Wales 16 – England 21

img_0374

Despite all the hyperbole in the build-up, the contest surpassed expectations. It was physical but had no incidents of the predicted yellow and red card avalanche foreseen before the tournament. Even more unexpectedly both teams actually threw the ball around and tried to score tries. It made for a classic encounter for two legendary foes.

img_0376There was so much to enjoy and discuss. Wales produced one of their best performances in the Six Nations for years and it was heartbreaking for them to lose it at the death. The effort from the forward pack was immense, matching and getting the edge on their English counterparts. Ross Moriarty stood out with some bone crushing hits, including a shot on Owen Farrell that was a bit late. Credit to the Englishman he didn’t make a fuss. Got his breath back and carried on with the game. Jake Ball, with a face full of stitches, carried hard. Ken Owens hit all his lineouts. The scrum was solid and unlucky on a few referee calls. Alun Wyn Jones, Warburton and Tipuric gave everything as usual with some particularly crucial turnovers. For England Dylan Hartley was entirely anonymous, his most recent ban costing him crucial match fitness. Launchbury and Lawes carried and tackled themselves into the ground whilst Clifford and Itoje engaged in a fascinating battle with the more experienced Welsh flankers. But yet for all the Welsh effort up front it was, as is often the case, the backs which proved the difference.

img_0375Whilst the Welsh backline crafted a stunning try from first phase for Liam Williams they failed to take the opportunity of strong territorial positions. England however were clinical. George Ford had been highlighted as a defensive weakness, his lack of stature made for easy yardage gains. However his ability to time a pass and put a player in a hole more than made up for those inadequacies. The game will of course will be remembered for the final moments as Elliot Daly scored to seal the win. Wales had defended heroically on their line twice during the second half. It was what they did after that which proved their undoing. Firstly, Dan Biggar’s interception and dash up field was undone with the freshly introduced Scott Baldwin botching the subsequent lineout throw. Similarly Jonathan Davies failed to find the touchline from a relieving kick at a time when Wales needed to regroup and reorganise at a set piece. This then exposed the unfortunate Alex Cuthbert.

img_0377Running alongside the debate over whether the stadium roof would be open or not was the saga concerning George North. Having suffered a dead leg in Rome, but still having the ability to run in a try from distance, North looked unlikely to make the England game. Whilst the Welsh coaching team were perfectly within their rights to name him in the team and pull him out an hour before kickoff it stank of the childish shenanigans which England coach Eddie Jones had predicted. Equally predictable was that Alex Cuthbert, North’s designated replacement, was going to have his head in his hands at some point against England. Unfortunately for Wales it occurred at the very end as his inability to get Daly into touch cost Wales a victory they deserved given their efforts.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Alex Cuthbert. He tries hard and when he makes an error he looks close to tears. For instance when he lost the ball in contact, coughing up possession at an important time. Unfortunately he lacks basic rugby nouse but with the ball he runs hard, fast and straight which during 2013 proved enough. But how often since then have we seen tries conceded in that corner of the pitch when he is on the field? They have been in crucial moments such as against South Africa in the Rugby World Cup, flapping high with his hands rather than dipping his shoulder in. Yesterday he got caught in field giving Daly the outside space to accelerate into and once again flapped high instead of going in forcefully and taking the Englishman’s feet into touch. The reality is that he should never have been put in that position, not just because Jon Davies should’ve put the ball out but because of staggering ineptitude from the Welsh management.

img_0378Cuthbert has been let down by his bosses. Short on confidence and desperate to just do something right he shouldn’t be continually thrust into the glare of international rugby where criticism and sadly abuse are sure to follow. He should be spared this by those responsible for picking the team. Despite what people say Wales were not short of other options. Stef Evans might’ve been a long shot to start such a big game but Sam Davies, Gareth Anscombe or Matthew Morgan, who scored a superb counterattacking try against Bristol recently, could’ve covered fullback and allowed Leigh Halfpenny to cover on the wing. However this lack of thought is highly indicative of a management team who seem to make substitutions based on the time on the match clock alone.

img_0379

With Ross Moriarty and Ken Owens flying it was of the astonishment of most that they were withdrawn from the action. Whilst you can understand a desire to get consistently strong performer Talupe Faletau on the field it seemed an odd call to take Moriarty off when he was standing out as a man of the match contender. Similarly Gareth Davies coming on for the controlling influence of Rhys Webb smacked of a decision which ignored events on the field. Scott Baldwin’s immediate impact was to deliver an abysmal lineout throw which had it hit the right target could’ve helped Wales seal the game. Jamie Roberts came on for Scott Williams and was understandably not immediately up to the pace of the game which caused a defensive error. The mind boggles why Cory Hill came on for Tipuric with moments to go particularly given Warburton was apparently carrying an injury. Given the seemingly equally matched players on the field it was perhaps those in the stands that proved the difference. All of England’s replacements made a positive impact and improved their teams performance. Wales’ changes cost the team momentum and ultimately the match.

Also kick off times: why did the match kick off at the 16.50? What’s wrong with 5pm? Similarly why did Italy v Ireland have a start time of 14.25? Dictated by television coverage no doubt.

Images courtesy of @SixNationsRugby on Twitter

Advertisements

The Sam Burgess Saga

SAM_BURGESS

Sam Burgess leaves Bath Rugby with immediate effect and returns to rugby league club South Sydney Rabbitohs, departing with two years left on a lucrative contract. In total he played 21 games for Bath and made 5 appearances for England, including the Rugby World Cup 2015.

His skillset was and still is beyond doubt. However, the complexities of rugby union take a while to get used to. Many international players have been learning the game since a young age but it is not impossible to cross the codes, for example Sonny Bill Williams, Brad Thorn, Israel Folau and Jason Robinson. However, there are equally historic warnings. Henry Paul, Lesley Vainikolo and even England defence coach Andy Farrell didn’t make it when given the red rose jersey. Most startling of all is the story of Iestyn Harris. The fanfare over his arrival was heightened when he scored a hat-trick of tries and a total of 31 points in Heineken Cup win against Glasgow. He started at the pivotal number 10 position for Wales against Argentina and had an unsurprising difficult match with the Pumas getting the win thanks to the experienced Felipe Contemponi. Iestyn was a player rushed into international honours and history has been repeated with Sam Burgess.

Wales-Kit-2003As a result the finger of blame for this debacle has to be pointed at the RFU power brokers and England officials who made the move happen and the muddled way in which he was handled once he was here. Stuart Lancaster clearly saw him as an inside centre but Mike Ford as Bath head coach who worked with him on a daily basis positioned him at blindside flanker, where he played for the first 5 months of 2015. Either way he needed more time in one position and it was unfair that he was vilified for his predictable naivety against Wales in the World Cup by the media and ex-player commentators. As a confident sportsman, a leader and a physical presence he would not have doubted his abilities to do the job but his selection was a decision made by supposedly more knowledgeable coaches who clearly got it wrong. It is an embarrassing scenario and the only way in which to appease the people is for Lancaster and his team to go.

LancasterImagine being Luther Burrell, Kyle Eastmond or Billy Twelvetrees. They have been spat in the face, publicly ridiculed and painted as not good enough to play 12 for England so instead they needed to bring in a rugby league player for 12 months. Those players and every other English rugby union player, who has dedicated their lives to excel in their sport, has been insulted and prevented from appearing at a World Cup tournament in their own country. The only way to regain the trust and morale of players is for the coaching team to go.

Sam Burgess will now be tarnished as the rugby league player who couldn’t make it in union and quit when the going got tough. However, he can hold his head up high because he did everything asked of him and was let down by the people who should have known better.

England exit from Rugby World Cup 2015

Eng Aus

England Rugby were under no illusions yesterday. Failure was not an option. However, England have become the first hosts in Rugby World Cup history to fail to advance from the pool stages to the quarter-finals.

I have some sympathy with England, even though I was firmly supporting Australia. One of 3 quarter finalists from 2011 were not going to reach that same stage in this tournament because of the draw. Devastatingly for England fans, it is them that has missed the cut and so the postmortem has begun, despite them needing to play Uruguay next week in a match now made effectively meaningless.

Problems began even before the tournament for England. Manu Tuilagi, who had cemented his place as one of the starting centres, admitted to assaulting two female police officers after an altercation with a taxi driver in Leicester city centre and was appropriately removed from contention for the England squad. Next Dylan Hartley received yet another ban, this time for a headbutt, which ruled him out of the opening Fiji game and so he too was removed from the squad.

Despite these setbacks England were feeling positive having beaten Ireland and France in the warm ups and after overcoming understandable nerves a bonus point victory was sealed against Fiji.

The next game was crucial and there was huge debate about the backline selection. Rugby league recruit Sam Burgess was drafted in as a defensive force in the midfield to counter the physicality of Welsh pair Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams and performed reasonably well but made errors stemming from his limited experience of rugby union and particularly in the centre. England had control of the game but Wales produced the magic which England could scarcely dream of to create a try out of nothing and sealed a famous win against incredible odds.

Selection for the Australia game was equally debatable. Burgess was dropped, Brad Barritt moved back across to his more familiar inside centre birth, and Jonathan Joseph came back in having been injured the previous week. The outside half debate continued with Owen Farrell keeping the 10 jersey following a solid performance against Wales. Up front, Australia were bound to pick the phenomenally good Hooper and Pocock combination and England didn’t react to that. As a result Australia dominated the breakdown, Pocock with 3 notable turnovers. More surprisingly the England scrum was taken apart by Australia, highlighting the huge void left by the absences of Dylan Hartley and players such as Alex Corbisiero who has been plagued by injuries.

At half-time England were already 17-3 down having been cut open by Australia’s incisive running but had little response during the first 40. An inury to Jonny May called for desperate measures as George Ford was brought on to add some more creativity and positivity. A try from Anthony Watson was the result of the only meaningful moment of forward running and momentum but the Wallabies still had total control.

Chris Robshaw came in for substantial criticism last week for turning down the opportunity of three points to draw the game and this was his moment to stand up and lead the team. Instead he looked like a lone soldier trying to hold back a green and gold tidal wave. Much was made of his omission from the 2013 Lions squad but perhaps this performance proved that he was not equipped for the Australian back row battle and it was indeed the correct decision to make. Ultimately that is what happened, through no lack of effort but simple ability England were beaten two weeks in a row by better performances, more effective game management and higher skill levels.

This is where Stuart Lancaster comes into the debate. I have no doubts that his team were well prepared but when it came to vital elements such as team selection, which largely dictates strategy, things appeared muddled, with no definitive outside half or centre pairing to manage the game. The Foley/Giteay axis for Australia was composed and controlled the game perfectly. On the opposite side, Farrell received a yellow card, Burgess could equally have gone in the same moment, and that sealed the result. A well finished try from Giteau gave the scoreline a slant more reflective of the game and England were officially out.

It was disappointing to see fans leaving before the final whistle, the same supporters who had built up the players to ‘giants’ with few results or Six Nations trophies to support that, as popularised in a mobile phone provider advert, will now be knocking them back down. Perhaps like the national football team they are victims of their Premiership competition and the foreign imports in those squads.

In 2007 Gareth Jenkins failed to get Wales out of the pool stages and lost his job the following day. Hopefully, a time of reflection and review will occur before a decision is made on the coaching teams future. There is still that game against Uruguay to come after all.

Wales v Australia

Next week Wales and Australia will battle for who finishes top of Pool A. The positive for both teams is that they will fancy beating whoever they face in the quarter finals, be that South Africa, Scotland or even Japan given the way Pool B has developed. Wales would love to get a victory over the Wallabies and exorcise some recent agonising loses but would be confident facing a Springbok team short of their usual aura.

England 25 – Wales 28

image

The score line is only a fraction of the story.

Wales had been written off by many people after Jonathan Davies, Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny, all key men in Gatland’s team, were ruled out through injury for the whole tournament. This was because they had been drawn in the ‘pool of death’ alongside Rugby Championship winners Australia and the hosts England who have luxury of playing all the big games at their Twickenham home.

Last night’s game was the biggest clash between England and Wales ever witnessed because the reality is that one of the teams may not progress into the quarterfinals and the loser will almost certainly have to beat Australia and cross their fingers. As a result the hype and press coverage was on a scale very rarely enjoyed by rugby union, the team selections were debate excessively and the centre clash between Sam Burgess and Jamie Roberts was promoted as a physical contest which could shake the foundations of buildings in the surrounding areas of London. It was even a Royal occasion as William (with Kate) and Harry did battle in the stands over brotherly bragging rights.

The game produced was a classic. Two evenly matched sides, countering the others offence with brutal defence and the scoreboard being kept ticking over by metronomic goal kicking.

Mike Brown made himself look a right plum by getting involved with a confrontation, which was nothing to do with him in the first place, before being put in his place by British and Irish Lions captain of 2013 Sam Warburton.

Wales once again had problems with the lineout and fell foul of refereeing interpretations at the scrum. A well finished try from England became the only difference between the sides as Wales stayed in touch on the scoreboard.

Then Wales’ injury curse struck again. Scott Williams was stretchered off the field with a knee injury after being a threat in attack and solid in defence. Liam Williams took a nasty blow to the head and will now need to undergo all the concussion assessment protocols. Incredibly Hallam Amos also managed to pop out his shoulder attempting a hand off on Owen Farrell after the whistle had stopped play. So as a result Wales had a winger playing outside centre, a scrum half on the wing, an outside half deputising at fullback and the apocalyptically useless Cuthbert on the other wing.

Despite these handicaps Wales produced a miraculous try with Lloyd Williams racing up the touchline and putting a delicate cross field kick inside for Gareth Davies to cement himself in the history books.

That was only to draw level. The win came from a perfect penalty kick scored by Dan Biggar from as near as makes no odds the halfway line. But to seal it Wales still had to defend that lead for their lives.

England captain Chris Robshaw turned down the opportunity to tie the game under some illusion they could repeat the bravery of Japan against the Springboks. That was never likely to happen as the colossal Luke Charteris and colleagues dumped England’s driving maul over the touchline.

Wales ran the clock down and who else but man of the match Dan Biggar booted the ball into the stands for the final whistle to cue delirium and ecstasy from Welsh fans across the world.

In the public house I was in beer was thrown everywhere, supporters hit the ceiling they jumped so high in the air, grown men were in tears and people were left speechless by the spectacle they had just witnessed.

However, this is far from being the end of the tournament. Wales now have to count the cost of their mounting injury list and finish the job on Thursday against a motivated Fiji where a try bonus point win could well see them seal their qualification for the next round.

England on the other hand can prepare for a barrage of criticism debating the team selection and the captaincy of Chris Robshaw. Owen Farrell more than proved his worth but the selection of Sam Burgess will be questioned as he offered little other than in defence and even then his inexperience in the sport may have led to them conceding far more points. But now the match against Australia could not be bigger for England at their own tournament.

As for Wales they have once again managed to pull off another smash and grab raid of fortress Twickenham and whatever happens in the rest of the Rugby World Cup that moment of victory last night will be talked about for years and years to come.