Posts Tagged ‘ rugby ’

Welsh Regions Warm Up

What a difference a few weeks makes, or does it? Going into this year’s Heineken Cup, all the talk surrounding the Welsh regions was one of pre-emptive disappointment, a funeral parade held in advance of the inevitable crashing and burning of the so called professional elite of the Welsh rugby community. Well, two rounds in and the Welsh regions, over two competitions stand undefeated. Unlike in previous seasons, this is not a case of remaining undefeated by virtue of only having defeated fellow Celtic League cohorts or Italian regions, no, this time the Welsh regions stand undefeated over the elite of Europe, English and French clubs no less!

Now, while it is far too soon to start hailing this as anything more than a couple of very good weekends for Welsh professional rugby, it can at the very least be seen as something very promising. This is not just Welsh teams putting in backs to wall defences at home to secure their victories either, this is Welsh teams going into the backyards of England and France’s best, and winning with conviction. There is even a growing sense of frustration that some Welsh teams are not offering enough in their victories. The Cardiff Blues for instance were pointed by the BBC punditry as disappointing in their victory over London Irish. Regardless of the man advantage, this was the Blues beating London Irish, a Welsh team beating an English team, in Europe, and we are disappointed in them. Not so very long ago we would, as collective followers of Welsh rugby, have sat back in stoic acceptance, that a defeat in Europe to the English or French was just an accepted norm, to be frustrated by yes, but not so much to take disappointment from. Now we win, and we are disappointed, maybe the Gatland/New Zealand mentality is asking something of the fans as well as of the players these days.

Of course, no Welsh team is going to win either European Cups on the back of these performances alone, but for the first time in many years, we conclude the first round of European fixtures with all Welsh teams still competing in their groups, and in most cases, running the show so far. Is this a knock on effect from the Welsh teams’ relative success at RWC2011? Is this perhaps an indication that in terms of development, the regional system is actually producing some positive results? After all, look over the Scarlets line-up that looked so strong against a Northampton team lacking in cohesion, it was young, it was Welsh, and much of it was home grown. Again, it’s not a team that has won anything yet, but the signs are certainly promising. Whatever the reason, it is a heady position to be in, to have four competitive Welsh teams in Europe’s elite rugby competitions.

We will all wait with baited breath to see how these performances develop, as ones of consistent success or flash in the pan victories that will ultimately be forgotten. Yet, the displays produced by talented Welsh teams so far should bring smiles to the collective fan base. More so because these are performances being delivered by teams containing very few of the men who starred in red in New Zealand. Wales has an excellent first international XV, but game by game, the regions seem to be showing that there is an increasingly talented pool of players knocking on the door, and that, more than initial success in rounds 1 and 2 of the Heineken, should be a reason to smile at this point in the season.

 

After this was first drafted the Ospreys managed to embarrass themselves into a draw in Italy, however, even that result should bring some cheer, as promising young outside half Matthew Morgan saved the blushes of the outift…though that might be clutching at straws on that particular game…

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.

Video Blog: Welsh Fans in Cardiff

You’ll find here a short video of the thousands of Welsh fans  cheering on the only try of the game in the Millenium Stadium. Whatever your views were on the game and the red card that, in the opinion of these pages, was at best unfair, at worst an injustice, the crowd that poured in to Cardiff to shout on their team, together, as one voice, however many miles they were away from the action, deserved so much more: http://youtu.be/6fBA6arGZlA

This was a wonderful occasion, and to be part of it will be something remembered for all time, if only the gods of fate and justice had smiled on us once more, how this crowd would have sung and cheered, and how they would have deserved it They will be there in four years time, ready to lead the charge from the stands once more, maybe then, with four years of experience behind the 15 on the field, the crowd watching them will be rewarded.

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 Final Say on ITV: Steve Ryder Cares.

Given yesterday’s commentary from ITV you would have been forgiven for thinking that the British Isles had been the subject of some terrible natural disaster. A mood of misery overwhelmed the poor men in the ITV studios, as they were left with the heavy burden of having to relay the devastating news to a defeated nation. Brave, brave Steve Ryder was there to hold our hands though and nurse us through this difficult time.

Ryder wanted us all to know that they in the studio shared our pain, us poor viewers were not alone in that difficult time, that he would do his best to help us come to term with the grieving process, and that no matter how bad things seemed in the moment of that crushing defeat, we could take heart from the fact that the commentary team suffered the same agonies as those being endured by the television audience at home. But wait, what we were all supposed to be so sad about…?

In one final, epic effort of indulgence that firmly shoved two fingers up to the other home nations, anyone of an impartial nature, and certainly to any French fans unfortunate enough to be left relying on ITV for their World Cup coverage, ITV veritably vomited their disappointment that England, World Champions elect, had failed in their duty to the nation, to overwhelm all opposition with the most mundane of performances. Yet, many of those tuning in were Welsh and Irish, many of those tuning in were in no need of a comforting pat on the back from Steve Ryder, not in the slightest.

It would be interesting to garner the views of the English rugby community regarding ITV. Do they love it? Do they find every nonsensical reference to England regardless of their relevance to the subject matter, a moment for giddy joy? Do they wonder why, given the enthusiasm that ITV have for their beloved Red Rose, why on earth so many other non England fans have such an issue with them? After all, ITV kept telling us how good England were, they kept assuring everyone that England were certain to waltz into the final. Well, whatever they think, the rest of us hate it. We hate the constant talking up of a team that offered nothing, we hate the constant references to the English during games not involving them, we hate detailed analysis of their cliff jumping leisure pursuits while we should be talking about other rugby teams and other rugby matches.

You never know, we non English might have found the capacity for some sympathy for England’s demise, had we not had their faces forced into our living rooms during every single unit of World Cup coverage. Now, we are delighted that they are gone, we can revel in the fact that ITV have no legitimate reason to talk about the English at all from this point on (yet we know they will, again and again and again). We have no sympathy, because we never wanted them to win in the first place. Yet having been told by ITV week after week, game after game, that we should be backing England, that we should care about what they did on their days off, that we should give a damn about whether an aging flyhalf can kick a ball in a straight line or not – only served to reaffirm and consolidate our position, that we really don’t care about any of that, not one bit.

So thank you Steve Ryder, thank you for looking after us as you presumed our state of despair. I can assure you though that we were far from despairing, we were jumping, bounding out of our seats as France sealed victory, and laughing at your miserable face as you did your best to convince us that we should be sad.

Yet, we should be sad about one thing. Come the next World Cup, hosted, of course, by England, ITV will be there covering the whole thing once again. Nothing will have changed, and the four yearly cycle of having a whole host of new reasons to hate ITV will present themselves all over again.

Bugger off ITV.

RWC 2011: More Style as Bennett Danced to the Tune of Victory.

After the Halfpenny hat shuffle (http://eye-on-wales.com/2011/09/18/rwc-2011-a-try-of-fortune-and-style/), Wales added a touch more style to this years’ World Cup, as Huw Bennett brought a unique little shuffle to the celebrations, following victory over Ireland. Fist pumping and leaping is the usual path for post match celebration, but Bennett has clearly been in front of the mirror practising a brand new victory dance. Involving a bounce, and a lift knee lift, Bennett has created a dance move that, although unlikely to be seen in the South Wales valley clubs anytime soon, will hopefully be seen at least one or two more times as Wales continue their push for World Cup victory.

Who knows, a win or two more and maybe we will all be doing the Bennett shuffle…

RWC 2011: Wales Dispel the Irish Myth.

 Going into Saturday’s quarter finals, all the talk had come to focus on Ireland. Ireland were the side that would conquer the world, this being the time in which their legendary generation of players, at their final career hurdle, would rise to the occasion and achieve their predetermined destiny of World Cup greatness. We were told Irish experience would win the day, we were told the Irish front row would be too strong, the Irish second row would steal all the ball, that the Irish backrow, the best backrow in the world they said, would crush Welsh ambition, while the ability of BoD, RoG, Darcy and such would be too much for the youngsters of Wales, this is what we were told would bring the Irish glory at least.

As things transpired, the exact opposite happened. Wales were the ones to look ripe with experience, the Welsh front row consumed their opponents, the second row competed, while the backrow, whether the best in the world or not, certainly showed that the much vaunted Irish equivalents have, at the very least, work to do to be able to boast such a title. Then there were the backs. For Wales, the pre match talk had obsessed about North, yet this would be one of his quietest games of the cup so far. Instead, the game turned out to be one of redemption for Mike Phillips. The scrum half has been pressurised from all sides, inside and outside of the squad, for some time, yet managed to produce his finest performance in a red jersey since he spearheaded a second half recovery in Twickenham in 2008. His efforts, completed with a magnificent dive for Wales’ second score, were symbolic of the changed attitude which has brought Wales to this point in the tournament.

Wales looked good, very good, and had the boot of Priestland been less hampered by wind and post, the scoreline would have better reflected just how dominate Wales had been over their much vaunted opposition. Looking ahead, France come next, and while they always remain a potent threat, England knocked so many lumps out of the resurgent men in blue, that Wales, with their fitness continuing to be a 16th man on the field, should once again find themselves free of fear. A position in the final is possible, Wales can go further than they have ever been before, but contemplation on this must be left for another time. For now the nation must celebrate, celebrate a victory hard earned, and totally deserved. World Cup semi final appearances are very rare things for Welsh teams, and our mere presence there is reason enough to wake up tomorrow with a smile.

Well done boys, you continue to do us proud.

RWC 2011: Week 1.5. Wales lead home nations, with nothing to show for it.

With Georgia doing their best to spook the life out of Scottish fans, all the nations competing in this year’s rugby world cup have now entered the fray and tasted a bit of the action. With the first week and a bit out of the way, all of the home nations are in a position to reflect on their current progress, and most spectators will probably settle for the fact that, by some distance, Wales have looked the best of the bunch. In reality Wales, in their narrow defeat to the Springboks, looked head and shoulders over the other offerings of the northern hemisphere, who have so far either disappointed or embarrassed in their on-field efforts. Whatever happens against Samoa on the weekend, there must be a sense in the Welsh camp that runs a little along the lines of ‘why oh why could we not get one of the other groups?!’

Punishment for poor performances in previous years have left Wales in their unenviable group, yet on current showing, Wales would probably be the only home nation to stand a chance of getting out of it, certainly of having a chance of winning the pool. As Scotland labour past another minnow, as England brush off a shambolic display over Argentina, and as Ireland kneel to the gods and offer thanks for being granted the lightest pool in world cup memory at a time when they have no sense of a world class performance in them, Wales and Welsh fans must be gripped by pangs of pain, knowing full well that they could easily exit the pool stages of this tournament as being the best European nation to compete.

Still, it’s early days, and Wales could yet exit the tournament as having been the worst of the European offerings. For that to happen, Wales would need to buckle under some serious Samoan heat on the weekend. We must hope that that does not happen. Playing tight and through a pack that has shown a degree of steel missing for several seasons, there is no reason why Wales cannot go through the rest of the pool without defeat. Really, with the attacking capabilities of the Welsh backline, each game should still produce a bonus point, but in order to do so, lessons must be learnt.

Wales let South Africa off in two key areas. As the second half moved on, and the South Africans tired, increasing amount of the ball was kicked. A fine strategy usually, but South Africa were weak and tired in the middle and that is where the ball should have been shoved. Samoa will tire in exactly the same position, but punt the ball away for their backs to counter attack with quick line outs, and Wales will lose. In addition, fail to use the bench, and Wales will lose. Gatland’s confidence in the fitness of the first XV is admirable, but the likes of Powell and Halfpenny would have been deadly in the last twenty minutes against a tired South African defence. The failure to use them was an oversight then, and will be again against Samoa. Do everything that we did to South Africa, plus correcting these two areas, and a Welsh win will come, but it must be done, otherwise Samoa will be too good to simply role over as the opposition has done for the other home nations, those other lucky lucky home nations! (And indeed, that is said with seething jealousy!)

Early Osprey Promise.

Well, this was never intended as an up to the minute sports blog, but given that BBC Wales are showing the first Welsh fixture of the new rugby season, it seems as appropriate to write about the Ospreys – Leinster match as much as anything else. First things first though, we are no longer dealing with a Magners League, but a RaboDirect league, whatever a RaboDirect is? Not sure that you can drink it, or were it to be a drink, that you would want to consume it with a name like that anyway – some toxic energy drink perhaps? Then again, Magners tastes dreadful anyway, so in terms of sponsors it’s no real difference, apart from sounding a little sillier.

Anyway, enough about sponsors, and more about rugby, and all in all, the Ospreys will be fairly satisfied with their performance this evening. All the clubs in this competition, not just the Welsh ones, will be suffering in terms of quality, with so many starters away for the world cup, but the Ospreys look amongst those best equipped to deal with the player losses. This is due to a combination of both a positive home grown youth development policy that seems to have been developed, but also thanks to the large number of Wales rejects who have been left behind in Osprelia. Gough, (J) Thomas, Mefin Davies and company are certainly no spring chickens, even the likes of Ian Evans are not overly sprightly, and so the Ospreys have plenty of international experience left in their ranks.

That being said, in the first half, it was the new generation of Ospreys who led the way. Rhys Webb, Ashley Beck, Tupiric and company, all offered a sense of hunger and urgency which has been very noticeably absent in recent years. While the second half of this game was frankly dreadful, the first half saw a sense of intent and enjoyment from the Ospreys, probably not seen for about three seasons. Leinster were far from good, and that must be acknowledged, the strength in depth that this club used to have does not seem to be on display anymore, especially in a directionless backline, one too many in New Zealand seems to be the case here. Yet, the Ospreys in the first half were very good, and could they manage that for 80 minutes, they could well be the team to beat during the world cup months.

However, without wanting to be overly critical, certain players still seem to be shadows of who they would like to be, notably Dan Biggar. Left behind by most other regional outside halves, Biggar continues to do well going forward, but much of his defence continues to look poor and unpredictable. Developing the ball/arm ripping tackle so loved by Hook these days, Biggar ended up letting more people through, than dislodging any balls. Playing like this, without the complete game he so longs to produce, he will remains down the pecking order, and short of any further international caps. Jonathan Thomas remains an awkward player to watch as well. Certainly not an international second row, certainly not an international No8, the only two positions he appears to be playing these days, and with far too many players ahead of him at 6, it’s difficult to see how he will come back into a regular Wales starting role as well.

That being said, there is a very long season ahead of us, and many things will change over the coming months. Certainly though, and despite failing to secure their bonus point, the Ospreys will leave the game with a sense of confidence and a degree of satisfaction following their first 40 minutes. Continue to produce what was on display in the first half of rugby, and you would imagine the Ospreys will be very well placed by the time their Welsh squad members come home.