Saturday, 27 November 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 November 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 9: Previews and Predictions

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

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

Northampton Saints v London Irish

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

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

Exeter Chiefs v Sale Sharks

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

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

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

Leicester Tigers v Newcastle Falcons

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

My prediction: Leicester by 12.

Gloucester Rugby v Saracens

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

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

Bath Rugby v London Wasps

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

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

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

Harlequins v Leeds Carnegie

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

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

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

But what do you think?

Thursday, 25 November 2010

McCaw wins IRB Player of the Year... again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Where Did it All Go So Right for England?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 November 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 8: Previews & Predictions

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

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

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

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

Leicester v Harlequins

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

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

Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints

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

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

Exeter Chiefs v Leeds Carnegie

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

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

London Wasps v London Irish

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

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

Newcastle Falcons v Gloucester Rugby

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

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

Bath Rugby v Saracens

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

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

Friday, 12 November 2010

All Blacks Crossbar Challenge

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

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

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

But can anyone hit the bar from 40m?

Watch out Scotland.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Bottom of the Ruck

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

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

Yes, you read that right.

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

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

Tickets are on sale now.

For more information you can visit at

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Meet the All Blacks

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

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

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

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

Yeah whatever Dan.

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