Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Rugby World Cup: A great Six Nations warm-up

A thoroughly unusual and surely unique sensation overcame me at around 9.05am on Sunday morning. 

Having arisen hours earlier to do my standard 10 mile run, 1 hour Bible study and a plethora of unquantifiably charitable good deeds, I turned onto the ITV website and endured the un-skippable adverts, to find I'd just missed the Haka. As I settled in to watch what I expected to be a whole-heartedly enjoyable devastation de l'equipe francaise (Blogspot won't let me do accents, so no criticism please), it came as something of a shock to find myself supporting not those of an All Black nature, but their Gallic opponents.

I've previously noticed that it can be difficult to determine who you want to win a sporting contest until a moment of great tension, such as a hawk-eye call or penalty shootout, when your true desire is revealed. Can you imagine the surprise then to find in those early moments that I genuinely wanted France? I've pondered long and hard how a true patriotic English sports fan with suitable disdain for anything tricolore could possibly be supporting them with more than a passing interest but nothing conclusive comes to mind. A mystery left unsolved.(*obviously if it was against Germany or Australia one is entitled to support France, or indeed any nation on the planet to be honest). 

The truly remarkable effort from the French does set up the 2012 Six Nations to be a potential classic in the history of the tournament. On the eve of the Rugby League Four Nations, it appears as though the annual northern hemisphere round robin could similarly be between four nations. Any of the below must consider themselves strong contenders for the title:

Ireland - defeated Australia during the WC and always difficult to beat, they do have away matches at England and France but 3 home games gives an advantage. They beat England so convincingly to deny them the Grand Slam earlier this year, it'd be crazy to rule them out. A lot might depend on which of the 3 O's are still there (Gara, Connell and Driscoll). William Hill current odds 6/1

Wales - won over many neutrals during the RWC with attacking rugby stemming from a young and energetic team. Considered in most parts as unlucky to go out but a more than mediocre kicking performance and a shaky display in the groups against Samoa suggests they're not quite the finished package yet. Similar to Ireland, they have 3 home games in the 6N, but their away games are in Dublin and London so they'll have to really perform to come out on top. William Hill: 3/1

England - reigning champions who, let's not forget, have a team with vibrant youth and attacking intent buried deep within them. Ashton was joint top try scorer for the RWC, Tuilagi is showing the promise to be a great, and Toby Flood will surely grow into the No 10 jersey which must now be permanently vacated by Wilko, whether he wants to retire or not. Would need to be the first team since Ireland in '09 to win the 6N despite playing 3 away games but with two of them at Scotland and Italy, they'll be in the hunt, regardless of whether Johnno is still in charge. William Hill: 5/2

France - World Cup finalists, beating England and Wales on the way, the mercurial French have been installed as favourites and 3 home matches, including hosting England and Ireland will stand them in good stead. It remains to be seen how Philipe Saint-Andre's management will affect them but if they perform anywhere near the level they produced against New Zealand, it'll be hard to beat them. I can promise my inexplicable spell of amour des cuisses de grenouilles will not be recurring. William Hill favourites at 7/4

After my attempts at making predictions at the quarter final stage, I think I'll steer clear of putting my neck on the line for the time being...

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A World Cup to remember, even by English standards

So England's World Cup has come to an end. And what a journey it has been. Going from one glorious performance to another, consistently punctuated by professional and high class off-field incidents. It seems only fitting to put together some form of memorial to commemorate such an epic campaign - for future generations to gaze upon and draw inspiration for their own battles ahead.
Much as the modern generation of football fan looks back to the footballing greats such as Pele, Beckenbauer, Di Stefano, Cruyff and Maradona with nought but youtube videos to convey their greatness, so it shall be in just a few short years, when names such as Tindall, Wilkinson and Johnson fade from memory. The pitiful offerings of 2003 shall be resigned to DVD extras, as the feature length presentations focus on the events of the last month or so and the glory showered upon our great nation by its oval-dropping throwing representatives.

I appreciate that the wealth of material available has meant that others have put together brief timelines, referring to a few of the more celebrated happenings, but here's a brief run-down of my own of how things have panned out so well for us recently:

11/9: Encouraging signs from the word go as the new All Blacks (black is the new white) grind out a win against mighty rugby nation Argentina, England apparently "composed under pressure" - Wilkinson a particular highlight, safely putting away 3 kicks, and missing just 5.

12/9: Celebrating the dizzy heights of the spectacular 13-9 win over the Pumas, England descended upon the Altitude bar. A few harrassed females and thrown dwarves later and commendably the lads created a few more headlines to really raise the game's profile and get youngsters interested in the sport. One can only applaud such dedication.

13/9: As well as Courtney Lawes being banned for two matches for a gentle rub on the temple with his knee-cap, Martin Johnson's defensive skills get another run out, this time defending the decision to allow a slightly more unusual form of training. Namely, bungee jumping.

18/9 & 24/9: England take it easy, coming through a couple of matches against lower ranked teams and starting to appear as though they actually care about winning rugby matches more than doing as much for New Zealand's tourist office as Murray from Flight of the Conchords.

29/9: Two England coaches unfairly suspended for helping an old man (Wilko) by giving him a different ball to kick with after the one he had been using kept frustratingly dodging the gap between the posts. Such care for the elderly should surely have been commended but alas not in this instance, and in this a so-called gentlemen's sport. Lamentable.

1/10: The second month of the tournament begins with another famous win, preserving our 100% record, but I think enough has been said about the monumental victory over the Highlanders, and just what a strong position England were in at this stage. 

3/10: Delon Armitage banned for the quarter final for an over-exuberant neck hug during the Scotland match, his attempt at affection seemingly misinterpreted by the authorities.

4/10: Manu Tuilagi becomes the first of 3 (also Moody & Lawes) to be fined for doing his best to resuscitate the economy by the supporting small businesses with a bit of dental advertising. 

8/10: Having been to the last two finals, and beating France on the way on both occasions, it was only right that we let them have their moment au soleil. We couldn't throw the game of course so decided instead that a 16 point half-time handicap was more appropriate. Made it look realistic you see. We were also ever so good sports throughout the match, regularly giving the ball back sportingly, even when there was no injury or apparent reason to do so. Good old chaps those English boys. I'm sure they just wanted to return to their families anyway; I gather for some there may be things to discuss back at home.

9/10: Our favourite Samoan then decided to celebrate a successful campaign and particularly his own form (which was actually good), with a quick dip in Kiwi waters. Turned out to be a relatively expensive one for him but no doubt it was refreshing, and gave us all a bit of eye candy so everyone's a winner really.

And that was that. A treat for all to behold really - well organised, disciplined, professional and ultimately successful. Who wouldn't want an 80% winning percentage and a quarter final place? It's more than we've done in football world cups for more than 20 years. Similar standard of penalty taking to 1990 as well. A month and a bit to make a country proud of its sporting heritage and skill - surely Martin Johnson will choose to leave now on a high - quit while you're ahead as it were. 

(I thought I'd be a little less subtle than the last article which proved a bit much for certain dimwitted folk to understand)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

A World Cup fight at Close Quarters

No more group matches, no more working out point difference, bonus points and qualification permutations. We are at the do or die stage. This World Cup has finally reached a genuinely interesting and difficult to call round of exciting Quarter Final matches

Bar the NZ-Arg match, which is unlikely to have the edge of our seats and the ends of our nails worn down, there are 3 truly close matches ahead. These are the top 8 IRB ranked teams in the world and as per last week's rankings they were paired as 2 vs 3 (SA-Aus); 4 vs 5 (Eng-Fra) and 6 vs 7 (Ire-Wal). France's defeat to Tonga has since seen them drop to 8th but make no mistake, they aren't just making up les nombres...

England - France
As amusing as it would be to continue a very thinly disguised attempt at English sporting arrogance (and endeavour to evoke a further remarkable barrage of abuse from those whose understanding of sarcasm and irony is about as advanced as Jonny Wilkinson's involvement in twitter), there's simply no way England can confidently assume their semi-final place is secure. The "convincing" Six Nations win was only 9-9 at half-time and a missed Yachvili penalty just before the break could have made for a very different result. 
England are going with Flood and Wilkinson, the fairly blunt instrument that has been Tindall dropped ruled out with an horrific dead leg, an injury so devastating and crippling that it was kept completely under wraps until it happened to be that Johnson had to reveal that he didn't want our royal centre to play. Extra kicking options, wingers with 9 tries in 5 matches between them and a self-belief that we're better than our Gallic rivals in disarray makes England strong favourites.
As much as I might try to suppress my patriotism, it seems to be winning out over the English sporting cynicism, so I'm going to go for a 21-13 victory pour les Blancs.

Ireland - Wales
The Celtic clash has been well covered by Ben Dirs so I won't labour to expand upon his analysis but I can't help feeling it is going to be worth the early morning start. These two expansive, attractive rugby-playing nations are 1-1 in World Cup head-to-head but 63-46 to Wales all-time and Ireland have never made it beyond the quarter final stage. But after a famous victory over the Wallabies in the pool, and a convincing dismantling of a potential banana skin in Italy, the Irish must be brimming with confidence. Wales have had a couple of close shaves, one nearly sneaking a win against the world champions, one narrowly escaping going down to the less-than-mighty Samoa. A swansong for greats like O'Driscoll, O'Gara and Williams will only add to the drama.
The fact that I have them in my work sweepstake has nothing at all to do with the fact that I believe Ireland will come through for a 24-17 win.

Australia - South Africa
An absolutely mouth-watering clash between 2 of the 3 teams to have ever defeated the All Blacks in the RWC. They share a 1-1 world cup record and have both won the tournament a joint record 2 times. Remarkably, Australia have never been ranked 1 in the world and the reigning Tri-Nations champions have a losing 26-40 overall record against the Springboks. That said, they beat them in both of the Tri-Nations clashes and go into the match marginal favourites, despite the form of new record South African try scorer Bryan Habana
Not too sure why, but I've just got an inkling that it could be the Springboks' day and I'll go for a closely fought 18-14 win for the Africans.

New Zealand - Argentina
By no means a guarantee without the talismanic Dan Carter but the dominant All Blacks who, dismissive of the pressure on them, have looked thoroughly solid thus far, start as overwhelming favourites against a team they've not lost to in 13 matches. Argentina will no doubt do what they do well, and keep the tide at bay for periods but there'll be no stopping New Zealand making their 6th semi final in 7 world cups.
No second consecutive semi for the Pumas unfortunately, going down 37-9 I reckon.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Dominant England on course for World Cup Glory

Another devastatingly convincing performance from England, overcoming the gritty and ugly-rugby playing Scots to prevail yet again and preserve our perfect 100% record. No matter what opponent is put in our path we show the strength of character and high level of skill and mental attitude to display our utter superiority over the rest of the rugby world and cruise through one comfortable victory after another.

A team unified, convincing, focussed and dominant
It's a shame that we'll only have to beat France and then some Celts before winning the final because no doubt those small-minded and jealous nations who don't win the World Cup will say we had it easy and make up nonsense about us fixing the draw. I'd almost rather have come second in the group so we could get New Zealand done and dusted before beating the Wallabies and Springboks easily. Tactically this might have made sense therefore to lose to Scotland but we're just such winners, there's no way we could allow ourselves to lose. We obviously gave it some thought, but just decided in the 76th minute that we may as well just win every match, not least for the stats and whatnot. 

Now that the Quarter Final draw is complete, we can look at how weak the other 7 teams are and therefore how comfortabe England should find the next 3 weeks:

New Zealand have lost their only good player through injury and seem certain to fall apart now. They've not exactly been convincing to date anyway, only 36 tries and 240 points scored so far and that meagre total mostly just from biased refereeing influenced by unfairly Kiwi crowds. They've already got the benefit of playing at home, I don't see why the majority of the fans should be from the country as well

Argentina could only scrape a win against Scotland, reliant on a late try from the right wing so we're clearly streaks ahead of them - also evidenced by our crushing obliteration of them earlier in the tournament. Could well meet them in the final cos they're in the weak half of the draw but nothing to fear there.

Australia lost to Ireland who we of course destroyed only a few weeks ago. They're even worse than the All Blacks for complaining about all their injuries and look disjointed and ripe for the picking. A shame we probably won't be the team to knock them out cos that's been fun the last 2 World Cups. 

South Africa were reliant on the ref deciding that James Hook's penalty hadn't gone over otherwise they'd have been staring down the barrel as well. They've been leaking points very freely, that's 24 now in just 4 games, and that includes 16 in one game! Wouldn't catch England conceding so many points in a match during a world cup. 

Ireland failed to even score a try against the Wallabies and we all know how easy it is to beat them in World Cups. I barely even remember the last time we lost to them, and I know full well we've never lost to Ireland in a world cup (and don't go on about how we've never played, cos you're just making excuses)

Wales conceded a try against Namibia and barely even got past Samoa! They also lost to South Africa so it's fairly obvious they're not a threat - I simply cannot imagine how a top class team such as England could ever lose to them so that'd be something of a bye into the final should they meet us in the semi. 

France - well this one speaks for itself. A dismal 20 point loss to New Zealand, eclipsed only in its embarrassingly poor nature by a shocking defeat to Tonga. They are in clear disarray, with a squad crippled with the sort of ill-discipline and irresponsible behaviour you simply wouldn't get from a professional outfit like England. It'll be almost too easy to breeze past them next Saturday. 

So there you have it, a solid, unified and disciplined England team playing convincing and attractive rugby lining up against 7 teams without a good phase of rugby between them. There's only one winner to this thing. You might call it classic English arrogance but what can you do when we're Simply the Best?

There may be an argument for ensuring you're well informed of a particular idiom when reading this article.