Keeping Up with the Glaws Family

The Glaws family has been growing in recent years. As well as the main team, the academy has been going from strength to strength and one of the big benefits of this has been Hartpury RFC, who will generally have a couple of Gloucester players registered to play for them and last year won promotion to the Championship following an unbeaten campaign. Gloucester-Hartpury Women’s RFC were also formed in 2014 and have been included in the new Premier 15s competition.

With all 3 leagues now well underway – and the first break of the season coming up for the men’s leagues for Europe and the British & Irish Cup – I thought that this would be a good chance to look at how each of the teams are doing this season.

 

Gloucester-Hartpury

The first season of the Premier 15s could not have gone much better for the women so far. 4 rounds of matches see Glos-Hartpury sitting 4thin the league with 3 wins and 1 loss, with a points difference of +54. They have also scored 3 try-bonus points to total 15 points so far. They have won against Richmond, Wasps and Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, and even their loss was a narrow 28-20 defeat at Bristol.

Prem15s
The Premier 15s table after 4 rounds. From http://www.premier15s.com

Considering they are such a new team and had been playing in a league below most of their opponents, I thought that this season may be a struggle for them, but they have recruited well and boast a number of players capped by England, including WRWC2017 squad members Zoe Aldcroft and Sarah Bern, Bianca Blackburn, World Cup winner Ceri Large and Megan Goddard, who has been named in the first ever Barbarians women’s squad.

It is still early days and they still need to play the early leaders Harlequins and Saracens – who are both currently unbeaten – but I feel that Glos-Hartpury have the ability to finish at least mid-table and perhaps even hold onto a top-4 spot.

Hartpury RFC

Despite going unbeaten – and getting try-bonus points in all but 2 – in National League 1 last season, I was worried that Hartpury may struggle with the jump up to the professional RFU Championship. So far those fears seem largely unfounded, as they have won 2, drawn 1 and lost 3 of their opening 6 matches, leaving them 7th in the table with 16 points. They may currently have a losing record, but even their losses have been close affairs: 31-28 at Nottingham, 19-20 against Jersey and the season opening 26-15 at Bristol. This Bristol team are probably one of the strongest teams to feature in the league in modern rugby, yet from what I’ve heard Hartpury were unlucky with a couple of decisions in this game that could have easily resulted in them stealing the win.

Champ
The Championship table after Round 6. From http://www.championshiprugby.co.uk

Hartpury have a pair of experienced Premiership props in former Gloucester players Rupert Harden and Dan Murphy and also have a couple of capped internationals in Rhys Oakley and Robbie Shaw. But where Hartpury should be really excited is in their young players, and their links with Gloucester Rugby. Maliq Holden looked an evasive runner in the BUCS Men’s Rugby Championship Final in April, and Gloucester have also supplied 4 academy players this season: Charlie Chapman, Alex Craig, Harry Randall and Alex Seville.

I am a massive fan of former Hartpury and Gloucester scrum half Dan Robson and think he should be given the chance to start for England. But I am really excited by Harry Randall and honestly think he will be the starter for England in the future. He has really impressed me whenever I have seen him play, whether for Hartpury or the England U20s. When I went to Kingsholm for the Charlie Sharples Testimonial – 2 pre-season friendlies for Gloucester against Hartpury and Scarlets – my uncle and I came away both saying that Randall was the best 9 on the pitch that evening! He may not look like a stereotypical modern rugby player – he often looks dwarfed by the players around him – but he reads the game well and reacts quickly to take advantage of any gap in the defence. I can’t wait to see him featuring for Gloucester in future years.

Gloucester

We may have to go back to the 2012/13 season to find the last time Gloucester finished in the top half of the table, but the arrival of Johan Ackermann from the Lions have given fans hope that a return to the top could soon be on the cards. So far it has been a mixed bag for the cherry and whites: they have won all 3 of their home games – including the season-opener against the defending champions – but have lost all 3 away games and currently sit in a familiar 8th place with 14 points. The 57-10 loss at Sale a few weeks back has been a huge downer for fans but on the whole even if the results have not always been there, there has been evidence that things are picking up at the club. Kingsholm once again looks a fortress and there is some great attacking play coming from the team, so it is only a matter of time before the results start coming on the road.

Prem
The Premiership table after 6 rounds. From http://www.englandrugby.com

Like many teams, Gloucester are down a number of players at the moment through injury: Tom Marshall and Ross Moriarty are both likely to be regular starters yet neither has featured yet this season. Other expected regulars Charlie Sharples, Matt Scott, Mark Atkinson, Ed Slater, Billy Burns and Owen Williams have all missed time too. Combined with that, they lost star winger Jonny May late in the summer to Leicester and also lost Carl Fearns after protracted negotiations. Considering all these losses, and with the Lion’s run to the Super Rugby Final delaying Ackermann’s arrival until 3 weeks before the start of the season, I think that 3 wins from 6 and 2 bonus points is a good starting point to build from when the big names are back.

There have been a couple of reasons for Gloucester fan to smile so far. New signings Ruan Ackermann and Jason Woodward have quickly made an impact at their new club. Let’s not forget that Woodward was able to beat out Julian Savea to a starting spot on the wing at the Hurricanes, so I expect him to move into the 11 shirt once Tom Marshall is back… the thought of 2 kiwis in our back 3 must surely be exciting Shedheads. A late signing, Ruan Ackermann has been big for Gloucester so far with Moriarty out injured. He is a big bruising player and at only 21 is just going to get better and better. Judging by the way Ackermann has been setting up his back rows so far, I can imagine Ackermann and Moriarty often taking the field together at 6 and 8. What must be remembered though is that he has not really had an offseason, so will likely need a break or heavily reduced minutes as the season goes on. But by far the best news so far for Gloucester has been the form of Henry Trinder. The centre – finally getting a run of games without injury – is showing the Harry Potter magic that earned him a call-up to the England squad to face the Barbarians in 2014 and you have to imagine that if he can keep this form going and sidestep any injuries like he is opposition players [full credit to my mate Phil Alder for that line] then he could put himself in contention for more England caps.

Some fans may disagree and feel that top 5 is a must this season. While this would be great, I will myself be happy with 6th/7th providing the performances are clearly improved from last year and there is less of questioning as to which team will turn up each week… we’re Gloucester, after all, not Les Bleus! If we don’t start to get this consistency, then I think it will be time to show David Humphreys the door.

Eyes On: Saracens v Wasps

Sunday saw a battle between the defending European Champions, Saracens and last year’s Premiership runners-up, Wasps at Allianz Park. Both teams came in fielding weakened sides due to injuries – a common sight in the Premiership this season – but on the day Brad Barritt made his 200th appearance for the home side, Sarries’ strength in depth saw them run out 38-19 victors, despite a late fightback from Wasps. The bonus point win puts Saracens top of the table, while Wasps currently find themselves down in tenth, with only London Irish and Worcester below them.

 

Costly injuries

Among the list of unavailable player for Wasps were fly half Danny Cipriani and 2016/17’s player of the season Jimmy Gopperth. Despite spending much of his time at centre since Cipriani returned to Wasps, Gopperth is also their second choice at fly half, so to lose both their playmakers at the same point was always going to make things hard for Wasps, before even taking into account the effectiveness of the Saracens defence. Rob Miller was given the number 10 shirt for this game but rarely looked comfortable or dangerous against the Wolfpack. I’m not putting the blame solely on him as his forwards could not consistently get front foot ball and his backs outside him could not get anything going either, but it also felt that the Wasps attack was very basic, making it very easy for the home team.

Saracens were also missing their first choice 10, Owen Farrell, for this game, as he had to pull out of his position on the bench due to injury, but Alex Lozowski – a former Wasp – is well established in that position and the quality around him takes a lot of pressure off of him. Third choice Max Malins, who came on for the last 15 minutes is also a very impressive young player but did not have much to do by that point other than join the defensive effort.

Right now, the Wasps side looks like it relies on the fly half, whereas Sarries look like losing a fly half is just a matter of bringing the next person through to keep the ship steady and on course.

Get him in the England squad!

Regular readers of my blog will know that I rate Wasps scrum half Dan Robson very highly. I was gutted to see him leave Gloucester as he looked a real talent when he split time with Jimmy Cowan for Gloucester, but since moving to Wasps his game has gone to another level! I am probably a bit biased but I would argue that despite only being on the pitch for just over 20 minutes, Robson – who is himself only just returning from injury – was the best scrum half on show at the Allianz! After his introduction, Wasps’ attack went up in tempo and he was managing to find gaps for both himself and teammates that Joe Simpson had not been able to.

He started the season in such great form with 4 tries against Sale and I honestly think his injury has been a big factor in Wasps’ recent slump along with the injuries at fly half. If he can quickly get back to his pre-injury form, I think he has to be given the chance by Eddie Jones in the Autumn Internationals.

Tactical thinking?

With star players Nathan Hughes, Cipriani and Gopperth all missing and players like James Haskell and Elliott Daly not yet reproducing last season’s form – a result of a heavily shortened offseason following the Lions Tour? – I was shocked to see Christian Wade on the bench when the teams were named. This is nothing against Josh Bassett and Marcus Watson, but Wade has clearly shown himself to be one of the most exciting and dangerous wingers in the league. He is a match-winner in a team desperate for a result. I assume that he was benched as Dai Young felt the other wingers would be able to match up better against the opposition, but it seemed to contribute to an attack that was very limited in what it could do and the danger it could pose. Maybe he was being rested in readiness for Friday’s trip to Ulster – it is ridiculous that they have such a short turnaround – but if that result does not go their way either, then it leaves Wasps in a very poor position.

Hat-trick hero

I was unable to watch the game live as it was my cousin’s birthday, but had the match on record. When I received an email update from my fantasy rugby team stating that Jamie George was my highest scoring player this week, I thought that he must have had a decent game, but even I wasn’t expecting to sit down and watch him score 3 tries!

A while back I wrote about the way that the prop position has evolved, well hooker has also evolved in a similar way. To be one of the best hookers in the world, it is no longer enough to just be solid at the set piece. A top international hooker must be able to act like a 4th back row on the field, able to pass and run effectively in open play. In my opinion, Jamie George is up there with the best in the world and at just 26 probably hasn’t yet reached his peak! He may not have had many chances to prove his ability in open play at the weekend, but he was 100% at the line-out, leading to his 2 drive-over tries. The one chance he did get to show his ability in the loose was for his opening try, where he reacted quickest to Chris Wyles’ quick-tap penalty and ran an attacking line a centre would be proud of to cross the line unchallenged.

I am hoping that Eddie Jones chooses to start George during the Autumn Internationals. Dylan Hartley has been a great servant for England and has done a great job as captain under Jones, but George is much more dangerous in the loose and has earned the chance to stat for England. It can certainly be argued that England have the best 1-2 punch at hooker in international rugby. I honestly think that if given the starting job for England, George could soon compete with New Zealand’s Dane Coles for the title of the World’s best hooker.

I’m sure he won’t be given the chance to get a big head though, it would be shocked if he is not receiving at least a gentle ribbing from his teammates for being bumped off by Willie le Roux…

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 7

Hi guys, sorry for the delay in posting this one, it’s been a busy week at work and catching up on last weekend’s Wembley NFL game put me behind schedule.

Round 7 brought us one of the biggest results of the season so far: Manchester City – without the injured Benjamin Mendy and Sergio Aguero – took all 3 points from Stamford Bridge courtesy of a great goal from Kevin De Bruyne. This loss leaves Chelsea outside the top 3, already 6 points behind both Manchester clubs and also a point behind Tottenham, who won 4-0 at Huddersfield. Meanwhile Crystal Palace are still looking for their first points – and goal – of the season after a 4-0 loss at Old Trafford.

 

A costly injury?

In my last Premier League Ramble I talked about how Chelsea had found their new main man in Alvaro Morata. Unfortunately for the Blues, Morata left the pitch in the first half against City with what has been diagnosed as a Grade 2 hamstring injury. An injury of this type usually has a recovery period of 4-8 weeks, so it could be a while before we see the Spaniard in the league again. I’m starting to think I may be a curse, as some of the players I’ve picked on fantasy rugby games this year have either got injured in the next match or been on the end of a blowout loss. If so, I sincerely apologise to all Chelsea fans!

Antonio Conte now has a big decision to make as to who leads his line until Morata is back. Michy Batshuayi would be considered the go-to replacement up front, but it was interesting to see that he was left on the bench until the final 20 minutes against City, with Willian coming on for Morata and Eden Hazard moving forward instead. Does Conte not trust Batshuayi to lead this attack or was it a decision to focus on not losing and maybe nicking a goal rather than playing for the win? Whatever the reasoning, it didn’t work.

Already 6 points off the pace in the title race, any more poor results while Morata’s out could see their title defence over before Christmas. Suddenly the decision to freeze out Diego Costa and offload him to Atletico doesn’t seem so smart.

Give the refs a hand?

With some of the other results in this round of football, one incident that didn’t get much mention was a vital decision (or non-decision) in Bournemouth’s 0-0 draw with Leicester. Marc Pugh clearly felt his team deserved a penalty when his shot was blocked on its way to goal by a raised hand from Leicester defender Danny Simpson. Referee Graham Scott waved play on but having seen the replays I agree 100% with Bournemouth gaffer Eddie Howe’s assessment of it being a stonewaller, as there is no reason that the hand should be in that position. Had Bournemouth gone on to win anyway it wouldn’t have been so bad, but Bournemouth can feel that this is 2 points taken away from them. Bournemouth currently sit on 4 points with only Crystal Palace below them, while Leicester (5 points) are above the relegation zone through goal difference. Had Bournemouth won courtesy of the penalty, they would switch places with the Foxes. It may be early days, but these points could prove crucial come the end of the season.

People who know me will know that rugby is my favourite sport and for the second time already this season, I find myself writing about how something from rugby could benefit football. Rugby have been using Television Match Officials (TMOs) for as long as I can remember and their role within the game has grown from confirming if a try has been scored to also helping identify moments of foul play. A football referee’s job is hard enough at the best of times keeping an eye on 22 players at once, surely anything to help them make the right decision benefits the sport. VAR will already help with allowing or disallowing goals if brought into the league, but it should be used for much more than just that. The Premiership has a bumper TV deal and all games are being recorded either to be broadcast whole or on a Match of the Day highlights show, so it should not be hard to set up an official in front of a bank of screens who can quickly replay a possible incident and alert the ref if a foul occurred. This could even be expanded on in one of 2 ways, which are both used in other sports:

The Rugby Way – if the referee is uncertain, he should be able to stop the game and refer to the TMO. This could be used for incidents like the Simpson handball to see if there was a foul, or also to help the referee to decide on the appropriate punishment (red/yellow card) following an incident. The referee could even go as far as to say what his on-field decision is so that conclusive proof must be found for the decision to be changed.

The NFL Way – in the NFL, a team has 3 challenges available per half, where a coach can stop the game and ask the officials to review a decision that they feel should have gone the other way. The challenges must be made before the next play begins. This could be adapted to football by allowing either the on-field captain or a nominated person in the dugout to call the challenge, with a set time-frame that the challenge must be called within. The amount could also be reduced to 3 challenges per game rather than per half due to the nature of the sport. Other sports like cricket and tennis have similar challenge systems so it would not be something new to UK sports.

I can imagine some football purists would be against this as it would be seen as adding unwanted stoppages to the game. However, surely we want the right team winning rather than the lottery of if the referee is in the right angle to make the right decision. Plus we have enough stoppages for injury caused by players doing a somersault and 20 rolls on the ground the moment someone comes within a few feet of them.

Next on strike

As mentioned above, Crystal Palace are still looking for their first goal of the season after 7 matches, which is not being helped by a lengthening injury list up front. The next-lowest scoring team have been Swansea, who started the season without the injured Fernando Llorente who has now moved to Tottenham. They re-signed Wilfried Bony in the hopes that he can find the form that earned him a move to Manchester City, while they will also be hoping Tammy Abraham can continue to improve while on loan from Chelsea. Meanwhile Newcastle’s joint-top scorers in the league after 7 weeks are new signing Joselu and defender Jamaal Lascelles, each with 2. Joselu’s second, against Liverpool was the epitome of good luck too as he completely wasted Shelvey’s brilliant pass that cut the defence apart by allowing Matip to catch up with him and make the tackle, only to see the ball ricochet off his knee and into the net. Pretty much every club in the league seems to have at least one striker they can rely on, except these 3 at the moment, so unless things start to change soon, it would not surprise me to see these clubs looking for a new reliable striker in January. I was discussing this with a friend during the week and there could potentially be some great options out there who could need a move for more game-time or a change of scenery where they don’t appear to be reaching the level they would expect:

Charlie Austin – It’s been a few seasons since he lit up the league with QPR and he has had some issues with injuries but on the whole his profession football career has been full of goals, with his average of 1 goal every 3 games at Southampton considered low for him. The manager merry-go-round at Southampton in recent years will not have helped him and he has not appeared to be the lead striker this season, with Manolo Gabbiadini being preferred. He’s only 28 so still has years in the tank and if given the right service could easily start climbing the goal scoring charts again. I imagine Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie would love a player like Austin getting on the end of their passes.

Danny Ings – Charlie Austin wasn’t the only striker to earn plaudits after guiding his team to promotion and continuing the good form in the Premier League, as Danny Ings was doing exactly the same with Burnley at the same time. Ings has had awful luck with injuries since Klopp took over the reins at Liverpool and it with the quality that the Reds have up front now it would look very difficult to break back into the starting XI on a regular basis. Only 25, he should be hitting his prime and as such I think he would benefit from either a transfer or a loan to a striker-needy team where he can prove he is still a top talent.

Troy Deeney – He may not be as prolific as Ings and Austin have been, but Troy Deeney is an experienced striker who knows how to find the net. Now aged 29, he seems to be falling down the pecking order at Watford, especially considering the great start to the season from new signing Richarlison. He’s been a great servant for the Hornets, but it may be time for him to find new pastures.

Saido Berahino – This was probably the hardest sell. With the exception of the 2014/15 season with West Brom, Berahino has never had the same level of consistency as the other strikers mentioned, and he is in fact still without a goal since he moved to Stoke in January. There is clearly talent there – Spurs offered £15m for him in the summer of 2015 – but I think he needs to find an atmosphere and a team that is right for him. I think Berahino would really benefit from a change of scenery to a team where he can start fresh and try to find the future England star we thought he could become when he was banging the goals in for the Baggies.

 

Week 8 predictions:

Liverpool v Manchester United – United win

Burnley v West Ham – Burnley win

Crystal Palace v Chelsea – Chelsea win

Manchester City v Stoke – City win

Swansea v Huddersfield – Draw

Tottenham v Bournemouth – Spurs win

Watford v Arsenal – Arsenal win

Brighton v Everton – Draw

Southampton v Newcastle – Draw

Leicester v West Brom – Draw

Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Saints @ Dolphins

Game 2 of the 2017 NFL International Series is in the books. Drew Brees brought his 1-2 New Orleans Saints to Wembley and came away with a 20-0 victory over Jay Cutler’s Miami Dolphins, who were 1-1 having started the season a week late due to the impact of Hurricane Irma. This was not the most exciting of games, with the first half especially disjointed due to frequent penalty flags, which left the fans booing at times. However a field goal from Saints kicker Will Lutz with the last play of the half avoided the first 0-0 halftime score since Tim Tebow and Caleb Hanie faced off in December 2011.

 

Coming home

For many people, the big talking point ahead of the game was the return of Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi, who moved to the USA from London when he was 7. Ajayi showed some real flashes of the talent that led to him becoming only the fourth player in NFL history to rush for over 200 yards in consecutive games last season. However, the Saints defense were clearly aware of the danger he could be and made a concerted effort to stop him as the game went on – especially in the second half – and he was eventually limited to just 46 yards from 12 rushes. The Dolphins were forced to rely on Jay Cutler and the passing game and as a result could not stay on the field when on offence, putting the Saints in the driving seat.

A costly loss

Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins offense has been massively hurt by the preseason injury to quarterback Ryan Tannehill, which has ended his season before it even began. Under the guidance of Adam Gase, Tannehill clearly improved last year and if this game is anything to go by, he will be sorely missed in 2017. Jay Cutler was due to be in the commentary booth this season, but Tannehill’s injury and his previous history with Adam Gase pulled him back onto the field.

On the opening drive, Cutler looked effective running down the clock while moving the chains, but then threw a poor pass that was intercepted in the end zone. Tight end Julius Thomas has taken some flack for his play, but while I agree he had such a physical advantage on the quarterback that he should have been able to do more to help Cutler, but Thomas’s positioning suggests the pass was due to go to his back shoulder (where the cornerback would have no chance of intervening) rather than to the side it did. From that point on, things went downhill for the offence, with Cutler finishing the game with 20 completions from 28 attempts for just 164 yards. While the completion percentage looks good, the yardage shows how much Cutler struggled. Looking at the stats on NFL.com, the longest passing play of the game was a 23 yard reception by Julius Thomas. Cutler was also sacked 4 times in the game for a total loss of 36 yards, meaning that the average gain per passing play was 4 yards. Short passes and screens may be high percentage plays, but against a defense that is well organised it will be difficult to make the big plays, especially if the running game is being well marshalled too. Sometimes you have to take the shot downfield, even if it is just to keep the defense guessing.

This is not a piece to bash Jay Cutler: I can’t imagine how hard it is to come out of retirement and get back into running an NFL offense, especially considering it is a new team so a new playbook for him. What doesn’t help though is that he is not a like-for-like replacement for Tannehill. Tannehill is a much more mobile quarterback, capable of making big plays with his legs. This means that when Tannehill is playing, a defense must always take into account his ability to scramble on pass plays or the possibility of the read option on rushing plays, which gives that extra bit of space for receivers and running backs to exploit. Matt Moore is not a mobile QB either, so if Cutler continues to struggle, it will be interesting to see if Colin Kaepernick is given another chance in the NFL, especially considering the current NFL solidarity with the protests he started.

3 into 2 doesn’t go

He’s had a few down years with injuries and suspensions, but Adrian Peterson has always been a star running back and an bell-cow for the Vikings. Having moved to the Saints this season, it was clear his role would be reduced due to splitting time with Mark Ingram, who has been the main man at his position for the Saints in recent years. However, the Saints are very much a pass-first team, which is no surprise considering Drew Brees has been responsible for 5 of the NFL’s 5,000 yard passing season, so rushes will be limited. At Wembley, Ingram rushed for 45 yards off 14 carries, whereas Peterson was limited to just 4 carries for 4 yards. What must worry Peterson is that, judging by this game, he is not even number 2 on the depth chart, as versatile rookie Alvin Kamara totalled 5 rushes for 25 yards and 10 catches for 71 yards and a touchdown. Kamara looked very impressive against Miami so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a few more rushes as the season goes on, if Peterson wants to continue living up to the nickname ‘All Day’, it looks like he’ll have to move elsewhere.

Pro14 Rugby Ramble

The Lion King

Now I may not be the smartest guy in England, but I’d like to think I still know better than to pet a lion, especially when they are the other side of a fence. Unfortunately for the Ospreys, hooker Scott Baldwin decided that this would be a good idea when visiting Weltevrede Game Lodge ahead of the team’s match against the Cheetahs. The Welsh international missed the game as he required stitches to his hand, which will leave him out of action while he recovers.

The Ospreys went on to lose 44-25 which is not leaving them in a good position. They have now lost their last 4 games – including a 16-6 defeat away to Benetton – despite having a squad containing a number of internationals. They need an uplift in their fortunes soon, but to lose their first choice hooker will certainly not help.

32609506422_aea6a900a2_z
They’re called the King of the Jungle for a reason – Picture from Flikr – Mathias Appel

We all make mistakes, hopefully Scott Baldwin will remember this moment – and how lucky he is to have not been hurt worse! – and learn from his mistake. Meanwhile, I’m sure Ospreys fans will be hoping for a swift recovery.

The Italian Job

How great is it to see the Italian teams being competitive in the Pro14! It wasn’t that long ago people were discussing whether they still even deserved a place in the league, now Benetton have beaten Ospreys at home and Edinburgh away, while Zebre have picked up wins in South Africa against the Kings and most recently at home to Ulster, who were unbeaten until then. To put into perspective how well they are doing, Benetton (9 points) and Zebre (10 points) have both earned more points than more respected opponents Cardiff Blues and Ospreys (both on 5 points) and 2015/16 Pro12 Champions Connacht (8 points).

It may still be early days, but it looks like the Italians could finally be improving and making an impact on the league. I really hope this continues for the rest of the season and begins to benefit Conor O’Shea and the national team.

An African Adventure

People who know me will know that I have been very sceptical about the addition of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings to the competition, partially because I’m not sure that they belong there and also because I feel that the whole organisation of this has been rushed.

Leinster were forced to alter their squad after Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson-Park were unable to enter South Africa due to visa issues arising from a change in regulations relating to New Zealand nationals from January this year. Leinster have admitted that this was an administrative error, but considering how close it was to the season before the league and fixtures were announced, my gut feeling is that the competition organisers should have been informing all clubs of any visa regulations to ensure there were no issues.

The big arguments towards including the 2 South African sides was that it would bring extra revenue to the league through TV deals and an increased fan base, but is that really working so far? In their 3 home games so far, the Cheetahs have attendances of 13,982 against Zebre, 6,980 against Leinster and 4,589 against the Ospreys. The Kings have fared even worse with 4,062 against Zebre and 3,011 against Leinster. These attendances are on the whole shocking, and are made worse when you remember that the Cheetahs play at the 46,000-seater Free State Stadium and the Kings play in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium (48,000 capacity), leaving us with stadiums that look pretty much empty. We have also seen Friday’s game between the Cheetahs and Ospreys kick off at 4pm UK time, which is not at all sociable for UK rugby fans who work for a living and as a result can’t even watch the match live.

Finally, and most importantly, the rugby itself:

Week 1: Ulster 42-19 Cheetahs   –   Scarlets 57-10 Kings

Week 2: Munster 51-18 Cheetahs   –   Connacht 32-10 Kings

Week 3: Cheetahs 54-39 Zebre   –   Kings 10-31 Leinster

Week 4: Cheetahs 38-19 Leinster   –   Kings 17-43 Zebre

Week 5: Cheetahs 44-25 Ospreys   –   Dragons 29-13 Kings

To be fair to both teams, starting a season in foreign conditions with games against 3 of the Irish provinces and the reigning champions was always going to be a difficult task. In the last 3 rounds, though, the Cheetahs have used the favourable conditions in Bloemfontein to amass a 100% record at home, whereas the Kings have continued to struggle (they are the only team without a win or even a point to their name) and this weekend allowed the Dragons their first 4-try bonus point since March 2015.

It will take a while for both teams to get used to the different conditions and style of play in the Northern Hemisphere Rugby. Both of these teams are used to the much more flowing style of Super Rugby, so I am not too surprised to see them having conceded the most points over the first 5 weeks (192 allowed by the Kings, 176 by the Cheetahs). I think that if the Cheetahs can tighten up a bit defensively and continue to take advantage of playing their home matches at altitude, they could push for a spot in the playoffs, but the Kings need to find a way to improve quickly or they could find themselves at the foot of the table come May.

The Great Divide

I completely understand why the Pro14 was split into 2 conferences, a 26-game regular season and then playoffs would be far too long. However, we are already beginning to see the big issue with a conference system: the inequality.

The conferences were organised according to the finishing positions of teams last year, this does not mean the teams will be of a similar quality this year. After 5 weeks of competition last season’s weakest Welsh team, the Dragons, are currently on 9 points, whereas the Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys’ talented squad both find themselves on just 5 points. Benetton’s 9 points sees them above only the Kings in Conference B, but in a combined table they would actually just be in the top 10 right now.

Hopefully the Conferences will balance out by the end of the season, I would hate for a team to miss out on the playoffs or the Champions Cup due to being in the stronger Conference.