Archive for November, 2013

Saturday November 30, 12 PM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

The 2013 Autumn Internationals conclude with a match that should be an absolute cracker. Australia has had the edge over Wales in recent years. Since 2007, the teams have played 12 times, with Australia winning 11 – the sole Welsh win came in November 2008 in Cardiff. The margins have been razor-thin though – in the last three matches between these two, Australia has won by two points twice, and by one point once. Wales will be desperate to reverse this trend. The match has added significance as these two teams have been drawn in the same group for the 2015 World Cup. So each team is anxious to gain the psychological upper hand as rugby’s showpiece event draws nearer.

A compelling secondary storyline is what effect, if any, the manner of the British and Irish Lions’ victory over Australia this past summer will have on this game. It was a remarkable 41-16 victory for the Lions in the third and deciding match, and the defeat was a massive psychological blow for the Australians. The 2013 Lions team was dominated by Welshmen, and seven who started the third Test for the Lions will start for Wales on Saturday: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Mike Phillips, Richard Hibbard, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate, and Toby Faletau. For Australia, the number is eight: Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali’ifano, Joe Tomane, Will Genia, Stephen Moore, James Horwill, and Ben Mowen. These players certainly know each other very well, and I expect three individual matchups to be crucial in determining the outcome of Saturday’s match.

Hooker: Hibbard v Moore will be a captivating battle – they are two of the best hookers in the world. They will be looking to target each other at scrum time and in the loose. Hibbard has been in the press this week talking confidently about reproducing the physicality the Lions exhibited during the third Test, and no doubt Moore will want to take his opposite number down a peg.

Lock: The Jones v Horwill matchup is another that will set the tone for the two packs. These two were involved in controversy during the first Lions Test when Horwill stamped on Jones’ face as Jones was trapped at the bottom of a ruck. Horwill was eventually cleared of the offense after a farcical judicial process, and the two captained against each other in the third Test. Horwill’s form since then has been so poor that he was stripped of the Australian captaincy by coach Ewen McKenzie, and nearly dropped from the team altogether.  When Horwill and Jones are at their best, they are seriously tough customers, and hopefully they will have a great battle on Saturday.

Scrumhalf: Phillips v Genia at number 9 will be fascinating. Genia has been in mostly bad form this season, and Phillips has been inconsistent on the field, in addition to off-field issues – last month he was embarrassingly fired by his club, Bayonne, for apparently showing up to a video session drunk. As with many scrumhalves, these two struggle with clearing the ball quickly from the base of the ruck. Too frequently both Genia and Phillips pick the ball up, have a look around, take a few steps sideways, and then finally pass. This is a major problem because it takes away time and space, allowing the opposition defensive line to rush up and apply pressure. When a team is functioning well, the scrumhalf should know where the next pass is going as he is getting to the ruck, and by the time he gets there, he should be passing immediately, off the ground. These two will be under major scrutiny on Saturday.

I expect another close game, but I give Wales the edge. They showed against South Africa three weeks ago that they are a very good side. Australia has shown glimpses of quality over the past month, but they are at the very end of a long, brutal season. Despite McKenzie billing this match as a “Grand Final,” I think it will be one hurdle too far for the tired Australians. Below: highlights from the last time Wales beat Australia. Wales by 5

#AllBlackFriday celebrations conclude with a tribute to New Zealand’s all-time leading try scorer, Doug Howlett. He made his debut for the All Blacks against Tonga in 2000, and over the next seven years scored 49 tries in 62 Test matches. Howlett is also the all-time leading try scorer in Super Rugby, having crossed the whitewash 59 times in that prestigious competition. After the 2007 World Cup Howlett moved to Munster, where he continued to be prolific, scoring 35 tries in six very successful years with the Irish province. Howlett’s time at Munster included a Heineken Cup triumph in 2008, which earned him the rare distinction of having won a major domestic trophy in both hemispheres (he won Super Rugby, then called Super 12, with the Auckland Blues in 2003).

When Howlett retired at the end of the 2012-13 season, rugby lost a special talent. On the wing, Howlett was a pure finisher. In the first video below, one thing you will see again and again is Howlett in the right place at the right time, accelerating onto the ball, and touching down in the corner. Howlett elevated the fundamentals to an art form, and many current wingers would do well to study the timing and accuracy of his support play. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was blessed with sub-11 second 100 meter speed! Howlett was also more than capable of putting in the big hits. The second video below shows him taking down a much bigger man, Saracens and South Africa hooker Schalk Brits.

Happy #AllBlackFriday

It’s Thanksgiving Day here in the States, as well as #throwbackthursday, so it seems like a good time to pay tribute to a legendary All Black of yesteryear, Jonah Lomu. Lomu became the youngest All Black in history when he made his Test debut for New Zealand against France in 1994 at age 19, and became a global superstar at the 1995 World Cup. His unique combination of size (6’5″ and 273 pounds, according to Scrum) and sub-11 second 100 meter speed made him nearly unstoppable and captivated rugby audiences everywhere. Despite towering over most forwards, Lomu played on the wing because of his speed, agility, and finishing ability. He scored 37 tries in 63 Tests for the All Blacks, and is the all-time leading World Cup try scorer – 15 in 11 games over the course of the 1995 and 1999 tournaments.

Sadly, a rare and serious kidney disorder hampered Lomu’s rugby career almost right from the beginning. Rugby fans can only wonder what might have been. Lomu had a kidney transplant in 2004, and has required dialysis for the past two years, but said in a recent interview with the Irish Independent that his health is “really, really good.” Jonah: thanks for all the wonderful memories you provided on the rugby field, and best wishes for continued good health.

Check out the videos below for some of Lomu’s greatest moments and to see the great man reflect on his career.

Happy #AllBlackFriday

Ben Smith is already a star in New Zealand, but is only now getting the global recognition he richly deserves. Along with his teammate Kieran Read, Smith is nominated for IRB Player of the Year. He was first capped by the All Blacks against Italy in 2009, but struggled to get into the team over the next few years – such is the quality of rugby talent in New Zealand. Smith was given another opportunity for the All Blacks in 2012, playing in 10 Test matches, and he has played in all 14 Tests this year, scoring 11 tries. He is versatile, having played at fullback, wing, and outside center for both club and country. It looks like Smith’s future for the All Blacks will be at outside center, given that incumbent number 13 Conrad Smith (no relation) is currently taking a break from the game and is unlikely to play on past the 2015 World Cup. Take a look at the videos below to get a sense of Ben Smith’s natural rugby ability. He’s got raw pace, great footwork, and silky passing skills. We are sure to see a lot more from him in the years to come.

Happy #AllBlackFriday

One cannot discuss the All Blacks’ success in recent years without mentioning this man, Richie McCaw. Since making his debut against Ireland in Dublin in November 2001, he has played in 124 Test matches – winning 110, drawing 1, and losing just 13. He has captained the All Blacks on an incredible 87 occasions, winning 77 of those games. He has been named IRB Player of the Year three times (2006, 2009, and 2010) and been shortlisted another five times (2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2012). Most importantly, he led New Zealand to the 2011 World Cup on home soil, heroically playing through a stress fracture in his foot. He is, quite simply, the player of his generation, and one of the all-time greats.

Happy #AllBlackFriday

All Blacks Number 8 Kieran Read is on the shortlist for IRB Player of the Year, and to me, it would be a shock if he didn’t win the award. As a key link between the forwards and the backs, Number 8 is a position that requires a high level of all-around rugby ability. Read has shown this year that he has it all. In attack, he is a strong ball-carrier, a skillful passer (especially adept at miracle offloads, some of which are featured in the videos below), and runs great support lines, especially out wide. In defense, he puts in the big hits and is very strong at the breakdown, frequently slowing down opposition ball or turning it over. At the set piece, he is an excellent lineout jumper and controls the ball well at the back of the scrum. And if we consider restarts to be a third type of set piece, he is very dependable under the high ball as well. He is one of the leaders of the All Blacks, and has played a pivotal role in their incredible success this year. One tribute video is not enough for this man.

Happy #AllBlackFriday

Many Americans who are unfamiliar with rugby in general are nonetheless aware of the fact that the All Blacks perform the Haka, a Maori dance, before every match. In recent years they have sometimes performed a specific type of Haka called the Kapa o Pango. It is a wonderful tradition, and it is fascinating to see how each individual team responds to the gauntlet being thrown down in such an intense manner. Blindside Liam Messam has recently been put in charge of leading the Haka, and he leads it brilliantly, with passion and fire. Before New Zealand’s recent win over England, Messam apparently nearly fainted because he was screaming so loudly trying to be heard over the England fans singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

Happy #AllBlackFriday

It is an honor to announce the first inductee into the Stateside Hall of Fame – not an individual player, but yesterday’s entire match. It must be preserved for posterity.

Well, the Irish defeat against New Zealand is all the rugby world is talking about today. “Heartbreaking” is the word being used in both the Irish and the New Zealand press. Ireland played like the best team in the world in the first half, racing out to a 19-0 lead after just 17 minutes. The All Blacks responded, but Ireland led at halftime 22-7. In the first 20 minutes of the second half, Ireland held firm, and the All Blacks managed just a single penalty to reduce the deficit to 22-10. But in the 64th minute, Ben Franks went over for a try, Aaron Cruden converted, and the stage was set for an unbearably tense final 15 minutes with Ireland ahead just 22-17. The Dublin crowd roared their men on, but the Irish looked out on their feet – such was the incredibly intensity of their effort over the first hour.

With five minutes to play, Johnny Sexton missed a kickable penalty that would have made it a two-score game. All Blacks captain Richie McCaw identified the kick as a key turning point in the match, saying: “The reality is, if that had gone over, it was probably game over. But when that missed, you could see a sense of lift in the boys – there was still a chance – and perhaps from the Irish boys, you could see that they were trying to eat up as much time, and sometimes when that happens, an opportunity will come.”  The Irish had possession and bravely tried to see the game out, but an opportunity did come for New Zealand when Ireland were penalized for going off their feet at a ruck just before 80 minutes were up. Although the All Blacks were 60 meters from the tryline when Aaron Smith took the quick tap, they demonstrated the self-belief epitomized by McCaw and Ryan Crotty went over for the score. That made it 22-all, with the conversion to come. There was then insult added to injury, as Cruden missed at his first attempt, only to be allowed to retake it when the Irish were judged to have begun their charge prematurely. Cruden made no mistake with the second attempt, and Ireland have still never beaten New Zealand.

It really was incredibly hard to watch, even as a neutral – the only comparison I can recall is watching France beat Wales 9-8 in the 2011 World Cup Semifinal, when Wales played with only 14 men for an hour after their captain Sam Warburton had been sent off. It will be interesting to see how Ireland responds to this. They should believe that they are real contenders for the Six Nations – such was the quality of their performance – but that is easier said than done. This defeat will haunt them.

The whole Irish squad deserves the highest praise, but special mention must go to Sean O’Brien, who was an absolute force of nature. He carried strongly, made a real nuisance of himself at the breakdown, and made 16 tackles, missing none. Condolences to hooker Rory Best, who broke his arm and looks like he will miss the beginning of the Six Nations. Congratulations to the All Blacks on their incredible achievement of going undefeated for an entire year. I am already looking forward to the England tour of New Zealand next summer.

Other results

Wales 17-7 Tonga – a pretty dreadful game. James Hook was good at flyhalf though – will Warren Gatland consider playing him there in the Six Nations?

Italy 14-19 Argentina – it was raining heavily in Rome. There were a lot of scrums. That’s about it.

Scotland 15-21 Australia – same old story for the Scots, they battled hard but just weren’t good enough. Australian fullback Israel Folau continues to amaze. Incredible to think that this is still his first year playing the 15-man code, after stints in rugby league and Aussie rules.

France 10-19 South Africa – not as good a match as I had hoped, as the French didn’t really turn up. They conceded a converted try almost immediately, and although the rest of the match was hard-fought, they never overcame that deficit.

Sunday November 24, 9 AM Eastern – Lansdowne Road (the Aviva, if we must call it that), Dublin

The New Zealand All Blacks are going after a pretty special achievement on Sunday – a win over Ireland would make them the first international team to go through an entire calendar year undefeated. The All Blacks are, as always, loaded with talent. They are captained by openside Richie McCaw, one of the best players of his generation. The pack also features Sam Whitelock, the best lock in the world, and Kieran Read, the best number 8 in the world. In the backs they are without flyhalf Dan Carter, who picked up an injury while winning his 100th cap against England last weekend, but Carter’s boots are ably filled by Aaron Cruden. Powerful and skillful inside center Ma’a Nonu is back to his best, while outside center Ben Smith remains a threat despite playing out of position (he is more comfortable at fullback or wing). Wing Julian Savea is one of the world’s best in his position, and Cory Jane and Israel Dagg combine with him to form a dangerous back three.

Ireland were comprehensively beaten last weekend by Australia, a team the All Blacks have defeated three times this year.  This Irish team has a lot of quality, but they lacked urgency and did not defend the gainline strongly enough against the Aussies. Part of this may be explained by the inherent difficulties of a coaching transition. Joe Schmidt, a New Zealander, faces his biggest challenge in just his third match as Ireland coach. Outside center Brian O’Driscoll and lock (and captain) Paul O’Connell are two legends of the game, and they will have their teammates incredibly motivated for this match amidst a sea of green in Dublin. The back row of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, and Jamie Heaslip has the potential to be very destructive. At flyhalf, Jonathan Sexton is probably the best in Europe – but there are lingering questions over his fitness. Hopefully he is close to 100% for this one, because at his best, he is masterful at controlling a game. Fullback Rob Kearney is one of the best in Europe, although he currently has competition from England’s Mike Brown.

My head says New Zealand will win comfortably, by a couple of tries. But I think Ireland are going to surprise everyone. Their pride will have been dented by the manner of the Australia defeat, and they will relish their underdog status for this match. An All Black victory is being treated as a fait accompli. Ireland has never beaten New Zealand. As Lee Corso of ESPN’s College Gameday would say: “Not so fast, my friend!” I’m backing Ireland to produce a performance reminiscent of their victory over Australia at the 2011 World Cup. Below: it is always good to revisit O’Connell’s famous “manic aggression” pregame speech. That is exactly what the Irish will need to beat New Zealand and ruin their perfect season. Ireland by 1