Blues and Ospreys in Euro Action

The European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup Quarter-Finals are upon us, and it’s great to see both Ospreys and Blues in action at the knockout stages after a pretty dismal few seasons for the Welsh regions in Europe.

This evening sees Cardiff Blues take on Gloucester at Kingsholm, a good, old-fashioned rugby ground, steeped in tradition, and one which I’ve always wanted to visit. Ex-Blues, Gloucester and Wales fly-half Nicky Robinson pointed to the outstanding – and often intimidating – atmosphere at the ground, but that will be the least of Blues’ worries this evening, as the Cherry and Whites boast the likes of Ross Moriarty, Johnny May and Billy Twelvetrees among their ranks. James Hook and Greig Laidlaw are both unavailable for selection through injury, however the home team will be determined to advance to the semi-finals this term after falling to the Dragons at this stage last season.

After a stirring performance against Leinster in Dublin last week, The Blues visit Kingsholm with some confidence, and welcome Sam Warburton, Gethin Jenkins and Lloyd Williams back to their starting line-up. Warburton had a fantastic Six Nations, and has arguably played himself right back into British Lions contention. He will need to put in a huge shift today against the wonderful Moriarty, who has enjoyed a breakthrough season in a Wales jersey.

Both teams lie in eighth position in their respective leagues, but I predict the Blues to have just enough fire power to emerge with the win.

Ospreys face Stade Francais tomorrow evening, in a match that is taking place at the Principality Stadium due to a fixture clash with Swansea City FC (with whom they ground-share). It’s a shame the Ospreys had to relocate for this clash, since their record-breaking 30 point haul in the Group stages of this tournament make them top seeds, and in my opinion, favourites to win this competition.

Stade bring a team loaded with talent to the Welsh capital, Sergio Parisse anchoring an enormous forward pack, while Will Genia is sure to be as lively as ever from scrum-half. Meanwhile Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb and Justin Tipuric all look to continue their fine Six Nations form in an Ospreys jersey. Having suffered a surprise loss in Italy against Pro12 strugglers Treviso last weekend, Ospreys will want to hit the ground running. I predict a fiery encounter at the Principality Stadium, but ultimately I think the Welsh side will book their place in the semi-finals.

Wales Lose in Paris; England Beaten in Dublin but are Crowned Champions

The final day of the 2017 Six Nations promised much, but in my opinion turned into quite a low-key affair that was pretty light on tries and indeed quality. The closing day of the 2015 tournament still resonates, the pulsating try-fest that it was, and last season’s Grand Slam victory for England capped an impressive trio of final day match-ups. Wales’ thrilling 30-3 victory over England in the closing round of the 2013 tournament provided a fitting finale.

This year, a very competitive and thoroughly enjoyable Six Nations ended on a pretty peculiar note, with England falling agonisingly short of winning consecutive Grand Slams and setting a new world record for the number of consecutive test wins (for a tier-one team). Ireland claimed the match-day win, 13-9, but England’s unassailable lead at the top of the Six Nations table saw them retain their crown in Dublin regardless. It really sums up how tough this competition has been in 2017 – indeed, back in February, I predicted England would win the tournament, but miss out on a Grand Slam. This was an intriguing match between the tournament’s two best teams, a brutal and low-scoring encounter. Both England and Ireland have, in honesty, shown only flashes of the brilliance seen in the November series, but then again, the Six Nations is a very different beast. There can be little doubt now that these two nations will – and absolutely should – make up the bulk of this summer’s British and Irish Lions squad.

Scotland v Italy often promises to be a fiercely competitive game, although on this occasion, Italy were absolutely blown away in Murrayfield, failing to even get on the scoreboard as Scotland cantered to a 29-0 victory. The Scots now bid farewell to Head Coach Vern Cotter, who has overseen a gallant resurgence in Scottish rugby. Cotter is a gentle giant of a man, and was visibly emotional as he paid tribute to his players yesterday. He has instilled something in his team that has been missing for far too long: belief. Glasgow Warriors Head Coach Gregor Townsend will replace Cotter over the summer, and will be looking to continue where the big man has left off. Given Townsend’s success at Glosgow over the last few seasons, we could be entering a golden era of Scottish rugby.

It’s been a frustrating season for Italy. In fact, they’ve been frustrating to watch, too. There is a small group of strong players around which Conor O’Shea is trying to build a highly competitive Italian team, and there’s no doubt it will take time. With far too many unforced errors and inaccuracies, Italy seem to have fallen even further behind the other teams in the Six Nations. O’Shea needs to get them competitive for the full 80 minutes, which I understand was one of his goals for this season. If they work on their attack and improve their handling, and have a successful summer tour, Italy could become a real nuisance of a team by the next World Cup, but until then I can’t see them posing any real threat to the likes of England and Ireland in particular.

I’ve left my judgement of the France v Wales game until last because, quite simply, I don’t really know what to say on the matter. It was possibly one of the most bizarre games of rugby I’ve ever seen.

Sadly the game itself was a rather forgettable contest between two sides that have been struggling to find form during this championship, both trying to reinvent themselves in attack, and both desperately searching for a third tournament victory. The game took place in the curious back-drop of a proposed merger between two of France’s Top 14 teams that was announced earlier this week. I was angered and upset by the news that European heavyweights Stade Francais and Racing 92 were planning to merge amidst financial difficulty (the latter in particular gaining a recent  reputation for marquee overseas signings, such as Dan Carter). Italian back-row legend Sergio Parisse, who plays his club rugby for Stade, wore the team colours in the form of a pink armband during yesterday’s Scotland v Italy game, in a bid to protest the merger. The latest updates suggest the merger is off, which is great news, given the history and tradition of these two wonderful teams.

I digress. France v Wales proved to be a very close game with few great attacking opportunities, although I will say George North put in another huge shift on the wing for Wales. The visitors were restricted to six penalties from the accurate boot of Leigh Halfpenny, who also looked sharp in attack and defence.

Wales looked set to win the game until a five-metre attacking scrum for France yielded penalty after penalty after penalty. The clock turned red for 80 minutes, but play continued as the hosts were awarded the advantage time and time again, but were continually repelled by a defiant Welsh wall.

Samson Lee got yellow carded, sat out ten minutes of the game, and even returned to the field after the 80 minute mark! There was a claim of a bite on George North, but the Television Match Official could find no evidence of the incident, so play continued. France reversed a substitute, and referee Wayne Barnes asked the medical team on to the field to confirm whether the original substitution was for assessment. The game ended on a staggering 99 minutes and 50 seconds – twenty minutes after the game ought to have entered its final play, when the clock turned red. Extraordinary scenes! I always hate it when Wales lose, and the French supporters were understandably elated to have squeezed a victory with the eventual push-over try. It was a completely bonkers finale. Barnes will undoubtedly take a lot of criticism for this ending to the match. It wasn’t a very pretty end to the game, and certainly not a good advert for the Six Nations, especially when you’ve got the Super Rugby tournament producing some blistering rugby and staggering score-lines in the South at the moment. Just look at the Hurricanes, who scored over 150 points in their opening two fixtures! All right, I know it’s not test match rugby, but with a statistic like that, you have to tip your hat to them.

The most confusing thing about this whole ordeal was, for me, why on earth didn’t Wayne Barnes simply award France a penalty try after Wales conceded a yellow card? There had already been half a dozen or so penalties by this point! Really bizarre. I must point out, I actually rate Barnes very highly – he was quite excellent in last week’s Wales v Ireland game, allowing attacking play to continue and a nice flow to the game. I appreciate great officiating, and I think of Barnes as one of the world’s top referees in general, but there’s no doubt he had a bad day at the office in Paris.

So, what of Wales? This loss condemns them to just two wins from five games, and fifth place in the final standings. It was our worst tournament since 2010, and lowest position since 2007. Alun Wyn Jones has suffered a baptism of fire, with public confidence in stand-in Head Coach Rob Howley running dry. The summer tour to the Pacific Islands will afford a much-anticipated opportunity to blood some new talent, try out some fringe players and some new combinations. In other words, we could see a very different looking Wales team in this year’s November series.

On a more positive note, there have been a few brilliant performances across the tournament: Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric have formed a formidable back-row pairing, Rhys Webb has been in fine form, and George North is back near his best, answering his critics. Ross Moriarty has been great, too – a real hard hitter. All these guys, as well as Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, are on the radar for a Lions spot when the squad is announced next month.

So that’s the Six Nations over for another year. It’s been big, bold, brutal, controversial at times, but it’s been a belter, and it’s still my absolute favourite.

Superb Wales beat Ireland in Cardiff Thriller & England Win 2017 Six Nations

Phew! What a weekend!

Rugby in Cardiff on a Friday night was always going to mean an electric atmosphere at The Principality Stadium and, under a closed roof, the cauldron played host to one of the best games of this tournament, and Wales’ best performance since they beat England in the World Cup group stages in 2015.

A brace of tries from George North capped a sensational display from the winger, and epitomised this team’s emphatic response to weeks of criticism from supporters and the media, many of whom were becoming increasingly disgruntled by Rob Howley’s team selection policy. I must admit, I had my concerns over Wales fielding the same squad that capitulated in Edinburgh two weeks ago. However, on Friday they showed a clinical edge that has lacked in attack of late, and a galvanized defence, led by a monumental shift from Justin Tipuric, on the occasion of his 50th Wales cap. Tipuric and the equally superb Sam Warburton were able to effectively nullify the Irish back-row threat of CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, all of whom have been in majestic form this season.

Ireland could find no way through the Wales defence and were frustratingly restricted to three penalty kicks at goal from Johnny Sexton, who was sin-binned shortly before half-time for killing the ball on Ireland’s five metre line.

The visitors looked a lot more dangerous in the second half, securing possession and building pressure for longer periods, but Wales’ tackling was ferocious and relentless. A Taulupe Faletau charge-down of a clearance kick allowed replacement centre Jamie Roberts to pounce on the ball and barge his way under the posts to seal a deserved win. The celebrations from Roberts, the Wales coaches and the replacements bench said it all: Wales needed to win this game, and not with a whimper, but with style. There is lots to improve on, but finally every attack fizzed.

France await Wales next in Paris, with both teams aiming to finish in the top half of the Six Nations table after Les Blues put 40 points on Italy on Saturday. The Italians have had a woeful tournament, their last chance to record a win to come against Scotland in Edinburgh next weekend.

That will certainly be an interesting match to watch after England demolished the Scots 61-21 in Twickenham in the final match of Round 4, retaining their Championship crown in the process. What an incredible performance from England. Eddie Jones’ men finally played to the potential they showed in the autumn series: they cut loose, played at pace, passed with precision, ran angles and dummy runners, showed patience and variety and – as the score-line suggests – never took their foot off the gas. An early yellow card for Scotland hooker Fraser Brown saw the visitors immediately on the back foot. They conceded 13 points in ten minutes, and never recovered. Three converted tries were little consolation as England went for the jugular. Jonathan Joseph was absolutely sublime, scoring a great hat-trick of tries, picking irresistible running lines and demonstrating exquisite handling and mesmerizing footwork. I believe he may well have played his way into a Lions jersey.

Congratulations to England on winning the 2017 Six Nations. Next week in Dublin, they have an opportunity to win a Grand Slam and to set a new world record for the most consecutive test match victories (they currently stand on 18). Ireland will not lack motivation for that match, and will want to finish the tournament on a high after losing two of their first four games. It’s going to be an epic tussle, but England have grown into the tournament and are on stellar form, so I’m predicting a Grand Slam victory for the men in white.

 

Six nations 2017: Wales Look to Bounce Back Against Ireland

An intriguing third round of Six Nations fixtures saw Scotland demolish Wales with a stunning second half performance at Murrayfield, while Ireland beat a lively France in Dublin to keep their title hopes alive. Meanwhile, title rivals England were made to sweat thanks to a tactical curveball thrown by opponents Italy, who made a complete mockery of the rules governing the tackle area and, for the first half at least, looked capable of causing an upset at Twickenham.

I was very disappointed with Wales’ performance in Edinburgh, particularly in the second half. The team sheet for this tournament has remained largely unchanged for the first three rounds, but weaknesses in attack, defence, decision making and tactics were once again exposed, and were perhaps more noticeable than ever against Scotland. I am still waiting for that great warrior Alun Wyn Jones to really stamp his authority over a game in this competition. Instead, one post-match report claimed that AWJ and Dan Biggar disagreed over kicking a penalty to goal at an important stage in this game. What’s gone wrong? These players have won Grand Slams and Lions tours. A part of me thinks some of the players are feeling the pressure of the media after yet another tepid match-day performance.

Curiously, Rob Howley has stuck to his guns and named an unchanged side to face Ireland in Cardiff on Friday night. He is calling for a response, but I can’t help feeling there have already been enough opportunities to respond, and there at least needs to be some drastic changes in on-field personnel. Just look at the All Blacks: they will only ever pick on form, never on reputation. Never looking for a response.

Wales are, mathematically, still able to win the tournament, but would need such a specific set of results to go their way that I feel the Ireland game should have been approached with a degree of abandon. I’d love to see them really throw the shackles off. I would start with Sam Davies at No.10, swap Liam Williams to full-back, and start Keelan Giles on the wing. What a great opportunity that would be for the young Ospreys winger.

Scotland will next face England at Twickenham. Italy sure upset the applecart with their tricky tactical approach to their England showdown. The game was interesting to watch, especially as England were trying to establish a means of negating the challenge posed by Italy, who committed no-one to the breakdown time after time, thereby creating no offside line, and allowing them to attack from behind the ruck. It was a strange match from a spectator’s perspective, and one that will undoubtedly be picked apart and analysed from every angle in the weeks and months to come. England coach Eddie Jones certainly didn’t approve, claiming “that’s not rugby”. There are even signs that World Rugby are considering a rule change in the wake of this game.

England survived to further extend their winning streak to 17 test games, and will now face a buoyant Scotland team in Twickenham on Saturday. The Scots haven’t beaten England in London since 1983, but they’ll surely fancy their chances after some stunning performances this season. Let’s not forget that Scotland at this point remain title contenders themselves. That’ll be a cracking game.

Elsewhere, Italy host France on Saturday, and we will be eagerly watching to see what other tricks Conor O’Shea and his coaching team have up their sleeves. France are showing signs of rediscovering some flair, and Italy could pay if Les Bleus hit the ground running in Rome.

The Principality Stadium is going to be absolutely rocking for the visit of Ireland on Friday night, and I cannot wait. It’s a fascinating fixture, one that’s produced some brilliant clashes and some sublime rugby over the years. Wales will need to really breathe fire to win this one.

Six Nations: Round Two

A breathless second week of Six Nations actions saw a huge victory for Ireland in Rome; England extend their unbeaten run to 17 test matches with a late win in Cardiff; and France see off a resilient Scotland team to record their first win of the tournament. There were lots of huge talking points, so here’s the full round-up, along with a few predictions of what Round 3 may bring…

  1. A thoroughly absorbing contest between Wales and England in Cardiff saw the home team agonisingly close to victory, only for Wales to relinquish the lead in the 75th minute, shattering any Welsh hopes of a Grand Slam (and this Welsh Rugby Man’s heart to boot). The game was played at an exhausting pace, the teams well matched in both attack and defence, with a couple of small individual errors from Wales and English opportunism perhaps ultimately contributing to the result. England performed far better than they did against France, but I would say they are still some way from reaching their potential during the Six Nations, and could end up putting a cricket score on Italy next weekend if everything finally clicks. Wales looked much more organised and indeed a lot more ambitious in attack at times – maybe sometimes too ambitious, as two kickable penalty opportunities were spurned in favour of a kick to touch. Still, Alun Wyn Jones was every bit the warrior in the engine room, and there are indications the back-row combination of Warburton, Tipuric and Moriarty is really starting to find its mojo. Moriarty enjoyed an exceptional evening, carrying well and defending aggressively. He divided the audience with a colossal but slightly late tackle on the superb Owen Farrell – just how late the tackle was depends on which side of the River Severn you’re from. Taulupe Faletau’s appearance from the bench to replace Moriarty on the 50-minute mark actually felt premature, an indication of the Gloucester back-row’s influence on this contest. I now believe we have two world-class operators competing for the No.8 jersey in Wales. Final Score: Wales 16 – 21 England
  2. Ireland thrashed an Italy side that sadly seemed to have conceded defeat after the 60-minute mark. To be honest, even a losing bonus point felt out of reach at that stage, Joe Shmidt’s side making amends for their defeat against Scotland in Round One. This game was pretty much one-way traffic, with virtually any enterprise shown by the Italians undone through some ferocious, well-drilled Irish defending. Italy made too many unforced errors and some poor decisions, and Ireland looked in an unforgiving mood. A standout performer was Ireland blind-side flanker CJ Stander, who was just absolutely relentless all afternoon. This man will win a British and Irish Lions cap. His man-of-the-match performance saw him run in a staggering hat-trick of tries, one of two Irishmen to record hat-tricks in a remarkable rout. It was a complete team performance, superb to watch. On this sort of form, Ireland could yet go on to be title contenders. Final Score: Italy 10 – 63 Ireland
  3. The Sunday afternoon game saw Scottish hopes of beating France in Paris dashed by two late penalties. Greig Laidlaw and Josh Strauss were casualties in a close, exciting and brutal encounter, with both key players now sadly set to miss the rest of the Six Nations. Interestingly, Scotland have never won a Six Nations game in Paris – their last victory there coming in 1999 as Scotland won the old Five Nations tournament. There is a deserved optimism surrounding this Scotland team. Their back line, anchored by live-wire Stuart Hogg, looks inventive and unpredictable, willing to attack from anywhere. I’m also a big fan of Glasgow try-machine Tommy Seymour, who could be another good bet for making the Lions tour. Final Score: France 22-16 Scotland

Round Three will see Scotland host Wales, Ireland face France, and England meet Italy. Wales will certainly look to keep their tournament hopes alive, and could have the firepower and experience to outmuscle Scotland. It’ll be a tight affair, but I’m backing Wales to win that one. Given Ireland’s performance against Italy, I think they will face France with some confidence and could win by ten points, especially as they’ll be looking for bonus points now to make up for their opening round loss. England v Italy will surely only end one way, and although the Azzurri will be really fired up to take on England at Twickenham, if England find the kind of form they hit in the November series, I fear things could really get ugly for Italy after the hour mark.

Six Nations: Week One Round-Up

An exhilarating opening weekend to the 2017 Six Nations saw Scotland, England and Wales make winning starts to their respective campaigns, with lots of huge talking points across three excellent games.

Scotland v Ireland was certainly a fitting opener to this year’s tournament. The Scots roared into a 21-8 half-time lead, Stuart Hogg providing two superbly worked touchdowns, and offering a timely reminder of his talents to the British and Irish Lions selectors. Ireland looked very strong in the second half, but had left themselves far too much to do, and a typically strong defensive effort from the tenacious Grey brothers, along with two sweetly struck Greig Laidlaw penalties, allowed the Scots to keep their noses in front, and record a famous Murrayfield victory. This is only the second time Scotland have won their opening Six Nations game, and they truly did it in style, against an Ireland team many are fancying for this year’s title.

England v France at Twickenham was a gruelling affair, and although England emerged as winners, the team, along with outspoken Head Coach  Eddie Jones, will want a far more fluid and efficient performance when England visit Cardiff on Saturday. England, currently ranked second in the world, seemed a shadow of the team that swept aside virtually every opponent they faced in 2016. Excellent use of the substitutions bench proved the difference in the end: a stubborn and rejuvenated French team, looking extremely dangerous, eventually beaten when replacement centre Ben Te’o crossed the whitewash on seventy minutes to save the hosts’ bacon. England have now set a new record for their number of consecutive test victories – fifteen – and, to have done so while playing well below-par at times is a credit to the team, and perhaps an indication of the strength and depth of this crop of players.

Wales faced Italy in Rome on Sunday in the final game of round one. Lots of pundits saw this as a potential “banana skin” of a fixture for Wales, and a low-scoring first half saw Italy deservedly nudge ahead through an Eduardo Gori try. Wales seemed to flounder before the break, showing no signs of scoring any tries of their own, and indeed made no clean line-breaks in the first period. The second half saw the defensive structures of both teams unravel, and Wales gradually began to show a bit more intent and ambition, eventually scoring three unanswered tries (and narrowly missing out on a fourth, bonus-point score in the dying moments of the game). A blistering George North run, which saw the Northampton wing score under the posts from 70 metres, was one of the highlights, although he looked to be struggling with a leg injury which could yet rule him out of the England clash on Saturday.

Also an injury doubt for that game is Dan Biggar who injured his ribs during the game, and was replaced by the superb Sam Davies who, in honesty, had a massive impact on the game. His style of play, which often sees him stand flat on the gain line, allows for a great offloading position mid-field while also drawing in defenders and creating gaps out wide. He also has a fine kicking game, which could be a potent weapon should he feature against England next weekend.

Six Nations Time!

Greetings from South Africa! It’s been a while since my last post as Emily, Chris and I are currently in the middle of a massive road trip across this great country! It’s been an amazing experience so far!

It’s that time of year again, and the Six Nations is very nearly upon us! I might be in a different hemisphere right now, but I’m every bit as excited to see the tournament get started this weekend!

Scotland v Ireland is first up, and with Glasgow in such great form, I believe we’ll see Scotland take the spoils at Murrayfield. Many point to Ireland’s superb autumn campaign – which included a first ever win over the All Blacks – as an indication of things to come, with lots of pundits believing they could steal England’s crown come Round 5. This will be a huge contest on Saturday, a close affair I think, but I’m backing Scotland.

England host France in Saturday’s second game. Tickenham will be absolutely bouncing, and despite signs that France are beginning to rediscover their flair, I predict England to comfortably triumph at this early stage. England were just superb in the November series, and will certainly take some stopping in this year’s tournament. Only Wales and Ireland – both of whom England play away from home – will, I believe, pose the greatest threat to England’s title hopes.

Wales pay against Italy in Rome on Sunday afternoon. This will be an intriguing encounter. Both sides had reasonable autumn campaigns, although Wales’ style of play, and the pretty dour manner of their three November victories, left critics pulling their hair out. Alun Wyn Jones has taken the captaincy from Sam Warburton, and his direct approach could be just what Wales need. Wales fans want to see fast, flowing, attacking rugby in this tournament, and with the introduction of bonus points for scoring four or more tries, this is perhaps an important game in which to start as they mean to go on. Having registered in excess of 60 points over the Italians in their last two Six Nations encounters, Wales will probably not lack in confidence going to Rome. However, they will be aware that, under the new coaching set-up of ex-Harlequins boss Conor O’Shea, Italy may be better drilled and more organised than in recent seasons. Let’s not forget the Italians, like Wales, beat the Springboks in November, and I think they have the potential to cause one or two upsets this term.

My overall prediction is that England will retain their Six Nations title, although I don’t think they will complete a clean sweep this year.

Let battle commence!