Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Lions Call Ups

One thing is for sure, Warren Gatland and co. are no strangers to controversy. Nor are they ones to court favouritism; always willing to make the calls others would shy away from - See James Davies, Martyn Williams,  Justin Tipuric, Dan Evans and Brian O'Driscoll for more information. The latest call from the Kiwi and his crew has again jammed in the craw of many, but it's one they have got right.

Firstly the decision to ring fence the the squad for the first test - and likely the second test the week after - more than makes sense and whilst the decision to call up players for the mid week games may well have been premeditated, it doesn't make it wrong. The players Gatland has shipped in are perfect for the role he wants them to play too. Whilst many are unhappy with Gatland's selections, they DO make sense.

Gatland has already cited the obvious issue of geography. It's an easy cop out, but it's also true. Wales' first test was rearranged for Auckland after Tonga's facilities were deemed unfit. Scotland, meanwhile, were just over the water beating Australia in their own backyard. Of course it's logical to call up players who are already on your doorstep, just ask Dai Young, Shane Williams, Andy Nicol and Ryan Jones. 

Conversely, England are 30 to 40 hours away in Argentina, which throws up questions of the feasibility of calling up anyone in time for the Chiefs game. That would mean playing a test on Saturday, immediately setting off for New Zealand, travelling by coach and plane for a day and half with no post match recuperation, completing one training on Monday and learning set piece moves by Tuesday's game. That's before jet lag and 15 hours time difference comes into play.

By contrast, Cory Hill has already trained with the Lions at their Hensol base before setting off across the equator. Not only has he taken part in Lions set pieces in training, he has called the lineouts and completed analysis on them. 

As well as the logistical and technical, there's the mental. Firstly, there is the clear message that the camp are sending out, "we are happy with our progress." Calling up the likes of Hartley and Launchbury may have been seen as panic within the ranks, worry that their initial selections may not be strong enough. At very least, it would be easy for Steve Hanson to spin it that way. With these choices, the selectors are showing they have faith in their players and - whether you agreed with it or not - their system.

Then, there's the harmony in camp. It's clear that Gatland runs a very tight ship, of which he likes to be in control. What he says goes and his leaders are expected to back him. Players step out of line at their own peril as the likes of James Hook, Tom James and Alix Popham found out. 

In 1997 big personalities helped make the tour successful, but that was the early days of professionalism. Since then we have had the England strike of 2000, which saw player power truly flex it's muscles. When Graham Henry's Lions tour derailed in 2001 he quickly pointed to rogue players and the press. In 2005 Clive Woodward and his bloated glut of staff managed to disenfranchise just about the whole squad. Modern Lions coaching seems to be as much about keep some egos in check as it does creating the confidence in others. 

Before coaching the squad to victory in Australia four years ago, Gatland spent the best part of a year with Ian McGeechan to analysis errors in tour gone by - that 2005 tour in particular. With this move Gatland has righted Sir Clive's biggest wrong. Now the Tuesday team doesn't feel like a rag tag group of players cast aside a left like unwanted children and shut out of their own team's meetings. They are a team grateful to be there and happy to have the opportunity to pull on the jersey and receive their unique cap number. They are delighted to be a Tuesday team.

With that he also minimises a repeat of Henry's failed campaign. A diary by Matt Dawson and an Austin Healey article ghost written by Eddie Butler causing a stir within the camp. Don't expect to see any Cory Hill diary entries in the Telegraph or Tomas Francis bemoaning the lack of harmony. These are players Gatland knows and trusts, players who will get their head down and get on with it. These call ups are unlikely to win the Lions any test, but they certainly won't create a disruptive figure could certainly cost them either and that is what matters most. 

While we will want to be competitive in midweek games, it's the tests that truly matter. Nobody cares that we lost to Northern Transvaal in 1997, only that we beat the Springboks. We forget the defeat to the Brumbies four years ago because we ended our barren run in the test series. We aren't proud that we only lost twice in South Africa in 2009 because both those defeats were test matches that cost us the series.

So, whilst people talk of the these selections devaluing the Lions jersey, we must ask what value there is if the Lions aren't competitive? And, if they aren't competitive, will there be a Lions jersey at all to value in the future?

Adam and the Ants - Feed Me to the Lions

Friday, February 3, 2017

Since Justin Tipuric last missed a tackle...

  • Britain has had a new PM and voted to leave the EU
  • An orange, TV personality in a wig was voted President of the United States of America
  • £1.8m people sign a petition to stop an orange, TV personality in a wig who was voted President of the United States of America from visiting Britain 

  • Ian Duncan Smith resigned as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
  • Stephen Crabbe was appointed Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
  • Stephen Crabbe was caught in sext scandal
  • Stephen Crabbe resigned as  Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
  • Roy Hodgson was sacked as manager of the England football team
  • Sam Allardyce appoint manager of the England football team
  • Sam Allardyce sacked as manager of the England football team
  • Gareth Southgate appointed manager of the England football team
  • England won a Grand Slam
  • Ireland beat New Zealand in America (and claimed victory of the big three Southern Hemisphere teams) 
  • An American president visited Cuba
  • Leicester City won the premiership 
  • Wales football reached the semi final of a major competition 
  • National Living Wage comes into force
  • The Panama papers were released
  • Junior doctors went on strike 
  • Primary school children went on strike 
  • London got its first ever Muslim mayor
  • Manchester United's final game of the football season was cancelled after a suspicious package was found. It later turned out to be a training aid with the word "bomb" sellotaped to it
  • The Chilcott Enquiry was finally released
  • Labour Leadership election held after a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn won.
  • Trident was renewed
  • The last VHS video recorded was produced
  • A summer Olympics was held in winter...and Britain finish second
  • A 58 year old war ended in Colombia
  • Bob Dylan won a noble prize
  • The Queen turned 90
  • An unlawful killing verdict delivered in the Hillsborough Disaster case
  • Great British Bake Off left the BBC
  • Nigel Farage resigned as leader of UKIP 
  • Diane James named as UKIP leader
  • Diane James resigned as UKIP leader
  • Paul Nuttalls is named leader of the UKIPs
  • Two UKIP MEPs have a fight at the European Parliament leaving Stephen Woolfe hospitalised
  • A gorilla escaped for its London Zoo enclosure and with his new found freedom drank 5 litres of Vimto and passed out
  • Muhammad Ali, Prince, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Fidel Castro, Gene Wilder, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Ronnie Corbett, Arnold Palmer, Johan Cruyff, Andrew Sachs, John Glenn, Rick Parfitt, Liz Smith and Caroline Aherne, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Graham Taylor, John Hurt, Nancy Reagan, Pete Burns, Anton Yelchin, Merle Haggard, Harper Lee, two thirds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Mr Fuji, Chyna and Boutros Boutros-Ghali sadly died.
  • 128,880,000 children have been born 
  • 843 new words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary 
  • 7 new stars were born in our galaxy
  • Cristiano Ronaldo has earned approximately £69 million pounds in wages and sponsorship
  • Beauden Barrett has scored 380 points for the Hurricanes and New Zealand
  • Dylan Hartley has managed to get suspended just once.



Well done Dylan.

 

Six Nations 2017: Preview


It's a cliche that's trotted out annually, but this year's tournament promises to be the closest yet. Sometimes though, cliches are based on fact and splitting the teams is no easy task.

It's especially more complicated now that bonus points come into play, which may not just affect the final table, but the tactics and psychology along the way.

So, how will the teams perform?

Can England capture back-to-back titles? Will Ireland spoil their party? Are Wales as bad as the public think? Are Scotland competitive once again?  Have France improved or is it just that infamous French inconsistency? Can Italy spring a surprise and stun one of their counterparts?

Choose a nation below to take a look at how they are shaping up ahead of the tournament.






Six Nations 2017: Wales


Last year 
Lies, damn lies and statistics for Wales. On paper 2016 was a largely decent year, in reality it was a year of discontent. Second in the Six Nations, three wins from four in autumn and competitive in their tests against the All Blacks; Welsh fans used to long for such years. However, performances were mediocre at best and flair all bar non-existent. 

Coach 
With Warren Gatland again away on Lions duty, Rob Howley steps into the breach. Coach of Wales is often a thankless job and Howley is already not everyone’s first choice (or second, third or fourth for that matter), despite being in charge when Wales last lifted the title. The Welsh public feel that Wales have stagnated and they have a good point. If Howley wants to win over the public and secure the role in the future, now isn’t the time to play safe. His selection of 7 uncapped players and a new captain suggests he may throw caution to the wind…and so he should.

Captain 
Under Gatland, Sam Warburton has proven to be a fantastic captain for both Wales and the Lions, however, questions still hang over his head with regards to that starting spot. Wales have a ready-made replacement in talismanic second row Alun Wyn Jones though. Jones already has two test wins as captain for Wales and series clincher for the Lions and is likely Wales’ mostly likely player to be starting in New Zealand this summer. 


Star player
It's fair to say Scott Williams has been patient in waiting for international opportunities, but his chance must be now. His form has been exceptional for the Scarlets and he's already written himself into Welsh rugby folklore with his try at Twickenham in 2012. 

One to watch
There are seven uncapped players in the squad, but game time will be limited for them. Sam Davies will likely play understudy to Ospreys teammate Dan Biggar, but he will make for a fantastic impact player from the bench and could be the secret to Wales getting their rugby flowing again.

Strengths
The Welsh back row is particularly strong and the debate for openside is the new Barry or Benny for your Wales XV.

Weaknesses
There's little depth at centre and neither Jamie Roberts or Jonathan Davies are forcing themselves into a starting spot. Creativity has been hard to come by too and Wales will need to find their mojo as the game evolves more towards attacking prowess. 

Prediction
Wales certainly have issues, but reports of their demise may be greatly exaggerated. Howley has chance to freshen up the squad and seven uncapped and Alex King as attack coach may just do that. Wales will relish being underdogs in Cardiff against England and it could make for an interesting encounter. 

Catatonia - International Velvet

Six Nations 2017: Scotland


Last year

A disappointing fourth place finish despite impressive victories over France and Italy. A decent  autumn with two wins against Japan before victories against Argentina and Georgia. It was heartbreak against Australia again though with a 1 point defeat.


Coach
The results don't tell the tale of Vern Cotter's time in Scotland. Just two Six Nations victories to his name so far. Scotland have made big improvements in those two years. This tournament will be Cotter's last for Scotland before he hands the reins to Gregor Townsend and his players will want to send him off in style.

Captain
Scrum half Greig Laidlaw has been an excellent player for some time for Scotland, but has often not received the credit he deserved. That's changed since his 2015 World Player of the Year nomination and rightly so.

Star player
Scotland have struggled for star quality for a period but that has changed. Lightning quick Stuart Hogg is capable of magic from anywhere on the pitch, Huw Jones added creativity to their midfield whilst Finn Russell continues to prove himself among the best half backs in the game. 

One to watch
With the injury to WP Nel Scotland will turn to young prop Zander Fagerson to shore up their scrum. Fagerson has been impressive for Glasgow Warriors and his four caps at prop aged just 21 is testament to that. 

Strengths
Scottish rugby is on a wave of positivity with Glasgow reaching the quarterfinals in the Champions Cup, a fine Autum and the development of truly international quality players. Couple this with Cotter last year in charge and Scotland could be dangerous.

Weaknesses
Defence let Scotland down last year and coupled with the lack of a killer instinct lost winnable games.

Prediction
Sometimes rudderless in the past, their halfbacks and midfield now have enough quality and creativity to make them contenders for the top three. Ireland up first at home will be a test for both teams. 


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Six Nations 2017: Ireland


Last year
A poor Six Nations for an injury ravaged Ireland, in which they were only able to beat Italy and Scotland. That was quickly forgotten with a victory against the South Hemisphere's big three, historic win against the All Blacks in Chicago.

Coach
Many felt that Ireland coach Joe Schmidt should have landed the Lions job, before Gatland got the nod, and for good reason. In his three years in the hot seat he has landed two titles and, when it escaped him last year, he set about beating Australia, New Zealand and South Africa instead. Graham Henry recently called Schmidt a "Very special coach." High praise indeed.

Captain
While talk continues about Dylan Hartley, Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton for Lions captaincy, few outside of Ireland are mentioning Rory Best and that will suit the Ulster hooker down to the ground. An excellent captain with more than enough ability to nail down a starting spot in the Lions test team.

Star player
It’s only been a year since CJ Stander made his debut for Ireland but he already feels like he is part of the core of the team. In a highly competitive position he has made himself virtually undroppable and against the ultra-competitive backrows of Wales and England, his influence can not be under estimated.

One to watch
Leinster's fleet footed centre Gary Ringrose is already being compared legend Brian O'Driscoll. He has now added some physicality to his game and is forging a great centre partnership with Robbie Henshaw.

Strengths
Ireland continue to show an excellent depth in their player pool to overcome injuries that would have crippled them in the past. On the field they have become adept at attacking from virtually every phase and are bossing the breakdowns.

Weaknesses
The news of Sexton’s injury will cause some alarm; Paddy Jackson is a very good outside half, but Sexton has been at the heart of this Ireland team and his game management is incredible. In defence, there are still lots of questions about their tackling ability and they have been a bit leaky.

Prediction
With England travelling to Dublin and the short trip to Cardiff being one they tend to enjoy, Ireland have a fantastic chance to topple England and take the Championship again and make it a green day. However, that largely depends on how they cope without Sexton.
Green Day - Green Day

Six Nations 2017: Italy


Last year 
No wins from five in last year’s tournament for the seventh time since joining the tournament (and their eleventh wooden spoon). A win against the Springboks looked like the start of a new dawn for the Azzurri, but defeat to Tonga seven days later brought them back to earth with a bump.

Coach 
Irishman Conor O’Shea has swapped London for Rome and taken Brendan Venter with him as defence coach. O’Shea has talked about performances being more important than results for this year, but internally they will want a scalp and are capable of getting it.

Captain
The mercurial Sergio Parisse keeps rolling back the years. Without doubt the greatest player to ever pull on the Italian jersey and one of the greatest of his generation in the world.

Star player
The rise of Michele Campagnaro continues. It's been clear for some time that the Italian centre is good enough to compete against any team and his excellent form for Exeter comes just at the right time for Italy.

One to watch
The Springboks victory was a real watershed moment for Italian rugby and scrum half Giorgio Bronzini was central to that in just us second game for Italy.

Strengths
Confidence will be high in the camp after the victory against South Africa and any doubts over their ability to compete against tier one teams have been put to rest.

Weaknesses
Fitness remains Italy's enemy - especially in the pack - and they have fallen away in games. 

Prediction
How important this first game could be. A Wales team in transition make the trip to Rome where the Italians have beaten them before. A win on the opening day would boost self-belief in the Italian camp for the rest of the tournament, but one scalp somewhere along the way would likely be the best they could hope for.

Kasabian - Underdog

Six Nations 2017: France


Last year 
Typically French. Narrow wins over Italy and Ireland followed up by defeats to Wales and Scotland to end their title hopes, before being finished off by England on the final weekend. One win and one defeat to Samoa before honourable defeats (if such a thing should exist at this level) to Australia and the All Blacks. In all, a mixed bag.
Coach France finished the year with improved performances against two of the Southern Hemisphere big guns and Guy Noves has played a huge role in that; just 12 months before France were humiliated by a 62-13 defeat to New Zealand at the World Cup. 
Captain 
Hooker Guilhem Guirado leads his team from the front and was one of few of Les Bleus who could hold his head high 12 months ago. He is on page with Noves and leading change from the front with an incredible work rate. His time as skipper hasn’t returned many wins yet, but he will want to put that right.
Star player 
With capped players not falling into the new French selection policy, it means Noa Nakaitaci is free to play for Les Bleus. A Fiji-born hulking, brute of a winger with dancing feet and the ability to conjure tries
 
One to watch
It’s been a while since France had a settled half back pairing, but they will hope they have half of one in Baptiste Serin. The Bordeaux Begles scrum half could be the one to get the French back division firing. Quick, composed, creative and just 22 years old; Serin could be France’s future, but can he be their present?
 
Strengths 
A new, fast paced offloading game saw France compete with Australia and New Zealand in the autumn. If they can eradicate the small errors from their game, they could be a force.
 
Weaknesses 
Injuries have decimated France and they lost five players in one Champions Cup weekend and a long, physical Top 14 season will not have helped. It’s left them without an established centre pairing, uncertainty over their halfbacks and no time to adapt with England at Twickenham up first.
 
Prediction 
It’s all down to progress. If France can improve on the performance that they ended 2016 with, they can compete. However, inconsistency has been their downfall in recent years, but with England at Twickenham up first the result could set the tone for their tournament.

Blackrain - Back in Town

Six Nations 2017: England

Last year
Undefeated. A full calendar of victories in 2016 meant a Championship, Grand Slam, Triple Crown, Calcutta Cup and seven test victories. They enter the tournament as bookies favourite for good reason and are the team to beat.


Coach
Australian Eddie Jones hit the ground running as England head coach and remains unbeaten. After the humiliation of crashing out of their own World Cup he has restored pride to England and this year will be his chance to make them a World force again.

Captain
Questions were asked as to whether Dylan Hartley should be captain going into this year's competition with a disciplinary record that has seen him spend more than a calendar year suspended. He has been exemplary with the armband in the white of England however, and gives them the right kind of bite on the field.

Star player
Despite Eddie Jones' assertions that England have no world classes players yet, they have plenty who are close. Owen Farrell finds himself in a rich vein of form and his creativity from 12 allows England's backs to play at pace and - especially now that bonus points are on offer - that could prove to be vital to England. 

One to watch 
With the big ball carrying Vunipola brothers out, young Nathan Hughes may have to take on the role Billy V has left. He’s shown he is more than capable, but is capability on the biggest stage may have a bearing on how England perform.

Strengths
A squad deeper than the Mariana Trench and, even with some big names missing, they have plenty of talent to call upon. On the back of 14 straight wins, confidence is high and they are getting their swagger back.

Weaknesses 
Injuries have ravaged their backrow and set pieces haven’t always been their strong point. 

Prediction
Ireland in Dublin on the final day will real test the mettle of the young guns if the title (and possibly Grand Slam) is on the line. England fans will have seen it slip away too many times in the past and Ireland will be a real tough test this time around.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Steeley, Depression and Me


In rugby we hear a lot about bravery; a fullback bravely sacrificing his body in front of a marauding monster of a number 8, a player bravely contesting a kick that's sure to end with a heavy impact on the turf, a captain bravely shunning three points in favour of a match winning seven. This week however, we saw one of rugby's true acts of bravery.

Many will know Phil Steele as Scrum V's pitch side correspondent. A man of sharp wit and penchant for word play. He is one of rugby’s good guys – of which there are many if you ask me – one of the funny guys and one of the knowledgeable guys. When some reporters make you cringe as they push microphones into the damaged faces of rugby’s elite, Steeley can make you smile. His huge personality, worldly wise manner and empathy towards players makes him the one of the best pitch side reporters since Grav sadly departed us.

However, there is another side to the former Newport fullback that was revealed in an interview with fantastic Welsh rugby writer Simon Thomas this week. In the release of his new book, it came as a shock that Steele talked about his three decade long struggle with depression. Maybe it shouldn’t; Comedy and depression have made for strange bedfellows since long before Les Dawson’s mother-in-law was a little girl. A tortured soul and a sense of humour, it seems, go hand-in-hand.

What is more shocking – and refreshing – is to hear somebody like Steeley talk so openly and honestly about this. Though barriers are coming down surrounding this issue, it is still often tucked away, ignore and treated as a dirty little secret. The stigmas continue to reduce around depression, but they are still huge and especially in men. In 2014 the suicide rates in men in the UK was over three times higher than in women, at a staggering rate of 16.8 per 100,000. A part of this is because of the perception of what "real men" should do and how they should act. Many people have no outlet or feel an embarrassment in sharing the issue.
So now, I will also follow Steeley’s lead and share my own experiences.

I myself have struggled with depression throughout my life. Sometimes there have been obvious triggers that have caused it, other times it has just descended like the inescapable fog does on the Brecon Beacons. Sometimes it manifests itself as anger, sometimes as self-loathing, sometimes it is fear – though it isn’t always clear what the fear is of – and sometimes it is a crippling sense of apathy that makes any task seem like Richard Park’s next challenge. My old boss once asked me to explain to them how I feel, I couldn’t find the words to describe correctly. That was 5 years ago, but I’m not sure I could find the words now.

It took me a long time to admit I had a problem and I was suffering. Many people close to me don’t even realise now, but those closest bore the brunt. Even after my acknowledgment I struggled to talk about it… I still do now. For a long time a couldn’t use the ‘D’ word; I was feeling "off", "down", "not with it", I was never comfortable saying I was depressed.

Like Steele, I tried to used rugby as my outlet. I played, I coached, I set up this blog. This blog was merely a way to focus my mind, a distraction away from my problems and a way to train my brain back into untangling the thoughts in my head. At my best and at my worst, I have neglected this blog; thrown it away like crutch I no longer needed. Now I rarely blog and when I do it’s because I want to rather than need to.

I know plenty of people won’t care about this post, and that’s fine – I’m not someone you know, someone you love, someone you watch on TV and feel an affiliation to. However, this post will help me. Not now as I feel the sickness rising in my stomach or the nerves cause prickles of heat to wash over my skin. Not as my hand shakes and quivers over the keys. Not later when I inevitably hover over the "Publish" button for far too long. Not when I await the first response to the post.

But when it’s there for everyone to see, when it’s off my chest and the black dog is off my back, when the first retweet or like or positive comment comes in. Then, when I receive the first negative comment, I will know I have change and I have grown; I won’t retreat into my shell or delete the post, but smile and move on with my day, with my life. The depression hasn’t gone away, I’m not sure it ever can, but I can deal with it much better now.

Even more than helping me, I hope that somebody will read this – even just one person – and realises that they aren’t alone, that is normal. That it will make it all worthwhile.

Thank you Steeley, for your honesty.
 
Manic Street Preachers – Black Dog on My Shoulder