International Rugby Ramble

Farewell to a legend

This weekend saw the USA national rugby team make history by qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup as the top American qualifier for the first time ever. Their win over the Canadians in San Diego – on Canada Day, no less! – was by no means perfect, as they frequently struggled at the scrum, but they frequently impressed in open play and scored some beautiful tries on their way to a 52-16 victory. This result has confirmed the USA’s place in Pool C alongside England, France, Argentina and the currently unconfirmed Oceania 2 qualifier.

While there was a lot to celebrate at full time, the moment was also bittersweet, as it signalled the international retirement of the USA’s most-capped player. Rugby’s very own Captain America, flanker Todd Clever made his international debut in 2003 and has gone on to amass 76 caps, as well as appearing for the USA in the World Sevens Series on a number of occasions. For a number of years, he was the face of USA rugby, and even with the emergence of a number of talented Americans, he has remained a key part of the national team. I can’t help but wonder if the USA would have been more successful in the 2015 World Cup had he not been left out following a disagreement with then-Head Coach Mike Tolkin.

Clever was the first American to play in Super Rugby (for the Lions in 2009) and has even competed against the British and Irish Lions on their tour that year. He spent 5 years playing in the Japanese Top League and also played in the Aviva Premiership for Newcastle in the 2015/16 season.

Now back in America, he is a player and co-owner for the Austin Huns, who will be part of the inaugural Major League Rugby. Though PRO Rugby did not work out, I have heard a lot of promising things regarding the MLR and I look forward to seeing how things go once the league begins. I still feel that the USA have the potential to be the next rugby superpower and seriously hope that players continue to come through to take Clever’s place.

 

Clever is not the first captain to announce his international retirement this summer, as he is joined by Geogia’s Mamuka Gorgodze, who has similarly helped to put Georgian rugby on the map. I am sure that both of these players have been inspirations not just for their teammates, but for the children who will now want to grow up to represent their country on the rugby pitch. Though the big names may be stepping down, I fully hope and expect both national teams to push on and continue to improve without them.

 

A hairy situation

Over the weekend I read an article on Pundit Arena stating the Japanese Rugby Union raised the hairstyle of hooker Shota Horie as a topic of discussion and expressed their disapproval at a recent board meeting.

The hooker has won over 50 caps for the national team and plays for the Sunwolves, so should be considered an inspiration for those looking to get into rugby in Japan. From what I have read, the union seem to be citing the idea of integrity, yet does a players hairstyle really constitute such a problem? It’s not like he’s got a cock and balls shaved into the side!

Maybe its something to do with me being follicly challenged, but I would never imagine playing rugby with the hairstlyes that some of these pros do. That said, I do not see any problem with players having their hair as such and if I’m completely honest I couldn’t imagine players like Todd Clever or Richard Hibbard playing with close-cropped hair.

Even if they are going to be strict on a player’s personal appearance, are there not more important things for the JRFU to be worrying about right now? The World Cup they are hosting is just over 2 years away and the Sunwolves have only managed 2 wins and a draw in their first 28 Super Rugby games and are on track to finish bottom of the combined table for the second year running. I think the JRFU need to get their priorities right, quickly!

 

Lions tour disciplinary results

When I wrote about Saturday’s second Test between the Lions and All Blacks, I mentioned that I would not be surprised to see Sonny Bill Williams receive a ban for his high tackle on Anthony Watson. I was proved right as it was announced yesterday that the cross-code star had received a 4-week ban.

It would appear that the commission felt the same as me, that the incident was more reckless than intentional. I was however a little surprised at the length of the ban. The incident was considered a mid-range offence, which has a starting point of 6 weeks, however the ban was reduced to 4 weeks after considering mitigating factors including his early admission, disciplinary record, good character and remorse. The mention of his good disciplinary record surprised me as there have been other occasions in the past where he has been penalised for not wrapping in the tackle, so considering how strict World rugby are being with contact to the head I would have expected the entry-level 6 weeks to stand, possibly with an extra week added as a deterrent.

 

Williams wasn’t the only player attending a hearing over the weekend though, as Sean O’Brien was cited for a forearm on Waisake Naholo. I was surprised when the citing was announced as to me the incident looked accidental rather than reckless. Had it been picked up during the game I feel there would have been some justification for a yellow – harsh perhaps, but there was enough force for Naholo to fail a HIA – but I did not feel that there was enough to warrant a red card. The case was dismissed, which shows the commission felt that no action was required, as they could have issued a Citing Commissioner Warning if they felt the challenge was worthy of a yellow. This will be a huge boost for the Lions as they prepare for the series-defining third Test this Saturday.

 

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

Eyes On: New Zealand v British and Irish Lions – Second Test

After New Zealand’s 30-15 last weekend, the Lions knew they needed a win in order to keep their hopes of a series victory alive. For this game, Warren Gatland made a number of changes – some expected, some surprising – to the 23-man squad, whereas Steve Hansen chose to limit his changes to those necessitated by the injuries to Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty.

In a game that started in awful conditions, the big talking point of an exciting but low-scoring first half was the red card shown to Sonny Bill Williams on 25 minutes for a shoulder to the head of Anthony Watson. The Lions went on to score 2 unanswered tries in the second half as conditions improved, but discipline issues allowed Beauden Barrett to keep the game tightly poised, before a late penalty from Owen Farrell gave the tourists a 21-24 victory.

With no midweek games remaining, both teams now have a week to recover and prepare for next Saturday’s third Test, which is now a winner-takes-all showdown. As we begin to look ahead to next weekend, these are my thoughts on today’s game.

 

The big moment

Where else could I start other than the red card? With the scores at 3-3 25 minutes into the game, Anthony Watson took possession of a high ball and was grabbed by Waisake Naholo as he came inside. Sonny Bill Williams came in to help complete the tackle but there was contact between his right shoulder and Watson’s head. After reviewing the replays, referee Jerome Garces made the decision to show the centre a red card.

The replays did not look good, but I do not feel that this was at all deliberate or an attempt to injure the player as some people have suggested, but instead an unfortunate accident. Despite Stuart Barnes’ insistence otherwise, Watson was not upright, but instead bent over due to Naholo tackling him around the torso and trying to drag him down. There was some force in the hit (would you expect anything else from a tackle by Williams?) however Watson passed a HIA in approximately 7 minutes, so the collision possibly looked worse than it felt. There was also the slightest attempt to wrap the left arm, however this was minimal enough that I feel the hit could still be considered a no-arms tackle, something that we arguably see too often in union from Williams and likely due in part to his switching between union and league.

I am not saying the punishment was harsh, when you look at the directives relating to high tackles this was clearly a reckless tackle and there were not enough mitigating factors, so there was no other option for Garces. It would not surprise me to see Williams fall foul of the citing commission and receive a ban.

The impressive thing is how well the All Blacks continued to play despite being a man down for 45 minutes (Mako Vunipola’s yellow meant that the numbers were even for 10 minutes of the second half) and they still created a couple of try-scoring chances and would have won the game had both kickers finished with 100% records (Barrett missed 3 penalties, Farrell a penalty and a conversion).

What did surprise me, though, was Hansen’s decision to immediately replace Jerome Kaino – an experienced operator and real physical presence – for the inexperienced Ngani Laumape. This is nothing against Laumape – he carried his form from the Hurricanes game into this match – but the decision to go down a man in the pack when the weather was resulting in a territorial game with a number of scrums baffles me and I wonder if the All Blacks would have done better delaying that substitution until conditions improved later in the game.

Justified selections?

I was very surprised to see Alun Wyn Jones retain his place in the starting lineup after a poor tour, however the conditions led to a less expansive game which appeared to suit him and he had a much better performance before being replaced by Courtney Lawes just before the hour mark. His partner in the second row, Maro Itoje, fully justified his promotion from the bench with a great performance. Despite his youth, Itoje led the line out with aplomb and the only real error I remember from him was a knock-on in the New Zealand 22 in the first half.

Due to the way the conditions were played, it was harder to judge how successful Gatland’s other changes were, though it must be noted that the Sexton/Farrell combination was highly influential in Taulupe Faletau’s try, which actually came when both teams were playing with 14 men. However towards the end of the game Ardie Savea and Laumape did begin to have some luck making big metres in the centre of the pitch, so I was a bit surprised Gatland refrained from bringing on Ben Te’o in the latter stages. I was also quite surprised not to see Rhys Webb introduced late on to take advantage of the extra man, but Conor Murray took his try well and controlled the game well with experienced play, including pulling an angry Kyle Sinckler away from Charlie Faumuina as Garces gave what ended up being the match-winning penalty, ensuring that there would be no reversal of the penalty for retaliation.

Given the weather and the man advantage in this game, it will be interesting to see what changes Gatland decides to make for next week.

Ill-disciplined Lions

Beauden Barrett was 100% from the tee last week, but Lions fans will be very happy to have seen him miss 3 penalties today. The discipline from the tourists today was absolutely shocking! The All Blacks had 10 shots at goal in this game and would have won the game had Barrett been a bit more accurate. Mako Vunipola alone gave away 4 penalties, including a stupid late charge on Barrett after he kicked downfield (Barrett nailed the kick at goal from where the ball landed) and then a silly clear out of Barrett at a ruck mere moments later, where he clearly used the shoulder as opposed to wrapping an arm. Admittedly this sort of challenge happens frequently in a game without punishment, but it was far too obvious from a player the referee is already paying attention to and Barrett did also take a while to get back to his feet following the challenge.

The Lions played with an extra man for 45 minutes, scored 2 tries to nil, yet still only won by 3 points. If they are to win the third Test, they will need to improve their discipline considerably

 

As next weekend is the final game of the tour, I have decided not to rush to name my final 23 today, but will instead have a post dedicated to it over the next few days, so keep your eyes open for that!

 

What were your thoughts on the second Test? Do you think I missed anything? How do you think the Lions will do next week? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge