Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Who Will Be the Champions?

The Guinness Premiership is rounding the find bend and all the teams at the top are sharpening their spikes for the final run in.

Last week I upset Sale fans when I picked the Sharks as the team most likely to slip into the Championship next season.

Now, I'm going to crane my neck and look at the top of the table to see just who could be Guinness Premiership Champions.

Let's delve into each team's remaining fixtures, do a bit of crappy maths and conjure up a potential winner.

Here are the teams with their current league positions, points and run in:

Leicester Tigers

Points: 58
Position: 1st
Fixtures: Bath (H), Falcons (A), Harlequins (H), Saracens (H)
Playoff tip:  It's not a bad run in for the Tigers with three of their last four games at fortress Welford Road.  Coach Richard Cockerill will expect to pick up five points against both the Falcons and Quins, and I expect Leicester to battle out wins againsts Bath and Sarries.  A top two spot and a home semi-final awaits.

Northampton Saints

Points: 56
Position: 2nd
Fixtures: Leeds (A), Gloucester (H), Bath (A), Saracens (H), London Irish (A)

Playoff tip:  The Saints have a tougher run in than Leicester with tricky away games against Bath and the Exiles.  Leeds could be a potential banana skin as they battle relegation, but Northampton will expect to take the full five points this weekend.  An LV= Cup final rematch against Gloucester could be a humdinger of a grudge match, and whilst Sarries's form has been pretty rubbish, last weekend they put Newcastle to the sword in a seven try demolishion job.  Despite this, Northampton are the form team and in pole position for a home semi final.


Points: 51
Position: 3rd
Fixtures: Gloucester (A), Sale(A), Harlequins (H), Northampton (A), Leicester (A)

Playoff tip:  A very tough run-in for Brendan Venter and chums.  Away trips to Franklins Gardens and Welford Road in the final two rounds are a massive ask for a team with stuttering form.  Gloucester away won't be easy as the cherry and whites are also strong right now.  Sale should be a four or five pointer, but the game against Quins could be tricky.  I think Sarries have peaked too soon and will finish in 5th.

London Irish

Points: 48
Position: 4th
Fixtures: Wasps (A), Worcester (A), Leeds (H), Gloucester (A), Northampton (H)
Playoff tip:  With the exception of Gloucester and Northampton this isn't a bad run in for the Exiles.  But what about Wasps?  Well, to be honest I'm not quite sure how Danny Celebriani and pals have climbed so high up the table, as losses to Leeds, Sale and Saints in recent weeks is hardly championship form.  Therefore I expect Irish to bag a win at Adams Park, take the points from Leeds and Worcester and finish in third or fouth.  I think they'll be happy with a semi-final, even though it won't be at home.


Points: 44
Position: 5th
Fixtures: London Irish(H), Worcester (A), Bath (A), Newcastle Falcons (H)
Playoff tip:  Wasps will finish out of the top four.  They have one game less to play than most of their rivals and can't realistically target the Newcastle or Worcester games as sure things.  The Falcons beat Wasps at home, and Wasps on the road are about as tough to beat as a team of under 7s.  They will finish in 6th.


Points: 42
Position: 6th
Fixtures: Leicester (A), Sale (H), Northampton (H), Wasps (A), Leeds(A)

Playoff tip:  Bath look to be timing their run in rather nicely.  A dreadful first half of the season saw them languishing down at the bottom of the table, but an impressive run of form hsa propelled them to in touching distance of the top four.  Steve Meehan's men are the best team in the league on current form having grabbed 30 of the last 35 available league points.  They're also the best team away from home with 25 points scored on the road.  Bath are coming up on the rails fast and I think they'll pip Wasps to a playoff place.
So, with form and the run-in analysed, I think the semi-finalists will be:

  1. Leicester Tigers
  2. Northampton Saints
  3. London Irish
  4. Bath Rugby 
But which team will be crowned champions?

Gut feeling?  I think it could well be Northampton's year.

Put your hands up for the Saints


I don't know.  As I say it's just a feeling.  Everything coming out of the club at the moment is positive.  They have several international players with plenty more on the fringes.  The Saints have already won their first piece of silverware this year with the LV= Cup and they are the only English team still in the Heineken Cup.  The coaching set up of Jim Mallinder, Dorian West and Paul Grayson has worked wonders.  Everything just seems to be clicking at the right time.

It's not that I'm discounting Leicester, Bath and London Irish - it's just that these teams don't seem to have that extra spark right now.  Leicester are great at home but their away form hasn't been as impressive and their high profile departures are unsettling.  OK, so Soane Tonga'uiha is leaving Northampton for Sarries next season and Neil Best is heading to Worcester - but I hear Tonga'uiha is now trying to stay at Franklins Gardens do the the postive outlook at the club.

I could wheel out some stats about the final league position of teams who have gone on to win the title in previous years, but I won't as I don't think that really matters.

If the top four shapes up as above, I think Northampton will beat London Irish in the semi-final and go on to do a job on Leicester in the final.

Again, don't ask me why, but I just have a feeling....

Relegation Watch: Week 1

It's time for my weekly round up of the relegation run-in.

All five teams at the bottom failed to win any league points in round 18.

London Irish gave Sale a belated St Paddy's day thrashing in a 38-0 'greenwash'.

Sale's Mathew Tait decides the best plan is to close his eyes and wait for the nightmare to end.

Leeds Carnegie lost 19-0 to Gloucester, thanks to the boot of cherry and white fly-half Nicky Robinson.

Newcastle were, how can I put this, destroyed 58-15 by Saracens in a 7 try demolision.

Worcester put up a slightly better fight against Leicester, but the Tigers did a job on them in the second half to beat the Warriors 39-18.

Harlequins also suffered at the hands of in-form Bath and whimpered to a 24-13 defeat.

So, no change at the bottom then.

But, things are about to get rather tasty in the next round.  Sale and Worcester will battle it out at Edgeley Park in a classic '8 pointer'.

And Leeds entertain high flying Northampton in the sandpit that is Headingley Carnegie, whilst Newcastle make the trip to the Stoop to take on Quins.

So, after last weekend's results I'm going to stick with my original prediction:
Sale are still in the relegation hotseat.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Guinness Premiership Previews and Predictions: Round 18

Northampton Saints v London Wasps

Last Sunday Northampton won the LV= Cup at Sixways in an action packed game of entertaining end-to-end rugby.

So the Saints have one prize safely stashed in their trophy cabinet and are still firmly in the Heineken Cup. They are also second in the league and have a great chance of being crowned Premiership champions. This means confidence is really riding high at Franklins Gardens, which is no surprise as the Saints have won seven of their last eight games in all competitions. In fact, Northampton have won their last 20 games at home since Newcastle triumphed there, 19-13, on 28 February 2009.

London Wasps, on the other hand, have lost two of their last three games in the league. These came on the road to relegation battlers Leeds and Sale, but despite this, Wasps are still two league places behind the Saints and are clinging on to fourth.

Even though Northampton have won just two of their last twelve games with Wasps, form says that the Saints will probably win this round.

My prediction: Northampton to win by 9.

London Irish v Sale Sharks

London Irish have won five of their last six encounters with the Sharks, and Sale last tasted victory at the Madejski Stadium way back in October 2006.

However, the Exiles have won just one of their last nine games in all competitions, which was the 29-14 home win over Harlequins in the Premiership on 28 February.

Sale Sharks' eight game losing run in all competitions came to an end with their 19-8 victory over London Wasps at Edgeley Park on Friday. This result saw Sale climb off the foot of the table and up into 10th.

But the Sharks are a team on the edge and look to be suffering from low morale. Can they turn their season round at this late stage with the return of international stars Mark Cueto, Mathew Tait and Dwayne Peel?

It’s going to be tough. Sale's only away win in the league since January 2009 was their 24-17 result at Leeds on 22 November. Contrast that with fifth place London Irish who are gunning for a top four finish.

My prediction: The Exiles will be too strong for their visitors, and will win by 10 points.

Worcester Warriors v Leicester Tigers

Bottom of the table Worcester might be struggling, but they do have a small claim to fame over Leicester: the lowly Warriors are the only side to take a Premiership league point from Welford Road so far this season.

But can they grab all four points in the home reversal?

Probably not. Leicester have won eight of their last nine matches against Worcester, including the 19-14 win at home in round five.

Worcester’s only victory in their last dozen league matches was 13-0 win at home to Newcastle on 26 February. However, the Warriors have won their last three games at Sixways in all competitions and the Tigers’ form away from home has seen them lose three of their last four away games.

All that aside, this is a top v bottom clash which I can only see going one way.

My prediction: Leicester to win by 12.

Gloucester Rugby v Leeds Carnegie

Last Sunday saw another dose of cup final heartbreak for Gloucester when Northampton snatched the LV= Cup in a thrilling game.

But will this loss affect them on Saturday? Neil Back’s Leeds will certainly hope so.

Gloucester have won their last five matches against Leeds, and the home side are unbeaten in their last eight games at Kingsholm.

However, Carnegie have won their last three Guinness Premiership games in their best run in the competition since 2004/05. Leeds will hope to add to this tally at the start of the run in, but the Yorkshiremen have won just once in seven previous visits to Kingsholm. That came in the 33-15 in the Guinness Premiership on 9 April 2005.

My prediction: The two week break could well have derailed Leeds’ momentum, and Gloucester will have a point to prove. Gloucester to win by 8.

Saracens v Newcastle Falcons

Saracens have lost their last four matches in all competitions and have picked up just eight points from their last six league games. This is hardly impressive form for the team who led the way at the start of the season.

Newcastle Falcons are also in a bad run of form and have lost their last six games. Their last win came in the Amlin Cup game at Kingston Park on 22 January against Petrarca Padova. The Falcons haven’t won on the road in the Guinness Premiership since their 12-6 victory at London Wasps on 3 January, so this weekend’s trip will be tough.

History tells us Sarries have won three of their last four games against Newcastle, and the Falcons have only won on two of their previous visits to Vicarage Road

My prediction: Both teams are under pressure to win, with points scored from the boot likely to decide this encounter. Saracens to win by 6.

Bath Rugby v Harlequins

Bath are the best side in the Guinness Premiership on current form having dropped only four of their last 30 possible league points. They approach this game having won their last five games in all competitions and four of their last five matches at The Rec.

Harlequins have won two of their last three games in the Guinness Premiership, but are winless away from home since their trip to Leeds on 4 December.

But the Quins have won their last four encounters with Bath including a 13-11 victory at Twickenham Stoop in round five.

So who will win?

My prediction: On current form, especially at home, it’s got to be Bath by 9.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Guinness Premiership Relegation Run In

Now that the Six Nations has whimpered to an uninspiring conclusion it's all eyes back to the Guinness Premiership, Magners League and Heineken Cup.

As we approach the so called 'business end' of the season, I'll be looking at the teams jostling for position at the top of the Premiership and those fighting for survival at the bottom.

First up, I will cast my eyes over the teams hoping to avoid the dreaded trapdoor.

But which team will come up short?

Will Worcester be saved from the drop by scrappy bonus points?

Can Leeds Carnegie continue their recent winning streak and climb away from the Championship?

Do Newcastle have what it takes to stay in the top flight?

Or will Sale survive despite a torrid run of form?

The Guinness Premiership table

With only six rounds left the battle at the bottom is really hotting up.  Unlike previous seasons, the team that will fall by the Premiership wayside is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Home games are all important in the fight for Guinness Premiership survival, but so are the head to head matches between the teams at the bottom.

Sale play fellow relegation battlers Worcester and Newcastle in their run in, but crucially for Kingsley Jones' men both these games are at home.  The Sharks beat Wasps in their game in hand (also known as Pizzagate take two) to claw their way up to 10th.  However Sale's form has been dire recently, and prior to the win over Wasps they were suffering their worst run in the league since the 2000/01 season.

Leeds approach the final half dozen fixtures on the back of a three game winning streak in the league.  However the two week break won't have helped their momentum. Carnegie only two home games left to play - the lowest of all the teams facing the drop.  These are against high flying Northampton, and what promises to be an epic relegation dogfight against bottom of the table Worcester in the penultimate round.  Still, three of Leeds' five Guinness Premiership wins have been on the road, so this won't trouble Neil Back's men unduly.

Worcester are currently bottom of the pile and have tough games against top four teams Leicester and Wasps.  Wuss also face London Irish, who are pushing for a top four finish.  However all these games are at home, and in their last six matches Worcester only have to two games away from Sixways.  These matches are against fellow relegation fodder Leeds and Sale, which puts extra pressure on Mike Ruddock's team to at least win a couple of bonus points at home.

Newcastle have a nasty run-in, but they will take heart that they have already beaten Wasps and drawn with Sale this year.  Gloucester, Harlequins, Leicester and Saracens aren't the teams you want to be playing at this point in the season, especially as the spectre of relegation is looming.

But what about Harlequins and Gloucester?  Surely these two supremos won't be dragged down into the relegation dogfight? 

Probably not, although Quins did fall into the Championship in the 2004/05 season.  However the reality is that Quins and Glaws are only four points ahead of Newcastle and five points ahead of Sale and Leeds down in 10th and 11th.  Even bottom of the pile Worcester are only two wins away from overhauling these Premiership giants.  So it is possible that if, albeit rather unlikely, that if Gloucester and Harlequins make a hash of their home games, they could find the last few weeks of the season rather uncomfortable.

So what are each teams' chances of survival?  Here is what I think:


Points: 32
Position: 7th
Fixtures: Newcastle (A), Leeds (H), Saracens (H), Northampton (A), London Irish (H), Worcester (A)

Survival chance: As good as Bear Grylls living on a diet of twigs and dangleberries.  4.5/5.


Points: 32
Position: 8th
Fixtures: Bath (A), Newcastle (H), Leeds (H), Saracens (A: Wembley), Leicester (A), Sale (H)

Survival chance: Wins against two of the three strugglers Newcastle, Leeds or Sale will see them safe.  Quins might have experienced a few problems with blood, but nosebleeders they are not. 4/5


Points: 28
Position: 9th
Fixtures: Gloucester (H), Saracens (A), Harlequins (A), Leicester (H), Sale (A), Wasps (H)

Survival chance: Yuk. If the Falcons are to survive it's going to be tough. 1.5/5.


Points: 27
Position: 10th
Fixtures: London Irish (A), Worcester (H), Saracens (H), Bath (A), Newcastle (H), Harlequins (A)

Survival chance: Everything rests on the outcome of the games against Worcester and Newcastle.  Win these and Sale are in with a shout.  Lose them both and Sale are sunk. 1/5.


Points: 27
Position: 11th
Fixtures: Gloucester (A), Northampton (H), Harlequins (A), London Irish (A), Worcester (H), Bath (A)

Survival chance: It's by no means an easy run in, but recent wins over Saracens and Wasps show Leeds could have what it takes to stay up. 3/5.


Points: 25
Position: 12th
Fixtures: Leicester (H), Sale (A), London Irish (H), Wasps (H), Leeds (A), Gloucester (H)

Survival chance: It's another tough batch of games and the match at Leeds looks like it will be crucial.  However, Worcester have a habit of surviving against the odds. 3.5/5.

So by my calculations the toothless Sharks will be swimming in the Championship next season.

Well, unless they are saved by the fiasco of the Championship playoff system that is.

But what do you think? 

Will Sale be the ones plummeting through the Guinness Premiership trapdoor on Saturday 8th May?

Saturday, 20 March 2010

England's Key Battles

France beat England 12-10 on a rain soaked evening in Paris to clinch their ninth Grand Slam.

However England came close to ruining the party, and would have won the game if they hadn't missed a couple of scoring chances.

But there is still plenty to smile about if you're an England fan.

OK, so England should have scored at least one more try.  It's also true that Martin Johnson's men were unable to convert their lion's share of possesion into match-winning points. 

But despite the difficult conditions England showed flashes of brilliance which have been sadly missing from their previous performances in the tournament.

Ben Foden scored a sensational try after five minutes, when England quickly worked the ball through several pairs of hands and exposed France's half-arsed defence.

Unfortunately Chris Ashton kicked away a prime try-scoring chance, but other than that he made a solid debut.  Mike Tindall came back from nowhere and put in a great performance.  In fact, England's backline looked much more threatening as a whole.  There were still problems at scrum time, with prop Dan Cole looking a bit shaky and hooker Dylan Hartley was a little inconsistent.

However, as an England fan, I feel much happier about their performance.  I just hope Martin Johnson remembers how successful the Ben Foden/Chris Ashton experiment was come the summer tour.

All that aside,  during the game I noticed a few key battles which I'd like to draw your attention to:

Martin Johnson 0 v 1 Crazy French Lady

Or Raphael Ibanez's mother-in-law to use her correct title.  The England coach really had his work cut out, as Ibanez's rather vocal relative let Johnno know exactly what she felt about his team.

"Sit DOWN!"

Brian Moore 1 v 0 Referee Bryce Lawrence

Beware rugby officials everywhere.  Brian Moore, ex-hooker and now BBC pundit, is ready to hunt you down.  The former England front row is now a fully qualified referee - and don't we know it.  To give Brian his dues, he was right when he called Bryce's performance "below average".  The ref got a couple of blindingly obvious decisions wrong, and Moore duly savaged him like a rabid dog.

Martin Johnson 1 v 0 Bryce Lawrence

During the first half, referee Lawrence got it into his head that England prop Dan Cole was to blame for all of the problems at scrum time.  Cole was pinged again and again and again.  OK so he was at fault on a couple of occasions, but the Leicester loosehead seemed to cop the flak for pretty much everything.  Well ha ha to you ref.  Johnno shocked pretty much everyone at the start of the second half when David Wilson and Steve Thompson ran out to replace Cole and hooker Dylan Hartley.  But the strategy worked: the scrum steadied and the ref couldn't pin everything on Cole.  Excellent tactics.

Mike Tindall 1 v 0 Harry Potter

When it was announced that Gloucester centre Tindall was back in the number 13 shirt I sighed in frustration.  However, how wrong I was.  Good old Tinds had a fantastic game with his strong, direct running and he was one of England's best players.  When boy wizard look-a-like Mathew Tait swapped places with Tinds, England lost a lot of their momentum.  Tindall might not be a man for the future, but he certainly was more magical than Tait in this game.

Heaven 1 - 0 Earth

The heavens above Paris opened and the Stade de France pitch was duly unearthed.  Massive clods of grass were popping up everywhere.  In fact, it looked like an army of moles had taken residence and the rumbling French scrum had caused them to burrow to the surface to see what all the noise was about.  Pas bien.  It was also pretty dangerous.  I mean, tiny France Wing Marc Andreu could have easily disappeared forever down one of the holes.

Regardless of all of the above, it was a good game.  France weren't the best team on the day, but they were the best team in the tournament by far and fully deserved to win the Grand Slam.

Next year England.  Next year....

Friday, 19 March 2010

Six Nations Week 5: Previews and Predictions

Wales v Italy

Wales haven't been firing in this tournament and their line out and scrum have been less than effective.  However the return of scrum-half Mike Phillips and loosehead Gethin Jenkins is a boon for coach Warren Gatland, and 18-year old Tom Prydie becomes both the youngest man to play for Wales and the youngest ever to play in the Six Nations when he starts on the wing.  Whoever loses this match will be vying for the wooden spoon with Scotland, and the losers will take home the booby prize if Scotland overturn the Irish in the final game to be played at Croke Park. 

Italy have been hit by three injuries: Centre Andrea Masi, lock Carlo Del Fava and flanker Paul Derbyshire are all out.  Despite Italy's win against Scotland and rallying last 15 minutes against France, Nick Mallet's men won't have enough to get past Wales at a pulsating Millennium Stadium.

My prediction:  Wales by 18.

Ireland v Scotland

Declan Kidney and his Ireland team only have an outside chance of winning the championship, and that relies on England tripping up their rivals France later on in Paris.  But the Triple Crown is there for the taking, and if Ireland beat Andy Robinson's Scotland they will notch up their fifth home nations clean sweep in seven years.

The Scots are propping up the table with a solitary point, courtesy of their tedious draw against England last weekend.  With Ireland gunning for the prize to crown their final match at Croke Park and Scotland's try-scoring drought, I can only see this game going one way.

My prediction:  Ireland by 12.

France v England

A revamped England will run out in Paris in the tournament finale, but I think favourites France will pack too much of a punch for the visitors.  Ben Foden and Chris Ashton, team mates at Northampton, will hopefully inject some pace and cutting edge into the England backline.  We know their link-up play is in fine form after watching them in the Guinness Premiership and Heineken Cup this season.  Lewis Moody returns from a brief stint on the bench, and he will lead out England in the absence of Steve Borthwick.  Mike Tindall starts in the centre, probably to try and contain the rampaging Mathieu Bastereaud. 

France are oozing class in every position at the moment.  Morgan Parra, Imanol Harinordoquy and Clement Poitreneaud are but three of their top class players in a team dripping with talent.  The French have been firing this Six Nations, and they will be too much for Martin Johnson's stuttering England team.

My prediction:  France to win by 16.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Pass the Smelling Salts

France v England, Six Nations, Saturday 20 March.

I think I'm hallucinating.

England coach Martin Johnson has just named his team to face France in this weekend's Six Nations' finale.

The unbelieveable highlights are:

Ben Foden is named at fullback.

Chris Ashton replaces Ugo "I can only run in a straight line" Monye on the left wing.

Super Jonny Wilkinson has been dropped and is replaced by Toby Flood.

Jimmy Haskell, aka Mr Invisible, has been relegated to the bench.

The changes might be too little, too late in the tournament, but at least Johnson is FINALLY opening his eyes and picking the players who are actually performing.

Is this a step towards a more dynamic England team?

Maybe.  A big disappointment is that Courtney Lawes has been sent back to Northampton.  58-year old Simon Shaw starts at lock and the ever dynamic dull Louis Deacon is on the bench.

I suppose Johnson has to dig his stubborn little heels in somewhere...

Still, I'm off for a little lie down to recover from this shocking news.

England Team

15 Ben Foden (Northampton Saints)
14 Mark Cueto (Sale Sharks)
13 Mike Tindall (Gloucester Rugby)
12 Riki Flutey (CA Brive)
11 Chris Ashton (Northampton Saints)
10 Toby Flood (Leicester Tigers)
9 Danny Care (Harlequins)
1 Tim Payne (London Wasps)
2 Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints)
3 Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers)
4 Simon Shaw (London Wasps)
5 Steve Borthwick (Saracens, captain)
6 Joe Worsley (London Wasps)
7 Lewis Moody (Leicester Tigers)
8 Nick Easter (Harlequins)


16 Steve Thompson (CA Brive)
17 David Wilson (Bath Rugby)
18 Louis Deacon (Leicester Tigers)
19 James Haskell (Stade Francais)
20 Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers)
21 Jonny Wilkinson (RC Toulon)
22 Mathew Tait (Sale Sharks)

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

EXCLUSIVE: Haskell is Wet

Last week I waxed lyrical about the lovely Ben Foden and marvelled as he humiliated the Hask in the World’s ‘Largest’ Poker game, arranged by Pokerstars.

This week I can exclusively reveal that Jimmy Haskell is wet.

You can look as mean and moody as you want Jimmy – you still lost.

Here is the full clip if you've not seen it yet. It's well worth a watch, especially to see Foden rip into good old Jimmy Haskell.

The ad was filmed at the England team base at the Pennyhill Park Hotel, Bagshot Surrey on a break from training.

It's almost like a case of poker imitating England's play on the pitch: Foden has all the goods whilst Haskell is just bluffing his way through.

And we all know England coach Martin Johnson's approach to taking a gamble, don't we?  He's about as adventurous as Jonny Wilkinson venturing past the half way line - i.e. not very.

Come on Johnno, you HAVE to start Ben Foden at the weekend. After all, he is holding all the cards...

In an exclusive out-take, Mr Haskell reveals something we've known for ages: he's a bit wet. 

Someone, please!  Get him a "lackey" with a brolly!  What is the world coming to, eh Jimmy?  Geez....

PokerStars is the Official Gaming and Casino Partner of the England Rugby team.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Six Nations Week 4: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good

Brian O'Driscoll winning his 100th cap for Ireland.  A truly world class player, even though he had a pretty quiet game against Wales.

Paul O'Connell's fantastic performance in the line-out and the loose.  A superb game for the ginger giant.

Tomas O'Leary.  A brilliant try-scoring performance by the Ireland scrum half.  Man of the match O'Leary was instrumental in several key plays and set up Keith Earls for his second try.

Tomas O'Leary dives in for his try

The Scottish crowd singing 'Flower of Scotland' loudly and proudly before the Calcutta Cup game against England.  The atmosphere in Murrayfield was electric right from the opening blast of by the lone bagpiper.

Andy Robinson-cam.  Watching the Scotland coach flail his arms around in exasperation whilst yelling expletives provided a few rare moments of entertainment in an otherwise uninspiring game.

Saying that, Scotland number eight and man of the match Johnnie Beattie played a strong game in attack and defence, along with his fellow back row Killer Bs, Kelly Brown and John Barclay.

Ben Foden's impact from the bench.  A breath of fresh air mixed with a steamroller.  Come on Haskell, Deacon and chums: take note of how Foden smashed towering lock Alastair Kellock out of the way when he was running from deep.  Oh and well done Johnno for hauling Armitage off and giving Foden a run.  Ben has got to start against France.  In fact: Ding ding - all change.

France's pocket rocket wing Marc Andreu, who, at 5ft 5", flew under the Italians' radar and over the whitewash.

In fact, France totally demolished Italy in their 46-20 with a classy display.  The French backline was in dazzling and fluid form, and their forwards weren't half bad either.  Scrum-half Morgan Parra, full-back and man of the match Clement Poitreneud and Imanol Harinordoquy get special mentions for their excellent performances.  Again.

The Bad

Jonny Sexon's woeful scattergun approach to goal kicking.  The Ireland fly-half had about as much accuracy as a drunk bloke blasting his pee towards a urinal.

Lee Byrne's yellow card.  Wales conceded two tries when the full-back was warming the sin bin and Byrne was decidedly below par upon his return to the field.

Wales' set piece:  Line-out: Poor.  Scrum:  Poor.

England missing tackle after tackle after tackle after tackle (repeat to fade)...

Just when they thought they were getting a bit better, Nick Mallet's Italy found themselves 40 points behind France after being clinically taken apart.  At least Italy were able to restore a degree of respectibility in the last 20 minutes, when France had already switched off and were no doubt starting to plot England's demise next weekend...

The Ugly

Dan Parks' stupid sideburns.  Who does he think he is?  Zorro?

Fancy Dan

Scrum time between Scotland and England.  Zzzzzz.  Do you enjoy watching burly forwards in tight fitting tops flopping down onto the floor?  Yeah.  And so it seems did referee Marius Jonker.  The scrums were painfully tedious to watch and it often took more than two minutes just to restart the game.  Yawn.

Ugo Monye being stretchered off.  Apparently he's OK, but it's never a nice sight seeing anyone stretchered off the field.  Still, maybe you should have a rest next weekend Ugo, and let Northampton's Chris Ashton have a go?

So there's only one week left in this year's competition.

I can't wait until next weekend's finale: France v England at the Stade de France. 

Although I bet Johnno and pals will try to make it as tedious an affair as possible.  We will see.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Ton Up for O'Driscoll

Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland's crinkly-eyed captain and centre extraordinaire, wins his 100th Ireland cap today.

And what a career the 31-year old Dubliner has enjoyed so far.

The world class number 13 made his international debut against Australia in Brisbane, way back on 12 June 1999 aged just 20.

Since then he's racked up 38 tries and has cemented his reputation as one of the most dazzling and feared centres in world rugby.

He captained Ireland for the first time against Australia in November 2002 whilst winning his 31st cap and took over as skipper of the squad for the 2004 Six Nations after Keith Wood's retirement.

O'Driscoll has also played six test matches for the British and Irish Lions, and captained the tourists on the 2005 tour to New Zealand.  Unfortunately his time on the pitch was painfully cut short when he suffered a dislocated shoulder in the 1st Test defeat to the All Blacks. This was thanks to a controversial "spear" tackle from All Blacks Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu which ruled him out for the rest of the tour.

BOD returned from New Zealand, recovered, and signed a contract to keep him at Leinster until 2011.

In 2007 Brian led Ireland to their third Triple Crown in four years and was named player of the Six Nations in both 2006 and 2007.

Last year he skippered Ireland to their first Six Nations (and indeed Five Nations) Grand Slam in 61 years, and helped Leinster lift their first Heineken Cup.

Not bad, and there's no signs of him stopping yet.

Congratulations on your 100th Ireland cap Brian!

Here's a video of some of your best bits:

Friday, 12 March 2010

Get Your Six Nations Chargy Bargy On!

Time is running out to play the new Chargy Bargy Grand Slam game to try and win some great prizes.

In the new Six Nations version of the game you can choose your nation from any of the six taking part in the championship.

Then you Charge and Barge for glory and for prizes.

Every week of the tournament, O2 are giving away Nintendo Wiis, Blu-ray DVD players and LCD TVs to one of the toughest O2 customers who tops the leaderboard.

What’s more, four lucky winners picked at random from all O2 customers who’ve entered the competition, will snatch VIP tickets to the Emirates Airline London Sevens at Twickenham for themselves and three friends.

Go to http://bit.ly/02chargybargy to steal your piece of the action.

But hurry, you only have till the end of the Six Nations tournament to stake your claim for victory.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Six Nations Previews and Predictions: Week 4

Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend's Six Nations fixtures.

Ireland v Wales

Brian O’Driscoll will win his 100th cap for Ireland in their penultimate game at Croke Park on Saturday.

The Ireland skipper will join prop John Hayes in the 100 club and become only the 14th player to notch up a century of caps.

Wales’ stand-in captain Martyn Williams will also pass a landmark at the weekend. When the 34-year old flanker runs out in Dublin he will pick up his 95th cap and overtake Colin Charvis to become the most capped Wales forward.

Last weekend Ireland pipped England to the post in their 20-16 win at Twickenham, whilst Wales attempted another epic comeback in Cardiff. Warren Gatland’s team were 20-0 down at half time against France, but the men in red heroically fought back after the break. Despite Wales’ best efforts, France were victorious to the tune of 26-20: Freddie Michelak obviously learning from Scotland fly-half Dan Parks’ mistake, as he booted the ball into touch at the final restart.

This week, the absence of Wales skipper Ryan Jones sees the selection dilemma over the captain’s form handily removed for Warren Gatland. Gloucester number eight Gareth Delve has been brought into the starting XV to replace the injured skipper.

Over in the Irish camp, coach Declan Kidney has named an unchanged side. Geordan Murphy keeps his place at full back despite Rob Kearney’s recovery from a knee injury. Kearney will take a seat on the bench, which means Andrew Trimble drops out of the 22.

For me, this is the game to watch this weekend. Ireland are still gunning for the Championship, whilst Wales have a point to prove. If Ireland can get the wheels turning, scrum Wales into the ground and fire up their backline, then the men from the Emerald Isle will be one step closer to winning the Triple Crown.

However, if Wales can drastically reduce their error count and stop Ireland from notching up a healthy lead in the first 20 minutes, then they could rain on O’Driscoll’s parade.

Saying that, I can’t see Wales breaking down the Irish away from the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium.

My prediction: Ireland to win by 5.

Scotland v England

Stick, twist or go bust?

Those were the questions being asked of Martin Johnson ahead of Saturday’s Calcutta Cup.

Most England rugby fans would loved to have seen Johnno take a gamble. He could have started Ben Foden at full back and brought Courtney Lawes and Chris Ashton into the mix. Yes, it would have been quite a Northampton Saints love in, but alas it was not to be.

Instead, the England coach has persisted with the dull looking Delon Armitage at number 15, Joe Worsley replaces Lewis Moody at flanker, James “Mr Anonymous” Haskell keeps his place, and Leicester’s Louis Deacon is still in the starting XV.

Still, at least Foden and scrum-half Ben Youngs are on the bench.

A lot has been said about Johnson’s lack of imagination and how England’s World Cup chances are being severely threatened by his conservatism.

However England are where they are, and Andy Robinson must be rubbing his hands with glee.

The Scotland coach has been quite unlucky recently. Last weekend Scotland became the favourites to win the wooden spoon after they were embarrassed by Italy in Rome. The week before (as if anyone can forget), an eight point lead ten minutes before time was transformed into a 31-24 win to Wales with only 13 Scots left on the pitch. Add to that the horrific injury suffered by Thom Evans and Chris Paterson’s kidney damage and things were looking bleak.

If England are to win the Calcutta Cup then the English forwards need to run at the Scots and tackle hard. Danny Care needs to pass the ball to Wilkinson immediately instead of taking a step, and England’s centres need to pressurise Dan Parks. The Glasgow fly-half controlled the game well against Wales and England need to stop him grabbing the initiative. Oh, and England’s backline needs to come up with some ideas and actually execute them, rather than jogging around aimlessly and kicking the ball away at will.

If Scotland are to win then they need to take England on up front and utilise their pack strength. Parks needs to pay a blinder and Scotland captain Chris Cusiter has to get the better of Danny Care.

Whilst this match has all the promise of being a slow affair with little to excite, I for one hope that Scotland will fly out the blocks like they did against Wales and give England a good spanking. At least that would mean maybe, just maybe, Martin Johnson will make some changes for the game against France.

Then again, probably not.

My prediction: Scotland to win by 7.

France v Italy

Completing this weekend’s Six Nations fixtures are hot Championship favourites France against serial wooden spoon winners Italy.

There’s not much to say other than France will beat Italy and marchons towards their final game with the Grand Slam in their sights.

Italy beat Scotland 16-12 last weekend, but this will not trouble Marc Lievremont’s France one iota.

Lievremont has made two changes in his starting XV to face the Azzurri. One man wrecking machine, Mathieu Bastereaud, will start on the bench after struggling with a calf injury. David Marty comes in to replace the centre, whilst Julien Malzieu also drops to the bench to be replaced by Marc Andreu.

Freddie Michelak is also out after he tore his cruciate ligament when playing for Toulouse last weekend. Scrum-half Dimitri Yachvilli takes Michelak’s place in the 22, which means first choice number nine Morgan Parra will move to fly-half if stand-off Francois Trinh-Duc is forced from the field.

Italy’s main area of strength lies with their pack, but even Martin Castrogiavanni and Carlo Antonio Del Fava will have their work cut out against rampaging French forwards.

The question is not whether France will win, but by how many.

My prediction: France to win by 25.

So what do you think?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Reasons to Love Ben Foden

I like Ben Foden as a rugby player.

I like how he runs with the ball.  I like his attacking flair.  I also like how he doesn't hoof away possession à la Ugo Monye and Mark Cueto.

However watching the following clip made me really start to love Ben Foden.

Anyone who can annoy James "The Hask" Haskell is just fine by me.

Ben, it is a travesty that you won't start for England this weekend.

Still, at least you can rest safe in the knowledge that the entire rugby world will be cheering at the sight of you beating the pumped up, white boot wearing Hask.

From now on I am going to call him Jimmy, as I now know how much it annoys him.  That dear Ben, is all thanks to you.

Ben, I salute you.

Too Much of a Gamble?

Scotland v England, Six Nations, Saturday 13 March

Ben Foden, the in form Northampton full-back is apparently too big a risk for Martin Johnson.

Yes, good old Johnno has flicked the V's at his critics, laughed in the face of the pundits and ignored the calls to revamp his England team ahead of the Six Nations clash with Scotland this weekend.

Apparently Johnno doesn't want to get his hands on the World Cup again

Despite Foden's inspiring display off the bench against Ireland (which eclipsed dull Delon Armitage's efforts), Foden is not in the starting XV against Scotland.

With England's Grand Slam chance gone, why is Johnno still insisting on playing it so safe?

What about Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton, Shontayne Hape, Steffon Armitage, Nick Kennedy and champagne swilling Chris Robshaw to name but a few?

Why aren't they being given a chance?

Even Lewis Moody has been relegated to the bench.  OK so after his great performances in the autumn Moody hasn't been as effective, but I can't help but wonder if his announcement about leaving Leicester had anything to do with his new role as a bench warmer.

Still, Leicester's Ben Youngs has made it into the 22 which is great news.  And fear not, rugby fans, Leicester's dynamo Louis Deacon is still in the starting XV.


Hang on.  What's that I hear you say?  Could Johnno be guilty of a Leicester bias?


The World Cup is approaching fast and Johnno's tediously conservative England are in danger of being so badly undercooked next year when they face Argentina on 10 September it's just not funny.

It really is time that the England coach took a gamble and backed some of England's young stars.

And I mean really back them, not just giving them five minutes at the end of the game

Oh and drop James "The Hask" Haskell.  Please.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Six Nations Lookalikes: Part Deux

Once again there is an irritating break in the Six Nations action this weekend. 

This can only mean one thing:  Yes, it's time for me to wheel out another batch of dodgy lookalikes.

First up is everyone's favourite hapless Welsh flanker and golf-buggy aficionado, Andy Powell.

When Andy's not drunkenly cruising around motorway service stations in a glorified milk cart on a 4am quest for pig-based snacks, he can be spotted in episodes of Bo Selecta.  I can exclusively reveal that Andy Powell is in fact 1993 Businessman of the Year, Keith Lemon:

He only wears floral shorts on holiday

If that isn't enough, I can also reveal that England hooker Steve Thompson also had completely different career before he picked up the oval ball.

Yes, Thompson was a massive film star in the 1980's.  If you don't believe me then check this out:

Steve was really popular as they saved a fortune on makeup

That's right, talented Thompson starred in hit movie "The Goonies".

Next up is Welsh Wizard Shane Williams, who (might have been) separated at birth from Dr. Evil's side kick, Vern "Mini Me" Troyer.

Look, they've got the same moves and EVERYTHING:

"I'm going to score one miiiiillion tries..."

Finally, if you've been to the cinema recently you might have seen Italy and Leicester prop Martin Castrogiavanni doing a spot of moonlighting.

It's not just Steve "Hey you Guys" Thompson who has dazzled us with his talents on the silver screen.  Oh no.

If you went to watch the film "The Wolfman" then you will have seen hairy prop Castrogiavanni being generally furry and hunting down Emily Blunt:


OK so he doesn't look as scary at scrum time, but if do some research you'll find that Castro never plays when it's a full moon.  Fact.

So there you go. 

Roll on the Six Nations next weekend.

Until then, if you've got any more lookalikes then please let me know...

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Two Fingers to the French

I'm waiting.

Waiting for what?

The inevitable "Anti-French" backlash.  (Yawn).


Well two reasons.

Firstly, David Attoub's 70 week ban for trying to poke out Stephen Ferris' eyes has been upheld.


Where was the appeal hearing? 

You've guessed it: London.

Quelle horreur.  It MUST be a case of everyone in England hating the French.

No.  Rules are rules.  Get over it.

Secondly, James "Le Hask" Haskell is starring as the rope in what is possibly the most pointless club v country tug of war ever.

Johnno wants to keep him in the England set up this weekend.  Stade Francais want him to slip on a fetching pink rugby shirt and his ridiculous white boots and trot out against Toulouse on Saturday.

I don't know what all the fuss is about.  Haskell did an excellent impression of Mr. Invisible against Ireland so why do either parties want him so badly?

It would be more understandable if Stade kept sending him back to England to make sure he features in the  France v England game.  Now that would be a cunning French plot to undermine England, by making us have one of our SHIT players back.

Either way, I bet there'll be a lot of furious smoking of Gitanes cigarettes on the other side of the channel.

But seriously Stade Francais, if you want to snatch Le Hask back under the cover of darkness, then please be my guest.

Charity Rugby Raffle

The lovely people over at The Rugby Blog are organising a big online rugby raffle to raise money for charity.

The raffle is in aid of the Tag Rugby Trust which works with primary school children in developing countries to give them the chance to play rugby. 

All this is done with the help of volunteers, and the Trust has previously worked in Uganda, Zambia and India.

There are up to 20 great prizes to be won, including signed memorabilia, rugby tickets, clothing and kit.  These have all been generously donated by companies such as Puma, Gilbert, Kitbag and viagogo.

Organised through JustGiving, each raffle ticket costs just £2, and every penny of the funds raised will go to the charity, helping to improve the lives of under-privileged children all around the world.

There are so many prizes on offer that there will be three draws made, with the first taking place on April 1st – tickets will be valid for every draw after the date on which it was bought.

Every £2 donated will equate to one entry into the draws, and donors are invited to buy as many entries as they wish – the more they donate, the more chance they have of winning, and the more they will be helping the charity.

The Rugby Blog plans to make the Rugby Raffle an annual event, with the aim of growing the prize list and raising plenty of money for charity.

Please help to make the first year is a success, and then look out for another in 2011.

To enter the raffle, you can visit: http://www.justgiving.com/rugbyraffle2010


Wednesday, 3 March 2010

This Weekend's Guinness Premiership Predictions

Newcastle Falcons v Bath

Bath were tepid at best at the start of the season but now they are red hot. In fact they are the best team in the Guinness Premiership on current form, having picked up 22 of a possible 25 league points from their last five games.

The Falcons beat Bath 27-16 when the two met in the Guinness Premiership at The Rec in round 6. Newcastle Falcons' only win in their last seven games in the Guinness Premiership was the shock 12-6 win at London Wasps on 3 January.

With the Falcons last home league win being the 14-3 victory over Worcester on 1 November and with Bath’s excellent form, I predict a third consecutive away win for the boys in blue.

My prediction: Bath to win by 10.

Wasps v Gloucester

London Wasps have won three of their last four games at Adams Park in the Guinness Premiership. However Wasps lost 26-10 to Leeds Carnegie last weekend which ended their three game winning run.

Gloucester has lost only one of their last eight encounters in all competitions which came in the 33-11 defeat at Leicester on 20 February.

Gloucester's only away win in their last 13 matches in the Premiership was 26-10 at Leeds on 4 October. Wasps have already beaten Gloucester this season in the 21-14 LV= Cup victory back in November.

My prediction: Gloucester’s confidence is riding high but it will be tough to beat Wasps on the road. Wasps to win by 3.

Leeds Carnegie v Saracens

Leeds are looking to clinch three league wins in a row for the first time since the 2004-05 season.

Whilst Saracens have won their last eight games against Leeds, the Fez heads only win in their last five games in the Guinness Premiership was 25-20 against Worcester at Wembley Stadium on 13 February. Compare this to Carnegie, who are fifth best in the Premiership on current form, having gained 15 points from their last six matches.

Add to this the fact that Sarries have not won away from home in the Premiership since they visited Bath on 31 October and this looks like a tasty encounter.

When these sides met earlier in the season, referee David Rose disallowed a perfectly good Leeds try (for which he later apologized). Had the try stood, Leeds would have won the game.

My prediction: Revenge will be sweet, and Leeds’ forwards to drive Carnegie to a win by 7.

Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints

What on earth has happened to Sale Sharks? The men from south Manchester are on their worst losing streak since 1999/2000 having lost their last seven games in all competitions.

Now joint bottom with Leeds, the Sharks have gained just one league point from their last three outings in the Guinness Premiership. They grabbed the solitary losing bonus point from their 16-22 defeat at Wasps on 14 February.

Northampton Saints' only loss in their last eight Guinness Premiership games was the 13-6 at Harlequins on 20 February.

The teams have already met twice this season with Northampton winning both times: 21-16 at Franklin's Gardens in the Guinness Premiership and 20-14 in the LV= Cup at Edgeley Park.

My prediction: Saints to make it three wins from three, and clinching the win by 12 points.

Leicester Tigers v London Irish

Northampton ruined Leicester’s points scoring run last weekend, as for the first time in 29 games the Tigers failed to grab any points from the match.

Leicester’s home form is still formidable though, and the only side to take anything away from Welford Road this season was Worcester in their 19-14 defeat.

London Irish did beat the reigning champions 18-12 at the Madejski Stadium in round 6. However, the Exiles have been hit hard by injury and their form has been poor recently.

Irish beat Harlequins 29-14 at home last weekend to end a run of seven defeats, but the strength and depth of the Tigers will be too much for them this weekend.

My prediction: Leicester to win by 6.

Harlequins v Worcester Warriors

Harlequins have won the last seven encounters between the two teams in the Guinness Premiership since Worcester won 15-9 at the Stoop on 19 February 2005.

But Quins’ only victory in their last five matches in the Guinness Premiership was 13-6 over Northampton at the Twickenham Stoop on 20 February.

Worcester Warriors' ten match winless streak ended with their 13-0 victory over Newcastle at Sixways on Friday. With Leeds keeping the relegation battle alive and Sale being dragged into the mix, the Warriors really need to take something from this game.

That might be easier said than done, as Worcester last won on the road in the Guinness Premiership on 21 April 2009.

My prediction: Harlequins to win by 6.

So what do you think?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Man of the Month: March

The Six Nations is in full flow and the Man of the Month for March is a player who has been making a big impact.


Bonjour Mathieu Bastereaud: France's one man wrecking ball and midfield machine.

OK, so he might look like a cartoon dog and he can be easily confused about how scratches appear on his face, but what a player.

Part of me is dreading the damage he will inflict on Mathew Tait when the two face off in the Six Nations finale.

But a larger part of me can't wait to see him steamroller through England's midfield with the Parisian air breezing through his dredlocks.

I think he could well be named Player of the Tournament.

Bonjour to a bright future pour les Bleus.