Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Six Nations to start this weekend

In a few days European rugby fans will enjoy one of the best rugby tournaments – Six Nations. As usual, just before it starts, journalists are spreading gossips asking questions and trying to predict the outcome of it. Is the Heineken Cup performance going to be reflected in the national teams? Are any of the teams capable of winning the Grand Slam? Who is going to triumph this year? Can the Welsh defend the title? The questions are endless.

This year, home nations will be extra motivated. There is more to fight for than just the victory in the tournament. Good performance may guarantee a privilege to become the part of British and Irish Lions squad which will tour Australia in a few months. Apart from trophies, glory and fame, players will also be motivated by money. This year’s Grand Slam prize reached a record-high level of £ 5 000 000 which means almost £ 100 000 for every player.

The latest test matches and Heineken Cup games suggest that this year’s rivalry will be very tense. Favorites to win are England and France. After spectacular victory over All Blacks, England will definitely want to prove that it wasn’t a one-off performance. Stuart Lancaster’s talented team will set the bar high. Three home games at Twickenham should be an extra advantage for them to build up momentum. Unpredictable French team also looks very strong. They can beat any team in the world when everything clicks in the squad. They can produce masterpiece of rugby, however the problem with the French team is lack of consistency. France can surprise fans with producing two completely opposite performances.  They can become an unstoppable force if they play their top-level game in five matches, though.

Ireland and Wales have a lot to prove. They will not give up easily. Irish team seems to be in a bit better situation as the latest games they played were at the decent level. The Welsh who are the defending champions and the last year’s Grand Slam winners don’t have too many reasons to cheer lately. None of their clubs reached the Heineken Cup knock-out stage and national team didn’t win for long time. Six Nations may be a perfect opportunity for them to bounce back and silence critics. The squad is definitely talented enough to do it. However if the tournament will become another failure there will be some dark clouds over the  coach and players.

The wooden spoon candidates are the same nations as in the last few years – Scotland and Italy. Although both teams play much better rugby than they used to, and keep surprising the best opponents, they still seem to be a step behind their rivals. Scotland seems to be stronger; they have much more exciting game plan. They stopped relying on the points scored from the tee and started creating dangerous offensive opportunities. If they manage to win the first game in the English fortress, their campaign may gain momentum and surprise everyone. Italians will no longer be seen as easy prey. They were working for their reputation for years and are considered as a powerful, ambitious team which never surrenders. I doubt if they can get more than one win, though.

As usual this time of year, apart from conversations about teams selections and players form, there are questions regarding the structure of the tournament. Shall it be extended to add more countries? Shall it become a promotion and relegation system? Shall the bonus point be introduced? I am a bit conservative in this matter and I hope that Six Nations will not be changed at least for another few years. New ideas are not always better and I think that everyone should be extra careful with introducing new solutions, when a long history and tradition is involved.  At the moment, we can all enjoy the start of the tournament in the current shape. I am sure that this year’s Six Nations will, once again, produce an amazing spectacle and bring a lot of excitement. To all who would like to feel thrill even more I recommend taking part in the fantasy rugby league at http://espnscrum.fantasyleague.com or predicting scores at http://www.superbru.com

Monday, 21 January 2013

Heineken Cup - round 6

Finally, eight teams, which survived pool stages and qualified to the quarterfinals, are now known. Rivalry this year was very tense. One of the most famous European powerhouses - Toulouse was knocked out. So were the champions - Leinster. Both favourites had to say “bye” to the tournament. As I mentioned in my previous post, four teams already secured their places a week ago but the battle for the remaining four was truly epic.
 
The Irish from Munster needed to win with Racing Metro and gain a bonus point to qualify. Not an easy task, but they managed to accomplish it (29:6). The hero of the game was winger Simon Zebo who scored three tries. Conor Murray and Mike Sherry added two more. Maximum points win means that the defending champions - Leinster are out of the tournament and will not defend their title.
 
The game at Welford Road produced another surprise. In the dramatic encounter, Leicester Tigers won 9:5 and knocked out the mighty Toulouse. The match was played in a winter weather conditions. Hosts dealt better with cold temperature and snow. All points for them were scored by Toby Flood. Toulouse kickers had a bad day as they failed to convert seventeen points from the kicking tee.

Other quarter-finalists are Saracens, who swept over Edinburgh 40:7 and secured not only the place in the knockout stage but also home advantage in the quarter-final. They will play with Ulster. It is worth mentioning that it was their last ever game at the Vicarage Road stadium, so a farewell appearance was very successful.

Another team, which progressed to the knockout stage, is Montpellier. In  order to qualify, they needed at least two points from the match against Toulon. They took this challenge seriously and showed outstanding performance winning 23:3. Benoit Paillaugue helped his team a lot by scoring 15 points! Jonny Wilkinson was first to put points on the board by converting a penalty in the fourth minute. Thereafter the hosts totally dominated their rivals, though.

All in all, there are three teams from England (Harlequins, Leicester and Saracens), three teams from France (Clermont, Toulon and Montpellier) and two teams from Ireland (Munster and Ulster) in the top eight in Heineken Cup. It is hard to say which team has got the most chances to win the  tournament. The bookmakers’ favourite is Clermont but I would not underestimate English clubs, especially Harlequins and Leicester Tigers, which already proved that they can beat the best teams in the world. To see who will establish themselves as a new force in Europe we will have to wait until April though. For now, it is worth to focus on the Six Nations and see how the form from the Heineken Cup will transfer on to the national teams.

Below you will find the quarter-final fixtures:

Harlequins - Munster
Clermont - Montpellier
Toulon - Leicester Tigers
Saracens - Ulster 

Monday, 14 January 2013

Heineken Cup - round 5


The pool stage of Heineken Cup is now close to the last phase. Round five threw some light on the shape of the knock-out stage. Four teams already secured their spots. Harlequins, Toulon, Clermont Auvergne and Ulster are sure to be in the quarter-finals. Contenders for the other four places are Saracens, Munster, Toulouse, Leicester Leinster and Montpellier. Most rugby fans will look forward to the next weekend’s games to see who will join the European elite.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

"Rugby legends" - Jonah Lomu

As promised, this post initiates a series of posts devoted to rugby legendary players. I have decided to begin with my very first rugby idol – Jonah Lomu. He appeared on the international stage in an unparalleled style when I was a teenager. In his early twenties he could easily beat experienced world-class players. His strength pace and dynamics as well as self-confidence were incredible. I can remember that when I played rugby with my brother in my teens, one of us pretended to be Lomu and tried to outplay the opponent just like the amazing player from New Zealand would. I can also remember the ‘ à la Lomu’ hairstyle which was very popular among my team mates years ago. This player has changed the way I think about rugby. He was the first sport hero who impressed me so much. In my eyes he was always outclassing the rivals and almost all his ball carries created dangerous situation on the pitch. 

Lomu became a role-player for me. He was a top quality player and every young rugby player dreamt about reaching his level. I am sure that a lot of people connected with rugby were impressed by Lomu just like I was. I hope that reading this post will evoke some nice memories of Lomu.  I’d like to encourage players and fans, who may be too young to remember the rugby giant, to read a biography of Lomu. Below is a short story of his career and video-highlights which shows exactly how Lomu used to play havoc in the opponents’ defense lines.

Jonah Tali Lomu was born on the 12 May 1975 in Auckland (New Zealand). This impressive size All Blacks winger is regarded the first professional rugby superstar. Lomu grew up in poor suburbs of Auckland and played rugby league until the age of 14. Thanks to his amazing talent and hard work he became multimillionaire later on. He was first rugby player and first New Zealand sportsman who earned 1 million dollars.
 
Big money was only the outcome of his successful career but the respect and prestige came from his rugby skills, commitment, and fantastic physical conditions. 196cm (6ft 5 in) high and 119-125kg (273-276lb) weight, Lomu could run 100 meters in 10.8 seconds! He was also very strong, agile and dynamic so he played havoc at the opponents’ defence like no one else.

Lomu became famous in 1994 after his performance in Hong Kong Sevens. Shortly, (on the 26 of June 1994) he had his debut against France in the New Zealand’s National Team. He was only 19 years and 45 days old and became the youngest All Blacks’ player who took part in the official test math.

In the 1995, despite having just two All Blacks caps he was included in the squad for the World Cup where he impressed everyone with his extraordinary talent. He scored seven tries in five games, including four against England in the semi-final. The most famous one was definitely a try scored after running straight over the top of England’s fullback Mike Catt. It is one of my favourite 1995 RWC highlights which I can watch over and over again!

During the 1999 Rugby World Cup Lomu scored eight tries and with 15 in total he became the RWC all-time top tries record holder. All in all, he had 37 tries and 185 points in the 63 New Zealand’s tests. Unfortunately, the career of this exceptional player ended prematurely because of serious health problems, which came to light in the last months of 1995. He was suffering from kidney disorder, which was later diagnosed as a nephrotic syndrome. He had been put to dialysis and undergone kidney transplant in 2004. Despite several come-back attempts he couldn’t reach his heights again.

Jonah Lomu received a Special Merit Award at the International Rugby Players Association's awards for his contribution to the international rugby game. It was a great honour - only two players have received it before him. The rise of Lomu on the international stage coincided with transformation of rugby into professionalism era. His fantastic performance in the two Rugby World Cups was a cherry on the pie of these tournaments. Lomu marked the beginning of producing big, strong, and quick wingers. He became one of the most famous and recognizable rugby players in the world. He was and still is a role model and an idol for many rugby generations. He is one of my sport heroes. I love to watch footage of him scoring tries and knocking down defenders. It is extra encouraging especially before my own rugby games and work great as a pre-match motivation.

Below you will find Jonah Lomu’s career highlights showing the brilliance of one of the best rugby players on the world.



Saturday, 5 January 2013

Blog development in 2013

The beginning of the New Year is a wonderful time. It is good for reflections, planning and making decision for the future. I decided to have a think about my blog and the ways to develop it. Last months were very successful and enjoyable for me. My blog kept growing and attracted attention of rugby related audience. I would like to thank all my readers who kept encouraging me and gave positive feedbacks. It motivates me even more and I’m far from resting on laurels! My New Year’s resolution is to further develop and improve my blog. I hope that both returning readers and new guests will find something interesting here.

I decided to introduce some changes and novelty into my blog. The first one will be a new section “rugby legends” which will focus on exceptional rugby players. I will blog about both active and retired players who inspired me and the entire rugby nation. The first hero in the new series will be one of my idols - the legendary Jonah Lomu who gained not only my admiration but also admiration of rugby fans worldwide.

Some of you have probably noticed that there is an option to voluntary donate money via PayPal. I would like to let you know that all funds will be used for further development of my blog and expanding collection of rugby badges.