Oooooooooooooooooooooooohhh!

Jonah Lomu, discuss.

Only one of the most memorable figures in rugby history. His trampling of the puny Underwoods and Mike Catt in 1995 will live long in the memory, as will Will Carling’s bitter description of a “freak”.

Lomu’s pace and power were frightening, but beneath the physical side lay a cunning rugby brain and highly polished skills. Lomu would not have made the impact he did was he only able to run in straight lines into defenders – even Rog can make himself enough of a speed bump to slow down large Pacific Islanders. No agricultural bosher could have earned 63 NZ caps in the 8 years from 1994, only a talented genius.

However, in an amazingly funny article brought to our attention by blog buddy Matt, ESPN have besmirched the memory of one of the greats by comparing him not only to Oooooooooooooohh Matt Banahan, but to Lesley Vainikolo!

Read through your fingers, its appalling: http://www.espnscrum.com/scrum/rugby/story/144993.html

Whiff of Cordite’s core rugby philosophy is insulted by this nonsense – genuinely talented footballers like George North, Caucau and Alesana Tuilagi belong nowhere near this hall of shame..

Elements of English rugby have continually learned the wrong lesson from their experience of Lomu, and the preponderence of useless and brainless boshers in the Sky Sports love-club (Banahan, Vainikolo, Shontayne Hape, Andy Powell, Jordan Turner-Hall, Sam Tuitupou, the list goes on) bears testament to this. This obsession with power and size has obscured opportunities for proper players like Matthew Tait and Olly Barkley. Ban(ahan) this sick filth!

World Cup Preview: France

Group A Opposition: New Zealand, Tonga, Japan, Canada

Pedigree: Close, but no cigar. Beaten finalists twice, and usually find themselves at the sharp end of the tournament. Generally capable of one huge performance, but can’t back it up. Still, New Zealand know all about them.

Players to watch: Backrow looks a particular strength. Thierry Dusatoir holds things together when all around him are collapsing, while space will need to be found for Louis Picamoles, who thrived at Toulouse this year, and Fulgence Ouedraogo, who was inspirational for Montpellier. Could Harinordoquy be squeezed out? Further back, Lievremental might have left WoC hero Clement at home, but we are very excited about Maxime Mermoz – Perpignan were classy with him and ordinary without.

Good Tournament: France have the talent and the set piece platform to make a serious statement, and should be looking to make the final.

Bad Tournament: If they fail to make the semi-final, Lievremont will be in trouble.

Prospects: It all comes down to the whims of one man: Marc Lievremont. Who will he pick? Nobody knows. What style will his team play? We haven’t a clue. After four years of erratic selections and baffling press conferences, they haven’t really progressed. They still beat Ireland, struggle against England, ambush one SH giant and get tonked by another (or even the same one) every year.

The squad Lievremont has selected is typically enigmatic. Lionel Beauxis and Clement Poitrenaud will be spending September at home. After appearing to be tied to Chabal for four years, he has finally cut him loose. Bayonne’s Yoann Huget – a poor man’s Shane Horgan at best – has survived the cut thus far, but there is seemingly no place for the vastly superior Julien Malzieu. And we still haven’t worked out what Damien Traille is for.

Nonetheless, there is an impressive depth of talent at France’s disposal. The backrow we have already discussed; and France should have the best scrum in the tournament, regardless of which props they pick from Domingo, Mas, Barcella, Poux and Marconnet. In Maxime Medard and Vincent Clerc they have outside backs capable of changing matches. At half-back, Parra is a marvellous player, and Francois Trinh-Duc, while not to everyone’s taste, has had a great season with Montpellier. The question remains: will the manager gel the team?

Lievremont has already spoken about putting out a B-team in the game against New Zealand, under the (not entirely ridiculous) logic that they won’t beat them twice. Assuming they do away with Tonga and the minnows, this would leave them with a probable quarter-final against the old enemy, England. Les Rosbifs dumped France out in the semi-finals in 2003 and 2007, with France fancied on both occasions. It would be a rare tournament where France do not put in one memorable performance; in all likelihood this will have to be it if they are to make it to the semi-finals or beyond. Otherwise, the guillotine beckons for Lievremont.

Verdict: Despite huge talent and one eye already on Johnno’s men, they will find it hard to overcome England in a quarter final.

Rugby World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 1

Over the next few weeks we’ll be keeping a close watch on goings on in the Ireland camp.  This week brought the news that Kidney and his management team (bar Gaffney, who is going home to Australia after the RWC) have been rewarded with a new two-year contract on the eve of the World Cup.  We can’t help but be reminded of the similar decision in 2007 when Eddie was given a four-year deal, only for a disastrous tournament and subsequent Six Nations to beset the team.  So, we are down from four years to two – is this a case of learning by degrees for the IRFU?

In a sense, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  Give the contract, and we are all wincing as we recall Eddie’s Four More Years.  Don’t give it, and the question of the coaching team’s futures will follow them around the tournament.  But casting a glance around the other World Cup hopefuls, it does look as though discretion is considered the better part of valour: of the teams with ambitions of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup (which we claim to have) none of South Africa, France, England or New Zealand have offered their coach a contract beyond the World Cup – only Australia have made the commitment.

One comment from IRFU chief exec Philip Browne did cause us concern: he cited the ‘significant progress in the last two years in terms of results’.  Come again?  Ireland have won three from five in those two distinctly mediocre Six Nations chamionships and two from four in the November Internationals.  Pull the other one – our standards are much higher now – with four 6N wins and a big Southern Hemisphere scalp a minimum requirement.

What’s most worrying is the fear that the 2007 parallels could start to stack up over the coming weeks.  There’s more than a touch of Eddie about Deccie’s idiosyncratic team selections and excessive loyalty to certain players, as well as his lack of enthusiasm for using his bench.  Throw in a more than likely lopsided squad without a single openside and you might think Eddie was still there, pulling the strings behind the scenes.

But these fears need to be counter-balanced by the fact that Deccie’s management style couldn’t be more different to Eddie’s.  He’ll empower the players rather than dictate and, crucially, he looks set to get the physical side of preparation right.  Ireland were woefully underooked in 2007, but with five games in August, four against test level opponents, there is no chance of that this time around.  He’ll have them almost feral by the time we take the pitch against Australia in Auckland.  Let’s try to keep the faith for now.

World Cup Preview: New Zealand

Group A Opposition: France, Tonga, Japan, Canada

Pedigree: Won first time out at home in 87, but didn’t win in 95, 03 and 07 despite being the best team in the tournament. Not good enough. Repeated buckling under pressure has meant its squeaky-bum time already in NZ – the latest worry is that the Crusaders only got all the way to the final of the Super XV despite playing no home games, but didn’t win. Panic stations!

Players to watch: Were do we start? The best scrum in rugby, the most exciting young lock in the world (Sam Whitelock), a frenetic back row including a man who is allowed to enter rucks from anywhere (all joking aside, McCaw plays the referee better than any other captain around), the best outhalf in history, three outstanding centres, and strike backs so good Dougie Howlett wouldn’t get near the team. We’ll be leaning back and appreciating the brilliance of Dan Carter, the insouciant genius of SBW, and young Israel Dagg – a potential superstar.

Good Tournament: They must win every match, preferably with lots of tries. No pressure then.

Bad Tournament: With the way they have been playing, not winning the tournament would constitute an absolute disaster.

Prospects: Since 1995, they have specialized in peaking between tournaments. After 2007, they took a deep breath, sent apparent heir-apparent Robbie Deans to the then hapless Wallabies and persevered with Smiler Henry. Luckily, he has raised them to even greater heights, helped by a production line of simply fantastic players. Post-2009 rule changes have played right into their hands, and with a team full of brilliant support runners and intelligent footballers, they have only been beaten once since June 2009, and that was a perfect storm of Aussie brilliance and Stephen Donald (since banished for his crimes) ineptitude.

Writing pre-Tri-Nations, there is ample opportunity for us to look foolish, but we can’t see them losing another match this year. The pressure is becoming unbearable, but the last 4 years has been all about building a team so good that, even if they choke, they will win anyway. The focus, intensity and hunger of this team are top notch, and the age profile looks ideal.

We foresee 4 wins in the group stages by 40+ points (including over a French B team wearing an ill-conceived NZ-goading shirt), a quarter-final stroll over Argentina or Scotland, a swatting aside of the Boks or Ireland in the semis then finally getting a game in the final, but still overcoming the Wallabies by 15 points or so. The fact they are still close to even money is a reflection of the choke premium, but at home, they aren’t going to come close to losing a match. Richie doesn’t even need to commit breakdown murder for them to stroll home. But he will anyway.

Verdict: Champions at last.

The World Cup: It’s Coming

We’ve got World Cup fever here at Cordite Towers.  The big kick off is just 45 days away at the time of writing, and the build up starts here.  Once the tournament begins, Palla will be heading down under for three weeks with Ms Ovale and Little Ovale, and will be reporting regularly from various campsites throughout the country.  Egg Chaser will be keeping things together back in Ireland, and setting his alarm clock for 4am on a nightly basis (even for Georgia v Romania).

Over the next six weeks, we’ll be guiding you through the tournament on a group by group basis: we’ll have a look at each side’s prospects, we’ll highlight some players we think can have a big impact, and we’ll be monitoring the progress of the Tri Nations and Northern Hemisphere warm up games to see how the major contenders are shaping up.  Needless to say, we’ll be following the Ireland camp with an especially beady eye.  We’ll even offer some advice on managing the difficult kick-off times.  In fact we’ll be doing everything bar giving a history lesson on Maori culture.  Egg Chaser will be kicking things off with a look at the hosts, New Zealand in a matter of hours…

Did somebody order a Power of Four wristband?

On tuesday, Egg Chaser took a look at the forwards he expects to be jostling for position on the flight down under. It’s still a long way off, so we’re not all going to agree. One commenter even made a case for Mushy Buckley as a Lion, so at the risk of upsetting any Johne Murphy fans out there, here we go with the backs…

Scrum half

Pole Position: Ben Youngs is exactly the sort of scrum half you’d want to take on the Aussies.  Struggled a little in the latter portion of the season but has plenty of time to iron out the kinks in his game.

Look out for: Conor Murray. The Munster scrum half had a breakthrough lat year, and looks every inch the complete player. Should be Ireland’s first choice nine next season.

Needs to improve: The 2009 Lions Mike Philips and Tomas O’Leary will need to get their mojo back to be in the mix.

Too late for: Eoin Reddan will be pushing over the hill by 2013.

Fly half

Pole Position: Jonny Sexton looks by far the most complete and reliable of the options.  Needs to bring consistency to his game at test level, and the shirt is his.  Toby Flood would provide ample back-up.

Look out for: George Ford is already causing excited mutterings among England fans, who wouldn’t overhype a player lightly.  He is just 18, but served notice of his considerable talent in the recent U20 World Cup.

Needs to improve: James Hook has talent in abundance and wants to play more at fly-half but must learn to boss the game to be a Lions 10.

Too late for: The 2009 fly halves ROG and Stephen Jones will be past their best by the time 2013 rolls around.

Centres

Pole Position: Brian O’Driscoll will have to have the shirt torn from his back.  His body may give up before 2013, but for now he is still in poll position.  No inside centre currently stands out.

Look out for: Manu Tuilagi is the man who could take over from BOD.  He has some work to do on his defence, but looks explosive with the ball.  Fergus McFadden will be the established Ireland 12 by this stage and should be pushing for a spot.
It’s early days for two very young players who should make big strides between now and then: Scottish centre Mark Bennett has just signed for Clermont and is hoped to be the quality centre Scottish rugby has lacked for so long, while Luke Marshall will become a key player at Ulster next year.

Needs to improve: If Jamie Roberts can regain the form he showed in 2009, he is a nailed on tourist. But he has never looked the same player since.

Too late for: Possibly BOD and almost certainly Dorce.

Back Three

Pole position: Generally the most unpredictable, as form plays a huge part. On the left wing, Keith Earls and Max Evans look the most likely, while on the right it is hard to see Ashton and Bowe being displaced.  Ben Foden looks the real deal at 15, though Rob Kearney can challenge if he recovers from injury and adds greater variety to his counterattacking game.

Look out for: Lee 0.5p has been bedevilled by injuries, but if he can get back on track he can be world class.  Llanelli’s starlet George North also looks set to make a big impression, while Tim Visser becomes Scottish qualified next year, and if he can take his try-scoring exploits to test level will certainly be a Lion.

Needs to improve: Luke Fitzgerald endured a difficult season and needs to get back to his pre-injury form. If Oooooooooohhh Matt Banahan can add pace, a sidestep, softer hands, a brain and defensive positioning to his bulk, he could contend for a spot on the plane.

Too late for: Lee Byrne will be pushing 32, while it looks a tour too far for Shane Williams.

After the Six Nations next season, we’ll revisit and see how our Lions Ladder is looking.  No doubt we’ll try to rewrite history to make it look like we were right all along.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle … Part 1

Today and Thursday we’ll run through the the potential Lions team to play against Australia in 2013. We’re going to start with who we see in pole position, who to watch for, who needs to improve and who will be too old. I’m going to cup the testicles of the forwards and ask them to cough today, and Palla will be giving the backs a thorough probing on Thursday.

As time goes on, we plan to re-visit our team, and presumably try to rationalize why we got it so wrong.

Unlike backs who can burst into the first team and stay there, forwards tend to improve incrementally. Hence most bolters are backs – we expect that any forward who could tour would be in first team by now – don’t expect too many shocking names below.

Front Row:

Pole position: Gethin Jenkins, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole. Jenkins might be 33 in 2013 but he is still the best loose-head in the NH, although Cian Healy will be hard on his heels by then. Healy’s international team-mate Mike Ross is probably better than Cole now, but won’t be in 2013. Hartley could be captain but for his accent.

Look out for: Alex Corbisiero and the returning Matt Stevens at prop, and the future Irishman Richardt Strauss at hooker.

Needs to improve: Ross Ford, although as a non-awful Scotland player, he will probably tour anyway. Matthew Rees is the easy option but he is pretty uninspiring.

Too late for: Jirry certainly, possibly Adam Jones and Rory Best as well. Euan Murray checked out a while ago.

Second Row:

Pole position: Richie Gray, Courtney Lawes. These 2 are the future. Lawes added proper meat to his game last season, which was especially evident against Ulster. Paul O’Connell will tour as an elder statesman, but probably not start.

Look out for: Dan Tuohy – Ireland have not produced a real dynamic lock forward in a while – if Tuohy takes Donncha’s shirt next year, he will be the ideal deputy for Gray.

Needs to improve: Alun Wyn Jones’ athleticism might be very useful in Oz, but he will need to get back to 2008 form.

Too late for: Tom Palmer, Nathan Hines and Donncha. Presumably the miracle man Shawsy will have finally gone by 2013. Biiiiiiiiiig Bob might be too old (and immobile) as well.

Back Row:

Pole position: Sean O’Brien, Sam Warburton, Jeamie Heaslip. SOB just pips Fez for the blindside shirt, but the Samoans showed how raw power can upset the Wallabies, so Fez might still take it. Warburton is already a key man for Wales, and could be Welsh captain by 2013. Heaslip could be Lions captain.

Look out for: Tom Wood – if he continues his upward trajectory, he will contend for the 6 shirt. Ben Morgan becomes Welsh next year – the young Scarlets number 8 is a huge prospect.

Needs to improve: If John Barclay becomes the John Barclay on 2009, he has to go. The above goes for Johnnie Beattie as well. Tom Croft has the game, and just needs to re-discover his career momentum – the blinside flank is a crowded place. Le Hasque can cover both flanks, but needs to be a little more skillful.

Too late for: Wally *sniff* – what a man.

Overpaid, Over the Hill and Over Here

News broke yesterday that South African captain and highveldt hero John Smit is on his way to Saracens.  A South African playing for Saracens, you ask?  Yes, we were surprised too.  It sounds like a coup, but Smit is 33 and Saracens already have a brilliant and dynamic hooker who can do this. Perhaps Smit will scrum down on the tighthead side, but he’s not nearly as effective there, which is a polite way of saying he is about as good a tighthead as Tom Court.

Importing veteran test legends from down under tends to be a mixed bag at the best of times. We have a look at three that worked, and three that didn’t.

The Good:

Doug Howlett, Munster: Arrived aged 28 after a glittering career with the All Blacks, and fitted in straight away.  About to embark on his fifth season with the club.  Now 32, and not as quick as he once was, but remains a first-rate footballer, and a fully commited one too.  His disallowed try in the 2008 HEC final would have been one of the tries of the era, while Munster fans won’t forget the sight of him hobbling back to make a try saving tackle on a Treviso player before departing the scene, unable to continue.
Verdict: Car-jumpingly good

Byron Kelleher, Toulouse: Sure, it may have ended unhappily, but for three seasons at Toulouse, Kelleher was sensational, winning the Top 14 Player of the Year in his first season (as well as the coveted Bouclier du Brennus) and winning a HEC medal in 2010.  His bristling, physical style was perfectly suited to the Northern hemisphere.  Next year he’ll be playing for Stade, who will be hoping that, at 34, he still has one last hurrah in him.
Verdict: So good Guy Noves almost forgave him…

Ollie le Roux, Leinster:  The Springbok prop had just one season at Leinster (and a cameo as a medical joker the following year) but he left a cult hero.  Not the slimmest, but he gave Leinster a platform at scrum time that they had never had, and was hugely influential on the budding Cian Healy, who would break through the following year. His ballast played a massive part in what was a crucial season in Leinster’s transition from perennial underacheievers to European force.  He even played hooker in occasional emergencies, and took a hard won Magners League medal back to South Africa,
Verdict: The Zaytoon bill was worth it

The Bad:

Christian Cullen, Munster: Brought in in to bring Munster from perennial European bridesmaids to the next level, Cullen was the first superstar to land on Irish soil. At the time, he was the record try scorer for New Zealand and it was anticipated his counter-attacking brilliance would turn a pedestrian Munster backline (you and I both know its true Hoggy) into one that could compete with Toulouse, Stade Francais and Leicester. Sadly, Cullen picked up a few knocks, and never quite got going. He managed just 44 appearances in 4 years, and 14 tries is a pretty poor return given he scored 46 in 58 games for NZ.
Verdict: Out-shone by Ian Dowling in his time in Thomond

Jerry Collins, Ospreys: Brought to Neath/Swansea/wherever the Ospreys call home the year after Rocky Elsom pitched up in D4, the idea was the same, to bring some Southern Hemisphere granite to a team of pretty backs, and translate Magners League success to the HEC. Rocky’s impact in one season has gone down in legend – almost single-handedly dragging Leinster into the quarter finals, then knocking Quin after Quin asunder when they got there – the man got into Team of the HEC in one campaign for God’s sake (much to Mad Dog Jones’ chagrin). Jerry’s was rather less noteworthy – in and out of the side, yo-yo-ing fitness levels, a lack of engagement, and a slapdash attitude, neatly summarized by this in his final game.
Verdict: Pint of Guinness?

Chris Latham, Worcester: When the star of the Wallaby RWC07 backline decided to move up North at the fag-end of a stunning career, presumably there were no shortage of suitors. We aren’t sure if HEC rugby was a make-or-break factor for Latham, but when he appeared at Worcester on a £325,000 a year 2-year contract, we were slightly suspicious he wasn’t in Europe for the top-level rugby. True enough, a couple of unspectacular seasons later and Latham is at home, and Worcester are £ridiculous lighter and still in the same place in the Premiership i.e. nowhere.
Verdict: Mad Dog rated him the finest full-back he has ever seen. Nuff said

Smit will always be seen in South Africa as the leader who, along with Matfield, Botha and du Preez, turned a callow and rudderless team into world champions and Lion tamers; but he is at best the 3rd best hooker in South Africa right now (Bismarck, Brits), and possibly 4th behind Gary Botha. We find it hard to envisage the ciurcumstances in which Smit isn’t slotting alongside Jerry and Chris this time next season.

Buy an Ulster Season Ticket and, erm, Save Time!

Anyone wondering why Ulster have not yet expanded their fanbase in the same way as Leinster and Munster will have been given a little clue as to why if they follow @ulsterrugby on twitter.  A recent tweet encouraged fans to buy an Ulster season ticket in order to ‘save money and time and booking fees’.  Such a depressing lack of imagination and morkshing savvy has not been seen since last season’s Apprentice.

It compares poorly with Leinster and Munster, who have successfully morkshed their season tickets as buying into something more than just rugby tickets, but becoming part of a greater community, and most importantly, getting behind a fiercely dedicated group of outstanding players who are there representing you on the field.  Leinster’s campaign this year focused on the recently renewed contracts signed by Heaslip, Sexton and BOD and asked ‘We’ve signed up.  Have you?’

While Ulster folk are naturally (and probably rightly) more cynical about this band-of-brothers nonsense, a little more wit would not go amiss. After all, Ulster look primed to be the next big success story in Irish rugby.  National underage sides are stacked with their youngsters, and several bright new sparks broke into their first team last year: expect even bigger things from Spence, Gilroy and the Marshalls this coming year, while young fly-half Paddy Jackson is being primed for the first team.  Meanwhile, signing Jared Payne looks to be the transfer coup of the summer.  If Ferris can stay fit for a full season and Falloon can nail down a place on the openside flank, Ulster could be on the cusp of great things.  Let’s hope if they do achieve lift-off on the pitch, they can do the same off it.

You’ll win nothing with kids

It was joy unconfined for the Queensland Reds this weekend, as they won their first ever Super Rugby final.  It’s a great result for Super Rugby, with a new name on the Cup, and a remarkable one for the Reds, who have come a long way in a short space of time.  If you cast your eye over their record in the last five years, it’s clear this is a meteoric rise: as recently as 2009 they were bottom dwellers. Last year, they soared to 5th place, just missing out on a play-off slot at the death.

P W D L F A +/- B Pt
2006 12th 13 4 0 9 240 320 −80 6 22
2007 14th 13 2 0 11 201 438 −237 3 11
2008 12th 13 3 1 9 258 323 −65 4 18
2009 13th 13 3 0 10 258 380 −122 4 19
2010 5th 13 8 0 5 366 308 +58 7 39

It shows the value of investing in a young, talented squad which can mature together over time. This can require some hard lessons and usually involves the team absorbing some heavy, punishing defeats along the way.  No doubt there were times when things looked grim (not least when the Bulls put 90 points on them in 2007) but their faith in youth has been handsomely rewarded, and the likes of Genia and Cooper look set to become global superstars this autumn. Serendipity also helped: had they sneaked into the play-offs last year, a punishing defeat in Pretoria was a real possibility – the team had completely run out of steam. The lack of mental hangup on the home straight was evident on Saturday.

Are there any teams in the cold and rainy Northern Hemisphere countries that could emulate the Reds zeroes-to-heroes feat? Whiff of Cordite has identified 4 possibilities:

Ulster: Building a side around a new generation of talented backs, with experience coming from Saffa beef up front.  Big improvement last season, with HEC quarter final and 3rd place ML finish after just scraping ahead of Connacht in 2010.
Can they be the NH Reds?  Have solid commercial base with room for improvement (albeit with laughable marketing strategies, more of which anon) but have been dealt a tough draw in the HEC. This could make them, but they maybe need another year to break through.

Llanelli Scarlets: Culled expensive imports two years ago in order to build new side around home grown talent.  Played some terrific rugby last season, not least in beating Perpignan in a remarkable game, but missed out on Magners playoffs.
Can they be the NH Reds? If anyone in Wales can break up the Irish dominance, it is they.  Pack needs toughening up, but their young Number 8, Ben Morgan, is outstanding. Another problem for Welsh teams is the Toulons of this world, who can offer fat cheques for re-location – the Reds’ biggest worry was Quade Cooper switching sports to League.

Ospreys: Several big names leaving this summer. Rebuild starts here, around home grown players such as Justin Tipuric and Kristian Philips.
Can they be the NH Reds?  Unlikely. Fanbase has still to materialise and the culture of the club needs overhaul as much as the playing staff. Plus Tommy Bowe surely has noticed most of his international team-mates have HEC medals (plural).

Harlequins: In process of rebuild following Bloodgate in 2009.  Playing an attractive brand of rugby in the Premiership (like Bath), they lost too many tight games last season.  Well coached by Conor O’Shea, they have already landed silverware, winning the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Can they be the NH Reds?  Have a good chance.  Look to have the right coach in place, and have solid pillars (Easter, Evans) to groom the youngsters, plus a loyal fanbase. Performance in Thomond Park demonstrated their talent. Have a real opportunity to sneak into the HEC knockout stages behind Toulouse.