Demeneted Mole is back with his Rugby Blog and he reviews the 2014/15 season so far and looks ahead to the forthcoming 6 Nations, with a comprehensive look at each of the teams
We are one week away from the start of the 2015 Six Nations and inching ever closer to the commencement of the Rugby World Cup in 8mths time. A truly momentous year for Rugby Union is in store for players, coaches and supporters alike. There will be plenty of time to cover the World Cup in due course but I expect to allude to it, make reference to it, throughout so apologies up front. When asked by the producers of Betswot to put forward a bet for 2015 I gave them 2, Australia to win their Group and the Cup outright. That was as a function of 3 things, Australia are improving, England are stagnant at best, Wales are in disarray, and the price did not reflect the latter two factors. In fact, as we have seen from the European Cup, there is a bias towards English sides in how matches are priced; I think we might find some opportunities as a result of this going forward.
A quick recap of the season thus far.
The Pro 12 has continued to be a tournament that is growing in quality and competitiveness.
The Premiership has actually been more enjoyable to watch, still the same teams in the upper half but some of them playing a better quality of rugby (Bath a standout here), and the resurgence of Wasps under the excellent Dai Young (I have even started to like Haskell, what’s wrong with me?) has been great to watch.
Alas as an Irishman in London it continues to be a shame that London Irish ply their trade in Reading. All that could change however if a deal is done with Brentford to ground share back on the banks of the Thames in a new stadium that the Bees will be building and announcing soon. Sign me up for season tickets if it happens, but until then…..
The Top 14 in France continues to have amazing resources at its disposal and a greater emphasis on defence this year. Some of the results have been a little inconsistent, Montpelier and Toulouse have been hugely disappointing, Castres slide continues, while Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble are making great progress. The current Top 6 is occupied by the 3 standout teams (Toulon/Racing and Clermont joint top), with Stade Francais recovering well to join Clermont, with Bordeaux and Grenoble hanging in there. Toulouse and Montpelier can still make an impression but they will have to improve significantly.
So what of the new European Cup? Certainly the new format helped in creating some drama over the final weekend and there was some cracking games throughout the pool stages. The knockout pairings are known and at this stage of proceedings I am extremely confident of 4 home QF victories, namely Clermont, Leinster, Racing and Toulon. We can address these post the Six Nations however.
Stuart Lancaster resembles more George Osborne and his approach to Quantitative Easing these days rather than a coach with imagination. There is no Plan B, just keep repeating Plan A. I left Twickenham last year after England defeated Ireland thinking that they were the real deal. I was hugely impressed and was giving serious consideration to them for the upcoming World Cup. However a grueling Summer Tour to New Zealand which was ultimately unsuccessful, the results of the 1st 2 Tests masked a huge amount of NZ errors, and the 3rd Test was a thumping. There followed 2 defeats in November, a poor win against Samoa and a defeat of a knackered Australia. England have looked limited with Farrell at 10; his goal kicking however is still the best of any English 10. Billy 36’s continued presence baffles me given the other, pacier, options England have. Mike Brown has gone from the best 15 in Europe to looking a very tired man, while injuries are now taking their toll. They are (as of Jan 29th) to the best of my knowledge –
Ben Foden (knee - out for season),
Ben Morgan (leg - out for season)
Ed Slater (knee - could be fit by April)
Joe Launchbury (neck - could be fit by April),
Owen Farrell (knee - out for whole Six Nations),
Kyle Eastmond (shoulder - will miss first Six Nations match),
Brad Barritt (knee - will miss first Six Nations match),
Tom Wood (ankle - will miss first Six Nations match),
Geoff Parling (knee - will miss opening Six Nations match),
Dan Cole (ankle - could return in next two weeks),
Courtney Lawes (ankle - could return mid-late February),
Manu Tuilagi (groin - could return next month)
We are likely to see Ford & Cipriani compete for the 10 slot; the fit centres seem to be Billy 36, Jonathan Joseph and Luther Burrell (although even he will not start training until this weekend). Their Second Row is decimated, Lawes and Launchbury in particular a huge loss, while Ben Morgan could be offset if Billy Vunipola brings consistency to the International stage. Then there is the Burgess project. The hype surrounding Sam since his signing by Bath has been incredible, perversely Bath play better without him which just demonstrates how difficult the switch is. That has failed to stop the hype machine however. He starts for the Saxons against Irish Wolfhounds on Friday night in a team that looks strong on paper at least.
As a result of the current circumstances I expect England to chop and change their side throughout the Six Nations to a degree, this could lead to inconsistency and I have a feeling the Welsh are just lying in the long grass waiting for next Friday night in Cardiff. I think they will catch England cold, and it is easy for them to get up for the visit of the Red Rose. Lancaster has enjoyed an armchair ride with the English rugby media to date, it will be interesting to see how he reacts should he come under pressure over the next 2 months.
Who knows….. The frustrating thing with France is that there is so much latent talent there that they should be winning more games. They have more strength in depth than any other side in World Rugby outside of NZ. The question is who gets selected. I know I harped on last year about it, but the inability of Saint Andre to give any 10 an extended run in the position haunted them. It was just sheer unadulterated madness by Ireland (recall Healy’s human tornado) that held them at bay on the last day of the 6N 2014. If, and it is a huge IF, the head coach gives Clermont’s Camille Lopez his head and backs him, I can see France improving as the competition goes on. The French players will be entering camp in a positive frame of mind with Clermont/Racing and Toulon all in the QF’s and achieving that impressively. Add the good domestic form of Stade Francais and there is a healthy and in form pool of talent to pick from. I alluded to the improvement in defence in French domestic rugby and I wonder if this will carry over into the International side. For example, Racing conceded the fewest points in Europe (69) with Clermont next with (80), Clermont and Glasgow conceded fewest tries (6) with Racing next (7). Domestically Clermont are out on their own in, leading the defence charts with Racing 2nd. Interestingly Racing were 2nd best in France in this category last year behind the now aging and deteriorating Toulouse. So the ground work is there, what impact will Saint Andre et al have on how that translates to National form is another question. I am unlikely to advise any bets on the French until team selection is known!
Arise for Saint Joe…. Mr Schmidt is being heralded as the 2nd coming, “the best coach in World Rugby so we better lock him up for fear his Countrymen come after him” etc. What is indisputable is that Ireland have improved immensely under him charting steady progress rather than sudden, and apparently every player that comes within earshot of the coach buys into him immediately. The latter is possibly the biggest compliment he can be paid. As Ireland face into their first 6N sans BOD in centuries are they about to anoint Robbie Henshaw and given him an extended run in the 13 shirt? Is Zebo winning over Schmidt with his current form (the only highlight to come out of Munsters' massacre at Saracens), which he carried into the Sale win also? Can Ireland develop a No.7 that isn’t Peter O Mahony, and who will partner POC for the rest of the year? Keith Earls is also on the way back and will come under consideration shortly. These are all selection decisions for Schmidt as opposed to problems in my view, and thus the key difference between what faces him and Lancaster. The Wolfhounds selection is interesting, a blend of players returning from injury (O Brien/Earls) and players needing game time (Ross). In fact the back line is bordering on exciting!
It would be remiss not to mention Sexton’s sabbatical as a concern, but to think that he is coming into 2015 so fresh must be a positive (headaches aside!). I think O’ Connell is correct in saying that there is unlikely to be a grand Slam winner this year. The question is being posed as to what frame of mind the respective provincial players will have arrived in camp in. for my worth, the Leinster guys will be growing in confidence, Munster reps might feel relieved to get out of Shannonside and into a refreshing environment, Connaught players will be felling cheesed off they haven’t achieved more, while those from Ulster that are fit will be low in confidence even after last weekend’s win over Leicester. I expect Ireland to rattle the Championship, England and France at home gives a great chance at winning it outright, but Cardiff and Edinburgh are large banana skins in their path
In short I think the Italians are going to struggle this campaign. They are struggling with player development. Coach Brunel has not moved them forward from the Mallett days. Without Sergio Parisse God knows what the last few seasons would have been like. Their older players are getting regular game time at a high level but it is in the pivotal positions that they lack experience and depth. The Italian pack will be more than competitive is my guess, it is where they are most experienced by some way. However across their backs is littered with inexperienced players, Southern Hemisphere blow ins and poor organization. Once better teams wear down the Italian tight five there will be plenty space out wide for them to exploit. They have Ireland, France and Wales at home and I think Ireland will be delighted to have them first up and get their campaign off to a winning start. I fear a whitewash for Italy.
Do not be one bit surprised if Vern Cotter begins to demonstrate a similar type of progress that Saint Joseph has done at Ireland. Schmidt worked with Cotter at Clermont for many years and it is obvious in interviews with players and also with some performances on the pitch that there has been an immediate uptick in the frame of mind among the players. Wins over Canada and the USA were a good start to the Summer but the victory in Argentina was a huge fillip for Cotter’s tenure. It did finish on a downer with a heavy defeat to South Africa but that was their 4th test in 20 days and a lot of travel in between. In the Autumn Scotland backed up the defeat of Argentina with another at Murrayfield, rattled NZ sufficiently so to make most of us watch it and then rounded off with a sound victory against Tonga. While the Scots have some players overseas their two regions have improved immensely. Gregor Townsend has done great things with Glasgow and their good form in Pro 12 in recent years is now coming through in European competition. While at Edinburgh, Ulster’s loss has been their gain with the appointment of Alan Solomons. Cotter now has a sound level of well coached players to pick from. Players that are now talking about their game in terms of enjoying themselves, having fun and playing with ball in hand is new in recent years for Scotland rugby. I expect them to rattle a few cages over the next couple of months. Away fixtures to France and England will make life tough for them but I would not be surprised if 3 home wins was a strong goal for this improving side.
What’s going on in Wales? Central Contract, exodus to France or England, retirements of props, Gatty not communicating..allegations are flying around the Valleys quicker that you can crash Jamie Roberts up the middle. It is clear from his squad announcement that Warren is looking to blood talent and give himself options heading into the World Cup. I do believe Wales will be more focused than others on the Autumn rather than the 6N. Since the retirement of Stephen Jones, Gatty has struggled to settle on a 10 and when he has it seems Priestland always felt it wasn’t his jersey. Wales could struggle at 2nd row, their European sides were dreadful, Dragon & Blues making the QF of the Challenge Cup aside. The National side however is coming off the back of a historic victory over South Africa in November and some of their overseas players look in fine fettle. Jamie Roberts has been explosive for Racing Metro and George North kept Northampton ticking along almost on his own at times this season. I don’t buy for one second Warren’s “North may not start against England” line. They have had a good run of luck with injuries and even with all the issues with the Union and contracts, I expect them to kick off their campaign with a win over England next Friday night in Cardiff.
In summary where does that leave us? I think Ireland and France will fight out the Championship, England will struggle and could lose 2 games, Wales will be inconsistent and Scotland will outperform. Alas, at the prices there is nothing that makes huge appeal. Ireland are fairly priced at 2/1, England are dreadful value in my view at best price 2/1 also. France do look on the big side at 7/1 but I do not trust them enough to make them an outright selection. Italy are 1/3 to finish bottom which is right.
In my trawl through oddschecker there is one bet that made most appeal, which is with Paddy Power in their Straight Forecast market. Ireland/France and France/Ireland is 11/1 and 14/1 respectively, and I am happy to advise 0.5pts on each. At the prices I think this is good value and arguably could give you an interest until the final weekend of the Championship. My main focus will be on the individual match markets throughout where hopefully we will be able to uncover some nuggets.
0.5 points win Ireland / France straight forecast at 12/1 with 888 sport
0.5 points win France / Ireland straight forecast at 14/1 with 888 sport