Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Guinness Premiership Final: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

What a game!  The Guinness Premiership final between reigning champions Leicester and pretenders to the throne Saracens was a pulsating match and the best I have seen in years. 

The lead changed hands five times during the course of the game.  Just when Saracens thought they had snatched the win as Glen Jackson slotted over a penalty with four minutes on the clock, Leicester conjured a try from the resulting restart and substitute Dan Hipkiss stormed over to clinch the cup.

33-27 was the final score.  Breathless rugby.  It's almost impossible to sit here and write "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" for this game, because as finals go it was top drawer entertainment.

But here goes anyway.

The Good

Toby Flood:  One of the key men for Leicester, and he delivered in spades.  Only missing one kick from the tee, Flood controlled the game well.

Dan Hipkiss - The Tigers centre has been sidelined with injury of late, but he made the biggest impact in the match when he came on from the bench and steamrollered his way over for the winning try.

Geordan Murphy - Who stepped aside when it was time to lift the cup and gave the captains honour to departing stars Lewis Moody and Ben Kay.  I thought that was really sweet.

Attacking rugby - Both teams played expansively and threw everything into the game.  It was refreshing to see teams almost forget it was a final and go out and play.  Take note Toulouse and Biarritz.

Ernst Joubert - Two tries for the Sarries skipper, which sadly for his side, was just not enough.

The Bad

No Brendan Venter - Saracens' director of rugby (and everyone's favourite panto villain) was forced to watch the game at home after failing to get his ban overturned.  A real shame.  Venter has been one of the real characters this year, adding colour and spice to the game.  I know he's not everyone's cup of tea, but I think he is brilliant.

Defence - But who cares when it gives you entertainment like that?  Well, the defence coaches might I suppose...

Not respecting the kicker - Sarries' fans booed when Flood lined up a couple of his kicks.  I know it's not the done thing, but in such a massive game and when they thought they had been hard done by, I can't really blame them.

The Ugly

I can't think of anything.  No really, I can't.  This game was everything I wanted a final to be.

Oh there is one thing:  the fact that I will have to wait until September until the league starts again for the new season.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Leicester Tigers v Saracens: The Guinness Premiership Final

The Guinness Premiership reaches its climax this Saturday, where reigning champions Leicester Tigers will battle it out with Saracens in a bid to get their hands on the prized silverware.

The 81,600 sell out crowd at Twickenham will see six-time finalists and three time winners, Leicester, play Sarries, who haven't won a trophy since the Tetley Bitter Cup back in 1998.

Brendan Venter, Saracens controversial director of rugby, is banned from team involvement at Twickenham on finals day after failing to get his 14 week ban overturned.

However, Venter's ban, hardly a shock after his needling of opposition, referees and the establishment this season, will no doubt galvanise his team further.

England skipper Steve Borthwick returns at lock for Saracens after a two-month injury absence but number eight Ernst Joubert retains the captaincy.

Should Sarries fans be worried that Borthwick is back?  After all, they have seen their team play some expansive rugby with flair during his stint on the sidelines.  Probably not.

Elsewhere, Sarries' Kiwi half back pairing, Glen Jackson and Justin Marshall, hope to end their careers on a high before retiring.

Over in the Leicester camp, coach Richard Cockerill will be in the stands after escaping with a slap on the wrists from an RFU hearing.  The Tigers supremo took his frustration out on a wall during the semi-final game against Bath.  I can only assume that he had left his Olly Barkley voodoo doll at home.

Speaking of Bath, the final will be Lewis Moody's last game for Leicester before joining up with the men in blue, black and white next season.

In other team news, Tigers flanker Craig Newby is available for the game after he was cleared of a dangerous tackle in the semi-final.

But who will win?

This is a real tough one to call.  Leicester are the most consistent Guinness Premiership team and are strongest at the scrum and line-out.  They put on a master class of how to use the set-piece to smother their opponents, Bath, into submission two weeks ago.  They will look to target the throw of players' player of the season, hooker Schalk Brits, and put pressure on him at scrum-time.

Toby Flood will be key for the Tigers both with his kicking and running of the game.  His battle with opposite number Glen Jackson will be crucial in deciding which team will lift the trophy when the clock goes red.

As for Saracens, I expect to see yet more from full-back Alex Goode who impressed in the semi-final against Northampton Saints.  Flanker Andy Saull is in a rich vein of form, and there is the power of Ernst Joubert and that man Brits.

If Saracens can hold their own at the set piece then they have every chance of lifting the cup.

Don't forget, they beat Leicester 32-23 at Welford Road in the final round of the regular season, crushing the Tigers' bid to be unbeaten at home in the campaign.

However, Leicester we missing key men that day, including the instrumental Toby Flood.

My prediction:  On paper I would have to say Leicester Tigers due to their big match experience and league winning pedigree.  However, I have the sneaking feeling that Saracens might just do them again.  It would be a fitting finale to the season for Brendan Venter's team - and I would have to say that they would deserve it, after adding a lot of colour and spice to this season.

Saracens to win by 9.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Baa-d Selection?

Charlie Hodgson will slip on the crucial number 10 shirt and make his first start for England in two years when he lines up to play the Barbarians this Sunday.

Nick Easter will skipper England against the Baa-Baas in the MasterCard Trophy clash at Twickenham, k.o. 5pm, in the absence of Lewis Moody.  The Leicester flanker is unavailable as he plays with the Tigers against Saracens in the Guinness Premiership final on Saturday.

And in a reshuffled side, Easter is one just of 10 survivors from the squad that finished the RBS 6 Nations in Paris.

But the real headline grabber is a start for Charlie Hodgson, Sale Sharks fly-half, who has not played for England since 2008.

Hodgson has fallen from favour in recent years, and critics thought he had kicked his last chance on the international stage firmly into touch.

However, Johnson has given him another go - aruguably at the expense of Northampton Saints' Stephen Myler, who is in the Saxons squad but is surely a better option at 10?

Jonny Wilkinson, Hodgson's main rival at stand-off, is not in the side after collapsing with an injury in the Amlin Cup final last Sunday, and Toby Flood is also unavailable due to the Guinness Premiership final.

But there is a refreshing number of uncapped players blended with experience in the 22 man team.

Hodgson lines up with uncapped centre Shontayne Hape (Bath Rugby), Mike Tindall is Hape's partner at outside centre and there is an exciting back three of Ben Foden (Northampton Saints), Mark Cueto (Sale Sharks) and David Strettle (Harlequins), who returns after a two year absence.

The forwards include uncapped prop Jon Golding (Newcastle Falcons) and lock Dave Attwood (Gloucester Rugby), with Dan Ward-Smith (London Wasps) on the bench.  Tight head prop Paul Doran-Jones makes his first appearance in England colours since his debut against Argentina last November and uncapped Wasps scrum-half Joe Simpson takes a seat on the bench.

However, there is no place in the 22 for Northampton wing Chris Ashton, and Bath's form centre, Olly Barkley, is only a replacement.

Despite that, I'm pretty happy with this team.  The game against the Baa-Baas is a non-cap game and gives the England management the chance to mix things up a bit.

And it looks like they have grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

My only real worry is the selection of Hodgson at fly-half.  I'm still beating the "Stephen Myler for England" drum.  It's a real shame he's only in the second-string Saxons.  In fact, I might launch a campaign...

England Team to face the Barbarians

15 Ben Foden (Northampton Saints)
14 Mark Cueto (Sale Sharks)
13 Mike Tindall (Gloucester Rugby)
12 Shontayne Hape (Bath Rugby)
11 David Strettle (Harlequins)
10 Charlie Hodgson (Sale Sharks)
9 Danny Care (Harlequins)
1 Jon Golding (Newcastle Falcons)
2 Steve Thompson (CA Brive)
3 Paul Doran-Jones (Gloucester Rugby)
4 Dave Attwood (Gloucester Rugby)
5 Tom Palmer (Stade Francais)
6 James Haskell (Stade Francais)
7 Steffon Armitage (London Irish)
8 Nick Easter (Harlequins) CAPTAIN


16 Lee Mears (Bath Rugby)
17 Tim Payne (London Wasps)
18 Dan Ward-Smith (London Wasps)
19 Joe Worsley (London Wasps)
20 Joe Simpson (London Wasps)
21 Olly Barkley (Bath Rugby)
22 Mathew Tait (Sale Sharks)

But what do you think?

Glee and the Guinness Premiership Final

Leicester Tigers and Saracens are the last teams standing in the Guinness Premiership race to Twickenham, where the two rivals will meet in the final on Saturday.

This is the sixth final in a row for reigning champions Leicester who finished the regular season in top spot.

Saracens, on the other hand, were league leaders until the halfway point, thanks to a controlled and uninspiring kicking game.  But then, fastforward a couple of months, and a team trip to Brighton and a couple of controversies later, Brendan Venter's team is thrilling to watch and racking up the tries.

Saturday's clash should be a corker.

But what do Leicester stars Geordan Murphy, Ben Youngs and Jordan Crane think of their chances? 

Do Sarries' Brad Barritt and Andy Saull think they can get their hands on the silverware?

And more to the point, which one of these is a closet fan of Glee?

All is revealed...

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Le Finale

I have to be honest with you.  I didn't actually watch the Biarritz v Toulouse Heineken Cup final. 

Well, it's ready and raring to go on my Sky+ planner, but I haven't found the time to watch it just yet . 

That's one of the perils of staying at my parents for the weekend - it's a Sky Sports free zone.

However, I did watch the determined Cardiff Blues battle Toulon at Marseille's sun-drenched Stade Velodrome to claim the Amlin Challenge Cup.

It was the Blues' first silverware in Europe and was a well deserved win.  But, it could have been very different if Sonny Bill Williams had crossed for Toulon from the kick off.  That would have started the game on a different foot, and let Toulon get out of sight.

Of course, despite Cardiff's win, most of the headlines went to Jonny Wilkinson, the England and Toulon fly-half, who collapsed in a very worrying heap after kicking a penalty.

Will he be fit for England's summer tour of Australia?

Who knows?

All that aside, it's back to the domestic game this week.

Bristol play Exeter in the Championship playoff final tomorrow, Leicester and Saracens face-off in the Guinness Premiership final at Twickenham, and Leinster and the Ospreys do battle in the Magners League Grand Final, both on Saturday.

And then you can have a little breather before the summer tours start...


Friday, 21 May 2010

Heineken & Amlin Cup Final Previews and Predictions

European Cup rugby is set to reach its climax in both the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cup this weekend. 

Biarritz will face Toulouse in the Heineken Cup Final in Paris on Saturday, and Sunday will see Cardiff Blues, the only non-French finalist, do battle with Toulon in Marseille.

French teams have dominated the Heineken Cup this year, with the Irish contingent, champions Leinster and two-time winners Munster, dumped out in the semi-finals.

But why have the French dominated in 2009/10? 

Along with cup rugby success, France scooped an impressive Six Nations Grand Slam this season. 

Fingers have been pointed towards the cash being splashed in the French Top 14, although a salary cap is being brought in next year. 

But is this the only reason for their success?  French teams start their season a month before the Guinness Premiership and Magners league, and whilst GP and Celtic teams are warming up in pre-season training, they are gaining match fitness and that elusive edge.

Or is it down to the rigours of a British and Irish Lions tour last summer taking it out of the top players from the home nations before the start of this season?

Simply put, French teams could just be better.  But with millions more Euros to spend on players, who wouldn't be?

But never mind all that - we are set for some cracking finals this weekend.  Here are my previews and predictions:

Biarritz v Toulouse

Three time winners Toulouse play their third all French Heineken Cup final when they face Biarritz on Saturday.

Toulouse, who play their sixth final this weekend, last won this competition in 2004/05 when they pipped Stade Francais to the prize after extra time at Murrayfield.  Biarritz have only been to one final, losing 16-13 to Munster at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium in the following year.  The last time Toulouse has the silverware in their sights was in the 2007/08 season, falling to Munster, the Irish giants claiming the cup in a close 16-13 win.

But what of this year?  At times, both these sides have played some sublime rugby, no more so than the dazzling Yannick Jauzion of Toulouse.

Centre Jauzion has caused commentators to wax lyrical about his vision and glittering playmaking.  But Toulouse are by no means a one man team.

France skipper Thierry Dusautoir is back, and will be looking to add a Heineken Cup winners' medal to his collection, after missing out with Biarritz in 2006 and Toulouse in 2008.  Wing Cedric Heymans could feature in his sixth Heineken final, while four other Toulouse players - hooker William Servat, prop Jean-Baptiste Poux and flanker Jean Bouilhou - could play in their fifth, along with a certain Mr Jauzion.

Biarritz also have plenty of stars on display.  Hard man Imanol Harinordoquy, who played the semi-final at number eight with a broken nose and rib injury, is expected to start.  Also possibly lining up for the Basque team is a trio of England internationals - full-back Iain Balshaw, centre Ayoola Erinle and flanker Magnus Lund.  However, centre Damien Traille is out with a broken arm.

Toulouse have to be the favourites ahead of this game due to their European Cup pedigree.  Toulouse ended the Top 14 season in 4th, whilst rivals Biarrtiz only managed 7th place.  Add to that the fact that Toulouse swatted aside rugby giants Stade Francais and champions Leinster in the knockout stages and they are looking formidable.  Will they show up Biarritz's occasionally fragile defence?

My prediction: It should be a cracker.  Toulouse to win by 6.

Cardiff Blues v Toulon
Cardiff Blues are taking their bid to become the first Welsh side to win a European trophy all the way to the final at Marseille's Stade Velodrome on Sunday.

Claiming their first silverware won't be an easy task for the Blues, as they face a star-studded Toulon, the team who finished second in the French Top 14 this season.

Of course, all eyes will be on Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson, Felipe Contepomi, Sonny Bill Williams and Tana Umaga - but don't write off the Blues.

The Welsh side have been boosted by the return of scrum-half Richie Rees and have done well on their travels this year.

And Cardiff might find themselves with a few more fans for the day - although they will be wearing red.  If the Blues win, Wales will gain a fourth Heineken Cup place which will go to the Scarlets.

However, if Toulon triumph, Gloucester will take the 24th and final spot.

My prediction:  I can't see Cardiff out muscling Toulon in the sunny south of France.  Toulon to win by 12.

But what do you think?

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Arse of the Year?

You'll never guess what.  James "Publicity Machine" Haskell is up for an award.

The England and Stade Francais back-row forward has been nominated for "Rear of the Year".

And the pumped-up Johnny Bravo lookalike is taking it very seriously.  In fact, has even found time in his hectic England training schedule to launch a voting appeal on Twitter.

But seriously James, why on earth do you want to bag such a low-brow prize?  Are you really that competitive?

Last year, the award was scooped by operatic warbler Russell Watson - the man second on my "Annoying Celebrities who I would like to punch in the face" list, behind the constantly irritating John Barrowman.

(L) If only Barrowman hadn't "Made it through the rain"
(R) Haskell looking buff in the buff for Dieux du Stade

And what if you don't win James?  Russell's hardly got buns of steel and yet his saggy arse was voted numero uno in 2009. 

Now that would be embarassing for you...

James, basically what I'm saying is this:  Not all publicity is good publicity.  Everyone knows you have a rocking body thanks to the wonderful porn artistry of the Dieux du Stade calendars. 

However, with the England summer tour to Australia just a few weeks away, surely it's time to focus on this instead of a bum beauty pageant?

Just saying...

Tuesday, 18 May 2010


Guinness Premiership finalists Leicester and Saracens are both pretty slick when it comes to ball handling, lineouts, scrum time and racking up the points.

But which team is better at, say, throwing balls through the sunroof of a Landrover?

I wonder...

There's only one way to find out.

First up, Leicester Tigers:

Hmm, pretty poor.  Can Sarries do any better?

We have a winner.

But are these skillz a pointer to who will win the final?

Of course not.  Don't be silly.

The Final Shakedown

After Sunday's epic Guinness Premiership semi-finals we have a tasty clash between Leicester Tigers and Saracens to look forward to at Twickenham on May 29.

Leicester smothered Bath into submission in a 15-6 tryless affair, whilst Sarries squeaked past Northampton Saints 21-19 at Franklins Gardens.

Each game was packed with twists, controversy and bucket loads of irony.

Who can forget one-time Sarries bound Soane Tonga'uhia steaming over for a Saints try on the stroke of half time?  Did Toby Flood's high flying penalty really count for the Tigers?

And then there were the subplots: The extra needle between Saints and Sarries after Celebrationgate, the alleged tapping up of Northampton prop Brian Mujati by Saracens, Brendan Venter's misconduct charge.

All the extra needle created an afternoon of high drama, and I for one, loved it.

The final results?  Heartbreak for Saints and Bath, heaven for Leicester and Saracens.

And it should be a storming final in a couple of weeks. 

My faith in English club rugby has been fully restored.  Roll on Twickenham in two weeks time.

I, for one, cannot wait.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Saints Stars look ahead to Saracens Semi-Final

Northampton Saints host Saracens in their much anticipated Guinness Premiership semi-final this Sunday.

Here, Saints stars Ben Foden, Stephen Myler and Lee Dickson talk about the game.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Guinness Premiership Semi-Finals: Previews & Predictions

The run up to the Guinness Premiership semi-finals has been packed with more drama than an over the top soap opera.

Saracens overturned both Northampton and Leicester on the road in the last two rounds, crushing both clubs' hopes of an unbeaten home campaign in the league.

In the process, Sarries riled the Saints by singing and celebrating too loudly - much to the annoyance of Northampton skipper Dylan Hartley.

And then it was the turn of Brendan Venter, Saracens director of rugby, who caused a furore when he allegedly pushed a female fan during the game at Welford Road.  He swiftly followed this up by criticising Martin Johnson's selections for the England tour to Australia, apparently vexed that none of his squad were being given a plane ticket down under.

Elsewhere, Bath continued their amazing run of form when they swatted aside Leeds Carnegie to seal their semi-final spot.  Richard Cockerill's Leicester will be back to face them after Sarries put them to the sword.

As semi-finals go, these are really tough to call.  Here goes nothing.

Leicester Tigers v Bath Rugby

It is ominous for Bath that their only loss in their last 12 league games was at the hands of Leicester.  The men in blue, black and white were outclassed 43-20 at Welford Road by the reigning champions on 3 April.

However, Bath were missing key players that day.  There was no Luke Watson or Danny Grewcock for starters.

In the last few weeks Bath have been sublime.  Switching the point of attack, Olly Barkley has been everywhere.  Nick Abendanon can attack from all over the pitch, and that man Watson is a dynamic ball carrier with a deft offload.

It will be interesting to see if Steve Meehan's men will follow their recent game plan and start this match at 100mph.  If Bath are to win they need to get on top of Leicester, front up in the forwards and stop the Tigers' pack from smothering them and controlling play.

The Tigers will target Bath's lineout as an area of weakness, and veteran Danny Grewcock will need to marshal the forwards in this crucial set piece.

As I said at the start of this post, Leicester's six game winning run in the Guinness Premiership ended at the hands of visiting Saracens on Saturday.  However, the Tigers will have put that to the back of their mind.  They are well used to the business end of the season - this is the sixth straight year they have been in the playoffs.

Worryingly for Bath, Leicester have won their last eight semi-finals in all competitions since Wasps beat them in the Powergen Cup at Millennium Stadium in March 2006.  The Tigers' most recent semi-final defeat at Welford Road was way back in April 1995, again to Wasps but this time in the Pilkington Cup.

This is Bath's third semi-final appearance in a row - a remarkable achievement after lying 11th in the Guinness Premiership table at the half-way stage of the season.

As for the winner of this game?  It's a tough one to call.  Leicester have the home advantage, forward power and set piece domination.  Bath are riding on the crest of a wave and have dangerous play makers in their backline.

My prediction:  My heart says Bath but my head says it will a home win for the Tigers.  The team with the biggest heart will win.  Bath by 6 points.

Northampton Saints v Saracens

If Bath are riding on the crest of a wave then Saracens are surfing right alongside them.

Sarries grabbed a moral-boosting 28-27 win over Northampton in the penultimate round of the regular Guinness Premiership season, and added insult to Saints' injury by celebrating a bit too much for their rivals' liking.

Now, Northampton are gunning for both a place in the final and a good dose of revenge.

Brendan Venter's team is red hot at the moment.  Gone is the rugby-by-numbers kicking game from the first half of the season, and in its place is expansive, offloading play.

Key men for Sarries are wonder-hooker Schalk Brits and full back Alex Goode.  Goode has been fantastic in recent weeks, gliding onto the ball and popping up in all the right places.  Brits' skills have been showcased week after week - he is my tip for the player of the year.

But what of Northampton?  Last week's 31-7 win over London Irish secured the home semi-final after back to back defeats.  When asked if his side were tired, skipper Dylan Hartley angrily denied it, saying he was sick of hearing it and it just wasn't true.

So if Northampton aren't tired, are they ready?  Most definitely.  Everyone knows about top try scorer Chris Ashton on the wing, the power and carrying ability of prop Soane Tonga'uhia and the amazing skills and versatility of back row Phil Dowson.  But what of the crucial number 10 shirt?  Will this be filled by Stephen Myler or Shane Geraghty on Sunday?  In my opinion, it's got to be Myler.  He will control the game much better than Geraghty and will bang over the kicks.

This game is going to be fascinating.  If Northampton can throw everything at Sarries as they did when Munster made the trip to Franklins Gardens then they'll stand a great chance of making the final.  But despite all the controversy, Sarries are the team bang in form, and beating them will be a tough ask.

My prediction:  It's another head v heart battle to call the winning team.  My heart says Northampton, and I would really love for Jim Mallinder's men to go all the way to the final.  However, my head says Saracens, especially after their wins over the Saints and Leicester in the last couple of weeks.  Don't hate me Saints fans.  Saracens to win by 9.

But what do you think?

Venter's Venting Again...

Brendan Venter, Saracens' shy and retiring director of rugby, is at it again.

But who is on the end of his latest tongue lashing? 

None other than England coach, Martin Johnson.

The cause of Venter's rant is Johnno's failure to include any Sarries stars in England's 44-man squad to tour Australia and New Zealand this summer.

And if that wasn't enough, Venter is also furious that only three players, Alex Goode, Brad Barritt and Andy Saull, have been selected for the Saxons to play in the Churchill Cup.

He said: "If Brad isn't in the best 44, then England have some unbelievable players.

"To suggest [as the England hierarchy are said to have done] that he is too small is absurd."

Not one to keep his opinions to himself, the former South Africa centre continued:

"I said to Martin that's one place where they've got it wrong. Brad has a very low error rate, he passes beautifully, kicks well out of hand and he's a great communicator. He was our best player against Leicester last weekend. The three best teams in the Premiership have been Leicester, Northampton and Saracens, and for us to have three individuals out of 70 is amazing."

Erm, isn't that because there are only three English guys in the entire Saffacens squad? 

Hell hath no fury like a director of rugby scorned eh....?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Stats Off for the Creme de la Prem

I love statistics I do.  When I saw that stats gurus Opta had revealed their Guinness Premiership team of the season I almost yelped with excitement.

Why do I love number crunching so much?

Well, stats might never paint the full picture, but they also never lie.

So which players have been at the top of their game based on all 22 rounds of the league? 

Here is Opta's team of the year:

15  Nick Abendanon (Bath Rugby)
14  Chris Ashton (Northampton Saints)
13  Ben Jacobs (London Wasps)
12  Brad Barritt (Saracens)
11  Bruce Reihana (Northampton Saints)
10  Jimmy Gopperth (Newcastle Falcons)
9    Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers)
1    Soane Tonga'uiha (Northampton Saints)
2    Schalk Brits (Saracens)
3    Carl Hayman (Newcastle Falcons)
4    Erik Lund (Leeds Carnegie)
5    Marco Wentzel (Leeds Carnegie)
6    Phil Dowson (Northampton Saints)
7    Steffon Armitage (London Irish)
8    Dan Ward-Smith (London Wasps)

If you want to get down to the nitty gritty of the numbers, then have a look at this excellent article.  I couldn't have put it better myself.

It's clear from the stats that Northampton's success has come from the strength and running of their forwards, shown by the inclusion of Dowson and Tonga'uhia, with their pacey backs, Ashton and Reihana, making up the metres and bagging tries.

And Leeds Carnegie's dominance in the set piece is shown with skipper Marco Wentzel crowned top lineout stealer.  His second row partner, Erik Lund, also features for his line breaking and tackling stats.

I could go on all day and bore you with the numbers, but if you're interested in all that you can click the link above and read all about it.

One thing I will say - it really is true that stats never lie.  Four of the five nominees for Guinness Premiership player of the season make it into the team.  Brits, Dowson, Armitage and Tonga'uhia are all there.  Only Sarries' Ernst Joubert misses out.

I wonder if Martin Johnson is regretting his crazy decision not to take Phil Dowson to Australia this summer yet?

Looking at the numbers, I know I would be if I was in his (humongous) shoes...

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

England Squad for Trip Down Under: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Martin Johnson had a few tricks up his sleeve today when he named his England squad to tour Australia this summer.

Along with nine uncapped players, the England coach made some, erm, interesting recalls.

Skipper Steve Borthwick misses the tour because of a knee injury meaning Lewis Moody looks set to retain the captaincy.

But which other selections were inspired, which were dodgy, and which will make England rugby fans hold their heads in their hands and sob uncontrollably?

The Good:

Hendre Fourie: I'm thrilled the Leeds flanker has been called up after a fantastic season at a so-called "unfashionable club".  I wonder if the words of Johnno's ex-Leicester chum, Neil Back, had anything to do with his inclusion?

Olly Barkley:  Since returning from a broken leg, Barkley has helped inspire a resurgent Bath to a Guinness Premiership semi-final spot.  He is in the form of his life at the moment.  A worthy recall.

Dominic Waldouck:  Nice to see Johnno giving the talented Wasps centre a chance. 

No Louis Deacon:  Hang on, the terrible Leicester second row has been dropped?  A miracle.

The Bad:

James Haskell:  Did he even play in the Six Nations?  I'm not sure, as he had about as much an impact on me as the tedious film "The Men Who Stare At Goats".  Hours of my life, wasted.

No Jon Clarke: I don't really understand why one of England's most dangerous centres will be left at home this summer.

The Ugly:

Charlie Hodgson.  One word: WHY?!

And come to think of it, why is Stephen Myler only in the Saxons squad instead of choker Charlie who will travel to Oz?

No Phil Dowson.  What does the versatile Northampton back row forward have to do to be included in the  England tour down under?  Solve the Greek financial crisis and broker World peace?  Or does he simply have to plait sawdust and knit fog?  It is a travesty that he hasn't been handed a plane ticket and will only be given the chance to star for the Saxons.

The Full England squad, who will venture to the land where women glow and men plunder:

Backs: D Armitage (London Irish), C Ashton (Northampton), M Banahan (Bath), O Barkley (Bath), D Care (Harlequins), M Cueto (Sale Sharks), T Flood (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton), S Geraghty (Northampton), S Hape (Bath), C Hodgson (Sale Sharks), U Monye (Harlequins), J Simpson (Wasps), D Strettle (Harlequins), M Tait (Sale Sharks), M Tindall (Gloucester), D Waldouck (Wasps), R Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks), J Wilkinson (Toulon), B Youngs (Leicester).

Forwards: S Armitage (London Irish), D Attwood (Gloucester), D Cole (Leicester), T Croft (Leicester), P Doran-Jones (Gloucester), N Easter (Harlequins), D Flatman (Bath), H Fourie (Leeds Carnegie), J Golding (Newcastle), D Hartley (Northampton), J Haskell (Stade Francais), C Lawes (Northampton), L Mears (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), T Palmer (Stade Francais), G Parling (Leicester), T Payne (Wasps), C Robshaw (Harlequins), S Shaw (Wasps), S Thompson (Brive), D Ward-Smith (Wasps), R Webber (Wasps), D Wilson (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps).

England Saxons squad for the Churchill Cup:
Backs: N Abendanon (Bath), A Allen (Leicester), B Barritt (Saracens), J Clarke (Northampton), A Goode (Saracens), P Hodgson (London Irish), S Myler (Northampton), J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), O Smith (Montpellier), T Varndell (Wasps), M Young (Newcastle).

Forwards: D Bell (Bath), N Catt (Bath), A Corbisiero (London Irish), P Dowson (Northampton), G Kitchener (Worcester), S Hooper (Bath), T Lindsay (Wasps), L Narraway (Gloucester), D Paice (London Irish), T Rees (Wasps), A Saull (Saracens), G Skivington (Wasps), R Vickers (Newcastle), N Wood (Gloucester), T Wood (Worcester).

Sunday, 9 May 2010

VOTE NOW! Guinness Premiership Player of the Season

The Guinness Premiership season has all but finished, and with only the title deciding playoff games to go it's time to see which players have made the biggest impact.

Leicester host Bath and Saracens travel to Northampton in the semi-finals after a thrilling final round.

And it's no coincidence that these teams feature some of the most outstanding players to grace the league this campaign.

But who is your player of the season?

Here is the cream of the crop.  Well, in my opinion anyway...

Schalk Brits (Saracens)
Everything the Sarries hooker touched turned to gold this season.  Pacey, powerful and with a step that would make Yannick Jauzion jealous: Brits has it all.  OK, so his line out throwing has been a little hit and miss, but when he starts running with ball in hand he rips defences apart.  This has been his first season in the Guinness Premiership and arguably Brits has made the biggest impact of any player.  With only three South Africa caps to his name it is unbelievable to think he won't add to this tally in next year's World Cup.  Second only behind full back Alex Goode in the number of metres he has made at Sarries, 28-year old Brits is also in the club's top three for carries and tackles. 

Brendan Venter, Saracens coach, said: "Brits is a special player, who does things that can't be coached. He's so talented with the ball in hand - but then you look at his stats and see how many tackles he makes. He has to go to the World Cup."

Olly Barkley (Bath)
Centre Barkley returned to Bath after a brief sojourn at rivals Gloucester, only to miss Bath's difficult first half of the season with a broken leg.  Steve Meehan's team were battling the fallout from the drug scandal that rocked the club, and at the half way point in the season they had plummeted to the foot of the table.  But the return of Barkley and fly-half Butch James inspired Bath to an amazing run of 11 wins from 12 to secure a semi-final spot.  In this time, 28-year old Barkley has been sublime.  His passing, breaks, kicking game and points from the boot has been at the heart of Bath's success.  Surely he must be very close to grabbing a ticket to Australia for England's summer tour?

Steve Meehan, Bath coach, said: "He would be a certainty for the tour if I was on England's selection committee.  I think the 12 months he had away from here has done him a hell of a lot of good. He feels that he has nothing to prove to anybody, and his rugby is showing that."

Phil Dowson (Northampton)
Flanker and Saints vice-captain Dowson is undoubtedly one of the first names Northampton coach Jim Mallinder writes on his team sheet.  The Franklins Gardens' favourite has been a force to be reckoned with this season.  A powerful player with an incredible work rate, Dowson does so much excellent work that often goes unnoticed.  Well, not when he is thundering over the try-line as he often has this season.  The 28-year old's leadership qualities along with his excellent rugby skills must be making Lewis Moody sweat for his England starting place.  Martin Johnson has to pick Dowson to go to Australia next month.

The ever modest Dowson said: "It's probably not suitable to target the England tour but rather make sure that I'm playing well and I'm sorting out the roles that I'm doing with the coaches,"

"If [Saxons coach] Stuart Lancaster or [England forwards coach] John Wells gave me a call I'd be keen as mustard to go along. At the moment I'm concentrating on getting the best out of myself for the Saints."

And that is why everyone at Franklins Gardens loves him.

Chris Ashton (Northampton)
Rugby league convert Chris Ashton has enjoyed unbelievable success this season.  The 23-year old wing from Wigan, Lancashire, has crossed the whitewash 16 times in the league and is the top try scorer.  Electric pace combined with the strength and power of a back-row forward has seen Ashton destroy defences and link up with Saints full-back Ben Foden to devastating effect.  A well deserved call up to England for the final Six Nations game against France saw Ashton kick "that chip" - a move which squandered a try scoring chance the talented winger would have snapped up without second thought for his club.  That one blemish aside, Ashton is the future of England speedsters, and a strong contender for player of the season.

Jim Mallinder, Northampton Saints coach said: "His try-scoring has been remarkable, but it’s his general play and understanding of where to turn up that has really improved.

“He understands the game and where the weak points of defences are.  He is a natural try-scorer”

Soane Tonga'uiha (Northampton)
Prop Tonga'uiha spent a few weeks of the season entangled in a Saints v Saracens tug of war after confusing contract negotiations.  However that was all agreed amicably, with Saints securing the 28-year old Tongan's services for next season.  The battle for his signature is understandable: "Tiny" has been a huge force in Northampton's front row and is the form loosehead in the league.  The sight of the massive forward steaming up the field has become a recurring sight - Tonga'uiha is tenth in the list of top carriers.  Not bad for a front row, who also picked up man of the match awards in the LV= Cup semi-final and final.

But what do the fans say about the man?

"He has just been unstoppable"

"Who can forget the break through & dash in the LV= final?"
"Has been outstanding this season, especially in the LV= Cup Final."
"An amazing player, a truly nice guy and a fans favourite."
"Man mountain demolishes almost everything in his path."
"His displays in the semi final and final were awesome."
"Fabulous performance after fabulous performance."

Hendre Fourie (Leeds Carnegie)
Last but by no means least is Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie.  Fourie has been the stand out player for relegation battlers Carnegie, and despite playing for a so-called "unfashionable" club, the 30-year old back row forward forced his way into the England squad for the Six Nations.  The Leeds number seven qualifies for England due to residency, and has been tipped to play for England by his coach, Neil Back.  Always snapping around the fringes of the breakdown, Fourie is a fierce tackler - topping the Opta stats for his club - as well as being a powerful ball carrier.  "Shrek" is a firm favourite of the Headingley Carnegie faithful and will always be the first name on the team sheet if he is fit.

Neil Back, Leeds head coach, said: "I believe Hendre will go with the full England squad to Australia,"

"He is now maximising his potential and on the back of that he is now, for me, the outstanding number seven in the Premiership.

"Because of that he has now played for the Saxons and been involved in full England training. I believe he will now go on the summer tour and go on from there with England."

So who is your Guinness Premiership player of the season?

Vote now in the poll, which you can find on the sidebar.  >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Friday, 7 May 2010

Bath Time

Bath play Leeds Carnegie tomorrow and a win will guarantee them fourth place and a semi-final against Leicester Tigers.

Here, Bath's Danny Grewcock, Butch James and Michael Claassens look ahead to the game.

Guinness Premiership Previews & Predictions: Round 22

Round 22 is the final instalment of this season's Guinness Premiership before we enter into the top of the table playoffs.

Leicester have already secured a home semi-final and Worcester's relegation was confirmed in the last round. 

But who will grab the other home semi-final?  Will it be Jim Mallinder's Northampton or Brendan Venter's resurgent Sarries?

Which team will complete the top four to book a trip to Welford Road?  Bath, Wasps and London Irish are still in with a semi-final shout.

And can Gloucester keep hold of 7th spot to keep their Heineken Cup dreams alive?

Here are my previews and predictions:

Leicester Tigers v Saracens

Could this be a dress rehearsal for the Guinness Premiership Final on May 29th?

Quite possibly.

Leicester have already secured top spot in the Guinness Premiership and this is their sixth successive season in the playoffs.  Title rivals Saracens need a win from this game to stand any chance of grabbing the other home semi-final.  A win would also crush the Tigers' attempts to go through an entire Premiership campaign unbeaten at home for the fifth time.

The history books show that Leicester have won their last four games against Sarries, whilst Brendan Venter's men have never won at Welford Road in 32 previous visits in all competitions.

But Sarries have already won five games on the road this season, including their last two trips to Sale and Northampton.

My prediction: A real top of the table clash which will go some way to showing who could be crowned champions.  If Sarries give the ball to hooker Schalk Brits then anything is possible, but I think Leicester will just about have the edge.  Leicester to win by 6.

London Irish v Northampton Saints

London Irish's form seems to be slipping away from them at the crucial time.  Losses to Gloucester and Leeds in the last two rounds all but ended their quest for a playoff place, but a win against Northampton would give them a chance - depending on other results.

The Saints will be gunning for a win after they also suffered back to back defeats which out a home semi-final under threat.  A win over Irish would ensure the playoff game will be played at Franklins Gardens - a loss leaves them hoping Leicester do them a favour.

As for the history books, the Saints have won three of their last four meetings with London Irish, but have lost on their last three visits to the Madejski Stadium.

My prediction:  Who wants to win more?  It's got to be Northampton.  Irish looked tired in their last two defeats whilst the Saints were pipped by a single point on each occasion.  Northampton to win by 9.

Bath Rugby v Leeds Carnegie

If Bath beat Leeds they will grab the last playoff place and secure a semi-final trip to Welford Road to take on Leicester Tigers.

But if Neil Back's Leeds can pull a third consecutive win out of the locker then Steve Meehan's men will be left to sweat on other results.

Bath are the form team and have win 10 of their last 11 Guinness Premiership matches.  Not bad for a side that was languishing in 11th place in the table at the halfway point of the season.

Carnegie's Premiership survival was secured with their win over Worcester Warriors so they have nothing to lose at the Rec.

However, I can't see the visitors taking any points from this game against the red hot Bath.

My prediction: With Butch James and Olly Barkley firing in the Bath backline, the home side will shift the point of attack and stretch Leeds to breaking point.  Bath to win by 16.

Harlequins v Sale Sharks

Sale have won their last four meetings in all competitions with Harlequins since the Sharks won this fixture 38-20 last season.

Quins are currently 8th in the table and have lost their last two league games at the hands of semi-finalists Saracens and Leicester.

But Harlequins are unbeaten in their last seven Premiership matches at the Stoop, since Sarries won there in September.

Sale, on the other hand, retained their Guinness Premiership status despite losing their last three league games.  The Sharks' only away victory in the Premiership since January 2009 was at Leeds in November 2009.

My prediction:  Changes are being made at Edgeley Park but it's too late for a Sale renaissance this season.  Harlequins to win by 9.

Newcastle Falcons v London Wasps

Mathematically speaking, Wasps can still clinch the final playoff spot if they beat the Falcons.

However, when people start getting out their calculators to see if a team can make it you know they are unlikely to progress.

When Newcastle faced Wasps at Adams Park in the league on 3 January they beat them 12-6, and if a semi-final isn't enough an incentive for Wasps to win then revenge certainly is.

I've got to admit that a win for the visitors looks likely, as Newcastle's only victory in their last six home games was the 25-23 win over Gloucester in the Premiership on 31 March.

My prediction:  Even if Wasps ace their Maths exam and get through to the playoffs, I can't see them making it to the final.  But Shaun Edwards will be working the old cliche of one game at a time, and that should win them this game.  Wasps to win by 12.

Worcester Warriors v Gloucester Rugby

Worcester's swansong in the Premiership following their relegation at Leeds in the last round is by no means a dead rubber.

The Warriors will be playing for pride in front of their home fans and Gloucester need a win to ensure 7th place - a position that could see them included in next season's Heineken Cup if Toulon win the Amlin Challenge cup in a couple of weeks.

Worcester achieved the Premiership double over Gloucester last season, but drew 13-all when the two teams met at Kingsholm in round 12.

My prediction:  Gloucester will have too much for the Warriors.  Gloucester to win by 12.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Bye Bye Borthwick - Hello Courtney Lawes?

England captain Steve Borthwick has been ruled out of Saracens' Guinness Premiership title bid due to injury and is likely to miss England's summer tour down under.

Wonky-nosed Steve has lost his battle against a knee problem which saw him miss England's showdown with France in the Six Nations.

A new bout of tendinitis has scuppered his return to training with Saracens and put his inclusion in England's June tour to Australia and New Zealand in doubt.

It has been revealed today that the lock needs another two months of conditioning and rest to return to full fitness.

Bothers was targeting a return against Leicester this Saturday - a match which could dictate if Sarries will grab a home semi-final.

But has his absence been a bad thing?

Some of his critics have linked Borthwick's stint on the sidelines with Saracens' recent impressive and explosive play.  Sarries have been doing very well without him, thank you very much, and England seemed to cope just fine in his absence.

OK, so England lost to France, but under skipper Lewis Moody they were a much hungrier and dynamic force.

So with one of England's first choice second rows laid up, it looks like there'll be a space in the starting line-up. 

Cometh the hour, cometh the man.  The World Cup is but months away.

Courtney Lawes anyone?

Yes I think so.

But we'll probably just get Louis Deacon again...


Saracens Aim for Home Semi-Final

Saracens take on Leicester Tigers at Welford Road this Saturday, and only a win will give Sarries the chance of a home semi-final against Northampton Saints.
But winning at Welford Road is a tough ask - no team has beaten the Tigers on home soil in the league this season.

However Brendan Venter's Saracens did grab a 28-27 victory over title rivals Northampton at Franklins Gardens two weeks ago.  This result denied the Saints an unbeaten Premiership home campaign and added fire to the forthcoming semi-final clash between the two sides.

The venue of this game is still up for grabs and it rests on the results of Northampton's trip to London Irish and Saracens' game against the Tigers.

Here, Sarries' trio Adam Powell, Andy Saull and Brad Barritt chat about Saturday's game:

Monday, 3 May 2010

Man of the Month: May

April's man of the month was Leeds Carnegie captain, Marco Wentzel.  And guess what?  No sooner had he been bestowed with this wonderful honour he promptly led Leeds Carnegie to another season in the top flight.


Therefore, with this in mind, I have been very careful with my choice for May.

This month sees the Guinness Premiership playoffs and final - and the question on everyone's lips (well, some people's lips) is which team will lift the trophy on May 29th?

Leicester, Northampton, and Saracens have already booked their playoff spots, and Bath will join them if they can see off Leeds next weekend.

If I had to choose a winner from the remaining four it would be tough. 

Leicester Tigers have the pedigree, Sarries are playing some superb rugby, Bath are enjoying a storming second half to the season, and Northampton Saints have been the all round surprise package.

But if I had to choose a team it would be Northampton Saints.


A few reasons I guess.
  1. Everyone loves an underdog.  Northampton are not a fashionable team.  Well, maybe they are now, but before the start of this season?  Not a chance.  Jim Mallinder, Dorian West and Paul Grayson have done an excellent job of building the Saints up from relegation in 2006/07 and transforming them into this season's LV= Cup winners, Heineken Cup quarter-finalists and Guinness Premiership semi-finalists.
  2. They play exciting rugby and have done all season.  I'm not saying that Leicester, and more recently, Bath and Sarries haven't been mesmerising crowds with magical ball skills, but this season, at times, Northampton have been sublime.
  3. I fancy Dylan Hartley.  There.  I said it.  The Northampton captain might not be everyone's cup of tea but I think he's lovely.  Yeah, so he might look a bit like Chunk from the Goonies but I wouldn't mind seeing his truffle shuffle.  (And before you say it, I don't even know what that innuendo means). 

    Dylan says he is often mistaken for Chris Ashton, his Northampton and England team mate, when doing his weekly supermarket shop.  Responding to this, Ashton said: "That's ridiculous because I'm much better looking.  And thinner."

    Thinner, yes.  But better looking?  Nah.
Therefore, all this can only mean one thing. 

Yes, May's Man of the Month is England and Saints hooker Dylan Hartley.

A good choice I think.

With that I'm going to wish good luck to Dylan and all the Northampton Saints for the rest of the season!