Sunday, 28 February 2010

Six Nations Week 3: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good

Three from three for France and the Grand Slam is still on for les Bleus.

The French scrum: the best in Europe, no doubt.

Shane Williams' sizzling late try to set up another tantalising finish.  Sadly for Wales, Freddie Michelak kicked the ball into touch at the final restart to deny another buttock clenching finale at the Millennium Stadium.

Another mention for Shane Williams, who passed Gareth Edwards' record of 18 Championship tries for Wales.  And on his 33rd birthday too.  Aw.

Italy's last gasp win over Scotland.  A brilliant try by Pablo Canavosio helped the Azzurri to their 7th win in ten years of the Six Nations.  Something for coach Nick Mallet to write on his calendar then.

Centurion: John Hayes

John Hayes winning his 100th cap for Ireland.  An excellent achievement for any player, but especially so for a front row forward.

Ben Foden, who finally pulled off his tracksuit to replace the injured Delon Armitage.  Foden was a shining star for England with a desire to run the ball forward instead of hoof it aimlessly.

England not kicking the ball away every five seconds.  OK so England didn't win, but they looked pretty evenly matched against Ireland.  Martin Johnson did comment after the match that he thought his team suffered as they tried to run the ball too much.  Oh God, I hope this doesn't mean we can look forward to a return to kicking 101 against Scotland.

The Bad

Wales' string of errors.  Two interception tries?  Check.  Plenty of passes to no-where?  Check.  Failing to see the men in support and not passing the ball for a certain try, Jamie Roberts?  Check.

Yeah I know Shane.  It was really frustrating.

Not so much bad, more not quite there.  Morgan Parra and Fran├žois Trinh-Duc's partnership at half back is a weak link in the French team.  Parra is a bit selfish and Trinh-Duc retreats into the pocket when put under pressure.

Scotland's failure to score a try against Italy.  And they lost.  Again.  Wooden spoon, Andy Robinson?

Danny Care's sloooooooooow service to Super Jonny and chums. This limited Wilkinson's options and left England's backline looking static.

The atmosphere in Twickenham.  Oh sorry, there wasn't one.

(Not so) Super Jonny's kicking stats.  Only 3/6 for the usually robotic place kicking Wilkinson.  Poor.

The Ugly

Brian O'Driscoll being stretchered off the field.  I hope he'll be fit to pick up his 100th cap in a couple of weeks.

The ridiculous handbags between England and Ireland.  Not really ugly but come on ladies, sort it out.  Still, Danny Care's missus is probably a very satisfied lady looking at Care's excellent throw down skills (as demonstrated on Tomas O'Leary).

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Guinness Premiership Previews and Predictions

Revolving doors are being fitted in changing rooms up and down the country as players are starting to line up new clubs for next season.


There is still everything to play for in this campaign, and last weekend’s win by basement boys Leeds Carnegie tightened things up at the bottom of the table.

Here are my Guinness Premiership previews and predictions for this weekend.


Leeds Carnegie v London Wasps

This game is the Yorkshire club’s 500th competitive match and Carnegie are looking to celebrate the landmark with a first home win of the season.

In the reverse fixture on 1 November, Leeds achieved their first victory over Wasps in the Guinness Premiership when their forwards dominated the set piece. Back to back wins won’t be easy as Wasps have won all six previous of their visits to Headingley Carnegie.

Leeds earned their third victory of the Guinness Premiership season at Sale on Friday night, but their last home win was the 16-15 victory over Newcastle way back in March 2008.

London Wasps have won their last three matches in all competitions, and have won four of their last seven away games in the Guinness Premiership.

My prediction: Leeds’ forwards to dominate again. Leeds to win by 5.


Gloucester v Sale Sharks

Sale have beaten Gloucester in three of their last four encounters including a 28-23 win at Edgeley Park in round 7.

However the Sharks have slipped to six straight defeats, and a loss at Kingsholm would be their worst run since the 1999/2000 season.

Gloucester’s five game winning run in all competitions unsurprisingly ended at Welford Road on Saturday. The West County men are unbeaten in their last seven matches at home since Cardiff Blues won there in the LV= Cup on 8 November.

The Sharks' only away victory in the Guinness Premiership since January 2009 was 24-17 at Leeds on 22 November.

With Gloucester’s recent form and Sale’s lack of it, I’m going for a home win.

My prediction: Gloucester to win by 9.


Saracens v Bath

Sarries’ form has slumped over recent weeks.

After an excellent eight straight victories at the start of their Guinness Premiership campaign they have now only won one of their last four games. However the Fez heads have only lost one home game in the Premiership this season which was their 22-15 defeat by Leicester on 2 January.

Bath has risen from the foot of the table after four successive wins in the league. Can they continue their revival this weekend? I’m not sure.

Sarries’ home form has been excellent and they have already beaten Bath twice this season: 30-22 in the LV= Cup on 8 November, and also won 12-11 at The Rec in the Guinness Premiership on 31 October.

My prediction: Saracens to win by 10.


London Irish v Harlequins

Quins have already beaten Irish 16-13 at the Madejski Stadium this season in the LV= Cup on 31 January. The last time they met in the league resulted in an uninspiring 9-9 draw on 31 October.

London Irish started the season well, but a 12-12 draw at Newcastle on Saturday means they are winless since the start of the year. The Exiles most recent win was 23-19 at home to Saracens on 27 December.

Harlequins have endured an up and down season but ended a three game losing run in the with their 13-6 victory over Northampton Saints at the Stoop on Saturday.

The Quins have a superb record at Madejski Stadium, having lost in just two of 11 previous visits against all opponents in all competitions.

Looking at their form and the players missing through international duty, I think the visitors might just sneak this one.

My prediction: Harlequins to win by 8.


Worcester Warriors v Newcastle Falcons

Worcester Warriors are without a win in their last ten matches in the Guinness Premiership. Rumour has it that the National Lottery are looking to sign them up as draw masters as they have already notched up four draws in the league this season.

Newcastle Falcons will rival them for this glittering position as they also recorded their 4th draw of the Premiership season at home to London Irish on Saturday. The Falcons’ last victory in the competition was 12-6 at London Wasps on 3 January.

Worcester have already beaten Newcastle 32-6 at Sixways this season in the LV= Cup on 7 November. The Falcons took the Guinness Premiership encounter the previous week with a 14-3 win at Kingston Park.

My prediction: I’d love to say a draw, but I think the Falcons will take this one by 8.


Northampton Saints v Leicester Tigers

Northampton have already beaten the Tigers 23-11 at Franklin's Gardens in the LV= Cup on 6 February. In the league, Leicester won 29-15 at Welford Road on 31 October.

Northampton Saints' six game winning run in the Guinness Premiership came to an end at the Twickenham Stoop on Saturday. The Saints have won their last 17 games in all competitions at Franklin's Gardens since Newcastle won there in the Premiership on 28 February 2009.

Table topping Leicester Tigers are the best team in the Guinness Premiership on current form having secured 22 of their last 25 possible points. Leicester have recorded at least one league point from each of their last 29 matches.

International call ups will affect both teams this weekend, but I still think the Tigers will have the edge.

My prediction: Leicester to win by 3.

So what do you think?

Six Nations Previews and Predictions: Week 3

Wales v France

Friday night’s game is a tantalising battle between Grand Slam hopefuls France and comeback Kings Wales.

Who can forget the men in red’s pulsating victory over Scotland in Cardiff in week two?

Confidence will be high in the Wales camp, but the task facing Gatland’s men this weekend is a formidable one.

The Wales coach has focussed his criticism on his back row after the last gasp win over Andy Robinson’s Scotland. With Andy Powell dropped in the wake of Golf Buggy-gate and Martyn Williams and captain Ryan Jones unusually below par, Wales’ forwards need to up their game.


Will Williams (l) and Ryan Jones (r) provide good service to Stephen Jones (c)?

Alun Wyn Jones is out after undergoing surgery on his elbow and Deiniol Jones and Bradley Williams get a chance to impress in the second row. Scrum-half Mike Phillips returns to the bench despite only playing 40 minutes of rugby in the past four months. Dwayne Peel must be left wondering if his move to Sale has scuppered his international career.

France coach Marc Lievremont will be forced to juggle his team again after injuries to Benjamin Fall, Pascal Pape and Fulgence Ouedraogo.

Both winger Fall and lock Pape suffered ankle injuries and will be replaced by Julien Malzieu and Julien Pierre respectively. Pape’s absence means Sebastien “The Caveman” Chabal comes onto the bench and Julien Bonnaire replaces Ouedraogo.

Alexis Palisson has recovered from Jerry Flannery’s can-can kick and starts on the wing.

As for the game, I think the clash between centres Mathieu Bastereaud and James Hook will be a fascinating one to watch.

The forward battle will be the key area though, and France’s powerful scrum will be a stern test for the Wales pack. Gethin Jenkins came off the bench against Scotland but doesn’t feature in the 22 to face France.

If Wales get good service from the pack they will give the flair-packed France a run for their money. However, I can’t see France slipping up at the Millennium Stadium.

My prediction: France to win by 8.


England v Ireland

It’s make or break time for England. After two lacklustre games for the men in white, Ireland will be a much sterner test.

A stuttering performance against Wales and an unimpressive win over Italy mean Martin Johnson’s team is still on for the Grand Slam. However write off Ireland at your peril. Declan Kidney’s men were taught a rugby lesson in France a fortnight ago and only a win against England will keep their championship dreams alive.

Johnson has only tinkered with his match day 22 after criticism over the team’s performance in Rome. He has stuck with (maybe not so) Super Jonny at fly-half and Ben Foden and Joe Worsley both start on the bench.

As for Ireland...  OK so a back to back Grand Slam is no longer possible for Brian O’Driscoll and chums but the Triple Crown is definitely in their sights.


Rory Best will start at hooker for Ireland after Jerry Flannery was banned after his not exactly subtle kick on Alexis Palisson.


Ireland's first choice fly half: Jonny Sexton

Wunderkind Jonny Sexton snatches the number 10 jersey from Ronan O’Gara with the Munster man relegated to the bench. Rob Kearney is out with injury and he is replaced by Leicester’s Geordan Murphy. A fit again Donnacha O’Callaghan pushes Leo Cullen to the bench.

England is hardly a dynamic force in the world of rugby at the moment, and Ireland will have been busy licking their wounds after the 33-10 hammering in France. Unless Martin Johnson and co’s strategy has undergone a total revamp in the last couple of weeks, then I expect England to kick the ball away ad infinitum which will give Ireland ample opportunity to run it back at them. And past them. And over the line.

The key battle I’ll be watching is Jonny v Jonny. Fly-half of the recent past v fly-half of the future. I wonder who will take control and pull the strings to orchestrate a win? I think it will be Jonny Jnr.

My prediction: Ireland to win by 12.


Italy v Scotland

Andy Robinson’s Scotland committed what can only be called rugby hari kari against Wales two weeks ago. Quite why Mike Blair chose to run the ball rather than boot it into touch when the clock went red only he will know. Add to that the two late sin binnings and 13-man Scotland could only watch as impish Shane Williams skipped over the line to snatch a last gasp win.

Gutting.

So what next? Well, all is not lost as this weekend they face serial wooden spoon winners Italy.

England made tough work of overcoming the Azzurri but Italy looked much more convincing than they did against Ireland. Surely Scotland have enough flair to overcome the tournament whipping boys though?

In a word: yes.

Max Evans returns for the Scots after scoring a try after coming off the bench against Wales. Hugo Southwell and Simon Danielli replace Chris Paterson and Rory Lamont and Allan Jacobsen is in for Alistair Dickinson in the front row. The Scots are looking to turn their fortunes around and end a two-game losing streak in the tournament.

Evans will hopefully take it to the Max.

Italy coach Nick Mallet has named only one change for Italy as Carlo Antonio Del Fava starts in the second row after a remarkable recovery from knee surgery.

Italy will be targeting the game against Scotland as their most realistic chance to notch up a win as Scotland are the only team they have beaten in the Six Nations.

However the Scots will be looking to turn their 70 minute performance against Wales into a full 80 minute win against Italy. If they don’t, the wooden spoon awaits…

My prediction: Scotland to win by 13.

So what do you think?  Will France march on towards a Grand Slam?

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Leeds take the Wind Out of Sale

The battle for Guinness Premiership survival is really hotting up.

Bottom of the table Leeds travelled to Sale on Friday night and beat their Guinness Premiership neighbours 19-10.

This is the first time Carnegie have beaten Sale in 18 attempts so well done to the boys!

A quick glance at the Guinness Premiership table shows that things are getting a bit tasty down at the bottom:



Leeds' win and Worcester and Sale's losses have really opened up the relegation battle.

Don't forget that at the start of the year Bath were being touted as a team for the drop but they are now up in 6th.

Carnegie are yet to win at home in the Premiership this season, but their narrow 14-9 home defeat by Leicester and now the victory over Sale really makes me think they are turning the corner.

I expect them to climb out of bottom spot over the next few weeks and set up a fascinating season finale.

So which team is your favourite for the drop?

COME ON LEEDS!  YOU CAN STAY UP!

Hi Noon

Or should that be one step forward and 400 steps back for England?

I am of course referring to the news that Martin Johnson has called up ineffective Brive blunderbuss centre Jamie Noon to his Six Nations squad as a replacement for the injured Dan Hipkiss.

Why?

OK, so I know that Noon plays with Riki Flutey week in and week out at Brive so there has to be a positive there.  I think.
But what about Hape? He of the funny first name and rugby league side-step?  I know he usually plays at 12, but even Hape playing out of position has got to be better than Noon.  And what about Jon Clarke?

Hello Johnno?!

I hope that Shontayne is still ahead of Jamie "Can't Pass, Won't Pass" Noon in your conservative pecking order.
I know that Jamie will more than likely just turn up for training, run around and not pass the ball for a bit before being packed off home.  However the fact that Johnno reached for his number at all really upsets me.

This is conservatism at its best.  David Cameron would be proud.

Hmm, I wonder if this is Johnno's stealth way of campaigning for the Tories in the run up to the general election?

Saturday, 20 February 2010

A Tale of Two Fly Halves

Danny Cipriani has confirmed that he is venturing down under and joining the newly formed Melbourne Rebels next season.

Shock horror.

Well there goes his England career.  Or does it?

"I'm ignoring you."
"No I'm ignoring YOU!"

Cipriani's move means he will not feature in next year's World Cup.  That is a given.  England manager Martin Johnson said he wouldn't select the fly-half if he relocated to the Southern Hemisphere.  For one thing the scouting missions would be total pain as Johnno really struggles for leg room on long haul flights.

Then again, Cipriani doesn't really have an England career at the moment, does he?

Johnson hasn't picked Cipriani since November 2008.  So what's all the fuss?  The fuss is because Danny Cipriani rapidly became the poster boy for English rugby and was branded "rugby's answer to David Beckham".  And rather hastily too I might add.

The Wasps number 10 burst onto the international scene in 2008's Six Nations but caused just as many waves off the pitch.  When it came to his rugby, Danny only really had one great game for England (against Ireland in the Six Nations of the same year) and a couple of great performances in the Heineken Cup. If there was ever a player to be over hyped, then Cipriani was that man.

Controversially, the fly-half was dropped for "inappropriate behaviour" when he stumbled out of a night club at midnight a few days before the Scotland game in the 2008 Six Nations.  A horrific ankle injury in May 2008 then put Cipriani's international ambitions on hold.  Since then he's been in and out of the England squad, demoted to the Saxons and been woefully inconsistent for Wasps.

And then came the celebrity girlfriend, the ample Kelly Brook. Soon enough, Danny was making headlines for all the wrong reasons.  Do you think Martin Johnson was impressed to see his recovering fly-half wining and dining his new love interest in all the tabloids?  Nah, me neither.


Expect to see plenty more of this when Cipriani moves to Melbourne

Will Carling revealed on his Rucku.com blog last week that he turned down the offer of managing Cipriani with a view to getting him back into the England squad.  Why? 

Carling said: "The main reason I decided not to go ahead is that I do not believe that Danny's focus is on playing for England."

So what is Danny focussed on?  Topping up his tan in Oz and hitting the town with his model girlfriend?

Is it any wonder that Martin Johnson has left Cipriani out in the cold?

England manager Johnson has been heavily criticised for his selection decisions, and now the finger of frustration is being pointed firmly at his first choice fly-half, Jonny Wilkinson, after a couple of sub-par displays in this year's Six Nations.

So what has Wilkinson got that Cipriani hasn't?  Why is Jonny still in favour? 

Unlike an on form Cipriani, Jonny certainly isn't the most inventive number 10.  It's not often that the Toulon fly-half dazzles us with his running and opens up the England backline. 

The answer is their attitudes.  Wilkinson and Cipriani couldn't be more different if they tried.  Rewind a couple of years and Danny was either splashed across the tabloids or accidentally blurting out the F-word on a live broadcast. Wilkinson was living the life of a rugby hermit in Northumberland and robotically practising his place kicks for 23:59 hours per day.  When he wasn't injured, of course.

The pair do have some things in common though.  Wilkinson has suffered so much damage since the 2003 World Cup final that he singlehandedly kept all the BUPA hospitals in Newcastle open before he left for Toulon.  Cipriani's ankle injury was so bad it needed pinning in several places.  The contrast comes in what the pair did during their recuperation:  Wilkinson learnt to speak French (forward planning perhaps?) and got to grips with the acoustic guitar.  Cipriani jetted off to the Caribbean with Kelly Brook and was papped "frolicking" in the sea. 

But Cipriani's move to Australia got me thinking.  Wilkinson's career was going nowhere fast at Newcastle as he kept picking up injury after injury.  After 12 years at the club, the fly-half took the decision to jump across the channel and pull on the Toulon shirt.  Of course, the €700,000 a year salary didn't hurt. 

Yet more points for the kicking machine

At the time of his move, Wilkinson said:
"I hope it will give me the games to rebuild an international career.  I haven't played and so I haven't figured for England and I want that to change."

And change it did.  Jonny soon became the leading points scorer in the Top 14 and reclaimed his England shirt.

So what of Cipriani?  Speaking of his switch to Melbourne, he said:
"In the short term, it might not be the best thing for my England career.  My main reason was to develop myself as a player and come back and play at 10 for England."

Hmm, that sounds rather familiar.

With the English media off his back and a chance to rebuild his confidence and improve his game at a new club, I think Cipriani will prosper in Melbourne just as Jonny has in Toulon.  Under the guidance of Melbourne head coach, former Australia boss Rod Maqueen, I think Cipriani will return a stronger and more settled fly-half. 

You never know, he might even come back playing like Matt Giteau.  (Here's hoping anyway).

Let's just hope that Will Carling's assessment of the fallen poster boy of England rugby wasn't right after all.

Good luck in Melbourne Danny.  Just don't forget you have the potential to be a star.
And when I say that, I mean on the rugby pitch.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Six Nations Lookalikes

There's no Six Nations action this weekend, and with bans and injuries taking up the headlines I decided to lighten the mood.

Here are a few Six Nations heroes (or villains, depending on your point of view) as you've never seen them before...

First up, James "Brand" Haskell, aka muscle bound cartoon character Johnny Bravo:

Always a hit with the ladies

Next up is Haskell's mighty leader.  No, not Steve Borthwick (as we all know he's just the instrument of a Higher Power).  I am of course referring to the Higher Power himself, Martin "Star Trek" Johnson, who bares a remarkable resemblence to a Ferengi:


Twins

Of course Johnno's not the only coach with a doppelganger on the silver screen.  Roll up Scotland's Andy Robinson, who almost masterminded a dramatic victory over Wales.  I'll get you next time, Mr. Gatland...


Ersnt Stavro Robinson:  Foiled again.

Clinging on to the England coach is Shrek, aka mangled eared Graham Roundtree.  I'm just wondering who the Donkey is to Roundtree's friendly ogre?  And more to the point, who is Princess Fiona?

"Fionaaaaa!"


And last but not least:

One for all and all for one....  It's a little known fact that France's Mathieu Bastereaud starred in 80's kid's TV show "Dogtanian and the Three Muskahounds":

Muskahounds are always ready (to drunkenly fall against a chair in their hotel room)

If I think of any more I'll be sure to add them. 

Guinness Premiership Previews and Predictions: Round 14

This weekend sees a break in Six Nations’ action so it’s all eyes back to the Guinness Premiership. Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend’s fixtures:





Sale Sharks v Leeds Carnegie

Friday’s match sees Sale Sharks entertain lowly Leeds Carnegie. Sale are on a run of five successive losses in all competitions, although the Sharks haven’t lost at home in the Guinness Premiership since London Irish visited on 2 October.

Leeds have failed to beat Sale despite 17 attempts. Last weekend a strong display by the Leeds forwards dominated the set piece against league leaders Leicester, but Leeds were unable to edge out their visitors a close game. Leeds have won just one of their last six matches in the Guinness Premiership, but have scored at least one league point in their last four games. With the spectre of relegation looming, Leeds need to target teams like Sale in their quest for survival.

The two teams have already met twice this season with Sale victorious on both occasions in November: 27-3 in the LV= Cup at Edgeley Park and 24-17 at Headingley Carnegie in the Guinness Premiership.

My prediction: Another strong display by Leeds’ forwards, with Carnegie winning by 4.


London Wasps v Saracens

On paper this game will be a cracking London battle. Saracens are second in the Guinness Premiership whilst Wasps are coming to the boil nicely. Wasps have won back to back games at Newcastle in the LV= Cup and at home to Sale in the league, whilst Sarries were victorious in their last two fixtures with Wasps.

Saracens’ away form is good this season and they have won three of their last four games on the road. However the Fez heads’ most recent victory on Wasps soil was 19-15 at Loftus Road in the Premiership on 19 October 1997. Will the early league leaders turn this round and record another away win? I think so.

My prediction: Saracens to win by 5.


Newcastle Falcons v London Irish

Newcastle have slipped to three straight defeats since their 20-3 home victory over Petrarca Padova in the Amlin Challenge Cup on 22 January. The Falcons haven’t won at Kingston Park in the Guinness Premiership since London Irish were the visitors on 22 November.

London Irish aren’t exactly on a winning streak either though. The Exiles are winless in last six matches in all competitions since a 23-19 home victory over Saracens in the Premiership on 27 December.

The Falcons beat Irish 15-11 at Madejski Stadium in the teams’ previous encounter at the end of November, and the north eastern team haven’t completed the double over the Exiles since 2001/02.

London Irish have slipped to fourth in the Premiership after a strong start and will look to reassert their title claims over eighth place Newcastle. Can they do this without their England stars?

My prediction: Newcastle to win by 6.


Leicester Tigers v Gloucester Rugby

Leicester have won their last four games in the Guinness Premiership but struggled last weekend against bottom club Leeds. The absence of Dan Cole and Martin Castrogiavanni in a depleted front row saw the Tigers’ scrum pushed backwards as easily as a sledge on a steep slope. However Leicester’s home form is remarkable as they are unbeaten in their last 27 home games since Wasps won at Welford Road in the Premiership on 26 September 2008.

Gloucester won 12-9 when the two teams met in the Guinness Premiership in round 8, and are going for a first Premiership double over the Tigers since 2003/04.

The West Country boys have won their last five matches in all competitions, whilst their 46-6 thumping of Harlequins on Saturday was their biggest Premiership win in the league phase since May 2002.

My prediction: Weakened team or not, I can’t bet against the Tigers at home. Leicester to win by 6.


Harlequins v Northampton Saints

Northampton is the only team flying the English flag in the Heineken Cup, and their form this season has been remarkable. When these teams last met in the Premiership in November, Saints won 26-17 at Franklin's Gardens.

Harlequins' are ninth in the Premiership and their only win in their last nine matches in all competitions was 16-13 at London Irish in the LV= Cup on 31 January. Quins' have won just once at the Twickenham Stoop since October: 35-29 over Gloucester in the Guinness Premiership on 28 November. Hardly electrifying form.

Northampton have won an impressive 13 victories from their last 14 games including their last six matches in the Guinness Premiership. A win against Quins will tie Northampton's best ever run in the competition, set in season 1999/2000.

My prediction: The Saints to keep marching on (and on) and win by 9 points.


Bath Rugby v Worcester Warriors

Early relegation candidates Bath have climbed to seventh in the Premiership, although it remains tight at the bottom of the table. Only two points separate Bath with Sale who are down in tenth, whilst Worcester lie in 11th place.

The Warriors have lost on all five previous visits to The Rec so their previous form isn’t looking promising. Worcester's only victory in their last four fixtures was 19-9 at home to London Irish in the LV= Cup on 6 February. The Warriors remain the only side without an away win in the Guinness Premiership this campaign.

Bath have won their last three games in the Guinness Premiership and have won three of their last four matches at The Rec in all competitions. Hopefully this means they have finally put the dramas of last summer behind them.

My prediction: Bath to win by 7.

So what do you think?

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Six Nations Week 2: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good:

The Wales v Scotland game.  An incredible last five minutes in a match with more twists than one of Adam Jones' bouncing ringlets.

Adam Jones: curly wurly

Dan Parks: back from the wilderness (or Glasgow in his case).

Shane Williams.  The man who turned the match for Wales.  He showed great skill to put Lee Byrne in for a try, calmly caught a tricky high ball under pressure when Scotland were dominating, and he bagged the winning score to boot.

An excellent all round game for France.  Well, with the exception of their line-out.  A great game for France's Mathieu Bastereuad, Yannick Jauzion and Morgan Parra to name but three.

Italy, who matched England and made a real game of it.  Six Nations whipping boys they are not.  A special mention to Italy number eight and man of the match Alessandro Mani.  Who needs Sergio Parisse?  Luke McClean also had a good game at full-back for the Azzurri.

Jonny Wilkinson, who passed the 500 point mark in the Six Nations competition, and used his experience to stretch England's lead near to the death.

The Bad:

Scotland commiting rugby hari kari against Wales in the last 10 minutes.  Two sin binnings for the Scots and 17 points to Wales.  Does that remind you of anyone, Alun Wyn Jones?  Then again, Scotland's loss was due in great part to...

Referee George Clancy, who allowed an extra passage of play in the Wales v Scotland game even though the clock had already reached 80 minutes.  With the teams tied on 24-24, Shane Williams scorched over the try line for Wales.  If it were a game of football, Wales would be Manchester United.  Scotland coach Andy Robinson:  mildly irritated.

Ireland's performance against France - or lack of it.  Last week Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll described his team as "mediocre" in their 29-11 win over Italy.  This weekend in defeat, he downgraded that to "poor".  Personally, I'd have gone for "abysmal".

Yannick Jauzion crosses the line for France

France's faultering lineout.  The only negative in their 33-10 victory over Ireland.

England kicking the ball away aimlessly at almost every opportunity.  Martin Johnson's men looked about as threatening as a bunch of bumbling marshmallows during large parts of the game against Italy.  Oh and how England totally failed to ram home their advantage when Castro was in the bin completely mystified me.  Another very disappointing England performance.  There's plenty for them to work on.  Again.

Dylan Hartley's line-out throwing.  Very poor.  I found myself being thankful when Steve Thompson stomped onto the pitch.  Yes, it was that bad.

The Ugly:

Scotland's Thom Evans being stretchered off the pitch and subsequently undergoing neck surgery.  Get well soon Thom.

Jerry Flannery's impromptu 'can-can' kick on Alexis Pallison. France scrum-half Morgan Parra is no doubt thrilled that Flannery backed him up after Parra claimed Ireland "cheat every weekend".

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Guinness Premiership Previews and Predictions: Week 13

It's Valentines' weekend, and here are my rose-tinted previews and predictions for this weekend's Guinness Premiership fixtures:



Northampton v Newcastle
Chris Ashton's release by England will please Saints fans making the trip to Franklins Gardens on Saturday but Northampton will miss prop Euan Murray.  Murray starts for Scotland after missing last weekend's Six Nations clash due to religious reasons.  Last week Newcastle narrowly lost 9-3 in the LV= Cup away to Wasps, whilst Northampton beat Leicester 23-11.  The Saints have been nothing short of a revelation this season, and I predict they will march on and tame the Falcons this weekend.  Praise be.

My prediction:  Northampton by 9.

Leeds Carnegie v Leicester
At the start of 2010, Stuart Barnes declared that if Leeds were bottom of the Premiership after this game  then they would definitely be relegated.  The pivotal game is now here and Leeds are still bottom of the table whilst Leicester are top of the pile.  Even the most romantic Leeds supporters now have to admit the magnitude of the challenge Leeds face to avoid the drop.  A bonus point win against the Tigers would see Leeds join Worcester on 19 points (provided that Worcester lose at Saracens) but Leeds would still be bottom on points difference.  The Yorkshire side has crashed out of the LV= Cup and Amlin Cup in recent weeks and they are yet to win a Guinness Premiership game at home.  I can only see this result going one way, despite Leicester losing key players to international duty.

My prediction:  Leicester by 15.

London Irish v Bath
If this game was being played at the Rec then I would tip Bath to sneak a win based on their recent home form.  Happily for England fans, Matt Banahan has been released back to his club, which means the crowd at the Majedski Stadium will be treated to the sight of him dawdling down the wing at 0.2 miles an hour on Sunday afternoon.  Irish have faltered of late, losing 19-9 away at Worcester in last weekend's LV= Cup, whilst Bath pulled off a 40-7 victory at home to Sale in the same competition.  Of course the Premiership is the Exiles main target after dropping out of the Heineken Cup.  I think they'll turn around their fortunes and win this one.

My prediction:  London Irish to win by 12.

Wasps v Sale
Wasps narrowly beat Newcastle 9-3 in last weekend's LV= Cup, and Sale were hammered by Bath.  When these sides last met controversy ensued, with the game eventually being called off because of a waterlogged pitch.  Wasps lost 34-8 away at Leicester in their last Guinness Premiership outing when their scrum was taught a lesson.  Therefore the men in yellow and black will be pleased that Martin Castrogiavanni and Dan Cole are on international duty, but then again so is Tim Payne.

My prediction:  Wasps to win by 8.

Gloucester v Harlequins
When these sides met in the first half of the season Harlequins ran out 35-29 winners in an action packed game.  Quins' half backs Danny Care and Nick Evans ran riot for the hosts, but Care, Monye and Easter are all on England duty this weekend.  In their last premiership game, Gloucester drew 13-13 with Worcester, whilst Harlequins were defeated by Sale for the third time this season (twice in the Heineken Cup and once in the Premiership).

My prediction:  Gloucester to win by 5.

Saracens v Worcester
Saracens have been pushed off top spot by the snarling Tigers, helped when Sarries were defeated 22-15 at home by Richard Cockerill's men on 2 January.  Worcester are second bottom in the Guinness Premiership, five points ahead of relegation favourites Leeds Carnegie.  Worcester seem to be drawing games for fun this season, but I doubt they will do enough to hold the Saracens who are looking to reclaim top spot.  Saracens and Worcester both lost their last games in the Guinness Premiership.

My prediction:  Saracens to win by 9.

Six Nations Previews and Predictions - Week 2

It's Six Nations Predictions time again.

Will Ireland's recent love affair with the Six Nations continue to flourish in Paris this Valentine's weekend?  Will Scotland lose their hearts in Wales, or will England's red roses woo the Italian crowds? 




Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend:

France v Ireland
This game is already being tipped as the championship decider.  The result of this match will crush the Grand Slam hopes of one of this year's main protagonists, and it's a real shame this fixture isn't being saved until the final weekend. 

France won their opening game against Scotland 18-9, with human wrecking ball Mathieu Bastereaud twice bulldozing his way over the line.  Ireland looked rusty against an Italy side lacking in precision which also boasts arguably the most turgid backline in international rugby.  Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll described his team's performance as "mediocre" despite their 29-11 victory.  France's scrum destroyed Scotland, although the return of Stephen Ferris into the Ireland pack is welcome to Ireland's perceived area of weakness.  France are without Aurelien Rougerie and Benjamin Fall who miss the clash through injury so Toulouse's Vincent Clerc and Brive's Alexis Palisson take their places.  O'Gara retains the number ten shirt for Ireland, and Keith Earls makes his first Six Nations start. 

Ireland last won in Paris ten years ago in 2000, when Brian O'Driscoll's brilliant hat-trick helped his team to a 27-25 victory.  Last year, Ireland beat France 30-21 at Croke Park.  This is undoubtedly the game of the weekend, if not the tournament.  It's a tough one to call.  My heart says Ireland but my head says France.  I know it's Valentine's weekend, but my head is overruling my heart on this one.

My prediction:  France to win by 8.

Wales v Scotland
Wales clawed England back to 20-17 in the last few minutes of their battle at Twickenham last Saturday, after Alun Wyn Jones' thoughtless trip cost the men in red 17 points during his stint in the sin bin.  Despite Wales seizing the momentum in the second half England were 30-17 victors.  Wyn Jones will play this weekend after Wales coach Warren Gatland threatened to drop the lock, and the only two changes in the Wales side see Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Thomas come in for Tom James and Luke Charteris.  Wales are still missing Lions front row maestros Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees which is a blow, especially after Scotland's scrum crumbled against France last week.  Wales need to reduce their error count and not let Scotland off the hook as they did with a series of missed penalty kicks against England.  Oh, and that infamous sin-binning.  I hope to see more from Jamie Roberts and the wonderful James Hook this week.

Scotland welcome back prop Euan Murray to bolster their scrum, and fly-half Dan Parks and Rory Lamont also return.  Godman had a pretty God awful game last weekend and is replaced by Parks who has enjoyed a good season so far with Glasgow. Super sidestepping king Max Evans is also dropped, as is Moray Low.  Scotland coach Andy Robinson has added extra spice to the encounter by preventing Wales from closing the Millennium Stadium roof for the match.  It's all within the rules of course, and I don't blame Robinson for stopping Wales from getting any sort of extra advantage.  To get anything from this game the brothers Sean and Rory Lamont need to put to away their chances against the Welsh.  There were positives from the France game as Scotland did break the line, but then the attacks fizzled out and Scotland came away empty handed.

This is a must win match for both sides.  With home advantage on their side, I'm going for Wales.

My prediction:  Wales to win by 12.
   
Italy v England
Serial wooden spoon winners Italy host a revitalised England on Valentine's Day.  If rugby be the food of love, play on.  Or something like that.  Martin Johnson has made two changes to his starting XV with Dan Cole getting the nod ahead of David Wilson, and a fit again Riki Flutey pushing Toby Flood to the bench.  The replacements haven't been named yet (at the time of writing), and both Steve Borthwick and Simon Shaw have been struck with illness.  Is that Courtney Lawes I see hovering near the starting XV?  Don't be daft, it's Louis Deacon.  Lawes was originally sent back to Northampton but was then recalled, and he will now stay with the England squad.  Shontayne Hape has also been doing the rugby hokey cokey - in, out, in, out - and might yet get to shake it all about with an appearance from the bench.

Italy are without injured lock Carlo Del Fava and scrum-half Simon Picone.  Sergio Parisse is out for the entire competition due to a knee ligament injury.  Italy coach Nick Mallet will confirm his team to face England on Friday 12th, but I expect to see pretty much the same starting line up as last weekend, injuries aside.  Craig "Controversy" Gower was pretty anonymous in Italy's 29-11 defeat to Ireland, and the entire Italian backline was so ineffective England really should stamp their authority on this game.

My prediction:  England to win by 25 points.

So what do you think?  Are my predictions right this week or am I wearing my rose-tinted spectacles?

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Rob Kearney: Future Ireland Captain

Rob Kearney looks set to take over the captaincy of Ireland when Brian O'Driscoll hangs up his boots in a couple of years.

The Ireland and British and Irish Lions full back has cemented his position in the Ireland team with his excellent footballing skills, and now he is upping his claims for the captaincy role after revealing his relationship with his new celebrity girlfriend.

Move over Bramy (Brian O'Driscoll and Amy Huberman), Rosie is the hot new couple in town.

Rob is dating British actress Susie Amy, and the pair revealed their new relationship when they stepped out for the opening night of Queen musical "We Will Rock You" in Dublin.

Susie, who is best known for her role as WAG-tastic Chardonnay Lane-Pascoe in TV show Footballers' Wives, has traded in her character's trappings of WAG-dom and is the latest "scrummie" on the block.

I asked Susie if she will be travelling to Paris this weekend to support her rugby playing beau when Ireland take on France in the Six Nations.
She said: "Yes I am.  I reckon it'll be a tough one.  That's just my opinion!".

Susie also travelled to watch Rob play against Italy in the Six Nations opener at Croke part, and jetted into Dublin to support her man during last year's November tests.

With Brian O'Driscoll almost ready to draw his pension and Paul O'Connell seven years Kearney's senior, Kearney is a strong candidate for Ireland captain in the future.  The fact he has bagged a celebrity girlfriend in true O'Driscoll style will launch his star further into the stratosphere.

Kearney's rise into rugby stardom has been meteoric.  He started his rugby education at Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare, before being part of University College Dublin's U-20s team which won the McCorry Cup in 2005.  Kearney played for Leinster at both schoolboy and U-19 level before making his debut in the senior squad in a Magners League game against the Ospreys in 2005.  A rapid ascension through the Ireland A ranks led him to win his first full Ireland cap in June 2007 on the tour to Argentina.  Now at only 23 he is a regular fixture in the 15 shirt for both Leinster and Ireland and was one of the standout players on last year's Lions tour to South Africa, scoring a memorable try in the second test in Pretoria.

Kearney takes a calm and focussed approach to his rugby and is already displaying all the qualities required by an international captain.  Of course he may fall into the celebrity trap and flail around in the rugby wilderness like messrs Henson and Cipriani, but I think Kearney is too savvy to make that mistake.  If he keeps his feet on the pitch and his head in the game, then I tip Kearney to be Ireland captain in a few years. 

Of course, if he truly is going to follow in the footsteps of Ireland's rugby messiah, Brian O'Driscoll, then a celebrity girlfriend definitely helps. 

Rob Kearney: captain in waiting.  Just don't tell Jamie Heaslip.

Photo source

Monday, 8 February 2010

Six Nations Week 1: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

The Good...

A 30-17 win for England, despite a strong comeback from Wales in the second half.
England's line out.  Excellent work again from messrs Borthwick and Shaw.
Jonny Wilkinson.  Another 15 points in the bag.  Easy.
James Hook's solo try.  Is he Barry John in disguise?
France's Mathieu Bastareaud, an 18 stone double try-scoring powerhouse.  Ireland beware in Paris next week.
The French front five.  Dominated scrum time, solid in the line out and great in the loose.

The Bad...

Scotland's scrum which looked totally feeble.  Please hurry back Euan Murray.
Wales' goal kicking.  A couple of misses for James Hook which let England off the hook early on.
Ireland's second half performance.  Brian O'Driscoll said it was "mediocre" and "frustrating".  I nearly drifted off to sleep.  Ireland have got to step it up before their trip to Paris next weekend.
Rob Kearney's sloppy clearance, straight into the arms of Kane Robertson, who skipped over the line for an easy try.

The Ugly...

Italy's tediously slow work at the breakdown.  The BBC commentator said Italy's backs could make a cappuccino in the time it took their scrum-half Tebaldi to dig the ball out.  I think it would have been quicker if I had swum across the Irish sea to Croke Park and got the ball for him.  Zzzzzz.
Gonzalo Garcia's attempted spear tackle on Brian O'Driscoll.  Tut, tut.  A well deserved yellow card for that one.
Alun Wyn Jones' stupid trip.  Cue a ten minute sin-binning and England scoring two tries against 14 man Wales.  D'oh.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Six Nations Top Trumps: Scotland

“We are in control of our destiny. We control whether we win or lose. If we attack well and control the scoreboard and then defend well, we’ll win the game. It’s down to us. It’s not about the opposition. It’s not about the referee. It’s about what we do." said Scotland head coach Andy Robinson.

Robinson, the first English man to coach Scotland's national rugby squad, has successfully moved on from his disastrous tenure as England coach and has picked up the reins north of the border.  Eyebrows were raised when Robinson landed the job, but after Scotland's 9-8 win over Australia at Murrayfield in November, a narrow 9-6 defeat by Argentina and a 23-10 victory over Fiji, there were reasons to be cheerful.  With less players to pick from, Robinson's chances of making any selection howlers (see Jamie Noon and Mike Tindall) are limited, and after licking his wounds and rebuilding his reputation slowly but surely as Head Coach of Edinburgh, Robinson is once again in the international spotlight.

So how will Robinson's Scotland side fare in this year's Six Nations?  Here is what I think:




Scrum: 61/100.
The forwards have to perform against the might of the French and Welsh scrums in particular.  If Scotland are to stand any chance of climbing out of the bottom half of the table this year then their tight five have to create a decent platform.  British and Irish Lion Euan Murray will miss the opening game against France as he no longer plays on Sundays due to his religious beliefs.

Line-Out: 65/100.
Lions hooker Ross Ford has Nathan Hines and Alastair Kellock to aim at in the line out.  Not bad.  Scotland need to win all their set piece, especially as their back line isn't as dazzling as the other nations.  Well, with the exception of Italy.

Defence:76/100.
Strong defence won the day in Scotland's brilliant victory over Australia. It was a low scoring game but it was far from dull.  Scotland poured their heart and soul into the game and repeatedly put their bodies on the line.  If they can do this in the Six Nations then they won't be a simple walk over for their competitors.

Attacking Flair: 62/100.
Thom and Max Evans and Sean Lamont are the main attacking threats in the Scottish backline.  Chris Paterson isn't exactly brimming with flair, but he is a solid presence at full back and has a good boot which will help gain territory.  Captain Chris Cusiter is a nippy scrum-half who loves to break the line.

Stadium: 67/100.
Murrayfield.  Capacity 67,500.

Snore Factor: 45/100.
Scotland don't have the world famous stars or the flair and flamboyance of other teams, but under the influence of coach Andy Robinson they have demonstrated guts and firm belief in their abilities.  With belief comes the confidence to try things, and this will make for entertaining rugby.

Phwoargh factor:  78/100.
Chris Cusiter is a curly haired cutie and a big favourite of mine.  Thom and Max Evans and Hugo Southwell all starred in this year's Dieux Du Stade calendar and showed off their six packs (amongst other things).  All very easy on the eye as I'm sure all the ladies will agree.

Scandal Potential: 20/100.
Erm, I can't think of anything really.  It will be a massive result if they can turn over France in their opening game, but I wouldn't call it a scandal.

As for the standings:

Last year: 5th.
Prediction for this year: 5th.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Six Nations and LV= Cup Previews and Predictions

The Six Nations kicks off this weekend, and there is plenty more rugby in the LV= Cup.  Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend.



The Six Nations

Ireland v Italy
2009 Grand Slam champions Ireland play wooden spoon winners Italy in the opening clash of the tournament.  Italy have leaked an average of 29 points per game since this time last year, and with Ireland's sizzling backline of stars I can't see this changing on Saturday.  Italy has a strong scrum containing Castrogiavanni, Del Fava, Bortelami and Bergamasco, although the loss of World class eight man Sergio Parisse is huge.  Despite this Italy will look to target the perceived weakness in Ireland's front row, and Cian Healy will have to scrummage for his life.  Ronan O'Gara is back in the 10 jersey for Ireland due to an injury to Jonny Sexton, and Brian O'Driscoll's centre partner from Leinster, Gordon D'Arcy, is also named in the starting XV.  With Italy's backline lacking in spark, Ireland will walk this game.

My prediction:  Ireland by 23.

England v Wales
A new look England play Wales in a match that celebrates a centenary of matches between the countries at Twickenham.  Riki Flutey and Mathew Tait return and form yet another centre combination, whilst Delon Armitage starts at full back.  Nick Easter is back at 8, and Foden and uncapped prop Dan Cole appear on the bench.  Compared with November's team, on paper this version of England has a lot more flair.  Wales have an experienced pack which includes Lions props of Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins.  Shane Williams, another Lions man, is out on the wing, whilst Jamie Roberts will look to punch holes in England's defence.  Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel are side lined due to injury which is a big loss to Wales coach Warren Gatland.  Both sides are under pressure after lacklustre performances in November,

My prediction:  England to win by 6.

Scotland v France
Defence is the keyword for Scotland who will look to dampen the French attack as they did in their 9-8 victory over Australia in November.  The boot of Chris Paterson and the dogged determination of the forwards are crucial if Scotland are to stand a chance of turning over France.  Imanol Harinordoquy is a big danger man for the visitors, both at the line-out and in the loose.  Sebastian Chabal, Fabien Barcella and Damien Traille are all injured and will miss the game, and scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde replaces the banned Julien Dupuy. Scotland will be hoping that the brothers Lamont will step up and score tries and get their tournament off to a flier.

My prediction:  France to win by 12.
 
 
LV= Cup
 
Ospreys v Leeds Carnegie
The Ospreys were crushed 40-19 by the Dragons last week on the back of their Heineken Cup win over Leicester.  Leeds were also defeated last weekend at Headingley by Saracens, with Leeds' woeful home form continuing after their torrid 18-9 Amlin Cup defeat by Bourgoin.  Unlike the Ospreys, Leeds aren't affected by international call ups, but with their current form I can't see Leeds taking anything from this game.

My prediction:  Ospreys by 12.
 
Bath v Sale
Bath lost 27-11 to Leicester in the last round, and Sale lost 20-14 at home to Northampton.  Both of these teams look unlikely to progress in this competition, both sitting third in their respective pools.  Bath have ground out a few results with home advantage, whilst Sale's performances away from home have been woeful this season.

My prediction:  Bath to win by 7.

Northampton v Leicester
Pool 1 leaders Leicester travel to Franklins Gardens to play the only English team remaining in the Heineken Cup.  Last week the Tigers dispatched Bath at Welford Road 27-11 with a strong second string side, whilst the Saints beat Sale 20-14 away from home.  With Foden, Lawes and Hartley missing for Northampton and Moody, Flood, Deacon and Cole missing for the Tigers, the second strings will battle it out again.

My prediction:  Leicester to win by 9.

Scarlets v Cardiff Blues
Both teams are top of their respective pools, and both teams come into this game on the back of a win in the last round.  The Blues demolished Newcastle 45-24 and ran in six tries, whilst the Scarlets beat Wasps 18-13 away at Adams Park.  Both sides will be stripped of their Welsh stars and step out a shadow of the sides that both bowed out of the Heineken Cup.  Separated by one place in the Magners League it is a tough one to call, but I think the Scarlets will edge it.

My prediction:  Scarlets to win by 5.

Worcester v London Irish
When these teams last met in the Guinness Premiership on 5 December at the Madejski Stadium, the result was a 16-16 draw.  Both teams have won one game from three in this competition.  Last week, Irish lost at 16-13 home to Harlequins whilst Worcester were defeated 17-5 by Gloucester at Kingsholm.  The Exiles will miss the Armitage brothers whilst Worcester will be without Matt Mullen and Alex Grove.

My prediction:  Another draw.

Harlequins v Gloucester
Harlequins have been the Kings of inconsistency this season.  They failed to win a single pool game in the Heineken Cup but have shown flashes of brilliance in the Guinness Premiership.  Sitting second behind Cardiff Blues in their LV= Cup pool, last week Harlequins beat London Irish away from home.  Gloucester lie second in their pool after beating Worcester 17-5 last weekend.  When they met in the Guinness Premiership on 28 November, Harlequins' Danny Care and Nick Evans ran riot and led Quins to an impressive 35-29 victory.  Care is on England duty, but I think Quins will win again.

My prediction:  Harlequins by 8.

Newcastle v Wasps
When these side last met in the Guinness Premiership at Adams Park Newcastle pulled off a shock 12-6 victory.  This was thanks to the Falcons dominance at the scrum, as Carl Hayman and John Golding demolished the Wasps' pack.  Last weekend Wasps suffered against the Scarlets, losing 18-13 at home.  Newcastle also suffered a defeat away to the Cardiff Blues.  With psychological advantage after their last meeting, I think Newcastle will win again.

My prediction:  Newcastle to win by 6.

Saracens v Newport Gwent Dragons
Saracens won 28-5 against Leeds Carnegie in the last round, and are second in their pool on points difference.  The Dragons beat the Ospreys 40-19 last weekend and also lie second in their pool.  The Dragons' form in the Magners League has been inconsistent as they have won five of their ten matches.  Saracens are second in the Guinness Premiership, one point behind leaders Leicester with a game in hand.  Based on consistency of performances, I'm tipping Saracens to win.

My prediction:  Saracens by 11.

So what do you think?  Have I got my predictions right this week?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Six Nations Top Trumps: France

“Our team is very fit, but the Top 14 schedule is very punishing and we do not get a lot of time with the players. It’s tough, but we’re in good shape," said France coach Marc Lievremont.

Looks like he spoke too soon.  Lock Sebastien Chabal misses France's opening game against Scotland with a back injury and France will also be without injured centre/wing Damien Traille and prop Fabien Barcella.  Lievremont has made a few changes to his squad since November, with talented scrum-half and kicker Jean-Baptiste Elissalde replacing the banned Julien Dupuy.  Centre Mathieu Bastareaud returns after being dropped for the November tests and utility back Fabrice Estebanez also joins the squad.  There are a few shock omissions as once again Lievremont keeps everyone guessing.  Fly-half Frederic Michalak, full-back Maxime Medard, wing Cedric Heymans, and Stade Francais fly-half Lionel Beauxis, have all been left out.

In 2009's competition, France finished third behind Grand Slam champions Ireland and their auld enemy England.  France will be looking to build on their impressive 20-13 win over South Africa in November and forget about the 39-12 defeat against New Zealand.  With home games against their biggest rivals, Ireland and England, this could be France's year.

So how will they fare?



Scrum: 79/100.
Barcella's injury is a blow to France as he turned in strong performances against South Africa and New Zealand in the autumn.  The French back row is impressive though, with Dusautoir, Picamoles and Harinordoquy.  Chabal will miss the first game, but on the whole the scrum is an area of strength for France.

Line-Out: 68/100.
The second row looks a bit iffy for France, especially if Chabal misses more than the opener with his back trouble.

Attacking Flair: 88/100.
With Heymans and Medard left out in the cold, a certain amount of French flair has gone out the door with them.  However, Harinordoquy is an agile forward who scores tries and Rougerie's form has been good this season.  Poitrenaud and Clerc are both brilliant attacking players as is Malzieu.  France do seem to have a weakness at fly-half which might dampen the Gallic flair, but this is a team of flamboyant risk takers, which is exactly what I want to see from France.

Defence: 55/100.
Pah!  It's all about attack!

Stadium: 85/100.
Stade de France.  Capacity 80,000.

Snore Factor: 8/100.
Very low.  France are risk takers who play flamboyant, running rugby.  Dull is not the word.

Phwoargh Factor: 78/100.
Dieux Du Stade, anyone?

Scandal Potential: 76/100.
High.  I don't like to raise the subject again, but there's always the chance of a backlash over Gouge-gate.

As for the final standings:

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

Six Nations Top Trumps: Wales

"We need to get off to a good start. If you don’t get off to a winning start, there is that added pressure and you’re always chasing.”

I couldn't agree with you more, Warren Gatland. 

Beware Martin Johnson's England on 6 February when Wales arrive at Twickenham.  Wales' coach Gatland is certainly talking the talk.  Gatland has focused on the inexperience of the England scrum as a weakness that will be targeted by his British and Irish Lions filled pack.  But will Wales fire in 2010?  In last year's tournament they slipped to a disappointing 4th place after clinching the Grand Slam in 2008, and losses to Australia and South Africa at Cardiff in November wasn't the ideal preparation.  Wales have two tough games away from home: at Twickenham on the opening weekend and then across the Irish sea at Croke Park.  With key players sidelined due to injury and with pundits questioning Wales' mental toughness, the pressure to perform is on. 

Here are their ratings:



Scrum: 85/100.
Wales have an excellent tight 5 including an all Lions front row in Adam Jones, Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins.  Alun Wynn Jones and either Ian Gough or Luke Charteris will add power in the boiler room.  Wales' opening game is against England at Twickenham, who with the absence of Sheridan and Vickery, are likely to field an internationally inexperienced front row.  Games are won and lost based on what happens up front, and the scrum is where Wales will look to dominate.  And I think they will.

Line-Out: 70/100.
With Alun Wynn Jones, Gough/Charteris and Ryan Jones as the jumpers, and Matthew Rees as the hooker, this is another set piece where Wales should excel.

Attacking Flair:  71/100.
Shane Williams is fit and will play on the wing, as will fellow Lion Leigh Halfpenny.  It's a shame that scrum-halves Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel both miss the competition due to injury, as both are classy playmakers who snipe around the fringes of the scrum.  Richie Rees has been in fine form for the Cardiff Blues at this position though and is one to watch.  World class full back Lee Byrne will play against England after having his ban for being the Ospreys' 16th man in the Heineken Sup game against Leicester overturned.  Stephen Jones might not be a flamboyant fly-half but his magic point scoring boot more than makes up it.  And then there's Lion and Baa-Baa, Jamie Roberts, who is yet another world class player in the Wales team.  All in all, there is attacking flair oozing from this team, but can they string it together?

Defence:  45/100.
Wales' defence was well and truly dismantled in the 33-12 defeat by Australia in November.  The Wallabies ran in four tries which almost made Wales' defence coach, Shaun Edwards, implode with anger.  With such an array of attacking backs, Wales will have to tighten up on their defence to avoid leaving gaping holes on the counter attack.

Stadium: 73/100.
Millennium Stadium.  Capacity 74,500.

Snore Factor: 35/100.
It all depends if the Wales squad of 2010 will emulate their inconsistent performances of last year or their Grand Slam campaign of 2008.  I think it's likely to be somewhere in between based on their opposition, with flashes of brilliance balanced with a certain lack of incision.

Phwoargh Factor: 55/100
Lee "Tango Tan" Byrne, James "I'll play anywhere" Hook and Jonathan "No, not the pundit" Davies are the main attractions in this category.  Mike Phillips is a big loss in this department, and some might argue that the lesser spotted Gavin Henson will be missed.  On the whole it's slim pickings though, unless you like big hair that is.  If that's the case, then Adam Jones is the man for you.

Scandal Potential: 34/100.
Medium.  Nothing too controversial, but I'd suggest that Wales' opposition keep taking a quick headcount during the game, just to make sure that Lee Byrne hasn't sneaked on from the sidelines.

As for the final standings:
Last season: 4th.
Prediction for this season: 4th.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Man of the Month: February

February brings us the start of the fabulous Six Nations, and February's Man of the Month is a player who I think will have a massive impact in this year's tournament.

There were a few players shortlisted but one player really stood out. 

Courtney Lawes was a big contendor.  He is one of England's young guns and a man I'm hoping to see do much more than spend the majority of the tournament warming the bench.

Then I almost plumped for Jamie Roberts, Wales' brilliant centre.

Of course there's Ireland heroes like Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip.  And who can forget Jonny Sexton, the new kid on the block?

Or how about Imanol Harinordoquy, France's excellent back row forward?

Scotland captain Chris Cusiter nearly made the final cut, and I would have gone for Italy's Sergio Parisse if he wasn't ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury.

However there can be only one Man of the Month. 

Whilst I haven't exactly enjoyed a love affair of Mills and Boon proportions with Steve Borthwick, he is my Mr. February.



Why?  Well, I've had a change of heart where Borthers is concerned.  Whilst I don't think he's the man to take England all the way to the World Cup Final next year, he is the England captain and I'm going to get behind him.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Borthwick might not be the most dynamic leader on the rugby pitch but he is solid, dependable in the line out and brings a cool head.

If England are to win the Six Nations this year then they'll need both a minor miracle and also plenty of support.  That is why Steve is my Man of the Month.

Please don't let me down now, captain.