Oval Talk

  • Decision time for Johnson

    Two moments during Saracens' Premiership victory at Leicester suggested England boss Martin Johnson will soon have to make some of the most crucial selection decisions of his career.

    Oval Talk last week addressed the issue of England's mis-firing midfield and recommended the recall of Riki Flutey at inside centre and more time for giant centre Matt Banahan to show what he can do.

    Well, this week two more players emphatically furthered their England cause in the considerable shape of prop Matt Stevens and centre Manu Tuilagi.

    Stevens, who returned to the game in January after serving a two-year

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  • England: Reasons to be cheerful

    Tension inevitably sways judgment, and it was only when Oval Talk watched a replay of 'Le Crunch' that it became apparent what good value England were for their 17-9 victory.

    Not even the most myopic of England fans could claim it was a comfortable win for Martin Johnson's side, but after close analysis it is clear how much they deserved the result that keeps their Grand Slam hopes alive.

    The victory offered more than enough proof that England continue to make progress in World Cup year - and for OT there were five good reasons why they can be cheerful:

    1. The victory was based on attrition

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  • Les Bleus lack stomach for Le Crunch

    It might come back to bite it on the derriere, but Oval Talk has a strong suspicion that France do not have the stomach for the potential Six Nations showdown with England next weekend.

    Both sides go into the Twickenham clash unbeaten and with two wins, but for OT there is only going to be one winner, and that team will be wearing white.

    Don't get OT wrong - this France team can really play, exceptionally so when they are on song. They have an abundance of power, good pace out wide, a huge pack of very decent scrummagers, and an excellent set piece.

    On their day, they can be more than a match

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  • Is Andrew England’s fall guy?

    After a detailed management review, new RFU chief John Steele made some sweeping changes at Twickenham that included the scrapping of Rob Andrew's role as elite performance director.

    Steele has asked Andrew to reapply for a new position - with less responsibility and less pay - while the likes of Sir Clive Woodward, Jake White and Eddie Jones are being touted for a newly-created role of RFU performance director.

    Andrew appears fortunate not to have been amongst several Twickenham executives asked to clear their desks, but surely after such a public demotion he will take the decision to part

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  • Wilkinson could yet be key

    Jonny Wilkinson clearly likes the sunshine and warm climes of Toulon, and not just for the tanning properties that helped him win a recent popularity contest in the south of France hands-down.

    Actors, rock stars, models, other sports personalities - none of them stood a chance as England's most famous rugby icon swept all before him in a poll conducted by a leading newspaper.

    But no, Wilkinson likes Toulon because after years of unimaginable frustration borne of injury, the 31-year-old is finally doing what he does and loves best - playing rugby, and to a standard not seen since his heroics of

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  • Premiership problems pile up

    The last few months have not been the best for the Premiership both on and off the field, what with the dip in attendances, some thoroughly average fare on show and, most recently, a poor representation in the knock-out rounds of European competition.

    Indeed, one respected scribe went so far as to suggest the Premiership's bubble had burst - and that was before English rugby's top flight managed a total of just four clubs into the quarter-finals of Europe's two cup competitions.

    For the record, France have nine clubs into the corresponding rounds - four in the Heineken and five in the

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  • Time to show you care, Gav

    It may seem a tad unfair to dismiss him after just two games, but Gavin Henson faces a growing battle to prove to a large band of doubters in Wales that he should be included in their Six Nations squad.

    Henson has had two run outs for Premiership side Saracens since his return from self-imposed exile, but after he failed to produce any kind of form in the 28-22 loss at Sale more and more observers are claiming that he should not be anywhere near the Wales set up.

    Fortunately for the double Grand Slam winner, that group of sceptics appears not to include the person who matters most, Wales coach

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  • Leinster win a boost for Ireland

    The big freeze may have put paid to a number of Heineken Cup games at the weekend, but Leinster were able to lay down a significant European marker as their clash with Clermont survived the conditions.

    The 24-8 victory allowed Leinster to take a grip on pool two and put Clermont's qualification chances in real jeopardy. But it also had significance for Irish rugby as the win had its foundations in the impressive effort of Leinster's front row.

    Prop Cian Healy had a magnificent game as he crossed for two tries, but it was perhaps the performance of tight-head Mike Ross that points to a brighter

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  • French clubs show their power

    There was a sense of déjà vu about the Heineken Cup last weekend as French clubs put their collective foot on the power pedal to suggest this year's champions will again hail from the Top 14.

    We are, of course, only halfway through the pool stage, but with French clubs winning six of their seven games the omens are that they could well repeat last year's feat of providing four of the quarter-finalists, two of the semis and both teams for the final.

    All seven French sides are still very much in contention in their pools, and the performances of Perpignan, Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont in round

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  • Carter good, Wales bad

    THE GOOD

    New Zealand

    The All Blacks were never really required to play at their very best as they cruised to wins over England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Yes, they were tested on occasion - by England, Ireland and Wales - but they were always able to find another gear when required, often by the name of Hosea.

    It will be a huge surprise if New Zealand do not go into the World Cup next year as firm favourites, especially as they are hosting the event. Yes, yes - OT knows we have been here before.

    Australia back-line

    OT cannot decide whether France were truly awful against Australia last

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