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.

Monday, 6 February 2012

6 Nations Match Report: Ireland v Wales

Match Report: Ireland v Wales

Wales came out on top in thrilling encounter on Sunday. 51,000 fans packed out the Aviva Stadium who were entertained with some great tries and drama until the very end.

This was the game that everyone was waiting for, after an expected French win over the Italians and the mistake-riddled English victory over the Scottish everybody turned to Dublin and the Aviva Stadium for their rugby fix on the weekend, and it did not disappoint.

The game was as close as it gets with the lead changing hands 5 times providing a thrilling spectacle for the neutral and a game that was destined to go down to the wire. However Wales fullback Leigh Halfpenny held his nerve in the final minute and slotted the match-winning penalty; a penalty that would be routine in any other situation.

After an early Jonny Sexton penalty Wales enjoyed some early pressure and really dominated the first 25 minutes of the game with Mike Phillips, George North and Jamie Roberts all getting agonizingly close to crossing the whitewash. After 13 minutes Wales centre Jonathan Davies crossed over with a good finish out wide after some nifty footwork and a brilliant offload out of the tackle by Rhys Priestland.

Wales then continued to stretch the Irish but were failing to turn it into points. Ireland then made Wales pay on the stroke of half time, Irish wing Tommy Bowe got on the outside of Priestland leaving newcomer Alex Cuthbert wondering whether to step in or drift – in the end he did neither – and Bowe sent over hooker Rory Best from 10 metres out, Ireland went in ahead 10 – 5 at the break.

During halftime news came through that would have sent shivers down the spine of the majority of Welsh fans, Sam Warburton would not return for the second half, he suffered a dead leg during the first half and was unable to continue – on came Osprey Justin Tipuric. Also James Hook came on to replace debutant Alex Cuthbert who hadn’t really influenced play at all and looked vulnerable during the Irish try. At this point I feared without Captain Sam the Irish back row of Heaslip, Ferris and O’Brien would gain parity and then it would be a case of by how much Ireland would win.

Sexton slotted another penalty early on in the second half and it seemed as though the game was slipping away from Wales. Enter George North who sparked Wales in to life, on 53 minutes his sublime take from a Sexton high ball led to a Halfpenny penalty and Wales were beginning to find their feet. Then just a minute later off the top ball from a Wales line out, 40 metres out, Priestland slides the ball to North who launches at the Irish midfield, bulldozing through Fergus McFadden, North then finds Jonathan Davies with a lovely offload out of the tackle who sprints in from 35 metres, Wales back on track 13 – 15 – But would injured Brian O’Driscoll have missed that tackle on North…

Ireland responded quickly with another Penalty from Sexton 16-15 now – game on. Then disaster for Wales, second row Bradley Davies sees the red mist and is yellow carded for lifting Donnacha Ryan and dropping him to the floor during a ruck, lucky it wasn’t a red.

Tommy Bowe made the 1 man advantage count and goes over for a try in the corner, however Sexton fails to convert a tricky conversion, and then prods a penalty attempt wide 21 – 15 heading into the final 10.

In the 73rd minute North crossed over in the corner – taking 3 Irish defenders with him – a powerful finish, Halfpenny failed to convert leaving the scores 21-20. Then in the 80th minute Ferris gives away a penalty for a tip tackle on Ian Evans, in my opinion I think it is a penalty, the right side of Ian Evans is on it’s way to vertical when he hits the ground and I think it was justifiable. So up steps Halfpenny to slot the penalty and Wales come out on top in an epic encounter 21 - 23.

The Analysis

At halftime I felt that Wales were going to be made to pay for their inability to convert early pressure into points. I could sense Ireland coming into the game and there were glimpses when the Irish back row got an offloading game going that looked ominous.

Jamie Roberts did well in midfield but never really stood out, on the other hand when you’ve got George North running over people Roberts wasn’t really missed.

Out wide we had too much for them, as was expected the game would be ours if the forwards provided a platform and Ireland looked dangerous when that platform was wavering. Wales lost 4 lineouts which is a bit of a worry but Ireland are renowned for their work in that facet of the game.

The scrums remained solid throughout, after an early penalty on the Irish line given away by young Rhys Gill I did worry that he may be over-excited, but he seemed to calm down and had a good game.

When Tipuric came on at halftime he had an outstanding game, it definitely did not weaken Wales when he entered the fray. Faletau was outstanding again, carrying Wales across the gain line on numerous occasions. Ryan Jones was also impressive, the loss of Dan Lydiate was always going to be felt, but Jones stepped up and worked tirelessly in defence and also carried well.

Priestland had an average game by his recent standards, after starting superbly I think his misses from the tee may have knocked his confidence slightly, and he is a confidence player. I don’t worry about his form going into next weekend, and I feel he’ll put in a good performance.

Jonathan Davies had an excellent game going forward, he had the beating off Fergus McFadden from the start and never relented. Scoring both of Wales’ tries and proving to be a handful throughout the game he was key to Wales’ victory.

The extent of Warburton’s inury is still unclear, he will have a better idea about his fitness on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Bradley Davies is almost certain to be absent at the weekend. The citing commissioner for the game has until 5pm on Tuesday to make his decision. If he is cited Davies would then face a hearing later on in the week, a ban of 4 weeks or more is not out of the question – this could devastate Wales’ 6 Nations hopes with Alun Wyn-Jones and Luke Charteris already out injured. Dan Lydiate may be fit to welcome the Scots to Cardiff which would probably mean Ryan Jones would move up to second row to replace Davies.