Saturday, 16 June 2012

Australia v Wales 2nd Test Match Report

Wales let history slip in Melbourne as Australia claim a 25 - 23 victory in the second test match with a last gasp penalty from newcomer Mike Harris.

After last week’s disappointment at Suncorp Stadium Wales got off to the dream start. After sustained pressure and good work around the fringes, George North powered over from close range to open the scoring just 4 minutes into the game.

Berrick Barnes responded with a penalty and Australia began to dominate. The home team had the lion’s share of possession and territory due to a poor Welsh lineout preventing them from getting any sort of continuity.

Barnes slotted another penalty to bring the hosts to within a point and the more pressure Wales were put under the more mistakes they began to make.

Then on the stroke of halftime Berrick Barnes received clean ball off the top of the lineout, he went on to sell a dummy to the welsh midfield and go clean through to execute a simple two on one and send Rob Horne over for the try and the teams went in at the half with Australia leading 13 – 7.

The final try of the half is a prime example of the importance of giving your backline clean ball off the set piece; Wales had very little ball clean ball and were under pressure in the first 40, and as soon as Barnes gets good ball he glides through the defence to set up the 5-pointer.

Wales couldn’t have wished for a better start to the second half. A Wallaby set move goes wrong and Wales centre Ashley Beck hacks the ball downfield for his centre partner Jonathan Davies to win the footrace and Halfpenny converted to put Wales back in the lead.

In the second half the lead changed hands a total of 8 times as Barnes and Halfpenny traded penalties. However Wales missed a massive opportunity when Cooper Vuna was sin binned for tackling Leigh Halfpenny in the air, the correct decision and possibly warranted a red card. During that 10 minute period Wales only scored 3 points and with that a big opportunity had been missed.

It all came down to a Mike Harris penalty that came as a result of a powerful driving lineout and he stepped up to break Welsh hearts and give the home team a 25 – 23 victory.

This means that Australia have won the series and this tour is now considered a failure by the players, coaching staff and Welsh public.

Wales can be proud of their effort; their defence was extremely good and only leaked one try. They may feel they deserved a victory out of the game but ultimately the scoreboard doesn’t lie and once again Wales are looking for positives in defeat.

Wales seemed to lose composure with 90 seconds on the clock, with a knock on advantage rather than keeping the ball and closing the game out they kicked the ball 60 metres downfield allowing Australia the chance to march up field and claim victory.

Wales’ kicking again was extremely poor, they didn’t learn their lessons from last week. They kicked loosely and straight down the throat of Aussie full back Adam Ashley Cooper and Wales were simply unable to gain any territory.

I think it’s now time for Priestland to be dropped, Hook deserves to be given a chance because Priestlands form has been poor. Mike Phillips at times was guilty of trying to take on the whole of Australia by himself. I’d like to see Tipuric given some game time on the big stage because ultimately Sam Warburton has been second best to David Pocock this series and a few changes might help to revitalize the team.

So Wales set their stall out at the beginning of the tour claiming that nothing less than a series victory will do, and that hasn’t happened. Now it’s about trying to salvage something, a victory next week will make history and should begin to heal the wounds, now they have to pick themselves up as they head to Sydney still in search of the elusive ‘W’ in the Southern Hemisphere.

New Zealand v Ireland 2nd Test Match Report

New Zealand scraped across the line in this second of three tests to get a less than convincing victory over Ireland in an emotional encounter in Christchurch as international rugby returned to the area for the first time since the tragic earthquakes.

The visitors started the game much faster than their hosts, and signaled their intentions when they turned down an early kickable penalty and opted to go for the corner. The gamble paid off and after a maul resulting from the lineout was dragged down just short of the line; scrum half Connor Murray was on hand to dart over from close range and Ireland took the lead.

10 minutes later Jonny Sexton slotted a tricky penalty to send his team into a shock 0 – 10 lead after 20 minutes.

Then Ireland gave away a series of silly penalties at the breakdown allowing Dan Carter to chip away at their lead.

The majority of the half was played largely between the to 22 metre lines with New Zealand dominating possession without creating any real clear cut chances, which is very uncharacteristic of them.

However Carter punished Ireland time and time again and the All Blacks went in at half time trailing by just 1 point at 9 – 10.

New Zealand got off to the best possible start in the second half. They managed to get their offloads going and picked well around the fringes which eventually resulted in Aaron Smith being bundled over by his forwards to send the hosts into the lead.

Sexton and Carter then traded penalties with Ireland seemingly in the ascendancy; they attacked hard and battered the New Zealand defensive line but were limited to penalties. Ireland were also solid on the defensive side of things with Dan Carter resorting to attempting drop goals which is testament to the tenacious defence of the Celts.

The scores were level at 19 a piece heading in to the final 10 minutes of the game when Israel Dagg was sin binned for a late tackle on Ireland full back Rob Kearney which was the correct decision, the world champions looked rattled and Ireland looked the more likely.

New Zealand managed the final minutes in a professional manner and worked the ball into drop goal range. Carter was handed a second chance after his first drop goal attempt was charged down ending up over the dead ball line and he didn’t miss the second time around from the resulting 5 metre scrum to get the All Blacks over the line to win 22 – 19.

Ireland will be bitterly disappointed that they didn’t manage to capitalize on a great opportunity to beat the AB’s for the first time in 107 years. They dominated large parts of the game and had their hosts rattled. However New Zealand proved that great teams can get the win when not at their best, and that’s exactly what they did.

Despite the loss Ireland can be proud of their performance, which was hugely improved from last weeks shambles, they definitely deserved something out of the game and will be looking for revenge in the final test next week.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Australia v Wales Match Report

A wounded Australia turned in a clinical, streetwise performance to run out 27 - 19 winners over 6 nations champions Wales at the Suncorp Stadium.

After Australia gained parity in the kicking battle early on Berrick Barnes opened the scoring after 7 minutes with a three pointer caused by wales gave away a series of penalties at the breakdown.

Wales responded quickly after some lovely inter-passing between Rhys Preistland, Leigh Halfpenny and Scott Williams. But Wales lost a bit of composure and Priestland knocked on at the following ruck and the chance was gone.

It took 16 minutes to get the first try of the game and it went to Australian back row Scott Higginbotham. After some uncharacteristic poor defending from Wales, Australia got some quick ball and managed to rumble over the line for the try.

Wales got their first points on the board after Halfpenny slots a relatively simple penalty, given for Australia misbehaving at the ruck, a lot of which went unnoticed by referee Craig Joubert.

The rest of the first half went to and fro with Australia deservedly taking the lead in at half time 10 – 3.

The second half got off to the worst possible start from a Welsh point of view. Will Genia sniped and went through some more poor fringe defence from Wales, there was a hint of blocking from referee Joubert but Genia rounded the final welsh defender to score under the posts and it was a long way back for Wales.

Halfpenny began to chisel away at the lead with a penalty 5 minutes after Genia went over. This was then cancelled out by a drop goal from Barnes that kept the scoreboard kicking over.

Cue the Welsh revival. They hit the Wallabies defensive line hard and managed to get a simple penalty that Halfpenny knocked over.

Midway through the second half, substitute Ashley Beck caught the Australians flat-footed with a lovely step and offload to Alex Cuthbert who finished well from 25 metres out and Wales were growing into the game.

Halfpenny slotted another penalty to bring Wales to within a point, and then disaster struck for the Celts. Australian fell into a similar grove to the first half and attack hard around the fringes. This led to Will Genia putting Pat McCabe through a hole in the welsh defence and he crossed from close range to seal the victory.

Scott Higginbotham made a fantastic cover tackle in the last 10 minutes to deny Cuthbert a second try and really make the dying moments exciting.

Australia will be very relieved with this victory after Tuesdays defeat to Scotland. Will Genia shone and Berrick Barnes controlled the game well from 10. The Wallabies dominated the aerial battle and were able to gain some good field position because of this.

Referee Craig Joubert had a very suspect game. His refereeing of the breakdown was always going to come under scrutiny with Pocock and Warburton against each other, and he didn’t handle that facet of the game well at all. I think Wales may need to seek advice from a southern hemisphere referee in the next week because they appear to be calling the breakdown differently to what Wales are used to.

Wales will be disappointed with themselves. They were not in the game for the first 50 minutes and they were lucky to still be in the game. The kicking game was poor as was the chase. Wales lost the battle of the breakdown against the maestro Pocock. The fringe defence was almost non-existent which is very uncharacteristic and defence coach Shaun Edwards will definitely be working hard with his team in the week. Another disappointing factor from a Welsh point of view is they let 2 big try scoring opportunities go begging and that is criminal in the southern hemisphere. On the positive side the set piece was solid and Wales never looked like they were panicking which is nice to see. Also they showed Australia can be vulnerable so they can take some confidence into next week.

Wales and the nation were quietly confident heading into this tour and quoting in the press that nothing less than a series win will do, they’ve got a lot of work to do to ensure that happens from here on in.

New Zealand v Ireland Match Report

New Zealand began the three match test series with Ireland in dominant fashion with a 42 – 10 victory at Eden Park.

Ireland made their intentions clear from the start, and as many predicted they came to have a go at the world champions. But it was the All Blacks who opened the scoring with fly half Dan Carter announcing his returning to the international stage with an early penalty.

It didn’t take long for Ireland to respond and Jonny Sexton settled his nerves with a good strike leveling the scores at 3 – 3. Ireland briefly controlled the game and talisman Brian O’Driscoll produced a trademark offload to send Keith Earles into the NZ 22, but the Irish were bundled into touch.

Carter slotted another 2 long-range penalties in metronomic fashion and Ireland then yielded some committed defence as NZ bombarded their line with waves of attack.

Ireland eventually cracked and it was a familiar counter attack from NZ that provided the games opening try. The counter attack eventually led to Sonny Bill Williams sending Carter through with a sumptuous offload, the fly half couldn’t squander the 2 on 1 to put debutant Julian Savea over for the first try of his international career.

Ireland managed to work themselves an attacking lineout from 5 metres out. However the ball was turned over and the All Blacks flooded up field looking ominous, which led to newcomer Simon Zebo carrying the ball into touch 5 metres from his own line. This eventually led to Dagg putting Savea over for his second try with a sublime miss pass and a good finish in the corner from Savea just before half time. The teams went in with NZ looking menacing leading 23 – 3.

The second half picked up where the first half finished when just 3 minutes in Savea crossed the whitewash to complete his hat trick in an unforgettable debut for the hurricane winger.

The Irish grabbed a try 10 minutes into the second half. Hooker Rory best managed to charge down a grubber kick from Dan Carter, the ball fell to Jonny Sexton who kicked the ball downfield, and there was only one winner in the footrace between Fergus McFadden and Richie McCaw.

The AB’s responded virtually straight away with a move straight from the training ground. Number 8 Keiran Read picked up from a 5-metre scrum and offloaded to replacement Adam Thompson who only had to fall over the line. If there was any sign of an Irish revival it was killed off with this try.

Then came all the substitutions and both teams lost their rhythm slightly and the game was in danger of going flat. Until McFadden was denied his second try when he intercepted a pass and ran the length only for referee Nigel Owens to call him back for offside.

Conrad Smith went over in the dying moments to rub salt in the wounds and finish off a move that included a sublime offload from Carter.

New Zealand fans will be pleased to see fly half Dan Carter back to his best, he got the backline firing well and had a hand in most of the tries with a near perfect kicking record to boot.

Ireland adopted a brave approach to this game and lost heavily without really doing much wrong, but this is often the case against the world champions. Unfortunately Ireland I think the tone has been set for the rest of the series.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Summer Tours: What are England, Wales and Ireland Looking to Gain?

International summer rugby is almost upon us, 3 enthralling test series’ that promise rugby of the highest quality – I for one, am excited.

As I thought of the upcoming tours I tried to throw myself into the shoes of Gatland, Kidney and Lancaster and imagine what all 3 teams will be hoping to get out of their respective tours.

England – Building Process

After a promising 6 Nations Championship, during which they proved a lot of doubters (including yours truly) wrong the England squad and their newly appointed head coach will be on high. This buzz will have only been enhanced by the way they dismantled the Barbarians 2 weeks ago to win 57 – 26 at rugby HQ. During the record-breaking victory there were tries from youngsters Christian Wade and Jonathon Joseph which will please the England coaching staff as well as Chris Ashton regaining form to score a hat-trick of tries.

Lancaster’s first tour as national head coach takes him to South Africa, arguably the toughest place to win in world rugby. England will be looking to use the momentum from the win against Ireland and the rout against the Barbarians and throw themselves into the lion’s den with no fears. I think this is a stage in the rebuilding process since a calamitous world cup. Lancaster has named 13 un-capped players in the squad, and I believe he is trying to give a younger generation a feel for what it’s like in the ‘deep end’ of international rugby, he’s looking to the future.

Lancaster will tell the press that England want to win every game etc. and as an international coach that is how it should be. However, I think England fans should be satisfied with victory in any of the three tests which I’m confident England can achieve, however it isn’t likely; I believe winning the series is out of the question.

I think an acceptable outcome from this tour is the team performs well, doesn’t get embarrassed, shows signs that they can take on SA physically and young players in key positions handle the pressure well, such as Owen Farrell because if he can do it in SA then he’ll have proved himself in my eyes. If England can achieve that, then steps are being taken in the right direction.

Forwards: Botha (Saracens), Cole (Leicester), Corbisiero (London Irish), Doran-Jones (Northampton Saints), Dowson (Northampton), Fearns (Bath), Gray (Harlequins), Hartley (Northampton), Haskell (Otago Highlanders), Johnson (Exeter), Kitchener (Leicester), Launchbury (London Wasps), Marler (Harlequins), Mears (Bath), Morgan (Scarlets), Mullan (Worcester), Palmer (Stade Fran├žais), Parling (Leicester), Robshaw (capt, Harlequins), Robson (Harlequins), Stevens (Saracens), Waldrom (Leicester), Youngs (Leicester).
Backs Allen (Leicester), Ashton (Northampton), Barritt (Saracens), Brown (Harlequins), Care (Harlequins), Dickson (Northampton), Farrell (Saracens), Flood (Leicester), Foden (Northampton), Goode (Saracens), Hodgson (Saracens), Joseph (London Irish), Lowe (Harlequins), Monye (Harlequins), Strettle (Saracens), M Tuilagi (Leicester), Turner-Hall (Harlequins), Wade (London Wasps), Youngs (Leicester Tigers).

Ireland – Any Win Will Do

After Ireland got through their group well in the RWC I predicted the winner of the quarter final between themselves and Wales would become serious contenders, however it wasn’t to be and they were outplayed on the day. This disappointment became inspiration to exact revenge on their Celtic counterparts at the start of the 2012 6 Nations, but a nation was left disappointed again. This set the tone for an eventually disappointing tournament, climaxing in an embarrassing defeat to the English. Ireland went down 29 – 28 to the Barbarians at Kingsholm during the week however much like Wales had already sent the majority of their squad to their summer destination. So I don’t expect them to be too disheartened by this result.

Kidney takes his team to the home of the world champions, New Zealand. I think the Irish fans may be getting slightly cagey in light of their lack of recent international success, especially considering that Leinster are European Champions and domestic play-off finalists. This cageyness may turn ugly should the All Blacks brush Ireland aside. This is why any win will do for Kidney and his men, whether it be pretty, ugly, by 1 point or 50 points they just need to get a win on this tour. Failure to do so will increase the pressure on Declan Kidney and I think he could be made a scapegoat for Ireland’s poor displays, as is the fickle nature of sport at the top level.

As well as a win, Ireland may be looking for younger players to find their feet by including 7 newcomers to international rugby in their squad. In the centre Gordon D’arcy and Brian O’Driscoll have been stalwarts for many years but they are coming to the end of their careers; so now is the time for the likes of Ulsterman Darren Cave to step up and show that he is the real deal.

The Irish should expect no less than at least a win against New Zealand. With some experienced heads in their team and class throughout the backline they have the firepower to contend with the AB’s. A series whitewash could leave Kidney’s future in doubt.

Forwards: R Best (Ulster), S Cronin (Leinster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Fitzpatrick (Ulster), C Healy (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster), S O'Brien (Leinster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Mahony (Munster), M Ross (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), M Sherry (Munster), D Tuohy (Ulster).
Backs: D Cave (Ulster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), K Earls (Munster), R Kearney (Leinster), F McFadden (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, captain), R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Leinster), J Sexton (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster), S Zebo (Munster).

Wales – It’s Time To Prove It

What an outstanding year it has been for the Welsh team. After crashing out of the RWC in 2007 to Fiji in the quarter finals the nation has become one of the major forces in world rugby. On their way to winning the 2012 6 Nations, Triple Crown and Grand Slam the Wales team proved they could win ugly and dog out victories when they needed to. This was a sign that the 2011 RWC wasn’t just a one off; they had evolved into the complete team. Wales eased past the Barbarians last weekend with a 30 – 21 victory at the Millenium Stadium fielding a very much second choice team. They’ll be looking to use this momentum and go in to the series with Australia looking to make history as the tourists have not taken a major southern hemisphere scalp since the 1987 RWC when they beat Australia.

Wales are being talked up by a lot of people as one of the best teams in the world and now it’s time to prove it. You can’t be considered a great team until you prove yourself in the southern hemisphere, even though they are the form team in the northern hemisphere it counts for nothing until you can win a test series in the backyard of ‘the big three’.

The coaching staff and players have made their intentions on this tour very clear and failure is not an option. In a recent interview full back Leigh Halfpenny claimed that if Wales did not win the series then the tour would be a failure, and that is the view of the Welsh public.

For too long the Welsh have continually underperformed when they have taken the field against the tri nations and have failed to close out leads against all three in recent years; the supporters are tired of being good losers or the nearly men.

If Wales don’t win the series against the Wallabies then it isn’t quite a disaster but it would be extremely disappointing for the fans, players and everyone involved with Wales.

This is Wales’ best chance in my lifetime to get the ‘W’ and I firmly believe they have a better squad than their opponents this summer, many of which will still be angry with the way their ‘nearly’ RWC cup finished, losing to Australia. The potential is there, a nation expects, It’s now time for Wales to finally deliver.

Backs: A Beck (Ospreys), A Bishop (Ospreys), A Brew (Newport Gwent Dragons), A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), J Hook (Perpignan), G North (Scarlets), M Phillips (Bayonne), R Priestland (Scarlets), H Robinson (Cardiff Blues), R Webb (Ospreys), Lloyd Williams (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Scarlets), Liam Williams (Scarlets).
Forwards: L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), I Evans (Ospreys), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons), R Gill (Saracens), R Hibbard (Ospreys), P James (Ospreys), G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), A Jones (Ospreys), A-W Jones (Ospreys), Rhodri Jones (Scarlets), Ryan Jones (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons), K Owens (Scarlets), M Rees (Scarlets), A Shingler (Scarlets), J Tipuric (Ospreys), J Turnbull (Scarlets), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, capt)

If you subscribe to Sky Sports, make sure you check out The Rugby Club at 7pm on Sky Sports 2. They'll be previewing the summer tours with Jamie Roberts and Shane Horgan, should be a good watch.

Also, keep an eye out on twitter for the ever-growing rugby community #rugbyunited and meet rugby fans from all over the globe.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

IRB Sanctions 5 New Law Trials: The Breakdown

First of all I think it’s important to point out that law amendments are necessary because coaching teams and players are always finding new ways of “bending” the rules of the game, also the game is always evolving so the rules need to keep up too, therefore I don’t mind the laws being changed from time to time.

Before a new law can be passed by the IRB there is a process to go through. First,  the various unions from different countries can propose new laws to the IRB, it then goes to a vote in which all the unions say if they are in favour of or against a certain law being passed. If a proposed law has enough votes from the unions then it will usually enter a trial period.

At a recent annual meeting in Dublin, the IRB and the unions have sanctioned global trials for 5 new laws, which will take place from the beginning of next season in both hemispheres, they are;

1. Law 16.7 (Ruck): The ball has to be used within five seconds of it being made available at the back of a ruck with a warning from the referee to “use it”. Sanction – Scrum.

I think everybody in the rugby universe is in favour of this rule being passed and it cant come into the game quick enough. This encourages a much faster game, which makes things more entertaining for the fans. This rule will obviously prevent the tedious waiting around at the back of the ruck waiting for the scrum half to be ready or for him to organize his forwards. Something that Lee Dickson of England was guilty of during the Six Nations was lining up roughly 3 forwards at the back of a ruck to give him more room to perform a box kick, something that the neutral would not enjoy. The only problem with this rule is that there is a grey area as to when the ball is available, although as long as referees are sensible and consistent then there shouldn’t be a problem.

2. 19.2 (b) (Quick Throw-In) For a quick throw in, the player may be anywhere outside the field of play between the line of touch and the player’s goal line.

The rule is also something that will promote a faster game. This now means that instead of having to run back to the mark of where the ball crossed the line, a player can now take a quick throw in where they catch the ball. However I’m not entirely convinced the previous rule was enforced regularly anyway, but even still it’s nice to see an initiative from the IRB that promotes positive rugby.

3. 19.4 (who throws in) when the ball goes into touch from a knock-on, the non-offending team will be offered the choice of a lineout at the point the ball crossed the touchline; or a scrum at the place of the knock-on. The non-offending team may exercise this option by taking a quick throw-in.

Here’s the scenario, a team isn’t having a great day at scrum time and the opposition knock the ball on, but then they win it back because of the oppositions poor scrum which begs the question, have they really been punished for poor play? (Other than a loss of momentum). I think by giving the team an option to take the lineout over the scrum if they wish, increases the likelihood that a team making a mistake will lose possession because of it, hence punishing them and for that reason I think it has a permanent place in the game.

4. 21.4 Penalty and free kick options and requirements: Lineout alternative. A team awarded a penalty or a free kick at a lineout may choose a further lineout, they throw in. This is in addition to the scrum option.

I can’t think of an example where a team would take this over any of the other options especially if it was a penalty awarded. If it was a free kick a team may choose this option if their scrum is functioning well. But for a penalty I can’t see why a team would want to take a lineout where the penalty is, instead of 30 metres further down the field. There are enough rules as it is and I can’t see this one having a major impact so it’s pointless.

5. A conversion kick must be completed within one minute 30 seconds from the time that a try has been awarded.

I’m completely against this rule being passed, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it comes to mind here. There is currently no problem with conversions and hasn’t been any recent controversy. The current rule that a conversion must be taken within 60 seconds of a tee coming onto the field isn’t enforced to the law anyway, so why add another one? Another problem I have with this rule is what if a team score a try in the Heineken cup final to bring them within a point of the opposition in the final moments of the game causing celebrations, is the referee really going to have to stop the kicker taking his kick because he didn’t get it done in time, it seems silly to me.

I think these rules show that the IRB is keen to encourage teams to play with more pace and they are obviously trying to make things more exciting. With the conversion law I can see that they are trying to speed the process up but I just don’t see referee’s enforcing it and I don’t think it will work.

I think the biggest success from these is law 16.7 (ruck) this is what the game needs and I can’t wait to see how teams deal with this, it’s definitely going to make things a lot more exciting and a lot more difficult for scrum halves.

Keep any eye out on twitter for the ever-growing rugby community #rugbyunited and meet rugby fans from all over the globe.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

6 Nations Match Report: England v Wales

Wales continued on their march to the Grand Slam and claimed the Triple Crown with a less than convincing 12 – 19 victory over England at Twickenham on Saturday.

A Scott Williams try in the last 10 minutes sealed the game but in the dying moments England’s David Strettle was disallowed a try that would have brought the English within 2 points pending the conversion, but it wasn’t to be.

It was a game in which defense ruled and as expected it wasn’t a very high scoring encounter but nonetheless it had drama until the very end. In the early stages George North was bearing down on Ben Foden and looked like he was going to give Wales the perfect start but for an excellent tap tackle from David Strettle. Then at the other end Sam Warburton epitomized Wales’ attitude with a desperate tackle on Manu Tuilagi just inches from the Welsh try line. The pendulum swung to and fro and this game was impossible to call right until the very end.

Watching the game live I felt in England were the team who saw more of the ball but after looking at the stats, possession was virtually 50/50. What made the difference on the day was that Wales knew how to win. After going through 4 or 5 phases England didn’t seem to know where to go next which resulted in Farrell kicking possession away. On the subject of kicking, Wales kicked very poorly, hitting touch just once from open play, this must have been tactical from the Welsh management but I don’t see the logic playing against the counter attacking ability of Ben Foden and Strettle.

The penalty count favoured Wales by 13 penalties to 12, but Wales gave away silly penalties and England seemed to make better use of their penalties than Wales did, especially when the Rhys Priestland is missing touch. The set piece was also relatively even with England slightly edging it losing one less lineout than Wales, but I still think Ken Owens did very well in such a high profile match.

One of the differences was that Wales made 3 clean line breaks whereas England made just the one, which highlights the fact that Wales simply have the more exciting backs. Wales didn’t really play the expansive game that we associate with them, however, England picked centre’s Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi to nullify the Welsh midfield, which they did very well.

The Welsh back row proved once again to be worth their weight in gold on Saturday. Dan Lydiate does an unbelievable amount of work in defence which can never be underestimated. Then you have Sam Warburton who seems to be everywhere on the field and carried well. And finally to compliment those two nicely you have Toby Faletau who did what he does every week and that is cross the gainline. I feel like i'm repeating myself every time I talk about this three but they are consistently fantastic every single week.

England rebel Tuilagi has to be applauded for his return to the international stage. He looked like England’s most dangerous back, he was clearly targeting Priestland – whom he bumped over a number of times. But the two midfields cancelled each other out for the game and it was a very bruising encounter in that area throughout. Jamie Roberts had very little impact and was outshone by his replacement Scott Williams.

Owen Farrell won the battle of the fly half’s hands down. Many people (including myself) questioned his ability to command a game on such a big stage but he excelled in his role. When it was the Welsh who were expected to play all the rugby it was in fact Farrell who looked the more likely to get his backline firing - he even managed to brush off a thunderous tackle from George North.
His opposite number on the other hand looks to be out of form. After a fantastic World Cup I had very high hopes for Rhys Priestland but as of yet he hasn’t performed well at all in this 6 Nations. His poor kicking display against Ireland followed by the massive media hype that ensued seems to have knocked his confidence and as I’ve mentioned before he is a confidence player. Stephen Jones was stripped and ready to enter the fray after Priestland had missed touch and given away a penalty after getting caught under the high ball, But Farrell’s penalty drifted wide and Jones put the tracksuit back on. Yesterday Wales attack coach Rob Howley praised the way the young Scarlet made it through: I thought to keep him on was the right decision because he's got to learn from the experience.
“He came through it and, during the final 10 minutes, Rhys was better.”
Clearly Howley is worried about the damage to Priestland’s confidence should he be dropped after playing so poorly, but I’m keeping the faith in him and should he be picked to face Italy I’m backing him to have a big game.
Both teams need to be applauded for what was an excellent spectacle and a good advert for rugby in the northern hemisphere, England for the way they came at Wales and tried to play some rugby and Wales for an excellent defensive performance and closing out a game in which they didn’t play particularly well.

England definitely have a chance to upset the French when they play next week and I expect Wales to see off Italy with relative ease either way we’ve got some good rugby ahead of us.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

6 Nations Match Preview: England v Wales

Wales travel to rugby HQ this weekend to face their old rivals England in the 3rd round of the 6 Nations. Both teams head in to the game with a perfect record, however both Wales established stars and England’s young pretenders are yet to fire on all cylinders.

The Welsh will go in to the tie as slight favourites, they have more international experience in the forward pack and have a more potent attacking backline, and by that I mean a set of backs that want to try and play rugby.

For England to win this game the need to win boring, if they let Wales play an expansive, open game then they will not be able to compete the Welsh have too much class and power out wide with the likes of Jamie Roberts and the mountain that is George North – who is fit following his recent injury scare. England need to stop Wales at source by gaining parity at the set piece England can frustrate their counterparts and that’s when they need to pounce.  If England gives Mike Phillips a platform to set the Welsh backline firing it will be all over at halftime.

I feel like Wales are going to have enough to brush off any English resistance. Under Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards they have found a strong mentality and are a much more resilient team than years gone by, so when England do put the pressure on Wales will be able to cope.

As in most games of rugby the game will be defined by two battles – the battle in the back row and the battle in midfield. Wales will have too much in the back row for England, captain Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate compliment each other perfectly and provide a perfect balance. In the England back row Ben Morgan and Chris Robshaw have had even less experience than the young Welsh back row, and whilst Robshaw has undeniable quality, he hasn’t been there and done it.

In midfield I think Wales might be becoming too predictable and against Scotland Jamie Roberts wasn’t very influential at all, however with George North coming in off his wing on a regular basis it’s difficult for England to know where to look. In the England midfield Brad Barritt is a proven defensive player and rarely misses a tackle and with Manu Tuilagi you know exactly what you’re going to get. In my opinion the two midfields will neutralize each other but Wales have more creativity and the Welsh have wingers such as Alex Cuthbert and North who can pop up in that area and pose the opposition all sorts of problems. With Charlie Hodgson out injured England no longer have an outside half who is defensively weak, young Owen Farrell has proved to be a steely character in the midfield who is not likely to miss many tackles, however a few early charges from the back row and Roberts may just put the youngster off his game. He is however an undeniable talent and this week Wales coach Neil Jenkins has likened Farrell to a young Jonny Wilkinson, this is a very big compliment so Wales obviously respect the youngsters ability.

Wales are going to run out victors in this one by less than 10 points. Even though England are returning to Twickenham I still think that the Welsh will have too much and will over-power England. That said when it comes to Wales v England the form guide counts for nothing and all bets are off, it’s going to be exciting.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

6 Nations Match Report: Wales v Scotland

Wales made it 2 out of 2 wins after running out 27 – 13 winners against Scotland on Sunday. Leigh Halfpenny was the star of the show as Wales blitzed Scotland in the first 15 minutes of the second half to ensure they maintain their perfect start to the campaign.

Wales came into this game on a massive high after last weeks narrow victory in Dublin. Scotland could be confident after putting in a good performance against England at Murrayfield but were still chasing a try from somewhere; it had been 4 games now.

A near capacity Millenium Stadium was left on edge during the 1st half with Wales unable to break the Scots for the majority of the first 40. The teams went in at the break with the scores level at 3 – 3 with Scotland feeling more buoyant than the home team after dominating first half possession. However the pressure was building on the Scots after another 40 minutes without a 5-pointer after prop Alan Jacobsen fumbles the ball inches from the Wales line. Could have been a different game if the Scots had managed to convert.

Wales were still in their shells until half time, and with George North limping off the field I began to worry about how the next 40 would go. So as last week James Hook came on at fullback and Halfpenny slid out to the wing.
Just 2 minutes in the second half and we had the first try. Wales came flying out of the changing rooms and but Scotland under immense pressure and they eventually had to burst. Alex Cuthbert charged over for his first try in international rugby and began to grow into the game with every minute that passed. The try was converted by Halfpenny and Wales led 10 – 3.

Then just 2 minutes later Scotland were reduced to 14 men when Jonathan Davies was tackled off the ball after hacking through by Nick De Luca; just as Wales were gathering momentum.

After both teams exchanged penalties Wales were leading 13 – 6. After 49 minutes Roberts once again got Wales over the gain line and the ball was recycled at speed. After carries from Gethin Jenkins and Dan Lydiate Scotland were stretched too far and Cuthbert put Halfpenny over for a try which he then converted, 20 – 6.

The visitors were then reduced to 13 men after Rory Lamont was penalised for an early tackle from an offside position after Wales had got in behind the Scots and looked ominous. Both yellow cards were completely justified.

2 minutes later Nick De Luca returned to the field to defend an attacking Welsh scrum just 5 metres out. With the Scots a man down and the open blindside at their mercy a simple 8,9 pop from Faletau to Phillips and Halfpenny latches on to the end of an offload and slides over unopposed in the corner. Things were looking ominous and Scotland were on their way to a hammering, 27 – 6.

However Scotland began to build some momentum, lively fullback Stuart Hogg is wrongly disallowed a try for a ghost knock-on in the 62nd minute. The Scots didn’t seem too disheartened and continued to batter the Welsh defence and eventually grabbed a try when Greig Laidlaw reaches out from less than a yard and gets it down to get the monkey off the back of the men in blue.

Scotland continued to put pressure on Wales but couldn’t manage a score in the final 15 minutes of the match. Wales showed ambition towards the end a ran from their own try line but also failed to convert after some fantastic open field running and the game finished 27 – 13 to the home side.

One of the players that really impressed me was Scotland winger Stuart Hogg. He looked extremely agile and seems like he has a really good habit of beating the first, he is a similar player to Shane Williams in that aspect. The flyer also impressed ex Wales fly half Jonathan Davies who thinks that Hogg has played his way into a starting jersey for the coming matches.

Leigh Halfpenny was tremendous again for Wales. After the debate over the kicking tee in the aftermath of the Ireland game it’s clear to see that the coaching staff made the correct decision in choosing Halfpenny. He kicked 5 from 6 and they weren’t all routine kicks so I think he’ll have the tee for the rest of the campaign. He also notched up two tries taking his total points tally to 22. Even though both tries were relatively simple the both needed to be finished and the inform Halfpenny was happy to oblige on both occasions.

I think Wales will be content with their victory rather than happy. However I think it’s important to consider that defences were on top in this game and both teams did try to throw the ball around – for which they should be commended. After losing captain Sam Warburton after he failed a late fitness test it fell to uncapped Scarlet Aaron Shingler to join a Welsh pack decimated by injuries, and on the day he did a good job.

A big concern for Welsh fans will be the injury to George North who limped off in the first half after what looked like a painful roll of his right ankle. However following an MRI scan on Monday it has been revealed that there is no major damage and North could return to training as soon as this coming Monday.

Also the news coming out of the Wales camp is that Warburton and Tipuric are due to be fit to face England in two weeks but hooker Huw Bennet is an injury doubt with a suspected torn calf muscle, and with Matthew Rees still out the number 2 jersey is expected to be worn by Ken Owens.