Tuesday, 8 September 2015

England defeat Ireland at Twickenham!

This was the first test of many for Lancaster's newly-announced world cup squad; facing leading rivals Ireland at home. The Irish have proved themselves a thorn in England's side in previous encounters, showing clinical attacking threat when in possession of the ball. After a frankly underwhelming performance in France, England needed a positive result to restore momentum going in to the world cup or questions would no doubt need answering.

Jonny May celebrates England's first try of the game
Fully aware of this, England's start was electric with wing Jonny May powering through the tackle of Tommy Bowe to touch down after only three minutes. A beautifully lofted pass from scrum half Ben Youngs allowed May to evade the attempts of both Bowe and fullback Simon Zebo to give England their first try. George Ford delivered the afters with a well-hit conversion; England led 7-0 after the opening exchange. Although Ireland's Jonny Sexton hit back with a penalty at the other end, the Twickenham crowd didn't have long to wait until England's other wing, Anthony Watson, collected a perfectly-timed cross field kick from Bath teammate Ford, delivering England's second try of the game. This time Ford couldn't add to the scoreline, however England led Ireland 12-3 at the fifteen minute mark. 

Throughout the first half England were clearly the team in control, enjoying the majority of possession and attacking opportunities. The back three were dominating the aerial battle with Brown making a number of outstanding catches under a pressured Irish attack, while May and Watson harried the Irish defense under the high ball. In the 25th minute Jonny May appeared to have crossed for his second of the game, however was disallowed after the pass from Tom Youngs was declared forward by the TMO. Despite building the pressure on Ireland, England were unable to capitalise on their opportunities and add to the scoreline before the half time break.

England exuded dominance in the aerial battle
Head Coach Joe Schmidt must have given Ireland some talking to in the changing room as the green shirts hit the second half with renewed vigour and attacking intent. Despite a successful penalty from Ford in the 47th minute, Ireland appeared to have found their fluency, leading to another Sexton penalty and a try from skipper Paul O'connell. After Irish lock Toner won a lineout in the home side's 22, a couple of well-executed forward phases allowed O'connell to muscle over the English line, and with Sexton's conversion the Irish came within two points; England clung on to lead 15-12. 

Further wasted opportunities prevented England from taking a commanding lead in the second half, despite some brilliant individual performances from the likes of Brown, Wood and Billy Vunipola who replaced Morgan at number 8. Richard Wigglesworth, on for Ben Youngs, darted over the whitewash in an attempt to secure England's third try however was denied by the TMO yet again. Two successful penalties from replacement fly half Owen Farrell allowed England a little room to breathe, making the final score 21-13 to the home side.

While England appeared to have secured dominance both on the ground and in the air, Lancaster and his coaching team will be slightly disappointed with the lack of accuracy in finishing off a number of chances. While victory was still achieved, the same may not be said for the world cup group matches, in which the score lines are likely to be very tight. Having said this, England made a marked improvement upon their defeat in Paris a fortnight ago and appear to be heading in the right direction, with many more positives then negatives to discuss. 

2015 World Cup Squad - who's in and who's out?

The decision has been made! 31 of England's finest rugby players have been given the good news: they will represent their nation at a home World Cup. Pretty good way to kick start a Thursday if you ask me. The inclusion of some has raised eyebrows while the sidelining of others has no less than shocked rugby fans across England and indeed, throughout the rest of the world.

Battle of the front row

England have traditionally been particularly strong in this area under the shrewd guidance of Graham Rowntree. Matches can be won and lost at the set piece, and with England predominantly benefiting from their dominance at scrum time in recent international encounters competition for a place in the front 3 is at an all-time high. Out of the prop's, the familiar faces of Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler and Dan Cole came out on top, joined by relative new boy Kieran Brookes and the now-fit David Wilson. A formidable front row by any standards, veteran Dan Cole has demonstrated flawless scrummaging since his return from a neck injury while Vunipola displayed his work rate and effectiveness in the loose for England against France. Marler has successfully made the England loosehead shirt his own through consistently proficient performances for England, and the battle for pole position is set to be explosive between the prop forwards . Fresh-faced Kieran Brookes embodies the new-age mobile prop, strong in both the set piece and around the park, while David Wilson's return from injury has hit England with faultless timing.

After Dylan Hartley's early exemption from the World Cup squad due to ill-discipline, Tom Youngs has grasped the number 2 shirt with both hands, closely followed by Bath's Rob Webber and Saracens' young Jamie George who is set to win his first England cap. While many would have been surprised by previous Lion Alex Corbisiero's axe from the squad, as well as Exeter's young Luke Cowan-Dickie being left out of contention, there is no arguing with the superior fitness of those who have been chosen; in the prime of balancing their fitness, finesse and strength.

Lock and back-row contests

Another talking point of the scrum concerns the so-called 'engine room' which has proved to be a highly competitive forward position within the England camp. Saracens' George Kruis secured his place in the second row off the back of some outstanding performances for club and country throughout last season, alongside the towering frame of Courtney Lawes who has proved himself a potent threat in both attack and defence. The return of previous Lion Geoff Parling to the England set up provides a calm and experienced head, charged with the responsibility of commanding the lineout. After his rehabilitation from injury, Joe Launchbury's notable performances for Wasps in the tail end of the season have also impressed Rowntree and Lancaster and have secured his position in the squad. While the likes of Maro Itoje and Dave Attwood have missed out this time round, Lancaster has been quick to highlight the promise that he and other young and upcoming forwards have and has nodded towards their future inclusion within the England setup. 

The inclusion of captain Chris Robshaw and England veteran James Haskell amongst the back-row came as little surprise; both having executed stand-out performances in an England shirt throughout the Six Nations and previous QBE Autumn Internationals. Ben Morgan has muscled his way back in to the number 8 jersey after embarking on fierce rehabilitation from a broken leg earlier in the season and is joined by Billy Vunipola who has enjoyed consecutively good performances for Saracens. Northampton's Tom Wood has also secured his place in the back-row through decent performances in the warm-up games coupled with his previous international experience. Harlequin's Nick Easter and Northampton's Calum Clarke were narrowly edged out of the squad, despite executing good performances in the run-up to selection.

Scrum and Fly-Half's 

As was more or less expected, the three spaces allocated to scrum-half were claimed by Ben Youngs, Danny Care and Richard Wigglesworth, all of which have displayed great distribution, communication and control in their given roles. Ben Youngs has clearly won the starting shirt off the back of a successful six nations, however Wigglesworth's pinpoint accuracy in his kicking game for Saracens as well as immaculate distribution has secured his spot in Lancaster's spot. Danny Care has returned to form after a disappointing few months for both club and country, and has demonstrated in training and the warm-up matches his threatening talent as both a distributor and running threat. 

Similarly, the naming of Owen Farrell and George Ford as outside-half's was of little shock to the rugby world. Since Farrell's early involvement in the squad he has displayed his ability to both attack and defend threateningly, priding himself on the accuracy of his goal-kicking and back-line distribution. Ford has shown both flair and control at 10 for Bath during the premiership, seamlessly emulating this during the Six Nations for England. Both Henry Slade and Alex Goode, also named in the squad, can stand in at 10 if needs be, giving Lancaster plenty of selection options in case of injury.

At the centre of it all...

Possibly England's most competitive position, the jostling for a place in the centre has sparked numerous of debates among players, coaches and fans alike. After trying out various combinations Lancaster decided that Saracens' Brad Barritt was a sure pick, no doubt his immovable defense and cool head making him a player Lancaster can truly rely on. Joining him are the quick feet of Jonathan Joseph who extensively impressed over the course of the Six Nations, as well as youngster Henry Slade who's versatility has earned him a precious spot in the backline, One of the more controversial selection choices is the inclusion of league convert Sam Burgess over Luther Burrell, evidence of the coaching team's faith in Burgess' ability despite his single international cap. The confirmation that Leicester's Manu Tuilagi would not be considered for selection due to his recent conviction of assault may have previously disappointed England fans, however Lancaster's choice centres combine extensive speed, power and footwork to threaten in attack.

Lancaster's 'Back Three'

Competition for a place in the back 3 has been hotly contested both in training and in the warm up games against France. Mike Brown was a definite inclusion at full-back; his faultless aerial work and kicking game has made him integral to both England's attack and defense, not to mention his talent as a running threat and distributor. Bath's Anthony Watson and Gloucester's Jonny May provide England's pace on the wings combined with deceptive power and dancing footwork rarely failing to unsettle the defense. Jack Nowell has also fought his way back in to the squad after displaying his talent both on the wing and at outside centre for Exeter, making him an exciting and versatile prospect for Lancaster's squad. Alex Goode has also been included in favour of Danny Cipriani, proving himself a steady catch under the high ball and able to play at 10 if needed.

So, there you have it. England's 31-man squad has been declared and now Lancaster and his charges will look ahead to their next challenge in the form of Ireland at the weekend. Although young and relatively inexperienced, the promise and talent within the squad is clear to see. Despite plenty of talking points, Lancaster's squad looks set to take the World Cup by storm, but will talent and determination be enough?

Final World Cup Squad

Props: Joe Marler, Dan Cole, Kieran Brookes, David Wilson, Mako Vunipola

Hookers: Tom Youngs, Rob Webber, Jamie George

Second Row: Joe Launchbury, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling

Flankers/No.8: Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood, James Haskell, Ben Morgan, Billy Vunipola

Scrum half's: Ben Youngs, Danny Care, Richard Wigglesworth

Fly half's: George Ford, Owen Farrell

Centre's: Brad Barritt, Sam Burgess, Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph

Wings: Jonny May, Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell

Fullback: Alex Goode, Mike Brown

Monday, 31 August 2015

Time closes in on Lancaster to make final cut

It is officially less than a month until England hosts one of the biggest and hotly anticipated events in the sporting calendar; the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Set to be nothing short of spectacular, the World Cup has already drawn an international audience whose eager attention has inevitably shifted towards the drama of squad selection. So, which players have done enough to secure their spot in England's line up, and who has narrowly missed out on wearing the red rose?

It's safe to say that head coach Stuart Lancaster has faced his fair share of headaches regarding world cup selection over the past few months, and with the big event mere weeks away these are surely set to intensify. Sensational displays of talent over the course of the premiership season led to the selection of an initial 50-man squad which embarked upon rigorous training and preparation. With each player vying for inclusion in Lancaster's final 31, intensity reached an all-time high within the England camp; who could hold their hand up the highest?

As Lancaster and his coaching team assured both fans and players, training was not the only factor to be considered in squad decisions. The international warm-up matches were also pivotal in the selection process, and with England pitted against longstanding rivals France there was everything to prove. During both matches new players appeared eager to make their mark upon an already esteemed England team while experienced heads proved right Lancaster's faith in them over past seasons. Similarly, an unavoidable consequence of this cut-throat competition led to underwhelming performances from some and concerning errors made by others. 

Public opinion has become increasingly divided over the possible selection choices faced by Lancaster and his coaching team. While stalwart and well-known England caps such as the likes of Brad Barritt and Chris Robshaw have been deemed by fans as integral to England's success, many have called for fresh blood in the form of new recruits, with both Sam Burgess and Henry Slade central to discussions featured on various social media sites.

So, D-Day has finally arrived and time has come for Lancaster and his team to make up their minds. Who has booked their ticket to possible World Cup glory, and who has narrowly missed the boat?

Friday, 27 February 2015

England Women on top against Italy

The sun was shining over Twickenham Stoop for the England Ladies as they took on Italy in the second round of the Six Nations. After the previous week's disappointing loss to Wales, England were hoping to re-establish themselves against Italy and kick start their 2015 campaign in to gear.

England started well, putting pressure on the Italians and securing valuable territory. Fly-half Katy Mclean showed the skill of her developed kicking game to manoeuvre her team in to the right areas of the field. Despite early pressure and some promising phases from the hosts, the light blue shirts held firm and England were denied a number of almost-chances. To some surprise, it was Italy who scored the first try through second row Flavia Severin; the first points Italy have scored against England since 2012. 

England soon got the ball rolling, if you like, culminating in first-half tries from flanker Alex Matthews after numerous building phases from the forwards, and Abbie Scott just before half time. England pressed on in the second half with a further four tries from Large, Mclean, Gallagher and Wilson respectively, giving the few thousand spectators a glimpse of the huge potential brewing in this young team.

With the final sore sitting comfortably at 39-7 in favour of the hosts, England will be pleased with the victory. They executed a controlled and dominant performance with moments of magic; a side that is rebuilding and gradually developing it's spark.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

England march to successive 6 Nations victory over Italy

Italy provide England with a statement of intent early on
England have secured the second victory of their 6 Nations campaign against Italy with a convincing 47-17 win over a tenacious Italian side. While many expected England to comfortably out-do the visitors', Italy made life particularly difficult for the hosts in the opening exchanges, preventing England from getting a dominant foothold in the game throughout the best part of the first half. While a 30-point lead at full-time caused many an English fan opportunity for celebration, England will be aware of the missed opportunities they left out on the pitch.

Lancaster's faith in his unchanged match-day squad was rewarded by a controlled performance high in both attacking intensity and defensive physicality. After the loss of Mike Brown to a head injury, the back-line was considerably shaken up; with Josephs moving to wing and Watson filling in at fullback England could have lost their structure and dominance over the game. However, the rearrangement barely ruffled an English feather and the hosts upped-the-anti to close out the win. Individual performances were again key to England's success and in particular that of Jonathan Josephs who scored two tries to help secure victory for his team. England's back row was once more crucial to England's momentum with flankers Haskell and Robshaw putting in monumental shifts and number 8 Billy Vunipola carrying monstrously in to the Italian defence. 

Jonathan Joseph goes over for his second try against Italy
Although Italy provided moments of dangerous intent for the hosts, England's complete team performance weathered the intermittent Italian storms to seal off a comfortable victory. While the display was far from perfect with the help of some rueful mistakes and rough patches, England showed a purpose and determination that stands them in good stead for their round three encounter with defending champions, Ireland.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

England look to build upon Wales success at Twickenham

As the second round of the RBS 6 Nations rapidly approaches, England will have their eyes firmly fixed upon their next opponents; a stalwart Italian side that has caused England many a problem in past fixtures. While English fans will no doubt still be rejoicing the magnanimous victory in Cardiff last week, Stuart Lancaster and his team will have put it far behind them. England did the job in their opening game, but are now faced with an Italian team that possesses the ability to make life very difficult for the men in white. 

England are yet to lose against Italy, although recent fixtures
have proved testing
An unchanged 23 match day squad is a bold statement by the England coaching team, but a wise one. It is certainly a statement of intent. As Lancaster fittingly stated after the team announcement, the boys that performed in Cardiff should have the opportunity to build on their success, and I couldn't have said it better myself. Continuity throughout their 6 Nations campaign will be crucial to England's success, as well as being integral to a stable build up to this year's World Cup. With experienced and very-much talented individuals returning from injury, competition to get in to the match-day squad is at an all-time high, which can only mean good things from an England point of view. However, the current focus of the coaches and their team will be towards this weekend's battle...

So, let's look at the Italian danger-men which could upset England's dream start to their 6 Nations campaign. Sergio Parisse is the obvious 'big fish' in the Italian team; a destructive ball carrier and born leader, he can be dangerous in the loose as well as a safe pair of hands under the high ball. Fullback Luke Mclean can also provide Italy with a dynamic attacking option, and with the likes of hooker Ghiraldini making the most of regular game time in the Aviva Premiership, Italy look to be a side that is building in strength. Always a tough and tenacious opponent for England, Chris Robshaw and his team will have to be at the top of their game to get the best of this proud Italian team.

15 Mike Brown 14 Anthony Watson 13 Jonathon Joseph 12 Luther Burrell 11 Jonny May 10 George Ford 9 Ben Youngs 1 Joe Marler 2 Dylan Hartley 3 Dan Cole 4 Dave Attwood 5 George Kruis 6 James Haskell 7 Chris Robshaw 8 Billy Vunipola 
16 Tom Youngs 17 Mako Vunipola 18 Kieran Brookes 19 Nick Easter 20 Tom Croft 21 Richard Rigglesworth 22 Danny Cirpriani 23 Billy Twelvetrees 

15 Luke Mclean 14 Leonardo Sarto 13 Luca Morisi 12 Andrea Masi 11 Giovanbattista Venditti 10 Kelly Haimona 9 Edoardo Gori 1 Alberto De Marchi 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini 3 Martin Castrogiovanni 4 George Biagi 5 Marco Bortolami 6 Mauro Bergamasco 7 Francesco Minto 8 Sergio Parisse
16 Andrea Manici 17 Matias Aguero 18 Dario Chistolini 19 Josh Furno 20 Samuela vunisa 21 Guglielmo Palazzani 22 Tomasco Allan 23 Guilio Bisegni

Monday, 9 February 2015

Disappointment for England Women in Cardiff

On Sunday 9th February, England Women attempted to follow in their male counterparts' footsteps and deliver victory in Wales. With a depleted squad through injury, retirement and the requirements of the 7's Circuit in Brazil, it was a young but promising team that stepped out on to pitch for their opening game. 

With fourteen absent world cup winners and three new caps in the starting line up, England were perhaps not the strongest team on paper when compared with Wales, but were still expected to win at St Helens. However, the hosts kept England scoreless to the final whistle with a confidence that the visitors could not find an answer to. At only 3-0 at the half-time break, it was clearly set to be a close and fraught encounter between the two sides with missed opportunities coming back to haunt England. 

The final score was 13-0 to the hosts, making this only the second time to have beaten England in their history and setting them in good stead for the rest of the 6 Nations. England, although disappointed with their performance, will look at the positives that they can take from the game and look forward to their encounter with Italy next week on the back of strong individual performances from a young and promising group.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

England victorious in first round of RBS 6 Nations

On a rather chilly Friday night, an emphatic England team travelled over the bridge to beat Wales in the opening round of the RBS 6 Nations. Despite going 10 points down early on in the first half, England put in a dominant and controlled performance which left Wales little room to manoeuvre round the impressive English defence. England had many ghosts to banish from two years ago, and it could be said that the odds were somewhat stacked against them; a hospital wing of injuries, 290 caps fewer than their opponents, playing away from home, and thousands of passionate Welsh supporters baying for English blood (although perhaps not literally...).

An early penalty conceded in the first 2 minutes was hardly the start that Lancaster would have wanted from his team, and a converted try by Rhys Webb resulting from sublime hands from Welsh number 8 Faletau, hinted at the danger the men in red were capable of. However, momentum soon swung in the way of the visitors who went in to the half time break close on the heels of the home side at 16 points to 8 off the back of a superb combination between Brown and Watson to give England their first try of the match. England were clearly the dominant side in the second half, keeping Wales scoreless and looking dangerous in all the right areas of the field. A brilliant individual try from centre Jonathan Joseph, combined with Ford's penalties, led England to a momentous 21-16 victory which will be remembered by many an English fan for a long time.

Individual performances were key to England's success, with each player stepping up to the plate and delivering when it counted. Chris Robshaw gave a captain's performance, setting the example for his team by being everywhere and anywhere with barely a blade of grass untouched, with fellow flanker James Haskell also putting in a colossal performance and adding muscle combined with mobility to a dominant England pack. The new combination in the centres was a pivotal talking point in lead up to the match, but both Joseph and Burrell proved their worth throughout the 80 minutes with dangerous gain line successes. The back three also put in blinding performances, not least that by Anthony Watson who gave us a glimpse of the dangerous attacking game that he possesses. Scrum half Ben Youngs was fundamental to England's success; increasing the tempo of the game by constantly questioning Wales' usually stalwart defence, and combining with precision with Ford who controlled the game with a consistency and maturity far beyond his 21 years. 

In summary, it is hard to pick out one outstanding performer; the entire team, including the mightily strong bench, combined to produce an outstanding performance and victory that no doubt will be remembered by English and Welsh fans alike, for many years to come. Eyes will now undoubtedly shift towards the oncoming group stages of the 2015 World cup, in which these two sides will face each other again. England seem to have gotten the upper-hand in this encounter, and it is Wales who will have a lot to prove over the next 8 months.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

RBS 6 Nations Build Up

Preparation has been underway for what has been dubbed by some as England's biggest test of metal to date; taking on Wales in their own backyard. With such close proximity to the home World Cup, Stuart and his young side will be happy with nothing less than victory and a chance to prove that the depth in the squad is very much present, despite an injury list as long as your right arm. While opportunities are present for new faces to build a name for themselves on the international stage, the return of a number of British and Irish Lions in to the squad will no doubt provide vital experience and stability in the most testing of environments.

Over in Wales Warren Gatland announced his starting XV two days ahead of schedule, and it came as little shock to many as to who is lining up to face England this Friday. As always, Wales will want to attack England with a physicality and dominance that has come to be expected from this experienced Welsh side: with 648 test caps shared between the starting XV alone Wales will want to impose themselves early on upon a relatively young English side. The Millennium Stadium is one of the toughest away venues that England will face in the RBS 6 Nations, and the crowd will undoubtedly endeavour to make England uncomfortable, roof opened or closed. 

For England, this particular encounter will see a new centre partnership in Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph which could set up a mammoth battle against opposite numbers Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. Although, the focus may be on England's new injection of pace from the back three with the inclusion of wing Anthony Watson off the back of a successful Autumn, and Jonny May who is fast cementing his claim to the no. 11 shirt. With Owen Farrell's untimely absence, eyes will undoubtedly be fixed on George Ford. The young fly half will be tested to the extreme by the lively atmosphere of the Welsh crowd, as well as the pressures from home for a convincing away victory.

The history between the two Nations will do much to raise the tempo and excitement in the build up to round one, with a fraught and tension-filled encounter expected. Despite England's injury list, on paper there isn't a lot to tell the two teams apart. While both camps will maintain that their focus is on the game at hand, no doubt eyes will be looking forward to the next time these two teams will meet; the group stages at the 2015 World Cup. 

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny 14 Alex Cuthbert 13 Jonathan Davies 12 Jamie Roberts 11 George North 10 Dan Biggar 9 Rhys Webb 1 Gethin Jenkins 2 Richard Hibbard 3 Samson Lee 4 Jake Ball 5 Alun Wyn Jones 6 Dan Lydiate 7 Sam Warburton (C) 8 Taulupe Faletau Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin 17 Paul James 18 Aaron Jarvis 19 Luke Charteris 20 Justin Tipuric 21 Mike Phillips 22 Rhys Priestland 23 Liam Williams

England: 15 Mike Brown 14 Anthony Watson 13 Jonathan Joseph 12 Luther Burrell   11 Jonny May 10 George Ford 9 Ben Youngs 1 Joe Marler 2 Dylan Hartley 3 Dan Cole 4 David Attwood 5 George Kruis 6 James Haskell 7Chris Robshaw (Capt) 8 Billy Vunipola 
Replacements; 16 Tom Youngs 17 Mako Vunipola 18 Kieran Brookes 19 Tom Croft 20 Nick Easter 21 Richard Wigglesworth 22 Danny Cipriani 23 Billy Twelvetrees

Nicknamed 'The Cauldron', the Millennium Stadium is a tough
place to travel to.