Wednesday, 24 September 2014

NFL Week 3

Week 3 saw the last round of fixtures with all 32 teams playing. This coming week there are 6 teams (Bengals, Broncos, Browns, Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks) with a week off. It happens to include 4 of the strongest teams in the entire league (sorry Rams & Browns, I didn't mean you) so the rest need to make the most of the chance to get wins on the board and add pressure to the big guns. 

Let's have a quick review of some of the big games from Week 3:

Russell Wilson destroyed Denver
with his feet in overtime
Seattle Seahawks 26-20 Denver Broncos (overtime)
Another dominant defensive display from Seattle looked to be leading them to a convincing win in the Superbowl rematch until a late rally from Denver took the game into overtime. A safety (when a team is tackled in their own endzone), followed by a first Russell Wilson interception in about 3 million attempts and suddenly momentum was with the Broncos. An incredible drive led by Peyton Manning resulted in a touchdown, two point conversion and overtime. The Seahawks then won the toss, drove all the way down the field and scored the "golden goal" touchdown to extinguish the Broncos' hopes of revenge. That might have to wait until 1st February 2015.

Carolina Panthers 19-37 Pittsburgh Steelers
A big away win for the impressive Pittsburgh Steelers. Carolina are widely accepted as having one of the best defenses in the league but the combined running of Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount trampled all over them. After a very disappointing loss against the Ravens in Week 2, suddenly you have to consider the Steelers as genuine AFC contenders. 

Bortles vs Luck could be a rivalry
for years to come
Jacksonville Jaguars 17-44 Indianapolis Colts
A thumping win for the Colts to get them off the mark this season, after defeats in their first two matches. London's adopted team Jacksonville are in all sorts of trouble this year. Already 0-3, it isn't going to get any better this Sunday away at the Chargers (who beat Seattle last week). The one bright spot is the introduction of Blake Bortles who will now be the starting quarterback, and a positive step towards the future of the franchise. 

Arizona Cardinals 23-14 San Francisco 49ers
The ultra-high quality NFC West took another interesting turn as the less fancied Cardinals moved to 3-0. The 49ers have been to the NFC Championship game for the last 3 seasons but face a real challenge to even reach the playoffs in such a competitive division. Going on the assumption that Seattle pull through to win the division, it's not going to be possible for both Arizona and SF to take a wildcard. 

High scoring clash in the NFC East
Philadelphia Eagles 37-34 Washington Redskins
The Eagles are definitely the team to watch for entertainment value if nothing else. Nick Foles certainly knows how to throw a pass and with McCoy and Sproles running the ball, they basically aim to simply outscore their opponents however many points that means. The Redskins put up a great show, with DeSean Jackson unable to get the win against his old team, but Philly just have too many weapons. Could be a very dangerous team come playoff time. 

The rest of the results from Week 3:

The Bengals may be a team to watch
Chicago Bears 27-17 New York Jets
Buffalo Bills 10-22 San Diego Chargers
Cincinnati Bengals 33-7 Tennessee Titans
Cleveland Browns 21-23 Baltimore Ravens
Detroit Lions 19-7 Green Bay Packers
Miami Dolphins 15-34 Kansas City Chiefs
New England Patriots 16-9 Oakland Raiders
New Orleans Saints 20-9 Minnesota Vikings
New York Giants 30-17 Houston Texans
St Louis Rams 31-34 Dallas Cowboys

Atlanta Falcons 56-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Looking at Week 4, there are obviously less matches but a few tasty clashes in store still. The Eagles have a chance to show they're genuine contenders when they travel to San Francisco; the Packers and the Bears came into the season with high hopes but have both been somewhat underwhelming - they clash in Chicago. The Bucs were slaughtered in Atlanta (trailing 56-0 at one point) and next travel to a reinvigorated Pittsburgh, that could get messy.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

NFL Week 2 Review

Another week completed and another mixture of comebacks, upsets and massive performances in the NFL. However early it is, there are worrying signs for expected playoff contenders New Orleans, Indianapolis and San Francisco. The Patriots, Bears and Packers returned to form after disappointing performances in the opening weekend, and will hope to get some real form going in Week 3. And the likes of Jacksonville and Oakland are living up to the dismal pre-season expectations. 

Here are a few big match reviews, along with the rest of the scores (home team listed first):

San Diego Chargers 30-21 Seattle Seahawks
A big upset with the mighty Seahawks defense unable to shut down the Philip Rivers / Antonio Gates combination, which hooked up for 3 touchdowns. Marshawn Lynch was strangely underused and Russell Wilson couldn't quite get enough going to pull the Superbowl champions through. A glimmer of hope for the NFC West rivals Arizona (2-0) and San Francisco (1-1). 

Chicago Bears 28-20 San Francisco 49ers
Another surprising result, another hat-trick of touchdowns for the home team (this time Brandon Marshall) and another big comeback. The 49ers led 17-0 and 20-7 but fell apart in the 4th quarter, with Colin Kaepernick in particular putting in a dismal performance. Jay Cutler and the Bears have a strong offensive unit but any team hoping to make it to the latter stages of January will have to avoid such frailty.

Minnesota Vikings 7-30 New England Patriots
The Pats had suffered a surprise loss in Miami last week so a trip to Minnesota presented a genuine danger of falling 0-2 for the first time since 2001. The Vikings had thrashed the Rams away from home on the opening weekend but went into this fixture in turmoil with Adrian Peterson (the NFL's best running back) arrested for child abuse. The added pressure on quarterback Matt Cassell led to 4 interceptions and a thumping win for Tom Brady and his team.

Denver Broncos 24-17 Kansas City Chiefs
The new top-ranked team in the league (with the Seahawks slipping) would have expected to maul their AFC West rivals but in the end had to resist a late rally just to secure a one score win. Despite the absence of Jamaal Charles, Kansas City threatened the Broncos all the way to the death but just couldn't get it done.

Other notable matches included the Colts throwing away a golden position against a fearsome Eagles offense, the league's best defensive player, JJ Watt, scoring a touchdown on offense for Houston and a crushing win for the Redskins potentially signalling the beginning of the end for iconic but injured RG3

Here is a list of the remaining results:

Indianapolis Colts 27-30 Philadelphia Eagles
Buffalo Bills 29-10 Miami Dolphins
Carolina Panthers 24-7 Detroit Lions
Cincinnati Bengals 24-10 Atlanta Falcons
Cleveland Browns 26-24 New Orleans Saints
Green Bay Packers 31-24 New York Jets
New York Giants 14-25 Arizona Cardinals
Oakland Raiders 14-30 Houston Texans
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17-19 St Louis Rams
Tennessee Titans 10-26 Dallas Cowboys
Washington Redskins 41-10 Jacksonville Jaguars
Baltimore Ravens 26-6 Pittsburgh Steelers

Heading into week 3, the last week before bye weeks begin (6 teams don't play a match in week 4), the big match ups are Broncos-Seahawks in a Superbowl rematch in Seattle, the Patriots likely to decimate the utterly dreadful Raiders and 0-2 Colts going to divisional rivals (and also 0-2) Jaguars, who are surely only a loss or two away from starting Blake Bortles.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

NFL Week 1 Summary

Could Megatron break his own
single season receiving yards record?
With Week 1 of the NFL 2014 season coming to an end, we can a have quick review of the opening round of fixtures. There were standout and expected performances from big names such as Calvin Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, AJ Green and Peyton Manning. The teams expected to challenge for the Superbowl generally looked strong, particularly the Seahawks and Broncos. And there were a lot of last year's troubles being seen again by the likes of the Tony Romo (Cowboys), Eli Manning (Giants) and Robert Griffin III (Redskins). A run down of some of the biggest games:

Rodgers didn't attempt a single pass
even remotely near Richard Sherman
Seattle Seahawks 36-16 Green Bay Packers
Last year's Superbowl champions made a massive statement, thumping a potential challenger for this year's title. Like Man City crushing Liverpool in the Premiership a couple of weeks ago it was very much a case of asserting who is boss. Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson as well as the defense looking even better than last year. Aaron Rodgers couldn't perform his magic on the toughest stage.

How Tom Brady spent most
of Sunday afternoon
Miami Dolphins 33-20 New England Patriots
Last year's AFC Championship finalists (like losing semi-finalists) New England hadn't lost an opening day fixture for 11 years until they were comprehensively beaten by divisional rivals Miami. Tom Brady looked a shadow of the superstar he has been and the Dolphins dominated in every aspect in the second half. 

Dallas Cowboys 17-28 San Francisco 49ers
There was a lot of optimism going into this season for Dallas, with a refocused Tony Romo at quarterback and wide receiver Dez Bryant ready for a truly great season. With the 49ers defense expected to struggle compared to the last few years the opening 15 minutes couldn't have been more of a surprise. Fumble returns, interceptions, incomplete passes, it all went wrong for the Cowboys and in reality the score could have been a lot worse. Bryant also had to go off for dehydration which scuppered any realistic chance of a comeback. 

Denver Broncos 31-24 Indianapolis Colts
Peyton Manning led the Broncos to a 24-0 lead with three touchdown passes to tight end Julius Thomas. With Andrew Luck throwing two interceptions before finding his groove in the second half, it was too little too late. The Colts were unable to take advantage of multiple chances to make a real game of it and showed the same frailties on the offensive line and rush defense as last year.

JJ Watt celebrating a sack on RG3
Other headlines included a couple of overtime wins for the Falcons (against the Saints led by Drew Brees) and the Bills (a surprise win at the Bears with Jay Cutler misfiring and Alshon Jeffrey going off injured). Last year the Kansas City Chiefs started with a 9-0 record but started this season with a tame loss at home to the pretty weak Titans. Robert Griffin III struggled again, although admittedly up against the mighty JJ Watt coming for him. It could have been worse as well if top draft pick Jadeveon Clowney hadn't gone off injured.

This coming week, look out for Broncos slaughtering the Chiefs, Rodgers finding his mojo at home to the Jets and the Colts Eagles game on Monday night racking up 70-80 points. 

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The NFL is back

The last couple of years has seen a significant rise in the popularity of the NFL in the UK, particularly as a result of the Wembley games and decent media coverage (intentional pun for the serious followers). As the new season punts off this week, there are a whole range of stories to pique the curiosity of the even the most occasional fan. The first openly gay player was drafted but didn't make the final cut for St Louis Rams; the Seahawks are aiming to become the first team to retain the title since the '04-'05 Patriots; London's adopted team Jacksonville Jaguars have signed exciting prospect Blake Bortles and there are a record 3 matches at Wembley this year for the UK fanbase to follow.

My bet for this season's MVP
This Thursday night sees a blockbuster beginning to the 2014 NFL season with the reigning Superbowl champions Seattle hosting many people's outside pick for the title, the Green Bay Packers. Much like the championship game in February, this year's opener will be a clash of the best defense (Seattle) against one of the league's best offences. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is perhaps the best player in the NFL and is back after missing a lot of last season due to injury. The match is also the first clash of these two since one of the most controversial moments in recent NFL history, the so-called Fail Mary, when the Seahawks won on a last minute touchdown which should have been disallowed.

The greatest team in the history of American Football, or indeed any sport, the Indianapolis Colts, start their season with a huge match up against the Broncos. Colts legend now in Denver, Peyton Manning, set records for passing yards and touchdowns last year, before defeat in the Superbowl and will be looking to go one better this time around. 
This time last year Indy were coming off their dramatic 2012 season and looking to build on Andrew Luck's rookie year. They ultimately lost to the Patriots in the playoffs (something Colts fans are familiar with) but did record impressive regular season victories over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos as well as beating the Chiefs in the second highest comeback victory in NFL history. With a stronger group of wide receivers there could be more success ahead but the reality is that weak options at running back mean that a Superbowl run is unlikely this time around.

For those who haven't got a clue when it comes to the gridiron, have a browse here. Some of the best players to look out for are Calvin 'Megatron' Johnson for Detroit Lions (Wide Receiver), Richard Sherman Seattle Seahawks (Cornerback), Adrian Peterson for Minnesota Vikings (Running Back), JJ Watt for Houston Texans (Defensive End). As the season develops over the next 17 weeks we'll see who else can distinguish themselves, and ultimately who is going to be competing in Superbowl XLIX.

Monday, 25 August 2014

A Chance for Someone New?

With the US Open starting today, there has to be a chance of an outsider taking a debut Grand Slam title for the second time this year. None of the usual suspects are on top form and some of the next generation such as Raonic and Dimitrov are starting to turn potential into ability. Both reached maiden Slam semi finals at Wimbledon and in the near future that may well become victories. Flushing Meadows also has a tendency to be a productive tournament for players who only win one or two in their career. Rafter, Safin, Hewitt, Roddick, Del Potro and Murray all won their first major in New York and none have managed more than 2 in total.

Perhaps it's because it's later in the season and so there can be fitness issues affecting the field. The fatigue element may well have played a part in Federer failing to win since the last of his 5 consecutive titles in 2008, aged 27. He has won each of the other Slams since he last triumphed in New York, but not even reached the final here. The Swiss star's dominance coming to an end has brought about a season of the title changing hands each year. The last 6 years have produced 5 different winners (only Nadal x2) and no-one has defended their title from the previous year. That trend will continue again with this edition with Nadal's withdrawal due to injury.

Nadal's absence means that since his Grand Slam debut aged 17 at 2003 Wimbledon, he has been missed 7 majors, including one in each of the last 3 years. To compare, Federer's debut was at Roland Garros 1999, also aged 17. Since then he has never been absent, missing out only 1999 US Open main draw by losing in qualifying. Tomorrow he will appear in his 60th consecutive Grand Slam. Nadal will not overhaul Federer's record of GS titles, because his absence (and injury) record limits how many he has the chance to win. Rafa has actually only won 1 Slam outside of Roland Garros in the last 4 years and it's pretty unlikely he'll still be at the top of his game when he's 32.

Normally you'd think that Nadal's absence would mean the title is pretty much a guarantee for Murray or Djokovic. As it happens, both have been on a fairly feeble run of form, the Scot losing in the QFs of his last 3 tournaments, the Serb in the last 16 of his last 2. Of course they will rise to the big occasion but in the significantly tougher side of the draw, (Djokovic, Wawrinka, Tsonga, Murray, Raonic, Isner), it will take a mighty turn of form for either of them to be holding the trophy aloft in a fortnight. Federer has shown at Wimbledon that he is still in the hunt for the majors and with a relatively weak route to the final (Karlovic, Fognini, Dimitrov, Ferrer), he may well put the American drought behind him. That being said, his performance the last two years doesn't fill you with confidence if you're a Fed fan (2013 Last 16 loss to Robredo, 2012 QF loss to Berdych). For once, none of the major players look like safe bets.

Hence why it might just be the time for a breakthrough from someone new...

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

India Collapse and England Emerge

Just under a month ago the Lords test had finished and as far a lot of people were concerned, so was Alastair Cook. Virtually every name in English cricket had been suggested as an alternative to the captain, Anderson looked like he could still get banned and India appeared to be a genuinely decent test match team.

My last post said we had to keep faith with Cook but it was influenced by the lack of alternatives and a general principle that it's best to stick by a captain. Look where we are now. Cook has proven himself both resilient and determined, gritting his teeth and demonstrating exceptional self-confidence. Under immense pressure from himself as well as the press, he stood up and was counted. Three 50s in the last four innings is an ideal way to head into a massive break from test cricket, although he'll be disappointed that he couldn't get a century, especially against an increasingly dispirited and weary Indian attack, lacking genuine test-match class. Which is perhaps a fair summary of the Indian squad in general...

The desperate batting displays have of course taken the headlines and will be the main focus of attention for India going forward but in truth their bowling needs serious work as well. Kumar had a great IPL and was the only bowler to be able to exploit the conditions consistently here. Although Ishant had one good session, he is pretty one-dimensional and bowls too many leave-able deliveries, only really threatening on a hard bouncy wicket or as a change-up from swing/seam bowling. Beyond these two, the likes of Binny, Pankaj and Shami offer so little sustained threat. Aaron is only young and Ashwin never had any runs to work with or a 4th innings target to defend. 

The batting was undeniably abysmal, and progressively worse but I feel like it was more of a mental weakness and collapse than a lack of talent. Pujara, Dhawan, Kohli and Rahane will still be the backbone of an Indian team which will grow and strengthen over the next few years. With a little more maturity and fortitude, a little less Twenty20-style approach, they will be challenging the best again before too long, if they can sort the bowling and bring in a few new names (watch out for Akshar Patel, Sandeep Sharma and Mohit Sharma).

As for England, the signs are of course positive. Turning round a potentially dreadful summer into an ultimately victorious one will give England a massive boost before the Ashes next summer. The issue with who opens alongside Cook remains, as does the reality that we are heavily reliant on Broad & Anderson in the bowling department. Moeen is a batsman with the potential to be a real class act and has demonstrated glimmers of becoming a quality spinner as well but both sides of his game need work to really develop into a high level all-rounder. Anyone who thinks he is a replacement for Swann needs to wait until Warner, Clarke and Watson have come to tea next year. The reality is that we've been flattered somewhat by our opponents collapsing in various ways, something I can't imagine Australia or South Africa ever really doing. 

With India's strength, the limited overs matches, coming up straight away, it is important for England to finish the job and keep the improvements coming.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Are England Over-Cooked?

The last five years or so of English cricket seem to have installed incredibly high expectations of our national team. We thrashed the Aussies, won in India, climbed to the top of the test rankings and became genuinely top quality. Then the signs began to appear to suggest that the foundations were a little shaky and suddenly it all collapsed spectacularly one winter down under. 

The changing of the guard
The true strength and depth of our squad has now been revealed and we're facing a period of rebuilding and struggle. In some ways we've paid the penalty of having such a successful and stable squad for years. The team of Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Prior, Bresnan, Swann, Broad, Finn, Anderson pretty much picked itself and didn't really require the blooding of young talent, particularly in the batting. Suddenly we're finding ourselves needing Robson, Ballance, Root, Moeen and now Buttler all at once. With Bell and Cook in such abysmal form, is it any wonder we've struggled against a relatively mediocre India team?

The fact that we played utterly dismally yet got within 100 runs of winning suggests that perhaps we're not too far from competitive but is that really what we're aiming for? After such an era of success a lull was inevitable but is no harder to accept. 

So what of the 11 men we have now? It's seemingly the end for Prior, and although Buttler is not yet up to test standard, there is no real alternative. There is little point in bringing back Foster or Reed - a lot of people seem to think that decent county form will translate to test match form but these are players who have had a go at test level and were found wanting. How many times did Hick, Crawley and Ramprakash have chances for England? 

And what of our under-fire and under-performing captain?

No question, Cook needs a break and to find his form again but changing the captain mid-series is not the answer. Criticised for being too dull & boring with his captaincy but not praised for inventive fields in the 1st test or bowling Moeen to Jadeja when we all wanted Anderson. He is stubborn and gritty and on a dismal run of form but he is still outstandingly talented. Despite not scoring one for over a year, he still has two more centuries than any other Englishman in history. 

Four years ago Cook was having similar struggles (although not as captain of course). Look at his averages in the home series before he came good so spectacularly in Brisbane:

2009 vs Australia - 5 matches, series average 24.66
2010 vs Bangladesh - 2 matches, series average 19.66
2010 vs Pakistan - 4 matches, series average 23.85 (9.4 in the first 5 innings)

Hard to imagine scenes like these
again any time soon
If it hadn't been for the gritty and extremely lucky century then Cook would probably have been dropped and England's greatest Ashes success for years may never have come about. Take a read of this article and it's hard to believe it's not written about his current situation. 

Much like with replacing Prior, there is no viable alternative to Cook, as an opener and certainly as captain. If he cannot turn things around by the end of the series then I've no doubt he will go, but for now he needs to remain grittily determined and work hard to turn things around, ideally with at least some support from the ECB, the media and the public.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Who's Daring to Dream?

Among the many things I love about the World Cup is the huge variety of opinions, articles, talking points, disagreements and perspectives it provokes. Go on any decent website and there are as many different articles as you could hope to read, discussing every possible aspect of the tournament. You can read about the teams, players, previous tournaments, the infrastructure, the impact on the hosts, impact on previous hosts, basically anything.

But without doubt the best thing (possibly including the matches, that remains to be seen) is the debate (yes I mean arguments). Who's in your All-time XI, who's in your fantasy team, who will win the Golden Boot, do Messi/Ronaldo need to win to be considered among the best players ever, who should start for England and how far will we get? There is virtually nothing on which you'll find yourself in complete agreement with someone else. If you do, the only thing I can recommend is you debate things a bit more.

Of all the contentious issues, there is one that most clearly identifies the optimists, pessimists, realists and idiots. How will England do? 
A couple of years ago I wrote a post about England's chances going into Euro 2012. Before the tournament, there was a genuine sense of realism about the England football team and our chances in such a way that there was no huge feeling of devastation when Diamanti tucked home the decisive penalty. Winning the group failed to inspire any genuine hope and rightly so given the insipid performance produced against the Italians.

So with it all kicking off on Thursday evening, how are we feeling this time around? There's a certain satisfying symmetry with England starting where they left off in the Euros, aiming to avenge that defeat and put right the dour and lacklustre style of play from 2 years ago. Lots has been made of the exciting young talents of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sterling, Lallana and Barkley but whether they're quite enough to inspire blind optimism in a naturally wary nation remains to be seen. Surely it will be the same old story. Surely warm up draws against the might of Ecuador and Honduras tell us all we need to know. Surely...

I can't help myself, I'm going to put it out there that by 1am on Sunday morning, there'll be the faintest of glints in the eye of even the most cynical of England fans. 

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Testing Times for England and South Africa

Interesting times in the cricketing world. A year and a half ago I wrote a piece about the end of an era as Strauss retired from international cricket and handed the reigns over to Alistair Cook. In truth, it was more of a stage 2 in the Andy Flower era, with the majority of the team remaining the same and a similar feel about the whole set up. The last couple of months however are a totally different kettle of fish. The unceremonious dumping of Kevin Pietersen, the withdrawal of Jonathan Trott, utter collapse in
form of Steven Finn and Matt Prior and sudden retirement of Graeme Swann left an England squad in tatters. Coming off the back of a successful series might have meant you could buy time and put things together again slowly. However, as it was it was unquestionably the most embarrassing and dismal tour in English history, wholesale changes were inevitable - including the departure (or at least slight shuffling) of Flower

A brief limited overs tour against an equally dismal West Indies won't do much in terms of rebuilding for the test arena, but it's a start at least. Getting a couple of wins (however unconvincing) is positive and certainly there are good signs from Broad and Root in particular. 

Buttler and Taylor could have big
roles for England in the coming years
The truth is that teams go through phases, and no side ever remains on top indefinitely. The Aussies dominated world cricket throughout the 2000s, but then became decidedly mediocre and are only coming out of that slump now (although they're doing it spectacularly!) England have had a real good run of it over the last 5 years or so, and it looks like a bit of spell on the sidelines. As a fan it's hard to take but accepting the reality of blooding youngsters and letting faithful servants go is necessary for having genuine success again in the future. It's only a shame that we had to be murdered down under to shock them into realising it. A big series against a young and confident India team this summer could be fascinating.

The other major storyline in world cricket at the moment is the retirement of Graeme Smith. One of the mainstays of the last 10 years is going to leave an almighty hole in the South African set up. Following so quickly on the heels of the departure of Jacques Kallis, one of the greatest players in history, is going to make it extremely difficult for them to stay on top of the test rankings. A home defeat to Australia is their first series loss for 5 years and could spell a slipping in their domination of the test arena. They still have top class players such as Amla, De Villiers, Steyn and Philander but no team can lose Smith & Kallis and not feel the ill effects of it. 

Incidentally, I don't really think that fact that Australia have gone to South Africa and won adds any level of consolation to our humiliation. Perhaps a small amount of perspective and vindication that this is a genuinely strong Aussie team, but the reality is that England played dreadfully and with no pride or fight. Hopefully those days are behind us 

Cricinfo provides a fantastic page showing the upcoming series of all the international teams. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Six Nations, Three Big Wins

There can scarcely have been such round of a one-sided matches in the history of the Six Nations. The fierce rivalries, close contests and rich histories seemingly never fail to produce at least one tense or dramatic clash each weekend of this fascinating tournament. And yet this weekend will hardly go down in history as one of chewed nails, worn nerves and well used seat-edges. The brilliance of the competition is that it there is still so much to look at and analyse, and that the final outcome is not really any clearer than this time last week. Let's look game by game and where the results leave its respective combatants.

Paddy Jackson adds insult to injury,
while North resigns himself to defeat
Ireland 26 - 3 Wales: Probably one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the whole tournament turned into an utterly one-sided domination by the men in green. Ireland performed exceptionally well, controlling the game from Sexton's boot and taking advantage of a hugely disappointing Welsh performance. Few would have expected Wales to play even worse than they did in their win over Italy last week, and fewer still to see such a limited response when they fell behind. Inevitably Ireland will have high hopes going into the remaining 3 fixtures but travelling away to both England and France means that they'll need to maintain their standard of play if they want to be crowned champions. It's not over for Wales, but they too will need a win at Twickenham, as well as a massive swing in points-difference to have any hope of completing that fabled treble.

Another near-flawless performance
from Mike Brown
Scotland 0 - 20 England: A worm-infested pitch and driving rain could have made for the sort of ugly battle that Scotland had a chance of emerging from victorious. As it was, the dismal pitch meant only a few missed kicks and farcical scrums - the rain never came, and nor did the competitive Scottish fight. England's only concern was not putting more points on the board when they had the chance, but unlike in Paris, there was never any danger of it coming back to haunt them. Scotland's stand-out player (at least until inexplicably subbed), Dave Denton, said before the game that this was the match which mattered most. Apparently not many of his team-mates heard him because they failed to show up with any vigour or pace. Hogg couldn't make any impression at all, while Johnny May demonstrated what England had missed last week against France. Hosting another group of Celts in a fortnight will show what England are really made of, while Scotland can look forward to the wooden-spoon-off against Italy, and I imagine putting in a bit of training on the line out.

Fofana's running made the difference
France 30 - 10 Italy: A pretty dire first half was characterised mostly by ill-discipline and missed penalties, rather than anything positive. Then the second half exploded with 3 rapid-fire French tries effectively putting an end to the competitive nature of the match but certainly providing for much more entertaining viewing. The last quarter of the match was Italy camped in the French 22, unable to find the killer breakthrough. Finally it arrived, but only after both sides had a man sent off for a headbutt and France also had one in the bin. The final scoreline reflected how much more clinical the French were, as well as how vulnerable Italy continue to be in spells. As they have done for years, they show potential and promise but not in any sustained manner.

A week off now and then possibly 2 of the biggest clashes of the tournament (sorry Italy v Scotland, I'm not talking about you). Two home wins from two for both Ireland and France, travelling to England and Wales respectively, both with one win from two. Quite feasibly we could have 4 teams with a 2-1 record after 3 matches and then it's anyone's guess how it'll finish up.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Six Nations - All Still to Play For

One round of matches into the Six Nations and in reality not much is clearer about who will be holding the trophy aloft on 15th March. Three home victories leave Wales, France and Ireland heading the table but none of the three victors established themselves as the team to beat. 

It has been much discussed that Wales were pretty unconvincing in their win over Italy. Gifted an early try by a nervous and inexperienced Italian back-line, they failed to capitalise on what was a big chance to hit some significant numbers. Given that last year's tournament came down to points difference, only taking +8 from the Italians could yet come back to haunt the two-time defending champions. Even the usually flawless Leigh Halfpenny threw a dismal pass leading to a straightforward interception and try.

All this being said, let's not forget how Wales started the tournament 12 months ago. Being 30-3 down at home after 40 minutes and going onto lose to a major rival is a whole lot worse than just having to scrape a victory against one of the weaker teams. With Lions centre Jonathan Davies (yes the one controversially selected ahead of Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll, by Wales coach Warren Gatland) set to return a lot earlier than originally suspected, I wouldn't expect to see Welsh team that emerges in Dublin to be remotely the same, in personnel or performance, as the one which left the field in Cardiff. 

The Irish managed to see off an initially positive and organised Scotland team, who faded significantly as the game went on. Inevitably all games open up as players tire and substitutions loosen teams' structure, but into the latter stages of the second half, Ireland suddenly looked like they could score at any moment. There was a good level of cohesion and replacements for key players like O'Connell, Bowe and O'Brien stood up to be counted. A relatively easy home game is an ideal start to a campaign, allowing time for the squad to settle and find some rhythm. Both Wales and Ireland have had that chance, and as such, things are perfectly set up for their clash this coming Saturday.

As for England, I don't want to talk about it. Yes we performed well in the second half and there's lots to play for yet but frankly you can't afford simple mistakes and if we hadn't dug ourselves a hole in the first half, the door wouldn't have been open for Fickou to storm through at the death. The truth is that the better team always wins - England may have dominated parts and played good rugby, but unless you can take your chances and be clinical and focussed to the last minute, you're always liable to let the game slip. No doubt Scotland will pose an entirely different sort of threat to Lancaster's side, fierce passion and physicality likely to be the defining features. Maitland's absence will be a sorely felt by the Scots, and the returning Jonny May could make a big difference to English fluency through the backs. 

On the assumption that France will comfortably have enough to put away the Italians, the table could again make for fascinating viewing come Sunday evening.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Rugby Event of the Year is Back Again

This weekend sees the return of the always highly anticipated Six Nations - this year's edition is no different and equally hard to predict. England, Wales and France are almost inseparable in terms of odds (approx 2-1 across most bookies), with Ireland a touch further back. Inevitably there are injury troubles (Dusatoir, Tuilagi, O'Brien, Bowe, Davies etc.) across most of the teams and with no warm up games as such, it's extremely tricky to anticipate where the different squads are at. 

The autumn internationals seem an awful long time ago now, not that the results have any great significance. Wales suffered defeats to Australia and South Africa (as did Scotland), France lost to New Zealand and South Africa, Ireland lost to New Zealand and Australia, while England lost to New Zealand but did manage to beat Australia. This underlines only the superiority of the southern hemisphere sides, rather than any great distinction between those of the north. Ultimately the Six Nations will come down to how relatively even squads perform on each of the weekends. 

If there is any team with a slight edge in terms of player quality, it must be the Welsh side that provided the backbone to the successful Lions squad. However they do come into the tournament with disruption over contracts and the like threatening to affect the squad harmony which has been such a strength for them over recent years. They are aiming for an historic third consecutive title, something never achieved in the entire history of the tournament, going back to the original Home Nations tournament in 1883. England's constant talk of building a new squad and looking ahead needs to materialise into some kind of success rather than just "encouraging results". It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved by bringing in more debutants in place of the likes of Young and Ashton.

Obviously there is a significant variety each year in the fixture list, who has home advantage in the big matches, and who plays 3 home fixtures. Looking at the 3 favourites' fixtures:

Wales home to Italy, France & Scotland; away to England & Ireland
France home to England, Italy & Ireland, away to Wales & Scotland
England home to Ireland & Wales, away to France, Scotland & Italy

Looking at it, France probably have the best fixtures, with 3 home games, 2 of which are against harder opposition. In some ways, although Wales have 3 home games, they "waste" home field advantage against Scotland and Italy who they would probably beat anyway. 

Unquestionably it will be a tighter tournament than the last couple of years, but whether Wales can make history will be a lot clearer in a month or so.

Found this interesting table via the Daily Mail, the wider the line, the more tries each team
scored that year. Bring back 2001/2 I say! (click on it to expand)