Month: January 2008

To the Six Nations

To England: I don’t hate you. Most of us who actually like rugby rather than nationalism don’t hate you. Except maybe for that Aussie chap who claimed it as a national pastime. Hatred is reserved for people who murder, people who rape or Simon Cowell. We just wish you’d play nicer rugby. Or if you have to win anything, be a bit more gracious about it. And mostly we just wish Jeremy Guscott would stop occasionally saying nice things about Scotland so that he can return to the holy trifecta of Austin Healy and Brian Moore as the people we can shout at on the telly. Now that Laurence has gone, Catty and Corry too, I have one thing to say: best of luck Brian.

To Ireland: the Celtic cousins who we used to beat on a regular basis, I am fervently hoping for a return to this state of affairs. I am not sure what is going on over the pond, but giving Eddie another 4 years on his contract just before some of your worst performances in recent memory may be symptomatic. Give the new lads a run, the Luke Fitzgeralds or the Rob Kearneys of the squad, just to shake up the backs that have been looking at each other for too long at provincial and national level. And give Jackman a run to bring back the spirit of Uncle Fester to Irish hooking.

To Wales: listen to your new coach, and bring some pride back to the valleys, even if he tells you to do it with a kiwi accent. Just be thankful you didn’t get Matt Williams.

To Italy: sorry we beat you in the World Cup, but it was nice to meet you all over in France. You’ve got a new coach with a taste for biltong and when they announced that, I quailed inwardly. I think it means that the gap will narrow further between us all, making wooden spoons a more regular occurrence all round. But really I will smile and say that this is a good thing, because five nations (plus the other three) were alone for far too long.

To France: thanks for your hospitality in October, but I hope you don’t expect us to return the favour on Sunday. The new coaching team may have blown through the old squad like the after effects of too much camembert, but you better make sure that you repay the French public for taking to rugby like the proverbial duck a la eau – if they can’t have Seabass, they will want Triomphe!

To Scotland: It’s been a funny old year but here, this weekend, is your chance to show us what is changing in Scottish rugby. Show us that tackling and kicking are not the only things that you know how to do. Show us that you have the nerve to hold your man and pass when 70,000 people and countless others with a tie to this little country of ours are screaming at you to score. Show us that the promise of the youngsters will not be smothered by the excuse of inexperience. Show us that this is the year when you turn from a good team into a great team, into a team that can hold on for 75 minutes and then grind out the win, not be ground out themselves. Pinch their ball and push them about, and keep the ball. Don’t try and play them at their own game and don’t get pushed about in turn. The era of moral victories is over. The era of “nearly” is over. Assert yourselves and keep going forward and the crowd will be yours, and the country will be yours, and the victory will be yours.

And then we’ll get gubbed by Italy in the grand slam decider. It’s my birthday this weekend, but I don’t care. Because the Six Nations, the greatest tournament in rugby, is about to start.

No Paterson but De Luca gets a chance…Scotland Team Announced

Franky ‘Baws’ Hadden today named his XV for the game against France on Sunday. My initial thought was that this is a team set up to attack the French, and that seems like a fair plan but the big shock is the omission of Chris Paterson from the XV. Paterson will start Scotland’s 6 Nations campaign on the bench and presumably Dan Parks will take over kicking duties. Parks has been on good form for Glasgow as of late and will be hoping that this can be carried over to the international arena.

So here is the XV:

1. Allan Jacobsen
2. Ross Ford
3. Euan Murray
4. Nathan Hines
5. Jim Hamilton
6. Jason White (c)
7. John Barclay
8. Dave Callam

9. Mike Blair
10. Dan Parks
11. Simon Webster
12. Andy Henderson
13. Nick de Luca
14. Nikki Walker
15. Rory Lamont

Looking at that team makes me think that Scotland are going to try and attack France from the off and it is a brave (note: brave in the Scottish way i.e. tinged with prudence and not the French manner of 6 uncapped players!). I have to admit to some shock at Paterson admission since he is possibly the most reliable goal kicker in International rugby but it also shows just how much faith Hadden now has in Parks. There has always been a sneaky suspicion that Paterson doesn’t provide enough in open play and that may well have gone against him in this game.

Having now had a chance to look at the team I can see the logic that is possibly at work. Initially I was also surprised to see Mike Blair rather than Chris Cusiter start as I have always felt that he (Blair) is slightly more defensive and not as creative as Cusiter. In the main the backs are exciting, dynamic players and I’m sure that Hadden will look at Blair and Parks to be the more fulcrum around which the rest of the backs will operate. A tighter control in these areas may help Scotland provide a more focussed attack. This is certainly a very attacking line-up, the forwards are all capable ball carriers and able to put in BIG hits and the backs will hopefully look to utilise any space that opens up. With France making so many changes Scotland are out to unsettle the French and be as aggressive and offensive as possible. Could we see Scotland dominate the French? Lets hope so!

A couple of other quick points. The addition of Nick De Luca is heartening. He is a young guy who is playing great rugby at Edinburgh and deserves his chance. His experience of 7s should ensure his handling skill and lightning quick pace make an impact at international level. His inclusion also allows us to play Webster on the wing, his best position, and should hopefully see more from him. Couple that with Nikki Walker on the other side and Scotland presents 2 very different types of winger. The inclusion of John Barclay is also encouraging as he is another young player with the potential to make a mark at this level. His ability to put in big hits is coupled with good handling skills, especially in the contact areas, and hopefully he can go some way to helping to provide a strong base which Scotland can attack from.

Overall an exciting team and a hint of the future. Paterson can count himself unlucky and no doubt he will start other games (particularly away) but with the chance of France blooding so many new players Scotland are looking to attack from the off and get right in amongst the French. In a previous piece I predicted Scotland to win and having seen the team I stick by that…I just hope I’m right!!!

France Squad to play Scotland

Backs: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Morgan Parra, Francois Trin-Dhuc, David Skrela, Florian Fritz, Damien Traille, Vincent Clerc, Julien Malzieu, Cedric Heymans, Aurelien Rougerie.

Forwards: Julien Brugnaut, Lionel Faure, Jean-Baptiste Poux, William Servat, Dimitri Szarzewski, Loic Jacquet, Lionel Nallet, Arnaud Mela, Julien Bonnaire, Thierry Dusautoir, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Elvis Vermeulen.

New French coach Marc Lievremont announced his first squad, full of Frenchmen I have never heard of, despite watching a stupid amount of Heineken Cup rugby over the last few weekends. Looks like Elissalde is annointed at scrum half, but the Number 10 debate looks no nearer to being settled. Poitrenaud is for me one of the key omissions in the backs – but then he never got a chance in the World Cup, either. People’s champion Chabal being left out will also be pretty controversial in France. Still, maybe he’s following a time-honoured tradition amongst the French coaching nobility and will change his mind/team/shorts at the last moment. Maybe Betsen retiring was all a rumour as well…

So I’m no nearer to getting a picture on which France team turns up at Murrayfield on the 3rd. Which is, perhaps, the point.

Six of the Best

Some quick news snippets relating to the other nations (what nations, I hear you ask?):

Martyn Williams has announced he will in fact answer Wales and Warren Gatland’s call in the upcoming 6 Nations. Not particularly surprising – the same thing happened when Matt Williams left and Nathan Hines came out of retirement. Williams is crucial to Wales at the moment so the decision to ask him back was a no-brainer and maybe says something about Gatland’s pulling power (as it were).

Speaking of Williamses, our favourite antipodean cousin Matt has returned to Ireland to coach Ulster, who scraped a win over Bourgouin at the weekend, representing a considerable turnaround in their recent fortunes. Maybe they’ll appoint him the new Irish backs coach, too.

From over the channel, a raft of retirements including Dominici, Pelous, Ibanez and Betsen. This leaves the list of potential captains ever-shrinking, so Lionel Nallet has been given the France captaincy by the new coaching team. Even more in flux than ever, now is the time to catch France napping.

England picked a Tongan on the wing. Still, if he had a granny from Arbroath, we’d probably pick him too. He said he’d have played for Tonga if they had called, but “some bloke called Andrew” got there first.

Italy will have a new face at scrum half after the retirement of Troncon and Nick Mallett announced a squad mostly unchanged from the World Cup, but without Paul Griffen. This will presumably mean the Italian squad can now revert to the national expectations of three day growth and slicked-back hair from their sporting figures.

Last, a little bit of home news. Seems like Scottish ref and Jonathan Davies’ punching bag Malcolm Changeleng has decided to quit top level whistleblowing. Rumour over on the Scotsman comments said it was due to the Irish vetoing his appointment for a Six Nations game. A bit of a controversial figure with coaches, in the games I saw he always seemed to make more correct decisions than blunders and he didn’t take any crap, as befits a referee in this great egg chase of ours.

Heineken Cup Update

I’ll keep this brief so you can read Al’s awe-inspiring Six Nations preview below. I was going to call this article “Stephen Jones can suck my poop”.

Glasgow managed a narrow victory against Viadana (pop. approx 17,000, and led by Al’s boogeyman Kaine Robertson), but no sign of the 4 try bonus point that was so vital if they are to fluke their way out of the group stages. Especially with Saracens going so well (5 points against Biarritz), Glasgow will need to get a bonus point victory against them next week. This group could go down to the wire next weekend. Brown, Barclay and Beattie looked like they might have picked up a few knocks though…

Edinburgh weren’t given a hope by anyone against Leicester after a 39-0 drubbing in the away leg – so I’m looking forward to seeing the highlights of that one on Sunday night as they outplayed the Tigers and emerged thoroughly victorious! 5,800 people turned up and Radio Leicester thought only about a thousand were travelling support, so hopefully the crowds will keep improving. With Parks not amazing against Viadana while Godman scored a try and kicked accurately, could World Class Phil once again be the saviour of Scottish standoffery?

Please leave some comments if you are an actual human being, but spammers don’t bother I only delete them!

Al’s All-Singing But Hopefully No Dancing Six Nations Preview

Part I – Best Xmas Present….Ever!

I remember Christmas growing up being all about the lead up to the big day and whether or not Santa Claus had paid attention to the letter sent in June with my demands for Christmas presents. Sure, as the years go by this anticipation has faded slightly – especially since the demand is now mainly for cold hard cash – but you still hope to get what you asked for. Along with the sock and a knitted jumper from Auntie Agnes there was the good stuff, the ZX Spectrum, the BMX racer and the Eagle-Eye Action Man. I’ve spent most of last year on my absolute best behaviour to try and ensure that Santa had no reason to screw me out of the good stuff and sure enough the fat jolly fellow came through with the full list of goodies. Little did I know that my main Christmas wish for the last 2 years was also to be granted…

Having participated in the usual seasonal over-indulgence I had returned to work with a heavy heart and a pickled liver and have been looking for any distraction to help me through the long days manacled to my desk. Tuesday granted such a distraction with the announcement of Scotland’s 6 Nations training squad. Whilst the headline was all about Scott Murray’s exclusion from the squad (more about that later) the real news, and proof of a benevolent god, was that Marcus Di ‘Ohno’ Rollo was missing! For the last couple of years Di Ohno has been the epitome of a shirt filler, offering Scotland nothing except filling a space…badly. His calling card was missed tackles, fumbled balls and the attacking verve of post-box. For what feels like an eternity now (although probably only a couple of years) I’ve prayed to the rugby gods to have mercy and have cursed them everytime a Scotland squad was announced with Di Ohno’s name included. How he managed to masquerade as an international rugby player is one of life’s great mysteries but he must also be given some credit, for his omission was not made by Hadden but rather by the player himself. Having managed to only muster a solitary minutes play since moving to France, Di Ohno has seen the light and, ironically, given his greatest contribution to the Scotland cause by removing himself from it. For that Marcus I salute you.

Despite all that there is still a chance he could make a comeback. Maybe playing in France will sharpen his basic skills and add a new dimension to his game but for that to happen he needs game time and he just isn’t getting that at present.

As for Scott Murray I would expect to see him return at some point. At only 31 he can still compete at the international level and his experience (87 caps) will always be a valuable commodity. It will be interesting to see how the Scottish lineout works without his commanding presence – Hadden admits the competition for the 2nd row is fierce but if the lineout and scrum struggle he may well need to turn to the experience of Murray to help balance out the youth. Like Di Rollo he should benefit from playing in France and I suspect he will be back in the national side at some point.

Part II – A Chance to Shine…

Last years 6 Nations was all about building up for the World Cup in France and as such (even though finishing with the wooden spoon was horrific) I think fans were able to at least point to a continuing requirement for development of a squad which had its eyes firmly set on the World Cup. This year Frank Hadden and the boys won’t have such a cushion, fans will expect results, especially at home and look for a big improvement away from home. Scotland go into the tournament coming off the back of a fairly successful – if not ground breaking – World Cup. The tournament in France (and Scotland and Wales!) saw the emergence of Rory Lamont as a real threat from the back and Dan Parks finally proved that at the international level he can indeed cut the mustard (see vs Italy in St Etienne). The most encouraging thing about this Scotland team is that there is a real sense of development. The training squad has 6 uncapped faces yet the squad doesn’t feel like a major overhaul. Rather it’s a transition from the old to the new, players in form for their clubs and for the first time in years I think there is competition for place across the squad. The improvements in the domestic professional sides also points towards progress – not awe inspiring, zero-to-hero transformations, but the forming of good solid units able to hold their own in European competition and challenge in the Magners League. The exodus from Edinburgh during the summer was alarming but Andy Robinson has done a sterling job in both building that team back up to where it can compete and has started to rebuild his own reputation after his England debacle. I never bought into the ‘Fortress Scotland’ policy and I, personally, feel that the exodus of Scotland players to French and English leagues will only expand their experience and help improve the skill levels.

So, with no further ado, here is a quick look at what I think could happen over the course of the championship:

Scotland v France (3pm, Sunday 3rd February, Murrayfield) – France come into the game on the back of a mixed but ultimately disappointing World Cup and having lost some big players (Ibanez, Dominici). As ever it depends which French side decides to turn up, the side that is full of flair and incisive running angles, or the side that can’t handle a rugby ball covered in super glue! If Scotland can put real pressure on the breakdown areas then France are vulnerable, they showed at the World Cup that they can be forced into errors and with Chris Paterson in the side Scotland are well positioned to take advantage of any penalties coming their way. I see this a game where the Scots will try to exercise a varied kicking game aiming for two areas. Firstly I think Dan Parks looking to kick long either for territory and touch or kicking behind the backs to turn the defence. Parks game came of age at the World Cup and he’ll surely look to direct the game from the back. Secondly I think Scotland will look (through Rory Lamont in particular) to kick the up-and-under either right of top of the French backs or in the no-mans-land between the forwards and backs if the game becomes stretched. They’ll surely look to his and Webster’s pace to be able to reach the man as he receives the ball in an attempt to either turn-over or draw the penalty.

Predictions: Heart – Scotland win.
Head – Scotland win, it’s a home match so think that’ll swing it.

Wales v Scotland (2pm, Saturday 9th February, Millennium Stadium) – Christ, I struggle to predict this. Scotland’s 2nd game in 6 days is at the magnificent Millennium Stadium and should see a close match. If the French are mixed then the Welsh are positively schizophrenic in terms of performance. The Welsh have the ability in the backs to destroy pretty much any team they come up against but are equally as likely to do an Elmer Fudd impersonation and have a ‘shoot themselves in the face with a shotgun’ type calamity. New coach in place, so will be interesting to see what reaction they get to that. I think Scotland will dominate the pack (for once – ed.) and possibly the breakdown (as they did last year) but Wales will always pose a threat on the counter. I was at the Wales game last year and they were as poor a side as I have seen in a long time, totally dominated by Scotland for large parts of the match and poor James Hook looked like a lost child in Tesco the Saturday before Xmas. The passion of the Welsh crowd could (should?) make a difference in the game this time round.

Heart – Scotland win
Head – Welsh win – close match but some magic from the Welsh backs will be too much for Scotland

Ireland v Scotland (5pm, Saturday 23rd February, Croke Park) – One word sums up Ireland at the World Cup – insipid! Truly awful, plunged new depths of awfulness and the much vaunted world class players contrived to look more suited to Gaelic Football than Rugby! So this should be an easy victory for Scotland. Well, no, probably not. If you were to draw a bell curve both these sides would be a the same level but at different ends – Scotland are a team on the make, developing with each game and progressing all the time whilst the Irish have seen it all and are, for too many players, past their best. This should make for an interesting battle but I suspect there will only be a score or so between the teams. It’ll be a scrappy, forward-orientated type affair but a lot will depend on Ireland’s big creative players and whether they can show the magic of previous years. At the World Cup they only ended up putting themselves under pressure when trying to run from deep and you suspect that they are a collection of players rather than a team. Scotland could kick them to death as the Irish of late have looked ragged and prone to coughing up penalties, but I’d also look to Scotland’s backs being able to open up the Irish. Another cracking atmosphere in store at Croke Park. Anyone got a ticket?

Heart – Scotland win
Head – Scotland win – think this Scotland side have too much for the current Irish squad and work better as a unit.

Scotland v England (3.15pm, Saturday 8th March, Murrayfield) – The big one. Good v Evil. Balanced opinion v hyperbole. Wooden spoon holders v World Cup finalists. Congrats to the English for getting to the World Cup Final. Commiserations to the rest of rugby civilisation for being forced to watch the worst side ever to reach a World Cup final. Funny side the English, lost a lot of players recently but by all accounts the youngsters coming up are pretty decent. Much like Scotland they have a developing squad where evolution, rather than revolution, is the policy. Brian Ashton seems to be doing a decent job with someone else’s squad but it’ll be interesting to see where their points come from. The addition of big Vainikolo is interesting and brave. Ripping up the Guinness Premiership with 8 tries so far he has the potential to be a star (along with Sackey) for the English, but can he cut it at international level? Ashton maintains that his lack of kicking ability is not a problem saying something along the lines of why should a 6″2′ 18 stone winger want to kick the ball? Well, lots of reasons really. Defensively it’ll be a huge step up and whilst he’s big Scotland also have big wingers these days who won’t be afraid to challenge Vainikolo. I fully expect the Scots to try and pressure him heavily and force him into kicking. Otherwise this game will be the usual Scotland v England heavy match, blood, guts, thunder, no little passion and a good piss up afterwards.

Heart – Scotland win
Head – England win – we beat them the last time at Murrayfield so they’ll look to get revenge, plus its England and no side in the world is jammier!

Italy v Scotland (1pm, Saturday 15th March, Rome) – Scotland Grand Slam decider…maybe! Or maybe not. Italy are a decent side who have improved beyond recognition in the last few years, demonstrated by just how disappointed they were to not get out of the groups at the World Cup. In saying that I still expect Scotland to have too much. Kaine Robertson scares the living daylights out of me but without Troncon to lead, you wonder just how they will get on in this tournament. At home they are a good side and usually try to attack the opposition but this leaves them open to wiser teams to hit on the counter. The victory for Scotland in the World Cup was scrappy and hard fought but it shouldn’t have been. Indeed in that game if Scotland had played more sensibly the match could have been over
inside the first 20 minutes. The one advantage to this game is that it won’t be marred by the awful refereeing of Kaplan who single-handedly destroyed the game at the World Cup. Italy are no mugs but they are not great at the back and can be forced into silly errors. It will be interesting to see if Italy maintain their antics of diving from the World Cup? Its not something we need to see in rugby. Great supporters, good team, poor sportsmanship. If Scotland play their game they should win barring any major mistakes (World Class Phil lookin’ at you…again!).

Heart – Scotland win
Head – Scotland win – no mistakes guys…..please!

So there you go – ill-informed nonsense in the best possible way! If my heart is right Scotland will romp to Grand Slam glory. It’s not outwith the realms of possibility (if not probability), this is a 6 Nations in flux this year and I would hope to see a strong showing from the Scotland team. We can certainly beat all the other teams but it’s about stringing together some results, and ultimately I suspect that where we will fall down. I can see us winning 3 games and finishing 3rd or 2nd with the English doing enough for the tournament win. Wouldn’t be a surprise if the table is very congested and teams take point off each other. From the Scotland team I just want to see continued progress and some more attacking verve – play to our strengths and let teams worry about us, rather than the other way round.

Finally, let me just say that above all I just want to see good rugby, strong defences and imaginative attacks. I hope all those who are coming to watch rugby at Murrayfield have a good time in Edinburgh (even if your team gets cuffed) and enjoy the rugby folks!

Over and out…

Al

Review of the Year

Happy New Year from all here at the Scottish Rugby Blog!

Well, that’s 2007 out of the way. And while we don’t like to dwell in the past much (unless we get to live in 1990 all the time), here’s a look back at some of our personal highlights of 2007.

The Six Nations and the Heineken Cup of last season were pretty disappointing. 6 minutes of separation from some of the first XV’s brain cells against Italy and it went very wrong indeed. Phil Godman’s career has only just begun to recover, and Chris Cusiter had to go and live in France. At home and in Europe, Glasgow were good in patches, while Edinburgh Rugby turned into the lamp-post in some sort of farcical pissing contest between the SRU and the Carruthers brothers. Who would have thought that you would be glad to see Edinburgh back under central control? We also lost the Borders, depriving Scotland’s rugby heartland of pro rugby.

However this season, things are starting to look up. We have the most settled squad and coaching team of any nation together with some young talents straining to be unleashed on the bigger stage. Both remaining pro teams having beefed up their squads, and a large number of our other players are now further afield playing high stakes, high intensity rugby with real pressure for places – and only some of them from the bench. Andy Robinson seems to be making an effort to build bridges with the rugby community in Edinburgh, while Sean Lineen already has a committed if small support and a win against Biarritz (should’ve been two) under his belt. A home win against Saracens could see them through to the Heineken Cup knockout stages. 6,200 people turned out for the derby match last weekend – might the Scottish public finally be paying attention?

Al in St EtienneRugby World Cup 2007 – who says the French can’t do hospitality? French lads handing out booze from rucksacks, locals looking on in bemusement and waving saltires from their balconies, Le Glasgow providing a bewildering blend of Scottish craic, French cuisine and crazy German beer so potent that Rory Lawson couldn’t hold on to his pen. And that was just St Etienne. Okay so we didn’t get to the semis and we could have. (Should have?) But it was my first World Cup in person, we met a bunch of the squad and generally had a whale of a time, best summed up by attached photo of Al augmenting the local sculpture.

Other highlights of the World Cup:

Chris Paterson is the world’s best kicker. Despite what the Sunday Times might think.
Japan’s tries against Wales. Forget the yankee dude skinning Habana, this (one of two) was the best of the Tournament. [youtube link]
The day the Northern hemisphere kicked back. New Zealand and the Aussies finally found common ground – both going out in the same day. Due to a misreading of the draw Al and I found ourselves cheering for England in some Firkin Bar in Paris, laughing as our southern cousins ordered magners at €7 a pop. As it turns out in the end I was unable to stop myself from cheering England on, and the scenes later that night in Paris – when France did the unthinkable and killed the king before the coronation we had all been assured – were unforgettable.
England not winning the World Cup. Despite having garnered a fair amount of good will (see previous item) it would have been a bit of a travesty if a team showing nothing in the way of previous form for 3.5 years had suddenly come up “the best in the world” and then gone on about it for the next 4 years. Justice, I feel, was served by a Springbok team that had the belief AND the skill. I am however gutted Bobby Skinstad didn’t get a chance to play in the final – it would have made a hell of a movie.
The Minnows Spread the Word, and the Word is Rugby. Any tournament that gets football crazy countries like Argentina and Portugal talking about Rugby is to the benefit of the game. It is a bonus that they did so by producing spirited performances in Portugal’s case, and in Argentina’s by punching so far above their perceived weight that it may alter the structure of world rugby. Here’s to the next one.

Tune of the Year: Industrial Revolution Pt II (Orchestral) – Jean Michel Jarre. Instant France flashbacks.

Man of the Year: Chris Paterson. For kicking 19 from 19, and also for talking to me and Al – and many other Scotland fans – when he could quite easily have been in his hotel bed asleep.

Man of Next Year: Nick De Luca. Undoubtedly, you didn’t hear it here first. Or if you’re more of a forwards man, Ross Rennie, John Barclay or Moray Low…

This year we aim to grow the blog into your number one source for chat and opinion regarding Scottish Rugby, so here’s to 2008! Stick with us, and please let us know any suggestions you may have about the blog.