Saturday, September 29, 2007

Pacific Storm

In the two weeks since England's schooling at the hands of the Springboks, the ascendency of the southern hemisphere has become increasingly confirmed. However, aside from the fearsome triumvirate of South Africa, New Zealand and the Aussies, it has been the Pacific islanders making waves at this French World Cup.

The Samoans were widely considered as the most dangerous coming into the tournament, their greater experience and destructive runners more fancied than the attributes of either Tonga or the Fijians. And Samoa brought their physicality to bear in England's battling, resurgent victory of last Saturday; as they pummelled the English line in the second half, it took a deal more resistance than many thought Brian Ashton's men had to keep the blue waves at bay.

But moments of menace are different to sustained threat, and Tuilagi and Co. found little consistency at any point during the pool stage. The ability to maintain a 'perfect storm' of attacking rugby seemed to have passed across the international dateline to their neighbours the Tongans, who terrorised South Africa for much of their group encounter before the second-string Saffers squeaked home. For England, the task of neutralising one of the tournament's best back rows so far must have seemed as daunting as anything they had planned for.

In the event, the Tongan centres almost filleted their opposite numbers; but a much improved English rhythm enabled the monstrous red tide to be bravely withstood and then effectively subdued. Memories of Epi Taione and Sukanaivalu Hufanga slaloming through a routed defence will be treasured for some time though, while the extraordinary outline of Finau Maka must surely now loom large on the horizon of world rugby. If the Tongans (or their islander brothers) get a fair crack at the big nations from here on, that is.

And after this afternoon's thrilling contest between Wales and Fiji, there can surely be no argument that the lesser-known lights of Australasian rugby are deserving of greater exposure. The Fijians displayed raw power, technical accomplishment and no little spirit in slaying the Welsh Dragon, blasting holes in a hierarchy that has become increasingly destabilised. Argentina will likely dump Ireland out of the tournament tomorrow, establishing another point on the new power axis, while Scotland face pressure from the slowly improving Italian game for a quarter final berth. Only the traditional powers from the southern hemisphere remain comfortable dining at the top table.

In his French headquarters, Brian Ashton will be hoping that the stern Pacific test his players have passed in the last week will go a good way towards preparing them for their game with Australia. And while South Africa will not be unduly worried by their quarter final with Fiji, we will at least have another opportunity to view some more of the islanders' tenacious play. Surely the IRB's top priority must now be to make sure that the growing storm isn't allowed pass.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

So where's it all going wrong?

England's RWC travails have left most of us wondering whether someone had significantly changed the rules since the last time out. A stumbling performance against the US Eagles was followed by bald failure in the face of South Africa's (not inconsiderable) threat. But for all the menace of the Boks, more worrying was England's paucity of ideas, pedestrian running and inept execution. The wheels haven't just fallen off; the transmission appears to have bust too.

Stoic resistance was one characteristic of Friday's drubbing - and defensively we fought pretty well, managing to head off Habana and co for the most part of the first half. However, in possession, not only were penetrative moves at a premium, but attempted incursions often became shambolic retreats, the ball slipping through groping fingers, bouncing of body parts, and compounding the already parlous lack of ideas.

How has this happened on Ashton's watch? A coach renowned for his ability to get players' hands on the ball and minds in gear, he has been reduced to piecing together a physically intimidating, but mentally slow, team of hasbeens and hopefuls with little opportunity to fine-tune their thinking. That said, even if they were all on the same wavelength, the low level of skill represented by the white shirt currently would probably see any semblance of sophisticated rugby remain an island in a sea of turgid forward play.

A case in point must be Andy Farrell, for all that I think he is a good player. His speed of thought at times cannot be matched by his speed of hand (and the first isn't particularly lightning), forcing him to try things that are patently not on. Giving away possession helps release pressure on a defending team and England as a whole have been guilty of basic mistakes that let their opponents of the hook. Amateurish errors and sloppy penalties have rendered what game plan we do have effectively null and void - the fact that no one appears to be running lines, attempting to outwit defences, or offloading effectively in the tackle shouldn't mean that simple passing through the hands is beyond us.

With the honourable exception of Jason Robinson, who played like blood and thunder against the Springboks, and Olly Barkley, who missed the most recent outing, we look glaringly ill-equipped to take on the top nations at this tournament. It's to be hoped that a certain Mr. Wilkinson will return to the fold for the Samoa game, if only for his ability to extract points in the face of the most stubborn resistance, while a fit Barkley wouldn't go amiss either. However, Ashton perhaps needs to go with his gut from now on, and stop attempting to balance old and new ideologies. Only by freeing his players from their mental shackles (and sharpening up their basic skills) will England be able to endure at this World Cup now.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fat Frank or Stevie G?

In the wake of England's all-conquering performances (in the football at least) over the last few days, I thought it time to ask whether Lamps is now due his international P45. I have before made my feelings plain on the subject - but this time I've got a bigger audience. Join the debate over on Footballing World...


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Man with the Golden Grin

Out of the fire, for now, and into the glare of the cameras, Steve McClaren must be feeling like a man who's lost VD and discovered a lotion that makes him irresistibly attractive (and my, what a powerful unguent that would have to be).

Although it's fair to say injuries played their part in the renaissance enacted on Wembley's immaculate surface, the coach must be chuffed to bits with the way things panned out. Recalling Emile Heskey, who hasn't exactly set the world alight at Wigan, was a bold move, but the link play of old between him and Owen was soon justifying McClaren's decision. Perhaps it was the familiarity of the partnership, as Owen put in two vintage goal-scoring displays - pleasing for Newcastle fans as much as for those of England.

With Frank Lampard and Owen Hargreaves' enforced absences McClaren's charmed week led him to stumble upon another perfect match - albeit one with a lot less history. Gerrard and Barry can never have occupied the centre of England's midfield together before, but the way they dovetailed was fuel for the fire of those who claim Lampard can no longer be accommodated as first choice (myself included). Barry's strength and composure on the ball enabled him to break down play, keep possession and then link with the attack; and while Gerrard was quiet by his own high standards, he clearly enjoyed the freedom given him further up the pitch.

Whether Barry or Heskey will able to retain their places once Hargreaves and Rooney have returned from injury remains to be seen. Barry certainly has the stronger case, and if the rise of the Villains propagated under Martin O'Neil continues, then he seems only likely to garner more plaudits. Heskey is surely a little too one-paced to trouble the likely opposition at Euro 2008 (presuming we finish the job and qualify), and his goal-scoring is unlikely to ever reach 'prolific'. But for now, McClaren seems to have found a couple of spark plugs to light his way out of the darkness.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Argentine Magic

What a fantastic start to the rugby World Cup! Few expected the Pumas to out-muscle Les Bleus in yesterday evening's curtain-raiser, but a marvelous display of commitment and application saw the French cockerel well and truly strangled.

Seemingly overcome by nerves, Bernard Laporte's players committed a horrendous amount of unforced errors, allowing Argentina to chip away at French confidence and push the game out of the hosts' reach. The kicking out of hand by both sides highlighted the contrasts, with Juan Hernandez's steepling kicks repeatedly allowing his blue and white team mates to regain possession. Stuttering and scruffy, France's kicking mirrored their play as they booted the ball back to their opponents time and again.

Whilst one bad call does not a defeat make, Laporte's decision to go with Cedric Heymans, a winger by trade, at full-back looked particularly culpable, as his poor decision-making in an alien position repeatedly placed the pressure back on blue shoulders. The half-back partnership of Mignoni and Skrela was equally indecisive, while missed goal kicks by the starting 10, and then his replacement, Frederic Michalak, were also costly.

That the generally outstanding Felipe Contepomi missed two late shots to seal the result, as well as narrowly failed to take a pass that would have seen him through for a game-winning try, underlined how Argentina richly deserved the outcome, however. In the loose they were ferocious, with Mario Ledesma and Juan Leguizamon particularly conspicuous. Their opportunism enabled them to steal a try from nothing, after a French mistake put Ignacio Corleto through, and they wisely took points from most of their forays into home territory in the first half. The way they shut up shop in the second will not have gone unnoticed by Ireland.

Only once before had the home nation lost the opening game of a rugby World Cup tournament - England in 1991. The Red Rose still managed to grace the final that year, however, and France will be hoping that their cockerel is still crowing come October 20th. On last night's showing, it doesn't look likely.

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