Sunday, 16 June 2013

Band-Aid Like Beckham

David Beckham and his son Cruz are the latest shock call-ups to Warren Gatland's British & Irish Lions touring squad, ahead of the opening test against the Wallabies next week.

The Beckhams were understood to be touring Australasia on a lepidoptery safari holiday when David (38) received the telephone call from the beleaguered New Zealander, thus minimizing travel distance to the Lions' tour headquarters for the photocall. It is understood that Beckham Snr will act as cover for Jamie Roberts (hamstring), Billy Twelvetrees (jet-lag) and possibly Alex Cuthbert (dislocated mojo), while uncapped Cruz (8) covers across the back row.

Critics have reacted skeptically to the Beckhams' inclusion at this late stage. David scored many great goals for England, and Cruz was awarded this year's Most Promising Young Player in his school Polo team. However, many argue that a retired player from a different sport can't be expected to grasp the requirements of rugby union, while his son is more likely to behave like a undisciplined tearaway running around all over the place and throwing tantrums, than a British Lion.

Andy Farrell was unavailable for comment.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Impossible Things, Before Breakfast.

What on Earth happened?

Welsh rugby fans have become used to dizzying peaks and troughs, but even we now seem to have a case of national vertigo. Partly by accident of scheduling - it must be conceded - but mostly by unprecedentedly good play and management, Wales find themselves in their first RWC semi-final since The One That Doesn't Really Count, the only obstacle between them and ridiculous glory being a French side who have "done an England", by getting this far almost despite themselves.

Ay, there's the fly in the muscle-rub; France. Even worse, BAD France. It's a challenge to recall the last must-win game that France lost having started as underdogs. Dismissing their chances is like giving them a 15-point start. If the consensus holds that the French have one great game in them, then Wales are in trouble, as Les Bleus only spent about a quarter of that credit in seeing off England. There's still 60 minutes of invincibility left in the tank, then.

In a microcosm of the La-La-Land in which this Welsh squad find themselves, the replacement of last month's third-choice fly-half with the man most observers regard as the most creative player in the squad, is widely seen as weakening the Welsh team. Rhys Priestland has been the revelation in a tournament of revelations for Wales, and the success so far has given the lie to the traditional notion that Wales must play with an out-and-out playmaker at either #10 or #12. James Hook is now regarded with suspicion; his defensive imperfections highlighted, his oft-quoted difficulties with game-management pored over. The resurgence of Jamie Roberts as a midfield line-breaker - undeniably central to Wales' success -  is widely accredited to Priestland's presence. Hook's inclusion, forced by circumstance, looks likely to radically alter a system that was working just fine without him.

The French loose forward wolfpack will be looking to gorge themselves on Hook; but if they tire and leave gaps, as they did against England, there's no better card in the Welsh deck. Wales' bigger fear is a creative French kicking game, as their scramble defence is not yet up to the standard of their "first-up" tackling. If M├ędard and Mermoz can get up to speed against a back-pedaling Welsh three-quarter line, they'll back themselves.

So far, arguably Wales' greatest strength has been their refusal to panic when they concede. France will mix it up early on, and will certainly lead at some point in the match.  But if any Welsh side of the past generation is equipped to roll with the French punches, it's this one. Too close to call? Not really. If neither side raises their game significantly, Wales will win. It's France who have something to prove - and that should scare Wales silly.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Fantasy Fan Tussle

Regular readers - yes, both of you - are welcome to join the Web-Ellion RWC2011 fantasy tournament "private league" on ESPN Scrum.

The PIN code is 2410.




Saturday, 13 August 2011

Generation Game

On a day full of absurd statistics - the side with 80% possession lost the match, after all - I offer one that appears to have been overlooked:

The last time Wales beat England by double figures, was the RWC Quarter-final in 1987. The time before that; the 5 Nations in 1979. England have got used to posting cricket scores against Wales, but this was Wales' biggest win over the old enemy in a generation. Just a little something to ponder while we debate the result's wider significance...

Meanwhile, the commendably jovial England fans on this late train to Swansea have, in their overtures to the indigenous sorority, looked far more likely to score than their heroes in white. Chwarae Teg...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Luke Warm-Up

Much was made of the "experimental" nature of both teams at Twickenham on Saturday. Once Stephen Jones had pulled out with seconds to spare, to leave first-time starter Rhys Priestland as Wales' playmaker, things were looking more -mental than experi-. After Morgan Stoddart's terrible injury, Scott Williams - an uncapped centre - took over at fly-half, and things veered toward the farcical. Let it be said that both players did fine jobs under such trying conditions.

Meanwhile, at the other asymptote of the international experience curve, Jonny Wilkinson had his best game in an England shirt for years. If nothing else, this will have given a few nightmares to any Australians watching. If he can make the improvement stick, he could hardly have timed it better.

Both sides will take limited satisfaction from this match. England looked dangerous in patches, and showed calm control when it mattered. In Armitage's take-and-run, they provided the "champagne moment" of the match. Wales struggled horribly to obtain and maintain possession, but did a lot of good things with such limited ball. Most importantly, they looked more positive in attack, and less locked-in to a structure of play.

Warming up for a World Cup by playing England has gone disastrously wrong for Wales on the last two occasions. England still won this match, but they had to fight for it, and an under-strength Wales team didn't look outclassed. With medical updates suggesting that a significantly stronger matchday XV will be possible for the return leg next week, Warren Gatland might be quietly confident of a morale-boosting win. For England, there's the carrot of bragging rights for a Millennium Stadium double this year. How their fans would love that.

Monday, 14 March 2011

BallsUpGate

The events surrounding Wales' try at the weekend are obviously a mess. I think most can agree that referee Jonathan Kaplan should simply have disallowed the try and re-played the lineout.

However, I don't concur with the opprobrium raining down on assistant referee Peter Allan. I believe that Kaplan is primarily to blame. Here's what I think happened; condensed as much as possible, I promise:

The lineout isn't full-formed but several players are in place. Kaplan moves to the correct lineout position, marks it with his foot, and then watches as Rees instantly feeds Phllips to restart. The key issue subsequently is, what does Kaplan think just took place? A quick throw-in, or a lineout?

After Ireland protest the score Kaplan asks Allan "Are you comfortable? Correct ball?"

NOTE - he doesn't ask if it was the SAME ball.

Allan replies "It wasn't a quick throw-in. He threw it in quickly, but..."

Allan KNOWS the ball was changed, but he thinks it is irrelevant because he believes a lineout had formed.

Kaplan, crucially, interrupts him by repeating "Was it the correct ball?" This clearly suggests that he thinks it was a quick throw-in, as it's an irrelevant question otherwise. Allan disagrees, but if repeats his assertion, or asks for clarification, he risks appearing to show dissent and undermining Kaplan's authority. But he does genuinely believe that a fair lineout took place. The safest way out now, as he sees it, is to (a) stick to his original opinion (without repeating it) and (b) answer the question precisely as asked.

He says, carefully, "It's the correct ball, yes."

Kaplan: "It is?"

Allan: "Yes. Yes."

Believing that a lineout took place, Allan regards any match ball as "the correct ball", so this answer is truthful. Assuming that Allan did know about the ball change, what he could have said, without necessarily implying criticism or dissent, is "It wasn't the SAME ball." Under pressure, he played it safe.

But the main fault lies with Kaplan for not making it clear what kind of restart he was officiating over. And he didn't even need to do that explicitly, if only he had just asked "Was that the SAME ball?"

His insistence on the word "correct" effectively passed the buck to his assistant. I don't blame Peter Allan for passing it straight back.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Calling The Mark

Much has been made - and fairly so - of Wales' abysmal home record against Ireland. If we thought the Grand Slam decider of '05 had buried the hoodoo, we've been put right on that score since. Whoever comes in as the fancied side, Ireland simply always win this fixture. It's incredibly frustrating, and like all dorsal primates, its grip only seems to increase for struggling.

It's as pertinent as ever this year, as the game offers a knife-edge to Wales' immediate future.Win, and mid-table respectability is secured. Wales can then roll the dice in Paris... and that has worked before. Lose, and the spectre of yet another ignominious fourth place - or worse - casts a suffocating pall of doubt over any foreign ambitions.

But there's a statistical escape route for Wales. Of Ireland's last three victories in Cardiff, two have been secured by late drop-goals from Ronan O'Gara. Factor in his habitual controlling performances on home soil, and it's hard to nominate another single player responsible for so much grievous damage to Welsh rugby fortunes in the last decade. Brian O'Driscoll may inspire a more visceral terror when he takes the field; but it's O'Gara who usually beats us.

So, with the teams widely regarded as being evenly matched - even if that equates more prosaically to "equally mediocre" - and theories abounding as to the strategies that may win the day, I humbly offer my own whiteboard suggestions for securing a rare Welsh victory. In the finest tradition of the armchair theorist; if we don't do this, and lose... well, expect me to file my next blog entry from my holiday chalet in the People's Republic of I Told You So.