Posts Tagged ‘Wales’

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

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:

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:

 

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:

Saturday February 1, 9:30 AM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

This is the most uneven of the weekend’s fixtures on paper – Wales is favored by around 20 points – and the match could be even more lopsided than that. The Welsh Rugby Union announced this morning that the roof at the Millennium will be closed, a condition which will hopefully encourage the Welsh to play a more attacking, open style – the exact opposite of what the Italians want.

Italy will field a starting XV composed of a pack with a massive 587 combined caps, and a backline with just 115 caps between them – perhaps the largest disparity ever in an international rugby team. Injuries have forced coach Jacques Brunel to pick a very inexperienced backline – Angelo Esposito makes his debut on one wing, while on the other wing, Leonardo Sarto will make just his third appearance for the Azzurri. At outside center, Michele Campagnaro will also be making his third appearance, while flyhalf Tommaso Allen is the relative veteran of this young group, playing in his fourth Test. The experience of scrumhalf Edoardo Gori, inside center Alberto Sgarbi, and fullback Luke McLean will be vital as Italy seek to contain the huge threat of the Welsh backline, currently the most potent attacking force in the Northern Hemisphere.

For Wales, British and Irish Lion Jonathan Davies misses out on selection, as he is just coming back from a pectoral injury he suffered against South Africa during the Autumn Tests. But Davies has a very talented deputy in Scott Williams, and otherwise the Welsh are at full strength in the backs. In the pack, captain Sam Warburton has been judged only fit enough to make the bench, so Justin Tipuric, a more traditional 7, slots into the back row alongside Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau. Lock Alun-Wyn Jones takes over the captaincy. Lydiate will be under some scrutiny, as he has been in poor form for his club, Racing Metro, where he has been required to do more ball-carrying than he is used to. Loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins is just returning to fitness after a recurrence of his persistent calf problem, so Paul James starts in his place.

For Italy to keep this one close, they will need to keep the game as tight as possible through the forwards, and go hard at the breakdown to slow down Welsh ball. Everyone in the rugby world knows how good Italian number 8 Sergio Parisse is, but his back row colleague Alessandro Zanni is also a fine player, and they are joined by another wily veteran in Mauro Bergamasco. These three will have to dig deep into the bag of tricks they’ve assembled over a combined 276 Test matches for Italy. The trouble is that the Welsh back row is also very good, and very balanced. Essentially, Lydiate is the tackling machine, Tipuric is the turnover specialist, and Faletau is the primary ball carrier – when they are all in form, they compliment each other so well, and it is a beautiful thing to watch.

Unfortunately for the Italians, with the roof closed, there are likely to be fewer handling errors, and thus fewer scrums. Welsh tighthead Adam Jones, the rock of the Welsh scrum for so many years, has admittedly struggled with the new scrum laws, and the Italians will be confident at scrum time. But how many opportunities will they get? Neutrals will be hoping Italy put in a big performance to make this match competitive, but I just can’t see it happening. Wales by 25

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

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

Friday November 22, 2:30 PM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

The fourth weekend of the Autumn Internationals gets underway Friday evening as a new-look Wales takes on Tonga. Wales has been hit hard by injuries, particularly in the backs, so Warren Gatland will start with Ashley Beck and Owen Williams (who have only 8 caps between them) in the centers, while 19-year old Hallam Amos makes his debut on the wing.

With one eye on the match against Australia next weekend, Gatland has also shuffled his pack – only Rhodri Jones at tighthead and Justin Tipuric at openside keep their places from the match against Argentina. Paul James and Ken Owens come in at loosehead and hooker, respectively, while there is an all-new second row combination of Luke Charteris and Ian Evans. In the back row, Andrew Coombs replaces Sam Warburton at blindside, and Ryan Jones replaces Toby Faletau at number 8. (Coombs may yet succumb to a back injury, in which case Dan Lydiate is likely to start.) In Warburton’s absence, Jones will captain the side, as he has done on 32 previous occasions.

Of all the changes to the Welsh team, the most interesting both for Welsh supporters and neutrals is the inclusion of the extremely talented James Hook at flyhalf. In recent years Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland have been preferred to Hook, who now plays his club rugby in France at Perpignan. Former Wales flyhalf (and now BBC pundit) Jonathan Davies has recently advocated for the inclusion of the versatile Hook, calling him a “natural rugby player,” and saying: “I think he plays well in open, loose games where he’s just reactive to what’s coming at him and he does have great instinct.”

It is likely to be just that sort of game, and I expect Hook to shine. Tonga will bring their trademark physicality and aggression, but if Wales can weather the storm over the first 20 minutes or so, they should run away with this one. Wales by 20+

 

 

The Tongan war dance - the Sipi Tau

The Tongan pre-match war dance – the Sipi Tau