Eyes On: Blues v British and Irish Lions

The Lions continued their tour of New Zealand with their first midweek game against Tana Umaga’s Blues. This was their first match against Super Rugby opposition as they continue to build towards the first Test against the All Blacks in on the 24th.

After a poor showing in their opening game against the Provincial Barbarians, Warren Gatland picked a completely new starting XV, with a number of players who started the opener joining Peter O’Mahony and Liam Williams on the bench. Though they played much better than on Saturday, a late converted try from Ihaia West put the Blues 22-16 ahead and an errant throw from replacement hooker Rory Best at a line-out 7 metres from the Blues try-line denied the Lions a chance of claiming victory with the last play of the game.

As we begin to look towards Saturday’s game against the Crusaders, here are my thoughts on Game 2 of the Tour.

 

A better performance… but improvements needed

Though the result did not go the way Lions fans will have wanted, this was a much better performance than against the Barbarians. Dan Biggar looked settled until his injury and Johnny Sexton, who came on as his replacement around the 35 minute mark, had a better performance than at the weekend. The back line as a whole appeared much more involved than in the first game, and Rhys Webb provided some zip to the attack. In the pack, the scrum was a formidable weapon and Ken Owen’s decision to kick a 15th minute penalty to the corner – and the subsequent try from CJ Stander – showed that the Lions have real faith in the strength of their pack compared to their opponents. This is certainly an area where the All Blacks will be watching nervously.

However the performance was far from perfect. The attacking from the backs looked very limited, with much of the play just going from side to side without any real penetration. The defence however was cut open far too easily, and appeared to struggle with the host’s offloads. Rhys Webb may have played well on the whole but his box kicks were frequently too long to compete for and merely handed possession back to the Blues. To make matters worse, their discipline was atrocious. Against the Barbarians, the referee had to repeatedly warn the forwards to keep the gap at line-outs, but today I counted 2 free kicks conceded for this offence, along with at least 2 penalties for other – completely avoidable – offences at the line-out (Lawes grabbing the man in the air, Biggar encroaching). Liam Williams gave away a good position on the pitch with a stupid tackle of a player in the air and clearly didn’t learn from this by doing the same thing again mere minutes later, earning him 10 minutes in the sin bin at a crucial point in the game. To beat the other franchises – not to mention the All Blacks – the Lions will need to improve their discipline drastically, or teams will happily kick for territory and points all day long.

Defensive organisation

Jack Nowell was frequently picked out by the Sky Sports commentators as having a bad day and struggling to deal with Rieko Ioane, but while I agree that he can defend better than he did in this game I feel that he was not helped by the way that the Lions set up to defend so narrow. The Blues were happy to spread the ball from the start and even in the early minutes, I was noticing occasions where there were multiple attackers lined up outside Nowell and Elliot Daly, the Lions wingers. This happened a couple of times even before Ioane got outside Nowell to cross for the opening try. I understand that with players like Sonny Bill Williams in the midfield it is important to stop the opposition from breaking through the middle, but to make it easy for a team to get outside with a simple cross-kick or a few wide passes is madness! I have noticed in the Super Rugby highlights this year how accurate All Blacks fly half Beauden Barrett is with his cross-kicks. If the Lions wish to continue with this defensive tactic, I would not be surprised to see him take full advantage of this in the Tests.

From blue to black

In the same way that the Barbarians side contained a number of players looking to earn a Super Rugby contract, the Blues had a number of players hoping their performance will get them a place in the Test squad. Sonny Bill Williams’ performance gave credence to the phrase ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’. He is still getting back to his best after his injury during the Rio Olympics but put in a vintage performance against the Lions. Right from the early minutes, Williams was putting himself about defensively, ripping the ball out of the hands of no less than CJ Stander and also winning a turnover deep in his 22 to end the Lions’ early dominance. His try on the stroke of half time was opportunistic, but would not have been possible if he had not reacted quicker than everyone around him. For the winning try, his attacking line on the shoulder of Steven Luatua cut the Lions defence apart and his offload to Ihaia West was him at his best. Even more impressive is that, as a devout Muslim, he is currently fasting during the day for Ramadan! It’s no surprise to have seen him named this morning in the All Blacks squad for the Tests and I would be surprised if he does not at least make the bench.

Selection headache

Dan Biggar left the pitch just before half time for a HIA and never returned to the pitch. He has been left out of the match day 23 for this weekend’s game against the Crusaders as he goes through return to play protocols. However, as we have seen with Dane Coles, there is no guarantee of a quick return to training, so with 2 games per week he could miss a considerable number of matches. If this means that Owen Farrell and Sexton are to both feature in each match over the next few weeks, there is a very good chance that they will be burned out by the time the Tests come around. With Scotland playing in Singapore on Saturday, I would not be surprised to see Finn Russell called up to the Lions squad as extra cover in the next few days.

More of the haka

Away from the rugby, I was happy to see on Tuesday that the Blues would be performing a haka before the game, as would each of the other Super Rugby franchises. As the world continues to modernise, I love to see that the Maori culture is still getting time in the public eye. As the announcement was so close to the game and this was the first time the Blues had performed a haka, I was expecting to see a performance of Ka Mate, so I was very happy to see the Blues perform He Toa Takitini (The Strength of Many). If all of the Super Rugby franchises are going to perform different hakas, then I think this will be great for the general public to see and will hopefully get more people interested in looking into the Maori culture.

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: New Zealand Provincial Barbarians v British and Irish Lions

The British and Irish Lions kicked off their tour of New Zealand on Saturday with a match against the Provincial Barbarians. Though the Barbarians will arguably be the easiest opponent on the tour, the Lions laboured for much of the game and will likely be relieved to have come away win a 7-13 victory. While this is a difficult match to read into too much – neither team has had much time together and the Lions were likely getting over jet lag – my intention at this point is to write one of these articles for each match of the tour, so I have put together a couple of thoughts on this game.

 

Putting down a marker

After this year’s 6 Nations tournament I suggested that, though he would probably still make Touring Party, Taulupe Faletau would likely struggle to make the Test 23. After injury forced Billy Vunipola to pull out of the tour, it likely became a battle between Faletau and CJ Stander for the number 8 shirt in the first Test. Against the Barbarians, Faletau certainly didn’t hinder his chances and was probably the most impressive Lion on the pitch, especially in the first half. He was always willing to take the ball to the line and – as always – did the basics spot on, which though it sounds simple actually seems very difficult for many players. He also saved the Lions from an even more awkward half time scoreline with a fantastic try-saving tackle: not just bringing the man down before the line, but also twisting his body around to ensure he was able to hold the ball up once momentum took the two players over the try-line. Stander will have a chance to impress in the coming games, but I will now be very surprised if Faletau doesn’t make the Test 23 given that Stander’s versatility allows them both to feature in the same back row.

Battle for number 10

While Faletau’s performance may have helped play him into the starting lineup, Johnny Sexton should be feeling a lot more nervous about his chances. His last performance for Leinster in the Pro12 semi-final was poor and this one against the Barbarians was more of the same unfortunately. Passes and kicks were going astray in open play and he also missed a kick at goal that you would expect him to land (though there have been suggestions that the ball for the Tour is taking some getting used to for the kickers). He also needed some treatment on-field in the second half, which I am sure the All Blacks and Super Rugby franchises will have been paying close attention to given his history of getting injured during matches. What won’t have helped him either is the way that the back line seemed to work much better – albeit with English centres – once Owen Farrell replaced the Irishman. Farrell may have also missed a relatively easy kick at goal but really improved the cohesion of the back line.

The fact that Gatland chose to replace Sexton with Farrell suggests that he is not considering the Englishman as a centre, so it would appear that it will be a shootout between Sexton and Farrell for the number 10 shirt in the Tests. As it stands, it’s surely Advantage: Farrell.

An unexpected star

If you want to get an idea at the strength of New Zealand rugby, just take a look at this Barbarians squad. Many of the squad are not currently contracted to a Super Rugby franchise and will have been using this as a game to prove themselves worthy of a step up to the next level. To have come so close to beating the Lions will be a massive boost moving forward to all of these players’ careers, but surely none more so than fly half Bryn Gatland. The 22-year-old son of Warren Gatland is currently on a short-term contract at the Blues, but with Piers Francis off to Northampton next season there would appear to be a space in the squad. Gatland certainly did everything he could to prove that he deserves the spot and was arguably the best player on the pitch in the first half. His variety in play, and the way he varied his kicks in open play, drew comparisons from the Sky Sports commentators to Dan Carter, which is the highest of praise for the young fly half. He caused so many problems for the Lions, I would love to know what Gatland was thinking watching his son come so close to beating his team. If Gatland isn’t in a Super Rugby squad next season, I will be shocked!

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

A Premier Mistake?

A few days ago I found myself thinking that we were surely due some news regarding this summer’s Premiership Rugby 7s Series. Perhaps Premiership Rugby have hired a psychic as when I looked on their website Tuesday evening, there was a story giving the dates and venue for this season’s tournament.

Unfortunately this news did not leave me as happy as I was hoping, and from reading the first paragraph, some of you may have already guessed why.

 

In previous years the competing teams – originally just the 12 teams in the upcoming Premiership year, but also the 4 Welsh Regions since 2014 – took part in pools of 4 teams, each pool being hosted by one of the teams in that pool. The final was then played at another venue, with the top 2 teams from each pool progressing to the final. This means that each of the previous tournaments have featured at least 4 host venues from around the UK. This time, however, Premiership Rugby have decided to change the style to what we saw during the Rio Olympics, with the 12 Premiership clubs competing over 2 days at Franklin’s Gardens.

While I think that it is a shame that the Welsh regions are no longer involved, I can understand the decision to copy the Rio format as this will make it easier for more casual fans to follow and understand. However, I feel that this is a mistake as we are now expecting everyone to make their way to Northampton for the tournament.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend a number of the pool stages at Kingsholm and have noticed the increase in popularity over the years as more people get into 7s. However, this was often helped by the pools often containing local rivals, so travel was less of an issue. Now that fans are expected to travel to Northampton, I would be very surprised if the tournament gets the same level of attendance as in recent years. Putting the first day of the tournament on a Friday will not help either, as fans will have to contend with work commitments and rush hour making travel to the event even more difficult.

 

If Premiership Rugby do decide to keep this format, then I would like to see them make it into – as the name suggests – a series, much like a Premiership version of the World Rugby Sevens Series, with legs held at each of the Premiership clubs. This way, casual fans can choose to attend their local leg of the tournament, while more dedicated fans could choose to attend multiple legs. It would also be easy enough for clubs to add their home leg into their season ticket package in order to help encourage high attendances, as the cost for a ticket in the past has never been that high. Granted, we probably wouldn’t be able to hold the entire series in the preseason, but we could have weekly legs in the preseason and perhaps even the opening weeks of the Premiership season, then complete the tournament towards the end of the season as the weather begins to improve again.

Playing legs during the season would also encourage teams to use players from their academy or ‘A’ teams as their stars will be otherwise engaged, which gives younger players more chance to gain experience in front of a big crowd. This would also surely be a good way for national team coaches like Simon Amor to identify future players for the World Series and other international tournaments.

 

Whatever happens, I will be interested to see how successful the new format of the tournament is and also to see what the next step is moving forward.

 

What are your thoughts on the new format? Is there anything you want to change about the Series? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Aviva Premiership 2016/17 Alternative Awards

Now we have reached the end of another season of Premiership rugby, we are seeing awards handed out by both the league and individual clubs for player of the season/team of the season etc. I didn’t want to do the same but felt that it would be good to have a quick look back through the season and so I hit on the idea of the Alternative Awards.

For each of these awards I hope to have an honourable mention as well as a winner, and will look to explain why I made the choice I did. So without further ado, the winners are…

Individual Awards

Best Newcomer: Denny Solomona

Kurtley Beale deserves an honourable mention here as he has brought so much to the Wasps attack, however injury stopped him from making his debut until December and Wasps were already doing well without him. Instead, I have decided to give the award to Denny Solomona. At the start of the season Sale were finding themselves dragged into a relegation fight with Worcester and Bristol, but an upturn in their fortunes, combined with an impressive try-scoring record for their new winger, helped pull them to safety. I was not happy with the way that his move to Sale happened – not that it appears Castleford have missed him! – but I think that his performances this season have been highly impressive and I hope he recovers in time for England’s tour to Argentina.

Best Breakthrough: Zach Mercer

Joe Marchant’s performances for Harlequins this year have been very impressive, but I couldn’t look beyond Mercer with this pick, as much as it pains me as a Gloucester fan to praise a Bath player! Though injuries and international appearances have deprived Bath of a number of their back rowers for parts of the season, Zach Mercer has done a fantastic job of earning a spot in the team regardless of who was available. The England U20 not only did the basics well, but also looked to be one of the best players on the pitch whenever I saw him play. I was surprised that he was not promoted to the senior England team for the Argentina tour, however this is certainly to the benefit of the U20s and I expect the RPA Young Player of the Season to excel in Georgia.

Fond Farewell: Nick Evans

This is an award for players who will be sorely missed from the league as they enter retirement. I really wanted to pick former Scotland second row Jim Hamilton, who spent a number of years at Leicester, Gloucester and Saracens. A solid operator who was never afraid to get into a scrap, Hamilton was a fan favourite who will be missed. However he has been beaten to the award by Harlequins’ former All Black Nick Evans. Evans’ move to the Premiership in 2008 would mark the end of his international career, but he continued to put in the same level of play for Harlequins and has been a key figure in that team ever since. He has struggled with injuries in recent seasons but has remained a driving force in the Quins attack. I’m sure that i won’t just be Harlequins fans missing him on the pitch next year but it is great to see that he will be staying at the Stoop as the new Attack Coach.

Bon Voyage: Chris Ashton

This award is very similar to the Fond Farewell award, except that this is for players who are choosing to leave the Premiership in order to ply their trade in another league. Former England and Lions second row Geoff Parling got the perfect sendoff by winning the Premiership final with Exeter and is now off to play in Japan and Australia. Incredibly reliable for Newcastle, Leicester and Exeter, the 33-year-old still has a couple of good seasons left under his belt. However, much like the Fond Farewell award, the award has gone to a somewhat flashier player: Chris Ashton. The former England winger, on his way to Toulon this Summer, has had a successful career at Northampton and Saracens since switching codes from Wigan Warriors in 2007 and was also incredibly successful with the national team. A somewhat divisive player – I’ll be honest and admit that I’m not a huge fan of him – his ability to finish a move and score tries will be truly missed in next season’s Premiership.

Biggest Cojones: Henry Slade

This was a late award that I decided to add after watching the playoffs and how close they were. This award is for the player who has had the balls to step forward under the highest pressure and deliver a crucial play. Gareth Steenson had almost the ultimate weight on his shoulder when he stepped up to kick the potential game-winning penalty 3 minutes before the end of extra time in the final. While this kick had the pressure of deciding the final and was in front of almost 80,000 fans at Twickenham – and countless more watching on TV – the kick itself was a simple one for a kicker of Steenson’s calibre, so the award has gone to Henry Slade for his penalty in the dying minutes of the semi-final against Saracens. With just 90 seconds remaining and Saracens 13-16 ahead, Exeter were awarded a penalty in the middle of the pitch, 10-15 metres inside their own half. In this position, we would often see a kicker play safe and look to kick for a line out somewhere around the opposition 10 metre line. Given the time on the clock and the score, a kicker may take a risk and look to get the ball closer to the opposition 22. Slade, however, had other ideas and got every inch that he could from the kick, resulting in Exeter having the line out a mere 7 metres out from the line, which they managed to maul over for the winning try.

 

Team Awards

Head-scratcher: The fall of Matt Kvesic

The Head-scratcher award is for the decision that , from the outside, appears to make little sense. I was very close to giving this to Leicester Tigers’ decision to replace Aaron Mauger as Head Coach mid-way through the season considering he had got the Tigers back on track after an awful start to the season before the sacking of Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill. Mauger seemed extremely popular with the players, and with Tigers getting back on track after Cockerill’s sacking, in my opinion it would have made more sense to change at the end of the season, much as Gloucester have done following the departure of Laurie Fisher. While this was truly a head-scratcher in my opinion, my Gloucester bias has come out in selecting the fall of Matt Kvesic. Last season, Kvesic was arguably the best 7 in the league, topping the charts for turnovers and earning plaudits from none other than Australian great George Smith. Yet this year he often found himself behind Jacob Rowan and by the end of the season was struggling to even make the 23. Was there a falling out with the coaches or was this down to a loss in form? If it was a loss in form, what was this down to? The club have stayed quiet on the matter all season, so until we know, there will always be questions about how such a fall from grace can happen so fast.

Biggest Disappointment: Gloucester Rugby

After so long trying to get back to the top flight, to be relegated with matches to spare will be a huge disappointment for Bristol. However when you look at the positions that everybody finished in compared to the quality of the squad, Gloucester have arguable been the biggest disappointment. Despite a number of experienced players and having only lost a couple of players to international duty, Gloucester lost too many games from winning positions, sacked Head Coach Laurie Fisher and ended the season a disappointing 9th place, 6 points outside of the top 6! Gloucester fans will certainly be hoping to see the Cherry & Whites back in the top half of the table under new Head Coach Johan Ackermann.

Surprise Success: Newcastle Falcons

Exeter could be considered somewhat of a surprise success given their poor start to the season and the strength of their squad compared to their playoff opponents Saracens and Wasps. However they were runners-up last year and have been steadily improving since their promotion, so I feel that they were worthy of an honourable mention but not the award. When I was picking my players to watch before the season started, I suggested that Newcastle’s decision to part with a lot of experienced players and bring in a number of youth players and 7s specialists could see them fighting to stay in the league. As it was, they finished in 8th place, 29 points clear of relegated Bristol and spent much of the campaign fighting for a place in the top 6.

 

What are your thoughts on the awards? Do you think that I missed anyone? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge