Friday, 17 December 2010

Heineken Cup Round 4: Previews and Predictions

Round four sees the return legs of last weekend’s Heineken Cup fixtures. Depending on the results in certain pools, some sides could nail-on their progression to the knock out stages while others will fall by the wayside.

But what lessons will each team take from the games a week ago? Will we see different sides triumph or will it be more of the same from round three? Here are my previews and predictions.

Leinster v Clermont

Last Sunday, Leinster came away from Parc des Marcel Michelin with a losing bonus point in the 20-13 defeat by Clermont – a great effort when you consider their injury list. Sean O’Brien stood out in the back-row with 38 carries, repeatedly breaking the gain line and putting in tackle after ferocious tackle. The physicality of Isaac Boss at scrum-half helped to neutralise the threat of opposite number Morgan Parra around the fringes of the scrum, and Leinster fly-half Jonny Sexton was once again impressive at 10. The stand-off was key in creating Shane Horgan’s try and kicked his goals well. On the downside, Leinster did give away two tries due to missed tackles with Julien Malzieu, Anthony Floch and Aurélien Rougerie again showing they are an immense force in the Clermont backline. On paper, Clermont should beat Leinster again but away from France they are vulnerable. Will Brock James crumble under the pressure of returning to Ireland? The fly-half threw away 26 points in last year’s quarter-final at the RDS. However, this game takes places at the brand spanking new Aviva stadium so maybe he won’t have to wrestle with those particular demons on Saturday. Sadly for the home crowd there are question marks over the fitness of Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald are still ruled out.

My prediction: It’s boring but it’s true: French teams sometimes forget to turn up when they’re away from home. Leinster by 6.

Bath v Ulster

Ulster beat Bath 22-18 last Saturday at Ravenhill in a game that seesawed right until the final minute. The Magners league side is in a rich vein of form in Europe, having won all but one of their last five Heineken Cup games. They currently lie second in their pool, two points behind Biarritz. Brian McLaughlin’s men now have an excellent shout of qualifying for the quarter-finals for the first time since winning the trophy in 1999. The fact that the Irish province have won all three of their previous meetings with Bath and are the form team away from home in the Magners league spells trouble for Steve Meehan’s men. However, Aironi’s shock win over Biarritz means progression from pool four is still up for grabs for both of these teams. Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, Stephen Ferris, Iain Humphreys and Andrew Trimble all impressed for Ulster last week. Can they lead Ulster to a double over a tepid Bath side who have won just one of their last six Heineken Cup games?

My prediction: Bath will need to step up and find another level of intensity to beat the in-form Ulster and I think they will find this at home. Bath by 5.

Toulon v London Irish

Toulon are the only side in their pool to get an away win, and if the Ospreys can beat Munster at the Liberty Stadium then Philippe Saint-André’s men will go top of pool 2. Last weekend the boot of Jonny Wilkinson kicked Toulon to a 19-13 win at the Madejski and London Irish boss Toby Booth has called the rematch a ‘do or die’ game for the Exiles’ Heineken Cup hopes. Toulon are a team packed full of superstars but last weekend the front row shone on a chilly day in Reading, with flanker Joe van Niekerk also putting in a great performance. The Exiles’ form has fallen off a cliff in recent weeks and they are currently bottom of their pool. Toulon, on the other hand, have won three games in a row and look to be hitting their stride. However, a win in France would catapult London Irish into second spot if Munster do the double over the Ospreys.

My prediction: The Exiles fell short at home and I can’t see them overturning Toulon in the south of France. Toulon by 9.

Leicester v Perpignan

Perpignan battered Leicester up front in the scrum last Saturday but the French side are an entirely different proposition away from home. Confidence is key to their performance and whilst they will come to Welford Road buoyed by last week’s win they will face a much sterner test. Leicester have a real winning mentality at home and Perpignan’s cause won’t be helped by the fact that full-back Jerome Porical is out after he rediscovered his form last weekend. Leicester Tigers never say die, and this determination saw them sneak a losing bonus point last week – something which could be crucial when the pool stages reach their conclusion. Richard Cockerill’s men still head up pool five on 11 points, but both Perpignan and the Scarlets are breathing down their neck on 10 points each. Only a bonus point win and denying Perpignan any points will be good enough for the home fans.

My prediction: Last weekend’s game was close with Perpignan edging out Leicester by 5. This week I think Leicester will get the win by the same margin. Tigers by 5.


Here are the rest of my predictions:

Biarritz v Aironi Rugby: Biarritz by 25.

Racing Metro 92 v Saracens: Racing by 9.

Benetton Treviso v Scarlets: Scarlets by 33.

Ospreys v Munster: Ospreys by 4.

Toulouse v Glasgow: Toulouse by 26.

Cardiff Blues v Northampton: Northampton by 5.

Edinburgh v Castres: Edinburgh by 3.

Wasps v Newport-Gwent Dragons: Wasps by 9.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Heineken Cup Round 3: Previews and Predictions

The Heineken Cup rolls into town this weekend to provide an early festive feast of rugby. I’ve picked out the key games for the previews but you can find the rest of my predictions below. In Pool One, Northampton hope to make it three wins from three against Cardiff Blues, while Pool Two sees Leinster travel to Clermont, the French side hoping to exact revenge after last year’s quarter final defeat at the RDS. Munster host the Ospreys in Pool three’s big clash and the final game I’ve chosen to focus on is Leicester’s trip to Perpignan – both huge games between the top teams in their respective pools. As always, please let me know what you think in the comments.





Northampton v Cardiff Blues

Northampton are almost unbeatable at the moment. I say almost as the only game they have lost this season was a league game at the hands of Saracens. The Saints are now on a run of nine unbeaten games in all competitions, which would probably have been 10 had their match against Leeds not been called off last weekend. Northampton nearly tripped up against Castres in the Cup in round one but now the Frankins Gardens based club looks like a much more organised and well-oiled machine. Prop Soane Tonga’uiha is joint top try-scorer in the league, and along with Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati, the Saints front row is a dynamic, ball carrying unit that dominates at the set-piece. We all know what the Saints’ backline is capable of, even without England boys Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. This is a massive worry for Blues boss Dai Young, who will be without Wales centre Jamie Roberts, Wales wing Leigh Halfpenny, full-back Ben Blair, lock Deniol Jones and prop Rhys Thomas. It’s an extensive injury list but Cardiff will be boosted by the return of the seemingly never aging flanker, Martyn Williams and John Yapp from Barbarians duty. The visitors also have key man Xavier Rush at number eight, and along with Casey Laulala at centre Northampton could have a few problems – but probably not enough to derail them.

My prediction: It’s a brave man or woman who bets against the Saints at the moment, especially at home. Northampton to win by 12.

Clermont v Leinster

Who can forget last year’s quarter final between these two sides at the RDS? Clermont fly-half Brock James imploded and missed kick after kick after kick to let Leinster progress to the semi-finals. Clermont’s away form has been poor this season but they are fantastic at their home ground, Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin. Defensively Clermont are aggressive and they beat Top 14 leaders Toulouse 32-25 last weekend. ‘Petit Generale’ Morgan Parra will be the key man for the home side, especially now he has taken the pressure away from Brock James in the goal kicking department. Leinster number eight Jamie Heaslip will need to neutralise the sniping scrum-half, and without Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, and a big doubt over the fitness of Brian O’Driscoll, Leinster will be pleased to come away with a losing bonus point. As an interesting sideshow, this game has the extra frisson of seeing Leinster coach Joe Schmidt return to the club he left last season after a stay of three years.

My prediction: Both of these sides lie seventh in their respective leagues and this game will be a fascinating rematch after last year’s tense quarter-final. However, away from home and with injury issues, I think Clermont will come out on top by 9 points.

Munster v Ospreys

This is certainly one of the biggest fixtures of the round. The Ospreys travel to Thomond Park in search of their first Heineken Cup win over two time Cup winners Munster. The Welsh club have beaten the Irish province there in the league on the way to the title last season, and if they are to win this weekend they must take the wily Munster forwards on at the breakdown. Paul O’Connell looks set to make his comeback for the home side after missing most of 2010 - a massive boost for Munster at this crucial point in the season. However, things aren’t quite as rosy for the Ospreys. Full-back Lee Byrne is ruled out with a broken thumb after he kind of forgot to get it checked out not once, but twice. Shane Williams is also sidelined with a shoulder injury while back-row forward Marty Holah serves a one match ban. Last week, Munster beat Cardiff Blues 15-9 in the league to stay in top spot while the Ospreys beat Edinburgh in a convincing 33-16 performance at the Liberty Stadium.

My prediction: This is first plays second in Pool three and a win for either side would put them in a strong position to qualify. Can the Ospreys break the Heineken Cup hoodoo at Thomond Park? I don’t think so. Munster by 8.

Perpignan v Leicester

A win in Perpignan would show that Leicester are really starting to fire. The Tigers won their first league game away from home last weekend when they beat then second place London Irish 23-14 at the Madejski. It was the perfect preparation for Richard Cockerill’s men ahead of their trip to the south of France, leapfrogging the Exiles into second place in the Aviva Premiership and reminding themselves they can win on the road. Perpignan are a lowly 10th in the French Top 14 and lost 23-13 last week away at Castres. However, the Stade Aimé Giral is an intimidating place to go and the Tigers will need to be at full strength to wrestle any points from the Catalonian bear pit. England fly-half Toby Flood is fit and will play alongside Ben Youngs at half-back. But the big threat can be found in the forwards as the home side have an impressive pack. Leicester will need to match Nicholas Mas and chums at the set piece but looking at the way they demolished London Irish’s scrum last week, including being awarded a penalty try, they could be in good shape. However, watch out - Perpignan number eight, Henry Tuilagi, will be exerting massive force in the back row and looking to get one over his brothers Alesana and Manu.

My prediction: Travelling such a long way is tough and Perpignan will be a real test for the Tigers. However, I think Leicester might just nick this one and all but seal their progression from the pool stages. Leicester by 3.

And here's my predictions for the rest:

Glasgow v ToulouseToulouse by 5.

Aironi Rugby v BiarritzBiarritz by 18.

Castres v EdinburghCastres by 9.

Saracens v Racing Metro 92Racing by 6.

Scarlets v Benetton TrevisoScarlets by 8.

Ulster v Bath Ulster by 10.

London Irish v ToulonToulon by 9.

Newport-Gwent Dragons v WaspsWasps by 8.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Exeter Aiming to Keep on Track

Stay on TrackHave a gander at this video of Exeter Chiefs during an off roading team building session.

Skipper Tom Hayes, Jason Shoemark, Chris Budgen and head coach Rob Baxter all reflect on their season so far and look forward to this Sunday’s game against London Wasps.

If the Chiefs win at Adams Park they will leapfrog their hosts into sixth place in a remarkable start to their first season in the top flight.

Aviva Premiership Round 10: Previews and Predictions

Wear your thermals this weekend...
It’s day six of the snow-induced chaos and already three Aviva Premiership games have fallen victim to the artic conditions. Both Friday night fixtures have been called off meaning Bath’s trip to Newcastle and Gloucester’s trip to Sale will have to be rescheduled.  Leeds v Northampton has also been postponed due to health and safety fears about ice around the ground.

Here are my previews and predictions for the games that have survived the snowy weather (at the time of posting).


London Irish v Leicester Tigers

London Irish are having something of a mid-season wobble at the moment. The Reading based club has lost four consecutive games in all competitions since their league win over Sale a month ago. However, the Exiles’ home form in the league has been 100%, claiming four wins from four at the Majedski. The fact that Leicester, reigning champions and hot on Irish’s heels in third, have failed to win any of their away games this season will not have gone unnoticed. In this fixture last year, Irish ran out 18-12 winners, so home form and recent history looks to favour Toby Booth’s men. Saying that, the Exiles were outclassed in all areas against Northampton on a chilly night last Friday. Defensively they looked frail and a rampaging Soane Tonga’uiha destroyed them at scrum time and in the loose. I’m sure the Leicester pack will be salivating at the prospect of taking on a team following such a demoralizing defeat, even without key man Tom Croft who is ruled out with a shoulder injury.

My prediction: I’m tipping Leicester to start firing during the cold snap. Tigers to win by 12.

Saracens v Harlequins

This week the news from the Saracens camp all been focused on the departure of their controversial director of rugby, Brendan Venter. The former Springbok centre is set to return to South Africa and has moved into a newly created technical director role and is replaced by first-team coach Mark McCall. Whether this has damaged preparations for this weekend’s game or not remains to be seen, but I think it must have created at least some form of distraction. Saracens’ form has dipped slightly in the past month. The men in black have only claimed one win in their last three games which has seen them fall to fifth in the table. However, Sarries have won their last two games against Harlequins who arrive at Vicarage Road on the back of an emphatic 51-18 win over Leeds. The result was only the second time Quins have ever clocked up a half century in a league game – the other was the 60-14 hammering of Worcester in April last year. A win for Conor O’Shea’s Quins would be their first away from home in the Premiership since their trip to Leeds 12 months ago.

My prediction: Despite the off field shufflings at Saracens, I think they will edge this game. Sarries by 9.

London Wasps v Exeter Chiefs

Exeter are currently seventh in the league after a brilliant start to their first season in the top flight. Whisper it quietly, but a top six finish and Heineken Cup place must surely have crossed the mind of head coach Rob Baxter. If the Chiefs are to end the season in the top half of the table they need to beat teams like Premiership and European rugby stalwarts, Wasps. The two sides have already met this year in the LV= Cup. On that occasion Exeter ran out 29-6 winners at Sandy Park. However, after an unsteady start to their league campaign, Wasps have notched up three straight wins and have risen into sixth place. The Londoners’ only league defeat at home came at the hands of leaders Northampton on 24 October. Can Exeter pull another shock out of the bag? Quite possibly. The newly promoted side are unbeaten in their last five games in all competitions, and have not lost on their travels since the trip to title favourites Northampton on 2 October.

My prediction: This is the most difficult game for me to call this week. Exeter have been brilliant so far but Wasps are slowly coming to the boil. I’m going to go with home advantage and say Wasps to win by 5.
 
What do you think?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

So long Mr Venty Spleen (sort of...)

Last night it was revealed that Brendan Venter, everyone's favourite pantomime villain, is heading back to South Africa.

With a swoop of his cape and a maniacal laugh, the 40-year-old Saracens' director of rugby is exiting stage left and returning to his homeland citing "family reasons."

When you see the name Brendan Venter it is usually accompanied with the words "colourful", "headstrong" or sometimes even "arrogant."  However, I will miss all the hoopla surrounding one of the most controversial figures in rugby when he jets off back to the southern hemisphere.

The former centre's knuckles must be red-raw from all the raps he's received during his 18-months at Saracens.  Firstly, he was served with a four-week suspended sentence in January for criticising referee David Rose.  Then he was slapped with a 10-week match-day ban in May for "provocative and inappropriate gestures and comments" towards opposition fans - also known as doing the wanker sign, allegedly.

This forced Venter to watch Saracens play, and subsequently lose, last season's Premiership final from the discomfort of his own living room.  Add into the mix criticism for the way he ate a biscuit during a disciplinary hearing and the fine he was given last month for remarks made after a Heineken Cup tie, and you can see why the media is sad to see him go.

However, there does seem to be another side to Venter's personality.  I saw an interview with him on The Rugby Club a few months ago which went some way to quash the image usually presented of the former Springbok.  Sarries players spoke of him warmly and talked about how Venter, a qualified doctor, had visited them at their homes when their children were sick - such is the family focus at Vicarage Road.

It's not a side of Venter that is seen very often.  I suppose it ruins his panto villain image and he can't be having that - especially at this time of the year when Z-list celebrities are dusting off their Widow Twanky costumes.

Therefore, I think it is real a shame that Venter is stepping down and moving into the newly created role of technical director.  He will continue to advise from afar while first-team coach Mark McCall becomes director of rugby and Andy Farrell takes McCall's old job.

Vilified and commended for his style in equal measure, it is no doubt the Aviva Premiership will be a much duller place without the ever controversial Brendan Venter.

PS: He's behind you.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

DAN! DAN! DAN!

That's right, today is all about Dan Carter.

Carter lining up the kick which passed Mehrtens' record
Yeah, yeah, the blooming red rose of England is playing the wounded Springboks at Twickenham this afternoon, but let's be honest, today is all about one man.

Carter, New Zealand's first choice fly-half, only needs three more points to surpass Jonny Wilkinson's world record haul of 1178 in test match rugby.  Unless hell freezes over, it looks certain the 28-year-old All Blacks star will achieve this feat against Wales today.

Regular readers of my blog will know I have a mild obsession with Dan Carter so I had to mark the day he will undoubtedly break Wilkinson's long-standing record.

Last November, I watched Carter pass Andrew Mehrtens' total of 967 points to become New Zealand's all time highest points scorer from my lofty perch in Twickenham's west stand.  Today, I won't be at the Millennium Stadium to see him pull the strings and kick the points and probably guide New Zealand to yet another win.  However, I will be recording the match so I can watch him work his irrepressible magic and cruise past another landmark.

Good luck Dan.  You're an absolutely brilliant, world class player and you deserve all the plaudits you get.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 9: Previews and Predictions

It's that time of the week again where I cast my beady little eye over the weekend's Aviva Premiership fixtures.  There's a couple of tasty looking games, with first place Northampton playing host to second place London Irish.  Saracens make the journey across the M4 to Gloucester with hopes of ending the cherry and whites' 17 game unbeaten home run, whilst lowly Leeds are looking to get their first league win of the season at The Stoop.

But who will win?  Like a drunk bloke hoping for a bit of 3am nookie, here's my weekly stab in the dark:

Northampton Saints v London Irish

This looks set to be the clash of the weekend in the Aviva Premiership.  First plays second.  Northampton are flying high at the top of the league, a clutch of youngsters impressing in last week's 19-10 comeback over Sale at Edgeley Park.  Nothing seems to be able to stop them at the moment but Toby Booth's Exiles are hot on their heels and might have something to say about that.  The Saints have won on their last three meetings with Irish, whilst the Exiles' last victory at Franklin's Gardens was a narrow 21-20 win six years ago.  And Northampton are now on an impressive run of eight consecutive wins in all competitions even though they are missing key players thanks to international call-ups.  Strength-in-depth seems to be the order of the day for the Saints, which is all credit to the coaching team led by Jim Mallinder.  Northampton's opponents, London Irish, slipped up against Wasps last Sunday.  The 33-25 defeat was the first time the Exiles failed to take a league point from a Premiership game this season.

My prediction: The understrength Saints fought back in Stockport and ended Sale's winning run.  Against London Irish at home?  It's a tricky one to call.  A little controversially, I'm going for Irish to win by 7.

Exeter Chiefs v Sale Sharks

This prediction is something of a shot in the dark (as if the rest of them aren't...) as Exeter and Sale have never met before in any competition.  The Chiefs might be the Premiership's newest team but they

will not fear the Sharks this weekend.  Instead, Exeter will start the game as favourites after rising to 7th in the league.  They can also boast a four game unbeaten run in all competitions. Sandy Park is proving to be a tricky place to go - the Chiefs have only lost there once in the league this season, in a narrow 12-9 defeat by London Irish in round six.  Last Friday, Sale deflated like a punctured spacehopper against Northampton, and the sorry statistic facing Sharks head coach Mike Brewer is that their only win in their last five Premiership matches was the turgid 6-3 victory at Leeds Carnegie a month ago. However, despite last week's home defeat, the Sharks' recent form as been good, winning three of their last four away games in all competitions.

My prediction: It's a long way from Manchester to Exeter and it is a trip into the unknown for Sale.  Exeter by 9.

Leicester Tigers v Newcastle Falcons

Both these sides got back to winning ways last weekend.  The Tigers ended their four game losing run in all competitons with their 18-13 home win over Harlequins last Friday.  Over at Kingston Park, Falcons fly-half Jimmy Gopperth outkicked Gloucester counterpart Freddie Burns to score all the points in their 12-6 win, only their second in the league this season.  Leicester have won three of their last four games against Newcastle and even though international call ups have weakened their side they will be confident.  The last, and in fact only time, the Falcons have won at Welford Road was almost 13 years ago.  Are Newcastle going to pull a massive shock out of the bag this week and beat the Tigers?  Not if the wonderful 36, aka Billy Twelvetrees, has anything to do with it.  The Tigers stand-in stand-off has been in fine form in Toby Flood's absence and has been key in keeping the Tigers ticking over.

My prediction: Leicester by 12.

Gloucester Rugby v Saracens

Gloucester came away from a wintry Kingston Park with a losing bonus point last weekend, ending their four game winning run in the league.  But fear not, cherry and white fans, they are unbeaten for more than a year at Kingsholm since Cardiff Blues won there in the Anglo-Welsh Cup on 8 November 2009.  That's a 17 game unbeaten run - something which pantomime villain, the wonderful Saracens head coach Brendan Venter, will be looking to dash this weekend.  Watch out Gloucester, he's behind you.  And Gloucester really should watch out.  Last weekend, Venter threw a load of youngsters into the mix against Bath where they fought back to claim a 17-13 win at the Rec.  The star of the show was 19-year-old Owen Farrell, son of, you've guessed it, Great Britain rugby league and Saracens star, Andy Farrell.  And Sarries' form is good.  Their only loss in their last seven league games was at home to Exeter at the end of October.  Can Gloucester maintain their home run or will Venter conjure up yet another win?

My prediction:  Another tricky one to call.  Part of me thinks Venter will do it again, but Gloucester's home record isn't to be sniffed at.  Gloucester by 8.

Bath Rugby v London Wasps

Bath seem to be veering off the rails at the moment and look to be trying their best to replicate the woeful run of form from start of last season which saw them slump to 11th in the league.  Their only win in their last six games of Aviva Premiership Rugby was the 31-16 win at home to Sale in round four. However, home form is becoming a huge issue as the men in blue, black and white have only won one of their last four games at The Rec in all competitions.  That was the 29-19 win over Cardiff Blues in the LV= Cup on 5 November.

After starting the season looking like shadows of their former selves, Wasps have started to string together some form and have now won three of their last four league games.  Last weekend they outscored London Irish and a late Dave Walder penalty denied the Exiles a losing bonus point.  Bath and Wasps have already met this season, the Londoners beating Steve Meehan's men 18-16 in the LV= Cup at Adams Park two weeks ago.

My prediction:  Looking at recent form I'm going to have to plump for a Wasps win by 9.

Harlequins v Leeds Carnegie

As the weeks pass by it pains me more and more to write previews for any game involving my beloved Leeds.  Why?  Because it forces me to remember just how hopeless they've been this season.  Winless in the league after the first eight rounds and seven points adrift at the bottom of the table, it's becoming increasingly hard to see where they will get their first win.  And this weekend's task won't be an easy one.  Harlequins have won their last four games against Leeds, whilst Carnegie haven't won at The Stoop since 2003.

But there is a glimmer of hope as Quins are winless in their last three league games.  However, their home form is pretty good, as they have lost just one of their last 11 matches at The Stoop in all competitions. Leeds' problems are worse still as they only have one hooker available following injury to Andy Titterall and Steve Thompson's England call-up.  This means head coach Neil Back has been left searching for cover and being forced to rely on former Leeds hooker, conditioning coach James Parkes, on the bench.  I fully expect Harlequins fly-half Nick Evans to rip the visitors to shreds.

My prediction:  Probably another big defeat for Leeds.  Harlequins to win by 18.

But what do you think?

Thursday, 25 November 2010

McCaw wins IRB Player of the Year... again

Sod off, the trophy's mine.
Not really. Well, not yet anyway.

Yes, it's the that time of year where the powers that be at the International Rugby Board have announced the runners and riders for this year's IRB Player of the Year.

Joining reigning Player of the Year, New Zealand skipper Richie McCaw, on the shortlist are team-mate Mils Muliaina, France number eight Imanol Harinordoquy, Australian duo David Pocock and Kurtley Beale and South Africa's Victor Matfield.

It's an interesting, if slightly uninspiring selection.  No doubt gap-toothed gypsy and Sky Sports pundit, Stuart Barnes, was salivating into his Cornish pasty when he saw his ultimate commentating wank-fodder, Biarritz and France back-row forward Harinordoquy, in the top six.  McCaw's New Zealand team-mate, full-back Muliaina, has enjoyed a good season and starred in the All Blacks side that swept to an impressive clean sweep in this year's Tri-nations.  Only a Bledisloe Cup loss to Australia in Hong Kong created an annoying blot on New Zealand's copy book this season. McCaw, along with Dan Carter, was the crucial cog in a well-oiled All Blacks machine.

Wallaby flanker David Pocock has been immense at the breakdown and his inclusion is the one I am most pleased about.  The 22-year-old openside flanker has burst onto the international stage and it would be a brilliant achievement if he is the man to dethrone opposite number McCaw.  Pocock has arms as wide as Tim Payne's waist, is rumoured to be able to bench press a Ford Mondeo and could probably pluck a plane out the sky if he could be arsed.

His fellow green and gold team-mate, Kurtley Beale, is a full-back brimming with blistering pace - something England found out to their peril a couple of weeks ago.  To be honest, I expected Quade Cooper to beat him to the final list.  Then again, the Australia fly-half tackles as effectively as an arthritic cat with mild depression, which probably ruled him out.

And then there's Victor Matfield.  I have one question:  Why?

But who do you think should win, and who would you have liked to have seen on the list?  There's only one way to find out.  I've created a poll which you can find on the right-hand toolbar.  If there's someone you would have voted for but who isn't included, then please feel free to vent your spleen in the comments.

As for me?  Well, it's got to be McCaw again, hasn't it?

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Where Did it All Go So Right for England?

With just days to go before England's final November showdown with South Africa, the media are collectively cooing about the resurgence of English rugby on the international stage.  England swept aside the much-hyped Australia, sealing their second consecutive win over the Wallabies in a year before going on to out muscle Samoa last weekend.  Whisper it quietly, but if Martin Johnson's men can beat the World Champions at Twickenham on Saturday then things seem to be coming together nicely for next year's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.  But hush now, let's not talk about that yet.  It's one game at a time don't forget.

OK, so England lost 26-16 at the hands of Richie McCaw's All Blacks in the opening Autumn fixture, but what a difference a year makes.  This time last November I travelled down to Twickenham to watch England crumble at the hands of a lacklustre New Zealand side.  Everything seemed to be rotten in the England camp, the team was booed off at half-time against Argentina after arguably the most depressing England performance in years before they scraped to an unimpressive 16-9 win.  Even though England won that day, it was probably the lowest point of Johnson's reign.  The day that rugby died.  Calls were ringing out for heads to roll in the RFU, most notably that of Rob Andrew, England's elite Director of Rugby.  The fans were angered by Johnson's staunch refusal to play arguably some of the most dazzling up and coming talents the country had in the form of Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden.  In short, last year's Autumn Internationals were an unmitigated disaster.

However, new blood was finally introduced and started flowing in the England ranks this summer.  In June, the side notched up their first win in Australia since the 2003 World Cup final and fast forward to the present to see England playing instinctively and on the front foot.  Ben Youngs, Toby Flood and Chris Ashton were instrumental in putting the Wallabies to the sword again, this time on home turf.  These are the same names the country was screaming out for this time last year.

So did Martin Johnson have his strategy right all along or was the former England skipper more than a little bit lucky?  It's an interesting question, and I'm sure Johnson will argue his plan was to introduce young players when he did after setting the foundations of a solid England side.  Don't forget, those foundations were built around ex-skipper Steve Borthwick, a towering presence in the line-out but hardly cast in the mould of a modern day dynamic second-row, like Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock, or Courtney Lawes.

People utter the words "seed-change" and talk about a new England as if Martin Johnson has morphed into a grinning Tony Blair circa 1997, peddling his wares about a bright future and salivating over the prospect of getting his ginormous hands on the Webb Ellis trophy yet again.

To win a world cup a team has to be the best in the world for six weeks.  Just six weeks.  All these November tests and summer tours are mere canapes to the main course which kicks off at Eden Park, Auckland in nine months time.  My old history teacher always used to tell me that history is written by the winners.  No-one will remember England's successes from this month if they crash and burn in New Zealand next year.  And expectations are high: England were World Cup winners in 2003 and losing finalists in Paris four years later.  The tournament is being held in New Zealand and anything but the sight of a triumphant All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw clutching the precious gold trophy will spell a disaster for the home crowd.  Another epic New Zealand Rugby World Cup choke.

But similar expectation is starting to build once again for England's hopes of being crowned World Champions.  Fans are so eager to hope and dream that two, hopefully three wins this November signals the World Cup could be, just maybe, coming back home.

This week, England coach Johnson was keen to play down the resurgence of his team, despite the fact they will start as favourites over the Springboks even though they are one place lower in the world rankings.

"Things happen very quickly, expectations change," he told BBC Sport.

"A couple of weeks ago, on the Friday before we played Australia, everyone was talking about them as the best team in the world - and they had a point. By the Wednesday they'd lost two games and suddenly they were in crisis.

"What this autumn series has highlighted is any of these teams is capable of beating the other one."

I'll give him that.  Teams are in a crucial stage of final testing and preparation before next year's ultimate showdown.  Ireland stepped up a few gears last weekend against New Zealand and if they hadn't switched off at crucial moments the result could have been oh so different.  And then to Murrayfield, where Scotland pulled off the shock of the weekend, edging past South Africa 21-17.  Teams are starting to stake their claim for World Cup glory, but all are still facing the daunting task of toppling New Zealand, Tri-Nations champions and ranked number one in the world, from their seemingly insurmountable position at the top.


So has England's resurgence been timed to perfection and can they climb the mountain to the World Cup final next October?  Has Martin Johnson had a plan all along or did he bow to public pressure and change the way England play?  Under skipper Lewis Moody, England look vibrant, full of dynamism, instinct and passion.  Shooting stars like Ashton, Foden, Youngs, Lawes and Dan Cole have all made the step up to international rugby to name but a few.  But what if England lose on Saturday?  Will we all be back to square one?

I don't think so.  England have been in a period of transition for the past two years but signs are they are now leaping out of the pit of despair, let alone clambering up the side.  The old guard is stepping aside for the new.  Whether it was Johnson's strategy all along or if he lucked out in a major way - or even sold his soul to the Devil - I don't care.  I'm starting to believe in England again, one game at a time.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 8: Previews & Predictions

A crucial weekend for Leeds captain Marco Wentzel
With all eyes on the Autumn Internationals, the return of the Aviva Premiership might have slipped under your radar.

The LV= Cup has been in town for the last fortnight but now the league is back with instalment number eight.

Hopefully Chris Ashton and chums will rip up the Twickenham turf in another sensational England performance, but all the while the league rumbles on quietly in the background.

Here are my previews and predictions for all you punters out there:

Leicester v Harlequins


Harlequins make their second trip to Welford Road in a fortnight after beating the Tigers 34-25 in the LV= Cup two weeks ago. Leicester then slumped to their fourth consecutive defeat in all competitions last weekend in the 46-13 thumping by the Ospreys at Rodney Parade.
That defeat marks the Tigers’ worst run of form since 2003/04. However, even though Quins have been enjoying a run of good form recently, they haven’t won on the road in the Premiership since their trip to Leeds last December. Conor O’Shea’s men have also never been victorious at Welford Road in the league.
After a two week break for the LV= Cup, Leicester have named a strong side, including a place on the bench for lock Geoff Parling who has missed the start of the season with a neck injury. Fly-half Nick Evans and full back Mike Brown return for Quins.

My prediction: I think the Tigers will be a much tougher challenge than two weeks ago. Leicester by 9.

Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints

Sale survived a second-half rally by Leeds Carnegie last Sunday in a 23-17 cup win at Headingley. This sealed two wins from two for the Sharks in the LV= Cup after an impressive 39-14 victory at home to London Irish a fortnight ago. In fact, Sale’s only defeat in their last six games in all competitions was the 26-39 loss to the Exiles in the league on 31 October. The Sharks’ form looks to be on the rise, having now won four of their last five home games. This confidence sees them give 19-year-old rugby league convert, Iain Thornley, his Premiership debut at outside centre after two appearances in the LV= Cup.
Northampton’s form has been solid so far this season with their only loss in any competition at the hands of Saracens in Aviva Premiership round four. The Saints tied 22-22 with Saracens in the LV= Cup before convincingly beating the Dragons 28-3 at Franklins Gardens last weekend.
The history books reveal that Sale have only beaten Northampton once in their last six meetings, a 24-18 league win at Edgeley Park back in April 2009. Can they add to that this weekend? I don’t think so.

My prediction: I’ll be impressed if Sale can pull this one out of the bag, but they will miss their England stars and that will be crucial. Northampton by 14.

Exeter Chiefs v Leeds Carnegie

Exeter have been the surprise package of the Aviva Premiership so far, winning three of their first seven league games and notching up a shock 34-19 away win over Bourgoin in the Amlin Challenge Cup. The Chiefs are now looking to seal a second successive league victory following their 23-9 win over Saracens in round seven – the perfect tonic after a scoreless second-half resulted in a frustrating 23-23 draw with Cardiff Blues in the LV= Cup last weekend.
Exeter’s opponents, Leeds, have only won one game this season: the 23-9 win over Bucuresti Oaks in the Amlin Challenge Cup. However, Carnegie have won their last six matches against Exeter in National One since 2000/01. Sadly, this form counts for nothing now, and Saturday’s game at Sandy Park is a must-win fixture for Neil Back’s team who are currently superglued to the bottom of the table.

My prediction: Sorry Leeds. It’s a long way to Exeter and with the absence of star player Hendre Fourie and a crisis at hooker with Steve Thompson and Andy Titterall unavailable I think you will continue to struggle. Exeter by 8.

London Wasps v London Irish

The last four league meetings between these two London rivals have all been won by the home side on the day. The Exiles top the Aviva Premiership table after the first seven rounds but Toby Booth’s men have lost their last two outings – 25-16 at home to the Scarlets and 39-14 to Sale, both in the LV= Cup. However, Irish have suffered only one reversal in the Premiership so far this season which was the 13-20 defeat at Bath in round two.
Mark van Gisbergen’s six penalties handed Wasps an 18-16 victory last weekend in a lacklustre LV= Cup game against Bath. However, the Exiles will arrive refocused on the league and set on recording their second league win from 10 visits to Adams Park, and their first since April 2006.

My prediction: It’s a tough one, but I think it will be Irish by 7.

Newcastle Falcons v Gloucester Rugby

Newcastle are perilously close to the bottom of the Premiership table having only notched up one win at home to Wasps in round two. However, the Falcons have won two of their last three home games in all competitions, James Fielden the key man in the hard-fought 18-17 LV= Cup win over the Ospreys a fortnight ago.
The last five league meetings between the two clubs have all been won by the home side on the day, but Gloucester have not won at Kingston Park in the Premiership for almost three years.
However, the cherry and white’s form is improving, with their only defeat in their last five games against the Dragons on 4 November. Gloucester have sneaked up into third in the league, almost without being noticed. Despite this, their away form is a worry as they have only won one away game this season. Improving that statistic on a long trip to the north east will always be tricky.

My prediction: As the winter winds start to swirl at Kingston Park, I think Newcastle will win by 3.

Bath Rugby v Saracens

Bath’s form has been a bit, well, poor. Their only win in their last five league games was the 31-16 win at home to Sale in round four, seeing them slip into sixth place. Still, it’s not as bad as this time last season when Bath were competing with Leeds for the unwelcome title of strongest team in the league.
Exeter spoiled Saracens’ five match winning league run in the last round, but Brendan Venter will be buoyed by the knowledge that his team has won their last six away games played at their opponents’ usual home grounds.  Both teams lost in the LV= Cup last week.

My prediction: Bath are in desperate need to find their form in the absence of their international stars but I think it will be Saracens by 6.

Friday, 12 November 2010

All Blacks Crossbar Challenge

Do you remember the video that circulated a couple of months ago which showed the All Blacks performing an array of impressive rugby skills?  If you haven't seen it yet then it's available here, along with the brilliant parody version by the Brumbies.

The ABs copped a bit of flack after that, with some people daring to suggest that camera trickery may have been at work.  Surely not?

Anyway, New Zealand's finest are back, this time taking part in a crossbar challenge in a very windy Edinburgh.

But can anyone hit the bar from 40m?



Watch out Scotland.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Bottom of the Ruck

logo of the charity Beating Bowel CancerI've been asked to help promote a brilliant new rugby charity night and I am more than happy to do so.

Bottom of the Ruck is a fantastic event aiming to raise money for Beating Bowel Cancer by checking out rugby players' bums.

Yes, you read that right.

What started as a cheeky chat on Twitter has developed into a star-studded awards ceremony to crown the Best Bottom in Rugby at Twickenham Stadium on Monday 29 November.

World Cup winner Austin Healey will be hosting the event and nominees Nick Kennedy, Delon Armitage, Topsy Ojo, Schalk Brits and Nils Mordt are amongst the players who will be attending.

Tickets are on sale now.

For more information you can visit at www.bottomoftheruck.com


Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Meet the All Blacks

Dan Carter
Roll up, roll up.  Who would like to meet the All Blacks?

Well, to be more precise Dan Carter, Keven Mealamu, Ma’a Nonu, Sam Whitelock, Conrad Smith and Sonny Bill Williams.  Rugby fans and All Black supporters can meet them at the RFU Store at Twickenham Stadium between 11.30am and 12.30pm this Friday,


I know it's bonfire night, but if you go please, please resist the urge to fire rockets at them ahead of Saturday's game against England.  Or just use small bangers.

As ever, Dan the man hopes plenty of All Black fans will turn out in force.  Probably to protect him from being chucked on a bonfire.
He said “As a team we always look forward to the opportunity to get out and meet our fans and thank them for their ongoing support. Hopefully this Friday will be no different and they’ll be plenty of black jerseys out there ahead of Saturday’s match!”

Yeah whatever Dan.

Unfortunately I won't be able to make it down to London as I'm revising for exams.  However, I will be keeping an eye on the new Twitter page where NZ players will be interviewed during the tour.  You can follow them at: www.twitter.com/adidasrugby_UK

Friday, 29 October 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 7: Previews & Predictions

Can Wasps win this weekend in honour of the newly retired Phil Vickery?
Northampton Saints v Newcastle Falcons

Can anyone stop the Saints? OK, so Saracens beat them at Vicarage Road a month ago but since then Northampton have been unstoppable in both the league and Heineken Cup. The hallmark of a great team is grinding out a win from a poor performance, something Northampton showed against Castres before producing a get out of jail free card in their late comeback over Edinburgh. But Saints are also skilled in putting teams to the sword, making light work of Wasps in their 37-10 away win last weekend. However, international call ups will affect Northampton more than most and I think now could be the perfect time for the Falcons to strike. Saracens were lucky to win at Kingston Park last Sunday, a last-gasp Alex Goode penalty sealing the points in the 15-13 win. Newcastle will no doubt feel frustrated with only a losing bonus point after scoring the only try of the game, but even without Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden I think Northampton will have too much for their visitors to handle – especially as Euan Murray and Joe Ansbro could still feature for the Saints with Scotland’s Autumn Internationals only starting on 13 November.
My prediction: It’s a brave man or woman who bets against Northampton at the moment. Second plays 11t - it can only go one way, right? Saints by 12.

Saracens v Exeter Chiefs

Well, well, well, where do I start with Saracens? The future's bright, the fly half's orange? Of course the big news this week is everyone’s favourite tango-tanned rugby player has quickstepped over to Vicarage Road and signed a deal. I am of course talking about Gavin Henson, star of BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing, who will soon tripping the light fandango in Watford after not playing for 18 months. I can only deduce the signing has come about following fly-half Derick Hougaard’s Achilles injury which could rule him out for the rest of the season. Henson aside, Sarries are doing alright in the league thank you very much. Third behind Irish and Northampton, this week they do battle with Exeter who have slipped down to 10th despite some spirited performances. Last week, leaders London Irish pipped the Chiefs to the post in a very close game at Sandy Park, Gareth Steenson again scoring the majority of Exeter’s points. Sarries scraped a win against strugglers Newcastle last week, Alex Goode showing he can kick the points when the pressure is on. At home and with David Strettle and Brad Barritt released by England coach Martin Johnson, I can only see one winner.
My prediction: Saracens to sashay to a 16 point win.

Gloucester Rugby v Leicester Tigers

Gloucester won this fixture last season and a win against the visiting Tigers would be their fourth successive win in the league and fifth Premiership win from seven this season. Not bad, not bad at all. Now, is it just me, or have Bryan Redpath’s cherry and whites been flying under the radar and quietly doing quite well for themselves? As ever, all eyes are on Leicester, Bath and Northampton. London Irish are leaders so they have been getting plenty of plaudits, and of course, pundits always spare a moment to take a cursory glance at the other end of the table, just to make sure Leeds are still there. But Gloucester, now fourth in the league, are starting to fire after a slightly shaky start, last week’s late Brett Deacon try seeing off a second-half comeback by Harlequins. After a poor couple of seasons by their own standards, are the cherry and whites getting back to their best? This week they will be without second-row Dave Attwood, prop Paul Doran-Jones and centre Mike Tindall who are all away on England duty, whilst Leicester will be without England half-back pairing Toby Flood and Ben Youngs, second row Tom Croft and prop Dan Cole. Hooker George Chuter will available after being released. Last week, Flood kicked all the points in the Tigers’ 21-15 win over Bath and will be missed. Can Billy Twelvetrees step into the breach once again? I imagine so, as strength-in-depth never seems to be a problem at Leicester. However, the Tigers haven’t won on the road in the league since round 20 last season. Add Gloucester’s great record at Kingsholm and I’m going for a home win.
My prediction: Hopefully this will be a high scoring game, and I’m sure Brett Deacon would love to get on the scoresheet against his former club. Gloucester by 7.

Harlequins v Bath Rugby

Fly-half Nick Evans was so nearly the star of the show for Harlequins last weekend, bagging 21 of his side’s 26 points against Gloucester with a try, two conversions and four penalties. However, it wasn’t enough as Brett Deacon broke Quins’ hearts with a late score. Over in the opposite corner to Evans this weekend is England cast-off Olly Barkley, a man who plays at 12 not 10 but has been on regular kicking duties for Bath. Last weekend, Barkley scored all of his side’s 15 points in their defeat at Welford Road and I imagine he will want to put in a performance to make his snub by the England selectors seem to be even more ridiculous. Of course, Sam Vesty is Evans’ opposite number and he will do well to match arguably one of the best fly-halves in the world. Bath look to have lost their way a bit this season, their Heineken Cup dreams already hanging by a thread after two rounds and only winning one of their last four league games. However, they will be boosted by the release of England skipper Lewis Moody for this game and will be looking to end the run of five defeats from their last five visits to the Stoop. David Wilson and Matt Banahan will not feature for Bath, and Quins stars Danny Care and Nick Easter are also kept in the England camp.
My prediction: On current form and at home I think Harlequins will win by 9.

Leeds Carnegie v London Wasps

If ever there was a team who could suck all of the joy out of watching a game of rugby, then at the moment that team is Leeds. It’s not easy for me to admit that as I am a big Leeds Carnegie fan, but their start to the season has been woeful. Six league games, six defeats, rooted to the bottom of the table with only two losing bonus points to show for it. Last Friday’s dire 6-3 home defeat by Sale was a new low – a game Leeds should have won after having the vast majority of possession and attack. Now, flanker Hendre Fourie and hooker Steve Thompson are away on England duty and this Sunday’s task looks set to be a tough one as the struggling Wasps are the visitors to Headingley. Wasps coach Shaun Edwards stated this week that losing to Leeds is not an option. The High Wycombe based club have only won two of their six league games and approach this match on the back of a 37-10 thumping at home by Northampton – their worst loss at Adams Park since 2004. Can they bounce back and get a win to mark the retirement of prop Phil Vickery?  Wasps will be boosted by the return of England call ups Tim Payne, Dominic Waldouck and Dan Ward-Smith who have been released for this game, but they will be without Joe Worsley.   Wasps beware, Leeds did the double over the Londoners last season, the first win kickstarting their climb off the foot of the table. Can Carnegie head coach Neil Back do it again?
My prediction: I doubt it. Leeds look like they are starting to gel but they are still lacking much needed spark in the backline. This one's for you, Raging Bull.  Wasps by 8.

London Irish v Sale Sharks

Finally, leaders London Irish welcome Sale to the Majedski on Sunday afternoon. Both sides will be missing key players, with Sale fly-half Charlie Hodgson being retained by England due to an injured Jonny Wilkinson. Prop Andrew Sheridan is another Shark who won’t be making the trip to Reading along with wing Mark Cueto. Irish will have to do without the guile of Delon Armitage as he bids to wrestle the number 15 shirt back from Ben Foden. Form wise, the Exiles are unbeaten at home in any competition this season and are on a four game winning streak. Sale, on the other hand, made hard work of beating Leeds in an 80 minute snore-fest under Friday night lights to win their third league game of the season. How well will Sale do without the Hodgson running their game? It’s a tough one, and London Irish are one of the teams you would prefer to avoid whilst your star players are bonding at Pennyhill Park. A lot rests upon which version of Ryan Lamb turns up on Sunday afternoon: will it be Ryan Lamb the enigma or will it be Ryan Lamb the assured fly-half? We will have to wait and see.
My prediction: London Irish by 18.


Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Inside the Minds of Marco Wentzel and Hendre Fourie...


Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie, and yes that's me, looking like a ghost...
Last week, I met Leeds Carnegie duo Marco Wentzel and Hendre Fourie at an ESPN event.

The night, hosted by commentator Nick Mullins, turned out to be quite a cosy affair.  Due to a marketing mixup, meaning the event was only promoted the day before, only four Leeds Carnegie fans turned up to meet Leeds skipper Wentzel and the wonderful Mr Fourie.  Yes, you read that right - just four people.  As a fan, the support shown on the night was pretty embarrassing and I dread to think what the two players thought, but in a way it was great as the formal Q&A session turned into a casual chat in a pub.

(Before I go on, I'll wait whilst you make a joke about the four of us making up Leeds' entire fan base...)

Done?

Then I'll continue.  I'd been working in a sleepy town in Surrey for the week and had hot-footed it up the M1 in order to make it.  I'm glad that I did, as it was a great chance to grill two of my favourite players for more than an hour.

Due to the limited audience, I had to resist the urge to whip out my dictaphone or take down a shorthand note in my trusty reporters pad.  It wasn't really the time or place, but it was nice to hear the players speak so candidly without head coach Neil Back breathing down their necks and forcing them to toe the party line.

So what did we talk about?  Plenty of things, from Leeds' woeful start to refereeing interpretations and even which players they would love to bring to the club.

It's no secret that Leeds' start to the season has been poor.  Winless in the league, rooted to the bottom of the Premiership table with only two losing bonus points to show from the first six rounds.  However, Wentzel refused to accept the poor performances can be blamed on the age old argument that Leeds are perennially slow starters.  His analysis?  They haven't been playing well enough, the backline is really struggling to fire and the injury crisis hasn't helped.  Therefore, it came as no surprise that both Fourie and Wentzel agreed fly-half is the position they would target if they could make a dream signing for the club.  Interestingly, they had different ideas on who they would pick and why.  Wentzel opted for Leicester and England stand-off Toby Flood - a dynamic player with a great kicking game who he believes would breathe fire into the backline.  Fourie chose a fit Derick Hougaard, the Saracens 10 who was kicking everything in sight and totally running the show with his tactical nous before he ruptured an Achilles tendon.

So what does that say to me?  I think it's a glaring admission the players are as concerned as the fans that Leeds are missing a fly-half who can take charge of a game and be the crucial lynchpin.  It was pretty telling, especially when Fourie revealed that Sale and England number 10, Charlie Hodgson, would have been odds on to pull on a Leeds shirt if Sale had been relegated last season.  Fourie said he spoke to Hodgson during an England training camp and the Sale stand-off said Leeds would be his favourite option if Sale made the drop as he didn't want to move down south.  Of course, it's all water under the bridge, but how different a season might Leeds be having now with the consistency of Hodgson at 10?

Marco Wentzel, doing a great job of towering over me.
Interestingly, Wentzel claimed the departure of second row partner, Erik "The Viking" Lund, wasn't a huge loss.  That surprised me somewhat, as Lund and Wentzel formed arguably the best line-out partnership in the Premiership last season.  Check out the Opta stats if you don't believe me.  According to the Leeds skipper, Tom Denton has made the step up so well, Lund, in all his bearded glory, is hardly missed.  In fact, Fourie went on to say he believes the only area to suffer from Lund's switch to Biarritz is a bit of extra power in the scrum - but Denton is getting there, so Fourie claimed.
Wentzel, who featured in last year's Opta team of the year with the most line-out steals, also admitted to being a total stats junkie.  He revealed he studies opposition line-outs constantly in the week running up to a match, even on the morning of a game.  Fortunately for the 6ft 5" South African lock, his wife doesn't mind - as long as she can watch America's Next Top Model...

In between being quizzed, Fourie and Wentzel had a rather amusing mini-tiff about he flanker's latest sinbinning.  Talk about a difference of opinion, but Fourie wouldn't let it go, and it was all very amusing to watch the pair step into the captain and player relationship right before our eyes.  I couldn't tell you who won of course, but thankfully it didn't get too heated and the pair didn't start arguing in Afrikaans as apparently they have in the past during minor "disagreements".

Referees were another hot topic, both the standard of refereeing in the Aviva Premiership and referee's perceptions of Leeds as a team.  Wentzel admitted Leeds are in a vicious circle and need to get into the winning habit to stop referees seeing them at the bottom of the league making them more likely to penalise Leeds for perceived errors.

But which referees do they rate the most?  For Wentzel, (and for me), Wayne Barnes is the top referee in the world, as he is cool, calm and more often than not gets most things right.  Fourie opted for Chris White because he is one of the referees he can have a chat with on the pitch.  It's funny, but before I met him, I didn't have Hendre Fourie down as a chatty type, but let me tell you, he really, really is - and he's pretty funny too.

Listening to Fourie talk of his parents' pride at him being picked for the England squad and anecdotes of the reactions he's had in South Africa was great.  He is a man who is definitely passionate to play for his adopted country and came with none of the trappings of a man who has been bigged up by pundits and the media for his immense performances week after week.

Unfortunately, Fourie was taken off at half-time against Sale last Friday after suffering a rib injury, putting his involvement in next month's international fixtures in doubt.  The latest news is that he could be fit and in contention for the first game against New Zealand on 6 November - the small matter of ousting England skipper Lewis Moody in order to get his hands on the number seven shirt.

Fourie's injury is somewhat ironic.  The flanker revealed he only felt that he reached full match fitness against London Irish at the beginning of October after missing all of pre-season with injury.  I hope he is back in action sooner rather than later, for Leeds and hopefully for England.  Fourie is a class act on and off the pitch, and along with Wentzel he came across as being a lovely, down to earth bloke.

The only downside to the evening?  It doesn't look likely that either Wentzel or Fourie will be making an appearance on Twitter any time soon.  Despite my best efforts, Fourie admitted he spends way too much time on his Playstation to get into the whole tweeting thing, and Wentzel isn't even on Facebook.  Looks like it's down to Leeds fullback Leigh Hinton to continue Twitter duties for the entire team.

That aside it was a fantastic evening.  I just hope any future events will be publicised better by all concerned to at least get the attendance into double figures...

Sequins, Saracens and Squad Announcements

I must apologise as I've been a bit rubbish on the blogging front recently.  The Autumn Internationals are practically a heartbeat away and I've not even mentioned them.  Then there's been so much in the news about my favourite Ronseal Woodstained player, Gavin "Quickstep" Henson, and how he set aside some time from his sequin-fuelled antics on Strictly Come Dancing to squeeze in a training session with Saracens.  I said nothing.  Not even a sarky quip about him tangoing across the 22.  And then there was the night I met Leeds Carnegie duo Marco Wentzel and Hendre Fourie for a lovely chat and yet I didn't spill the beans.  I didn't even load up the photos of me grinning like an idiot next to arguably two of my favourite players.

Why?

Well, sadly revision is taking over my life at the moment.  Yes, I have turned into a social recluse and will stay that way for the next couple of week until my exams are over.  Still, it's all good as the end game is in sight, which is both scary and exciting at the same time.

Saying that, I will try my best to get some more posts up.  Just after I've done my law revision like a good girl...

Friday, 22 October 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 6: Previews & Predictions

The Aviva Premiership is back after a two week holiday in Europe.  As ever, it's predictions time...

Leeds Carnegie v Sale Sharks

Leeds are still searching for their first league win of the season after a tough start to their Aviva Premiership campaign. The Yorkshire team is currently four points adrift at the bottom of the table with the 23-9 win over Bucuresti Oaks in the Amlin Challenge Cup their only victory of the season. The pressure is starting to build at Headingley, but a strong performance against Stade Francais last Sunday hinted that things are finally starting to gel.
Now, Carnegie are looking to seal their second consecutive win against local rivals Sale after claiming their first ever victory in their most recent meeting at Edgeley Park last February.
Sale have been in fine form in the European competition, demolishing Petrarca 56-9 and running in 15 tries against Centransa El Salvador in a 97-11 hammering in South Manchester. However, the Sharks have not won away from home in the Premiership since they last visited Headingley Carnegie on 22 November 2009. Sale are struggling for league form this season with only the 21-17 win over Harlequins to their credit.

My prediction: Leeds Carnegie by 7.

Newcastle Falcons v Saracens

The Falcons’ last win was the 22-16 victory over Bourgoin in the European Challenge Cup two weeks ago. Alan Tait’s men have only won once in the league so far this season which was against Wasps on 10th September. Last week they didn’t seem to turn up against Montpellier and slumped to a disappointing 32-8 defeat.
Sarries, on the other hand, have been victorious in four of their five Aviva Premiership clashes but the Fez heads approach this game following back-to-back defeats in the Heineken Cup. Cue a quick rant from Brendan Venter just so we know all is well in the world…
Saracens will still be the favourites when they run out at Kingston Park though and I am backing them to win with ease over 11th placed Newcastle. The Londoners have won four of their last five games in all competitions against the Falcons and been winners in their last five away league games played at their opponents’ regular home grounds.

My prediction: Saracens by 18.

Leicester Tigers v Bath Rugby

Leicester are unbeaten in their last seven clashes with Bath in all competitions, a statistic that goes back to when Bath won 25-21 at The Rec in November 2008.
The Tigers are the only side in the Heineken Cup with maximum points after the first two rounds, but they have made a slow start to their Premiership campaign by their own high standards, winning only their two home games from the five they have played. However, to wheel out the old sporting cliché, Welford Road remains a veritable fortress as Leicester have only lost one game there since September 2008 which was against Saracens on 8th May. Add to that last weekend’s scintillating 46-10 romp over the visiting Scarlets and the Tigers look to have finally found their momentum.
Last Saturday, Bath claimed a crucial 22-6 win at Aironi to keep their Heineken Cup dreams alive. However, Bath’s league form has looked a bit shaky, and the home defeat by Biarritz in the Heineken Cup was a massive blow. Their only previous league win at Welford Road was a nail biting 13-12 on 29 November 2003. Can Bath rediscover the league form that saw them finish with a flourish last season? Not just yet.

My prediction: Leicester by 12.

Gloucester Rugby v Harlequins

If Gloucester beat Harlequins they will be one step closer to celebrating a year’s anniversary since their last defeat at Kingsholm in the Premiership. Wasps were the last team to silence the Shed in a Premiership game on 24th October last year. The history books suggest the cherry and whites are in reasonable shape to win on Saturday, as believe it or not, Harlequins haven’t won at Kingsholm since 1999.
The last seven league games between the two clubs have all been won by the home side on the day. Like Gloucester, Harlequins have won three of their last four games in all competitions. Conor O’Shea’s men are targeting their third consecutive Aviva Premiership Rugby win for the first time since April 2009. If they can beat the Kingsholm hoodoo it would also mark their first league win on the road in 2010.

My prediction: Gloucester by 7.

Exeter Chiefs v London Irish

It is 10 years since the Chiefs last played London Irish and Saturday’s game will be the first time the sides have met at Sandy Park. Exeter will be hoping to continue their excellent start in the Aviva Premiership and claim their first Exiles’ scalp to add to their growing collection from the Premiership. The signs are ominous for league leaders London Irish as the Chiefs have won both of their home league games this season.
The Premiership new boys have also tasted success in Europe, ending a three game losing run with a shock 34-19 win in Bourgoin last Friday. London Irish have won four from five in the league and are currently top thanks to winning bonus points, but their four-game winning run in all competitions was ended by the Ospreys in Swansea on Friday, and the Exiles’ only away win so far this season was 46-12 at Newcastle in the Premiership in round four. This is a difficult one to call as Sandy Park is a tough place to go, but I think the class of Irish will shine through.

My prediction: London Irish by 12.

London Wasps v Northampton Saints

Northampton have started the season strongly and have only lost one game in all competitions – the 24-17 defeat by title rivals Saracens at the end of September.
A successful start in the Heineken Cup saw the Saints build on their narrow home win over Castres to record an excellent second-half comeback and beat Edinburgh 31-27 last Saturday. Stephen Myler was handed the kicking duties once again as the Saints continue to search for their best option at 10. The fly-half seemed to have all the answers and helped himself to a 16-point haul. However, the Saints have never won in their nine previous trips to Adams Park and Wasps haven’t lost there since Newcastle were the visitors on 3 January.
Wasps are also looking strong following a convincing 38-26 win over Glasgow in the Heineken Cup on the back of a hard-fought bonus point against Toulouse. The European break has definitely been a welcome boost for the High Wycombe-based side after they have struggled to come to the boil in the league. Will home advantage play? I’m not so sure.

My prediction: Northampton by 9.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Blood Bath?

I have to admit I’ve had trouble sleeping this week. Hours and hours every night tossing and turning and waking up in a cold sweat. I just can’t shake a horrible image from my mind. An image so upsetting I’m surprised animal welfare organizations haven’t been protesting outside of the Rec.


What am I talking about?

This:


No, not Danny Grewcock.

Just how many poor, innocent skunks were brutally murdered in order to be plastered across Bath’s European shirt?

Please end this animal cruelty now.

Thank you.

Heineken Cup Round 2: Previews and Predictions

As per usual, I'm back with my somewhat haphazard predictions for the weekend.  It's Heineken Cup action again, and this week my predictions will be reaching a much wider audience on The Rugby Blog.  No pressure then...


Pool 1

Castres v Cardiff Blues

Cardiff will be without the guile of the seemingly never aging Martyn Williams for a tricky trip to the south of France. The 35-year-old flanker was banned for two weeks after pleading guilty to kneeing Chris Paterson in the head during last Saturday’s 18-17 win over Edinburgh. Cardiff’s opponents, Castres, earned a surprise losing bonus point at Franklins Gardens in their opening Heineken Cup fixture last Friday. If Bruce Reihana and Shane Geraghty had slotted all of the penalties on offer it could all have been oh so different, but now Castres, currently languishing 10th in the Top 14, arguably have as good a chance of anyone to progress from the pool.
My prediction: Cardiff by 9.

Edinburgh v Northampton

Saints supporters will no doubt have spent countless sleepless nights over the woes at fly-half. Stephen Myler, Shane Geraghty and now Bruce Reihana all seem equally keen to take their turn wearing the wayward kicking boots. Five missed place kicks against Castres wasn’t enough to lose Saints the game but it was hardly a glittering start to their European campaign. Saturday’s trip to Murrayfield will be the first time Northampton have played Edinburgh in a decade, and it looks set to be a close match. Edinburgh’s losing bonus in a hard-fought game at the Cardiff City Stadium leaves pool one wide open but they must back this up with a home win against the Saints. Jim Mallinder’s men have only lost one of their Aviva Premiership games, to Saracens, whilst Edinburgh have only won twice in the Magners League from their opening five fixtures.
My prediction: Northampton by 12.

Pool 2

Racing Metro 92 v Clermont Auvergne

Heineken Cup new boys and Top 14 leaders Racing host last year’s Heineken Cup quarter finalists and reigning league champions, Clermont. Racing kicked off their tournament with a five try hammering by Leinster in a real baptism of fire at the new Lansdowne/Aviva/call it what you want Stadium last Saturday. However, Racing should not be underestimated, boasting players of the calibre of Sebastien Chabal, Lionel Nallet and Francois Steyn. Clermont eased to a 25-10 win over Saracens, France scrum-half Morgan Parra calling the shots and weighing in with two penalties and two conversions. However, lock Jamie Cudmore will not feature for the visitors after being slapped with a 10 week ban for kicking and trampling on Sarries’ flanker Jacques Burger. Racing beat Clermont 28-17 when the teams last met in the Top 14 on 1 September.
My prediction: Racing Metro 92 by 7.

Saracens v Leinster

Saracens, like Racing, are looking to get their first points on the board after failing to take anything from Clermont last weekend. However, the task facing Brendan Venter’s men will be tough as Leinster arrive hot on the heels of an electrifying bonus-point win in round one. The men from Dublin might not have started the league season in scintillating form with only two wins from five, but the 2008/09 Heineken Cup champions look to have saved their best form for Europe.
My prediction: Leinster by 8.

Pool 3

Ospreys v London Irish

The Ospreys were narrowly pipped to a win in the south of France thanks to a moment of magic from Jonny Wilkinson and Paul Sackey. However, a bonus point on the road in arguably the toughest pool is not to be sniffed at. London Irish opened with a 23-17 win over Magners league leaders and three time Heineken Cup winners Munster, fly-half Ryan Lamb pulling the strings in an assured performance which included four penalties and a drop-goal. A must win game for the Ospreys if they are to progress from the pool.
My prediction: Ospreys by 6.

Munster v Toulon

Munster’s never say die attitude saw them claim a last-gasp try and with it a losing bonus point at the Majedski last Saturday – something which could help swing the pool their way come January. Jerry Flannery could make his first appearance this season after being included in the squad following his recovery from a back and calf injury. However, Sam Tuitupou will not feature in the game at Thomond Park. The centre has been banned for three weeks for a dangerous tackle on London Irish scrum-half Paul Hodgson. Toulon made hard work of their home tie against last year’s quarter-finalists, the Ospreys, but can they go one better and claim a win at the cauldron that is Thomond? Possibly. This game has all the potential to be an absolute classic, if the French decide to turn up…
My prediction: Munster by 7.

Pool 4

Aironi Rugby v Bath

Aironi look like the favourites to wear the tag of whipping boys this year. The Italians, currently propping up the Magners League in their debut season, lost 30-6 to Ulster at Ravenhill last week. The lowlight? A kick-chase by Ian Humphreys and some poor defending which saw the Ulster fly-half touch down for a speculative score. Bath were left reeling on Sunday when four second-half penalties by Dimitri Yachvilli inspired Biarritz to a 12-11 win at the Rec. The less said about Bath’s drop-goal that never was the better. Losing a home game in the Heineken Cup really piles on the pressure which means nothing less than a bonus-point win will do for Bath.
My prediction: Bath by 18.

Biarritz v Ulster

Biarritz may have beaten Bath last weekend but they certainly weren’t firing on all of the cylinders that took them to the Heineken Cup final in Paris last May. Yes, as the old saying goes, French teams don’t travel well, so beware Ulster this weekend – the raucous Basque crowd will expect them to deliver. Ulster are fresh off the back of a convincing home win over Aironi and a bonus point would be a great result. Biarritz are currently eighth in the Top 14 so Ulster might fancy their chances after a strong start to their Magners league campaign. I just hope Stuart Barnes tones down his adoration of Imanol Harinordoquy…
My prediction: Ulster by 6.

Pool 5

Leicester v Scarlets

Could this be the game of the weekend? I think so. Last weekend the Scarlets were rampant against Perpignan, Rhys Priestland scorching over for two tries and Regan King dazzling the Parc y Scarlets crowd with an exquisite pass the almighty BOD would have been proud of. Leicester have started the league season slowly by their own high standards, but they sealed a late bonus point win in Treviso thanks to the rampaging power of centre Alesana Tuilagi. The Tigers will no doubt be boosted as fly-half Toby Flood looks set to make his comeback along with flanker Ben Woods. However, centre Dan Hipkiss is ruled out with a hamstring strain in yet another injury blow. This is a really tough game to call as the Scarlets are red hot but not many teams come away with anything from a trip to Welford Road.
My prediction: Leicester by 3.

Perpignan v Benetton Treviso

Perpignan claimed a losing bonus point in the 43-34 defeat by the Scarlets after running in five tries at Parc y Scarlets last Saturday. Treviso, in comparison, had to settle for a disappointing bonus point after Leicester snatched a late win. The Tigers scored five tries which is worrying for Treviso as Perpignan are just as capable of putting them to the sword. However, a game against Treviso does not mean a sure fire win as fellow Magners league sides the Dragons, Leinster and the Scarlets will testify. I expect the Italians to give Perpignan a good run for their money but I don’t think they will take any points from this game.
My prediction: Perpignan by 14.

Pool 6

Newport-Gwent Dragons v Toulouse

The Dragons are looking to bounce back from a 21-13 loss at Glasgow in their first home Heineken Cup game against, oh, tournament favourites and holders Toulouse. The French side boasts international stars from one to 15, but the Dragons could be boosted by the return of Wales forwards Luke Charteris and Gavin Thomas. Despite this, Dragons head coach Paul Turner claimed the match-up is like Preston North End taking on Real Madrid. So he’s confident then. Last weekend, David Skrela kicked all 18 points in Toulouse’s hard-fought win over Wasps in monsoon-like conditions. If it’s dry in Wales this weekend there’s every chance we might be treated to some magic from a certain Mr Yannick Jauzion. Or Clement Poitrenaud. Or ….
My prediction: Toulouse by 16.

Wasps v Glasgow

Wasps fly-half Dave Walder almost inspired the High Wycombe based club to a historic win against European giants Toulouse in last Sunday’s clash. The torrential rain levelled the playing field with Wasps just falling short in the 18-16 defeat. Wasps’ prop Tim Payne will sit this one out after a receiving a two week ban for a handbag waving session with Brett Deacon and stamp on Jim Hamilton in the Aviva Premiership game with Gloucester last month. Glasgow ended their four game losing streak last weekend with a win over the Dragons at Fir Hill, Ruaridh Jackson slotting three penalties and a conversion. I think Wasps will win this one though – they know how to grind out results and securing a bonus point against Toulouse will have massively boosted their confidence.
My prediction: Wasps by 9.

What do you think?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Heineken Cup Round 1: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly...

The Heineken Cup didn't fail to deliver in the opening round.  So much top quality rugby on display and I've had a brilliant weekend watching it.

But who shone amidst the cream of Europe, and who tried their best to secure their place on the "Brock James Heineken Cup Wall of Shame"?

Wonder no more...

The Good

The try of the weekend came courtesy of some unbelievable skill by Regan King.  Awesome.



Jonny Wilkinson and Paul Sackey linking up to seal a late win for Toulon with this:


Dimitri Yachvili, who kicked four second-half penalties to break Bath's hearts at the Rec.

Dave Walder.  Where would Wasps be this season without their underrated fly-half?  He almost single-handedly won them the game away at Toulouse.  OK, I'm going to overlook his last minute penalty miss as the rest of his game management was that good.

Topsy Ojo.  The London Irish wing is back to full fitness and is on fire, scoring a great interception try in the win over Munster.


The Bad

Goalkicking success (or the lack thereof) at Franklins Gardens.  Bruce Reihana and Shane Geraghty seem to be passing the "let's be inconsistently shit" baton between themselves at the moment.  Come on boys, no-one wants to be called the new Brock James, so pull yourselves together, please.  There are big problems in the goalkicking department for Northampton Saints, but this only falls into the Bad category as they did beat Castres.

Not quite what happened on Friday...
Erik Lund in Biarritz colours.  Not nice to see as a Leeds fan.  As for Iain Balshaw?  Couldn't care less.

London Irish drifting off.  A great win against European rugby supremos Munster, but the Exiles failed to close out the game and let the men from Limerick steal a last-gasp try to seal a losing bonus point.  What do bonus points make?  All the difference, that's what.  Toby Booth's men have made progression from arguably the toughest pool all the more difficult by not slamming the door in Munster's face.


The Ugly

Bath's failure to take a late drop-goal, bang in front of the posts, to regain the lead from Biarritz and win the game.  As it was, Olly Barkley didn't shout loud enough and Michael Claassens ignored him.  A Biarritz win, a home defeat for Bath and progression from the pool looking very tricky for Steve Meehan's men.

Stuart Barnes' nauseating man love for Biarritz number eight, Imanol Harinordoquy.  Listening to Barnes bleat on about his "amazing hands" made me sick in my mouth.  Twice.

Any more to add?