Posts Tagged ‘Scotland’

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:

 

Sunday February 2, 10 AM Eastern – Lansdowne Road (Aviva Stadium), Dublin

The entire rugby world remembers what happened the last time Ireland played a Test in Dublin – that match, an epic 22-24 defeat to New Zealand in which the Irish played some scintillating rugby.  The question is whether coach Joe Schmidt and captain Paul O’Connell can get this Irish team to reproduce the intensity of that famous performance. Ireland finished their last Six Nations campaign with a fairly meek defeat to Italy, and will be looking to erase those painful memories. There was talk at the time that the match might be Brian O’Driscoll’s last for Ireland, but he has decided that, at 35, he has one final Six Nations left in him. Sending the legendary BOD out on top will certainly provide motivation for the Irish – the great man deserves nothing less.

Scotland interim coach Scott Johnson has already named his team – he will be grateful to welcome back British and Irish Lion Stuart Hogg, who missed the Autumn Tests through injury, at fullback. Hogg, still just 21 years old, is the only player in the Scottish team with true game-changing ability. Fellow Lion Sean Maitland moves to the wing to accommodate Hogg, while Sean Lamont occupies the other wing. The center pairing is a very inexperienced one – Duncan Taylor and Alex Dunbar have only 9 caps between them. Midfield has often been an area of weakness for Scotland, so it will be interesting to see what these young guys can do. Competition for places in the pack is strong enough that another Lion, lock Richie Gray, only makes the bench, with Tim Swinson starting.

The Scottish players are in a slightly strange position – they know that Vern Cotter, (who is currently in charge of French club Clermont), is set to take over as Scotland coach in the summer. Their pride in the shirt and their belief in captain Kelly Brown is not in question, but just how motivated will they be to perform for Johnson, with the knowledge that they will have to prove themselves all over again when Cotter begins his reign? Johnson is a charismatic and refreshingly honest figure, but the fact that his role is only temporary can only be a negative in the short term.

Irish coach Joe Schmidt will not name his team until Friday. He has a strong group of players from which to select, although the loss of flanker Sean O’Brien for the entire tournament is hugely significant. The man known as the “Tullow Tank” is irreplaceable in terms of ball-carrying ability and aggression, although Ireland is blessed with a strong leadership group and serious depth in the back row.

It appears Conor Murray will start at scrumhalf as Eoin Reddan has been ruled out with a calf injury. Murray shone for the Lions last summer, but competition for the Irish 9 shirt is fierce – Reddan’s Leinster teammate Isaac Boss has been called up to the squad, and Connacht’s Kieran Marmion is waiting in the wings.

I expect Scotland to come out and fight hard – they may even go into halftime narrowly ahead. But I think Ireland’s class will show when the game opens up a bit after 50-55 minutes. Ireland by 10

Below, highlights from when these two teams met last year, in Edinburgh:

Saturday November 23, 1 PM Eastern – Murrayfield, Edinburgh

Rugby Union is the fastest growing sport in the United States, with an estimated 1.13 million Americans already involved in the game. This number is only going to increase in the years to come. USA Rugby has done a great job investing in the grassroots of the game with Rookie Rugby, and just staged a very successful Test match – they managed to sell out 18,500-capacity PPL Park in Philadelphia with a few weeks to spare, and the Eagles produced a great performance (albeit in an ultimately losing effort) against a very strong Maori All Blacks side.  The full All Blacks are considering playing a Test here in 2014. The Eagles squad features a number of players currently plying their trade at top European clubs – Samu Manoa (Northampton), Chris Wyles (Saracens), and Blaine Scully (Leicester) all play in England, while Scott LaValla plays for Stade Français in Paris. All this without mentioning the inclusion of Rugby Sevens at the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics, and the exposure that will hopefully generate for both Sevens and Union here. So these are exciting times for rugby in America.

But there’s something else the game needs in order to grow here: star players (of any nationality) who are fun to watch not only for their strength, skill, and athleticism, but also for their style, the way they express themselves on and off the field. Look no further than Australia and Western Force winger Nick Cummins. Like Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, he is nicknamed “Honey Badger” for his tenacity, although unlike the diminutive Mathieu, Cummins is a big fella at 6’2″ and 219 pounds. He has become something of a cult figure in Australia for his post-match interviews, in which he dispenses with standard sporting clichés in favor of some delightful Australianisms. In the interview below, which was conducted after the Italy-Australia match two weeks ago, Cummins speaks fondly about how it’s “good to bag a bit of meat – tasted like a bit off the bone, actually.” (“Meat,” in this context, refers to “meat pie” which is rhyming slang for “try.”)

 

But alas, the Honey Badger is not in the Australian team to face Scotland – he was one of six players to be dropped by coach Ewen McKenzie on Monday for engaging in a bit of mid-week boozing before the 32-15 victory over Ireland last weekend. Although there was no alcohol ban or curfew in place, and although there were no reports of inappropriate conduct, McKenzie felt that the players in question had had a few too many and stayed out too late, and decided he needed to send a message that he is serious about establishing a professional team culture. Rugby went professional in 1995, but it still retains some of its amateur roots, especially with regard to teams getting into a bit of mischief while on tour. So I empathize with the players, but I can understand McKenzie’s perspective as well.

This long-winded introduction brings us to the game itself. In addition to the alcohol-related suspensions of Cummins and Adam Ashley-Cooper, inside center Matt Toomua is injured, and outside center Tevita Kuridrani is serving a five-week ban for an illegal tackle he made against Ireland. The result is four enforced changes in the backline – Mike Harris and Christian Leali’ifano come in at 12 and 13, respectively, while Chris Feauai-Sautia and Joe Tomane start on the wings. As Leali’ifano has never played senior rugby at 13 (usually considered the most difficult position defensively), when defending against Scotland, Australia may drop flyhalf Quade Cooper out of the line, with the backs outside him moving in one position. That would leave Harris and Leali’ifano at 10 and 12, where they have considerable experience, and Feauai-Sautia at 13, where he started five games for the Queensland Reds in Super Rugby this year. It will be interesting to see if this makeshift backline can be effective on Saturday.

The Australian pack is unchanged – they have been deservedly criticized this season, but produced a much better performance against Ireland. They will have to conjure up another huge effort against the Scottish pack. For the Scots, lock Jim Hamilton is a guy who, as the Aussies would say, provides real mongrel – exactly what Australia has frequently lacked of late. He is a hulking figure at 6’8″ and 275 pounds, and plays a very aggressive and confrontational style. In the back row, blindside Johnnie Beattie and openside Kelly Brown, who captains the side, are good, honest grafters, while number 8 David Denton is a major ball-carrying threat.

The Scots defended bravely for long periods against South Africa last week, but were completely outclassed by a very good Springbok team. I expect to see an improved performance this weekend. If the Scots are to beat Australia, their pack will need to provide a rock-solid platform for their unsteady backline. Murrayfield is one of world rugby’s great stadiums, and the crowd will lift the Scottish players. Finally, it remains to be seen what effect the distraction of the six players being suspended may have on the Australians. I see Scotland keeping this one close for 60 minutes before Australia pulls away. It may require a moment of magic from Cooper or Israel Folau to break the Scottish resolve. Australia by 10