Archive for the ‘ Sports ’ Category

Digging Deep for Positives: Wales and the Autumn Internationals.

Well, it really was worse case scenario in the end. Going into the Autumn test series, captain Sam was bullish about four wins, the fans would have taken two, and yet everyone (apart from teams playing in any colour other than red in Cardiff) had to settle for none. On top of four weeks of disappointments, Wales now find themselves stuck in the world rankings behind Samoa and Argentina, the sort of nation that the IRB needs to bend over backwards to help develop. That’s right, we are now statistically worse than the ‘we need help’ nations…it’s not good is it?

A goat is as good as bayonet on a day like this.

A goat is as good as bayonet on a day like this.

And yet, should we now turn to the depths of despair? After all, England, Ireland and France are all bouncing around the international scene with excitement and positivity, what can Wales be hopeful about in such dark times? Well, there are some crumbs of comfort, but you really need to look deep into the darkened crevices under the dinner table to find them – and much of it comes from the injury list.

Okay, so the party line from Welsh management, players and fans alike will be ‘no excuses’. Quite right, so long as Wales can put out a starting XV then there will be a recognised Welsh international team to cheer on and shoot down. In no way do we want to reverse that mentality, accepting defeat is unacceptable. But if we look ahead, say three seasons, maybe seven ahead, there is some scope for optimism.

After all, how many international teams would realistically be able to cope with the scale of injuries faced by Wales during these Autumn months? It’s not as simple as saying that Wales had many first team regulars at their disposal, the injuries Wales faced were not so evenly spread out. No, what Wales had was injury upon injury in the same, crucial, positions. Let’s take the tight head prop position. Even before the first ball was kicked against Argentina, there were plenty of Welsh fans writing off Welsh chances with the loss of Adam Jones, and yet, Wales found an eager Englishman to take his place. After a few games, it suddenly appeared that Wales had a new tight prop, one who could scrimmage. Then the Englishman got injured. Off course, there were two other tight head props in development in Wales, but they were injured before we even got the Autumn series started. So, against the All Blacks trundles on Scott Andrews, the fifth choice Welsh tight head, on the bench was a 20 year old in his rooky season, Wales’ sixth choice…

In the second row, by the end of the four matches, Wales had lost choices one through to four, fielding a fifth choice lock in the form of Lou Reed, and Ryan Jones, who barely qualifies as a sixth choice being that he is not even a second row! In the front row, it was said to be the case that Matthew Rees had slipped in the pecking order to become third choice for Wales, luckily for him, the first and second choice players were out injured as well.

While the situation was healthier in the backline, selected injuries to the likes of Roberts, Biggar, Beck, North compounded the problems faced in the boiler house. Brittle bones and limp ligaments served to play their part in the scuppering of Wales, but they might yet prove to be essential in the rise of Wales once more.

All of a sudden, Wales can compete on the World stage with fifth choice tide head props, sixth choice second rows, third choice hookers. The likes of Jarvis and Andrews have shown that they can compete, the likes of Shingler have proven their worth in key positions on the international stage, the likes of Liam Williams have illustrated the fact that Wales can be dangerous from the wing without George North.

Psychologically this Welsh team might be shot for a season or two, maybe not, that’s down to the coaching team. The standard of the players regional fair might be a constant cause for concern, and that is something for the Unions to address urgently. But in terms of player development, Wales remain right in the thick of it. Perhaps the players who came into key positions might not have quite the ability to beat the best in the world today, but they have proven that in their infant international careers, they can certainly complete. As England have shown, the more game time these young players get, the better they will become. Give the likes of Jarvis, Andrews, Lee, Shingler, Reed and Williams more exposure at this level, and they will grow. And then, if by same stroke of good fortune, Wales can field their first choice XV, they might do so safe in the knowledge that an injury to the likes of Adam Jones will not be the end of ambition, but the beginning of an opportunity for someone we know can perform.

This Autumn has frankly been a bag of disappointment, piled high with a weighty pile of misplaced expectation. The future does not necessarily need be the same. Wales DOES have the strength in depth once craved for, the challenge now is get that strength in depth playing to consistent enough of a quality week in week out, to make the very best of the tools at our disposal.

Believe.

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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.

Shamed and Pain: Wales, Argentina and Iestyn Harris all over.

In 2001 Wales were on the receiving end of one of their all time humiliating home defeats. An inexperienced Iestyn Harris had been dumped into a vulnerable outside half starting role, and proceeded to implode. That day Argentina ran riot and coasted to a 16-30 victory, leaving Wales embarrassed, battered and broken. What happened in Cardiff yesterday was worse.

In 2001 the wheels had long been coming off of the Welsh rugby machine. Graham Henry’s tenure in charge was winding down to an ignominious end and, despite the margin of Argentina’s victory being a surprise, the fact that a first home defeat had been conceded to the Pumas was not. In 2012, our collective expectations were supposed to be so much higher. This was after all the reigning Grand Slam team, this was after all the team that had come ‘so close’ to victory in Australia, this was after all the squad who many were predicting would be able to take on the All Blacks. Put in simpler terms, this was a team upon which expectation had been placed. It did not materialise.

On this occasion excuses abound, and even the most hardnosed cynics would have to be in a bad mood to suggest that the loss of both Jamie Roberts and Alyn Wyn Jones did not have an impact on the result. Yet the departure of both players proved to be more symptomatic of the problems faced by Wales in defeat, than the reason for them.

During the first half of play, Wales had the makings of a game plan. Parity in the pack, followed by crash balls down the middle. It was working. Perhaps the Argentine defence had not buckled, but inroads were being made, and a points lead was being built. But the second the Welsh injuries occurred, ‘plan A’ went off the field with them. No doubt somebody muttered something to James Hook about a ‘plan B’ but it appeared to be the case that ‘plan B’ amounted to little more than ‘play rugby, and see what happens’. In short, there was no ‘plan B’.

As the game wore on, it was Argentina who looked the fitter, not the Welsh returning from their ice baths. The breakdown was particularly telling, as (what are on their day talented) Welsh forwards, were obliterated by a hungry Argentinean backrow. They showed an intent for victory sorely lacking by Wales.

So who is to blame and what is the response? No doubt fingers will once more be pointed towards Priestland for his game management, Scott Williams for his incredible and inexplicable selfishness and Warburton as well, for where was the leadership on the field? All of these can be tackled, Wales has the talent throughout the squad to deal with those issues. Alas the one thing that cannot be changed is the coach. The inexperienced Robert Howley will have another roll of the dice against Samoa – and things could yet get worse.

Howley is yet to show any real coaching insight when it comes to events on the field. He outraged many in the Welsh community by selected Priestland over an inform Biggar, he outraged many more by leaving the multitalented Shingler out of proceedings as well. He further failed to show any note to form in relying on the underwhelming Warburton. During the game, he pulled off a front row that had operated well against Argentina’s powerful pack,  seemingly for no reason other than that he had planned to change the front row, so that’s what he did – regardless of need or consequence. Yes, there was a severe case of the headless chickens amongst the Welsh team, but this was a team that was set up for a fall. With no ‘plan B’ in the backroom, and little to no form in the starting line-up, few should be surprised at the result that followed.

For next week? One thing that should not change is the front row that started, that was the one area to go well, and those who came on were outclassed. However the lack of a recognised second row adding weight and scrummaging ability failed Wales as well, so having someone who knows what they are doing in such a key position on the bench seems a must. Further back, surely the time for Tipuric is now? Surely the time for Shingler is now? The Welsh backrow were on the verge of obliteration as the game closed out, form is required. And behind the pack, surely the time for Biggar is now? He may not be exciting, but what Wales currently offers is clearly not good enough, so for that reason alone, change seems essential. A fit Beck and Davies in the centres would help somewhat in adding competent decision makers in those positions. As game plans go, less random kicking up field would help (of which both Priestland and Halfpenny are guilty), and given their importance, finding a way to bring North and Cuthbert into the attack might be useful – how these two can be left as passengers for so long is baffling. Perhaps remembering how to offload would be a starting point. Watching the ease with, and intent to off load in the tackle from Argentina was warming from a rugby purist perceptive. From a Welsh perspective, where offloads appeared impossible, it was depressing.

In summary, this was a very, very bad day for Welsh rugby. The momentum of this young generation is on the cusp of being thrown away. Winning is a very hard habit to maintain, losing is a very hard habit to break. Selection and intent against Samoa could have a huge impact as to whether the habit becomes an addiction for Wales – a loss next week and the next Welsh victory may not be seen for many, many months, whisper it, or years.

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.

Foul Mouthed Adulterer Captures BBC Hearts.

The sad news that John Terry has quit his occasional role as English international footballing pariah was greeted with a great outpouring of grief from the BBC this morning. Okay, perhaps that is not quite how they told the story, but their obsession with this oaf of a celebrity is as galling as it ever has been. On a day when storms wreak havoc across the island, politicians embarrass themselves and school children are kidnapped, the good ol’ Beeb can’t help itself but flap wildly in the direction of football’s least honorable of individuals.

It does not seem so long ago that there was much talk about Olympic heroes, sports personalities people could be proud of, a break from the interminable necessity to scrabble for the crumbs of attention brushed off of the table of Premiership football. Yet here we are again, the least respectable element of that footballing fraternity is showered in the limelight once more.

While the courts of law might have dismissed any allegations regarding any alleged racial abuse, it is still quite clear that foul mouthed obscenities tumble out of Terry’s mouth with ease, while no court room injunction can disguise his adulterous past. There is little commendable about this individual, little to aspire to. Those who might go on to cite his qualities as a player would do well to remember that ‘playing ‘ is his job, the fact his job is playing football does not mean that his societal responsibilities are any lesser than those of the mere mortals who don’t have to concentrate on an inflated ball to bring in their weekly income.

Why this person was ever of any national interest is a staggeringly bleak reflection on our collective interests (and yes, we even detest the fact that we are typing these words, we detest the man and still can’t escape writing about him). Perhaps though the BBC can calm themselves and finally leave this wretched angry little man to wither away to the back pages of the newspapers. However, what is far more likely is that in a few years time when this rat fully retires, the BBC will be back once more, no doubt fawning over his inspired leadership in the face of adversity.

Once more BBC, where is the off switch?

Sickening.

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.

Olympics End, Reality Bites.

In a scene reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the massed British television audience that has been mesmerised by two weeks’ worth of moving images and flashing lights, will emerge from their homes in a state of confusion, rubbing eyes startled by daylight and sore from televisual staring. In that moment a new instinct will take hold, one forged from hours and weeks committed to watching strangers from foreign lands leap, and sprint, and dive and dash, as their eyes adjust to the outside world they run, charging forwards, their lungs carried by all the hope and expectation that accompanies seeing somebody else win a shiny piece of metal…

…and then, then they begin to remember. A shrivelled corner of their memory sparks alight strangely familiar sensations. On the streets upon which they have just sprinted, where there should be flags of every nation, where there should be lithe individuals being carried aloft the shoulders of adoring crowds, where there should be a nation in which not just post boxes are painted in gold but the very roads and pavements as well, where there should be this ‘great’ Britain that they have been told about for so many days, they find something else…

…the masses would have been safe from the truth had they not stepped out of the front door, had they not left the security of their living room where the BBC and front pages of the Sun would keep them blissfully unaware. Their mistake was to be inspired. Having left their sanctuary and ran out in the expectation of buying several hundred pounds worth of exercise equipment, they found that their local sports shop was no longer there. A sun stained ‘closing down’ sale sign peaks out from behind cracked white washed windows…

…in that moment of deflation, another shock hits the masses, they had just been running, something most had not contemplated for half a decade and more. Feeling a touch on the side of hungry, the masses attempt to remember what they once did for nourishment before a time when Olympic success could sustain them. Each mind strains to recall, and then it comes to them, a powerful image, burnt into their frontal lobes, McDonalds, McDonalds, McDonalds, McDonalds…and would you like a Coca Cola with that…

…heavy with fatty foods and disappointment, they remember, ‘we can always buy those things on the internet’. Ah the internet, home of the Nike sponsored florescent shoes and home delivered exercise bikes. Too tired to run back, they wait patiently, then increasingly less so, for the bus to take them home. As they wait they find people sleeping in corners, in rough clothes…what are these things, these unfamiliar wretches? Surely this is not Britain, there were no homeless people on show in the opening ceremony, so where did these come from? They hand over £3 to ride the bus, littered with shredded pages of the Metro, each tattered page carrying a memory of an athletic hero. The masses remember the faces, the names are on the tip of their tongue…they are sure it will come back to them…

…getting home, internet on…Nike shoes on sale and an exercise bike on its way. It seems a little expensive, but the masses follow the Government example and spend based on dreams and ambitions, rather that which remains dwindling in the broken bank. 3-4 days to delivery…3-4 days to wait. Television had delivered so many heroes recently, perhaps there will be some more while we wait. Eastenders and Coronation Street are our heroes now, and we sit, and begin to fester once more…

…3-4 days later, the Nike shoes and exercise bike arrive. The shoes look great, and are comfortable around the house, in the pub…the exercise bike looks complicated…it is assembled in weeks to come, and serves as the most effective of clotheslines, and dust mats…

Unlike the children freed by Indiana Jones, the masses will not run into the arms of jubilant families in a magically enhanced lush paradise of hope and opportunity, they will instead run back into Britain, and in remembering what is actually going on in the country as opposed to the magical fantasy land so expertly woven by the state, and will quickly wish that the distraction had not left them. As the wise elder spoke to Indy, ‘now you see the power of the rock’…for the masses, they might begin to understand the distractive power of the Games, and for that reason more than any sense of inspiration, they will wish it never ended.