Sunday, 7 February 2010

Mapping out the road to Euro 2012

On the face of it, this morning's draw for the qualifying groups for Euro 2012 gave with one hand and took away with the other.

On the minus side first, the top seeds in our Group will be Spain, the current holders of this particular crown who might be heading to Hampden as World Champions as well such is their standing in the game at the moment.  Our record against Spain is surprisingly mixed, having beaten them twice in competitive fixtures.  We beat them 4-2 in qualifying for the 1958 World Cup while more famously we won 3-1 at Hampden during qualifying for the Mexico 86 World Cup (featuring Dalgliesh's famous slalom run before smashing the ball into the top lefthand corner of the Spain goal).  We also face, remarkably for the fourth European Championships in a row, Lithuania.  Scotland have always found Lithuania a handful, particularly away from home.

On the plus side, although we do not have the best record against the Czech Republic, it looks as though Czech football is entering a fallow period considering their poor showing in World Cup qualification.  Whether this is true remains to be seen.  What is strange though is that the scheduled friendly in March against the Czech’s has not been cancelled.  The bottom seeds in Scotland’s group are Liechtenstein, who Scotland have never played.  Liechtenstein have played England a couple of times, and played a 10 at the back style not unlike San Marino, Andorra and the Faroe Islands.

In the other groups, England did not get their customary easy draw, as they were drawn in the same group as Wales, Bulgaria and Switzerland.  Northern Ireland were thrown in at the deep end with Serbia and Italy ahead of them in the seeding order, and Slovenia behind them.  The Republic of Ireland also have a tough draw, with Slovakia and Russia ahead of them in the seeding, and Macedonia in their group too.

Thankfully this is not a group of death that Scotland faced the last time in this tournament.  I would suspect that as the group unfolds Scotland will be vying with the Czech' Republic for the playoff place from the off.  What we need now is a good order of fixtures.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

It’s 6 Nations Time Again!

Rugby’s own European Championships, the 6 Nations begins today. While Scotland are not in action until they host France on Sunday, today's fixtures will still see some close clashes.

Ireland begin the defence of their 6 Nations championship (and Grand Slam, left) with the visit to Croake Park of Italy.  Ireland should win easily here, Italy have improved in the 10 years since they joined this championship but not enough where they are not perennial favourites for the wooden spoon.

Today’s evening game sees the 2005 and 2008 champions Wales go for 4 wins on the spin against England.  At the turn of the decade England were vying with France for every championship.  However in recent years England have slipped backwards since winning the World Cup.  It’s not that they don’t have the players.  Matthew Tait , who is back in the team for the Wales clash, was a key player in England's recovery and run to the World Cup final 2 years ago as was the likes of Mark Cueto and the injury free talisman Jonny Wilkinson.  For some reason they lost form and focus.  It is this focus, allied to the spark of creativity which Ireland and Wales have captured. 
Until last year, Ireland were the nearly men of Northern Hemisphere Rugby, winning the Triple Crown 3 times (losing out on Grand Slam’s with losses to France) in the past decade.  Their Grand Slam win should banish the memories of the nightmare that was 2007 for them, when they lost the Grand Slam within 20 second half minutes against France and went on to exit the World Cup at the group stage.
Wales also had a disappointing World Cup in 2007, but this was sandwiched between the two Grand Slams of 2005 and 2008.  With Gavin Henson out of the squad, Tom Shanklin not playing today and Mike Philips injured, Wales look like they may be looking to the future.  From the 2008 Grand Slam team, they still have Lee Byrne, who's position has only been enhanced after the Lions tour last year, and Stephen Jones.  Included as a Centre for today’s game is James Hook, clearly the welsh are going down the Gregor Townsend rout of including him because…  well he’s too good to be left out.
As if the England V Wales game does not have enough spice, the RFU have also decided to use this game to celebrate 100 years of rugby at Twickenham, funnily enough that first game was also against Wales, a 11-6 win in January 1910.  I think Wales will win, probably by around the same 7 point margin they won by in 2008.