Archive for Rugby

Ten best and worst moments of 2012

I have a pair of slideshows outlining my ten best and worst sporting moments of 2012 now up in Rant Sports as the format there is very conducive. I would encourage people to have a look.

Six Nations possibilities

The last round of Six Nations matches takes place tomorrow and whilst the tournament is technically still open, Wales are the overwhelming favourites to win. There are four possible results tomorrow, three of them will result in a Welsh title and the fourth is very unlikely. The first, and most likely, would be for Wales to beat France. I’m not in the habit of looking up bookmakers odds (living in the US, I can’t bet on any matches) but I would certainly consider Wales favourites to win. France were lacklustre for most of the match last week and that was at home to a weaker side than Wales. Going to Cardiff they will have to play a lot better and with nothing on the line for them, I’m not sure they’ll be motivated enough. A victory for Wales will give them a Grand Slam, and by extension the Six Nations title regardless of what England do against Ireland.

The second possibility is that Wales lose and England lose or draw. Although Wales would miss out on the Grand Slam in this scenario, they would still take the title with four wins to England’s three. If Wales do lose their match then I don’t think this is an unlikely outcome, but I do think that England have a real chance to beat Ireland. We have played much better in the last two matches, although need to work on holding onto leads late in the match, and at home I think I just about back us to win. It’s a close thing though and I would not be surprised if Ireland win and secure Wales a title that way.

The third and fourth possibilities are that Wales lose and England win with the distinction being drawn by the margins of the results. In this scenario, both teams would finish with four wins and one loss and the title would go to the team with the better point difference. As mentioned above, I think this scenario is unlikely overall, but more likely than the second one. What is very unlikely, though, is England being on the right side of it. Currently Wales have a point difference of +44 to England’s +6. In other words, in the event that England even have a chance to win the title they are likely to be faced with a scenario of needing to score about five tries to do it. I would thus like to take this opportunity to be the first to offer Wales my congratulations on their first Six Nations title in four years.

The other, less interesting, less interesting match tomorrow is the Italy v Scotland wooden spoon/whitewash decider. I said a few weeks ago that this match would be a great chance for Italy to record an upset and it still is. Neither side have looked very good, but Italy are at home and pushed England pretty hard there in the second round of matches. I think Scotland are still favourites to win, but they will need to play well.

I was mostly right

In a way, I did a pretty good job of predicting the weekend’s matches. I correctly called one win out of two for England’s women, a win for Wales and a win for Liverpool. The only things I got wrong were a washout in the other women’s match (I predicted a Kiwi win) and the England men winning their T20 (by quite a lot, as it transpired). So on the face of it, I did okay. It was the details that went a bit awry though.

First off, an English victory in the T20. We are the World Champions and world number one in that format, but I never feel comfortable saying that we will win. I know I’ve said it before, but there is a huge element of luck in T20s and I think England have been almost more fortunate than good in the past. Yesterday though saw a very skilful performance by young Jonny Bairstow who hit an unbeaten 60 to propel us to 150-7 after a slow start. Once again though, it was the bowlers who really won the match for us. The captain led from the front with 2-12 from 3.2 overs and was ably backed up by Finn (as usual), Swann (2-17) and Dernbach (1-13 from three overs). Pakistan were 33-4 after the powerplay and all but out of the match at 50-5. Afridi and Hammad Azam had a go near the end, but it was already too late and when Azam was out Pakistan capitulated. Afridi started turning down singles and looked like he was going to just bat out the 20 overs, before getting impatient and skewing a catch. One of the biggest factors in the run chase was England’s outstanding fielding. Of the ten wickets to fall, nine of them were caught (with the other run out) and at least eight of the catches were difficult ones. If England had dropped even a few of those the match would have been a lot closer, but as it was Pakistan never had a chance.

That was going on at the same time as the Six Nations match between England and Wales. Whilst I correctly predicted the outcome, I didn’t expect England to make their match so close. England actually led until fairly late at Twickenham, coming back well after a dismal first 20 minutes. It is a mark of how well they did that the loss was still gutting, with Wales getting a very late try and England not quite being able to match it at the death. Still, England can take a lot of positives from that match. After a horror start to the match that saw Wales completely dominate possession England turned it around and dominated the next 20 minutes to almost the same extent, playing a surprisingly fluent passing game. They had good width and were able to force Wales back well. The one thing they could not do, however, was get over the tryline, though it took an incredible tackle from, as I recall, Sam Warburton to deny Manu Tuilangi at one point. What England will particularly rue though is the ten minute man advantage that they wasted. After kicking the penalty to go 12-6 in front, they did not get possession for the next five minutes as Wales held on to the ball and gradually worked it down the pitch. England did eventually manage to get a lineout on the Welsh 22, but made an absolute hash of it despite being a man up. By the time Wales were back to 15 they had scored a penalty and had the momentum, which they didn’t really relinquish until England’s last ditch effort to bring the scores level. It was, as I said, a very disappointing result in the end but there is at least more cause for optimism ahead of the last two matches. Wales, meantime, having won the Triple Crown have a great chance for a Grand Slam. Effectively, they only need to beat France at the Millennium Stadium.

The big result was the League Cup though. I said that I thought Cardiff would score a goal, but Liverpool would score at least two. I was half right: Cardiff did go in front in the first half, but Liverpool equalised in the second. Cardiff’s goal came against the run of play, and although they did have other chances (including a heart-stopping moment a few minutes before the second half ended) Liverpool were always the more positive side. We had what seemed like dozens of corners (I lost count), hit the woodwork a couple of times and it seemed like we were almost constantly threatening. Whilst there was some of the profligacy in front of goal that has plagued us all season, Cardiff were also very good. They never seemed to tire in defence and kept charging down shots and attempts to pass the ball in the box. The effort looked like it had worn them down in the end though, as after all the chances we had had it was a relatively meek one by Kuyt that put us in front 2-1 in extra time. After that was where Cardiff really deserve credit though, they did not drop their heads, they did not give up. They came back, put us under pressure and got the last gasp equaliser. I’m sure the adrenaline of a big match helped, but how many teams could go behind after 108 minutes and still have the energy to come back in the 118th? It was a phenomenal show of fight from them and they deserve no end of praise for it. I thought that it would be enough to win them the match, myself. We have been very poor at normal penalties this season and apart from Gerrard and Kuyt I did not know on whom we could rely to take them. Fortunately Suarez, after his howler last week, was not amongst the five. I had been pessimistic to start, so when Gerrard had his saved and Charlie Adam followed up with an attempt that looked like he was aiming for the net at Anfield instead of Wembley, I was despairing. Kuyt was as reliable as ever though, and some hope appeared when the Cardiff players missed badly too. In the end it was Downing and Johnson who scored the vital last two penalties, much to my astonishment and delight, before poor Anthony Gerrard, Stevie’s cousin, missed for Cardiff.

I’m still, of course, ecstatic about having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and finally getting some silverware. King Kenny is also now the first person to win a career treble as both a player and manager, though he’s helped by having done some of them at the same time, of course! And I could be wrong, but I think the win also guarantees European football at Anfield next year. Whilst we still need to push hard for a top four finish, it’s nice to know that we have the Europa League on which to fall back should that not go our way. We’ll be able to help ourselves in that respect soon too, as our next Premiership match is at home to Arsenal who rather annoyingly won today.

Ultimately, it’s been a pretty good weekend.

Should be a fun weekend

Including tonight, there are three cricket matches, two rugby matches and a football match that I’m planning to follow closely this weekend. England’s women have their last two (dead rubber) T20 matches tonight and Sunday night, whilst the men play tomorrow morning looking to level the series. At the same time as the men’s match, however, there is rugby on as England play Wales at Twickenham and when that ends Bath will play away to Exeter in the Premiership. Finally, Sunday morning is the League Cup final with the Reds favourites to win a first bit of silverware for a while.

As far as predictions go, I’m still sticking with my original 4-1 prediction for the England women. They very nearly (and arguably ought to have) lost the third match, and whilst winning that will give them a mental edge for the last two it could be negated by the fact that they are now dead rubbers. T20 is an inherently unpredictable format and I still think the Kiwis will sneak a win this weekend. That said, I would not be surprised if England got the whitewash.

As far as the men go, the loss on the first T20 was, whilst not entirely unexpected, quite disappointing given that England probably should have won after the start to which we got off chasing. (It seems that we simply cannot chase 145 in the UAE.) Although the batting mostly let us down, we did drop a couple of catches, which may have cost us. The turning point was probably Bopara’s wicket, but I think KP’s was actually more important. He had picked up right where he left off in the ODIs and looked like he might have been able to knock off at least half of the target by himslef, but he was well caught on the boundary for 33. The catch also cost us six runs, as the ball was on course to clear the rope, the important of which should not be underestimated. (We only lost by eight runs.) For the next match I’m tipping Pakistan to win again, and not merely because the first two series were both whitewashes. England, despite being champions and world number one in this format, still don’t tend to look terribly convincing. I suspect a large part of England’s strong T20 record is actually down to luck, (the rest being very good bowling) though that’s to be expected in this format.

In the rugby, I did not see anything in the second round to persuade me that my initial assessment of Wales and England was incorrect. England will have home field advantage, but I think that is about it. Whilst we looked composed and competent for the last half an hour or so against Italy, there were still a lot of mistakes in that match as there were against Scotland. I expect Wales to punish those mistakes a lot more efficiently than Scotland or Italy did, as well as to make fewer themselves. If England can play very error-free rugby then they will have a chance with the crowd behind them, however I don’t think they will be quite up to the level required to beat a strong looking Wales, even at Twickenham.

Finally, the League Cup final on Sunday. Liverpool are strong favourites (2-5, according the Guardian), of course, playing 5th in the Championship Cardiff. That said, we have had problems forcing victories over lower placed side this year (though more at Anfield than anywhere else). Cardiff also have a very good record against us, and we saw Arsenal upset just last year. That said, I do think we will win, though it will probably be nervy for a considerable portion of the match. As good as Reina et al are, I expect we will ship probably one goal, but with Andy starting to find a bit of form up front and Suarez looking to make up for lost time I think we will score two or three to take home the trophy.

Six Nations thoughts

I was preoccupied by the Test match, but I watched the two of the first three Six Nations matches at the weekend. I already talked a bit on the Armchair Selector about the Scotland v England match, but I don’t think I emphasised how lacklustre England still looked. It didn’t really surprise me, given the number of new faces in the side, but they did not fill me with confidence. The defence especially looked patchy and were fortunate to concede only six points. It was a poor match from both sides, however, and not a particularly entertaining one. Both sides will need to improve in order to finish high in the table.

The other match I watched was Ireland v Wales. After the meetings at the World Cup and last year’s Six Nations it looked before the match like it could be the best fixture of the entire of the tournament and will certainly take some beating. As disappointed as Ireland will be to have lost, Wales were probably the deserved victors. The did not quite dominate play, I thought, but they looked more fluid and better organised. Had they been on the losing side I think they would have been just as disappointed overall, albeit with a less singular cause. With Wales hosting France later in the tournament, this win should put them clear favourites for the title.

The match I did not watch was France v Italy. (There was cricket on and I only have so many hours in a day.) France won, which is no surprise, though I heard that Italy played better than they have in the past. Italy may have a decent chance to spring an upset this year; they host England and Scotland both of whom look to be amongst the weaker teams in the tournament. Next Saturday is Italy v England and France v Ireland, with Wales v Scotland on Sunday. I’m tipping England to win against Italy, but they will not find it straightforward, France to beat Ireland in a reasonably good match and Wales to overcome Scotland fairly easily.

Pay no attention to the man in the blue shirt!

You should definitely already be watching Jeremy Irvine’s excellent series of Armchair Selector vodcasts. I am a guest in this episode too, so I suppose if you like reading what I write you will also like hearing what I have to say. Or you might come to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that I have a very annoying voice and should stick to writing. Either way, the rest of the programme is excellent as always:

Saturday review – 26 Nov

My weekly look at my favourite stories and blogs starts with one that I saw just after finishing last week’s review. Sky Sports’ Dave Tickner argues that Test cricket is not dying, but changing for the worse. The statistics about the rise of two Test ‘series’ like the one we saw in South Africa are troubling, if not outright alarming. It’s an analysis with which I am inclined to agree, for the most part.

Giles Clarke today wrote a piece reaffirming the ECB’s commitment to Test cricket. It’s a response to a piece in the Telegraph yesterday and it’s a pretty good one. Although I still don’t agree with the logic of having extra World Cup preparation instead of a Test match, he does well to explain why the decision is not all about money. Oddly though, he also says that international cricket is not allowed to clash with the Olympics, despite the fact that the second Test against South Africa is scheduled to do just that. I assume some part of that is mistaken, but I don’t know what.

At Cricinfo, Anantha Narayanan has a piece looking at the most significant hundreds under a variety of conditions. It’s a very good read if you like statistics. (And who doesn’t like statistics?)

Andy Bull writes for the Guardian about a WWI naval battle and cricketers who have read their own obituaries. After one of the better introductions to a cricket article, it eventually gets around to a discussion about the possibly premature obituaries for Ricky Ponting’s career.

The Lancashire website has a lovely story about the scorer for the club. I’m not sure exactly when it popped up, but I didn’t see it until this week (Tuesday I think) and it’s a very good read.

Anyone who regularly reads these will have noticed that I tend to follow cricket more closely than the other sports about which I blog. I don’t read cricket blogs exclusively though and this week there was an amusing post by Bath Rugby’s Sam Vesty on Living Rugby. (Living Rugby is an excellent site all round, it should be noted.)

Martin Johnson steps down

Martin Johnson has stepped down as England’s rugby union coach. It’s not too surprising; I think the only reason Capello survived leading a disappointing World Cup campaign was that he had a lot of time left on his contract. Johnson didn’t, though it was he who decided to go; the RFU did not sack him. It’s probably a good decision for England to be able to start afresh, though I think Johnson would have had a better time of it in four years. It’ll be interesting now to see how England’s starting XV at Murrayfield in February looks; I think we might actually see fewer changes. Johnson said that he was more disappointed in the players than the coaching staff, so I wonder if he might have made more wholesale changes than his successor will.

I don’t really know enough about the possible choices to replace him to form an opinion on the best one, but whoever it is will at least have a few months to get set into the job before the Six Nations.

A small gripe

I’ve spent a lot of time today watching American Rules Football. (Please don’t judge me; I live in the US and it’s kind of ubiquitous on Sunday.) I generally get irritated at the general dearth of brain cells present in the analysts, but usually the commentators are only slightly below average. Today, however was more irritating than usual. On two different occasions two different sets of commentators described a particular situation as a ‘scrum’. Which is all well and good, except they weren’t scrums. If anything, they were rucks. The ball was on the ground and players from each side contested it.

For the benefit of any NFL commentators who may be reading this, a scrum is a relatively orderly restart. It’s most akin to the start of every NFL play; everyone stays on their feet and push against each other. It looks like this: Scrum (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Watching how they play out, you will see that, when done properly, no one goes to ground and there is never any fighting for the ball.

Compare that to a ruck: Ruck (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Several players are on or near the ground, and although there are much stricter rules on how the ball can be retrieved it is clearly much closer to a fumble in a Yank Rules match. Unlike in the scrum, the players around the ball are actively contesting it, though not to the same extent as seen in a Yank Rules match.

I admit that it can be confusing for those who aren’t familiar with it. I would suggest that Yank Rules commentators simply avoid the word ‘scrum’ altogether, especially those who can’t speak English properly at the best of times.

Three from three!

It’s not often that I can get a hat trick sporting victories in a day. (To be fair, it’s not often that three of my sides play in the same day.)

England’s men started the morning with a T20 against India. Despite my earlier prediction, they finally found a bit of form and restricted the hosts to 120-9 off their twenty overs, though once again the death overs were expensive. Steven Finn was once again the pick of the bowlers with 3-22. Showing that they had taken the lessons from the ODIs to heart, India opened the attack with spin from both ends. This did tie down England to an extent, but KP was intent on breaking the shackles and did so to awesome effect. He hit 53 off 39 (5×4 3×6) deliveries before being adjudged LBW to a ball that pitched outside leg. By this time the match was all but won, and England got home with six wickets and eight deliveries to spare. Unfortunately England’s women were denied by rain after being well on top in their T20 match in South Africa. They were 15-0 chasing 111 to win and it’s probably the only way South Africa were going to avoid defeat.

Whilst that match was going on, Bath Rugby played London Irish in the Premiership. Bath won 12-13 thanks to a late penalty and some very good stoppage time defending. Bath were probably the deserved winners; ten of their points came from tries. They could have had the match well in hand, but Sam Vesty missed both conversions and a first half penalty. He was still responsible for eight of the points, however, scoring one of the tries as well as the match winning penalty in the 77th minute. The first try was the only scoring of the first half coming after Delon Armitage was sent to the sin bin for a high tackle on Tom Biggs. It was a very see-saw encounter with Bath coming from behind twice in the second half. The win takes them to fourth in the table.

To cap off the day, Liverpool beat West Brom 2-0 at the Hawthorns. The Reds did not play brilliantly, and showed why they dropped points to Man United and Norwich in the preceding weeks, but West Brom were awful. Their defence was nowhere for much of the first half and their offence only put pressure on the Reds a couple of times. Liverpool took the lead early through a penalty after Suarez was brought down. It’s worth pointing out that although Suarez gets a lot of criticism for diving and going to ground easily he stayed on his feet in the Carling Cup tie against Stoke when he could have had a penalty and made an effort to do so today. The West Brom fans were not happy with him or the referee, but their ire should be directed at their own defence. Despite efforts to put him off, Adam converted from the spot to give Liverpool the lead. Suarez continued to play well; though he still could not get the finishes that have eluded him in the league this year, he set up Liverpool’s second goal just before halftime. Carroll was the scorer, his third for the Reds this year, after Lucas stole the ball in midfield and Suarez put him through on goal. Liverpool’s defence held firm in the second half for just their third clean sheet this season. The only real disappointment for the Reds was Stewart Downing, who came close to scoring his first Liverpool goal, but hit the woodwork.

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