Return to Traditional Values

As we think about how to gauge Ireland’s chances against Wales on Saturday, in what is (for them) effectively a Grand Slam decider, the thought occurred to us that Joe Schmidt has Ireland operating at a level close to the Southern Hemisphere big three. We based that on our wins over the Boks and the Wobblies in November, and the clinical nature of our wins over France and England. Wales were beaten last year, leaving BNZ the only peaks unscaled by Schmidt’s Ireland in 18 months. Not bad, but it’s qualitative – Ireland are the best team in a Championship that has left a little to be desired in terms of quality. Is there something we can quantify (we started life off as a rugby nerds blog, then somehow evolved into a platform for bitterness, so in a way we are, prepare the sick bag, returning to traditional values).

The recent run of 10 wins in a row left us thinking where this should rank in the greater scheme of things – on the face of it, not much since 2 of those wins were against Italy and one against Georgia. In fact, its not even a standalone record, with Ireland under Eddie having already nailed 10 wins in a row from Sept 2002 – Mar 2003, but that included wins against Fiji, Russia, Romania and Georgia. If you look at the list of longest streaks, what stands out for us is that five of the top nine (top seven if you exclude Cyprus and Lithuania) are by BNZ – BNZ almost never play useless minnows (disgracefully so in the case of the plundered Pacific Islands) and play the Boks and the Wobs every year, plus away games to the top European nations, and occasionally Wales. Winning streaks of 17, 16 and 15 (twice) in the professional era are bloody impressive.

That in turn got us thinking – what if we shrank the rugby universe to the Southern Hemisphere big three, Argentina, plus England, France, Wales and Ireland and the timeframe from 1999-now (emergence of Argentina as a serious force). Perhaps its a conceit to include Ireland in that company given our hopeless RWC record and paucity of actual silverware (not including Triple Crowns) compared to the rest, but bear with us. How long would record winning streaks be if only games between these 8 nations be in scope?

  • New Zealand: 16 (June 2013 – June 2014) – 4 vs France, England, 3 vs Australia, 2 vs Argentina, SA, 1 vs Ireland.
  • England: 11 (March 2002 – August 2003) – 3 vs Wales, 2 vs BNZ, Australia, 1 vs Ireland, France, SA, Argentina. This was Johnno’s team at the peak of its powers.
  • South Africa: 7 (August 2008 – August 2009) – 3 vs BNZ, 2 vs Australia, 1 vs England, Wales. This Bok team also beat the Lions twice in the middle of that run, and lost the Third Test – since they played the reserves in that Test, it doesn’t feel right to include the series, but worth bearing in mind
  • Australia: 7 (October 1999 – July 2000) – 2 vs SA, Argentina, 1 vs France, Wales, Ireland. Ireland certainly weren’t great shakes here, but this is another one of the great teams of the professional era
  • Ireland: 7 (March 2014 – Present) – 2 vs France, Argentina, 1 vs SA, Australia, England
  • France: 6 (November 2005 – June 2006) – 2 vs SA, 1 vs England, Wales, Ireland, Australia
  • Wales: 3 (on three occasions, latest February 2012 – March 2012) – in each of Wales 3 Grand Slams of the era, they quite obviously beat England, France and Ireland consecutively
  • Argentina: 2 (several times, latest Aug 2014 – Present) – Aus and France have been beaten in the Pumas most recent games. They won 5 from 7 from May-Oct 2007, when they were st their previous peak

First reaction – that list contains some of the best teams of the professional era – the BNZ team that equalled the record of Colin Meads great team, the England team that won RWC03, the Springbok Lion-tamers of 2009 and the 1999 Wobblies. Second reaction – the Greatest Team in World Rugby isn’t quite at the races – we’ll come back to that. And what about Ireland? You can pick holes in the strength of the Argentina teams we played if you want, but you still need to beat them, 10,000km away from home, at the end of the season. And we haven’t played BNZ in that timeframe. Yet still, we are in pretty glided company, even by this imperfect metric, and all the teams we’ve already beaten are likely the ones we’ll need to beat to get to the RWC15 final – we’ll take that for sure.

Ireland at present have attained a high level of consistency of results against the best teams in the world – they have a coach who has instilled a deep commitment to accuracy and execution, which is essentially the thing that has brought them to where they are. When we consider how Ireland will fare against Wales, we need to consider how Wales have fared against the big Southern Hemisphere teams they have played. And anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock will no that Wales record against that hemisphere under Gatty is awful:

  • New Zealand – played 7, lost 7
  • South Africa – played 11, won 1, lost 10
  • Australia – played 11, won 1, lost 10

They rarely lose by much (particularly to the Wobblies), but they consistently lose – and its the biggest stick that Gatland gets beaten with in Wales. The Lions Test series win with a majority Welsh side provides some counterpoint, but the reality is that if Kurtley Beale had worn longer studs, they would have lost – and that was to one of the worst Wobbly sides since Australia got to be a Lions tour destination.

Wales have picked their team for this game and its as you were. Tactics? As you were – classic Warrenball awaits. While we see big danger in the Welsh players who are least likely to play super robotically – Rhys Webb and Liam Williams (ironically, probably the two players Gatland felt least comfortable bringing in for Warrenball veterans Mike Philips and Alex Cuthbert), we just think this Ireland team is operating at the kind of level that Wales struggle against. It will likely be a tougher test than previous games, as Wales are similar to Ireland in that they play low-risk rugby designed to force errors. They profited from Scottish and French ineptitude in the last two rounds, but when put under pressure by England they looked rudderless and highly unlikely to win the game, despite starting with a 10 point lead.

If Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton maintain their accuracy of kicking and Ireland continue to own the ruck, we feel this will be enough of a platform for victory. It will be fraught I’m sure, but another bloodless coup would not surprise us. We expect by Saturday evening, Ireland will have a trip to Murrayfield to nail a Grand Slam, and an incredibly favourable draw all the way to their next meeting with BNZ.


Glass Ceiling

After a mighty impressive victory over Inglaterra, Ireland stand close to a historic achievement – a Grand Slam, just a third ever. What struck us after the game was how .. straightforward .. the tournament has been for Ireland. As against Italy and France, a strong third quarter put control of the game firmly in Ireland’s hands (and for the third time, they ended up on the back foot in the final quarter but then each time the opposition were chasing the game). England were whacked and bagged by the hour and the game was done – and it was closed out fairly efficiently.  Ireland were in England’s half killing the clock for much of the final few minutes, and though England almost ran in a try in the final play it wouldn’t have mattered.

England! Whacked and bagged! England have been tournament favourites since like whenever and were the most impressive team through the first two rounds.  Ireland simply put them away without a fuss. Once we went two scores up, that was it, game over.

Now, for the traditional part where we look at where our forecast of the game went wrong. While some of what we said did in fact come to pass (it would be chess on grass and Deep Blue would outsmart England), our overriding concern going into the match was that we wouldn’t have the scoring power to win if England landed a couple of sucker-punches. We were confident they’d beat France’s haul of 11 points and that Ireland would need to respond in kind. Well, they didn’t because Ireland stopped them at source.

A monumental effort at defensive breakdowns won the match. Rory Best led the assault, letting every rose-clad yeoman know that no ruck would be free from either he, Toner, or some Irish forward bent over double trying to pilfer the ball. If we didn’t win it, we slowed it to a crawl and the pressure resulted in England simply allowing themselves to make errors, which Ireland converted into territory and ultimately points. [Incidentally, one penalty against Peter O’Mahony late in the match was beyond ridiculous. As soon as I heard the referee’s whistle I jumped to the air so sure was I that O’Mahony had won the penalty. Then I looked again and Joubert’s arm was pointing the wrong way!]

Another improvement from the France game was that Ireland were more proactive with the bench. Mike Ross [superb again, it must be said] and Jack McGrath were whipped off before the hour, and Iain Henderson was on for 15 minutes. Two changes had to be made far earlier than was idea, but Tommy O’Donnell was superb. And Zeebs was brilliant too – we sort of said he should be dropped, but he was everywhere.

It was all pretty eerie – even when Ireland have been successful, they haven’t made it easy for the fans. The 2009 team salved a description of us all as “long-suffering” after years of near-misses but even then, the average fan gained 10 years through the tournament. The England and France games went down to the wire, Scotland had us in all sorts of trouble (remember Bob’s intervention on a bouncing ball to deny Chris Paterson a walk-in try?) and as for the Wales game… Paddy Wallace won’t be the only one who won’t forget that sinking feeling. Only Italy were dispatched with ease.

Even last year, we lost to England and rode our luck a bit against France. This time, we’ve beaten both without looking like we needed to go up into fifth gear, although the finale of the France match was pretty stressful. Italy were swatted aside and now there are only two games left. And then… it’s only the World Cup. We’re into new territory here.

The first goal – a Grand Slam – has two more peaks to scale. One, Wales, is Mount Ventoux and one, Scotland, is Mount Merrion. Dealing with Scotland will be simple – luminaries like Rog and Drico have come up with the idea that since Scotland will be facing a wooden spoon when we go to Embra, it becomes something of a tough game, since its a ‘cup final’. I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it – they just lost at home to Italy, crumbling like that lovely apricot Wensleydale we got on the Lisburn Road in our last trip home. They are about to get a huge can of whoopass opened on them in Twickers, so forgive us for thinking they are not going to suddenly become a threat to Ireland in three weeks time. All we’ll hear about for the next two weeks will be whether we need to put Jonny Sexton in some bubble wrap and keep him under the stairs, and sure, he’a absolutely essential to beating Wales, but Ireland could play Ian Humphreys and still waltz pass Scotland.  Even if Scotland do show up you can almost guarantee they’ll find a way to lose the game.

But Wales – now that’s a different story. The Greatest Team in World Rugby have had their customary slow start and they are rather similar to us – they will belt the ball super-high in the air, tackle until the cows come home, and dare teams to beat them. The team is festooned with leaders – Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Dan Biggar, Roberts and Davies, Halfpenny. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve a back three who won’t crumble in the face of forty-plus snow-covered garryowens.  Halfpenny is a match for anyone under the high ball, and Liam Williams has played most of his footie in the 15 jumper.  And the rapidly-emerging Rhys Webb, who offers a little guile and creativity to supplement the Warrenball.

Ireland will be ever-so-slight favourites and Gatty would LOVE IT if he got one over on us, and Joe Schmidt. You can only imagine his face. It’s always tempting to dismiss Wales as one-dimensional bully-boys, and they have their off-days but they remain a good team.  Win, and they’re in the shake-up for the championship, which could conceivably be a three-way tie on match points.

Most beautiful of all this is our draw in the World Cup – we’ve got a shambolic French team (please, FFR, do the decent thing and keep PSA until the World Cup) and Italy, plus some bunnies. It’s hard to see at this stage, with our coach, how we won’t plot a way to win that group. The likely path after that is Argentina followed by the winner of the Pool of Death. Our base assumption has always been that England at home will be a tough nut for the Wobblies and the Greatest Team in World Rugby to crack – Cheika’s probably the most likely to do so, but that’s a debate for September. The way Ireland are playing, Argentina then England looks like a feasible couple of matches – avoiding the Southern Hemisphere big three right through past the semi-finals is pretty fortunate (if its ever even happened).

Despite the Irish glass ceiling at the quarter-finals, it’s hard to escape the feeling the stars are lining up, and it’s pretty frightening really – a lot seems to be coming together and our natural inclination is to ask how it can all go wrong. The first way is underestimating the Greatest Team in World Rugby – we certainly won’t be doing that.

Pass the Parcel

Ireland look set to keep changes to a minimum today, with the returning Rory Best being brought into the front row and Gordon D’arcy is likely to squeeze in ahead of the increasingly impressive Stuart Olding at centre.

It’s the sort of selection we’ve become used to in Ireland where the pecking order of players remains relatively static. Sean Cronin is brilliant in the loose and Richardt Strauss is showing signs of returning to his best form, but Rory Best is one of the team’s foundations, so if he’s fit, he plays. Just throw the ball in straight, Rory!

It’s a similar story in Wales, where Gatland has stuck with what is recognisable as his best team. All the usuals are there and in spite of Liam Williams’ good form, it would take a crowbar to get Alex Cuthbert, George North or Leigh Halfpenny out of the team. Jamie Roberts and JJV Davies are longstanding as his preferred centre partnership and we all know how good they can be. In the backrow it’s the same. Everyone loves hipster’s choice Justin Tipuric for his electric line-breaks and incredible hands, but Sam Warburton is Gatland’s captain and a cornerstone of the team. Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau is enshrined as Gatland’s backrow of choice in Welsh rugby law.

Wales and Ireland have relatively small playing pools, so there can be a gulf between the best fifteen or twenty players, and the next best 10 or so. It means coaches tend to be more loyal to their players; sometimes to a fault in the case of Declan Kidney’s post-2009 selections (see: O’Leary, Tomas). Mike Phillips has done little or nothing in club rugby for years, but Gatland stuck with him throughout that period – until this season when Rhys Webb is finally ready to play test rugby.

Over in England and France, the pecking order in key positions in the team is altogether more fluid, and they’re not always the better for it. England are currently amid a mini-crisis. Has the gloss and sense of feelgood ever come off a team as quickly? From this perspective, their media appeared overconfident going into this series and the group of players available to them looked far from being world-beaters. Their death-by-a-thousand-cuts loss to New Zealand and tactically inflexible defeat to South Africa have brought them down to earth. ‘How long have we tied Lancaster down until again?’ Er, 2020.

Still, the thing for Lancaster is he can always change the team. They have such a depth of moderately talented players that if someone has a bad game or two, there’s always someone in decent enough form to put in his place. Danny Care was among England’s best players in the Six Nations and the thought of dropping him then seemed a world away. But memories are short and Care hasn’t been at his best so far this series. So he’s out! ‘Care’s out of form’, goes the line, ‘so we should play Youngs, Wigglesworth, one of the Dicksons, Shaun Perry, Andy Gomarsall or whoever, instead of him’. None of those players are as good as Danny Care – in fact only Ben Youngs gets even close – but never mind, let’s change it up anyway!

It leads to a pass-the-parcel approach to selection that isn’t necessarily all that beneficial. Lots of scrum-halves have had a stint in the England team and each has followed the same pattern: looks Tha Biz for a while, before not looking as good for a bit, finding themselves dumped out of the team, before the same pattern recurs for someone else and the original fellow finds himself recalled, and the cycle continues. If Conor Murray had two poor games on the trot – unlikely and all as that seems – the chances of him being thrown out of the team for Reddan, Marmion, Boss or Peter Stringer would be remote.

If things are bad at scrum half for England, they are worse again at centre, where this infurating approach has pretty much been in place since Will Greenwood retired. Riki Flutey, Jamie Noon, Anthony Allen, Ollie Smith, Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan, and so on and so on the list of modest footballers who had a go at centre for a few games before the next chap came along is a long one.

In France the approach to selection is even worse, and has at times seemed to be something approaching a lottery. France have had a run of madcap selectors dating back to Bernard Laporte; scrum halves playing 10, seemingly outstanding players overlooked for tradesmen, world-class centres on the wing; they’ve had it all.

That said, there’s a time to make brave selectorial decisions, and if England really do have world cup winning aspirations, there are two things they absolutely must do. The first is pick Steffon Armitage, the world-class openside who has dominated the Heineken Cup with Toulon in recent seasons, and the other is to get Owen Farrell out of the team – for his own sake as well as that of the team – playing a player into form, when it doesn’t work, destroys the player (see: O’Leary, Tomas).

For some reason, the coach appears tied to the vastly overrated Farrell, but the case for George Ford as a long-term solution at 10 is compelling enough to give him a run in the team. Ford has a way to go before becoming a complete player, but he is capable of far more in attack already than Farrell ever will be. The team for Samoa has got this half-right at best. Ford starts at 10, but Farrell remains in the team at 12. The word was it was goal-kicking related, but they aren’t that different this season – Ford is 25/33 (76%) this season, while Farrell is 9/11 (82%), essentially there is one missed kick between them. So why is he there? It has the look of selection by committee.

Four Plus Two Nations

If this Six Nations has yet to produce any truly classic matches, it has at least risen above the torpor of the last couple of seasons – the three middle game weeks were appalling last season, for example.  The weather has been largely favourable and the standard of play has been decent, for the most part.  It has also provided us with a uniquely intriguing endgame, where four teams share the lead with two wins from the opening three games.  Talk about up for grabs; any of England, France, Wales and Ireland can win it – with all this competition it’s almost like the .. err .. Five Nations used to be.  The championship will almost certainly come down to two matches: England vs. Wales this weekend and France vs. Ireland, the last game in the tournament.  The match in Twickenham will rule out one of England and Wales, but provided Ireland and France can overcome the might of Italy and Scotland this weekend, they’ll join them on three wins and any of three teams will go into the final weekend as potential champions.

It’s hard to call.  England are probably marginal favourites.  They look the best team of the series and they have home advantage in their crucial game against Wales.  Wales themselves are the outsiders; they have yet to spark and look jaded, their points difference isn’t looking great and beating England in Twickenham looks tricky for them – despite them being the BEST TEAM EVER ©BBC.  Ireland have looked good (admittedly at a very narrow subset of competencies i.e. technical forward play), and their points difference is very healthy, but they have to win in Paris, which almost never happens (once in our lifetime).

But here’s the bizarre bit; totally misfiring, abject, awful, bickering France are in a pretty good position.  They have two games left against teams they habitually beat.  This weekend they travel to Murayfield.  Scotland may have won against Italy, but against the better sides they have been inept, accruing six points in aggregate against Ireland and England.  Even in third gear, presumably fighting with one another and relying on Picamoles to bail them out, France should win at a canter.  Then they play Ireland in Paris.  The last two matches between the sides have been drawn, but playing Ireland has a habit of bringing the best out in them.  Can even this rubbish French team find a faster tempo and run Ireland ragged as so many previous vintages have done?  Doubtful, but you never know – Ireland have a habit of standing off the handsome Mediterraneans like a bunch of hewn demi-Gods and letting them do whatever they want – and France like nothing better, apart from maybe a spooked New Zealander in a crucial World Cup game.

Aside: we really need to get out of that habit – when the RWC15 draw was made we said we had three years to learn how to beat France – we’ve made a good start, time to follow through.

For the sake of the championship one hopes France do not win.  Unless France find some inspiration from somewhere, they would be a most unworthy winner.  Indeed, it looks like their win over England could be the defining result of the championship, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see it bordered on the freakish.  England must be kicking themselves, especially after watching the tape of a mediocre Welsh side dispatch Les Bleus with ease.  Against England, France raced into a somewhat fortuitous early lead as England looked jittery and tentative – Jack Nowell in particular, but the bounces of the oval ball were pretty favourable to the home side.  However, England dominated the remainder of the match and were easily the superior side, fighting back to deservedly take the lead.  They had the game won, until an ill-advised switch at 9 (by England, the French switch was 100% advisable) and an extraordinary, totally unexpected and really quite brilliant try from Gael Fickou stole it at the death.  It was a try that never looked like coming, but it has given France something to play for, and has stopped England from racing away from the chasing pack.

What about Scotland and Italy? Last season looked like they might have taken a tentative step away from being perennial basement dwellers, but an ageing pack and still-too-young backs isn’t a good combination for Italy and useless coaching and mystifying selections isn’t working for Scotland. Transition, then, for both, a familiar state.

The Un-Bolters

Come Lions selection, everyone loves the ‘late bolter’, the yet-to-be-established young gun that makes a last minute dash for selection through club form.  What larks!

But even more fascinating can be the case of the un-bolter, who makes a long, protracted, graceless descent from nailed-on-selection to being left at the airport or, at best, being forced to muck in with the dirt-trackers.

Currently, a whole host of Warren Gatland’s Welsh darlings are making a huge bid for non-selection. The regional-franchise scene is in the toilet, so it’s typically only when the Welsh national side gathers that they get any sort of form together.  But this singularly failed to happen against Argentina, and we’ve already voiced our concerns about the sustainability of Wesh rugby’s current success.

Chief among the unbolters are Sam ‘Captain in Waiting and All Round Good Bloke’ Warburton and Toby ‘Dynamic Ball Carrier’ Felatau.  Both looked set to be test starters not three months ago, but they have brought their useless club form to the international ticket and are currently playing their way to a summer relaxing on the beach.  Rhys ‘Rugby’s Toto Schillachi’ Priestland is another whose credentials are on the slide – on the evidence of this season its hard to believe he was considered on a par with Johnny Sexton a few months ago.  It’s worth pausing for a quick reminder of some classic un-bolters from the recent tours.

2009 – Ryan Jones and  Danny Cipriani

In the 2008 Six Nations Ryan Jones captained Wales to a hugely impressive Grand Slam.  While he had looked a bit lumbering in the past, here he brought his A-game to the table for the whole series.  Like Warburton, he was also quite clearly a jolly fine chap, and was inked in by many (notably head cheerleader Stephen Jones) as the likely Lions captain.  His form promptly went into a tailspin, culminating in ‘leading’ the Ospreys to a 43-9 thrashing in Thomond Park.  He was left out of the original party, eventually making it out as a replacement for Stephen Ferris, only to be sent home immediately with an injury.

In the same Six Nations, England debuted their hotshot new 10, Wass wunderkind Danny Cipriani.  He cut Ireland to shreds in the final match and a star was born.  The Lions had their 10!  Several indiscretions, a broken ankle and a botched international comeback later, and Cippers was nowhere near contending a place on the tour.

2005 – The Irish Back Division

Between 2001 and 2004, Ireland’s ‘Golden Backline’ came into being, and oozed class from every pore.  Piloted by ice-veined Munster outhalf Ronan O’Gara, with a dashing all-Leinster three-quarter line of Hickey-D’arcy-O’Driscoll-Horgan, it was topped off by Leicester’s uber-graceful full-back Geordan Murphy.  In the 2004 Six Nations, they ran amok, with D’arcy winning Player of the Tournament and BOD already inked in as Lions captain.  The centre pairing terrified defences in green and blue and were seen as the Lions best attacking weapon.  But in 2005, it all went flat and just about all of the backs lost form.  Ireland surrendered tamely at home to France and went down meekly to Wales in Cardiff, and the crisp back play of previous series was conspicuously absent.

Somehow, they all made it on to the plane to New Zealand, abetted by Woodward’s decision to pick everybody an over-inflated squad, but none, bar possibly Shane Horgan, made any impact (though BOD had a legitimate excuse) on the doomed tour, padding out their time with the dirt trackers, with ROG and Dorce having a particularly miserable time.

So who else is in line to un-bolt?

Mike Phillips is an obvious contender – he’s sitting in the naughty step in Bayonne and isn’t first choice at national level any more – without much rugby to judge him on, he won’t be inked-in Test starter for long. The saintly BOD is looking pretty human these days, and hasn’t returned from injury anything like the player we know he can be – any more Maule-ing and he could be out of the picture even as a Phil Vickery thanks-for-the-memories style tourist.

What the Hell Is Going On In: The Welsh Regions?

It’s November, and we know what that means: internationals.  So while in Ireland the IRFU scrabble around to get 40,000 people to watch the Argentina game, across the water in Wales this is really the beginning of the season.  Not content with filling the three-week test calendar, they also have an additional game outside the test window, against Australia.  The same Australia they’ve already played five times in the last 15 months.  Suck that up, regions!

Deccie might look enviously at the prioritisation of the national team in Wales, where it’s the be all and end all for players, supporters and media alike, while the regions form little more than an extended training camp.  But it’s not a model we’d recommend the IRFU to try to replicate.

The latest indictment of the regional franchises was Cardiff’s feeble capitulation to Leinster last week.  Leo Cullen had no problem describing them as ‘soft in the tackle’, as they lost six tries in a scarcely believable first half.  At one point, David Kearney was put into an ocean of space straight through the middle of the pitch; the sort of gap you’d expect to appear after multiple phases of gainline-crossing rugby.  But this was only the second phase!  A try quickly followed after a couple of recycles.

This was no Cardiff B-team, but a line-up featuring their best players; Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert and Sam Warburton included.  Indeed, it was Sam Warburton’s performance which raised the most concern.  Formerly a Lions captain in waiting, he was dominated by his opposite number, the relatively unheralded, but fast-improving academy player, Jordi Murphy.  Indeed, Leinster’s performance was characterised by greased-lightning-fast ball all night long, with Warburton barely leaving an impression at ruck-time.

If you were the Welsh coach, would you pick him?  Based on form you’d look straight past him to Ospreys’ brilliant Jason Tipuric, but Gatland will be aware it ain’t that simple and will expect to see Warburton and Roberts morph into the world-class international versions of themselves under his watch.  But can such a transformation consistently be achieved?  Good form isn’t a tap you can simply turn on and off.  Despite what some media types will try and tell you, there is no ‘Welsh way’, no magic in the air that makes the players suddenly invincible in the red jersey.  The team has obviously been superbly coached by Warren Gatland and Rob Howley, but with Gatland taking a year-long sabbatical to focus on the Lions, a stern test awaits this year for the Welsh team.

Even more concerning must be the long-term damage to Welsh rugby.  The regions play in half-empty, soul-less stadia and have been encumbered with a salary cap, in an effort to make the numbers somehow add up.  A great number of their players have decamped to the Top 14.  While players plying their trade in France is perhaps not the national crisis it’s perceived as on these shores, it does leave the regional sides rather short of quality.

The Welsh national team has had a glorious twelve months, but how long can it keep going?  Wales has a similar playing population to Ireland, and won’t always have the quality of player that it does at the moment.  Indeed, as little as two years ago, they were pretty abject.  When the national team splutters, they’ll have little to fall back on.  While we have lambasted the IRFU and Kidney for a lack of vision, at least Irish rugby is founded on solid ground.  Even when the national team is rubbish, the problems are fixable, and the provinces have consistently provided an outlet during taxing periods.  In Wales, the edifice may be more impressive, but it all seems to be precariously balanced on Warren Gatland’s shoulders.

The Grand Slam, The Birdie Putt and the Wooden Spoon

The Grand Slam

‘Tis a biggie alright.  Wales are the Six Nations’ all-or-nothing men.  World Cup disaster in 2007?  Wales, I’ll stick you down for a large helping.  Blazing a trail in 2008 with an outstanding slam?  Yes, indeedy.  How about mid-table mediocrity for the next three years, Wazza?  Ah sure, go on. Following their World Cup success with a Grand Slam would count as an all too rare bit of consistency, and there’s a feeling that this Welsh side is built for a less fleeting spell of greatness.

They certainly have a robustness that 2008’s high-class but flaky geniuses didn’t.  If they don’t quite have the silken touch of the likes of Williamses Martyn and Shane or James Hook and Gavin Henson in form they have never looked remotely like repeating, they certainly have power.  They haven’t looked as good as they did in the opening week in Dublin over the last couple of games, but they should have enough bosh to get the job done.  Oooooooooooooooohhh Wales – who’d have thunk it?

France can be all or nothing themselves, but usually all within the one match.  PSA has had a miserable tournament, winning few friends with his Anglo-centric rugby philosophy and fewer still with some poor results.  His team look jaded and uninspired, but the squad has been given a shake-up.  It’s highly unlikely they’ll win, but a bit of fresh enthusiasm – hopefully from the likes of Ouedraogo and the exciting teenage Clermont full-back Jean Marcel Buttin – might just rouse them from their slumbers.

Verdict: Wales to secure the slam.

The Birdie Putt

Two teams looking to finish ahead of par with a win.  Both teams started terribly, but have improved as the show has gone on.  The winner will finish second in the log, and can feel pretty good about the tournament, but for the loser it’s a fair-to-middling season if you’re England and a middling-to-poor one if you’re Ireland.

Hopes are for a decent game between the two sides finishing well.  England’s gameplan isn’t that different to the side which flunked out of the World Cup.  Their carriers still run hard and straight, and Owen’s primary ploy looks to be the inside pass.  It’s readable enough stuff, but they have a handful of threats: Ben Morgan (a player we’ve liked for some time) is a fine carrier, Manu Tuilagi will fancy a cut at Ireland’s midfield and Tom Croft, while he isn’t the best 6 in the world by a long shot, can do damage in wide channels.  Not all that surprisingly, England have found their confident voice again – it doesn’t take much for these guys to believe their own hype.

If Ireland can hit the rucks and use a similar defensive line to that which we saw in Paris, they should have the class in the backline to win.  Expect to see Stephen Ferris smash anything that moves in the middle of the field, while Heaslip and O’Brien will be employed closer to the ruck.  And forget the overrated Rhys Priestland: Sexton v Farrell is the shootout for 10 of the series.

Vedict: Ireland to finsh first in the match and second in the tournie.

The Wooden Spoon

Lordy, this could make for grim viewing.

Verdict: Scotland to squeeze out a win.  Expect a cagey don’t-lose-it-whatever-you-do approach from both sides.

The Cup, the Plate and the Bowl

A non-vintage Six Nations campaign is heading for a straightforward blitz-tournmanent style finale.  In the last week, Wales and France will meet to decide the championship winners (The Cup).  England and Ireland will play for the Plate, or third place, and Italy and Scotland will tough it out for the Bowl (or to avoid the wooden spoon).

The Cup

Some of the mythology around the enormous Welsh backline was exposed this weekend.  Mike Phillips got overly involved in a fight with the English backrow, and Wales never looked like getting around England, so they just kept trying to go through them.  Getting into a boshfest with the Kings of Bosh is a risky game, and Wales were in a tight spot for much of the afternoon.  In the end they had just enough class to win out, with one of their smaller backs, reserve centre Scott Williams (weighing in at a puny 97kgs) coming up with a dash of brilliance to win it.  The Triple Crown is in the bag, and they are in a good position to deliver the slam, with France coming to Cardiff.

Here in Ireland we love nothing more than fawning over the French.  We’re spellbound by their pristine blue shirts, intimidated by their scrummaging power, awestruck by their handling skills, and swooning over Morgan Parra’s classic good looks.  But for all their Gallic genius, they rarely play all that well.  Truth is, they’re masters of just doing enough (unless they are playing New Zealand).  Not much has really changed under the new coach.  Sure, the selection is consistent, but the mentality is harder to shift.  France sleepwalked through the first 25 minutes here, and while their two tries were brilliant, there was no sustained greatness.  Trouble is, they are usually good for one outstanding performance a series.  One of Ireland, England or Wales will get it.

The Plate

England: played three, two tries, both chargedowns.  They’ve Strettle, Ashton and Foden in the back three, but they can’t service them with three midfielders with the distribution skills of combine harvesters.  Brad Barritt fought gamely again, and he’s not a bad player, but the lines of attack are too predictable.  For all that they probably scored a good try at the death, and after last week’s bottling exploits for his club, we’d all have loved to see the theatre of the last-kick wide conversion from Toby Flood to save a draw.  Two players who won’t enjoy looking at the tape this morning are Courtney Lawes, whose upright carrying style led directly to the Welsh try, and Mike Brown, who failed to fix his man with the non-try scoring pass to Strettle, and gave him an awful lot to do, when a stroll in was possible.

Declan Kidney is starting to get the hang of this newfangled ‘bench’ thing that other people keep banging on about it.  We’d heard of it ourselves, but weren’t quite sure what it was.  Turns out you can replace players during the game, sometimes even improving the side by bringing off a guy who’s tiring or not playing great and putting another player in his position.  Who knew?  All the talk this week will be that Ryan and Reddan should be starting in Paris (they won’t).  Both players are getting a raw deal.  Ryan is clearly the superior player at 4 to O’Callaghan, and is probably among Ireland’s best performers in the series so far, and it appears Reddan has never really earned the trust of the management.  He started their two best performances last year, and was influential in both, but found himself overlooked ever since.  Dropping a young player like Murray after two poor performances is not an easy call, but you feel that if Ireland are to have any – any! – chance of winning, Reddan needs to play.

The Bowl

Hard times for Scotland, who have improved out of sight this year, without getting the results to show for it.  Their handling and offloading was terrific yesterday.  Management are culpable for some outrageously bad team selections.  How was it that Hogg, Laidlaw and Blair had to wait until the third game in the series to take to the pitch together? Still, credit needs to go to them for making the changes. Scotland look like a team who might just win a few … if they can just win one.

It’s proving a difficult season for Italy, who haven’t really improved as much as people are letting on.  They were much more competitive last year, when they should have beaten Ireland and Wales, and toppled France.  The wooden spoon beckons methinks, as Scotland look to have too much for them – thouh they can be a different proposition in Rome.

It’s not been a classic series so far by any means, which had us wondering when there last was a classic Six Nations. Wales’ and Ireland’s grand slams in 2008 and 2009 were up against mediocre post-World Cup fields (France were off experimenting).  The best in recent times is probably 2007’s tournament, when strong France and Ireland sides went toe to toe, with France securing the Championship with the last play of the game against Scotland.  It’s been a while…

Six Nations: Match Previews

After all the drama surrounding team selections, squad announcements and even refereeing appointments, the small matter of the actual games of Six Nations rugby take place this weekend.  We’re looking forward to it.  Now for the bit where we put ourselves in the firing line and predict what will happen.

Scotland v England

We hummed and we hawed.  We saw the England squad and thought they couldn’t possibly win.  Then we saw the Scotland team, with Dan Parks at 10, and thought they couldn’t possibly win.  Then we cried for a bit thinking about the two hours of our lives we’d each be giving up to watch the blasted game.  Then, finally, we saw the England team and went back to thinking they wouldn’t win.

This one’s all about the New England – new captain, new players, new attitude, new interim coach, new playing style.  The trouble is none of it looks all that great.  Mouritz Botha, Geoff Parling and Phil Dowson are adequate Boshiership journeymen rather than exciting new talents, while England appear to be looking to the least creative of the good sides in the country for their midfield (10 – 13 all Sarries!). Chris Robshaw captains the team, and he’s a good player, but looks a bit knackered and will be out of position on the openside.

Verdict: We’re going for Scotland because we just can’t see how England will be able to deliver the gameplan they’re talking about.  Lancaster says they’re looking to play at a high tempo, but high tempo requires quick ball, and just who is going to serve that up? The Scottish back row will be licking their chops at the lightweight trio England have served up – Scotland to shade a dour affair.

France v Italy

France will be looking to hit the ground running and have every chance of doing so.  They seem to have the right team on the pitch, something they haven’t had for some time.  Louis Picamoles keeps out Harinordoquy in what looks a position of real strength (Fulgence Ouedraogo can’t even make the 22), while Trinh-Duc is welcomed back to the starting line-up, with Beauxis a handy reserve.  All eyes will be on Clermont’s razor-sharp Wesley Fofana, who looks like a potential star of the tournament.

It should all be too much for Italy.  The Italians were poor in the World Cup, and never looked like troubling Ireland or Australia.  They just don’t travel.  Their home games, now in the Stadio Olimpico, will be worth watching and they may try to keep some of their powder dry for England’s arrival there next week.

Verdict: this one is set up for France to rack up some points; we expect them to win by a couple of scores.

Ireland v Wales

Obviously, this is the most interesting game from our perspective. Even before the Welsh squad started dropping like flies, we fancied that this was a game Ireland were targetting – the noises from the squad echo those we heard prior to England in March and Australia in October. Now, with the Welsh down several front-liners, Ireland will be confident as well as motivated.

We foresee an urgent and effective Ireland performance with some tries thrown in. Wales will play a smart game and target our weaknesses (second row in the loose and Earls’ defence at 13) but it won’t be enough. Ireland really want this one, and nearly all the squad go in brimful of confidence after the HEC group stages – stark contrast to Wales.

Verdict: We don’t think Ireland will blow Wales away early like they did to England, but they will have enough. This could be quite high-scoring – the Welsh backs are more than useful – 30-20 or something. Ireland by more than a score

A legend departs the international scene

This saturday’s game between Wales and Australia should make for decent viewing: expect to see two attacking sides with the shackles off playing under little enough pressure.  It’s also significant for one other reason: it’s the last time we’ll see Shane Williams in a test match.  The impish genius with the matchless step will depart the scene with a phenomenal 58 tries in 87 tests, including two in four caps over two tours for the Lions, and two grand slams with Wales.

It’s a haul that’s hard to argue with, but the strange thing is, that some do, particularly those with selective memories who can only recall the Kiwis battering through him on the ill-fated Lions tour in 2005 (when everyone around him was covering themselves in glory, right?) and overlook his frequent brilliance against Southern Hemisphere teams.  Indeed, WoC remembers looking on slack-jawed during a pub discussion where one 10-man rugby enthusiast insisted on his preference for Ian Dowling over Shane Williams, given the choice, on the basis of his sturdy defence.  Yowsa!

Fifty-eight test tries.  Fifty-eight!  To put that in context, Vincent Clerc has 31 and Sitiveni Sivivatu has 29.  Even the great Brian O’Driscoll is 13 behind on 45, and in almost 40 tests more than Williams, albeit from centre.  In fact, only David Campese and, erm, Daisuke Ohata (the veteran Japanese wing) have scored more international tries in the history of the game. And with all due respect to Ohata… ahhh, we’ll let him have his moment.

That alone would mark Williams out as one of the best finishers in the game, but Williams has always offered much more than an eye for the tryline.  Lethal in tight spaces or broken field, his ability to step off either foot is his greatest attacking weapon, but it’s followed closely by his exceptional hands and distribution.  It’s often forgotten that when Williams originally signed for Neath it was as a scrum-half.  His skill-set and willingness to take on responsibility have frequently seen him temporarily switch to scrummie or even first receiver down the years, usually when Mike Phillips is buried at the bottom of the ruck.

Remember him, not only as one of the most exciting players to watch, but one of the greatest wings of the modern game; a genius if you will.  Even in the modern era of bish and bosh rugby, there’ll always be room for a guy of his stature, but only if he’s unbelievably good.

Here’s a few classics that will live in the memory bank for a while.

1. Shaney Williams can’t do it against big physical teams?  Tell that to South Africa. He frequently outplayed Habana throughout his career.

2. Never one to hang around the wing, here he steps into midfield, runs a killer line, makes a brilliant offload, and turns up on the wing a couple of phases later to finish a great team try:


3. Or just enjoy one of the many montage tributes to his greatness on YouTube (Warning: may contain soft tackling):