Mark Rigby is Chief Executive of Lambert Smith Hampton (LSH) and a former Captain of Wasps RUFC.

Weekend Five Preview

Wales v France

England v Ireland

Italy v Scotland

Will come, Wilko…

It’s the last weekend of the championship. Time to get excited. One would hope, time to be positive. I’ll put off venting about Ashton’s idiocy for a minute. How about those Welsh?

Much has been made of the transformation from World Cup nobodies to potential Grand Slam heroes. I’ve written about it myself. Hats off to Warren Gatland and his men, it’s been nothing short of a sensational turn around. They are there on merit. They have been the best team in the tournament by a country mile and, for their sake, I hope that they end Saturday with the silverware that their performances have deserved.

Fly-halves are certainly the topic of conversation. Gatland’s vote for Hook is a statement of intent and I’m with him on that one – it gives them options. Better to take on the French with confident, running playmakers and lay down the challenge. Wales’ momentum and determination will, in my opinion, see them all right on the day. I also prefer the Phillips/Hook axis at half-back to Phillips/Jones because the connection looks sharper and the understanding – crucial in the decision-making epicentre of the team – more ‘in sync’.

What type of opposition will France bring? Hard to say. Lievremont is a man whose decisions continue to baffle and his players are the classic liquorice all-sorts team. You really do just never know. My job is to make predictions though and I see Wales bagging this one by at least eight points. With backs bristling with confidence, a strong pack – and none stronger than Ryan Jones – and a crowd that will do everything they can to pull the home side over the line, it looks like the script is already written.

Scotland’s triumph over England at Murrayfield was certainly a mystery – that wasn’t in my script! Take nothing away from the Scots, they did what they needed to do. Where England failed was in lacking discipline, lacking creativity, and lacking execution. These are fundamentals in the game. For me, this points to profound problems in the coaching and set up of the side. It does not point to one man who had a bad game being hung out to dry. Ashton has proved that, while he can cut it as a support coach, he doesn’t have the ‘nous’ or the man-management skills for the big job. He got it wrong dropping Cipriani last week, and he’s doubled his gaff by getting it wrong again this week. Although England were shambolic against the Scots, you can see where it comes when the coach shows such a degree of ineptitude.

So, back on track against the Irish? Final curtain games are notoriously difficult to call. I can see England bouncing back with a blinder, but equally a fade out farce at HQ is a distinct possibility. Forgive me, but I’ll go for the safe choice – England to shade it by three points.

Over in Rome, I reckon the Azzurri will take it by three as well. The Scots have bagged the result that matters most for them and I think the Italians are due a win. They’ve played some seriously good rugby over the four games so far and I can’t believe that they are still without a point. In the wooden spoon battle, I see the Italian pack bossing it up front and knocking enough holes in the Scottish defence to sneak over at least once.

What’s clear is that there’s a huge gulf – in quality and interest – between the top and the bottom of the championship. It’s a triumph for the fixture schedulers, let’s hope it’s also a triumph for the Welsh.

Thanks to everyone that has read and contributed to my blog. Rugby is great at getting the banter going. I hope I’ve helped spur a few thoughts and wish everyone all the best for this weekend’s finale.

Weekend Four Preview

Ireland v Wales

Italy v France

Scotland v England

Funny things can happen in a leap year

When the Welsh crashed out of the World Cup not six months ago, the headlines were pretty cruel. Look now and ‘Warren’s Wales’ are on the march. I’ve even read views that this Saturday is the match that counts and, if the Welsh can win in Dublin, victory over the French and another Grand Slam is a formality. Heady times indeed for the Valley Boys – and much deserved. Wales have been the team of the tournament so far, but can it last?

On St David’s Day, my secretary brought some daffodils into the office. A touch of spring in the heart of the West End. They bloomed bright, they stood tall, and they certainly caught the eye. As I write, they are withering, drooping and, sadly, dying. Their moment all too brief. I’m no poet but it made me think. Are Wales a team that is built to last or will their brilliance fade away? It’s the big question, and it’s a tough call.

Looking at the squads – and mindful of the Croke Park advantage that Ireland will enjoy – I have a sneaking feeling that the Welsh will face their toughest test yet. Ireland have been building momentum and growing into the tournament and, aside from a few queries about full back, look pretty solid. Wales have made a key change in at 10 with Stephen Jones taking over from James Hook. That’s the kind of adjustment that, when the pressure comes on, can make all the difference.

I’m not expecting an expansive game so I think goal kicking will be crucial. Discipline will be essential with both sides well able to take three points away every time someone gets pinged by the ref within the attacking half. On this, I see that Paul O’Connell is back for the Irish. A big match player, yes, but not far off being a liability if the ref is twitchy with the whistle. Prediction? I’d say Wales by six points.

Murrayfield has never been a welcoming place for the English – well, not if you omit Gavin Hastings penalty miss in the 1991 World Cup quarter final. This Saturday, you can bet your bottom dollar that Frank Hadden and his men will be wanting to make it doubly dour. England have to come and play, take the game to the Scots and not get sucked into playing the game the Scots want to play. It’s the same story that it’s been for a while. Scotland don’t have the weapons to hurt you unless you get stuck in the fight they want to pick. In this regard think back to 2000. The weather was awful, as it will be on Saturday, England were going for the Grand Slam, were firm favourites, but came unstuck losing 19-13.

Although it worries me that there’s a big match performance somewhere in the Scots, I think England will come away with the Calcutta Cup. With Cipriani in at full back – and, as a Wasps man, I’m happy to see him there although he will face some early testing high balls – I like the look of our back line. England are, as things stand, only going in with two changes to the starting 15 and that continuity is a big bonus. Score? England by 15 points.

Anyone interested in the battle across the Channel? Yes, we have to be. If France win – and England do too with Wales losing – what a great final weekend that will bring. I’m baffled by Lievremont’s insistence on going with youth at all costs and I think the snarling Italian pack might just ‘educate’ some of the young French fliers. By all means, build for the next World Cup, but with such disregard to the here and now? Not my style. I’ll plump for France though, and by 10.

It’s time to stand up and be counted. Time to edge closer to the title or heal the scars. Last October, everyone pegged the Welsh as ‘zeros’. Will they continue the turnaround this Saturday and be ‘heroes’ once more? Stephen Jones’ boot might just have the answer.

Weekend Three Review

France 13 – England 24

Wales 47 – Italy 8

Ireland 34 – Scotland 13

Best picture? – Wigglesworth going over in the corner

In the week when they have they have been handing out The Oscars, I’ve a few thoughts on who I think should be taking the plaudits. Best picture? Easy, Wigglesworth in the corner, five points England, game over – love it! Best actor? Close run thing between the mighty England props with Vickery just shading it over Sheridan – he was immense. Best soundtrack – ‘Swing low’ of course, and I could go on. It’s safe to say that, for once, I was happy to be proved wrong in my prediction for Paris, along with many others who called a French win. Still, not a bad record with the tips so far.

Someone has asked me to stick my neck out a bit further and list my thoughts on the actual scores so, from next week, watch this space. For now though, let’s revel in a top drawer, big match performance from England which showed control, power, aggression and outstanding performances right across the pitch. That France didn’t play the rugby we’ve seen in their previous two games was all down to England and their unexpectedly good game. Let’s see now if Lievremont will stick with the expansive style or whether the battering the English forwards gave him might help him to see that games are won up front and it’s just the backs who determine by how much. I see that he’s already made eight changes to his 22 man squad, including five new caps.

This tournament is now wide open with the Welsh looking down from the top of the table. I bet that they are enjoying that! Clearly, Scotland and Italy are dead and buried but to have four sides mixing it up and all in with a shout is teeing us up for a great finale.

I thought the Welsh did particularly well against Italy. Sure, the Azzuri didn’t play to their potential but Wales were ruthless in racking up the points. Come the end of March, that could prove significant. It’s been said that this Welsh side is playing better and more confident rugby than the Grand Slam side of 2005 and, if you listen carefully, you can hear the whispers that this could be Wales’ big year again. The back line looks sharp and, although the pack is not the most mobile, Peel and/or Phillips are whipping the ball out from the breakdowns and keeping the backs on the attack. They did this superbly against the Italians and, as we all know, quick and quality ball is what kills you.

I’ve had a few comments about being harsh on the Scots. This week then, let’s celebrate. Scotland have now scored a try. Well done lads, something to build on. I still think that wooden spoon has your name on it. You can put it in the drawer with the one you picked up last year.

Ireland look like they are coming back to life as well – and that’s good timing for Eddie O’Sullivan. It was great to see some of the Irish back moves clicking at Croke Park last Saturday. The engine’s not running at max power by any stretch but there’s certainly something of a purr back and the Paris phut-phut is well behind them.

So now all eyes are turning to the penultimate weekend’s games. That’s the time when the last sift happens to separate the potential winners from those just playing for pride. It’s a time for big performances once more. We’ll have to wait until 15 March for these gongs to be handed out but, you can be sure of one thing, there are four teams that will be busting a gut to make sure that they’re in contention.

Weekend Three Preview

France v England

Wales v Italy

Ireland v Scotland

Paris re-match

‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’. Yeah, yeah. This is not Agincourt and Brian Ashton is no King Harry. You do wonder how, when everything about this fixture seems so downbeat and familiar after all the excitement of the World Cup semi-final so recently, Brian will motivate this England team to get up for the fight again.

For sure, Six Nations rugby is about pride and passion. Anyone who has ever pulled on a England jersey will tell you that but I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that this Paris re-match is a little bit stale. Where there was genuine excitement, anticipation and the afterglow of a victory over Australia to buoy us up for our last encounter with Les Bleus, this time we head to the Stade de France off the back of two stuttering performances and with an unsettled side.

Cutting to the chase, I think that we’ll lose. Yes, there will be beef and biff back up front with Vickery and Sheridan returning, yes we can expect more from the new half-back combination with Wigglesworth coming in, but do we have what’s needed to keep Clerc, Rougerie and Heymans locked up for 80 minutes? I don’t think so.

The free-running French back three have been attracting lots of praise in this year’s tournament, and rightly so. Clerc’s hat-trick versus Ireland was impressive. I was at The Rec last week, however, and I’m keen to put paid to those voices that say we can’t produce similar creative, incisive and point-scoring running rugby in England. The Bath and Wasps sides were at the top of their form, ran superb lines, and recycled ball with the pace and control needed to deliver an expansive attacking game. That we don’t do this – or haven’t yet – at international level is a coaching decision not a talent issue.

What’s exciting about the French this season, and which the back three are demonstrating perfectly, is the greater freedom of expression. The players look liberated from the Laporte era and, under Lievremont, look prepared to take things on. It’s a refreshing return to the traditional notion of Gallic panache and flair underpinned by solid technique and no small measure of skill. What’s more, it’s a confident move by Lievremont to put youngsters Parra and Trinh-Duc in at half backs – one of the youngest ever Six Nations half-back pairings.

In Cardiff, where Wales head into the game with two wins under their belt and confidence rising, I’m expecting a real battle of a match. Italy’s pack, one of the best in the tournament in my view, will certainly knock the Welsh about, restricting supply of quality ball to Hook and the back division. I’m still tipping the Welsh to win but if you’re predicting Wales to win by a spread of 20 points or more, you’d better come back to reality.

For the Scots, reality is the last place they want to be. Frank Hadden will need all of an illusionist’s arts to give his men something to feel positive about. Reality equals no tries, no wins, no chance. Pre-match fantasy has to be about convincing the players that they’re good enough to do the job and to get them heading out thinking they can do it. Anyone seen Derron Brown?

For the Irish, the last 20 minutes in Paris is all they need to focus on to be ready for a result. Play like this again and its try time Ireland and goodnight Scotland. I’m expecting Ireland to win by at least two scores.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall in any one of those six changing rooms to see just what type of rhetoric the coaches go for. In a game where mindset and motivation are fundamentals for success, there’s no room for error in the pre-match talking, just as in the play out on the pitch. Ashton is going to need a serious Shakespeare moment, and then some, if he’s going to pull it off!

Weekend Two matches reviewed

Confidence is a preference

‘Confidence’ and ‘self belief’ – three words that I am hearing a lot. Whether I’m talking to colleagues in the industry or having a chat about the rugby, they keep coming up. As the tightening property market conditions start to shake out the good from the not so good, so too the trials and tribulations of Six Nations rugby are finding a few people out.

I’m a great believer in backing yourself, knowing what you are capable of, assessing the risks and opportunities, and having a go. It’s what we are all about at LSH and I think England’s performances show perfectly what happens when you have it and what happens when you don’t.

For 80 minutes, England have played pretty good rugby in this Championship. The pity is that it’s not been in the same game. As against Wales, England lost their structure, cohesiveness and game plan in the second half in Rome. I saw panic too as players had a Twickenham déjà vu and tried to push the play too aggressively to get themselves out of a tight spot. Not clever. Play your rugby guys, keep the ball, work the opposition and create your scoring opportunities through sustained pressure.

On the positive side, a win is a win. I thought Steve Borthwick was excellent and showed that he could step up when it mattered, both in terms of leadership and at key moments, like his line-out spoil in the last minute. The back row were effective for much of the game and, of course, Jonny passed 1,000 points. Plenty to be positive about.

On the flip side though, if Italy had more firepower and creativity in the backs, we would have been sunk. Their forwards took the game to us in the second half and, although we did ok up front, you can bet that if it was the French backs in the blue jerseys, they would have cut through and punished us because of the extra ball they were getting. Certainly more for Brian Ashton to work on.

On the subject of coaches, Wales must be thrilled with the impact that Warren Gatland is having. Two from the opening two, the first time that the Welsh have managed this since 2005 – and with Gatland’s inspired tactical switch of the half-backs at 60 minutes crucial to the win – Wales look like a team starting to believe. Back to my theme and that’s half the battle, half the game won. It’s going to be tasty versus Italy. As for Scotland, they are clutching at straws looking for positives from their first two games. With no tries and two defeats, I can only see them propping up the table come March.

Ireland’s self-belief was coursing in Paris as they put plays together and the pressure on in a fantastic last 20 minutes. The Irish forwards raised the standard with powerful, old-fashioned fire in the second half and I think both players and fans alike thought a win was on. Sadly, the home side’s lead was too much to claw back and the Irish paid the price for letting the French back row dominate in the early stages. This created turnover ball and the French electric backs did the rest – and to think that Vincent Clerc was not in the original selection!

With a weekend off, there will be plenty of coaches looking for a way to keep confidence going or to turn round the mindsets of those that have lost it. Sound familiar anyone?

Weekend One

From Courmayeur to Cardiff, last weekend was one for the Welsh

‘Welsh Wizards’, ‘Wonderful Wales’, great headlines, but from where I was sitting it was more like ‘charge downs and chance taking’. Don’t get me wrong, Wales deserved their victory as England hit the buffers in the second half but, will Wales be top of the table come March? I don’t think so.

England v Wales is always special. This year, I was one of 700 surveyors in Courmayeur on the LSH Ski Challenge and having spent the night before very publicly talking down the Welsh, I sadly spent the 80 minutes sitting next to Valley Boy and LSH Chairman Bruce Brown. I say ‘sadly’ but I was actually enjoying it for 50 minutes, like most of the Twickenham crowd.

England were playing some attractive rugby, mixing up the play and going through the phases with a rhythm not seen for a long time. Tindall was crashing over the gain line. The back row were mobile and skilful in connecting the plays. It was good stuff. If we play like that for the rest of the tournament, I, for one, will be happy. Where Wales deserve major credit is in their ‘never say die’ attitude and in raising their game towards the finish as England let their’s slip away. Well done to the Welsh but let’s not start sticking the knife into Brian Ashton, Jonny Wilkinson et al just yet. Well, not until they have had a fair crack at the Italians this weekend at least.

Travelling to Rome just one week on – and short of both forward firepower and backs’ pace through an unbelievable injury toll – this is far from an easy fixture. I think England will win but it will not be pretty and it will not be by much!

Returning to the Welsh, they will be buoyed up (sorry, no pun intended) at the prospect of taking on the Scots in their own back yard. Scotland, however, have a knack of pulling out a big performance in Cardiff and they can’t do any worse than their showing against the French at Murrayfield. I’m predicting Scots’ huff and puff to be enough for 60 minutes but Wales to pull clear in the last quarter – with singing in their ears!

The last place Ireland and Eddie O’Sullivan want to be so soon after their dismal World Cup is Paris and I can’t see anything changing in terms of their fortunes across the Channel. Ireland have only won once in Paris in 36 years (in 2000). You could get great odds on that changing but you would be brave to take them.

It’s good to be back and I hope you all enjoy the championship. If my musings can help in any way, that would be wonderful. Let me know what you think –