French Flair, Irish Intelligence and Scotland’s Silly Errors

This weekend was always going to be just that little better than usual as the crème la crème of sporting events got underway in Cardiff.

I speak not of the Super Bowl in Miami, but instead of the Northern Hemisphere’s rugby showpiece where long-time supporters and long-suffering girlfriends (or boyfriends) alike were treated to two days of sporting festivities to rival Christmas.

Three encounters in three European cites each earned their place on a rugby-esque Richter scale from a small tremor on Saturday afternoon to a rather more ground shaking affair the next day in Paris.

Wales 42-0 Italy: Wayne’s Wales get off to the best possible start:

The Principality in Cardiff was treated to five Welsh tries in a dominant if slightly routine victory for Wayne Pivac’s men against an Italian side which lacked cohesion and structure.

The Azzuri travel home with no points registered and a Six Nations losing streak which has now stretched to 23 games as the Six Nations opener proved a barely competitive match up.

This year’s meeting between the two sides included open rugby but was turgid in its outcome, albeit the hosts struggled to add their much-needed bonus point after having a George North try chalked off by the TMO in the final quarter of the match.

North was eventually able to add the all-important fourth try as he powered over from close range with the assistance of an Alun Wyn Jones push. The battle bruised 34-year-old leading his side from the front with endless energy once again.

This was followed by a Josh Adams score at the death to take the hosts over the 40-point mark which completed the 24-year-old’s hat trick. The World Cup’s highest try scorer (seven) once again proved a vital finisher as he crossed the whitewash twice in the first half to give his side a commanding lead.

Adams’ second on the half hour mark was noticeable for Dan Biggar’s majestic pass through his legs to the winger who finished the move from close quarters to give the hosts a 21-0 lead at the interval.

There were other stand-out performances within the hosts’ ranks, including that of man of the match, Justin Tipuric who worked tirelessly in the Back Row with the ever-present Aaron Wainwright and the returning Taulupe Faletau.

Tomos Williams also put his hand up for selection in Dublin next week after a fine performance at scrum half.

Meanwhile, Franco Smith’s Italy aren’t likely to find a trip to Paris any easier as they look to brush themselves off.

They will need key players such as Tommaso Allan and Jake Polledri to be at their best if they are able to prove more challenging opponents to the French on Sunday.

 

Ireland 19-12 Scotland: Similar Shortcomings for Scotland as Ireland hold firm in Dublin:

Despite the pressure being heaped on Gregor Townsend and his charges, there was little expectation that Scotland would leave the Aviva Stadium with a result.

And unfortunately, but perhaps predictably for travelling fans, this hunch proved true as a strong Irish defensive performance made Scotland pay for a catalogue of missed chances and errors.

Errors which have so often put pay to the plentiful desire and skill which Gregor Townsend’s men have offered in the past and offered again in Dublin.

The Scots showed desire in bucket loads as they looked to banish the nightmare start to last year’s World Cup which had ended in an embarrassing loss to the Irish.

Townsend made ten changes from November’s loss to Japan and his much-changed side played with plenty of flair and passion, but failed to convert chances into tries.

Punters will point to a Stuart Hogg clanger as the clear and obvious error and one that could have proved a gamechanger.

In truth Hogg’s mistake was rugby’s equivalent of an open goal as the captain dropped the ball over the line after a catalogue of hard, reward less work from his forwards who were impressive throughout.

But a measured approach to this rare error from the full-back is to consider it as one of countless Scots try scoring opportunities throughout.

Eleven times the Scots entered the Irish 22 without scoring and that will worry Gregor Townsend. Perhaps this had something to do with the absence of Finn Russell. We’ll never know.

In fairness his replacement, Adam Hastings, strung a solid if not overly impressive performance together at stand-off, but maybe just maybe, Scotland needed Russell’s unyielding tenacity to unlock a prolonged and tireless Irish defensive effort.

To give them their due, Ireland defended with brutal aggression and controlled the game well, Sexton’s clinical first half finish proving crucial in an enthralling affair at the Aviva Stadium.

It was of course unfortunate that the promising prospect, Caelan Doris was forced with injury early on, but his replacement wasn’t too shabby in the form of Peter O’Mahony. A player who was at his impenetrable and streetwise best for the hosts.

His team’s opposition could have learned a thing or two from his intelligent manipulation of referees at the breakdown where a long absent Rory Sutherland and debutant Nick Haining impressed amongst Townsend’s charges.

Ireland will host Wales in a battle of the best defences while Scotland will need to work on their streetwise factor when they host England on Saturday.

 

France 24-17 England: French flair overwhelms Eddie’s England:

Even after crossing the English Channel, Eddie Jones’ England looked lost at sea for large parts of their championship opener in Paris.

Le Crunch is always an event not to be missed and its inclusion in the opening round this year added an extra dimension to an already mouth-watering match-up.

England have enjoyed an illustrious five years under Jones. Two Six Nations titles have spent time in Twickenham’s trophy cabinet and three months ago Jones’ men were 80 minutes away from winning a second World Cup.

Cheslin Kolbe’s scintillating footwork and a South African team full of passion to the brim stopped prevented a second Webb Ellis trophy from returning to West London, but England had received many a coin for some absorbing performances in Japan.

These included a rarely witnessed performance of the utmost dominance against New Zealand after France had travelled home after a calamitous second half display against Wales in the Quarter-Finals.

And yet France were expected to prove tough opposition to a more experienced, more successful, but perhaps more predictable English side.

That being said, no one surely expected the 80 minutes which followed Nigel Owens’ first blow of the whistle in a cauldron like Stade de France which never quietened.

Vincent Rattez kick started the onslaught, taking an intelligent inside pass from Romain Ntamack to cross from close quarters on five minutes. A Manu Tuilagi injury did little to help in the aftermath of this opening, as his team mates’ white shirts became splattered with blood and mud in the light drizzle.

Then on 19 minutes Charles Ollivon took advantage of a moment of English confusion and crossed for their second. Jonny May et al thought the 26-year-old captain had knocked on in the build-up to the try and stopped in their tracks.

His team looked shell shocked, distraught and lost amongst the cacophony of sound provided by French supporters starved off success and the changing rooms couldn’t come quick enough for their visitors who found themselves 17-0 down at the break.

This was most unexpected from a French side which were significant in their youth and dominance in recent under 20 world championships. Led by a captain who had never previously started in a Six Nations match and with a commanding lead this was quickly becoming their game to lose.

However, the hosts’ collapse against Wales in similar conditions in last year’s opener will have been playing on the more conservative of French supporters’ minds. Last year they had been leading 16-0 at half time. The final score? A Welsh win by 21-16. They were far from winning it yet.

After an improved England were able to finally throw some punches, the visitors soon found their nightmare becoming worse. A strong French lineout was followed up by direct running from the ever-present Antoine Dupont who set up Ollivon for his second to give France a 24-0 lead after the conversion with 25 minutes remaining.

Surely, they had won it now and would settle to hold their opponents to nul points? That of course isn’t the French way and in all fairness to England they regained some of their shape at scrum time which improved tenfold after the inclusion of replacements like Ellis Genge.

Then Jonny May scored two ingenious tries, the winger creating nothing from something on both occasions, dragging his comrades to almost within striking distance of the French in just eight minutes.

For the first May somehow weaved his way between countless French defenders with the use of his boot after performing an outrageous chip and chase in the little room he had to play with on the right wing.

The second was almost equally as impressive as the 29-year-old ripped the French defence to shreds, using his lightening pace to gas Virimi Vakatawa from a similar position. The visitors had brought it back to 24-14 with 15 minutes remaining. Was another epic comeback on the cards at an increasingly nervous Stade de France?

Despite this the hosts’ defence remained resolute against stout English attack and the world cup runners up were unable to come away with anything more than an injury time penalty. The visitors claimed a losing bonus point through the boot of Owen Farrell who had spent the previous 80 minutes looking slightly off colour.

One round in and all bets are off already. Although, French odds will surely be higher in a Six Nations in which they could finally prove their potential is worth something more than a bottom half finish and will be big favourites to beat Italy on Sunday. The task is more stark for their English counterparts who travel to Scotland far from assured of a win.

Six Nations 2020 Preview: Ireland

When wandering down some of Dublin’s busiest streets its difficult to ignore the countless electoral posters which line the streets in their hundreds. Each one stars a TD or party leader front and centre. The subject of the personal political campaigns either smiling wryly or poising in an authoritative stance in order to gain voter trust.

Even when travelling out of the city, main roads and even country lanes are peppered with the same posters, battling each other for space on muddy verges. When passing through Ireland’s countryside around three weeks before the country goes to the polls, they are difficult to make out on a cold, misty January day. Election day is pencilled in for the 8th February as the current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, faces a battle to retain his position in the Irish Parliament. On that same afternoon 23 of his country’s best rugby players will also face a battle in Dublin against Wales. Their victory is no more assured than Varadkar’s position as they welcome the Grand Slam champions to Dublin.

Lets park comparisons between politics and sport for now though, and consider the difficult selection that Andy Farrell had to make when he was deciding who would be wearing green this Spring. On the 15th January the former dual-coder, announced his 35-man squad and selected the experienced Jonny Sexton to be at the helm.

The group selected includes five uncapped players with the most eye-catching of these arguably being the English born Billy Burns. The fly-half struggled for game time at Gloucester after the Cherry and Whites signed Danny Cipriani in 2018. A fresh start proved appealing for Burns and he discovered this across the Irish Sea, finding an impressive patch of form at Ulster.

The Bathonian now has the chance to participate on the international stage, a goal he would have been unlikely to have fulfilled in the current English side. We could perhaps expect the 25-year-old to make an appearance of the bench when Italy come a calling in the fourth round. Unless the much-trusted war horse of Sexton has a nightmare, it’s unlikely he will find himself at Number 10 this time around and will more realistically be trying to wrestle the Number 21 jersey off Ross Byrne.

At 34-years-old and with 88 caps to his name, it will be interesting to see how Sexton handles the added burden of carrying the captain’s armband. With a solid record from the boot, there has been discussion surrounding an apparent drop in form in recent performances from the Leinster man, but much of this looks to have been exaggerated and perhaps, unjustified.

After all, 2018’s world player of the year has on countless occasions led from the front at regional level and on the international stage. His cold and calculated 83rd minute drop-goal after 41 phases against France not only left the Stade de France in a state of shock, but also kept Ireland in the running for the Grand Slam which they then delivered.

That year proved to be an historic one for the men in green as they followed a Grand Slam with a series victory in Australia, before triumphing against New Zealand for the first time on home soil. After a painful history of being knocked out of world cups with a whimper, it looked as though the Irish had finally peaked at the right time to make an impact at last year’s tournament.

Unfortunately for those watching on the Emerald Isle, this hope failed to materialise into clear cut success when Japan 2019 came calling. A less encouraging, but not dreadful Six Nations Campaign was followed by a hammering at the hands of a rampant New Zealand side in the Quarter Finals. This followed some unconvincing performances at the group stage after defeating a truly terrible Scotland side and doing what they had to against Russia and Samoa. Indeed, it was Sexton who experienced a galling debut as captain as his side went down 19-12 to Japan in Yokohama after looking like they would ruin the hosts’ party early on, before squandering a 12-point lead.

Andy Farrell will take on Joe Schmidt’s gauntlet with this recent drop in form in mind, but also with a clear focus on finding success in his step up from assistant to head honcho. His team selection certainly combines exciting and younger talent with some players from the old guard remaining central to his plans.

Farrell’s starting XV for the opener against Scotland encompasses debutant Caelan Doris who has shown his worth at Leinster and the uncapped Ronan Kelleher on the bench. Experienced faces such as Cian Healy, Ian Henderson and CJ Stander are also selected in the forwards as Ireland look to dominate their Celtic brethren up front, with Tag Furlong being an unstoppable force in the front row.

Meanwhile, the resurgent John Cooney will be disappointed to not be starting but is assured of replacing the weathered Conor Murray at some point during those first 80 minutes. With Bundee Aki and Gary Ringrose sitting outside Sexton and Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway on the wings, the hosts have no shortage in attacking firepower. They will also look to give the ever dangerous Jordan Lamour a lease of life at full back and it will be interesting to see how the 22-year-old deals with any attack Scotland can muster.

Ireland Vs Scotland – Saturday 1st February @16:45:

It is difficult to see Ireland losing this affair at the Aviva Stadium and there is likely to have been some quiet relief when it was announced they would be facing the Scots first up at home. The omission of two of their opposition’s most influential players, Finn Russell and Darcy Graham, will also give Ireland more confidence that they can come up trumps from this affair.

It has been ten years since Dan Parks proved the unlikely hero as he prevented an Irish Triple Crown at Croke Park with a late penalty to win the game 23-20 in Scotland’s favour. Since then however, Ireland have only lost three times (two in the Six Nations) in this fixture. They were dominant against their woeful World Cup opponents in September and have often left their plucky visitors bruised and battered in competitive, but controlled performances in Dublin.

A bonus point victory wouldn’t be an unrealistic target for the men in green, but they may face some battle from a Scotland side who will either fly or freeze after having to deal with a less than ideal preparation in the run up to this game. Ireland will likely push on and find gaps through brute force and skill. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ireland gain a bonus point victory. My prediction – Ireland by 15.

Ireland Vs Wales – Saturday 8th February @14:15:

This clash of Celtic giants has so often proved to be an entertaining affair and in honesty, the game I most look forward to viewing as a neutral. Always competitive and usually played between two sides contesting the Six Nations title and is very rarely not an enthralling contest. Ireland have claimed 13 of these 22 encounters since the inaugural Six Nations championship in 2000.

In last year’s edition, Gareth Anscombe kicked his Irish counterparts to death in the final round. But the games of recent times are more commonly open-ended affairs. During Ireland’s title run in 2018, an entertaining match ended 37-27 in their favour as Stockdale made a crucial interception to prevent a late Welsh attacking threat to score at the other end.

Indeed, the last time Wales found any gold at the end of the Aviva Stadium rainbow was in 2012 when they triumphed 23-21 over an Irish squad that won only two in that year’s championship. However, this year’s showdown presents another intriguing battle between two teams with new coaches at the helm in the form of Farrell and Wayne Pivac respectively.

Both sides are expected to win their opening ties which will perhaps provide them both with some more confidence if there was any in short supply before this match. Expect another open match with lots of running rugby and a great atmosphere to match the occasion. My prediction – Ireland by less than five.

England Vs Ireland – Sunday 23rd February @15:00:
The radio crackled as my father carefully navigated his way over the treacherous Cairn O’Mount in thick mist on the 24th February 2007. We were travelling home from Murrayfield after witnessing a thoroughly depressing Scottish performance as the hosts were resoundingly beaten 37-17 at the hands of Italy.

Suddenly the sombre mood in the car was lightened by the pure enthusiasm and excitement radiating from the Irish commentators on the radio as Issac Boss ran in Ireland’s fourth try in their 43-13 demolishment of England at Croke Park. It was rare to see an Irish side pile that many points on England, though the roles were well and truly reversed at Twickenham last year.

In that last meeting between the two sides, the English ran out 57-15 winners in a nightmarish world cup warm-up match. This followed a 32-20 English victory at the Aviva Stadium as the visitors overwhelmed their hosts in the first half with a barrage of attacking play. However, when these sides last met at Twickenham, Ireland were runway victors as they completed their Grand Slam campaign.

These occasions in themselves are clear examples of how volatile and unpredictable these match ups are, and I would suggest this year’s encounter will be no different. However, I have a feeling a confident England will dominate this encounter and will feed of Ireland’s failure to a get a grasp hold in the last two meetings between the sides. My prediction – England by 15.
Ireland Vs Italy – Saturday 7th March @14:15:

If you briefly delve into recent records of this fixture you will see a clear indication that the Italians have struggled against Irish opposition since their participation in the Northern Hemisphere’s biggest competition began. On six occasions the men from the Emerald Isle have scored a half century of points against the Azzurri and are known for giving the Italians a bit of a beating in Dublin’s fair city.

In 2018 it ended 29-10 in Ireland’s favour, while in 2016 Ireland were able to put 58 points on their Italian opposition. Sandwiched between these two fixtures was a resounding 63-10 win for the Irish at the Stadio Olimpico in 2017 and Ireland’s only defeat came in the shape of a 22-15 reverse in 2013.

In recent years this seems to have become a fixture which Ireland enjoy playing in and if their tournament hasn’t been going quite like they would have wanted it to, Andy Farrell and his men aren’t likely to take any prisoners against the Italians and a bonus point victory is likely to be in the offing. However, be prepared to see some changes come into force as the Head Coach may choose to rest some of his players for the Super Saturday showdown in Paris. My prediction – Ireland by 40.

France Vs Ireland – Saturday 14th March @20:00:

For Ireland’s final match of the campaign they travel to Paris, a city which used to be a huge thorn in their side but one that has proved a less intimidating place for them to travel to in recent years. Between 2003-2008 the Irish had to settle for a Triple Crown as they failed to overcome the French and even went 13 years without a win at the Stade de France between 2000-2014.

But now the tide has seemingly turned, and it is Les Bleus who find themselves without a triumph against their Irish rivals, their last one coming in the shape of a 10-9 victory four years ago. They have of course come close with the pre-mentioned Sexton drop goal raining on their parade in 2018’s championship. Ireland will however, carry the confidence of a convincing 26-14 triumph last year.

However, with this in mind they will perhaps find the going more difficult this time round against a French side with some exciting young talent which might just grow into the tournament as it goes on. With a finishing position in the championship in the balance, my gut says France will edge this one and recapture some of the stonewall confidence which they used to have when playing in this fixture.
My prediction – France by 5.

My Prediction for Ireland – 3rd place with 15 points

Six Nations 2020 Preview: Italy

When thinking of Italy as a country or an entity if you will, the mind might likely conjure images of warm beaches, vineyards full of grapes and great food. For most of us these images are likely to be appetising if not slightly patronising to a more realistic outlook on the Italian national identity. For someone inhabiting Aberdeen in January it is definitely an appetising idea to escape Scotland’s winter for the warmer climes of Italy’s Mediterranean coast.

National stereotypes aside, these images are a polar opposite to the images conjured when Italian rugby is added to the equation. Italy enter this year’s Six Nations on the back of a 22-match losing streak which began after they beat Scotland in Rome, during another championship which us Scots would like to forget.

There’s been several of those forgetful years for Scottish supporters and Italian supporters are perhaps more likely than others to be sympathetic to our plight. Though they may even be a little jealous that the team they’ve beat the most in the tournament have at least recorded some, if little success in recent years.

Returning to the tribulations faced by the Azzurri, and their unfortunate run is perhaps more frustrating by the fact they looked to be making real progress under Conor O’Shea. The Irishmen said as much when he resigned from the role last November after four years at the helm.

The run of results during the O’Shea years may not suggest an obvious improvement in fortunes for this football mad nation, but Italy’s two regional sides, Benneton and Zebre have both come on in this time. This can be seen in Benneton’s third place finish in Conference B of the Guinness Pro14 last season which is coupled with much improved performances in Europe.

It is also perhaps encouraging for the development of the game in the Mediterranean country that 31 of their 35 player Six Nations Squad play for these two sides. This is alongside the talent of players such as Jake Polledri, who is a regular starter in the back row for Gloucester.

Despite the talent of other key players including Tommaso Allan, Matteo Minozzi and Alessandro Zanni, there is a certain talisman which the Italians are likely to miss. Sergio Parisse planned to retire at the end of the world cup but wasn’t quite granted his wish as in an act of god, Typhoon Hagibis prevented the 36-year-old from having the send-off he wanted. The Azzurri’s final pool match in Japan against New Zealand being cancelled.

However, the former captain and formidable Number Eight has suggested he could return to the starting line-up to face England, Scotland or both. This despite being omitted from Head Coach Franco Smith’s squad for the upcoming championship. With 142 international appearances to his name, the third most capped player in rugby history would almost definitely be welcomed back by the Italian supporters.

The former full-back and Harlequins Director of Rugby, O’Shea has been replaced by Smith on an interim basis as the Italian Rugby Federation search for someone to take the reins full-time. The South African faces a baptism of fire when the Italians travel to Cardiff for their Championship opener against the reigning champions and world cup semi-finalists. Perhaps the Bok couldn’t have asked for a more challenging start to his regime.

Wales Vs Italy – Saturday 1st February @14:15:

Italy haven’t beaten Wales since 2007 when a controversial referring decision prevented the Welsh from taking an attacking line-out at the death after Chris White changed his mind about how much time was actually left after James Hook had decided to kick for touch. Search the match on YouTube if you want to see a rightly fuming Gareth Thomas. That 23-20 win is one of two occasions when the Azzurri have triumphed against their Welsh counterparts, the other coming in 2003 while Welsh rugby experienced a rather torrid time at the start of the decade.

However, Wayne Pivac and the Welsh aren’t likely to take any prisoners this time round and the Italians will need a huge, if not historic performance to come away with a win on the 1st February. Although this statement sounds harsh, Italy are yet to beat any other side than Scotland away from home. The closest they’ve come to this achievement being in 2006 when they played out an 18-18 draw with Wales in Cardiff.

A losing bonus point would be a more realistic for target for Smith and his men, but this looks unlikely. In my view, a feasible outcome would be for the visitors to leak tries in the second half, with the positive note being a couple of tries created by some Italian flair. My prediction – Wales by 20.

France Vs Italy – Sunday 9th February @15:00:

Next up for the Azzurri is a trip to the city of romance, although the atmosphere in the Stade de France is likely to be less welcoming than the sites of Paris. Although this game is often overlooked and forgotten about by the

home nations fan base, last year’s outing in Rome was exciting until the very end. This being until the home supporters had to watch Damien Penaud seal an unconvincing French win in the 78th minute.
Italy have beaten the French in 2011 and 2013, alongside a closely run 23-21 loss in Paris in 2016. On this occasion however, its my view that a French backline which is sparkling with talent will overcome an Italian side which would love to travel back across the Franco-Italian border with an unlikely result. I have been wrong before though. Very wrong. My prediction – France by 15.

Italy Vs Scotland – Saturday 22nd February @14:15:

From the outset Italy’s goal has to be record a victory this year and put a stop to a slump which has provided them with four consecutive wooden spoons and the unwanted record of having the longest losing streak in Six Nations history. This goal must surely be achieved if they want to smother the debates raging around the role which the 12th ranked side in the world play in the championship. When the Scots come a calling in Rome, Italy will have hope that they can deliver that elusive win. And why shouldn’t they be hopeful?

In the 12 victories which the Azzurri have recorded since the turn of the century, seven of these have come at the hands of Scotland. Their largest victory in the Six Nations being a 37-17 victory at Murrayfield in 2007, which was of course the Nixon family’s first outing to the rugby. Through misty eyes full of tears, we watched Italy storm into a 21-0 lead after just six minutes, as two of Chris Cusitier’s passes were miserably intercepted by the poaching Italians.

Eleven years after that sombre Scottish display, Italy should have beaten us in Rome. The Italians led the Scots 24-12 with 60 minutes remaining at the Stadio Olimpico after dominating their final match of the 2018 championship. Despite this, they some how blew their lead as Greig Laidlaw’s men managed to grab a victory from the jaws of defeat as a late Laidlaw penalty meant the game finished 29-27 in favour of the visitors.
Scotland’s away form has been below par for a long time and Italy have recorded five of their seven wins against the Scots in Rome. I predict another close one in the third round, but I’m going to say less than confidently that Scotland will steal it in a similar fashion to that match-up two years ago. I reckon it’s going to be pretty tight. My prediction – Scotland by less than five.

Ireland vs Italy – Saturday 7th March @14:15:

The record books show the Italians have struggled against Irish opposition since their participation in the Northern Hemisphere’s biggest competition began. On six occasions the men from the Emerald Isle have scored a half century of points against the Azzurri and are known for giving the Italians a bit of a beating in Dublin’s fair city. In 2018 it ended 29-10 in Ireland’s favour, while in 2016 Ireland were able to put 58 points on their Italian opposition.

Sandwiched between these two fixtures was a 63-10 battering at the Stadio Olimpico in 2017. Not a fine day to be an Italy supporter, though perhaps they can find some hope in re-watching Italy’s 22-15 victory against Ireland in 2013. Again, however, it saddens may to say that the best Italy can probably hope for is to salvage a losing bonus point from their trip to the Aviva Stadium.

Similarly, to the Welsh game, I predict Italy will be good value in that they should be able to snatch a couple of tries but will also likely leak a few. This is a game Ireland like to go all out in and if their tournament hasn’t been going quite like they would have wanted it to, Andy Farrel and his men aren’t likely to take any prisoners in this fixture. My prediction – Ireland by 40.

Italy vs England – Saturday 14th March @16:45:

It could just be the fairy-tale ending for a stalwart of not just Italian rugby, but of European rugby and the game on a global scale if Italy beat the English in Rome. This is of course dependent on the inclusion of Sergio Parisse into the Italian squad and more significantly, on a perfect rugby display by the hosts.

During 20 years of Six Nations action, the Italians have failed to better the English. This despite running them close on a few occasions and in 2017’s infamous ruck gate performance where the Italians attempted to use an unconventional method to challenge England in that encounter. It certainly left their visitors slightly befuddled and as so often in these fixtures, Italy were still in the running until around the 45-50-minute mark, before the Red Roses ran away with it.

From this year’s game I expect to a see similar structure being played out with England running away with it in the second half while Italy cross the whitewash two or three times. Expect it to be less close if the championship is going down to the wire like it did on Super Saturday five years ago. My prediction – England by 20.

My prediction for Italy – 6th with one point.

Word Associations:

Tommasso Allen – Sad he didn’t play for Scotland.

Conor O’Shea – He will be missed within the Italian coaching set-up.

Scotland – There for the taking in Rome.

Sergio Parisse – It would be great to see him pull on a light blue shirt for a proper send-off.

Rome – I would love to see a game there one day, though not a Scottish one. I’d rather it would be one I could actually enjoy without biting through all my finger nails.

The Maddest of Rugby Matches

What. A. Test. Match.

On Saturday England and Scotland met in the last round of the 2019 Six Nations to compete for the annual Calcutta Cup. From a Scottish perspective the outlook leading up to this final competitive game before the world cup wasn’t looking too bright.

A Scottish team savaged by injuries and coming off the back of three disappointing defeats had been tasked with winning at Twickenham for the first time since 1983. Ah, ’83, a long, long time ago. So long ago in fact, that my now balding dad would have been but 12-years-old.

Since then it had been a parade of losses (and one draw) at the home of the red rose. However, lets return to the less distance past. Specifically 5.30 pm on Saturday. A time when many Scottish fans, like myself, sat covering their eyes or had switched of the telly. Half-an-hour in and England led 31-0. It looked as if the Scots would be travelling back up the A1 after going down to a cricket score.

England were desperate to win this game and who could blame them. A defeat in a epic game against Wales had put their hopes of a grand slam to bed. And just before kick-off in West London, a Welsh victory meant the title was now out of their reach. The English had shown their aggression in the last round of games, tearing apart Italy after crushing victories in their first two games against Ireland and France

It also became obvious over the entirety of the Six Nations, that the English were even more desperate to beat the Scots. They had not enjoyed a raucous Murrayfield last year and were quite rightly riled up by the unsavoury behaviour of some Scottish fans after last year’s thrilling Scotland win.

For me, the humble and long suffering Scotland fan, it had been a difficult tournament. The lads had definitely shown moments of brilliance, but this had been compounded by poor discipline and an inability to actually get across the try line.

Scotland began the Championship with a good win over Italy, but had followed it up with two games which they had lost after dominating for large periods against Ireland and Wales. The French had also put the Scots away after there had been some hope we could stop a rotten 20-year Paris losing streak. It wasn’t to be.

So now, an injury ravaged Scotland found themselves on English soil, the 61-21 defeat of 2017 acting as a hellish reminder of what could happen if we didn’t turn up. Surely for Scotland the key would be game management and damage limitation. The odds were certainly stacked against us but there was some hope. This was quickly banished.

Within the first two minutes England were 7-0 up, poor Scottish defence contributing to a training ground move which Jack Nowell gladly finished off. Not a good start but I tried to convince myself it would get better.

Nope. Within 13 minutes the hosts led 21-0, Billy Vunipola and Joe Launchbury powering over. This wasn’t good.

The blistering Jonny May followed up on this lightening start and made it 31-0 on 29 minutes. During the week I had been happy, for lack of a better word, to comment on how we would be reflecting on a convincing English victory after the weekend. I hadn’t however expected it to be this bad.

Tempted to switch the TV off I continue to watch with a couple of flatmates, almost daring England to keep scoring. Scotland looked hapless and perhaps lazy in defence. My friend messaged me saying they didn’t deserve to be wearing the jersey. Perhaps a little harsh, but he had also just switched his telly off, not willing to experience anymore of what had become almost masochist viewing.

Then in the 34th minute the Scottish hooker and captain, Stuart McInally, charged down an Owen Farrel kick and scored an epic try, out-gassing two English backs as he rampaged down the pitch like a man possessed. Was this the key turning point just before half-time.

It certainly made me decide to keep watching as it showed there was still spirt in this side. Perhaps we could peg back another score or two while shipping less tries in the second half? That didn’t seem to unrealistic to hope for.

Kicking off the second half, Scotland looked brighter and the young Darcy Graham, a player full of potential, touched down in the corner in the 46th minute. That’s better Scotland, I thought, joking this was the start of a famous comeback as I considered getting the Saturday evening boos in early.

Then three minutes later, a superb chip and run by Ali Price set up Magnus Bradbury. I suddenly sat up and stopped scrolling through the endlessly boring world of social media. Perhaps something special was happening, as with 30 minutes remaining the Scots had pulled it back to 31-19 with three unanswered tries.

Then in the 56th minute Graham scored again and all hell broke loose in the flat. Well, I got excited and so did my German flatmate, who I’m happy to report is seemingly backing Scotland in the rugby. Maybe not his best decision but something a bit special seemed to now be happening at Twickenham. The score was now 31-24.

A few minutes later and I got very excited as eventual man of the match Finn Russel brilliantly intercepted Farrel’s pass to score again. We were now level and I was desperately looking for a stress ball of sorts as I struggled for breath. An old coat hangar would have to do. Could Scotland hold out for a draw?

Surely victory was still just beyond our grasp in this surreal rollercoaster of a test match. But then in the 75th minute, Sam Johnson produced a moment of magic, finding a gaping hole in the English defence and beating several white shirts to the try line. Scotland were in the lead and I’m not sure anyone could quite believe what they were seeing.

Could Scotland be heading for victory at Twickenham for the first time in 36 years? The answer? No.

An epic defensive effort from Scotland as the clock went red couldn’t keep out George Ford as England scored a converted try to tie the most epic rugby match I, and many neutrals, have surely watched. Fortunately the old coat hangar didn’t go through the window or cause my flatmates any injury as I flung it in frustration.

Although in truth I didn’t know how to feel. For a few wonderful moments it had seemed as if an unprecedented Scottish victory was in the offing. But then it all came crashing down, as for no lack of trying the Scottish defence couldn’t prevent the hosts from crossing the whitewash. This being after they had spent 40 minutes trying to regain their first half composure which had put them 31-0 ahead.

However, disappointed I felt when Ford scored, there remained a sense of pride in this Scottish performance. In the face of adversity after a dire 30 minutes, they had shown immense amounts of flair and character to put themselves in a winning position with five minutes remaining.

Perhaps, more importantly though, it had reminded me why I love rugby. What. A. Game.

FT: ENGLAND 38-38 SCOTLAND

 

 

 

 

 

 

Away Days – NE England

Having been working (and cycling) away since I came home from my Fijian adventure, I was keen to get away for a while. A change of scene was needed and just about anywhere would do. I had thought about going abroad, but decided to leave that until the end of the month instead – I’ll write about where I went soon!

No instead I decided to stay in the sunny UK, taking my long suffering Dad along with me. He did the driving so he actually kind of took me with him.

Anyway we ended up deciding to go to Northumberland for no good reason whatsoever, apart from having never really been there before. Maybe that is a good reason for going somewhere.

Early on a Tuesday morning we set of on our perilous voyage down the East Coast of Scotland to Englandshire, stopping first just across the border in Berwick-upon-Tweed. I had only ever viewed this town from the window of a London bound train so it was nice to explore the old town walls which had protected the town from the English, the Scots, the English, and then… I could go on. Basically for a period in Berwick’s history it was difficult to figure out which nation the town belonged to.

Picking up a cycle map, I studied some of the local routes, looking for one which would be suitable for me to test my legs on, as we headed towards our campsite for the next two nights. We camped on the outskirts of a small town called Wooler, 13 miles south-west of Berwick.

Taken aback by how quiet the roads seemed, I hopped on my bike as soon as we had set up camp. I soon found myself heading north up traffic free, dusty roads, meeting nothing but the odd combine.

If you know me at all you’ll have realised riding a bike is something I already find immensely fun (mostly!). However, there is something about riding on new unknown roads which adds to this sense of enjoyment. Using my phone as a map I flew down small country lanes and soon realised I was heading back towards the mother nation.

With around an hour’s riding done I decided to make crossing the border into Scotland by bike today’s target, only slightly concerned about the dark clouds forming to the west. Several miles and much (phone) map reading later, I came across a pedestrianised bridge with a plaque reading “ENGLAND” stuck to one of the archways. I had found the border!

On the other side of this picturesque bridge (picture below) across the River Tweed, I was welcomed to Scotland. For some reason it felt more special to be riding across the border which holds much less importance than it once did many years ago.

Changing direction once I was in Scotland, I headed towards Kelso, before swinging south across the border again towards Wooler, using my phone to navigate the peaceful country lanes. Although there were no particularly long climbs, the roads were undualting, with fun to be had on the steep short climbs and the technical descents which followed.

That evening I compared notes with Dad about the local roads. He had gone for a shorter cycle, something which was encouraging as health issues had often meant he couldn’t enjoy exercise as much as he sometimes wanted to. And the next day we dicided to cycle across the causeway to the Holy Island, an island only accessible by roads for 12 hours a day. Spinning across the slippery seaweed soaken tarmac was a somewhat surreal experience as small lakes of water surrounded us.

After crossing we didn’t stay around for too long. A hot drink and a short look around and we set of across the causeway and back to the car. It was a cold day and the clouds looked full of rain. Yesterday I had managed to stay dry but today the heavens opened after we had returned to the campsite.

Sitting in the car I suggested we go to Newcastle or “N,Castle” as locals like to call it. The city seemed a sensible idea when the weather was this vile. Again I had only ever passed through this city on the train and was impressed but what I saw. During a break in the weather we wandered down to the river, where there was bridges galore.

Having enjoyed my first “Nandos” ever (shock horror) and many a “geordie” voice in Newcastle we overheard many more broad accents in the pub that night back in Wooler. That night my mattress deflated so I got up at first light. First priority was water followed by getting my lycra on and hopping on my bike again. It being 6 am the roads were empty, though it was very cold.

It quickly warmed though and I did a similar route to the one two days previous, adding some miles to make it a 50 mile effort. Not a bad mornings work. With the sun on my back and my legs taking me were I needed to go I felt lucky to be alive. Sometimes getting up so early can be of significant benefit and I felt set up for the rest of the day.

It may have been a short trip but it was definetly an enjoyable one and worth it to explore a new place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Nations 2018 Preview

Including hopes as a massive Scotland fan, the form of the other nations and predictions for results and the final standings.

A bit of history

With the annual showdown between the six best teams in the Northern Hemisphere rolling around next Saturday there is a spring in my step as a rugby fan. As a Scottish rugby fan there is a slightly more positive feeling going into this year’s round of matches, coming of an arguably successful 2017 which included the first Six Nations since 2006 in which the men in blue won three matches….

The 2006 tournament was really my first experience of watching rugby, and a remember as seven year old being enthralled in the five weekend’s of coverage as Scotland recorded victories over France, England and Italy finishing third. After this first experience of moderate success I thought this was the status quo and couldn’t wait for the 2007 championship. This excitement came to a crashing halt a year later after a drive to Murrayfield on misty, wet roads resulted in a 37-17 defeat the Italians. Conceding three tries in the opening ten minutes was not a great introduction to a sporting arena which had played host to many highs, just not in my lifetime.

From there it seemed to go down hill every year as a Scotland fan. Most years we would usually either struggle to beat the Italians or spring the occasional surprise on England (2008), Ireland (2010, 2013) while losing to Italy. This often meant we were awarded the dreaded ‘Wooden Spoon’, the award given to the bottom team after the Scots had only managed one victory or even finished without.

Every year we would turn our attention to the other nations, watching jealously as the likes of France, Wales, Ireland and England competed for the trophy. Thought this was still entertaining from the perspective of a rugby fan there is a growing desperation to play part in the top half of the tournament. With no memory of the Five Nations victory when I was all but several months it has been rare to experience much in the way of Scottish success.

Recent Scottish hope

However, following an encouraging (and perhaps unlucky – don’t worry I won’t o into detail) performance in the previous year’s World Cup, where our hopes were ended by Australia and referee Craig Joubert in the Quarter Finals, the Scots had a relatively strong campaign in 2016 ending a nine Six Nations game rot with  a convincing win in Italy before beating the French at home. The campaign also included close encounters with England and France before being outmuscled by Ireland after a plucky performance. Things looked to finally be on the up under the tuition of Vern Cotter and as mentioned the Scots went one better a year later.

After beating a tough Japanese side that Summer before victories over Argentina and Tonga were followed by a agnosing defeat by Australia, (this seems to have become bit of a grudge match) the men in blue recorded three victories in the 2017 championship winning every home game. These included impressive victories against Ireland and Wales either side of a disappointing defeat in Paris by a brutal French side. However, the only let down was a massive 61-21 defeat at Twickenham to the ‘Auld Enemy’, a loss which a comprehensive last round defeat of Italy couldn’t make up for. This loss was comprehended by a 4th place finish as our points difference took a battering after the England game.

As ‘Big Vern’ packed his bags and made his way to the French ‘Top 14’ and Montpeillier, there was a wide sense amongst Scottish fans that he had taken the national side a long way. There was confidence that the entrance of successful Glasgow and former Scottish international, Gregor Townsend, would result in the continuation of this progress. In the following months it became obvious that the SRU’s appointment hadn’t been based on false evidence as Scotland travelled to Australia and gained revenge for the two previous defeats after a convincing victory over Italy in Singapore.

A loss to Fiji down there was the forgotten after it rained tries at Murrayfield in a 44-38 victory over their Pacific neighbors, Samoa. This seemed to back up the Townsend mentality of playing chaotic rugby with a focus on scoring lots of tries even if it meant the opposition crossed the whitewash a lot too. This victory was followed by a narrow defeat by New Zealand in which some awesome defensive work by the class act which is Beuden Barret stopped Stuart Hogg meters from the line in the 80th minute. ‘Hoggy’ was spot on when he said it was “bloody close” post match. A 22-17 defeat in the end.

I don’t think anybody predicted what was going to happen next. After the frustration of not quite getting across that whitewash in the previous Hogg was ruled out in the warm up for the Australia game. He likely didn’t think he would watch the Scots score eight tries against the Wallabies in a scintillating display against the 14 man tourists. In an amazing display the Scots put down a marker for this year’s Six Nations and that just about brings us up to date.

Form and Expectations

Many armchair experts in the media seem to be putting the Scots up there with England and Ireland but I would be cautious, figuring that we don’t suit the tag of being semi-favorites very well. First of all England enter this tournament with one defeat in their last 24 games under the masterful leadership of Eddie Jones with only a game against New Zealand surely providing a benchmark of whether they are the best team in the world (they haven’t met in England’s last 24 games). Despite criticism off some areas of they’re performance, you can’t argue that they aren’t hugely clinical.

Ireland, the only side to beat a Jones led England, should probably be seen as the joint or second favorites for the championship. After a disappointing campaign last time round, (defeats to Scotland and Wales rendered the victory over England as a consolation for not being in the running for lifting the trophy)  they should be following a successful Autumn with the hopes of treating the last game away against England as the decider this time round.

Moving onto Scotland’s other Celtic cousin, it has been well remarked in the media that Wales seem to be going through a transitional period. Their performances in the Autumn didn’t exactly set the rugby community alight, even if they were slightly more plucky against New Zealand and South Africa after a shocking display against Georgia at the Millennium. Though it must be said that a poor Autumn often doesn’t mean a poor Six Nations for the Welsh. Last year’s championship was mixed for them as well. Impressive wins over Ireland and Italy along with a perhaps unlucky defeat to England, went hand in hand with defeat to Scotland and France in a farcical 100 minute game in Paris.

It is my opinion that as we head towards the North Sea there unfortunately isn’t anything to get to excited about this year. The French who for long periods of time have dominated who gets their hands on the trophy, have been out of sorts for at least the last five years, winning it last in 2010 and rarely finishing in the top half of the table since. The cliché of them being massively unpredictable seems to have been altered to them either being very poor or pretty mediocre in their performances, a missed conversion saving their blushes in a 23-23 draw against Japan in the Autumn. Incredulously though, it is the French and I am therefore not willing to quite write them off yet.

Last but not least there is Italy, the long term minnows of the tournament who will be hoping to improve this year. Although I think an improved Italy would be good for the championship I don’t want to seem them beat Scotland like they managed to in on multiple occasions in previous years. There is a hope that former Harlequins coach, Connor O’Shea can work some magic after improvements in the Pro 14 and Europe by Treviso and Zebre. Can they avoid the Wooden Spoon? We shall wait and see.

The Predictions

With the bonus point system of last year in place this adds slight complication but I will try my best and look forward to seeing how wrong I am.

Round 1

Wales Vs. Scotland –  Hardest one to predict, but I think Scotland will break their duck of losses in Cardiff in a close match where Wales will get a losing bonus point.

France Vs. Ireland – Ireland started slowly last year and I think the same will happen in Paris with the exception that they will win in a game likely dominated by penalty goals. Victory by ten points or so for the visitors.

Italy Vs. England – The hosts will put up a fight for the first half but England will pull away for a convincing BP win after an hour at the most.

Round 2

Ireland Vs. Italy – Not unlike last year, Ireland likely to win this one convincingly with a BP.

England Vs. Wales – Won’t be as close as last time round but plucky Welsh performance will earn them a losing BP.

Scotland Vs. France – France will want to make amends for Irish loss but will be beaten in close high scoring encounter by Scots. Losing BP for French.

Round 3

France Vs. Italy – This may be the game the Italians target the most and I predict a close affair in Marseille. Losing BP for Italy.

Ireland Vs. Wales – Wales have often acted as Ireland’s bogey with last year being no exception. This year however I think Ireland will win by 15 points or more.

Scotland Vs. England – Hopefully closer than last year’s demolition. England to win tense encounter at Murrayfield. Scotland get losing BP.

Round 4

Ireland Vs. Scotland – Huge prediction but reckon Ireland will come unstuck in lively affair in Dublin. Irish to gain losing BP though.

France Vs. England – England to win in unconvincing style in a poor game. France to get losing BP.

Wales Vs. Italy – Welsh to blow off steam after plucky first half performance by Italians to get BP win.

Round 5

Italy Vs. Scotland – With championship hopes on the line Scotland to win by narrow margin in Rome. Italian losing BP.

England Vs. Ireland – Ireland beat English at Twickenham narrowly to take championship on points difference on dramatic last day. Losing BP for England.

Wales Vs. France – Wales to finish disappointing campaign with narrow victory over flat French side. Losing BP to French.

Final Standings

  1. Ireland – 18 points (4 wins)
  2. England – 18 points (4 wins)
  3. Scotland – 17 points (4 wins)
  4. Wales – 11 points (2 wins)
  5. France – 7 points (1 win)
  6. Italy – 2 points