Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Eddie Jones Era - Five Reasons to be Cheerful...and Five Reasons to be Fearful

Will England get a Steady Eddie, a Ready Eddie, or (as pictured) a Sweaty Eddie? 
Well, since I'm now a semi-retired blog writer, I get to put my feet up and actually enjoy the rugby instead of having to type nonsense about it.  But, every now and then, there'll be something that tickles my fancy and spurs me into dusting off the keyboard.  And, with the Six Nations looming large, the start of the Eddie Jones era seems to be the perfect setting for another couple of pages of waffle.

Should we be excited?  Should we be soiling ourselves in nervous anticipation for the future of English rugby?  Read on to find out....

FIVE REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

1.  It's a fresh start

Yes, sometimes after the mother of all cock-ups it's best for a complete clear-out rather than a tweak here or there.  I still remember the horrifying moment of realisation when I was 21, with hair straightened over one eye, that I looked like a cross between an 'emo' and a Butlins-based boyband reject.  A bit of product, a bit of fiddling couldn't resolve my hair-based crisis, and so I resorted to Code Red - a haircut.  "Short back and sides, please".  Problem solved.  I await the same moment of realisation in respect of my brave attempt at a 'beard'.

But England have had the mother of all haircuts.  As I wrote before, no matter what the strengths and weaknesses really were of Lancaster and his coaching staff, the reality is that they were part of a regime that would be forever tainted with the failure of 2015.  Any squad that re-assembled under Lancaster's guidance would not be able to get away from the fact that this was same mechanism that engineered probably the most spectacular and embarrassing failure in English rugby history - and there have been a few.

Instead, there's a new coach with bags of experience and a new outlook, along with a new, young and talented support team in Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard, who have proven to be architects of brilliance in forward play and defence respectively.

And, above all, everyone has to prove themselves all over again - which can only help drive up performance levels.

2.  New Talent

Well, there;s new talent in the extended squad, certainly.

In truth, Lancaster was treated to some gems towards the end of his tenure, in the form of Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and George Ford, but the new crop are already here and demanding selection.  Maro Itoje has been touted as a future England skipper and it's easy to see why, Elliot Daly is tearing defences a new one every weekend, whilst Jack Clifford has all the pace, power and game-awareness to be a world-class back row forward.


It's not only the 'kids' though, to be fair - key members of the existing squad are rediscovering form, too.  Ben Youngs and Danny Care have been superb all season, the Vunipola brothers look as if they've got a new lease of life and Owen Farrell, for all his detractors, has been in sublime form in both attack and defence (when he's not dropping the ball over the line).  And even outside of the squad, there are eye-catching displays being churned out by the Leicester southern-hemisphere-born-but-English-qualified backrow trio of Mike Williams, Brendan O'Connor and Lachlan McCaffery, as well as Will Fraser at Saracens.  

The talent is undoubtedly there.  It just needs to be harnessed.

Oh, and Andy Goode has come out of his 2 month long retirement and I reckon he should throw his toupee into the ring.  Food for thought.

3.   Mentality

One promising wedge of information that's been fed to the media by Jones is that we're going to go back to English-roots rugby.  I'm not talking about a 15 man maul for 80 minutes - but, yes, the best pack in the world and a clinical set of backs, capable of taking opportunities when they arise.  It's actually not too dissimilar to the Saracens set-up which, when you consider all 3 coaches have a background with the club, makes sense.

Under the previous regime, you could quite happily have introduced your nan to the England team just before a game, safe in the knowledge that you wouldn't hear a slither of foul language and that the harshest sound would have come from the rustling of Lancaster handing out Werther's Originals.  Yes, Lancaster worked very hard to make England upstanding role models after 2011; he wanted them to be likeable. 

There's no doubt that some of the rules laid down will be of benefit for a long time - such as those which encouraged discipline, pride, humility and focus - but somewhere within this drive for moral excellence, England lost their edge.  And, if there's one thing we've learned, even when England are as nice as pie, everyone still bloody hates us.  The Welsh - now the most arrogant rugby nation by a fair stretch - will still, with spectacular delusion, label us as the arrogant ones.  That won't change.  So let's embrace it - and I think Eddie Jones understands that.  He wants Johnson's England of 2002-03 back - a team with bite, with nastiness and aggression, who teams secretly hated playing against.  A team who knew they were better than anyone they played, simply because they were.


The Stuart Lancaster Team Talk

4.  The Jones Factor

I won't repeat all that I said above, although it would be good to help beef up my word-count, but Jones has the right mentality to drive this new, nasty England.  He was an abrasive character on the pitch in his playing days and he's certainly not afraid to throw a few verbal jabs now, so he's a spiky customer - and, most importantly, he works his teams bloody hard and makes it clear what he wants from them.

He has a big focus on getting the basics right, which is key, and has identified the set-piece as an area where England desperately need to improve.  How the men in white went from having the best scrum in the world to being shunted around by Fiji, with the same personnel, 12 months later, is very worrying, but you can hang your hat on Jones ensuring - first and foremost - that his side has a platform to work from.

On top of all this, of course, is the fact that Jones has the experience and pedigree of getting the best out of his players.  He turned Japan from minnows into a major force on the international stage, he took a less than classic Wallaby side to a final in 2003, and his appointment as an advisor was a key factor behind South Africa's World Cup win in 2007.  Behind that grating Aussie drawl is a bloke who knows his rugby and - critically - knows about winning.

5.  England were never a bad side

There seems to be a mentality after the World Cup that England are - or certainly, were - utter garbage.   A bunch of losers with as much talent as the Kardashian family, the lot of them.  But this simply isn't true - for the most part, anyway.

This was still, for the most part, a side that had beaten the All Blacks, that had pulverised the French in the Six Nations and beaten Wales at the Millennium stadium.  It was, by common consensus, a team that was capable of doing very well at the World Cup - to the extent that they were installed as second favourites before the tournament began.  

For various reasons, of course, the preparation for the World Cup was spectacularly wrong.  They suffered a freak loss to the Welsh in a game which they should have walked and were then blown away by an on-fire Wallaby side which eventually made the final.  They didn't become a bad team overnight - but they picked the worst possible time to have a bad day at the office, which was something which, with adequate preparation, should have been impossible to have.  Since the World Cup, those who won't reach 2019 and those who failed to pull their weight have been jettisoned, whilst the guys who can use the negative experience as a positive driver for the future remain.  


....AND FIVE TO BE FEARFUL

1.  Selections

As mentioned above, there have been plenty of promising selections in the wider squad which have been encouraging for those of us wanting to see the talent at England's disposal given a go.  But for every good call, there's a head-scratcher.  For example, selecting the young Josh Beaumont in the squad is fantastic, but then Jones has failed to select an 'fetcher' openside - something he has repeatedly said England needs - in the squad (with the exception of Matt Kvesic, who is only selected as injury cover).  In another example, on the one hand it's exciting to see youngsters like Paul Hill and Jack Clifford get a shout, but on the other he's ignored the sparkling form of Joe Simpson and Danny Cipriani.

But the wider squad selection isn't really the issue - the matchday squad is, however.  There was enough talent and promise to keep most people happy with the Six Nations training squad - however, for me, Jones has bottled his first selection by dropping Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly, who must both be wandering what on earth they need to do to get selected, particularly when they both offer such great versatility as well as form. There are the usual dodgy calls, too, where players have been selected ahead of others in arguably better form (for example, Marler ahead of Mako, Care ahead of Youngs), but those are more subjective issues.  The failure to select some of the best young talent in the country is less forgivable. 

Ever since the Woodward era, England coaches have been struck by shit-selection-itis, a rare disease which usually manifests itself in excessive caution and the inexplicable retention of shockingly out of form players.  Hopefully, Mr Jones hasn't caught the bug, but this new England does look worryingly similar to old England.


Jones has managed to avoid selecting the form outside centre in England, thank goodness.

2.  Dylan Hartley

Following on from the above, perhaps the biggest head-scratching selection is that of the new skipper, Dylan Hartley and - as the man charged with leading England into battle - he gets his own segment.  I should say at the outset, that I'm not going to prescribe to the arguments about his discipline - I don't care about his bans, and his discipline in an England shirt has, in general, been pretty good.  What I do care about is his worthiness to be in the squad, let alone handed the captaincy.

I'll make no secret of the fact that I am a big Tom Youngs fan and so I was disappointed to see him not selected in the wider squad, but the truth is that I would have had Jamie George as starting hooker anyway.  But the selection of Hartley really grated with me because - for all the talk by Jones of handing a clean slate to everyone - Hartley had done precisely nothing to warrant selection in the squad.  In fact, neither had Luke Cowan-Dickie, who can't get a start for Exeter ahead of the excellent Jack Yeandle, but you can at least argue that he is a project Jones wants to work on, given his young age.

Instead, there are at least 5 players who are all ahead of Hartley, certainly in terms of form over the last 12 months.  Jamie George, Tom Youngs, Jack Yeandle, Tommy Taylor and even his Saints teammate, Mike Haywood, can all feel very aggrieved at being booted back behind Dylan in the pecking order for the 2 shirt.  Even when he hasn't been banned or injured, Hartley hasn't been anywhere near approaching his best for the large part of 2 years, and the message I take from that is this: "Everyone has a clean slate and has to prove themselves...unless your name is Dylan Hartley".

So, no, he isn't worthy of selection in the squad on current form, let alone the team or the captaincy - but I hope he can repay Jones' huge vote of confidence.

3.  The Back Row

Again, this could probably have been squeezed into the selections category, but it's such a big, glaring and ugly void in the English game that it deserves a mention by itself.

Let's not forget, it's not too long ago that Jones was slating England for not having a fetcher, calling the backrow unbalanced and Robshaw 'without a point of difference'.  The backrow last Six Nations was Haskell, Robshaw and Vunipola.  It is now Robshaw, Haskell and Vunipola.  Unless swapping the 6 and 7 jerseys round is a master stroke, not a lot has changed, despite there being genuine options for the openside role in the frames of Will Fraser, Matt Kvesic and Brendan O'Connor (although the latter is currently injured).  

I think they'll be OK in the Six Nations - as Robshaw has repeatedly proven himself to be a very able 7 against northern hemisphere opponents - but against the southern hemisphere giants, England will be badly exposed again unless they blood a fetcher soon.

4.  Injuries

The blight of any international rugby coach seems to be injuries, as Warren Gatland will tell you after the World Cup - not that it stopped the hamster-cheeked git from knocking England out of their own tournament, however.  But already injuries to key men have tied Jones' hands in key positions - and none more so than the 12 shirt, which has - in any event - remained unsuitably filled now for the best part of 10 years.  

With Henry Slade tipped to be the answer and then consequently breaking his leg, it came as a bit of a surprise to see Jones change direction completely and then declare that Manu Tuilagi could be someone that the England backline could be built around in the inside role.  Despite the fact he plays 13.  Despite the fact that he has been injured for 15 months and is presumably now held together by blue-tac.  Still, the lack of the two preferred options at 12 - plus the fact that the injury-replacement, Sam Hill, is crocked himself - means that Jones is already plastering together a makeshift midfield to survive the tournament.

Chuck in injuries to Ed Slater and Brendan O'Connor, who were both rumoured to be in the mix for selection by Jones, as well as Alex Corbisiero's loss of fitness, form and subsequent hiatus, and you have an England 1st XV that is still missing a few key faces.  In an odd way, that's a positive thing, but when you're a coach ahead of you're first game, it really isn't.

5.  The Jones Factor

In the same way that Jones will bring something new and different to the England squad, there's always a chance it may backfire spectacularly.  How will the players respond to his notoriously hard-nosed methods?  How will they react to a foreign coach?  Can everyone understand his accent?

It's also worth pointing out that, whilst Jones is a man of vast experience, it's not as though he has a blemish-free coaching record.  He led the Reds through a disastrous Super Rugby season in 2007, and failed to have a positive impact at Saracens the season after.  And, aside from South Africa in 2007 (where he was working under Jake White), there is a suspicion that he is a little bit of a 'nearly' man; he did brilliantly with the Wallabies in 2003, when they 'nearly' won the World Cup, and with Japan in 2015, when they 'nearly' qualified for the quarter finals.

Perhaps that's harsh, because he certainly has more pedigree than any English coach currently out there, but if Jones is expecting a honeymoon period, he'll find out that - thanks to the English media - it will be a very short one.



For the record, I'm predicting a win against Scotland on Saturday and ANOTHER second place finish.  France to win (seriously).  





Thursday, 19 November 2015

England 2015 - What's Next?


A-ha!  Looks like I've beaten the passage of time to this article, by the skin of my teeth.

The first part of my look  at the changes to make within England rugby were focused on the coaches who might succeed the fallen bomber (AKA Lancaster), and right on cue some loudmouth has now declared that Eddie Jones is about to be offered the gig.  Ignoring that potentially inevitable development, I've taken a look at some of the main candidates and weighed up the pros and cons to put together a hit team to take on the best in the world.  I've also ignored various declarations of non-interest* or sabbaticals because, when an RFU man starts waving his fat cheque book around in your face, you might find that your 'year-off' can actually wait a couple more years.

So, without further ado, let's see who's on the radar.... 

*As an aside, I think that it's bang out of line for English coaches to say they don't want the national job.  Your country is calling.  It should be like conscription.


Any candidate's automatic response to an RFU approach

The Candidates

Eddie Jones.  Got one of the best CVs on the list, without a doubt.  Took a less-than-classic Wallabies side to a World Cup final, played an important role in South African success four years later, and then worked some serious magic with Japan this time around.  Don't mention his catastrophic stint with the Reds, but otherwise old Eddie has a cracking achievements list.  The only concerns are that he comes across as a bit of a big-mouthed git on occasion - but maybe England need a bit more arrogance - he's pretty structured in his tactics and he's keen on central contracts.  Which will make him about as popular as the Sheriff of Nottingham with the Merry Men.  The RFU has been working for years at establishing a positive relationship with the clubs - would they put that at risk to get their man?

Jake White.  Another man with an impressive CV to his name, his name sits next a World Cup win, which none of the foreign candidates can boast, after bringing home the bacon for the Springboks in 2007.  Since then, he's gone under the radar a bit up north, but he's done some good things in Super Rugby - taking the Brumbies to a Final and the Sharks to a semi-Final - and has now re-appeared with Montpellier who, unfortunately for him, are looking bloody average in the Top 14 and pants in Europe at precisely the time he wants to be presenting himself in the shop window.  White's success is impressive by himself but he does have a perhaps unfair reputation of favoring an eye-bleedingly boring kick-chase game, which fans won't want.  He also has a more proven track-record of job-hopping, especially when the pressure comes on...which doesn't bode well for an England coach.

Wayne Smith.  The way Wayne Smith is spoken about in the Northern Hemisphere, you'd think he was Yoda.  To be fair, he might be.   He's a man who shies away from the limelight somewhat, making his name as an assistant coach rather than a head-honcho, but when that assistant role is 'backs-coach' to the All Blacks, that makes you the best thing since Scarlet Johansson.  Having orchestrated the best backline in the world for the best part of a decade, it's no wonder the RFU have been scrambling over each other to beg Wayne to work some magic with some of the talent on the English books.  He's more of an unknown quantity as a head-coach and tactician though, and he has of course stated he's taking a break from rugby and so isn't interested.  Hmm.  We'll see if you still want to take a break when the moneybags at the RFU start to reach a bit deeper into the pocket.

Michael Cheika.  There's no doubt the big guy is a special coach.  A Heineken Cup with Leinster, a Super Rugby title with the Waratahs, and now with the Wallabies he's masterminded a transformation greater than Augustus Gloop's after his trip through the pipes at the Chocolate Factory.  He's passionate, he's tough and bloody smart too - but he's the only one on this list who I think wouldn't leave even with a wedge as big as the blazers at the RFU can offer.  He's a proud Aussie, and I get the sense he's just getting started on a very special project.

Warren Gatland.  I was pretty surprised to hear Gat's name thrown about.  Don't get me wrong, he's done a great job with Wales and, let's be frank, he's won more titles than any England coach has.  But considering how much stick he gets from the English about his mind-games, his Warren-ball gameplan and his general obnoxious personality, can you really see him being a popular appointment with fans?  If he left Wales for England, too, it's safe to say he wouldn't be able to visit again.


If you leave Wales, Warren, the hand needs to be the other way round
Joe Schmidt.  After masterminding consecutive Six Nations titles with Ireland and, of course, massive success with Leinster, Schmidt is another Kiwi who the RFU would be bonkers not to have a cheeky look at.  There's no doubt that he's one of the smartest operators around, but to be honest I'm not the biggest fan of his gameplan, which can revert to being pretty dull and kick-heavy - and, as above, I'm not sure he'll want to incur the wrath of an entire nation just to for a bit more cash.

Phillipe Saint-Andre.  Hahaha.  Just kidding.  Although the RFU have said they're looking for a coach with 'international experience'.  Imagine if he was in charge.  We'd have Dan Cole at fly-half with Martin Johnson coming out of retirement to play at openside flanker.


"International Experience"

Sir Clive Woodward.  Clive likes to work his gob on what's wrong with England compared to 'the good old days' when anyone makes the mistake of moving a microphone under his chin, but I don't think that he'll fancy putting himself in the firing line again.  And, after so long out of the game, would he be up to speed with the way teams play now?  Leave the legacy where it is Clive, and remain the way we want to remember you - a brilliant, inventive coach and manager; an unbearably smug pundit.

Rob Baxter.  Moving into the coaches with no international experience,  friendly Rob Baxter is top of most people's lists in terms of respect, admiration and 'blokes who seem they'd be alright to have a beer with'.  But, wishy-washy stuff aside, Baxter has worked wonders with an Exeter side that hasn't always been blessed with the talent it has now - he's earned a reputation for having a great rugby brain and an ability to bring on young talent such as Slade and Nowell.  Even with no international experience, he's surely worth considering.

Jim Mallinder.  Just no. Look, he's clearly a very decent coach and has done some good things with Northampton, but whenever the England job gets mentioned I notice his club form falls apart - it did in 2011, it is now.  For some reason the way he speaks annoys me, which isn't a valid reason for not employing someone I know, but when someone is renowned as being a tough task-master (as he is) I just wish they came out and acted as the a-hole we all know they are, rather than putting on a faux-friendly persona.  Plus he looks like Lord Voldemort.

Richard Cockerill.  In some ways he's very similar to his arch-rival, Jim, above.  Except he is openly a bit of an a-hole.  Which I quite like.  But still a no for me - the last two seasons have shown that unless he has someone with a creative spark holding his hand, his teams tend to get stuck in the mud.

Dean Richards.  The big man would have been surely been a target for the job back in 2011 if only blood-gate hadn't occurred.  As it stands, he's done a fine job with Newcastle but he's still yet to discover the mojo he had at Leicester and Harlequins.  He'd be a PR disaster for the RFU, but he would instill a hard-nosed edge and bear-sized hands to the England set-up.

Me.  Probably the dark horse of the candidates, I sent an application to the RFU which simply consisted of a picture of the William Webb Ellis Cup with the words "2019 - England GUARANTEED" scrawled across it, along with several photographs of England players with my head super-imposed on top so they'd think I had experience of the international game.  I've yet to hear back from them, which I assume means I've made it down to the final selection, given the absence of any formal rejection.  I'd bring enthusiasm and below-average chat to the job, which is - I'm sure we'd all agree - what the Country needs now.


So who's next?

Well, it looks like it will be Eddie Jones - and I think that is a very decent call.  He's got the CV and his work with Japan was brilliant - plus, he already has experience of the English game, having worked with Saracens and (here's a little-known fact for you) played briefly for Leicester in 1992.  The fact of the matter is that there are no quality English coaches with international experience out there at the moment and it's become so apparent that we're playing catch-up with the Southern Hemisphere that getting one of the enemy's own in is not only sensible, but probably essential.  Let's hope

However, what I'd like to see is a group of young English coaches working under him and learning from him.  We had three young assistant coaches before, but they were learning off a bloke who hadn't managed internationally before as well - so there was no passing on of knowledge.  I've said previously that all of the old regime needs to step aside - and I stand by that - but there are plenty of other guys out there who could do a great job.

Head Coach:  Eddie Jones.
Forwards Coach:  Rob Baxter.
Backs Coach:  Alex King - coached Clermont, which is enough for anyone.
Skills Coach:  Austin Healey - seems to know it all.  Let's put that to the test.

Friday, 13 November 2015

England 2015 - The Fallout - Part 2


I have to admit that I did get a bit of stick for Part 1 of my review into England's World Cup disaster.  Not because of the quality of writing which, I'm sure, was first-class as always, but because I decided to use the term 'Fallout', which coincided with the release of a very popular video game this week - meaning several grumpy (and presumably spotty-faced) gamers ended up telling me I should change the name of the article because they thought it would have something to do with zombies.

Well I'm not changing the name of the article and, to be honest, there isn't that much difference between the game and England's current situation - you could certainly argue that the fallout from the World Cup has been somewhat 'nuclear'.  (Sorry, I'd been building up to that).

Anyway, with the coaches, selections, foreign policy and Sam Burgess already reviewed, let's plough on to the other reasons that ensured that the mere mention of '2015' will cause English fans to immediately chin their drinks for years to come...

Chris Robshaw

Poor old Chris.  He gets a lot of stick, doesn't he?  Constantly (and incorrectly) slated as a '6 and a half' instead of a 7, regularly questioned on his leadership abilities and ridiculed for his slightly slow manner of speech (well, by a few I know), the England skipper goes from media darling to headline fodder more often than Katie Price after a few shandies.  But after being blitzed out of the game by the Australian back row and after 'that' call against Wales, how much of the blame should Chris Robshaw be carrying?


Let's start with the "is he an openside flanker" point.  Most of you will immediately cry "No", but I would disagree - I think he is a very decent number 7...in the northern hemisphere.  He constantly shows up well in the Six Nations, and in the last tournament he topped just about every meaningful stat chart for an open-side flanker - tackles made, carries, offloads and even turnovers (where most people point the finger) he was second, only behind Blair Cowan.  In the northern hemisphere game, he stands out as very impressive - but against the kings of the South, he got shown up very, very badly.

To be fair, he was outnumbered against the Wallabies as he couldn't contain Pocock and Hooper by himself, and his display against Wales largely saw him outshine Warburton in the battle of the 7s, but we've seen it constantly over the course of the last 4 years that Robshaw largely gets out-performed against the 'Big 3'.  To be honest, he is nowhere near the same class as McCaw, Pocock, Hooper or Louw - but who else is?  With the 'foreign policy' necessary to the protection of the English game, was there another player who could have done the job in that 7 shirt?  There was certainly no-one with experience, and that is the coach's fault as much as anyone's.

And what about his captaincy?  The sad fact is that England have lost far too many high-pressure games under his leadership and, for that, he has to carry a lot of the burden - as he must for the dodgy calls which have plagued his reign as skipper, not least the call against Wales to turn down the kick at goal.  In hindsight (a wonderful thing), it was the wrong call - Farrell was kicking everything and a draw, as it turns out, would have seen England through - but his decision was one of a series of crap calls by a selection of players, not least Geoff Parling, who ballsed up the lineout spectacularly.  A decision is only as good as its execution but for England, once again, the execution under pressure was pants.

Robshaw strikes me as a thoroughly good bloke and for me is very, very underrated, and in many ways he mirrors Stuart Lancaster.  But it's for that reason he must step aside.  His captaincy has been tainted by failure and, no matter how hard he tries, that won't change.

The Players


I seem to have spent half my time berating the coaches for various cock-ups but let's not forget that it's the players out on the pitch who are on the field making things happen - or not happen, as it were -in various situations.  Can you really hold the coaches to account for individual mistakes or, more aptly, moments of face-palming stupidity?  The Wales game is a prime example - take out the odd substitution of England's only remaining gainline-breaker, Burgess, for George Ford, and you are still left with Barritt's decision to rush up in defence to allow the Welsh attack to outflank him, the decision of Chris Robshaw to go for the try instead of the penalty goal and the decision of Geoff Parling to have the ball thrown to the front of that fateful - and uncontested - lineout.  These were all boneheaded calls by experienced players, and they have to take a massive share of the blame - but the fact is that moments of idiocy are all to common in England games, and they inevitably occur under pressure.  With these mistakes happening too often to be mere coincidence, you have to again look at their confidence and ability to perform under pressure in general - which, once again, points the finger (to some degree) at the coaches.


Aside from poor decisions by the players though, I personally refuse to believe that England lacked the players to get out of their group or even get to the Final of this World Cup.  Sure, the majority of the side falls under the 'potential' rather than 'current' world-class rankings but an on-form Dan Cole and Joe Launchbury would be sniffing around a World XV (or at least the squad), whilst the likes of Ben Youngs, George Ford, Jonathan Joseph, and Anthony Watson are all held in high regard in the southern hemisphere...so you know they must be good.  Looking at the continued success of the under 20s, too, it's clear that potential and/or ability is not an issue for England - but they have been in an environment where, for whatever reason, they have either not been able to produce the goods consistently or where they have not been allowed to express their talents fully.

Absentees


A nice, easy area to look at - if you're looking for excuses - are the absentees from the World Cup squad, and I'm not talking about those playing their rugby in France, who I've already banged on about.  I'm referring to the naughty boys - Dylan Hartley, who once again decided he'd prefer the summer off rather than strain himself with the inconvenience of a career-defining tournament/tour, and Manu Tuilagi, who wouldn't have been fit in any event (seeing that his groin is apparently still held together by sellotape) but sealed his fate by scuffling with a cabbie and 2 coppers two months before the tournament.  Clearly, neither are over-furnished in the brain department - but would either have made a positive difference to England's campaign?


Dylan's sporting attempt to squish a bug on George's face was tragically misconstrued
I think they would have done.  Now, Tom Youngs was probably England's best forward in the loose, but you can't deny that Hartley would have added big-game experience, leadership and bulk/solidarity in the scrum, an area where the hosts struggled - particularly in the bind between Youngs and Marler, which was regularly targeted.  As for Manu, well, he'd have been involved somewhere wouldn't he, no matter how well Joseph was playing.  Whether he'd slot in at 12 or as an impact sub, Tuilagi in full flow is a force of nature that very, very few sides can handle; of course, he would have been a huge asset.

But the main point here is that the above is all irrelevant.  We have no right to whinge about missing players, no matter how important they are - look at the Welsh for goodness sakes.  Sure, England would have fared better with Tuilagi and Hartley, but Halfpenny, Davies and Webb weren't exactly bit-part players themselves, were they?


The Group of Death


Speaking of nice, easy excuses, the criticism of the seeding system and the subsequent 'Pool of Death' it churned up as come in for a fair amount of lip-service.  Even Warren Gatland has chirped up in England's defence - which is, in itself, a collector's item - calling the issue 'ridiculous'...although you sense he may have just been sticking up for a fellow coach who was under the cosh, there.  But he does have a point.  I get that there needs to be certainty because of TV deals and scheduling and the like, but three years?  Seriously?  So much can change in that time (and it has) that the groupings cannot possibly be reflective of the current standings in World Rugby.

But let's nip that in the bud there.  "If only this had happened..." is a pretty lame excuse to be laying down and the flipside of the moaning is that Stuart Lancaster had three years to prepare for a group that would contain 4 of the world's top 10 sides.  It's a crap system, but the call was made, and we failed to deal with it - end of.  Besides, if we hadn't been landed in that group, we'd have only ended up lumbered with the All Blacks.  Or worse, Japan.

The reaction of all non-English fans when 'The Group of Death' is mentioned

The RFU


Let's get one thing straight.  The RFU can take no blame for England's preparation for the World Cup - Stuart Lancaster had everything he could possibly have asked for.  World-class training facilities, financial backing to bring in an army of specialists and the latest technology, a positive relationship with Premiership clubs - you name it, the RFU provided it.  Certainly, as far as I'm aware, there were no back-office arguments going on in the build up to the World Cup, or wafts of 'old-farts' distracting from the playing side of things.

But, of course, where the RFU are accountable is in the appointment of Stuart Lancaster and the coaching team himself.  If the coaches are accountable, then so are the guys who appointed them - and it always struck me at the time that giving the gig to an 'RFU man', after a decent (but not stunning) Six Nations rather than someone with international experience, was a bit of a cop-out.  But hindsight is a bit of a cow really.  Nonetheless, Ian Ritchie said he would take full responsibility for any World Cup failing, so it will be interesting to see if he's true to his word.  

And, as a side-point, surely it would be sensible for the RFU to appoint a chief-executive who at least has some background in the game, rather than someone who probably thinks that "handling the ball in a ruck" is a detailed sexual position rather than a piece of rugby terminology.

...Something Else?


Of course, it could be none of the above.  It could be, as Thierry Henry would say, a bit of "je ne sais quoi" that proves to be the downfall of not only England, but any northern hemisphere side, against their southern counterparts.  Be that ambition, basic skills or basic mentality - as Pres has previously written, the 'big three' seem to expect to win, rather than hope to win, like the English now do (demonstrated by the fact that we almost throw a national holiday after any victory over the southerners).  

This will prove harder to remedy, since all the other issue previously mentioned have very definite answers, but the fact that the Under 20s perform so well on such a regular basis surely tells us that the issue lies in the development between the youth and senior elite set-up.

What the precise issue is, I'm not really sure - but I do know it will take a lot of time and hard work to fix.

@ruckedover

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

England 2015 - The Fallout - Part 1


I detest current affairs, I really do.   They seem to have a habit of making my opinions or articles obsolete - well, more so than usual, anyway - by providing events that overtake my detailed, well thought-out (at the time) pieces.  For example, I write a big section in the below stating that Sam Burgess should stay - he pisses off  back to Australia faster than a bloke invited to an Elle McPherson massage party.  I then write (below) in great detail how Lancaster, despite having many positives, is in an untenable position and how he should fall on his sword...and then he resigns today.  As if he wants to get out of the firing line from this 'big-hitting' article, of course.

So, whilst I've tried to adapt some of this to keep it relevant, some of it might be pretty obvious.  But, anyway, on we go to sift through the ugly wreckage of England's failed World Cup campaign - well, Part 1, anyway.  There's a lot of wreckage.

The Coaches

Let's start with the biggy, messrs Lancaster, Farrell, Catt and Rowntree, since they're the ones who ultimately had a say in most of the below.  Now, I have no doubt for one minute that Lancaster is a very decent bloke and he has certainly done a lot of good stuff for England - not least re-inventing the culture and trying to restore some pride in the shirt again.  But what became increasingly clear that, in his effort to make this England team more likeable and accessible to his fans, creating a 'new England' if you will, he forged a team that lacked killer instinct on the pitch and ultimately suffered the same fate as they did 4 years ago - in fact, worse.  Martin Johnson's England rarely gets a positive acknowledgement in pub discussions, but the similarities in World Cup campaigns - and their build up is startling.  In 2010 and 2011, Johnson had developed an attacking team that was playing some of its best rugby for a decade (and, let's not forget, they won the Six Nations championship despite becoming unstuck against Ireland) before retreating into a conservative selection and gameplan when the big games came around.  For all the off-field improvements that we can prance around and point at, on the field Lancaster's England of 2014-15 echoed the 2010-11 side in almost every way - particularly in abandoning an exciting and successful selection and gameplan for a 'safety first' mentality.  The only difference was that the 2011 side at least had a Six Nations title to show for their troubles and got out of their group.


Yes, Lancaster was head honcho and carries the can for a lot of the individual elements below, but what about the rest of the staff?  There have been whisperings for a while now that Andy Farrell has been a dominant force in the coaching set up and various failings during the World Cup - such as the regression of the attacking game in the backs and the obsession of playing Burgess at 12 - can be drawn straight back to him, despite his obvious talents as a defensive coach.  As for Mike Catt, well, nobody really knows what he did.  First he was skills coach, then attack coach, then rumoured to be backs coach, and then confirmed as skills coach.  All we know for certain is that he had a bit of a pow-wow with Danny Cipriani, and that England's basic skill set still is some way behind the Southern Hemisphere's.  Even Graham Rowntree, heralded by the Lions greats as the one of the best forwards coaches around, oversaw a set-piece as firm as a damp sponge and a pack that lacked bite.

Above all, though, the lot of them will be forever tainted and associated with the 2015 'Incident'.  It is a regime of failure; a cloud that will follow them for as long as they remain in camp and an atmosphere that will permeate any England side under their management.  We talk about the likes of Woodward and Henry being given a second chance, but they had a clear vision - a plan.  These guys don't.  For that reason, they should all walk.

Selection

No World Cup squad selection will ever be out controversy (I will go into some of the main specifics below) - for example, I would have picked Elliot Daly ahead of Alex Goode as a wild-card pick - and, truth be told, most of the side picked itself in terms of who was available.  The big shout was, of course, Sam Burgess ahead of Luther Burrell.  Now, I wasn't necessarily against the selection of Burgess - I actually thought he was probably the form blindside flanker in the league by the end of the season - but the selection, and constant obsession, of Burgess at a 12 was sheer madness.


I actually thought Kyle Eastmond was very unlucky, but - without even going in to Burgess' performances - the dropping of Luther Burrell who, whilst not having a stand-out tournament, had been solid in the Six Nations and (at long last) had developed a threatening partnership with Jonathan Joseph in the middle of the park, in favour of a bloke who was playing in a completely different position with no international rugby experience was utterly, utterly bonkers.

Would it have made a difference?  We'll never know.  Burgess certainly wasn't to blame for the defeat against Wales, but who knows how Burrell would have fared.  Perhaps the more pertinent selection issues were those described above - those which alluded to safety-first gameplan.  The dropping of Ford, the refusal to select Henry Slade, the retention of Barritt, it all painted a picture of a team that was afraid to lose rather than a side that wanted to win.  I have no idea if a side with Ford and/or Slade in would have beaten Wales, or if they would have at least clung on against Australia, but the message it sent out was overwhelmingly negative.
Fire that marketing man.
Sam Burgess

Ah Slammin' Sam.  This wasn't how it was meant to pan out.  But let's get one thing straight - it wasn't his fault that England exited the tournament at the very first opportunity.  He had a positive impact against Fiji, he was pretty solid against Wales (he kept Jamie Roberts and his jawline quiet - not an easy task) and in fact England were winning when he left the field.  Aside from Gordon D'Arcy - an overrated centre who made a career of clinging on to the coat-tails of the great Brian O'Driscoll (*awaits abuse from the Irish*) - the majority of criticism has not been leveled at Burgess' displays - but his selection as a 12 instead, which I've alluded to above.

I had genuinely thought he'd stick with union.  All the talk of his character and ruthlessness pointed to a man who would rise to a challenge and I wasn't alone in thinking that - if he got his head around the lineout and mastered some of the subtleties of flanker play (which he was picking up very quickly) he could have been a Lions 6.  Instead, he's chosen to go back where the sun is shining, where he's as golden as the beaches and where he knows his trade inside out.  I don't blame anyone for swapping England in November for Sydney, but the claim that his heart wasn't in rugby union grates on me.  He signed a three year contract.  If he wasn't going to give it even a full year, how could he even get his head around it, let alone learn to love it?  Contrary to what he's said, he has taken the easy option and annals of history will show that when the going got tough, Burgess got going.

Of course, as with so many of these points, Lancaster and his crew have to carry a huge portion of the blame themselves.  Their obsession - and I mean obsession - of playing Burgess as a 12 not only muddled the lad's mind after he had just started showing real talent as a 6, but also forced him into an impossible situation under the most extreme pressure.  No wonder the enjoyment wasn't there.

Foreign Policy

Nick Abendanon has been spewing his mouth off lately, claiming that it's "pathetic" that England players would find his selection disruptive and that it was "criminal" that players like himself and Steffon Armitage, who play their rugby in France, weren't selected for the World Cup.

The average man's reaction to Nick Abendanon's latest outburst

Shut up, Nick - the only thing criminal around here is you trying to have your cake and eat it.  And I know a thing or two about cake.  What I mean is, the rules whether you like them or not, have been clear.  You know that, if you move to France to play in the Top 14, you are probably going to double your club salary but the rub is that you won't get a look in for the national side.  Now, I guarantee that pretty much every single player in that England squad has had some Monsieur waving a big cheque around in their face at some point in their career, and a big part of them staying in England would have been their international ambition.  I can see why, if a tanned ex-pat swans in from abroad having earned double what you earned and grabs himself an England spot too, without making the financial sacrifice you did, that would make you a bit bitter. 

And, actually, the really pathetic thing here was that the likes of Abendanon were not prepared to stay in England and fight for their place, knowing full well what the rules were.  I suspect, although the accountants would have to verify that most England players could probably match what they'd earn as a non-current international in France once club salary, England fees and the enhanced commercial/sponsorship deals that come with wearing the red rose are taken into account.

The foreign policy of not selecting players playing outside of England is, however, exactly right.  Whilst a salary cap exists anyway.  With the French clubs able to pay twice as much, removing the incentive to remain in England would decimate the English club game - they simply could not compete.  The choice is to keep the current system, or remove the salary cap and relax the selection rule - not a mixture of both.

But would the selection of any France-based players have helped the World Cup cause?  Again, we'll never know for sure.  The likes of Abendanon and Flood wouldn't have been near the starting line-up, but Armitage?  Well, he certainly could have been and, if he played like he does for Toulon, he could have been a big difference - but it's a big 'if', considering that the man in question is completely unproven at Test level.  Although, you do have to wonder that if getting awarded "European player of the year" in a position where your country appears to be struggling doesn't qualify you as an 'exceptional circumstance', what does?

@RuckedOver

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

RuckedOver's World Cup 2015 Awards


Well now we've been Rugby World Cup free for 4 days, which is just about time to reflect, stop crying and catch up on what has actually been happening in the real world after a month of hitting 'refresh' on the sports page instead of actual news.  It's also time for us to hand out our gongs for the best, worst and ugliest of the showpiece tournament - World Rugby were handing out some plastic pieces earlier on in the week, but we all know that this is where the real honours lie...

Best Player:  David Pocock.  Even if we look past the fact that he has somehow come back from two huge knee injuries to play at the highest level (and I can't even come back from one to play for a pub team), the Aussie openside's performances over the last month and a half have been nothing short of remarkable.  With legs like oak-trees and arms that look like socks stuffed with snooker-balls, Pocock's ability to remain unmoveable over the ball was bordering on super-human and, in more than one game, was the clear difference between teams.  Consistently brilliant, and a bloody nice chap by all accounts, too.
Runners up:  Dan Carter, Nicholas Sanchez.

Breakthrough:  Santiago Cordero.  I heard someone call him the 'Maradona of rugby', by which I hope he didn't mean that the Pumas' flyer is destined to retire into obesity and cocaine addiction.  I suspect that the reference relates to the magic in Cordero's feet and the fearlessness of his play.  Yes, he made mistakes, but his constant desire to make things happen electrified the World Cup and made more than a few good defenders look foolish.  I spotted him first when he was running riot for the Under 20s (apologies for smugness); I suspect a few more will have their eye on him now.
Runners up: Nehe Milner-Skudder, Gareth Davies.


Dream Team:  1. Marcos Ayerza (ARG); 2. Agustin Creevy (ARG); 3. Sekope Kepu (AUS); 4. Brodie Retallick (NZ); 5. Lood De Jager (RSA); 6. Scott Fardy (AUS); 7. Richie McCaw (NZ); 8. David Pocock (AUS); 9. Gareth Davies (WAL); 10. Dan Carter (NZ); 11. Julian Savea (NZ); 12. Ma'a Nonu (NZ); 13. Conrad Smith (NZ); 14. Santiago Cordero (ARG); 15. Ayumu Goromaru (JPN).  Subs: Dane Coles (NZ), Scott Sio (AUS), Ramiro Herrera (ARG), Iain Henderson (IRE), Duane Vermeulen (RSA), Nicholas Sanchez (ARG), Juan Imhoff (ARG).

Best Match:  South Africa v Japan.  Not just because this was the biggest shock in rugby - or possibly any sport - ever, and not necessarily just because of how much a single result probably gave the World Cup in 2019 a huge shot in the arm after months of uncertainty, but because it was an utterly helter-skelter ride of top quality rugby with one of the greatest finishes to a match ever seen.  Compelling doesn't do justice when you had neutrals - hell, even people who didn't like rugby - leaping about like maniacs for the final 10 minutes.


Runners up:  Ireland v Argentina for the unbelievable display by the Pumas, England v Wales for the sheer drama (despite ruining my weekend), Australia v New Zealand, for being the best final, ever.

Emerging Force:  Japan.  For the reasons above, the win over South Africa was huge - but what was really impressive was the way they followed it up.  They outclassed and stuffed the USA and Samoa - the latter being a shock in itself - but were unlucky against the Scots as they played off a 4-day turnaround, and visibly ran out of steam after half-time.  If a new coach can continue to build a side whose skills base is as good as most international sides and keep them on an upward trajectory, who knows what they can achieve at a home World Cup.  They finished as the people's favourites this time around (which I predicted in my preview - although I didn't predict the win over South Africa, on account of not being completely mental).
Runners up:  Scotland.  They look like a threat for the first time in 20 years.  Just don't mention Craig Joubert.

Unsung Hero:  England.  Well, not the team, obviously, but the hosts.  And by hosts, I mean the RFU, the England 2015 Committee and the fans themselves.  To be honest, I was one of those decrying the selection of football stadiums over rugby stadiums but, with 98% attendance and record-shattering revenue and TV audiences, it's hard to argue that they didn't lay on a great show.  And, to be honest, the rest of the World expected - and wanted (any excuse for Pommy-bashing) - the English fans to give up on the tournament after their own hopes when whirling down the toilet, but they didn't.  They still flocked to games - with huge support from other sides, of course - and made a racket and kept the buzz going to the very end.  Stiff upper lip and all that.

Biggest Let Down:  England.  Eugh.  Back into the depths of despair I go.  The sad thing was that there was genuine hope leading into this tournament - not necessarily an expectation of winning, but at least a hope that they could make some waves and, at least, a semi-final.  Instead, after 15 mad minutes against Wales where they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and a humbling at the hands of the Wallabies, the hosts found themselves out at the group stages for the very first time.  Once again, the side showed flashes of promise but ultimately failed when the pressure was on - a depressing theme of this England side.

The Danny Care Sh*t Haircut Award:  The All Blacks.  Awarded to the lot of them.  Even the great Richie McCaw looks like toilet brush, but the rest of them seem to have opted for a shaved sides and back look that makes a lot of them look like they are playing rugby with a kippah on their head.  Still, being a squad of sh*t lids seemed to help them on the field so...where're my clippers?
Runners up: Jack Nowell, Joe Marler.

Best Team Try:  Niki Goneva (FIJ) v Wales.  Outrageous all round - a scything break from deep, mazy running where nobody knows where anyone else is going, and a couple of cheeky offloads too.  Brilliant to watch.
Runners up: Juan Imhoff v Tonga, Karne Hesketh v South Africa, DTH Van Der Merwe v Italy


Best Individual Try:  Julian Savea (NZ) v France (second try).  The bus in full flow on a non-stop trip to the tryline.  Frightening stuff.
Runners up:  Santiago Cordero v Georgia, Ma'a Nonu v Australia.


Best Hit:  Ayumu Goromaru v Scotland.  Not necessarily an out-and-out crunch, but if you're looking for the perfect cover try-saver, look no further.  It looked for all money that Tommy Seymour would be getting a try in the corner, but Goromaru absolutely buried him into touch; no need even for a TMO on this one.
Runners up:  Sean McCalman v Wales, because of Biggar's satisfying head-flick, Adam Ashley-Cooper v Wales, purely because of the read by the veteran winger.


Villain:  Craig Joubert.  I'm not going to criticise a man for making a mistake - he made a bad (admittedly crucial) call against Scotland, but he had been making dodgy calls all day, penalising the Wallaby scrum and making odd decisions against both sides in the loose (NB I still think that the Maitland yellow was the correct call - it's a stupid rule but we've seen for years that if you go for the ball one handed, you'll probably get a yellow).  What nobody rated was the South African referee galloping off the pitch like he'd just been invited to provide massage services to Scarlett Johansson.  Whether he needed a sit on the throne or not, he should have had the decency to clench and shake hands with the men whose dream he had just helped to kick into touch.
Runner up:  World Rugby, for hanging the aforementioned man out to dry.

World Cup 2019 Winners:  Australia.  If Cheika can do what he did in one year, imagine what he can do with the Wallabies in four.  Then again, England may have found away to actually utilise the wealth of talent at their disposal, and if Argentina continue on their current trend you can't write them off.  In fact, it will probably be the most open tournament yet.  Ah, heck, who are we kidding?  It'll probably be the All Blacks again.

@RuckedOver

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

World Cup Final Review - New Zealand 34 - 17 Australia


You wait for a moment for weeks, months, years.  And then, before you know it, it's gone.  For some people it can be special events such as weddings, parties or (for weirdos) marathons, but for a large part of the rugby fraternity, Saturday afternoon was the culmination of 4 years of hype and build up.  A hype that wasn't diminished by the absence of the hosts, but rather a hype that been maintained and inflated by a resolute English support core who remained enthusiastic about the game and the tournament despite having a national side as useful as a chocolate teapot.  Top marks for hosting, but that wasn't the focus of the attention as the finalists emerged in front of a packed out Twickenham.

It was fitting that the two best sides in the World - without doubt - should meet in the Final.  The Australians, Rugby Championship winners; the All Blacks, well...they're the All Blacks.  One of the oldest and bitterest rivalries in the game, booted up into the stratosphere in a battle for the game's biggest title on the game's biggest stage.

Of course, we had the formalities to look forward to first, including the five renditions of 'God Defend New Zealand' and the Haka which is, of course, one sport's great traditions.  I've never done a big Haka piece, and now is not the time - but I love the spectacle and tradition.  The only thing that ruins it is that World Rugby tell you to stand 20 metres back and watch 23 very large blokes work themselves up into frenzy whilst calling upon the spirits of their dead ancestors to aid them - in my view you should be able to do you what you want up to the halfway line in order to even out the psychological advantage it gives the Kiwis.  Anyway, mini-rant over, Bernard Foley's boot got the final to end all finals underway in glorious Autumnal conditions in West London.

But the weather was as bright as things got in the first 40 minutes for the men in gold, as the All Blacks sent wave after wave of darkness crashing towards the Wallaby line.  Ma'a Nonu and then Julian Savea both hurtled towards the whitewash to get the All Blacks close, the former making yards after a bad defensive read by Tevita Kuridrani, but the Wallabies were indebted by the scrambling defence of Drew Mitchell and the breakdown of team 'Pooper' (aka, Pocock and Hooper) on more than one occasion.  Eventually, after 9 minutes of near constant New Zealand possession and attack, Australia were penalised at the breakdown and Dan Carter caressed over the opening three points of the game.  The advantage was hampered somewhat by the sight of Kieran Read - not a man to make a fuss of a minor knock - having his ankle mummified in order to carry on...and carry on he did.

The Wallabies struck back 9 minutes later after the impressive Scott Sio forced a penalty at the scrum out of Ben Franks, and Foley got his side on the board to level things up - but it was a rare visit to New Zealand territory.  The underdogs suffered a blow straight from the restart as Kane Douglas landed awkwardly to end his involvement in the game, and from then on it was an All Black monopoly on possession and territory, with the Aussies again grateful to their superb backrow for pinching key turnovers at critical times as the Kiwis tried - on more than one occasion - to drive them over from close range.  Somehow, after a quarter, the scores were still level - but the Wallabies were perhaps a little fortunate to have equal numbers on the pitch as well after Sekope Kepu took a particularly keen interest in Carter's rib-cage (after the ball had gone) and then followed it up with a high tackle on the All Black playmaker.  Lineout malfunctions, added to the fact that McCaw was starting to dominate the breakdown with the likes of Retallick and Kaino providing able backup, meant that you had a Wallaby side that simply could not find a way to get out of their half.

The bad news kept coming for the men in gold - the influential Matt Giteau was forced off with concussion and then Carter added two penalties, the second following a blatant forward pass that was somehow missed by all the officials, gave New Zealand the lead.  But it wasn't the margin that their dominance perhaps deserved and, if the Aussies could get to half time less than a score behind and regroup, you sensed that they were still very much in this.  But that, in a nutshell, is why the World Champions are the best in the World - when they have to deliver, they do.  Attacking the blindside, Conrad Smith hit a hard line before switching with his namesake Aaron, and then slick hands from McCaw allowed the electric Nehe Milner Skudder to scoot over for the game's first try - and it was an absolute gem.  Carter's touchline conversion made it a killer blow for the Kiwis, who went into the break with an commanding 16 - 3 lead.

Australia needed something to change, and fast.  What they perhaps didn't have in mind, in terms of change, was Sonny Bill Williams surprisingly replacing Conrad Smith - and the irritatingly good sportsman (Rugby League superstar, heavyweight boxer, World Knitting champion etc) had an immediate, devastating impact.  Making two offloads within 10 seconds, Williams made space for Ma'a Nonu to accelerate through the gap, step the cover, and gas his way over from 50 metres.  It was another absolute beauty that Carter, for once, couldn't convert, but two scores either side of the half-time whistle had sealed the game for the All Blacks.

Or had it?  With Kurtley Beale making a positive impact since joining the fray and Mitchell making good inroads, the Wallabies were starting to get just a little bit of traction and, with 50 minutes gone, Ben Smith clumsily upended the Australian winger in the tackle to earn himself a trip to the sin-bin - the first to ever see yellow in a final, incidentally...ironic that it should happen to one of the real 'nice guys' in rugby.   Aware of their predicament, the men in gold kicked to the corner and, from there, Pocock barreled over off the back of an unstoppable rolling maul.  25 minutes to go, 11 points down, 1 man up.  They couldn't, could they?

On 65 minutes, it looked like they could.  With Ben Smith on the brink of returning to the field, Genia brilliantly spotted space in behind the defence and dinked the ball over for Foley to chase and, with the bounce sitting up nicely for the fly-half, he was able to feed Kuridrani, who thundered over for yet another phenomenal score.  Foley converted again, and suddenly there was a 14 point turnaround, and the men in gold were only 21 - 17 down, a score away from one of the most remarkable comebacks in sporting history.

A lesser team may have felt the pressure, gone into their shell, panicked.  But not the All Blacks.  And not Dan Carter.  With his side trying to claw their way back to parity in the territory stakes, the veteran skipper barked out orders like a battle commander and, when the smallest window of opportunity presented itself, he snapped a glorious drop goal between the sticks from 35 metres to extend the lead again.  I am not exaggerating when I claim that no other player in the world would have attempted that kick under the pressure he was under - let alone executed it.  Masterful.  


The Wallabies wriggled and chased and ran as they searched for that try, but like a python the All Blacks simply squeezed their prey and waited for the resistance to break - and it did.  After Greg Holmes was penalised at the scrum, allowing Carter to hammer over a long range penalty, and then Ben Smith atoned for his sin-binning to pick up a loose ball as the Aussies attacked in the late stages to weave his way clear and kick ahead for Beauden Barrett to touch-down for a classic counter-attacking try.  It was fitting in so many ways that the man who many have tipped to fill Carter's boots after the World Cup was the man to close out the final, but this was not a time to celebrate a changing of the guard.

As the Final whistle blew, with the score at 34 - 17 (perhaps not a reflection of how tight the game really was in that second half), you could only marvel at the legacy left by the 'old guard', this All Blacks side - the best ever.  The first to win the trophy three times.  The first to retain the title.  This is an All Black side that is as close to invincible as any side in any sport ever will be, and they leave names etched into legend.  Carter, Nonu, Smith and - of course - McCaw, will all go down in the pantheon of greats to have played the game.


The Wallabies were worthy adversaries and, judging by their resurgence in just a single year, can probably set out their stall for greatness themselves in the near future if they continue that trend.  But there was no doubt whatsoever that the right team had their hands on the trophy.


Rugby World Cup 2015.  The best ever.

The All Blacks side, 2011 - 2015.  The best ever.

How very fitting.



NB Top marks to Sonny Bill, who has now become even more irritating by showing what a lovely bloke he is (on top of being superb at all sports) by handing his medal to an enthusiastic young fan.  Some people have called it disrespectful of the competition - nonsense, you don't need a but of metal on a string to remember you're a World Champion.
New Zealand Player Ratings

15. Ben Smith: 6.
A bit like his opposite number, Smith was solid without being at his wriggly best on Saturday afternoon.  Still joined the line plenty of times and injected pace whenever he did so, but he has to lose a mark for the clumsy tackle which saw him sent to corner for 10 minutes and helped to kick-start the Aussie resurgence.

14. Nehe Milner-Skudder: 8
The guy just oozed menace throughout, strolling in for a try early doors but then always looking to carve apart the Wallaby defence whenever he came in off his wing - which was a lot.  Brilliant feet.

13. Conrad Smith: 7
Played a key role in the opening try, cutting a nice line before having the awareness to switch the ball back to his namesake Aaron, and was instrumental in keeping a lid on the Australian backline in the first half.

12. Ma’a Nonu: 9
I remember when he burst onto the scene back in 2005 and we all thought, "here's another crash-bang-wallop" merchant.  He's not exactly delicate, but there's so much more to his game than physicality (and there has been for some time) and it was all on show here - distribution, kicking and, of course, a nose for the tryline as he weaved his way over from long range.  He will go down as one of New Zealand's best-ever centres - and that's saying something.

11. Julian Savea: 5.
For a man who made some of the loudest impacts in the games leading up to the final, he was oddly quiet for large segments of the big game.  Perhaps that's because he was well dealt with by Ashley-Cooper, but he also didn't seem to go looking for work that much.

10. Dan Carter: 9.
A staggering display.  He has built and built throughout the tournament and here, he was vintage Carter.  His game management was superb, his accuracy with the boot superb and his outrageous drop-goal was confirmation that he is, without doubt, the best 10 to have ever played the game.  Would have got man of the match were it not for McCaw in my book, but plenty have handed him the accolade and it's pretty hard to argue with.

9. Aaron Smith: 7.
Great angle and communication in the build-up to Milner-Skudder’s try, and his service was as snappy as usual. A couple of box kicks were a little wobbly, though, but he provided Carter with a solid platform - and that was all he needed.

1. Joe Moody: 6.
There were only eight scrums in the entire game, but Moody recovered from an early penalty to get his own back against Kepu.  Not all that conspicuous in the loose, but he can be very happy with his contribution to a World Cup winning side.

2. Dane Coles: 7.
One scything run was trademark Coles but, otherwise, he perhaps didn't have the impact with the ball in hand that he would have wanted.  Perfect in the lineout though, and you cannot ask for more than that.

3. Owen Franks: 5.
Solid in the scrum after early wobbles and that was all he needed to do.  Little impact in the loose but it didn’t matter.

4. Brodie Retallick: 8.
Weighed in with two turnovers at the breakdown, both in a first half period that saw possession changing hands regularly, and he was all over the Wallaby lineout like a rash - and about as welcome as one, too, for an Aussie side that was desperate for a platform.

5. Sam Whitelock: 8
These days he seems to be overshadowed by his partner in crime, 'Lurch', but here a high work rate to make 12 tackles as well was key to his side's success.  Oversaw a flawless line-out, too.

6. Jerome Kaino: 8.
He's one of the few guys who genuinely scares me when they're doing the haka (from the comfort of my sofa, mind), and he showed his brutal strength once again on Saturday.  Made more metres than any other forward on the pitch and was relentlessly physical throughout.

7. Richie McCaw: 10.
Gave one of those displays where you have to re-watch the game to appreciate everything he does.  Pocock may have won more turnovers in the classic sense, but how many time was McCaw there to drop on a loose ball, to make the tackle, to deliver the scoring pass.  He was everywhere and every time something important needed to be done, he did it.  Grabbed two turnovers himself, too, and as captain, he was virtually flawless.  He will join Carter in the 'best player ever' arguments...although by the sounds of it, he may have two more years to make his case after indicating he might want another pop at the Lions.

8. Kieran Read: 6.
A quieter display but considering that he was pretty much playing on one leg, that's understandable.  Was a calm head in amongst a furious forward battle and the fact he was kept on showed how important he is as a leader for the side.

Replacements: 8.
Beauden Barrett and Sonny Bill Williams had the most obvious impacts from the bench, the former showing searing pace for the final try and the latter offloading twice in the same move to set up Ma’a Nonu’s score. But to a man, the men that came on kept the intensity high and showed no signs of the nerves that have dogged New Zealand on this stage in the past.


Australia Player Ratings

15. Israel Folau: 6
We were all waiting for him to explode into life once again, as we seem to have been doing all tournament, but it just didn’t quite happen. Perhaps that ankle niggle is more niggly than we thought. He was solid and always seemed to tie in a couple of defenders, but no fireworks.

14. Adam Ashley-Cooper: 6
Utterly invisible in the first half, although that was hardly his fault. However, he grew into the game in the second half and got his hands on the ball more, looking dangerous at times.

13. Tevita Kuridrani: 5
Perhaps a tad harsh for someone who showed good support play to score a crucial try (although it did look as if he was running through treacle) but he looked outclassed to me in the midfield. A bit of a blunt instrument in attack, he was pretty well dealt with and defensively he was ropey in terms of his positioning, too.

12. Matt Giteau: 6
Showed signs of promise and authority before being forced from the field after being flattened by Brodie Retallick. A real shame that the man who only played a bit-part in the 2003 Final at the start of his international career had to endure a similar role at the end of it.

11. Drew Mitchell: 6
Perhaps the Wallabies’ most potent attacking threat, he seemed to wriggle out of tackles at will and beat a number of defenders. Unfortunately, the ball seemed to bounce out of his hands an uncharacteristically noticeable number of times, including just before Barrett’s game-winning score.

10. Bernard Foley: 7
Targeted in defence but he stood up well and certainly did not crumble. He did, however, lack the utter authority of his opposite number and, although he certainly caught the eye with some trademark jinks, some solid kicking and a great piece of awareness for his team's second score, he was over-shadowed by his fellow number 10. Then again, there’s no shame in that.

9. Will Genia: 7
Has grown again this tournament after a year or two in the doldrums, and his communication and execution for Kuridrani’s second try was very impressive. Gave good service throughout the game but we didn’t see too much sniping around the fringes.

1. Scott Sio: 6
He was massively important for the Wallabies at scrum time, and we saw them struggle once the big loosehead left the field. He won an early penalty against Franks and from then on seemed to almost have the upper-hand without quite making it count.

2. Stephen Moore: 5
He has to hold his hands up and take a share of the blame for a lineout which fell apart when it was needed most. Bloodied and brave as ever, that sadly doesn’t always cut it at the top level (see Steve Borthwick for further evidence). That said, Moore is a class act and will bounce back.

3. Sekope Kepu: 6
Honours even in the scrum and a couple of big bursts were impressive but – let’s be honest – he was a lucky boy to stay on the field after clattering Carter illegally a couple of times. Unnecessarily risky from the prop and, as it turned out, it had no effect whatsoever on the Kiwi playmaker.

4. Kane Douglas: 6
A real shame he was forced off so early, because he has provided real bite to the Wallaby dressing room. Looked aggressive and up for it in the 15 minutes he was on, but an awkward knee injury curtailed his involvement.

5. Rob Simmons: 4
Like Stephen Moore, Simmons (as the lineout caller) has to share the responsibility for a predictable and shaky platform that was probably a key component of the loss. Full blooded and committed in the loose, he was also unfortunately conspicuous when it came to getting on the wrong side of the law.

6. Scott Fardy: 6
He made a couple of crucial turnovers which underlined why he should never be overlooked as such a key component of the Wallaby back row, but he was also guilty of being a little bit flimsy in the tackle – slipping off three, which helped the waves of Black build their momentum.

7. Michael Hooper: 7
Very impressive, even in defeat. He was absolutely everywhere as usual – charging about, clattering into people, and he pinched a couple of turnovers, too. Sometimes his over-enthusiasm to make the big hit led to him dropping off tackles, but with Pocock in the side his primary function is to cause chaos. And he did that well… albeit not well enough.

8. David Pocock: 9
Another breakdown masterclass from a man who is surely Player or the Tournament. Not only did he win three turnovers, but he also topped the tackle charts with 13 and controlled the rolling maul well to kick-start the fightback. He would have been utterly dominant, were it not for a very, very special display by the greatest flanker of his (or probably any) generation on the other side.

Replacements:  7.
Kurtley Beale and Dean Mumm were both on the pitch for significant periods of time and both contributed with energetic and strong displays.  Mumm in particular was a joint top-tackler and Beale was a threat in space throughout.  The substitute front row didn't have a great time in the scrum, however...

@RuckedOver