Al Wins Fantasy League

After a statistical error, it appears my co-blogger Al should actually have come first. Apologies to all those who entered in the hope of defeating his rugby magnificence.

Okay, that’s April 1st out of the way.

Congratulations are due to all who played, but after pretty much leading from the front in week 1, legendary Scottish Rugby Blog reader Jenny actually emerged victorious with a final 328 points. May her skill, beauty, taste, genius, wondrousness etc never diminish.

A storming final round from the official blog XV (mostly courtesy of Maxime Medard’s sideburns) saw yours truly face-savingly boosted into second place. Thanks to all who played and we’ll probably run a similar thing next season. Commiserations to Al and Mark who had proper jobs to do (rugby-related or otherwise) which left them with an unchanged team for the whole tournament. A finest piece of tree-based cutlery for my blog partner. Perhaps we should impose a no transfers rule next year, injuries be damned?!

Hope you enjoyed it.

So That’s The End of That, Then

Another year, another pretty miserable Six Nations for Scotland. Our celtic cousins over the sea celebrate their shiny new Grand Slam – created out of gritty Munster-like determination (and a missed penalty) rather than any sort of fantastic rugby – and those in Wales cry into their Brains after slumping to fourth in the table despite being in with a shout at the end of a fantastic deciding match. France were their usual schizophrenic selves, Italy look like they may be going backwards and England seem to be starting to develop a little unit cohesion and some decent backs whilst maintaining that indisciplined streak that lets other teams back into matches.

And so it was for Scotland in the Calcutta Cup, where Paterson and Godman kept us just about within touching distance, and a little bit more vision/ruthlessness/Ugo Monye having one leg might have seen us snatch an unlikely victory. Once again Al Strokosch put in a powerful performance, but it’s about time someone else steps up to his intensity levels. Euan Murray gave England a tough time in the scrums, but was not totally dominant even once Vickery went off. He started to show up in the loose again too, which is good. Mike Blair had probably his best game of the tournament, but that’s not saying much and sad to say that may not be enough to put him on the plane to South Africa, where in the autumn he was a certainty. Thom Evans once again set a stadium alight with a try that almost was, but he has now become the Shane Williams of Scotland – marked heavily wherever he goes. World Class Phil Godman seems to have put the “who should play 10 for Scotland” debate to bed, but the Scottish attack is still not setting the heather on fire, let alone the sunny turf of Twickenham. Credit must also go to England who finally look to be adding the ruthlessness to their game that has been missing for a while. No sense in dwelling too much on the past, so here’s what I would like to see in the future, Six Nations wise.

Let’s Have More Of:

Scotland’s Defence, for the most part. In the first half against Ireland, much of the France game and all of the Italy game the defence was solid and convincing. Al Strokosch may not put in the crowd-pleasing big hits that Jason White did, but his work rate is phenomenal – it’s the little hits, all the time, phase after phase that help us. We turned over a lot of ball with Scott Gray at 7 too. Barclay is undoubtedly the future in the position, but Gray was probably the standout man in blue during the Calcutta Cup match and it’s good to have competition for places.

Scotland scoring tries. Well, for a while at least. It was good to see Simon Danielli coming on to some form after some pretty cruel luck in the past, and you fancy in the autumn there will be real competition for back three places from the Lamont boys, Evans boys, Malkovich, Mossy etc. The A Team tour to Romania in the summer should be interesting too. Unlikely you’ll find it on TV though.

Chris Cusiter. I hope he has a couple of blinders for Perpignan to round off the season, and I hope Geech is watching.

Euan Murray destroying opposition scrums. Yeah, something to cheer about!

Andrew Cotter. Is he the new Bill McLaren? Maybe even some more of Lawrence Dallaglio who was balanced and fair in his assessments. Rob Henderson, Andy Nicol and Philip Matthews were also pretty good. The rest sadly fall into the second half of this article.

France playing sexy rugby. That first half against Ireland was brilliant, no matter what Marc Lievremont thinks.

Brian O’Driscoll being good, and like the Murphy’s not bitter. Seems to have lost the chip on his shoulder that he got from Tana Umaga, and in perfect time for the Lions.

Let’s Have Less Of:

Scotland Being Rubbish. Okay so we have a tiny player base compared to say England (apparently approx 30,000 vs 715,000 or so), but we have some decent players once it is just 22 vs 22, so why do they perform so inconsistently? Sorry Frank, but I think it comes down to coaching and confidence in their selection based on form or position. We need to be a bit sharper in midfield too. It would be interesting to see whether a new coach would persist with bruisers at 12, or go for someone with more varied angles of running and distribution like Ben Cairns or De Luca – assuming he can get over the handling issues he still seems to suffer at international level. Sir Clive Woodward probably would have brought in a team psychologist now to get to the root of it, and maybe it is ingrained in our national psyche but something needs to be done to sort it. Even change for changes sake, which worked last time.

Not picking second rows in the second row. It started off being about injuries, and ended up with the selectors painted in a giant corner in a fetching shade of red face. Kellock and Hamilton both restored balance and ballast to the lineout – think what they could do with a proper second row. Nick Mallet picking Bergamasco at 9 falls under this umbrella too.

Bickering BBC Pundits. Brian Moore, Eddie Butler, Austin Healey, Jonathan Davies – leave us alone please. Give us some pundits who can keep their flags in their back pockets and pronounce people’s names. John Inverdale telling Rafa Ibanez to be quiet because they wanted to talk about England was one of the worst things I have seen from a BBC punditry team that often seems over-burdened with “faces” – some people might use another term…

Indecision over the ball being in or out of the ruck. One thing Moore-oh gets right. Half-backs sitting guarding a ball that is clearly no longer in the ruck kills the momentum of the game. If they can put their hands on it to pass it, the ball is out. Else they are handling in the ruck, no? Let the defence at it. If a ref is shouting “ruck” every so often, it’s only a couple of extra breaths to shout “ball out” and remove the indecision.

Diving. Italians and pseudo Italians (Nigel Owen’s “drama school” quip after Danielli took a tumble was classic), I’m looking at you.

Aerial Ping Pong. Is it really the ELVs? Not really. Is it actually that the breakdowns are now (mostly) refereed according to the laws in existence and it has become a lot easier to turn over ball in contact that causes the “you make a mistake – no you make one” dialogue between full backs.

What about you? Please add your own in the comments here below. Thanks for reading during the Six Nations, we’ll be back soon with the results of the nailbiting (for the six of us involved) fantasy rugby. Then it is time for the big daddy of tours set to dominate the rugby world from now until June – the British and Irish Lions in South Africa. Check out Planet Rugby for their analysis of who’s in form now after the Six Nations has finished. Good to see a few Scots in there, I’m sure if they make the tour they can make an impact.

Warm Up With The U20s

Don’t forget a) to change your fantasy team ahead of the weekend – last chance to snatch victory or *cough* make an impact *cough* – and b) that you can catch England U20s vs Scotland U20s live on Sky Sports tonight. Scotland are (numerically at least) still in with a shout of victory in the tournament as a whole, and also after a Triple Crown.

And as for the big boys – well, we have to hope that they turn up. France didn’t turn up to Twickers at all last week and look what happened to them. Borthwick rambling about over-exuberant celebrations last year (well, we don’t win that often do we?) to try and match the edge that Scotland always take into this particular game will probably only increase Scottish fire. We all hope that will be followed by an ability to well, pass and catch the ball. Kudos to friend of the blog Pete for putting his money where our mouth should be, but at this stage of the tournament I have to confess it pains me to say it’s hard to see a Scotland win… go out there and prove me (and all of England) wrong.

England Team Unchanged, but did Frank just roll a 2 anyway?

Thom’s ok, big Stroker’s ok. So that’s that out of the way. Scott Gray in? Okay, he’s looked sharp off the bench and played well season-long against these guys in the GP, so that’s justified on form. On the other hand, also sharp Chris Cusiter not in to replace out of form and probably injured Mike Blair? Crap. John Barclay not in the 22 at all, because now you want a back row replacement that can cover more than 7? Maybe it’s because he didn’t take responsibility for “tailgunner-gate” when that apparently wasn’t (for that defence) his position to cover? Crap. Nathan in to stabilise the lineout and much-needed restart? Nope – crap.

Mostly the same team gets one last chance to show that they are worthy of our love, but why not make a few changes just to add some extra stability in areas where we have been wobbly thus far… an in-form scrum-half and a proper second row? Still, the P&J rugby guy said he’d eat his hat if Cusiter wasn’t selected, so I am looking forward to seeing that.

Meanwhile Jonno has left the England team that bulldozed France with some style unchanged. To pursue the gambling metaphor: snake eyes – house wins, I reckon. And after that, the end of an unlucky streak?

Scotland Team:

C Paterson (Edinburgh); S Danielli (Ulster), M Evans (Glasgow), G Morrison (Glasgow), T Evans (Glasgow); P Godman (Edinburgh), M Blair (Edinburgh, capt); A Dickinson (Gloucester), R Ford (Edinburgh), E Murray (Northampton), J White (Sale), J Hamilton (Edinburgh), A Strokosch (Gloucester), S Gray (Northampton), S Taylor (Stade Francais).
Replacements: D Hall (Glasgow), M Low (Glasgow), N Hines (Perpignan), K Brown (Glasgow), C Cusiter (Perpignan), N De Luca (Edinburgh), H Southwell (Edinburgh).

England Team:

D Armitage (London Irish); U Monye (Harlequins), M Tindall (Gloucester), R Flutey (Wasps), M Cueto (Sale Sharks); T Flood (Leicester), H Ellis (Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), T Croft (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), J White (Leicester), J Haskell (Wasps), N Kennedy (London Irish), D Care (Harlequins), A Goode (Brive), M Tait (Sale Sharks).

A Last Throw of the Dice for Frank?

That’s assuming he has a pair, of course. Or is it a set?

Frank Hadden has delayed announcing his team for the Calcutta Cup pending injury updates on Thom Evans (shoulder) and captain Mike Blair (back). After a stinger against Ireland, the big

After a stinger against Ireland, the big stroker Al Strokosch has been cleared for training and should retain his place in the 6 shirt after one of his best performances in a Scotland shirt. Losing Blair is a pretty big blow ordinarily, but he has been out of sorts recently and his likelihood of sneaking on to the Lions tour is looking slimmer as the likes of Harry Ellis and even Peter Stringer start to show form and attack the spare scrum-half berths.

Hopefully Saturday will give Chris Cusiter the chance that he has so far been denied to show what sort of form he is in. Sadly there is no bigger stage for a Scotsman these days than the Calcutta Cup.

My team to face the (gulp) improving England would be something like: Paterson, Danielli, Evans, De Luca, Evans, Godman, Cusiter, Taylor, Barclay, Strokosch, Hines, Hamilton, Murray, Ford, Dickinson.

We need something different at 12 – a distributor in the mould of D’Arcy or Flutey and why not give Nick a bash and see if it works? There might be an argument for bringing in either fit Lamont for Danielli – but Simon has been pretty solid so far and will be less well known to the English players than the Lamont boys. Paterson has been criticised occasionally for a lack of penetration but frankly, I am astonished at the improvement in his kicking from hand (compared to say during his time at Gloucester), he’s a lot safer in the tackle now and of course there’s the place kicking. Either he or Cusiter would be a good choice as captain – or would now be the time to pick a forward leader for the future – John Barclay for captain?

Irish Eyes a Smiling, Scottish Eyes a Bleeding…

“And now the end is near…”

I ain’t no Las Vegas crooner, able to sweet talk the ladies and the local Mob in equal measure, but just like Ol’ Blue Eyes even I can see that the end is near for Frank Hadden.  After another frustrating afternoon at “Fortress” (more like a soggy cardboard box crumbling under the elements) Murrayfield the pressure on Frank Hadden has risen to such a level that even Frank himself has noted that his time may well be up.

Saturday was the typical game of two halves.  Scotland dominated the first half, should have been a lot further in front and gave hope that we had an idea of what we were actually trying to do.  The second half…..aaaaargh!  What a stinker.  Lineout fell to pieces, holes large enough to drive a fleet of tanks through appeared in the defence (the fact it was the bastard love child of Mini-Me and an Oompa Loompa that capitalised, made it look even worse) and we had all the penetration of Pele before he started advertising Viagra.  We were never more than a converted try behind, yet never looked like getting anything out the game and that makes me want to weep for Scottish Rugby.  Whatever was said at half time should never, ever, be uttered again because it had the effect of killing all the momentum and enthusiasm that had been built up in a good first half display.  I could go on and on about different aspects of the game but others elsewhere have written far more erudite and accurate analysis than I can…and it just makes me angry!

As for Ireland, well fair play on keeping on track for the much elusive Grand Slam.  They came to a ground they traditionally struggle on and got the win they needed.  If they do win in Wales and get the Grand Slam I ask only one favour… that no bugger buys me the commemorative DVD for Xmas – it’ll be a horror show.  The game against England made my eyes bleed and to be honest the BBC should be given a kicking for putting that game on before the watershed… the children, for the love of God would someone please think of the children!  The Scotland game was only a fraction better.  Fair play the France game was good.  If, and it’s still a big IF, they do win the Grand Slam Ireland deserve all the plaudits but it still doesn’t take away from the fact that they will have been one of the poorest Grand Slam winning teams in living memory.

As for Scotland, well we look towards trying to get a first win in 26 years on English soil.  Of course, life being what it is, the toffs across the Border have seemingly stopped trying to play with 14 or 13 men and as a result find the 15 man game a damn site easier!  Beyond that who knows.  I think Hadden will go, he may even do the decent thing and fall upon his own sword.  Cast your mind back 4 years and think of the walking Satan in charge of Scotland at that time… he that shalt not be named (but is the coach of  Ulster) and should be burned the next time he places his over-inflated sense of worth back on Scottish soil… and you’ll remember just how bad Scotland were at that time.  Hadden at least came in, settled the ship and looking at the squad at least there appears to be some talent within the ranks.  However, he (Hadden) has taken this team as far as he can and the challenge of taking the raw ability and turning it into a polished end product should be passed on to a new head coach.  Just who that new head coach should be is the big unknown, but maybe the SRU should show some ambition for once… this is a Scotland side with the raw talents to be a winning side, maybe a coach with ambition and steel will be able to actually get the end product right?

It Really Is Rob Dewey Time

“Back” when Scotland and Edinburgh were one dimensional in attack and never got the ball past 12, at least you could count on Rob Dewey. When within 10 metres of the line, it would be “Rob Dewey time”. Chuck him the ball and let him have a batter – at close range he was trick to stop and you stood a good chance of crossing the line. Soon fame and injury beckoned at Ulster, and by then Scotland’s opponents had him well marshalled. Briefly last year he appeared in the Churchill Cup A Team looking almost a different player, displaying the “worrying” trait of varying his lines of running and offloading, with fairly decent results.

With Scotland having a few problems getting the ball past the number 12 shirt at times on Saturday (so much so that BBC pundit and former Ireland centre Rob Henderson had worked out most of Scotland’s Morrison-centric game plan by half time), could now be the time to announce Rob Dewey’s return to Scotland to team up with former central-belt foes the Glasgow Warriors? Yes it could. Having been shunted into a club team by loveable Aussie Matt Williams, Dewey is ready to return to this fair country and stake his claim in a Glasgow back line that next year will already have the likes of Chris Cusiter, Mark McMillan, Ruaridh Jackson, Andy Henderson, Graeme Morrison and of course both Evans brothers competing for places. Exciting times ahead for Sean Lineen’s Glasgow. If you were him you’d want to stick around there for a while rather than get involved with the muck higher up…

Speaking of which, after a considerable session in the Irish-mobbed Roseburn bar on Saturday, your fearless Scottish Rugby Blog correspondents witnessed the second half debacle at Murrayfield first hand. Hopefully Al will be here with his near-patented Big Rant later. Watch out, Frank.

Exclusive Interview with Robbie Russell

A world first Scottish Rugby Blog exclusive interview for you here. Last week former Scotland, London Irish and Saracens hooker Robbie Russell was kind enough to sit down and let us pick his brains about a few things, including Scotland’s chances tomorrow, his career highs and lows and his current business – running Shudoo, an online designer shoe store. Robbie Russell earned 28 Caps for Scotland between 1999 – 2005, including appearances at 2 Rugby World Cups.

Scottish Rugby Blog: How do you think today’s Scotland team compares with the ones you played in? Do you think we’ve got a chance against Ireland or England in the coming weeks?

Robbie Russell

Robbie Russell: I am not sure the results are as good in recent years however the team has some quality players. I don’t think there is a great difference however I may be a bit biased!

We used to have a great home record against Ireland so hopefully we can see that restored. I believe we have a real chance against both Ireland and England although I see England improving as well and that will make it tough at Twickenham.

SRB: In your career who was the toughest front row opponent you came up against – any real masters of the dark arts?

RR: I came up against plenty of tough front row players, many of whom had a few tricks up their sleeves. I think my first awakening to the dark arts of front row play came from the amateur days when playing for Aberdeen Grammar in 98.

SRB: You were born in Australia, so what did it feel like scoring a try for your adopted country (Scotland) against your country of birth (Australia) in RWC2003, which was held in Australia?

RR: It was fantastic. The whole 2003 WC experience was an amazing time. I was worried I wasn’t going to get off the bench in that game. When I got on the field I remember one of the Aussie players (Nathan Sharp who was an old uni mate) heckling a bit, so it was nice to get over the line.

SRB: That World Cup trip was when you had the idea for your shoe business too, wasn’t it?

RR: That’s correct. At the end of our campaign we had some spare days so I met with an Australian supplier and decided to import a few hundred Ugg boots and started selling them online (www.shudoo.co.uk). Being online meant I could still run the business even when away in camp with the Scotland side. We even used some of the Scotland players as models on our website in the early days!!

SRB: Both countries have a fairly small player base in competition with other sports (football in our case, any number of things in Australia’s). Apart from the odd scrum, a lot of the Aussies seem to have better basic skills than us – do you think there are there things that they do over there at a younger age (in schools for example) that the Scottish setup could look to emulate?

RR: I seriously believe the weather plays a big part and if it wasn’t for that, skill levels across the countries would be the same.

During school years, all year round you are able to go outside and play ball games of all descriptions in Australia. This really helps development and breeds a sporting culture. The weather conditions in Australia encourage taking more risks and because things come off more, you keep doing it and get better.

SRB: As a London Irish man presumably you are glad to see their resurgence in the Premiership. But as a former Saracens man, what do you think of the current revolving door of players and staff at Saracens, and rumours of it becoming basically a South African franchise?

RR: Revolving doors at Saracens is nothing new! There was plenty in my time as well.

There is always a lot of speculation about the club and they love being in the media. I am uncertain as to what is going to happen there but it will be sad if the club loses its history and disappointing for some of the boys who have served their whole careers there. I imagine it will be more concerning for the RFU, but that’s the nature of the Premiership now.

I am delighted to see the successes at London Irish. I feel they’re a great club and deserve some silverware soon.

SRB: Many thanks for your time Robbie, all the best in the future.

Scotland World Cup Dates for Your, umm, 2011 Diary

So here are the dates of Scotland’s World Cup games and locations for 2011. At least it allows us to start planning already! It looks like we get to go all over, to Invercargill, Dunedin, Christchurch and then Auckland for the biggie…and perhaps beyond? Although it means back to back matches with the two top seeds, it’s nice of them to put that one last – it could become an all or nothing encounter at the Cake Tin. Imagine the intense craziness of the St Etienne game… versus England? I’m having a panic attack just thinking about it.

10 September:
Scotland v Play-off winner, Rugby Park Stadium, Invercargill

14 September:
Scotland v Europe 1, Carisbrook, Dunedin

25 September:
Argentina v Scotland, Christchurch Stadium

1 October:
England v Scotland, Eden Park, Auckland

Quarter-final Two: 8 October
Winner Pool B v Runner-up Pool A
(Christchurch Stadium)

Quarter-final Four: 9 October
Winner Pool A v Runner-up Pool B
(Christchurch Stadium)

In other news, the Evans boys and Euan Murray have just announced the signing of new contracts with Glasgow and Northampton respectively.

Final Scotland Team

Hadden’s gone for Hamilton, with Hines on the bench. You’ve got to feel for Ally Kellock who has dropped out of the 22 altogether despite an assured lineout performance against Italy. The other bench spot goes to Nick De Luca. Match preview to follow tomorrow if I can find the time!

Meanwhile all the teams have been announced now, so don’t forget to update your Fantasy Rugby teams ASAP!

Scotland and Ireland Teams for Six Nations Clash

Frank Hadden has announced a largely unchanged Scotland rugby team to face Ireland at Murrayfield on Saturday.

Scotland: Chris Paterson, Simon Danielli, Max Evans, Graeme Morrison, Thom Evans, Phil Godman, Mike Blair (Captain), Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Locks x2 (from: Jim Hamilton, Nathan Hines, Alastair Kellock and Jason White), Alasdair Strokosch, John Barclay, Simon Taylor
Replacements: Dougie Hall, Moray Low, 18 TBC, Scott Gray, Chris Cusiter, TBC, Hugo Southwell

As expected Mossy gets the shout at 15, while Dickinson comes in for Chunk in a 1 for 1 swap – although they do represent two different types of 1. He’s held off on the lock selection to see how training goes this week. We’re all hoping Hines is fit (see my post below from earlier) so that affects the selection on the bench too. Interestingly, the other bench slot held by De Luca last week seems like it may be being held open until after fitness tests, for Rory Lamont perhaps?

Meanwhile Ireland have announced a team with 4 changes including Stringer and D’Arcy in – plenty of experience there but if it was a choice between Stringer and either of our scrum-halves, I know which one I’d pick. Strangely, in-form 8 Jamie Heaslip has been dropped to the bench. Is Kidney picking a team to target specific areas, having previously picked the same starters in the last three? Or is he penalising their sluggish performance against England?

Ireland: Kearney; Bowe, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Fitzgerald; O’Gara, Stringer; Horan, Best, Hayes; O’Callaghan, O’Connell; Ferris, D Wallace, Leamy.
Replacements: Murphy, Wallace, O’Leary, Court, Flannery, O’Driscoll, Heaslip.

Big Nathan Hits the Comeback Trail For Realz

Welcome news ahead of this weekend that Big Nathan, Bigger Jim and even Big Rory have returned to training with the Scotland squad this week. While Hamilton would have been expected to roll in pretty soon, Lamont was not scheduled to return till April so that’s quite the surprise. It’s unlikely that he’s at full fitness just yet after his ankle injury, but good to have him back. With a lot of focus on the full-back battle between Southwell and Paterson, let’s not forget Rory is our hope for the future in that position, provided he can convince Hadden it’s where he belongs. Sale will be glad to have him back too as they lose players left, right and (inside) centre.

As for “former liability but now we love him” Nathan Hines, great news he’s back a week earlier than predicted. But then he did try and pick himself for France, just before he had knee surgery so he might be bringing the crazy. If he can prove his fitness this week, might we see him worthy of a spot on the bench? Of course it does bring up the whole argument about picking players on reputation or form again, but given the level of inconsistency in selection so far who knows. I hope he gets a chance to show his stuff in the next few weeks, with many touting him as a possible Lion. Interesting that everyone seems to have problems with kiwi Riki “Parachute” Flutey as a Lion (I would too, to be honest, given he’s just qualified for England and is now off to France) but no-one baulks at the big man from Wagga Wagga. Perhaps because he has shown no shortage of fiery commitment in his years for Scotland.

In the absence of Chunk these boys offer us a bit more ballast in the scrum. Would it be too much to ask for a team with Kellock, Hamilton and Hines on the bench that offers Scotland a full complement of second rows for the first time this tournament?