to be dragged into a wooden spoon battle, but the top six is a few steps too far.

Glasgow Warriors
Glasgow will be hurting after the end to last season, an incredible unbeaten ended with two defeats at the worst possible time. This time around it's Gregor Townsend’s last season at Scotstoun before he takes up the national role. At Scotstoun a new artificial pitch will help with the Warriors fast game plan and without the disruption of the weather.
Best Signing: At 35 Corey Flynn may be nearing retirement, but he’s a great player with bags of experience and plenty to offer.
Biggest loss: Behemoth winger Taqele Naiyaravoro was a fantastic and strong runner in his short spell in Scotland, but Leone Nakarawa has been Glasgow's talisman for some time and is virtually impossible to replace.
Key Player: There was a palpable sense of excitement when Richie Gray emerged into Scottish rugby, but now Jonny Gray has truly stepped out of his big brother shadow and become a truly world class player – and leader - in his own right.
Likely Finish: Genuine title contenders. Anything outside the playoffs will be viewed as a huge failure and no silverware would feel like a disappointment too.

Stung by their Grand Final disappointment where they were blown away by Connacht in the final after topping the league; Leinster will want to go one step further this time and land a record fifth title. They have plenty of great player and a good, young coaching setup. Some have questioned their depth in certain areas, but in all the squad looks strong.
Best Signing: For sometime Robbie Henshaw has been considered the natural successor to Brian O’Driscoll. His move to Leinster gives him the chance to cement that.
Biggest loss: Both Ben Te’o and Ian Madigan have departed from the back division, but it’s the enforced early retirement of Luke Fitzgerald that will hit hardest.
Key Player: Leo Cullen will be praying Sean O’Brien can stay fir as they look a different beast with him, but Johnny Sexton needs to regain his form if Leinster are to land the title.
Likely Finish: In the playoffs and pushing for something to add to their trophy room.

Barely scraped into the Champions Cup spaces last season and looked a little flat at times while financial turmoil continues to dog the club. New Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus could be just the tonic the need, but there has been few personnel changes to help.
Best Signing: In truth, the coaching staff, but on the field 6’8” Jean Kleyn is destined for big things in the traditional South African number 4 style.
Biggest loss: Not too many of note, though South African prop BJ Botha has departed for France. Age and injury had curtailed his play time of late.
Key Player: After his World Cup injury, Peter O’Mahoney returns having missed most of last season. In his place, CJ Stander did a remarkable job in a misfiring team. He hands the arm band back this year, but expect him to still lead by example on the pitch.
Likely Finish: Disappointed to miss out on the playoffs, Erasmus will need to get the backs firing again if he wants to make the top four. May have to settle for a European Champions Cup spot however.

Newport-Gwent Dragons
Things aren’t looking great in Newport. There are plenty of good young stars coming through the system, but they lack real depth and experience is at a premium. Kingsley Jones takes over the reins and his job of turning around the ailing region started well at the end of last season. It difficult to see them maintaining that this year though.
Best Signing: A difficult choice among journeymen and mediocre players.
Biggest loss: Without doubt, Toby Faletau. Arguably the best number eight in World Rugby, Faletau carried the region through numerous games throughout his career. 
Key Player: Though Rynard Landman’s commanding presence, leadership and lineout jumping are important to the Dragons, it’s Nic Cudd who really shone last time with 20 turnovers and 218 tackles to his name he will be vital to a Dragons team who are often playing on the back foot. 
Likely Finish: Battling it out at the foot of the table. They were fortunate to escape the clutches of both the Italians last year, this time it could be worse.

The disruption of the World Cup and injuries largely hampered the Swansea based region last year – though it did allow youngsters like Sam Underhill and Sam Davies to shine – and they did recover. This year, with experienced players returning and the European Champions Cup not a distraction, the Ospreys will be gunning for the top four again. Steve Tandy’s job and reputation may ride on whether they get it.
Best Signing: Kieran Fonotia is a much need addition to an understaffed midfield, but Bradley Davies will bolster the forward division and getting Ospreys playing the tough abrasive rugby they are used to.
Biggest loss: Not a sale but Sam Underhill’s injury could have a big effect. The flanker was superb last year and four months without him looks bleak.
Key Player: In a Lions season it’s a possible captain of the British team that could hold the key to Osprey success;Alun Wyn Jones has become a talisman for region and country who could return the Ospreys to Europe’s top competition.
Likely Finish: They will want to avenge last season’s disappointment. Though recruitment hasn’t been extensive it has been intelligent, covering what were problem areas last year with international players. Anything outside the top four will feel like failure this term.

Consistency and lack of guidance cost the Scarlets a play offs place last year. They have recruited superbly in the summer with some very exiting signings, but still remain over their tight five. If they can get and keep the ball they are deadly behind.
Best Signing: Arguably the best recruitment in the Pro12 this summer. Rhys Patchell, Werner Kruger and Johnny McNicholl are all excellent signings, but the return of Jonathan Davies from France is straight of the top drawer.
Biggest loss: A lot of players past their best or not quite good enough, but prop Rhodri Jones remains a prospect and his move to bitter rivals Ospreys will be interesting. With Rob Evans and Samson Lee missing the start of the season the Scarlets may miss him.
Key player: James ‘Cubby’ Davies showed just how good he can be last season with more turnovers than any Pro12 player (30) and 6 tries too; all before earning an Olympic medal. However, Scarlets have really struggled to find solid, consistent 10 and Rhys Patchell could answer their problems if he performs as he did for the Blues.
Likely Finish: Consistency is the key. If their forwards perform they can make the playoffs. If not, they could even miss out on the Champions Cup such is the strength of this year’s competition.

There’s certainly plenty of class in Ulster’s squad and try scoring ability aplenty. There is a slight injury problem at prop which they will have to overcome to get out of the blocks quickly.
Best Signing: Certainly the most exciting is Charles Piutau. Nominated for both Premiership and European player of the year for Wasps his switch signals Ulster’s intentions this year.
Biggest loss: Man mountain Nick Williams has been a fierce competitor for Ulster and, though his participation may have lessened of late, his impact will be missed.
Key Player: Craig Gilroy did a fantastic job of putting Ulster on the front last season - 32 clean breaks, 63 defenders beaten and 10 tries scored – and Paddy Jackson piled up the points, but due to Ulster’s injury problems, new boy Rodney Ah You will be vital to their cause.
Likely Finish: Will be pushing hard for the playoffs and anything outside the top six will be seen as failure

Times they are a changing in Parma. 17 players out have gone out the door at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi as they look to build on their 11th place last year. It’s a team in transition though and it’s another hard slog ahead for them.
Best Signing: Plenty of good signings for the Italians, Josh Furno, Derick Minnie and the return of Giovanbattista Venditti. The signing of Carlo Festuccia from Wasps is perhaps the most exciting however.
Biggest loss: With 17 players out of the door, there are certainly plenty to choose from, but Leonardo Sarto looked truly international quality.
Key Player: New boy Derick Minnie. To succeed beyond just the odd victory throughout the season, Zebre need a competitive back row. Minnie is a big part of that.
Likely Finish: Scrapping it out in the basement. Last season’s 11th place was their highest finish so far and landed them European Champions Cup spot, Treviso look the strong of the two this time around though.

So there we have it. The Pro12, back and ready to go.

Ready To Go - Republica