Warren Gatland heads up Lions Tour 2017

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In perhaps the most poorly kept secret in rugby history, Warren Gatland has officially been unveiled as the Head Coach of the 2017 British and Irish Lions Tour to New Zealand. Everyone had predicted it. Gatland had also been spotted in Edinburgh and was also snapped posing for photographs in the Lions polo shirt. So there was to be no shocking surprise and Gats is the man.

Now Warren Gatland is of course an outstanding candidate for the role. In 2009 he toured South Africa as part of the coaching staff under the leadership of Lions legend Sir Ian McGeechan. Although that Test series ended in defeat, it did manage to reignite the brand. Four years previously the disastrous New Zealand tour had brought into question the team’s place in the modern game. Victory under Gatland against Australia in 2013, the team’s first victory in a Test series since 1997, made the challenge credible and not just a futile financial undertaking.

imageHowever the challenge of defeating the All Blacks is an intimidating one. The Lions have only ever won a test against New Zealand once way back in 1971. They are consistently the best team in world rugby, reigning back-to-back world champions and with a phenomenal won/lost record. On top of that the Lions have a daunting series of matches against New Zealand’s five super rugby teams, plus the Maori’s and a provincial XV.

Warren Gatland’s recent record as Head Coach of Wales is a concern. Whilst other teams have developed Wales have stagnated, failing to win the Six Nations since 2013. This past summer Gatland was left embarrassed as his hometown team the Waikato Chiefs beat his Wales squad. It will be fascinating to find out who will be selected to join the coaching lineup.

There can be no doubt however that even in the early stages of the rugby season the Lions looms large on the horizon. I’m just hoping that at the end of a long season we still have enough players left to take on the All Blacks.

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The Wallabies in meltdown

Australian rugby union is in a bit of a crisis. The Wallabies have lost the last six in a row. Three against England and three against the All Blacks. As a neutral observer I am simply astounded by the way in which they have constructed a defensive formation in an attempt to hide their frailties. The selection of Quade Cooper caused a few raised eyebrows this week but given the poor showing in Sydney there wasn’t really much more to lose. However, this selection of a mercurial talent with ball in hand is also one of a defensive liability. For a number of years the Wallabies have attempted to hide Cooper from the firing line and that strategy continued yesterday. Unfortunately this means that their defensive system from first phase is a mishmash of players out of position with no leadership and limited structure.

Let’s start with New Zealand’s first try. Bernard Foley, the inside centre is defending blindside wing with scrum half Will Genia. Back rowers Hooper and Pocock are out defending in the 10 channel. Outside them left winger Adam Ashley-Cooper is with Kerevi the outside centre and right winger Haylett-Petty is at an outside centre position. Israel Folau is then on the wing with Quade Cooper covering fullback.

Even if this is all intended they are then undone by individuals flying up and missing tackles. Hooper puts pressure on Barrett successfully but in the very next phase Stephen Moore flies out of the line and takes the wrong man giving tighthead prop Franks a gap to run into. The try is then finished off with simple hands and a massive overlap.

The All Blacks’ second try is fairly similar, scoring from another maul formed at the lineout. Adam Ashley-Cooper (14) has had to go off so new cap Hodge (23) was now left defending at outside half with Kerevi (13) and Haylett-Petty (11) outside with Folau again on the wing. Unfortunately these players get sucked in because Beauden Barrett was not first receiver and looped around.

Although as Michael Lynagh identified in the UK coverage there was a suspicion of a trip to Kerevi, who ended up on the turf, the green and gold jerseys were just flapping at All Black shirts. This was summed up perfectly by a covering Quade Cooper’s traditional turnstile-tackling technique.

The third try is really obvious. With Quade Cooper having dropped back defending the blindside wing, Aaron Smith targets him with a box kick. Dagg easily beats him to the ball and New Zealand have possession, field position and momentum. Beauden Barrett’s exquisite pass to put Ben Smith outside the defending Haylett-Petty to create the overlap however was the icing on the cake.

New Zealand’s fourth try was again from first phase possession that exposed the Australian defensive arrangement. Once again Hodge, Kerevi, Haylett-Petty and Folau provide the defensive line with back rowers Hooper and Pocock providing further cover closer to the maul. Things are not helped with a missed tackle on Ben Smith which makes the try an inevitability. Even when Smith is brought down there is no other last ditch tackling with Quade Cooper again clutching at thin air and failing to prevent Aaron Smith getting the ball away, leaving Folau with an impossible job of keeping out Sam Cane.

These defensive frailties result in Pocock and Hooper’s skills of competing at the breakdown to be negated as they spend more of their time making tackles for others in the team. Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley had such little possession to work with given the Australian lineout was again being picked off that it made their presence on the field more problematic than beneficial. For instance, Cooper is thought to have made just 2m for his four carries. Surely Cheika’s gamble on selecting him backfired big time.

REVIEW: Rio 2016

imageAs the 31st Olympic Games drew to a close in Rio de Janeiro it is time to reflect on the latest instalment of the so-called ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. Prior to the event the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the IAAF faced their biggest crisis in recent memory. The host country itself had safety concerns with the spread of the Zika virus and faced questions regarding financing and the water quality in Guanabara Bay. Yet despite all these issues the competitive action has spoken for itself, providing gripping tension, explosive excitement and unforgettable moments.

imageWith the Games fast approaching an investigation found state sponsored doping in Russia bringing into doubt their participation. Despite the findings, the IOC refused to grab the opportunity and impose a blanket ban on all Russian athletes, a mistake the IPC did not make. Instead individual sport’s governing bodies would make the decision regarding Russian participants. As a result Russia acquired a total of 56 medals, placing them fourth in the medal table. It is impossible not to ponder the legitimacy of these medals. Russian athletes are having samples retested and are being stripped of medals from Beijing 2008 and recently shot putter Evgeniia Kolodko lost her London 2012 silver medal. Those elevated to receive medals long after the event have been robbed of their moment to stand on the podium and see their national flag raised for them. Drug cheats ruin it for everyone. Justin Gatlin’s failure to reach the 200m final felt like justice but he leaves Rio having taken silver in the 100m. He has been banned not once but twice for doping offences but is still allowed to compete. If the Lance Armstrong saga proved anything it is that dopers are often ahead of the testers. The presence of Gatlin and Russian athletes jeopardises the sport and unfortunately with the golden poster boy from Jamaica appearing for the final time this process of spectator apathy could be accelerated.

imageUsain Bolt is now unquestionably a legend. The triple treble of gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay is a feat which is incredibly unlikely to be bettered. He is not just a phenomenal athlete but the humblest of men. Bolt is a showman. Box office. A man that transcends athletics. His record at the Olympics is unheard of but all achieved without anything other than natural ability, most notably his stride length. It is no coincidence that when he was competing the stadiums were at their fullest. Unfortunately not all events were as well populated by spectators.

 

Athletics - Women's 10,000m Final
REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

One of the most disappointing aspects of Rio 2016 were the numbers of empty seats at events. The reality of hosting the Games in a country gripped by rampant poverty, plus the enormous geographical difficulties resulted in the poor ticket sales. In contrast, London 2012 saw millions of tickets for every event fail to match demand. Brazil had also hosted the FIFA World Cup only two years earlier and with the threat of the Zika virus deterring potential visitors further, some of the biggest successes were played out against a background of empty seats.

imageOne of the most exciting events in the early stages of the Olympics was the Rugby 7s tournament. Rugby Union had not been included in the Olympic Games since 1924 and in that 92 year gap the seven aside game had become the perfect competition to complete inside three days. The combination of 14 minute matches, incredibly fast athletes and stunning tries made for two riveting tournament for the medals. Few are likely to forget the tension of Team GB’s epic quarter final battle with Argentina, Japan defeating New Zealand, the Australian women overcoming their trans-Tasman rivals or Fiji’s offloading masterclass to seal their own historic gold medal triumph. Team GB’s women fell short in the final stages, failing to claim a bronze medal but the Men’s team, brought together over the summer, did take away a spectacular silver. This would prove to be just one of a record haul of medals for Team GB.

imageAfter the incredible achievements of Team GB at London 2012 few imagined that it could be matched, especially without the backing of home support. But yet Team GB managed to not only match but then to exceed all expectations. Their 67 medals edged the 65 achieved in 2012. 27 golds also placed GB second in the medal table, delivering a bloody nose to traditional powerhouse China. In a number of interviews athletes praised the contribution that funding from the National Lottery has made. In the brutal reality of medals equal funding, performances like this prove that the strategy works. It was only 20 years ago that Team GB left Atlanta with only a solitary gold medal. The transformation is astonishing. Not only have the athletes themselves savoured their moment of glory but thousands of miles away so did the British public.

imageDespite the time difference millions watched on as incredible moments became etched in history as Mo Farrah, Jade Jones, Andy Murray and Nicola Adams retained their titles. Those were just a few of our stars but contributions came from a wide variety of sports. Team GB picked up medals in the Velodrome, on the athletics track, on water, in the water, in the boxing ring and at the Gymnastics. That isn’t even a comprehensive list. The gripping elation of the penalty shootout victory for the women’s hockey team no doubt provided the highlight to many people’s Friday night. For me the most emotional gold medal victories came for Charlotte Dujardin and her legendary horse Vallegro, in his last competition, and Nick Skelton. At his seventh Olympic Games the 58 year old won individual showjumping gold after a tense six-way jump off. Stood on the podium the emotion took hold and the man who once retired after breaking his neck finally had his well-deserved moment.

imageWhilst for many in Great Britain London 2012 will forever be the greatest Olympic games ever, without doubt Rio 2016 has been the greatest for our athletes. Team GB exceeded expectations and proved that our small island is still a country to be reckoned with in sporting competition. In Tokyo in 2020, anything could be possible…

Where next for Wales?

imageLast week I questioned the suitability of continuing with the same coaching team who have been at the helm of the Welsh rugby team for the past 8 years. Unfortunately my words were not heeded as attack coach Rob Howley and forwards coach Robin McBryde were rewarded with new contracts which will take them to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The talk this week was that Wales had taken steps forward on this tour, embracing a new attacking style, burying ‘Warrenball’ and starting to play in the wider channels. Yet in the third Test they returned to type, exposing their fragility and poor skills.

When presented with an opportunity at the end of the first half Wales could not cross the try line. When New Zealand were reduced to 14 men it didn’t cost them any points at all. As a result, all the team in red could manage was two penalty kicks. The waste of this talented backline is now verging on the criminal but yet they retreated back to a kick-based offence and not the more expansive style which had served them better in the first two tests.

imageHaving reduced their incessantly futile kicking game in recent matches it came back with a vengeance today. The box kick and up-and-under strategy for contestable kicks to gain territory, plus the potential to regain possession and build momentum had been reduced in favour of attacking wider channels with ball in hand. Kicks that remain on the field have been a hallmark of Wales’ game in recent years as they backed their defensive chase but against New Zealand it is suicidal. Israel Dagg and Ben Smith cut Wales to bits at times as the defensive system failed yet again.

Wales players falling off one-on-one tackles has almost become the norm with perpetual turnstiles such as Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe suffering from being isolated at fullback instead of their preferred Outside Half position where they receive backrow support. It was in these moments that Wales missed the reliability of Leigh Halfpenny but even his full blown tackle attempts often result in him injuring himself through poor technique and head positioning. Once again the intended defensive system of blitz and drift falls apart with a simple inside step or hard running at gaps and support play.

imageThe facts don’t lie. Wales have conceded a staggering 27 tries in only five matches. Yes three of those games have been against the electrically skilful All Blacks but at what point do we admit that it is not working. I’m sure some will churn out the “it’s been a long season” cliché. By comparison Maro Itoje has redefined athletic second row play and performed consistently well all season with regular man of the match efforts. He has started 20 matches for Saracens this season (coming off the subs bench an additional 3 times) and in the high intensity competitions of the English Premiership and the Champions Cup but only losing 1 match which he was a substitute for anyway. His international appearances include 8 test matches (7 starts) for England with a phenomenal record of no defeats. That is a total of 31 match appearances. Sam Warburton, so often praised for his athleticism, only made 8 appearances for Cardiff Blues, plus 14 in a Wales jersey, totalling 22 versus Itoje’s 31 matches. Yes it has been a long season for the Wales players but if they spend so much time in the gym and rate themselves as athletes then clichés of long seasons have no weight whatsoever and are thoroughly disproved when compared to the efforts of other players.

Other Northern Hemisphere teams have not bemoaned the long season with Ireland performing well against South Africa and England winning a Test series in Australia for the first time and 3-0 at that. Both nations have relatively fresh coaching teams too and seem to be moving in the right direction. Wales however have not just stagnated as the rest of world rugby moves forward but seem to be sliding backwards on the evidence of today’s 40 point drubbing.

Time for change in Welsh Rugby

imageAnother brave effort from Wales but ultimately in vain as the double world champions accelerated away and the Test series was lost. With the scores level at 55 minutes the All Blacks posted 26 unanswered points in the next dozen minutes to blow Wales out of the water before a late flourish gave the scoreline more respectability. Notably Beauden Barrett came onto the field earlier than anticipated and attacked the Welsh defensive line which was fatiguing, losing it’s shape and with limited line speed. Wales’ play had been largely positive, attacking wider channels and stretching New Zealand’s defensive line which resulted in a good try for Alun Wyn Jones. Opportunities however became limited as once again lineout accuracy dwindled, particularly when in promising positions on the field.
Parts of the media and TV coverage labelled this mornings match as Groundhog Day because we have seen it all before. The same statements have been a constant throughout the Warren Gatland era, “competitive for (insert number) minutes”, “in need of a reliable lineout”. If Wales are going to develop further then coaching changes have to be made and it needs to be now. The management team has been unchanged for 8 years now and has grown stale with the Wales team stagnating whilst England and Ireland with new voices at the helm have progressed.

Defence – Shaun Edwardsimage

Once again Wales’ defence conceded five tries in a match, granted against some very talented players but that takes the total to 21 tries in only four matches this summer. The intimidating Shaun Edwards can no longer dine out on the fact that eight years ago Wales only leaked two tries in five Six Nations matches. Whatever the defensive system is, it simply isn’t working. On numerous occasions during the Chiefs debacle earlier this week players were easily stepped inside as they drifted too far and the inside defenders were absent. Attempts at an aggressive, pressurising blitz defence is proving impossible for players to maintain, particularly against a team as consistently intense as the All Blacks as fitness too comes into question.

Forwards – Robin McBryde

For as long as I can remember the lineout has been an Achilles heel for Wales at international level. Without the ball, teams simply cannot attack the opposition. All too frequently Wales get attacking lineouts in the opponents 22 but cannot be clinical. This inability to retain possession cost Wales dear with tries coming from lost lineouts this morning and against the Chiefs on Tuesday. Luke Charteris with his height is a perfect target but to only throw to him would be easily predicted. The coach responsible for this area has to bare the brunt of criticism because his players are simply failing to execute, especially when it matters.

imageBacks/Attack – Rob Howley

Wales’ attacking game has shown signs of developing during this summer campaign, with the shackles finally taken off and talented players reacting to what is in front of them. Rob Evans’ early try against England was a positive indication that the hard running around the corner style can be effective but it didn’t last. Taking on the All Blacks, Wales attacked wider channels and refreshingly ran at holes instead of at players in the bludgeoning ‘Warrenball’ style. Liam Williams has stood out in the first two tests because of his ability to cut through a defensive line by doing exactly that; running at the gaps, not at the men. Gwyn Jones referenced the dogged use of the phrase “earning the right to go wide” which, as New Zealand proved, is a nonsense. They attack you from anywhere and everywhere, from first phase and from repeated phase play. Howley also still has yet to be held accountable for Wales’ failure to score tries in the World Cup against 13 Australians when it really mattered, which highlights another major skill issue, the inability to convert overlap chances. When Wales do make breaks and have numbers out wide their skills are so poor that all too frequently a miss-pass is thrown, undoing all the good work inside and the opportunity is lost.

Warren Gatland

The man ultimately responsible for all three areas of concern outlined above is the Head Honcho, Warren Gatland. For all the positives that the New Zealander has delivered, Wales have not won the Six Nations championship since 2013 and have an embarrassing record against the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks. The decision not to select another specialist openside flanker in the squad embarrassed Gatland when makeshift 7 Dan Lydiate got injured and Elis Jenkins having to be parachuted in but captain Sam Warburton still had to start against the Chiefs despite only recently returning from a shoulder injury of his own. The fitness of the squad which once proclaimed the benefits of cryogenic training regimes looked inadequate against New Zealand as the All Blacks ran in tries during the closing stages of the First Test. However his tired excuses bemoaning the intensity of the Pro 12 were ridiculed by Ireland as they secured a famous win in South Africa, something Gatland’s Wales also failed to achieve.

The humiliating defeat against the Chiefs earlier this week brought doubts on Warren Gatland’s suitability to take control of another Lions Tour but questions surely have to be asked about his role continuing with Wales until the 2019 Rugby World Cup let alone with the Lions.

Leicester City – Premier League Champions

imageLeicester City are Premier League Champions. As Rafa Benitez would say, “Fact”.

Let us be clear about this. Such a feat should be theoretically impossible. But in sport nothing is impossible.

Since the advent of the Premier League, the division has become the richest in world football, earning staggering revenue from television rights alone, watched in practically every country on the planet. Within that structure there are giants. Manchester United, who under the direction of Sir Alex Ferguson dominated the competition. Liverpool, five time European Cup/Champions League winners. Arsenal, the only team ever to go through a whole Premier League campaign undefeated. In recent years huge financial investment has also brought trophies to Chelsea and Manchester City. All five of these teams are global brands, raking in millions and millions from sponsorship deals, merchandise and ticket sales. This allows them to recruit some of the best players in the world, genuine world class talents that warrant extraordinary sums of money and weekly wages. Against this backdrop a team with the more modest resources of a Leicester City shouldn’t be able to compete, let alone defeat these monsters.

image.jpegHowever, that is the beauty of sport. Football still remains human being against human being and Leicester City have proved that consistency of performance achieves results. This is no cup run, fortuitous draws culminating in a succession of one off performances. The beauty of a league table is that it cannot lie. The team who picks up the most points, playing exactly the same teams as everybody else, finishes top. Of their 37 matches, they have won 23, drawn 11 and only lost 3, the best results of any team in the division and that is why they are champions with a game to spare. How they have achieved that is for pundits to discuss but the fact is that nobody can deny this achievement is probably the greatest sporting triumph ever.

There are always shocks in sport, unexpected results that few would’ve predicted. Japan beating two time Rugby World Cup winners South Africa, Greece winning Euro 2004, the list of underdogs defying the odds is endless. Whilst Nottingham Forest’s European triumphs were equally unlikely, football’s evolution has certainly made it an unequal playing field but yet this title win defies that. Given the context of how money has changed football in England in the past decade, Leicester’s victory is without doubt the most remarkable. To win a competition which started back in August 2015 and concludes nine months later, requires more than sheer luck or good fortune. Leicester City have therefore managed to offer hope to every team and every player that the impossible can and sometimes does indeed happen!

WRU Judgement Day : a flawed premise

imageToday, Saturday 30th April, the Principality Stadium in Cardiff once again hosts the fourth annual Judgement Day event with all four Welsh regions coming together for a doubleheader of rugby action. With nearly 70,000 tickets sold it is likely to be hailed as a big success. However, if regional rugby is going to grow and capture the imagination of the Welsh people this event is not the way to achieve it.

In theory 70,000 fans equally divided between the four regions would equate to a fan base of 17,500 people. Getting that number to regularly turn out at the Liberty stadium or Arms Park is a completely unrealistic expectation. This is because the ‘fair weather’ supporters happy to attend the festivities of a Saturday in Cardiff have little interest in following the rugby on a regular basis. If they did attendances at regional grounds would be regular sell outs. Crucial to growing attendances and building local support of regional rugby is to appeal to those most passionate about Welsh rugby, those who support their local club. However, the scheduling of Judgement Day forces those supporters to make a choice to determine which team their priorities lie with. Perhaps typical of the WRU, the regional game is elevated as the most important in the country, belittling all beneath it. With a message like that from the governing body it is no wonder grass roots rugby is struggling to attract players and supporters.

The Ospreys and Cardiff Blues match kicked off at 2.30pm, clashing with grass roots fixtures all across the country. Whilst Sam Warburton ran out for the Blues his local club Rhiwbina had fixtures for all three of their senior teams. In Ospreylia Glynneath were lining up a fixture with Bridgend Athletic, whilst remaining in the Championship Bargoed had a huge clash with historic club Pontypool. At youth level both Merthyr and Pontypridd had matches scheduled so any potential appeals to entice those young players to back the Blues with a Judgement Day showcase was wasted. This just goes to demonstrate that those with a consistent record of supporting Welsh rugby; players, officials, supporters and referees who all sacrifice their spare time for a love of the game, are being robbed of a chance to support the professional games biggest day.

Although there were a number of grassroots fixtures across the country on Saturday, Judgement Day was scheduled for a free weekend, learning from previous years when more clashes prevented fans from attending. These games were largely rearrangements given the poor winter weather and is evidence perhaps that this appropriate scheduling may have contributed to the attendance increase of over 15,000 people from 2015.

Whilst an argument can be made that Judgement Day has the potential to grow the rugby going audience the scheduling of the event must not rob Welsh rugbys most fervent supporters of the opportunity to see their region at the National stadium. Sadly the likelihood is that those attending Judgement Day will have their enthusiasm muted by overly crowded trains, undoing the good work that our best rugby players deliver on the pitch anyway. As a result the regions will continue to fail to attract significant fans to their stadiums for home matches, which their Irish rivals achieve on a weekly basis, and clubs at the grassroots level will also struggle to attract players and supporters. Instead of causing conflict and a divide between the professional and amateur games, the two have to unite for both to stand a chance of survival and prosperity.