Sunday, 31 January 2010

Six Nations Top Trumps: Italy

“Our objective is to be competitive and keep the margins down, within 15 points. We’d like to win every game, but that’s where Italian rugby is at the moment," said Italy coach Nick Mallet.

Italy will look to improve their finishing position in the Six Nations competition this year and avoid taking home the wooden spoon yet again.  Another dismal showing in this year's tournament will pile the pressure on Mallet, who took over the role as head coach in 2007.  Since his involvement, the Azzurri have only won one game in two Six Nations tournaments and have conceded an average of 26 points a game.  In November, Italy beat Samoa 24-6 but unsurprisingly lost to the rugby super powers of South Africa and New Zealand.  Still, there are glimmers of hope in the squad of Italian stallions, but it's going to be a tough ask for Italy to finish any higher than sixth this year.

Here are my ratings:

Scrum: 70/100.
The scrum is the main area of strength for Italy, with Leicester's Samson-esque Martin Castrogiavanni fit and named in the squad to face Ireland on February 6.  Strength is the keyword, as the Italian pack will also feature Mauro Bergamasco, Carlo del Fava and Marco Bortelami.  There is one glaring omission however: Sergio Parisse, the Stade Français number eight and arguably the best eight man in the world.  Parisse will miss the entire tournament with a knee injury which is a massive blow for Italy.

Line-Out: 55/100.
Italy need to win the vast majority of their set piece play to build pressure on their opposition, especially as the Italian backline isn't exactly electrifying.

Attacking Flair: 24/100.
Zzzzzzzzz.  Don't get me wrong, Italy's backs will have a go, but in the recent past they generally ended up drawing a blank.  Oh, and a flanker playing at scrum-half is a BAD idea Mr. Mallet - just in case you're thinking of repeating last year's torrid Mauro Bergamasco experiment.  He was so bad he made England's Ugo Monye look like an accomplished international full back.  Yes, really.

Defence:  26/100.
Let's look at the stats.  I have to say they're not pretty.  Since the start of last year's Six Nations, Italy have played 11 games, won one, and conceded and average of 29 points per game.  In the ten games they lost, the points difference was an average of 22.  By giving teams a 20 point head start, Italy are going to struggle to grasp any victory.  Maybe that's why Nick Mallet is realistically targeting a 15 point margin for this year's tournament.

Stadium: 61/100.
Stadio Flaminio.  Capacity 42,000.

Snore Factor: 76/100.
The uplifting Italian national anthem and Rome's bright cobalt blue skies enliven the rugby spectating experience when Italy play at home.  When they're playing away, they'll still have their never ending anthem but other than that they're a bit dull.  Chances of their opposition running in a rake of tries is high though, which should stop the crowd from dozing off.

Phwoargh Factor: 90/100.
Brothers Mauro and Mirco Bergamasco both featured in this year's Dieux Du Stade calendar and they are sort of good looking.  However, the new Dolce and Gabbana campaign featuring several of the Italian team kicked the Bergamasco brother's efforts well and truly into touch.  Behold:

Sergio Parisse, Denis Dallan, Ezio Galon, Andrea Masi and Gonzalo Canale as you've never seen them before.

Scandal Potential: 12/100.
Low.  I really can't think of anything particularly scandalous with the Italian team.  Well, maybe apart from the pants they're wearing in the above picture.

As for the final standings:

Last season: 6th.
Prediction for this season: 6th.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Six Nations Top Trumps: England

"This is the best squad we have had in my time being in charge," Martin Johnson stated this week.

Yes I think you're probably right Johnno. 

Johnson has come in for a lot of stick recently (including from myself), but with players like Toby Flood, Delon Armitage and Riki Flutey back from injury and the addition of young guns Ben Foden, Courtney Lawes, Dan Cole and Matt Mullen into the squad, there is plenty to placate those who sneered after England's 'performances' in the November tests.  Still, it all comes down to how Johnson's bunch of merry men perform on the pitch, and whether they will continue to play a rather lacklustre game of rugby by numbers or if they are allowed to go out and play instinctively.  Will Johnson choose the powering blunderbuss of Danny Hipkiss at outside centre or will he go for the flair of Mathew Tait?  Who will be selected in the second row?  Will Johnno actually mix things up after the dismal displays of the autumn?  It might not be possible to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear but I'm pretty sure the reverse is possible if players are coached in a way that prevents them playing their natural game, as was demonstrated very effectively in the games against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand.

In last year's Six Nations, England finished second behind Grand Slam winners Ireland by virtue of a superior points difference over France and Wales, who were both tied with England on six points.  I don't think anyone is tipping England to win the tournament this year as the team doesn't have the settled look of Ireland or the flashes of brilliance displayed by France.  However I think England might well be the dark horse of the competition, as although England should expect great things of MJ and his boys, after the dismal displays last autumn, no one really expects that much.  Write England off at your peril.

Top Trump time:

Scrum: 65/100.
With an injury hit first choice front row (Sheridan out as he recovers from a dislocated shoulder and Vickery nursing his neck injury), Tim Payne (who was taught a serious lesson the other week by Leicester's Dan Cole) returns, and there is also a call up for Cole into the squad.  Worcester's Matt Mullen has been plucked from under Mike Ruddock's nose and is also included, so there is an element of international inexperience in the England front row that may well start against Wales.  Still, we can't have it all, and after calling on Johnno to look to next year's World Cup I can't complain.  Saints captain Dylan Hartley completes the front row and with Borthers wearing the captain's armband and Simon Shaw, James Haskell, Nick Easter and Lewis Moody likely to start, England's pack is a combination of youth and experience. 

Line-Out: 88/100.
Despite critics complaining about Steve Borthwick's lack of dynamism and questioning his leadership, the cold hard stats show that he is one of the most consistent line-out men in the business.  During last year's Six Nations, England lost only one of their 49 line-outs, a feat attributed to the skill and organization of Borthwick.  Wasps and Lions hero Simon Shaw looks likely to join him in the boiler room, and with the solid Louis Deacon and Courtney Lawes on the bench, England are looking strong in this area.  It's just a massive shame that Tom Croft will miss the tournament as his line out skills are also excellent.  This is an area in which England should excel during this year's competition.

Attacking Flair: 45/100.
England have all the right ingredients to cook up a feast of attacking rugby that is brimming with flair.  The question is, how will Martin Johnson use the likes of Riki Flutey, Delon Armitage, Ben Foden and Mathew Tait?  Has the style of rugby that England were seemingly coached into playing last November changed to allow these players to showcase their undoubted talents in this area?  I hope so, but I'm not too sure.

Defence: 59/100.
Defensively, England weren't too bad in the November tests as they only conceded three tries.  However the pressure exerted on them by Australia and New Zealand led to them concede plenty of penalties, and if Dan Carter had put on his kicking boots at Twickenham then the score line would have looked a lot less favourable than the 19-6 New Zealand win shows.  England need to improve all over the pitch in the Six Nations, and if they can do this and keep the penalty count down then I think they will be in a much better state defensively.

Stadium: 89/100.
Twickenham.  Capacity 82,000.

Snore Factor: 86/100.
Potentially very high based on recent performances.  Remember when England were booed off at half time when they played Argentina in November? Snore-tastic.  I'm hoping for a big improvement in the Six Nations, but looking at their current form they've got to score highly in this category.

Phwoargh Factor: 56/100.
Erm.  Well Super Jonny's not the young, fresh-faced player he once was, and Lewis Moody and Steve Borthwick aren't going to win any beauty pageants.  Please don't get me started on Tim Payne.  Then again, I suppose Ben Foden is a bit of a pin up boy, Ugo Monye and Delon Armitage are OK, as is Dylan Hartley.  Sort of.  Oh and don't forget James "The Hask" Haskell who is fresh from modelling for the Dieux Du Stade calendar.  Still, they're all pretty average.

Scandal Potential: 30/100.
Daylight robbery anyone?  That was the cry of the Twickenham crowds last November.  If Martin Johnson's England decide not to don their Adam Ant-style Highwaymen outfits and rob the rugby going public of the price of their ticket, then unless there's another bout of players snorting random drugs or spitting out fake blood then I think England deservedly score a pretty low mark in this category.

As for the final standings:

Last season: 2nd.
Prediction for this season: 3rd.

Once, Twice, Three Times a Victim

Another week, another player being banned for attacking Ulster's Stephen Ferris.

Bath's perennial bad-boy, Danny Grewcock has been handed a seven week ban for stamping on Ferris' arm during Bath's 28-10 home Heineken Cup defeat by Ulster.
This comes after Julien Dupuy casually gave Ferris a sneaky facial during the Ulster v Stade Francais Heineken Cup game. 

Then it was the turn of David Attoub, who decided to give Ferris an impromptu eye examination during the same game.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this.  Either Ferris has some kind of hex on him which attracts this kind of negative attention, or strange mystical forces are in place with the message: "Attack Stephen Ferris at your peril."

Well, the saying is that "it comes in threes" so maybe Ferris can finally breathe a sigh of relief.  He hopes.

Weekend Predictions: LV= Cup

This weekend sees the return of the LV= Cup, aka the Anglo-Welsh Cup.  This tournament has been slated by many as an unworthy addition to an already packed fixture list, but I think it can give clubs the opportunity to try out new combinations and blood younger players in a relatively unpressurized competition.  With teams recovering from last weekend's European action and with players unavailable due to international duty, how will the teams face up this week?

Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend's matches:

Leeds Carnegie v Saracens
Last weekend saw Leeds Carnegie crash out of the Amlin Challenge Cup after a dire 18-9 home defeat against pool leaders Bourgoin in what was a winner takes all clash.  Leeds now have their eyes firmly on their main goal of Guinness Premiership survival, so it's no great surprise that the team facing Saracens this weekend is a mixture of youth (in the form of 19 year old fly-half Joe Ford and the newly named England under 20 captain, Jacob Rowan), and experience (including a first Leeds outing for former England hooker Andy Titterall).  Saracens beat Super Jonny's Toulon before cruising past Rovigo in a 56-8 away victory last Saturday, and despite a couple of slip ups in the Guinness Premiership their form remains strong.  The question is whether Sarries will take an almost full strength team to try and secure progression, or if like Leeds they're really not too bothered.  I think they'll go for the jugular in their quest for silverware.

My prediction: Saracens to win by 17.

Leicester v Bath
Leicester Tigers crashed out of the Heineken Cup last weekend, but the Guinness Premiership supremos are looking to bounce back against a Bath side who are struggling through their most lacklustre season in years.  The Tigers team for this fixture isn't a bad B team, which shows the quality and strength and depth throughout the squad.  With the likes of Tuilagi, Mauger, Matt Smith and Sam Vesty in the backline, along with a few fresh faces on the bench and I think Bath will have their work cut out at Welford Road, especially as they are fielding a batch of unusual suspects in their starting XV.  The Tigers are unbeaten in their last 26 games at Welford Road, and Bath last won there on 29 November 2003 whilst their last victory away from home came against Guinness Premiership strugglers Leeds on 2 January.  When they're playing at home, it's a brave person who doesn't back the Tigers.

My prediction: Leicester to win by 12.

Newport-Gwent Dragons v Ospreys
The Ospreys have Adam Jones, Shane Williams, Kristian Phillips and Tom Prydie available for this fixture, whilst the Dragons have Dan Lydiate available after all these players were released by Wales for this weekend.  Last weekend the Ospreys beat Leicester 17-12 at home to secure their progression in the Heineken Cup, and whilst the Welsh outfit has lost their last four matches in the LV= Cup they have won six out of the last seven games over their fellow Welsh regions.  The Ospreys' victory over Leicester was marred by the controversy involving sixteen Ospreys trotting round the pitch at the same time, but that's for the lawyers to battle out now.  The Dragons have lost their last six games across all competitions since their Magners league victory over Leinster on 6 December, therefore based on current form it looks likely to be an away win.

My prediction:  Ospreys to win by 8.

Sale v Northampton
Northampton are the only English side through to the knock out stages of the Heineken Cup, and with their excellent position in the Guinness Premiership they can be forgiven in fielding a weakened team for this match despite being op of their pool.  However they still have Fernandez Lobbe captaining from the front as Dylan Hartley is away on England duty, Chris Ashton (the GP top try scorer) is in the starting line up after being released by England, and Euan Murray also plays.  Not bad.  Sale's failure to progress in the Heineken Cup led their Director of Rugby, Kingsley Jones to announce that he selected his strongest available side for this game.  Despite Charlie Hodgson marshalling the troops from ten, Sale's centre pairing of Bishop and Kennedy lacks experience but the pack looks quite strong.  Sale have only won one of their last four games, but with Northampton riding on the crest of a wave, (despite their loss at Munster ending their run of ten consecutive victories last weekend), I think the Saints will march to a win.

My prediction: Northampton by 5.

Gloucester v Worcester
Gloucester's Paul Doran-Jones and Luke Narraway have been called up to the England Saxons meaning they are likely to be absent for this game, which is good news for Worcester Warriors coach Mike Ruddock who is targeting progression in this competition.  Ruddock said: "We would like to do well in this competition. We will pick a strong panel, although what is now becoming evident is that the success we have had in bringing some players through to international level means we will be without a number of them for Saturday."  He is of course talking about Matt Mullen who has been called up by Martin Johnson, and Alex Grove who is in Scotland.  England sevens star Chris Cracknell will make his first start in a Worcester shirt after playing a few games on loan at Birmingham and Solihull to get some match time.  Gloucester won their last Heineken Cup game away at the Dragons last weekend 32-23, whilst Worcester lost 8-3 in a tight affair at Montpellier.

My prediction:  Gloucester to win by 8.

Wasps v Scarlets
Hooker Matthew Rees has been released by Wales and is likely to start in a Scarlets side who won their last two Heineken Cup fixtures (20-17 away to Brive and a scorching comeback to win 31-22 against London Irish).  Both the Scarlets and Wasps sit at the top of their respective groups and no doubt both will be aiming for the win to secure progression in the competition.  Wasps lost 19-17 last weekend to the dreadfully dull current incarnation of Racing Metro, who seemed intent on hoofing the ball whenever possible.  Still, the Parisian team won so I guess they're not going to complain.  Prior to that defeat, Wasps routed Roma to the tune of 50-16 which came on the back of two losses in the Guinness Premiership.  This looks like it will be a close fixture especially as international call ups affect both teams.

My prediction:  Wasps to win by 6.

Cardiff Blues v Newcastle
Heineken Cup parachutees, the Blues, take on Newcastle in a dress rehearsal for the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter final at Newcastle's Kingston Park.  Tom Shanklin and Sam Warburton have both been released by Wales for this fixture, with Wales coach Warren Gatland keen for Shanklin to get some game time before Wales' Six Nations opener against England on 6 February.  Last weekend the Blues demolished Harlequins 45-20 at the Stoop whilst Newcastle beat Petrarca 20-3 at home.  This weekend Newcastle coach Steve Bates is ringing the changes and likely to name a younger side, but with Carl Hayman up front the task facing the Blues forwards will be a daunting one.

My prediction: Cardiff to win by 10.

London Irish v Harlequins
London Irish suffered heartbreak last weekend when their 11-11 draw with Leinster saw them slip out of the Heineken Cup, with coach Toby Booth left to rue their earlier performances against the Scarlets.  Harlequins failed to win any of their Heineken Cup group games but they have climbed to seventh in the Guinness Premiership whilst London Irish currently sit in fourth.  With international call ups robbing both teams of some of their stars this game is likely to be short on razzamatazz.

My prediction:  London Irish to win by 7.

So do you agree with my predictions for this week?  Please let me know what you think.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Six Nations Top Trumps: Ireland

“You never defend anything. You give back the trophy, and then you try and win it again.”

So said Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll at the Six Nations launch press conference earlier this week.
Go get 'em tiger.

Ireland remained unbeaten in 2009 and clinched last season's Six Nations Grand Slam on the way to a victory over current World Champions South Africa.  2010's Six Nations competition looks to be a little tougher for the men in green, as the big games against France and England are both on the road and away from the bubbling cauldron that is a packed Croke Park.  Despite this, Ireland are many people's favourites to win a back to Six Nations title, if not a repeat of last year's Grand Slam.

Ireland is a team packed full of world class talent, which is where they have an advantage over the other home nations.  How many of the England starting XV would make it into a World XV?  Probably none.  Wales?  3?  4?  Scotland?  Zero.  Contrast that with Ireland who have the shining stars of Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip: all of who are world class players and are bang in form.  Oh, and don't forget Jonny Sexton, Ireland's new rugby darling, and quite rightly so after his performances with Leinster and Ireland.  (Did you see his calm and collected last gasp drop goal to secure a home draw in the Heineken Cup quarter finals for Leinster last weekend?  Exactly).

Anyway, on to the Unofficial Top Trumps.  All categories are scored out of a maximum 100.

And here's why:

Scrum: 62/100.
A perceived area of weakness for Ireland after the internationally inexperienced Cian Healy was taught a lesson or two against Australia.  Other sides will look to target this chink in Ireland's well polished armour.

Line-Out: 81/100.
With Munster men and fellow Lions, Paul O'Connell and Donnacha O'Callaghan as targets to aim for in the line out, provided that the selected hooker (Flannery, Best or Cronin?) can hit his man, this is a set piece that should win a lot of ball for Ireland.

Attacking Flair: 79/100. 
Where do I start?  Brian O'Driscoll looks likely to be partnered with his fellow Leinster centre Gordon D'Arcy after O'Driscoll's partner from the November tests, Paddy Wallace, was included in the Ireland 'A' squad.  D'Arcy is in a purple patch of form at the moment, as is O'Driscoll, Horgan, Bowe, and Kearney (despite him looking uncharacteristically shaky under the high ball recently).  Ireland also demonstrated the ability to grind out games last year in the 20-20 draw against Australia, but their glittering back line is packed full of talent who enjoy running from deep.

Defence:  65/100.
Ireland seem to have a never say die attitude both in attack and defence.  Just please no last minute crazy challenges in the potentially Grand Slam winning game this year, eh Paddy Wallace...

Stadium:  91/100.
Croke Park.  Capacity 82,300.

Snore Factor: 23/100.
Low.  No rugby by numbers here.  Take note Johnno and chums.

Phwoargh Factor:  88/100.
Very high.  I mean, the ladies are really spoilt for choice with crinkly eyed BOD, smouldering Rob Kearney, hunky Jamie Heaslip, drop dead gorgeous David Wallace...  The list goes on and on.

Scandal Potential:  69/100. 
High.  With Stephen Ferris the current eye-gouging victim of choice, when Ireland take on France at the Stade de France on 13 February there could be an anti-ban backlash from the French crowd after the 70 week ban of Stade Francais' David Attoub and the 23 week ban of Julien Dupuy.  Quelle horreur.

As for the final standings:

Last season: 1st with the Grand Slam
Prediction for this season: 1st but with no Grand Slam.  I tip them for the Triple Crown though.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Unofficial Six Nations Top Trumps

I love this time of year.  Six Nations fever is starting to grip the home nations, France, and to a slightly lesser extent Italy, and rugby pundits, bloggers and aficionados are all starting to weigh up the pros and cons of each country's chances of winning this prestigious tournament.

Here at Studs On The 22 it is no different.  I love the Six Nations.  As a young girl I used to watch the Five Nations with my nose pressed up to the TV screen, whilst my Mum dozed off on the sofa and my Dad shouted at me to get out of the way.  Apparently I made a better door than a window.  Anyway, the Five, now Six Nations has always had a place in my heart and I can't help but wade into the pre-tournament hype.

The Rugby Blog is previewing all the runners and riders in fine style, noting the key men, each country's strengths, weaknesses along with a prediction of their finishing position.

I'm going to do this too, only with a slight tongue in cheek twist.

Do you remember Top Trumps?  There are loads of different Top Trump sets, from Harry Potter to Supercars, and dinosaurs to Hannah Montana.  As the Six Nations approaches, I've decided to unveil the Studs On The 22 Unofficial Six Nations Top Trumps.

There's going to be all the usual sort of categories (like scrum, line-out and stadia), but I'm also going to throw in some leftfield ones (basically to give England the chance of winning).

My rugby themed Top Trumps will begin tomorrow with last season's Six Nations Grand Slam champions, Ireland.

Best go and sort out the categories...

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Captain Fantastic

Lo and behold, Martin Johnson has finally annouced who will captain England for (at least the first game) of the Six Nations.


(drum roll).

Still Steve Borthwick.


Borthers looking quite dynamic for a change

So let me get this straight.  Based on form alone, Borthers would probably only make it onto the England bench behind the masterful Simon Shaw and his apprentice Courtney Lawes.  Hmm.  Call me old fashioned, but surely the captain should be a man who would make the starting fifteen?  Shouldn't the captain's name be the first on the team sheet, as it was in the days of Johnson himself?

Apparently not.

Oh well.  Consistency is a good thing I suppose.  Well, if you want England to be consistently shit that is.  I know that a captain's performance doesn't make or break the entire team, but it's a pretty good place to start.  Maybe being conservative really is the new black...

All this does make me wonder if we will be be treated to more of the same ineffective rugby from England in the Six Nations.  Hopefully not.  I mean, a flying pig might land on MJ's head during the England v Wales game, and in his concussed state he might choose a better captain for the rest of the tournament.  Like Moody or Hartley for example.  I doubt it will happen though...

Oink oink.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Leeds Carnegie vs Bourgoin: The Verdict

Leeds Carnegie 9 - 18 Bourgoin
Amlin Challenge Cup

Electrifying.  Dazzling.  Dynamic.

The last three words I would pick to sum up this game of rugby. 

Wake me up when it's over

To say this game showcased Leeds' worst performance in a considerable time is an understatement.  Never mind ten man rugby, Leeds resorted to playing eight man rugby at times, with a backline lacking in any form of cohesiveness or invention.  During the first half, Ceiron Thomas ran around in indecisive circles whenever he got the ball, before passing it to the static backline who had about as much guile and penetration as a flaccid sausage.

It didn't take Leeds long to be on the wrong end of a 12-0 score line.  Bourgoin's wing Jean-Francois Coux went over in the corner for their first try, before Leeds' calamitous centre Henry Paul coughed up the ball in midfield which allowed Bourgoin's full back, Anthony Forest, to hoof the spilled ball down the pitch where wing Albert Vulivuli outsprinted the dawdling Leeds defence and touched down  The boot of Ceiron Thomas kept Leeds in touch at half time, as he slotted over a couple of easy penalties from pretty much in front of the posts to end the dreary first half with Leeds trailing 6-12.

I don't know how they did it, but after the break Leeds somehow managed to make their first half performance look absolutely scintillating, thanks to a second half performance which almost resulted in the crowd slipping into a collective coma.  In what I can only describe as the most tedious forty minutes of rugby I've ever had to endure in my entire life, Leeds treated the freezing Headingley crowd to a smorgasbord of handling errors and about as much vision as a blindfolded bat.  In fact I wish I had been blindfolded, because then I wouldn't have been forced to witness Leeds' lazy tackling, ridiculous offloading and general ineffectiveness.

The only points of note within the second half were a couple of drop goals scored by the Bourgoin fly-half, Benjamin Boyet and another penalty from Ceiron Thomas.  This was despite Leeds having the majority of the possession thanks to their hard working forwards.  Did I already mention just how boring it was?

Headingley Carnegie must exist in its own space/time continuum, as the last ten minutes of the match seemed to stretch out for several light years.  With the crowd pleading the referee to blow the final whistle with five minutes remaining, when he finally ended the torture the entire 2,698 crowd let out a simultaneous sigh of relief.

Still, there were a few good things to come out of this game:
  • The Leeds scrum looked strong and functioned well for the vast majority of the game.  It was a pity that nothing much came from this solid platform.
  • The forwards mauled their way up field almost effortlessly on several occasions, again sadly with no points materialising as a result.
  • Now that Leeds are out of this competition they can fully concentrate on the Guinness Premiership.  Based on today's performance they're going to have to concentrate really hard to avoid the spectre of relegation that is currently hanging over them.
  • I now have a sure fire way of beating insomnia, as if I'm ever struggling to drift off to sleep then all I have to do is remember this rather snore-inducing game and I'll be whisked off to the land of nod in seconds.
I also had the following things confirmed:
  • Henry Paul is about as useful as a chocolate fireguard and should be put out to pasture where he can throw as many passes to nowhere as he likes.  If he is the answer at number 12 then I dread to think what the question was.
  • Calum Clark looks really pretty in a headband.
In conclusion, that was eighty minutes of my life that I won't get back.  Still, it could be worse.  Leeds could be playing a good team next week.  Oh, they're playing Saracens in the LV= Cup.  Great.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Heineken Cup Previews and Predictions: Round 6

All aboard for this week's predictions of the last round of Heineken Cup pool games.  Which teams will progress to the knockout rounds and which teams will fall by the wayside?  Here are my previews and predictions:

Pool 1
Munster v Northampton

This Friday night fixture is one of the biggest of the round as Heineken Cup supremos Munster take on high flying Northampton at Thomond Park in the match that will decide the winner of Pool 1.  Last weekend Northampton started slowly at home against Perpignan but went through the gears in the second half to defeat their uninspiring visitors by 34-0.  Munster on the other hand, notched up a six try win away at Treviso.  The Saints did defeat Munster 31-27 at Franklins Gardens in the opening match of the competition but at home Munster are a different prospect, especially after completing back to back wins over Perpignan and Treviso.  I expect this to be an action packed game, especially if Northampton can get a platform from the scrum and provide good ball to their back line.  However I can't bet against Munster at home in this competition.

My prediction:  Munster to win by 8.

Perpignan v Treviso

After their respective hammerings last weekend neither of these teams can qualify (not that Treviso ever really stood much of a chance).  Back on their home turf and against the Italian whipping boys, I think that Perpignan will bounce back from last Sunday's result and give Treviso a good going over.  Don't forget that Perpignan will have a score to settle after Treviso beat them in round one with the shock scoreline of 9-8.

My prediction: Perpignan to win by 18.

Pool 2

Biarritz v Glasgow

Despite losing 23-8 to Gloucester last weekend in their only loss so far in the competition, Biarritz have already qualified from Pool 2.  This means all that is left to play for is second spot and the chance to qualify as one of the two best runners up.  Sadly for Glasgow, this isn't achievable, as they currently sit third in the pool and even a bonus point win would only leave them on 14 points which just isn't quite good enough.  Glasgow won 29-25 last weekend against the Dragons, and the question of whether they will win this weekend will be decided on the team that Biarritz decide to field, bearing in mind that they've already secured their ticket to the knockout stages.  If anything I think the fact that Biarritz have already secured their qualification spot will let them play with more freedom and no fear. 

My prediction:  Biarritz to win by 10.

Newport-Gwent Dragons v Gloucester

Gloucester need to claim a bonus point win away at Rodney Parade if they are to stand any chance of qualification.  Last weekend they beat pool leaders Biarritz whilst the Dragons lost out in a close encounter against Glasgow.  When these two teams met in the opening round, Gloucester came from behind after half time to win 19-17.  Looking at their current form and the fact that Gloucester have it all to play for, I think Gloucester will nick the rematch.

My prediction:  Gloucester to win by 5.

Pool 3
Ospreys v Leicester
The tightest pool of them all is Pool 3, where Leicester (top with 17 points) lead the Ospreys and Clermont Auvergne (both on 16 points).  The Ospreys and Leicester both need a bonus point win in order to stand any hope of progressing, as Clermont pretty much only have to turn up at Viadana to come away with a four try haul and the full five points.  Maths isn't my strong point, but if Clermont take the five points away from Italy and rack up a much improved try tally, the destiny of Leicester and the Ospreys is in their hands as only a bonus point victory will do.  Last week the Ospreys were dismantled to the tune of 27-7 by Clermont, whilst the Tigers roared to a 47-8 victory over Viadana.  Given that Leicester don't seem to be fazed by a big occasion, I'm tipping them to win.
My prediction:  Leicester by 13.

Viadana v Clermont Auvergne

Viadana:  Played 5.  Won 0.  Points difference -173. 
Fifteen road cones would be more of a work out for Clermont Auvergne.

My prediction:  Clermont Auvergne to win by 40.

Pool 4

Bath v Ulster

Bath have been improving slowly but surely in this competition and last weekend they were narrowly defeated 15-13 away by Pool 4 leaders Stade Français.  Bath are still bottom of the pool, but at home they could well prove to be a potential banana skin for Ulster who have won their three home games but lost twice on the road in this competition.  Ulster are still in with a shot to qualify for the next round if they take the full five points on offer and if Stade Français lose to Edinburgh.  Bath on the other hand, have nothing to play for except any small patch of form that they can take back into the Guinness Premiership.  Last weekend Ulster beat Edinburgh 21-13 at Ravenhill so they will go into the game with confidence, but for some reason I think Bath might well sneak a win.

My prediction:  Bath to win by 4.

Edinburgh v Stade Français

Stade Français hammered Edinburgh 31-7 when these two sides met back in October and the French side has won all three of their home games, albeit the last one a close 15-13 win over Bath.  Away from home, Stade have been anything but convincing as their narrow 29-27 victory over Bath and their 23-13 loss at Ulster show.  Therefore with Ulster breathing down their neck, Stade Français will really have to raise their away game to secure their progression to the knockout stages.  Edinburgh's two wins in this competition both came at home (17-13 over Ulster and 9-6 over Bath) so they will be looking to complete a clean sweep of home wins in the competition.  This game is by no means a foregone conclusion.

My prediction:  Stade to win by 3.

Pool 5

Harlequins v Cardiff Blues

Last year's semi-finalists, the Cardiff Blues, looked dead and buried in this year's competition until last weekend's 36-19 win over a Sale side who looked to have found traction in the Pool and were set to threaten table toppers Toulouse.  The Blues' win lifted them above Sale on points difference, and although neither Sale nor Cardiff can topple Toulouse (who have qualified already), both sides are still in with a shout for a best runner up spot.  Harlequins lost 33-21 away at Toulouse last weekend and have been out of the competition for a couple of weeks, having won none of their five games.  I'm sure the Quins will be looking to restore a bit of pride, especially in front of their home crowd, but Cardiff have it all to play for.  Saying that, the Blues have lost both of their away fixtures in the Heineken Cup this season so they'll need to conjure up another great performance to stand any chance of making it out of the group stages.

My prediction:  Cardiff to win by 8.

Sale v Toulouse

Unlike the Cardiff Blues, Sale have the all important home advantage in the final round of the Pool stages.  Sale were beaten 36-17 by Toulouse in the first round of the competition, but since then they strung together three winning performances in a row before their away defeat to the Blues last weekend.  The only game that Toulouse have lost so far in the competition was the 15-9 away defeat by the Cardiff Blues, although the Quins ran them close at The Twickenham Stoop as they led their Gallic guests 14-0 at half time before Toulouse won in dramatic style to end the game victorious with a 23-19 winning score line.  Therefore with Toulouse seemingly not as up for it when they're away from home and with their qualification already in the bag, Sale really have a good chance of winning this game.

My prediction:  Sale to win by 6.

Pool 6

Brive v Scarlets

Poor Brive.  Last weekend's spirited showing against Leinster was too little, too late for the 1997 Heineken Cup winners, who for all intents and purposes have been about as threatening as a marshmallow in this year's competition.  Despite holding a rusty looking Leinster to a seven point lead at half time, Brive still ended up on the wrong end of a bonus point win as the holders ran in four tries and ended the game as 27-10 victors.  Therefore I can't see that a slightly improved Brive side will pose too much of a threat to the travelling Scarlets, who will undoubtedly be buoyed by their excellent 31-22 victory over London Irish last weekend.  Looking at the Pool standings, the Scarlets will not only need a bonus point win to stand any chance of progression as a runner up, but they will also have to hope that Leinster do them a massive favour and beat London Irish and that the results in the other pools go their way.

My prediction:  Scarlets to win by 18.

London Irish v Leinster

Finally, and last but by no means least, is the much hyped fixture between the Exiles and the current holders of the Heineken Cup, Leinster.  As Pool deciders go this one has to be up there with the best.  At times in this competition both of these teams have played some wide, expansive and exciting rugby which sets this game up as a truly mouth-watering winner takes all fixture.  Last weekend Leinster creaked against Brive after not playing a game for a few weeks, and yet a magical pass from Shane Horgan to Saint Brian O'Driscoll saw Michael Cheika's men from Dublin snatch a last minute try scoring bonus point in their 27-10 victory over Brive.  London Irish lost at the Parc-y-Scarlets last weekend, but lest we forget the shock of round one when the Exiles went to the RDS and came away with the scalp of the champions when they beat Leinster 12-9 in a try-less affair.  Since then, Leinster have looked unstoppable in this competition and whilst I think they will win this match, if you can only watch one game this weekend then I suggest that you go for this one.

My prediction:  Leinster to win by 9.

So what do you think?  Are my predictions spot on this week or am I way off target?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

RIP "The Voice of Rugby"

Bill McLaren CBE

Rugby player and broadcaster


To read Bill's obituary please click here.

70 Weeks

22 April 2011.

This is a key date in the life of Stade Francais' prop David Attoub as this is when he will be allowed to play rugby again.  It has been revealed that he is now banned for 70 weeks after being found guilty of making contact with the eye area of Ulster flanker Stephen Ferris during a Heineken Cup game.

70 weeks.  That's quite a long time.  In fact, it's the second longest ban to be handed out for eye-gouging behind Colomiers prop Richard Nones who was slapped with a two-year suspension way back in 1999.

Attoub gouges Ferris' eye

But is it enough?  I still don't think so, especially when you read the words of Attoub's victim, Stephen Ferris:

"The contact was very strong and extremely painful - the finger in my right eye was forced downward in a poking and gouging motion; it was someone trying to drive a finger as hard as he could into my eye socket and I could not prevent it".

When it's put it like this, a 70 week ban for a man who was trying his best to poke out someone's eye and blind him seems very leniant.

The thing that really annoys me about this whole eye-gouging saga is that Attoub hasn't accepted responsibility for his actions or apologised for them, and instead Stade cast doubt of the authenticity of the photo of Attoub gouging the eyes of Ferris.

Of course Attoub is going to appeal, but as there is nothing appealing about this case whatsoever, I for one hope that he fails and the 70 week ban stands.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Taking the Piss

Who is taking the piss?  That would be the Rugby Football Union, who slapped a charge on Leicester De Montford University's rugby union club for alleged "initiation ceremonies".  These ceremonies allegedly included making wannabe players jump into a paddling pool filled with urine.  Nice.  Therefore I guess with their actions you could argue that the RFU really were taking the piss (away from them...).

Anyone fancy a dip?

Other alleged initation tests included eating dog food, standing naked on a playing field in view of the general public and sliding along a plastic sheet that was covered in foul smelling substances. 


So if all this is true, do the De Montfort rugby boys have anything to answer for, or was it just a case of rugby high jinx between a load of backslapping students which really meant no harm?  I wonder why they've been singled out for a slap on the wrists as initiation ceremonies aren't a new thing?

Either way, the paddling pool thing is just gross.

Matt Hampson's Six Nations Fundraising Dinner

I've been asked if I would help to promote a fundraising dinner that his being held for the Matt Hampson Trust on Wednesday 3 March at the Battersea Evolution.  I am very happy to do so as this is a great charity. 

Martin Johnson and the full England squad will be in attendance at this great event.

In case you haven’t heard about Matt Hampson, he was a very promising England U21 prop who suffered a catastrophic neck injury in 2005. The accident happened when the England U21 team were preparing for their Six Nations match against Scotland. In what he described as a freak accident, a scrum collapsed and dislocated his neck. Nearly five years on Matt is still paralyzed from the neck down and breathes with the aid of a ventilator. He requires 24 hour support and an estimated £8 million over his lifetime.  All the money raised from this event will go to the Matt Hampson Trust, which offers help and support to the spinally injured

For more information and to book a table, please click here.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Heineken Cup Previews and Predictions: Round 5

It's prediction time again ahead of round five of the Heineken Cup.  Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend's fixtures:

Pool 1

Treviso v Munster
A trip for table toppers Munster to bottom of the pile Treviso will probably be a jaunt that men in red won't mind, especially as they thumped Treviso 41-10 at Thomond Park in October.  With Munster leading the group by two points over Northampton they will be hoping to dish up more of the same and snaffle another try scoring bonus point.

My prediction:  Munster to win by 12.

Northampton v Perpignan
When these two met in the south of France, the buoyant Saints were taught a lesson by a physical Perpignan team who went on to beat them 29-13.  (Remember Henry Tuilagi's shoulder charge on Ben Foden?  Crunch).  The Saints are enjoying a purple patch of form in the Guinness Premiership, although they only narrowly won their last Heineken Cup game away at Treviso by 21-18.  With Perpignan currently lying third in the pool behind Northampton, they need a win to stand any chance of remaining in the competition.  I think it's going to be close.

My prediction:  Northampton to win by 4.

Pool 2

Gloucester v Biarritz
Top of the table Biarritz are unbeaten in the Heineken Cup and are proudly perched at the top of the group with a magnificent 18 points.  Gloucester lie in second place, a whole ten points behind them after their victory over Glasgow in the previous round.  I know that Gloucester have home advantage and I know that traditionally French teams don't play well on their travels, but I think Biarittz will take the stuttering Gloucester to the cleaners.

My prediction:  Biarritz to win by 10.

Glasgow v Newport-Gwent Dragons
These two sides are currently locked on five points with both teams having secured one win and one bonus point so far in the competition.  Glasgow are top of the Magners league with seven wins from ten games, whilst the Dragons have won five of their matches in the domestic league.  Looking at their recent Magners league form the Dragons come into this game on the back of two defeats, whilst Glasgow notched up two festive wins over rivals Edinburgh.  I think home advantage will be the deciding factor in this fixture, with Glasgow coming out on top.

My prediction:  Glasgow to win by 6.


 Pool 3

Clermont Auvergne v Ospreys
The Ospreys are somewhat surprisingly top of Pool 3 given the quality of rugby shown by Clermont and the grit and determination displayed by Leicester in previous rounds.  Clermont lost 20-15 at Welford Road in the round four in a game that the Tigers had to win in order to keep their Heineken Cup dreams alive.  This came after their sensational 40-30 winning battle against the Tigers in the previous round.  The Ospreys trounced Viadana in their back to back fixtures which leaves them with a couple of much tougher games to wind up the group stages.  With everything to play for in Pool 3 both teams will come out firing, but I think the French will have the edge.

My prediction:  Clermont to win by 9.

Leicester v Viadana
When the Tigers travelled to Viadana in October they ran in six tries, added a seventh in the form of a penalty try and came out 46-11 victors.  With Leicester tied on twelve points with Clermont Auvergne, nothing less than a bonus point win will do.  Easy peasy.

My prediction:  Leicester to win by at least 20.

Pool 4

Stade Francais v Bath
Who would bet against top of the pool and Heineken Cup supremos Stade when they take on bottom of the pool Bath who have been luke warm at best this season?  Bath have one Heineken Cup scalp which came in the scrappy 16-9 win over Edinburgh at the Rec on a cold December day.  I wouldn't bet against Stade at home, even though they are facing a Bath side whose confidence is starting to grow after a terrible first half of the season.

My prediction:  Stade to win by 14.

Ulster v Edinburgh
Last weekend Edinburgh beat Cardiff Blues 21-12 in the only Magners league game that survived the snow, which will have been cold comfort after their back to back losses against Glasgow.  Ulster beat Munster 15-10 at home in their last Magners league game, with their last two games in the Heineken Cup against Stade Francais being won by the home side on the day.  Edinburgh achieved the same feat against Bath, but this isn't quite as impressive an achievement.  Add all this with home advantage and I think Ulster will walk off the pitch victorious.

My prediction:  Ulster to win by 7.

Pool 5

Cardiff Blues v Sale
Sale have it all to play for as they are a mere one point behind pool 5 leaders Toulouse with three wins from their four matches.  Cardiff Blues aren't just making up the numbers, as a home win would propel them into second place with a game against bottom placed Harlequins still to come.  Sale won both of their back to back fixtures against Harlequins whilst the Blues beat Toulouse at home 15-9 but lost 23-7 in the reverse fixture.  The Blues have lost their last two games in the Magners league whilst Sale beat Harlequins for the third time in twenty one days, this time in the Guinness Premiership, after losing 15-13 at table toppers Saracens. 

My prediction:  Sale to win by 3.

Toulouse v Harlequins
Harlequins crashed out of this competition a couple of rounds ago, but when Toulouse ventured to west London in round two the Quins had them rattled when they led them 14-0 at half time.  A dogged Toulouse came back and grasped a 23-19 victory so the French will know that Quins aren't a push over.  The question is whether Harlequins will field a strong side and put up a fight or if they will save their stars for the Guinness Premiership now that they're out of the cup.  Either way I think that table toppers Toulouse will be too strong for them again.

My prediction:  Toulouse to win by 9.

Pool 6

Leinster v Brive
Top plays bottom in what I envisage will be a Leinster rout of winless Brive.  The only question really is how many tries will Leinster run in past their Gallic guests?  I think it will be at least six or seven.

My prediction:  Leinster to win comfortably by 35.

Scarlets v London Irish
If the Scarlets are to progress in the Heineken Cup this season then they will have to secure second spot in the pool and hope they make the cut as one of the two best runners up.  It's tough ask for them to beat London Irish but they did a job over the Exiles at the Madejski Stadium in their 27-25 win last October.  Since then they've faltered in the Magners League and suffered back to back Heineken Cup trouncings from last year's winners Leinster.

My prediction:  London Irish to win by 10

So what do you think?  Are my predictions correct this week?

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Rugby League Magic

That's a bit of an odd title for a post on a rugby union blog you might think.

Well, Chris Ashton (ex-Wigan Warriors, now Northampton Saints wing) and Shontayne Hape (ex-Bradford Bulls, former New Zealand rugby league international, now Bath centre) are league to union converts who have both been named in Martin Johnson's Elite Player Squad this week. With their inclusion for the forthcoming Six Nations (and potentially the World Cup next year) I can't help but wonder if their background in the league version of the game has given them any sort of advantage over the purely union born and bred backs? It certainly seems that way, as Ashton's try scoring form this season has been nothing short of prolific and he is currently the top try scorer in the Guinness Premiership, and Hape has been turning heads at Bath with his strong and often scintillating displays at centre.

Ashton (top) and Hape: The new stars of England rugby?

My boyfriend is a massive Leeds Rhinos fan (although don't hold that against him) and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things rugby league.  If he doesn't know a fact about rugby league, it's probably because it's hasn't happened yet.  Therefore with Ashton and Hape making waves in the game, I decided to quiz him to try and find out what positive attributes ex-league players bring to the game of rugby union.  This is what he said:

Fitness, Strength and Speed
Rugby league is played at a much quicker pace than union.  The forwards are fitter, leaner and quicker and the backs are quicker still, with footwork that would make Brian O'Driscoll cry with envy.

League players are more adept at passing the ball into gaps and running into gaps rather than into the man and taking the ball into contact.  With their extra speed and quick hands comes a quicker and more free flowing game.

Support Play
It's no coincidence that Chris Ashton always seems to pop up on the shoulder of his team mates when they sprint up field.  If you watch any game of Super League you will see this all game long, and this attribute of his game is a something that has been drilled into him during his time at Wigan.

The physical conditioning of rugby league players (especially forwards) means often they tackle harder, and are then quicker to get back into the defensive line.  I can't imagine many Guinness Premiership forwards making a tackle, running back ten metres, making another tackle then running back ten (x another 4) over the course of eighty minutes without gasping for an oxygen mask.

It might work very well when a league star joins the back line of a union side, but what about the forwards?
I can't imagine that many rugby league forwards would successfully make the transition into a rugby union pack (Andy Farrell, anyone?).  After all, scrums in rugby league are just a group of blokes leaning on each other for five seconds and having a bit of a breather. 

Success Stories

The forwards aside, where the backline is concerned I think that rugby league players have the ability to inject a certain x-factor into the game.  Look at World Cup winner Jason Robinson for example.  He was excellent in both codes, playing rugby league for Wigan and Great Britain before changing to union when he joined Sale in 2000.  Robinson immediately made an impact and he played his first game for England in 2001 in the Six Nations game against Italy.  A try scoring performance in two of the Lions tests in the tour of hell to Australia later in that year, and that memorable try in the final of 2003's World Cup made Robinson the best cross code rugby player of all time.  Well, in my opinion anyway.

And here are a couple of others:
Lote Tuqiri - Tuqiri found success with the Brisbane Broncos and won recognition with Queensland in their victorious State of Origin campaign in 2001, along with international honours for the Wallabies before switching to the fifteen man game.  He won 67 test caps for Australia's rugby union side and found his way onto the scoresheet in 2003's rugby World Cup Final.  Tuqiri is now peddling his wares on the wing for Leicester Tigers and bagged a couple of tries against their arch rivals Wasps last weekend.

Jonathan Davies - No, not the young bloke who's playing for Wales at the moment.  I mean the other Jonathan Davies, the one who now plies his trade as a partisan commentator for the BBC.  Davies started off playing rugby union in 1982 for Neath before moving to Llanelli in 1988, in a year where he helped Wales scoop the then Five Nations Triple Crown before going on to captain his country on their tour to New Zealand.  Controversially, Davies then switched codes and moved to Widnes, and during his foray into rugby league he also played for Warrington and Australian sides Canterbury and Queensland.  Davies returned to the fifteen man game in 1995 where he picked up another hatful of Wales caps, and has been touted as the most talented rugby player of his generation.

Other successful cross-code players include Scott Gibbs, Brad Thorn, John Bentley, Alan Bateman, Alan Tait, Scott Quinell, Wendell Sailor, Dai Young and Sonny Bill Williams.

Tried but Failed

So it is possible to switch between codes and do it effectively, but these handful of players (along with a few others who I have no doubt forgotten) have to be contrasted with players who didn't make anywhere near as big an impact: Henry Paul (now at Leeds Carnegie) won only six caps for England; Lesley Vainikolo only got eight caps, as did rugby league hero Andy Farrell, whose massive move to Saracens didn't quite go according to plan.  Chev Walker and Karl Pryce both made the switch to union before skulking off back to the thirteen man game less than a year later.

Still, with ex-Leeds Rhinos and England international league star Lee Smith swelling the ranks with his move from the Rhinos to Wasps this season and with Worcester signing former Australia rugby league international Luke Rooney, are we seeing the start of another trend of league to union code switches, with players attracted by the higher earning potential that the union game can offer?  I don't really care if this is the case, as long at it benefits the game of rugby as a whole.

With all that said, I wonder how long it will be until we see more ex-league stars trotting out at Twickenham?  It's probably only a matter of time...  For now, let's keep our fingers crossed that Chris Ashton and Shontayne Hape will add themselves to the list of league to union success stories.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Speccy Four Tries?

Roll up, roll up!

If you are a rugby lover who enjoys nothing more than popping down to your local cinema, whacking on a pair of comedy glasses and watching things leap out of the screen at you, then you are in luck.

Shock and awe: it's a try for England

It's time to dust off those 3D specs sports fans.  England's opening Six Nations match against Wales at Twickenham on 6 February is going to be shown in cinemas across England in glorious 3D, in what the BBC claims will be Europe's first ever live 3D sports broadcast. 

If you can't make it to one of the participating 40 Odeon and Cineworld cinemas for this match, then you can always rock up with your red and blue spectacles on 27 February when the England vs Ireland will also be shown in mind-bending 3D.

Let's just hope England won't be tragically flat despite all the technological wizardry to give them that extra dimension...

I can picture it now...

Marvel as the ball comes flying towards your face in yet another bout of snore-tastic aerial ping pong.

Laugh as Matt Banahan dawdles down the wing with all the speed and agility of an IKEA wardrobe.

Stifle a yawn as the England forwards lie on top of each other for ten minutes in an up close and personal 3 dimensional ruck.

Entertain yourself by flicking popcorn at Brian O'Driscoll's arse in the vain hope that it might stop him from scoring his hat trick.

I'm off to buy my tickets now...

Monday, 11 January 2010

Martin Johnson's EPS Squad?

Martin Johnson is set to name his EPS squad on Wednesday so naturally everyone is starting to tout around who they think he should include.  The big question is whether Johnno is building his Six Nations squad with one eye on the World Cup next year, or if he's got his old man glasses perched on the end of his squished up nose and is shortsightedly only looking as far as the final game away against France on 20 March in this year's Six Nations tournament.

Decisions, decisions...

There are only eighteen games until England trot out for their opening game in the World Cup next year, so the onus is on Martin Johnson to build a World Cup winning squad now whilst blooding a few youngsters on the way.  The next round of Autumn Internationals is too late to start trying new combinations, and Johnson won't want to take a bunch of rookies to New Zealand next year.  Changes have to be made after England's dire performances in November, as it's not as if those selected did anything but underachieve in the Autumn Internationals.  The dismal results against Australia, New Zealand and the scrappy win against Argentina built an excellent case for an injection of up and coming young talent into the starting fifteen for England's opening Six Nations game against Wales, as surely the young guns can't do any worse than the old guard, can they?  Saying that, certain key veterans must remain, and by this I mean Simon Shaw who is arguably the best England lock at the moment at the ripe old age of 36.
Then there is the question about the captaincy.  Is Steve Borthwick the man to inspire and lead England to a World Cup win next year?  I have to agree with Stuart Barnes:  No.  So now has be the time to think about changing the captain then, surely?  Yes, but I doubt it will happen.  Who could step into the breach and take the reins from Borthwick?  Dylan Hartley?  Possibly, but maybe it's a little too soon for him.  Lewis Moody?  Not exactly Leicester's captain week in and week out.  Jonny Wilkinson?  Er, really?

Anyway, enough of all the talking.  Here's the players who I think Martin Johnson should include with a view to both the Six Nations and World Cup, including a few possibly more surprising selections...

Dan Cole - Leicester tighthead and a man in some serious form, not just in his man-of-the-match demolition of the Wasps' scrum in last Saturday's game.

Tim Payne - England's incumbent loosehead.  Has to be included with the current plight of the England front row.

Duncan Bell - Probably will be picked at tighthead, but I'd start with Cole against Wales if I was Martin Johnson.

Jon Golding - Newcastle loosehead, learning under the muscular wing of Carl Hayman.  Great ball carrier, tackler, great in the loose and excellent in the scrum. 

Dylan Hartley - A stronger carrier of the ball and decent line out work from the Saints hooker will secure him a place.

Steve Thompson - Included as what other options do England have at hooker?

Simon Shaw - Excellent at line out and in the loose, and showing deft hands in offload against Quins to line up try.  Has to be included despite being nearly ready to draw his pension.

Steve Borthwick (c) - Will be picked because he is the captain.  I can't see any other reason.

Louis Deacon - Will be picked because he's a dependable, if not dynamic lock, and Martin Johnson likes that.

Courtney Lawes - Has to get some real game time in this year's Six Nations, and not just coming on for ten minutes in a match that has already been won.  Lawes is most at home as a lock, but his versatility shows as he has played at flanker for Northampton this season.  He needs to play for England now so he's not undercooked come the World Cup.

Joe Worsley - He of the massive melon shaped head is fit again and will undoubtedly be in contention.

Lewis Moody - The shining star of the Autumn International debacle and one of the first names on the team sheet.

Hendre Fourie - Bit of a wildcard selection for the excellent Leeds Carnegie openside flanker who now qualifies by residency.

Jordan Crane - Solid, dependable, great carrier of the ball at the back of the scrum.

James Haskell - A more dynamic option at 8 than Crane

Tom Croft - Athletic, pacey, versatile back row forward who is now back from injury.  Will he be picked despite his recent injury lay off?

Steffon Armitage - Specialist openside flanker.

Danny Care - Definitely.

Paul Hodgson - Absolutely.

Ben Youngs - Hopefully. Performance after great performance from the excellent Leicester scrum half who seems to excel at every facet in his role of scrum-half.

Mark Cueto - Versatile winger, can switch to full back.

Mathew Tait - Is there any room at the inn for the versatile Tait?  He's not really been given much of a chance lately in an England shirt, and I'm wondering if he is going to be left out in the cold again.

Toby Flood - A bit of a question mark over his kicking but it seems to be improving, and he adds flair to the backline.  Can play at ten or twelve.

Jonny Wilkinson - He might not be Super Jonny any more, but if he can capture some of the form he's displayed at Toulon this season then he should start at ten.

Nick Easter - Big man in the boiler room.

Chris Ashton - The Northampton wing is currently enjoying some scintillating form, he is the top try scorer in the Guinness Premiership and is playing himself into a place.

Ugo Monye - Lions winger, pacey, will definitely be included.

Dan Hipkiss - Solid but not exceptional but will be included to add some grunt to outside centre.

Riki Flutey - Straight back into the starting XV in the Six Nations.

Shane Geraghty - Inventive, slightly off the boil in the AIs (but wasn't everyone?).  Geraghty needs more game time like Courtney Lawes.

Ben Foden - The Northampton full back is still making too many errors so he probably won't be in the starting line up, but he is one for the squad.

Delon Armitage - Seemingly back to his best for London Irish after being sidelined with a dodgy shoulder, and a definite starter at full back after the calamities we had to endure in the AIs

Danny Cipriani - Starting to show a few glimmers of the form from a couple of seasons ago. His goal kicking isn't good enough to play in his preferred position of fly half, but he could be selected to play at full back. Probably one for the Saxons.

And here are a couple that should be left out in the cold:

Andy Goode - One word: No. He shouldn't be included.

Matt Banahan - I don't think he's fit enough or fast enough to successfully play international rugby.

So those are my thoughts, and I've probably left out somebody crucial so please let me know what you think. 

Who will Martin Johnson pick?  We will see on Wednesday...

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Good Times/Bad Times: Leicester Tigers vs London Wasps

I've just finished watching the Leicester Tigers vs London Wasps game, and what a game it was for the Welford Road faithful.  A frosty full house witnessed the Tigers raise the temperature with a 34-8 bonus point winning performance over the London Wasps.  But what was good about the only Guinness Premiership fixture to survive the snow and ice this weekend, and what left some room for improvement?

Good times:

Leicester head groundsman Steve Packwood and his team - For beating the weather and ensuring the Welford Road pitch was playable.

Leicester pack - Controlled power, power, and more power in the scrum.  Totally dominated Wasps and stopped them from building any kind of platform.

Ben Youngs - Sharp, quick passing, expertly taken box kicks and some great running.  Ready to play for England.

Ben Youngs: Overtaking Ellis to an England place?

Lote Tuqiri - Looking like a classy international for probably the first time this season and with two tries to boot.

Danny Cipriani - Starting at number 10, displaying some immaculate passing and great running and a big confidence boosting kick in the first half.  Cipriani is again starting to show the dazzling talent we all know he has.

Geoff Parling - Aerially domiant and a great all round performance from the Leicester lock.

Toby Flood - Back to his best.

Dan Cole - Man of the match and man of the moment.  A try saving tackle in the loose on Tim Payne and an excellent day in the scrum.  Will he be included in Martin Johnson's EPS squad on Wednesday?

Dan the Man

Bad times:

Wasps' pack -  Totally demolished in the scrum for the second consequetive week and to make matters worse they also conceded a penalty try.

Stuck in reverse

Tim Payne - Sin-binned, crushed by Cole in the scrum and tackled by Cole to be denied a simple enough try in the corner.  A very bad day for the Wasps loosehead.

Simon Shaw - Seemed to hobble off which is a major worry for Martin Johnson.

The eleven Guinness Premiership teams that aren't Leicester - Leicester are shifting through the gears nicely and are currently in top spot - a place they aim to be come the end of the season.

Dave Walder - Benched as Cipriani started at ten, then minutes after stepping onto the pitch he was off with a bashed in face.  Is Walder back to being the second choice behind Dashing Danny?

Friday, 8 January 2010


How's your New Year's health drive shaping up?  For me it's so far, so good.  Sort of.  I've dragged myself to the gym a couple of times and have managed to step away from the chocolate biscuits, but then again we're only eight days into 2010 and there's still plenty of time for me to nosedive into a tin of Quality Street and start flicking the V's at the gym as I drive past.

If you're still looking at your trainers with a certain amount of disdain, or if you really just can't be arsed exercising, then this blog post is for you. 

For a bit of fun for the end of the first working week of 2010, I've created a game involving the Studs On The 22 Man of the Month, Mike MacDonald.  Exercise your index finger and burn off those Christmas calories as you help Mike "PUMP IT" in the gym by lifting some weights.

Please leave a comment with your highest score so the world can see just who has the fittest finger of them all.  My top score is a pretty rubbish 1200.  As I seem to be no good at this I suppose I should get back to the gym instead...  Joy.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Super Matt

Matt Dawson: 

Scrum-half for London Wasps, Northampton Saints, England and the British and Irish Lions.
Rugby World Cup winner in 2003.
Rugby pundit on BBC Radio Five Live.
A team captain on the BBC's A Question of Sport.

Oh, and he was the runner up in popular BBC show Strictly Come Dancing in 2006.

A man of many talents, you might say.

Some of the worst photoshopping ever

Well, Super Matt has been at it again.  This time he's not gliding across the dancefloor or battling it out in the What Happened Next round.  No, instead he's draping a pair of rugby boots around his neck, donning a chef's outfit and turning up the heat whilst he cooks up some waist friendly treats for a bunch of weight watching women on Channel 4's My Big Fat Diet show.

Mmm, noodly.

I have to admit that his low calorie noodle soup did look rather tasty on tonight's show.

I suppose it's not a massive surprise, as Super Matt did win yet another BBC show, Celebrity Masterchef in 2006, so I guess the man can cook.

The question is, what else does Super Matt have up his sleeve for 2010?  The obligatory celebrity workout DVD?  He could couple an aerobic, rugby-based routine with nutritional advice and menu suggestions for the more portly prop forward.  Or maybe he could launch his own aftershave range: L'eau de Scrum-Pit?  Or how about a line of kitchen utensils?

Whatever he turns his hand to, it's bound to be a success.  Just pray that he doesn't start wearing his underpants over a pair of electric blue tights...

Guinness Premiership Previews and Predictions: Round 13

Round 13 of the Guinness Premiership is definitely unlucky for some. Due to the snowy weather and icy conditions four of this weekend's six matches have now been postponed. The Northampton Saints will miss out on heating up the Rec and steaming their way past a rather tepid Bath, Sale's clash against Saracens and Newcastle's game against Gloucester both fell by the frosty wayside yesterday, and icy conditions around The Stoop meant that the Harlequins vs Leeds Carnegie match met a similar fate this afternoon.


This of course means that my job with the Result Predict-O-Meter is slightly easier this week, as I can only get two results wrong instead of six. That is, unless the remaining couple of fixtures are postponed too, as there is still time.  With my fingers just about defrosted, here are my previews and predictions for this week:

Leicester Tigers vs London Wasps
Of the two games set to go ahead this weekend this game is the pick of the pair. Leicester's home record is undeniably brilliant, with 23 wins and 1 draw since they were last defeated at Welford Road, which just so happens was at the hands of this weekend's visitors back in September 2008. Wasps suffered a shock home defeat last weekend against Newcastle, when the power of Falcons' forwards Carl Haymans and Jon Golding prevented Wasps from establishing any kind of platform from the scrum. The task facing the Wasps forwards isn't going to be much easier this week with Leicester's in form prop Dan Cole likely to lead the Tiger's tight five into battle with Castrogiavanni unlikely to feature. On their current form, Leicester are currently the best team in the Guinness Premiership (well, along with Northampton) as they have grabbed 20 points from their last 6 matches. Wasps go into this game having lost against Newcastle last week and with a narrow win against Harlequins in their festive match at Twickenham. Despite Wasps having won their last 5 meetings with Leicester since the Tigers lifted the 2008 EDF Energy Cup, I think the Tigers are coming to the boil nicely and their forwards will out power the Wasps' pack to set them up for the win.

My prediction: Leicester to win by 8.

Worcester Warriors vs London Irish

The news from earlier this week that Warriors' full-back and star player, Chris Latham, is departing from Sixways at the end of the season will undoubtedly have caused a certain level of unease in the Warriors' ranks, despite their quick replacement signing of Luke Rooney from Toulon.  Worcester are currently hovering one place above the drop zone, and along with the rather depressing statistic that Worcester are without a win in their last 8 Guinness Premiership matches and that they haven't beaten London Irish since 11 September 2005 means that things aren't looking too good for Mike Ruddock's men. When these teams last met on 5 December the result at the Madejski was a 16-16 draw, which was a surprise as most people expected Worcester to be dispatched up the M40 on the wrong end of a four try hammering. Whilst London Irish did lose to Northampton at Franklins Gardens last Saturday they still remain the team with the best away form in the Guinness Premiership, having racked up 17 points from their six games on the road. With Delon Armitage seemingly back to his best, the conditions for this match will be crucial as they will determine whether this game will be a scrappy affair fought and won upfront, or if the Exiles will keep on surging over the Warriors' try line. I suspect it will be the former.

My prediction: London Irish to win by 6.

So what do you think? Have I got my predictions right or am I suffering from brain freeze? Please let me know!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Dan Carter Caption Competition

Are you snowed in and/or bored?  Then why not enter the New Zealand Herald's caption competition by clicking here

If you come up with the winning caption for the picture of Dan Carter and his furry friend (below), it will be published in the New Zealand Herald.

Dan's plan to go to the fancy dress party dressed as Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld had its complications

A couple of hours later (and after a fair bit of clawing), Dan's transformation was complete

Good luck!