Lions Rugby Ramble

Messy Monday? Messy Situation

The big problem with the timings of the Lions’ squad announcement and their opening match is that there is very little time in between to get the team together. This has caused a situation this week where Saracens and Gloucester have had to release their Lions for the traditional ‘Messy Monday’ even though they have European cup finals at the end of the week.

I understand the necessity of Messy Monday, players and coaches need to build chemistry together both on and off the pitch. They also need to get all their Lions stash, which sounds like enough to fill a couple of cupboards! However Monday is a very important day in the week leading up to a match, so to lose a number of star players on such a crucial day is understandably annoying.

I have some sympathy for Saracens – losing half a dozen of your 1st XV is certainly disrupting – but it should have been clear there was a chance of them having a considerable number of players picked and as defending champions in the Challenge Cup, there was always a good chance of them being in the final, so why did they not request for the date to be changed when it was originally organised? I haven’t heard any complaints from Gloucester, who were missing 2 players on Monday but have an even shorter build-up with their final being on the Friday evening.

The chance of 2 all-French finals was so low, it does feel that the Lions could have organised it better. In my opinion the meet should have been a week or two earlier. More teams would have had their training weeks affected, but as this is in a week of domestic league matches, the chances are much higher that their opponents would have been in the same situation.

It will be interesting to see what effect it has on the performances of Gloucester and Saracens in these finals. Moriarty is starting for Gloucester with Laidlaw on the bench, though I believe that is more due to Willi Heinz being the form 9 than a lack of readiness. Hopefully nobody at the clubs uses Messy Monday as an excuse if they lose their final!

Regardless of the outcomes, I hope we won’t be having the same complaints 4 years from now.

 

Family first

I’m sure that many of the rugby family will have joined me in sending their thoughts the way of the Youngs family this week after the news broke that Ben Youngs was pulling out of the Lions tour after finding out his brother Tom’s wife was terminally ill.

The chance to play for the Lions is a fantastic opportunity that many players will never get, so turning down the chance of touring New Zealand with the Lions in order to spend time with the family is a big decision. Ben will be 31 once the next tour comes around, and with a number of impressive young scrum halves starting to come through, there is no guarantee that he will be pushing for selection come the next tour. Luckily he was part of the last tour to Australia, alongside Tom, so he has still had the chance to experience the Lions and will have likely considered a victorious tour with his brother even more special.

I was very interested by Matt Dawson’s recent comments that he would have probably gone on the tour but later regretted it. Personally I feel that Ben has made the right decision here and have complete admiration for him. It is nice to see a player putting family before personal gain in a time when fans begin to worry if rugby is becoming too much about the money.

Though I’m sure he wouldn’t have wanted to make the squad in these circumstances, I am happy for Greig Laidlaw, who has been called up in his place. If it hadn’t been for an awfully timed injury in the 6 Nations, I think that Laidlaw would have been pushing Youngs hard for the third scrum half position in the initial squad. He is a great player in his own right and plays a different style of game, allowing the Lions more variety in their style of play.

Ben Youngs’ actions this week are the perfect example of showing what is most important in life. Rugby may be life, but at times like this family should always come first.

 

What are your thoughts on these stories? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

RWC2019: The Pool Draw

With the 2019 Rugby World Cup only 2 and a bit years away (not that I’m counting), the pools have today been announced for the tournament. As not all the teams are currently confirmed, we only have the top 3 teams from each group, along with an indication of who could fill the other spots once they qualify.

 

As it stands, here is how the pools are looking for 2019:

Pool A: Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Europe 1, play-off winner (Europe 2 v Oceania 3)

Pool B: New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Africa 1, repechage winner

Pool C: England, France, Argentina, Americas 1, Oceania 2

Pool D: Australia, Wales, Georgia, Oceania 1, Americas 2

 

The European qualifiers are most likely to be Romania, Russia, Spain, Germany or Portugal.

The Oceania qualifiers should be Fiji, Samoa or Tonga

Namibia are likely to be the African qualifier

The Americas qualifiers will consist of at least 1 of the USA or Canada, with the other possible qualifiers being Uruguay, Brazil, Chile or (less likely) Paraguay

 

Though it is difficult to fully analyse the pools until all 20 competing teams are confirmed, not to mention taking into account how much a team’s form can change between now and the start of the tournament, here are a few thoughts from today’s announcement.

Pool A: Scottish fans will be very happy with this draw. Not only have they avoided the big guns of England, New Zealand and Australia, but they have been drawn against a Japanese side that so far has not looked as impressive as in 2015 and an Irish team that they have beaten in this year’s 6 Nations. The Scots are on an upward trend and I expect their game against Ireland will be the pool decider. Meanwhile the possibility of one of the Pacific Island nations entering as a playoff winner means that Japan could be under pressure to gain an automatic qualification spot for 2023.

Pool B: As things currently stand, this pool looks to be a walk in the park for the Kiwis. However I expect South Africa to start recovering over the next few years and I expect Italy to push on under Conor O’Shea. It would not surprise me to see New Zealand top the group ahead of the Springboks, with Italy getting 3rd place and qualification for 2023.

Pool C: As it stands, this looks to be the dreaded ‘Group of Death’. Assuming England can continue their resurgence under Eddie Jones, I would expect them to win the group, but the Pumas, who will be playing in their first World Cup since the Jaguares joined Super Rugby, will be a potential banana skin. It is a well-known cliché that you never know which French team will turn up for a match, but they do have a habit of getting themselves together in time for the World Cups. I expect the currently announced teams to make the top 3, but a slip up against a possible Pacific Island nation could cost one of these teams their chance of a place in the knockouts. Unfortunately as it stands I struggle to see the American qualifier being able to cause much of an issue, with their game against Oceania 2 their best chance (and likely only) chance of a win.

Pool D: While Australia and Wales will be the favourites to progress, if one of these teams is off form they could be in serious trouble. Fiji have cost the Welsh in previous tournaments and there is a good chance they will be meeting again as Oceania 1. Like in Pool C, I struggle to see Americas 2 having much success in this pool, but depending on form, any of the other 4 teams could consider themselves capable of making the top 2.

 

What are your thoughts on the draw? Are you happy with the teams that your nation have been drawn against? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Pro12 Rugby Ramble

So I know most of my posts end up being long enough to be considered a novel. Trust me, I don’t plan on them being so long, it just happens! So this is the first in a new series of ‘Rambles’. These will be entries with a few short posts all with some common thread, ususally about something that I’ve noticed in the news and want to write about but won’t be able to make into a long enough article to merit their own post.

 

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to follow the Pro12 as much as I hoped to this past season, but there have been a few stories going round the last few days that I felt I had to talk about:

 

Pienaar’s farewell

With Ulster unable to secure a top-4 spot this season, Ruan Pienaar’s time in Ireland has come to an emotional end. After 7 years at Ulster, the 32-year-old will be leaving the province after the IRFU blocked a move to offer him a new contract. At his age and with a young family, this next contract will almost surely been his last, and it has been very clear that the former Springbok wanted to stay at Ulster.

I understand that the IRFU want to encourage home-grown talent, but there are already a number of young Irish scrum halves coming through to back up current internationals Conor Murray and Kieran Marmion, surely they could have had a bit more sentimentality in this situation.

Though they have had a number of quality players over the years, Pienaar could arguably considered Ulster’s franchise player. His experience and leadership, not to mention his reliable kicking from the tee, has helped propel Ulster into a period where they have been able to stand alongside the more well-known provinces of Munster and Leinster.

It’s only fitting that as he joins the mass of quality players moving to France, he has been named in the Pro12 Dream Team as well as being awarded the Try of the Season for his effort against Glasgow. Ireland, and the Pro12 as a whole, is losing a fantastic player.

Best of luck in the future Ruan!

 

Axing the Italians

Another day, another story about throwing Italian rugby teams out of a top-level league!

This time, rather than throwing Italy out of the 6 Nations, the discussion revolves around axing the Italian teams, Zebre and Treviso, from the Pro12. Possible replacements that have been mentioned in recent weeks have been South Africa’s axed Super Rugby sides, or possibly franchises in the USA or Canada.

While I do appreciate that the Italian teams have not improved as everyone would have hoped, to give up on Italian rugby when there are clearly players of quality coming through does not seem right, especially if they were to be replaced with a long-distance team rather than other local teams! Much like SANZAAR’s protection of the Sunwolves, this sounds more like a matter of money than rugby.

While I don’t like the idea of axing the Italians, I can understand that change is probably needed. My suggestion would be to create an Italian version of the Jaguares: a single franchise that has most of the Italian national team on its books, so they are used to playing regular rugby together. The other place in the league could then be taken by a similar franchise from another emerging rugby nation, such as Georgia, Romania or Russia. This would allow for a number of lower-tier countries to get their players building good chemistry to take from the club competition into international matches, whilst also allowing the players to get regular experience against international calibre players at club level.

 

What are your thoughts on these stories? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: Wasps v Saracens

The final round of the 2016/17 Aviva Premiership brought us a number of high-scoring games (the match with the least points was Northampton’s 22-20 win against Harlequins) and plenty of excitement. While the bottom of the table was decided a few weeks back, home advantage in the playoffs was a possibility for the top 3 teams, and the final playoff spot and the all-important final Champions Cup Qualifying spot were also up for grabs. With all games kicking off at the same time (supposedly) and matches on 2 BT Sport channels, I made the decision to spend my afternoon watching the top of the table clash between Wasps and Saracens.

After a delayed kick-off, a packed Ricoh Arena saw Wasps break Newcastle’s record of 86 Premiership tries from the 1997/98 season on their way to a 35-15 victory that left them top of the table and set up a home semi-final against local rivals Leicester Tigers.

I was functioning on very little sleep (the fact that I’m still recovering from a 7s tournament the weekend before proves to me that I’m now an old man) so my thoughts may be a little more jumbled than usual, but I still managed to get a few coherent points from the game:

 

No empty seats

All 6 Premiership games were due to kick off at 4pm, but due to safety concerns, this game was delayed by 15 minutes to allow all the fans to get to their seats. While I agree with the commentators’ sentiments that the way the game panned out required Wasps to score that 4thtry (thus giving them the bonus point needed to top the league) in order to stop the momentum Sarries were building, in different circumstances this delay could have given these 2 teams an advantage over the teams who kicked off on time.

I appreciate that this was the largest attendance of the season (32,000) but they have topped 20,000 spectators for other big Premiership games this year so I would have expected organisers to be more prepared. It was also great to see a larger stadium filled up for a change rather than empty seats. I appreciate Wasps are still relatively new to the area but it’s never nice to see a stadium struggling to fill even half the seats, as was the case for many of their home games this season. Hopefully the increased length of time in Coventry will be helping them build a bigger fan base, and their exciting play will draw the fans into the ground for the games.

So many options

Not only do Wasps have a back line full of quality players, they are also full of versatility. In their starting back line this weekend they had Jimmy Gopperth (fly half/centre), Willie le Roux (Wing/Fullback) Elliot Daly (centre/wing/fullback) and Kurtley Beale, who I’m pretty certain has played every position in the backs other than scrum half during his career! This versatility gives the Wasps attack so many options, as seen when le Roux popped up at first receiver to set up Thomas Young’s second try. The amount of players capable of kicking accurately also helps take the pressure off Danny Cipriani, so allows him to play his natural game. This also makes it so difficult for a team to defend effectively, as it is all but impossible to guess how they will attack on the next phase.

Welsh wonder

If the Welsh national team coaches were unsure who to pick for the back row in the absence of their 4 Lions, then Thomas Young’s performance has surely filled the 7 shirt. His hat-trick in a Man of the Match performance was just the tip of the iceberg and showed that he is dangerous in the loose as well as an effective 7. If his performances for Wales are as good as for Wasps, then the Welsh selectors will be spoiled for choice when selecting their back row come the Autumn Internationals.

Try machine

Newcastle’s try record wasn’t the only one up for grabs in Coventry on Saturday. Christian Wade equalled Dominic Chapman’s record of 17 tries in a season with the simplest of finishes. I understand that in the past he has been seen as not good enough defensively, but he looks to have improved in that area, so I am shocked to have seen him excluded from Eddie Jones’ England squad this summer. I remember being impressed by Nathan Earle when I saw him feature for England U20s a few years ago and I have heard a lot of good things about London Irish’s Joe Cokanasiga, however neither of these lads have been regularly starting for a top Premiership club like Wade has. If Wade can continue this form next season, surely Eddie Jones will have to look in his direction soon.

Saracens selections

With Wasps facing Leicester at home and Sarries travelling to Exeter in the semi-finals, there is a good chance that this year’s Premiership final will be a repeat of this fixture (though I am personally hoping for a Wasps v Exeter final). However if this is the case, the Saracens XV will likely be very different to the one seen at the Ricoh. With a Champions Cup final on Saturday, a number of top players were either on the bench or rested altogether.

In my opinion, Ben Spencer was one of the only replacements whose performance may have earned them a promotion to the starting lineup, though I would still be very surprised to see Richard Wigglesworth dropped for such a vital game. I was very disappointed by the lack of imagination in the Saracens attack, with Spencer’s snipe through the gap left by an injured Tommy Taylor the only real moment of note that I remember from them. That opening try is the only time that I remember Saracens looking dangerous before they conceded the third try. If these teams do meet in the final, expect a very different match with all the usual stars back in action.

 

What did you think of the game? Have I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Kick it Out!

I’m sure that I’m not the only person who has spent time this week reading the stories of Pescara midfielder Sulley Muntari’s suspension for walking off the pitch last weekend after receiving racist abuse from a group of Cagliari fans. The Ghanaian international was initially booked for dissent after complaining to the referee about the abuse, but when nothing was done to stop the abuse he walked off the pitch in protest, for which he received a second yellow card and a subsequent one-game ban. Thankfully after a number of calls for players to strike, the Italian Football Federation have overturned the ban, however this is still another ugly blotch on the record of European football.

Racism as a whole is ugly and unnecessary. There is no excuse for it in 2017. For people (and I hesitate to use that word to describe such disgusting pigs) to behave this way at a sports event where children are certain to be present – not to mention possibly watching at home on television – should be unforgivable! And yet the Federation stated that they cannot act against Cagliari as fewer than 1% of their fans at the game were involved. The only thing I have seen from Cagliari is a comment that their fans as a whole are not racist, no suggestion that the incident will be investigated and the guilty parties punished. In my eyes, this reaction is absolutely disgusting!

This is by no means an isolated incident of racism in football:

  • December 2012 – Fans of Zenit Saint Petersburg published a manifesto demanding that the club exclude all non-white and homosexual players from the club’s roster
  • January 2013 – Kevin Prince-Boateng and his Milan teammates walked off the pitch midway through a friendly against Pro Patria after racist abuse from the lower-league team’s fans
  • April 2014 – Possibly the most well-known of the incidents on this list, Barcelona’s Dani Alves had a banana thrown at him mid-game by Villarreal fans. The Brazilian picked it up, peeled it and took a bite from it
  • May 2014 – Bananas were thrown at Milan players Kévin Constant and Nigel de Jong by Atlanta fans
  • September 2014 – Dynamo Moscow’s Christopher Samba was racially abused by fans during a local derby against Torpedo Moscow. Torpedo were punished, however Samba was also banned for two games for swearing at the racist fans.
  • 2015 – Benfica’s Renato Sanches was subjected to monkey chants from Rio Ave fans as he left the pitch
  • February 2015 – Chelsea fans were filmed pushing a black passenger off a Metro carriage in Paris ahead of a Champions League game against PSG. They were heard to be chanting “We’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it!”

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the racist incidents in European football over the last 5 years, a quick trawl of the internet will find you plenty of other examples.

Though rugby is by no means perfect, one of the things I am really proud of in my sport is how inclusive and respectful the fans are as a whole, there is plenty of banter between fans and players, but everyone generally knows where the line is and avoids crossing it. Unfortunately that line appears to be crossed far too often in football. I am sure that the people involved are just a small minority of football ‘fans’ but they unfortunately make such a spectacle, many innocent fans are tarnished with the same brush.

I look forward to the day when people are able to play the game they love without having to worry about the way they are treated by other players and fans. If footballers are still getting abused for the colour of their skin, why would any player want to reveal their sexuality?

Hopefully big steps will taken by all the authorities and governing bodies to make sure that any abuse if properly dealt with. We want to be discussing the actions of the players on the field, not the pigs in the stands!

 

What are your thoughts on the Sulley Muntari situation? Have you witnessed other fans doing/saying anything that made you ashamed to be part of the same group? Or have you yourself been abused while playing? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge