Monday, 30 November 2009

Are England Worth it?



Tickets to watch England at Twickenham: £71 x 2

Petrol: £60*

Car Parking: £20

Food and Drink: £50

A winning England performance: Priceless?


No, this isn't a Mastercard advert.

With my average mathematics skills, I calculate that all that tots up to £272 for two people to watch England play at Twickenham. I know this to be true, as I made this very trip with my Dad to see them take on New Zealand a couple of weeks ago.

My question is: with the standard of the England team and the rugby they are playing at the moment, is it actually worth all that money to go and watch them play?

Sure, the atmosphere and the occasion is something special, but the rugby really isn't. I'd get as much entertainment (if not more) by going to watch my local team play, although sadly the results at Headingley Carnegie generally go the same way as they do for England at the moment: not well.

I've entered the ballot for tickets to watch England take on Ireland in the 6 Nations, which to be honest is the only game I'm interested in watching live.  At least Ireland will bring some quality and excitement to proceedings even if England won't.

So are England really worth it? I'm not too sure...

* Return journey to Leeds

Sunday, 29 November 2009

IRB Player of the Year (Or Not...)

So All Blacks Captain Richie McCaw is the IRB Player of the Year for 2009 and he becomes the first ever player to win this accolade for the second time.  Except he's not really the player of the year, is he?



My, what a big cup you have

Richie McCaw spent a lot of 2009 injured, and in that time the All Blacks looked off colour, suffered as their 'aura' slipped and failed to win the Tri-Nations. McCaw is undoubtedly a class act and the best openside flanker in the world, but I think 2009 was BOD's year - and before you say it I'm English so I'm not biased!

With everything he achieved this year O'Driscoll should have walked this award.  He led Ireland to their first Grand Slam in 61 years and Ireland remained unbeaten in 2009; he was an instrumental cog in the Leinster team that lifted the Heineken Cup, and according to Ian McGeechan he formed half of "the best centre partnership in world rugby" alongside Jamie Roberts with the Lions in South Africa this summer.

Oh and he can plait sawdust and yesterday he knitted a rather fetching scarf from the fog that shrouded Croke Park.



My sentiments exactly Brian

Seriously - what else did O'Driscoll have to do to win this award?  He had an excellent season by his own high standards and effectively stuck two fingers up at all the critics who dared to question if he was past his best.
Brian was robbed, and I am not happy.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Boks Least Favourite Meal

is Irish pea soup:


Mmm, tasty


Ireland 15 - 10 South Africa
Ireland vs South Africa at Croke Park was heralded as one of the more mouthwatering fixtures of the Autumn International calendar, and so it proved.  However the South African's palates weren't quite prepared to sample the traditional Irish pea-souper that welcomed them to the home of Gaelic sport.

South Africa's stand-off Morne Steyn seemed perplexed as to why his long range kicks failed to fight their way through the thick Dublin air and repeatedly fell short.  It's not quite the same as banging them over from 70 metres in South Africa's high veldt, eh Morne?

Luckily for Ireland, Steyn's opposite number Jonny Sexton lived up to his hype and tucked in to score all of Ireland's 15 points.


Jonny be very good


I enjoyed this game and it was definitely one of the better outings of the November internationals.

Ireland started off a bit wonky in the scrum with the might of the Boks powering them backwards, and the Saffas had pretty much all of the territory for the first quarter.  Ireland fought back to regain their grip on the territory battle, their line out functioned well, and fortunately we didn't have much in the line of aimless kicking to endure.  This was probably a good thing, as the swirling fog that rested over the top of Croke Park like a frothy head on a pint of Guinness made it difficult to pick out any balls that were sent into orbit.  Not that it was a problem for Man of the Match Rob Kearney who had another storming performance at fullback.

The only try of the game came when Mr. Popular (aka Schalk Burger) burst through the Irish defence to score.  Unsurprisingly he was greeted with boos from the partisan Croke Park crowd when he booted the ball into the stand.  Well, really Schalk - what did you expect?

So Ireland end 2009 unbeaten having claimed the scalp of the World and Tri-Nations champions.  Not a bad effort at all, even if the manky Dublin weather did turn out for them as the 16th man.

Ireland for the World Cup in 2011?  It's looking increasingly likely at this rate.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Moist Conditions Horrendous!

Well, for the Wasps boys at least.



"Shall we stop for a KFC on the way back boys?  I feel like a chicken."


The Sale vs Wasps Guinness Premiership game was called off tonight fourteen minutes after the scheduled start as Team Wasps decided the pitch was a bit too damp for them to play on.  It's funny, as both Sale Sharks and referee David Rose deemed the pitch to be perfectly playable.  Don't the London boys know a bit of mud is good for their complexions?

So what did the soggy Wasps do instead?  They retreated to their coach and had some pizzas delivered.  And there's me thinking some chicken might have been more appropriate.

Now I've seen some cut up and muddy pitches in my time, but I find it hard to believe that a premiership club would have turned out one that is unsafe.  In fact, the pitch where my boyfriend's team plays had some whacking great tractor tyre tracks driven across the halfway line the other week, but both teams turned up and played without any bother.  Oh, and it was raining.

I sense a saga brewing...

Prediction Time

It's typical isn't it?  This week I've had four lovely days away from work where I've been able to sleep in, do some half-hearted Christmas shopping and go and visit my parents and their crazy dog Jake.  And yet these lovely lazy days have whizzed past in a flash and before I know it the weekend is here again.  I know this is welcome for most people but for me it's a sign I'll be back in work again in two short days.  Oh well, at least there's plenty of rugby to occupy myself with before I resume my position at my desk and stare blankly at my computer screen again.

Anyway, here are my predictions for the weekend's games.  I didn't do very well (at all) with my crystal ball gazing last week, but here goes anyway. 

Winners in bold:

Worcester vs Saracens
Newcastle vs Northampton
Sale vs Wasps (Postponed - but I think Sale would have won this one)
Bath v London Irish
Harlequins v Gloucester
Leicester v Leeds Carnegie

Sorry Leeds.  My heart says you will win, but the cold-hearted gambler in me would put my money on Leicester.  Not that I'm a cold-hearted gambler.  Or any sort of gambler come to think of it.  You know what I mean though -  I think playing the Tigers away is one step too far at the moment, although as always I am happy to be proved wrong where my Leeds Carnegie predicitons are concerned!


And now to the internationals and there's some corking games here.  France take on the All Blacks and the Irish are hoping to riverdance all the way over the Boks' try line.  I'm going to be curling up on my sofa to watch O'Driscoll and co, and I really really want Ireland to give the Saffas a trouncing and restore some real pride in northern hemisphere rugby.
Again, winners in bold:

France vs New Zealand
Ireland vs South Africa
Italy vs Samoa
Scotland vs Argentina
Wales vs Australia

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Not So Cocky: Leicester Tigers vs Leeds Carnegie Preview

When Leeds Carnegie roll into Welford Road this Saturday for their next installment of the Guinness Premiership, they will have to strain their ears in order to hear the distant crowing of the suspended Richard Cockerill.  With his place firmly reserved on the naughty step, it's nice of Cockers to step aside and herald the return of the Leicester old guard and watch Neil Back and Andy Key lead the much improved Leeds Carnegie side onto the turf of the Champions.



His lips are sealed

Of course it's not just Back and Key who used to haunt the locker room at Welford Road.  This Saturday's game is a trip down memory lane for three members of the Leeds squad, at least two of which are likely to start against their old club.  Leeds captain Marco Wentzl completed a recce of the new look Welford Road a couple of weeks ago when he moonlighted as a pundit and watched Leicester topple a lacklustre South Africa, and I'm sure the returning Wentzl, Rabeni and Moreno will all raise their game if they are selected to run out in front of the impressive new Caterpillar Stand.

Whisperings on the Leicester Tigers message board have hinted that this weekend's game might well see the return of hulking man mountain Alesana Tuilagi.  If that's the case then I fully expect to see a powerful running game from the Tigers with Seru Rabeni doing his best to neutralise the epic Samoan.  The return of Tuilagi really is something Leeds could do without.  Add Leicester's returning England stars into the mix along with a fit Toby Flood and it seems that the Tigers lying in wait to maul Leeds this weekend are a much more formidable challenge than the team of cubs that Leeds tamed at Headingley in the LV= Cup second round.



Gulp

However don't write Leeds Carnegie off just yet.  Historically Leeds have always been a bit of a bogey team for Leicester, and with a bit of the old Leicester magic, drive and belief instilled by Neil Back, Leeds might well have a few surprises up their sleeve.  OK so Leeds started the season slowly, but their recent form in the Guinness Premiership speaks for itself.  Last weekend they should have beaten Sale after playing some incisive rugby, but Leeds faded after half time and allowed Charlie Hodgson to get a grip on the game.  (I'm sure that's something Backy will have stamped out this week).  Had it not been for an incorrectly disallowed try Leeds would have beaten Saracens at Vicarage Road, however they took the momentum from that close encounter down to Adams Park where they ground out a well deserved victory against Wasps.  Welford Road might be an intimidating place to go, but as Marco Wentzl said: "We will go there with confidence."

So what are the key battles this weekend?  Personally I hope for an epic encounter between the two openside flankers, provided that Lewis Moody and Hendre Fourie both start.  Moody is considered by many as the one shining beacon of hope for England in a dismal series of November tests, whilst the highly rated Fourie is arguably Leeds's best player and was named Player of the Year last season.  The battle of the tens will also be one to watch, with Leeds's Ceiron Thomas growing into a solid number ten who isn't afraid to throw himself around the park.  It will be interesting to see how he matches up against the flair of Toby Flood.



Who will win the battle of the openside?

I'm not going to venture a prediction as I'd much prefer to perch uncomfortably on the fence and pull the splinters out of my arse.  However, I don't think Leeds are going to be the walkover that everyone might have expected at the start of the season.

For Ruck's Sake!

The International Rugby Board council meets next week, and with more players spending time on the physio's bench rather than trotting around the pitch it is highly likely that changes to the laws of the game might be on the agenda.  The number of players out injured at any given time in a Guinness Premiership squad is estimated to be around 25%.  This coupled with the perception that crowds are being forced to prop their eyelids open due to the many snore-inducing games of defensive ping-pong rugby, means that the game is in danger of damaging its appeal to fans and young players like. 

Sure there are always exceptionally exciting games, and yes some games are fascinating and nail-biting without including a rake of tries.  Look at the Scotland vs Australia game last weekend for example.  There was a solitary try but it was a tense, exciting game.  However, on the whole it could be argued that the champagne rugby of yesteryear has been replaced by a rather depressing looking bottle of flat cider.  Not very appetizing.



I apologise as I'm going to go all Statto now, but I think it proves a point: 
This year the average number of tries per game in the autumn internationals (to date) is 2.86.  In 2007 it was 7 tries per game.  Last year the average number of tries scored in a Guinness Premiership game was 4.12.  So far this season it is a measly 2.63.  A quick glance at the Premiership table reveals only five attacking bonus points have been won this year as opposed to twenty three losing bonus points.

Yes, defensive play is the new black.

So what are the solutions to nip this tedium in the bud and get teams playing expansive exciting rugby whilst moving to reduce the number of injuries? 

Here are a few suggestions that are currently doing the rounds, some which I agree with - others not so much.



Rucking good fun


Bring back rucking
Quick ball anyone?  Yes please.  Then I say bring back rucking.  Oh no, but mummy and daddy won't let little Timmy play if rucking is brought back as it's far too rough.  Yes, I can see their point, but as Peter de Villiers rightly said: it ain't tiddlywinks folks.  OK, so Timmy might get a few scratches on his back, but after he's been rucked a couple of times he'll know to get his arse out of the there as soon as possible.  The net effect?  A few red marks and much quicker ball.  Oh, and don't sweat it Timmy: as you'll discover in a few years time - chicks dig scars.


Rolling substitutions?
The RFU taskforce brought together after the rather long and drawn out 'Bloodgate' scandal suggested the introduction of rugby league-style "rolling substitutions" as one possible way of dealing with the increasingly physical nature of the modern game.  Is this really an answer or will it encourage players to pile on the muscle at the expense of their stamina and fitness because they won't be expected to last eighty minutes anymore?  (Well in truth, can any man really last that long?)  I think that rolling substitutions would only encourage there to be bigger players and this won't actually resolve the injury issues as they will still continue to run into each other.  I don't want to see rugby turn into some hackneyed version of the NFL, where a specialist team of "Scrummagers" stomps onto the pitch only to be replaced by a fleet of twinkled toe prancers once the ball is back in their own half.  Not that I really imagine that this will happen, but it's a scary thought none the less.

Bring in an Independent Doctor
This would make sure that Tom (Dick or Harry) haven't been chewing on blood capsules and they really have got a cut lip, bless them.  Then again, how would an independent doctor be able to tell if the replacement hooker really has stumbled off with 'concussion', or if it is just a tactical ploy to save his team from being annihilated in the scrum and instead allow them to bend over and tickle each other's bums like they do in rugby league with the easier uncontested version?



Two heads sometimes aren't better than one


Reducing the number of substitutions?
Hmm, interesting.  This would place the importance firmly on player fitness and probably reduce the number of pie-eating props ambling round.  Well they'd have to get in shape, otherwise their lack of fitness would see a parade of tries being waltzed in by the opposition whilst they flail around on the touchline begging for gas and air.

The 10 metre Mark
With the breakdown shrouded in mystery like some sort of black art, and with referees all to quick too penalise the attacker for holding on to the ball for 0.1 seconds once they've been tackled, it's no surprise that the ball carrier would rather aimlessly hoof the ball up field rather than risk having half a dozen fat blokes fall on them and then get pinged for not releasing.  However, if the defending team could 'mark' the ball anywhere up to the 10-metre line in their half (or maybe even up to halfway?) it would deter aimless kicking and open up the game.  If you're going to kick then it had better be good.  In principal I like this idea, although it would need to be trialled to see if it has the desired effect.

Crouch.  Touch.  Pause.  Engage.
This new mantra at scrum time was brought in to help protect those playing in the front row, but since this has been introduced, how often have you seen a scrum disintegrate and result in a free kick?  Lots.  Maybe referees need to go to scrum school and sort out how they're going to police scrums once and for all.


So there you go.  What do you think?

Whether the IRB will go ahead and change any laws before the 2011 World Cup remains to be seen, but with the mounting injuries and the vogue for pointless kicking, maybe their hand will be forced.

We will see next week.



.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Good Times / Bad Times

Another week of rugby, another pack of winners and losers...



Good Times...

England Women
Catherine Spencer's England beat the New Zealand Black Ferns for the first time since 2001 at Twickenham last Saturday and therefore drew the two match series.  Brilliant for everyone involved and great preparation for the 2010 World Cup - oh, and they did much better than their male counterparts.


On top at Twickenham


Scotland's defence
Scotland 9 - 8 Australia, a result which ended Scotland's 27 year losing streak against the Green and Golds.  Scotland's commitment in defence (along with a bit of luck and help from the weather) secured them the win.  Congratulations to the Jocks - you managed a humiliation much greater than the one Ireland dished out a week earlier and a victory that the ramshackle England team can only dream of.

Jonny Sexton
A man of the match performance for Ronan O'Gara's main competition against Fiji with 100% kicking success. 
News just in:  Sexton has been picked to start at number 10 against South Africa on Saturday with O'Gara relegated to the bench.  Congratulations Jonny, well deserved.



10 out of 10

Dan Carter
Off colour against England but Dan deserves a mention as he kicked his way into the record books by overtaking Andrew Mehrtons as New Zealand's top points scorer of all time.  And he's my favourite.

Lewis Moody
The only real shining light in a depressing trio of games for England.  Step aside Steve Borthwick - is the passionate yet eloquent 'Mad Dog' a future England captain?



Woof

Wales
A loss against New Zealand, a slightly unconvincing win against Samoa but three tries scored against Argentina in their 33-16 victory.  Wales face Australia on Saturday and no doubt hope to pick up where Scotland left off.  It seems they are warming up nicely for the 6 nations


Bad Times...

England's Men
What have we learned at the conclusion of England's November tests?  Not much, except that our second string team isn't particularly great.  Strange selections meant that the opportunities to test drive young talent (Lawes and a 'livid' Foden) were missed, and I fear that that next year's November tests will be too late for experimentation with the 2011 World Cup just around the corner.

Matt Giteau
The big miss of the week.  Congratulations again to Scotland.



Oops.

John Smit
Is the South Africa captain showing weaknesses at number 1?  Is he still the feared prop after the Boks' scrum suffered against Italy?  Has he slipped back to number 2 and will he start at hooker against Ireland?

Leeds Carnegie
Finally, my beloved Leeds let a 17-3 lead slip against Sale on Sunday.  A win would have lifted them from the bottom of the Guinness Premiership table but alas is wasn't to be.  Boo.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

My Trip to Twickenham: A Day in Pictures

What did I hope to get out of my trip to Twickenham to see England take on the All Blacks?

Well, an England win of course, a few scintillating tries and an unlikely meeting with New Zealand's delicious Dan Carter. 

Sadly I came away from south-west London disappointed on all three fronts, although I did have a brilliant day and it was a fantastic occasion.  Oh, and the fact that England didn't get rogered by 30 points as I predicted also helped.

Here is my day in pictures...

After hitting the M1 at 8am as planned, the irritating roadworks around Nottingham took their toll which necessitated a slightly earlier pit stop.  After parking up at Oxford services, my Dad noticed the registration plate of the car in front of us:


Was this an omen for England?  Why try (when you know you're going to get your arses kicked?)


Putting aside that unsavoury thought, we battled through the traffic and arrived at Twickenham stadium for 12:30pm.


Oh look, it's the player's entrance.  How handy.


After speaking with a friendly steward with dodgy peroxide blonde hair, I ascertained that the arrival of the teams was imminent.  Excellent.  Time to sharpen those elbows...

Team England rocked up first, and despite my best efforts I was pretty rubbish at getting any good photos.  Still, here are the best ones:



Jonny!



Danny Care, Simon Shaw and Ugo Monye

I decided that a better viewpoint was required for the arrival of the All Blacks, so Dad and I climbed the west stand stairs and waited for the NZ team bus and the moment I'd been longing for...



DAN!  DAN!  DAN!

Don't worry, I didn't shout or make a tit of myself.  I just took this photo of him walking along with his head down.  Grr.

With the players safely arrived, Dad and I decided to refresh ourselves with a luke warm beer.  As my Dad is a smoker we drank them outside the west stand in a delightful location next to some bins whilst he puffed on his pipe.  It is here where I noticed something rather amusing, given the current questions surrounding the England set up:



Yes that's right - Rob Andrew is poised to fall into a bin.  Irony or prophesy?



With my Dad finished sending smoke signals we decided to have a nosy around the stadium and see what was happening on the pitch.



Lo and behold, it's Jonny Wilkinson practising his kicks/curling out a poo.


We watched England and New Zealand warming up for a while at their respective ends of the pitch and soon enough it was time to take our seats for the game.  A giant cross of St. George was draped across the pitch by some lovely army lads, and then the England team ran out to blasts of fire:



Top of my Christmas wish list: a flame throwing camera.

The teams lined up for the anthems...




...and then you can read my review to find out the rest.


It was a great day even though I sadly didn't fulfil my Quest to Meet Dan Carter, my Dad and I both really enjoyed ourselves. 

It's just a shame that it is such a long drive to get there...

Hopefully when I venture down to Twickenham again the result will be slightly more favourable.

Off-Colour All Blacks Beat Unbalanced England

England 6 - 19 New Zealand

Perched high up from my seat in Twickenham's west stand I watched a slightly off-colour All Blacks do enough to beat a rather unbalanced England on a drizzly afternoon at the home of rugby yesterday afternoon.

It was my first trip to Twickenham to watch an England test match, and whilst it might not have been the most exhilarating, free-flowing game in the world it was a brilliant occasion with a atmosphere to match.  England supporters haven't had much to cheer about in recent weeks, so with me fully expecting England to be dished out a rather unappetizing rugby lesson from Ritchie McCaw and pals, all I really hoped for was that England came out to play some rugby and didn't just capitulate at the hands of the currently top ranked team in the world.



"Right boys.  They've laid out the red carpet for us.  Let's give them a pasting."

Going in to this game there were plenty of subplots:
Dan Carter needed only two more points to overtake Andrew Mehrtons and become New Zealand's highest point scorer of all time.  There was also Carter's much hyped face off with Jonny Wilkinson to consider, heralded as a clash between the best fly-half in the world and his injury ravaged predecessor.  Oh, and then there was also the small matter of the microscope that had been firmly placed over Martin Johnson, his coaching squad and their team selection.  Surely a bad performance against New Zealand would result in a few casualties in this department, wouldn't it?

The game began and it was England who looked the steadier team and more physical and committed.  Matt Banahan looked like he'd caught a bought of rabies from 'Mad Dog' Lewis Moody, as from the kick off he sprinted and harried and gave Moody the opportunity to put pressure on the clearance kick from Dan Carter.  In fact, I don't know if Mehrton's record was playing on Carter's mind but he had a rather shaky start which developed into one of the worst performances I've seen him play.  With an astonishing record of slotting 31 out of his last 32 attempts on goal, the Twickenham crowd fully expected Carter to pass Mehrton's record within the first few minutes when New Zealand won a penalty.

The crowd held its breath and no doubt the commentators on Sky waxed lyrical about Carter's accuracy and his amazing conversion rate - just as Carter proceeded to push the ball wide.  WHAT?  A let off for England.

Rain started to fall and the game inevitably got a bit scrappy.  To their credit, both teams still tried to run with the ball and it didn't disintegrate into a tedious kick-fest.  A slippy ball and surface almost provided Ugo Monye with the opening try when he tackled Zak Guildford who was running the ball out of the New Zealand twenty-two, causing it to pop up and land in Monye's hands.  Monye sprinted over the line but the try was ruled out by referee Jonathan Kaplan.  I had a great view of Monye's effort and I thought it looked fine, but having seen the replay this morning, as much as it pains me to say it, Kaplan was right.

Despite their efforts to run the ball England's back line still played too deep and never really threatened the advantage line.  Jonny Wilkinson needs to stand flatter like he does at Toulon and drag the backs up with him.  With all the excitement of an 'almost try' for England, Wilkinson settled Twickenham's nerves by coolly kicking England's first scoring opportunity when New Zealand infringed at the breakdown.  3-0 to England after 15 minutes.



Jonny opens the scoring

What then followed was a litany of mistakes from the usually faultless Carter.  A missed kick into touch; a spill of the ball in the tackle; kicks up field that lacked their usual epic length.  Why Carter didn't try and put pressure on butterfingers Banahan and Monye with the high ball I don't know.  Instead he was happy to kick the ball up field where the much more composed Cueto was waiting, and despite not having played at full back for Sale this season he looked calm under the high ball.  Even though Carter's kicking boots weren't weaving their usual magic, the line-out that resulted from one of his successful kicks into touch almost saw New Zealand cross the line for the first time.  The ball was fed out from the line-out to Carter who was standing flat.  He passed the ball to Conrad Smith who made a break and linked up with full back Mils Mulianina who would have scored in the corner had it not been for Monye's rapid scramble defence.  A lesson for England:  New Zealand were playing flat, quickly crossed the advantage line and almost scored.  A worrying threat from the All Blacks at the end of the first quarter.

Finally, New Zealand fans got to see what they had been waiting for when Tim Payne was penalised for a couple of punches that he casually threw in at the breakdown.  I've no idea why this didn't earn him a yellow card so England were lucky in this respect, but not where Carter was concerned as he finally found his kicking boots and easily scored his first points of the game with a brilliant kick in the tricky conditions.  Congratulations on passing Mehrton's record Dan.



Carter lining up to pass Mehrton's record

Wilkinson and Carter exchanged another penalty each before half time (along with yet another uncharacteristic miss from Carter), and then the England belief and defence saw them shut down the New Zealand threat in the last five minutes of the half when they threatened the England line.  This was a definite step up from England's performance against Argentina.

The second half started in much the same way as the first, with both teams trying to play expansive rugby and both teams failing as the ball went to ground.  The first echoes of 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" reverberated from the stands but it couldn't prevent New Zealand scoring what turned out to be the only try of the game when scrum-half Jimmy Cowan crossed after excellent link up play between Sitiveni Sivivatu and Richie McCaw.  Now with his eyes firmly on the prize, Carter successfully kicked a difficult conversion from the touchline to take his tally to four kicks from six.  6-16 to the All Blacks after 59 minutes.

As the rain started to fall harder, England started to try and force the game.  Despite having a penalty in the bag, Jonny Wilkinson tried for a drop goal and failed.  Why didn't you push for the try Jonny or at least go back for the place-kicked penalty?  With England pushing the game New Zealand capitalized again due to their ability to quickly get over the gainline.  Replacement hooker Steve Thompson got pinged by referee Kaplan for diving in at the breakdown, gifting the rather off-colour Carter an easy penalty under the posts to take the score to 6-19 with just over ten minutes remaining.

Maybe the fact that England had made 112 tackles to New Zealand's 60 meant that they were tiring, so even with Geraghty and Tait on the field the last ditch attempts to pressurize the All Blacks line failed.

The game ended with a rather scrappy New Zealand beating England by 6-19. 

Before the game I said I wanted to see England play and they definitely did that to a higher standard than they showed against Australia and Argentina.  Industry, passion and commitment were all in evidence but accuracy and incision were sadly missing.  With the selections of Erinle and Hipkiss in the centre, Shaw in the second row and Banahan on the wing it was clear that Martin Johnson had assembled a team that could physically front up to the All Blacks.  That's fine, but in doing this there was no room for the finishers which left a rather unbalanced side.  There's a lot of work needed before the Six Nations, but hopefully with players like Toby Flood coming back from injury it might help sort out England's midfield woes.

New Zealand on the other hand, put in a generally good all round performance but with no real standout players.  I was really happy to watch them in my first ever live international game but they are still very much a work in progress and yesterday they weren't the prolific New Zealand side that I have come to expect.  Still, it's their third game on the bounce where they haven't conceded a try, although they've got plenty to work on before they face their big test of their autumn tour when they take on France in Marseille next weekend.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Quest to Meet Dan Carter (3): T minus 1 day 20 hours and 13 minutes

Right then.

I've only got two more night's sleep and a few more hours of pesky work standing between me and the opportunity to meet my favourite rugby hunk du jour, the lovely Dan Carter.

So far I've hatched a few plans, realised I run the risk of degenerating into a desperado and have pulled myself back from the brink of transforming into a female version of Alan Partridge.

I spoke with my Dad last night (as we are going to watch the rugby at Twickenham together) and we have formulated a plan of action for the trip.  Well, my Dad knows about the plan up until about point number 7:
  1. Set off from my house at 8am.
  2. While away the time on the tedious drive down the M1 by eating sweets, listening to Chris Rea (my Dad's choice) and stopping off at Newport Pagnell services for a quick wee.
  3. The sun always shines at Newport Pagnell
  4. Arrive in the Twickenham area (traffic permitting) by about 12pm.
  5. Park the car and tuck in to the lovely selection of sandwiches I made before we set off.  (Arse.  Must remember to do that before we leave).
  6. Laugh at my Dad as he tries to make a brew on a gas camping stove in gale force winds with a comedy camping kettle.
  7. Take it all back as the brew tastes lovely.
  8. Surprisingly useful
  9. Head to the stadium at approximately 12:30pm.
  10. Get a pie.
  11. Pester my Dad to go to the players entrance.
  12. Get annoyed with him when he drags me to the shop to buy an England umbrella instead.
  13. Sulk for 5 minutes before realising that I am in a SHOP and I have my credit card with me.
  14. Buy some England branded tat.
  15. I won't be buying this really. 
  16. Have a bit of a wander around.  Try to drag my Dad to the players entrance.  Fail.
  17. Sulk again.
  18. Tell my Dad that he's rubbish and I might have to revert to plan B and pass him off as Bill Beaumont if he doesn't co-operate.
  19. Successfully arrive at the players entrance only to realise it's now 1:15pm and that they've already arrived.
  20. Decide to go to the bar instead (as my Dad is driving) and drink some wine.

  21. Please numb the pain of what is to come...
  22. Drink some more wine.
  23. Realise it's nearly time for kick off and that I need another wee.
  24. Queue for what seems like 5 hours for the ladies.
  25. Take our seats at 2:15pm
  26. Watch the game.
  27. Get depressed.
  28. Leave.
  29. Drive back listening to 'Big Country' with me suffering from a mild hangover.
Hmm.  Yes I think that's how it will probably go, but then again you never know.

I'm still hopeful.

Whatever Stade Fran├žais can do....

....Edinburgh can do much, much worse.

Today Edinburgh Rugby revealed their migraine-inducing kit for the two derby games they are scheduled to play against Glasgow Warriors on the 27th December and the 2nd January. 

Check out this eye-popping vision of neon colours and stomach-churning swirls:



Try as you might, wearing shades whilst you're sporting this delightful little number
doesn't mean you're going incognito

 

I have to wonder what the inspiration was for this assault on the eyes?

Maybe the designer stumbled across his vision for this putrid monstrosity after necking various Chernobyl coloured shots down the pub and then proceeding to splatter the contents of his stomach across the pavement.

"Ahh, that's it!  Perfect!" he said on inspecting his chunder-chunks, before stumbling up the street and recreating his handiwork back in his studio.

At the launch Edinburgh's Nick De Luca said of the kit:
"I think it's great that we have put a strip out there that will get us noticed... It's a memorable jersey for what promises to be memorable games."

Memorable because the poor spectators will have the image of this God awful shirt seared into their brains for the rest of eternity?  Or is this just a ploy by Edinburgh to bring colour to a couple of games that might otherwise be quite grey affairs? 

Who knows.  I can't see it being the top of anyone's Christmas list though.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

England Team to Face NZ

The England team that will get whipped by the All Blacks this Saturday has been announced this lunchtime.

Deep breath, here goes:

15 Mark Cueto (Sale Sharks)
14 Matt Banahan (Bath Rugby)
13 Dan Hipkiss (Leicester Tigers)
12 Ayoola Erinle (Biarritz)
11 Ugo Monye (Harlequins)
10 Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)
9 Paul Hodgson (London Irish)

1 Tim Payne (London Wasps)
2 Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints)
3 Duncan Bell (Bath Rugby)
4 Simon Shaw (London Wasps)
5 Steve Borthwick (Saracens, captain)
6 Joe Worsley (London Wasps)
7 Lewis Moody (Leicester Tigers)
8 James Haskell (Stade Francais)

Replacements:

16 Steve Thompson (Brive)
17 David Wilson (Bath Rugby)
18 Louis Deacon (Leicester Tigers)
19 Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers)
20 Danny Care (Harlequins)
21 Shane Geraghty (Northampton Saints)
22 Mathew Tait (Sale Sharks)

Awesome.  Another makeshift fullback and Ben Foden sent back to Northampton. At least they've binned off Andy Goode. Still, with the likes of Borthwick 'leading' from the front, England are going to be fine right?

Wrong, it's time for Borthwick to go. He's OK but he's not an international captain and does everything to prove this. Did anyone see him rallying the England pack last weekend? No, me neither.  Don't worry though, we've got the dynanism of Deacon waiting to explode off the bench.  Great.

I'm unsure as to why Tait is on the bench. Surely he'd be a better choice at 12 than Erinle? Hmm. Still, it could be worse, they could be persisting with Banahan. Oh what's that? They are.

It's grim, but I predict New Zealand to bum England by at least 30 points.

Still, I've said it once and I'll say it again: at least I can distract myself with the more aesthetic delights of some the players trotting around on the pitch.  And no, I'm not talking about Duncan Bell...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The £250,000 Kick

Saracens beat South Africa tonight at Wembley but that's not the biggest story of the evening.  Oh no.

That accolade goes to random rugby-goer Stuart Tinner, who pocketed £250,000 after successfully completing a Soccer AM style Cross bar challenge.

Basically, he drop-kicked a rugby ball from the twenty-two yard line and got it to bounce off the cross bar. 
His technique?

"I just kicked it as hard as I could".

Not bad for a hooker.




Beat that Wilko.

Squad Switcheroo

So it's time for the obligatory squad shake-ups before the next round of autumn international test matches. 

Whilst the Scotland team that will face Australia is unchanged from the side that got the better of Fiji in a dour encounter last weekend, Martin Johnson is getting good use of the revolving door that he had especially fitted in the home changing room at Twickenham prior to the start of this test series. 

Across the Irish sea there are a few changes in the Ireland starting fifteen, and over in Cardiff, the Wales side that narrowly lost to New Zealand is fully reformed like a slab of Spam after a week's break - well, with one new ingredient, and hopefully a little bit more meat than they showed against Samoa.

So who's in and who's out?

England

IN: 
Simon Shaw (lock), Mathew Tait (full back/wing/centre)

OUT: 
Andy Goode (part time fly-half/full time hair model), Courtney Lawes (lock)

RELEASED: 
Ben Foden (full back), Jordan Crane (number 8), George Chuter (hooker), Steffon Armitage (flanker), Ben Kay (lock), Paul Sackey (wing), Richard Wigglesworth (scrum half), David Flatman (prop)

Interesting. 
Andy Goode is going back to Brive.  See ya.
Monye hasn't been released, so is he going to switch to the wing so that either Cueto or Tait can start at full back?  With Steve Borthwick stubbornly clutching on to the captaincy and therefore guaranteeing his place in the side, it looks like Lions hero, man-mountain and the old experienced hands of Simon Shaw might push Louis Deacon on to the bench, which can only be a good thing.

All will be revealed at 12pm GMT tomorrow...


Ireland

IN:
Jonny Sexton (fly-half), Eoin Reddan (scrum half), Gordon D'Arcy (centre), Keith Earls (wing), Shane Horgan (wing), Tom Court (loosehead), Leo Cullen (lock), Denis Leamy (flanker)
New Replacements: Sean Cronin (hooker), Sean O'Brian (flanker).

OUT:
Tommy Bowe (wing), Ronan O'Gara (fly-half), Luke Fitzgerald (wing, injured), David Wallace (flanker), Cian Healy (loosehead, injured)

Hurrah!  The pretender to the O'Gara throne, Leinster's young gun Jonny Sexton is winning his first cap for Ireland.  I like Jonny Sexton a lot.  Last year he demonstrated a cool presence on the pitch in the pressurized environment of the Heineken Cup after playing second fiddle to Felipe Contepomi for such a long time, and he has shown the world that he has a calm head on his young shoulders.  Also, I like him because he looks quite sweet and a bit like an oversized toddler.  Bless.


Mansize toddler: Jonny Sexton (on the left)

Along with Jonny, the two Seans on the bench are also uncapped with Declan Kidney keen to give a few more young guns a shot against Fiji at Dublin's RDS.


Wales

IN:
Jonathan Davies (centre), Shane Williams (wing), Matthew Rees (hooker), Stephen Jones (fly-half), Martyn Williams (flanker), Gareth Cooper (scrum half),
New replacements: Andrew Bishop (centre), Dan Lydiate (flanker)

OUT:
Tom Shanklin (centre, injured), Martin Roberts (scrum half), Dan Biggar (fly-half), Dan Warburton (flanker),

Big news for Wales is that Jonathan Davies is BACK.



Soft focus really takes off the years

No, not that Jonathan Davies. 

21 year old Jonathan Davies plays in the centre (for the Scarlets) and not at fly-half like his legendary bouffant-haired namesake.  This weekend the new Jonathan Davies will make his first start at the Millennium stadium after impressing when he replaced injured Tom Shanklin off the bench in the game against Samoa last weekend.


Scotland

IN:
No-one.

OUT:
No-one.

Nice bit of consistency there Mr Robinson.  Good luck against Australia though.


Any excuse to include a picture of curly-haired Scotland captain, Chris Cusiter


What do I think?

It's good to see that Wales and Ireland are willing to give some of their hot up and coming talent some time on the pitch - unlike England. 

As much as I welcome the return of Simon Shaw and Mathew Tait into the England squad I'm still disappointed that Lawes and Foden have both been sent back to Northampton.  What was the point in hyping up Lawes so much if it was only in the mythical (and possibly non-existent) game plan for him to play approximately ten seconds of rugby in the two games where he was selected? 

With Monye hopefully not being allowed to continue pleasuring us with his erratic displays at full back and being switched to the wing (where he can ably demonstrate his sole skill of running fast in a straight line), Tait can step in to add some composure and threat from deep and Banahan can be relegated to the bench where he can hone his sprinting skills and try to out run an IKEA wardrobe for the first time in his life.

My predictions for this weekend?

New Zealand to beat England by 30 points.  At least.
Ireland to beat Fiji by 20 points.
Wales to beat Argentina by 10 points.
Australia to beat Scotland by about 1000 points.

Place your bets.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Three Words

Powering in Green

Ireland 20 - 20 Australia

Ireland snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat at Croke Park today and although they didn't win the game they can certainly take away a lot of positives away from their performance. 

BBC commentator Eddie Butler perfectly summed up Ireland's approach in three words: 
"Energised and confident."

Ireland fielded a strong side against the rampaging Wallabies, and after looking dead and buried, a last minute try from BOD himself (who else?) allowed O'Gara to bag two more points and seal a hard fought draw.  (Seriously, who writes O'Driscoll's scripts?  In his 100th test match appearance he scores the decisive try to help level the score.  Praise be to BOD).

Australia should have won this game, but sadly for them they just couldn't manage it.  Hurray!  At least the smug Wallabies won't go home clutching an autumn international home nations whitewash to their puffed up green and gold chests.

The personification of the Irish performance today?

Cian Healy.



Strong running in the loose, confidence in his own abilities on his international debut and an all round gutsy performance from the Leinster prop.  Cian's got work to do to get his scrummaging up to scratch, but other than that it was an excellent first cap performance.


Maurauded in Maroon

England 16 - 9 Argentina

England on the other hand might have beaten Argentina yesterday in their new purple change strip, but after a dismal performance they were quite rightly booed off the pitch at half time.  The Argentina side contained four, yes four amateur players but despite this a dull and uninspiring England could only limp to a 16 - 9 win.

Jeremy Guscott's three word conclusion of England's performance?

"Slow and sloppy."

The personification of this?

Ugo Monye.



Flaky at fullback, shocking under the high ball and slow to allay the fears of the disgruntled Twickenham crowd.


I feel like a broken record. 

Martin Johnson:  PLEASE bring Ben Foden in to play at full back next week as I think we can safely say that the Monye experiment has been deemed a failure. 

If an idiot is defined as someone who repeats their actions yet expects to get a different result, then surely the time has come to show the world that you're not ready to take up residence in a remote village whilst wearing a dunce's hat. 

Then again, I think it will take nothing short of a minor miracle to resurrect England's hopes of beating the All Blacks next Saturday.  What is the game plan?  Do the players know it?  Does anyone care?

Still, even if the game's rubbish I can distract myself by looking at Dan Carter's biceps.  Happy days.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

"Power Green" vs Green and Gold

A couple of score lines from yesterday, Friday 13th November:

France 20 - 13 South Africa

Wales 17 - 13 Samoa

So the World Champions were taken down in the south of France.  Their score on Freaky Friday 13th?  13.
Wales scraped past Samoa at the Millennium Stadium and put the ghosts of Samoa's famous wins in Cardiff in the World Cups of 1991 and 1999 to rest.  Samoa's score?  13.

Two excellent results for the northern hemisphere teams against their southern hemisphere counterparts, who both only amassed an unlucky thirteen points each.    Maybe Wales's new change strip of cack-yellow is lucky for them?


Not so mellow


Of course I'll be watching England take on Argentina this weekend, but the game I really want to watch is Ireland vs Australia at Croke Park on Sunday.  England will be proudly wearing their new purple strip whilst the Irish boys are debuting their new strip which is apparently in "Power Green" (don't you just love all the marketing bunf).  Check out the promotional shot from last month:



Dear oh dear oh dear


Anyway, beyond the boy-band style jumping in the air and the naff marketing spiel, the real question is whether Ireland will be able to "power" past the Wallabies this Sunday.  (Sorry).

I really think they can.

Last week England's centres didn't put much pressure on the debut centre pairing of Quade Cooper and Digby Ioane, and this pair of Wallabies looked as if they'd been playing at test level together for years.  This weekend I envisage that O'Driscoll (who is winning his 100th test cap when he trots out against Australia) and Paddy Wallace will cause the youthful Wallabies a world of problems in comparison, especially when the likes of Rob Kearney will be rock solid and making strong angled runs from full back and the pace of Tommy Bowe and speed and sidestep of Luke Fitzgerald are out on the wings. 

Facing up against the Wallabies forwards is an impressive Ireland pack which is rammed full of world class front men:  Flannery (Munster), Hayes (Munster); O'Callaghan (Munster), O'Connell (Munster); Ferris (Ulster), David Wallace (Munster), Heaslip (Leinster), along with debutant Cian Healy (Leinster).  I think they will put much more pressure on the Wallabies at scrum time, and in the loose will be much more rapid at providing quick ball to their scrum-half (Tomas O'Leary) than the England forwards managed to provide Danny Care with last weekend.

Oh, and don't forget Ronan O'Gara: Ireland's top points scorer of all time.

Of course, the war of words to big up the opposition has been in full flow this week, with each team playing homage to the other.  Everyone has to appear to be modest now, don't they?

"It's going to be a litmus test for us," insisted Australia coach Robbie Deans.


"They're the grand slam Six Nations champions, European Cup champions two years in 08 and 09 (Munster and Leinster), so there's an awful lot of experience and belief in the group we're playing at Croke Park."

Yep.

O'Driscoll was quick to return the compliment:

"Australia are a very smart team, the smartest in world rugby...  They think about how to break down defences and have the personnel to do that."

So who is going to win?  As a team Ireland are formidable opponents and much more of the finished and polished package than the England team that were outwitted by the streetwise Wallabies last weekend.

It's tough to call but I think with the partisan crowd of a packed Croker behind them, the "Power Green" clad Irishmen will do it.  It won't be Friday the thirteenth when these two teams meet but I still think it might be an unlucky day for the Green and Golds.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Quest to Meet Dan Carter (2): Research

A quick update on my masterplan to meet Dan Carter....

Thanks to a top tip from one of my readers and a quick glance at my ticket for the England vs New Zealand game next weekend, I have discovered that the player's entrance to Twickenham stadium is in the West Stand, and that my seat is - yes, that's right - in the West Stand.  A coincidence?  Probably.  Or could it be fate?  Well, probably not.

Either way, a nice early arrival and the expert use of my elbows to get to the front of the crowd might afford me a glimpse of my tracksuit-clad (minor) rugby obsession, the lovely Dan Carter.



Hello!


However, when I stop to imagine the moment where I see Dan up close and personal for the first time, I can't help shake off the image that I will somehow rapidly metamorphosize into a female version of Alan Partridge:





I cannot let this happen.

Next on the agenda:  Practising keeping my cool.

Headingley Under Wraps

Today I went to Headingley Carnegie stadium for a day of seminars which gave me the opportunity to see the ground like I've never seen it before.  Looking down from the top of the Carnegie stand at first I thought the pitch was covered in a layer of fluffy white snow, but then I engaged my brain and put my eyes in the right way round and realised it was all a mirage of plastic sheeting.

Still, the view from the top of the Carnegie stand is very impressive.  I might have to watch a game from up there one day.









In other Leeds Carnegie news, tonight Leeds lost 27-3 against Sale in the LV= Cup second round at Edgeley Park.  Balls.  There goes that winning momentum.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Don't Cry for Me, Argentina

Although I'm crying in despair at some of the selections that Martin Johnson has made for the England squad to face the Pumas this weekend.

There are several changes to the England team this week from the line up that played Australia last Saturday, but none of these changes involve sending Andy Goode trotting back to Brive with a suitcase rammed full of Timotei to be replaced by Northampton's rising star Ben Foden.

This has annoyed me, mainly because England need a proper full back.  Ugo Monye didn't look comfortable last week and he never plays at full back for Harlequins. Ben Foden on the other hand had a storming game for Northampton in the LV= Cup last weekend.  Why can't he come in to replace Andy Goode?  Goode isn't going to shift Wilkinson from the starting fifteen and he doesn't have Wilko's multi-facted game, so why is he even included in the sqaud?  Why Johnno, why?


Goode (left) or Foden (right):  No contest?


Elsewhere, desperate to inject some dynamism into the squad, Martin Johnson has selected James Haskell who starts at number eight instead of Jordan Crane.  Crane was solid but didn't assert himself against Australia, and it will be interesting to see if the hyped-up Haskell can bring his much talked about skill and athleticism to the number eight spot having not played there yet this season for Stade Francais.  Joe Worsley is named as a replacement and pushes Crane out of the squad altogether, which is a bit mean on Jordan but I don't mind it so much due to Worsley's versatility.  And the fact that he is affectionately called 'Melon Head' by his team-mates.




Worsley is back

Dylan Hartley replaces Steve Thompson as the starting hooker.  Excellent.  Thompson was OK against Australia but OK isn't really good enough.  Time to give the grunt, pace and ball carrying skills of Hartley a shot.

Duncan Bell is promoted to the first fifteen instead of injured David Wilson which means there's space for Haskell's old buddy Paul Doran-Jones on the bench.  Who?  Exactly.  After a quick Google search I discovered that he is most famous for getting himself and James Haskell suspended from the very expensive private school they attended for filming a "sex romp" between Paul D-J and his then girlfriend.  How very Paris Hilton.  Hopefully he will have worked out his best angle if he gets a run out on Saturday.



Paul Doran-Jones:  Accrington Stanley meets Paris Hilton
Who is he?  Exactly.


Finally, London Irish's Paul Hodgson gets a start over the lovely Danny Care at scrum-half after having a great start to the season.  Don't worry though Danny, you're still my favourite, and it's not your fault that you couldn't get any quick ball last Saturday.

Therefore, despite Martin Johnson's search for a more dynamic England, Andy Goode stays, Monye is still masquerading as a makeshift full-back, Deacon and Borthwick are both starting and Johnson is persisting with Banahan.

Why oh why oh why?

Come on Johnno, I think you can do better than that:
Foden in; Monye to replace Banahan on the wing; Goode out; Lawes to start in place of Deacon.  Simples.

Instead, here's the team that will start against Argentina on Saturday:
England: Monye; Cueto, Hipkiss, Geraghty, Banahan; Wilkinson, Hodgson; Payne, Hartley, Bell, Deacon, Borthwick (capt), Croft, Moody, Haskell.
Replacements: Thompson, Doran-Jones, Lawes, Worsley, Care, Goode, Erinle.


How England's makeshift pack will fare against the grunt of the massive Argentinians might make painful viewing. Lest we forget that England are currently below Argentina in the World rankings - oh the shame.

Good luck boys.  Hopefully you won't need it.

BOD is Still God...

...well in Ireland anyway.

Congratulations to crinkly-eyed, twinkle-toed Brian O'Driscoll who picked up the Player of the Year award at the Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland awards dinner earlier this week.



In BOD we trust

I suppose that O'Driscoll was the obvious candidate for this accolade.  I mean, this year he led Ireland to their first Six Nations Grand Slam in sixty-one years, he was a major part of the thrilling Leinster side that lifted the Heineken Cup, and don't forget the world class performances he put in for the Lions over the summer.  Not bad, Brian, not bad.

So the question on everyone's lips is has to be:

"What is O'Driscoll going to do to top all this in 2010?"

How about back to back Grand Slam and Heineken Cup wins? 
Yeah, that would be a good start...

However I'm pretty sure there are plenty of Ireland rugby fans looking to the future of the Irish game, and in 2010 they will all be urging Brian to whisk his bride-to-be Amy Huberman up the aisle as quickly as possible.  That way, Brian can get started on the miracle of creating the second coming - aka the procreation of Brian O'Driscoll Jnr.

Amen to that.