A Slap In The Face For Georgia

After one round of the Six Nations most people’s predictions, if they haven’t already fallen off, are teetering on the edge of a cliff. England, so majestic throughout much of 2016 looked slow and ponderous during most of their match against France, whilst a lot of people’s favourites, Ireland, suffered an agonising defeat against Scotland at Murrayfield. Even Wales, whose 33-7 victory against Italy on paper looks impressive, had to wait until the Italians were down to fourteen men before they pulled away in Rome.

Yet whilst most people would say that Ireland were the big losers at the weekend I would suggest that Georgia may be the nation who are rueing most the competiveness shown by all teams in a tight fought opening weekend. Georgia are by far and away the seventh best rugby team in the Northern Hemisphere, having one the last six “Best of the Rest” Northern Hemisphere rugby championships and a disappointing display by Italy or Scotland would have furthered their argument to be allowed to play off with the bottom placed team for a place at the top table. Yet what this weekend showed us is that whilst Scotland are not going to win the Six Nations and Italy may struggle to win a game, they can both be competitive on their day.

So where does this leave Georgia? Like the Pacific Islands and Japan, smaller “tier 2” nations need to be able to play the big boys more often than they do, not just every four years at the World Cup. Every “tier 1” nation should be committed to playing at least one of the smaller nations once a year. What harm would it do if England preceded their summer tour with a stopover in Japan or Fiji and surely instead of playing money grabbing friendlies in America, wouldn’t the grass roots of the game be better served if the All Blacks warmed up for their Autumn tour by playing the likes of Western Samoa? They could even play the game here in New Zealand if they were worried about the travelling!

Finally, on the subject of “tier 1” and “tier 2” nations I have been amused that as England close in on New Zealand’s record of consecutive wins the Kiwi press have started to follow the All Blacks record of 18 with the words “against tier 1 nations”. Surely a win is a win and if England do manage to get to 19 by completing a second consecutive grand slam their achievements should be recognised and not diminished because they had the temerity to play Fiji! And if they do fail will the Kiwi press remove the addendum?

If they do I am afraid they will have to add another because between 2008 and 2014 Cyprus won 24 consecutive rugby matches, 6 more than the All Blacks managed and a total which would mean England would have to win every match until the end of the year!

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People In Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Rugby Balls – Part II

A recent, rather thoughtful, article in the New Zealand Press highlighted that the British Lions had to win the first test otherwise they would end up losing the series 3-0. Whilst I disagree with this statement, Warren Gaitland demonstrated in Australia he is up to the task of rotating his team to fulfil a gruelling schedule, I do agree that the two blocks of friendly internationals, in June and November, are timed such that the home team will always have the advantage.

The article then went onto call for a global season yet I fear this is always going to be impossible. Whose season would you adopt, north or south? Or if you met half way what happens to the traditional season highlights? Would you want to watch the Six Nations in October or the New Zealand Championship in January? The only solutions I feel would be acceptable to both sides would be minor yet even minor tweaks might level the playing field no matter how unpalatable they are for Rugby’s authorities.

Firstly, the northern hemisphere would need to finish their season earlier and perhaps not make the Heineken Cup the culmination of the season. The teams which make up the final usually have a greater proportion of players going on the summer tours and most of these players are usually unavailable or unfit for the first international of the tour. And secondly push the dates of the summer tour back a week, this would give a two week break between high intensity matches which would be on par with what the All Blacks faced between a dead rubber in South Africa and money spinning match against Ireland in Chicago.

Finally, the author of that article finished implying a global season would never happen because England are too focused on revenue to care about the rest of the global game. Their reasoning being Fiji were only paid $172,000 dollars for their game at Twickenham! I have previously stated in this blog the gap between Tier 1 nations and the rest need to be addressed but the implication that this is England’s fault or responsibility is just another example of the All Black Presses sour grapes and hypocrisy.

If New Zealand Rugby really do care about the Pacific Island rugby playing nations on their doorstep, then they need to do something about it. Instead of trying to break the American market, and with it scoop up all of those Trump dollars, New Zealand could have kicked off their Autumn tour with a match against Fiji, Tonga or Western Samoa but that would be bad for revenue, sound familiar to you? Are we talking about the All Blacks or England?

Instead Fiji played England whilst Tonga played Italy, Samoa played France, Japan played Wales and Georgia played Scotland, yet can you recall when one of the SANZAR teams played any of these nations outside a world cup?

Maybe that article was correct and we should consider a global season but instead of the northern hemisphere teams touring one country they could share the love, and the revenue, around. England could play one match against the Wallabies then one against the All Blacks before finishing their tour by playing one of the Pacific Island nations, which would provide much needed revenue for these nations!

Of course this is not going to happen because the rugby super powers, including the All Blacks, don’t want to lose revenue so I would suggest, once more, to the New Zealand rugby press that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw rugby balls.

End Of The Autumn Internationals

With one last match the Autumn Internationals ended on Saturday, and what a match of contrasts. For all of Australia’s attacking intent, in the first half, you always got the feeling the Wallabies were in the match because England were not playing as you knew they could and how that theory was proved in after the interval.

Who won the battle of the scrum?

It is fair to say one of the biggest highlights of the build up to the match was the bickering in the press between the two head coaches, with both complaining the opposition infringed on the rules when the two packs went into battle. In reality I feel this was a pretty even exchange, with the biggest moment actually arising from a bad hook by the England captain which cannoned past the legs of his gleeful opposite number.

Did England deserve to win?

Put simply yes. Sure they were fortunate to be in touching distance at half time, thanks to a poor pass from Nick Phipps, which was further compounded by Kepu and gratefully pounced upon by the grateful Joseph. But after the restart England showed why they were unbeaten in over a year with a mental fortitude which has not been seen in a major England men’s team since Sir Clive and the boys lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy

Who was Man of the Match?

It has to be the aforementioned Joseph. Not only did he score two intercept tries but his deft kick into the corner provided Yarde with the try which surely knocked the stuffing out of the Wallabies. An honourable mention has to go to England’s other try scorer, Ben Youngs, who showed once more he is as good as anyone else on his day.

How Good is this England team?

Eddie Jones said after the match his team is not as good as the world cup winning team from 2003 and I have to agree with him but they are close. Reading the Kiwi press this morning one comment jumped out was that England do not have any players who would get into the All Blacks team and even though, as I have mentioned before, you have to take anything written about the New Zealand rugby team in their own papers with a very large pinch of salt, I would take this as a massive compliment to the current England team because their press are not only wrong but scared. Whilst Aaron Smith is undoubtedly the best scrum half in the game at the moment he has been out of form and Ben Youngs is just as good, if not even better than TJ Perenara. Moving outside Ford might not have the explosive skills of Barrett but he is better at managing the game and Owen Farrell is surely the premier goal kicker in the world game at the moment. Both teams have yet to decide on their best midfield partnerships and the players in line are pretty much of a muchness, it is only when you reach the back three that New Zealand are clearly dominant.

In the pack Coles would get my nod over Hartley but the best of the front rowers is again English with Marko Vunipola. Even the back row, usually an area of Kiwi dominance is well balanced with Read, Cane and Vito being matched by Robshaw, Haskell and Billy Vunipola with each team also having impressive back up players. In the second row once more New Zealand are dominant with Retallick and Whitelock the best pairing in world rugby, yet England’s Itoje clearly showed in the summer he has the potential to match them.

So would England have beaten the All Blacks?

Honestly I don’t know. At the moment I think the All Blacks are the better team but not by much and the fact these matches are played at the end of the southern hemisphere season arguably does have an effect on the southern hemisphere teams. But not as big an effect as kicking off a southern hemisphere the week after the Heineken Cup Final!

Finally, Tevita Kurindrani

Of course I wanted an England win, and a convincing one, but after that I was really hoping Kurindrani could have crossed to score the try which would have given him a personal slam by scoring in each of Australia’s Autumn International matches.

Autumn Internationals Round Up

Another round of the Autumn Internationals has come and gone and once more there are a few talking points and for once talk of dirty play and refereeing doesn’t centre on the All Blacks, who finished their year with a hard fought win over the French.

The All Blacks Finish Their Year Off With A Win

Although the All Blacks left Paris with a win and despite what he says to the press, Steve Hansen has to be a little concerned at the apparent closing of the gap between the All Blacks and the Northern Hemisphere teams. Coming off a dominant defence of their Rugby Championship no doubt the Kiwis were expecting to blast away their Northern Hemisphere opponents but, Italy aside, this has not been the case. Yes, the All Blacks got revenge against the Irish at the Aviva but this match is going to be remembered as a collection of what ifs. Fast forward a week to Paris and again, although the All Blacks were victorious, more questions than answers were raised, most notably:

  • Are the All Blacks as dangerous if both Israel Dagg and Ben Smith are missing? In my opinion no, they need at least one of these players on the pitch to provide the spark which can unpick opposing defences.
  • How important are Brode and Sam Whitelock? These two locks are going to go down as amongst the best who have ever played the game and it is a testament to their characters that they don’t complain when the ball players get the limelight. Along with Kieran Reid they are the reason why the All Black defence is so impressive. Like Dagg and Ben Smith, if they both get injured the All Blacks will find themselves missing a key component to what makes them so daunting
  • Has the Aaron Smith airport fiasco affected the player? Without a doubt but here at least there is some good news for the Kiwis. TJ Perenara, whilst not of Smith’s quality when the Highlander is at his best, is a more than capable replacement and would walk into most international sides.
  • Has this been a good year for the All Blacks? Not really. They may have won the World Rugby team of the year but in the last few weeks their aura of total dominance has slipped. Last year most people would have been surprised if France had run the All Blacks so close, at the weekend I don’t think too many people were surprised at all.
  • Should the All Blacks have won team of the year? Let’s wait and see what England do against Australia

The Red Cards and Penalties at Twickenham

England’s match against Argentina had more plot twists and considerably better acting than Shortland Street but what it also had was a group of officials who, in the main, had a good game and were not afraid of making the big decisions.

To send a player off after only five minutes takes balls as this could have completely ruined the game but Pascal Gauzere got the decision spot on. Elliot Daly may argue, and it must be noted that neither Daly or anyone associated with England are complaining about the decision, that the contact was accidental but it was foolish and most importantly dangerous and he deserved to be sent off because it was dangerous and not because of how the Argentinian player landed.

Later in the game there was a similar incident with Johnny May being taken out in the air but this only resulted in a penalty because May landed on his side. This is a ludicrous rule where the outcome of an act of dangerous play is taken into account when deciding on the punishment. A dangerous tackle is a dangerous tackle, intent may be considered but it doesn’t matter if one injures an opponent more than another, they should be both receive the same punishment. It is these types of grey areas in the game which I feel are letting the match officials down and allowing modern players to manage the referees.

Has the Northern Hemisphere pulled level with the Southern Hemisphere?

It is fair to say South Africa and Argentina will be heading home shell shocked by their performances on tour. To lose to England was perhaps expected, as the current incarnation of the Springboks is not even an average team compared to their predecessors, but to return to South Africa without a win has got to send shockwaves through the country.

Argentina may not have expected to win all of their matches they would have felt confident of beating Scotland and let’s be honest they lost against England despite playing against a team reduced to fourteen men after only five minutes.

Despite the soundbites Steve Hansen gives out he will not be too pleased with how their Northern tour panned out which just leaves Australia, who may yet claim to have had a successful tour if they manage to beat England at the weekend.

For years the Rugby Championship has been applauded whilst the Six Nations has been derided on this side of the equator but in the last month England, Ireland and even Scotland and Wales have shown that when they play their games against the supposed Southern Hemisphere heavyweights they can compete and win. These game plans may not always be successful all of the time but they will be more successful more often than trying to play the likes of New Zealand and Australia at their own games.

Team of the Week

After all I have just written about the Southern Hemisphere teams you may be surprised I am nominating one as my team of the week but Tonga deserve to be mentioned for their thrilling last minute win over Italy.

It has been well documented in the press about how Tier 2 teams don’t get the big games they deserve so to see Tonga get the win in Padua was fantastic. Italy being in the Six Nations hasn’t really worked for them yet, and I would be great to see the likes of Georgia being able to challenge for their place but the lack of matches the Pacific Island teams play is an injustice. I know there will be financial constraints but expanding the Rugby Championship to include the winners of a pre-tournament, tournament amongst the likes of Japan, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga would allow these countries to have more games and provide a carrot to strive towards.

Gareth Southgate – Literally The Only Candidate

Four matches, three World Cup qualifiers, two wins and almost a win against the 2012 World Champions. On paper at least Gareth Southgate must be confident that he has passed his audition to be the next England football manager and in reality I would expect Southgate to be confirmed as Sam Allardyce’s successor by the end of the month.

Of the four matches it is fair to say England didn’t play well until the first hour against Spain, and we all know that England are much better in friendlies than we are when the chips are down, but Southgate collected enough of the currency by which all managers are ultimately judged, points, to ensure he will be given a decent run at trying to revive England’s fortunes.

However poisoned this particular chalice may be Southgate is the ideal man for this job, he knows the young players, who he will be forced to rely on as his reign progresses, from his time working with the age group England sides and he has been there and, almost, done it as a player himself. Yet despite all of his credentials there are always going to be those who say he is not the right man but I have to ask these naysayers the same question I asked when Sam Allardyce was caught trying to put his fingers into the pie, who else is there?

Arsene Wenger may have been an attractive option but as long as Arsenal are still challenging for honours he will not leave the Emirates and England need to appoint a replacement as soon as possible. Steve Bruce, thankfully, has found employment at Aston Villa and Alan Pardew’s star must surely have died as his team continue to play like relegation favourites. Outsiders like Glen Hoddle must surely be discounted due to the fact if they haven’t yet been approached by the FA they never will which leaves the man who oversaw Bournemouth’s victory against Stoke at the weekend, Eddie Howe.

I admit I like Howe but, like Wenger, I don’t think he would be ready just yet to leave the South Coast club and I fear his chances of ever being given the England job will depend on whether he is out of work when England comes calling again.

All of this leaves Southgate, as labelled recently by a former FA Chief Executive, the only candidate. How right that man is but not, as claimed, because he earnt it but because literally he is the only candidate.

FIFA – Scared and Incompetent

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Tomorrow England take on Scotland in a World Cup qualifier in a match which should have been all about an on the pitch rivalry which, although both countries have faltered in recent years, is all about wanting to beat the Auld Enemy no matter what. Instead what we will get as the two teams walk out is a show of solidarity between the two nations as the FA and the Scottish FA stick two proverbial fingers up at the incompetent, scared footballing bureaucrats at FIFA.

Incompetent because instead of Ireland’s display of a logo celebrating the centenary of the Easter Rising being an example of FIFA’s laws being relaxed we now can assume FIFA had no idea what was going on because they have no decided they are going to discipline the Irish FA, sorry Ireland! It seems England and Scotland’s crime was to actually ask permission to wear a poppy armband! What we should have done is worn the armbands and got on with the game.

And scared because I get the impression that FIFA is playing a game of bluff. England and Scotland have told FIFA they are going to defy the ban with FIFA responding by saying any kind of sanction is possible. OK, so what is the sanction? FIFA knows England and Scotland are going to defy the ban, surely they must know what the punishment will be or are they, as I suspect, hoping England and Scotland will back down and the controversy will all blow over?

So I’d just like to give a word of warning and a piece of advice to those at FIFA who seem to have an exaggerated belief in their own importance to the modern game, England and Scotland are not going to back down so let the Home Nations wear their poppy armbands and instead get on with trying to deal with the real problems in today’s game like the corruption which has seeped into your own organisation.

FIFA and The Poppy

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Today the English and Scottish FAs have decided to take a stand together against the hypercritic bureaucracy that is FA. That an organisation which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last twenty-four months should tell the British national teams that they can’t wear a poppy armband is as Theresa May put it, outrageous.

Here in New Zealand Armistice Day isn’t observed as it is in Europe, instead Australian and Kiwi soldiers are remembered on Anzac Day in April and I can imagine the outrage if any World Sporting Body dared to suggest poppies could not be displayed in memory of those who gave their lives for us.

Anzac and Armistice Day are not political, personal or religious events, as dictated by FIFA’s rules, but a way of remembering and saying thank you, similar to the black armbands worn to remember a person close to the club or to the game. Therefore, to make wearing a poppy into a political argument is nothing more than scandalous and just goes to show FIFA are still concentrating on the wrong things, even after their much vaunted regime change.

In a game riddled with self-serving clubs, avaricious agents and spoilt professionals shouldn’t the decision on whether a nation wants to give thanks to their fallen be at the bottom of their agenda. In the past FIFA has allowed the Home Nations to wear a poppy armband and there were no complaints or protests around the world and even as recently the Republic of Ireland were allowed to wear a slogan celebrating the century of the Easter Rising.

The following day at Twickenham the England rugby team will enter the field with poppies on their shirts and the Rugby authorities have been described as very supportive so why should football be any different?

So please FIFA for once see common sense and, although it may be embarrassing to your new regime, do a u-turn and let the Home Nations wear a poppy if they want to.