Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Untested but equipped

With 4 matches gone, and 4 matches won, the Lions squad look to have good fitness and a variety of strong options in the attacking line-up. Let's not gloss over the fact that three of the matches so far have done little to prepare the Lions for what will greet them on the 22nd thus far, with the only intense workout being last Saturday, against Quade and the Reds. The Lions marched on through that worryingly tense match, with a well-taken try from Ben Youngs and a dominant forward effort, marshalled by captain Warburton.

The other three matches, well what can you say? The drunk Barbarians, the depleted Force and the Combined Country XV that, in hindsight, weren't very combined. However I would like to mention their very valiant, tenacious effort, especially in defence, to marginalise the Lions score, when at half-time, the chips were really down and it looked as if the score could potentially hit the triple figures. Outstanding performances came from Sean O'Brien, with 20 carries and Stuart Hogg, who slotted into the fly-half shirt like a key in it's designated lock, and the one and only Prince of the Northern Hemisphere, Brian O'Driscoll. Surely O'Driscoll is a shoe-in for the tests, he is so comfortable on the ball, has an eye for a gap, and is just one of those players who gets in the right place at the right time, which is exactly what the Lions will need in the three tests. Remember his glorious score the last time the Lions visited Australia? Woweee!

So we look on to the Waratahs match on Saturday, hopeful of an upping in the intensity, and a higher skill-set and ball retention from the Lions boys. One would assume that Mr. O'Driscoll, North and Halfpenny will play no part in the next two matches, so the final chance will come to the boys who are attempting to make the test team for the first test match of the British and Irish Lions 2013.

On to the tests:
Like every person associated with rugby union at the moment, I will select the team that I would if I was Gatland  on Thursday week.
Fullback- Halfpenny: in imperious goal kicking form and although Hogg played fantastically today, he cannot oust the man who hasn't missed a tackle in almost 2 years.
Right wing- Maitland- defensively solid, gas to burn and a real team player who makes space for others. Of course if Tommy Bowe recovers in time then he will start.
Outside centre- Brian O'Driscoll- absolutely no question about this, although his rival Jonathan Davies has done well, he has not done as well as this man!
Inside centre- Tuilagi- runs harder than Roberts, has better offloading than Roberts and scores more tries than Roberts. Roberts had a good game, undeniably, against a weak Barbarians team, and was absolutely nowhere today, I forgot he was even on the pitch.
Left wing- North. Has broken the most tackles so far and made some unbelievable runs, and his competition is limited compared to him.
Fly-half- Sexton because he's better than Farrell in every department
Scrum-half- Ben Youngs- similar to the Tuilagi argument- Phillips has played well against a weak BaaBaas side, and Youngs played exceptionally against a stronger Reds side. Clarity will be provided when Phillips plays on Saturday. Murray is good, but not in the frame due to his lack of form in comparison.
Loosehead prop- Vunipola- injuries to the other looseheads mean that Mako is in the driving seat and hasn't done anything wrong on this tour so far. Good ball carrier. Weak point is scrummaging, again, this will come under scrutiny on Saturday
Hooker- Youngs- people criticise his throwing but he didn't lose a lineout in the match vs the Reds. The other two haven't impressed me as much. Not only throwing, but he is also a strong ball carrier and big-hitter.
Tighthead prop- Adam Jones- Gatland's game plan will be to put the Wallabies to the sword up front, and Jones is a stronger scrummager, so he'll get the nod over Cole and Stevens.
Left lock- Geoff Parling- although normally a 5, he has been the form lock along with O'Connell, stealing 4 lineouts against the Reds. With a chap like Geoff in the team, the lineout will be sured up and this selection would smooth over a potential crack in the team.
Right lock- O'Connell- plays with his heart in his sleeve and this passion will rub off on other players and help guide the Lions to a series win Down Under. He's also a very, very good player.
Blindside Flanker- Sean O'Brien- big carrier, makes gainline ground which could be key for getting quick ball for the halfbacks to feed off.
Openside- Warburton- Will need a big game on Saturday but Gatland strikes me as a man who won't like being wrong, so even in the great form of his Wales pal Tipuric, Warburton is still favourite I think.
Number 8- Heaslip- shown terrific form and like O'Brien, can be a useful carrier around the park.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Aviva Premiership final preview

The East Midlands derbies have always been fiery affairs, but never have the stakes been so high, and never has the talent of both teams been at the top of it's game when they have played each other. Northampton come into this after an explosive victory over Saracens where forward domination was the name of the game. Leicester marched on after they catalysed the destruction of not-so defending champions Harlequins.

As we know history counts for nothing as tomorrow will be a one-off, all guns blazing affair. In the last 7 meetings between these two sides, Leicester have come up trumps, this stat stretching back to September 2010 when Northampton last beat Leicester 27-19, however, none of these wins (or defeats) will matter come 3pm at Twickenham on Saturday, and i'm sure whoever wins this match, it will be their sweetest win against the other midland rival. Only 2 months ago Leicester absolutely wiped the floor with Northampton so it would be all the more ecstatic if the Saints were to beat Tigers at HQ. That thumping will certainly give Northampton and impetus to put one over Leicester in the big match.

Strengths and weaknessess
Front row: Historically, both sides have a big pack, with perhaps Saints having the edge here as Mulipola for Tigers isn't the strongest scrummager at Loosehead prop. What a big miss Ayerza may prove to be. Northampton have Mujati and Tonga'uiha, two huge Southern hemisphere monsters, up against Lion Dan Cole and as previosuly mentioned, Logo Mulipola. And in between them, Lions teamates Tom Youngs, but there will be no love shared I assure you as each man aims to guide their sides to victory, and to provide dominant lineouts for their teams. This battle will be huge. 
Second row: The set- piece battle will be absolutely vital, and two men at the centre of that, are lineout generals Geoff Parling and Christian Day, and they will be trying to outwit one another and steal and retain the ball for their scrum halves to ship it wide. 
Back row: Each side has their fetcher, their carrier, and their grafter. An absolutely key battle will be Samu Manoa vs whoever is tackling him. Manoa is bigger than big, and hits harder than hard. To stop him, Leicester players tackling technique will need to be up to scratch completely, which i'm sure it will be, and they need to stop him offloading if he does break through the gain line. Leicester pose a little less threat with their number 8 Jordan Crane, but the good thing about Crane is that he always sets Leicester onto the front foot, and is willing to tidy up and secure possession when things go pear shaped. Every metre that he gains could be absolutely vital for the Tigers tomorrow. Leicester will be hoping that Salvi can add another few turnovers to his 28 he's got this season. In the last match between theses sides, Salvi wreaked havoc and was vastly superior to opposite number Tom Wood, so Wood will definitely be seeking revenge today. And the grafters: Tom Croft, who has an unbelievably high work ethic, and Dowson, who is very solid in defence and a leader with lots of experience that Saints will truly need tomorrow. Croft also has outstanding lineout ability that will need to come to the fore tomorrow, and gas, he has serious gas, too.
Half backs: This is where the game will be won and lost. Big match temperament are my three key words. Both kickers have been in good form with the boot, but what could provide the edge, is that Flood has been to Twickenham numerous times, but Myler has never played there. The occasion could get to him, we'll see. Ben Youngs has been in inspired form, and he picked up the try of the season award this season for his wonderful solo effort against Bath. But this match won't be about such a spark like that, it will be more about his game management, which has definitely improved this season, and he must get it right. Dickson is the real forward controller, always shouting at his lumps to march on, and if the pitch is wet tomorrow, he'll need to be at his mouthy best to guide his forwards over the line. 
Centres: Both sides have a lump and a footballer. Manu and Burrell will punch holes in the opposition defence and Allen and Wilson will chuck the ball around and use their brains as opposed to their brawn. There isn't too much to say really, both centres will be key in this match to provide their teams with a platform to take the game.
Back three: Both sides have speedsters and sharp, talented players. Tait, Goneva and Morris will go up against Foden, Elliott and K Pisi. Goneva has a tendency to drop passes more often than most, so as a Leicester fan I hope it isn't wet tomorrow! Elliott has been in wonderful try scoring form and his pace could prove vital if Saints are to go on and win it tomorrow. I fell that Leicester have elected to choose Goneva to try and walk over the small figure of Elliott and the poor defence of Ken Pisi. So if Leicester exploit these flaws with two massive ball carriers of Manu and Goneva, it will definitley cause Northampton problems.
Finally, two England full backs who are both climbing up to past form and former heights and Foden's high ball catching is superior to Tait's and neither are mugs in defence. They are definitely two players that could provide that magic break for their respective teams.
In conclusion: 
Key players: Manoa and Croft- both game changers that could turn the game.
Result: Leicester's experience and will power will guide them to a record 10th English title, and they will win by 8 points.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Rabo Final

Leinster meet Ulster in this All-Irish affair at the RDS in Dublin. I fancy Leinster for this one as they are a strong and experienced team who will be avidly seeking the double after the historic Challenge cup victory over Stade Francais. The Ulster side however will be looking to avenge their Heineken cup final thumping they received from Leinster last year, and the will to do that could serve them well as they bid to win the tournament for the first time since 2006 and young Paddy Jackson will look to emulate the former Ulster fly half David Humphreys as he was playing when Ulster won it last time round. For Leinster, this would be their 4th title in the 12 seasons that the tournament has been running.
It is sure to be an exciting final with both teams going out all guns blazing, with perhaps Ulster being the fresher of the two sides. With the Ireland squad having just been announced for the summer this would be a good time for young faces to shine and make sure that their name is on the back of that green jersey come June. Not only a green jersey will be worn this summer of course, but also the red of the Lions. This is the final domestic chance for Sexton, O'Brien, Heaslip, Kearney, Healy and of course Tommy Bowe. (Doubts about O'Driscoll's injury hence why I haven't included him in that list, but the whole rugby world already knows what he has to offer!)
Here's how the two teams got here:

Heineken Cup

Captain Fantastic Jonny Wilkinson booted his All Stars to Heineken glory yesterday as Toulon overcame an unbeaten Clermont side in the tournament. Tries early in the second half from Napalioni Nalaga and Brock James looked to have sealed the victory for Clermont but a steely Toulon defence and a cocky Delon Armitage breakaway score (and the extras added by Wilko) put Toulon into the lead, a lead which they never then lost. The tackle count rose to 176 from Toulon to 66 made by Clermont which shows you the momentous effort put in by Toulon.
Now we all look forward to next years tournament and I have tiered the competition already:


One team is chosen from each tier to go in a pool. the 2014 tournament looks to be thoroughly competitive with heavy spenders Racing Metro down in the 4th Tier! 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Aviva Premiership final

A wet weekend saw the semi finalists from the Aviva Premiership clash head on with one another in two exciting matches where Lions roared in the face of in-the-not-too-distant-future teammates. Yet they did not think about the summer, but only in gaining the victory. Victory for these teams means walking out for their clubs at HQ. The Lions in these teams will have the best chance of catching Warren Gatland's eye, the last chance for any British or Irish player, to make it on to Gatland's lucky fifteen for the first test. There will be 7 of these players playing in this final.
Now back to last weekend. Leicester were second best in the first half to the defending champions Harlequins, but came up trumps, with an outstanding and powerful second half performance that surely means that they are classed as favourites for the final. Northampton, inspired by Wigan, knocked out the table toppers Saracens, like Wigan, the underdog, bit Man City's complacent head off. Saints' in form pack will definitely make sure that Leicester don't become complacent.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

England tour to Argentina

Now the Lions squad has been announced, English egg-shaped eyes turn to the tour to Argentina this summer, as undoubtedly some new, young players wear the red rose proudly upon their breast for the first time in their careers. Not only will there be new faces, but also there will definitely be some of the old, but young, Six Nations stars and if they're old, what about the possible selections of 27 year old Toby Flood and    34 year old Tom Palmer. And if James Haskell features in all three matches that the boys in white are scheduled to play, then that will bring him up to the grand old total of 50 caps, to join only Flood who has done this in the current crop of players.
With the captain decision inevitably a lot easier for this, the main debate will be to see which young players will make the squad, and when I say young I mean really young, as in < 23 years old. However with this being Argentina, and not, say Japan, who Wales are visiting, then it will be a lot more physical and more skill will be required, naturally. Among the young players available you have the likes of: Christian Wade, who is currently the Aviva Premiership top high scorer; Kyle Eastmond, who is Bath's rugby league convert who posseses all the skill of League players, like offloading and the ability to beat a man one-on-one; Eliott Daly, who has very quick feet and a massive, usually successful, long-range boot, which could come in very handy on this trip; Freddie Burns, the young exciting, speedy Fly-Half who makes a living at Gloucester; Rob Buchanan, who may possibly feature, with the absence of Lions Dylan Hartley and Tom Youngs; and finally the beast-that-is, Billy Vunipola, who's battering ram-esque qualities could be very useful against a physical Argentina pack.
So with that in mind my England squad would be:
Backs: Ben Foden, Mike Brown, Christian Wade, Johnny May, Chris Ashton, David Strettle, Joel Tompkins, Jonathan Joseph, Billy Twelvetrees, Kyle Eastmond, Brad Barritt, Toby Flood, Freddie Burns, Danny Care, Joe Simpson
Forwards: Alex Corbisiero, Joe Marler, Joe Gray, Rob Buchanan, David Wilson, Keiran Brookes, Joe Launchbury, Ed Slater, George Robson, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Calum Clark, Chris Robshaw, Will Fraser, Ben Morgan, Billy Vunipola.

They are likely to come up against a classic Argentinian team, so massive forwards, the likes of Marcos Ayerza, Fernandez Lobbe and Albacete, who will attempt to physically dominate England, which of course with the young English squad isn't entirely out of the question you know, and it will probably be an arm wrestle for 60 minutes, like we saw in the 2011 world cup. Then their backs are always fast, nippy, agile and possess handling and running skill never often seen in Northern Hemisphere rugby, with players like Camacho, Hernandez, Agulla and Bosch. No doubt their off-loading will be sublime and their defence fairly weak. I have international experience against Argentina as an Argentinian school visited ours earlier this year, and they were all rapid and had good side-steps so if they're the junior versions of the international players then they will be good. You'll be pleased to know our team won, 7-0, and yes it was rugby surprisingly and not football!

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

My reaction

Ok so the squad has been announced, now we wait for the lists and lists of journalists posting their XV lists for the first test and I won't do that this time (I may nearer the time) because that annoys me a lot! In other news, the squad is up, and my initial thoughts were of shock, then happiness, then shock again.

My first worry, which was an unofficial worry but has now come to the fore. Why oh why has Sam Warburton been elected as captain: zero Lions caps and he even turned down the Wales captaincy for the England match. Personally I would have gone with O'Connell and I think that Warburton's experience could show in a negative manner but we'll see, you never know Gatland could've hit an absolute winner here.

My initial shock was at the inclusion of Fatt Stevens, sorry I mean Matt. I mean no offence to the guy but why? A strong scrummager i admit, but i feel somebody like Euan Murray or Mike Ross may have been more deserving of their place on the tour as they have more recently played international rugby.

Another shock was the lack of Scotland players! I thought people like Ryan Grant, Kelly Brown, Tim Visser were shoe-ins as well as Hogg and Gray obviously, but apparently not. Anyway the coaching staff probably (highly doubtfully) know better than me. I was shocked at first when Maitland was added but I've realised that he can tackle, unlike most other Northern Hemisphere wingers (Ashton, Visser) so I completely understand.

Also, I was frankly astonished that Tom Wood hadn't had a flight booked for him, out of all the England players I thought he was a given but yet again, I was wrong. I'm not overly surprised (or disappointed) at the lack of Robshaw as yes, he tackles very well, but Lydiate is even more vicious in tackles and Sean o'Brien carries more than him and further. However perhaps the most surprising decision of all is the exclusion of Heineken cup runner up, Ulster captain Rory Best. But so is everyone surprised at that so we won't go into that.

Finally, the Leicester crew are well represented and we have the joint highest club amount of players with the mighty Leinster, and they're a region!