Scotland surpass stagnant Wales

img_0401It had been ten years since the Welsh rugby team had lost to their Scottish counterparts at international level. There were young children in the stands of Murrayfield who had never seen Scotland beat Wales. This all changed yesterday following a dismal second half performance from the men in red and confirmed that the Scottish resurgence seen against Ireland was not a mere flash in the pan. The result proved symbolic of a drastic change in fortunes. The Scots are thriving and full of confidence. Wales however are stagnant and devoid of ideas.

Scotland have been building nicely since the development of the talismanic Stuart Hogg. A few years ago he was a wild hot head who got himself sent off, left to watch on as Wales racked up the tries. Armed with this new found maturity, his pace and skill are now gaining Scotland tries instead. His ability to deliver a perfect pass in front of the receiver put Tim Visser over for the crucial match winning try. Wales proved their ability to deliver passes with Liam Williams’ try. That however was a rare highlight. All too often Welsh players were throwing unsympathetic offloads, leading to dropped balls and turnovers. This lack of skills is gravely concerning from professional players. Even Leigh Halfpenny dropped a seemingly safe ball 40 seconds into the second half that proved a sign of things to come.

img_0403It has been levelled at this Welsh team that they’ve spent too long in the gym and not enough time working on their skills. Rugby is so often a simple game where basic skills done well can heap rich rewards. The Welsh team have tried to address these issues with the blunt bludgeon of Jamie Roberts being replaced by the more composed distributor Scott Williams. A seemingly wise decision as Roberts came on and threw one particularly dreadful pass. In contrast Finn Russell and Hogg combined with two perfect passes to put Tim Visser over which made the Welsh defensive line look like they weren’t even there. However it’s not just the lack of skill from the Welsh players which is troubling, it’s the absence of attacking intelligence.

img_0402Wales were undone by dummy runners for Scotland’s first try by Tommy Seymour. This came with the tenth phase but yet the Scots still had the ability to deliver a backs move. Wales showed against England that they can pull off backs moves on first phase. But after one ruck Wales become horrendously predictable. One off runners. Side to side play. Waiting for a missed tackle or a back running against a forward rather than creating something themselves. As a defensive team you only need to match Wales’ physicality to contain them. Alex King came in recently after being deemed surplus to requirements at a Northampton team who were also misfiring. In the autumn it was Matt Sherratt but he’s gone back to Cardiff Blues. Yet with Rob Howley also supposedly a backs coach, a role he’ll be taking on for the Lions this summer, the Welsh team are simply not creating and crucially scoring tries. Two backs coaches and a talented backline however still cannot produce five pointers. This is not a new problem with Wales fans still bemused how they couldn’t score against 13 Wallabies in the World Cup. Scotland showed how it can be done and it won them the game.

img_0404Wales had chances with Rhys Webb notably close to a try. However even that had not been created by Wales but the scrum half instinctively reacting to a loose ball. Outside of that Wales coughed up the ball, threw wild inaccurate passes or were so predictable in their carrying that the Scots could target the ball and win turnovers. Wales did go for a try to take the lead, dismissing the chance to level the score but that decision itself gave a worrying glimpse of dissent in the camp.

Something is seriously wrong in the Welsh team when players start overruling their captain. John Lacey had already pointed at the posts so probably should’ve enforced Alun Wyn Jones’ decision. But the vocal Dan Biggar seemingly overruled and declared he was going for the corner. It proved an error as Wales messed up the formation of the maul and the chance was lost. The attitude of Biggar has been commented on before and once again referee Lacey had to have a word with him instructing him to keep his opinions to himself. Liam Williams is another one. Whilst you expect it from a scrum half, this football style of appealing for decisions has crept into the Welsh squad with players regularly flapping their arms calling for a decision. It’s as if they are hoping for the referee to bail them out of trouble. This is not only troubling from a disciplinary perspective but also casts doubt on Alun Wyn Jones’ ability to lead the team by being the dominant voice of authority.

Whilst Scotland now have a trip to Twickenham to challenge England for their title Wales will go another season without silverware. It’s four years since the 2013 championship, five by the time the next tournament rolls round next year. Have Wales developed since that epic 30-3 win? Clearly not.

img_0400With the exception of the front row the majority of the starting lineup and the coaching setup is largely the same. All the other home nations have improved. England are on a winning run, Ireland beat the All Blacks for the first time ever and Scotland have now defeated Wales for the first time in a decade. Those teams have progressed but Wales have stood still. Only major change can solve this problem. It needs to be both on and off the pitch. Wales go up against title chasing Ireland next then face a daunting trip to Paris against a hugely physical French team. Perhaps it will take two defeats in those games to trigger the long overdue reaction. We do however seem to have returned to an era where Wales players can beat Italy and raise their game for England but the rest are simply leaving us behind.

At a crucial point where rankings will dictate the 2019 World Cup draw, Wales’ decline is not only costing them this season but a future challenge at the ultimate prize.

Images courtesy of @SixNationsRugby on Twitter

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Wales 16 – England 21

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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.

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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

Welsh rugby at crisis point

img_0058How many more times are we going to go through this? Another Autumn series gets underway with a defeat to one of the Southern Hemisphere giants. However it was the manner of this defeat which was so galling. If anyone is looking to take positives from that performance then they are frankly deluded. Wales should be ashamed of that first half performance. Utterly ashamed. There were moments when Australia were simply executing plays as if they were going through a training session. The Wallabies have probably had more intense training opponents than the limp resistance which Wales offered.

img_0318Statistics can too often be used to prove anything. But the facts are the facts and for Wales they make for grim reading. Wales have not won the opening match of the autumn since they defeated Romania in 2002. Stop playing the big boys. You are wasting everyone’s time and are just after our money. Wales under the Gatland/Edwards/Howley regime, installed 8 years ago now, have claimed 1 victory over Australia and another over South Africa in 2014. Add the All Blacks to the stats and that means 2 victories in 32 matches. A win percentage of 6.25%. If insanity is the repetition of events expecting different results then we are well beyond that point by now. I for one am sick of the excuses. They are being trotted out on such a regular basis that they have now become cliches. Classics such as, “we need to test ourselves against the best teams to learn” and “we always start slowly and get better the longer we are together” would be more appropriately used as the tag lines by the WRU marketing department.

Further blame is directed on the suitability of the Pro12 to prepare our players. Firstly, not all of the starting lineup, North, Roberts, Halfpenny and Charteris for instance, play in the Pro12. Secondly, anyone fortunate enough to see Ireland’s performance against the All Blacks, mere hours after Wales’ debacle, saw that argument evaporate for ever. The Welsh players and coaching team are comfortable in their malaise. Their press conference responses are prepared repetitions of those that have gone before. Oddly the Ireland v New Zealand clash took place in Chicago, USA. Therefore the Irish had to deal with the rigours of transatlantic travel. But yet the Irish players raised their game to levels unreached in 111 years. They played at pace and with an intensity and aggression which pressured the All Blacks throughout. Wales took a bus down the M4. They fell off tackles and looked so bewildered you would’ve thought that they were the team suffering jet lag.

img_0059From their first lineout Australia flowed over the gainline and did not yield that momentum. Many fans were left bewildered by the selection of Alex Cuthbert for yesterday’s game. Wales attempted to trick the Wallabies by putting him on the left wing, rather than the right. But the smart green and golds targeted him immediately. A series of cross and box kicks exposed him early on, allowing Australia to regain the ball. This resulted in the extraordinary 80% possession statistics. Any youngsters wishing to watch a textbook control of a match then this was the game.

Fortunately for Wales the Wallabies did butcher a number of opportunities to rack up points. Dropped passes but also 11 points missed at goal. So it could, and frankly should, have been worse. Conceding 32 tries in the last 6 matches is as bad as it gets. Shaun Edwards’ reputation is in tatters. No longer can he justify his position based on the 2 tries conceded during the 2008 Grand Slam season. Astonishingly Wales didn’t leak a try when reduced to 14 men. But the way that they were sliced apart with a full complement, with basic passing skills largely, was truly worrying. The ‘up and under’ kicking strategy also reared its head again as the ball was gifted to the dangerous Israel Folau on numerous occasions.

img_0317I thought Ross Moriarty carried the ball well. Scott Williams’ try also demonstrated that when players play what is in front of them and back themselves they can do good things. But once again Wales’ inability to convert overlaps with the line at their mercy is staggering from supposedly “professional” rugby players.

img_0060The danger now is that the Welsh public are on the verge of abandoning this team of under-performers. As a result there were nearly 20,000 empty seats in the stadium, not helped by the £60+ price tag. In contrast Wales’ footballing counterparts are delivering on the field. Next weekend they play Serbia in a World Cup qualifier. It is no wonder therefore that tickets for the Argentina rugby clash are so freely available. We are talking tickets for £20 now. Those are still available but the Welsh public isn’t interested. This is a shame because Argentina are playing some superb rugby this year. They took apart Ireland at the World Cup last year and are threatening to do the same to Wales. Short of some drastic changes both on and off the field Wales are in real danger of slipping out of the top 8 in the World Rugby rankings. Just in time for Rugby World Cup seedings once again!

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
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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…