Archive for February, 2014

Saturday February 22, 11:00 AM Eastern – Twickenham, London

What a match this could be. Having already dismantled Scotland and Wales, a confident Irish team travels to Twickenham in search of the Triple Crown. Standing in their way is a very strong English side, desperate to make a statement of their own. It would be surprising if the game were decided by more than a few points.

These are two of the best packs around, although England’s has been significantly weakened by the loss of Dan Cole, who will miss the rest of the season with a neck injury. Cole is not only a strong scrummager, but also one of the world’s most effective tightheads at the breakdown – for a man of his size, he can get quite low over the ball. While he does not win many turnovers or penalties directly, he makes himself a constant nuisance, slowing down opposition ball and forcing opposing forwards to commit themselves to the ruck. And he is capable of playing the full 80 minutes. Cole’s replacement is David Wilson, who is not a real threat at the breakdown, and is unlikely to play more than 55 minutes because he is not fully match-fit after missing two months with a calf injury. Wilson was pretty honest when asked about his goals for the match: “I’m aiming to do the basics well – scrum well, line-out well, get through that, go for as long as I can and not let anyone down.” Irish loosehead Cian Healy will target Wilson at scrum time, and England can only realistically hope for parity in that area. Wilson’s lack of fitness means that 22-year old Henry Thomas, with just 3 caps to his name, will likely get 25 or even 30 minutes in what will be the biggest match of his life.

The battle of the back rows will be fascinating – England has the most dangerous ball-carrier in Billy Vunipola, while Ireland has the best all-around player in the indefatigable Peter O’Mahony. On the bench, Irish coach Joe Schmidt has picked two ball-carriers in Iain Henderson and the uncapped Jordi Murphy, and he will be expecting them to make a major impact.

At scrumhalf, Ireland’s Conor Murray is probably the better player, but Danny Care is in great form, and that battle could go either way. At flyhalf, Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton is clearly superior to Owen Farrell, and Sexton’s ability to control the game with tactical kicking could prove the difference. Uncapped 20-year old George Ford has replaced Brad Barritt on the England bench, and may have a vital role to play.

In the midfield is an intriguing matchup of youth v experience. The legendary Brian O’Driscoll will tie former Australian scrumhalf George Gregan’s record for Test caps on Saturday, and with 130 caps for Ireland, he has 24 more than all 7 English backs combined. O’Driscoll has partnered Gordon D’Arcy in the centers on 53 occasions for Ireland, which is also a record. Opposite them, Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell have played together for England twice, and have just 12 caps between them. While D’Arcy and O’Driscoll may have lost a step or two in attack, they are very intelligent defensively, and trust each other implicitly. The gaps that do open up will likely be small, so Farrell is going to have to be very sharp to put his backs through them.

In the back three, expect Ireland to make Jack Nowell and Jonny May prove they can handle the high ball. If they can’t, it could be a long day for England.

It’s a very tough one to predict, but for me the loss of Cole and the superiority of Sexton at flyhalf just gives the men in green the edge. Ireland by 3

Below, highlights from last year’s match in Dublin:

Friday February 21, 3:00 PM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

Friday night rugby returns to the Six Nations this weekend, and the atmosphere at the Millennium Stadium will be electric. The big news today is that Wales coach Warren Gatland has made the decision that many were expecting – he has dropped scrumhalf Mike Phillips in favor of Rhys Webb. Gatland had some rather stern words for Phillips, saying: “We weren’t happy with Mike’s performance against Ireland and we think it’s a big opportunity for Rhys… [Phillips] got a bit confrontational with Conor Murray and this is an opportunity for him to have a think about that.” Welsh fans will be hoping that Webb can inject some much needed pace in attack, and that he will make sensible decisions at the back of the ruck.

The other change in the backs sees George North move in from wing to outside center – this is essentially an enforced change as Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, and Ashley Beck are all injured. Liam Williams takes North’s place on the wing. Even though North has limited experience at 13, the French should be worried. From a French perspective, no good can come from North getting his hands on the ball more than he already does. The French defense was not particularly impressive against England in Week 1, and North’s opposite number Mathieu Bastareaud is not quick enough to deal with North in space. So France should look to take away that space by slowing down Welsh ball, allowing more time for defensive realignment.

France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has made one change, bringing in Wenceslas Lauret at flanker in place of Bernard le Roux, who has not recovered from the concussion he suffered against Italy. But one wonders if there is also a tactical element to the change, considering Lauret is about 4 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than le Roux. Perhaps Saint-Andre sees an opportunity for his back row to get low over the ball and outwork the Welsh at the breakdown, rather than relying on pure power.

So much will depend on the quality of ball Wales are able to produce, and how effectively Webb uses it, but I have a feeling that they will get the job done. The Welsh players are hurting badly after the manner of the defeat to Ireland – Adam Jones said the squad was “pretty embarrassed” – and they will be desperate to put things right in front of the Cardiff crowd. This could be quite an entertaining spectacle, but ultimately I see Wales by 7

Below, highlights from last year’s match in Paris:

For the uninitiated, Super Rugby is a prestigious international competition featuring three conferences of five teams each from New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. Each team plays every other team in its own national conference twice, and plays four of the five teams in the other two conferences once. The three conference winners, as well as the other three teams with the most points (4 for a win, 1 for scoring 4 or more tries, 1 for losing by 7 or fewer points) advance to the playoffs.

The competition makes its long-awaited return Saturday morning (Eastern time) with two South African derbies. The teams from New Zealand and Australia will begin play next week, except for the Melbourne Rebels, who begin play in week 3.

First up, the Cheetahs host the Lions in Bloemfontein. The Lions were not in the competition last year, but earned their way back in by beating the Kings in a promotion/relegation playoff. (Today, the South African Rugby Union [SARU] eliminated that playoff because the competition is being restructured in conjunction with a new TV rights deal, and SARU is adamant about having 6, and possibly even 7, South African franchises in Super Rugby for 2015.)  Meanwhile, the Cheetahs surprised many by making the playoffs last year, losing narrowly to eventual finalists the Brumbies. They won over many neutrals by playing an exciting, attacking brand of rugby, and hopefully that will continue this year. Flyhalf Johan Goosen returns to lead the backline – he missed most of last season due to a knee ligament injury. The Cheetahs will also be hoping that fullback Willie le Roux can maintain the form he showed on international duty with the Springboks – he is a major counterattacking threat from anywhere on the field.

Don’t count the Lions out though – many pundits and fans made that mistake with the Kings last year. They will need to rely on the experience of veterans like Franco van der Merwe, Warren Whiteley, and Deon van Rensburg. It is a tough ask to go to Bloemfontein for their first match back in Super Rugby, but I would not be surprised to see the Lions claim some scalps back home in Johannesburg.

While Cheetahs v Lions should be a fairly open game, Sharks v Bulls looks set to be an all-out forward battle. The Durban forecast (hot and very humid), combined with these two teams’ natural styles, means the match is unlikely to feature much running rugby. The Sharks are rightly favored – their pack features 7 Springboks, including the current Springbok front row of Tendai (Beast) Mtawarira and the brothers du Plessis (Bismarck and Jannie), rising star Pieter-Steph du Toit, and the sheer power of Willem Alberts. Meanwhile, the Bulls’ pack is as weak as it has been in years. The backs look fairly even, although the presence of Springbok flyhalf Patrick Lambie might just give the edge to the Sharks in that department as well. But that’s why they play the game. Expect a brutally physical encounter that will be closer than it appears on paper.

Below, some of the best tries from last year’s competition:

It was a slightly strange weekend in this great tournament, as none of the three matches were remotely close. The Ireland v Wales result was certainly the most surprising – Ireland were utterly dominant 26-3 winners in what had been expected to be a tight contest. It is incredible that Peter O’Mahony is only 24 years old – he was born to play Test rugby. Already captain of Munster, he is surely a future Ireland captain as well. The whole Irish team is playing very well at the moment, and all eyes will now turn toward the England game in two weeks’ time. What a battle of packs that will be.

Meanwhile, Warren Gatland said: “It was the most disappointing performance from us since I have been the Wales coach. The test now for us is how we bounce back and show character.” The big question now is whether there will be major changes in personnel ahead of France’s visit to Cardiff on Friday the 21st. One man whose place must surely be under threat is scrumhalf Mike Phillips, who is still too slow clearing the ball from the base of rucks, and let his frustration boil over several times on Saturday.

England were impressive in beating Scotland 20-0, but it was more a case of the Scots playing poorly. Sir Clive Woodward (who coached England to the 2003 World Cup) wrote in the Daily Mail: “Saturday was a sad day for Scottish sport and their rugby team have never been worse. That team would fail to beat a single club in the Aviva Premiership and a second-string England side would have won comfortably.” There is some serious soul-searching going on in Scottish rugby at the moment, and no one seems to be sure what the right solution is.

England will be confident going into the Ireland game, but how much can they take from a result against such poor opposition? Coach Stuart Lancaster and captain Chris Robshaw have expressed frustration that they didn’t win even more comfortably, which is exactly the right attitude to have.

Finally, Italy were only 9-3 down at halftime in Paris, but were then blown away by France in the second half, conceding 3 tries in 9 minutes. It was really not much of a game – the first 40 minutes were dreadful, then France won the game, and the last 25 minutes will be remembered more for two players being shown red cards (the first in the Six Nations since 2006) than for any of the rugby that was played.

The competition takes a break next weekend, but at least Super Rugby returns, with two games from South Africa on Saturday morning.

Below, the Ireland v Wales highlights:

Saturday February 8, 9:30 AM Eastern – Lansdowne Road (Aviva Stadium), Dublin

Conditions in Dublin are supposed to be dreadful, which may ruin this match as a spectacle, but either way it will be a fantastic battle, and I can’t see more than a few points in it either way.

Both sides are at full strength as Irish captain Paul O’Connell and Welsh captain Sam Warburton return from illness and injury, respectively, to lead their sides. For Ireland, Gordon D’Arcy replaces Luke Marshall at inside center, mostly for defensive reasons. The speculation is that D’Arcy is trusted more than Marshall by his clubmate Brian O’Driscoll outside him, and his former clubmate Jonathan Sexton inside him. It is no secret that the Welsh love to attack down the 12 channel through the power of Jamie Roberts, so the Irish defense will have to be stout. For Wales, Gethin Jenkins returns at loosehead, and it will be interesting to see whether he can gain an advantage on Mike Ross at scrum time. Elsewhere in the front row, the matchup at hooker between Rory Best and Richard Hibbard, both Lions last summer, is a tasty prospect. They have very different approaches to the position – Best often plays like a fourth back-rower, winning penalties and turnovers at the breakdown, while Hibbard is just a tank who seems to relish massive collisions on both sides of the ball.

Both Best and Hibbard will need to get their throws right, because the lineout will be vital. It will be fascinating to see O’Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones, both  experienced and skilled lineout operators, try to outsmart each other in this area. Wales will miss the height of Luke Charteris, who has a hamstring injury. Andrew Coombs is a fine player, but at 6’4″ is 5 inches shorter than Charteris.  Ireland have their own giant in 6’11” Devin Toner, as well as Peter O’Mahony, who is excellent in the air.  Ireland know that if they can disrupt the Welsh lineout, they will deprive Wales of the perfect platform to attack on first phase through Roberts. Ireland will also seek to establish the rolling maul which was such an effective weapon against Scotland last week, although Wales will provide a sterner challenge.

There’s not much to separate the two packs, although Wales have a slight edge in carrying, as Hibbard and Taulupe Faletau (as Toby now wants to be known) are both immense with ball in hand. Without Sean O’Brien, Ireland have only Cian Healy as a top-class ball-carrier, although he is a major threat as Scotland found out last week. The Irish backrow and O’Connell will need to share the workload.

There is separation at 9 and 10, where Ireland are clearly superior, and that may be the difference in the game. Irish discipline has been good since Joe Schmidt took over, and they have to maintain that because Leigh Halfpenny will kick goals from anywhere. They also have to contain George North – that is the best they can hope for because the big Welshman is impossible to stop entirely. Rob Kearney and the rest of the Irish kick chase can deny him counterattacking opportunities, but the problem is that North has become increasingly adept at coming off his wing to get involved in the game all over the pitch. A nightmare for any defense.

Should be a cracking match, and could go either way. Ireland by 1

Below, highlights from last year’s match in Cardiff:

 

Saturday February 8, 12 PM Eastern – Murrayfield, Edinburgh

Scotland coach Scott Johnson has made a big call, as well as a statement of intent, by dropping captain Kelly Brown for Chris Fusaro, who will be making his international debut. Scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw will take over the captaincy. Johnson admitted it was “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make as Scotland head coach… [Brown’s] a guy I admire but it was the right decision.” Relatively slight for an international back row, at 5’11” and 210 pounds, Fusaro is a more traditional 7 who will be expected to do a lot of work slowing down English ball at the breakdown.

Johnson has been pretty clear on why he has selected Fusaro for this role: “He’s low to the ground and plays below a lot of people… it’s not always brute force that wins these games.” No doubt Johnson and his staff saw how easily the powerful English ball carriers got over the gainline against France, and have decided Fusaro is the best option to cut off the England attack at its source: quick ruck ball. With the Murrayfield pitch expected to be in very bad shape, the breakdown could be one hell of a mess, and a lot will depend on the interpretation of referee Jerome Garces.

In other changes to the starting XV, Tommy Seymour comes in on the wing for the injured Sean Maitland, who will miss the entire tournament with knee and ankle injuries, while the experienced Matt Scott replaces young Duncan Taylor at inside center. There is a bit of interest on the bench as British and Irish Lion Richie Gray drops out of the matchday squad altogether in favor of his younger brother Jonny.

Meanwhile, England coach Stuart Lancaster is absolutely correct to name an unchanged squad. Captain Chris Robshaw said that his men are “seething” after the bitter disappointment of the loss to France, and Lancaster trusts his young team to put Paris behind them and put in a big performance in Edinburgh. Jonny May has been passed fit after breaking his nose against France, which means there is still no room for young Anthony Watson, but his time will come.

As discussed above, the breakdown will be crucial – Robshaw and Tom Wood need to neutralize the threat of Fusaro and secure quick ball. The lineout will also be vital for England, both in attack and defense. Scotland struggled to defend Ireland’s rolling maul last week – England should take them on in that area as early as possible. Scotland also had difficulty securing possession on their own lineout last week, losing 5 of 15 throws. Wood and Courtney Lawes are both excellent lineout operators – England should look to get these two up in the air early and often, and force Scotland to prove they can win the ball at the back of the lineout. When a hooker is lacking confidence, that’s exactly where he doesn’t want to throw, so England need to deprive Ross Ford of the safe option at the front.

Finally, England need to deny Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg counterattacking opportunities. Hogg is the Scots’ most dangerous player. When they do kick to him, they need to make sure that the kick is high, and that the kick chase is good. Essentially, do what a defense is always trying to do: take away time and space.

England did a lot of good things last week, and it was particularly pleasing to see Danny Care at 9 and Owen Farrell at 10 ask a lot of questions of the French defense. If they get quick, front-foot ball, I don’t think the Scottish defense will be able to cope. A lot will depend on the conditions – if they are bad, this could turn into a very ugly match. But either way, I can’t see England losing. England by 7

Below, highlights from last year’s match at Twickenham:

 

Simply put: the competition looks like it will be as close as we all thought it would be. Any of Ireland, Wales, France, or England could win it, and Italy may well beat one of those teams.  Scotland were poor, but I expect them to bounce back and scare a few of the top four.

Ireland were the most impressive team of the weekend, comprehensively beating Scotland, and Joe Schmidt’s men must be viewed as legitimate title contenders, although they face a perilous route through the tournament. Wales visit Dublin next weekend, and then Ireland must go to London and Paris. A Grand Slam is thus unlikely, but then again I don’t believe any team will go through undefeated this year.

The Welsh will have to significantly improve on their performance against Italy, but one gets the feeling that they will find a higher gear when required. Sam Warburton will be restored to the captaincy for the all-important Ireland match, and Alun-Wyn Jones, Richard Hibbard, and Jamie Roberts, among others, are all in excellent form.

And France-England – what a Test match, heart-breaking for the England players and fans. The game was there to be won in what would have been England’s greatest comeback, but they just weren’t quite clinical enough, and credit to France for staying in the game mentally and waiting for their opportunity. The French only have to leave Paris to visit Cardiff and Edinburgh, so they are in the driver’s seat at the moment. I thought they would miss Dusautoir more, but Yannick Nyanga rose to the occasion magnificently, taking on more responsibility in the back row.

The young English side showed tremendous character, and they cannot be ruled out of contention either. If they can cut down on the mistakes and put together a more complete 80-minute performance in Edinburgh next week, they will feel confident as they prepare for the visits of Wales and Ireland to Twickenham. But they mustn’t overlook the Scots,  who are always up for it when they play at Murrayfield. The pitch is apparently in an awful state due to a nematode infestation, so it may be quite a scrappy affair.

Bring on Week 2!

Below, highlights from France-England: