Warburton back as captain for Wales

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Sam Warburton has been reinstated as Welsh captain ahead of their clash with the Wallabies at the Millennium Stadium on December 3.

Coach Warren Gatland has named a 28-man squad which retains the majority of Wales' much heralded 2011 Rugby World Cup side.

Scarlets hooker Matthew Rees returns to the squad, originally slated to lead his country before injury ruled him out of the World Cup.

Two other players from the original Welsh training squad for New Zealand are also included, in Blues prop Scott Andrews and Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric, while Ospreys pair Dan Biggar and Ian Evans both return to the international fold.

Shane Williams has been named, and if selected will play his final match in Welsh colours, although he will continue to play in Ospreys colours for another season.

Three uncapped players in Dragons flanker Lewis Evans, Blues wing Alex Cuthbert and Scarlets full-back Liam Williams join up with twenty players from the World Cup.

Gatland said it had opted for continuity.

"As we have gone with the majority of our Rugby World Cup squad we have maintained continuity by selecting Sam again as captain for this game, but it is a significant boost for us to have someone of the experience and stature of Matthew Rees back in the squad which, in turn, means there is considerable competition in the hooker's position with both Huw Bennett and Lloyd Burns also with us," said Gatland.

"The fans have a chance to show the players how proud they are of them after their World Cup performances and it should be quite an occasion at the Millennium Stadium, especially with the Shane Williams factor thrown in, but we won't be sitting back and soaking up the atmosphere.

"We have another chance to beat a Southern Hemisphere team, which is always a yardstick by which we measure ourselves, we have the opportunity to avenge the play-off defeat in New Zealand, but we can also send a message to our Six Nations opponents next year, that our RWC performances should not be seen in isolation and this young squad will continue to be a force to be reckoned with as we build to the next world cup in 2015."

Wales squad v Australia (alphabetical order)

FORWARDS: Scott Andrews, Huw Bennett, Ryan Bevington, Lloyd Burns, Luke Charteris, Bradley Davies, Ian Evans, Lewis Evans, Toby Faletau, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Ryan Jones, Danny Lydiate, Matthew Rees, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton (Captain)

BACKS: Dan Biggar, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, Tavis Knoyle, George North, Rhys Priestland, Jamie Roberts, Liam Williams, Lloyd Williams, Scott Williams, Shane Williams.


McCaw will be better in 2012 for long off season

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All Blacks captain Richie McCaw will have his well known right foot operated on to remove the famous screw that did not succeed in it's quest to sideline the World Cup winning skipper, who played throughout despite having to regularly miss training sessions.

That malais also spread to the Crusaders, with coach Todd Blackadder admitting that for long periods throughout the 2011 Investec Super Rugby season McCaw had to be managed on the training field.

However a good off-season and a later entry into the 2012 Investec Super Rugby season should enable McCaw to break his record this season of playing in only six matches for the Crusaders.

Not only did his fifth metatarsal injury cause some problems, but concussion and calf injuries curtailed his appearances throughout the season.

While he did miss most of the Crusaders regular season games, as he did some pool matches at the World Cup -- McCaw played in the semi-final and final in Super Rugby, while playing the three knockout matches leading to their 8-7 victory over France to win New Zealand's second World Cup.

Blackadder, speaking to the NZ Herald, said that he expected McCaw to be prepared for a long season next year, with the World Cup winning captain likely to be ready for selection four to six weeks into their season.

The seven time champions kick off against the Blues at Eden Park on February 24.

"He will get a really good base and will be as fit and strong as ever," Blackadder said.

"He hasn't been able to train or function normally all year. We just had to manage him. That was probably highlighted in those high-pressure games when he wasn't as sharp as he could have been and that's fully understandable. I think for him next year he'll be absolutely good to go."

McCaw's recovery from surgery will take up to three months, but he will be ready for the All Blacks 2012 test season, beginning with a break from Super Rugby in June for the Steinlager Series against Ireland, where the victors against the Wallabies and losing quarter-finalists against Wales will line up for three-tests in the first matches with the All Blacks as World Champions.

There will then be the Investec Rugby Championship, with Argentina the fourth nation to join the Southern Hemisphere's premier tournament, where McCaw will try and again create history and win the first title of the new tournament that replaces the Tri Nations.

McCaw won four (of New Zealand's ten) Tri Nations as captain, a three year streak from 2006 to 2008, while he led the All Blacks to the title in 2010.


Wallabies: ARU keen to wrap up Robbie Deans

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It is all but confirmed that Robbie Deans will coach the Wallabies through to their 2013 British and Irish Lions tour, with it a possibility that the former Crusaders boss will go through to another World Cup, in England in 2015.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the announcement will be officially made after the Investec Super Rugby season, while Australian Rugby Union (ARU) chief executive John O’Neill said in a radio interview that he wanted Deans to retain the position.

O’Neill himself will remain in his role until 2013 at least, and his ‘reappointment’ in February this year was a pointer to Deans remaining at the helm.

With 15 of last season’s end-of-year Wallabies tourists signing with the ARU so far this year, most until 2013, a huge factor in the recruitment of so many test players was the lure of playing a Lions’ team.

It has also been widely reported by the Herald and Australian that Deans has a strong relationship with many of the new generation of Wallabies, and many indicated that their signing was linked to their continued relationship with the Canterbury legend.

O'Neill said to the Herald that his vote was with Deans.

“Personally, I am a great Robbie Deans supporter, and the prospect of him extending his contract is something I am very much in favour of,” he said.

Deans and his family have now settled in Sydney’s North Shore, and the long term plan preached by the Wallabies coach certainly has taken shape in the last year, with the young Australian team second in the world rankings.

Landmark victories over South Africa in Bloemfontein, the All Blacks in Hong Kong and the thumping win over France in Paris, have convinced most that Deans is a good fit as Wallabies coach, with the Les Bleus scalp his 24th win in 43 tests.

While some feel there is an element of risk considering the upcoming World Cup campaign, which has seen the end of many nations’ coaches reigns based on results, there is a general consensus by the ARU powerbrokers and Wallaby players that Deans should stay, irrespective of the result in New Zealand later this year.

O’Neill, alongside a host of resigned Wallabies, believes that the team is on the verge of a golden era.

The Wallabies will play Samoa on July 17 to open their 2011 season, before they host the Springboks in Sydney to open the Investec Tri Nations on July 23. The first Bledisloe Cup match will be at Eden Park on August 6, before the Wallabies World Cup campaign begins with a test against Italy on September 11, with Ireland, Russia and USA also with Australia in Pool C.


Springboks: John Smit to lead World Cup defence

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Coach Peter de Villiers has confirmed that Sharks hooker John Smit will captain South Africa for the 2011 international season, and lead them to the World Cup in New Zealand.

There the Springboks will attempt to become the first team to successfully defend a global crown, with Smit guiding the team to glory in France four years ago.

The announcement was made at the conclusion of a two-day national planning camp, where 51 players gathered for the first time under the guise of the Springboks this year, the first of three such camps.

The second camp will take place in Durban on June 12 and 13.

John Smit has captained South Africa 76 times in his 102 tests to be the most capped international captain in rugby history, and will wear the armband for the eighth season.

The most capped Springbok ever, Victor Matfield, will be the South African vice-captain, with the 105 test veteran having already led the national team 15 times.

Coach Peter de Villiers said the duo’s experience made them easy selections.

“John and Victor have an unbelievable amount of experience and we're fortunate to be able to name them as captain and vice captain,” said Springbok coach Peter de Villiers.

“They are outstanding players in their positions and to have both still available in a Rugby World Cup year is a great boost for South African rugby. They are hugely-respected in world rugby and have a massive influence on the teams in which they play.”

“History has shown that teams that do well at Rugby World Cups have experience and outstanding leadership and we've learnt in the past that you throwaway that experience at your peril.”


Heineken Cup: Ireland needs to benefit more from magnificent Leinster

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The men from Dublin will attempt to join multiple winners Toulouse, Munster, London Wasps and the Leicester Tigers as the latest side to not only confirm their dominance of European rugby, but to create a peerless dynasty.

Toulouse, beaten 32-23 by Leinster, conceded the Heineken Cup title in the semi-final at Aviva Stadium, ruling out an audacious attempt by the French giants to claim a remarkable five European trophies.

The vanquished French, at times sceptical losers, lavished praise on Leinster in an eloquent and flattering manner that could leave little doubt as to how genuine it really was.

Toulouse master coach Guy Novés, regarded by many as the next French test coach, summed it up post match.

“We fell to a team better than us,” he said.

“In every sense they deserve their victory. No more to be said about that. I recall certain cup matches that I lost that left a bitter taste, where I felt I’d been the victim of incoherent decisions. Here I have regrets, but I feel the better team won.”

Backs coach Jean-Baptiste Elissalde felt that Leinster was playing “at another level” compared to other sides on the continent.

This was no rolling over by French rugby’s perennial contenders, a side like the Crusaders that never seems to go a season or two without making a statement just to remind fledging powers of their place.

Leinster though is no baby on this grandest of stages anymore.

Noves had clearly done his homework, with the Toulousains methodically drawing Leinster defenders into the ruck throughout the match, clearly designing to compress the graceful arching Irish defence.

Much of Leinster’s tackling systems are in place due to Te Kuiti born Kurt McQuilkin, who has settled back into his Lake Taupo home after turning a perceived ‘soft underbelly’ for the Irish province into one of the most beguiling defensive screens on display in world rugby.

However while Toulouse did work for their two tries, and did strategically manipulate Leinster at times, the French did not have the menace or edge to their blade that has seen them rule the North before.

While Leinster look even better than they did when they claimed the Heineken Cup two years ago.

There may be no Rocky Elsom, a cult hero who has never played as well in Wallabies colours as he did in the sky blue, but up front his power has been replaced by South African hooker Richardt Strauss and Sean O’Brien – the latter who is arguably the best openside in the Northern Hemisphere.

While Isa Nacewa is another man from the South who shines in Leinster, it is no Toulon-like assembly of imported stars that does the job, but a heady blend of Irish test players who are in career best form.

Of course there is Brian O’Driscoll, who is clearly slower, but if anything seems more physically imposing and has more devilish street-smarts (a ruck earned yellow card aside) than most players could ever hope to boast.

Add to this reinvigorated players like Gordon D’Arcy, Mike Ross and Jamie Heaslip, mixed with maturing talent such as Jonathan Sexton, and one feels if a year or two could be coaxed out of their elder statesmen, this may only be the beginning for Leinster.

How good are they?

A win over the Northampton Saints in the final would give Leinster a French and English treble that has probably never been equaled.

Toulouse, Racing Metro and Clermont Auvergne, three of the key powers in the Top 14, and England’s two domestic finalists from last season, Leicester and Saracens, have been unable to match what some are calling the “all-court” game of Leinster.

However a furious Heineken Cup clash between Leinster and Toulouse, hailed by some as one of the great matches of the competition, with test match intensity, did see the Irish under pressure at times, and Brian O’Driscoll felt his team were a bit off colour.

“We were a little bit flat, particularly in that first half and didn’t help ourselves but to grind out a result in a European semi-final you need a little bit of luck,” the evergreen Irish centre said.

“It’s the games where you perhaps don’t play at your very best but still get over the line that give you a chance to win some silverware; we have done that.”

“That (game) was like a Test match; that was the intensity and calibre of game it was. You realise that it takes an awful lot to get to the semi-final and final of the Heineken Cup and sides aren’t going to roll over, especially the current champions. We saw right to the death how they gave themselves a chance to win it, even when they were nine points down.”

While Munster has abdicated their role as a leading power (for this season at least) on the European stage with a shock home loss to Harlequins, Leinster has firmly embraced the baton as the dominant Irish power.

In 1999 Ulster claimed the Heineken Cup, the next three years Munster reached the final twice, before the Red Army claimed the greatest European prize in 2006 and 2008, with Leinster lifting the title 12 months later.

Ireland has had clubs which have footed it with and dominated all of the great clubs of England, France, Wales and Scotland - and it should bode well for Irish hopes in the World Cup.

Their marvellous win over England to deny the Red Rose a Grand Slam was the stuff of legends, and showed the ability of the Irish to play with enough passion and intensity to match any power.

Leinster’s form is such that some in Ireland believe that their coach, New Zealanders Joe Schmidt, should be the front runner to take over as the next test boss one day.

The former Clermont back coach took over from Michael Cheika- who won a Heineken Cup and Magner’s League title with Leinster – and has helped hone a strong Dublin based side that is one game from again conquering the North.

Under current Irish coach Declan Kidney, Ireland has a 2009 Grand Slam to go along with 19 wins from 29 test matches.

They will be in Pool C at the Rugby World Cup alongside the Wallabies, and the runner up of the group will likely face off against the Springboks in the quarter-final.


2010/2011 Heineken Cup semi-final preview: Leinster v Toulouse

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With due respect to the other semi-final, the clash between the reigning and four-time champions Toulouse, and the winners in 2009 Leinster, represents the match between two of the current powerhouses of the European stage.

French giants Toulouse are aiming for an unprecedented fifth European title, and are potentially heading for a 18th French domestic crown, currently top of the table in this year’s Top 14.

In their record tenth semi-final, they have won 19 from 27 Heineken knockout matches, and their only loss in this season’s competition came at the hand of London Wasps at Adam’s Park, with a 81st minute David Lemi try winning it for the Englishman.

Indeed it was that reverse that means Toulouse have to travel to Aviva Stadium, where Leinster waits arguably the form team of the tournament.

They are second to Munster in the Magner’s League, but unlike their eliminated rivals, Leinster navigated the toughest pool – beating Clermont, Racing-Metro and Saracensm to claim second seed in the final’s seedings.

Twice Magner’s (Celtic) League winners, and two-time runners up, their breakthrough Heineken Cup in 2008/2009 confirmed them as a legitimate heavyweight.

Irish test and Leinster centre Gordon D'Arcy told the Irish Independent that talk that the French side was a fading force was rubbish.

"It's still Toulouse," he said.
"Rupeni Caucaunibuca was playing at the weekend; he hasn't played for four or five games. He'd walk into any team in Europe yet he's one of their rotational guys. It just shows the strength of depth in their squad.

"They're the team that everybody wants to beat, year in year out. They've won the most trophies.

"We can't look for any excuses; we'll take them at face value and have to bring our 'A' game."

"We just need to worry about ourselves. I know myself, if I'm lucky to play, if I win my individual battle, then I can contribute to the team.

"Everyone needs to have that mindset and perform that little bit better than the guy you're playing against.

"I think Toulouse are going to be a step up on Leicester. Toulouse are probably more of a complete team. They have more impact off the bench. The Irish will be wary, as last season’s semi-final they clashed with Toulouse on French soil, and the champion’s elect toyed with Leinster up front and were ruthless in the set piece.

Leinster look a stronger side this season, noticeably up front, and while Toulouse has talked them up, even claiming the Irish are the “perfect team”, neither opponent will be able to claim outright dominance in any facet of the game.

Toulouse is typically stacked with French internationals, and while their 16 win and eight loss season has them leading the Top 14, it is not form that suggests they have been devastating throughout the last 12 months.

Samoan and Toulouse prop Census Johnston believes the game will be decided by the packs.

"We are expecting a big battle, especially up front," he said.

"We did well last year and it set-up a platform for us and even tough we have targeted it again this year we know they will be doing the same.

"They have put in some strong performances and have been working hard so we know it is going to be a challenge."

Toulouse have been here before, and have the goods to get a fifth crown.

Leinster deserve favouritism based on home advantage and what was hard-nosed form getting through a tough pool and a tight quarter final against Leicester.

Toulouse, who replayed last year’s final with Biarritz in their quarterfinal, won 7-20 in extra time,

The two teams have played each other eight times in Europe, with Toulouse ahead five to three, with Leinster triumphing the last occasion they met in Dublin in 2008.

Date: Saturday, April 30
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Referee: Dave Pearson (England)

Leinster: 15 Isa Nacewa, 14 Shane Horgan, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Leo Cullen (c), 3 Mike Ross, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Cian Healy. Replacements: 16 Jason Harris-Wright, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Stan Wright, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Shane Jennings, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Fergus McFadden.

Toulouse: 15 Cédric Heymans, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Florian Fritz, 12 Clément Poitrenaud, 11 Maxime Medard, 10 David Skrela, 9 Jean-Marc Doussain, 8 Louis Picamoles , 7 Yannick Nyanga, 6 Jean Bouilhou, 5 Patricio Albacete, 4 Yoann Maestri, 3 Census Johnston, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux. Replacements: 16 Virgile Lacombe, 17 Daan Human, 18 Johnson Falefa, 19 Thierry Dusautoir, 20 Nicolas Bezy, 21 Yannick Jauzion, 22 Shaun Sowerby, 23 Grégory Lamboley.


2010/2011 Heineken Cup semi-final preview: Northampton v Perpignan

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Northampton Saints, winners of the Heineken Cup in 2000, will meet the only team left in the 2010/2011 tournament not to have claimed Europe's most prestigous domestic title.

Perpignan, French champions in 2009 and seven-times the winner of the Top 14, did make it to a H-Cup final in 2003 but lost to old rivals Toulouse 22-17.

The Saints, in some pundit's eyes the best English domestic team, will bring a mighty squad to the penultimate match of the championship minus test flanker Tom Wood.

The twin attacking foils of Ben Foden and Chris Ashton might attempt to take all the headlines, but it is a remarkably powerful engine room for Northampton that has seen them supply quality ball to their class back division.

Jim Mallinder has moulded his team into an obvious champion outfit, but the Saints will want to start confirming this potential by winning at least one major cup this year.

The Saints are fourth in the current Aviva Premiership and a threat to the English crown, but they are attempting to become the first ever unbeaten team in Heineken Cup history; with Leinster (twice), London Wasps, Bath Rugby, Biarritz Olympique, Scarlets and Cardiff Blues all whitewashing their pools throughout history but failing to claim the title.

Nine wins constitutes a perfect Heineken Cup season - never achieved in the North.

In the South, the Crusaders in 2002 went 11 wins in the regular season through to beating the Brumbies in the final to achieve a perfect 13-from-13 Super Rugby campaign.

Former New Zealand based player and Saints' veteran Bruce Reihana said his team was ready.

"This semifinal is absolutely massive for the club and for the supporters," said Reihana.

"We have worked so hard all season to get to this point and we are all hugely excited about playing Perpignan in the semifinals.

"Any side you meet in the last four are going to be at the top of their game and Perpignan are no different. We watched their quarterfinal and they are a class outfit so we will spend the week looking at them and preparing for the game.

"Coming through the Pool stage as the only unbeaten team was a fantastic achievement and of course we are using that and taking confidence from it going into the one-off games but we know just how tough Perpignan will be on Sunday.

"Milton Keynes is only just down the road from Northampton and it has become a ‘home’ ground with the supporters packing it out like they do at every stadium we go to.

Coach of Perpignan Jacques Brunel, who will assume the reigns of Italy after Nick Mallet steps down, wants to inflict some revenge on the English.

While the French side won the Top 14 title two seasons ago and contested last year's final, a ninth placed position in this year's championship shows the powerful team has struggled, getting a hammering by Toulon last weekend.

But they defeated the same team in the quarter-finals of the H-Cup, reaching the first round of the finals courtesy of qualifying ahead of the Leicester Tigers, beating the English champions in France and drawing with them at Welford Road.

Brunel, who suffered defeats as assistant French coach to England in 2003 and 2007, said he wanted some revenge for what happened in the World Cup, with the 57-year-old famous for breaking Perpignan's 54 year French championship drought.

"The English really made me suffer when I was with the French side," said Brunel.

"I can't forget that I lost two World Cup semifinals to them. I will remember that for a long time.

"Both times we thought we were close and on for it, but it slipped out of our hands: the rain in Sydney, that tap tackle by [Lewis] Moody on [Vincent] Clerc in Paris."

Perpignan will rely on their brilliant front row and reliable set piece to impose themselves on the Saints, while the Northampton pack will probably try to gain advantage in the loose.

Out wide the French can attack, but their willingness at times to run with the ball does leave them susceptible to counterattack and suspect defence, which the Saints will use to their advantage with their two English three-quarters roaming wide.

Date: Sunday, May 1
Venue: Stadium:mk
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland). Simon McDowell (Ireland)

Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Jon Clarke, 12 James Downey, 11 Paul Diggin, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Phil Dowson, 6 Calum Clark, 5 Christian Day, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Brian Mujati, 2 Dylan Hartley (capt), 1 Soane Tonga'uiha. Replacements: 16 Brett Sharman, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Tom Mercey, 19 Mark Sorenson, 20 Mark Easter, 21 Stuart Commins, 22 Shane Geraghty, 23 Joe Ansbro.

Perpignan: 15 Jérôme Porical, 14 Adrien Plante, 13 David Marty, 12 Gavin Hume, 11 Julien Candelon, 10 Nicolas Laharrague, 9 David Mele, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Bertrand Guiry, 6 Grégory Le Corvec, 5 Robins Tchale Watchou, 4 Rimas Alvarez Kairelis, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Perry Freshwater. Replacements: 16 Charles Geli, 17 Kisi Pulu, 18 Jérôme Schuster, 19 Henry Tuilagi, 20 Kevin Boulogne, 21 Manny Edmonds, 22 Joffrey Michel, 23 Guillaume Vilaceca.