29 Feb 2012

The Contenders for the England Job

Yesterday I had a look at how the incumbent Head Coach Stuart Lancaster had fared thus far during his brief reign in charge. Today it's the turn of the contenders. Among them are Nick Mallett, Wayne Smith, John Kirwan, Vern Cotter and a few Englishmen thown into the hat too! Namely Jim Mallender and Dean Ryan. Dean Richards could possibly have been a contender too if it hadn't been for the furore of 'Bloodgate' and the consequent smear still attached to his name, but has been consequently ignored.

Nick Mallett

Evolution or a backwards step?
Mallett has all the credentials. Well respected around the world he has coached not one but two international teams already. His record with South Africa was excellent and he still holds the record for most International games won in a row during his time there. His record with Italy....well patchy, but that's to be expected really. A fair few of his decisions didn't come off (Bergamasco at scrum half...what the hell was that all about???) but then he had to do something to bring them closer to the rest of the competitors and clearly some players just weren't up to it. As they say, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. At least Mallet notched up some historic victories such as over France during last years 6 Nations. Personally though as much as I admire the guy I don't see appointing Mallett as progress. Fine coach that he is...he is known more for setting up teams to play forward orientated 10 man rugby. England know how to do this already...we need some creativity! Having said that...if rumours are to be true, Mallett may be applying for the job with Wayne Smith as his assistant. This sounds more appetising for English fans. Wayne Smith would bring vast technical knowledge and intellectual property from his time as All Blacks assistant coach (he also coached the All Blacks at the beginning of the decade before resigning).

Wayne Smith

Does he really want it?
Wayne Smith is a great coach and he can work well with English players. His stint at Northampton Saints proved that. However, he has ruled himself out in the media thus far and the position of head coach doesn't seem a good fit. He claimed in New Zealand that "the job description was waffly and looked like it was for the head of a PR company rather than a rugby coach." That doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement. Plus Wayne Smith doesn't exactly have a good history with dealing with the pressures of being an International Head Coach. Despite a respectible record with the All Blacks as head coach, his final move was to resign citing the unease he felt in the top job and the stress he could do without. He's a fine tactician but the English media can treat you like a dog and they might just get the better of him. The RFU has to take that into consideration. Any viewers of Martin Johnson's dealings with the press can tell you that the media obligations can defintely take a toll. As mentioned earlier...a position more in the background behind Nick Mallett remains perhaps a more plausible possibility and one which few could or would argue against.

John Kirwan

Too early for JK?
John Kirwan's name has been trumpeted by some pundits as a man to bring some new energy to the England Head Coach position. It's difficult to assess JK's credentials though. A player at the top level and once new Zealand's golden boy, he has coached Italy and Japan at international level too. With those positions though comes limited pressure, intensity and ultimately expectations. He seems to get his teams to play with a bit of pace and flair (Japan were a genuine delight to watch at the World Cup in NZ), but were are the results??? Maybe that is a bit harsh on the work he has done with lesser nations as it would be difficult to do much more with the players he has had at his disposal, but as of the moment he remains an unknown quantity. I believe that JK perhaps needs a little more time and possibly to have a few years in the hotseat as head coach in a European competition or in Super Rugby. If he succeeds, he will have really earned the right to a top job.

Vern Cotter

Is Cotter a big enough name?
Cotter has had success in his native New Zealand with Cantebury, before turning his attention to the attritional warefare that is french rugby. He has managed to transform Clermont Auvergne into a real powerhouse having forged a consistently successful side and leading them to a historic 1st title in the Top 14. Cotter may not be the big name that English fans want....but could be an excellent coach for them. He also has a real hunger which maybe Mallett and Smith may not have quite as much of. After all, Wayne Smith has just won the World Cup...does he really want this job right now??? Cotter is an outside bet for the job but don't be surprised to hear his name mentioned when the time comes. He is sure to get a position in and International coaching team at some point in the future.

Dean Ryan/ Jim Mallender

Well I don't think either of these two have much hope for the job really. Ryan has personally ruled himself out of contention as he doesn't believe the current set up at the RFU is right, and its hard to disagree with him really. Having Rob Andrew above your head calling shots sems ridiculous. Mallender was talked about but you would have to say that despite (like Lancaster) having experience with the England Saxons...he is yet to really prove that he is a great coach. he has created a strong team at Franklin Gardens but not a team which has dominated and consistently won silverware at the highest level. I don't think it would hurt his chances in the long term to have a few more years with Northampton either and then try and have a real crack at the job.

28 Feb 2012

Is Stuart Lancaster the man for the England job?

The 2012 Six Nations is now at its’ halfway point and England have a respectable 2 wins and 1 loss. 3 games in, we have a better idea of how to judge the current management's ability. However, while support for Stuart Lancaster is gaining momentum, the position of England Head Coach/ Manager/ Emporor(or whatever wishy washy title the RFU decide to give) is still up for grabs. Today i’m going to have a look at how the incumbent Coach has fared thus far.
Stuart Lancaster (incumbent)
Is Lancaster a good fit for England?
It is often too easy to look at results rather than performance when judging the credibility of a candidate, but results don’t always convey the whole picture.  Narrow wins against Scotland and Italy away suggested that England were far away from the finished article. In fact, while some gave England leeway due to the number of debutants on display...there were many (myself included) who found it difficult to see a bright future with the current regime in place. What they did show though was a resoluteness and a ‘we will not be beaten’ attitude in defence which perhaps defines the team culture Lancaster is trying to create. 
Successful sides in rugby history have been able to develop their own team culture. Just look at the last decade and one can name the Crusaders, Bulls, Leicester and Wasps as teams which succeeded consistently as a result of the identity/ culture which was created around the teams. One can add Saracens to that distinguished list too (whether you appreciate their style or not). England though, have repeatedly failed create their own unique team culture (unless your definition includes dwarf throwing, harbour diving or some form of sexual harassment). Lancaster has been a shining light in this regard.  Humble and approachable, he has restored some pride and dignity to the English shirt following the World Cup debacle. From a media point of view, he seems a very accomplished technician.
Back to the rugby though...England’s loss against Wales last weekend was disappointing but arguably inspires far more optimism than the previous two wins. One could see the vision Lancaster had for England in attack for the first time. Sure some changes in personnel may have been forced, such as Farrell at 10, but it paid off. Sometimes it is ‘better to be lucky than good’.
If one remembers....it was only less than a year ago that Wales were dealt similar blows with injuries to Matthew Rees and Stephen Jones prior to the World Cup. They had been struggling for form up until that point. It was their forced replacements (positionally and captain-wise) which began their turn around in fortunes though and how rosy does it look now? Rhys Priestland took over the fly half duties, while Sam Warburton received the captain’s armband. Gatland may be good...but he was lucky too. That's not a bad thing in sport.
I’m sure people's views will change throughout the Six Nations (perhaps even my own). For now though, I personally am willing to give Lancaster the chance to prove his worth.

Until next time....

For former England coach Brian Ashton's take on his performance, have a read of the article linked. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/17187007

27 Feb 2012

One To Watch - A Profile of Jonathan Joseph

This week we focus on Jonathan Joseph.  Having been highlighted upon during last week's Rugby Club on Sky TV..I thought it might be of interest to some of the more international readers of this blog who might not have seen him in action in the Aviva Premiership.

His coach at London Irish, Mike Catt, is so sure of  Joseph's ability that he has claimed it is a case of when not if  Joseph pulls on the England Shirt.  Likened to his old sparring partner Jeremy Guscott, many astute observers in fact contend that had it not been for a long injury lay off at the end of last year, it could actually have been Joseph playing outside Tuilagi during the Six Nations. We are sure to hear a lot more about this centre. Read on for his club’s profile of him.....
Jonathan enjoyed a breakthrough season last year with outstanding performances during the first half of the season. Joseph made 19 appearances for the Exiles last season including 13 in the Aviva Premiership, scoring five tries.
JJ as he is known around London Irish was a part of the England U20's squad that finished second at the recent Junior World Championship, playing on the wing and at full back.
He ran in two tries against Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park in September 2010 and repeated the feat against Sale Sharks the following month at Madejski Stadium. His first try against Newcastle away was the recipient of the London Irish try of the season award.
Joseph was the beneficiary of the Young Player of the Season award at last season's end of season celebration.

Click on the link below for an interview with the man himself.

The Rugby Weekend Review

After a fine weekend of rugby, here’s our opinion on who had game and who was just...well....lame.
They may not have performed to their ability and they may even have been a tad lucky to escape with a win at Twickenham. Despite this, they have earned a Triple Crown and now look well on their way to competing for a Grand Slam. Great teams sometimes clutch victory from the jaws of defeat and Wales came up with the big plays when it mattered. Whisper it quietly....Wales look like returning to their glory days in the 70’s.
Fly Halves
It’s not unusual to see fans blame a number 10 for a team’s lack of creativity after a loss, but with that added pressure, comes added reward. This week a whole heap of number 10’s shone. See (in no particular order):
Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Mike Harris (Reds), Owen Farrell (England), Jonny Sexton (Ireland), Tyler Blyendaal (Crusaders) and Elton Jantjes (Lions).
Super Rugby
‘Powder-puff rugby with too many blowout scores’. For a long time, Super Rugby has been dismissed by Northern Hemisphere critics for lacking defensive intensity. It has been claimed that its style of rugby cannot be replicated at International level.  At times this may have been justified, but with all but one match won by merely a handful of points, it can’t be levelled this time. This year is shaping up to be the most fiercely contested competition of super rugby so far.
Juandre Kruger
Replacing a man with over 100 caps for his country must be a daunting task. But Even Victor Matfield himself must have been impressed by the way Juandre Kruger went about his business on Friday night. Frequent viewers at Franklin Gardens will tell you that he is just continuing the rich vein of form he showed in the Northampton Saints jersey for the last few years. Kruger showed athleticism around the park and was a fine technician of the lineout and kickoff receipt. He looks like a good bet to make Heineke Meyer’s first springbok squad.
Beauden Barrett
No one is betting on the Hurricanes to win the Super 15 this year...let alone get close. Barrett however showed calm authority behind a struggling pack, which belied his tender age. He earned 16 points with the boot as well as scoring an intercept try (showing enough pace to hand off Springbok flyer Gio Aplon in the process). Every now and again a player comes upon the scene that makes everything look effortlessly easy. Barrett seems to fall into that category. At only 20 years old, he is definitely one for the future but with continued performances like this, Barrett may just be the man for the present.
Owen Farrell & Manu Tuilagi
Bish bash bosh. Tuilagi delivered a performance akin to a one man wrecking ball on Saturday afternoon. Having dealt with the imposing Welsh midfield magnificently, he then decided to ‘give it some back’ too. His stocky frame seemed to make real inroads into the welsh defence (almost at will) and he definitely added some much needed impetus into the English backline. It was a triumphant return to the International scene for the Leicester Tiger. No swan dive into the harbour either....
Owen Farrell meanwhile continued his meteoric rise with a great game from fly-half. Some pundits had worried about his ‘stand and deliver’ rugby league style against the Welsh blitz defence, but Farrell seemed totally at ease in the number 10 shirt. One sequence of play in particular really caught the eye as England went from one end of the pitch to the other, culminating with Farrell collecting his own chip kick. He showed his inexperience to kick it away with better options available, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen a reaction like that from the Twickenham crowd. They may have found a new hero. He even earned a wry smile from his father, former ‘International Man of Steel’ Andy Farrell in the coaching box.
Wesley Fofana
This guy really is an excitement machine. His one handed catch of the ball behind his head as he accelerated and swerved past despairing Scottish defenders on his way to the Murrayfield try-line was Brian O’Driscoll like. France seem to have unearthed a real gem here .Don’t be surprised to see Wesley up near the top of the try scoring stakes as he continues to set alight the backline.
Stuart Hogg
Fresh from his try scoring exploits for Scotland ‘A’ against England ‘A’ and his exciting but brief cameo against Wales, Hogg continued his surge as the most talked about talent in Scottish rugby with a try down the touchline against France. Considering how lamentable the Scottish attack has been over recent years, it is unbelievable to see the transformation one player can spark. He has added a new found confidence to their backline (in addition to the introduction of Greg Laidlaw at fly half). The young flyer looks electric with the ball in hand and has some real x factor about him, which Scotland hasn’t had since Gregor Townsend in his youth.
The Sharks/ Blues/ Chiefs
All of these teams came into the competition with high hopes of silverware. Although it is only week one and that is still achievable, they will be disappointed to have lost their opening games (the Sharks and Chiefs in particular). With such a difficult schedule this year...it will be important for these teams to get a W by their name soon or risk facing an uphill battle to secure that all important home play-off game.
Pat Lambie
Pat Lambie was not poor by any means. However I have to admit that after looking forward to seeing how he fared this year, he certainly didn’t play to expectations in the opening round. The Sharks – Bulls game offered little quality and considering the Bulls squad looks depleted compared to recent years, one felt Lambie could have stamped his authority on the match more than he did. There’s still a long way to go though and the Durban faithful will be backing him to grow into his role. He has undoubted talent and it’s only a matter of time until he starts controlling Super Rugby games the way he has in the Currie Cup.
It seemed like a case of one step forward, two steps back for the Azzuri during the weekend. After almost pulling off a surprise against England during their historic game at the Olympic Stadium, Italy well and truly flopped against Ireland (Sergio Parisse aside as usual). Perhaps too much was expected of the men in blue and the result of the previous weekend certainly seemed more indicative of how badly England played in the snow than how much Italy had improved under Jacques Brunel. Time will tell though and for now, they will just have to keep believing in their new found liberation from Nick Mallet’s rather narrow game plan. At least Bergamasco wasn’t playing scrumhalf!!!

24 Feb 2012

Super Rugby Returns!!

Super Rugby returns this weekend to great fanfare. 15 teams will be looking to claim the mantra as the southern hemisphere's best club side, with the Queensland Reds defending the title they earned with some razzle-dazzle football in 2011.
For all newcomers to the new expanded format of super rugby...check the link below on the official super rugby site for a detailed explanation of how the Conference system works.
Here though we are getting down to the nitty gritty stuff and a prediction for each of the teams involved.
Today we'll debate....THE NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Crunch....this is shaping up to be the most competitive conference of the lot. There have been some major changes in the off season and the kiwi battles ahead are really wetting the appetite.
Captain - Richie McCaw
Coach - Todd Blackadder
The Crusaders stole the hearts of many sport fans across the globe last year. Following the tragic Christchurch earthquake that caused so much death and destruction early in the year, the Crusaders were forced to play all their games away from home. They clocked up some serious mileage along the way, and almost completed a rugby miracle only to fall at the last hurdle.
This year they will be back playing in their home town and looking to go one better. With the majority of their playing squad back from last year plus a few new handy additions, they look like a good bet for the final. The Crusaders will have to navigate the early rounds without their two main talismen, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. But with Kieran Reid (an All Black captain in waiting) and a number of All Blacks available, we don't think they will have too much of a problem.
With Brad Thorn departing the side, Todd Blackadder has looked to Tom Donnelly to add experience and sure up the tight five. The pre-season games have shown lineout numbers to be almost double the average amount of last season's games (due to refereeing changes of the breakdown)..so having an expereinced pro in the ranks to call the lineouts and secure posession will be invaluable.
Tom Marshall - The Crusaders have an abundance of young talent coming through their ranks. Patrick Osbourne had a blinding ATM Cup at the end of last year and loose forward Luke Whitelock looks a future All Black contender. However, we are picking Tom Marshall to have an impact on this years Super Rugby Competition. Incredibly versatile, Marshall showed touches of pure class last year when the Crusaders had significant injuries. We think he might just be a new Leon MacDonald.
Tyler Blyendaal - What...Tyler Blyendaal???!! Okay okay I know we could have chosen Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Kieran Reid, Israel Dagg or any other number of this All Black laden squad. However, with messrs McCaw and Carter out for the roughly the first half of the season through injury, it will be up to Tyler Blyendaal to run a slightly less steady ship from fly half. How the newcomer performs in the opening rounds may well determine where the Crusaders end up on the ladder.
Despite starting the season with injuries to key men...it's difficult to look past this lot for another Conference heading effort. There may be some surprises along the way, but the Crusaders being the Crusaders and also having a squad stacked with talent..we expect consistency and too much class for their competitors.  
Final Standing in NZ Conference - 1st


Captain - Keven Mealamu
Coach - Pat Lam
Its been a long time since the Blues have won a Super Rugby competition. As far back as 2003 in fact when they exuded the talents of the mercurial Carlos Spencer, Rupeni Caucaunibuca and a young generation of players (including Joe Rokocoko, Mils Muliaina and Keven Mealamu) who blew the competetion away that year. The Eden Park faithful will be hoping for a return to their aforementioned glory days.
Having been knocked out of the competition by the eventual Champions last year, the Blues don't look too far away from doing so. Factor in the additions of proven star quality in Ma'a Nonu and Piri Weepu from the Hurricanes and they look a worthwhile punt. Old boys Rudi Wulf and Bradley Mika also return from Europe to complete a squad that looks great on paper.
Piri Weepu/ Ma'a Nonu - Two class players whose relationships with Hurricanes Coach Mark Hammett eroded last year. What the hurricanes lose, the blues gain and that is top level nous and sheer x factor. During the blues loss in the play offs to the reds last year, the blues backline lacked real game breakers until Rene Ranger came on...but it was too little to late. Once Ma'a Nonu returns from Japan, that is exactly what the Blues will get.
After playing an integral role in NZ's victorious under 21 team, Gareth Anscombe will be looking to cement a place in the Blues star studded backline. With competition from Piri Weepu and Michael Hobbs returning (after injury sidelined him last year), it is going to be difficult. Anscombe seems to have the bottle though and might possibly play himself into contention as a starter given a chance.
'Keep calm. Piri's on'. Yes anyone who watched Rugby World Cup 2011 saw the influence Piri Weepu can exert on a game at the highest level (we'll forgive him for his goalkicking blues in the final). If he can get into peak physical condition early, the Blues may have finally found someone who can really run the game for them. He adds some much needed organisation to the backs and the forward pack will love running off him. Whether he plays at 9 or 10 remains to be seen.
The Blues final position may well depend on how quickly some of the off season signings gel. But with Rene Ranger, Isaia toeava and Ma'a Nonu in the backline...their is one thing we know for certain. There will be TRIES!!! We predict some high scoring games and ultimately a place in the play offs.
Final Standing in NZ Conference - 2nd


Coach - Dave Rennie
Captain - Craig Clarke
Its all change for the Chiefs this year. Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith take over the coaching batton as Ian Foster leaves for pastures new (a much coveted seat on the All Black coaching team) after 8 years in charge. Although the Chiefs reached the final a few years ago (before getting soundly beaten by a rampant Bulls side), one tends to look at the Chiefs as serial under-achievers (also See Hurricanes). They have never won the competition and suffer from severe inconsistency. Notorious slow starters too, the Chiefs have a lot of improvements to be made this year. Despite all this...the chiefs have fresh blood in the coaching staff and a raft of new young players which have created a genuine optimism in Hamilton.
Mils Mulaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Stephen 'Beaver' Donald all depart this year, but replacing them are new All Black sensation Aaron Cruden and the media circus that is Sonny Bill Williams. Although there is a loss of experience, these new signings should give them a new spark as the form of Muliaina and Sivivatu wained during 2011.
Tawera Kerr Barlow,Aaron Cruden and Robbie Robinson are the future for the Chiefs franchise and would be good bets to take the competition by storm this year. However we are plumping for Tim Nanai-Williams. The counties manakau man with dancing feet is coming out of the shadow of Mils Muliaina and we expect him to flourish. The time has come for this man to make the next step up. After all, if your called the 'most brilliant player in New Zealand' by non other than Sir Colin Meads, you must be a pretty special player.
Richard Kahui - Kahui proved during the world cup to be the player many felt he could be. If he can be a consistent figure in the chiefs backline and not suffer from his usual bout of injuries, we can expect some fireworks and an extremely potent centre partnership with Sonny Bill.
The performance of the chiefs is difficult to predict. Their backline suggests that they are contenders for the title, but with relatively little experience/star power in the tight five, it might be a case of how much clean ball can they deliver to their star studded backline?? We think they'll go close, but not close enough.
Final Standing in NZ Conference - 3rd


Coach - Jamie Joseph
Captain – Jamie MacIntosh
The Highlanders have been in the doldrums for a few years now and their faithful supporters can only dream of the days when Kelleher, Brown and Wilson swept sides away in the late 90's. However, after an impressive debut season for new coach Jamie Joseph last year and a brand spanking new stadium having opened during the World Cup (the Forsyth Barr), Dunedin may just be the place to be on a Saturday night. Experienced signings and the maturing of a relatively youthful squad should see an improvement on the final standings for them.
Andrew Hore is yet another of the Hurricanes stalwarts to have got on the wrong side of Mark Hammett and has found himself moving down south to join an already impressive forward pack. Jason Rutledge must have his head in his hands after having such a strong season last year but he will most likely lose his place to the incredibly experienced All Black. Furthermore, Hosea Gear joins the Highlanders and will be looking for a strong season following his surprise omission from the New Zealand World Cup Squad. His inclusion in the 7's squad a few weeks ago suggests he is chomping at the teeth. Tamati Ellison returns to the land of the long white cloud after a brief stint in Japan, while English international James Haskell also makes a surprise move from the Top 14 to challenge in the loose forward department.
Ben Smith will be looking to continue his brilliant form from last year and make himself an All Blacks regular. However being rather a known quantity now, we are choosing Kurt Baker. The guy has been a star on the sevens scene for a couple of years now and we are looking forward to see him strut his stuff on the big stage.
The Highlanders always compete due to their massive forward pack, but it has lately been in the backs where they have struggled especially when injuries have made their squad look very bare indeed. If Colin Slade can stay fit and supply attacking ball to Hosea gear and Ben Smith, the Highlanders have the potential to surprise a few and even possibly get a play-off place.
If the Highlanders get on a roll they could easily surpass most pundits expectations. With names like MacIntosh, Hore, Hoeata, Haskell, Manu and Thomson in the forward pack, the Highlanders will be looking to create a new 'House of Pain' in the deep south. However, despite predicted good home form they are most likely to finish around mid-table in the overall standings. They are perhaps unlucky to be in the most difficult Conference and we suspect it ultimately will be their downfall.
Final Standing in NZ Conference - 4th


Coach - Mark Hammett
Captain - Conrad Smith
The Hurricanes have promised so much over the last few years but ultimately they have failed to deliver. The infamous fog final was as close as they came to the title under previous coach Colin Cooper but it seems his replacement Mark Hammett has lost faith in many of the old guard and has injected youthful exhuberance into the team in their place. A lot of pressure is being heaped on his shoulders because of his seemingly heavy handed treatment of some loyal players and he has lost a lot of friends along the way. We will have to see if he can create a new team culture similar to that of the one
he experienced with the Crusaders as a player. Expect the unexpected at the Cake-tin this year.
Chris Smylie and Ben May have moved franchises this year from the Blues and Chiefs respectively while Tim Bateman comes into the squad after a stint in Japan. Andrew Hore, Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear and Piri Weepu all depart leaving massive holes in the squad. Other useful additions this year are from the Hurricanes Wider training group.
The Hurricanes have a very youthful look this year. Victor Vito, Julian Savea, Andre Taylor, TJ Perenara, Brad Shields  and Charlie Ngatai all have big futures ahead of them. Its is Beauden Barrett however who seems to be the golden boy. The Hurricanes faithful are pinning a lot of their hopes on Barrett to herald a new era for the Wellington based franchise.
With a heap of experienced players gone from last year. The Hurricanes may struggle at times this year. New captain Conrad Smith will have to call upon all his experience nurturing their talents and try to usher in this new generation. Having not played a pre-season match at all following a successful World Cup campaign, it is going to be an enormously difficult job. However don't bet against the qualified lawyer to make a good attempt at it.
It is difficult to be too optimistic about the Hurricanes. Despite undoubted talent in the squad, the loss of so many old heads is sure to affect them during such a long season. We may not see the best of these players for a few years and one suspects that the relative success of the Hurricanes this year depends on how much confidence this young group gains during the early rounds. We don't expect the Hurricanes to finish very high on the log though. Expect a bottom 4 finish.
Final Standing in NZ Conference - 5th