Sunday, March 30, 2008

Saracens Demolish Leeds

After last week's debacle at the Millennium Stadium, Sarries fans were looking for a decent performance from their team for the visit of Premiership whipping boys, Leeds. They have won a couple of games, but are basically deep in relegation territory and heading for the drop next season.

[Paul Gustard is tackled by the Leeds defence, but it doesn't make a lot of difference]

[Tom Ryder amid a sea of yellow jerseys, hangs onto the ball]

[left, Brent Russell is scragged by Kearnan Myall]. Saracens put some decent runs of play together. The midfield were running some good lines, and the tries kept coming. Eleven in all, for the Men In Black, and a consolation try for Leeds' Captain Stuart Hooper from an intercepted pass late in the game. Sarries put the norhterners to the sword to the tune of 66-7. And although Leeds have been beaten by most of the other sides in the Premiership this season, no-one has put that many points over them so far. At last, The Gaffers' words must be sinking in for Sarries.

The team and fans know that the team visiting next week, Wales' Ospreys, will be a different prospect and much harder to beat. But the win today must have given the boys a welcome confidence boost for the next crucial match. See more photos from the game.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ospreys Humiliate Sarries

EDF Semi-Final 2 - Ospreys vs Saracens (30-3)

The second semi final was a painful thing to watch for the Saracens faithful, many of whom had travelled through sleet and snow in London to make their way to Cardiff for the game. I, for one, wondered why I'd bothered.

To be fair, the first half was pretty tight, with only Shane Williams' unconverted try and a penalty from James Hook giving the Ospreys an 8-0 advantage at the break. We also had a 10-minute spell of snow, leaving the supporters and players to rue the decision to leave the flaming roof open!

[Some idiot left the roof open... hadn't they heard the forecast for snow?]

I don't know who had done the team talk for Sarries at half time, but I think it was the same bloke who made the one against Newcastle just after Christmas! Please stop already!

[Kris Chesney goes for Mike Phillips in the loose, as the snow falls]

Basically, the floodgates opened. Sarries buckled and the Ospreys made light work of scoring 3 tries and a total of 22 points to Sarries' 3! NOT a good day at the office for the Men In Black, nor their supporters who trudged back to their buses in a dejected manner for the return trip down the M4. [right] Osprey Jonathan Thomas dominant in the lineout, just as the rest of his team were dominant elsewhere on the pitch.

The Ospreys are due at Vicarage Road in a fortnight for the Heineken Cup Quarterfinal against Saracens. Let's hope they don't get such an easy ride next time!

Two casualties of the game were Osprey Mike Phillips who sustained a cruciate knee ligament injury and will be out for up to six months. And Sarries' Kiwi Lock Chris Jack who's hand injury rules him out for the rest of the season. He will certainly be missed, on and off the pitch.

The Ospreys are now set for their EDF Final against the Tigers. And Sarries fans are praying The Gaffer can undo the damage to morale for the team. See more match photos from the game.

Semi Detatched

EDF Semi-Final 1 - Leicester Tigers vs London Wasps (34-24)

As a neutral watching the game, it was a very entertaining 80 minutes, with the lead changing hands several times, often against the run of play.

I had travelled to the Millennium Stadium with the Saraacens supporters. We had seats in the East stand, about 4 rows back. Good in theory, but pretty bad for the first 40 minutes on a sunny afternoon with the roof open - couldn't see a thing with the sun straight in our eyes. Eventually it dipped below the stadium roof, and I was able to get some half-decent photos. Paul Sackey scored a great try in the first half, and the teams went in 13-12 at half time.

[Paul Sackey is enveloped by Andy Goode and Harry Ellis, looking sharp for the Leicester defence]

Things opened up a little in the second half, with the Tigers putting more points on the board than Wasps. Sackey managed another touchdown in the second half, along with team mate Danny Cipriani. Whilst for the Tigers, Seru Rabeni, Dan Hipkiss and Martin Castrogiovanni all crossed. No-one was more surprised than the Prop himself, when Castrogiovanni found himself in space, ball in hand and the line 20m away. He lumbered forward and no-one was at home to defend. He did the most exuberant belly-flop to get his try that I've ever witnessed. Didn't realised Props bounce quite that well!

[Martin Castrogiovanni belly-flops his way to a try]

In the end, Leicester were the deserved winners, and will go into the final with confidence after that performance. See more match photos from the game.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Grand Slam For Wales

Six Nations Game 15 - Wales vs France (29-12)

Wales made their intentions clear from the start, and were pressing the French lines within five minutes. Then their opponents killed the ball, and James Hook [right] stepped up to take the penatly. First blood to the Welsh, 3-0. Hook had another go at goal in the 14th minute, which saile just wide of the posts.

The French were committing a lot of players to rucks, while Wales only used the minimum. David Skrela's kicking was pretty awful too - including one restart which actually went backwards!

The Welsh made a break in the 18th minute and Les Bleus found themselves offside. Hook stepped up for another punt which went plumb through the middle, 6-0 up.

In the next minute, Wales themselves were penalised, France took the penalty by Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, and they were back in it at 6-3. They gave it away again a few minutes later when Julien Bonnaire was caught monumentally offside at a ruck, Hook made it 9-3.

On the half hour, France made decent inroads into the Welsh half. They recycled several times, inching their way upfield. 10,000 French supporters chanted "Allez Les Bleus!" but they couldn't turn possession into points.

Just before half time, Gavin Henson [left] was pinged for a high tackle on Fulgence Ouedraogo and went to the bin. The penalty kick from Elissalde was easy, and so Wales went in 9-6 at the break, but with the prospect of starting the second half with only 14 men.

The French came out with all guns blazing, but tried to play too much rugby. They gave away a penalty very close to their own line. Hook took the kick from out wide; it wasn't quite on target.

Then Les Bleus were making ground again, but ferocious Welsh tackling kept their line firm. Gethin Jenkins clashed heads with a Frenchman and France won another penalty - Elisslade levelled the score at 9-9.

Henson returned a minute or tow later, much to the relief of the crowd. The Welsh were desperate for some possession in order to make headway. Shane Williams broke away, passed to Martyn Williams and worked upfield. France regained after a Welsh chip ahead.

In the 60th minute, the stadium erupted when France spilled the ball, and Shane Williams fell onto the ball just under the posts. It was his 41st try for Wales, making him the all-time try scorer for his country. The conversion by Stephen Jones [left] was a foregone conclusion - and Wales were 16-9 up.

The Welsh were fired up now, three minutes later they won a penalty 37m out from the posts. Jones' kick was good again and Wales were 19-9 up.

France's Vincent Clerc made a break and the Welsh fumbled their defence. France got the put in at a 10m scrum. But the Welsh forwards weren't buckling - they won the scrum against the head.

With almost 10 minute left, Wales gave away another penalty; Dmitri Yachvili on as a replacement, kicked the three points and it was 19-12. Not long after, Stephen Jones eroded the difference again with another penalty and Wales clawed back their 10 point advantage, 22-12.

The final nail in the French coffin came with only 5 minutes left on the clock. Mark Jones broke away and flew up the pitch to within 1m of the French line. France scrambled the defence, a bit of ping-pong, then Lee Byrne caught a phenomenal up-and-under. Martyn Williams [right] did the honours with a 20m run to slide under the posts. Stephen Jones conversion were a formality. Wales 29-12.

The last three minutes were filled with noise from their supporters. A well-deserved victory for Wales, and a great achievement to win the Grand Slam again. They have played some excellent rugby throughout the tournament and fully deserve their title. Remarkably, they only conceded 2 tries in their 5 matches this year. And what a turnaround from their lacklustre World Cup campaign a few months ago.

The ref blew up for full time and the stadium roof almost lifted off with the noise. Well done Wales.

England Convince Against Ireland

Six Nations Game 14 - England vs Ireland (33-10)

After poor performances from both sides last week, it was crunch time for England and Ireland's last game of the Championship.

Ireland struck first with a try from Rob Kearney in the 4th minute - just the start that English fans at Twickenham didn't want! Ronan O'Gara added the extras without a hitch, and the hosts were down 0-7. England were caught holding on a few minutes later, and O'Gara punished them with another kick. 0-10 down and it wasn't looking good for England.

In the 12th minute, Danny Cipriani [right] replied with a penalty of his own, clawing back 3 points. A few minutes later, Paul Sackey scored a wonderful try in the corner. Cipriani converted to bring the scores level at 10-all.

Toby Flood chipped ahead and gathered himself, and Irish hands were caught in the subsequent ruck. Another three points for Ciprirani, and England went ahead 13-10. There the score remained for the rest of the first half.

In the second period, England opened the floodgates. Despite an early Irish attack, it came to nothing. Lesley Vainikolo got a bit of a run in the 43rd minute, and England were pressuring the Irish defence. The men in green were caught playing on the ground again, Cipriani added another 3 to his total and England were 16-10 ahead.

Another Irish attack in the 46th minute came to nothing after a knock-on. At 55 minutes, old hand Jonny Wilkinson came on to the park. Then Iain Balshaw flew up the wing, who passed to Matthew Tait [left] to cross in the corner. The extras brought it to 23-10.

In the 70th minute, Jamie Noon broke through the Irish defence in the left corner, juggling the ball in mid air, but keeping control long enough to score by the flag. Another conversion and the Red Rose boys were leading by 20 points, at 30-10.

With 8 minutes left on the clock, the Irish were caught once again, playing the ball in a ruck. The resulting penalty was true from Cipriani and the hosts were 33-10 up.

The last couple of minutes saw Ireland pushing for the line, but they knocked on and England ran a move up into the Irish half. They couldn't make another score, but at least they looked much more convincing this week.

Danny Cipriani's full England debut was impressive - Jonny needs to watch his back if he's not to be overshadowed by the young buck.

Italy End On A High

Six Nations Game 13 - Italy vs Scotland (23-20)

The Italians managed first blood when their pack were scrummaging well, and the Scots half collapsed - ref Nigel Owens gave a penalty try on 12 minutes and the conversion was good.

In the 20th minute, Scot Ally Hogg managed a try, his 10th for Scotland, from a great offload in the tackle, just reward for a long period of possession. Only the Scots 2nd try of the championship. Chris Paterson managed his 31st kick at goal with no trouble, to take the scores level at 7-7.

Italy infringed at a ruck in the 25th minute, and up stepped Dan Parks [right] for a huge 43m penalty to take the Scots ahead, 7-10. The just before half time, the Italians drew level once more through a penalty kick. A tense time for both teams, and interesting watching for neutrals.

Scottish Captain Mike Blair broke away from traffic to touch down between the posts just on the stroke of half time. Paterson converted to give them the advantage at the break, 10-17.

The Italians missed a chance for a penalty in the 48th minute. There were a few breaks and half breaks, with Scotland missing some important tackles. The Italian scrum was looking convincing as it had at the start of the first half. Both teams were throwing it around and whilst it was entertaining, there were alos plenty of errors and knock-ons.

The Azzurri turned over a Scottish attack when they intercepted a poor Dan Parks pass. Sergio Parisse flew down the pitch, passed in field to Gonzalo Canale who dived over between the posts. The conversion made it level pegging, 17-all with 20 minutes to go. The Roman crowd went mad, yelling "ITALIA" at the top of their lungs.

Andrea Marcato [left] kicked the home side in front at 70 minutes when Scotland were caught offside. 20-17 up, and the Stadio Flaminio went into overdrive. A couple of minutes later, Scotland levelled it again when Chris Paterson took a penalty, making is 32nd successfull kick in a row. 20-20 with eight minutes left.

In the 77th minute, Italy had an attacking lineout on the Scottish 10m line. The forwards went mauling and then it went to the backs, through several phases. More pick and drive, the clock ticking down. Canale was stopped a couple of metres short of the line. The Italians were chanting in the crowd and the Scottish defence was working overtime. Then it came back to Marcato, in the pocket for a sweet drop goal in the last minute. Italy 23 Scotland 20. The time ticked away, and an Italian boot kicked it out to touch. Once again, the Stadio Flaminio went nuts.

So, Italy won the game, and the Wooden Spoon, but that didn't seem to matter. And what an entertaining game - always nail-biting, even for a neutral to watch. The Azzurri's grins said it all.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sarries Overcome Sale

Saracens won an important victory against Sale to keep their Guinness Premiership playoff hopes alive.

The Men In Black went ahead by 21 points to 0 initially. Ben Skirving managed a try, as did Prop Cencus Johnston, who scored from a remarkable 20-metre run, evading three tackles to cross the line. Glen Jackson added five kicks to the score too.

[Sebastien Chabal, looking like Neanderthal Man]

[Richard Haughton makes a try-saving tackle]

Sale's very own Neanderthal Man Sebastien Chabal scored a try, as did Oriel Ripol, but Richard Haughton managed to save another with this tackle above. The final score was 24-20. See more photos from this match.

France Edge Out Italy

Six Nations Game 12 - France vs Italy (25-13)

Despite Italy's persistance, France managed to pick up a vital victory at the Stade de France to keep their Six Nations title hopes alive.

Marc Lievremont rang the changes once more, with several new caps. But the gamble paid off, to keep the Gallic side in the running for a showdown next week with their Celtic rivals Wales.

The French were only just in front at half time, partly thanks to a try from new boy Anthony Floch's [right] try. Initially, Captain Lionel Nallet thought he had scored, but the ref judged he's not taken a tap-and-go penalty correctly. The French pack were dominant for at a maul, and then Francois Trinh-Duc put a lovely chip for Julien Malzieu who collected and fed Floch for his first try.

Minutes later, after an Italian penalty brought the score to 7-3, the Azzurri looked like scoring until Gonzalo Canale spilled the ball with the line beckoning. Then Dmitri Yachvili took another penalty to bring the score to 13-6 at half time.

In the second half, Yannick Jauzion [right] scored a lovely try from Yachvili's chip ahead, to put France further in the lead. But France weren't getting it all their own way. Italy won a lineout from a corner penalty, and the powerful Italian pack drove Leicester prop Martin Castrogiovanni over the line for a touchdown. The conversion made it 18-13 and the Azzurri were chasing Les Bleus all the way.

Aurelien Rougerie almost had another try, were it not for Mirco Bergamasco's try-saving tackle, holding up the Frenchman's arm over the line, the video ref having to be consulted before no-try was given.

Rougerie made amends moments later, when he took an excellent pass from Damien Traille and touched down safely, taking the French safely away from the Italians. An entertaining game, France were the victors at 25-13.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

England A Shambles At Murrayfield

Six Nations Game 11 - Scotland vs England (15-9)

An early penalty for Scotland was an early reward, with Chris Paterson accurately kicking his 27th consecutive goal kick! The heavy mud and deluging rain can't have been easy. At the end of the first quarter, England Fullback Iain Balshaw and Rory Lamont slid to collect a ball. Instead, Balshaw's knee connected with Lamont's head, and there was a lengthy delay as the Scot was stretchered off, out cold. Later reports say he's OK but has gone to hospitals for checkups. He'll have a sore head, for sure.

The play was quite scrappy generally as the conditions continued to play their part. But Jonny Wilkinson [right] became Rugby Union's highest points scorer when he punted over another penalty, bringing the scores level at 3-3.

Andrew Sheridan gave away a silly penatly on the half hour - Paterson made it 28 kicks in a row and the Scots went ahead again 6-3.

The rain let up briefly, but then started again in earnest just before half time. So they played kicking ping pong for a while. With three minutes to go to the break, Jonny kicked his next penalty just short. In the last minute, Simon Shaw gave away another penalty, the Paterson kicking machine was on song and Scotland went in at half time 9-3 up.

The Scots got the perfect start to the second half with another penalty and England seemed to fall apart - they lost a couple of lineouts, they knocked on and kept infringing at rucks. The wheels came off the chariot. Whatever happened to the spark they showed in Paris? They were full of stodge.

Then Dan Parks [above] had a go for a long-range penalty which he punted over with confidence. At 15-3 down, England were definitely in trouble. Eventually they had a chance at goal in the 49th minute. Jonny's aim was good, and it was 15-6. Still trailing heavily, there didn't seem to be any creativity or ambition from the England squad, and the Scots took their chances where they could. Three minutes later, another 3 points for Jonny, gradually eroding the deficit to 15-9.

Going into the final quarter, England had a lineout in Scottish territory and made a bit of headway up the pitch. But then they threw a forward pass. A series of scrums went first one way, then the other. It was a dour old game, probably more interesting to watch paint dry.

In the 65th minute, England finally strung a few phases together in the Scottish half. But it was far from pretty. Scotland pinched the ball. Then won a penalty. And England's chances slipped away again.

Brian Ashton decided it was time to bring on the cavalry and it was all change from the bench. Scotland put together a decent bit of play, and Dan Parks looked like he was going for a drop goal, but it was charged down and England gained possession. Then Jonny was subbed by Charlie Hodgson [right] - it's a while since we've seen him in an England shirt!

With ten minutes to go, and a converted try required for England to snatch victory, England finally had a lineout in the Scottish half. But yet again, they couldn't string together a decent run of play.

So the game ended at 15-9, Scottish fans celebrated their Calcutta Cup victory and English fans are left wondering what sort of game they will witness next week in the final round against Ireland. Let's just hope it doesn't get any worse!

Wales Take Triple Crown

Six Nations Game 10 - Ireland vs Wales (12-16)

Ireland started well with a couple of penalties against the men in red, but eventually the Welsh were able to claw one back for themselves and the score stood t 6-3 at half time. Welsh scrum half Mike Philips [right] spent ten iminutes in the bin either side of the break for a professional foul.

But despite having a specialist player out for his sins, Wales managed to hang on to their hats with Shane Williams filling in at No. 9. They even managed to take another penalty off Ireland to bring the scores level.

With Philips back on, Wales got fired up again and Shane Williams saw a miniscule gap in the Irish defence, broke through and scored his 40th try for Wales in 55 tests. Stephen Jones' conversion brought the score to 13-6!

Soon after, Martyn Williams took out Eoin Reddan with a naughty trip, and spent time in the sin-bin. Ronan O'Gara slotted the penalty for that offence, and another a little while later to bring the Irish to within 1 score of salvaging the game.

But it was not to be, and Ireland finished on the wrong end of 1 12-16 defeat at home. The Welsh fans were in fine voice at Croke Park as Captain Ryan Jones [left] lifted the Triple Crown, tied with red ribbons flying about, above his head. So only France now stand in the way of a possible Welsh Grand Slam.