Say Hello to 2015

England’s game against Australia will make for intriguing viewing this weekend, not least because of the age profile of the side England have selected.  The team has an average age of sub-25 and there’s no one in the entire matchday panel older than 28.  The average number of caps is 14.  Neutrals should probably hope for an Australia win, because if this England team wins the hype will be unbearable.  World Cup Glory beckons!  Bring on the Kiwis!  SWING LOW!

Having said that, if this England team does beat an admittedly patchy Australia side, they can afford a little cautious optimism.  This is a side built with 2015 in mind.  For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it looks like this:

M Brown (Harlequins); C Ashton (Saracens), J Tomkins (Saracens), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), M Yarde (London Irish); O Farrell (Saracens), L Dickson (Northampton), M Vunipola (Saracens), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens).

Excitement abounds around the two Vunipolas.  As George Hamilton might say, the Vunipola brothers are not related.  Billy is a livewire carrier, possibly the No.8 England have been looking for since Nick Easter, er, got ignored for some reason.  And in the scrummaging merry-go-round it appears that Mako has benefitted from the new laws.  A liability at set piece in the Lions tour, if indeed he can show this to no longer be the case in the New Scrummaging World, then he can have a long test career.  Or up until the scrum engagement changes again, at least.

They’ll miss the unflappable Geoff Parling at lineout time for sure, but the second row combination of Launchbury and Lawes is bound to generate excitement.  There will be no quicker, more athletic second row in the November series, but are they men of substance?  Lawes is a product of massive overhype, but has spoken of maturing and no longer looking to make rugbydump hits, but play for the team. The jury’s still out.

On the flanks, we’d still prefer to see a little more specialisation.  Robshaw and Wood are grafters.  Both will make some yards, slow down some ball, make some tackles.  Wood will take a few lineouts.  Fine men and good players they undoubtedly are, but neither is outstanding at any one facet of the game.  He may have his detractors, but Tom Croft will be missed.  He gives England an explosive running threat out wide and coupling his absence with that of Manu Tuilagi, there’s a massive line-breaking threat removed from the side.

In the back division, England have been scratching around for years for a top class 12 (since Greenwood retired, arguably) – Stontayne Hapless never really ticked the boxes.  Billy Twelvetrees is big and strong, but also a smart footballer and a good offloader.  He could be that man.  Joel Tomkins plays outside him, and Marland Yarde is the latest speedster off the rank to be given a go on the wing.  A new one seems to explode on the scene every year before their form goes into a tailspin and disappear from view.  Will he be the new Tom Varndell/Paul Sackey/Ugo Monye/David Strettle/Topsy Ojo/Christian Wade?

With all the youthful verve on display, the key question might be: are Lee Dickson and Owen Farrell the men to put them into space?  Dickson is keeping Fotuali’i on the bench at Northampton, which counts for a huge amount, but we have never been especially impressed by him.  He tends to do a lot of flapping around the base, and can be seen waving his arms for eons before passing the ball.  Better than Ben Youngs?  Really?  Owen Farrell is a hardy competitor, but the feeling remains that until Freddie Burns makes an unarguable case for selection, England still lack a real playmaker for the role.

Anyway, the future starts here.  Possibly.  Maybe.  England have prematurely celebrated any number of false dawns since 2003.  Remember when they won in Paris with a very youthful Toby Flood and – brace yourself – Shane Geraghty cutting the French to ribbons?  The press corps got very excited. It didn’t last.


Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Three

The Game: England 13 Ireland 19, 6th March 2004

What it Defined: The emergence of a consistently successful Ireland side

The State of Play

After the Night of the Long Knives following the All Blacks defeat in 2001, Eddie was always going to get some time to get things right – and he needed it. In the 2002 Six Nations, Ireland mixed the sublime with the ridiculous – veering from feeding Wales a painful 50-burger to being on the end of two shellackings in Twickers and Paris.  The inconsistency that had been Gatty’s downfall wasn’t going to go away quickly.

Next season, it looked like they had begun to sort themselves out. After being unable to beat Scotland for a decade, suddenly Ireland were finding it very easy – a 3rd win in 4 years got them off to a great start, and it was followed up by a routine win in Rome. The character of the next two wins had the Irish public sensing something different – a tough grinding win over France in Lansdowne Road was followed up with a last gasp one point win in Cardiff (shurely shome mishtake Mish Moneypenny). The mental toughness we had been looking for seemed within reach … as did a Grand Slam as England came to town.

Until, of course, it was slapped down in spectacular fashion by Johnno and co. at Lansdowne Road. The game will be remembered for the English captain’s perceived snub of Mary McAleese, but that preceded a right beating from the English, who were thoroughly sick of being denied Grand Slams by Celtic upstarts. A 5-try 42-6 demolishing was the result, but Ireland were quietly pleased with progress, and this was one hell of an England side.

The World Cup in Oz that autumn was about one thing in the minds of the Irish rugby public – atonement for Lens. Ireland had been drawn with Argentina again, as well as the hosts, and someone was going to bite the bullet. In the event, Ireland staggered past an obdurate Pumas side in a stinking game – Quinny’s try-scoring injury put him out for a long time, and both Argentinian props were accused of gouging in the aftermath.

The newly carefree Irish almost caught the Wallabies napping in the final pool game, but a last minute Humph drop goal sailing left meant it was the French instead of the Scots, and after 30 minutes Ireland were whacked and bagged at 24-0 down, eventually losing 43-21 – a defeat which prompted the retirement of all-time legend Woody.  It was about par for Ireland World Cups, but the players had a ball in a terrific base.  Shane Horgan rated it as a career highlight, but lamented that it came a year too soon for what was a young team.

The following years’ Six Nations started with defeat to France, but that was followed up by another handsome victory over Wales. Despite the loss of Wood, the trip to Twickenham was crucial for Ireland – another defeat and they were essentially back where they were after 2000 – some pretty wins, but no cigars.

England themselves were reigning world champions and at the peak of their powers – they had scored 11 tries against the concession of one in their first two games – we tend to associate the 2004 England side with their shambolic 2006-10 cousins, not the powerful machine which won a series in New Zealand and the World Cup in the nine months preceding this game – make no mistake, this was a formidable team, one of the best (if not the best) of the professional era.

The Game

This was the first Great Eddie Performance – a ruthless and well-executed devastation of the opposition’s weak point: the lineout. Thommo had the worst day of his career, and Mal O’Kelly the best, in tandem with the incredible Paul O’Connell. The English set pieces never got going, and Ireland kept them under incredible pressure throughout the first half. Despite an opportunist try from Matt Dawson, Ireland went in 12-10 in front thanks to four Ronan O’Gara penalties.

England came out flying after the break, with a Ben Cohen try in the corner ruled out by the TMO for a double movement. It was a tight call, but probably correct.  Ireland responded with one of the memorable moments of the last decade, and another Eddie Classic – an all-singing backline move started by a sublime step-and-go from Gordon D’arcy – suddenly playing to his great potential – and finished by Girvan Dempsey. Every step was training ground rehearsed.  Egg can recall the dirty Vinnie Jones-esque tackle on Dempsey by Cohen as much as the try itself, but it was beautiful to behold (although look how deep the whole line stands!).

Ireland closed it out after that with the sort of tough hard-nosed performance they needed to produce – it was a display full of grit, desire and marked confidence in their gameplan. Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell were excellent in their first games in Twickers and would be mainstays of the team for years to come. The England team they beat were missing Johnson and Wilko, but had a plethora of World Cup winners, and were led by Lawrence Dallaglio.

The teams that day were:

England: Balshaw; Lewsey, Robinson, Greenwood, Cohen; Grayson, Dawson; Woodman, Thompson, Vickery; Borthwick, Kay; Worsley, Hill, Dallaglio.

Ireland: Dempsey; Horgan, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Howe; O’Gara, Stringer; Corrigan, Byrne, Hayes; O’Kelly, O’Connell; Easterby, Gleeson, Foley.

The Aftermath

The game was the catalyst for Ireland to win three Triple Crowns in four seasons – their most consistent period of success in history. The first was secured three weeks later at home to Scotland and prompted wild celebrations. The team of 2004 was largely the team that played for this entire World Cup cycle and through to France 2007, missing only the silky-haired Jirry Flannery – at that point just back in Munster after a sojourn in Connacht – and the soon-to-re-emerge David Wallace.

The following season, it was Wales’ turn, and they won a rather fortuitous Grand Slam, but this was the catalyst for Eddie’s best years – a Triple Crown followed in 2006 (as did a horror beating in Paris – something which was becoming a familiar marker), and that Autumn, Ireland beat both South Africa and Australia, and reached the heady heights of 3rd in the world rankings.  The South Africa and Australia teams were somewhat developmental in nature, but that was lost on a public giddy with excitement over Ireland’s form.  Ronan O’Gara surely never played flatter than in that series, and two new stars from Ulster emerged: powerful winger Andrew Trimble and wrecking-ball blindside, Neil Best.

The peak of the side was due to be in 2007, and it corresponded with the knocking down of decrepit old Lansdowne Road in favour of the sparkling new Palindrome – Ireland were to play their home game from 2007-2010 in Croke Park, the 80,000 seater occasionally atmospheric home of the GAA. The emotion and unfamiliarity of it all were undoubtedly contributors to a slightly off-key performance in the first game of the series, against France. Ireland were but a lucky bounce away from a home win that would likely have led to a Grand Slam.  As a fan, there are some defeats you never quite get over, and for Palla Ovale this is one – he simply sat, motionless in Croke Park with his head in his scarf for an extended period of time, before going straight home to bed.

The team were more proactive however – they were primed against England in their next home game. The emotional peak and nationalistic fervour conspired to inspire Ireland to their most complete performance to date – a 43-13 pummeling of a shell-shocked England. The momentum took them to a 50 point win in Rome, which would surely have been good enough for the Championship had France played Scotland simultaneously. In the event, it was another Triple Crown, and this one was greeted rather less positively than the previous two – it was, quite rightly, perceived as a chance of a lifetime having been missed, and Ireland felt short-changed.  They hadn’t climbed their mountain yet, but the mentality was one of winners.  A Triple Crown was no longer good enough.

After the physical and mental peaks of the Six Nations, surely Ireland would be firing on all cylinders again for the World Cup in October?

Six Nations: Round Three Preview

Ireland v Italy

This is a game Ireland should really win, and win comfortably.  Italy may have given England a fright a fortnight ago, but they are no great shakes on the road, and until they find a fly-half from somewhere they’re not going to trouble teams outside their home ground.  The trouble is that Ireland tend to give them a bit too much respect.  Last season – admittedly in the Flaminio, Deccie picked a horrendously out-of-form Tomas O’Leary at scrum-half, seemingly in a bid to counter the Italian forwards.  The result was that Ireland almost lost – Italy were a restart away from winning.  Ireland need to be bullish here and go wide early and often.  They should forget about nonsense like ‘earning the right to go wide’ and simply play the game at the highest pace they can.  Get Sexto flat on the gainline and put the ball through the hands.  Do that and Italy will start to fall off tackles, and tries will come.

A more likely outcome is that Ireland start slowly, butcher a couple of chances and get sucked in to a war of attrition.  Ireland will probably grind Italy down by a score or two but they should be looking to put this team away.

Verdict: Ireland to win by around 10-12 points.

England v Wales

Judging by the tone of some of the previews of this game, you would be expecting Wales to win by 2 scores or more – Barnesy has said England should be fearful, and the Grauniad were running pieces from the Welsh team of the mid-1980s boasting about how they didn’t respect any of the English players, with a clear line running through to today’s callow and ordinary Red Rose side.

Still, this is Twickers, and England don’t lose by much here – save for the Boks the November before last, they haven’t been far behind on the scoreboard in a long time.

All that said, the Welsh team look far too strong, a combative and skillful pack are getting ball to the destructive backs, which eventually leads to scores. The key to stopping Wales is to slow down the ball and get Mike Philips in a dogfight – this ensures the centres get the ball while static instead of going forward. And the key to beating them is to use their strength against them – have their relatively immobile backs turning around and drifting across by aggressive rucking and carrying then varying the attack with kicking behind, skip passes and hard lines.

Do England have the tools for this? Yes, in the form of Lawes, Wood, Morgan, Dickson, Cipriani, Tuilagi and an intelligent ball-playing 12. Lancaster’s team, however, is unlikely to contain any of those.

Verdict: Wales by 3-5 if Morgan plays and 7-10 if Dowson plays.

Scotland v France

An admirable ballsy selection by Robbo here – teenager Stuart Hogg is rewarded for his entertaining and effective cameo against Wales. John Barclay is back and with 2 genuine opensides in the team, expect Scotland to try and make this a dogfight at ruck time.

Mini Greig Laidlaw holds the 10 jersey and concerns about his defence against the giant French backrow and centres might have led to the re-instatement of Ooooooooooooooohhh Graeme Morrison – its hard to think of any other reason to pick him to be brutally honest.

Even if France do manage to be dragged down to Scotland’s level, its difficult to see them not prevailing. France have quality everywhere and a bench packed with high-class operators and Julien Dupuy. In the unlikely event of them finding themselves in trouble, the replacements will make the difference.

Verdict: We’ll be surprised if France need to go higher than third gear, and certainly don’t expect them to if they are in front. France by 9ish.