Archive for the ‘Southern Hemisphere’ Category

Saturday June 7, 3:35 AM Eastern – Eden Park, Auckland

Well, this is the mother of all challenges for England. During negotiations with their Kiwi counterparts several years ago, the English Rugby Football Union (RFU) somehow contrived to schedule the first Test just one week after the Aviva Premiership final, meaning that the 14 England players who participated in that match last Saturday are unavailable for selection. So Stuart Lancaster has been forced to select a XV with just 299 caps, 480 fewer than the battle-hardened All Blacks, who haven’t lost at Eden Park in 20 years.

Much has been made about England’s fourth-choice 10-12 combination – flyhalf Freddie Burns and inside center Kyle Eastmond will face a trial by fire. Winger Marland Yarde is also very raw. All three have huge potential, but will this match be too soon for them? Scrumhalf Danny Care is apparently 50/50 with a shoulder knock – he would be a big loss as Ben Youngs has been in indifferent form, and is not nearly as dynamic as Care.

Rob Webber gets a rare start at hooker, with Tom Youngs unavailable and Dylan Hartley one of the aforementioned 14 who have only just flown over to New Zealand after the Premiership final. Webber is joined in the front row by two capable operators in Joe Marler and David Wilson, but the 3 front row replacements have only 9 caps between them, so Lancaster will be praying none of them have to join the fray too early.

With Tom Wood another of the 14 unavailable, James Haskell makes his return to the international scene. Haskell is the most experienced player in the side, with 50 caps, and has also had the valuable experience of playing Super Rugby with the Highlanders in 2012. He knows first-hand the incredible physical intensity of rugby in New Zealand, and will need to be very abrasive without giving away penalties if England are to have a chance. The blow of Courtney Lawes and Billy Vunipola missing out is softened somewhat by the quality of their replacements – British & Irish Lion Geoff Parling, and the hard-running Ben Morgan.

The All Blacks are also missing two key players, the world’s best number 8, Kieran Read, and one of the world’s most dangerous wingers, Julian Savea. Their replacements Jerome Kaino and Cory Jane are also fantastic players, but will not pose quite the same threat. Still, from 1-15, this is an incredibly strong All Blacks side. It will be interesting to see how Aaron Cruden performs after missing several games in April and May with a broken thumb. Beauden Barrett has been the form flyhalf in New Zealand, but it is understandable that Steve Hansen has gone with what he knows. It is great to see Hansen reward the uncapped trio of Patrick Tuipolotu, TJ Perenara, and Malakai Fekitoa for their phenomenal Super Rugby form with spots on the bench.

England are 20-point underdogs – I don’t see the situation as quite that dire, but it’s true that the match could get out of hand. England’s only option is to come out guns blazing and put the All Blacks under early pressure. If they let the All Blacks dictate the tempo and start to control the game, it will be incredibly difficult to stay in it. The front five need to get the set piece running smoothly, Haskell and Robshaw need to put in a huge shift at the breakdown to disrupt New Zealand ball, Morgan needs to get England some go-forward, Burns needs to stand flat enough, Eastmond has to create opportunities for Tuilagi to bend the line, and the back three need to come up with a bit of magic on the counter-attack. So, England do have a small chance, but the more likely result is New Zealand by 14

Below, footage from the last meeting between these two teams:




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:

The highlight of the weekend was, as anticipated, Wales v Australia. What an incredible advertisement for the great sport of rugby union. Both sides were totally committed, as Australia attacked with panache and Wales defended heroically. The breakdown battle was intense, with Scott Fardy and Michael Hooper getting through a mountain of work to give the edge to Australia in that facet of the game. Amazingly, there were no scrums until the 46th minute, which contributed to a free-flowing game played at searing pace. But in the end, it was déjà vu for Wales as they once again lost to Australia by a small margin, 30-26.

The main headline was Australian flyhalf Quade Cooper’s sublime performance – he marked the occasion of his 50th cap for the Wallabies with a breathtaking display of his attacking skills. When he gets quick ball and accelerates onto it, he looks like he can do absolutely anything.  He has the best long passing game in the world which compliments an array of bedeviling short balls and offloads, and also continues to develop a very intelligent tactical kicking game.  After Saturday’s match, Welsh center Scott Williams compared defending against Cooper to “chasing shadows.”

It is amazing to think that Cooper was in the international wilderness not long ago, having fallen out with Australia’s then-coach Robbie Deans. Cooper didn’t feature in the Lions series this past summer, and it looked like, after a promising start to his Wallabies career, he might never reach 50 caps. Huge credit is due to the man for having worked hard both on his game and his maturity. He had developed a reputation as a party boy, but is now Australian vice-captain at just 25. And credit is also due to coach Ewen McKenzie for showing faith in a player who had performed so well for him at Super Rugby level for the Queensland Reds. Man-management is so important in rugby, as with all team sports, and clearly Cooper and McKenzie have a lot of trust in and respect for each other.

The Aussies will be hugely encouraged by this performance – Bob Dwyer (who coached the Wallabies to the 1991 World Cup) wrote on the always excellent Green and Gold Rugby that for the first 60 minutes of the game, it was “the best I’ve seen Australia play for 10 years.” Meanwhile, Welsh players said all the right things after the match – that their focus would immediately turn to the Six Nations – but privately they will be very disappointed. It remains to be seen how strongly they will bounce back from this defeat, but just based on the quality of the Welsh team, I would make them favorites to win a third straight Six Nations. It’s going to be a very exciting tournament though – England, Ireland, and France (in that order) have shown that they are legitimate contenders for the trophy as well.

Domestic Rugby News

It was business as usual in the English Premiership this weekend, as the top five clubs (Saracens, Northampton, Bath, Harlequins, and Leicester) all won their matches. In the French Top 14, the notable results were seventh-placed Grenoble beating second-placed Toulouse 25-18, and Stade Francais making a major statement, dominating powerhouse Toulon 23-0. In the Pro 12, which features teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Italy, the top four (Munster, Leinster, Glasgow, and Ulster) all won, although Munster and Ulster were less than convincing in defeating Dragons and Zebre, respectively.

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