Football Ramble – Premier League 2017/18 Round 6

It feels like only yesterday we were celebrating the return of the Premier League, but we’re already 6 rounds into the tournament! It is still early days but the table is clearly starting to take shape, with the usual suspects (and Watford) in the top 7, while Crystal Palace are 4 already 4 points away from safety and still looking for their first point of the campaign.

False dawn?

After a 1-0 victory against Stoke on the opening weekend, Everton have gone on a horrid run, with 1 draw and 3 losses from their next 4 league games. They may have pulled themselves out of the relegation zone with their 2-1 win at home to Bournemouth, but is this really the start of the improvement? Bournemouth’s only win so far came against newly-promoted Brighton and they have lost their other 4 games. Going into their match at Goodison Park, Bournemouth had scored 3 goals and conceded 9 so the result is no great surprise. Last week I mentioned that too many Everton players were not playing at the standard they should and once again they conceded a goal that was far too easy for Josh King. Everton must continue to improve quickly and a win at home to Burnley (2 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss) is important for their climb back up the table.

Are you watching, Gareth Southgate?

Where would Spurs be without Harry Kane and Dele Alli? So many of the team’s goals are either scored or set up by one of these 2. Against West Ham, Alli set up Kane for the opener with a pinpoint cross and it was his initial shot that was parried straight back to Kane for number 2. They have such a good connection which makes it so hard for a defence to deal with them. If Gareth Southgate wants the national team to be successful in the later stages of a tournament, he would do well to base the team around these 2, especially considering fellow Spurs players Eric Dier and Kieran Trippier and former teammate Kyle Walker are all also in the squad.

The main man

In the same week that Diego Costa’s return to Atletico Madrid was announced, summer signing Alvaro Morata scored his first Premier League hat-trick.

Some fans were quick to judge after a less-than-perfect preseason, but already the young Spaniard has shown he is a more than adequate replacement for Costa. Already this season, he has shown that he is deadly in front of goal and strong in the air, against Stoke he also showed that has the pace to trouble defences.

He may already have 20 senior caps to his name, but now that he will be the main man up front at Chelsea, a chance that he has never truly had at Real Madrid or Juventus, I can see his international career going to a new level.

Finding the balance

Everton are not the only team struggling to get the results the quality of their squad suggests they should. Slaven Bilic needs to start winning soon or he could be following Frank de Boer out of the league.

Stage 1 to getting results should be playing Javier Hernandez in his right position. A couple of times this season, Chicharito has been played in a wide position, which clearly does not suit his playing style. As his goal against Spurs shows, he is at his best when he gets the ball inside the box, and as such he should be utilised in a central position. Andy Carroll has looked a handful for defenders in recent weeks, so depending on the tactics Bilic wants to use he could be used as either a great partner or change of pace replacement for the Mexican, with Michail Antonio and Marko Arnautovic supporting them from wide positions.


Week 7 predictions:

Huddersfield Town v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

AFC Bournemouth v Leicester City – Leicester win

Manchester United v Crystal Palace – United win

Stoke City v Southampton – Draw

West Bromwich Albion v Watford – Draw

West Ham United v Swansea City – West Ham win

Chelsea v Manchester City – Draw

Arsenal v Brighton & Hove Albion – Arsenal win

Everton v Burnley – Everton win

Newcastle United v Liverpool – Liverpool win

Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Ravens @ Jaguars

The 2017 NFL International Series kicked off in front of a record crowd on Sunday afternoon with the first of 2 games at Wembley. The Jags were calling London their home for the 5th consecutive year while the Ravens were playing their 1st regular season game over here. Despite the Ravens having won their opening 2 games with a combined 10 points conceded, the Jags dominated from the start (other than giving away a penalty on the opening kick-off) on their way to a 44-7 victory.

The game started with a protest seen throughout the league this weekend, with almost a quarter of the players taking a knee and the rest of the players and staff – including owner Shad Khan – locking arms in a show of solidarity against Donald Trump’s recent tweets. But this is a blog about sports not politics, so back to the game!


Bad day for Flacco

This was not a match that Joe Flacco will look back on with much fondness. With 6-time Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda out injured, the Jags pass rush had a field day, consistently pressuring the quarterback on the way to 2 sacks. By half time, the Ravens had amassed a total 15 yards on offense, with their pass game having attributed -4 yards to this. With the win out of reach, Flacco was eventually removed going into the 4th quarter having completed 8/18 passes for 28 yards, no touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Things went slightly better for replacement Ryan Mallet, who completed 6 of his 9 passes for 36 yards and a consolation touchdown to Benjamin Watson, but this is to be expected in garbage time.

Other than their second half against the Titans in Week 2, the Jaguars defense has looked a dangerous unit with a set of quality pass rushers being covered by some underrated linebackers and some top level defensive backs. They may have struggled for a number of years, but this has led to them bringing in a lot of high quality players through early draft picks such as Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Dante Fowler, which combined with their shrewd recruitment through Free Agency has created a defense that will keep them in games and cause problems for a number of offenses.

An upwards curve

Blake Bortles is probably one of the hardest quarterbacks in the league to judge. Often likened to ‘Big Ben’ Roethlisberger for his stature and his ability to stay on his feet, he has often struggled with accuracy, having never finished a season with a completion percentage above 60% and averaging just over 1 interception per game in his NFL career.

At Wembley, Bortles looked like a true franchise quarterback, completing 20 of his 31 throws for 4 touchdowns and no interceptions, before being replaced with 9 minutes remaining by Chad Henne. Bortles showed poise in the pocket and also good escapability to avoid the Ravens pass rush and keep plays alive, while also showing the maturity to check down to an open receiver short of the first down marker as opposed to making a risky longer throw. The Jaguars staff have built a strong set of targets for Bortles to aim at – Marcedes Lewis, Allen Hurns, Allen Robinson and Marquise Lee – while also putting together a strong backfield containing T. J. Yeldon, Chris Ivory and latest first-round draft pick Leonard Fournette. The quality available in the running game will put less pressure on Bortles and force him into less dangerous throws, while the receivers will give him every chance of beating a team through the air once the defense stacks the box against the run.

Home away from home

As mentioned above, the Jags have sacrificed a home game to play in London for the last 5 consecutive seasons, but is this really a sacrifice anymore? Since the 2015 season, the Jags have gone 3-0 at Wembley (their 2015 and 2016 wins coming against teams who finished the season with better records than them) whereas over the same span, they have gone 4-11 at EverBank Field. Granted the sample size isn’t huge, but it looks like London suits the Jaguars.

As a regular team in London, they have understandably built up a fan base and the local fans certainly know how to make themselves heard during a game. They will also benefit from the London trips becoming part of their season routine now, whereas for a team like Baltimore playing in Wembley for the first time, it is a very different experience. By this point the Jags know when works best for the team in terms of when to fly over, as some teams have come early in the week whereas others come towards the end of the week. If they don’t look to fully overcome jet lag, they will also be more experienced at the earlier start time than usual, as to suit UK and US audiences, the London games kick off a couple of hours ahead of the earliest games in the US. In the past there have been comments as to the quality of the Wembley pitch compared to fields in the USA, the Jags know what to expect so come prepared with the right footwear, whereas the Ravens never spent time at Wembley until the day of the game. These may be little things, but they can add up to give a team a big advantage.

The Jags are locked in to at least 1 game per season in the UK through to 2020, but owner Shad Khan seemed open to increasing the number of UK games in the future. If the Jags continue to play like this then I’m sure the local fans won’t mind, the Jags certainly won’t if they continue to get the results over here!

Money Talks

In my perusing of the internet last night, I came across articles from RugbyLAD and WalesOnline discussing some findings from data collected by Esportif Intelligence about the salaries of players in the Premiership compared to last year’s Pro12. Unfortunately I was not able to find their data/findings directly, but looking through the summaries from these other sites, there were a few things that I thought were worthy of discussion:

It’s no real surprise that the data showed the average salary of a player in the Premiership last season was higher than in the Pro12. The Premiership’s bumper TV deals have allowed clubs to splash the cash in order to compete against the Top14, whereas the failure of the Pro12 to have a centralised TV deal has made it hard for the teams to compete financially with their European rivals. What was interesting though is that despite the average salary being £30k lower than in the Premiership, the salaries for top players in the Pro12 last year were actually higher than the Premiership, to the point that a Pro12 combined XV would be more expensive than a Premiership combined XV. The disparity in the average player salary comes from the squad players, who appear to be paid considerably more in the Premiership than in the Pro14. If you’re a Pro12 player that is not being considered for national selection then there is very little incentive to stay in country when you see players in the Premiership being paid more to do the same or less!

The other big talking points come from the breakdown of average salaries by position. These figures were calculated by looking at player salaries and their starting position last year. From highest to lowest, the positions with the highest average salaries are:


  1. 10
  2. 12
  3. 4/5
  4. 15
  5. 3
  6. 11/14
  7. 8
  8. 7
  9. 9
  10. 13
  11. 1
  12. 2
  13. 6


  1. 10
  2. 4/5
  3. 8
  4. 15
  5. 9
  6. 6
  7. 11/14
  8. 13
  9. 2
  10. 7
  11. 1
  12. 12
  13. 3

It’s no real surprise that fly half is the best-paid position in both leagues as the fly half really is the quarterback of the team. A starting quality fly half is always in demand so this will also help to drive up the cost at this position. Combined with this, the fly half will often be a reliable goal kicker, so that will push the price of the position up even further.

What did surprise me was that open-side flanker was so low on the list in both countries, especially compared to second row, which features in the top 3 of both leagues. I think this shows something of the mentality of Northern Hemisphere rugby, as they prioritise a dominant set piece and dealing with the breakdown as a team rather than focusing on a specialised fetcher in the mould of Richie McCaw or David Pocock. The role of the second row is also becoming more diverse, with the set piece still vital but also an impact in open play now expected from even the average player. It would be very interesting to see the comparative salaries for Super Rugby over this time period.

It’s very interesting the discrepancy in salary for inside centres between the 2 leagues. In the Pro12 they are one of the lowest salaries, however in the Premiership they are second only to the fly half! As this looks at the starting positions of players last year, I think part of this comes down to the way the position is viewed. Over recent years, a number of Premiership clubs have regularly played a fly half at the centre position – Harry Mallinder, Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto and Jimmy Gopperth immediately spring to mind. We have already established that fly half is an expensive position, if fly halves are also plying their trade at 12, then it makes sense that this position is becoming more expensive.

The other big discrepancy was with the salary for a tighthead prop. This has traditionally been one of the most expensive positions in rugby due to the importance of the scrum and the technicality of the position. I’m pretty certain John Afoa has been one of the highest paid players in the Premiership over recent seasons. I think 5th in the Premiership sounds about right for the position, but I am shocked that it is actually the worst-paid position in the Pro12 last season. Beyond Tadhg Furlong and WP Nel, I would argue that there is not a depth in quality at the position, so it may be that clubs are currently hesitant to pay big money until they know a player is deserving of it.


It will be interesting to see how these figures continue to change over the coming year. The report suggests the salary gap will be even higher this year, but with the addition of the South African sides to the (now) Pro14, will this see the salaries become more competitive over the coming years? Only time will tell…

Football Ramble – Premier League 2017/18 Round 5

Week 5 of the Premier League is now behind us. The Manchester clubs continued their early domination of the league with a combined 10 goals scored over the weekend, while Bournemouth’s win over Brighton has left Crystal palace bottom of the league as the only team with no points. Elsewhere, David Luiz saw red as Arsenal and Chelsea shared the spoils at Stamford Bridge, while Tottenham continued to drop points at home, this time to Swansea.


A long road back

Crystal Palace’s decision to replace Frank de Boer with Roy Hodgson after just 4 weeks of Premiership football is an odd one. De Boer is an attack-minded boss whereas risk-averse Roy is anything but, favouring an organised defence. To bring in such a contrast in styles right after the transfer window closes means that Hodgson must try to build success with a crop of players that may not even be right for his style of football. Palace failed to score against Southampton, where Steven Davis’ early goal condemned the Eagles to the unwanted record of becoming the first ever club to lose their opening 5 games without scoring a goal. To make matters worse, their next 3 games in the league are Manchester City (away), Manchester United (away) and Chelsea (home), so it doesn’t look like their record will be improving any time soon. On paper they have a talented squad, but they are already 4 points away from safety and that just looks set to grow over the next few weeks. It would not surprise me to see them in the Championship next season.

Improvement needed

Putting my neck on the line here: Manchester City will not win the league this year. I think they have one of – if not the most – potent attacks in the league, however I feel that they are still just too weak at the back. City have spent big money at the back in recent years and while I feel that new keeper Ederson will be a big help, there are still too many questions over the men directly in front of him. Vincent Kompany is a top defender when on form but misses too much time through injury. John Stones shows promise but is prone to stupid errors, while so far Nicolas Otamendi and especially Eliaquim Mangala have proven to be expensive mistakes. Against teams like Watford, they may be able to get away with a leaky defence but once they play other teams competing for the title and Champions League places, they will struggle.

Liverpool are another team who will struggle to reach the heights they should because of a poor defence. Against Burnley, the defence made it far too easy for Scott Arfield’s goal and they were lucky to not concede a second following a couple of minutes full of errors: Burnley went for a long throw into the box. With no players in claret and blue close, it should have been easy to deal with, however 2 players both went for the same ball and they ended up giving away a cheap corner. The marking at the corner was almost non-existent and for 2 corners in a row Ben Mee was able to get a free header. At one of the corners his shirt was quite clearly pulled as the ball came in too, so it could have easily been a penalty for Burnley.

If both of these clubs are to reach the level they should, then they need to look at their defence. This does not necessarily mean buying new players, but improving the organisation of the defence so that they are a unit the managers and fans can rely on.

Money can’t buy you wins

September could not have gone much worse for Everton so far. After their 3-0 loss to Spurs in Week 4, they lost 3-0 at Atalanta midweek before going on to lose 4-0 at Old Trafford on Sunday. They may have lost star striker Romelu Lukaku to United, but they have also spent heavily on their squad and should be pushing for Europe rather than sitting in the relegation zone. Against Manchester United, Rooney and Sigurdsson were unable to get the ball in the back of the net, while recent signings Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane and Ashley Williams (brought in last summer) all gifted the home side chances with individual errors and Morgan Schneiderlin (signed from United in January) gave away the penalty for the final goal of the game.


Week 6 predictions:

West Ham United v Tottenham Hotspur – Draw

Burnley v Huddersfield Town – Burnley win

Everton v AFC Bournemouth – Everton win

Manchester City v Crystal Palace – Man City win

Southampton v Manchester United – United win

Stoke City v Chelsea – Draw

Swansea City v Watford – Draw

Leicester City v Liverpool – Draw

Brighton & Hove Albion v Newcastle United – Newcastle win

Arsenal v West Bromwich Albion – Arsenal win

Taking Sport to Another Level

We all know that technology is being used to improve sport. From GPS technology to help in training to Hawkeye and other systems being used to ensure correct decisions are made in a game. These things are obvious. But there is another way that sport is being improved by technology that probably doesn’t get enough of a mention: the fan experience.

Now I’m only 26 and it’s only in recent years that I’ve become sports mad and started paying attention on a larger scale, so I can’t properly say what it was like “back in the day” but some of these changes are so big they are clearly improving the experience for fans and possibly even drawing fans into the sport:

First up is one of the obvious ones: TV. It wasn’t that long ago that the average household only had 5 television channels. Now that we’ve had the digital switch-over, even someone without paid-for channels still has a much wider range of channels, including ones like ITV4 that will often show sporting events – just these last few months we have had live coverage of the Tour de France, Tour of Britain, Women’s Rugby World Cup and World Rugby U20s Championship! Red Button channels like on the BBC add even more chances for fans to watch sport, as we see events like Wimbledon and the Olympics shown almost in their entirety. Subscriptions for Sky and BT are much more common too, giving viewers access to multiple channels dedicated to sport, so we can see not just sport from the UK but also other countries (Sky show NFL, Super Rugby and Rugby Championship matches live). tvFor those who don’t have the time to sit down and watch all the sport that is on, we are also treated to plenty of highlights shows on free-to air TV. Match of the Day has been a staple of the Premier League for as long as I can remember – except for those few years where we had The Premiership on ITV – and there are many similar shows for other sporting events, from daily highlights of the Grand Tour cycling events to Channel 5’s football highlights covering the Championship to League 2 and their Premiership Rugby highlights show, which they have recently acquired from ITV. If it is easier for someone to watch a sport on a regular basis, then they will be more likely to become fans of the sport. We are also starting to see some sports like the NFL and Rugby League using player mics to improve the fan experience even more by putting you right in the action. I love this as not only do we get some wonderful moments on the field like banter between opponents, but we also get a chance to see the way that players communicate in a game, much in the same way that the referee’s mic in rugby allows people watching on TV to understand what is going on.


Even with all these extra TV channels, it is still impossible for everything to be televised. That’s where online streaming comes in. I was disappointed by ITV’s lack of live coverage for the U20s World Championship this summer (they had highlights shows for each round but only the final was shown live) but World Rugby are very good at streaming games online if there is no TV coverage available in the country. I’ve lost count of how many matches I’ve watched on their website or Facebook page so far this year! also has the option of signing up to NFL Gamepass, which allows you to watch all NFL matches live or watch them back during the week. Much like the increased TV coverage, the extra online coverage gives people more chance to watch a sport that they are interested in, and allows them to widen their experience of the sport to other competitions.

I mentioned Facebook above, but social media in general has been huge for sports fans. Just this last week I’ve had a conversation on Facebook that I haven’t seen since i left school about 8 years ago as he saw me post about the NFL! Personally I think that Twitter is brilliant for sports fans as you will find that the majority of teams/clubs will have their own dedicated account, as will many of the players, especially at the professional level. Twitter_Icon_(Official_1)I absolutely love Twitter as it gives fans like myself the chance to not just keep up with games and news, but also interact with players and pundits in a way that fans would not have previously been able to do. It is also a brilliant place for fans to interact with one another, even if they have never met before. I doubt I’ve met even 10% of my followers on Twitter and yet a number of us can be discussing the exact same thing together from completely different countries. I can’t talk about Twitter without mentioning #rugbyunited which is led by fans and has helped bring rugby fans around the world together and even played a big part in arranging the RugbyAid charity match a couple of years ago. If you’re a rugby fan and haven’t checked them out, I highly recommend it!

Finally, there are games, a brilliant way to get people into a sport and help them get to know the rules and teams. EA are one of the biggest companies in the gaming world and they put out annual sports titles including FIFA (football), Madden (american football), NHL (ice hockey) and NBA Live (basketball). madden-18-brady-ogUnfortunately there has not been a decent rugby game for over 10 years now, but I will continue to hold out hope that we will get one soon. It was Madden that got me into the NFL, as I had seen games on TV when visiting family in the USA but had been too young to understand. However back in 2004 a friend from school let me borrow his copy of Madden 2004 and to say I was hooked is an understatement. When a game gets it right, like Madden and FIFA do, they can help you learn not just the basics but also enough of the intricacies of a sport and are a great way of learning the rules in a fun and engaging way. Not just this but they allow fans of a sport to broaden their knowledge by finding out about less known players and leagues – I think everyone has found at least one star before they were famous on FIFA career modes or playing Football Manager.

While video games are a great way for fans old and new, another type of game that is more tailored to existing fans would be fantasy leagues. For those who have never tried a fantasy league, they take real life matches and assign points to players according to their performance. ‘Fantasy managers’ select their squad and compete against friends in leagues for bragging rights, while many fantasy competitions will also have leagues for everybody from an individual country, fans of individual teams and also an overall league that contains every competitor. 20170910_190538.jpgI have been doing the Official Premier League Fantasy Football for over 10 years now, competing originally against my classmates, then uni friends and now my work colleagues. However this year I wasn’t organised enough and missed the first gameweek so have instead focused on other fantasy leagues. I frequently use the ESPN fantasy 6 Nations competition and this year have also decided to attempt a fantasy NFL league and Fantasy leagues for the Pro14 and Premiership Rugby. The Rugby Magazine’s fantasy game for the Premiership is by far the deepest fantasy game that I have ever played and I am thoroughly enjoying it 2 weeks in! The good thing about these is that it encourages people to keep up to date with how a league is going in order to stay competitive against their peers, and it allows players to spend anything from a couple of minutes sorting their team to a couple of hours, depending how serious they are taking it.


And the best bit about technology: It continues to improve! Live sport will continue to become more accessible and companies will continue to find new ways to improve the fan’s experience with apps and games. And all the while, us fans will continue to interact on social media. Long may it continue…

A Race to be Remembered

Chris Froome continued his rise to greatness with victory on the 2017 edition of the Vuelta a España. The Team Sky rider took the general classification red jersey at the end of Stage 3 and refused to relinquish it for the rest of the 3 week race, while also going on to win the green jersey for the points classification and the white combination jersey all on the way to making history.

The entire race was a great spectacle, with a number of attacks – often from the retiring Alberto Contador – keeping many of the fights for the GC podium going down to the wire. The final standings for the race were:

  • General Classification
  1. Chris Froome
  2. Vincenzo Nibali
  3. Ilnur Zakarin
  • Points classification
  1. Chris Froome
  • Mountains classification
  1. Davide Villella
  • Combination classification
  1. Chris Froome
  • Team classification
  1. Astana
  • Combativity award
  1. Alberto Contador

2 out of 3 for my GC podium prediction isn’t bad…

There was plenty to talk about from this race, but I’ll leave the full breakdown to the cycling experts and instead focus on a couple of big talking points:


The history maker

This win has made Chris Froome only the 3rd rider to win the Tour de France and Vuelta a España in the same year. What makes this even more impressive is that he is the first to win it since the Vuelta was moved after the Tour. He may not have looked at his best for much of the Tour, but it looks like he timed his season perfectly to peak just in time for the Vuelta’s climb-heavy race. He was one of the few racers able to consistently stick with Contador’s breaks in the opening weeks (more on those later) which quickly helped him get a lead on GC and consistently place well enough to keep the battle for the green jersey going right to the final sprint. Once again he had a lot of help from a strong Sky team, with Wout Poels, Mikel Nieve and Gianni Moscon keeping him in the right position and pulling him through the stages where he struggled. It’s no real surprise to see Nieve and Poels make the top 20 on GC considering the work they did for Froome and the dominance of Team Sky throughout the race.

Over the last 3 weeks, Froome has once again showed that he is a strong climber but, more importantly a terrific time trialist, having won the Stage 16 Time Trial by 29 seconds to Wilco Kelderman and just under a minute to his closest GC competitors. He has done something unprecedented this year and will surely be targeting a record-equalling 5th Tour de France next year. He may not always be the most popular of sportsmen, but considering what he has done this year, he must surely be in the running for Sports Personality of the Year.

Farewell to a legend

Alberto Contador may not have got the fairy-tale podium finish that he would have liked to end his career with, but this race was a perfect example of what makes him such a great rider. The 7-time Grand Tour winner (not counting the 2 wins that were voided) struggled on the first couple of stages but as a result was allowed the chance to attack on pretty much every stage after. His attacks opened up the race to a point that the GC race was completely shaken up. There was something right about Contador’s last ever mountain stage being a victory on the Angliru and it was wonderful to see the peloton allow him to lead the way into Madrid on the final stage. It was a shame that he couldn’t finish on the podium for GC, but it was great to see him win the combativity award and I don’t think anyone can argue with that call.

Given his history I understand that he will not be universally loved, but he will certainly be missed moving forwards.

The importance of a good time trial

In a race that is over 3,000km long, the impact that a 40.2km stage can have on the general classification cannot be understated. Time trials do exactly that. They are the only stages on a race where a rider is racing purely on their own ability with nobody there to pull them along if they are struggling, and it clearly shows on the race results. All 3 Grand Tours this year have been won by riders with a strong time trial pedigree (Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome). On the Vuelta, Froome added almost a minute to his GC lead, which allowed him make up the time he lost with his 2 crashes on Stage 12 and take it easy on the more dangerous descents.

Esteban Chaves did lose time on the later stages, but his big loss was a poor time trial that dropped him from a possible podium to only just inside the top 10. It may only represent a small fraction of the total race distance, but a better than average time trial is now a must for someone who wants a realistic chance of winning a Grand Tour.

Teams to watch in 2018

Team Sky may be losing a number of riders at the end of this season, including Mikel Landa and Mikel Nieve to Movistar and Orica-Scott resepectively, but they have recruited well and bringing in quality riders like Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar) and David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) so I am sure they continue to lead the way in 2018.

Quick-Step will be interesting to watch next year as they are losing their 2 most recent GC riders (de la Cruz and Dan Martin) along with sprinters Marcel Kittel and Matteo Trentin. However they still have Fernando Gaviria, who won 4 stages on the way to winning the points classification at this year’s Giro d’Italia, so I still expect them to be pushing for the Grand Tour points classifications.

I am very much looking forward to watching Orica and Sunweb next year. They may have faded in the last week of the Vuelta, but I expect Esteban Chaves and the Yates brothers to be even better next year, especially with a domestique like Nieve joining the team. On top of this I expect them to work a bit harder on the sprints next year with both Matteo Trentin and Caleb Ewan on the books next season. Sunweb may be losing Tour de France King of the Mountains Warren Barguil but they have 2 impressive GC options in Giro winner Tom Dumoulin and Wilco Kelderman, who are both strong climbers and time trialists. Bringing in Edward Theuns from Trek-Segafredo will be a big help to them and they will also have Michael Matthews there looking to back up his green jersey from the Tour whilst backing up his team leader on climbing stages.

Astana will be interesting to watch but not necessarily for the right reasons. Fabio Aru is clearly a talented rider, but there were questions about his actions on the Tour as his teammates appearing to turn against him – Michael Valgren’s response to hearing his team leader had lost the yellow jersey on Stage 14 was to smile and say “Good” – and this apparent lack of teamwork continued into the Vuelta with the Italian riding off on his own rather than to the benefit of Miguel Angel Lopez. Sunweb kicked Barguil off the Vuelta for not supporting Wilco Kelderman, will Astana have the balls to do the same to Aru if he continues to be selfish next season?

Football Ramble – Premier League 2017/18 Round 4

Only 4 weeks into the season and we already have our first managerial casualty. Frank de Boer has been sacked by Crystal Palace after only 7 days in charge, with Palace having lost 4 form 4 in the Premier League without having yet scored a goal. Elsewhere in the league, Manchester City’s 5 goals were overshadowed by a controversial red card to Sadio Mané, whilst Brighton scored their first ever Premier League goal and followed it up with 2 more to register their first win in the league.

Since the last round, we have had an international break and the transfer window has closed, so there has been plenty to think about this week. Obviously I don’t want to bore you so have tried to limit myself to just a few topics:


That red

Where else could I really start this week, other than looking at Sadio Mané’s red card for a high boot on City keeper Ederson. The only thing that surprised me about the decision is how many people feel shocked that he was given a red! Granted there was no intent to injure and his eyes were always on the ball, but when has a referee based an incident on intent rather than outcome? The outcome was the Ederson got Mané’s studs in his face and was unable to continue playing. Kevin Kilbane was spot on with his assessment on MOTD2 when he said that it was a dangerous challenge due to height of the foot regardless of intent so deserved a red. Players know that going in with a high boot or showing studs is a red card under the current regulations, I agree with Lineker, Wright and Shearer that in that position a striker should be going for the ball, but they must be aware of their surroundings to ensure the safety of anyone around them.

By this logic though, I 100% feel that Matt Ritchie should have also received a red rather than the yellow he was given by Mike Jones. The only real differences between the two were that Ritchie appeared to just miss the Swansea player’s head, so the outcome did not look as serious as Saturday’s Mané incident. However as both had their feet raised to at least chest height, I cannot see why one should be a red and not the other. This is already the second time I’ve moaned about consistency of decisions this season, having done so following Round 2. Referees need to sit down and work out how they can consistently make the same decision, otherwise we will continue to have issues throughout the season.

Transfer fallout

Transfer Deadline Day was notable for some of the moves that didn’t complete: Alexis Sanchez is still at Arsenal and Philippe Coutinho failed to get his move to Barcelona. Both are stars at their clubs, yet neither made the starting XI this weekend and Coutinho didn’t even make the bench for Liverpool. It does not appear that either of them wanted to stay where they were and I do worry about the impact this will have on the clubs as they could potentially make the atmosphere toxic. I think the clubs would have done better getting the big money and using it to bring in a couple of players – or in Liverpool’s case a new back 4!

Dark Horses

I know that it is early in the season, but I feel that Stoke could be dark horses for European qualification this season. Always a team capable of pulling off an upset, mark Hughes has quietly gone about his business and, despite losing Marko Arnautovic and sending Bojan out on loan, has put together a strong team including Jack Butland, Kevin Wimmer, Kurt Zouma, Ryan Shawcross, Jesé, Darren Fletcher, Ibrahim Afellay, Xerdan Shaqiri and Charlie Adam, to name but a few. This is not just club with a strong starting XI, but also a deep squad with an experienced manager in Mark Hughes who knows how to combine good attacking play with a strong, organised defence. They coped well against a Manchester United team that had scored 10 goals and conceded none in the first 3 games. I’m sure that United will not be the last of the big teams to struggle in Stoke, regardless of whether it is a cold rainy night or not!

Gatland’s Law: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

“Gatland’s Law”: 2 words that can elicit a range of opinions from fans. The basic premise is that players can only be picked for the Welsh national team if they play their club rugby in Wales. Players who have signed new contracts outside of Wales since the law was brought in are ineligible unless they are picked as one of up to 3 ‘wildcards’. This is the Welsh equivalent of the rule that many unions are bringing in regarding eligibility for the national team in an effort to keep the talent in the country and improve the national team’s access to its stars.

However, due to the rules relating to contracts (more on this soon) and due to the availability of wildcard selections, Gatland’s law has become one of the most controversial and ridiculed of its kind, also arguably one of the least successful as internationals continue to leave for other leagues – most recently starting fly half Dan Biggar who will be moving to Northampton next summer.

For this article, I’ve decided to have a look at the pros and the cons of Gatland’s Law to see if this is something that the WRU should look at changing or scrapping


The Good

As mentioned above, a number of unions have similar rules about international selection in place, as there are legitimate reasons for keeping your players in country.

First and foremost is the benefit to the club game. Fans and broadcasters pay good money to watch the Regions play in the Pro14 and the European Cups. If all the international stars left the Regions then I doubt the interest would be anywhere near as high. The WRU need the regions to be successful and draw in revenue so that they can try to compete against other, richer unions. By enticing (blackmailing?) players to stay in Wales in order to feature for the national team, it allows the fans to see their heroes play on a regular basis and also helps the Regions to be competitive in competitions. Jonathan Davies looked fantastic in Scarlets’ playoff run as they won the Pro12 last season, having returned to Wales following a couple of seasons at Clermont. Would he have made this move if he had been free to play in a different league and yet still play for the national team? Likewise would Leigh Halfpenny have been more open to a move to the Premiership (there was clearly interest from a couple of attractive teams) if it wasn’t putting his international career at risk?

As well as helping the club game, it also helps the WRU at international level. In recent years the WRU have enjoyed arranging Test matches or training camps outside of the international window governed by World Rugby. During the windows, clubs must allow their players to attend camps or matches, however this is not required at other times and is at the discretion of the club. Though the club may be willing to let its players fulfil international commitments outside the window, Premiership Rugby Limited do not generally approve of players leaving outside the windows and have been known to sanction clubs for allowing it. By having the vast majority of the internationals playing for the Regions, it guarantees their availability whenever the national team requires them. It also allows their playing time to be managed over the season to ensure that they are not burned out when they are due to be playing in Test matches. Due to the size of the population and number of Regions playing in the top flight, the Welsh national team will never have the same possible player base as some countries, the WRU must do what they can to make the national team an clubs competitive.

The Bad

While the WRU understandably wants to keep star players with the Regions, they may in some circumstances benefit from playing outside of Wales. Without sounding harsh, how does being the star of a poor Dragons team benefit Taulupe Faletua compared with competing for a space in Bath’s all-star back row. Getting away from the Welsh for a moment, it’s always worth having a look at Jonny Wilkinson’s move to France. Being at Toulon appeared to give him a new lease of life and got him back into the international setup whilst also going on to be named ERC European Player of the Year in 2013.

Having all the stars playing regularly for the Regions also limits the opportunities for the up-and-coming young talent to play at the top level. Sam Davies looks to have real potential but has been having to share his playing time for the Ospreys with Dan Biggar. Had Biggar been playing outside the Pro14 the last couple of years, it would not surprise me to see Davies (IRB Junior Player of the Year 2013) starting for Wales on a more regular basis.

Gatland’s Law also puts players in a difficult position come contract negotiation time. Even with the Welsh dual-contracts, the Regions cannot afford to pay the same salaries that Premiership/Top 14 clubs can. A rugby player’s career is finite and playing the game for a long period is highly likely to cause health problems later in life. For those reasons can a player really be blamed for wanting to leave Wales for a more lucrative contract? I used the word ‘blackmail’ earlier in the article and while that may be a bit of a strong word, I’m sure that some players must have felt that they are in a difficult position when trying to arrange their future.

Finally, the national team as a whole does lose out if players choose to move abroad, as they are limited to just 3 wild card selections from outside Wales. By my count, Dan Biggar, Taulupe Faletau, George North, Jamie Roberts and Rhys Priestland will currently all be fighting for wildcard spots next season. There have been rumours swirling in recent weeks that Rhys Webb will moving to England or France when his contract expires this summer. Even if we ignore Roberts and Priestland, that’s already 4 starters fighting for 3 places. Who benefits from that? Certainly not the player or the national team.

The Ugly

There may actually be more regular internationals at risk from Gatland’s Law than I have mentioned above, however I am not certain due to one very worrying reason: nobody seems to know all of the conditions! Luke Charteris has moved to Bath since this was brought in yet he appears to be eligible for the national team without being a wildcard. My previous understanding was that if an exiled player chose to re-sign with the same club then he was still eligible for Wales, it was only if he moved to another club outside Wales that he became a wildcard, yet some of the articles I read to research this suggested that any new contract outside of Wales made you a wildcard. As a Gloucester fan hoping that Ross Moriarty signs an extension sooner rather than later, I would love to have some clarity relating to this! I also saw one article that suggested whether signing a new contract outside Wales made you a wildcard depended on there being a competitive offer from Wales at the same time. If that is the case, then what represents a competitive offer? If a player is offered a contract that makes him the best-paid player in the regions, but he can still get double the wage in England/France, then does that get considered a competitive offer?

Being an Englishman, I assumed that I was simply missing something that was common knowledge to Welsh fans so asked my go-to Welsh rugby expert what the situation was… He didn’t know either!

How is a fan meant to get on board with something if nobody knows the ins and outs. I remember when there was confusion over the RFU’s wording of ‘exceptional circumstances’ allowing a player outside of England to play for the national team, but that has since been cleared up. Now players, coaches and fans all know that you must be playing in England in order to be selected, so everybody is singing off the same hymn sheet.


I can see that there are some obvious benefits to keeping players within the country, but feel that something needs to be changed with Gatland’s Law. One way would be to go down the RFUs route of excluding anyone playing outside the country, however due to there only being 4 Regions compared to 12 Premiership teams I think the WRU would benefit from a selection policy similar to that of the ARU. Under the ARU’s selection policy, a player is eligible to play for Australia if they:

  • Play within Australia
  • Play outside Australia, but have held a professional contract with Australian rugby for at least 7 years and have played 60 or more Tests
  • Returns to Australia from exile on a contract that is at least 2 years long

This rewards those players who have been regulars for the national team by allowing them the chance to search for a more lucrative contract elsewhere while still being eligible for the national team, opening up a space for a talented youngster within the country’s top flight setup. Considering the WRU has for years allowed its players to go abroad, I would suggest leaving out the necessity for players to have held a professional contract within Wales for 7 years. I would also suggest perhaps a slightly lower number of caps, perhaps making the mark 50 caps as this is already a big milestone for a player to reach so would be a good way for the WRU to celebrate a player and thank them for their service.

I’m sure Gatland’s Law will continue to divide opinion amongst fans, so I would love to hear your opinions. What selection criteria (if any) would you apply if you were in charge of the WRU?

WRWC2017: A Tournament in Review

Hi guys, sorry for the delay in getting this one out, I’ve been planning this since the start of the tournament but the last week has been pretty busy with work and my personal life! Hopefully the wait will have been worth it.


Last Saturday saw the end of the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup. The first tournament since the 4-year cycle was brought forward by a year to line up with the Olympics and Sevens World Cup, this was a great advert for women’s rugby that finished with the top 2 teams in the world playing each other in a thrilling final. New Zealand ran out eventual winners – their fifth time as World Champions – to continue the record of England having never beat the kiwis in a senior Rugby World Cup in either the men’s or the women’s game. The final standings in the tournament were:

  1. New Zealand
  2. England
  3. France
  4. USA
  5. Canada
  6. Australia
  7. Wales
  8. Ireland
  9. Italy
  10. Spain
  11. Japan
  12. Hong Kong

Due to the coverage moving from Sky to ITV, I was able to see much more of the tournament this time around (though not as much as I’d have liked) and as such, these are my overall thoughts on the tournament:


As good a game as the men’s

Oddly in this day and age, the idea of women playing rugby still seems amusing to some people. Hopefully they watched a couple of matches while the World Cup was on and took note of how wrong they are.

Though the strength of some of the lesser teams in the tournament may have been lacking, the top teams were throwing themselves into tackles every bit as hard as the men would, with Australia’s opening match against Ireland full of big hits. During the tournament I heard the play described as being similar to Colts rugby. While this may initially sound like an insult, the reasoning behind it made sense to me, as the women’s game still relies heavily on talent and passing skills rather than a team’s ability to hit someone hard, kick for territory or land every penalty kick within 45 metres of the posts.

The important thing now is that the women’s game continues to push on. England were the only team all on professional contracts, yet even they are now reducing down to professional contracts for the 7s team only, which is what we currently see for many of the top teams like New Zealand and Australia. Imagine how much better these teams could be if they were able to focus on rugby as a profession, the game would just get better and better! England’s strength in depth was making them look almost unbeatable until the second half of the final. Australia won the gold medal for 7s at the Rio Olympics, just imagine the quality that they could bring to 15s if given the funding by the ARU. Hopefully by the next tournament, we will have at least a couple of fully professional teams.

Disappointing Irish

Everything that I have seen or heard suggests that the host nation got everything right in the way the tournament went, from the organisation to the behaviour of the local supporters. The only thing the hosts didn’t get right was the performance of their own team. Having made the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup courtesy of a group stage win over the Black Ferns and, more recently, facing the Red Roses in a Grand Slam showdown at the end of this years 6 Nations, the Irish only managed narrow wins over Australia and Japan before a loss to France denied them a place in the semis. In the knockouts, they lost to the Wallaroos and then Wales to finish outside the top 7, meaning they will not automatically qualify for the next World Cup.

The hosts could consider themselves unlucky, as they did lose captain Niamh Briggs to injury not long before the tournament and they were also in arguably the Group of Death as with both France and Australia in their pool, Pool C was the only team with 3 real possibilities for the semis. Regardless, much more was expected from the women in green and they will be understandably disappointed by the way things went.

The also-rans

I felt so sorry for Hong Kong in this tournament. This was the first time they had qualified for the World Cup and they end up in Pool A alongside possible semi-finalists New Zealand and Canada and an improving Wales team. I watched their match against New Zealand and if truth be told the one-sidedness was at times painful to watch. This is not a criticism of Hong Kong, but more a comment at the difference in quality across the tournament.

A look back through the results shows that Japan were the only team to manage competitive results whilst finishing bottom of their pool, yet even they did not manage a bonus point. Neutrals are more likely to watch competitive games, so I have 2 possible ways in which we could increase the number of competitive games as the tournament moves on:

  1. Change the pool format: One option would be to spread the 12 nations over 2 pools of 6 rather than 3 pools of 4. Not only will the lower-ranked teams have more competitive games, but so will the higher ranked teams, meaning that there will be more importance to strength of the entire squad as there will be more competition throughout the tournament. This format also leads itself nicely into the current format for the playoffs, where the top 4 teams go into the semi-finals, the rest of the top 8 go into another playoff and the bottom 4 go into a final playoff.
  2. Expand the tournament: Another option would be to expand the tournament to 16 teams, allowing 4 pools of 4. While there is such a gap in quality, this may make it easier for the top teams to cruise through the pools, it would allow the lower ranked teams more competitive matches. By doing this, World Rugby would then have option as to how they want to do the playoffs. The playoffs could have 4 tiers, with the pool winners competing in the semis, second place from each pool in the next tier and so on. Alternatively they could expand the playoffs to include a quarter-final stage, with the top 2 from each pool qualifying for this (they could increase the automatic qualifiers to be the 8 teams who make it into the quarters) while the other 8 teams go into a playoff of their own.

I think of the 2 options, the first would be better in current circumstances due to the money available to women’s rugby, however I would love to see the tournament expand to include more teams. Scotland, Fiji, Samoa and Brazil come straight to mind as other possible competitors, and I’m sure there are other nations out there who feel they would be able to compete at this level.

Give us more!

While I was happy that the tournament was being shown on free-to-air TV, I was disappointed that we did not see more of the matches on live TV. With all games within a round being played on the same day, I can understand why not all the games were shown, however I was surprised that on Saturdays we often only had England’s match being broadcast, I would have thought we could at least get coverage of all the home nations’ games!

Yes these games may have been available online, but that will not grow the fan base as much as having the games on live TV. Would people really have missed their re-runs of Storage Wars that much for just a couple of weeks?

I was also very disappointed that there was no highlights show for the tournament. During the U20s World Championship in the summer, the only game shown live was the final, however there was a highlights show for each round of the tournament. With the quality of punditry ITV had – David Flatman is probably one of my favourite pundits and Maggie Alphonsi has transitioned well from pitch to studio – a highlights show would have been the perfect way to draw in new fans to the sport.