Six Nations 2017: No complaints

I worked the first week of the championship and so missed Wales get off to a winning start against Italy. And for our second game against England I was actually across the border and attending a marriage preparation day (more on that at a later date). So I missed the Irish thumping the Italians and only caught the Wales match from just before half time.

Just in time to see Liam Williams go over and Wales to lead 13-8 at the break after Leigh Halfpenny converted. 

The second half was a cracker with the action swinging both ways, each side attacking well but meeting stiff resistance. While I wouldn’t have complained had Wales romped home with a massive gap in scores, there’s something a lot more entertaining about an evenly matched affair. 

The teams traded penalties with Owen Farrell bagging two for the visitors and Leigh Halfpenny responding with one. Into the final ten Wales held a slim 16-14 lead, and every missed chance and silly error replayed in my head. Wales had been sloppy in places and could have had more points on the board, and were soon on the back foot.

Halfpenny kicked straight to a white shirt and England surged. As the Welsh defence scrambled across the park winger Elliot Daly got past Alex Cuthbert, who did himself no favours with his many critics.

The conversion was tight, but Owen Farrell doesn’t miss many and added the two, leaving Wales needing a try to get a result. With the clock quickly ticking down, Wales’ attempts grew more desperate in the face of a solid English defence.

The final whistle was no doubt a relief for the visitors, who for the second week in a row had left it late. And despondence for the hosts.

It was a tough loss but England just about deserved it, Wales had too many slip ups and can’t complain that England seized their chance when it appeared. 

There are three games left and if Wales can tighten their game and get rid of the sloppier aspects (and maybe Cuthbert?) we could do alright. The championship might be a stretch and depend on other matches going our way, but it’s not off the table completely.

I think part of the reason I took this defeat so well is because the current England team is decidedly villain free, with only Joe Marler and Farrell being players I genuinely dislike. Also, I haven’t seen the obnoxious Saeson I know, which means their arrogant posturing hasn’t riled me up.

The only real reason to actively hope it all falls apart for the English (other than not wanting more gloating and self congratulating nonsense) this year is their coach, Eddie Jones, who is nothing short of an utter bellend. Prone to being gobby at interviews and following last year’s comments about the Joe Marler racism incident, he’s claimed a special place on my hate list.

In a way he’s necessary to the tournament, as every story needs a villain and he’s embraced the role with gusto.

In the final match of the round Scotland, carrying the momentum from their victory over Ireland came back to earth with a bump. Camille Lopez knocked over two penalties in the last ten movies to hand the French a 22-16 victory. Scotland are definitely improving but appeared to take their foot of the gas.

It didn’t help that Finn Russell took the worst conversion appempt I’ve ever seen, managing to knock it under the bar from the easiest angle you’ll get. Their tournament isn’t over, but it means their Grand Slam drought extends to 26 years.

Round 3 predictions: 

Scotland vs Wales

Ireland vs France

England vs Italy

Current score: 4/6.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


6 Nations 2016 Part 4: Too Little, Too Late

Today, with three matches remaining, the Six Nations Championship was pretty much resolved. The Scots upset the French, handing the title to England.

It followed a tense game between Wales and England at Twickenham. In truth, England deserved the win having dominated for the majority of the game, but they still contrived to throw away a nineteen point lead and finish kicking for touch in relief.

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Triple crown confirmed yesterday. Championship today. Next week the Grand Slam?

Wales had been shaky, and it was only an individual moment of skill from Dan Biggar that got them back into it. Biggar charged down a kick and chased the loose ball to touch down beneath the posts and then converted.

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Biggar scores

From then Wales began to edge it, and added two further tries from George North and Taulupe Faletau. Owen Farrell added two penalties to keep England ahead, and Wales piled forward at the end until England turned it over and put the ball over to finish it.

There were a few dodgy referee decisions and bad luck, but the Welsh can’t complain as they simply didn’t turn up for over half the game. A strong finish made it a contest, but it was England’s day and their performances throughout have been solid and they deserve the championship, even if it means enduring smug gloating for at least a year.

So, well done England, deserving champions.

Wales however need to address their problems and get to a stage where we maintain decent form for the full 80. There was also the worrying sight of captain Sam Warburton being stretchered off, but thankfully he seems to be okay.

Ireland thumped the Italians after a weak start to the tournament, but the surprise result was Scotland getting their first win over the French since 2006. It meant nobody can catch England and barring an upset Wales will be in second place.

It’s a bit of a disappointment that the last round’s matches are all but meaningless, with only the middle places left to be decided. The only questions left to be answered are whether England can complete the Grand Slam (likely) and whether Scotland can make it three wins in a row (less likely).

But it has been a good championship, with a few upsets and some cracking matches.

Round 5 Predictions (current score- 8/12)
Wales vs Italy
Ireland vs Scotland
France vs England

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


6 Nations 2016 Part 3: A Quiet Friday Night In, Shouting at the TV

The Wales vs France match is traditionally the Friday night match and has thrown up some decent games over the years, but the 2016 installment will not go down as a classic.

The first half was a tight, frustrating affair as Wales dominated but encountered strong French defence. Not helping was that Dan Biggar missed a kick and it was 6-3 at the break.

After the break Wales came out all guns blazing and Biggar added another penalty before George North burst through to score his second try in two games.

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North celebrates

France weren’t done, however, and pushed up. Their inexperienced lineup and some heroic Welsh defending meant there was no way through, although it left this Welshman on the edge of the sofa cursing at the screen.

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Alex Cuthbert and Liam Williams put in some big hits

Wales held out and had flashes of skill, especially from Gareth Davies, who is playing phenomenally at the moment. He gave the French problems and Wales started to creep back into it, and led 19-3 heading for the close.

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Davies, one of Wales' best

Unfortunately after defending so well Wales then messed up allowing France to gain major ground and nab their own try minutes from the end through Guilhelm Guirado. It was too late to alter the course of the game, but disappointing for Wales.

I skipped what was essentially the wooden spoon decider between Scotland and Italy, which the Scots won 36-20.

The final match saw England take on Ireland. It was another close first half with the teams 6-3 at the break. I missed this, keeping apprised on Twitter where I heard James Haskell had been sent to the bin and that Ireland had capitalised quickly for the game’s first try.

I came down with England having replied to be leading 14-10. They would add another try to lead 21-10, the final score. Ireland looked incredibly creaky at times although they were unluckily not given a try near the death which could have at least saved some face. England looked the better team but were lucky they didn’t get three yellows as Mike Brown put the boots to an Irishman but was judged to be accidental. Danny Care, however was binned.

This means Ireland’s hope of being the first to win three championships in a row. England and Wales are the only undefeated teams, meaning their showdown in a fortnight could well be the decider for the tournament. France could still also win it, but are outsiders.

As much as I love the tournament I’m glad if a break as Wales’ frustrating display on Friday was not exactly entertaining and I expect the England match will be a tense affair. And I fear a disappointing one…

Round 4 predictions (current score 6/9)
Ireland vs Italy
England vs Wales
Scotland vs France

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


6 Nations 2016 Part 2: Power Prevails

I missed the France vs Ireland match but by all accounts I didn’t miss much as France scored a late try to edge it 10-9.

Wales faced Scotland in Cardiff and to the relief of a nation Dan Biggar had overcome injury to return. Wales got off to a great start as Gareth Davies ran in a try within seven minutes of the kick off and Biggar converted.

It would not last long and Scotland came back strongly, bossing for most of the first half. They pulled level after a fantastic try, a good move was capped by Finn Russell sending a perfectly weighted kick that Tommy Seymour caught and grounded. Greig Laidlaw scored the conversion and added two more penalties before the interval, while Biggar added one more for the home team leaving it 10-13 at the half way point.

In the second half Wales found their feet again and Biggar tied things up with his second penalty. It came after a great run from George North, who impressed throughout. Laidlaw kicked a penalty to retake the lead for the visitors but Wales were starting to dominate.

The Scots defended admirably but under sustained pressure they seemed doomed to break at some point. The breaking turned out to be a smashing as Jamie Roberts got the ball and crashed through a couple of Scottish players for the second Welsh try of the afternoon.

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Roberts crashes over

With ten minutes left North struck again and with a burst of speed left everyone behind him and touched down to extend the lead. It was a great moment as Wales found their groove. Biggar converted both and it stood at 27-16.

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North runs for the line

Scotland nabbed a late try to narrow it to 27-23, but Wales deserved the win due to their strong passing game and strength of character in coming back from the deficit. Scotland meanwhile exhibited the same frailties as they often had and when things started going against them looked shaky.

The final match of the round was today’s showdown in Rome as Italy welcomed England. Discussing Italy always runs the risk of slipping into “plucky underdogs” cliche, and they must loathe it, but at times it fit. They ran France close in their opening match and for forty minutes they contained England.

They threw in some big hits and didn’t back down, getting on the board first through a Carlo Canna penalty and it was tit for tat for a while. Owen Farrell replied, Canna got his second and then George Ford equalised once more for England. Ford kicked as Farrell received attention for a head injury, but he returned to the field.

Ford the scored the first try, but the conversion was missed. Canna struck another penalty five minutes from the break and they went in at 9-11. Italy had impressed and seemed to be making it into a contest.

This lasted for around ten minutes of the second half before players had to be switched out and England piled on the pressure. Jonathan Joseph finally managed to find breathing room having been contained in the first half and he was soon causing problems.

He seized a sloppy pass and turned on the pace to go under the posts. When Joseph gets moving he leaves most other players for dead and the scrambling Italians never looked likely to stop him. Farrell kicked the conversion.

Five minutes later Joseph struck again as Danny Care sent a kick across the ground behind the blue line. Joseph showed grace under pressure and scooped it up and went over once again. It was brilliantly taken and Joseph made it look easy.

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Joseph shone for England

Now Italy came utterly undone, they gave away a penalty which Farrell converted and the scoreline was distinctly one sided at 9-28.

Worse was to come as Joseph rounded off his hat trick as he muscled over following more English pressure. Farrell struck the post but would redeem himself with six minutes remaining as Jamie George offloaded to him and he grounded under the posts. This time he didn’t miss and got the conversion leaving the scores at 9-40.

It was a deserved victory as England were strong throughout and ruthless in putting the Italians to the sword. The scoreboard told the story and Italy’s weaknesses came to the fore, they lack the depth of squad to deal with injuries and only a few players can hold their own against the other teams.

England and Wales emerged victorious this weekend because both teams seem able to respond well to pressure and have powerful backs who are hard to keep contained for the full eighty.

England remain top of the table, their points margin here putting them comfortably ahead of France. Wales hover at third, one spot above the Irish. Scotland and Italy meet in a fortnight, and that game looks as though it could be the wooden spoon decided.

Round 3 Predictions (Current score- 3/6)
Wales vs France
Italy vs Scotland
England vs Ireland

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


6 Nations 2016 Part 1: Don’t you know who I am?

It’s that time of year again! The Six Nations is far and away my favourite sports tournament and Wales got their campaign underway today in Dublin.

It did not start well as the Irish built up an impressive 13-0 lead and things got worse when Dan Biggar had to retire from the field and Rhys Priestland took his place.

Priestland is my least favourite Welsh player. His kicking at posts is average but and from the hand he’s woefully inconsistent, the worst part is I’ve seen him turn in great performances at club level and can’t understand why when he puts on a Wales jersey he falls apart. Nerves? The pressure?

To be fair he did quite well, landing a penalty and converting after Taulupe Faletau muscled over for a try. Wales’ “good for an hour” tradition continued as they got back into things and closed the gap to 13-10 at the break.

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Faletau goes over

After the break Priestland added another penalty and Wales began to take control. They attacked impressively but the Irish defence was superb, holding their line phase-after-phase and stalling a Welsh push at the 22.

Even as a Welshman I felt for them as they succeeded in winning the ball only to give away a sloppy penalty that Priestland scored to give us a 16-13 lead.

Ireland came back almost immediately as Jonathan Sexton kicked a fine effort and despite both team’s attempts it ended a draw. This was probably the fairest outcome as neither team deserved to lose and a last minute winner would have been a painful finale.

The Priestland problem became apparent when on two different occasions Wales passed back for a drop goal attempt. It was like the men in red kept forgetting Biggar was off as they threw the ball to Priestland who kicked well wide of the posts.

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Biggar showing how it's done againat South Africa

You hope that they learn from this and stop expecting him to do something he clearly can’t manage. You got the feeling that Priestland himself was looking at his teammates and asking “have you forgotten who I am?”

They need to recognise his limitations and try a different approach.

I’d say I was disappointed but I expect so little from Priestland that for me this counts as his strongest showing wearing the three feathers.

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Another player meeting low expectations was England’s Owen Farrell. There was a needless shove on a Scottish player, a petulant, unsportsmanlike moment and I thought “Who the hell did that?” And then saw it was Farrell who I expect nothing more from.

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It’s a shame as he’s a decent player but his discipline is atrocious and he seems the embodiment of the arrogance that makes English rugby so unlikable to the outsider, or this outsider at least. Also his pre-kick ritual reminds me of a gormless Terminator. He contributed five of his side’s fifteen points as they beat a stuttering, shaky Scotland by six.

This was a blow for the Scots and the majority of neutrals who wanted the Scots to have a good match to make up for the injustice of their World Cup exit. Having been robbed by the referee after a solid match it would be nice to see them do well.

Unfortunately, sport and life is often unfair and the Scots find themselves holding up the table, just behind the Italians who made the French work for a 23-21 win.

Round 2 predictions (current score 1/3)
France v Ireland
Wales v Scotland
Italy v England

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


6 Nations 2015 Part 5: Hyperbole justified

Since Italy joined the tournament the final day has become a big deal, three matches and often with the championship still to be decided. As is the way of things nowadays, branding is important and soSuper Saturday was born.

To me it feels a bit hyperbolic and flashy, not really what rugby’s about, but this year at least it proved a well deserved name as the Six Nations 2015 came to a magnificent close.

With four teams still potential victors, although the French were a longshot and required some upsets, every game played out with great drama to ensure that right up until the end it was still all to play for.

Kicking it off was Wales’ visit to Rome, and if they could win, and win well, they could pull off a championship win. The Italians were coming off a thumping from the French and despite improvements in their play, are still viewed as an easy win.

However, they played impressively in the first half, or rather, they played well enough to capitalize on a shoddy Welsh opening. Scoring a penalty in the first minute they kept Wales restrained and at the break the men in red had a slender 14-13 lead.

Why did Wales struggle? Had they gone in too cocky, or were the Italians stinging from the French game and seeking redemption? Was this karma screwing me over after my delight of getting two Welsh predictions wrong in recent weeks? Had a French wizard put a curse on the Welsh side in order to give his nation a chance at the prize, and would Ireland similarly be hexed?

I Googled "French wizard" and this is by far my favourite result

I Googled “French wizard” and this is by far my favourite result

The curse idea didn’t seem too ridiculous as Wales major points scorer, Leigh Halfpenny, had to leave the pitch with an injury. In the pub I was in you could feel the blow this dealt to fans’ confidence, Halfpenny’s kicking has been almost mechanically perfect this year, when he stands over the ball points are almost guaranteed, Wales were already struggling, how would we cope without this reliable source of points?

Leigh Halfpenny- How would Wales cope without their reliable kicking machine?

Leigh Halfpenny- How would Wales cope without their reliable kicking machine?

Just fine, it would turn out.

Perhaps Warren Gatland gave one hell of a team talk at the break, or the French wizard was distracted and the hex broken, or maybe Wales just drank that special potion that gifts them 40 minutes of decent play, but the second half was a very different story.

Wales came out all guns blazing, Liam Williams bagged a try to extend the lead and then in a ten minute blitz George North scored a hat trick of tries, each converted by Dan Biggar and suddenly Wales were comfortably ahead and buzzing.

North bags his second of the game, during a frantic ten minute spell

North bags his second of the game, during a frantic ten minute spell

I roared at the TV and more followed, with Rhys Webb, Sam Warburton and Scott Williams all getting over for Wales, and with 7 minutes remaining Wales were 61-13 up and top of the table. The Italians would bag a last minute try, but Wales were still ahead and the result meant that both Ireland and England needed substantial victories to become champions.

This left the Welsh fans of having to rely on the Scottish team winning, or at least holding Ireland back from bounding ahead. Of course, if we’d asked any Scottish fan they’d have told us we were in for a long afternoon.

In what was the scrappiest game of the day, the Scottish resistance at Murrayfield lasted all of 30 minutes. The opening half hour saw them get ten points on the scoreboard, half of which came from Greig Laidlaw, taking over from Chris Pattinson as the Scottish kicker who does his best only to be let down by the 14 muppets he plays alongside.

Laidlaw kicks for goal

Laidlaw kicks for goal

 

This left them within touching distance of the Irish at 17-10, but this closeness lasted all of 3 minutes before Jonathan Sexton kicked a penalty and Scotland needed two scores to catch them.

This was far too big an ask of the Scots, as for the last 50 minutes they added nothing to the board, while the Irish powered over them, building an impressive 30 point lead and passing Wales’ points difference to go top. It was an abysmal game at times, Ireland were deserved winners but against a faltering Scottish team this wasn’t saying much. The defeat completed a whitewash for the home team, and it’s hard to argue it was undeserved.

The Irish had done enough to go top, and left England having to defeat France by 26 points to claim the title. The BBC’s pundits may have been confident, talking of how England should cruise to victory, but I was skeptical, 26 points is a hell of a margin, and the French were unlikely to just roll over for them.

As it turns out, both of us were wrong in a way.

In what was a fascinating, dramatic game the English fought magnificently but were hampered by a French team who just didn’t seem to accept they were beat.

A first minute try from Ben Youngs brought some premature “Swing low” singing after only five minutes (yes, I was annoyed), which was choked off as France came back to take the lead after Sebastien Tillous-Borde added a try to an early penalty. Things got even worse for England when France added a second try shortly before the 20 minute mark.

England to their credit got back into it, Anthony Watson scoring on the half hour before Youngs added his second five minutes later, both converted by George Ford, who was kicking superbly.

At half time even Jeremy Guscott’s confidence looked shaken as England left the field 27-15 up, two converted tries short of what they needed for a championship win.

France came out and made the situation worse, scoring a try two minutes after the restart, but Ford’s try a few minutes later restored their lead and a Jack Nowell try increased it.

France, however, weren’t done and came back again, closing the gap once more. Billy Vunipola got over for England, but two minutes later France scored their fifth try of the afternoon. It was crazy stuff, with a ridiculously high number of tries and France frustrating England. With quarter of an hour left it was 48-35 to England, which would be an impressive victory, but not enough.

Frustration was showing, tempers flared and England were getting rattled. Luckily to keep the peace was Welsh referee Nigel Owens, who had a great game and is one of the best things to come from the refs having microphones. Nige was on top form, stern and no nonsense in enforcing the rules and issuing warnings to both sides to sort out their issues, remaining incredibly polite throughout.

He had to cope with frustration on both sides, a little bit of handbags after a vicious looking Courtney Lawes tackle and, possibly most challenging, English captain Chris Robshaw constantly pestering him after every decision. To his credit, he handled this well enough and was caught saying “There’s no further discussion, Chris” and later on issuing a stern “Christopher!” in much the same way as my mother did when I misbehaved.

Nige debates with Robshaw

Nige debates with Robshaw

England were now in second place, having passed Wales on points. I was willing France to get one more score, and this drew ire from English friends. It wasn’t that I wanted England to lose, it’s just I wanted Wales to do the best they could, and for that, England couldn’t win too well.

And, if I’m being honest, I’d much rather see Ireland win, as they’d been the tournament’s best team consistently and their fans are less d**kish in victory. It was for this reason that after Jack Nowell got his second try with mere minutes to go, and Ford kicked the conversion I almost lost my mind with the French players.

England were now six points away from winning the whole thing, and France as the clock went red and they gained possession on their own try line tried to run it out. I yelled at the “stupid French idiot” to kick for touch, they couldn’t win and the chances of going the length of the pitch to score were considerably slimmer than them messing up and England snatching a last minute try.

Luckily reason did kick in and ball was put out, finishing the match 55-35. A twenty point victory is a notable achievement but in this instance it clearly felt more like a defeat to the English players, as they finished second for the fourth consecutive year.

Ben Youngs, to his credit, showed some class, congratulating Ireland in his post match interview and the party could finally start for Ireland some two hours after they finished their match as they claimed the title for the second year in the row.

Scotland v Ireland - RBS Six Nations

Well done to Ireland, who probably deserved the title as they’d been consistently the best team, wobble against Wales aside.

For Wales it was a frustrating tournament, a shaky start against England could have derailed us and the second match against Scotland was a tense affair. While the squad’s comeback after these two games was to be admired and we impressed against France, Ireland and Italy, there are still big questions to be answered before the World Cup in the autumn- we need to keep the intensity up for a full match and we can’t afford to make so many errors.

Ireland and England go into the World Cup in a similar position, they’ve done well, but neither has been perfect and against the big guns of the Southern Hemisphere they may be made to pay the price of their weak spots.

For France it was just another year of uneven performances, and they need more consistency. Italy struggled repeatedly and despite some improvement still leak points, with the worst points difference of the tournament, but at least they have one win to soothe their wounds, Scotland must be looking forward to the World Cup with dread, South Africa will likely destroy them and given their performances here even the smaller countries could trip them up.

In essence, the six nations all need to improve or the trophy looks set to go below the equator.

My predictions final score: 11/15.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


6 Nations 2015 Part 4: Wide Open

For the second week in a row my pessimistic assessment of Wales’ chances were proven wrong, which was nice because it meant my team won and it’s also opened the tournament up.

Had Ireland triumphed in Cardiff it would basically have been all over, and the Irish would have been the only real runner for the championship (sorry, Scotland, but I can’t see them tripping the Irish up next week). I didn’t get to watch the match as I was travelling back home to fulfill my son duties for Mothering Sunday, but I kept abreast of the match online and caught the highlights.

It appears that Wales stepped up massively and defended like Trojans (luckily the Irish aren’t good at woodcraft), and held back wave after wave of Irish attack and managed to upset the visitors and stop the Grand Slam express. Wales benefited from a fabulous Scott Williams try and, once again, the wonderfully consistent kicking of Leigh Halfpenny.

Leigh Halfpenny- Reliable

Leigh Halfpenny- Reliable

With Ireland now 3-1, they’ve gone from being out in front to being involved in a three way dance for the title with England and Wales, both also on three victories from four matches.

England managed to pull off a 25-13 win over Scotland to retain the Calcutta cup for another year (Scotland’s last win was in ’08). England were by far the better team, but the final score masks a shaky first half which saw them go in 13-10 down.

England took an early lead through a try from Jonathan Joseph, who continues to impress, which George Ford converted.

Jonathan Joseph- impressive

Jonathan Joseph- impressive

Scotland came back strong and Mark Bennett’s try, converted by Greig Laidlaw, tied it all up. Laidlaw added two penalties to give them the lead, but after the break England showed their class and decimated the Scots. Three minutes into the second half Ford got over and then converted his own score and England never looked back. A third try from Jack Nowell sealed it all off.

It wasn’t a perfect performance, but Scotland failed to capitalize, and through players like Ford, Nowell, Joseph and Mike Brown all impressed, and the scoreline could have been a lot stronger, but passing errors cost them extra points.

The win was enough to place England at the top of the table, with a bigger point difference over Ireland and Wales. England have a difference of 37, putting them ahead of Ireland on 33 and Wales with 12. This means that it’s now calculator time as fans try and work out what their team needs to win the whole thing.

For Wales what’s needed is a massive thumping of the Italians with England and Ireland either losing or winning by a narrow margin. Ireland just need to beat Scotland by a margin at least five greater than England’s win over France, and Wales to not run too far away in Rome, this will be England’s hope and that Ireland don’t win by a big margin.

Technically I should point out that France are still in the mix. Their 29-0 demolition of Italy means that they can still mathematically win the championship, but it’s an incredibly slim chance and by the time they kick off at Twickenham at 5pm next Saturday it may already be gone.

For the French to take the championship they need both Italy and Scotland to score upsets and to go on and beat the English themselves, by 16 points. Personally I can’t see either team at Twickenham winning by that big a gap and it will probably be a tight affair with only a few points in it, probably in England’s favour.

With this in mind, I still think this is Ireland’s year, as I can see them getting quite a win over the Scots, which will cancel out England’s advantage in the standings. Wales will probably finish third, as while I think we’ll convincingly beat the Italians I can’t see us doing it by over twenty five points, which is what we need to get ahead of England.

Round 5 predictions:
Italy vs Wales (by 7-15)
Scotland vs Ireland (by >10)
England vs France (by <7)
Current score: 8/12.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Six Nations 2015 Part 3: So wrong, but feels so right

Nobody likes to be wrong. Well, not usually, but this weekend I was delighted to have made an error. At the end of my last post about the Six Nations, I predicted that France would defeat Wales, a decision which pained me greatly, as I wanted Wales to win. However, I felt that with the home advantage and Wales’ shaky start to the tournament, the French had the edge.

Thankfully, I was mistaken and Wales really stepped up.

The star of the show was the ever reliable Leigh Halfpenny, who’s kicking earned Wales 15 points, and ensured we went in at the break with a slim 6-3 lead.

Leigh Halfpenny- Reliable

Leigh Halfpenny- Reliable

I’d unfortunately missed the first half and settled in for the second, terrified that Wales would follow their usual style and play abysmally after the break, a fear that only increased as the French tied it up shortly after the restart. This parity was thankfully short lived as Halfpenny struck another penalty to restore the slender lead.

This allowed Wales to regain control of the match and minutes later Rhys Webb cut through the French defence, linking up with Dan Lydiate who then gave the ball to Dan Biggar, who blazed over the line for his first international try. It was a fantastic move and saw Wales extend their lead, unfortunately due to the tight angle the conversion couldn’t be added.

Biggar on course for his first international try

Biggar on course for his first international try

Yet another Halfpenny penalty extended the lead to 17-6 with around fifteen minutes to go. But the drama wasn’t over and France came right back to score a try which they managed to convert. This meant a tense final ten minutes ensued, with the Welsh lead pegged back to 17-13.

A four point lead in the dying moments is agony for the spectator, because one try is all it needs for victory to slip through your fingers. The French came on, but the Welsh defence, which had struggled thus far in the tournament steeled themselves magnificently and kept the blue waves of attack at bay.

Biggar left the field to be replaced by Rhys Priestland, and the pessimistic voice in me felt this was going to be the dooming factor. Priestland’s performances can most kindly be described as “patchy” and the last thing we needed was some wayward kicking to give the French possession. Some extra breathing room came as Halfpenny kicked his fifth penalty of the match, giving Wales a seven point lead with around seven minutes to go.

France could still sneak a draw with a converted try, but Wales dug deep and held out, leading to a tense conclusion. Wales deserved the win, due to their improved performance and a strong defence, while the French need to find a consistent kicker.

My other mistake this weekend was in picking Scotland to win over Italy. I’d missed the game but watched some of it on iPlayer, and feel that in the end the right team won in Edinburgh. The Scots started magnificently, with their opening passage of play being some of the best rugby I’ve seen from them, and they led by 10 points after 8 minutes thanks to an early try from Mark Bennett added to a Greig Laidlaw penalty.

Italy’s response, however, was superb and a strong drive to the line led to Josh Furno try, the conversion missed, leaving them slightly behind. Laidlaw continued to kick impressively for the home side, but the visitors added another try before the break meaning it stood at 16-15 in favour of the hosts.

The second half was a low scoring affair, with Laidlaw adding his fourth and final penalty with just under 15 minutes to go, and Scotland should have been able to hold on. But if the Welsh trait is to only manage one decent half, the Scot’s is to fall at the last hurdle, usually with their attacks being squandered due to poor handling or basic errors. Here, however they managed to squander an entire match.

Peter Horne had a penalty to clear the lines with mere moments to go, but his kick went straight to an Italian player and they surged forward, their maul brought down illegally and Scotland being reduced to fourteen men as replacement Ben Toolis went to the bin.

He was joined shortly afterwards by fellow replacement Hamish Watson, for the same offence. Referee George Clancy awarded a penalty try, and Italy took the lead, with Tomasso Allan’s conversion being the action of the game and giving Italy a 22-19 victory, which effectively dooms Scotland to a wooden spoon.

The Italians celebrate following their win

The Italians celebrate following their win

Scotland’s implosion was painful to watch, as was the short scrap that ensued before the final Italian break. The Scots have now received 3 yellow cards in their last two games and poor discipline cost them this game, just as it robbed them of a chance to seize a last minute win against Wales.

The Sunday game was the only match I called right, as what was billed as a Grand Slam decider got underway in Dublin. For the third consecutive game England allowed their opponents to take the lead as Jonathan Sexton kicked two penalties in the first ten minutes.

But while the Welsh and Italians had failed to capitalize on this the Irish are a very different beast and while England managed to get back in the mix thanks to George Ford’s penalty minutes later, they struggled to really get a foothold in the game as the Irish continued to dominate and Sexton was on fine form.

The Irish defence managed to stifle and frustrate the English, and they led for the entire match. Ford managed to add two more penalties in the second half, but there were no other additions to the scoreboard from the visitors while Ireland scored a beautiful try as an inch-perfect kick from Conor Murphy found Robbie Henshaw, who touched down right in the corner.

Robbie Henshaw takes the ball before his try

Robbie Henshaw takes the ball before his try

England could still have got back into it, and attacked heroically, but the Irish managed to keep them at bay. But the deciding factor came from England themselves, as the errors and penalties racked up. A forward pass denied Billy Twelvetrees a try, coming after Billy Vunipola was also denied a chance due to an offside call.

For the first time in the tournament England showed weaknesses, and a ruthless Ireland seized on them, commanding the game and now looking extremely likely to claim the championship.

Round 4 predictions. Current score 6/9.
Wales vs Ireland
England vs Scotland
Italy vs France

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Six Nations 2015 Part 2: You, sir, are no gentleman

There’s this old saying about the difference between rugby and football, usually spouted by slightly snooty rugby fans that says “Football is a gentleman’s game played by ruffians, and rugby’s a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen”. It comes from the idea that rugby is more physical but cleaner, with football being the preserve of thugs and cheats.

It’s sporting snobbery, and utter bollocks, of course. Sure you get dirty footballers, but rugby is the game where players faked blood injuries and where Brian O’Driscoll was severely injured thanks to a cynical, vicious tackle.

The lie of the “played by gentlemen” belief came to the fore again in the dying moments of the Scotland vs Wales game this weekend. The entire game had been a bit fraught, with tempers flaring and it all developing into a grudge match.

Each team had received yellow cards for taking the man out in the air, and more cards could have been given as the penalties racked up. Wales’ Jonathan Davies had to go to the bin, as the ref had already shown Finn Russell a card, although Russell’s taking out of Dan Biggar looked more deliberate and dangerous (admittedly, I am viewing this from a Welsh perspective).

After the game there was some griping from the Scots that after their last minute try they didn’t have the chance to restart. But the problem was that the last few seconds had ticked away after Jim Hamilton started some afters following their try which had closed the gap to 26-21. This meant that Russell’s conversion was the last kick of the game.

Of course, it was rather a moot point, even if they had restarted Scotland would have had to go at least half the pitch to score without the ball going dead once, and the Welsh defence had largely succeeded in stifling and frustrating their attacks.

Wales were improved from their game with England, and while still experiencing problems in some areas deserved the win, being the stronger team and defending heroically at times, and Liam Williams, coming in for the injured George North impressed on the wing.

Liam Williams- impressive

Liam Williams- impressive

Elsewhere, Ireland beat France to maintain their unbroken streak and make next week’s game against England a possible Grand Slam decider. This was the only game I hadn’t watched this week.

England are still in with a shot at a perfect championship after they demolished Italy 47-17 at Twickenham. They’d started shakily, with Italy bagging an early try from Sergio Parisse and the Italians looked strong.

Unfortunately for them, their momentum stalled after an extended stoppage following Mike Brown taking an injury, which allowed England back into the game and they took command from then on, and at the break they led by 10 points.

In the second half they built on their lead and despite Luca Morisi bagging a brace of tries for the Italians, England were beyond reach and looked imperious. It was a convincing display, and George Ford again recovered from an early miss to kick effectively. For me the star of the show was Jonathan Joseph, who bagged a couple of tries and continues to be a strong attacking force who’s vision and speed causes problems for defences. With three tries from the first two games, he’s one of England’s strongest players, although many of their backs put in solid performances.

Jonathan Joseph bags another try for England, his third in the tournament so far

Jonathan Joseph bags another try for England, his third in the tournament so far

On the basis of the performances I’ve seen England are looking good for a championship, but with the Irish and French still to come, they still have a way to go before and a visit to Dublin next week will be a big ask for them, and one that I suspect will be too big.

Week 3 predictions:
Scotland vs Italy
France vs Wales
Ireland vs England
Score so far: 5/6.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Six Nations 2015 Part 1: I bet Gatland owns a white cat…

Yes, it’s that time of year, those wonderful five weekends spread across February and March that hosts one of my favourite international sporting events. Yes, the 6 Nations are back.

It all kicked off right here in Cardiff as Wales hosted England. As ever, I was hoping for a Welsh win and with the home advantage and England having a few players out injured I felt we were in with a shout.

Before the game there was a bit of needless, and rather pathetic, drama as the two teams had a stare down in the tunnel. Apparently the issue was that England felt that having the Welsh team come out with their big build up second was some form of mind game and refused to take to the field first. Wales always come out second, it’s just how it works.

This meant that England’s captain Chris Robshaw was engaged in a stare down with the Welsh players. It was all a little ludicrous, until finally England took to the field and Wales got their pyrotechnic entrance.

The tunnel stand off, a little ridiculous, really,

The tunnel stand off, a little ridiculous, really,

In a lot of the press, mainly English, I’ve seen Robshaw described as being the winner of this showdown, which seems a tad bizarre. He wanted Wales to go first, and then went first himself. I’d say that was a loss, surely?

All this pre-match posturing meant the game got underway late.

In the first half Wales looked strong, taking control of the game and building a 10 point lead in the opening 10 minutes, thanks to a Leigh Halfpenny penalty and a Rhys Webb try, that Halfpenny converted. Wales looked pretty good, and while England got back into it Anthony Watson try, Wales extended their lead to 16-8 thanks to another Halfpenny penalty and a drop goal from Dan Biggar.

An eight point lead at the half was a solid advantage, and Wales should have been able to build on it and win. But they couldn’t, perhaps Robshaw rallied the troops in the English changing room during the interval, but playing a part was an all too familiar Welsh failing.

Wales seem to only be able to play well for a brief spell, which is incredibly frustrating as a fan, because either we play wonderful rugby in the first and have to pray we can hold out to the final whistle, or we play awfully before the break and have to hope we haven’t set too much of a margin to make up when we finally show up for the second.

But Wales’ major weakness is that they can never convincingly kill off their opponent. Wales are like a Bond villain, we have our quarry exactly where we want but we fail to pull the trigger and take them out, and they wriggle free, and go on to win the day. As a fan you find yourselves yelling at them to just finish off the opposition quickly and definitively, but like Scott Evil arguing with his father, our pleas fall on deaf ears and they always get away from us.

scott evil

Wales needed to come out strong in the second, an early score after the break could have broken England. It would have extended our lead, and had a big psychological impact. However, they came out and sucked for 40 minutes, allowing England back in and having our lead evaporate to just a single point in the first five minutes.

England had no difficulty in turning the screws, and George Ford added two penalties to take the lead and run out 21-16 winners.

There are no real excuses for this, sure, George North took a big hit and was out of it for a bit, and Alex Cuthbert’s yellow card seemed a bit excessive, but by the time Cuthbert went to the bin, we’d already lost control of the match and England were finding their form.

And what form, England deserve a lot of credit for a solid performance, they defended magnificently and George Ford, after an early wobble with a missed conversion attempt steadied himself to bag eleven points. Elsewhere England were strong with ball in hand with Jonathan Joseph scoring a superb try, even if he did benefit from some woeful Welsh defending.

Positives for Wales were scarce, and aside from an improved lineout and Halfpenny’s excellent kicking it was a dire display. In the second half they added no points, and were outclassed all over the field.

At the end of the day, the better team won and Wales have a lot to think about and work on before they travel to Edinburgh next week. England, meanwhile, will most likely go 2-0 next week as they host the Italians, and their major worry will be avoiding getting caught up in the press and supporter’s hyperbole and heightened expectations for the World Cup later this year.

I only watched the Wales game this week, MWG isn’t much of a rugby fan, and I felt it a bit much to impose three matches on her, but it was business as usual as Ireland thumped Italy to go top of the table and Scotland were edged out by France.

Week 2 Predictions (winners in bold):
England vs Italy
Ireland vs France
Scotland vs Wales
Record so far: 2/3.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.