Archive for the ‘ Sport ’ Category

Is anyone feeling sorry for Rob Howley?

Any rugby fan who has come across the classic, much imitated, Living with Lions series charting the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 1997, would have needed a heart of stone to not feel sympathy for Rob Howley when a very messy dislocated shoulder forced him out of the tour. Perhaps everyone in Wales and involved with Welsh rugby needs to go back and watch that sequence again, because little else in the form of sympathy will greet him this morning.

© Huw Evans Picture Agency

Rob Howley has gone from outstanding playing talent and record breaking Welsh rugby captain, to national pariah, doomed to be chased around the streets of Bridgend by mobs carrying pitchforks and wearing the tattered rags of Celtic Warrior jerseys, such has his stock fallen. His brief reign in charge of Wales has gone from defensible efforts in challenging climates overseas, to humiliating reductions in front of an increasingly hostile and disengaged home crowd.

Looking back though, it was always slightly puzzling as to why Howley ended up as the man in charge. Howley’s previously responsibilities fell on managing the Welsh attack, which since the reign of Gatland had begun, often seemed one of the weaker elements. Welsh victories had been ground out through fitness and forwards, not to mention a healthy dose of massive long range penalties. In attack Wales had been profligate for the talents at their disposal. The least effective cog in the coaching machine had taken over the entire managerial mechanism.

So as the knives are sharpened, and Howley’s back and shoulders becomes notable for the many laser projected red dots that are fixed on him, what next for the former Welsh hero? Quitting would be the honourable thing to do at this stage. Other than Nigel Davies and Scott Johnson, who arguably had few resources, certainly in terms of time with the squads at their disposal, there is now no worse Welsh international coaching record than Rob Howley’s. Take away the Welsh victory over the fictional nation of the Barbarians, and Howley has the worse Wales coaching record in history. Others have been fired for far less from the Wales post, is there any justification for his continuance into the Six Nations?

If Howley is coach going into the prestigious tournament, he would likely be taking on a team that will in all probability have suffered seven defeats in a row, and could well sit outside the top ten of the world rugby table. Is there anything in Howley’s coaching pedigree to say that he won’t lead Wales into double figures of consecutive defeats? Not yet at least, and we should all hope for his sake as well as that of Wales, that the WRU and Gatland have the good sense to hand over the reins to someone who is not covered in the persistent stink of failure, it is pervasive and does not wash off with ease.

In the memories of Welsh rugby fans, Howley probably retains just enough of a position in our hearts based on his on-field efforts to not be completely vilified. But that situation will only remain, and his legacy be assured, if he does the right thing and step to one side. Yes, players a plenty are to blame for the defeats as well, but ultimate responsibility for persistent failure stops with the man in charge. It is the mentality that Gatland used to apply to his players, and it needs to be applied to his coaches as well. As soon as possible preferably.

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Pro12 Five Rounds In

If we’ve learned anything over the years following club rugby, is that you should never write a team off, especially not in the first two weeks of the season. Look to the English media and their dismissal of London Welsh. The Exiles had been written off after two heavy defeats, yet turned the tables on their senior opposition to suddenly look like contenders: a season of rugby is a very long time.

The ProRabo, or Pro12 has illustrated this point just as effectively in the first month of competition. For many commentators, the Ospreys, after several shock results, were a spent force, unable to cope with the loss of Shane Williams and company. Yet against the Scarlets and Munster, they suddenly woke up and turned into professional bullies, battering their supposedly on form opponents into the ground. With newcomers Zebre coming close to shocking Glasgow away from home, and the demolition job pulled off on Leinster by Connacht, it should be clear to all that this is no longer a competition where ‘easy’ matches will be frequently available.

Of course all the results of the last month were put into tragic perspective with the loss of the hugely promising talent of Nevin Spence. Only just arriving on the international scene, Spence seemed destined to make a regular home of an Irish center berth for the foreseeable future, and the rugby landscape is much poorer for his loss. His Ulster teammates have however responded in the best way possible, raising their game to brush aside the Cardiff Blues and stand undefeated and top of the table. If form and motivation are anything to go by after a month of the regional season, Ulster are one team who you would be brave to bet against being in the thick of the business end of the season.

From a Welsh perceptive, it would appear that the regions are settling into a predictable pattern. The Ospreys, while embarrassing early on,  have suddenly found a pack that can disintegrate the very best put in front of them, and will surely be a force if their scrum continues to damage the likes of Munster. The Scarlets, having started so well, now find themselves back in the mix of the impossible to predict. With such attacking talent, the tries keep coming in with ease, but the new combinations in the front 5 are taking their time to gell. Once the front row spends some time getting to know each other, you would expect them to be contenders as well.

As for the Dragons and the Blues, we are somewhat in the unknown. For the Dragons, every game should be a struggle, yet their festival of goal kicking against Edinburgh went some way to suggesting that there will be plenty of teams who will be caught out on the trip to Rodney Parade (though few will fear hosting them). The Blues though face probably the longest season. They have the tools to win, but not the experience. Too many youngsters in the mix seems likely to leave the Blues walking the path of the Scarlets in recent seasons. It will be painful, but the rewards of bringing through the young regional talent will pay off. Once the likes of Rhys Patchell grow into their new senior roles, the Blues will be a force once more, but it will take more than a season to get that club firing again.

For Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh have again shown their ability in fits and bursts, but while Glasgow struggle at home to Zebre, and Edinburgh fail to match away wins in Cardiff with away wins in Newport, they are unlikely to generate enough consistent success to last the season. But then, five rounds in, there are few results you would have predicted so far!

And at this early point, the promising pack would have to comprise Ulster, Scarlets, Ospreys and Leinster. Even with Leinster’s shortcomings against Connacht, they should still have too much firepower for the likes of Glasgow and Munster, who, if they don’t find a scrum again soon, could be facing an exceptionally difficult season.

We’ll see how things stand at the close of round 10.

Usk Show: Horses Galore

First of a few photo blogs to work through from recent weeks. The Usk agricultural show really stood out this year, not just for the excellent weather and impressive attendance, but largely for the organisers getting the show going at all this year. Severe rainfall in the build up to the show had put it at risk, but such is the value of this cultural contribution to the local economy, that 24 hour a day efforts were undertaken to make certain that the show went ahead.

A regular staple of the show, and always a crowd favorite, are the wealth of prize equines on display, and here are just a small sample of those to compete this year.

Hounds and Horses

Certainly a subject for debate, as it was on the show ground.

Lining up for competition.

The large one to the left of shot was the star of the show.

The jumping went ahead despite concerns on conditions.

Several quick, clear rounds went in.

Clear efforts all round this time.

And something very different.

The heavyweight workers.

Probably the highlights of the day – such giant creatures working in perfect harmony.

Remembering the Crowd…

 With the World Cup now on its way to being no more than a memory, it seemed as good an opportunity to remind the world of how good the fans of Welsh Rugby are. The cup may not have provided what Wales wanted, but we showed the world once more just how committed the country is to the sport.

Wales’ World Cup: Stars Born, Kicks Missed.

Well, in many respects, Wales’ defeat to Australia in the third place play off of the 2011 rugby world cup smacked of a game too far. The legs were not pumping as hard as they had been, the gain line breaks failed to travel as far as they could a couple of weeks ago, and all the time everyone in red pondered the absence of Priestland, Jones (Adam) and Warburton and what could have been with them on the field. The strength in depth to cover such absences is developing, but it is clearly not there yet. So fourth for Wales in the world cup (and a much lower world ranking to boot) and a sense of disappointment from a tournament which in the warm up period offered so little, yet grew to offer so much. The defeat to France and the infamous red card will be one to stand the test of time in Welsh irritations, probably outstripping the Andy Haden lineout dive in 1978 as the most controversial and bitter of reasons for defeat (though I wager Haden’s dive will ultimately hold more sway over Welsh rugby’s bitter taste buds). But despite consecutive defeats at the end of the tournament, and a string of sore bones and bruises (most of which will be focused on George North’s head), there is much cause for optimism as this squad moves forward, as will be considered below.

Welsh Player of the Tournament: There are so many players in the Welsh squad who could raise their hands for this accolade, Warburton, North, Priestland, Lydiate, Adam Jones could all make their case, but Toby Faletau for me has led the way, and should do so for a long time in a Welsh jersey. The man has been a monster in defence, hammering every single person down who was foolhardy enough to get within his grasp. In attack he proved a nuisance, crashing forward and making waves of space for those around him. At the end of the tournament he was asked to move out of position, and still proved his worth: he certainly won’t force Warburton out of his No7 jersey, but he proved his versatility in covering for the captain. Not since Scott Quinnell have Wales had such a presence from No8, and Faletau is already looking better than Quinnell did in his prime.

Star Find: Again, plenty to choose from, but Priestland probably stands out, more so by his absence than his presence on the field. All of the talk in the tournament focused on the Welsh backs, Roberts in particular, but so much of what went right for Wales in attack came from the mind of Priestland. He offered a sense of vision that has long been lacking in the No10 jersey for Wales, and both Hook and Stephen Jones’ efforts in the role highlighted just how important Priestland had been. Another one who will have hopefully a couple of World Cups in his future, Priestland has inherited the outside half crown and made it his own.

Wales LVP: Possibly a harsh branding, and a harsh recipient, but James Hook has gone from being the pundits first choice 10 for Wales, to the nations pariah…his journey to France could perhaps not be more timely. What happened to Hook one wonders? Once so calm with his kicks, once so dangerous running forward, he now looks a shadow, a wraith like presence scaring the Welsh attack into ignominy with his mere presence. As others have pointed out, Wales lost three games by a collective margin of 5 points – looking back over Hook’s missed efforts how can fans help but point a finger of judgement in his direction. Probably most telling of Hook’s contributions was against Australia in the build up to Shane Williams’ try. Hook broke, panicked, and flung a ball at Shane’s feet – chance then created the try, not Hook. A startled man, a broken man, perhaps a sabbatical in France is just what he needs, because far from being a grand slam hero, Hook is now damaged goods, and we must hope that this incredibly talented man can find a path to rugby redemption – he certainly needs it.     

The Good: When Welsh attack sparked it was the best in the tournament. From 1-15 there were occasions when Wales played something approaching rugby perfection. With one or two key personal lost, it could not be sustained, but when the Welsh first choice 15 took the field – what a joy it was to see them play. The Irish game will stand the test of time as an example of how rugby should be played – and boy did Wales play that day.

The Bad: The strength in depth is coming, but it’s not here yet. Hook for Priestland, Paul James for Adam Jones, no more openside flankers when Sam’s not around…it’s only one or two players but when they are not available to Wales we looked like the team that was caught in the Six Nations headlamps not so many months ago. The Welsh coaches need to grab a shovel and start digging to find the next tighthead prop and openside flanker and fast. Without support in those areas Wales go from being great and average – and it happens with alarming ease

The Ugly: Warburton, poor Sam Warburton. The debates are still raging as to whether it should have been a red card or not, yet even those who conclude it should have been, still pity the man for his punishment. Warburton stood as the leader, the man who would carry Wales to the world cup final. It did not happen. A referee made a decision and took it all away from him. Put aside the debate, if the card was right or wrong, his loss from the tournament was an ugly underserved moment.

Finally, The Future: Wales must not get too excited too soon. They leave this tournament having played the best rugby, and at times, having looked like the best team, but not always. A Six Nations is coming, and Wales can win it. With the first XV available this Wales squad could take any nation, but we must find backups to the starting line up who are up to the task. 10, 7, and 3, positions on the field that are essential. Wales have three excellent players to start in those berths, but currently have no stars to step up. Without support in those positions, any ambitions of Grand Slam success will remains as ambitions alone. We have shown how average we are without stars in those positions, and the future of Welsh rugby will stand and fall not on the ability of Priestland, Warburton and Adam Jones, but on those who replace them when the need arises. Keep searching Wales, we have the power, now we need to back it up from the bench.

RWC 2011: A Brief Word on Red Cards and Spears…

There will be a cold light of day moment to go through Wales’ defeat against France today, but just q quick entry is required now, as I am in bewilderment at the volume of needling little oiks out there who think that the red carding of Sam Warburton was justified. Plenty have been citing IRB regulations, and fair to do so, so let’s cast an eye over them quickly:

 •The player is lifted and then forced or “speared” into the ground. A red card should be issued for this type of tackle.

 •The lifted player is dropped to the ground from a height with no regard to the player’s safety. A red card should be issued for this type of tackle.

 •For all other types of dangerous lifting tackles, it may be considered a penalty or yellow card is sufficient.

Most of the Irish referring fan society have been pointing to the second point here, yet in reality, and as is the consensus in most of the rational rugby watching world, point three, and only point three was applicable. Warburton certainly did not force or spear the Frenchman into the ground, on that there is general acceptance. Dropped with no regard for safety though, this one is getting more support. Yet no Frenchman was dropped. Warburton was in control of his tackled man from start to finish. It was a tip tackle. The player raised during the momentum of the tackle, tipped over that key point of horizontal, and was guided to the ground. What Warburton did matches the description of neither points 1 or 2. This was a yellow card offence, at most, more likely a penalty.

Rolland made a rash call, and his retirement will not be missed, given that he has now not only ruined the Rugby World Cup for Welsh fans and players alike, but any purest who enjoys rugby played at its best. France do not offer this, have not offered this, and will not offer this. The worst team won, and Rolland’s shocking interpretation of the laws (not for the first time it should be added) are the primary, if indeed not the sole, reason for this development.

Finally – for all those licking at the heels of Rolland, if you want to see a game where Warburton’s tackle is worthy of a red card, then say goodbye to rugby. There was no malice, and no lack of control, no one went in to hurt anyone, and no one came out hurt. It happens in rugby, and will continue to happen – support that red card as a precedent upon which the future of the game will be run, and you can wave goodbye to realistic contests, if Rolland had his way, you would have a red card at least once a game, for the most innocuous of offences. Ruin the game if you must, because supporting this action will only result in that for the sport formerly known as Rugby Union.

RWC 2011: A Nation Rises (To Watch Television).

 I suppose there are lots of things that we might say ‘only in Wales’ about, but for want of accidentally insulting people, I’ll avoid listing some of the more stereotypical examples for the moment. Yet, only in Wales, surely only in Wales, would a statistically significant proportion of the nation get up early on a Saturday morning, drag themselves down to Cardiff on a day when no international rugby is on in the country, to then watch television. Really, without wanting to undersell the significance of tomorrows gathering, it really can be boiled down to an occasion where over 60,000 people will convene in one place to watch television…at 9am! You could picture it happening in other nations, were it not for the start time, really, 9am, on a Saturday, people in Wales who have jobs to go to at 9am on a Saturday, don’t wake up at 9am on a Saturday!

Truly, Saturday morning will be a remarkable day, and I suppose win or lose, the occasion will be a great one. Whatever result may be provided to greet or punish those hardy souls who make it down into the capital, they will at least be comforted that they go there in the knowledge that it will be shared by thousands. Not thousands down the motorway, or thousands overseas, but thousands sitting to the left, right, in-front and behind – the Millennium Stadium will be a very special place to be tomorrow morning.

I suppose the question that all will be pondering is will Wales win? Will those 60,000 have a second chance to pile into the stadium for the final the following week? Well, as with Ireland before, this blog can only conclude that there is nothing to fear for Wales from this French team. That being said, the assembled ranks of the French media are naturally saying the exact opposite, that France, with the form and weight of recent history on their side, will breeze past the Welsh…memories of south pacific horror stories are short lives in Paris.

Looking over the England v France game again, and with the whatever loyalties viewers might have had put to one side, it is very difficult to see how France secured victory over England. Yes, English defence was shambolic in the first half, yet England created, yes, that word ‘created’ is being used in reference to England, chance after chance. France were either stretched or broken through the middle repeatedly, and it is only for want of confidence and a finishing touch that cost England. Now, without wanting to be too churlish, England are not the fittest team in New Zealand, and they do not have the best attacking ability, by a long shot, yet they opened up the French line with what must be alarming ease for the French coaching team to consider.

Put simply, Wales will offer the French much, much more to deal with in attack. Hook might offer less direction as a 10 than Priestland, but he more than makes up for that with his individual ability to walk through the very best of defences. Wales can score tries against this French defensive lineup, and France will need to show a defensive grit not seen so far in this tournament. They will also need to find an extra reserve of energy, their flagging against England was almost their ruin, and Wales will be running at them harder and for longer. In short, and as with Ireland, France have to lead Wales by 8 points with 20 minutes to go, or Wales will win this game, any less and, if we base things on form and current ability, Wales should have far too much in the tank for a French team that can score tries, but is all too generous when it comes to giving them back to the opposition.

Whatever happens, tomorrow in Cardiff will be an amazing place to be, and one can only hope that the Welsh form displayed so far, carries us on to make this not a morning of support in Cardiff, but a day of celebration – if Wales do win, let’s hope the Brains brewery has stocked the city well, a win tomorrow for Wales could well see the city run dry.

Best of luck boys.