Archive for the ‘Rugby’ Category

Owen Franks.  Brad Thorn.  Sam Whitelock.  Kieran Read.  Dan Carter.  Sonny Bill Williams.  Robbie Fruean.  Israel Dagg.  What do all these names have in common?

You would be forgiven if you thought I was naming members of the latest All Black squad.  All of these players, especially on current form, are shoo-ins to be part of it.

But really I’m naming members of the current Crusaders squad in the Super 15 and these eight are just the tip of the iceberg.  Now add in other luminaries such as Ben Franks, Corey Flynn, George Whitelock, Andy Ellis, Zac Guildford, Sean Maitland, and the legendary Richie McCaw.  Suddenly it becomes crystal clear why the Crusaders are the best team in the Super 15 this season.

See, the Crusaders boast a starting lineup that could potentially be an All Black team all on its own.  Not just in terms of reputation, but in terms of form as well.  And with McCaw – the only player to have won multiple IRB World Player of the Year Awards – yet to play a game this season, they can only get better.

The stats probably say it best.  The Crusaders’ 151 points scored and 65 allowed place them first and third respectively in those categories.  They have scored a competition-leading 17 tries and wing Sean Maitland is the leading try-scorer with five tries to his name.

Despite a round one setback against the Blues, the Crusaders look nigh on unstoppable.  Their fast, physical, and unpredictable game lends itself well to an era of structured defence and gym-monkey players.  If you look at their lineup from one to fifteen you’ll see a legion of big men who can move and who know how to handle a rugby ball.

Chief amongst them are the center combination of Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean.  It certainly helps that they get the ball from Dan Carter, but these two are enough to scare props, let alone other centers.  Their combination of speed, strength, passing, and awareness is simply unmatched in the Super 15 – and maybe even in the world.  Williams is 6’3″ and 238lbs while Fruean is 6’4″ and 242lbs.  Considering that most centers usually measure around 6′ and around 200lbs, Williams and Fruean represent some pretty heavy artillery.

The scariest part is that they both can play.  They don’t just charge at the line and hope to smash through a tackle.  Williams’ offloading skills that he developed during his days in rugby league allow him to stand up in the tackle and release the devastating strike weapons outside of him.  Fruean has the speed of a wing to capitalize on those chances as well as the awareness needed to put his actual wings away instead of trying to take on defenders single-handedly.

Speaking of those wings, I am still amazed that Sean Maitland hasn’t been capped for the All Blacks.  Seriously.  Just imagine him on the opposite wing as Hosea Gear wreaking destruction on other nations in the World Cup.  Maitland is possessed of blinding pace and has the positional awareness and kicking skills that come with playing the last ITM Cup season at fullback.  He also plays the Crusader-style game that is favoured by Graham Henry and co. to perfection, running off his centers and popping up in unexpected places.  It will be interesting to see how his partnership with Zac Guildford and Israel Dagg develops as the season progresses as both are also candidates for New Zealand’s World Cup squad.

Other than the immortal Messrs. Carter and McCaw, the Crusaders have another area in which they particularly excel: the tight five.  The Crusaders’ second row is stocked full of talent with the experienced figures of Brad Thorn and Chris Jack competing with youngster Sam Whitelock – already a All Black regular – for a starting spot.  All three have the skills to play in the loose in addition to their in-tight muscle and aggression.  The front row of the Franks brothers, Ben and Owen, and Corey Flynn is also one of the best units in the Super 15.  Owen Franks has made the All Black tighthead jersey his own in the wake of Carl Hayman’s departure and only the stubborn Tony Woodcock of the Blues keeps Ben out of the national side.

In their history, the Crusaders have won seven Super Rugby titles.  With a lineup that could match most national teams and a style of game that they execute with such precision, it won’t be long before they add an eighth trophy to their mantle.

Everyone should be scared.

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Italy’s history as a rugby-playing nation does not make for pretty reading.

Since they were added to the Six Nations Championship in 2000 Italy have failed to finish better than fourth on the table and have finished the tournament winless on multiple occasions.  In this year’s tournament Italy pushed Ireland close in their first game, but the next week gave up 59 points to England.

During Italy’s participation they have had four coaches: Brad Johnstone, All Black legend John Kirwan, current Racing Metro coach Pierre Berbizier, and Italy’s current boss Nick Mallett.  Each coach has seemingly made some progress with the team, but each has failed to move the Azzurri forward in any meaningful manner.  Even Mallett, who had an extremely successful stint as the coach of South Africa, has not had the impact that many thought he would when he took the job back in 2007.

Now, I can hardly fault any of these coaches for struggling to turn Italy into a rugby powerhouse.  After all, Italy hardly has the best rugby talent in the world.  They do boast players like Sergio Parisse or Martin Castrogiovanni who would walk into any team of the world’s best players, but after them and the rest of their front row the stocks begin to dwindle rapidly.  Their backline is devoid of talents such as Wales’ Shane Williams or James Hook, England’s Chris Ashton, or France’s Maxime Medard and as such is near-toothless in attack.

It then seems odd that I would greet the news that Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel might be signed to coach Italy after this year’s World Cup with any kind of cheer.  Why should he fare any better than those who came before him if given the exact same tools to do the job?

However, let’s look at some of Brunel’s credentials.  First up is his 2009 French Championship with Perpignan and a return trip to the final in 2010.  The victory was the first for Perpignan since 1955.  Ever since Brunel took the reins at Perpignan, the club has been in title contention.  Secondly, Brunel was an assistant coach for the French National team under Bernard Laporte for two World Cups—reaching the semi-finals in both tournaments.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t much.  Some of the other coaches mentioned above have achieved just as much, if not more, and were still left without success as the coach of Italy.

The answer to the question of ‘Why would Brunel be a good fit for Italy?’ is simple: look at Brunel’s current team at Perpignan.

The team that Brunel leads at Perpignan is more similar to the Italian national team than first meets the eye.  They, like Italy, are possessed of a big, bruising forward pack that other teams have trouble dealing with.  They, like Italy, have a backline full of journeyman players (although Perpignan does have one or two real talents as well).  Jacques Brunel has seen Italy’s like before and has led that team—Perpignan—to two French Finals appearances and one title.

Let’s break the comparison down further.

In the forwards, for Perpignan’s Nicholas Mas, Marius Tincu, and Jerome Schuster there is Italy’s Salvatore Perugini, Leonardo Ghiraldini, and the aforementioned Martin Castrogiovanni.  For Perpignan’s Rimas Alvarez Kairelis there is Quintin Geldenhuys.  For Perpignan’s Jean-Pierre Perez and Henry Tuilagi there is Alessandro Zanni and Sergio Parisse.

In many of these comparisons, the Italian players are better than their counterparts at Perpignan.  As such, Brunel will have less work to do on this aspect of the Italian team, especially given how well they compete with other top nations in the scrum or at the breakdown.

In the backs Italy has no one on par with players such as Maxime Mermoz or David Marty of Perpignan.  These two players have been capped many times for France and are routinely mentioned as one of the top center pairings in Europe.  In comparison, the pairing of Gonzalo Garcia and Gonzalo Canale is akin to that of a club team in Belleville, Ontario.

However, the rest of Italy’s backline is very similar to Perpignan’s.  Perpignan’s fleet of underwhelming, journeyman fly-halves is matched by the Italian quest to replace the long-retired Diego Dominguez with one of Craig Gower, Kris Burton, or Luciano Orquera.  Out wide, the parallels between Julien Candelon, Farid Sid, and Jerome Porical for Perpignan and Mirco Bergamasco, Andrea Masi, and Luke McLean for Italy are uncanny.

Italy’s previous coaches have never come from such a similar background before assuming the Italian job.  Mallett was in charge of a South African team possessed of talented backs such as Henry Honiball, Percy Montgomery, Stefan Terblanche, and Joost van der Westhuizen in addition to their traditionally strong forward pack.

Berbizier coached the French national team from 1992-1995, during which time the team included Philippe Saint-Andre, Philippe Sella, Emile Ntamack, and Fabien Galthie.  The French are famed for playing a very attacking backline game, which is only possible with the kind of high-calibre players that Italy does not have.  As such, Berbizier’s favoured style—evident in his current Racing Metro squad—was largely contradictory to his stint as Italy coach.

Even John Kirwan was a former All Black, winning the 1987 World Cup and playing in New Zealand’s 1991 entry.  At one point was New Zealand’s top try scorer and played with other great backline players such as Grant Fox, Kieran Crowley, and David Kirk.  After coaching Italy, Kirwan went on to coach Japan who he moulded into a fast, attacking team which Italy does not have the players to reproduce.

Brunel’s experience is much more relevant to the Italian team than that of any of the previous coaches.  Where the others honed their coaching skills and tactical styles on strong attacking teams in South Africa, France, and New Zealand, Brunel has honed his skills on the rough, brutal forward-oriented game of Perpignan.

And, given the inconsistent ineptitude that Italy has shown over recent years, that experience might be exactly what is needed to take Italy to the next level of the rugby world.

I must now point out that Italy’s win over France this past weekend calls this all into question…