Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rugby's Return I - Guscott

Rugby Premiership
Facebook Premiership - A Shameless Plug
With the Rugby World Cup not too far away, and the Guinness Premiership and Celtic Leagues also about to start their new seasons I thought it was time to make a first foray into my thoughts about the only sport that I will move me further than the local pub to watch. This of course is not in any way, shape or form a plug for my new Facebook application.

Premiership Rugby Predictor focuses on the upcoming Guinness Premiership season. It's basically based on match predictions (result and margin) for each round of the season, with points for predictions on the shape of the end of season league table too. You can see how your forecasts stack up against your friends, people who support the same club as you, and the whole user base, both on a weekly and season to date basis. If you are interested in English rugby beyond the national team give it a go, whether you have any club affiliation or not! The world cup and Celtic league versions will follow at the weekend. But as I said, I'm not here to plug my application by putting links to it all over the place.

There's quite a lot to look at as ever when a new season starts, especially in a world cup year. It's a bit early to be naming any heroes but an early zero has emerged in the form of Jeremy Guscott. ITV's coverage of the last world cup had its defects, but for all that I'm glad that we will be largely spared the opinions of Guscott as ITV holds the rights once again.

Guscott was one of the great centres of his era. He had speed, he had vision and he could finish. In terms of his performance relative to game as it was when he played it, he certainly deserves to be ranked amongst England's greats. That said, he had his flaws; he was never the most solid of players in defence, and at time could be accused of being selfish in possession. More significantly though, the game has moved on even in the relatively short time since he retired. Most great players acknowledge this fully; I have heard true international greats such as Colin Meads and Gareth Edwards openly wonder, with no false modesty, how they would fare in the physical game of today.

This is a concept that seems to go entirely over Guscott's head when he appears all too frequently as a pundit on BBC rugby coverage, and in the dead tree press his former England midfield partner Carling seems to fare little better. In both cases it is typified by their vilification of Andy Farrell, with Guscott in particular crossing that line between fair criticism and knee jerk contempt all too often.

It is typified by Guscott's comments on Faz's inclusion in the England world cup squad, on the BBC during halftime in the recent Scotland v Ireland warm up game:
"Well everyone knows what I think about him" (sneering tone pretty obvious)

First of all, the tone of his comment showed immense disrespect to a fellow sportsman whose record, albeit in a different version of the sport, is of the very highest order. Almost a permanent fixture in the GB rugby league side since the 1993 he became its youngest ever captain at just 21, while winning a cabinet full of silverware with his club side Wigan. Only three years ago he achieved a rare feat of winning both the Golden Boot, awarded to world’s leading player, and the Man of Steel, which goes to the best player in the Super League.

Has his entry to Ruby Union fallen short of some expectations? Certainly it has, with injury playing a significant part. That said, I'm glad to see him in the squad to be honest. World cup rugby is attritional fare, keep the ball, stop them playing it when they have it, kick your penalties.

I suspect Faz will start in a lot of the big games with this in mind. Not to make the great line breaks RL style and I think he knows that it won't happen with 15 defenders on the park. He's there to tackle, bring a bit a maturity to the back line and give the odd offload to stir things up a little bit. First and foremost we can't have people charging through the fringes of the breakdown and Faz's workrate and organisation is good. I expect him to play no more than 50-60 mins in the big games while the big boys in the opposition get frustrated.

I can kind of see the strategy we're going with, with limited resources and it might not be exciting, but it is the right one. Stuff this crap about blooding youngsters, being on the receiving end of a thrashing teaches you very little and can be damaging to them. Remember 2003? bring on centres with stand-off skills and it changes the shape of the game, and takes the pressure of Wilkinson. It all reminds me of the 'why are they taking Catt?' questions in 2003 before the France game cropped up. The same goes for Robinson 2003, the same talking faces like Carling and Guscott had similar contempt for a relatively inexperienced rugby league convert before the tournament began.

Its interesting to compare Guscott and bum-face's knee-jerk anti-Farell lines with the more constructive comments of the likes of Will Greenwood, who played centre closer to the modern era, and it perhaps a bit less blinded by the money issues.

If I was to be critical of Faz, he does need to hit lower in the tackle. Just because you've smothered the other in the tackle and stopped his progress is not job done in RU, you need the man on the floor otherwise you'll just end up trapped in a maul - though his attept to push that French backrower's head a foot below the turf on Saturday shows that I think he knows this.

Bath v Wigan, 1996
Farrell leads out Wigan v Bath, 1996
I think it should be noted in view of the regular criticisms by Guscott of rugby league converts, that he mysteriously absented himself from the Bath squad when they played in Wigan in the first ever cross-code fixtures. This included a final at Twickenham, against a Wigan side led by one, erm, Andy Farrell. Nor should it be forgotten that in 1991, an England side featuring Guscott and Carling had an incredibly good chance to pick up their first World Cup victory. A dull but effective game plan saw them safely through to a Twickenham final against the Wallabies, whereupon an inexplicable switch to the time of more expansive rugby that Guscott always seems to be advocating under all conditions led to a 12-6 defeat, with most pundits to this day still being of the opinion that if they had stuck to their original style that England would probably have won.

Scanning the BBC message boards it appears that there is really only criticism of two or three of the thirty choices in the England squad, which is pretty good going in my opinion. It's going to be a tough tournament.

It's time for us all to get behind which ever team we support and to stop some of the whining tone. It's time for Guscott to shut up.

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