Posts Tagged ‘ rugby ’

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.

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.

Wales v Australia. 2 down, and a hunt for a positive.

Well, here we are. The end of the much heralded tour to Australia. I say ‘end’ in the respect that we are into that dreadful area of sporting objectives, the chance to win some pride, the series now being dead in the water. One last chance for Wales to hunt down the southern hemisphere scalp in their own backyard, but even a win next week would be shadowed by the series defeat. ‘Brave’ and ‘close’ are two words which will be tossed around in the coming days, but defeat is the one word which will underline any superlatives dragged out to make up for failure to launch of the Welsh efforts down under.

The nature of the second test defeat was largely symbolic of Welsh failings throughout the two internationals. A dreadful decision from Priestland to hand possession back to an Australian team with a minute to go. There was no need to give possession back, no sense in giving it back, just generosity, a particular kind of Welsh generosity, a generosity that says ‘if we keep this ball, we’ll win, but have another go anyway lads’. Poor decisions will haunt Wales, and from the fans perspective, frustrations with those decisions will be the marker to take home from the tour.

But here is a thought that probably won’t be snowed under in support or adulation, Wales should have won this test series. Despite the two defeats and a calamity of errors, both tests were there for Wales to win, and their own ineptitude contributed to their defeat as much as Australian commitment and skill (of which there was plenty on display). Wales would certainly not have deserved to lead the series 1-0 after their first test showing. Awful decision making, lethargic play and a general absence of pace and intent left Wales looking like an end of season touring party that had enjoyed one too many on the beach hut bar the night before, yet the sheer volume of chances that were there for Wales, missed only through poorly placed passes, a failure to look up, a fumble here and there (in short, Welsh errors, often unforced) would have been enough to win for game.

For the second test, in attack Australia vanished. Apart from a flash or two of mercurial running, there was very little coming at the Welsh try line. What was coming had been given position and space from catastrophic Welsh lineout play, and little else. This time the chances for points were taken by Wales, but the set piece collapsed. From a lineout that dominated the Six Nations, Wales have reverted to the bad old habits seen during the Henry/Hanson era – basics going badly wrong, and gift upon gift was lavished on the Australian backline as a result.

And yet, for so many crucial things going wrong so very often, Wales led the second test with a minute to go, and, had a monumentally stupid decision not been made, a victory would have been recorded. Despite the depressing long list of ‘areas to improve’, Wales still came within a whisker of turning over an Australian side away from home, something unheard of in several rugby playing generations. Now, is that a positive? Well, if it is, it’s not a very promising one. This Wales squad should have left the days of ‘brave performance – no result’ long behind them, but here they are again. And still, despite playing poorly, the result should have come. The more recent occasions where a Welsh team has gone to Australia and performed poorly, has usually resulted in a minimum 30 point hammering. Not so this time.

So let’s not sugar coat things, Wales lost. Perhaps they should have won, but they failed once more on foreign soils. But while this is disappointing, it is far from the end. Too many Welsh journalists wrote before the Welsh team flew for Oz, that this was the now or never moment. Really? With these defeats, this Welsh team will never beat a southern hemisphere team down under? I’m not so sure. There are things to improve on, lots of things, but developmentally this Welsh squad has a very long way to go. The Grand Slam was not the final product, a series defeat in Australia is not the end of the teams progression. So yes, let’s be annoyed that bad habits have crept back in and cost us a series win overseas, let’s call for changes, for trying Hook, for dropping Phillips, for bringing back Ian Evans, for not playing Warburton when the man can barely walk, and anything else you might want to add to the suggestion box entry to be posted asap to Mr Howley, but let’s not say that this is the end. Learn from this, and be better for it, that is the only way this team will improve, and let’s hope, for want of anything else, that they might start that process next week.

Welsh Regional Rugby: The Legends Leave

As weekends go in the RaboDirect Pro 12, this was a fairly good one for the Welsh regions. Yes the Scarlets’ unlucky draw at home to Munster put pay to their play-off hopes, but one draw and two wins (someone had to lose in the Ospreys – Dragons Welsh derby) is an above average set of results. However, as seasons ago, there has been little to shout about, with average displays overall in Europe, and only the Ospreys left to fight for the league title. With the passing of the regional season and its collective disappointments, comes a changing of the guard. Well, perhaps an exodus of the guard is a more apt description given the lack of a new guard coming into replaced the old one. Whatever description fits best, it is certainly the end of a playing era for many favoured faces from the Welsh regional scene.

Plenty of star talent is on its way out, the likes of Gethin Jenkins will be missed, but you would not bet against his return to Wales in a couple of seasons time, while the scything runs of Tommy Bowe will certainly be missed on the Ospreys wing. Beyond the stars, there are the plucky figures who found their moments to push beyond their ability. Deiniol Jones was one to punch well above his weight, while Ritchie Rees was one to fight his way to a brief ownership of the Wales No 9 shirt. Special mention should go to the hair styling’s of Maama Molitika, the likes of which will not be seen in Cardiff colours again anytime soon. That’s five mentioned, the list of those leaving Welsh rugby is much longer.

There are three figures in particular who are deserving of special mention though, as the weekends fixtures saw the curtain drawn on the Welsh playing days of three of the modern day greats, Stephen Jones, Martyn Williams and Shane Williams. Two move into retirement, one to pastures new (we imagine Stephen Jones will never actually retire – don’t bet against his boots being laced in 2015), all three have played their part in the resurrection of Welsh international rugby, all three played their roles in two Grand Slams, the first one delivered to a nation that never dared to dream that they would see such a feat again.

For Stephen Jones, the record cap holder for Wales, it will probably be his searing second half break against France that will live longest in the memory. From his own 22, Jones tore open the French defence with the sort of incisive run that so many of his critics loved to suggest he couldn’t do, yet so often did. However, in a scramble to find some classic clips, this wonderful face off between Jones and O’Gara surfaced. At EyeOnWales, we’ve always hated O’Gara and made no secret of it – and enjoying Jones giving him what-for is almost, almost as enjoyable as the Grand Slam break.

For Martyn Williams, it was probably the return out of retirement that was most memorable. The master on the floor of any rugby field, such was his importance to the Welsh cause that successive Welsh coaches would go to him cap in hand, pleading for the Ponty product to pull on the red shirt one more time. In 2008, Williams sealed the second Welsh slam with a wonder break, tip toeing through a battered French defence, but perhaps this highly unlikely clip shows off a touch of his versatility – how long until Warburton attempts one of these? (It’s not pretty, but it’s a bit of a classic.)

Then there was Shane, the little big man who made the Welsh left wing his very own. Try scoring records were made to be broken by this man. Probably the biggest hero of them all for this generation, Shane Williams highlighted once more that rugby was a game for players of any size, and we can only hope that he is indeed not the last of his kind. If he is though, those who saw him play will remember his ability and efforts with the same fondness as any effort by Gerald or JJ. There are probably too many tries to chose from really, but this one, probably not his best, but one that highlights his ability to baffle a defence – how many South Africans did he beat there, three, four, five…great stuff, a try the likes of which only man in world rugby could score.

Three legends who lit up the game, three who will long be remembered, and will be sorely missed in Welsh club colours.

Cardiff Blues – The Downward Spiral

There were some desperate sweaty palms on display in Cardiff Blues corners this week, as yet another star looked set to part ways with the crises club. The fear element for the Cardiff Blues though must be that now one of their young guns, Grand Slam winner Alex Cuthbert, looks to have packed his bag. Previously it was a case of the aging foreigners and light weight Welsh journeyman quota who seemed to be lining up to walk out of the city centre, but now the future of the Blues seems to be following the present away from the club as well.

 For Welsh rugby fans, the loss of the likes of Dan Parks, Ritchie Rees and Rhys Thomas will see few tears shed, and while Lauala is no doubt a star, he is a foreign star blocking a starting spot for a Welsh player, another departure which in itself is not an entirely bad thing. Sounds coming out of the Blues management should also have given reason to be reassured, after all, a commitment from the club to follow a ‘home grown’ path, similar to that develop by the Scarlets, should be welcomed. However, no sooner had the Blues announced such intentions, they did what they have done so well over recent years, flown in some very average foreigners.

 Campese Ma’afu, the Fijian forward to have the briefest of international careers, and star of the English second tier Robin Copeland were the names announced last week as replacements for Lions and All Black internationals… Now, the Blues as with all Welsh teams don’t really have the money to be bringing in the southern hemisphere superstars, however, in Ma’afu and Copeland, the Blues have ‘invested’ in two non Welsh qualified players, who have never shown the star capabilities to inspire young Welsh talent at the club to go on to be anything more than mediocre.

 For Alex Cuthbert, no one in Wales would blame him for leaving. This is in part an issue of money, but far from entirely. We know Cuthbert was offered a substantial figure by a Blues management desperate to appear to be doing their bit to ‘save’ Welsh talent, but for all the money put in front of him, surely Cuthbert can see that this is a club that has, in a very definitive fashion, set its stall out to be an average side, and no more. The recent on field capitulations have shown this all too clearly. Say what you will of the future, last week the Blues were fighting for a shot at a European title and a place in the Pro12 play-offs in the present…they surrendered both opportunities in such a manner that you’d be justified in asking why they turned up in the first place.

 Balancing the books is one thing, but curbing ambition is quite another. If the Blues commit to the current policy of bolstering a depleted squad with the rejects of the lower divisions of English rugby, the concept of ‘holding on’ to their Welsh stars will rapidly become irrelevant, as the Welsh stars won’t be bother bring to be held on to in the first place.

Wales beat Italy, Crowds Call for More.

Time is a funny thing, with it the views and expectations of a nation can rise and fall, to the extent of becoming unrecognisable from one year to the next. Yesterday in Cardiff, Wales won for the fourth successive time, and find themselves on the precipice of a championship and elusive Grand Slam, yet the Cardiff crowd walked away from yesterdays entertainment with a shrug of the shoulders and a despondent sigh – where once a Welsh crowd would craw greedily at the coat tails of any form of triumph, now the most comfortable of victories can barely turn a smile.

Wales and Italy lineup.

Does this stem from heightened levels of expectation? Is the Welsh fan becoming akin to the New Zealander, expectant of only the highest quality of wins, where nothing less will suffice? It’s hard to say, but certainly the atmosphere following the game was a mixture of begrudging satisfaction and (somewhat perplexingly) relief – no singing in the trains back home following this fixture (as accompanied return journeys out of Cardiff following the Triple Crown game).

And yet – where does the despondency come from? There are a number of schools of thought which could pass over this game, but let’s take the more obvious whinging option out of the equation early on – the referring of George Clancy. We should not dwell too long here, because interpretation of refereeing performances are usually far too subjective affairs, yet even the most one eyed critique could see that Clancy came to Cardiff with the sole intention of killing the game, for both Wales and Italy. If home fans were frustrated with the level of Welsh play, much of their ire can be directed towards the man in the middle, for whom the notion of an open flowing game, if something he must have heard of, but dismissed as some form of myth.

If Welsh fans were unhappy with the win, spare a thought for those backing the losing side.

Refereeing excuses aside, there are two ways of looking at things, and let’s get the negative out of the way first – Wales failed to put Italy to the sword, and disappointment steps from this pre-game expectation. Hard to argue with – everyone in Wales seemed ready to demolish Italy by 30-40 points and never be phased by the game. Yet, should we be critical of Wales for this, or positive about Italy? Certainly Italian defensive efforts were beyond committed, and the number of last ditch defences from quality Welsh line breaks was impressive. Last week England were hailed for stopping Wales, this week no word of encouragement for Italy’s endeavours – a touch of post match hypocrisy from some corners perhaps.

Wales attack once again - with below par results.

Yet what of the positives – were there any? Well, while Italy came to Cardiff to defend, they did not come to Cardiff to win. The Italians locked the game down well, but never was the intent on display to do anything other than contain Wales – the result from a Welsh perspective was never once threatened. On top of that assertion, perhaps it’s worth noting that for the second game running the Welsh try line held firm – a home win that was never in danger, and a suffocating defensive effort, can we really complain?

The Italian team head for home, knowing they defended well, while having no intention of trying to win.

Okay, the Welsh performance was a long way from World Class, and of course, a step up will (probably) be required for France in a week’s time (though on current form, the French need to find a gear or two as well). But for all the negativity that can be found in the game, perhaps Welsh fans should sit back and think of the bigger picture. It is a rare thing that any defence can hold out over multiple games – for this championship, only Wales can make such claims so far. It is even rarer that a team will win four games in a row. For all the disappointments from Cardiff, Wales still won, their line was never broken, and their victory was never in doubt – we might want more in Wales, but perhaps we might take some time to enjoy and be grateful for the success that we do have, rather than brace ourselves for possible, even hypothetical disappointments to come.

Six Nations Donkey Awards: Round 3

Six Nations Donkey Awards Round 3.

An exciting weekend of rugby was torn apart by the fixture offered by Wales and England at Twickenham, where perhaps not the highest quality of games was played out, but certainly the most exciting game was, with the final ten minutes offering more thrills than the entirety of the other two games combined. That being said there was no shortage of tools on display across a weekend of highly entertaining sport.

1. The Lyrical Banker.

BBC punditry has come in for a certain degree of scrutiny this season, but the age old issue of ex-player bias raising its head on more than one occasion. That is not to say that this was avoided today in the form of Thomas Castaignède being added to the BBC line up to speak on behalf of the people of France, but his addition added something else, something extra, something beautifully bizarre in its lack of sense and clarity that it simply had to be recorded here. Castaignède’s inclusion though is done so with some hesitation, because his pre-match quote was so special – in many respects, his inclusion here should not be seen as a criticism or a punishment, but as a form of recognition, an honour of sorts. The quote in question:

‘This Scottish side, it is like a woman you want to be friends with but you don’t want to marry her’

Wonderful, baffling, and utterly incoherent, thank you Thomas, your observation was so brilliantly French, and long may we hope such views continue to be broadcast on the BBC!

Donkey score: 1 (but in a good way this time)

 

2. ‘Inconclusive’ seems to be the hardest word to hear.

So, your arm is underneath a ball, then your hand is underneath a ball, and then several other people’s hands are underneath the ball, and you are still convinced you scored a try? David Strettle may have felt convinced of his score, but to turn on the officials after the match and whine like an infant deprived of his blankey before bedtime was verging on shameful. There is a way to take defeat, to cope with perceived injustice, and Strettle decided to ignore all such protocols of decency and professionalism, and bark and chirp in a manner that we might have expected from that same team during a recent world tournament. On his way to 30, it’s probably time for Strettle to grow up a little.

(Whining) Donkey Score: 3

 

3. Hands of Steel…make catching hard.

Scottish rugby eh? Well, at the close quarters Scotland certainly showed a new found tough edge, battering weak tackles aside and making impressive inroads into the world cup finalists 22, yet, with this hardened approach in attack, Scotland seemed to have applied the same logic to ball catching, with the concept of ‘soft hands’ left behind, possibly somewhere in the middle of New Zealand. How the Scots managed to spill so much ball, so much of it unforced as well, is mystifying. It is almost as if Scotland concluded that to lead France for a portion of a game was a victory in its own right, and that the following 40 minutes of rugby should be an exhibition of how to throw away, verging on literally on occasions, a game of international rugby. Perhaps an express order of glue is in order before they face Ireland, as the Scottish team must urgently discover a way to hold on to a ball!

Donkey Score: 4 (with a multiplier effect from previous matches for doing the same thing wrong again, and again, and again).

 

4. When is a New Zealand not a New Zealander?

Take your pick on this one, because once again it’s Steve Walsh time (Walsh now representing Australia as a referee, having being sacked by the New Zealand rugby union some time ago, if the above question caused confusion). Walsh has a history of irritating fans of [insert nationality here] on a regular basis, and there was certainly grounds for query from both Welsh and English fans alike after yesterday. Certainly Strettle has made his views well known on the matter of the try/no-try scenario, and plenty of English voices were only too quick to join in that debate. But what of North being overlooked for a blatant flap of a ball into touch? What of the English captain Robshaw hauling Warburton out of the air in a line-out? Any other day both would surely be straight yellow cards no? However, for Walsh’s true moment of calamity, we must return to the try that David Strettle did not score… Everyone, including every single Welsh fan, knew Walsh was playing an advantage to England before Strettle failed to ground the ball, yet Walsh seemed to completely forget that following his lengthy chat with the TMO. In a moment of forgetfulness, Walsh may well have robbed England of a chance to draw…we will never know.

For catastrophic memory loss, Walsh earns:

Donkey Score: 5

 

In passing:

5. Rhys Priestland had a day to forget in many instance, but hopefully he will learn lessons from an uncertain performance, that while never looking like losing the game for Wales on his own, certainly did little to contribute to the victory. He’ll have many better days to come, but on a day of triumph, perhaps Priestland’s contributions can be put to one side.

Donkey Score: 1

6. Finally, an honourable mention for Manu Tuilagi. It has of course been a tough time of late for Tuilagi, falling off of boats and such, and his return to the England fold was marked by a high quality performance. Yet, when Priestland was given his marching orders, from nowhere came galloping up Tuilagi, to tug at the back of the referee’s shirt, making sure that cards of a colour were indeed to be shown. It was unnecessary, uncalled for, and very donkeyish.

Donkey score: 1