Saturday, March 13, 2010

Gareth Charles' predictions for Ireland V Scotland

A fortnight ago before the Wales V France game I said a familiar pattern was emerging to Wales' RBS Six Nations games in 2010. Well nothing much has changed has it?

So what can we expect this time round? Well, to celebrate Brian O'Driscoll's 100th cap for Ireland, the penultimate game in Croke Park before returning to a renovated Lansdowne Road, and with Ireland still in the hunt for a Triple Crown, what about...?
Wales give a parting gift of a 20-point start. Then Shane Williams will begin to shine in the second half and Wales will run in four unanswered tries to end real party-poopers! Wales have become almost predictable in their unpredictability.
Certainly, when the game breaks up late on and Wales' superior fitness levels come through, they are an extremely difficult team to defend against.
But what of the opening hour? Once again France were more than happy to stay out of rucks and mauls, stay off tackles, fan wide and pick off interceptions, leaving Wales too great a mountain to climb as happened in Twickenham and as almost happened against Scotland.
And if France were happy to sit back and let Wales force the pace, what price Ireland? It'll be a case of: "come on, show us what you've got".
Ireland were happy enough to let England have as much possession as they liked, especially with England's recycling seemingly organized by a sloth on tranquilisers!
There were 99 tackles made by Ireland, just one missed, but crucially three clear-cut chances created three tries scored - the kind of clinical finishing Wales would currently die for.
At Croke Park on Saturday there will be two extremely talented back lines but the confidence that comes from finishing and winning could be a telling factor.
Up front Wales are hoping the return of hooker Matthew Rees will stabilise the set piece, which unexpectedly creaked a little against France, and provide a launch-pad for another returnee, number eight Gareth Delve, to show the dynamism that has typified his performances for Gloucester this season.
Delve needs to be prominent to keep quiet possibly Ireland's most potent force - an outstanding back-row trio of Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace who dovetail together so superbly.
Unfortunately statistics show that if Scotland beat England at Murrayfield (unlikely but not impossible) Wales, who went into the first Saturday of the Six Nations hoping for a Grand Slam, could be going into the last Saturday fighting to avoid a Wooden Spoon.
When you're inches away from greatness but inches away from gloom, Croke Park is not exactly the ideal place to be going.

Stuart Barnes's Big Game:France V England

Robinson, the former England head coach, has yet to secure a victory in this year’s competition while England under Johnson are yet to come anywhere near answering the critics with a performance of any imagination or intelligence. So, yes, Ireland and Wales could be the best game of rugby this weekend but this one should have the drama.

Telfer made his assertion based on the opinion that England is no longer much of a team. Johnson can dismiss former players and journalists as having "an agenda" but it is more telling coming from the man who coached him on the successful 1997 Lions tour of South Africa. He cannot snarl and say "what do you know?" because Telfer knows an awful lot and is surely one of the more respected rugby thinkers in Johnson’s eyes.
They were not bad at home to France but were easily beaten and, true, they played close to their limit against Wales and but for injuries would have surely won in Cardiff. Then they went further than even an inept England and lost in Rome with the Scottish forwards banging around one-dimensionally on the Italian line, giving a passable imitation of all the failings Robinson displayed as England’s head man.
They beat Australia, but Australia did everything in their powers to inflict defeat upon themselves. Australia beat themselves before Argentina, who England beat in a desperately dull game that autumn, won in Edinburgh. The theory that Scotland should beat England is difficult to justify.
What is tantalising, however, is the other side of the coin. The argument that England should beat Scotland is an equally unjustifiable assertion because away from home Johnson’s team cannot be banked to win anywhere but in Rome.
The old vices are back with a vengeance. Possession is not a problem but, as in the bad old day’s pre-Clive Woodward, the lions’ share of it was insufficient at home to Ireland. England win ball but it is so slow and static that the backs do not know how to use it. When they do produce quicker service, the back line is far too deep, far too regimented and far too unimaginative.
The quest for a team shape has left them forgetting the importance of having an individual with the ability to break a defensive pattern. England have a great deal to prove but the management, even more than the players, are in the firing line. If the players lack belief or the players are simply the wrong ones, the problem begins and will not be solved until the management is fixed. England’s management will not be changed but they may still be running out of time with the fans.
Defeat in Rome was a desperate disappointment for England but it probably makes life tougher for them. Scotland are not that good a team but they have enough about them to respond to the panic induced by that awful loss to Italy.
Robinson’s role is to channel that desperation. If he achieves that, England are in for a fight. The Scottish scrum is improved and the back row is a proper unit. The Scotland coach will fancy taking advantage of Johnson’s decision to select the hard-tackling Joe Worsley and omit a genuine openside flanker in Lewis Moody to compete with the burgeoning John Barclay. Scotland will not wilt in the set-piece and could outflank England at the breakdown. If they do, the Scottish half backs know what to do.
Chris Cusiter has the defensive capacity to rattle Danny Care, while Dan Parks has the advantage over Wilkinson in the distance and accuracy of his tactical kicking. Should Scotland establish a platform and maintain position it is hard to see where England’s tries will come from.
Whatever the quality of the individuals involved the conservatism that has emanated from the management will not make it easy for England to cast off their shackles and play, like high-class professionals, what is in front of them.

It’s time for the excuses to end for Wales - Six Nations Rugby 2010

WALES have talked the talk... today let’s see if they are good enough to walk the walk.

The Welsh camp’s spin machine has been in full flow during the build-up to the big Millennium Stadiums how down with Triple Crown-chasing Ireland.
No surprise really, because it’s the job of Warren Gatland to convince his players they are better than their results during this Six Nations suggest.
Judging by the comments emanating from Martyn Williams and his team, the coach’s efforts are paying off so he must be doing something right.
Lest people forget, Wales lost to England, struggled to pip Scotland and were beaten by France by half-time.
They are a lowly fourth in the table and out of contention for the championship. This from a team that entered the tournament believing a third European title in six years was very much on the cards.
It might have gone wrong on the pitch, continuing the downward spiral which began after last year’s Six Nations opener with Scotland at Murrayfield, but you wouldn’t realise it from the comments of Gatland and company.
France coach Marc Lievremont could claim he knew his players would be in for a hard time of it during the second half at the Millennium Stadium because they were practically nodding off in their armchairs by half-time, so dominant had they been.
Last year’s Grand Slam kings have the personnel, in the shape of Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, to take Wales to the cleaners.
Ireland have become the sort of consistent force Wales crave to be. And ironically, it has happened since Gatland put down the shoots for their surge towards the top of European rugby while in charge of the men in green at the turn of the decade.
With Wales, on the other hand, it seems to be everything or nothing. Since the Five Nations became Six with the admission of Italy 10 years ago, Wales have twice lifted the title but, on the other eight occasions, their best finishing position was fourth.
On paper, the back five of Ireland’s pack will be too strong for their opposite numbers. The Irish back row of Ferris, Heaslip and Wallace is beautifully balanced and extremely physical at the breakdown.
Even if they didn’t win the ball, the Irish duo put the Red Rose lineout, which had the better of Wales last month, under severe pressure, with the knock-on effect drawing crucial mistakes from the likes of Jonny Wilkinson.
Captain Ryan Jones also sits today out with a calf problem, while Gatland resisted recalling – he admitted considering it – the shamed Andy Powell following the player’s barmy drink-drive escapade down the M4 in a golf buggy.
For Wales to have a hope, they need every player to perform at their absolute limit. Most notably, the forwards have to lift their game under the captaincy of stand-in leader Martyn Williams.
The Lions hooker has only made two substitute appearances for the Scarlets since Wales’ 33-12 thrashing against Australia last November at the Millennium Stadium because of a groin problem.
Gatland’s quite justifiable reasoning is that it is better to see how much time Rees lasts rather than send him on too early.
But it goes against everything Wales have said this season, namely that players have to be fully fit and prove themselves in matches to be considered.
That was the excuse they used not to pick Dwayne Peel at scrum-half. But it didn’t seem to worry Gatland when it came to putting Mike Phillips amongst the replacements against France, so it appears to be a case of a face fitting.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Six Nations rugby 2010 : France V Italy Hospitality

In theory, this should be a simple assignment for Les Bleus, seemingly on an inexorable path towards the title and a potential Grand Slam, but Italy would love to inflict one of the great upsets in the championships history.

France are aware more than anyone else of their own reputation for inconsistency, and no doubt coach Marc Lievremont would have been showing replays of their last 40 minutes of test rugby, when Wales came within a whisker of winning at Millennium Stadium.

That game will remind the Tricolours of their own mortality, and while their final match with England will decide the championship, they will want to make a statement at the expense of an Italian team that will arrive in Paris with some belief, after downing Scotland in Rome.
Italy will try to make it awkward for their opponents, and in more thorough analysis it can be revealed that they have hardly been whipping boys this tournament, with the exception of their first half of rugby against Ireland.

They may still be struggling with their attack, but defensively they have the third best defence by points scored in the tournament, and have let in only four tries – with only France (three conceded) having the better record.
But where they have looked better is that it appears Coach Nick Mallet has dropped the “damage control limitation” game plan, and is actually encouraging his team to win. Furthermore, they are embracing their natural awkwardness, proving in this tournament, as they did against the Tri Nations power last year; that they are a difficult team to play against.
Their only victory came in 1997 when Massimo Giovanelli led Italy to a remarkable 40-32 win at the Stade Lesdiguieres in Grenoble, France. The incomparable Diego Dominguez converted all four Italian tries that day and kicked a further four penalties. The best efforts of a strong French team, led by Fabien Pelous came to nothing as they became the first and only team to lose to the Italians.
France has named a strong side, although they continue to be hamstrung by injuries. But despite this, they have a level of depth which shows that perhaps Lievremont’s selection policies were in fact the act of an inspired genius.
Only two changes have been made after their 26-20 win over Wales, with David Marty coming into the side forcing Mathieu Bastareaud to the bench.
Castres winger Marc Andreu takes over for Julien Malzieu of Clermont, while Biarritz number nine Dimitri Yachvili makes his return to the national side, coming in on the bench to replace the injured Frederic Michalak.

John backs Scotland to cause upset in Six Nations Rugby

Scotland head coach Eamon John insists their RBS 6 Nations clash with England on Friday is a winnable game.

John’s young team have already experienced a breakthrough year, becoming the first Scottish Under 20s side not to lose to France when they managed an 8-8 draw in the opening game.
And Scotland have made just one change to the starting lineup that broke another record against Italy – becoming the first Scottish Under 20 side to win away – scrum-half Alex Black replaces Kris Hamilton.
But John insists he has picked a team to win the match and backed his players to cause an upset and avenge last season’s 20-6 defeat.
He said: “We make the selection according to the opposition. We wanted to start quickly against Italy which is why we went with Kris but from an English point of view we need a bit more physicality at the start.
“England will be smarting over their Ireland result and have had a mixed campaign with a variety of players available at different times in the competition but when they have their top players on the field like they did against Wales they ran in five second-half tries.
“Any team in any sport is always beatable. It’s up to us to get it right.
“We respect England who will have players with under-20 World Cup final experience – but we’re going to go out there to do a job on them and make life uncomfortable in Glasgow.”
SCOTLAND: Tom Brown, Oliver Grove, Jonny Kennedy, Alex Dunbar, Dougie Fife, Alex Blair, Alex Black, Nicky Little, Alun Walker, Colin Phillips, Matthew Reid, Robert Harley, Michael Maltman, Stuart McInally, David Denton
Replacements: Lindsey Gibson, George Hunter, Aaron Hall, Callum Stidston-Nott, Kris Hamilton, Matthew Scott, James Johnstone

Wales rugby coach salutes O'Driscoll landmark – Six Nations Rugby

Wales coach Warren Gatland knows better than most the qualities that will have taken Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll to a century of caps for his country when the two sides meet in the Six Nations rugby at Croke Park on Saturday.

"I gave him his first cap, and it was an honour for me to be involved with him with the Lions last year to see how he has developed," Gatland said on Wednesday. "I was incredibly impressed with his leadership and his understanding of the game.
"He was one of the main reasons Jamie Roberts ended up having such a good tour.
"He deserves all the accolades, and I will be one of the first to stand up in the coaching box on Saturday and clap him," Gatland, whose time in charge of the two Celtic nations was separated by a successful spell as coach of English giants Wasps.
"I am absolutely delighted for him and proud I have had an association with him," Gatland added.
O'Driscoll, who a match after prop John Hayes became the first player to win 100 Ireland caps, becomes only the 13th player in rugby union history to notch up a hundred Tests' worth of national service, has enjoyed a glittering career.
The Leinster legend has captained Ireland on 63 occasions and last year led his country to their first Grand Slam since 1948 while winning the European Cup with his provincial side.
But the match that made world rugby sit-up and take notice of his singular talent was in 2000 when O'Driscoll, just two months after his 21st birthday, scored a hat-trick of tries against a France side featuring Emile Ntamack and Abdel Benazzi as Ireland enjoyed a rare victory in Paris.
"That is my greatest memory of Brian - the hat-trick of tries he scored when Ireland beat France in Paris for the first time in 27 years," said Gatland, whose opinion was soon endorsed by one of rugby union's most gifted centres.
"I remember the French great Philippe Sella coming into the changing room to congratulate him afterwards and saying it was one of the most impressive centre performances he had ever seen."
And Wales flanker Martyn Williams, the visiting captain this weekend in place of the injured Ryan Jones, said the passing of the years had done little to dim fellow Lion O'Driscoll's ability.
"Brian is without doubt the best player in the northern hemisphere over the last decade, and probably one of the greatest ever," said Williams. "For me, there is nothing he can't do.
"A lot of players maybe are really good defenders and have great passing skills, but he's got the complete package.

Wales coach Warren Gatland breaks cover over warthog jibe in Ireland

Warren Gatland will tomorrow depart from routine and host Wales's final media conference before Saturday's Six Nations match against Ireland at Croke Park, after finding himself the subject of personal attacks in Irish newspapers.

Gatland, who was sacked by Ireland in 2001 after three years in charge, was described by Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent as being "as rational as a menopausal warthog" and accused of harbouring a "toxic personal agenda" against Irish rugby. The former Ireland second-row Neil Francis called him "puerile" and said the New Zealander could be out of a job in the summer.
This is the third time Gatland has prepared Wales to face Ireland. The only other time he has presented a media conference the day before a game, a task he usually leaves to his assistants, was before the fixture in Cardiff last year when he had caused a furore by suggesting his players disliked the Irish more than any other side in the Six Nations.
"I, like the rest of the Wales coaching staff and players, have broad shoulders and we are more than capable of rising above this kind of self-perpetuating attempt at controversy," said Gatland. "We should treat this with the disdain in which it is offered and I urge true Welsh and Irish rugby fans not to let anything that has been written affect the respect and friendship they share for each other. It does not deserve to impact on what will be a great weekend."
Gatland has been complimentary to Ireland this week – in the last two years he has not been afraid to provoke a response. Wales were chasing the title then but two defeats in three matches this year have left them needing a win to avoid going into the last weekend as candidates for the wooden spoon.
"We know it is going to be tough against Ireland," said Gatland. "We need to be more clinical. There will be a lot of emotion about, with Brian O'Driscoll winning his 100th cap, but it is exciting and I am looking forward to it. We need to improve our decision-making, not putting ourselves under pressure by playing too much rugby from the start. We should not be afraid to go into half-time at 3-3 or 6-6 because, as the game breaks up in the second half, we will create chances. We are in great shape physically and we are strong at the end of games. We must just stop giving away soft points.
"We do not want to be conservative. We want to play expansive rugby but we just have to be a bit smarter. It would be easy to revert to a tighter game plan but it is harder to go the other way and suddenly become expansive, as England have found. They have been unsuccessful when playing a wider game because they have no experience of it. Attack is costing us at the moment but it will come."
The Gloucester chairman, Tom Walkinshaw, and his fellow shareholder Martin St Quinton have pumped more than £2.5m into the club after it posted a loss of nearly £670,000 in the last financial year, compared with a £209,000 profit a year before.
"Trading has been poor and we needed to do something about it," said Walkinshaw. "We have no idea how the economy will perform in the next year and we now have some clear headroom."

The former England skipper writes for The Northern Echo during the RBS 6 Nations.

England now have a couple of weeks to regroup and prepare for the mustwin game against France at Stade de France.

The destiny of the championship is, to some extent, still in their own hands. If England can beat both Scotland and France in their final two games then points difference could be crucial.
Ireland’s ability to score tries, three to be precise, was a shining example for England, if ever they needed one, of where they are falling short.
Jonny Wilkinson will always be able to keep the score ticking over with his boot, however the indents that penalties make need to be supported by the greater blows inflicted by tries.
Indeed, Wilkinson was the best of England’s backs on Saturday and their performance was benefited by the introduction of the lively Ben Foden in the second half.
It was good to see a player in an England jersey whose first instinct was to attack and his incisive play should be rewarded with a greater opportunity against Scotland.
I presume his replacement Paul Hodgson was brought on to shore up the defence, but unfortunately that never happened. Care seemed to have grown into the game by the time he was taken off but perhaps his industrious afternoon in muddy conditions had caught up with him.
While England are now looking at another twoweek hiatus, I’ve strapped the lycra back on for the penultimate stage of the Dallaglio Cycle Slam. A tricky 410km ride from Twickenham to Fishguard via Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium will set up the final leg, but there is a lot of pedalling to be done before I can even begin to think about the finish line.
In total I’m cycling 2,800km from Rome to Murrayfield, taking in Paris, Twickenham, Cardiff and Dublin along the way.
A crazy idea I know, however it’s all in aid of Sport Relief and the Dallaglio Foundation, so well worth the physical challenge.
Follow my progress on I’ll look ahead to the game with Scotland in next week’s column.
England will have to bounce back quickly to keep their championship hopes alive but one thing’s for sure, the fat lady hasn’t sung just yet.

Murphy flavour of the Irish month – Six Nations Rugby

IT says much about the transformation of Geordan Murphy’s international fortunes that he’s keeping Lions Test star Rob Kearney out of the Ireland team to face Wales this weekend.

Despite being recognised as one of the most naturally talented players in British rugby, the Leicester full-back was frequently overlooked by O’Sullivan, who tended to prefer the more prosaic qualities of the solid yet far from spectacular Girvan Dempsey.
When Kearney was ruled out of last month’s game against England with a knee problem, it was Murphy who Kidney turned to.
That was despite the fact he’d only made one start for the Tigers after a five-month layoff with a shoulder injury.
He responded with a fine display in the 20-16 victory at Twickenham and has kept his place for Saturday’s Croke Park clash, even though Kearney is now available again, with the Lions ace having to make do with a spot on the bench.
“Rob looked fantastic in training and I thought if he was fit and he was picked I couldn’t have any gripes because he was the guy in possession of the shirt when he got injured.
“I think that’s the way sport is. It generally goes back. So I’m really pleased to be in. I’ve been happy with the way I’m playing.
“I was thrown into the England match with not a lot of game-time, but it went OK and I went and played again for Leicester at the weekend and I was happy with how that went.
“I think I’ve still got a little more to go, but I’m really enjoying it, that’s the main thing, especially having been on the outside for so long. It’s nice to be back involved.”
Asked whether his confidence had been sapped by the previous Ireland regime, he replied: “I don’t know.
“When I picked up my shoulder injury in September I was worried about my place in the squad.
“I fully expect to see Rob on the field this weekend, he’s too good of a player to not be out there. He’s world class.
“But I’ve got to try and play as well as I can and let management make those decisions.
“I’ve always said I want to play in a green shirt and I want to do my best. If I’m an asset then hopefully I’ll get picked. I’ve just got to keep trying to do as well as I can.
“Everyone’s been saying they’re not playing that well , but some of the tries they’ve scored have been some of the best you’ll see in the Six Nations.
“They’re dangerous across the board and when they get to play they have great players like Shane Williams who can score a try from absolutely nothing.
“They’ll probably try and raise that again and they’ve got no fears coming to Croke Park. It’s going to be a very tough match.”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New boy of France unfazed by first start – Six Nations Rugby 2010

New boy of France Marc Andreu says he is unfazed by making his first international start as his country go for a Grand Slam against Italy in their Six Nations rugby clash in Paris this Sunday.

The Castres winger is the surprise name in Marc Lievremont's starting line-up following his debut for Les Bleus against Wales in Cardiff two weeks ago.

 "I now have to stay focused and continue to train well this weekend to be at the top of my game on Sunday.

Andreu made his bow for the France team in a three-minute cameo appearance as a substitute against Wales a fortnight ago.

"That was a first step. I'm now in the starting line-up against a fine Italy side that are having a great tournament.

"For my first start, I'm going to try and perform well so I can stay in this squad that is packed full of top players."

"This does not bother me at all. On the contrary. It should be seen as a strength and not as a weakness. I have always been small and it has never posed me any problems. I'll play to my qualities to beat my opponents," Andreu said.

That has been shown this season as the winger has become a key part of the Castres team, the surprise leaders of the Top 14 league, starting 20 times and scoring five tries in all competitions.

Born in the town of Frejus on the Cote d'Azur, Andreu grew up in southwest France in a small town outside Bordeaux.

But the pacey winger could well have been lining up for another French national team alongside Thierry Henry and Yoann Gourcuff: he spent his early teenage years concentrating on his football and played in the same youth team as Bordeaux striker Marouane Chamakh.

He took up rugby seriously at the age of 15 and later signed for Toulon in 2002.

In his seven-year spell with the southern club, Andreu became known for his lightning speed and mazy running with the ball, winning call-ups to France's Sevens and university sides.

Now Andreu is fulfilling a long-time dream in turning out for the full national team against the Italians.

"All kids who start playing rugby dream of one day playing for the French team and even one day appearing in the Six Nations," he said.

Italy have a wretched record in the tournament, having notched up only their seventh-ever win in ten years against Scotland a fortnight ago.

Yet Andreu is refusing to underestimate the threat they pose.

"We'll have to take the Italians very seriously after they beat Scotland. They played well against England and Ireland so we must be very careful," he said.

France V Italy Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Six Nations Rugby 2010 : Scotland V England Hospitality

Scotland will target this game as their “championship” having not won a single match in 2010.  While their final game against Ireland will be intense, to beat their oldest enemy would put them in the winner’s circle, but more importantly, will scuttle any hopes England have of winning the Six Nations rugby 2010.

Andy Robinson and his side will want to again take steps forward.  They were on the right path, being competitive against France and dominating Wales for most of the game.  But the loss to Italy in Rome was damaging coming into this game for two key reasons.

Again the spectre of being unable to score tries reared its head, with the Italians keeping their try line intact.  But worse still is that England will in all their glorified pragmatism know that they need not do anything particular intricate to beat a Scottish side that is slowly growing, but still seemingly missing the necessary munitions needed to win them a test match.

Still, while England march up North with a stronger record in this tournament, and with a stronger looking match day squad, this is far from a guarantee of any success.  Far more impressive English sides than Martin Johnson’s current hybrid have come to Murrayfield and lost.  

Much of Scotland’s ability to succeed in what is only their second and final home game in 2010 will come down to belief.  Any confidence they had carefully built up since Robinson came on board would have evaporated with their loss to the Azzurri.

But they can compete, and will need to heed their coach’s call to be ruthless against England.  Scotland’s two domestic sides, both who are in the top four of the Magners League, showed that Scottish rugby is stronger than their mediocre recent international record suggests.  

Captain Chris Cusiter himself said that the creating and hard work is being done by the team, it is just a case of being more clinical to finish moves - and by association matches - off.

Crucial to their hopes will be their Glasgow spine, with their entire back row and numbers 9, 10, 11 and 12 in the backline all being Warriors.  These combinations should ensure a little more cohesiveness on the field, and that could be the difference between the two sides.

Certainly the Scottish pack is strong enough to resist anything the English throw at them.

For England, they have made only two changes, bringing in Wasps flanker Joe Worsley and Tigers second rower Louis Deacon.  

With their backline retained from their loss against Ireland, it is now or never for what is England’s front line three quarter division.  A loss here, coupled with another directionless display from their on-field tacticians, should increase the cadence – and rightly so – for Johnson to look elsewhere for men to wear the red rose.

England does have the superior record overall against the teams, including winning nine of the last 12.  But since 2006 the ledger stands at 2 wins apiece.  

Scotland V England Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Lee Byrne warns Ireland that Wales will end their Triple Crown hopes

Wales full back Lee Byrne is gunning for Ireland and second place in the RBS Six Nations 2010.

The 29-year-old has been stunned by his country's bad luck in the championship, narrow losses to England and France just one score away from being victories.

But Byrne insists Wales can go to Croke Park this Saturday  and upset the Irish in their bid for a Triple Crown.

'We've got nothing to fear there,' said Byrne.

'It's been a very  odd year for us - both matches we lost we could have won and the match we won, we should have lost.

'The one thing about us is our fitness - we have some strong in the last 20 minutes of every match we have played.

'All we need to do now is start a bit stronger. Ireland are a very good side! but then again so are we.'

Victory in their final two games - against Ireland and Italy - will mean they cannot be overhauled by Scotland, Ireland or Italy with England having already lost a game as well.

'Second place is our goal now and that would be great given the start we had.'

Byrne himself has had a Six Nations in the spotlight. Initially suspended because of the 'subgate' fiasco when he became the 16th player on the pitch for Ospreys in the Heineken Cup against Leicester, he was able to play when the ban was lifted at the last minute.

Then he was accused of deliberately falling over under pressure when chasing a ball against Scotland, resulting in the Scot being sin binned and the penalty from which the Welsh drew level seconds from time.

They went on to grab an injury-time try through Shane Williams to beat the 13 men in blue.

Byrne, who had earlier scored a try, insisted he WAS tripped by Godman and that his opponent got what he deserved.     

The former Bridgend union and league player has joined up with RBS RugbyForce promoting the sport at grassroots level.

He said: 'I came through the grassroots system so it means a lot to me to put something back.  I'm happy to get involved with this because it means so much to so many people - including me.

'My days at Bridgend were really enjoyable and I made a lot of friends - I try and get back there whenever I can.

'RBS RugbyForce is spreading the word and the more people involved in the game the better for it - and the Wales team of course!'

Ireland V Wales Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

O’Driscoll’s Ireland ton simply an almighty achievement – Ireland V Wales Hospitality

BRIAN O’Driscoll has had more than a decade in which to become accustomed to being Irish rugby football’s golden boy.

He has won European rugby’s biggest prizes at club and international level, with his straining-beneath-the-weight personal trophy cabinet including Heineken Cup and Grand Slam mementoes.

Some of the mere mortals who pay to watch Ireland’s oval ball superstar do so dressed in T-shirts extolling him. ‘BOD Almighty.’ One was on view at Twickenham on February 27, his face emblazoned upon the green cotton fabric for the benefit of anyone unable to decipher who BOD might be. Those requiring such help must lead very sheltered lives, for O’Driscoll is the best-known exponent of the game on the planet.

Paul O’Connell, who knows more than most about going in where it hurts, said: “He takes unbelievable punishment for a guy who would be considered to be a flamboyant player. He takes unbelievable punishment in the tackle and the ruck.

“He has set a standard for players across the board. He’s a complete player and that’s what everybody aspires to be — the complete player, both in defence and attack.”

If O’Driscoll feels burdened by the weight of expectation resting upon him, he does not allow it to show. That is another of his many strengths. Calm in a crisis.

But even by the levels of fuss and acclamation with which he is familiar, this is an exceptional week for an exceptional player. For on Saturday, two weeks after John Hayes became its founder, O’Driscoll will join the Munster tighthead as the second member of Irish Rugby’s 100 Cap Club.

O’Driscoll himself said: “When you get your first cap it’s such a huge honour. I was such a young age; I was 20.

“At the start it’s about winning as many caps as possible and then your mindset changes and you want to win as many times as possible in getting those caps. It’s about winning individual games.

“Then you get selfish and you want to start winning trophies, but you don’t really look at things and think, ‘Oh one day to attain 100.’ You just keep playing.”

He admitted that in recent years there have been moments when he has thought, “the next game in a green jersey could be my last. I don’t think you can go too far wrong if you have that attitude.”

“I love going training every day and I love playing, though obviously there are parts of the job that I wouldn’t love. But getting on the pitch and getting to exercise every day for a living is pretty good,” he said.

“When you look at the greatest players of all time they have always said that there is always room for improvement.”

Citing Gareth Edwards and Dan Carter as greats O’Driscoll added: “These guys were always working on certain aspects of their game.

“The second I think that I have it cracked it will be time to hang my boots up because you’ve lost the plot.”

Ireland V Wales Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Italy coach Mallett salutes fantastic victory France V Italy Hospitality

Italy's South African coach Nick Mallett hailed his team's 16-12 victory over Scotland at the Stadio Flaminio on Saturday and said it should be cherished.

Italy won for the first time since they beat Scotland 23-20 with a last minute Andrea Marcato drop goal in 2008 and Mallett admitted it was wonderful to feel the glory of victory once again.

"This is the seventh time we've won in 10 years so it's not as if we get many wins and every single win is fantastic," he said.

"We've come very close on a number of occasions such as getting to just five points from England last time out but it's a completely different feeling when we manage to hold onto a win, it's really great for the players and the staff."

Despite Italy's players praising Scotland before the game for the way they have been playing in this tournament, it was the hosts who made the only foray over their opponents tryline.

Italy trailed 12-9 midway through the second period but then Gonzalo Canale made a weaving midfield break and offloaded to Pablo Canavosio who darted under the posts to score.

"The players were very impressed with the way Scotland played against Wales and if they didn't have those two yellow cards they probably would've won," added Mallett.

"The compliments from our players before the game were genuine, they're playing very good rugby and we were nervous before the game about how they would play today in the sunshine with perfect conditions for fast, flowing rugby.

"We're very satisfied to hold them to not scoring a try, even if twice they came close." Mallett was particularly pleased with his team's defence, not just against the Scots but throughout the tournament.

"We knew the Scots play a lot in the hands, they have this high tempo game and play with many phases and they have good individuals," he added.

"Our discipline was very good, it was important to tackle, we had to get in position and we've improved our defence a lot.

"We have only conceded one try in the last 80 minutes against England, 80 minutes against Scotland and the last 50 minutes against Ireland and we're pleased with that." Scotland coach Andy Robinson, the former England international and coach, admitted defeat was hard to take but gave credit to the hosts.

"Any losing experience is pretty deflating, I thought our players put a lot of effort into their performance but we didn't manage the scoreboard well enough and obviously Italy scored a good try which allowed them to win the game," he said before lamenting their poor start that saw them fall 6-0 down.

"Our execution was poor in that first 10 minutes, we dropped a number of balls and that was frustrating for the way we wanted to play.

"We got back in there with some very good play from (man-of-the-match) Dan Parks (author of all 12 Scottish points).

"But in that first 10 minutes we lost the contact battle but also dropped a lot of balls which allowed them to get the six points."

Scotland prop Allan Jacobsen twice drove over the line under a pile of bodies but both times was denied the score after the video referee could not determine whether the ball had been grounded or not.

France V Italy Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Worsley replaces Moody in England team to play Scotland - Scotland V England Hospitality

Flanker Joe Worsley will make his first start in this season's Six Nations for Scotland V Engalnd on Saturday after Lewis Moody was dropped by manager Martin Johnson on Tuesday.

Worsley will appear in the starting lineup for the first time since sustaining knee ligament damage in the opening minute of England's 19-6 loss to New Zealand in November.

"It was a very tough call. It is not a reflection at all on how Lewis has played," Johnson said. "It is more of a reflection on the strength and depth of the players we have in the squad.

"We felt it was the best call to put Joe in the starting team and have Lewis on the bench to make an impact. They are two different players. They can both play six and seven. There is not a weakness in Lewis' game but Joe's defence is good and his ball-carrying is particularly strong."

With lock Simon Shaw injured, Louis Deacon will start in the second row after coming off the bench early in the 20-16 loss to Ireland two weeks ago.

Lock Courtney Lawes comes onto a reshuffled bench which features a return for hooker Steve Thompson and a first call-up for Leicester scrum half Ben Youngs, who has replaced Paul Hodgson.

"Ben is playing well enough and we feel he deserves a chance," Johnson said. "Delon proved his fitness yesterday and trained vigorously. The same with Toby Flood, he has come through well after his injury at the weekend (playing for Leicester)."

England: Delon Armitage, Mark Cueto, Mathew Tait, Riki Flutey, Ugo Monye, Jonny Wilkinson, Danny Care; Tim Payne, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Louis Deacon, Steve Borthwick (captain), James Haskell, Joe Worsley, Nick Easter.

Replacements: Steve Thompson, David Wilson, Courtney Lawes, Lewis Moody, Ben Youngs, Toby Flood, Ben Foden.

Scotland V England Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Six Nations: Scotland recalls De Luca now engagement against England

Nick De Luca has been recalled to the Scotland team whereas Saturday's Six Nations rugby match lambaste England.

De Luca, who has not started over November 2008, commit play at outside heart sway the idiosyncratic change to the side run over drag Italy press on life. Max Evans moves to the wing cloak Simon Danielli dropping to the bench.

"Max has been our most go-ahead attacker and we also wanting to see cut and the qualities that he obligatoriness bring to this game," head cram Andy Robinson said.

Captain Chris Cusiter has shaken off a virus and flanker John Barclay has recovered from a knee injury to start.

Injuries posit forced changes on the bench, with Mike Blair, Alasdair Strokosch and Alasdair Dickinson all ruled out. Rory Lawson, Geoff crotchety and Alan MacDonald consign bring their places.

Scotland has lost all three Six Nations matches so broad this season.

"The pair has played some seemly rugby besides we have been creating chances," Robinson said. "We correct concupiscence to take that forthcoming step and finish off a game."

Scotland: Hugo Southwell, Sean Lamont, slash De Luca, Graeme Morrison, Max Evans; Dan Parks, Chris Cusiter; Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Jim Hamilton, Alastair Kellock, Kelly Brown, John Barclay, Johnnie Beattie.

Replacements: Scott Lawson, Geoff Cross, Nathan Hines, Alan MacDonald, Rory Lawson, Phil Godman, Simon Danielli.

delayed Wales addition Delve targets Dublin job

GARETH DELVE is in line to show parachuted regard Wales’ Six Nations settlement hole up Ireland – like if captain Ryan Jones is passed fit.

The Gloucester captain could effect at Croke Park in the No 8 head-set since coach Warren Gatland looks for fresh draft from his ball-carriers domination Dublin on Saturday

Ospreys star Jones meanwhile is poised to impress to blindside flanker if he recovers from a nagging baby injury.

The shake-up comes amid reports Delve has signed a deal to play for new Super 15 franchise Melbourne Rebels.

The Australian newspaper was yesterday stating that the player had become the first-rate forward to mortise the wider team Down Under.

However, Delve’s modern focus consign impersonate on proving he has what it takes to answer his country’s distinguish command Dublin.

“I certainly feel serviceable of reaching in and doing a job,” said Delve, who has only in process once for Wales prestige his nine Test appearances.

Delve declined to go on last summer’s tour of North America after consulting power-brokers at his club.

The 27-year-old’s career has frequently been interrupted by serious knee further shoulder problems and he took time exterior to realize fit.

“I hell bent that the best burden was to get in my first full pre-season owing to a few years,” he said.

“It was a walloping accommodation not to tour but I believe it original to symbolize the true one.

“My main motivation through all the rehab has been to get to a eradicate where I’m playing better than I was before.”

Delve said he hasn’t had glaringly communication with the Wales management this season but kicking criterion Neil Jenkins defended that.

“I don’t presuppose we need to phone players advance every minute, every day,” he said.

“It’s just one of those things. Look, he’s playing well, he’s predominance the partners. I think he consign be pleased with that and, obviously, we are pleased with him as well because he’s a quality player.

“He’s been here before, been involved direction the squad.

“He’s had a few injuries but is playing notably well of late.

“We have information the issues with Ryan regarding his calf and stuff but I think everyone expects Ryan to personify seemly for the weekend.

“He got because the game against France also did pretty well mastery that.

“He seems to serve as fine. He obviously had a quieter stint last week with a lot of treatment, rehab further stuff.”

Delve showed a glimpse of his pains as a dynamic ball-carrier when invalid Wales give lessons Mike Ruddock picked him agency an uncapped match stifle the Barbarians at Ashton Gate six elderliness ago.

But he’s hardly managed to string a voluminous withhold of games together because then because of injuries, with his playing career threatened by shoulder problems while with Bath.

When the 2008 Grand put on winner – he appeared as a replacement in three Six Nations games – got wider Wales start, against the Springboks in Pretoria two oldness ago, he suffered a serious knee injury and was forced off.

Jenkins disputed whether Wales had an come out adumbrate the amount of go-forward as supplied by their pack in the loose, saying: “I don’t be read about what we haven’t got but he (Delve) is certainly a big, powerful trouper. He runs hard, is a pretty intelligent player as well and has got good hands. He’s just a belonging all-round performer further is a great addition to our squad.”

A new-look Wales back-row could see Delve again fellow claiming rookie Sam Warburton face Triple Crown-chasing Ireland at Croke Park.

The Irish have a onset breakaway trio esteem No 8 Jamie Heaslip, blindside flanker Stephen Ferris again openside David Wallace and Gatland knows Wales deem to brawl them physically at the breakdown.

Gatland is believed to be toying reserve the idea of opening with 21-year-old Warburton and bringing mature ball-player Martyn Williams cream the conciliator – if the game opens boost and becomes looser in the second half.

Deiniol Jones’ injury could grim that Jonathan Thomas is switched from blindside flanker to lock.

If Ryan Jones is unfit, Thomas might also be handed leadership duties.

Mike Phillips reported seemly for Wales duty yesterday despite picking ongoing a “dead leg” in the Ospreys’ defeat at Edinburgh on Sunday.

So Gatland’s capacious decision imprint the guide division is whether to retentiveness Phillips at the expense of Blues scrum-half Richie Rees,.

“Mike is quality player,” smiled Jenkins. “Whether Mike has no scandal sheet or two thousand minutes I don’t credit it makes lot difference with him.

“Richie was nonpareil against France. He’s in fantastic constitute. I’m express legitimate commit exemplify close between them.”

I had right to stay with England, says Stade Francais's James Haskell

James Haskell has insisted that his contract with Stade Francais allowed him to remain with England, despite claims to the contrary by the French club.
Haskell, who is expected to retain his place in England's side to face Scotland, has found himself at the centre of an escalating row between club and country over his services.

Attempting to defuse the row, Haskell said in a statement: "There has been so much erroneous comment regarding my contract with Stade Français that I feel I need to address the issue.

"The contract contains confidentiality clauses which I am bound to observe but I can say that the matter of my release for international duty and training is specifically provided for and I regret that there has been a misunderstanding with the club regarding this.

"I would like to make it clear that Stade Français have been very good to me and I am very happy in Paris. I am looking forward to playing for Stade Français again at the conclusion of the Six Nations."

Haskell's French-based England team-mate, Riki Flutey, will have no such concerns next season as the centre is set to return to Wasps after just one year at Brive.

The RFU will not be assisting the move financially, although England manager Martin Johnson will no doubt welcome Flutey's return to the elite player squad in World Cup year.

Johnson looks ready to make a number of changes for Saturday's game at Murrayfield. Leicester lock Louis Deacon will replace Simon Shaw, who has been ruled out by a shoulder injury. Tom Palmer has been called into the squad as cover.

Gloucester's Mike Tindall, one of five reinforcements called into the squad, could make a surprise return to the match-day 22. Tindall, who missed the autumn campaign with a hamstring injury, made only his second Premiership start since October for Gloucester against Wasps on Sunday.

Tindall has replaced Leicester centre Dan Hipkiss, who has an ankle problem, while Shane Geraghty has returned to the senior fold as precautionary cover for Toby Flood, who suffered a head injury on Saturday.

The full-back position was also the subject of debate, with Ben Foden a possible replacement for Delon Armitage, who is struggling with a rib injury. Flanker Joe Worsley, scrum-half Paul Hodgson and Chris Ashton, the Northampton wing, were also under consideration.

Gloucester full-back Olly Morgan has come in as cover for Armitage, while Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie has received his first senior call-up after Wasps' Dan Ward-Smith suffered knee ligament damage at the weekend.

Meanwhile fFormer England flanker Michael Lipman has demanded a meeting with the Australian Rugby Union after his proposed move to the Melbourne Rebels was blocked. The former Bath captain's ban for failing to take a drugs test expired on Feb 28, but the ARU have refused to sanction his move.

Scotland V England Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Defeat and James Haskell row leave bitter taste for Stade Francais

The Guinness Premiership and the Magners League pause for breath as the Six Nations resumes this weekend. Not so the Top 14, where round 22 of the club championship overlaps stage four of France's grand slam, against Italy.

Stade Français are by now accustomed to doing without their internationals, or at least James Haskell, but the 29-0 defeat by Toulouse at the Stade de France will have left a bitter taste in their mouth. Presumably that was all part of the plan when Martin Johnson, the manager of England, refused to allow the back-row forward to return to Paris at the weekend.

It wouldn't be the first time rugby folk from other countries have run into the brick wall of England's mightiest:

Stade are struggling in seventh place in the Top 14, with places in the play-offs for the top six. An away game next in Brive is not exactly designed to calm the nerves, although Brive will be without a qualified Englishman of their own, Riki Flutey. It's all part of the congestion of fixtures and sub-plots at this stage of the club season.

Even Toulouse had to pay a price in their emphatic away victory in Paris, Frédéric Michalak's season coming to an abrupt halt with a knee injury. Clermont, too, suffered as they beat Perpignan, with arguably the best all-round team in Europe losing Martín Scelzo, one of their ferocious Argentinian front-row forwards, with a broken hand. The Leinster scrummagers, due to face Clermont in the Heineken Cup quarter-final in April, will not be distressed.

Were it not for the international incident, there would nevertheless be a certain serenity to the French league, if only because their relegation battle lacks the rabidity of the dogfight in England. Albi are doomed and Montauban have dropped into the second slot for the chop, thanks to their defeat at Bourgoin and fellow strugglers Bayonne beating Albi.

Bayonne's cause is helped by a healthy tally of 11 bonus points, compared with Montauban's five, and the measly two for the two teams above them, Bourgoin and Montpellier.

France V Italy Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Rugby-Injured Wales captain Jones to miss Ireland match

LONDON, March 13, Wales captain Ryan Jones will miss Saturday's Six Nations match against Ireland after failing to shake off a calf injury, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) said on Tuesday.

Martyn Williams will captain the side for the game at Croke Park, while Gloucester's Gareth Delve will come in for Jones at number eight in one of three changes to the side that lost 26-20 to France on Feb. 26.

Ryan has been managing his calf but it has hampered his involvement in training and he needs to get it right for his own sake as well as for his region ... and for the sake of the national cause as we count down to the (2011) World Cup," Wales coach Warren Gatland said in a WRU statement.
Lock Luke Charteris replaces Deiniol Jones and hooker Matthew Rees is preferred to Huw Bennett in the other changes.

This Ireland side will be meticulous in its planning and for this game in particular we need to get our preparation exactly right and once we had reached that conclusion a couple of selection decisions were really made for us," said Gatland, who named an unchanged backline for the third successive game.

On the bench, scrumhalf Dwayne Peel replaces the injured Mike Phillips and lock Ian Gough fills the space left by Charteris.

Williams, who will captain his country for the seventh time, will win his 95th cap making him Wales' most capped forward surpassing flanker Colin Charvis.

15-Lee Byrne, 14-Leigh Halfpenny, 13-James Hook, 12-Jamie Roberts, 11-Shane Williams, 10-Stephen Jones, 9-Richard Rees, 8-Gareth Delve, 7-Martyn Williams (captain), 6-Jonathan Thomas, 5-Luke Charteris, 4-Bradley Davies, 3-Adam Jones, 2-Matthew Rees, 1-Paul James.

Replacements: 16-Huw Bennett, 17-Rhys Gill, 18-Ian Gough, 19-Sam Warburton, 20-Dwayne Peel, 21-Andrew Bishop, 22-Tom Shanklin.

Ireland V Wales Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Six Nations 2010: Grand Slam epic of 1990 still haunts England and Scotland

In an ideal world sport and politics, like oil and water, would never mix, but in truth they are often clanked together like magnets. Linked by passion, pride, ego, nationalism and self-esteem – sometimes you just cannot keep them apart.
There were other sub-plots. Scotland's brilliant madcap flanker John Jeffrey – JJ – insists to this day that the catalyst to the ill feeling off the pitch can be traced back to the streets of Glasgow seven months earlier when England and Scotland football supporters clashed horribly outside Hampden Park in scenes of violence that caused that oldest of all annual football fixtures to be cancelled, a situation that pertains.

Jeffrey argues that the tabloid press, deprived indefinitely of a football clash to hype up, turned their attention to the rugby. It is certainly another ingredient that needs to be added into the mix, but successful tabloid papers reflect existing emotions and mood.

A new mood of Scottish nationalism – although not necessarily independence – was afoot and Scotland's rugby folk were far from immune.

At the end of the 1989 season even the ultra-conservative Scottish Rugby Union, with the Princess Royal as their popular patron, decided that God Save the Queen was no longer a suitable anthem for their team and supporters.

For the 1990 Six Nations they switched Roy Williamson's folk ballad Flower of Scotland, which is dedicated to Scotland's victory at Bannockburn – Jeffrey had been humming it himself during the line-ups for years.

On the other hand, many cock-a-hoop England supporters, who had been starved of success and a team worth shouting for since 1980, arrived in Edinburgh on the Saturday morning wearing "England Grand Slam champions 1990" T-shirts.

Amid the politics and hype, however, lay a monumental rugby occasion. There was the famous long, slow, walk out by the Scotland team. It was the suggestion of captain David Sole, but it was by no means a new ploy.

The Lions of 1989 had tried it as a psychological tool against Australia, but it was clearly best utilised by the home team, whipping the home crowd into a frenzy by first delaying and then prolonging their entrance.

There were Scotland heroes aplenty that day but none bigger than the coach Jim Telfer, the man at the heart of two of Scotland's three Grand Slams, not to mention the Lions triumph in South Africa in 1997, when he again worked so well with Sir Ian McGeechan.

Telfer, a lump of granite from the Borders, 'beasted' his pack during arduous scrummaging and rucking sessions throughout the 1990 season, not least in the driving rain on the Wednesday before the England game.

His lasting memory of March 17, 1990 – his 50th birthday incidentally – is confined to a rugby moment in the first half when Finlay Calder blasted his way into the England defence and the entire Scotland pack pounced to produce perfect ruck ball.

"England were driven back and the crowd went wilder than I had ever heard them before. And I felt a shiver. Twenty years later I can close my eyes and still see it. The piece of perfection you dream about."

Everybody concerned has their own views of 1990 and you will probably read them all again this coming week, although possibly not from Calder. The Scotland flanker politely declined to contribute to a recent book surrounding the events of the game – feeling that Scotland need to be looking forward and not harking back to past battles won or lost.

Scotland V England Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Ireland loss hurt but we're still chasing Six Nations title

Nick Easter admits England deserved to lose to Ireland, but has vowed to bounce back at Murrayfield next week.
We may have edged it in terms of possession but the Grand Slam holders scored three tries, we scored one. Fair enough.

In some ways, it felt harder having victory whisked away once we were in a winning position than if we’d been completely outclassed. Ireland know how to win, they took their chances and maybe that extra experience made all the difference.

There’s been plenty said about learning from mistakes and taking positives, but the only thing we can do now is raise ourselves and have a real go at Scotland and France in the remaining two games.

The Grand Slam has gone but there’s still a chance the RBS Six Nations title can be won. Losing Simon ‘Ol Man River’ Shaw so early against Ireland was a big blow of course, but Leicester’s Louis Deacon had a good game as his replacement lock.

You’ll always suffer when you lose someone with the experience and nous of Shawsie in big games, but that’s rugby, the next bloke comes on and you get on with it.

I personally would have loved to have gone straight back into action again as I’m desperate to work off the frustration of losing to Ireland, but common sense prevails. I guess you do need another window in the intense Six Nations programme.

Most players carry knocks and niggles through the season – you just get used to that – but the increase in the number of domestic games means many modern pros have little time to recover.

Saying that, England’s players will be heading out for a summer tour to Australia this summer and I doubt you’ll see too many wanting to opt out for a rest.

Personally I like touring – trying to win away from home is more satisfying – but with the World Cup just over a year away and no planned summer trip in 2011, a lot of guys will be keen to stay in the frame. The management will take a large squad and no doubt want to blood a few eager young guns, keeping everyone on their mettle.

Ireland V Wales Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Six Nations 2010: France's Mathieu Bastareaud goes up against Brian O'Driscoll

At Murrayfield he confronted his demons and scored two tries, and now in Paris Mathieu Bastareaud will face the world's best centre – Brian O'Driscoll.
It will be a pivotal clash in probably the key game of the 2010 Six Nations. Bastareaud is beginning to make the headlines for the right reasons again, for which he and France are grateful.

O'Driscoll has reigned supreme for a decade since then, but you fancy Bastareaud is a worthy opponent and an individual capable of being the benchmark midfield player in the Six Nations well into this next decade. A changing of the guard possibly? O'Driscoll will resist, like all great players do, but the result should be a fascinating cameo within the bigger contest under the floodlights at Saint- Denis.

"He is only 21 but he is already a very complete player," said his co-centre, Yannick Jauzion, still no mean operator himself. "People see a young man of massive strength but they do not always understand his speed and the way he links with people. He has made a big impact already and it is still so early in his career."

"Mathieu is a wiser man. He has apologised to everybody who needed apologising to many times over. He cannot apologise any more, the incident is over. He can only play good rugby and conduct himself in the appropriate fashion. His abilities have always been evident and now he is a hungry man with points to prove, which is always good in a player."

Going forward Bastareaud is undoubtedly a force of nature if used correctly, although his defence has rarely been fully tested, something Ireland and O'Driscoll will look to exploit on Saturday afternoon.

It is his temperament, however, that will come under the sternest examination, the ability to make the appropriate call at the right time. Something that eluded him off the field last summer.

µ Lièvremont has named an unchanged 23-man squad for Saturday's game with Ireland although wings Aurelien Rougerie and Benjamin Fall and prop Luc Ducalcon face fitness tests.

Though his side got off to a successful start at Murrayfield, beating Scotland 18-9, Lièvremont accused Welsh referee Nigel Owens of denying his side a bigger victory.

"I have to pay tribute to the courage of the Scots but the referee's leniency with them and his extreme severity with our team was one of the reasons why the score was not higher," Lièvremont said.

"I feel sad because it's a bit recurring. We can't forget that last year in Dublin, there were 13 penalties against us and two against Ireland," he said, referring to France's 30-21 defeat at Croke Park in a game also controlled by Owens.

"We are going to polish up our report to Paddy O'Brien. Refereeing is a factor of the game we can't control but we'll still try to solve the problem."

France V Italy Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Six Nations 2010: Scotland coach Andy Robinson rings the changes for Cardiff

It is a little early in the RBS Six Nations championship for a last throw of the dice, but Scotland coach Andy Robinson certainly took some radical steps when he chose his team to take on Wales in the Millennium Stadium this weekend.

Robinson came to Scotland with a reputation as a great coach but a poor selector. If his players can put last weekend's 18-9 defeat by France behind them with an inspired performance in Cardiff then that simplistic caricature will have to be redrawn. If not, it will only be reinforced.

The selection of Euan Murray, the devoutly Christian tighthead prop who ruled himself out of last Sunday's match on religious grounds, was probably the only change that most followers of Scottish rugby would have foreseen.

As well as which, on Robinson's advice, Parks has lately been working on getting the players around him moving with ball in hand – a shift of emphasis that has been obvious in the victories that have taken Glasgow to the top of the Magners League.

"We have to balance up the way we play," Robinson explained. "We've got to be able to play with the ball in hand, but understand the territorial game and get the balance right within that. At the weekend we played far too much rugby in our own half but most importantly we turned ball over inside our own half and we can't afford to do that against quality opposition.

"We didn't build pressure on France when we did get into their territory. When we did kick well we let them out of their half too easily, through their driving play, the box-kicks and their scrum dominance. Whenever we had possession inside our own half we were fighting and scrapping to keep it."

As Parks is set to join Cardiff Blues at the end of this season, he might have highlighted this weekend as a good one for a house-hunting expedition, but he was never going to turn down Robinson's invitation.

He said: "I wouldn't say I was surprised, but I was obviously delighted to get the news this morning. I'm just happy and looking forward to the challenge on Saturday."

Toulon's Rory Lamont, who was ruled out of last week's selection by a niggling ankle injury, returns to the side on the left wing, taking the place of his brother Sean.

Sean, in turn, moves into the midfield, ousting Max Evans from the outside centre berth. Robinson explained that he wanted Sean's power as a line-breaker in a position where he might see more of the ball, although Sean's low opinion of his own distribution skills suggests that his wingers will be seeing much less of the thing.

Scotland's scrum creaked badly against France, and loosehead prop Alasdair Dickinson might consider himself lucky to keep his place as many of the side's problems seemed to have their origins on his side of the set-piece. Moray Low, in turn, might feel a little aggrieved to lose his place to Murray, although he took his leave of the side with some appreciative words from Robinson ringing in his ears.

Scotland V England Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Declan Kidney's Irish rugby side just won’t quit - Six Nations Hospitality

There is nothing new in an Ireland team beating England these days; it’s almost common practice when you consider that Saturday’s win at Twickenham was the sixth for the Irish in their last seven encounters with the oldest enemy.

It was still sweet nonetheless. As Jamie Heaslip said in the tunnel afterwards, beating England at anything is sweet for any Irishman, be it rugby, table tennis or even tiddly winks.

How ironic then that Ireland now needs the same England team to do them a favor when they go to France on the final day of the season and for the final game of the campaign.

We will assume -- always a dangerous thing when any Irish side is concerned that Ireland will beat Wales on Saturday week and Scotland seven days later when they say goodbye to Croke Park.

Those two results would guarantee the Triple Crown for Declan Kidney’s team and second place at worst in the RBS Six Nations championship.

They were deserved Grand Slam winners a year ago, and the Triple Crown awarded for wins over England, Wales and Scotland would be the least they could expect this season.

To retain their championship, however, is going to be a tall order after the collapse in Paris just over a fortnight ago.

This Irish team, now very much Kidney’s Irish team, had other ideas, however, and they are definitely made of sterner stuff than the squad that found the self-destruct button so easily at the World Cup finals in France three years ago.

Where heads would have dropped in a previous regime, they were held high from start to finish at the spiritual home of the oval ball game last Saturday.

Panic never set into the Irish veins, not even when Jonny Wilkinson drop-kicked England into a three point lead with some eight minutes or so remaining on the clock.

In the past, recent and historic, Ireland would have sunk back into their own half of the field, such was the relentless pressure from the English pack at that stage of the game. But not this Irish team.

A brilliant relieving kick from substitute Ronan O’Gara, a man with his point to prove, worked the ball up the field, and Ireland eventually won the line-out that led to the scintillating match winning try from Tommy Bowe and a conversion from O’Gara.

England weren’t done at that stage and spent the final minutes camped on the Ireland line, so you can imagine the sense of relief when Heaslip emerged as the defensive hero from the final significant play of the night.

When the final whistle blew the Irish team and the huge traveling support went ballistic, and rightly so.

The win resurrects the season, and Ireland could still end up with the Championship if England can do them a favor and win in Paris just hours after they wrap up their season against the Scots on Saturday fortnight.

Whatever happens then, however, the lesson from London was clear -- this is an Irish team that can bounce back from adversity.

With the next World Cup just over a year away and trips to Australia and New Zealand to come this summer, that was a major message of intent from Twickenham.

Ireland V Wales Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Rugby: Hines knows all about Italy's mystery man ahead of Six Nations clash

NATHAN HINES today delved into his rugby league background to provide inside track on one of the most controversial players to grace the RBS Six Nations.

Expected to gain a ninth cap at stand-off for Italy in Rome on Saturday is 31-year-old Australian-born Craig Gower, a virtual unknown in union circles before making his debut last summer – except to the likes of Hines, who was also born in Australia and came across Gower in the 13-a-side code there.

Hines was born in Wagga Wagga and moved to Scotland in 1998 where he took advantage of ancestry qualifications.

He said: "Craig was at Penrith Panthers when I was at the Bears and although he was a year younger I learned how he was being earmarked even as a teenager to become a Kangaroo. His breakthrough into top grade rugby league came early."

"Although he hasn't had heaps of 15-a-side experience and even less in the international arena he still has that rugby brain which enables him to see opportunities when they arise."

Hines returns to the Scotland squad after withdrawing from the team which visited Wales due to ankle damage. Although listed on the bench it is likely he will emerge at some stage for a 63rd Test appearance making him the most capped player in a squad that will have Hugo Southwell and Chris Cusiter turning out for the 50th time.

It is a landmark that Hines is particularly proud of and makes him suitably qualified to remark on just what the occasion will mean.

"Chris is captain and knows what it is like to lead the team out but that could be a new experience for Hugo this weekend.

"Although I'm obviously sorry Chris Paterson is out through injury it is good that Hugo's 50th appearance will seen him able to run on at the start.

"All the focus is on getting a win this weekend but that still shouldn't obscure two tremendous achievement. I'd like to think when you make that number of appearances you are recognised as having made a contribution although it is mainly later that you look back on things like that."

As for Hines being able to get insight through playing club rugby at Leinster who are chock-a-block with Irish internationalists, many of whom were in action against Italy at the start of the current series, he insists dialogue is always limited when it comes to exchanging notes.

"It's maybe strange but at Leinster there is rarely a lot of chat about the international scene although, when Scotland beat Australia last Autumn, that did merit a few 'well dones'.

Perhaps that is because Hines and his mates have been pre-occupied with their defence of the Heineken European Cup – they host Clermont Auvergne in the quarter-finals – while a recent 30-0 win over Munster was a highlight of his time in the Irish capital, so far.

The intensive schedule can take its toll, though, culminating in that ankle injury which provoked his absence from the Cardiff clash and opened a door for Jim Hamilton who retains his place.

"There was a time when I played when I maybe should have rested and against France I aggravated swelling in my ankle joints.

"It presented itself as a calf strain but as that subsided my ankle became sore.

"I learned my lesson from playing when I probably should have pulled out and I have now had two injections in my ankle so feel really good to go."

France V Italy Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Shane Williams is one of rugby’s all-time greats

WING wizard Shane Williams today stands out on his own as the undisputed try king of Welsh rugby.
His scintillating late touchdown against France on Friday night saw him surpass the great Gareth Edwards as the leading Welsh try-scorer in the history of the Five Nations and Six Nations rugby championships.
Williams had drawn level with Edwards on 18 championship tries with the score that completed a remarkable comeback in the dramatic victory over Scotland two weeks earlier.
And on Friday, he went clear at the top of the Welsh list by sidestepping his way over for his 19th tournament touchdown.
“It’s a massive honour to surpass someone like Gareth Edwards, who is a true legend of the game,” said the Ospreys speedster as he reflected on his achievement.
While it took former scrum-half Edwards 45 championship games to notch his tally of 18 tries, Williams has gone one better in just 35 appearances.
“I just love scoring tries, full stop,” he said. “That’s what I’m here to do and that’s what I’ve enjoyed doing since I was a kid. You are the equivalent of the striker in football. I’m just a little bit greedy maybe.”
While his match-winning effort against Scotland might have been a case of him popping up in the right place at the right time to round off a team move, his record-breaking score on Friday was all his own work.
As he ran back to halfway, he raised his arm in salute to the crowd and the ovation he received in response spoke volumes for the admiration the Welsh public has for the Great Entertainer.
“If someone had told me the year after my debut that I would score this many tries, I would have looked at them silly because I wasn’t even involved in the Wales squad then,” he said.
“I want to continue scoring tries,” said Williams. “I want to get up with the likes of Campese.
“I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but what I will do is continue to work hard and get involved in games.
“The more often I get involved the probability goes up I can create something and score tries.”
It was just unfortunate that his record-breaking sizzler against France couldn’t have coincided with a Welsh victory.
“As far as I was concerned, it was all about beating France and everything else was just a bonus,” said Williams.
“So to lose the way we did was very frustrating and a real kick in the teeth.

“We are a nation that tries to play rugby and sometimes you get punished for doing that.

“We conceded two interception tries, one my fault, which really took the wind out of our sails.

“In fairness, France started very well and defended very well and made it very difficult for us. “It was all catch-up for us in the second half again.

“There’s a bit of deja vu about the way we’ve started the last three games.

“You’ve got to commend the guys for the way they came back.

While his team have been denied, there’s no denying Williams his place in the record books or his status as one of the all-time greats of the Welsh game.

Wales V Italy Hospitality

France V Italy Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality