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January 12, 2011

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Sale 28 Saracens 22 – The Verdict

January 2, 2011

By Paul Morgan, editor of Rugby World Magazine
What a difference a new man at the helm can make! The result reads in the papers: Sale 28 Saracens 22 but read this as Pete Anglesea: 4 points!
Now I’m not saying Pete is a miracle worker and Sale will now go on to qualify for the Heineken Cup and conquer the world if Sale owner Brian Kennedy gives him the job full-time. But today’s victory over Saracens was all about desire, all about commitment and all about Sale out-muscling Saracens.
From the moment I arrived at Edgeley Park for this game it was clear we were in a new era, the first match with Anglesea in charge, after Mike Brewer was sacked. It was a great day to make the trip to Stockport – a great rugby day for the North-West.
They love Big Red at Sale and it shows.
A big crowd (more than 8,000), the New Year and the prospect of Gavin Henson obviously helped, but somehow Sale managed to create the start of a new era today and on the pitch it manifested into them tearing out of the blocks and scoring three tries in the first 30 minutes, against a side that is capable of winning the title.
It all came from their physicality at the breakdown and general commitment to the cause. It looked like Sale hadn’t turned up, but that wouldn’t be giving Sale enough credit. They were like Tasmanian Devils in the first half an hour!
Obviously having Charlie Hodgson back in the side controlling the game helped but it was the physicality of players like James Gaskell, Carl Fearns, Sisi Koyamaibole and Karena Wihongi that rattled Saracens. And bizarrely Brendan Venter’s side had no answer – very worrying for them!
Dwayne Peel was also in great form at the base of the scrum, hassling and harrying and using quick service to keep Sale going.
Who cares that they didn’t score a point for the final 50 minutes? Certainly the vast majority of the crowd at Edgeley Park didn’t as the four points was everything.
Those four points took Sale eight points clear of Newcastle and 11 clear of Leeds, which I believe puts them in a position to survive.

Friday night kick offs: Have 7.45pm kick offs on a Friday night run their course? What do fans think? Time to move to Saturday afternoon? Or even Sunday afternoon?

James Gaskell: Are you Tom Croft in disguise? This guy does everything Croft does, and almost as well. He was the clear man of the match and played so well than a number of Saracens players took shots at him – he annoyed them that much. After a year of injuries he needs ten games under his belt but when he does don’t rule him out of the World Cup. He’ll play for England – it is when not if.
Meet Gaskell, he’s definitely one to watch:

Charlie Hodgson – Message to Sale. Find out what salary he wants for the next three years and within reason pay him it. Don’t let him do a Cristiano Ronaldo and leave a big side in the North-West. You won’t be able to replace him, trust me!

Gavin Henson – Well it’s simple. The guy is not at outside centre so why play him there? Saracens have bizarrely decided to keep him out of “decision-making” positions. Does that mean he’s not fit enough to play 12? Put him in a position where he can do some damage, please.

Dwayne Peel: Remind me why he’s not in the Wales squad, fighting Mike Phillips for the Wales No 9 shirt. Oh yes, there is not adequate reason. Leaving him out is very much Wales’ loss.


London Irish 24 Bath 25 – The Verdict

January 1, 2011

LONDON IRISH 24 BATH 25
By Paul Morgan, editor of Rugby World Magazine

Well, something had to give here at the Madejski Stadium as two of the sides with the worst recent record in the Aviva Premiership clashed. Going into the game London Irish has lost their last eight games in all competitions since their 39-26 victory over Sale at Madejski Stadium on 31 October.
Bath’s most recent victory in Aviva Premiership Rugby was 31-16 against Sale at The Rec on 25 September. Both shocking runs!
Toby Booth was rightly exasperated by the performance of referee Greg Garner but as everyone in the crowd of 11,811 saw London Irish’s first try was created by a forward pass, so things do go both ways.
The game was one through a tactical masterstroke from the Bath coaches.
They were out-classed in almost every facet of the game in the first half and one had possession in the London Irish 22 twice! The fact that Irish only led 17-9 was the biggest surprise.
But in the 15-minute half-time break Steve Meehan and his coaches hatched a plan to attack Irish’s forwards in a very specific way with a pick and go game that was one of the narrowest I have ever seen. But it was effective.
Bath’s backline barely created a chance all afternoon, in contrast to London Irish who scored three superb tries – all singing and dancing!
But all singing and dancing doesn’t always win the game, although it should have done in this game.
So all Bath did in the second half was pick and go and rely on a very erratic kicking performance from Chris Malone. He kicked the ball out on the full once and failed to clear his lines twice, as Lewis Moody brought his England form to Reading.
Irish failed to get out of their territory for large parts of the second half and as Bath had been practicing this new style in training they stayed faithful to it, which was a brave move as Irish’s backline looked so dangerous.
They even stayed faithful to it when Topsy Ojo scored a superb try, cutting off his right wing and through an attempted tackle from Olly Barkley.
So Bath strayed patient, committed to the style and in Barkley they had a kicker who only missed one penalty all afternoon.
Bath’s pick and go and rolling maul even dragged Richard Thorpe into the sin bin and while he was off Bath scored a crucial ten points, including Michael Claassens’ try, predictably from inches!
In the end it was left to Barkley to score a final-minute penalty to win it.
Incredibly Irish have now not won for nine matches, but they are still fourth in the table, just ahead of one of the most congested mid-tables in Premiership history. Lose one more though and they could easily be seventh, and that would be unacceptable for a side of London Irish’s stature, and recent success.
But I do believe the match leaves London Irish (and not just in league position terms) in far better shape than Bath.
Irish should keep the faith as they have the players to get them out of this run. I would still back London Irish, as long as they win next week, to make the play-offs. One more loss though and they’ll fall back and they may start doubting themselves.

Players to note:
• Daniel Bowden – Could be the find of the season alongside Manu Tuilagi. Bowden’s kicking game gives England an inside centre they currently don’t have. Without an All Blacks cap he could (perhaps) be persuaded to throw in his lot with England in 2012 once he serves his residency qualification.
• Danny Grewcock – He would be mad to retire at the end of the season as he has suggested. He put the grunt into the Bath effort today and could still offer something to England.
• Alex Corbisiero – Another who will play for England as he offers the ball-carrying threat so absent from the vast majority of England props. Another one to move into the set-up quickly.
• James Buckland – When he was at Leicester I always felt his lineout throwing wasn’t good enough for the top level, but he has clearly worked very hard on this side of his game and deserves an England A call-up.

London Irish (17) 24 
Tries: Tagicakibau, Thorpe, Ojo Cons: Malone 2, Bowden Pens: Malone 
Bath (9) 25 
Tries: Claassens Cons: Barkley Pens: Barkley 6


What’s Hot and What’s Not From December

December 31, 2010

From Rugby World reader, Larissa Falls

Got any to add?

Hot:

Heineken Cup… Aironi’s win over Biarritz, the Clermont v Leinster tussles and Ulster’s performances. Adam Jones’ scrummaging, Laharrague’s drop goal and Farrell’s rise. Away wins, pool 3 and the match atmospheres.

McCaw…IRB Player of the Year for a record third time.

Tradition… The Baa-Baa’s and Varsity matches.

Southern Hemisphere Teams… Waratah’s to play Fiji, the Rebels to play Tonga, the Wallabies to play Samoa and Russia to play NZ provincial teams. Anything to help the ‘lesser nations’ deserves a pat on the back.

NZRU… For finally reinstating the Women’s NPC!

IRB…Financing Samoa’s High Performance centre. Now we just need teams to tour there!

Fans…In how many other sports would you find supporters sweeping snow from fields, walkways and seats. These are the values that make rugby such a special sport to be part of

Not:

Heineken Cup… Snow, frozen pitches, postponed games and travel chaos. Lost kit, Venter’s interview, yellow and red cards, and swinging arms.

RFU… Their ‘exceptional circumstances’ policy is a farce!

Brive… For asking players to take a pay cut after making initial exorbitant contracts.

Cipriani… Nicknamed ‘Google’ after telling a bar doorman to “Google me” when he was refused entry. Some things it would seem never change!


Harlequins 28 London Irish 18 – The Verdict

December 29, 2010

By Paul Morgan, Editor of Rugby World Magazine

Back in the late 1970s there was a punk band of some repute, The Monks, who came up with the classic if heavily politically incorrect song “Nice Legs Shame about the Face”.
Well I haven’t had the need to recall the ditty for a few years but it came to mind today when I was at Twickenham for Big Game 3, Harlequins against London Irish.
After having spent an almost wasted (thank you Gavin Henson for saving it) afternoon at Wembley 24 hours before watching Saracens and Wasps bore a decent crowd I was enthused by the pre-match entertainment and atmosphere at HQ for this ‘London derby’!
Quins (and Mark Evans, their CEO predominantly) certainly know how to throw a party!
It was a cracking occasion and exactly what the great game of rugby union is all about. A crowd of 72,214, loads of kids, mums and dads full of turkey and fans of both teams sitting together and enjoying a great day out. Wonderful!
That was the “legs” of the Monks’ song (and they were nice) but unfortunately the “face” or “boat race” as they bellowed, that followed which wasn’t so palatable.

It never hit the depths of the awful game at Wembley but it got close at times as both teams destroyed the game with endless penalties that ensured neither team got into their rhythm.
Quins won 28-18 and definitely deserved to do so as they had more confidence, style and go-forward than Irish, who are so far in the doldrums they can hardly see a way out.
Referee Andrew Small also didn’t help proceedings. He was happy to whistle for penalty after penalty and talk to both teams far too much (I thought he was one of the coaches at one point) but failed to back up his endless whistling with enough yellow cards.
He did finally sent Bob Casey and Danny Care to the sin bin but Casey didn’t go until the 40th minute, by which time he had lost the initiative and the players were doing what players will always do (if you let them) and killing the ball every time the opposition got anywhere near scoring.
Mr Small also bored me to death with his over-officious and too slow rendition of Crouch-Touch-Pause-Engage routine which started at tedious and moved off the Richter Scale by the end of the match.
This is not all his fault as Referee’s Supremo Paddy O’Brien must take the lions’ share of the blame for that one. It has turned the scrum into a farce while referees still can’t spot a crooked feed.
Irish proved to me they are going to need a seismic shift to get them out of this awful run of results and may be heading for a clear out in the summer?
Toby Booth, the coach told me after the match he is trying to coach players and not robots. Well, if that is the case he either needs a few robots or he has the wrong players because the way those players turned down the chance of a late penalty and a bonus point, compounded their failure this game. At the end of the season if they miss out on the play-offs by a point or Heineken Cup qualification, the way they are going, this is the game in which it was lost.
Irish have the players but need to rediscover their confidence. One big win, and that may come against Bath on Saturday could do it.
Their recent run of games against Northampton, Leicester and Toulon (twice) isn’t exactly for the feint-hearted but they must have the ambition to beat sides like that.
For Quins it was great to see a fit and hungry Ugo Monye back on the field while Danny Care looked very sharp. Nick Evans continues to be one of the best foreign signings with 25 points and if Jordan Turner-Hall developed a kicking game he could go to the next level. Without one he can’t.
Quins must take a massive pat on the back for their off-field efforts but also on it they are building a side of home-grown players like Joe Marler and man of the match George Robson. That, with the salary cap as it is, is the only way to head for success.

But what did you think? Were you at the game or did you watch on televsion?


Saracens 13 Wasps 6 – The Verdict on Gavin Henson

December 29, 2010

By Paul Morgan, editor of Rugby World Magazine

First of all I would be delighted to hear from Saracens and Wasps fans. Is Wembley a good venue for rugby? I have my views but it is the fans who count!
Certainly this game was awful for the first 40 minutes and barely improved afterwards – the highlights being Saracens Matthew Rouse winning £250,000 at half-time by hitting the crossbar from 40 metres out and the second-half appearance of Gavin Henson.
Thank you so much Gavin for coming off the bench and livening up the afternoon.
Saracens coach Mark McCall was doing everything he could to play down Henson’s part after the game, after the match. He would, of course, but it is ridiculous to play this prodigiously talented player away from a ‘decision-making role’, as McCall has started to do. Let’s hope he can recognise how good Henson is and if not the Welshman is at the wrong club.
Henson’s either good enough to play 10, 12 or 15 or he’s not. I have never heard of an injured player being eased back in my not giving him too many decisions to make. How does that work? He may lack match fitness but how will his decision-making improved if he is not allowed to make any. Trust me, Mark – Henson is the real deal.
All Henson missed was one horrific season when everyone kicked the ball and sent us to sleep. On this evidence he’s good enough to play any of them but I would slot him in at 10 – that is where Saracens need him the most. And who better for Owen Farrell, who has bags of potential, to learn from that a player like Henson?
At Wembley, Wasps continued their excellent form of late and would have won if they’d had anything bearing any resemblance to a lineout, especially in the first half.
Three times their continuity of possession earned them penalties in and around the halfway line, all out of Dave Walder’s range, and each time Walder dutifully drilled Wasps into the Saracens 22. Each time Wasps failed with the lineout, one of them hitting Marty Veale in the midrift.
They have lost hookers Rob Webber and Joe Ward (in the warm-up) to injury so any team who loses their two first-choices in any position will struggle, especially when they were up against a lineout run by the master of the art, Steve Borthwick, who was aided and abetted by Ernst Jourbert.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that Henson performed any more than a cameo in his 29 minutes on the field, but what was also clear is that he has got his hunger for rugby back and could easily make an impact on the highest stage.
I have interviewed him many times but I have never seen him so relaxed and at ease with himself. Saracens’ may just have pulled off a masterstroke by convincing him to sign – but play him and play him where he can make a difference, NOT at 13!
The first-half was the worst 40 minutes I have seen this season, but the second was far better.
Farrell would certainly have learnt a lot was hunted down by Serge Betsen, Joe Worsley and Andy Powell and the sooner Saracens take Henson out of cotton wool and hand him the No 10 jersey the better for the club.
In the end the game was won by one of the most under-rated players in the Aviva Premiership, Andy Saull. Memo to Martin Johnson: This guy could be your answer for the Six Nations. Not against Wales of course when Johnson will move Lewis Moody to six (due to the injury to Tom Croft) and bring Hendre Fourie into the 7 shirt. But against Italy give Saull his chance to show you that you have a world-class player in the making.

Saracens (3) 13
Try: Saull Cons: Farrell Pens: Farrell 2
Wasps (0) 6
Pens: Walder 2
Saracens: Wyles; Strettle, Tagicakibau, Barritt, Short; Farrell, de Kock; Carstens, Brits, Nieto; Borthwick (capt), Vyvyan; Brown, Melck, Joubert.

Replacements: George, Gill, du Plessis, Smith, Saull, Wigglesworth, Henson, Goode.

Wasps: van Gisbergen; Varndell, Jacobs (capt), Kefu, Lemi; Walder, Simpson; Taulafo, Lindsay, Broster, Shaw, Cannon, Worsley, Betsen Tchoua, Powell.

Replacements: Hobson, Payne, Baker, Veale, Jones, Berry, Jewell, Haughton.

Referee: Tim Wrigglesworth (RFU).

Attendance: 38,421.


Ulster 22 Bath 18 – The Verdict

December 11, 2010

By Paul Morgan, editor of Rugby World

BATH SHOULD be out of the Heineken Cup they are still in it because of the biggest shocks of the 2009-10 season, anywhere in the world.
Bath lost 22-18 at Ulster but the rugby world almost fell off its axis in Italy as Aironi beat Biarritz 28-27. Let’s say that again – an Italian side that was only formed in the summer won their first match ever and it was against last season’s Heineken Cup runners-up. Rugby is an extraordinary game.
Ravenhill is still one of my most favourite venues and it was rocking again for this Heineken Cup encounter and with the whole crowd on their feet in the second half to drive their heroes on to the line.
Ulster won but in a mistake strewn first half they almost gave it away as Bath race into an early 15-3 lead. No side should ever lose a 12-point lead and the fact that Bath did must be worrying for the club and coaches.
The penalty count killed them at Ravenhill as they conceded 15 to 5, allowing Ian Humphreys to kick 17 points and win the game.
But as the table shows should they beat Ulster with a bonus point on Saturday the group is wide open, presuming Biarritz win with a bonus as well.
http://www.ercrugby.com/eng/heinekencup/pools/index.php
The lack of attacking craft is the key element that is missing at the moment but I would definitely persevere with the experiment of Matt Banahan at 13. I know he drops a few but the guy has an abundance of talent and is learning yet another new position. Stick with him – he’ll come good but please let’s make sure he’s picked at 13 for the next 18 months. Give him a chance to learn the position!

It was also great to see Lee Mears careering around the field and stealing ball at the breakdown. He had a nightmare on the 2009 Lions tour but is getting back to his best. Good on him!
I hear that Berrick Barnes may be near the top of Bath’s shopping list. Memo to Bruce Craig: If Berrick is seriously considering making the move to the west country break the bank for the young man as he is not only quality through and through but a good bloke as well. Have a look at Berrick below and get out the cheque book!

It was a real shame that Bath have allowed Luke Watson to slip through their hands and back to South Africa as Watson is the sort of player you can rebuild a club around and having seen Bath play a few times this season they are in serious need of rebuilding on and off the field and what I hear about Craig I gather he is the man to do it.
They need to leave the Rec for another Bath city centre venue pronto as the ground isn’t up to National Division Three standards and they need a big clear out on the playing side if they are to compete not only with the top four in England but with the best in Europe as they used to do.
And while we are talking about breaking the bank the first man Craig should see on Monday morning in Danny Grewcock. Why on earth is he hanging up his boots at the end of the season? He was magnificent (again at Ulster) and to see him charging down the field in the second half to tidy up an Ulster kick proved to me he still deserves a place in the England squad. Forget about retiring – sign on again!
For Ulster they are starting something special. The ground is moving on leaps and bounds and in Johann Muller they have a leader for everyone to follow. And if there is a better blindside in the world than Stephen Ferris at the moment then I haven’t seen him.
They lack experience in the back line and attack with youthful experience and without the steady hand of a 50-cap star. That’s what they need to go to the next level to create an environment for their promising youngsters.


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