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.

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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.

England 25 – Wales 21

Eng Wal 2016 3As is sometimes the case in sport the scoreline is not always a fair reflection of the match and never is that more true than with this result. Incredibly, Wales could have won at the death and hopefully they would’ve been arrested for robbery had that actually happened. The cold truth is that there was only one team in the contest and they were wearing white.

Eng Wal 2016 1England

Firstly, credit where it is due. England were excellent, playing with a power and a dynamism which had been lacking in previous years. In Maro Itoje they have a superstar in the making, his athleticism and skill made him an easy selection for man of the match. England’s tactics were clear, targeting Wales’ right wing defence,  namely the woeful Alex Cuthbert. Stats don’t lie, he missed 4 tackles and flapped aimlessly at a kick which mercifully he at least knocked backwards and as a result England gained easy territorial advantage.

England have already secured the championship, with France losing in Scotland, and could easily capture a Grand Slam given how lackadaisical Les Bleus have been under new boss Guy Noves. However, this is not a great England team, they can get better. The balance of their backrow is not right yet with Itoje and Jack Clifford a much better option at openside flanker to partner a revitalised Chris Robshaw. Similarly, the centre combination is not one which will win a World Cup with George Ford mercurial at 10, possibly flaky, and largely non-existent against Wales. With the streetwise experience of Eddie Jones in charge the only way is up for England.

Eng Wal 2016 2Wales

Where to start with Wales. The first half performance was one of the worst delivered under Warren Gatland and huge questions have to be asked why there was such lethargy. Every Welshman, woman and child was up for this game except for the fifteen players who took the field. Teach them all the words to the National Anthem, get them to belt it out and maybe they would have the emotional edge which clearly helped England. The defensive system renowned for it’s line speed and aggressive blitz was sorely lacking. Worst still there was an astonishing 19 missed tackles in the first half alone, typified by Biggar and Baldwin left on the ground as Itoje put the ball out wide for England’s try, and generally allowed England to get momentum into their attacks. In contrast Wales had lost their basic skills, being picked off at multiple lineouts and giving away easy penalties. It was one of those situations when frankly they didn’t deserve nil, minus points would’ve been a better reflection of their performance. Whilst no player sets out to put in a poor showing the evidence suggests something at fault with their preparation and the way the team is being managed and coached.

Whilst the coaching set up has had plenty of success, things seem to have grown stale with that team being in place for a number of years now. The set piece game continues to be hit or miss, selection has been widely debated and consistently the team starts slowly in matches giving the opposition a head start. Warren Gatland has admitted changes were considered after 25 minutes and it could be argued that a better manager wouldn’t have just considered changes but actually made them given the positive impact those changes would have later in the match. Wales’ attacking game has also come in for huge criticism over the last 12 months, failing to score against 13 Australians in the Rugby World Cup, for example. Things have to change and Rob Howley’s job must come under threat, 8 years in the role is more than enough particularly given the world class players who are failing to reach the heights that they are capable of. Few will have failed to notice how Wales managed to score 3 tries when seemingly the gameplan went out the window and the players actually played what was in front of them instead of sticking to a rigid plan based on contestable kicking.

The frustration from Welsh fans is because we recognise that this squad is full of talented players and we expect more from them. Last season’s game against Italy proved that Wales can run in the tries from all over the field. That sort of endeavour is completely absent this season, criminal given how Ireland were hampered by injuries and retirements leaving them vulnerable and a dreadful France team who should have been given an absolute hammering. Grinding out wins against France and Scotland was all well and good but if Wales are to threaten the All Blacks in the summer, another team who will be vulnerable, they have to deliver higher standards.

Likelihood is the same Wales players, minus Capt. Sam it seems, will be sent out again to rectify their previous performance against an Italy side who fell away against Ireland and could do the same in Cardiff. Wales should get a positive win and all will be forgotten but if this team is going to recapture a 6 Nations again, something they have failed to do in the last 3 tournaments, then changes have to be made so there are never any repeats of that 50 minutes shambles from Wales.

The State of Rugby Union

As 2015 draws to a close it is a time for reflection. It has been a year where the biggest tournament in rugby union came to the UK, the regional game in Wales continued to meander laterally and the laws of the game continue to baffle and irritate.

ChampsRugby World Cup 2015 was a huge success. Despite eye-watering ticket prices and a decision to have football stadiums hosting matches instead of the rugby heartlands the tournament generated fantastic atmospheres and delivered some particularly memorable matches. Few will forget Japan defeating the Springboks in the ultimate example of having confidence in ones own ability. New Zealand played a brand of ‘Total Rugby’ from a different planet against France in Cardiff. There was the controversy of Australia’s last minute victory against Scotland and Craig Joubert’s dash from the pitch. Wales overcame all the odds created by a lengthy injury list against England to pull off a famous win. The hosts failing to emerge from their pool, Stuart Lancaster losing his job and the entire Sam Burgess saga was pure sporting soap opera. The final match itself also provided a tremendous advert for the sport with plenty of action and drama, ably controlled by a Welshman.

WRU-home-kit-5-playersThe relationship between the Welsh Rugby Union and the professional regional teams has certainly been strained in recent years and 2015 was no different. Not that long ago we had the Faletau affair with the talented No. 8 venturing to Bath anyway, leaving the Dragons with no transfer fee and the WRU left with egg on their face. It is a peculiar situation with the Union trying to attract it’s big name stars back to Wales with central contracts but their contribution to their region is often limited. There are five professional teams, Scarlets, Ospreys, Dragons, Blues and of course Wales, all with a core support. Plus, there is your local grassroots club in the town or village where you live. With so much rugby available, clashes are bound to happen, people have busy lives and responsibilities, the costs add up, plus the amount of television coverage, it is no wonder that attendances are hampered. In a few weeks the Six Nations will return and the nation will join forces again but the poor players will be flogged further after the tournament with another four Test matches by the end of June, three of which are away to the World Champions.

There is no easy solution. Fans will flock to see big one off games during the festive period and support their nation, proving that the sport still lies at the heart of Wales. However, finding the balance of encouraging those fans to support their local club, their region, as well as their nation is a tough ask. But unless a solution is found, one of that trio will suffer and fade away beyond all recognition.

Owens_ref_finalThe law book, refereeing and the crucial interpretation variations are probably the most debated part of the sport. A demand for accuracy has resulted in an increasing reliance on the Television Match Official hampering the flow, momentum and entertainment aspect of the game. The Maul in particular has proved to be an effective source of points because the whole area has become a shambles. Players join the maul in front of the ball, the player with the ball often detaches and moves to the back in order to guide the drive and defenders are blocked from tackling the ball carrier. Equally the scrum has resulted in plenty of lost time with teams using the set piece as a source of points instead of a simple way of restarting the match.

Despite these issues 2015 saw some incredible matches outside of the World Cup. Australia beat the All Blacks to lift the Rugby Championship. The final Saturday of the Six Nations was spectacular with tries galore. In Europe Wasps have been exhilarating in victories over Leinster, Bath and champions Toulon. In the English Premiership Exeter have been performing consistently and look a good bet to hold on to a top four place. In Wales the top of the Premiership is more competitive than in recent years with Pontypridd not running away with the top spot and Merthyr are living up to expectations in the Championship.

Jonah Lomu2015 was also sadly the year when we lost the first rugby superstar, Jonah Lomu. 20 years ago he changed the sport and became a global icon. His power and pace was matched by his humility. Sadly, he was never a World Cup winner but there is no greater tribute to Lomu and the equally imposing Jerry Collins, than having later All Black icons McCaw, Carter and others successfully retaining their trophy and cementing their place as perhaps the greatest sports team in history.

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.

REVIEW: Rugby World Cup 2015

ChampsSo that is it. 48 matches. 2,439 points including 271 tries. 2,477,805 spectators. Many are calling it the best Rugby World Cup ever. Certainly the most financially lucrative, no surprise given the steep prices for matches in major stadiums. It was a controversial call to spread the game to non-rugby playing locations, such as Brighton and Milton Keynes, but the stadiums were full and the only threat to not increasing player participation was in fact England bombing out of the tournament in the pool stages. A global audience were treated to probably the best final we have ever seen in terms of entertaining rugby. But what of the tournament as a whole?

JPN RSA

The tournament got off with an earth-shattering bang with Japan beating two-time former champions South Africa. That match is what makes rugby union and sport generally so enthralling and gripping. The bravery of Japan to go for the win when a draw was the easy option inspired England to attempt to replicate it against Wales when actually they should have sealed the draw. Karne Hesketh’s try was an incredible moment, up there with some of the best in Rugby World Cup history. Sadly there were to be no further upsets but gone are the days when the lower ranked teams are given a 100 point pasting, the gap has closed. For example, Georgia gave New Zealand a really good game in Cardiff, and theirs was just one of several incredible team performances.

NZ FRA

Australia put in a superb display against England and then backed that up with a defensive effort against Wales which bordered on the absurd. Wales themselves pulled out an improbable victory against England when obliterated by injuries and were unlucky against South Africa in the quarter-final because it could have gone either way. The unluckiest of course were Scotland who performed in a match better than they have in a World Cup game since 1991 in that quarter-final against Australia, suffering a controversial penalty and further insulted by Craig Joubert’s dash from the pitch. Argentina also put in a clinical display early on against Ireland, who will once again rue a missed opportunity at a World Cup, proving that they have benefited from competing with the Southern Hemisphere big guns in the Rugby Championship. I was privileged to watch the New Zealand v France game in Cardiff. Although the French were diabolical you could not fail to heap praise on the All Blacks who played a brand of total rugby never seen before with audacious offloads, skillful carrying from all the forwards and all performed at a ferocious pace. Quite rightly it was the All Blacks who have retained their trophy.

Final

This group of New Zealand All Blacks are perhaps the best sporting team in history. Ranked number 1 in all of world rugby since November 16th 2009 they richly deserve all the plaudits directed their way, consistently winning matches, with a team featuring some legends of the sport. Several of those players have been hanging on, no longer at the peak of their powers, to retain the trophy it took so long for them to recapture. A victorious final will have been a fitting finale for players such as Carter, Nonu, Conrad Smith, Mealamu and probably McCaw, plus Tony Woodcock who departed the tournament injured. These players have targeted this victory as their swansong but newcomers like Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick and Nehe Milner-Skudder have added to the squad and win their first World Cup. In Ritchie McCaw and Dan Carter we have seen two colossal players, the gritty McCaw and Carter’s mercurial genius. Winning this World Cup is indeed their crowning achievement, their best them in the All Black jersey. Say what you will about McCaw he has given everything for the jersey which is all you can ask at international level but maybe it is time for him to sort his equilibrium out, the number of times he lost balance at an Australian tackle situation falling towards the ball was most unfortunate but in all seriousness, what an incredible warrior he has been for his team.

In 2017 the British and the Irish Lions will take on the World Champions and that Test series may have just been elevated to epic proportions.