Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fever in the Aviva

Clermont 8-24 Leinster

Leinster caught the ‘Fever in the Aviva’ and produced a ‘Blue Magic’ performance in a 24-8 win over ASM Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup. The win puts Leinster five points clear at the top of Pool 2 ahead Clermont and Racing Metro,tied with nine points and Saracens, bottom, with only six points. It was Leinster’s 100th Heineken Cup game and was probably their finest.
44,873 people packed the Aviva Stadium despite the freezing weather of between -5ºC and -10ºC. It was the 3rd highest attendance at a Heineken Cup pool game and the highest attendance at a Heineken Cup pool game in Ireland. The crowd was treated to elaborate pre game festivities involving a Santa Claus clad in blue popping out of an oversized Christmas cracker. Then with Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle playing and blue flags flying, emerged the Leinster team to a tremendous uproar. The crowd, larger than any at Ireland’s Autumn Internationals, were pumped up and ready for some rugby.
Leinster got off to a blazing start just as they had done a week earlier when Shane Horgan scored a try in the 3rd minute of the game but this time they never looked back. Leinster dominated for the whole 80 minutes. They played sublime rugby and looked as if they could beat any side in the world on the night.
Both sides have New Zealanders at the helm, Leinster’s coach is Josef Schmidt and Clermont’s coach is Vern Cotter, and like to keep the ball alive in attack. This was evident in the game and the result was fast paced,fluid rugby. Leinster’s training was undisrupted in the lead up to the game for the first time in a few weeks and this clearly showed in Leinster’s execution. The link up play in the back line was world class and that couple with their great speed and acceleration led to numerous breaks and big gains.
Josef Schmidt had a clear defined gameplan. He wanted depth and width in attack. He wanted to spread the ball wide from quick ball to utilise his team’s great speed. His decision to start Eoin Reddan ahead of Isaac Boss was a questionable one as Boss had a great game a week earlier against Clermont. However, looking back on it, it was a genius decision. Eoin Reddan perfectly suited the gameplan he employed and was able to shine in the bright lights. Boss,on the other hand, is a player who plays the game competitive around the fringes. They are two scrum-halves with very different styles but both produce the results Schmidt wants. Leinster has a vast playbook with the option of starting either one of these guys. The scrum-half position was formerly a liability for Leinster, it is now one of their strengths.
The Leinster front row comprised of Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross was one of the keys the victory. Cian Healy deservedly won Man of the Match honours. He scored two tries, one in 8th minute and the other in the 43rd minute. Both tries, one early in the game and the other just after the interval, gave Leinster such a boost and helped them set the tone and control the pace in both halves. I have complained about Strauss’ on a few occasions before but I cannot stress enough how much this guy means to Leinster with his terrific scrummaging and rucking. Mike Ross, is another great scrummager and these three guys along with players like Heinke van der Merwe and Stan Wright(currently injured-Achilles) help give Leinster one of the best front rows in Leinster. I must also commend the Leinster scrum as they overpowered a strong Clermont scrum.
Leinster’s defense, which had been good for the most part in their round 3 matchup with Clermont except for a couple key missed tackles that led to Clermont tries, stepped up today. In recent years, Leinster have put a lot more focus on their defense which helped them greatly in their Heineken Cup triumph in 2009. In this game, they frustrated Clermont and forced them into some errors. The most notable error occurred in the 2nd half when Benoit Baby threw an errand pass into touch inside his own 22. Leinster took a quick lineout and on-form Sean O’Brien crossed over to give them their third try.
The return of Brian O’Driscoll, from a jaw injury he sustained in Ireland’s final Autumn International against Argentina, was a huge boost for the backs. His presence alone makes the team better as opposing teams double team him leaving men open and when they slack off in defence, he is a lethal finisher. Isa Nacewa was, in my opinion, Leinster’s best back on the day and he contributed in offense and defense. He was reliable under the high ball and he also had a very athletic interception on a Brock James cross field kick in the direction of Julien Malzieu. Jonathan Sexton had a great day with the boot(4/5) and his early penalty attempt that hit the post was his first miss in the Heineken Cup all season. He had been 10/10 up to that point.
Clermont, will now have to pull out the stocks to make it through to the next round of the Heineken Cup. They are a great side at home in their fortress of rugby but on the road, they are a different team. They seem to pick their games to show up for and are often unmotivated. They have won only 1 away game this season in the Top 14 with their only win coming against a bad Bourgoin team and have only won 1 game in Ireland in their past 5 visits and that win was all the way back in 2000 when they beat Connacht. Once again, they had problems kicking in Dublin and the normally pin point Morgan Parra went 1/3 so they switched kicking duties to Brock James who would miss his only kick, a conversion of Napolioni Nalaga’s late try. They had more possession than Leinster but it was just one of those days when their offense just wasn’t clicking and they couldn’t convert their time with the ball into points.
This win was Leinster’s 7th straight win in the Lansdowne Road/Aviva Stadium and was their 17th straight home win. By the way, last year’s Magners League final in which Leinster fell to the Ospreys 17-12, was classed as a neutral site game. I really don’t like writing an article like this one where all I can say is positive things about one side as it usually isn’t great journalism but in this cases, I’m telling you the truth. Leinster have been playing great ever since that Sean O’Brien inspired comeback in Llanelli a few weeks ago. Leinster are on-form right now and I feel bad for any teams standing in their way. They will be playing Ulster in the Magners League next weekend and I don’t see how Ulster will be able to contain them. Its worth noting that three of Leinster’s last 5 Heineken Cup pool games have been played in front of a crowd of 35,000+ which is truly astounding. I also think that Leinster should push to get more than just the two games they are currently allowed to play in the Aviva Stadium. They should look into hosting all their Heineken Cup games in the beautiful facility which could be anywhere from 3-5 games as well as some of the big Magners League games against rivals like Munster. Leinster were unable to get a bonus point but that doesn’t take anything away from the truly outstanding performance by the men in blue.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

NFC Worst

NFC West Division 





The NFC West is without question the worst division in the NFL. If you dont believe me just take a look at the standings I have provided above. By the way, these standings were correct as of Saturday night following the Cardinals 27-26 win over the Dallas Cowboys and the other three teams in the division are yet to play their week 16 games.
NFC West
It is a shockingly bad division and has earned the nickname ‘NFC Worst’ but because of NFL’s playoff system either the St Louis Rams,Seattle Seahawks or Arizona Cardinals will be in the playoffs. They will be playing postseason football while teams in the NFC like the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers,both 8-6, will most likely be watching from home.
The NFL’s current playoff system sends the Division winners(4 in both conferences,NFC and AFC) and the two best teams in the conference that didn't win their division(wild-card teams) to the playoffs. Its usually a pretty good system but occasionally there is a situation like the one we have this year where a team far worse than another advances and the superior team doesn’t. It must be noted that while the NFC West has recently been home to the worst football, it isn’t the only division that has had its struggles. The AFC West had also been an inferior division in the NFL until this season but the division usually had one good team that would make the playoffs. This year, there is no one team in the the AFC West that deserves to be in the postseason.
Sam Bradford
As I mentioned, this is rarely a problem in the NFL but when it happens, it disappoints me to see an undeserving team playing January football. That is way, I think the NFL should implement a policy whereby a division champion needs to be .500(8-8) or above to make it into the postseason ahead of a 2nd or 3rd place team in another division that has a better record but wouldn’t make in via the wild-card. This problem could become more prevalent in future as it seems that parity is leaving the NFL.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

End of a Legendary Career?

Chicago Bears 40-14 Minnesota Vikings
Is this the last we will see of Brett Favre

It had been exactly 29 years since there was an NFL game played outside in Minnesota but on Monday night because of the collapse of the Metrodome, the Vikings were outside braving the elements as they took on their rivals, the NFC North leading Chicago Bears. The Vikings lost,that day 29 years ago, 10-6 against the Kansas City Chiefs at the Metropolitan Stadium which is now the site of the huge Mall of America and on Monday, they were on the losing side once again. Their loyal fans, some of whom had been queuing up since the early hours of the morning to get in to the first come, first served TCF Bank Stadium, filled up 3/4 of the stadium only to witness their team get completely man handled in the 40-14 blowout loss.
The collapsed Metrodome
The loss drops the Vikes to 5-9 and a horrible 1-4 in division play with their only win in the NFC North coming against the lowly Detroit Lions in Week 3. As for the Bears, they improved to 10-4(5-0 in the division) and because of a Packers loss on Sunday against the Patriots, Chicago were able to clinch the division for the first time since 2006 and they now control their destiny to get a first round bye in the playoffs. Its amazing to think that prior to the season, everyone was saying that the Vikings would be celebrating their 50th season with a trip to the Super Bowl and that the Bears would finish third in the division behind the Minnesota and Green Bay. Oh, how things can change in the NFL and part of the reason I love this league is because of the parity between the teams.
The game was nowhere near as entertaining as the Monday Night Football game last year between the teams that ended with the Bears winning 36-30 on a 39 yard Aromashodu touchdown reception in overtime but there was a few plays that will be remember for a long time in the NFL.
Vikings Fans enjoying the outdoors
The Hit
Less than 5 minutes into the 2nd quarter, Bears rookie defensive end Corey Wootton stormed past Bryant McKinnie and hit Brett Favre, starting in his NFL record 298th game, for his first career sack. The legendary QB, however, stayed down on the turf, dazed by the hit. Then after watching the replay, I saw that he had landed hard on his head and I came to the shocking realization, that I might have just seen Favre’s last play. I was disappointed last week that his incredible streak, of consecutive games started, ended at 297 and I know that he said this season would be his last and I believe him because of the way the Vikings are playing but I just can't believe that that play might be his last. Brett Favre has been in the NFL since I was born and in that time the only game he has missed was last week versus the New York Giants. It has now been announced that Brett was concussed on the play and with only two weeks left in the season, his chances of playing again are slim. Brett is a legend and one of the best players in league history and it will be sad to see him go. If it is to be his last play, thankfully he didn’t throw an interception which was the outcome of his last play with the Falcons,Packers and Jets. Also, his final play in last years NFC Championship game against the eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints resulted in an interception. However, this would not be his final play as a Viking as he decided to come back for the 2010 season, a decision he probably regrets.
Record Breaker
The other significant play in this game put Devin Hester in the record books. In the 3rd quarter, Hester caught a line drive Chris Kluwe punt and returned it 64 yards to the house. It was Hester’s 14th return touchdown in his career, breaking the previous record of 13 he had shared with Brian Mitchell. It was also probably the easiest return touchdown he has ever scored. He almost broke the record a few minutes earlier when he returned the opening kickoff of the 2nd half 79 yards to the Vikings 6 yard line.
I was very impressed by the Bears. They dominated offensively,defensively and in the special teams. Their QB Jay Cutler, who grew up a Bears fan in Santa Claus,IN, was in Christmas spirit as he masterfully spread the ball around to his wide receivers. He finished with 3 TDs and only 1 interception. He was able to fit the ball into small windows between the safety and the corner. He reminds me of a young Brett Favre with his unusual mechanics and gun slinging arm. 
The running game was important due to the horrible,icy conditions and both teams running backs made thrived. Matt Forte, Bears HB, averaged 5.4 yards per carry en route to 92 yards in the game. He hasn’t missed a start in his 3 years in the league and has been a vital part of the rejuvenated Bears offense. Toby Gerhart, who started for the Vikings in place of Adrian Peterson who injured his thigh last week against the Giants, made the most of his opportunity, showcasing his tough,hard nosed running style.
The Bears defense started the game poorly, allowing Favre to drive to field for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game but they soon settled down and shut down the Vikings offence. They forced 5 turnovers, 3 interceptions and 2 fumbles and were looking like the old Monsters of the Midway near the end of the game. The Bears captain and all time leading tackler, Brian Urlacher had great game finishing with 7 tackles and Julius Peppers also had a good game and he recorded an interception(the 8th of his career).
‘Da Bears’ looked like one of the best coached teams in this one. They were disciplined and executed very well in the horrible weather. Lovie Smith was on the the hot seat at the start of the year but certainly isn’t anymore. Chicago had struggled since making it to Super Bowl XLI until this season but it has been worth it. Lovie has assembled a great coaching staff that will keep the Bears competitive for years to come. Rod Marinelli, the Bears defensive coordinator, was signed in 2009 after he coached the Detroit Lions to a dismal 10-38 record during his 3 year stint with the team. He has been a great addition to this team. He emphasizes speed and effort getting to the ball and the players all do everything they can for their tough coach who is Vietnam war veteran. Mike Martz, the offensive coordinator for the Bears and formerly for the greatest show on turf, has helped develop Cutler into a very good quarterback. Cutler, had lacked coaching continuity but Martz will hopefully bring him that and he has to potential to become an elite NFL quarterback.
Joe Webb scrambles for a TD

As for the Vikings, they have to start thinking about the future, especially what they will do at quarterback next year. Favre will most likely not be playing and they dont have a solid back up behind him. It will be interesting to see what they do with Tavaris Jackson who is in a contract year. I dont think he is as bad as people make him out to be and with the backing of the team and good coaching, I have hope in him to become a good quarterback, not great but good. His numbers actually aren’t that bad, 24 TDs and 22 INTs and a 76.6 passer rating. Joe Webb, 199th pick in the 2010 draft from UAB, came in against the Bears and played alright given the circumstances. He threw two picks but did score on a speedy 13 yard scramble. He was 15/26 for 126 yards throwing and gained 38 yards on the ground. Not bad considering that this guy was drafted to be a wide receiver and thought God was talking to him in his helmet communication device. Maybe, I’m making this guy out to be a guy who has never played quarterback before but he has and he was great in at UAB, becoming the first player in NCAA history to pass for 2000 yards and run for 1000 yards in consecutive seasons. There are interesting times and tough decisions ahead for the Vikings franchise but with a coach like Leslie Frazier, it shouldn’t be long before they are dominant again and I predict that if that get decent quarterback play, they can make the playoffs next year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Every Point is Crucial

Leinster 13-20 Clermont

After 80 minutes of exhilarating rugby in France, Leinster were beaten 20-13 by the French champions Clermont but were able to get a crucial losing bonus point to keep them one point ahead of Clermont in Pool 2 of the Heineken Cup.
Leinster Coach Josef Schmidt was in an unfamiliar position on Sunday evening as he did not have the home field advantage he was used to in the Stade Marcel-Michelin. He had been coach of Clermont from 2007-2010. During his time in the Auvergne region of France, he led Clermont to two Top 14 finals only to lose until earlier this year when Clermont finally won the Top 14 for the first team in the club’s history. Clermont, who will be celebrating their 100th season next year, had been to 10 French championship finals without a win before their 11th trip finally resulted in the trophy being brought to Clermont-Ferrand. However on this day Josef Schmidt saw for the first time what it is like to be a visitor in this cauldron of rugby and the rabid Clermont fans made sure he wouldn’t feel at home.
Despite playing against a world class team in a hostile environment without Brian O’Driscoll,Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney(all injured), Leinster got off to a blazing start and three minutes into the game they were ahead 7-0 as Shane Horgan crossed over in the corner for the early try. The try which was a result of great passing in the back line to spread the ball wide gave Leinster a dream start. Leinster fans were also delighted to see Jonathan Sexton convert the difficult kick as Sexton can be a streaky kicker so it is always important for him to make his first kick. They certainly didn’t want a repeat of Sexton’s performance a week earlier in Llanelli as Sexton was 1/5 kicking in a 17-17 draw.
Leinster weren’t ahead for long. Just minutes later, Julien Malzieu, who scored three tries in last year’s quarter final game against Leinster(the last meeting between the sides), went in for a try, breaking tackles from Sexton,Horgan and Nacewa on route.
The teams exchanged penalties to even the score at 10. Just before half time, Clermont had a late surge for points to give them the lead going into the interval but deep in Leinster’s 22, Anthony Floch opted to go for an easy drop goal which he missed. 
The free flowing, fast paced rugby continued into the second half and 10 mins in,Clermont struck first blood. After several phases with the ball in the forwards inside the 22, Brock James decided to open up the playbook and try something more elaborate and the result was a try. Brock James threw a huge, wild pass out to Malzieu. Malzieu, then, popped it out to Anthony Floch, who would redeem himself for his horrible decision and kick at the end of the 1st half, by breaking the tackles of Gordan Darcy and Dominic Ryan as he crossed over to give Clermont a 17-10 lead.
Jonathan Sexton kicked over a penalty to bring Leinster within 4 points only with 20 minutes left. However, Clermont extended their lead to 7 points as Morgan Parra was successful in his penalty attempt minutes later.
Less then 10 minutes from the end, it became evident that Leinster weren’t trying to tie the game, they were happy to get a losing bonus point. It looked like Leinster would be be going home empty handed when Brock James connected with Julien Malzieu on a perfectly timed cross field kick and a few phases later, referee Stuart Barnes gave Clermont a penalty deep in Leinster’s territory. Morgan Parra, who had kicked flawlessly(4-4) up to that point, had the opportunity to deny Leinster of a point but his kicked sailed wide right. The game finished 20-13 and Leinster’s courageous effort was rewarded with a well deserved losing bonus point.
I was amazed by Leinster’s execution as they have had only one training session in the last two weeks due to the horrible weather in Dublin. They were able to move the ball well and open holes in the Clermont’s solid defence. Their scrum and defensive lineout worked very well and they were able to get a penalty in a scrum against the head and stole a lineout as well. In the forwards, Leo Cullen and Nathan Hines both had good games, as did Sean O’Brien, who continued on with his terrific form of late. Last week, he was my man of the match against the Scarlets and in this game, despite suffering a bad blow to the head, he was Leinster’s best forward as he displayed great ball carrying ability and tough defence.
However, it was Leinster’s back line that stole the show. Everyone stepped up to the mark especially Eoin O’Malley who, in place of injured Brian O’Driscoll, was Leinster’s best player on this day. Jonathan Sexton rebounded well from his horrible performance last week and was a perfect 3-3 kicking on this day. Fergus McFadden and Isa Nacewa, both played well and Leinster coach Josef Schmidt now has a tough decision to make before next weeks game as to whom he will start at scrumhalf because Isaac Boss, starting ahead of Eoin Reddan, had a good game giving Sexton fast and precise passes.
It was not a flawless performance and Clermonts big, fast backs exploited some weak Leinster tackling. Julien Malzieu, was seemingly unable to be stopped as he again gave Leinster headaches. The same can be said about Clermont captain Aurelien Rougerie. The hometown hero torched through the Leinster defence on a number of occasions. Leinsters lineout continued to struggle mainly because of the throwing of Richardt Strauss. Strauss is a great asset for Leinster because of his talent in the open field but he must make some adjustment to his throwing. He throw one ball in crooked and another one in too slowly that it was picked off. 
Clermont’s outhalf Brock James, who in last years quarter final against Leinster squandered a whooping 26 points with his boot, had a much better game this time around. He impressed my with his passing ability and tactical kicking ability. New Zealander, Sione Lauaki, who was considered a risky addition to this Clermont team, proved his doubters wrong with a strong performance. Napolioni Nalaga had a good game,too. These three players along with Rougerie and Malzieu will be the ones attracting the most attention from Leinster in next weeks ‘Fever in the Aviva’. Over 40,000 tickets have already been sold for the clash which has grown in importance for both teams because of the result of this game, Leinster are now 1st in Pool 2 with 10 points with Clermont just behind with 9.

Leinster went to Clermont with a great gameplan and left with a well deserved bonus point and next week in front of their loyal fans will be hoping to even the score with the French giants.

First Place Denied

Leinster 17-17 Scarlets

On a cold, wet night in Parc y Scarlets, a late Leinster comeback gave the blues a share of the spoils with a 17-17 draw.
Leinster came to Llanelli, without Brian O’Driscoll,Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney,all injured and following a loss against the Ospreys that broke a six game winning streak in all competitions. The Scarlets entered the game knowing a win would take them 1st in the Magners League.
It promised to be a great game but until the last 10 minutes, it did not live up to its hype. A combination of the dreary conditions and the fact that Leinster were unable to train outside all week due to heavy snow in Dublin led to horrible Leinster execution. Handling errors and turnovers were a common sight in the first half. This combined with a dull gameplan led to this one being a hard nosed defensive struggle.
The results of Leinster set pieces were mixed. While the Leinster scrum dominated as it has done all season, the lineout was a mess. Richardt Strauss had some inexplicable crooked throws that surely must worry Leinster coach Josef Schmidt.
The Scarlets had better strategy than Leinster and were able to put the ball behind the Blues and open holes in the defence.
Leinster started the game with an early try that is surely among the best they have scored all season. Jonathan Sexton did a perfect cross field kick to Shane Horgan who then passed it inside to centre Eoin O’Malley for the sublime form. At this early stage, I thought we were going to see another dominant Jonathan Sexton performance but that certainly was not the case.
Three Scarlets penalties in the first half by Rhys Priestland, who played remarkably well starting ahead of Stephen Jones, gave the Scarlets a 9-5 lead at the interval.
The second half started with controversy as Leinster flanker Rhys Ruddock cleaned out a ruck without wrapping his hands around the opposition. Not only was he penalised, but he was also sent to the bin for 10 minutes. I was shocked by referee Michael Owens decision but we better get used to this call as the IRB are now so paranoid about head injuries and concussions. Rhys Ruddock would convert this penalty to make him 4/4 kicking on the day before missing his final two.
Then came the moment that I thought sealed the game as Gareth Maule went in for the Llanelli’s only try of the game to give them a 17-5 lead. It was an innovative try by the Scarlets thanks to great and in some cases lucky offloading to set up Maule in the corner.
Then 10 minutes from the end, flanker Sean O’Brien, my undisputed player of the game, sparked a Leinster comeback. 21 phases later Fergus McFadden scored a shifty try in the corner but Sexton missed the kick, as he did all game. His missed kicks amounted for 10 points as he was 0/4 at this stage.
With 76 minutes on the clock, Shane Horgan recieved a great pass from Sexton and paced down the line for a try. Finally, Sexton made a kick and the game was all tied up, 17-17
In an incredible turn of events, Leinster had a chance to win and be the second team to knock off the Scarlets at home, the Ospreys beat the Scarlets 21-18 in Llanelli earlier that year. Leinster had a the ball in front of the posts on the 22 when Sexton dropped back in the pocket to attempt a game winning drop goal. Unfortunately, he never attempted the kick as he knocked the ball to end the game.
The few Leinster fans who made the trip would have loved Sexton to have won the game at the depth but will be pleased to come away with draw.

Sean O’Brien had the game of his life. He was dominant in all phases especially with ball in hand. Shane Horgan, Gordan Darcy and Fergus McFadden also impressed for Leinster
Jonathan Sexton, however, played far below his standards. He set up two tries but that failed the overcome the fact he was 1/5 kicking, 20% which is simply not good enough. He also had a schoolboy error in the clutch situation at the end
The Scarlets failed to take top spot and potentially never will thanks to their front row  crisis. Prop Peter Edwards and his replacement Fijian captain Deacon Manu were both taken to hospital with suspected broken arms. They will join prop Rhys Thomas on the injury list. Three injuries at a key position will be hard to overcome.
Leinster coaches will have to figure out what went wrong and more importantly how to overcome their mistakes before next Sunday, when they will be in France taking on Clermont Auvergne. If a performance like the one tonight is repeated next weekend, Leinster can say good bye to their place at the summit of pool two in the Heineken Cup.