Friday, 14 October 2011
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 Médard 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
Saturday, 13 August 2011
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
Monday, 14 March 2011
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
Tuesday, 22 February 2011
"I'm just happy to play for my country," said the 26-yr-old at the team anouncement, "I know I've not had much experience in the pack - and everyone knows I'm a back at heart - but this is just a new challenge really, and I'm up for it."
"The clue was in the name, really" said forwards coach Robin McBryde, when asked to explain his thinking. "Hook, hooker - I'm actually not sure why we didn't spot it earlier. James has responded really well in training, and I think I've even noticed one of his ears start to curl..."
"James has been our first-choice fly-half for nearly two weeks now." backs coach Rob Howley explained. "I'm sure the chance to have a change, to try something new, will only make him a better player."
Hook's sudden and unexpected admission to the fabled "Front Row Union" has left little time for bonding with his new packmates. However, McBryde was able to use the team announcement to present Hook with a gift from his teammates, in the form of a stringed musical instrument. Head coach Warren Gatland then revealed that the squad would be leaving the hotel direct for a local dairy farm, where a brief initiation ceremony would be performed.