Posts Tagged ‘England’

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:

 

 

So here we are – two matches left, and still everything to play for. Ireland, England, Wales, and France each have 2 wins and 1 loss, and are only separated by points difference: +42, +21, +6, and +1, respectively.  And that order is likely to remain the same – it is hard to see how England will make up that 21-point deficit, assuming they win their final two games (a big assumption, granted). But that’s why this great sport is not played on paper!

Keeping things fairly brief today for the tl; dr crowd – all 3 matches previewed right here.

Ireland v Italy – Saturday March 8,  9:30 AM Eastern – Lansdowne Road, Dublin

The legendary Brian O’Driscoll will play in his final home match for Ireland on Saturday – it is also his 140th Test match, which means he will become the world’s most-capped player.  He is, of course, a national icon in Ireland,  but BOD has won the respect and admiration of rugby fans all over the world both for his heroics on the field as well as his grace and sense of humor off the field. He will be truly missed when it’s finally time to hang up the boots.

Flanker Peter O’Mahony misses out with a hamstring injury, although coach Joe Schmidt admitted that he would have risked playing O’Mahony if it had been the last match of the tournament. The richly talented young Ulsterman Iain Henderson, who can play in the second row as well, takes O’Mahony’s place.

Meanwhile, Italy’s back row is looking a bit spare, as their talismanic captain Sergio Parisse is being rested due to injury.  They were already without Alessandro Zanni, so the breakdown and getting good go-forward will be areas of concern for Jacques Brunel and his team.

Ireland will send off their man in style. Ireland by 21

Scotland v France – Saturday March 8, 12 PM Eastern – Murrayfield, Edinburgh

France are in shambles.  They are missing their first- and second-choice hookers through injury, so Brice Mach will be in the 2 shirt. They are missing their entire first-choice back row – Yannick Nyanga has joined Thierry Dusautoir on the injury list, while Louis Picamoles has been dropped from the team for sarcastically applauding referee Alain Rolland after Rolland sent him to the sin bin in the dreadful 6-27 defeat to Wales two weeks ago.  The 6’7”, 260-pound Sebastien Vahaamahina, normally a lock, will be asked to play blindside flanker even though he has no professional experience in that position. Alexandre Lapandry and Damien Chouly join him in a back row that looks, shall we say, unconvincing.

Moving to the backs, scrumhalf Morgan Parra is banned because of a red card he picked up in the French domestic competition, the Top 14. In the centers, Wesley Fofana, France’s most dangerous player, is out, and coach Philippe Saint-Andre still refuses to start Gael Fickou, instead opting for an uninspiring but experienced combination of Maxime Mermoz and Mathieu Bastareaud, the latter of whom is simply not fit enough to be on an international rugby field.

Scotland, meanwhile, are at full strength, recalling captain Kelly Brown and number 8 Dave Denton to the back row. (Why either of them was dropped in the first place is a mystery only coach Scott Johnson can solve.) Scotland will be desperate to build on the last-minute win against Italy and put on a performance in front of the Murrayfield faithful.

Something has to go right for Scottish rugby eventually, right? France look ripe for the taking. Of course, knowing the French, this could mean that they produce the greatest game of rugby ever played. But I doubt it. Scotland by 3

England v Wales – Sunday March 9, 11 AM Eastern – Twickenham, London

The history of this rivalry combined with the high stakes of the situation is expected to produce a game of the highest quality and the highest drama. The last two Six Nations meetings between these teams is the stuff of nightmare for England fans. In 2012, replacement center Scott Williams ripped the ball from Courtney Lawes and raced away to score a last-minute try which won the game for Wales, while last year, Wales demolished England in Cardiff with the championship on the line.

England coach Stuart Lancaster has made only one change, enforced by Billy Vunipola’s injury. Ben Morgan starts at number 8 with Tom Johnson taking his place on the bench. For Wales, Jonathan Davies is fit to start at 13, so George North moves back to the wing, and Liam Williams returns to the bench. Luke Charteris has picked up a late injury, so Jake Ball starts at lock. Wales will miss Charteris’ height in the lineout, and England should target that area, as they have two fine lineout operators in Lawes and Tom Wood. Under coach Warren Gatland, Wales like to use the lineout as an opportunity for Jamie Roberts to get over the gainline in midfield, so if England can disrupt some of that possession, it could make the difference in the outcome.

There’s nothing much to choose from between these two. Both teams are confident after earning important victories two weeks ago, although Ireland is a much better team than France, so England’s win was perhaps more important.  The match will be decided by the battle of the breakdown and whether the English forwards can continue to provide good go-forward, and how effectively England can contain the lethal Welsh backs with their drift defense and one-on-one tackling.

I just can’t see this England team losing to Wales again at Twickenham. England by 1

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:

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, 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:

The Six Nations – the jewel of the Northern Hemisphere rugby crown – begins on Saturday. It is a competition with a tremendously rich history, originally contested by the four “Home Nations” – England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland – beginning in 1883. France joined the tournament in 1910, and the Five Nations was passionately contested for the rest of the 20th century. 2000 saw the addition of Italy to make up the current field of six teams.

The format could not be simpler – each team plays every other team once. (The venues rotate each year – so the three teams that have three home games this year will have only two next year, and vice-versa.) There are no bonus points for scoring four tries in a match or losing a match by fewer than seven points. Wales are the two-time defending champions, and are seeking to make history by becoming the first team ever to win three consecutive tournaments outright. England will be a strong contender, as will France – despite, amazingly, finishing bottom in last year’s edition. Ireland are being labeled dark horses by some, but the reality is they are just a damn good side who will be a handful for any other team in the tournament. As usual, Scotland and Italy are not considered serious contenders, but they are both improving and are capable of knocking off any of the favorites, especially at home. So it promises to be another thrilling six weeks of rugby.

France v England is the match everyone is looking forward to this weekend, so it seems appropriate to begin by profiling these two bitter rivals.

Saturday February 1, 12 PM Eastern – Stade de France, Paris

It has become a truism, but people are going to keep writing it until is no longer true – no one ever knows which French team is going to turn up. They are capable of brilliance and incompetence, often in the same half of rugby! The French will be without their talismanic captain Thierry Dusautoir for the entirety of the tournament, which is a huge blow. He is a world-class flanker and a strong leader, and his absence adds to the uncertainty surrounding the French team. The stand-in captain will be lock Pascal Pape, who leads a strong French pack renowned for its technical scrimmaging ability. In the back row, clubmates Yannick Nyanga and Louis Picamoles have been in good form for Toulouse, so I would expect French coach Philippe Saint-Andre to pick either Bernard Le Roux or Damien Chouly in Dusautoir’s place, depending on what type of back row balance he is looking for.

In the backs, selection is a bit trickier. It looks like Jean-Marc Doussain will play scrumhalf, although he has recently played at flyhalf for Toulouse. Maxime Machenaud is the other option at 9. At flyhalf, Remi Tales is injured, so it is a question of whether Saint-Andre takes a gamble on the uncapped Jules Plisson, or goes with the experience of Francois Trinh-Duc, who has played 48 Test matches for France.  The other big question mark is at outside center – will Saint-Andre pick the skill of Gael Fickou or the size of Mathieu Bastareaud in the 13 jersey?

England are at a crossroads. Everything is in the context of the ultimate prize – winning next year’s World Cup on home soil. The English pack have shown they have the quality to do just that, but the backs have simply not posed the necessary threat. The key decision facing coach Stuart Lancaster is whether to persevere with the players he has come to trust, or whether to try some new faces in hopes of providing the spark that has been sorely lacking. Owen Farrell seems to have the 10 jersey locked up due to his defensive and kicking abilities, despite his worrying inability (thus far) to threaten the gainline or release his outside backs. Mike Brown has not put a foot wrong at fullback – the 15 jersey is his. And Billy Twelvetrees will likely start at inside center in lieu of a better option. But the other four backline spots – scrumhalf, outside center, and the two wings – are up for grabs. England legend and current BBC pundit Jeremy Guscott recently suggested in the Rugby Paper that Danny Care, Luther Burrell, Anthony Watson, and Jonny May were “likely” to fill these positions. I hope Guscott is right, because that is an incredibly positive backline that achieves what good coaches should strive to do: reward players based on form, and be willing to select the most talented players even if they lack international experience.

To the French, the English are “Les Rosbifs” – to the English, the French are “the Frogs.”  And on both sides of the English Channel, this match is “Le Crunch.” Bring it on!

If Dusautoir were playing, I would see the match dead even – that’s how important he is to France. Without him, England by 3

Below, highlights from the last time these two teams played in Paris, in 2012: