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December 6, 2012

England give Lions a shot in the arm

Posted on 12/06/2012

Is Joe Launchbury now in the Lions mix? © Getty Images

When Warren Gatland announces his backroom staff for next year’s Lions tour in the coming days, Stuart Lancaster’s name will not figure.

Yet in masterminding England’s remarkable victory over a supposedly peerless All Blacks side last weekend, England’s Cumbrian supremo has gifted Gatland with the fillip he will have so desperately craved after a largely disappointing autumn campaign for the Home Nations against their respective Southern Hemisphere counterparts.

Although Ireland’s demolition job on a tiring Argentina a week earlier was worthy of the plaudits which followed, England’s unexpected triumph was the hammer which struck the timely psychological blow for the game in this part of the world, reviving a belief that a first series victory since 1997 is a real and attainable target for the tourists.

Of the individual playing performances over the past month, there were precious few for Gatland to get overly optimistic about but there were certainly some worthy of note.

England unearthed a trio of real gems in the shape of Tom Youngs, Joe Launchberry and Alex Goode, three inexperienced players who took to the international stage like the proverbial ducks to water. In the space of four weeks, each of them has shot from relative obscurity to the forefront of Gatland’s thoughts through displays promise and composure.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the English squad have only enhanced their stock. Manu Tuilagi is a whirlwind of destruction, while the well-documented defensive capabilities of his centre partner Brad Barritt are now being supplemented by no mean amount of offensive nous.

In wrestling the number nine jersey back from Danny Care, Ben Youngs has repaid Lancaster’s faith in him while the platform laid by the likes of Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling and Tom Wood is allowing the backline to flourish. Special mention must also go to Chris Robshaw, whose resolve through some difficult moments has been paramount.

In Wales, it was a different matter all together. The crumbs of comfort a final match victory over Australia would have provided were cruelly snatched away by Kurtley Beale’s last gasp try at the Millennium Stadium and the Grand Slam champions were left to mull over the reality of a played four, lost four return.

Leigh Halfpenny and Toby Faletau were two whose reputations remained in tact with consistent levels of performance, while Jonathan Davies’ return for the final two matches sharpened a previously blunt Welsh backline. Sam Warburton finally rediscovered some of last season’s form and Alex Cuthbert’s attacking exploits just about outweighed his frailty in defence but all in all, not a lot to shout about.

The shouting was even more muted north of the border where, after periods of success in their opening match against the All Blacks, Scotland’s campaign imploded with losses to South Africa and most miserably, Tonga - a result that saw head coach Andy Robinson end his three year tenure with the side.

Of the few positives, Tim Visser’s brace against New Zealand continued his metronomic knack for crossing the whitewash while Ryan Grant and Euan Murray produced an excellent scrummaging performance versus South Africa. Kelly Brown was valiant throughout the series but, as skipper, the challenge he and the SRU face to turn things round in time for a competitive Six Nations championship is stiff.

Ireland regrouped from a narrow loss to the South Africans to punish a hapless Fijian outfit and later put Argentina to the sword on the defining afternoon of their autumn. Jonny Sexton was assured throughout and remains in pole position for the Lions fly-half berth and Tommy Bowe also climbed a few rungs of the selection ladder with performances that consolidated his claims.

It was on the other flank where Ireland made their biggest find however, with Ulster firecracker Craig Gilroy seizing his opportunity against Fiji to keep the jersey for the Argentina match where he went on to deliver another dazzling display which was sure to have caught the eye.

In the pack, Iain Henderson, Mike McCarthy and Richardt Strauss all showed up well and will be hopeful of more game time in the spring while Cian Healy and Donnacha Ryan each produced powerful displays to maintain their positions on Gatland’s radar.

My team of the autumn is as follows:

15. Leigh Halfpenny 14. Tommy Bowe 13. Manu Tuilagi 12. Brad Barritt 11. Craig Gilroy 10. Jonny Sexton 9. Ben Youngs 1. Cian Healy 2. Tom Youngs 3. Dan Cole 4. Joe Launchbury 5. Geoff Parling 6. Tom Wood 7. Chris Robshaw 8. Toby Faletau

And finally, purely in the name of heated debate, here’s my take on how Warren Gatland’s initial 35 man squad might look when he drafts in the coming weeks.

Rob Kearney, Leigh Halfpenny, Chris Ashton, Tommy Bowe, George North, Tim Visser, Manu Tuilagi, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Davies, Brad Barritt, Jonny Sexton, Jonny Wilkinson, Owen Farrell, Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs, Conor Murray, Andrew Sheridan, Cian Healy, Dan Cole, Adam Jones, Alex Corbisiero, Richardt Strauss, Tom Youngs, Rory Best, Richie Gray, Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, Donnacha Ryan, Alun Wyn Jones, Tom Wood, Stephen Ferris, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton, Jamie Heaslip, Toby Faletau.

Paul Barry - @Bazwaldo10

December 4, 2012

Denied at the death, again

Posted on 12/04/2012

Wales attempt to come to terms with another agonising defeat © Getty Images

If the reverse against New Zealand felt like a sledgehammer to the senses then Kurtley Beale’s last gasp try felt like a dagger through Wales’ heart. The men in red finally looked set to have ended their hoodoo against southern hemisphere opposition but a faulty lineout and some bad defensive realignment cost them. The sheer joy of Rhys Priestland’s fist pump after his clearance kick turned to Sam Warburton’s dejected slump against the posts in the space of two minutes, a snap shot that encapsulated Wales’ 2012.

The Grand Slam had offered much and it seemed Warren Gatland’s charges were primed to take the next step and record wins over southern hemisphere opposition but they now face a rebuilding exercise. One thing is for sure and that is a massive improvement is needed if Wales are to have any chance of retaining their Six Nations title, it looks like a big ask, but the situation isn’t as bad as 4 defeats from 4 autumn games seems to suggest.

Wales are close, there is no doubt about that. They controlled the game for large periods on Saturday and deserved the win, full credit to Australia for taking the victory but Wales lost the game more than the Wallabies won it. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how they lost. The lineout failed, the defence didn’t reorganise quickly enough, that’s just how Australia scored – Wales lost for deeper rooted reasons altogether. From game to game certain aspects seem to fail on the Welsh, one match it will be the defence, the next the set piece, then the kicking, and so on.

They can sometimes ride out the failings and win, sometimes they lose or sometimes it all comes together and the men in red can be brilliant. The physical and technical aspects are not lacking, just a bit of consistency is needed in those departments – what is missing is the mental edge, the belief and the leadership to win the tight games.

Wales showed enough in defeat to suggest they can come back from this. Once again the forward platform functioned well, Scott Andrews showed there may be life after Adam Jones and a depleted pack secured enough of the possession to build a winning position against the Wallabies. Gethin Jenkins should seek a loan move from Toulon though because he needs the game time. With the addition of Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate and a full complement of second rows you have the impression that Wales’ forward effort is perhaps not as downright destructive as the Springboks or England’s is still a match for anyone. If there is a weakness, it is the lack of consistency in the lineout and the naivety around the breakdown that allowed players to be isolated too often and leaked too many turnovers on Saturday.

The backline was another plus point, probably having its best 80 minutes of the Autumn series against Australia. Priestland showed good variation with his passing and kicking, his little chips over the top of the Wallabies blitz defence were a particular highlight. Jonathan Davies and Alex Cuthbert looked dangerous and Jamie Roberts was solid in defence and made some powerful direct runs. Liam Williams looks like becoming a fans favourite and Leigh Halfpenny staked another big claim to being the Lions full back. The backs made line breaks, having the confidence and sense of adventure to go for it, something we haven’t seen for a while, and it was very welcome.

What really lacks though is something that isn’t as easily coached. What Australia showed is how far ahead they were in rugby nous and intelligence. They, like the All Blacks a week before seemed to know when ‘it was on’ and were more aware around the breakdown. Far too often this autumn we have seen four or five Welsh forwards clearing out one or two opposition players.

After a few phases Wales have too many players in one area of the pitch and committed on the floor, leaving them vulnerable to turnovers and short of options when the ball does come out, which has all too often been slow. Perhaps it’s something that comes with experience and the senior Australian players were better than their Welsh counterparts at taking the lead but they seemed to make the right decisions at key times and seemed more intelligent overall. Wales are being out-thought rather than out-fought at the moment and whilst the teams fitness levels are fantastic it’s not their bodies that are letting them down.

Toby Williams - @williams_toby

Reigniting English rugby

Posted on 12/04/2012

Chris Robshaw put in a stunning performance for England © Getty Images

At the beginning of the autumn I thought I would be writing this about England's resilience and determination in losing to the world's best team. However I could write forever about a performance that has reignited English rugby for the first time since 2003.

Considering the performances prior to the match, Twickenham was buzzing with excitement and a quiet confidence. The anthem was filled with passion and pride that shook the foundations of Twickenham. Seeing the Youngs brothers side by side belting the anthem at the top of their lungs was spine tingling - knowing their father beat the All-Blacks in 1983, and they could could do it together. As if the anthem was not enough, the players, fans and those watching at home could witness one of the great sights in rugby, the Haka. But it was barely audible over one of the best renditions of 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' by 82,000 fans. Maybe it was a sign of what was to come, as the crowd never let up, nor did the players.

With Richie McCaw having more caps than our entire pack and the New Zealand front row more caps than our whole team, experience was not on our side. With New Zealand having gone twenty games unbeaten and looking to finish off their year on a high, England were fighting a real uphill battle, especially against a side called one of the greatest ever. Few rugby fans would have expected what happened.

From the word go England were always in the face of the Kiwis with relentless pressure at the breakdown and in the tackle. Set piece was excellent. It was as if no one had told the English front row the experience of their counterparts as they were all over them in the scrum. Dan Cole may look like a veteran but for such a young international tight head prop he is outstanding, he has to be on the Lions team sheet. His big friend on the loose head, Alex Corbisiero looks to be on great form after having a pizza named after him. Only one line out went awry, but Tom Youngs was on point otherwise and his partnership with Geoff Parling is one for the long term. Youngs finally managed to combine his new found line out throwing with his ability to carry and what a combination it is. He made yards on every carry, and for someone who is very short for international rugby, showed size is not everything. On opposition line outs Tom Wood made a nuisance of himself not allowing any clean ball for the Kiwis.

Outside the set piece the forwards showed their potential and the class that everyone knows they have. With nearly the whole pack turning over ball on the ground shows we do not have a real need for one out and out fetcher at the moment. The defence our forwards provided was second to none. I have never seen a New Zealand team pressured like this, or put on the back foot the way England did. It was not just in defence, but also in attack as the forwards seemed to be more organised going through the phases and got some real momentum. Joe Launchbury looks at home in international rugby and gets around the pitch like another back row. Ben Morgan and Chris Robshaw were loving a chance to show what they could do ball in hand.

The New Zealand players clearly struggled against this as they continued to give away penalties that Owen Farrell would continue to convert into points. With each penalty that went over a lead and hopes of the nation would simultaneously rise.

One thing I was happy to see was Manu Tuilagi being used on first phase ball and carrying hard into the heart of the New Zealand midfield. As our most potent ball carrier it was surprising to see that this was the first time all autumn this happened, and what a difference it made. It may have been the reason why Conrad Smith rushed out in defence to cover Tuilagi when Brad Barritt made a break that led to his try. The best moment however was when he was used as a first up ball carrier off the line out and broke through the tackles of two IRB player of the year nominees, Carter and McCaw, to pass to Chris Ashton. Finally a chance to see a sight missing from English rugby, the 'Ash Splash', after he ran a tremendous support line, showing his class. Mike Brown showed his credentials as a left winger always looking for work, carrying strong and a great turnover on the right hand side of the pitch. Brad Barritt was a stalwart in the England back line, and Farrell's kicking was imperious and gave great confidence to the side.

England showed great belief on Saturday, even after conceding two tries in quick succession they still managed to come back and score three of their own. Stuart Lancaster showed great confidence in his entire squad after bringing on Freddie Burns for his first cap just after the hour mark. Having your first cap against the All Blacks you would think nerves were an issue, but Burns looked as settled as someone with thirty caps to their name. He had a couple of penalties, and a few lovely touches ball in hand. Lancaster has shown this amazing ability to give confidence and not let players be overwhelmed by a situation, this is evident with Launchbury and Burns this autumn, but also with many players during the six nations.

Tom Wood epitomised everything that was good about England. He put his body on the line, got in the face of the opposition and really put them under pressure, a key reason to why England won, they never let the opposition play. He is an abrasive player that England very much needed. A well deserved man of the match.

The match brought memories of 2002 flooding back when England beat the big three. Hopefully this confidence will be taken forward into the Six Nations and England can really do something special.

Henry Fraser - @henryfraser0

The wrong plan

Posted on 12/04/2012

Kieran Read is felled by Chris Robshaw © Getty Images

The All Blacks first loss since August 2011 was always going to come as something of a shock after so long without tasting defeat. The most unexpected part of the loss however, was that the English outplayed the New Zealanders in a fast paced game, and came away with the kind of score the All Blacks themselves are used to posting against other teams.

There are no excuses at Test level, only reasons to be found. That England turned up with the right mindset, plan and energy cannot be denied, however this game did reveal the low energy levels of the All Blacks. Whether that was down to the pre-game virus, or the effects of a long season, we may never know. Test rugby is all about finding the weakness and exploiting it, which the home team did.

The All Black forwards were not only sluggish, they played poorly as individuals, surrendering the collision area, the ball, and the momentum to a committed English pack. Just how much of that came down to an unsuitable gameplan would surely be one of the “rocks under the beach towel” Steve Hansen has referred to. Then there are selections, and the timing of substitutions.

In the halves, Aaron Smith had his first mediocre showing, proving the old adage that you never know what a halfback is really made of until you see them behind a losing pack. England identified the lack of protection being afforded to the scrumhalf, and the mistakes flowed from the wound. To compound matters, Dan Carter was well off his game for most of the match too and questions could be asked if he was actually 100% fit to play.

With those two key areas under pressure, England were able to take advantage and force kickable penalties, and score good running tries against a creaking defensive line.

That line failed because the All Black attacking tactic of recycling quick ball, going two passes wide to a running forward and repeating the formula means that if a turnover occurs, there are ready made mismatches for the opposition to exploit on counter-attack.

Perhaps relying on the tight forwards to play “loose” and control the space out wide, rather than arriving at the tackle and clearing out, is too reliant on the energy levels of the side - and the willingness of the opposition to commit to defence out wide rather than counter-rucking aggressively.

It was apparent that when the All Blacks hit the rucks in numbers, employed pick-and-go play for momentum and followed it up with well timed passing through the backs, they were far more threatening to the English line. Unfortunately for the New Zealanders, just when the comeback looked irresistible a pass was intercepted and the victory was England’s from there on.

It is often said that more can be learned from a loss than a win. Maybe after achieving 12 wins, one draw and a solitary loss from 14 games it is pedantic to seek the lesson. On the other hand, it is against the New Zealand rugby mindset to simply accept defeat as a statistical inevitability. There will be subtle changes made to ensure the All Blacks will be back to their winning ways in 2013.

England’s exceptional once-in-a-decade (thus far) winning performance will be stored as motivation and the rematch will be targeted for a redemption act, regardless of when, or where, it is played.

Sam Nelley - @Scorz_

November 30, 2012

The mantra of Gatland

Posted on 11/30/2012

Ryan Jones celebrates with the 2008 Six Nations trophy - will Gatland adopt a similar squad selection blueprint for the 2013 Lions squad? © Getty Images

When recently asked about Warren Gatland’s period of absence from the Wales camp this autumn, Alun Wyn Jones said "Warren is here in his rugby mentality if not his body. His mantra is being carried on: hard work, being direct and not being afraid to play".

Though eyebrows may be raised in some quarters as to whether Wales have successfully translated that mantra onto the field in this campaign, it is fairly indisputable given a wider perspective, that his ethos has become ingrained in the Wales national set-up since his appointment in 2007, particularly when framed in the context of the preceding seasons.

In 2005, Wales became Grand Slam champions for the first time in 27 years playing a brand of rugby which delighted the masses in that glorious Celtic spring, but which also drew criticism, most infamously from Dick Best who controversially accused the Welsh of having a "game plan built on sand."

Despite the vitriolic backlash from the Welsh rugby public to Best’s assertion, time somewhat vindicated his comments as the fortunes of that free-flowing instinctive side imploded, firstly during a tumultuous 2006 Six Nations campaign, when Mike Ruddock left his post amid the messy ‘player power’ dispute, and later, when they were knocked out of the World Cup at the group stages employing Gareth Jenkins’ romantic, yet ultimately flawed ‘Welsh Way’.

And then there was Warren.

The stony New Zealander’s self-derived remit upon his appointment was to sweep away the sand on which Wales’ twinkled toed class of 2005 had so gently tread and fill the subsequent void with a hard-setting concrete mix of set-piece stability, rigidity of structure and mental resilience.

Such was the importance Gatland placed upon regimented on-field routine, for Wales’ opening game of the 2008 Six Nations away to England, his starting 15 included 13 Ospreys, Wales’ leading region of the time. The team went on to record Wales’ first Twickenham victory in 20 years and the Grand Slam that followed has been well documented.

Since that heady opening salvo in the job, Gatland’s ideologies have had time to embed and evolve within the Wales set-up and the three-prong mantra cited by Jones has been evident, up until the end of this year’s Six Nations at least.

The rigorous Polish training camps have seen Wales match and even usurp the best in the world game in the fitness stakes while the directness of their play was the pillar of this years’ Grand Slam victory.

However, the fearlessness with which Wales profess to play has been seldom witnessed over the past 12 months and one wonders, now that Gatland is shorn of the guile and ingenuity of Shane Williams and while he seems unwilling to give the exiled James Hook and the enigmatic Gavin Henson a fresh chance to shine, whether the scales of style versus substance have not tilted too far to the other side.

The question with regard to Gatland’s Lions stewardship is, how will his coaching traits and management style reflect on his Lions selection and the approach he takes to masterminding a series victory down under?

History suggests he will be looking to reap the benefit of familiar combinations and players seasoned at this, the most intense of international environments. Indeed, without the responsibilities of succession and evolution that he carries in his Wales role where his policies always favour the introduction of youth, he has been quite candid about the fact that he will not be afraid to turn to players in their latter years and even in the twilights of their careers.

When recently quizzed by journalists, doubtlessly angling at ‘the’ Jonny Wilkinson question, Gatland said: "Age will be no barrier to selection. If you’re good enough, you’re not too young, and if you’re 35, 36 or 38 and playing well enough, then you’ll get selected.

"The thing with the Lions is that you can potentially pick an older player to take on tour for three or four games. They might not have to train a lot. You might be able to take an older player who might struggle to get through a whole club season or even struggle through an international campaign."

Seemingly, with limited preparation time and with results being the only definition of success, the way Gatland handled that 2008 England match may be an accurate yardstick of how he will approach the tour.

Stylistically, Gatland may well argue that the slump in Wales’ creative output may be down to the personnel at his disposal. The majority of coaches endeavour to devise a game plan which gets the best out of what is available, which in Wales’ case is a crop of physically imposing, direct, athletic backs and it is by utilizing their strengths, that he is aiming to prosper. On the other hand, he may simply put it down to a blip in form.

Either way, to suggest that a man with Gatland’s CV as one-dimensional would misguided if not ignorant and with his net cast that much wider for this assignment he may well see strength in say, a ball playing 12, a willow-the-whisp type winger or a constructive backrow linkman and tailor his approach to suit.

Whatever the final outcome, his squad selections during his Wales tenure have never been short of something from left field, so expect the unexpected which may well turn out to be a liberal sprinkling of sand to add to that archetypal concrete mix.

Paul Barry - @Bazwaldo10

Bringing out the best in England

Posted on 11/30/2012

The spotlight will be on Owen Farrell come Saturday © Getty Images

Just over a year ago English rugby was in turmoil following a World Cup to forget and New Zealand were on top on the world. One year on and not much has changed. New Zealand have gone twenty games unbeaten, and England are still struggling against the best in the world.

With no chance of making a top four seeding now for the 2015 World Cup draw, England have nothing left to fight for but pride. No one expects England to win this one, it's just a matter of not being left embarrassed like the other northern hemisphere nations this autumn. However, there are still many English supporters that believe England can upset the odds. There seems to be something that leads them to believe Twickenham could see something special, maybe it is the confidence the squad has in each other. Many still believe that this team has under achieved this autumn with a game they should have won against Australia and a game they could have won against South Africa. A win at the weekend would wipe away all the woes that have gone before.

Moving on from the physicality of the South Africans, the English pack has to go up against the ruthless and ever mobile Kiwi forwards. There is no change from last week in the pack that went so well against the South Africans. Scrum time could one area where England have the upper hand, especially with Alex Corbisiero back, turning England into a very tough team to beat up front. The only thing that needs to be tighter is the line out. If there is one thing England have proved is that the forwards love to get ball in hand and try to take the game to the opposition. It is not just with the ball where England have to front up, but also the breakdown. New Zealand are ferocious when it comes to the breakdown, they are relentless on opposition ball and turn over a lot in the process. It is vital that England secure clean ball, and quick ball to not allow New Zealand a sniff at a turn over. The forwards will have to carry hard and make sure support is always present on someone’s shoulder. James Haskell and Courtney Lawes will offer huge impact off the bench as big hitters and ball carriers.

There is only change in the backs as IRB player of the year nominee Owen Farrell comes in for the injured Toby Flood. Farrell will be opposite fellow nominees, Dan Carter and Richie McCaw who will be looking to get into Farrell's face all game long. The spotlight will be on Farrell after his nomination especially against two past winners. The balance of skill and power in the opposition back line is amazing so shutting it down early is key. Brad Barritt will be key in defence, and some big hits from Manu Tuilagi would not go amiss. An organised attack is key and one with few errors is even better, as New Zealand thrive on turnovers and the counter attack. This also means that Ben Youngs and Farrell have to be deadly accurate with kicks out of hand and the chase has to be as fast and strong as has ever been. New Zealand exploited the poor kicking massively against the Welsh last week and got huge reward from it. Tuilagi is key in providing England with go forward and our biggest weapon in breaking through the Nonu / Smith partnership.

One thing England have to do is be clinical when they are in a scoring position. Too many times basic skills have cost us dearly. New Zealand can go games with very little possession but still out score any team, so taking chances are key. If we can starve them of possession more than most teams, even better.

There is no doubt New Zealand will come out all guns blazing. Returning back to the home of English rugby, and on McCaw's final game before his sabbatical, and leaving with a win would cap off a tremendous season. It is always great to welcome the best team in the world, and even greater to beat them. There is something special about playing New Zealand at Twickenham on an autumn Saturday that can really bring the best out of players.

Henry Fraser - @henryfraser0

November 28, 2012

Scottish rugby in the mire

Posted on 11/28/2012

Where now for Scottish Rugby? © Getty Images

I was hoping there wouldn’t be much to write about this weekend, just a nice relaxing post about how Tonga battled bravely up in Aberdeen but ultimately had too little time together as a team and too little belief to overcome bold Scotland, who managed to salvage some pride.

Sadly it turned out that Tonga were bold and fiercely proud, and Scotland were lacking the belief, both on the pitch and in the stands. Although in the latter case it was more a matter of disbelief than anything else.

Now we have an Autumn International whitewash to go with our Six Nations whitewash and our early World Cup exit last year.

Amidst the gloom there was the triumph of another good result against Southern Hemisphere opposition and a winning tour in the summer. There were encouraging signs from the pro-teams in the summer. It seems like an awful long time ago.

As usual there were a handful of good performances in the dark blue. As usual it was different players to the previous week. Henry Pyrgos was perhaps the lone exception as he continued to run the game at pace and looked sharp. His service was reasonable too which is always nice on the odd occasion you get quick ball.

This week Sean Lamont and Stuart Hogg ran everything they could and although they didn’t always get far you cannot fault their effort. Hogg put his heart into the jersey and was clearly emotionally and physically drained by the end. In the pack Al Kellock stood out, marshalling the line-out and several mauls that probably deserved more points than they ultimately earned.

But as has been the case with Scotland over a decade or more, there was an all too familiar descent into headless-chicken mode when in need of points that made capturing the crucial tries – any tries – harder the more effort they put in.

Like a rabbit caught in a snare, the more they struggle, the tighter the noose.

What is needed in Scottish minds is cold calculation of the sort dished up to them by New Zealand in the first test.

They have a pack that on its day will put them in the positions required to score. But when there is not belief that a try will result if the ball goes out past 9, it all too often results in the pack trying to find holes that simply are not there.

Would McCaw ever say “hang on lads let’s stick it up the jumper, those mugs Carter and Sonny Bill will never score.”

The forwards can often seem like they’re tired of watching the backs failing to score almost as much as we fans are. It’s cruelly ironic, as in Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg we have two of the most potent finishers seen in Scotland shirts in the last decade – had the ball ever gone out that far when it came to the crunch.

Coach Andy Robinson is not the first to have battled this problem, and in the post-match press conference on Saturday he cut a dejected and angry figure. He looked like a man unclear if he any longer had a solution in mind, and so it came as little surprise when he cut his losses on Sunday. He left behind a hefty contract, which confirms that Robinson is a proud rugby man above all else.

By Monday we were left wondering: who will lead the team now? Scott Johnson and Sean Lineen wait in the wings. Wayne Smith offers a tantalising hope, having some loose connections to Scotland and having been a recent visitor on a coaching exchange.

And yet more questions: would a top rated coach even want to take on the 12th-ranked rugby nation?

Rory Baldwin - @ScotRugbyBlog

France building solid foundations

Posted on 11/28/2012

Frederic Michalak put sublime performances for France throughout the autumn Tests © Getty Images

A first victory in seven years against Australia, an unbeaten November and the return of the prodigal son – it’s been a pretty successful set of autumn internationals for Philippe Saint-André.

Of course all is not perfect – the momentum from emphatic wins over the Wallabies and the Pumas was somewhat stalled by a gritty success over Samoa. But after four years of ups and downs there is the feeling that something concrete is being built here.

Fred Michalak will always be described as mercurial in the same way that Richard Hill is apparently still underrated – though no one can explain by whom. The truth is Freddie has turned into a pragmatic ten who makes the right decisions more often than not. Of course he is still capable of those moments of magic, as Kurtley Beale can testify after being left for dead in the build-up to Wesley Fofana’s try in Paris.

But more impressive has been his immaculate kicking from the tee – the range is limited but inside 40m he is deadly – as well as his immovable first up tackling. Where the playmaker in France has always been the scrum-half, Michalak took control and performed in every game.

If he was the pick of the backs, Louis Picamoles looked every inch the world’s best No.8 for two Tests. His quiet display against Samoa cannot be ignored, but only New Zealand would think twice about starting him.

This November was also marked by the performances of two distinct groups – the returnees led by Michalak, and the next generation – headed by Brice Dulin. Michalak, Florian Fritz, Yannick Nyanga and to a lesser extent Benjamin Kayser, all looked as comfortable as they ever have for Les Bleus – Fritz in particular, was exceptional in keeping Samoa at bay. Meanwhile Dulin and Maxime Machenaud kicked on from their successful tour to Argentina, with Yannick Forestier and Jocelino Suta also taking their chances.

There are still problems to resolve, Fofana is an adequate stop-gap on the wing, but he doesn’t look happy there and we don’t see his best. Having three looseheads in a matchday squad so that you can fit in Vincent Debaty is not a viable solution against the best scrummagers. And as much as this was an autumn of regeneration, the likes of Gael Fickou, Pierrick Gunther and Jules Plisson remain untested at this level.

The Six Nations will give an even clearer indication of where this team truly lies – trips to Dublin and Twickenham present a challenge on form and history respectively. Head into the summer tour with New Zealand having won the Six Nations – or even the Slam – and Saint-André will really have us believing.

Antoine Bonnin - @Rugby_en_bleu

Ireland still consistently inconsistent

Posted on 11/28/2012

Ireland had much to celebrate on Saturday © Getty Images

Alexander the Great once said; “Upon the conduct of each, depends the fate all" - Ireland's world ranking fate was decided by the conduct of the entire team, seemingly clicking into gear simultaneously and taming Los Pumas. From prop to full back, Ireland managed to totally outshine their opponents and record a comprehensive 46-24 win.

Argentina failed to control or contain an Irish attack that managed to run in seven tries and dominate in almost every aspect of the game. This was Argentina's 12th game of 2012, at times they did look lethargic and by the hour mark it was clear most of the Argentina team had their minds on the plane home. The Puma's pride somewhat dented after what had a been a convincing enough display on the tour so far.

Craig Gilroy is the name on everyone’s lips after his magical footwork led to Ireland’s opening try - and rightfully so. Gilroy has become the talk of the town and there are some already predicting he has is seat booked on the Lions tour this summer. Described as Ireland's answer to Shane Williams, Gilroy has at very least got the attention of and Irish audience. His abilty to spin out of tackles and shift effortlessly from one foot to the other adds an exciting dynamic to the Irish wing.

Alongside the hopes being placed on Gilroy, the importance of Johnny Sexton seems to grow by the week. Of the six tries scored while he was on the pitch this weekend, he scored two, set up two and chipped the ball up for another. Although he didn't receive the Man of the Match award, Sexton did control the match and showed why he is considered one of the stand out No.10s in world rugby. Striking the up-right twice from set kicks seem totally insignificant as a result of the work load Sexton put in around the pitch.

From a personal point I'd have liked to see him finish out the full 80, there's an unhealthy logic in Ireland that Ronan O'Gara is required to come on for the last 10-15 minutes to make sure Ireland see out the game or have an experienced head on should a drop goal be required. With all due respect to O'Gara's skill set and experience, Sexton is a three time Heineken Cup winner, I'd have every faith in him seeing out a match for Ireland.

In what can only be described as bizarrely laughable, Ireland have the potential to go into the World Cup draw ranked as the fifth best team in the world. Should England lose to The All Blacks and Wales lose to Australia, Ireland will be officially ranked as the fifth best team in the world. This is despite the fact that since the last World Cup, Ireland have managed just a win over Argentina and a draw against France in their matches against rival top eight sides.

Going into the autumn series, if you had told a fan they would be missing two former Lion’s Captains, two European players of the year and two of Ulster’s biggest names - you’d have questioned their sanity if they predicted a top five place and yet here we are.

Credit must go to the Irish set up for their performance against Argentina, it has been a terrible year in terms of results for Ireland and there has continuously been talk of things just aren't clicking but they will. Ireland never looked like scoring a try against South Africa and then two weeks later against Argentina they never looked in danger and you felt every time they had ball in hand something could happen.

The problem with this? Ireland continue to be consistently inconsistent. The big performances are often there waiting to be unleashed, but it seems as though Irish fans know that it wont happen on a regular basis. It can be argued that Ireland pulled off three big performances this year and yet only came out with one win on those occasions. The draw in Paris was a missed opportunity, the second test in New Zealand which saw Ireland come so close to that first win against The All Blacks, but ultimately they felt short. Finally, when needed they managed to get the 'big win' over Argentina.

The Irish camp will reassemble in 2013 for the Six Nations, and by then the talk of a Lion's Tour will be creeping into every performance, Ireland need to look forward and consider what is at stake. Having secured the top eight ranking for the World Cup Draw, it is now time to start building towards that World Cup. The younger players that are breaking in, Earls, Zebo, Gilroy, O'Mahony, Henderson et al will all want to leave their stamp while the outgoing guard of O'Gara, O'Driscoll, O'Connell, Best et al will all know that this could be their swan song. The upcoming Six Nations marks a turning point in Irish Rugby, the passing of the guard, the Argentina and Fiji games offered a glimpse of what could be on offer with Ireland's new wave but the old boys dogs won't be lying down for these pups, they too share the dream of having a lions roar.

It's amazing how a single test can take scepticism and turn it to optimism, from the glum outlook of the Springboks game to the brilliant display against Argentina - Ireland finished the year on a high, but 2012 is a still a year that fans and players will want put to the back of their minds. The only way is forward, right?

Danny Murray - @danjomurray

November 27, 2012

Taking the positives from another defeat

Posted on 11/27/2012

Chris Robshaw's decision in the last few moments of the game grabbed the headlines © Getty Images

After the summer tour and a draw in the final match, it looked like England would take their opportunity to beat South Africa. Alas, this was not the case.

The recent history between the two sides tee’d this game up perfectly. Even after the disappointment of last week there seemed a buzz around Twickenham. An expectant crowd still packed out the home of rugby in the worst of the weekend’s weather. The anthem was sung with as much gusto as ever, even with a heavy South African support in the stadium.

All the pre-match talk was surrounding the physicality the visitors brought and how England needed to match it. England had clearly learnt from their summer trip, after the first two games where they gave South Africa a chance to get their power game started, and it could not be stopped. It was England who got the early upper hand and showed great pressure, with every forward showing great determination to make right the mistakes made on tour. An early missed penalty from Flood saw no early reward for the hard work.

Fortunately the penalty conceding scrum from last week had vanished, and it was replaced with one that came with reward. Alex Corbisiero was great on his international return against the team he got injured playing at the beginning of the summer. He won penalties in the scrum and showed hard work around the field. The scrum was back on track, but the smoothly functioning line out creaked and never really looked on point. Tom Youngs came into the autumn series as a hooker who struggled in the line out but one that offered a lot in attack as powerful ball carrier. The first two games he could not miss a line out and struggled a bit around the park, this match however he struggled in the line out but was tremendous with ball in hand. One country that you have to be seriously accurate against with the line out is South Africa, they are masters of that area. The day Youngs combines his accuracy in the line out with his open play strength, he will be a really asset to English rugby.

Youngs was not the only forward who carried well. Geoff Parling showed he is not only a consistent performer, but one who can have an impact as an international player. Every carry got past the first defender - it was his best game wearing the red rose. Parling's young apprentice Joe Launchbury does not look out of his depth, even against some of the best in the world. He was everywhere, a lot of the time doing a brilliant job of tidying up other players' mistakes. Ben Morgan had some strong carries, but tried too much and sometimes got caught too upright and unable to get some go forward.

Saturday’s match was not one for the backs. The conditions dictated the game, and meant it was one for the forwards. However I still feel there is some lack of organisation in attack. Our most powerful threat is undoubtedly Manu Tuilagi. So it was somewhat surprising to see him unused in the whole of the first-half, it was not until the 45th minute he was given the ball. On only his third carry he sailed through the defence brushing aside Pat Lambie. Why is he not being used as one of our big carriers? Brad Barritt was as solid as ever, and once Jonathon Joseph is back in form, Lancaster will have a real headache on his hands.

Another occurring problem England have is not being clinical enough. Too many times we have been attacking in the opposition twenty-two and unable to come away with a try, a lot of time due to handling errors. One chance that should have been taken was off Tuilagi's interception, and maybe Chris Ashton should have backed himself rather than passing. Maybe a sign of a player who has not scored in ten games. We pile up huge amounts of possession, but struggle to convert possession into points.

Weighing heavy on Chris Robshaw's shoulders was the ghost of last week’s not taken penalties. Every decision was right until the final penalty. With a few minutes left on the clock, England needed four points to win. In this instance fans would have welcomed going into the corner and to at least go down fighting. His lack of inexperience really showed, but should not distract us from the rest of his performance.

One thing England can take away is we only lost by one point to the second best team in the world. The try we conceded was extremely unfortunate, and not conceded through a lack of poor defence. Chances were there, the forwards really fronted up in difficult conditions but attacking organisation is still a worry.

Henry Fraser - @henryfraser0

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