Posts Tagged ‘ rugby ’

And then came Scotland…

Round 2 of the Six Nations then and Wales find themselves in a position which few pundits from outside of the country expected them to be in, with a win under the belt. Whatever can or has been said about tip tackles, yellow and red cards, and missed opportunities, it’s hard to take much away from the Welsh performance in Dublin. Before the game there were concerned mutterings about how the lineout would function, and sure enough, the only consistent tool at Ireland’s disposal was their dominance in the line – why they did not kick to the corners more often remains a baffling uncertainty. Regardless of whether or not Ireland made the best use of their strongest weapon, Wales, for the most part, made the most of theirs. Were it not for certain questions being asked of TMOs and kicks going astray, Wales may well have had the game sown up in the first half, such was their physical dominance.

So to Scotland then, and already the crowds skip merrily down Queens Street with ‘Grand Slam’ tattoos already being applied to foreheads across Cardiff – but then it wouldn’t the Six Nations if we didn’t like to get carried away with things! Yet on the evidence of the first round of matches, it is perhaps not an overstatement to suggest that Wales are at the very least amongst the favourites.

With Ireland, the main fears focused on the lineout, so what of Scotland this week? Well, ball dropping incidents aside, the Dan Park related catastrophes forgotten as best we might try, Scotland attacked well. The likes of Lamont and Evans made good inroads, while the Scottish backrow, supported ably by the obvious presence of Ritchie Gray, caused devastation around the English fringes. Were it not for generosity in relation to charged down kicks, wet weather gloves for those slippery fingers, and of course a more generous TMO (it looked like a Scottish try from here), then Scotland might well have romped to a victory. As with the Wales fixture in 2010, Scotland should have been walking away with a win.

However, Scotland’s strength was based on a very powerful forward display. England were consistently bullied in the pack (despite the ‘one each’ efforts of the referee when it came to controlling the scrum and breakdown) and it allowed Scotland the room in which they could make such telling breaks. Dan Parks as well, as predictably dull as he might be, could put the team in the right areas of the field to play. Parks as we know is gone (somewhat to our relief, Parks knows how to undo Welsh rugby teams), as is Ewan Murray due to faith commitments. In one week, two of Scotland’s most effective players (Parks may not be good, but good and effective are not always the same thing) are gone, at the same time as Wales welcomes back two of theirs, Gethin Jenkins and Dan Lydiate. If anything, the Scottish team that lost looks weaker, the Welsh team that won looks stronger.

For Scotland to win, the open game that they are currently boasting about would be an interesting gamble. With the form and ability of the Welsh backs, running rugby seems like the last thing the Scots should be doing. With Murray missing, the Scottish scrum as a weapon will be deflated, but then there is always the lineout. With the likes of Gray to rely on, Scotland can target Wales’ one obvious weakness in the way that Ireland should have done – especially now that Wales are reduced to a single recognised second row. That being said, the man who could pressure Wales in this area, by placing the ball in the right place, Dan Parks, in no longer on the scene. It is with a heavy sense of irony that the one player who might really have undone Wales will be taking not part in proceedings.

There is a way that Scotland can win, and it should not be pretty. Tight, around the fringes and from good lineout pressure, these are the ways in which Scotland could force a result. Opening the game up against a Welsh side that, despite letting Ireland score twice, generally looked solid in defence, and is of course more than capable of matching the scoring rate of other opposition which, frankly, has proven more effective than Scotland of late (the lack of ability to cross the whitewash must be haunting Scotland now – inspiration or heavy burden at this point), would be an impressive and potentially costly gamble.

With one game under everyone’s belt though, and a sense of form to go on, predictions can be made, and it would be a very eager punter who would bet against Wales, especially if the Scots insist on closed roofs – it may suit their game plan, but it certainly will do little to hinder the way Wales will want to play.

Six Nations Donkey Awards.

After the heroic shambling of Dan Parks yesterday, we decided that those who serve to contribute the very worst to this year’s tournament are in need of their own special recognitions, and after a very interesting first weekend of the Six Nations, we have some early front runners in the Donkey Award stakes.

No.1. The Salt Shaker.

Bradley Davies is due a new nickname after his Dublin antics, as surely the only rational thought that ran through his head was that the unfortunate Irish man who he had turned upside down was full of some old salt that was just refusing to come out. Davies could well have lost Wales the game against Ireland all on his own with his rash and reckless behaviour, and, as I’m sure all Irish fans would agree, were there to be any justice in rugby, a red card would have been shown. In the end, Davies only earned himself a yellow card, but for stupidity alone he takes home a full five donkeys after round 1.

Donkey score: 5

No.2. The Kicking Queen.

Dan Parks was covered in detail enough yesterday, with his disastrous charged down kick, which handed England an unlikely victory in Scotland. The calls came from every corner for Parks to go after he single handedly surrendered the Calcutta Cup, and it would take a selection miracle for him to start against Wales next week.

Donkey score: 3

No.3. The Leg Lifter from Maghaberry.

Stephen Ferris may be seen as unlucky in giving away the penalty that ultimately served Ireland with their defeat, and few would begrudge him a moan or two that a yellow card at least was undeserved. However, after replay upon replay, Ferris may well have to concede that if he has a foot in his hand at that sort of height, that a penalty blast is probably going to come shortly after. After a strong performance, a degree of donkeyness took the shine off the backrowers efforts.

Donkey score: 2.5

No.4. A lesson never learnt.

Andy Robinson must surely have got the message by now no? Dan Parks is a very, very bad rugby player. Robinson has the evidence in front of him, and has only been able to add to the ‘Parks Calamity’ folder since he began his reign in charge of Scotland, yet he still persists with the man who seems intent on destroying the ambition of any team he plays for. For simply selecting Parks once again, Robinson earns himself a donkey.

Donkey score: 1

No.5. The colour of cards.

Wayne Barnes was somewhat left in limbo by his touchjudge, but ultimately the buck stops with the man in the middle. Advised that Bradley Davies had lifted, and dropped a player from a height on to his head, and off the ball to boot, Barnes was then persuaded that a yellow card would suffice. Everyone wearing green, and in the minutes following the games conclusion, most wearing red (including the Welsh coach) were all agreed that Davies should have left the game for good. Barnes and his assistance though seemed to be the only ones in the northern hemisphere to disagree. With IRB directives being about as direct as a pigeon in a washing machine, and linesmen offering poor advice, it’s hard to be too critical of Barnes, but he is at least worthy of a single donkey for his light touch.

Donkey score: 1

The Dan Parks Six Nations Special Blog.

Nothing need be said, the image pretty much covers it…

Wales: Here Be Winged Giants.

So we finally know. Warren Gatland has whipped off the curtain on his next generation of Welsh Rugby Stars, and shown a hand that is inclined towards the big, the battering and the aggressive. For all the injuries faced by the Welsh squad in key locations, Gatland has managed to assemble a team that looks threatening and powerful, no more so than on the wings. In the known quantity of George North, Wales have a world recognised threat, who in recent games has seen his space vanish as teams mark him out of the game. Now Wales have a second North, or a first Cuthbert, as the next giant from the wing production line comes out. Cuthbert though, while perhaps not having quite the explosive step of North, actually ‘dwarfs’ the huge North (okay, by 2 inches, but such things count for a lot these days). Couple this with the emergence of Rhys Gill this season, whose form has made him one of the most dynamic front row players in Europe this year, and Wales seem to have found a new raft of players to go with the stellar World Cup finds.

So to their first test, a new Six Nations for a team who will no doubt be weighed down with their fair share of expectation given their showing in New Zealand, yet they face in their first fixture a team who carry their own helpings of national demands for success. Ireland are many pundits firm favourites for the tournament, and who would deny them such an accolade given the way in which their regions are romping over Europe. Add to that all this talk of revenge and surely the Irish will be firing on all cylinders? Well, for the pre-match talk at least, everything sounds very similar to a few months ago, when these teams contested a certain World Cup quarter final. Then the talk was of the Irish regions and their recent achievements, then the talk was of Mike Phillips and ‘owing Wales one’. Scan the news pages, and it seems like the Irish are stuck in the summer/autumn of 2011.

Wales will know though that this is an Irish team that at the very least ‘should’ be high on confidence, even without Brian O’Driscoll to shoulder the burden of the late game revival that we have become so used to. Yet, regional rugby aside, Wales remain a threat. In fact, all this talk of regions may as well be ignored for all the relevance it has to the national game. If international rugby was based on regional showings, Ireland and France would be the only nations to have contested a Six Nations in recent years, and these grand slams and championships that Wales and England have put together of late would be a figment of our imaginations. No, the team selected by Warren Gatland has more than enough fire power, in the forwards and the backs, to trouble anyone, whatever is happening in the clubs game. If the Irish stop a returning Jamie Roberts, then will they stop North, and if they stop North, will then they stop Cuthbert? Contending first with Gill and Jones in the front row, the Irish pack will have serious questions posed of them, and rolling from the back of the pack, an in-form Ryan Jones rumbling on with Faletau and Warburton – they will all have eyes on whoever carries the No10 jersey.

For weak links, the second row. Ireland will surely dominate in this area, and look to kick to the corner as often as possible and from wherever they are on the field. Try and run at this Welsh team, and the World Cup quarter final showing will come back on the Irish like a rash. There is one obvious game plan for Ireland, and it does not involve the backs or ‘open rugby’. Stick to what they know best, and the Irish should be able to squeeze the life out of Wales in this area alone, and might well have done even if Wales had their first choice second rows on display.

Yet the one unknown quantity is of course, and once again, Poland. Ireland will be the guinea pigs in many respects. The video footage released from the Poland camps looked hard, and toughening. All through the World Cup, game by game, the camp was dismissed as all talk, and nothing special, but what marked Welsh performances as special, was their ability to do it for the whole 80 minutes. Bring the same fitness levels to the field, and Wales may well be able to do to the Irish what the Irish hate most, beat them.

Ireland as favourites, no doubt there, but dismiss the Welsh at your peril, Grand Slams come on a three yearly cycle these days, and a return to a Polish spa might well be the start of another one…

And then the Six Nations Came…

One thing after another these days, World Cups, one off internationals, club games, European games, LV Cup games, and to cap it all, the Six Nations starts just as winter decides, having been distracted by rugby for so long, to finally make an appearance, just in time to make all those away day train trips a little bit more unbearable. Suffice to say, it’s been a long season (officially this is still part of the 2010-11 season for anyone keeping track – with an IRB directive issued earlier in the year indicating that the 2011-12 season will happen between April and May before going straight into the pre 2013-14 season build up), and one which is taking its toll. No shortage of teams are already patching up their squads, with at least two of the nations involved bringing some giant squads to the party in preparation for the inevitable whittling down of those capable of walking.

So, excited much for the imminent tournament? If you are the BBC then you know already that England won the tournament several weeks ago, and a number of journeymen Europeans are going to be scrapping it out for the crumbs under their table. Then, you never know. The nice thing about a post world cup Six Nations is that predictions tend to go out of the window. Those who underperformed are ringing the changes, those who over performed are often paying the price for their success in a body count. Certainly for two of the three games this weekend, you would be hard pressed to call either fixture.

France at home seems to be a certainty to defeat Italy. The Italians rarely cope well in the early days of a new coaching regime, and to produce a result in Paris on day one of the new era seems far too much to ask. Scotland hosting England though is another kettle of fish. Not a great deal of change from a Scots perspective, other than a need to banish a sense of underachievement from the summer, when for want of conviction they really should have topped their group, yet fell by the wayside at stage 1. England come to the tournament having, for many in the international community, taken to putting every English qualified player’s name into a hat, and drawn them at random to produce their current squad. Of course there was a little more logic to it than that, but certainly new names are the theme of the squad. It’s almost impossible to say what England will do, their new coach was still part of the wider coaching structure that oversaw the World Cup shortcomings, yet the desperation in England to banish the ghost of New Zealand will surely force them to play a more expansive game. Yet, with so many new faces, and a frozen Edinburgh awaiting them, is it too much to expect them to revert to type once more?

For Wales and Ireland, it’s familiar territory. More will follow on this game during the week, but for now, it’s worth noting that there are more familiar faces in this fixture than in many of the other line-ups to be had in the tournament. Old battles, one on ones replayed, heck, there is still a change that O’Gara at the grand old age of 74 will get a starting birth, there is little ‘new’ to be found in this fixture. On paper the Irish should have it, with the regions in dominant form in Europe and a home advantage, there can be no obvious excuse for why the Irish should fall short in their first fixture. Yet historically Ireland have failed to hit the ground running in the Six Nations, and more than once in recent years they have opened the tournament at home, with fixtures that should have been won, only for the game to trickle away. And yet, even with all the talent in Ireland, so often the solution has been to put the ball in the hands of O’Driscoll and leave it to him to save the day, one thing that certainly won’t be happening this year. Wales though, while the form team from the World Cup, have the air of a team that is running on empty, with walking wounded being the tale of yet another Six Nations opening weekend. But then there is Poland, and how Poland transformed an underachieving team into near World beaters – will the ice baths do it for Wales again?

The way the fixtures fall, Wales and England look to have the most favourable draw for any slam ambitions, but for a winner, well, let’s see what happens this weekend, as six teams, unrecognisable in some cases, unpredictable in others, show us what has been happening in those training camps this weekend.

The Endangered Ospreys.

A little clichéd as titles go, but one not without merit – yes, the demise of the Ospreys over the weekend is the one major talking point to come out of an exciting and dramatic weekend of European Rugby Cup action. There are plenty of positives from a Welsh perspective to take away from the tournament, the Blues return to the knockout stages, the Scarlets punch above their weight to continue in the second tier, while the Dragons produced some of their best displays on the European stage, even though their rewards did not match their endeavour. Yet it is on the Ospreys that attention must fall, after all, given their capitulation in France on Sunday, we won’t be talking about them in Europe for another season anyway, so while the Blues and the Scarlets can look ahead, let us look back on the Ospreys, and ask why?

With the comings and goings in Osprelia over the summer, with Hook, Phillips, Byrne and Mitchell all heading for pastures new, some suggested this would be a testing year for the west Wales outfit…those suggestions smacked of pre-season excuses. Even with the big names gone, the Ospreys could still field a near entire international starting line-up, and for most games, had high calibre internationals sitting on their bench. Yet, and not for the first time, a visit to France brought out only the worse from the team who should be leading the way in Wales. Defeat is one thing, all the Welsh regions have tasted it this year, but the Ospreys did so in a manner that was nothing short of embarrassing.

Talk of change marked the Ospreys pre-season, the Galactico tag was ditched, the fake tan banned in the most bizarre of public announcement (really, the fake tan ban was presented with the same fanfare as if the Ospreys had snatched Dan Carter’s contract), and yet, another European Rugby Cup gone by, and the same disappointments are there to be seen. So what has not changed? Given that the Ospreys seemed so keen to fiddle with the squad, one wonders why on earth they retain such faith in a coaching and managerial line-up that returns so little.

Of course, Scott Johnson is on his way, and will surely be waved off with a cheer, and a kick to the behind by the Ospreys fans who have seen nothing on whatever amount was invested in the Australian journeyman’s expertise. But what of those who remain, of Holley and Humphries? We are told that these are the coaches, the men who have the most direct influence over their team, how much more time are they going to be given to produce the goods? Put simply, the Ospreys seem incapable of holding on to their best products, and the products that they have left are stagnating under a coaching regime that looks tired and out of ideas. The EyeOnWales pages make no secret of their allegiance to the colour of Scarlet, but we all recognise the need for a successful Ospreys team for a successful Wales (2008 Grand Slam anyone). The fresh start at the Ospreys should never have been attempted at a player base, but at a coaching level. Fail to address this problem, and whatever player personal come in for the Ospreys next season, will have little to no effect on the regions ongoing shortcomings at the European level.    

It’s time for a change, and the change must come from the top.

The Shingler Senario.

It’s hard to know what to say about the Steve Shingler situation. Public opinion seems very torn over the matter, some argue Shingler should be freed by the WRU to play for Scotland, that the WRU misled him; others argue that he has shown no respect to Wales and jumped for the ‘easier’ international option (sorry Scotland, no slur intended), while some simply suggest that these were the actions of a confused young man. Wherever you might stand, it is clear that there is no winner here between Shingler, the WRU and the IRB, all three, from a public relations standpoint, have lost out.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, the comings and goings, well, goings really, of potential Welsh players has raised some interesting questions. Not so many days ago, Welsh rugby was lamenting the loss of Ben Morgan to the English cause. Here the case was much clearer. Morgan had never made his intentions clear as to where he saw his international future and, after much time spent considering the matter, Morgan decided that he was English, and should try to play for England. Welsh fans were of course upset, but few would begrudge him his choice to represent the country that he associates with most.

The Shingler situation though has upset many Welsh rugby fans but in a very different manner. Here was a bright young prospect, with a great future ahead of him, who had made his claim for Wales by playing through the age grades, and then, overnight it seemed, turned his back on the country. Why did he do it? Was it out of spite for the Scarlets that they would not start him ahead of Priestland and Jones? Was it for fear that he might not get an international cap for Wales given the current competition in the squad? Without a full statement from the young man, we will probably never know for sure.

What we do know though, is that there is a problem with the current system of representative honours. Is an ‘A’ team cap, or an under20 cap, or possibly younger still, an appropriate point at which to say ‘this is the team you will represent from here on in’? Frankly, the debate should not exist. This is not a club contract that is being discussed, but international honours, the honour of representing one’s country. For too long the international level has become an extension of the office for professional rugby players, another contract, another set of bonuses – the country awarding them does not necessarily matter, so long as they pay. This should not be the way of things. For Shingler, his choice was made – he selected Wales, and that is where his choice should remain. If he never gets full international honours, well, tough luck, he should have been better, but that is the only country he should be able to push for, having already made his choice.

What does the future for Shingler hold, it is hard to say? He has turned his back on Wales in one sense, and for Scotland, well, Scotland was always the second option the moment Shingler played in a red shirt with three feathers on his chest, how either nation would welcome him now would be interesting to see. The lesson to be learnt in all this, stand by your nation. If you are one to buy and sell your allegiance, then there is a good chance that your choices will come back to haunt you. For Shingler, his choices came back on him much sooner than he might have expected, and it is with a great sense of sorrow, that this saga was played out in front of the international rugby media.

Ben Morgan: Time to Sell.

Nobody in Wales should have anything other than respect for the decision made by Scarlets no8 Ben Morgan, to commit himself to England. As Morgan has stated today, he grew up watching England, and dreamed of playing for them, frankly, Welsh fans should have been more concerned if such a player did throw his lot in with the Welsh set-up, the motivation behind such a move would have been questionable at best. It is of course a disappointment for Welsh fans, no shortage of attention has been given to Morgan as he developed as a player in West Wales, and few in Wales will deny that there were genuine hopes that Morgan would at the very least offer competition for Faletau for the Welsh 8 shirt.

However, as much as Welsh rugby fans should respect the integrity displayed by Morgan’s choice (remember, there is no sign of England selecting him, he is just indicating where his loyalties lie – he might have given up on an international career by turning his back on by Wales, it is a chance he has taken, and that as well should be remembered and respected), there is now an onus on the Scarlets to act.  With this one decision, Morgan has gone from being a promising Wales prospect, to an Englishman blocking a Welsh regional development spot. At a time when salary caps are coming, and more and more non-Welsh qualified players are being worked out of the regional squads (and quite right too), all of a sudden the Scarlets face a choice, and it is one that must be faced by a number of the regions in Wales.

There is a danger that Morgan will remain with the Scarlets now until his contract runs out, and he leaves for an English team, no questions asked, no money exchanged. What the Scarlets should off course do is sell the prospect. English and French clubs will have a blank cheque approach for only so long, and those hard up in Wales should take advantage of it while it lasts. I have often wondered for instance, how the sale of a player like George North would benefit the wider world of Welsh rugby, with the sustaining impact of a single big sale supporting salaries of many more Welsh players. Well, this is an easy one for the Scarlets, Morgan is not Welsh, and is under contract. The club should give serious consideration towards doing what is right for Welsh rugby, and Morgan’s sale would bring in the money that might cover the wages or one, two, three, maybe more Welsh qualified players.

Morgan has done what is right by him, and all should respect him for that, the Scarlets now must do what is right by Welsh rugby, and supporting a player who is now blocking the development of the next Welsh No8 does nothing for that.

The Death of the Regional Rugby Fan.

Debates being had this week once again on the issue of attendance for Welsh regional home games, as the collective head scratching goes on. Why do 60,000 Welsh fans turn up in Cardiff to watch a game on the television, while barely any of those numbers can bring themselves out to watch their regional sides complete against the best in Europe? One wonders really how there can be a debate at all when you give some consideration to the statistics pulled out by the BBC on the subject.

 •Scarlets – 7243 (7 games)

•Blues – 6723 (6 games)

•Ospreys – 6528 (8 games)

•Dragons – 4766 (4 games)

Average attendances certainly nothing to shout home about, especially at the Dragons where the Newport region has become the latest in Wales to unveil a shiny new stand, only to have nobody sitting in it. But take a look at the other statistic, some Welsh regions have enjoyed 8 home games, others have enjoyed only 4. It is this inconsistency that is at the heart of the problem. What games are played at home for the Welsh regions are dramatically inconsistent, and more to the point, when they are played, nobody knows what day they will be on. Saturday afternoon perhaps, Sunday lunchtime, Friday night, sometimes even Thursdays and Wednesdays have played host to key Welsh regional home games. And the powers that be wonder why the crowds stay away?

It’s quite simple. WRU, regions, if you want crowds, say ‘tough luck’ to television, and put games where they belong, at 2.30pm on a Saturday afternoon. The only way the current mess of a fixture list can be sustained is to move the whole season into the summer, simply, people do not like standing in driving rain on a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon. It might be tolerated on a Saturday, but not anywhere else. The Millennium Stadium example in the rugby world cup is a critically flawed one, why, because the damn thing has a roof! No cold, no wind, only comfort and convenience.

If this hand wringing from the regions about attendances is sincere, they might for a moment think about what fans want, because whatever their market research suggests (for instance, market research suggests Welsh fans like Friday night Six Nations games – I know of not one fan who agrees with that sentiment), the evidence on the ground is not backing it up.

Save crowds, sell for Saturdays.

Last of the Summer Shane.

Well, it’s all over I guess, no more can Wales rely on Shane to strike the impossible score, to break out from inside his own half, waltz between four defenders and ghost underneath the posts to secure a legendary grand slam sealing try. No, now we have to figure out how to score as a team, and on present form that may well prove harder than it should be. Yesterday’s game in Cardiff at least had the fitting tribute to end the occasion, as he did it again, but on the whole there was plenty of reason to, perhaps not be worried, but at least be disappointed.

Shane walks on

Putting the yellow card of Halfpenny to one side, one wonders how, with the backline at Wales’ disposal, how on earth we seemed to be so impotent in attack. Priestland, Williams, Roberts, the other Williams, North, Halfpenny…the combination of such names should strike terror into any defence, yet, and we saw it in the World Cup, something just is not clicking in the go forward of this team. This column certainly had raised eyebrows when attack coach Rob Howley was given his new contract, and they went from raised to frowned as the game went on. How does a team with that much potency in it fail to go forward? Perhaps Nigel Davies is due a return to the set up – he seems at least to be able to get his team over the gain-line…

Shane speaks

Anyway, there is no cause for panic at this point. A one off largely irrelevant fixture, decided by a yellow card, gives no great indication to the rise/fall of Wales. We learned nothing new, Wales needs Adam Jones, the team currently suffers from inexperience, Ian Evans is a great player until he gets tired, and despite having the most exciting backline outside of New Zealand, Wales still struggles to create a try in the first 60 minutes of international rugby matches. It’s a concern that we have known these questions have existed for a very long time, and we are still looking for answers, but perhaps a second training camp in Poland will provide the answers to all our ills.

The game though will not be remembered for any of those issues, it will be remembered for that one try, the last try in a Welsh jersey that we will see from Shane Williams. As the final whistle went, and Shane marched across the field with children in hand (is it too much to ask that that son of his will carry on the torch), people wept all around our vantage point. Grown men to little children, blubbing. Did they cry because they will miss Shane, or because they fear for who we will turn to in his absence? Probably a little bit of both. Either way, his contribution will be missed.

Shane’s Lap

It was a beautiful try, rather than a beautiful game, but it was a try, five seconds of play, that reflected everything that was so magnificent about Shane Williams. The speed, the step, the leap over a fallen tackler, and, while the somersault was impressive, it was the clenched fists of joy at crossing the line that we will recognise most, and remember most fondly. It’s been a blast of a 13 year international career, and it is a great shame that it had to end.

Diolch Shane.