World Cup 2014

The FIFA World Cup kicks-off today and what better way to enjoy the next month of summer than cooped up in your sitting room glued to your TV for six hours a day?  Nope can’t think of one either.  The nation has been gripped by World Cup fever.  Will Wayne Rooney play?  Should Raheem Sterling start?  Can Joe Hart fit in another commercial before the opening ceremony?  All these questions and more will be answered in thealternativesportsblog’s comprehensive guide to the world’s greatest football tournament.

 

Group A (Brazil, Croatia, Cameroon, Mexico)

I am going to put my non-existent mortgage, my as yet unborn child, and basically everything I own on Brazil winning the group.  The question is who will come second?  Croatia, Cameroon and Mexico will all feel that they have a good opportunity to progress to the round of 16 and they are all capable of beating each other on their day.  I’m plumping for Croatia however.  They have a genuinely world-class playmaker in Luka Modric, a formidable striker in the shape of Mario Mandzukic and an experienced defence featuring the one-time Tottenham and Manchester City full-back Vedran Corluka.  Cameroon have an experienced squad too featuring such talent as Samuel Eto’o (playing in his fourth World Cup), Barcelona’s Alex Song, hairdressing’s Benoit Assou-Ekotto and last, and definitely least, Aston Villa flop Jean Makoun.  An all-to-familiar disagreement between the Cameroonian FA and the players has disrupted their preparations somewhat.  Could spring a surprise but I doubt it.  Mexico’s golden generation of Gerrado Torrado, Jared Borgetti and Cuauhtemoc Blanco (who apparently retired from football yesterday at the grand old age of 41 – the World Cup will be a lesser tournament without him) has passed and in their place is a team with no real stand-out individuals, save for Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez.  Rafael Marquez, 74, is still knocking around but his best days are well and truly behind him.  Expect professional flatter-to-deceiver Giovanni Dos Santos will do a few step-overs and then give the ball away a lot.  Fallers at the first hurdle I’m afraid.

 

Group B (Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia)

On paper, the Spain squad looks formidable and it is no different in real life.  They could probably have named three squads and still be a pretty good bet for the Jules Rimet trophy.  Their only area of concern is up front where one would expect monkey lookalike and new Chelsea signing Diego Costa to start, but he has hardly any international experience and is coming back from a hamstring injury that curtailed his appearance in the Champions League final.  Fernando Torres is still finding a banjo with which to attempt to hit a cow’s backside and Pedro has featured sporadically for Barcelona this season.  Nevertheless Spain won Euro 2012 without a recognised forward (instead they employed a false 9) so they should progress without breaking sweat (incidentally they have my kiss of death to win the tournament).  The Netherlands are the logical choice to qualify as runners-up but I don’t particularly like the look of their defence or midfield.  Star midfielder Wesley Sneijder hasn’t had a stellar season for Galatasary and any nation that selects a Norwich City player (Leroy Fer since you ask) must be lacking in quality personnel.  They will be relying on Robin Van Persie to fire them into the second round, but it might not be enough.  Chile are my tip to spring a surprise and pip the Dutch to 2nd place.  They have real quality throughout the team in Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez and Juventus duo, Arturo Vidal Mauricio Isla.  Let’s gloss over the fact that recently relegated Cardiff City defender Gary Medel and Championship stalwart Gonzalo Jara of Nottingham Forest make up their defence.  They deservedly beat England 2-0 at Wembley last November and are lethal on the counter-attack.  I am delighted to announce that the whipping boys of Group B will be Australia.  With such infamous luminaries as, for example, Ryan McGowan of ‘Shandong Luneng Taishan’ and Bailey Wright of Preston North End, they will be totally out of their depth and may be on the end of some heavy tonkings.  Fingers crossed.

 

Group C (Colombia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan)

This is possibly the most wide-open group of the entire tournament.  Colombia were the favourites to progress until mercurial striker Rademel Falcao was ruled out through injury.  His goals will be a huge loss to Los Cafeteros (which means ‘The Coffee Growers’ apparently).  Nevertheless Porto’s Jackson Martinez has been banging them in for fun and with Monaco’s James Rodriguez and Inter Milan’s Freddy Guarin pulling the strings in midfield, he should have a plentiful supply-line.  Experienced duo Cristian Zapata and Mario Yepes will be marshalling operations in defence so Colombia could be stingy too.  In goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, they have the tournament’s oldest player who will turn 43 during the tournament.

What of the others?  Ivory Coast have a handy attacking threat in the shape of the evergreen Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony.  However in defence they have the lethal own-goal expert Kolo Toure on duty who, if own goals counted, would be a solid bet for top goalscorer.  Greece are one of those teams who really are more than the sum of their parts.  They seem to turn it on in major tournaments and don’t count them out from pulling a few rabbits out of the hat (and surprise results too) this time around.  Fulham’s new Steve Marlet, Konstantinos Mitroglu will be hoping to prove his doubters wrong alongside veteran poacher Theofanis Gekas, who will put away anything given the slightest sniff.  Led by the effervescent gorgeous Giorgos Karagounis and organised by the try-and-say-that-after-a-few-pints Sokratis Papastathopoulos they are always very difficult to beat.  Hellas may not be pretty but you can bet your bottom drachma they will be effective.  Which leaves Japan.  Traditionally a disciplined and hard-working side, the Samurai Blues have a smattering of creative talent in AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa which makes them somewhat of a dark horse.  A tough group to call.

 

Group D (Uruguay, Italy, England, Costa Rica)

Ah, England’s group.  I’m sure the Italian and Uruguayan squads are having sleepless nights at the prospect of facing a team, who, in their most recent internationals, gallantly drew to two powerhouses of the international game in Honduras and Ecuador.  Unfortunately my patriotic side has completely deserted me and, although it pains me to say it, England will do very well to (and probably not) progress to the knockout stage.  The turgid, slow, predictable attacks will be cannon-fodder to Luis Suarez and co. against Uruguay.  Likewise the Italians will use their superior technical skill to pass England to death just like in Euro 2012.  A solitary win against Costa Rica and two unlikely draws against Uruguay and Italy are the best The Three Lions can hope for.  I expect the Italians to be at their usual miserly selves at the back – this will be captain Gianluigi Buffon’s fifth World Cup – a remarkable achievement.  Going forward my favourite player Andrea Pirlo will be pulling the strings in midfield allowing the likes of Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti to roam forward.  Maverick duo Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli will lead the line (thealternativesportsblog guarantees that one of these two will get sent off at some point).  They can even afford the luxury of naming Liverpool legend Alberto Aquilani in their squad.  Uruguay of course rely heavily on Luis Suarez and if he can return to full fitness, they have a real chance of progressing from the group.  Los Charruas are by no means a one-man team though.  La Liga, Serie A and Primeira Liga winners Diego Godin, Martin Caceres and Maxi Pereira respectively are certainly no mugs at the back.  Uruguay do play a counter-attacking game and with the likes of Atletico Madrid’s Cristian Rodriguez and PSG’s Edison Cavani joining Suarez going forward, they will be a danger to all and sundry.  Costa Rica’s chances of qualification are slim but at 34 in the FIFA rankings, they are not to be taken lightly.  Playing for Olympiakos, on-loan Arsenal forward Joel Campbell scored a cracker against United in the Champions League this season and on his day, Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz can dictate play at will.  Their defence does seem slightly suspect and if they aren’t organised at the back, they could be on the end of a few cricket scores.  Uruguay and Italy to qualify.

 

Group E (Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras, France)

One of the weakest groups this one – France are obviously favourites to win the group, with an inexperienced, but very talented squad.  Franck Ribery’s absence through injury is a blow, as is Didier Deschamps’ refusal to call-up Samir Nasri, but in Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba they have two stars of the future.  As much as the rest of the world loves nothing more than a hilarious Gallic implosion, as in 2010, there is sadly no Raymond Domenech or Nicolas Anelka to spread discord, and I rather fancy them to make at least the quarter-finals.  Switzerland are the seeded team in this group, but I don’t think they’ll qualify here.  The Swiss have an established solid team, with the odd sprinkling of star quality in the X-Men Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, but may struggle with the conditions, and I feel Ecuador will grab second place.  Yes they were embarrassingly held to a 2-2 draw by England’s second-string, and their defence is weak, but they have some exhilarating dribblers, such as Jefferson Montero and Enner Valencia, and such ability will be crucial in breaking down stubborn defences.  Honduras, as they showed against England, are tough but limited, and will struggle to get more than one point.

 

Group F (Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria)

Another weak group, once you look beyond Argentina.  The attacking potential within the Argentina squad is simply frightening – they could well play a front five of Messi, Higuain, Di Maria, Aguero and Lavezzi.  However, further back they look vulnerable.  Pablo Zabaleta has been the most consistent full-back in the Premier League over the past few seasons, but Martin Demichelis and Ezequiel Garay are both prone to brainfades, and Fernando Gago, whose calming presence in the centre of midfield is crucial to the way the (wanky show-off football term alert) albiceleste play, has been struggling for fitness.  Nevertheless if they don’t win this group I’ll eat my hat*.  As for who will join them, none of the other teams make a particularly convincing case.  Nigeria, the African Champions, are probably the most obvious candidates – they have in Vincent Enyeama a world-class keeper, and a pacy attack – but they are in poor form, and needed a last minute goal to draw with Scotland.  Bosnia have several outstanding attackers – Edin Dzeko will be their main man, ably supported by Roma’s little gem of a playmaker Miralem Pjanic, the Bundesliga star Vedad Ibisevic and potentially the strolling Zvjezdan Misimovic (think Tom Huddlestone without the dynamism) – but their defence is at best weak, and at worst a complete liability, with the captain Emir Spahic coming off a horror season at Bayer Leverkusen.  Iran are defensively solid, but have no experienced goalkeeper, and very little in creative talent, although, to be honest, my knowledge of the Iranian league is a little shaky, so there may be a potential star in there somewhere.  It seems their most potent creative force is Fulham’s Ashkan ‘moves like’ Dejagah, which isn’t a ringing endorsement.

 

Group G (Germany, Ghana, Portugal, USA)

This is definitely the tournament’s obligatory ‘Group of Death’, containing 4 teams with realistic ambitions of going deep into the knockout stages.  Many Germans aren’t feeling particularly confident about their chances, pointing out that Bastian Schweinsteiger is in poor form, Sami Khedira is recovering from a serious knee injury, Marco Reus is missing entirely and there is no striking option other than the 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, who hasn’t exactly been pulling up trees at Lazio this season.  Rubbish.  First of all they’re Germany, they always qualify.  Secondly they’ve been lining up like a Jonathan Wilson wet dream, playing a strikerless formation featuring Thomas Muller or Mario Gotze as a false nine (yes I have read Inverting the Pyramid), so Klose may not even feature that often.  Finally, they play with the confidence of a team that know each other inside-out, with many of the players having featured in the victorious European U-21 side of 2009.  Portugal aren’t quite a one man team, but Cristiano Ronaldo effectively won the play-off against Sweden on his own, and he often plays for Portugal as if he doesn’t trust any of his teammates not to screw up if he loans them the ball.  This sometimes works as he is the best player in the world and, if on song, unstoppable, but he is recovering from a slight knee injury, and the rest of the squad are nothing more than reasonable, although good things are said of Sporting Lisbon’s William Carvalho.  Ghana were famously unlucky in 2010, and bring a similar squad to Brazil, supplemented by the usual collection of talented youngsters.  Asamoah Gyan has been banging them in over the past season and a half, albeit in the UAE, while Andre Ayew (son of Pele – Abedi Pele that is) and Christian Atsu are both quick and skilful.  The USA have been beaten by Ghana at the last two tournaments, and Jurgen Klinsmann has made a bold call by omitting probably the highest-profile American player in Landon Donovan, but those in the know say this will aid team spirit, and Klinsmann isn’t convinced of the commitment of a player who took a few months of football to find himself in Cambodia in 2012.  German-raised winger Julian Green is an intriguing choice (he has been earning rave reviews for Bayern Munich’s B team), but any side that has Jozy Altidore as its main goal threat is going to struggle, and I’ll be very surprised if they make it out of the group.

 

Group H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea)

I find this group one of the toughest to call.  There has been a lot of hype over this Belgian squad, with so many people tipping them as dark horses that they can now no longer be considered as such (in the same way that so many people asserted that Paul Scholes was underrated that he eventually became overrated).  I’m not entirely convinced that they’ll even get out of the group.  I would love them to do so, as they play exhilarating attacking football, and are the most exciting group of talent to emerge unexpectedly from a country since the Denmark team of the mid 80s (incidentally look out for the Armenia team over the next few years – you heard it here first), but I worry about their lack of tournament experience and, more particularly, their lack of proper attacking full-backs.  Jan Vertonghen, as any Spurs fan will tell you, is nobody’s idea of a decent left-back, but he is first choice for the Red Devils.  However, with the attacking verve of, among others, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Defour, they will in all probability prove me wrong, and look rather good whilst doing so.  The question is, if Belgium don’t go through, who will?  Russia are a workmanlike side, with few stars, but qualified comfortably  ahead of Portugal, and in Fabio Capello have a manager with a proven track record at translating an impressive qualifying campaign into a successful tournament (hang on a minute…).  In all seriousness though, I expect Russia to grind out 3 drab wins, with any flair being provided by the impish Alan Dzagoev.  South Korea normally stroll through the Asian qualifying campaign without breaking sweat, but this time only edged out Uzbekistan by one goal.  However, they have an experienced but relatively youthful squad, full of smart technically-adept players, boosted by the presence of Yun Suk-young, the first QPR player to go to a World Cup since Paul Parker in 1990.  I think they will surprise a few people and make the second round.  Algeria are probably the weakest of the African nations and will perform rather like they did 4 years ago.  They will be disciplined, niggly and almost entirely ambition-free, although look out for El Arbi Soudani, the slippery Dinamo Zagreb centre-forward.

 

So there you have it.  We’ve provided you with all the information you could wish for, now to let the football do the talking.  Delight in spending the next month feasting on a banquet of the world’s finest players with a side order of controversy and, in England’s case, a huge dollop of disappointment.  We can’t wait.

6 Nations Team of the Tournament

Now the dust has settled on an exciting but not vintage tournament, it’s time for me to put my formidable rugby knowledge to the test and choose my team of the tournament.

15. Full Back: Mike Brown (England)

After a pretty horrible 2013 Six Nations, Brown was possibly the player of the tournament this time around.  His support running was a joy to behold and he has the indispensable ability to almost always make the correct decision.  Looks so much more at home as a full-back than on the wing.  Rock solid in defence and also the joint-leading try-scorer.

14. Right Wing: Andrew Trimble (Ireland)

Yoann Huget was a rare bright spark in an otherwise average French side, but for his consistency, the Ulsterman gets my vote.  An unheralded player but someone who does all the basics very well and, like Brown, supports play excellently.  Kept his cool in Paris to score a crucial try.  Has inherited a great finishers instinct.  On this evidence, Tommy Bowe has more chance of replacing Brian O’Driscoll that ousting Trimble.

13. Outside Centre: Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)

Who else?  While Luther Burrell had a superb debut tournament for England, the retiring veteran showed the world what they will be missing with some all-round displays of class, elegance and ingenuity.  The beauty of O’Driscoll is that he never seems to be rushed on the rugby field.  He has that Henson-like ability to make time stand still and pick a pass no-one else sees, yet the defence hardly lays a finger on him.  Again, he was a rock in defence.  The great man will be sorely missed

12. Inside Centre: Jamie Roberts (Wales)

As much as I do have a rather large man-crush on Wesley Fofana (you’re lying if you claim you don’t), Dr Roberts had an excellent Championships.  As always he broke the gain line and tackled with energy and verve, but he has matured with age into more than just a battering ram.  He runs more intelligent line these days and often pops up as a support runner.  Two tries against Scotland capped an impressive tournament.

11. Left Wing: George North (Wales)

Despite playing at the unfamiliar position of Outside Centre for a couple of games, the giant Welshman looked much more at home on the wing.  Scored three tries and caused general havoc with ball in hand.  He still needs to work on his finishing in my opinion but he has the potential to be one of the game’s greats.

10. Fly-Half: Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)

A quite brilliant tournament for the Racing Metro outside-half.  He was by far the most effective player in his position because he offers and equally potent kicking and running game, highlighted by his four tries.  Kept a cool head in the cauldron-like atmosphere of the Championship decider in Paris.  Made Wales’ Rhys Priestland look even more shit that he actually is, which is difficult.

9. Scrum Half: Danny Care (England)

The England number 9 has finally come of age.  His darting runs are reminiscent of Rob Howley and Matt Dawson at their best.  By far the best scrum-half in the northern-hemisphere, his high-tempo delivery set the foundations for England’s impressive attacking displays.  A joy to watch.

1. Loose-Head: Cian Healy (Ireland)

What a player.  An animal in the loose but also a formidable scrummager.  When he carries the ball he resembles a charging rhino and is (probably) almost as difficult to bring down without tranquiliser.  Healy has also curbed his ill-discipline which has blighted his career to date.

2. Hooker: Rory Best (Ireland)

Having originally been overlooked by Warren Gatland for Lions selection supposedly because of his lacklustre throwing, the Ulsterman showed the Welsh coach why he had been wrong to omit him with a brilliant tournament in which he was almost flawless at the line-out.  Edges out Dylan Hartley because of his superior tackling ability and energy in the loose.

3. Tight-Head: Nicolas Mas (France)

There was no outstanding candidate for the number 3 shirt so I chose the Frenchman more for his commitment in that brutal final encounter with Ireland in Paris.  The French scrum was pretty tidy in that game against an Ireland pack that had dominated up front against Wales, Scotland and Italy and that was in no small part due to Mas.  I have no idea what he’s like in the loose but let’s assume he was average-to-good.  Basically, he was less bad than all the other tight-heads.

4. Lock: Paul O’Connell (Ireland)

The Ireland captain is like the postman; he keeps delivering top-class performances year after year.  His display in Paris was one of the great performances.  He seemed to be everywhere: at the breakdown, tackling, ball-carrying, taking line-outs  – all in the face of some ferocious French resistance (there’s a first for everything).  The Emerald Isle will be hoping that he continues for at least a couple more seasons.

5. Lock: Courtney Lawes (England)

Another coming-of-age tournament for an Englishman, this time the giant Northampton second-row.  His all-round brilliance was exemplified by a man-of-the match display against Wales.  Rather like O’Connell, he is an all-action player with the addition of impressive pace.  Always near the top of the tackle count.  Looks a certainty for the World Cup.

6. Blindside Flanker: Peter O’Mahony (Ireland)

This very blog had tipped Ireland to have a disaster tournament precisely because they were without their star flankers in Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris.  Well I am currently eating mountains of humble pie because the Munsterman was an absolute tour-de-force.  He was a permanent fixture at the breakdown and won man-of-the-match in the forward masterclass against Wales.  Excellent.

7. Openside Flanker: Chris Robshaw (England)

By far the outstanding open-side in this year’s tournament.  Not only was he a tireless in defence and excellent at the breakdown, he also showed an impressive fleet-of-hand to release Mike Brown for Danny Care’s try against Ireland.  Deserved his try against Italy and led England flawlessly after much criticism in past years.  Looks to have benefited from a summer’s rest.

8. Number 8: Billy Vunipola (England)

A controversial choice.  I know he only played three games and Jamie Heaslip excelled throughout the tournament, but Vunipola (like his cousin Taulupe Falateau) is a complete rugby-footballer, in the mould of Sergio Parisse, Nick Easter or Bobby Skinstad.  Not only does he always break the gain-line, he has brilliant awareness and is constantly looking to off-load the ball.  This results in a far more dynamic attacking platform which defined England’s matches.  He is vital if the red-rose are to be successful in the World Cup.

 

As regular readers (apparently there’s at least one) will know, thealternativesportsblog is based purely on facts and is almost never wrong, so if you disagree with any of my choices, you are severely misinformed.

The 6 Nations 2014

The 2014 6 Nations has the potential to be one of the most intriguing in recent memory.  There is no clear favourite and realistically, any one of Ireland, Wales, England or France could take the crown (depending on which version of Les Bleus turn up).  Having not endured a gruelling Lions tour, expect Les Tricolores to feature strongly.  Ignore the fact they have only won two of their last eleven Test Matches, and the fact that they finished bottom last year.  In the year after Lions tours, the French have won the 6 Nations title every time since 1998 so they have history on their side.  Italy managed an impressive two victories last year and are no longer the rollover they used to be.  Scotland have made significant improvements since Scott Johnson replaced Andy Robinson.  Wales are possibly favourites given that they are the reigning champions and are going for an unprecedented third championship in a row.  However they don’t have the player depth of England who have some exciting talent coming through the ranks.  Ireland too have always been strong in recent years and with their teams doing so well in Europe, their form may easily translate to the international stage.  Here’s a lowdown of the teams:

 

Wales:

The Welsh have a very settled line-up that are not only in their prime but also vastly experienced.  The likes of George North, Toby Falateau, Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton are all 25 or under but have been playing regularly for the past 3-4 seasons.  The losses of Ian Evans, Ryan Jones and Jonathan Davies are big blows because they are real physical presences and in the case of Jones especially, his experience and versatility would have been a real asset.  Wales have the advantage of playing at home for three of the five fixtures but still have not sorted out the pivotal position of fly-half.  Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland both started the Autumn Internationals without convincing totally.  Expect Biggar to start and (hopefully) the world’s most underrated rugby player James Hook to come off the bench and pick off tiring defences.

Prediction: 2nd

 

England:

Logic dictates that England should be miles better than the three other home nations given the vast resources available to them, both financially and player-wise.  However they have been remarkably adept at evening out this so called advantage since lifting the World Cup in 2003.  Stuart Lancaster has slowly but surely been building England up to be a world force in international Rugby Union once again.  Lest we forget, they were only 80 minutes away (admittedly, probably the most naive 80 minutes of rugby I have ever seen) from a first Grand Slam since 2003 so the re-building process is well and truly in full swing.  England have finally seen sense and jettisoned the king of missed tackles, Chris Ashton, and should be all the better for it.  This leaves a rather inexperienced back three, albeit one brimming with potential.  I am particularly excited by this whippersnapper Anthony Watson from Bath.  This could be his international breakthrough season a la Stuart Hogg two years ago.  Perhaps the two most significant decisions have been the restoration of Brad Barritt to midfield (he is to tackling what Ronnie O’Sullivan is to snooker/Chris Ashton to not tackling), and the discarding of Ben Youngs.  I pray to God that Danny Care takes this chance to finally realise his enormous potential on the international stage.

Prediction: 1st

 

Ireland:

Given that three of the four Irish provinces have progressed in the Heineken Cup, they should maybe be regarded as the favourites this year.  A side boasting the talents of Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell will always be a formidable prospect, as shown by the Irish’s hearbreaking defeat to New Zealand in November, even if the latter two players are in the twilight of their careers.  The loss of both Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris through injury though is a huge blow, given the pair’s immense ball-carrying ability.  Sexton is key for me because at his best, he is the best fly-half in the northern-hemisphere (sorry James Hook), and also he offers a significant running option.  If he can bring the likes of D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Bowe and Kearney into play then Ireland have a big attacking threat.  However, I think the absence of their two experienced flankers will count against them.

Prediction: 4th

 

France:

Ah the enigma that is French Rugby.  One moment; astoundingly brilliant, the next; total merde.  Unfortunately for Les Bleus, they have been doing a lot more of the latter in recent internationals, much to the chagrin of their coach, Philippe Saint-André.  They have the strongest domestic league in Europe, yet, as the England football team knows all too well, a thriving league doesn’t always translate to success on the international stage.  The steady stream of imports from abroad has unduly affected the national side who, with the resources they have, should be beating every other team in the 6 Nations out of sight.  They still have world class players in captain Thierry Dusautoir, no. 8 Louis Picamoles, scrum-half Morgan Parra and centre Wesley Fofana but as always with France, it’s a case of whether they can all perform together as a coherent unit.  First of all they need to return to their audacious style of play from four or five years ago.  In the last 6 Nations championship they were painfully one-dimensional, lacking in any invention or creativity.  If they can re-capture the old French spirit and get the ball to Fofana in space, a lot can happen.  Or they will implode spectacularly.  Either way it will be fun to watch.

Prediction: 5th

 

Italy:

The Italian squad is vastly experienced, especially in the forwards.  With the Azzuri, you more or less know what you are going to get: A lot of forward power, distinctly one-paced in the back-line, except for my new favourite player: the mercurial fly half, Luciano Orquera.  Now the little number 10 has the ability to win a game in a flash as well as lose one, but isn’t it exciting to watch someone who is willing to take risks?  Someone will throw the audacious pass because it might lead to a try?  Modern day rugby has very few players of Orquera’s ilk and he should be applauded.  To be honest, with a back row of Alessandro Zanni, Sergio Parisse (surely the greatet number 8 ever) and Mauro Bergamasco (pretty sure he played in the ’99 World Cup, he must be about 50 now), the Italians have the ability to triumph over anyone on their day.  The problem is that they have sweet FA out wide so when Orquera does open the defence up like a can of beans, they don’t have the players to finish moves off.  Could cause a surprise but also, could not.

Prediction: 3rd

 

Scotland:

The Tartan Army have recently played rather attractive rugby without attaining the results their play has deserved.  Nevertheless, the schooling by South Africa in the Autumn was a stark reminder of their standing in World Rugby.  In Stuart Hogg they have the best running full-back in the competition, and with Seans, Lamont and Maitland on the wings, they have speedsters who know where the whitewash is.  Scotland’s problem has always been a dearth of creativity and tries.  Since the mighty Gregor Townsend retired, they have lacked the subtlety and creativity required to open up defences.  They also don’t have battering ram centres so they don’t force themselves over the gain-line either.  The resultant combination means lots of huff and puff but precious little end product which is a shame because Greg Laidlaw is a talented scrum-half and deserves to show what he can do with a pack on the front foot.  I can maybe see Scotland winning one match but no more.  They simply don’t have the requisite quality over the field, save for Hogg.

Prediction: 6th

 

As with all thealternativesportsblog’s predictions, they almost universally turn out to be incorrect.  Do not under any circumstances run down to the bookies and put money on any of our predictions.  You will end up disappointed, resentful and out of pocket.  Do however revel in the joy of five weekends of uninterrupted, (possibly) world-class rugby on your doorstep.  It might not be pretty but it will (probably) be exciting.

England not a force to be reckoned with

If England learned anything from their two friendlies against the Republic of Ireland and Brazil, it is that they are certainly no longer a major force in world football.  The manner in which they were outplayed for large swathes of the match against the Selecao was alarming – they lacked the ability to put even the most simplest of moves together – and indicative of their standing in international football, hanging on for dear life.  It does not bode well for the World Cup qualifiers where England can’t afford any slip-ups in their remaining four matches if they want to be back in Brazil this time next year.

            England do not have a terrible record this season.  In 11 internationals they have only lost once – to Zlatan Ibrahimovic – but they have also played out three 1-1 draws against Poland, Montenegro and Ukraine; not the sort of form that will be the rest of the world sleepless nights.  This apparent ability to make their rather average opponents look like world-beaters is admirable, but also slightly problematic if you’re trying to qualify for a World Cup.  Add to that another lacklustre 1-1 draw against Eire on Wednesday and it’s not been an annus mirabilis for the Three Lions.  On the one hand, after a long season a turgid performance is perhaps understandable – then again the top teams would comfortably dispatch a spirited but limited Ireland side.

            There have been some positives for the national side.  Two friendly victories against Brazil and Italy are not to be sniffed at (both are incidentally ranked lower that England in the official Fifa rankings).  The emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a player of considerable potential is encouraging and Theo Walcott has played marginally less shite than usual this season.  Frank Lampard is enjoying an Indian summer and when Jack Wilshere plays, England have the air of a team that isn’t a steaming pile of manure – which is a positive I suppose.

            My issue with the current England team is that they never dominate supposedly lower-ranked opposition (apart from San Marino and Moldova – which is hardly that commendable).  They always seem to play just about well enough to scrape an undeserved win or to hang on for a draw.  Take, for example, the 1-1 draw in Montenegro in March.  10 of the starting 11 had won the Premier League, the other (Gerrard), everything but.  Not exactly strangers to the idea of winning a crucial match.  In the next 90 minutes, Montenegro (ranked a very respectable 27th in the world) proceeded to dominate all facets of the game, forcing England into hopeful punts up field for most of the second half in the face of heavy Montenegrin bombardment.  Now the initiated football novice would have claimed that the Montenegrins were in fact the 7th best team in the world and England the 27th such was the gulf in class, not the other way round.  In the lead up to conceding the goal, England had to defend a series of corners and the defence just didn’t take control of the situation.  Dare I say it, John Terry would have put his head in where it hurts for the team (about his only redeeming feature).  Instead the defence resembled a confused group of schoolboys who had just been asked to recite the complete works of Shakespeare in Swahili whilst enacting the exact choreography to Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring.’  It was a performance that would have had Alan Hansen tearing his hair out (or licking his lips with glee at the prospect of saying ‘terrible defending’ in his own indomitable style).

            Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.  England haven’t played well in a major tournament since Euro 2004 and quite frankly, compared with the top European nations, they are light years behind.  Germany proved as such at the World Cup in 2010 and Italy, more recently at last year’s Euros.  One only had to watch the Champions League final to see the difference in playing style.  Dortmund and Bayern Munich were both physically and tactically adept at possession, counter-attacking, direct and tika-taka football whenever they so desired.  I was struck by the speed and incisiveness of the passing and movement.  There was always someone available to pass to, always someone in space or someone willing to make a run.  The forward lines were interchangeable making it difficult for defenders to pick them up.

England have often recently been accused of adopting tactics that are too rigid, that they play in lines instead of in a dynamic formation which operates in between the traditional 4-4-2 formation.  The truth is that the English are not intelligent enough to play such a system.  The top German/Spanish/Italian players have a footballing brain that is all too rare in this country which enables them to act on instinct.  This instinct is almost unteachable (unfortunately) because it relies on the player’s awareness of his teammates, the opposition, available space and the consequent passes he can play armed with all this information – something that takes a lifetime to absorb.  That’s without even considering the ability to actually execute these skills and the physical attributes required to compete for 90 minutes at the highest level.  Jack Wilshere is the only current England player that fits into this category.  In the last 25 years, Paul Gascoigne and Matt Le Tissier are the only players that come to mind.  The FA has recently changed its coaching blueprint, with the emphasis on technique.  This is undoubtedly a forward step because the national psyche needs to adapt and pronto at that.  For now, England may now have to accept that simply qualifying for the World Cup is an achievement in itself.

6 Nations Team of the tournament

So the dust has finally settled on the 2013 Six Nations.  A tournament which started and ended brightly was characterised by some cracking games and free-flowing rugby on the first and last weekends.  Just a shame that what was sandwiched in between was a load of turgid dross.

Ordinarily when selecting a team of the tournament, the inclination is to go with the players who have shown the most in an attacking sense.  That is where the excitement lies, and it is players who contribute a line-break, a deft pass, or a superbly accurate kick who tend to stand out.  However, this Six Nations tournament has seen comparatively little outstanding attacking play, partly due to the weather it must be said, and therefore in picking this year’s team of the tournament, it is not enough just to pick those who have shown most with ball in hand, especially amongst the backs.  Anyway, enough pseudo-intellectual bollocks, my brother and I attempt to find some of the shining lights from the relative gloom of this year’s championship.

15: FULL BACK

RDW:  Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)

Probably the easiest choice to make; Halfpenny has been simply outstanding this year (that said he’s been outstanding for a number of years now).  He is practically infallible under the high ball, a master at one-on-one tackles (I heard one stat during the tournament that he hasn’t missed a tackle in the Six Nations since 2010, which, if true, is staggering), a quite beautiful striker of the ball, both out of hand and off the tee, and a dangerous runner.  Full-back is a position that doesn’t lack for high quality performers in the Northern Hemisphere, with Stuart Hogg, Andrea Masi and Alex Goode all impressing, but Halfpenny was consistently excellent all tournament.

DDW:  Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)

I agree.  After waxing lyrical about Stuart Hogg earlier in the tournament, he rather unsurprisingly lost form, so the Welsh rock (if you say it like Jonathan Ross it’s sort of alliterative) gets my vote.  Flawless under the high ball and in defence, his goal-kicking ain’t half bad either (he finished the tournament as the leading points scorer).  Hogg though is a rare talent, reminiscent of a new breed of southern hemisphere attacking full backs (rather like Christian Cullen).  Definitely one to watch for the future.

14: Right Wing

RDW:  Alex Cuthbert (Wales)

Maybe Cuthbert doesn’t have the acceleration of the very best wingers in the game, but he is certainly quick enough once he gets going, and obviously extremely difficult to stop.  He finished masterfully twice against England, and was comfortably the tournament’s top try scorer.  He is occasionally a little unsure in defence, such as when he was bamboozled by Brian O’Driscoll’s pass to Simon Zebo in the opening game, but is still one of the better wingers around.

DDW:  Alex Cuthbert (Wales)

His finishing against Italy and England was clinical, and he showed a turn of pace to escape Mike Brown twice to score the tries that clinched the title.  Questions still remain about his defence, but having conceded no tries in the past four games, it can’t be that bad.

13. Outside Centre

RDW:  Wesley Fofana (France)

Yes, he started the first two games on the wing, and ended up there against England, but it’s obvious to all that centre is his natural position, and wherever he played he was always a class act.  His try against England, albeit against some pretty feeble tackling, was superb, and his finish against Scotland, brushing off Stuart Hogg like some minor irritant, was clinical.  He is just an all-round excellent rugby player.

DDW:  Jonathan Davies (Wales)

Admittedly not the most inspired selection, but it was more for the fact he was the least bad out of all the candidates than for anything spectacular he did.  Did an enormous amount of donkey work in attack and defence and showed good anticipation for his try against Italy.  Now if only he could pass or run into space…

12: Inside Centre

RDW:  Brad Barritt (England)

A controversial choice this; there are other centres who are more skilful (O’Driscoll, Mermoz, Marshall), more physically imposing (Basteraud, Roberts, Tuilagi) or more noticeable around the pitch (Lamont, O’Driscoll again, Davies), but in this tournament Barritt has combined efficient distribution with excellent defensive nous and rock-solid tackling.  He never does anything flash, but is totally dependable, and every team needs someone like him.

DDW:  Wesley Fofana (France)

Bafflingly selected on the right wing for the first two matches, once he was moved to his favoured inside-centre position he was a constant threat.  An elusive runner (as Chris Ashton will testify), he scored probably the try of the tournament at Twickenham.  Plays like Jeremy Guscott and hopefully the linchpin of the France team for years to come.

11. Left Wing

RDW:  George North (Wales)

This was one of the harder decisions to make – North or Tim Visser?  Visser has taken to international rugby like a duck on seeing the Atlantic for the first time, is big and fast, and runs some intelligent support lines (in the way Chris Ashton used to).  However, in this tournament North, despite his upright running style which can lead to him being turned after tackling a little too often, has provided some of the better attacking moments, was a Mike Brown manicure away from scoring a scorcher against England, and showed his try-sniffing ability when helping conjure a try out of nothing against France.

DDW:  George North (Wales)

Again, did nothing spectacular (save for a match-winning try against the French) but also didn’t make any major mistakes, and that consistency wins you championships.  Solid in all facets of the game, although seems to have lost the ability to find space on the pitch, often seeking contact rather than the gaps.  A certain Lion.

10. Fly-half

RDW:  Owen Farrell (England)

Let’s be honest, the Northern Hemisphere isn’t exactly awash with high-quality outside-halves at the moment.  Whereas in the past, the most talented rugby player in the team tended to play at number 10, nowadays he plays at either 7 or 15.  Had Jonny Sexton remained fit, he would probably have won the prestige of being named in this team, as it is Farrell wins almost by default.  Dan Biggar got better as the tournament progressed, but was poor against Ireland, and mediocre against Scotland;  Luciano Orquera followed a blinder against France with a stinker against Scotland; Ian Madigan looked promising, but raw; and Freddie Michalak looked like a scrum-half playing out of position.  Farrell didn’t play to his potential against France or Wales, but was excellent in the first two games of the tournament, and kicked his goals when required.

DDW:  Frederic Michalak (France)

Only joking.  As much as I really want to include Italy’s mercurial Luciano Orquera, my choice goes to Owen Farrell.  Great in defence and at kicking, he has added an attacking edge, exemplified by his pass for Geoff Parling’s try in on the opening weekend.  Has an invaluable, almost Wilkinsonesque ability to make the correct decision at the right time.  Displayed a unnecessary confrontational attitude against the French though.  Dan Biggar grew as the tournament progressed but he kicked too aimlessly against France and wasn’t at the races against Ireland.

9. Scrum-half

RDW:  Greg Laidlaw (Scotland)

Another position without any outstanding candidate.  Laidlaw kept the pace of Scotland’s attacks going, has a blinder of a pass off either hand, and can land his box kicks on a sixpence.  He just edges out Mike Phillips (physical as ever but, again as ever, too inclined to try and do it all himself) and Ben Youngs (great runner, crap passer).

DDW:  Mike Phillips (Wales)

Completely disagree.  Phillips was another who improved with every game, he was the driving force behind the final two victories against Scotland and England.  Gone are the sniping runs around the fringes of the rucks but his delivery has improved since his swich to Bayonne and he seems to have found some much needed maturity on and off the field.  Morgan Parra ran him a close second with his assured displays against England, Scotland and Ireland.  Danny Care and Ben Youngs faded badly as the tournament progressed.  Greg Laidlaw was great at goal-kicking but not so much with possession going forward (and Scotland had none), the true yardstick of an international scrum-half.

1. Loose-head Prop

RDW:  Thomas Domingo (France)

There have been suggestions that his scrummaging technique might not be legal (don’t ask me why – I know as much about the scrum as most international referees), but Domingo made life difficult for every tight-head he came up against, winning several penalties off Adam Jones, and making Dan Cole look ordinary, until he was ludicrously taken off.  He may not show in the loose as much as Gethin Jenkins or Cian Healy, but the French scrum was one of the few facets of their play that wasn’t disappointing.

DDW:  Cian Healy (Ireland)

Yes he executed a disgusting stamp on Dan Cole but from a purely playing point of view, he was awesome.  A destructive force both in the scrum and the loose, Healy reminds me a bit of Andrew Sheridan.  Needs to reign in his discipline but his aggressive approach has reaped rewards, so one indiscretion shouldn’t change his approach.  Honourable mention goes to Gethin Jenkins who started slowly but was indomitable against the English.  Showed Mako Vunipola just how far he has to improve to reach test-class status.

2. Hooker

RDW:  Richard Hibbard (Wales)

The Welsh scrum was immense during their last three games, and Hibbard must take some of the credit for that.  He was also reasonably accurate in the lineout, scored a poacher’s try against Scotland, and put in some bone-jarring tackles.  Why is it, though, that front-row forwards are tending towards the hirsute?  Does it give you extra power, like Samson?  Tom Youngs was excellent in the loose (as you’d expect from a converted centre), but too wayward with his throwing, while Ken Owens always impressed when he came on.

DDW:  Rory Best (Ireland)

The best (thank you) all-round hooker in the tournament, Best was a rare positive in a desperately disappointing Ireland.  Richard Hibbard might be better in the loose, and Ross Ford and Leonardo Ghiraldini may be stronger at line-out time, but the Irishman is an all-action player who popped up all over the place, rather reminiscent of Keith Wood.  Like his compatriots, will want to forget the Rome nightmare in a jiffy.

3. Tight-head Prop

RDW:  Adam Jones (Wales)

At the start of the tournament, there were many that said Adam Jones’ time as the Northern Hemisphere’ outstanding tight-head was at an end, with Dan Cole taking his mantle.  It turns out that’s rubbish.  Despite a tough time in Paris on a dreadful pitch in filthy conditions, Jones was the foundation on which the Welsh scrum could build their dominance, and he even found time to make a couple of passes.

DDW:  Adam Jones (Wales)

An obvious choice.  Re-asserted why he is the best tight-head in the northern hemisphere.  A tireless worker in the loose (next time you watch him, count how many times he’s at the breakdown), he schooled Castrogiovanni et al in the scrum, taught the Scots a lesson in Murrayfield, and (insert pedagogical metaphor) against Dan Cole.

4. Lock

RDW:  Geoff Parling (England)

Parling may look like he should be a whimsical stand-up, or an advertising executive, but he is a reliable lineout operator who puts in his fair share of work in the loose.  There’s not much more to say about him, he seems to be just the sort of unflashy, hard-working bloke you want in your side.

DDW:  Ian Evans (Wales)

The Welshman is finally delivering on his early promise after putting his injury problems behind him.  Has settled a traditionally jittery Welsh line-out and is a formidable ball carrier to boot.

5. Lock

RDW:  Ian Evans (Wales)

Lock is one of the positions where the Lions selectors are spoilt for choice.  Jim Hamilton was immense in defence against Ireland, Joe Launchbury, despite a chastening time against Wales, is clearly a star in the making, Alun Wyn Jones’ return helped the Welsh cause no end, and Donnacha Ryan was a lineout machine.  However, Evans was not only dominant in the lineout; he was also prominent in the loose, made tackle after tackle, and provided plenty of grunt in the scrum.

DDW:  Quentin Geldenhuys (Italy)

The Italian with the less-than-sounding Italian name has impressed me in this tournament with his work rate.  The Italians have traditionally won the odd Six Nations match through forward domination, and although this year their backs were more prominent, Geldenhuys was one of the main reasons Italy could play on the front foot.  He was instrumental in an Italian lineout that ran smoother than a German train timetable.  I must mention Alun Wyn-Jones’ stirring performances in the last two games too.

6. Blindside Flanker

RDW:  Alessandro Zanni (Italy)

Like the second row, finding outstanding performers in the back row is not a problem.  Tom Wood, Peter O’Mahony and Ryan Jones all showed their class, with Jones particularly excellent against France.  However, Italy’s back row is starting to look dangerous and Zanni, who has improved steadily over the last few seasons, showed himself to be the complete back-row forward, carrying the ball often, tackling hard, winning lineout ball and, according to Opta Stats, offloading the ball four more times than anyone else in the tournament.  That’s good enough for me.

DDW:  Alessandro Zanni (Italy)

Had Ryan Jones not been injured, he would probably have taken the blindside flanker role for his industrious displays against France, Italy and Scotland.  As it happened, Zanni was the standout 6 in the tournament providing a reliable lineout option, as well as some tough tackling to go with his try against Scotland.

7. Openside Flanker

RDW:  Justin Tipuric (Wales)

Ah, the famous number 7 jersey.  Should you pick a ‘jackal’ like the Southern Hemisphere teams, and try and steal turnovers/slow the ball down/cheat (delete as appropriate), or should you pick an all-round athlete who can carry the ball, compete at the breakdown, be useful in the lineout, and probably make a blinding cuppa too.  Sam Warburton is probably the closest thing the Northern Hemisphere possesses to a jackal, and, for one reason or another, his tournament was very up-and-down.  Sean O’Brien, as always, carried the ball manfully, but is a little too one-dimensional.  Chris Robshaw was superb until the final match, tackling hard, carrying the ball more than most and leading by example, but he was comprehensively outplayed against Wales by Tipuric who, throughout the tournament showed he is nearly a complete number 7.  He has the intelligence and hands of an inside centre, the pace of a back, is a useful lineout option (he’s comparatively small so can be effectively flung into the air), a willing ball-carrier and a warrior at the breakdown.  His lack of size is a negative on occasions (being bounced by Manoa Vosawai off a scrum against Italy), but otherwise he is yet another world-class Welsh back-rower.

DDW:  Chris Robshaw (England)

Over the whole five weekends, he was the most consistent openside flanker.  Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric may have had the odd stellar game, but Robshaw was England’s player of the tournament and gave the aforementioned Welsh flankers a run for their money in the Cardiff finale (even if the rest of his teammates didn’t).  Lead the Red Rose with a calm assurance that bodes well for the future.  Still not certain of a Lions berth.

8. Number Eight

RDW:  Louis Picamoles (France)

The man with the thickest thighs ever recorded (not actually a fact) has, at times, seemed to be carrying the French team by himself, often requiring several defenders to bring him down.  His quick-thinking led to the match-saving try against Ireland, and he was always a nightmare for the opposition.  It seems strange to be compiling a Six Nations team of the tournament without including Sergio Parisse, but excellent though he was, he missed the Wales game, and ten minutes of the Ireland game through ill-discipline.  Toby Faletau also deserves a mention for his consistency and work-rate.

DDW:  Sergio Parisse (Italy)

Probably the most hotly contested position.  The stats don’t lie, and yes Louis Piccamoles gained the most yards among the forwards and yes he was a man mountain whilst all others around him were mere boyish mounds, but Parisse was the reason Italy won their two matches, whereas despite Piccamoles best efforts, he couldn’t quite drag Les Bleus over the line.  Piccamoles is for all intents and purposes a battering ram, and a bloody good one at that, but Parisse is the complete Rugby footballer: he is a majestic runner, he’s awesome at the breakdown, he can catch and pass like a fly-half, and he always breaks the gain line.  He does all this with an imposing physicality of a Piccamoles, which is why he just gets the nod for me.  In the three matches he played, he displayed why he is the premier no. 8 in the world.  It is no co-incidence that Italy were more competitive with their talismanic captain in the side.  Toby Faletau also impressed in the latter stages of the tournament with his ball-carrying skills.  A place on the Lions tour beckons.