Rugby Celebrity Corner

New Zealand can handle pressure this time around

IF SOMEONE had told me a few weeks ago that France would be in the World Cup final I would have said: ‘No chance’. They lost to Tonga in the pool stage and they probably should have gone out, yet they are 80 minutes away from lifting the trophy. It’s incredible.

It is also very similar to England’s 2007 World Cup. They were thrashed by South Africa early on, there was in-fighting and discontent in the squad, but the players turned it around and reached the final. Ultimately they narrowly lost that match in Paris, however, and I think France will fare exactly the same against New Zealand on Sunday. They will make it difficult but there is no way in my mind that they will play well enough to win.

Wales were better than them in the semi-final but suffered from the sending-off of Sam Warburton, which was the wrong decision. I don’t think there was malicious intent in the tackle and I don’t think it was dangerous; in my opinion the law needs to be looked at.

I think, in their minds, the French have succeeded already. They’ve had their final, they’ve proved their coach and everyone else wrong; now they’re going to turn up, play a bit of rugby and just enjoy themselves. I don’t think they’re thinking they have to win this.

All the pressure is on hosts the All Blacks, who haven’t always dealt with that well, but I think this side is strong enough to cope. They’ve got firepower, experienced players, Richie McCaw’s a great captain, and Piri Weepu seems to be a real leader for them.

Their big issue for this game is the unknown – what if they have someone sent off, or if Weepu’s kicking is inconsistent? What if they get rattled? It’s only an outside chance, yet it could happen.

But they’ve come so far that I don’t think they will falter at the last hurdle. They have the ball a lot and will benefit from the fact that attacking sides are favoured in the southern hemisphere, while I think France will struggle to go forward with Dimitri Yachvili and Morgan Parra closed down and Imanol Harinordoquy matched up front.

The most just outcome would be a New Zealand win – it’s just a shame Wales aren’t their opponents in the final.

Follow World Cup winner Kyran Bracken on Twitter at @kyranbracken and @weare4rugby. Kyran was speaking courtesy of GamePlan Solutions: managing high profile and popular sport stars; speakers, leaders, motivators and ambassadors www.gameplansolutions.co.uk

As published in City AM on 21st October 2011

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So France face the All Blacks…

So France face the All Blacks in the final of the 2011 RWC having been mauled by them weeks earlier. A team with a coach set to tear them apart in the press has mirrored the unfancied England in the last World Cup. But will they win? NO. Having lost so badly in the group games and playing negative set piece rugby they will need to be on top of their game to compete with NZ. They were lucky to beat Wales and had it not been for the 8,9,10 contingent getting the team into the right areas of the pitch, Lievremont would be well rested by now back in Paris without a job.

Whilst these 2 nations decide the inevitable next Saturday I would like to give my opinion on the 2 questions I am asked on a daily basis

1. Was the tackle really a red card?

2. Should Martin Johnson continue as head coach?

In my opinion the Referee made a poor decision in the circumstances. Other similar tackles in the RWC have had penalties or yellow cards at most. I have never seen a red card for a spear tackle-maybe I don’t watch enough rugby. There really is a fine line between a good tackle with great body position and a spear tackle driving one’s head to the ground after initial contact. I did not see any malicious intent-his body position was very good and he drove through the attacker. He actually let go after the contact.

Allan was correct under the letter of the law but wrong in the spirit of the match. If every referee played the game to the letter of the law the ball would not be in play much with a penalty every set piece, ruck, maul and tackle. In other words our game is open to interpretation by the referee all the time. I believe his interpretation of the tackle was wrong-as Francois Piennar said at the time-why not ask the touch judge and ask was it malicious and deserve a red card??????

Whilst all the hype is about Wales, what about England’s poor world cup and should Johnno go??? I can’t say enough positive things about Johnno as a player.

But as a manager he has trusted his players and fellow coaches too much. The result I fear will be a rod for his own back. I liked the fact that he has picked young players and developed them but the team’s inability to hold the ball and have confidence to attack space like the Welsh is a concern. Smith is the attacking coach. I have no idea what the team were trying to do this whole tournament. England’s problem is they don’t seem happy with the ball in their hands-almost clueless when they are in space. Yes we are as strong and as fast as the other nations but well below par on catching and passing. Defence has been heroic under Mike Ford but how can big players have seriously bad mis-tackles in key moments against France. I also don’t think we looked fit enough-big and strong YES……but nothing like the Welsh or Kiwis in the aerobic stakes. Furthermore, I believe Johnno is very loyal to those around him. Should he decide to stay, the powers that be will want to know what changes he wants to create success. He will not pander to anyone which I fear will create an impasse-the coming weeks will be interesting.

Finally the players who brought down the squad should take a good look at themselves. We all know how hard it is to shake off the bad media but what about the majority of the team who did all they could, who have been tee-total for months, who have been sick from exhaustion on the training pitch-only now to be remembered as being part of the shambolic 2011 squad. Not fair! But that’s what you get with a team sport-you are only as strong as your weakest link. Unlike Wales we have too many weak links.

Like Johnno, I believe the team’s best rugby is ahead of them but I really do hope that the players and Johnno alike learn from this tournament to reclaim the coveted prize of RWC champions from the soon to be crowned Kiwi’s.

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France Reunited

It seemed to me that England were over-confident from the start on Saturday. They seemed to think they were already in the semi-final. They felt there big challenge was to come. They were not ready for the game that the French brought with them last Saturday at Eden Park.

The French arrived on the pitch with a warrior spirit, immense passion …and huge aggression!

That is what you need at this stage of a major tournament. Do or die not wait and see.

But for all that the French were brilliantly self controlled. At set piece we saw France really well organised, playing with confidence, accuracy, speed and pace lead by Harinourdoquy.

At the scrum I felt that Mas, Poux and Servat were outstanding and each of them delivered a great game. In rugby, the game starts in front and they fronted up in a way that England could not match.

But perhaps more than all of that was the togetherness of the group which you could see from before the game to the end of the match.

They talked a lot. They never for a moment stopped supporting of each other!

They played as a unit, being really aggressive.

But not everything was perfect and they will need to improve again to progress. In the break down, they contested all the rucks but without managing to steal the ball, which they will need to do

And at times their defence organisation was very poor. Tuilagi broke too many tackles and passed through the defence line. They cannot afford that in the next match.

But they are through and England have gone home. For now that is all that counts.

How are France going to play to win this Saturday?

They must keep their momentum, speed ball on set piece and composure on the break down like Harinordoquy and Yachvili did sometimes

during Saturday’s game.

They need to have a lot of variations/combinations like they had last Saturday at the scrum and line out. They need to be really

well organised in defence, and to communicate a lot. They need to make sure that they stop nb 12 Jamie Roberts because he is a great

ball carrier breaking the defence line like Tuilagi.

They need to make sure:

That they are efficient in defence, one on one.

That they have a good line speed !

That they have good communication between forwards and backs!

No penalties, no soft penalties!

Be smart.

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England v France QF too close to call

With England and France locking horns in Auckland this Saturday, Metro asked Kyran Bracken, part of the World Cup-winning squad of 2003, and former French captain Serge Betsen where the quarter-final will decided.

Serge Betsen: England have been our enemies and opponents in the last two World Cups and now again in 2011. This is a huge challenge for France and we have nothing to lose. We must come out of this game with no regrets. For some it is their first World Cup, for some maybe their last. They must give everything.

Kyran Bracken: No second chances, this is the knock-out stages. This is a brittle French team who look like they would rather be back home. For once England need to get out of the blocks early and start the game like we are finishing it.

Up Front Battle

SB: The line-out and scrum is where France have built victories over the last four years. We must put massive pressure on this area, England would then be left without the foundation on which their game plan stands.

KB: At the line-out, France will attempt to man-mark Tom Croft so let’s vary it. France will also target our scrum and here, we can’t afford to give away stupid penalties.

Attack

SB: Scrum-half Dimitri Yachvilli must alternate quick ball from scrum and line-out to ensure we recycle slow ball and increase the forwards’ speed around the ruck. We also need to attack the fly-half and Manu Tuilagi to destabilise England’s defensive line while paying special attention to Ben Youngs at scrum-half.

KB: Let’s get the ball in Tuilagi’s hands early and we can’t afford to wait until the last ten minutes to get the ball wide to Chris Ashton. We have the best back three in the world – let’s use them.

Defence

SB: Communication is the key. Our commitment, determination and structure will be all-important. We have to win our battles at ruck and maul.
KB: We know how dangerous the France backs can be if things go their way. Make no mistake-this French team can play. We know our patterns of play but we have to run at them hard!

Discipline

SB: We must be extremely disciplined and respect the referee’s every decision because either Jonny Wilkinson, left, or Toby Flood are able to kick easy points – and Jonny has hurt us before in World Cups.
KB: England must be smart at the breakdown. These guys don’t normally give away stupid penalties at their clubs, so don’t do it here! Anyone giving away stupid pens should be expected to be taken off. No one wants to be the person responsible for sending your team mates home early with a mindless penalty.

Serge Betsen

Our strength will be in our togetherness. We cannot afford to have anyone out there who wants to play alone. We have to win our own individual and collective battles, be proud to be together as one and be completely disciplined. When things go wrong France will have to look deep inside themselves and be there for each other.

Kyran Bracken

Let’s control the tempo of the game. Scrum-half Youngs needs to get us going with some quick taps early on. Let’s keep the pressure on and kick for the corners. We have to try and build a lead and see if we can break the French spirit early. This is it, one chance, one opportunity. grab it.

As posted in Metro referencing www.weare4rugby.com

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Battle of the Breakdown

The last games of the group stages have shown us aspects of back row play that could be crucial in winning the tournament. Ireland and Wales now look as much the form teams now as anyone and their back rows have been outstanding and creating break downs.
Sean O’Brien is at the moment the tournament’s wrecking ball over the gain line. He comes from deep runs a simple line, with a very powerful but upright body position. He is not going to ground the opposition often three of them have to take him to ground. He takes distance and always recycles behind the opposition defensive line.

The attack can guarantee the ball will come and plan for quick ball. It was interesting when Nick Easter came on for England, though with less power, there was the same certainty in simple lines, yards gained ball recycled that lead to England dominating and scoring in the later stages. Everything under control.

Stephen Ferris on the other hand was the Irish defensive enforcer. He was able to stand flat and completely nullify the surges of the likes of Castrogiovanni who never once got over the gain line and was out of the game half way through the first half. The ability to stop drives before the gain line gave Italy no target.

Then there was Heaslip who showed massive strength over the breakdown to achieve brilliant body position and strip ball time and time again. With these three playing at their best even the great Parisse was a bit part player.

Perhaps the only thing these three lack is a bit of pace and passing flair. Which brings us to Sam Warburton of Wales. With him we see something slightly different but equally effective. He is moving with even greater speed and looking to hit the spaces either side of defenders in a way that O’Brien isn’t. His fend is good and he runs classic 7 support lines as well as delivering great off loads. This gives Wales the extremely fluid style around the phases that links forwards and backs together in a single wave. Warburton’s youthful pace make his power all the more dangerous and also gets him to ball on the ground faster than his Irish rivals.

It will be fascinating to see in the next game between the two next Saturday who comes off the best.

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9 is a Magic Number

There is no doubt the role of the number 9 has changed over the years. No longer are they expected to be pass masters but now need to be fast and agile with speed of thought. So who is standing out in this years tournament? I was looking forward to seeing Du Preez of South africa having been my pick of the 2007 tournament but he seems to have lost some pace and confidence. Philips of Wales certainly talks a great game but he winds up and steps so much before his pass that unless he is making numerous breaks, could Wales be better off without him?
So much has been written about Australia’s Genia who for me is the most all round player. However to perform he needs a dominant pack. Yes his back row steal ball but I don’t think he can easily show off his skills like New Zealand’s Weepu. Weepu should be the worlds number 1 behind that pack but I feel he needs to lose 2 stone so he can reach every breakdown as opposed to 3 of every 4! For me, this has been New Zealand’s biggest weakness over the years. There is a call for him to start at 10. BIG MISTAKE in my view. Talented as he is he just would not have the kicking nous of a regular 10.

Argentina’s looks busy and is great at organising his forward pack. His game management is excellent and quite rightly was named by Martin Johnson as a focal point of their team.

England’s scrum half Ben Youngs whom I have coached previously has had a rollercoaster World Cup. Missing pre-world cup games did not help but his 30 mins against Argentina highlighted why he is so important to England. He is a match winner with his electric pace and the important try v Argentina to seal the win was vital. His playing ability reminds me of Joost Van der Westhuizen who was the world’s best 9 for some time. Like Ben, Joost was not the best passer but boy could he threaten and single-handedly win games. Like Joost, Ben is being man marked by the opposition and he needs to pass without stepping before he gets caught. I am sure he will be working on that this week.

His encounter with France’s Yachvilli will be interesting this weekend. Yachvilli will not score the winning try beating 5 or 6 defenders but what he will do is CONTROL the game and territory. He has silky scrum half skills but his left boot corner finders are second to none.

They inspire and reward the forwards and demoralise the opposition. If Ben can take a leaf out of his book and do the same, he will no doubt increase England’s likelihood of winning!

As to this year’s best no 9? I reserve judgement until the 23rd October.

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Serge’s Match Analysis

England vs Romania

The England and New Zealand wins couldn’t be much more different but they both show one of this World Cup’s crucial attacking weapons …the inside channel line break. With drift defences so confident and space at such a premium the inside break is a devastating weapon. Look at England’s fourth try (at 31.30 minutes of game time).

Haskell heads directly into the channel between 10 and 12. Wilkinson attacks the space between 12 and 13 which allows Ashton to make the inside break where the defenders have already been committed. He threads the eye of the needle at speed and is through on the try line before anyone can stop him.

New Zealand vs France

Similarly in the New Zealand game, this time in open play, Dan Carter attacks the space between 12 and 13 from deep  to set Israel Dagg through the inside channel. (at 35.47 of game time.)

This pass is forward but in both cases the success of the second runner through space depends on the attack of the first runner. If the defence are not committed there is no inside channel hole to punch through. Timing is everything. Ashton’s is perfect Dagg’s is too early.

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Form is Temporary. Class is Permanent.

Australia came into the World Cup as the form team. They had taken the Tri-Nations and the Super 15. They had a back division that looked likely to score from anywhere. Ireland came in with the worst of form. Losses against France were compounded by a home defeat to the English. They looked like they were in reverse.

But you could look at it another way. Ireland are a side packed with British Lions. With multiple Heineken winners and the most experienced centre pairing in the world. Australia have a pack that has been embarrassed by England and Samoa in the last 12 month. An unpredicatable playmaker and a centre pairing who have played less than 5 times together.

Today the real Ireland turned up. Lion’s captain Paul O’Connell was dominating. The back row attacked and defended and showed they may be the best all round trio in the tournament. Brian O’Driscoll did nothing other than lead by example and Ronan O’Gara kicked the opposition to death…oh and it rained.

Something similar happened with S Africa. Apparently in disarray in the Tri Nations playing the wrong captain, hit by injuries and confused in what should have been defeat to Wales, today they took an ebullient Fiji to the cleaners. By more than 30 points and looked closer to the team of 2007 and 2009 than they have in a very long time.

Both S Africa and Ireland know what they are good at and if they can remember when it matters it will take more than just a team in form to stop them.

We saw a French team start their game with a lack of precision, and an aggressive approach from the Canadians upset them. In the last 15 minutes France showed their efficient side and mastered the game through the late showing of Louis Picamoles, who was consistently outstanding throug this last part and who and gave France to win. This belated discovery of form bodes well for their much anticipated next game against All Blacks. The French team did not do that well during their first 2 matches, managing only to score a lot of tries at the very end of the match. Marc Lievremont has put his team in a position of uncertainty though this is can be positive enough as the All Blacks will have no idea how they’re going to turn out on Saturday. Who will be in the team, who will be key to this game? Its not just the form but the formation that is temporary.

Perhaps the tournament will be won by the team that can stick most consistently to what they are good at. They don’t have to be brilliant they just have to let their class, whatever it is based on, come through and shine….or in Ireland’s case rain.

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Pressure Pressure Pressure

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France, England, S Africa, Australia, New Zealand Scotland, Ireland. Did any of them look like they were firing on all cylinders? England and S Africa could just as easily have been beaten and most of the others were second best for large portions of the games they played. What does it tell us?

Well first it tells us that the gap between the minnows and the bigger fish is not quite  as big as it used to be. Japan had the best player on the park. Rumania were better than the score suggests and all Argentina’s pretending to be underdogs fooled nobody. Argentina performed at the same level than 4 years ago against France in the opening game of the World Cup in the French Stadium! Are the two old continent’s countries regressing at the same time as the others are progressing?

Second perhaps only New Zealand and Australia are anywhere near being great teams. Someone else may discover greatness along the way but S Africa didn’t look to have many tries in the locker and France didn’t look capable of 80 minutes concentration let alone a whole tournament’s worth. England need to remember that Martin Johnson is not playing and show some of the aggression on the pitch that he shows in the stands. Perhaps the only other team that played to their potential was Wales and they failed to finish the Springboks when they had the chance.Third and final we are discovering the affects of tournament pressure. Things are happening that shouldn’t happen. The clearest example has to be the kicking. If you told a Welshman that James Hook would lose the game for Wales because he couldn’t pressure kick they would laugh you all the way back to the Millennium Stadium and to watch Wilkinson, the World Cup’s highest points scorer, kick like a part time club kicker is unbelievable. That’s what pressure can do.The first weekend has probably raised more questions than given answers, which is what has made it so fascinating. The team that wins this tournament will be the one that can break past the pressure and deliver their A game. Who that will be is still anyone’s guess.

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Predictability

Most international team sports tournaments have a degree of predictability about them. The outsiders very rarely have a day in the sun. And if they do they almost never have two.

Four teams have won the Rugby World Cup there has been no achievement such as Denmark winning the football European Championships against Germany or even Uruguay coming fourth in the World Cup.

Too many opportunities to score points and too much of a bias towards power and fitness keeps the minnows in their place.

But you only have to look at the world of rugby Sevens to know it doesn’t have to be like that. The Kenyans (the same country that has just finished THIRD in the World Athletics championships!) have begun to follow in the footsteps of the Fijian Sevens. So how long till the 15 man game suffers a similar seismic shift.

Though it is very hard to look beyond the usual suspects. The two major candidates to break into the last four from nowhere must be Tonga and Fiji. With South Africa not at their best and Wales far from the finished article it is perhaps these two teams that can land a decisive blow over 80 minutes. I believe one of them will come out of the ‘group of death’. Samoa performed magnificently against the Tri Nations winners Australia only two months ago and Fiji took a draw with Wales last autumn.

Mapasua has been a fantastic player in the Premiership and Bai is a joy to watch. If Samoa can add flair to their steel and Fiji add steel to their flair anything can happen

It would be fantastic two see one of these exciting rugby nations make it into the quarter finals and then anything can happen.

They would then come out and play an opponent from pool C were only Australia are playing at a world class standard at the moment.

To have Fiji or Samoa in the semis would be a magnificent achievement from either and prove that Rugby Union has moved on another step towards being a global sport.

Who knows? They might go one step further!

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