Last week’s gibbering turned into a bit of a Magnus opus so, not being one for consistency on any regular basis this week I’m going for brevity, today’s main people of interest are the coaches. Stuart Lancaster seems to have reverted to his secondary school persona and is almost dictating England’s game plan in the week leading up to the game and taking any decision making out of the players hands. Lancaster seems to have become so entrenched in his core beliefs that he’s abandoned any thought of adapting his game plan to suit the personnel on the field, last week despite picking Haskell who is probably the best English forward at the breakdown they still involved Haskell in the formation of midfield pods to recycle 2nd or 3rd phase ball that hadn’t even been won at the original ruck yet in the first place, leaving their best flanker stood out in midfield while the more ineffectual forwards struggling against the Samoan forwards.
Michael Cheika has only been in charge of the Wallabies for about a month so I would imagine he hasn’t had enough time to stamp his mark on the team’s play. Instead he has to rely on the players to adapt to situations on the field and trust them to make decisions accordingly, the core of the Australia side is largely made up from the successful Waratahs team (10 in today’s Wallaby squad) who Cheika coached to the Super rugby title in August of this year though so both coach and players are more than accustomed to each other. Cheika’s success as a head coach with both Randwick and particularly at Leinster where he had no hesitation in throwing Jonny Sexton in at Fly Half during their 2009 successful Heineken Cup campaign suggest that contrariwise to Lancaster he’s a coach who is comfortable allowing his players to play what they see in front of them and not to a rigid game plan.
Today would be a really strange time for Lancaster to actually scrap his preeminent game plan and start playing 9 man rugby but it would probably be England’s best shot at beating an Australia side who may not excel at set pieces but do come alive at the breakdown, Chris Robshaw’s going to need all the help he can get to best Michael Hooper so England should be putting as many players as they can into rucks and not leave forwards standing in midfield waiting to for phases to materialise.
Wales South Africa is a bit of a strange game; both teams have players unavailable through injury and more importantly because the game is taking place outside an IRB window so their respective clubs do not have to release them to the National side. It’s also another game where the coaches outward persona’s could be not be more contrasting, Heyneke Meyer is a human firework when he’s watching his charges from the coaches box. He often looks like he’s about to ignite and fly around the room, he spends more time jumping up and down than some his lineout forwards do. Warren Gatland on the other hand doesn’t much adopt the poker face approach as a poker body, nothing seems to change his demeanour, rumour has it he once smiled! The other slightly interesting (to me at least) area of this game is how well all the players involved will stand up to a 4th Test match in 4 weeks, obviously not all have appeared in every minute of every game but Wales have been subjected to some particularly fierce conditioning sessions in an attempt to build up their endurance in time for the 2015 RWC and there have been concerns from South African fans and observers that their players may not be particularly fit and coming at the end of a punishing season for their players this game may only serve to compound those fears.
As a big fan of Occam’s Razor I’d say the simplest way to describe the England rugby team’s biggest problem is that they are sorely lacking a true, ball scavenging open side flanker. That wouldn’t make for a particularly edifying blog though, so here’s why the absence of a number 7 has been such an impediment for what seems to be a very long time (but is probably in actuality about 18 months). Remember last season how the man who bore the main brunt of the critic’s ire was Chris Ashton? Well he’s been replaced by Jack Nowell, Samesa Rokoduguni and Anthony Watson all prodigious talents who have arguably deserved a chance to prove their worth as International rugby players but none have done anything that Ashton couldn’t do or put on faultless displays in a white shirt. The one major difference is that while the 3 people who have replaced Ashton have also suffered from being isolated on the wing and not received any real service form players around him they’ve not really shown any sort of effervescent personality traits that seemed to rub Ashton’s critics up the wrong way. In England’s last 2 Test matches their wingers have recorded 12 touches and 15 touches (it’s difficult to tell if they were passes from their own teammates or kicks they fielded from opponents) but in England’s 3rd Test on the tour of New Zealand (that they lost 36-13) Cory Jane touched the ball 19 times and his All Black wing partner Julian Savea notched a rather massive 21 touches. To put that into context England’s Fly Half Owen Farrell, who has been bearing the brunt of the critics gibes in recent weeks touched the ball just 27 times last week against South Africa. Farrell’s main problem is that he’s only managed limited game time for his club Saracens this season and he may be shying away from taking the ball unless it’s fast and clean another problem which has seemingly been addressed this week has been that Danny Care has been unable to get the ball away from the ruck area with any real sort of pace and has been running ineffectively, managing to gain 22 metres on 9 runs last week (his opposite number Cobus Reinach managed 25 metres on just 6 snipes).
Meanwhile in the forward pack Billy Vunipola, another Saracens player (anybody else see a pattern developing here) has become a target for increased griping about his work-rate and when you’re pushing 20 stone it’s always going to be a criticism levelled at you, but there’s a reason England pick a man mountain at number 8 and it’s not fly around the park and be the first to the breakdowns. The counterargument is that Vunipola is the only part of the backrow actually serving a purpose, he’s one of the most destructive ball carriers England have had for some time but as the 2 wing forward’s he usually plays with for England are both 6.5’s and neither is a real 7 Vunipola is expected to fill in the gaps they leave both in defence and attack (and as previously mentioned he’s a mountain and most mountain’s haven’t moved far since they were formed in the Cretaceous period). At his club Saracens Vunipola is always an effective 8 largely because they have 2 flankers who have defined roles and who fulfil these roles effectively so bringing him into a different environment where one flanker is picked seemingly because he’s a lovely chap and an affable Captain an another picked because he provides a lineout option and a large amount of physicality in defence seems a strange policy.
Once again borrowing a lot from the principle of Occum’s Razor there are 2 keys to modern International rugby, firstly physicality in defence which England have in bucket loads and secondly quick ball (or even better turnover ball) in attack which England have been sorely lacking, Danny Care would probably argue that he was prevented from providing quick ball by the ponderous way his forwards went about their job in the last 2 weeks and if the 9 can’t provide the 10 with the time and space then the whole backline will struggle to make an impression on the game. This week against Samoa James Haskell should undoubtedly make a difference to the speed of England’s ball, however Haskell has been playing 7 for his club Wasps all season but will wear the 6 shirt today. So either England don’t care which flanker does what around the park which could lead to a backrow which is unbalanced as it has been in recent games, which would be extremely dangerous against Samoa’s open side Jack Lam or they really do believe that Captain Chris Robshaw is an International class 7, an opinion which recent history would contradict. I’m expecting Haskell to be the best player in a white shirt today and if England’s forwards can provide quick ball then their new half back pairing of Ben Youngs and George Ford will revel and should lead the team to an impressive win. Knowing who’s awarding the Man of the Match trophy I’d say George Ford is a shoe in to win the champagne. If the forwards struggle against a Samoan forward pack that were comprehensively beaten by Italy 2 weeks ago then it really doesn’t matter which half backs England have picked or isn’t getting the ball on the wing.
With the NFL recently announcing 3 games at Wembley next year that even a mother wouldn’t love this game also looks like it’ll be a real test if the International fans endurance. The 1-8 Jaguars host the 6-3 Cowboys, the Jaguars are only held off the bottom of the NFL league table by Oakland whose desperate showing in London lead to their Head Coach being fired. At this point I should point out that there’s a lot to admire about the Jag’s, they have an extremely young squad with just 1 player over 29 (and Marcedes Lewis is just 30), they took over the St. Louis Rams contract to be London’s designated home team between 2013 and 2016 and Jaxson de Ville is the funniest mascot possibly in all sport (how can you not love someone who bungee jumped off the roof at Wembley Stadium?).
Both team’s records speak for themselves with the Cowboys surprising most people and their challenge for the NFC East title is testament to how good Tony Romo has been so far this season with the Cowboys traditional porous offensive line not really helping him too much. Romo missed the Cowboys last game and had to leave their week 8 game against divisional rivals Washington for a period after he was sacked in the 3rd quarter and re-injured his back. Romo is not the only Cowboy player having a standout year though and running back DeMarco Murray leads the league with a whopping 1133 yards after just 9 games averaging 5.0 yards per carry but even he struggled without Romo last week recording just 79 yards, 56 yards lower than his game average this year. The Cowboys defence has also been better than in recent seasons and they’ve allowed just 19 points per game on average.
The Jaguars defence has not been great and has allowed 26 points per game, Jacksonville’s defence might have allowed a lot of points this season but they have managed 27 sacks so far this season, the 3rd most in the league and with the Dallas offensive line allowing 18 so far whoever plays quarterback for them will need to be on his toes. However this game may not be as cut and dried as it would seem (he typed in a fit of optimistic pique), since their first round draft pick Blake Bortles has become the starting quarterback and college quarterback who they have converted to running back Denard Robinson it would appear has fully adapted to his niche the Jacksonville offence has become one of the more dynamic in the league. Robinson has averaged 116 yards from scrimmage in the last 3 games and he’s averaged 5.8 yards per carry since week 6, so the Cowboys defence may well have a difficult task ahead of them tomorrow.
All the talk in the build up has been of Tony Romo’s return to action and if he’s playing and anywhere near his best then this game is the Cowboy’s to lose, they have managed to lose games that seemed pretty straightforward in the past though. The one thing that I can say with any real certainty that with 2 subpar offensive line’s on display and 2 defences who have combined for 39 sacks this year both quarterbacks could be spending a lot of time laying on the cold turf.
This will be the first International Series game from Wembley Stadium screened live across all of America and a great chance for the European’s (because we’d be kidding ourselves if we just thought the plucky Brit’s know how to get to London) to show NFL fans in the USA that we can put down our cups of tea long enough to enjoy 3 hours of football and make some (a lot of) noise.
20 14 is the 8th year of the International Series at Wembley and the first time 3 regular season games are played in London, so the NFL certainly seem to think there’s a future for the game here and with talk of a franchise taking up residence in Wembley before the decade is out this week’s announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gorge Osborne that the British Government would help the NFL in any way they can to start a franchise in London (anyone would think there was an election coming up) was certainly exciting. Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith said the NFL is an “expansion mode” it seems like the NFL owners and Lions Head Coach Jim Caldwell, albeit more circumspectly said “Absolutely, I do think it’s possible”. So that’s the Government and the coaches on board too, after the Dolphins win earlier in the season Mike Wallace said he’d certainly like to play at Wembley more often and 2010 49ers defensive back Nate Clements said the atmosphere at Wembley was one of the best he’s ever played in, looks like the players like it too. Just the fans and the journalists to convince then, although I’ve met 2 American fans in the last 2 seasons who seemed to enjoy themselves, one was a guy flying back from his honeymoon in Italy who happened to be a Vikings fan so surprised his new wife with a trip to watch the Vikings play the Steelers and the other was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan so taken by the by the beer at Wembley he couldn’t speak by the end of the Dolphins and Raiders game last month.
The first episode of the 2014 International Series was embarrassing for the Raiders who lost 38-14 to an, until then fairly average Dolphins team, the NFL and must have been completely mortifying for Dennis Allen who was fired when he returned to Oakland (although many of the fans at Wembley would have preferred it if that’d happened at the end of the 2nd Quarter, not the end of their bye week). I like to think of the NFL as a benevolent Grandparent, you know the sort, the ones who fill you full of cake and fizzy drinks before returning you to your fraught parents just in time for dinner, so they can’t have been overly pleased with the demonstration the UK had of their product on that occasion either. This is their chance to atone for what became a one-sided tragedy for the nominal home team in October, this time promises a clash of 2 teams full of superstars (although if they’re fit to play is another story). Lions major downfield threat in the pass game Calvin Johnson is doubtful with an ankle injury he’s been carrying since week 3, in turn the Falcons star wide receiver has been struggling with an injury since week 6.
The most fascinating part of this game will be how the Falcons 5th ranked passing attack will fare against the Lions 6th ranked pass defence because only the Lions run defence is ranked higher in the league. The Lions run defence is the 3rd best in the league and the Falcons rushing attack has been pretty ordinary so far this season and is ranked 24th, the Lions own running game has been even worse though and they’re ranked 31st!
It’s impossible to predict the winner of this game because while the Falcons are coming off the back of 4 losses the Lions haven’t really played a team with the Falcons ability to score big points quickly. If the Lions are insouciant with possession as they have been early in the season then the Falcons defence will capitalise and the Lions defence might be tested more than they have been by most teams this season.
Both teams have played the Saints this season and both games went to the wire, with the Lions winning by the odd point in 47 and the Falcons going on to win 37-34 in OT, so if history is anything to go by this should be a closer contest than the Dolphins and Raiders provided us overseas fans with in October.
It’s difficult to see past a Miami win in this game, they started the season with a comeback victory over divisional rivals the Patriots but then slumped to 2 loses in their last 2 games and have failed to score more than 15 points in either game. The Raiders on the other hand have failed to win a game so far this season and have failed to score more than 2 touchdowns in any of their 3 games.
Miami are ranked a fairly lowly 23rd in the league for total pass yards this season, but the Raiders and their rookie starting quarterback Derek Carr are propping up the entire league in 32nd spot. Miami’s rushing attack has been far superior to their passing offence and is the 9th best in the league, Oakland’s rushing has also been better than their passing, but they’re only 1 spot higher in the rankings with a fairly uninspiring 31st ranked run game.
Really the only thing that Oakland have been able to do with any sort of reliability is defend against passing attacks and they’re ranked 4th in the NFL having allowed just 550 yards so far this season at an average of 183 yards per game. Miami have the 7th best passing defence in the league having allowed just 199 yards per game. Oakland have been run over so far this season and are 31st in the league in terms of stopping the run which makes them 31st in the league, Miami however have allowed more rushing touchdowns this season with 3 compared to the Raiders 2. Miami are ranked joint 19th in the league in terms of yards on the ground so the Raiders might fancy their chances there. Neither team has scored a defensive touchdown so far this season and both have recorded 5 turnovers in 3 games so far, so they should be pretty evenly matched defensively.
Both teams have been good at kickoff returns this season, with Miami averaging 30.9 yards and the Raiders averaging 30.3 yards, the Dolphins have recorded a return touchdown though. Punt returning has been a particular strength for the Dolphins though and they have averaged 14.6 yards per return, just 0.4 yards away from the league leading Giants. The Raiders are lagging someway behind with a measly average of just 6.2 yards per return.
Both teams are suffering on the injured or suspended player side with Miami missing 8 players either on Injured Reserve for the year or suspended by the league and Oakland missing 5 either on Injured Reserve or Physically Unable to Perform which after just 3 weeks of the regular season should be a worry for both sets of coaching staff. There are really only 2 things to expect from this game, firstly it shouldn’t be a points-fest and secondly the Dolphins should limp over the line ahead.
This is part long Tweet, part therapy session. I’m starting to crumble under the weight of the media contrived “phoney war” between the European’s and Team USA (if they’re still called that), Phil Mickelson’s wise-ass remark about who may or may not be involved in a lawsuit on the European team was ratcheted up to the height of Craig Rossie, when even the most antagonistic of American golf journalists had to admit that the European’s would have been laughing harder than anybody. Rickie Fowler’s new haircut was largely met with derision amongst the British journalists that I’ve been observing this week, sure why not wind up America’s best golfer and the best performer at all 4 majors this year guys, what could possibly go wrong? There’s even been talk about whether or not Team USA would be better off with Tiger Woods this week, as if Tiger’s played out of his skin at previous Ryder Cup’s!
I have heard the saintly Iain Carter on 5 Live trying to dampen expectations and claim that it will be far closer than everybody is making out and the wise old sage of Scotland himself Colin Montgomerie expects Europe to win only by a single point, but by and large most of the media coverage appears to be mostly avoiding the whole concepts of golf and competition all together.
For about 18 months after the “Miracle of Medinah” I was convinced that Europe were the Ryder Cup Champions elect come Gleneagles, but when you look at it in the cold, hard light of day Tom Watson is a canny operator and even the captain of the European team said that the US have a lower average World Ranking per player. That’s probably the biggest red flag, Jamie Donaldson and Stephen Gallacher are both over 38 and making their Ryder Cup debut’s this week and both have won as many European Tour events as Rory McIlroy has won different Majors. The European’s have a Vice Captain with a higher World Ranking than 2 of their players (Miguel Angel Jimenez is 37th, compared to Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood who are 38th and 44th respectively).
Now it may well be that I know nothing about golf (I guess we’ll find that out on Sunday afternoon ) but all the media coverage surrounding the European team and the blindingly obvious fact that Tom Watson is a golfing hero while Paul McGinley is as famous for diving into a lake at the Belfry as he is for sinking a putt there lead to me to question if Team USA shouldn’t be the favourites to take the trophy home.
I love London because there’s always something to do there, but I dislike London because these things often cost money, a lot of money! I’ve been going to London for about 30 years now and am therefore used to having to pay inflated prices for just doing stuff, so imagine my surprise when I was shocked at how expensive tickets for next year’s Rugby World Cup matches in London are. World Cup Final tickets start at £150 and I know nothing about organising a Rugby World Cup so I’m not even sure where to begin critiquing that line of pricing. There is 1 game being held at the Olympic Stadium where £20 tickets are available, but that’s to see France play Romania at 8pm on a Wednesday evening.
The cheapest tickets for any of the games being played at Twickenham are £50 and that’s France v Italy (maybe France should be offended by these prices?) if you want to watch England play in a game at their home RWC you have spend at least £75!
Anyway, back to my main point, there are plenty of things to do in London and many of them are far cheaper than tickets to the RWC will be;
1. Any number of concerts, rock legend Slash is playing Wembley Arena this year and tickets are just £43.75 (which is expensive, but remember the benchmark)
2. The NFL has found a home away from home in London’s Wembley Stadium, this year tickets can be bought for £37.50 or £45
3. Tennis is no longer just confined to a fortnight in the summer in the leafy suburb of Wimbledon. In November at the O2 arena the ATP tour finals take place and there are 6 different pricing bands of tickets that are cheaper than £50!
4. More tennis, the masters event has been happening in the Royal Albert Hall in December since1997 and to see such legends as John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and doubles master Mansour Behrami you only have to shell out £35 (and it’s at the Royal Albert Hall, I mean I love Twickenham an all but there’s no roof or heating!!)
5. A 3 course meal at the 5 star Royal Park Garden Hotel is just £37.50, so you’ll have enough change from a crisp £50 note for a drink (2 if you’re lucky, it’s London remember)
6. Tickets for just about any show in a West End theatre would be cheaper than £50; tickets for Billy Elliot the musical are available for £19.50 if you don’t mind a matinee performance.
So, while I (and others like me, it’s not just me, honest) am constantly complaining about how expensive London is it’s not as expensive as the RWC organisers would have you believe.