Friday, 29 October 2010

Aviva Premiership and Magners League Predictions - Round 7 - A Prop top of the try scorers - What next?

All members past and present of the front row union must be taking great delight this week in the fact that Soane Tonga'uihaa, a prop, is top try scorer in the Aviva Premiership. His brace of tries on Sunday even if they were from short range against Wasps, saw him take over the top spot from among others Schalk Brits, the Saracens hooker, and one try ahead of his team mate, Chris Ashton.

Over the last year Tonga'uiha has produced some outstanding performances and with the Autumn Internationals nearly upon us, all of coaches of the home nations must be wishing that they had someone of his calibre and at their disposal. The rich vein form shown by Tonga'uiha last season has very much continued and once again he looks to be on course to be the Premiership's top try scoring prop and among the league's top ball carriers. He has every chance to add to his tally and maintain the forward bragging rights in the home clash with Newcastle Falcons in which second row Mark Sorenson is likely to start for the Saints against his old club for the first time.

Both leagues enter a fascinating stage over the next month with major challenges ahead for many of the teams as a result of international call ups. You just feel that with some teams hitting form while others are clearly struggling, the next month becomes even more important and at the end of season we may look back at November as being a defining month.  In particular, the injury crisis in the Welsh squad is likely to impact on the Welsh regions and their performances as more players are called up as cover,

This evening's fixtures highlight the need for clubs to rely on their younger players. Cardiff are without eight of their Welsh squad players as well as the injured Leigh Halfpenny. Martyn Williams will play after his two week ban as he bids for a place in the Wales team for next week's match against Australia. Academy player Dan Fin will make his debut at full back. In contrast Aironi are likely to have all of their test players available and it is reasonable to think that that they may just get their first win of the season.
At Ravenhill tonight Ulster have made seven changes to their side while Munster are without nine front-line players. They give debuts to contracted academy players, Mike Sherry and Ivan Dineen in the centre and development player Ian Nagle in the second row. Peter Stringer will make his 200th appearance for Munster.
I go for a full set of home wins this week and I do think that this is the week for Leeds and Aironi to get that elusive first win!
Gloucester Rugby v Leicester Tigers - Gloucester by 6-10
Harlequins v Bath Rugby - Harlequins by 6-10
Northampton Saints v Newcastle Falcons - Northampton by 16-20
Leeds Carnegie v London Wasps - Leeds by 6-10
London Irish v Sale Sharks - London Irish by 11-15
Saracens v Exeter Chiefs - Saracens by 6-10

Aironi Rugby v Blues - Aironi by 6-10
Benetton Treviso v Connacht - Benetton Treviso by 11-15
Leinster v Edinburgh - Leinster by 11-15
Ospreys v Newport Gwent Dragons - Ospreys by 6-10
Scarlets v Glasgow Warriors - Scarlets by 6-10
Ulster v Munster - Ulster by 6-10

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Balls that fly over smaller pitches

A number of articles caught my eye over the weekend about the issues emerging around the introduction of a new ball in the Aviva Premiership and the seemingly deliberate policy by some teams of reducing the size of the pitch.

In his article for the Guardian, Shaun Edwards raises concerns about the new Gilbert balls that are in use in the Premiership. The aerodynamic properties of the ball are such that suddenly longe range penalty kicks have become the order of the day. Edwards is quick to point out that his own side, Wasps have benefitted from the extra range of kick that is now possible with Dave Walder finding many extra metres in is his kicking to secure a late win against Leicester. Nicky Robinson is another kicker who has seen his range increase with 60 metre kicks being the order of the day.

Edwards ponders on whether we continue to see the current focus on attacking running eroded by the possibility of long range penalties and long distance kicking from the hand either to touch or as giant up-and-unders. In his introduction to his article reflects on days gone by and in particular the prowess of Don Clarke, the All Blacks kicker who through the length of his kicking could totally dominate a game.

While it is unlikely that we will return to such days, Edwards thoughts are timely. Little did he know that some of his concerns would come home to roost over the weekend with a very dour encounter at Leeds along with kick fests at Newcastle and Leicester.

Matters were not helped on Friday at Headingly by the fact that the game was played on a narrower pitch than normal. Nick Cain in his regular column in the Rugby Paper comments on the fact that a number of teams are modifying the dimensions of the pitch to suit their game plans. He argues that such "shenanigans" are doing the game no favours. Cain reports that the Sale Coach, Mike Brewer, revealed after the game that the match was always likely to be a stalemate as a result of the narrowing of the pitch deliberately by Leeds down to 65 metres.

Cain also ponders on the problems associated with Premiership teams playing at football grounds where the length and width of the pitch is bound to be an issue along with the size of the dead ball area,

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A Song and Dance at Saracens - pre-match role for Gav?

Saracens have yet to to confirm that Gavin Henson is being signed as part of a revamp of their pre-match entertainment package for supporters. It is likely that "Gav "the dancer" Henson will be part of a special Saracens song and dance duo with Matt "the voice" Stevens that will perform prior to home matches at Vicarage Road and at Wembley.

Many commentators doubt that Henson is truly ready for such a role. One seasoned reporter touched upon the difficulties ahead:

"It is a big step for Gavin. There is a massive difference between messing around at home singing and dancing with Charlotte a few years ago than performing in front of a noisy and expectant crowd."

A statement from the club is expected very soon once contractural matters are resolved!

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Saints and Scarlets are pick of the weekend - Reaction from Round 6

I ended up this weekend with a total of four correct results in the Aviva Premiership (wins for Gloucester, Leicester, Northampton and Saracens) and also four in the Magners League (Edinburgh, Leinster, Munster and Newport). As in previous weeks, I was pretty poor on the correct scores - with only the Gloucester prediction of a 6-10 margin being right along with the Munster margin of victory over Benetton Treviso.

Northampton Saints certainly take the "performance of the weekend" award and in many ways it was men against boys at Adams Park in their 37-10, five try trouncing of a very sorry looking Wasps side. The ball carrying strength of the Saints forwards was very much to the fore and two tries from Soane Tonga'uiha and one from Courtney Lawes all came form some outstanding drives by the hugely dominant pack. I had predicted Saints first ever win at Adams Park but the nature of the win will be a major wake up call to all the premiership sides. Jim Mallinder reflecting on the result highlighted the emphasis that the Saints had placed on the forward confrontation:

"We looked at their team sheet and thought we have a really good chance of strangling them up-front. Simon [Shaw] was a massive loss to them as he's particularly good at stopping the driving maul. He's got massive experience and is a massive bloke. To see he wasn't playing was a boost."

In what was a painful day for Wasps and Tony Hanks summed up his feelings as:

 "It's a mixture of disappointment, frustration and embarrassment. It's a horrible feeling when you come second like that."

Scarlets produced a highly spirited and accomplished performance in Cardiff on Friday night and after stealing the headlines during the European weekend it was Rhys Priestland who produced a 40 metre break to secure victory. Now in second place in the Magners League, the Scarlets will be looking forward to Friday night's clash against Glasgow who also produced a fine second half performance to defeat a disappointing Ospreys. Commenting on his team's performance Priestland said:

"The forwards have been outstanding all year. We were disappointed with the result against Leicester last year, but we spoke all week about gaining territory. I thought we started the second half on fire and deserved the win."

Neil Back commenting on his side's performance against Sale Sharks in what was a very dull spectacle to say the least:

"I don't believe we are devoid of confidence. It was a tough game dominated by defences. Sometimes you have got to give credit to that part of the game. And if you get away with it that's great. Sale slowed up the ruck and ultimately it came down to a few opportunities and Sale took theirs and took the points. They slowed the game down at the contact area and you've got to applaud that. They were smarter than us."

Rob Baxter's comments after his Exeter side push London Irish close:

"It was comfortably our worst lineout performance of the season but all credit to London Irish as they are very strong in that department. I was pleased with our overall performance. Our work ethic and endeavour was there in spades but I'm a little disappointed and we learnt a tough lesson."

Bryan Redpath on a tense battle with Harlequins at Kingsholm:

"I felt we were pretty comfortable before the two yellow cards," said Redpath. "Suddenly it was 26-26, then we dug in well during the closing minutes. I will take that, although the second-half wasn't good enough collectively. There were a few flutters. I am disappointed with the two yellow cards, both were dull penalties."

Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin after his side's first defeat of the season in the Magners League:

"In the first half we didn't turn our possession into points and again we paid the consequences. We've got to look at it and say it's not acceptable, not good enough. Okay, we got a point but we really should have got the victory tonight."

Friday, 22 October 2010

After the break - Round 6 Aviva Premiership and Magners League Predictions

We are in for another intriguing weekend of Aviva Premiership amd Magners League rugby and it will be interesting to see what bearing the two weeks of European action will have on the domestic leagues. There is no doubt that over the last two weeks a number of clubs have impressed while others have been found wanting. In the Magners, Leinster and Munster have come on strongly while the majority of the other sides have had a rather inconsistent two weeks. The Scarlets at times have looked to be one of the most potent attacking sides but there defensive frailties have also been cruelly exposed in the Heineken Cup.

Of the English teams, Leicester and Northampton prepare for this weekend off the back of two very good second half performances while Saracens emerge from the two European matches both with injuries and a big question mark over their attacking credentials, and in particular their slavish emphasis on a wide attacking but fundamentally lateral game.

Exeter Chiefs v London Irish - Exeter Chiefs by 6-10
This might be seen as a surprising prediction but I just have a feeling that despite London Irish's excellent win over Munster they might just be vulnerable against an Exeter side that are showing the benefits of playing a limited but highly effective game. After resting a good number of players in the home defeat to Montpellier, the Chiefs came storming back last week with an outstanding 39-14 victory at Bourgoin.

Gloucester Rugby v Harlequins - Gloucester by 6-10
With both sides level on 13 points this is a very difficult one to call. Harlequins were developing some good momentum before the break with wins over Newcastle Falcons and Exeter Chiefs and recovered well from a rain sodden narrow defeat against Bayonne to secure a big win over I Cavalieri Estra. Three weeks ago Gloucester stunned the Bath supporters with a highly efficient performance and despite losing to Agen away with a last minute score determining the outcome, there is a sense that they are on the up after a somewhat indifferent start to the season. A 90-7 romp over Rugby Rovigo will certainly help the mood at the club.

Leeds Carnegie v Sale Sharks - Leeds by 6-10
The game on Friday night is being marketed as a "Leeds Lads Night" and just maybe this will be the occasion for Leeds to break their duck and secure their first win. With one losing point to show from the previous five games it is surely getting close to crisis point. Leeds put in a good quality performance last week against Stade Francais and the feeling from the Leeds camp is that this game represents an opportunity to turn things around. They were unlikely to not come away with more from last week's game particularly as Stade scored a break away try which was initiated by the head of Bergamasco. In response to the long term injury to James Gaskell, Sale have named Hooker, Neil Briggs as captain for the rest of the season and he will be joined in the front row by Andrew Sheridan who returns from injury. I do think that this will be a good night for Leeds with Michael Stephenson reverting to the wing. Mike Brewer continues to tinker with his selection as Sale try to find some degree of consistency.

Leicester Tigers v Bath Rugby - Leicester by 11-15
A try blitz just after half time last week saw Leicester approaching their very best with Ben Youngs and the back row in such good form. Richard Cockerill described the display as "our best all round- performance" and the Tigers emerge from European action very much on the plus side. With Flood and Allen returning from injury for the Scarlets match, there will be keen competition for places - always a strong feature of the Leicester set-up. By contrast Bath continue to stutter. A four try victory over Aironi was important after the two home losses to Gloucester and Biarritz. Most of the talk this week has centred around the return date from injury of Lewis Moody and as I write there is still a chance that he may make a return at his old stamping ground this weekend. I am predicting that Leicester could really get in to Bath and win relatively comfortably.

London Wasps v Northampton Saints - Northampton by up to 5
With a record of three wins, three losses and a draw, Wasps have promised much but only in the last few weeks have they started to play with consistency throughout the eighty minutes. A splendid performance in Toulouse might just be the catalyst to really get the season moving. They will relish the chance of building on last week's home win against Glasgow and in recent years there has always been a bit of edge to the fixtures with the Saints. The half back partnership of Simpson and Walder is going well and Wasps have pace a plenty in the back three with Houghton, Varndell and Lemi. It will be interesting to see whether Wasps can contain the all-round power of the Saints pack. Northampton have emerged from the two European games in good heart and particularly after a cracking second half revival against Edinburgh. After defending poorly and frankly being over-run at times the kicking of Myler helped them through to a well deserved victory. Against all recent form between the two sides I go for an away win for Northampton. In the last six meetings the biggest winning margin for either team has been just six points On each of these occasions the home team won. Added to that Adams Park is the only Premiership venue where the Saints have yet to record a win and Wasps have not lost at home in Aviva Premiership Rugby since 3 January! Just as a footnote - the Myler v Geraghty debate continues with Myler getting the nod last week. Geraghty played for the Wanderers in midweek against Cambridge University at full back - a replacement for Foden perhaps during the Autumn internationals.

Newcastle Falcons v Saracens - Saracens by 11-15
As highlighted above, Saracens will have done a good deal of thinking this week in order to get the show back on the road. I am not sure if all the speculation about Gavin Henson would have helped and in someways you would not imagine him as the most likely of soul mates for Brendan Ventner. This has all the makings of a very difficult encounter for them but I beleieve they will have the resilience and fire power to overcome a Newcastle side plagued by injuries not least in the front row with four props on the injury rosta. Hougaard will be missed but this is a great time for Goode to really show his fly half qualities. He will be partnered by Neil De Kock, while the rotation policy in the back row sees Saull, Brown and Joubert playing with Berger rested. For Newcastle, Jimmy Gopparth will definitely start after recovering from injury.

Cardiff Blues v Scarlets - Cardiff by 6-10
Scarlets have throughly deserved the plaudits for some some stunning and incisive back play and they have surely scored two of the best team tries to be seen in the Heineken Cup. Regan King who has been outstanding so far this season is on the bench with Stephen Jones and Jon Davies who made a big impression at the start of the season returning at centre. Teenage sensation, George North fresh from his call up to the Wales squad remains on the injured list. Although Cardiff secured a losing bonus point in Castres last week the comments from Dai Young reflect some concern in the camp: "I think we have got to shake it up a little bit as it doesn't seem to be working for us at the minute. There's no point in having a squad and picking the same players when realistically perhaps not everyone's firing on all cylinders, both individually and collectively. That said Cardiff are the best placed Welsh side in the Magners and are starting to develop a good run of victories at the Cardiff City Stadium. I think that Cardiff will prevail and clock up their sixth straight win at home.

Connacht v Leinster - Leinster by 6-10
A week is a long time in rugby especially for Leinster who swap Wembley for the less welcoming Galway Sportsground. Small and intimate, the largest crowd so far this season has been 3,761 for the match against Ulster which ended as a draw. Leinster have a highly successful start to their European campaign with their defensive qualities and work rate very evident last week. Connacht will be buoyed by their achievements so far this season and in particular their recent victory over Bayonne. Should be a cracking occasion and I am predicting a narrow away win for Leinster.

Edinburgh v Ulster - Edinburgh by 11-15
Edinburgh played with great attacking intent last week against Northampton and really stretched the Saints in the first half only to lose some momentum through the game. Along with two successive wins in the Magners, Edinburgh should be looking for a good win over Ulster. While coach, Rob Moffat makes only two changes, Ulster have to make a large number of positional and personnel changes. In the backs only scrum half, Ruan Pienaar retains the same position he played last week and their are three changes in the pack with Stephen Ferris moving back to his normal blind side position from the open side. I am going for Edinburgh and for them to avenge their 29-21 early season defeat at Ravenhill.

Glasgow Warriors v Ospreys - Ospreys by 6-10
With much of the debate in recent days relating to the Ospreys' desire to move this match  from Sunday to Saturday, it will be interesting to see how they perform without five key players. Alun Wyn Jones, Andrew Bishop, Jonathan Thomas, Shane Williams and Lee Byrne will definitely miss the game as they join up with the rest of the Wales squad. There is still some debate on whether some of the other squad players will be required by Warren Gatland although it certainly looks likely that Ryan Jones, Mike Phillips and James Hook will play in order to get some additional game time prior to international duty. Glasgow who currently sit third for the bottom of the league must be delighting in the confusion as they prepare for what is a vital home game for them. Glasgow have suffered some narrow defeats this season and they came back strongly in the last twenty minutes against Wasps. Ruaridh Jackson, the 22 year old fly half will be particularly keen to impress after his call up to the Scotland squad. Despite all the uncertainty I still go for an Ospreys win.

Munster v Benetton Treviso - Munster by more than 20
With a comfortable mid-table position, Trevisio have proved to be a tough nut to crack and they arrive at Thomand park with a much changed side to the one that went down to Perpignan last week. They make a total of eight changes as they face a Munster brimming with confidence after last week. For Munster, Denis Leamy is rested with James Coughlan taking his place. Scott Deasy also comes in to the side at Full Back, while Marcus Horan who came off the bench against Toulon is ruled out of the Autumn internationals as a result of a gym injury! This should be a comfortable game for Munster although Trevisio will provide stern resistance particularly early on.

Newport Gwent Dragons v Aironi Rugby - Newport by 6-10
The two bottom sides go head to head at Rodney Parade with both sides despearte for a win. Newport have lost five in a row while Aironi have yet to secure a win in either the Magners or the Heineken Cup. Aironi will be heartened by their performance last week at Bath where they secured a good deal of possession. The pack is starting to function very well and a number of key players are returning from injury including Josh Sole and Simone Favaro at blind side flanker. The Newport faithful will see tomorrow's game as a great opportunity to get the season going after some disappointing results. Jason Tovey, who has been suffering with a hamstring injury, has been named in Paul Turner’s 26-man squad for the match and is likely to start at fly half.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Contrasting Fortunes - Jersey and Manchester rugby clubs

Any similarities between Jersey and Manchester rugby clubs finish with the fact that they play at the same level in the National League 2. Beyond this, the fortunes of both teams could not be different. As indicated in my earlier posts, Manchester who are celebrating their 150th anniversary are still reeling from the financial problems that occurred as a result of relegation in 2008 from the National League 1. Last season was a terribly long and painful journey for the club in which all of their 30 matches were lost with 2,626 points being conceded. This was on top of the 1,165 points conceded the year before when the club only won two league matches.

The decline in the club's fortunes shows little sign of abating with a record so far this season of played seven lost seven with a points difference of -308. While there have been some very competitive performances from Manchester this season, they have also suffered some heavy defeats. Any hopes of a revival after a 14-27 home defeat against Morley were dashed with a 74-0 defeat away at Kendal - the home team's first win of the season! On Saturday Manchester play Harrogate who are also struggling with only one home win. This might be the day that turns everything around.

In contrast to the seemingly unstoppable decline of Manchester, Jersey Rugby Club are one of the more unlikely success stories of recent years. Seemingly against the odds of not having the most ideal location and without an established tradition of rugby on the island, Jersey have had a meteoric rise through the leagues from a start in the Hampshire leagues. The club dominated National 3 London & SE last season with only one defeat in their 26 games (the first game of the season to Bracknell)  and already Jersey have made their mark on National League 2 South with their first defeat at the hands of Richmond last Saturday after winning their opening six games. The club have been able to attract a number of players to the unique environment and the squad is now a good mix of home grown players, mainland players and overseas imports. At the last count two Kiwis, two South Africans and an Australian have found there way to the St Peters ground. A strong academy is also a feature of the club as the popularity of rugby on the island grows.

The experienced coaching team of Ben Harvey and Kern Yates have done a great job in making Jersey a highly competitive unit with their big abrasive forward play being a major feature of their recent success. Their was great disappointment after the club's first defeat for 13 months last Saturday and Harvey spared no punches in criticising the attitude and commitment of some of his players. Jersey have a chance to make amends with a home fixture against the top of the league club, Ealing Trailfinders this weekend.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

A coaching great's view of the Heinekin Cup

For many years I have had huge respect for the views of Bob Dwyer. As a coach he was a hugely innovative and successful  and he now writes so intelligently and with sense about our modern game. His postings on Green and Gold Rugby and at Bob Dwyer's Rugby Workshops are definitely worth a read. As you would imagine he led the way in highlighting how the All Blacks were getting away with murder in the recent Tri-nations series.

His thoughts on this year's Heinekin Cup and in particular, the last weekend, make for interesting reading. I have highlighted just a few of his thoughts below.
  • As the competition becomes more established, it has become more and more demanding to win.
  • London Irish once again lost concentration when a bonus point was beckoning. The same applied the previous week when Munster achieved a bonus point in the dying seconds of the game.
  • Toulon's performance was typical of many French teams over the years playing away.
  • Dywer's view is that after two weeks many referees are not enforcing the tackle law correctly with tacklers generally hanging around the tackle area. Mr Venter would concur on this issue.
  • Munster's style of play is steadily evolving and the side are increasingly adapting to the developing interpretation of the tackle law. He comments on how Stringer, O'Gara and many of the forwards are thriving with such an approach.
  • Ospreys are a formidable team on paper but too often they disappoint as many of us who see them play would agree. For Dwyer it is a matter of focus and concentration - often it is from the sublime to the ridiculous in a flash. The game against London Irish was a good example with flashes of brilliance followed by lengthy periods of "flatness". Dwyer argues that with the likes of Byrne, Bowe, Williams, Hook, Phillips, Collins and Holah the side should be brimming with enthusiasm and anticipation.
  • Dwyer also suggests that the selection of Ryan Jones may prove to be highly significant from the perspective of the national team. His excellent performance suggests that a longer term postional switch may be on the cards.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Certainly not a "Faded Force" - Munster impress

In my posting early last week that reviewed the first weekend of Heineken action I suggested that Munster could take a good number of positives from their defeat at the hands of London Irish. I was particularly impressed with the form of Ronan O'Gara and once again this week he was instrumental in the 45-18 rout of Toulon. What I did not anticipate was the style in which Toulon were taken part by a rampant Munster team who scored six tries. It was an outstanding team performance with the pack totally solid at the set piece. No doubt the intensity of the encounter with London Irish was a great preparation for the return to Thomond Park and the exemplary work rate in both attack and defence laid the foundations for this win. Toulon must have thought that things were going to be very different with a try within a minute from No.2 Genevois after a rampaging run.

There was also a very impressive air about Leinster as they went about their business against Saracens in front of 45,000 fans at Wembley. They are now in an excellent position at the top of pool two and their form in the last two weeks has seen the bookmakers establish them as second favourite for the tournament. With all Leinster's points coming from an impressive Jonny Sexton,  Saracens were left to reflect on how they were unable to find a cutting edge against an outstanding Leinster defence. This was typified in the closing stages of the game as Saracens battered against a defensive barricade which showed no signs of weakness throughout 30 phases of play as the home side desperately tried to find a last ditch try.

So one week on and once again what next for Saracens. Bredan Ventner was not a happy man on Saturday night with French referee Christophe Berdos receiving a good deal of criticism from the Saracens Director of Rugby. Venter's frustrations stemmed from what he sees the inconsistency of the refereeing at the break down. In typical fashion Venter really went for it and commented after the match:

"there is a real danger that if we don't take action going into a World Cup year, the game of rugby is going to die, be killed stone dead because the public won't come to watch. We'll end up playing one type of rugby in the league, another in Europe and when you get to the World Cup, wait and see which referee you get. "

Venter's mood was not helped by the news that Derick Hougaard may be out for the season with a ruptured achilles tendon after leaving the field within six minutes of the second half starting. With limited cover beyond Alex Goode and the emerging Owen Farrell, Venter is likely to seek the services of another fly half. In the cold light of Monday morning he will also need to turn his attention to how he finds some more attacking potency from his team. The stats will tell him that his side only beat defenders on three occasions, twice by Brits and once by the lock, Botha. It is now highly likely that Saracens will have to win away at Leinster and Racing-Metro if they are to progress in the tournament.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

St Joseph's College National Schools Rugby Festival 2010 - St Joseph's reign supreme

With a large and very vocal home crowd behind them, St Joseph's College fullfilled their early season promise with an outstanding win in their own tournament on Sunday. A 19-7 victory over Campbell College, Belfast in the final saw St Joseph's emerge as victors of this prestigious tournament for the first time in 15 years. A fourteen win unbeaten streak including a highly successful tour to South Africa meant that expectations were high for the Ipswich based College as they entered the tournament.  A convincing win over Campbell was followed  by a 10-0 result over Tonbridge and a convincing 20-5 victory over QEGS Wakefield in their final group game.

Ably led from Scrum Half by Alex Day the England U18 squad member and player of the tournament, St Joseph's were joined in their group for the second day by last year's finalists John Fisher and Bedford along with Kilkenny College and the peerless all-round kicking game of Peter Lydon, the Leinster Under 18 fly half. Both John Fisher and Bedford had patchy starts to the festival with a fine win for the former over RGS High Wycombe being the highlight of their first day, while Bedford were mightily impressive in a 24-3 trouncing of Merchiston Castle. Despite dominating in both the line out and scrums and having the bulk of territory and possession against Kilkenny and John Fisher, Bedford were unable to convert the pressure in to points and suffered two close defeats. Meanwhile St Joseph's continued to impress with wins against John Fisher (15-5), Kilkenny (16-3) and Bedford (8-0) to secure a place in the final.

In the other Trophy Group, Millfield and Whitchurch as group winners from Saturday were joined by Campbell College and Merchiston College. A surprising 15-5 win for Campbell College against an injury depleted Millfield saw them emerge as winners of the group after wins also against Whitchurch (19-0) and Merchiston (17-7). 

Surprisingly for many, former winners of the tournament Colston's and RGS High Wycome found themselves in the Plate Competition with RGS ultimately winning a very close final against Tonbridge with a single penalty seperating the two schools.

An unbeaten season looks to be very much on the cards for St Joseph's with the game against Judd School later in the season being the only major competition in their normal fixture list. The Daily Mail Cup is likely to provide a sterner test with West Suffolk College being their next opponents in the 4th round of the competition. They will also want to build on last year's success in sevens which saw St Joseph's reach the final of the Colts competition of the National Sevens Tournament, ultimately losing to Millfield 17-10.

Saturday Results      Sunday Results


Friday, 15 October 2010

St Joseph's College National Schools Rugby Festival 2010

I am very much looking forward to spending the weekend at St Joseph's College in Ipswich for their annual School Rugby Festival. I do admit to having a vested interest in one of the teams but as always it should be a great weekend of rugby with some of the major rugby playing schools present. The tournament is a tough one and schools of the cailbre of  Millfield, Colstons and RGS High Wycombe will all be looking to secure the coveted trophy. In last year's festival, John Fisher School edged out Bedford School 15-8 in the final.

After a successful tour to South Africa, St Joseph's go in to the festival with an unbeaten record and they will open the competition early on Saturday morning against Campbell College from Belfast. Other visitors from further afield include Kilkenny and Merchiston Castle from Edinburgh.

Match List for the Group Stages

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

England Sevens Squad disappoint - England v South Africa Video

In a posting in mid August after the Middlesex Sevens I registered my doubts about the approach taken by England to the development of a squad in readiness for the Commonwealth Games. I am even more disappointed now as a three month training camp and the awarding of relatively lucrative central contracts has seemingly done little to make us anymore competitive on the world stage.

After losing 33-12 to New Zealand  - England lined up against South Africa in the bronze medal match. Despite being in a commanding position at half time with a 14-5 lead, England were poor after the break with a performance that contained too many errors. South Africa scored 12 unanswered points with the final try resulting from a mistake by Isoa Damudamu as he tried to force an offload. The ball fortuitously fell into the hands of Cecil Afika who sprinted up the touch line to retrieve his own grubber kick and score a fine try.

It is all very well for Ben Ryan to state the obvious (see below) but a belief in his squad needs to be backed up with actual results and success. Despite all the preparation we were found wanting when it came to the crunch.

"We leave Delhi without anything and we are bitterly disappointed," said Ryan.

"It is very frustrating, but I believe in these players and believe we can go on and win a World Series with this side."

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Students hit the road - First day of BUCS rugby

Laptops off, books closed, pens down  - yes tomorrow is the start of this year’s BUCS rugby competition and hundreds even thousands of students up and down the country will be competing for their university and enjoying those special and often memorable Wednesdays. In my day a long time ago it was UAU then it became BUSA, but fundamentally nothing really is different from that time 30 years ago when you had great times playing with your mates, wearing the stash with pride, playing silly drinking games and enjoying some epic away trips.

After a barren patch, Loughborough emerged as winners last year with a 35-27 win over UWIC. They kick off their defence of the title with game away against the University of Leeds . Other picks of the day in Premier North A include University of Nottingham at home to the University of Durham. While in the Southern division in what is likely to be one of the key fixtures of the season, UWE Hartpury start their campaign with a home game against UWIC.

Full list of fixtures.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Thoughts on the first round of the Heineken Cup

It was an tremendous first weekend of Heneiken Cup action with plenty of drama, intensity, last gasp tries and al-round excitement. As always with this particular competition there is always much to reflect upon and in a sense the action from this round only heightens the anticipation for next weekend. Just wanted to share a few thoughts.

Munster - a faded force or emerging threat
In what was a pulsating game London Irish certainly deserved their victory. Ryan Lamb probably had one of his most accomplished games while Seilala Mapusua was simply outstanding. A jubilant Toby Booth was right to play down the fact that Munster secured a bonus point.

"I believe that if you win your games then losing bonus points become irrelevant. This was a massive occasion and a massive effort, an occasion that the fans enjoyed and will remember for some time."

The game was played with a fierce intensity and they were some outstanding passages of play typified by around the half hour mark when their was a continuous period of unconstructed attack by both sides as the game ebbed and flowed.

So what of Munster. After a first half performance lacking accuracy and with too many penalties conceded, Munster were the dominant force for a good deal of the second half and only two pieces of outstanding defence prevented them scoring. A tackle count which saw London Irish make nearly 60 more tackles than Munster gives an indication of how the game progressed after half time. The great surge by David Wallace late on which led to a try in the final minute said much about their performance. For me it was the form of Ronan OGara which suggests that Munster are on the right track. He mixed his game up exceedingly well and had a few sublime moments. With Paul Connell to return hopefull before Christmas and with others to call upon including Alan Quinlan, Munster will be looking to be at full throttle next week at home to Toulon.

Scarlets in full flow
The performance of the Scarlets in beating Perpignon 43 - 34 and contributing 4 tries in this 9 try thriller will have caused many people to sit up and take note of the huge attacking potency and potential of the Scarlets side. The try by Rhys Preistland was the pick of the bunch (see video below) and the try must be an early contender for one of the tries of the season - great support play, accurate passing and some exquisite off loads out of the back of the hand by Morgan Stoddart and Regan King all contributed to an outstanding try.

There were some excellent tries and it will be great to watch them back," Nigel Davies said. "The players have to be comfortable in what we are doing to go out and express themselves. We are nowhere near being the finished article. We have come a long way in a short space of time and we are moving in the right direction but there is plenty of work to do."

Poor Bath or Good Biarritz
I thought it would be a challenge for Bath but I had expected a win by at least 10 points. With a very mixed record in the Top14 Biarritz have certainly not set the world alight this season. They also have the capacity to implode away from home and so with Bath 8-0 at half time I thought my prediction to be pretty safe. A sloppy and indisciplined performance after the break allowed four successful penalty kicks for Yachvilli. A bundled drop goal opportunity late in the game did little to remove the 'Bumbling Bath' tag. Steve Meehan
pulled no punches in claiming his team needed to "grow up" adding hi own view of the final minutes.

"And then with four minutes to go, we had an opportunity to win the match, but we didn't take it. It was a better performance than last week, yet to come up short like that is very frustrating.

What next for Saracens?
Despite playing with considerable attacking intent, Saracens found out like many teams over the years that the Stade Marcel Michelin is a very difficult place to get a victory. In winning 25-10 Clermont Auvergne put down an impressive marker in what was a very tight match. Referee Peter Allen was given an 8 man escort at the end of the match after his performance that caused great agitation among the home supporters. In addition to his try, Clermont second row Jamie Cudmore was his normal aggresive self with a punch on Deon Carstens resulting in a yellow card. Saracens impressed throughout the game and desperately tried in the dying stages for the bonus point but Rougerie secured a loose ball inside the Saracens' 22 with the ball being worked to Nalaga who had the easiest of scores that was converted by Parra to wrap up a win. Saraces now have a tricky encounter at Wembley with Leinster who impressed yesterday and have the look of a side with increasing belief after a tricky start in the Magners League. It should be an abosulute cracker.

So much promise from the Ospreys again!
In a sense the same old story for the Ospreys with a great away win beckoning they failed to control the game and allowed a try by Paul Sackey after a great pass by Jonny Wilkinson. They will be pleased with a bonus point but as has been the case before at this level they should have won this close encounter. Ospreys director of coaching Scott Johnson said:

"We are disappointed with the result. We had the opportunity to win but we couldn't close it down. We won't know the proper measure of this result for a couple of months. We couldn't hold field position all day long, didn't have many attacking line-outs and Toulon didn't play rugby. I was falling asleep and it was hard to play against. But that's the way they play. It was frustrating for us and there was some naivety on our part. But we have to work hard, be honest with ourselves and come back next week."

On another note it was great to Jonny Wilkinson playing at the top table of European rugby and playing so well. An injury sustained yesterday is likely to keep him out of the Munster game next week - shame really as I was looking forward to him going head to head with Ronan O'Gara.

Rhys Priestland's try for the Scarlets v Perpignon


Thursday, 7 October 2010

Why I love the Heineken Cup

As a young boy in the seventies I used to go to the Memorial Ground and watch Bristol on a regular basis. This was a time before league rugby and Bristol had one of the strongest fixtures list of any of the top clubs. In addition to some classic encounters with teams like Gloucester and Coventry I used to look forward with huge anticipation to the matches with Welsh opposition whether it be Cardiff, Newport, Llanelli or even the traditional Easter fixtures with Newbridge and Abertillery. There was always a massive crowd for the New Year's day  fixture against Llanelli, with the old stand absolutely jam packed as a whole host of internationals of the time produced some memorable games. This was the era of John Pullin, David Rollitt, David Watt, Peter Knight, Alan Morley, Mike Fry and Alan Pearn, my PE teacher when I went to secondary school.

Thank goodness that the anticipation that I felt all those years ago is still alive today as a result of the Heineken Cup. The Six Nations tournament really does not even come a close second to the Heineken Cup. Over recent years there has been little passion, excitement or intensity in many of the Six Nations matches and it has been the European club competitions where the true drama has unfolded. I am sure this year's competition will be no different with some intriguing fixtures in the forthcoming weeks. I am not sure I will be able to watch every match that is televised over this opening weekend but like many ardent rugby fans I will give it a good go. For me it is the closest experience to those great days at the Memorial Ground.

My perfect combination for an eclectic weekend of European  rugby really needs to include a match in Connacht, a Friday night match in deepest France with an English opponent preferably in the pouring rain. At some point on Saturday a match with Munster in full flow at Thomond Park and finally with Toulouse at their sublime best at the Stade Ernest-Wallon rounding things off nicely on Sunday afternoon.
While the better resourced French clubs should feature strongly again this year I do have just a sneaking feeling that this may be the year that an English or Welsh club could end up as worthy winners in late May at the Millennium Stadium!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Waldrom and Foden are "Top of the Stats"

With a two week break now for the Aviva Premiership it would seem a good time to reflect upon some of the stats for the first 5 games of the season. With London Irish and Northampton Saints along with Saracens riding high you would expect each side to feature strongly in my first review of the stats.

Top of the Stats on the player front are Thomas Waldrom and Ben Foden. Waldrom who signed for Leicester Tigers from Canterbury Crusaders and Hawkes Bay for this season has made a huge impact already and has proved to be a highly effective replacement for the injured Jordan Crane. Although rested for the match against Saracens, Waldrom is top of the list when it comes to defeanders beaten with a total of 12. Foden currently has the most clean breaks (7) and has also gained the most metres - 435 in comparison with second place Delon Armitage's 403. Tom Johnson the 28 year old Exeter Chiefs back row forward has the most carries with 68. Exeter also have carried the most with a total of 571.

Last year Bath Rugby came out top at the end of the season with a total of 2892 passes but so far it has been the attacking potency of London Irish that puts them at the top with 608 passes closely followed by Harlequins. Leicester Tigers are top dogs both in terms of metres gained (1975) and clean breaks (35).

Defensively it is Leeds Carnegie who have missed the most tackles followed by Exeter Chiefs and surprisingly in joint third place - London Irish and Saracens. While the most  most tackles have been made by Saracens (486) followed by Newcastle Falcons and Bath Rugby. Currently Leicester Tigers top the turnovers conceded (67) closely followed by Gloucester Rugby and London Wasps withNorthampton Saints proving to be the meanest in this area with 40 turnovers. Most individual tackles have been made by Saracens' Jacques Burger (63) and it also interesting to see that Sam Vesty as a fly half is in the top ten tacklers with 47 tackles. Three other fly halves have not faired so well with Shane Geraghty, Ryan Lamb and Ciaron Thomas all missing 7 tackles so far.

In terms of forward play, Gloucester are currently ruling the air with 52 linouts won while Bath, Leeds Carnegie and Newcastle Falcons fill the bottom three slots. Of more relevance is the figure for the number of lineouts lost and surprisingly it is Bath who have always prided themselves on their play in this area, who take top spot with 12 linouts lost. The most efficient linout so far is Leeds with just 1 lineout loss while Christian Day of Northampton Saints and Tomas Vallejos Cinalli of Harlequins have each stolen 5 line outs. Bath also come out top in the scrums lost category with a total of 9.