America’s Game: Previewing Super Bowl LII

America’s Game: Previewing Super Bowl LII

For a sports nut like me, this is a busy week: Transfer deadline day in the football, the start of the 6 Nations and – most importantly for this piece – the Super Bowl. The 2018 Super Bowl will be the 52nd Super Bowl (for those of you who can’t read Roman Numerals) and will be a match-up between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, the Eagles’ first appearance in the big game since they lost to the same team in 2005.

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest events in the sporting calendar and draws attention from around the globe, hence the big money spent on commercials during the game and the halftime show – this year we have Justin Timberlake making his return following 2004’s Nipplegate controversy!

But enough about wardrobe malfunctions and the inevitable trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story, if you’re reading this then it is for the sports talk! So without further ado, let’s have a look at the storylines going into Super Bowl LII.

A place in the history books

dynBy defeating the Jags in the AFC Championship game, the Patriots became the first franchise to make it to 10 Super Bowls, while the next best franchises (the Steelers, Cowboys and Broncos each have 8 appearances). If they win on Sunday, they will join the Steelers on the top of the NFL pile with 6 victories.

While this record in itself is great, it is even better when you realise that the Pats’ first Super Bowl victory came at the end of the 2001 season, whereas the Steelers won their first Vince Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 1974 season. After last year’s 5th Super Bowl victory, I wrote about how Bill Belichick’s Patriots are probably the greatest dynasty in modern sports, and to make it back to the Super Bowl despite star receiver Julian Edelman missing the season through injury shows just how impressive this franchise is.

I don’t think anyone will be too surprised if Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels and Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia are both in Head Coaching roles elsewhere next season, yet it is hard to imagine the franchise not pushing for a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.

The GOAT

Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, it is almost impossible to argue against this. He already has 5 Super Bowl Rings but looks well on his way to a 6th, which would mean no franchise has more rings than him as an individual.

He certainly benefits from a system that made even Matt Cassel look good, but he continues to perform regardless of the players around him. His experience in the big games and the big moments is next to none and was perfectly highlighted by the way he cut the Jaguars apart in the 4th quarter of the AFC Championship game. It is not just blind luck that has seen him named Super Bowl MVP 5 times!

He has struggled sometimes in the past against teams that are getting pressure on him – see the Pat’s 2 losses to the Giants – but I think even the Eagles’ highly rated defence will struggle to deal with him for the whole game, though they may be helped if a certain tight end is unavailable…

Gronkwatch

When fit, Rob Gronkowski is one of the best offensive weapons in the NFL. His combination of pace, size and strength is a nightmare for defenders to match up against, while the quality of Tom Brady and the Pats’ receiving corps means that he can’t be double covered as regularly as a defense would want.

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Even with Edelman (and possibly Gronkowski) missing, Brady still has some great options to throw to

Gronk was forced off just before halftime in the AFC Championship game after failing a concussion test following a hit from Barry Church. While the reports coming out suggest he is on track to play, concussions are notoriously difficult to put a time frame on and he is still going through the concussion protocols at the moment.

It will not be the end of the world for the Patriots if he is missing – he has had his injury issues over the years so they are used to playing without him – but having a player of his ability on the field certainly helps to open up the defense.

 

 

As a Titans fan I come into this game as a neutral, but will be leaning my support towards the Patriots as I am continually impressed by Brady and this football dynasty. I would love to see this crop of players continue to break records!

I certainly think the Eagles have a chance, especially if Gronk is unable to play, but after last year’s comeback victory over the Falcons, I really can’t look beyond the Pats for the victory and Super Bowl MVP number 5 for Brady. How do you see the game going?

Previewing the 2018 6 Nations

Previewing the 2018 6 Nations

We’re now less than a week away from the start of the 2018 6 Nations and people all around the country are planning where their group will be watching the matches, while those watching at home are also adding a few crates of lager (other drinks are available) to their weekly shop. The squads are named, the players have been in camp since the last round of European matches finished and the web is full of reports over who is or isn’t available and who has said what about their team’s chances.

I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’re likely already looking forward to the tournament, but I thought it was time to have a look at some of the main storylines coming into this tournament to add to the hype:

Missing in action:

I can’t remember the last time we were starting a 6 Nations tournament with so many players missing! England and Scotland have about a million props missing between them through injury or suspension and they are certainly having to test the depth in those positions. While the Scots aren’t stretched too thin beyond this, England are also missing Lion Ben Te’o, first and second choice number 8s (Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes) and may also be without Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown against Italy, while James Haskell and Joe Marler are suspended for the first 2 rounds. Wales seem to be losing players at a rate of at least 1 a day over the last week, with fly halves Rhys Priestland and Dan Biggar both out for the start of the tournament, Jonathan Davies out long term following his injury in the Autumn, Rhys Webb having likely played his last Wales match for the foreseeable future and the back row missing Taulupe Faletau, Dan Lydiate and captain Sam Warburton. Even the back 3 is beginning to look a little sparse, with Liam Williams, Hallam Amos and George North all doubtful for at least the first round. Ireland haven’t been as unfortunate as their Home Nation counterparts, but they are still missing quality players like Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, while Jared Payne still hasn’t played since suffering headaches on the Lions Tour. The fallout from a Lions Tour is always going to stretch selection somewhat, but this year it seems worse than ever.

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The 6 Nations injury list grows by the day

The teams on the continent have not escaped either, with Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto – 2 of the few Italians playing for top teams – both out injured, while France are missing Camille Lopez following his horror injury against Northampton and Wesley Fofana for the tournament, with Morgan Parra and Brice Dulin also missing from the opening rounds through injury and Mathieu Bastareud suspended for their opener. Even crazier considering this is the decision of new head coach Jacques Brunel to leave out some of their better performers in recent tournaments: Louis Picamoles, Scott Spedding and Baptiste Serin, though Serin has been called up as cover for Parra’s injury.

With so many big names missing, even die-hard rugby fans will be excused for wondering who some of the players on show are this year. It will be interesting to see how things continue as the tournament goes on, as squad depth could be the difference between the title and fighting to avoid the wooden spoon.

Building for 2019

Believe it or not, we are already over halfway through the current World Cup cycle. After this tournament, we have only 1 more 6 Nations and then the Autumn and Summer Tests for players to prove they belong on the international scene. As such, so many players missing could be a blessing in disguise for coaches, as it allows them to give international experience to players they may have been considering for 2019 earlier than expected.

Injuries to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes have seen Zach Mercer promoted from apprentice to a fully-fledged member of the squad. If he can carry on his stunning U20s and Bath form in the 6 Nations, I can see him rising quickly through the England ranks.

James Davies has finally been called up to the national team and hopefully he will be given the chance. An Olympic silver medallist with Team GB’s rugby 7s team in Rio 2016, Cubby is a nuisance at the breakdown and excels in loose play. I have seen him move to wing for Scarlets and play half a game out there following a red card before. There are a lot of big names ahead of him in the Welsh back row, but I expect him to shine if given the chance. Meanwhile in the back line, Rhys Patchell will likely be given the chance to start at fly half following Biggar and Priestland’s injuries. He has been a big part of the Scarlet’s rise in the last couple of seasons and his familiarity with the Scarlets style of play may benefit him as Wales look to expand their game. Worcester’s Josh Adams is currently the top try scorer in the Premiership this year and should be given the start for Wales despite playing outside the country. Like Davies, he has a lot of more established names to compete against, but when picking on form he surely has to be included.

François Trinh-Duc’s loss of form for Toulon saw him omitted from the French squad, which combined with Lopez’s injury leaves Les Bleus with just 2 caps of experience at fly half. Jacques Brunel has opted to go for 19-year-old Matthieu Jalibert and Anthony Belleau (21). Throwing a young fly half in at the deep end will not always work well (Jules Plisson probably still has nightmares about Courtney Lawes) but if he can come through unscathed, the talk is that Jalibert can become a real talent.

The Irish brought in a number of inexperienced players during the Autumn Tests, many of whom really impressed and earned places in the 6 Nations squad. But right now all the hype is about Leinster back Jordan Larmour. I have not seen him play yet but if the hype is to be believed then he is going to be a star in the future. This year’s 6 Nations may be a bit too early for him, but much like Marcus Smith with England, he will benefit from being around the squad during this time.

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The opening round of fixtures – From http://www.sixnationsrugby.com

As a Gloucester fan I was disappointed to see Jake Polledri cut when Conor O’Shea trimmed his Italy squad. I understand that Test rugby is a big step for someone who was playing in National League One this time last year, but his performances for Gloucester have been so impressive and I think he would have impressed for Italy. The England fan in me did a little dance when I saw his omission as with their back row issues, facing Polledri and Sergio Parisse could have been a step too far for England. Hopefully he is drafted back into the squad at a later date.

The Three-peat?

England are coming into this year’s tournament off the back of 2 consecutive 6 Nations titles, with the 2016 title also including a Grand Slam. Despite a high number of injuries, they will still be hoping to become the first team to win the title three years in a row in the 6 Nations era (France were the last team in the 5 Nations – winning 4 in a row from 1986-1989 but even this included joint titles in ’86 and ’88). They have 3 away matches this year, which is less than ideal, but they are at home for key clashes against Ireland and Wales.

France historically do well following a Lions Tour as their players are fresher, however French rugby is not in a good state and considering the players missing I will be surprised if they make the top 3.

If I was to be a betting man, I would be picking Ireland to win the tournament without the Grand Slam – possibly with bonus points proving the decider – with England finishing second. I can also see Italy playing better than for most of last year, but likely still finishing with the wooden spoon.

I am a fan of doing Fantasy Rugby and have set up a league for this year’s 6 Nations on the EPSN website. It is open to all and just for a bit of fun, so feel free to create a team and join the league. You may even get a congratulatory shout-out if you finish top! The league PIN is 1323867-57794

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 24

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 24

Liverpool came into Week 24 of the Premier League looking to continue their hot run after becoming the first team to beat Manchester City in the league this season. They came away with nothing following a 1-0 loss at bottom of the table Swansea, despite some close chances in the dying minutes. This is the real attraction of the Premier League: on their day anyone can beat anyone, which is a lot less likely in most of the top European leagues.

Elsewhere, Stoke saw an immediate improvement under new manager Paul Lambert. Their 2-0 victory over Huddersfield lifted them out of the relegation zone and put more pressure onto Southampton manager Manuel Pellegrino, who could only hold Spurs to a 1-1 draw this weekend. Meanwhile Watford’s 1 point from the last 4 league games marked the end of the Marco Silva’s tenure as he was sacked following their 2-0 loss at Leicester.

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I doubt this was how Liverpool were planning to build on their victory over City

Unfortunate accident

I hate to start this week on a low note, but what a horrible injury for James McCarthy to suffer! The Republic of Ireland international suffered a horror fracture of the tibia and fibula as he attempted to tackle West Brom striker Salomon Rondon, ending his season. This was a horrible injury and it is no surprise that the replays were halted right before the injury itself so as not to distress viewers. The quick reactions of Jordan Pickford, Jay Rodriguez and Rondon to call a halt to the game and get medical assistance to McCarthy was proof enough of the severity of the injury. I also couldn’t help but feel sorry for Rondon, who had done nothing wrong but was visibly affected by his part in the injury and I couldn’t help but be impressed that he was able to put that to the back of his mind and continue playing for the remainder of the game. This was a complete accident and nobody could be blamed for it. As horrible as it is, injuries can and will happen in sport.

It is unfortunate that this has happened now to McCarthy. He has only played in 6 games this season (4 in the league) having only just recovered from another injury. He is a very good player and when on form an important part of the Everton squad, but such long-term injuries could make it difficult for him to get back into the squad next season. Hopefully the recovery goes well and we see him back in the league on a more regular basis next season.

Every cloud has a Silva lining

When I have been looking at managers at risk over the last few weeks, someone who I did not consider was Marco Silva (now formerly) of Watford. Watford may not have been on the best run, but they were still in the top half of their table, which is a great achievement considering the quality of the league. However what I didn’t account for was the willingness of the Pozzo family to change their manager when they feel they can do better. From the fact that Javi Gracia has already been named as Silva’s replacement, it would seem that this has been in their mind for a while.

Watford started the season so well, but in recent months they have gone off the boil and struggled for results. They currently lie 10th in the league, but the league is ridiculously tight this season and they are only 4 points outside of the relegation zone – 20th placed Swansea are only 6 points behind them now following their win last night! When the difference between mid-table and the drop is so small, every result matters and that would have put Silva at risk with the owners, however their statement was very telling.

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The bottom half of the table is incredibly tight, it’s impossible to predict who will finish in the bottom 3

In the statement announcing Silva’s removal, Watford cited Everton’s approach for him following their decision to replace Ronald Koeman, saying that since that saga there had been “a significant deterioration in both focus and results to the point where the long-term future of Watford has been jeopardised.” Strong words, but they do have a point. Watford were flying high before Everton’s approach, yet since then they have struggled for results and began to drop down the table. Silva never publicly distanced himself from the Everton role and you can’t help but wonder if his heart has been in the job since then. It could just be unfortunate timing with the run of bad form, but it certainly looks as if the Everton approach has affected the squad.

The good news for Silva is that he is still considered a good quality manager, I will be shocked if Pellegrino makes it to the end of February and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Silva as one of the names towards the top of Southampton’s list.

Transfer talk

Probably the biggest story of the round was the announcement that Manchester United agreed a swap deal with Alexis Sanchez moving to Old Trafford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan going the other way. I think this a great deal for both parties involved.

Arsenal and Sanchez have been going through the motions for a while now and it was only the inability to sign a replacement that stopped Sanchez moving to Manchester City in the summer. Sanchez was ready to leave and has not performed at his best this season, but a move to United will likely (hopefully) see him back to his best. He is a versatile player, able to lay up front, on either side or just behind the striker, which allows Mourinho plenty of tactical flexibility when picking his squad. It also means that all the attacking players will have to up their game to compete against him rather than just the players in a single position. Since 2014/15, Sanchez’s 85 Premier League goals scored or assisted is behind only Harry Kane (108), Serio Aguero (104) and new teammate Romelu Lukaku (86) so he will surely improve the United attack.

Mkhitaryan has not had the best of times at Old Trafford. He had some great moments but also a number of dreadful moments that lost him Mourinho’s trust. It was clear that he was surplus to requirements with United, yet I can see him playing well at Arsenal as I think they will fit his style of play. Hopefully such a talented player will be able to turn his career around and show the Premier League just how good he can be.

This deal works well for both clubs as United offload a player that they do not need while getting in a quality player at no cost. Arsenal would have lost Sanchez for free in the summer, so they have managed to effectively get a player that should fit their system that they likely wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise.

From one completed transfer to transfers that I wonder if they will happen or are even being looked into. Fraser Forster has lost his place in the Southampton starting line-up to Alex McCarthy, while Joe Hart’s loan spell at West Ham has turned into a nightmare as he has fallen behind Adrian in the pecking order. With the World Cup this summer, both of these keepers need to be playing regular football in order to earn their place in the England squad, so I would not be surprised if they are looking for other clubs – though Forster could be banking on a return to the starting XI if/when Pellegrino is replaced. Liverpool are looking to become more competitive and the signing of a new keeper would probably help this.

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City got straight back to winning ways with a 3-1 victory over Newcastle

But would they want to make a transfer now? While Hart and Forster have impressed in the League, neither was having the best of seasons, so would they be much of an upgrade on Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius? Nick Pope’s form for Burnley in place of the injured Tom Heaton has been immense, I struggle to imagine one of these players warming the Burnley bench next season. Heaton is probably the one closer to international recognition, so a move to a club competing at the top of the league and in Europe would certainly help his international aspirations.

Round 25 predictions:

Swansea City v Arsenal – Arsenal win

West Ham United v Crystal Palace – Draw

Huddersfield Town v Liverpool – Liverpool win

Chelsea v AFC Bournemouth – Chelsea win

Everton v Leicester City – Draw

Newcastle United v Burnley – Burnley win

Southampton v Brighton & Hove Albion – Draw

Manchester City v West Bromwich Albion – City win

Stoke City v Watford – Draw

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United – Draw

A Season in Review: the 2017 Tennessee Titans

A Season in Review: the 2017 Tennessee Titans

Back before the 2017 NFL season started, I had a look through the regular season schedule for the Tennessee Titans with a view to seeing what the chances were that I’d have any loyalty to a team in the playoffs or just be watching games as a neutral. After looking at the fixture I made the following prediction:

“As it stands, I can imagine the Titans getting 10+ wins this season, and think they should be disappointed by anything less than a 9-7 season and a return to the playoffs.”

So how did the Titans fare? Well, they finished 9-7, making it into the playoffs (the first time since 2008) as the 5th seed in the AFC, then beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium 22-21 in the Wildcard Round, only to lose in Foxborough 14-35 in the Divisional Round. And yet while I don’t think the Titans could have really expected to go beyond this stage, I actually feel disappointed with the way the season panned out for the franchise.

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The 2017 regular season schedule for the Titans, featuring Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker

The schedule for the AFC South teams was very kind this year – only 6 games were against teams with a winning record, 2 of which were the Jaguars – so this was always going to give the Titans a chance to push for a wildcard spot if they did not win the division. While wins at Jacksonville (who ended 10-6) and at home to the Seahawks (9-7) in the opening 3 weeks suggested this was a team that could go far, they were brought crashing back down to earth in a humbling 14-57 loss at the Texans (4-12) as rookie QB Deshaun Watson ran riot. They then lost to a Dolphins (6-10) team that was led by the less-than-impressive Jay Cutler and in Week 7 were taken to overtime by a Cleveland Browns team that failed to win all season! After their Week 8 bye, they were able to get back on track with close wins over the up-and-down Ravens (9-7) and Bengals (7-9) before another humbling at Heinz Field, where the Steelers (13-3) won 17-40. Their late push for a Divisional title faltered following losses to the Cardinals (8-8), Rams (11-5) and a resurgent 49ers who salvaged a poor start to the season to finish 6-10 with Jimmy Garoppolo under center.

Even while they finished 5-1 in their Divisional games, this must be looked at closer as 3 of these games (both Colts fixtures and Week 13’s game against the Texans) were against backup quarterbacks, while the Texans had also lost JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus to Injured Reserve by this point in the season. It’s fair to say that they had an easy schedule and an easy division, yet they still only just scraped into the playoff due to their record in the conference.

There were some bright sparks for Tennessee this year. Derrick Henry continued to impress with his increased work load and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is promoted to starter in 2018. The O-Line continued to draw praise from pundits, with Taylor Lewan being selected to the Pro Bowl. With Dick LeBeau in place as Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator, the Titans defense ranked 4th in the league on rushing yards and 13th in overall yards (16th in points). Defensive lineman Jurrell Casey was selected to the Pro Bowl, safety Kevin Byard was the league leader in interceptions (8) and was selected 1st team All Pro, while rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson impressed as a starter and will only improve going forward. Marcus Mariota did not have a great season and arguably regressed a bit this season – though he was hampered by a hamstring injury picked up in Week 4 – but he showed flashes of the quality player we know he is towards the end of the season and is also a clear leader on the team who puts his team before his body (check out the block he threw on the Chiefs’ Frank Zombo to allow Derrick Henry to pick up a game-sealing first down on 3rd & 10 and the reaction of his teammates). I would argue though that his regression was more symptomatic of the Titans offense rather than an issue with him.

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Punter Brett Kern was selected for the Pro Bowl, but I doubt the Titans would have wanted to use him so often in matches

The offense as a whole this season was terrible! Despite averaging more yards in both the rushing and passing game, Derrick Henry started only 2 games, while the lead back continued to be DeMarco Murray. First round draft pick Corey Davis showed some real flashes of his potential, especially in the playoffs against New England, but he struggled with injury throughout the season, which limited his effectiveness. The signing of Eric Decker in June really excited me, but though he was probably not on his best form this year, he was also not often used as the Red Zone target that we have seen him excel as being in recent seasons with the Jets. Mike Mularkey had previously described the offensive style as exotic smash mouth. The offense this season was rarely exotic and sometimes not even very smash mouth.

I do not want to put all the blame on Mularkey – while he is the Head Coach, Terry Robiskie is the Offensive Coordinator – but unfortunately if things are not going in the direction the team wants, he will be the one at risk. The offense this season was what stopped them performing as well as they should and a change was clearly needed ahead of next year. I am not overly surprised to see that the Titans and Mularkey have parted ways, Mularkey was the right person to get the franchise back on track but I did not see him as being the person to push them on to the next level.

Looking ahead to 2018

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Mariota’s passer rating in 2017 regular season (79.3) was the worst of his NFL career (91.5 in 2015, 95.6 in 2016)

I think that there is plenty to be positive about in 2018. Mike Vrabel has been named as the new Head Coach so it will be interesting to see the effect he can have considering his limited NFL coaching experience (he was the Texans’ linebacker coach 2014-2016 and Defensive Coordinator this season). It will also be interesting to see what changes are made with the offensive coaching staff considering this was where the issues seemed to lie.

Looking at the roster, there is not really much that needs improving if the big pieces can stay in place. The important this is to work on the depth. The Titans offense fell apart following Jack Conklin’s injury against the Pats and the defense was clearly tiring as the Patriots maintained their drives. The AFC South will be much more competitive next year with Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson fit (and who knows what the Jags will do at QB!), but I feel that the Titans should be able to push on from this year and fight for the Divisional title.

Hopefully they are going to do better than this season, as I’m planning to watch them play at Wembley!

 

All images in the text of this article are from the Tennessee Titans website http://www.titansonline.com

6 Nations 2018: The England Squad

6 Nations 2018: The England Squad

With the 6 Nations kicking off in early February, all the national teams have been announcing their squads for the opening round this week. Following England’s back-to-back titles, but with them currently missing a large number of regulars through injury or suspension, there was always going to be some interest in the squad that Eddie Jones picked. True to form the Aussie head coach has thrown a couple of surprises into the mix with his announcement.

The squad, as reported by the RFU website is as follows: * denotes a player who is currently uncapped

Backs: Full backs

Mike Brown (Harlequins)

Nathan Earle (Saracens) *

Harry Mallinder (Northampton Saints) *

Jonny May (Leicester Tigers)

Denny Solomona (Sale Sharks)

Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby)

Backs: Inside backs

Danny Care (Harlequins)

Owen Farrell (Saracens)

George Ford (Leicester Tigers)

Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby)

Alex Lozowski (Saracens)

Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs)

Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs)

Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors)

Marcus Smith (Harlequins) * – Apprentice player

Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers)

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A number of players likely to feature are currently unavailable through injury or suspension – From http://www.englandrugby.com

Forwards: Back five

Gary Graham (Newcastle Falcons) *

Nick Isiekwe (Saracens)

Maro Itoje (Saracens)

George Kruis (Saracens)

Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints)

Joe Launchbury (Wasps)

Zach Mercer (Bath Rugby) *

Chris Robshaw (Harlequins)

Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs)

Sam Underhill (Bath Rugby)

Forwards: Front row

Lewis Boyce (Harlequins) *

Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers)

Tom Dunn (Bath Rugby) *

Jamie George (Saracens)

Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints)

Alec Hepburn (Exeter Chiefs) *

Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins)

Mako Vunipola (Saracens)

Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs)

Next man up

With Nathan Hughes already known to be out of the tournament with injury, people were watching keenly as Billy Vunipola made his own return from injury with Saracens, and they were not disappointed as he looked to pick up where he left off. Then disaster struck as the word went around that he had suffered a fractured forearm and would miss the 6 Nations. While this was a huge blow for England (I have still not forgiven you Gez for your GIF when I told you he was out!) I couldn’t help feel sorry for the number 8 who has had awful luck with injuries recently (this is his 4th major injury in just over a year, causing him to miss the Lions Tour and the Autumn Internationals). To compound these issues, the most experienced next option up – James Haskell – is also banned for the first couple of rounds following his high tackle on Jamie Roberts! But Eddie Jones cannot spend his time moping about the players missing and has looked straight to the next men up.

Sam Simmonds got his first taste of senior international rugby in the Autumn Internationals and has been one of the biggest breakout stars in the Premiership this season, while Zach Mercer (my breakthrough player in last season’s Premiership) has also continued to impress for Bath in Taulupe Faletau’s absence, earning him a promotion from apprentice player to a fully-fledged member of the senior squad. Neither of these players have the same physical impact as Vunipola and Hughes, but they both bring something special to the squad and will relish the opportunity to play against Italy.

While it wouldn’t surprise me to see either Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes take the number 6 shirt (though I personally feel they should stay as options in the second row) – I would likely look to pick a back row of Chris Robshaw at 6, then 2 of Simmonds, Mercer and Underhill, with whichever player misses out on the starting place coming off the bench to cause havoc.

Winging it… mostly!

Despite British & Irish Lion Elliot Daly and Bath’s Semesa Rokoduguni both missing through injury, England still have some fantastic options in the back 3! Though I may not be the biggest fan of Anthony Watson, his record of 14 tries in 31 appearances for England and the Lions is impressive and he has the pace and agility to scare the opposition if given too much space. Jonny May has been in fine form for Leicester and has shown what he can do when getting the right service and would be my pick to start opposite Watson (assuming Brown gets the nod at 15). Meanwhile the other wingers in the squad both look very impressive too. Denny Solomona knows his way to the line (often including a flashy dive over the line and the corner flag) while Nathan Earle has impressed me since his appearances in the U20s World Championships.

Jack Nowell is also in the squad but has been named alongside the inside backs, so could possibly be used at 13 during this tournament. He is deceptively strong and his footwork often helps him make extra metres in the tackle. With Ben Te’o still returning to fitness and Manu Tuilagi not considered while he gets back into the way of things at Tigers following his own horror run of injuries, there are no other real crash-ball options in the midfield for England, while Jonathan Joseph has not seemed as indispensable in recent seasons as he used to for England. With Italy first up, a midfield of Ford, Farrell and Nowell with May, Watson and Brown in the back 3 could do a fantastic job of stretching the Italian defence and tiring them out as the match goes on.

The backup

As is customary for an Eddie Jones squad, only 2 scrum halves have been named by Eddie Jones in his tournament squad. Danny Care and Ben Youngs are clearly the established 9s in the England setup and it will be very difficult for someone to break into the top 2 barring injury to one of the incumbents. However if something does happen (always a possibility considering the number of injuries hitting the squad) the team could be in trouble. As there are usually only 2 scrum halves called up by Jones for training, if anyone were to come in as last minute cover (Ben Vellacott has been named in the EPS, Richard Wigglesworth has the most international experience and Dan Robson would be my personal pick) then it would be very difficult for them to step into role effectively in a short space of time.

Austin Healy recently made some similar comments on BT Sport’s Rugby Tonight and while I am slightly worried my mind is working the same way as him, I hope that the fact other people within the sport are saying it too may lead to the involvement of more scrum halves through the rest of the season. If they aren’t getting included against Italy then I doubt they will feature in the 6 Nations (barring an injury), but if they can be included in the Summer Tests or even just brought into the training squads more often, then this will benefit in the long run. Let’s not forget that New Zealand lost their 1st and 2nd choice fly halves during the 2011 World Cup, yet still went on to win the final with Aaron Cruden and Stephen Donald covering 10. The more players that Eddie Jones can interchange without a drop in performance quality, the better!

So these are my initial thoughts today having had a look at the squad while on my lunch break at work, and the start of the build-up to the tournament itself. There are so many players missing through injury for the Home Nations – just look at the Scottish front row options! – while the French are coming in with a new head coach and historically fare well in the tournament following a Lions Tour and Italy are showing signs of improvement under Conor O’Shea. As of right now, I am predicting Ireland to win the title but no Grand Slam, but my opinion could very easily change between now and the start!

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 23

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 23

Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ of 2003/4 can sleep soundly for another year knowing their record is safe. Manchester City finally came away from a game with no points following a thrilling 4-3 loss at Anfield on Sunday. This result cuts City’s lead over Manchester United (who beat Stoke 3-0) to 12 points, while Liverpool rise up to 3rd, level on points with Chelsea. A second straight loss for Burnley, this time a 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, sees them dropping back towards their mid-table rivals, while Arsenal’s 2-1 loss at Bournemouth sees them losing ground to the top 5.

The upset on Merseyside

What a result for Liverpool! Despite having lost Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona earlier in the month, there was no clear impact on their attacking quality as they came out 4-3 winners, courtesy of goals from Oxlade-Chamberlain, Firmino, Mané and Salah (obviously). When I was predicting the results at the end of my last article, I was tempted to pick Liverpool for the win due to how prolific their attack has been of late. Their defence may still need some improvement – 2 goals in the last 10 minutes made it squeaky bum time at the end) but as long as they can continue scoring more than their opposition they can beat anyone on their day.

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Liverpool are the first team to score 3+ goals in a match against Manchester City this season – From http://www.premierleague.com

Firmino and Salah are surely having the best season of their careers (Firmino already has more goals in any competition this season than in any other season), while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is looking better by the week as he gets more comfortable in the squad and scored a lovely goal to give the Reds an early lead. Adam Lallana has recently returned from injury and will continue to improve with more minutes. The one place Liverpool do need to look is at the back. Virgil van Dyke was missing for this game and there were mistakes from individuals, most notably for Leroy Sané’s goal, where Joe Gomez misjudged the flight of the ball to leave Sané in acres of space, then Loris Karius failed to save at his near post.

Liverpool are clearly improving as the season goes on and it’s clear where the money needs to be spent at the moment. We have just under half a month left, so it will be interesting to see if they make any more signings this season.

Taking the next step

Burnley may be having an impressive season (7th in the league with 34 points, behind only the big 6) but it could be going so much better. Injuries to Chris Wood and Robbie Brady have left Sean Dyche with limited attacking options and while they may have the 4th best defence in the league, they are also one of only 5 clubs to have not yet scored 20 league goals this season.

This is a team that are not currently able to win from a losing position and to take the next step and challenge for Europe, Sean Dyche needs to find a striker that can contribute 12-15 goals a season. The beauty of the Premier League is that anyone can beat anyone on the day, so if Burnley can start turning some of these draws and 1-0 losses into wins, they will be able to continue pushing for European football.

Bringing football into the 21st century

I know not everyone has been happy with the impact of the video assistant referee (VAR) in recent tests during cup games, but this weekend gave us 2 incidents that highlight exactly why VAR needs implementing sooner rather than later.

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Wrong decisions could prove crucial at the bottom come the end of the season – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

While it can also be argued that Southampton threw away a 2 goal lead (again, not looking good for Pellegrino), the equaliser from Abdoulaye Doucouré should never have stood as on review it was clearly controlled at least in part by the hand. The 2-2 result leaves the Saints just a point above the relegation zone, so those 2 points they have been denied could prove crucial in their fight for survival.

Swansea will also feel aggrieved that they had to settle for a 1-1 draw at Newcastle considering they should have had a penalty in the first half when Mohamed Diame clearly (although apparently not to the ref) raised his arm to block a goalbound shot. Not only should this have been a penalty, but this would have also left the Magpies playing the rest of the game a man down and more than likely resulted in Swansea taking the full 3 points. The extra 2 points would still leave them bottom of the table, but within a win of escaping the bottom 3.

2 incidents this weekend, plenty of other throughout the season. It may interrupt the flow of the game slightly, but surely it is more important that the matches are not affected by wrong decisions.

Round 24 predictions:

Brighton & Hove Albion v Chelsea – Chelsea win

Arsenal v Crystal Palace – Arsenal win

Burnley v Manchester United – United win

Everton v West Bromwich Albion – Everton win

Leicester City v Watford – Leicester win

Stoke City v Huddersfield Town – Draw

West Ham United v AFC Bournemouth – West Ham win

Manchester City v Newcastle United – City win

Southampton v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

Swansea City v Liverpool – Liverpool win

NFL 2018: The UK Games

NFL 2018: The UK Games

The 2017 NFL season may still be ongoing for some teams as we continue through the playoffs, but for 28 teams (by the time the weekend is over) it will be time to consign this season to the record books and start looking ahead to the 2018 season.

With this in mind, a few days ago, the NFL announced the team’s involved in 2018’s London games as part of the 2018 NFL International Series. As well as one as-yet unannounced game in Mexico – we know the Rams will be involved as part of a previous deal but do not yet know who their opponents will be – we will be getting 3 matches in London. As well as some returning teams, including regular visitors the Jacksonville Jaguars, 3 teams will be making their London debuts and I’m sure fans of the Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles will be looking forward to the chance to finally see their teams play this side of the pond.

As with last year, I have decided to take a quick look at the 3 UK fixtures to see what fans could have to look forward to. Though the announcement has come slightly later than last year – so we know the final regular season records for each team – there is still so much that could change between now and the matches, but at least we can begin to get an idea of what we may have to look forward to in October.

 

Seattle Seahawks (9-7) @ Oakland Raiders (6-10) – 14/10/18

Neither team will be happy with the way their 2017 seasons went and you can bet they will be looking to get back to winning ways in 2018. London has never yet seen a match between two teams with winning records.

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Wembley will host 2 games in 2018, with the other played at Tottenham’s new stadium

Derek Carr may have had a down season, but with former Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden – who won Super Bowl XXXVII with the Buccaneers – returning, you would imagine that he will be back to his best in 2018 and looking forward to taking on Seattle’s Legion of Boom. UK fans will also be hoping to see 3-time Pro Bowler Khalil Mack at his very best against Russell Wilson, who always seems so be able to throw in a couple of magical plays per game.

The big draw for this game will be the first appearance of Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium. The stadium has been been designed with the NFL in mind and has a retractable artificial turf for NFL games. There will only be 1 game here in 2018 but the plan is for it to host 2 games a year going forward, a good opening game between 2 successful teams will go along way to helping secure the NFL’s future here.

Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) – 21/10/18 or 28/10/18

The only 2018 game in the UK that pits two teams who made the playoffs in 2017, this game has the potential to be one of the best games Wembley has ever seen!

Despite losing star receiver Allen Robinson to injury in Week 1, the Jags relied on a top-class defense that contained 4 Pro Bowlers to top the AFC West and get to at least the AFC Divisional Playoffs (at time of writing they are still to play their game against the Steelers). They are a team on the up and if they can get a more reliable quarterback then the sky could be the limit in 2018.

The Eagles 13-3 record was level with the Patriots, Steelers and Vikings as the best in the NFL this season, but this season will likely not reach the heights that it could have courtesy of Carson Wentz’s ACL injury in Week 14. Wentz was on track for an MVP season before his injury and the fact that they won 2 of their remaining 3 regular season games and their NFC Divisional Round Playoff game against the Falcons with Nick Foles starting under center, which shows just how good this team was this season.

If both teams can continue to play at this season’s high level and also improve on their problem areas, then this will be a match nobody will want to miss. Oh and as if that wasn’t enough, it will likely be another chance for UK fans to cheer on London-born Jay Ajayi.

Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) – 21/10/18 or 28/10/18

As a Titans fan, I have been looking forward to them coming over for a while, especially in recent years as they have started to become more competitive again. Their 9-7 record may flatter to deceive somewhat (more than that in the coming days) but they are a team on the up and will (hopefully) continue to improve in 2018. When it is firing on all cylinders the Titans offense can be brilliant to watch with Derrick Henry in the backfield, 2-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and receivers Corey Davis and Delanie Walker all on the pitch. And if the receivers are having an off day, Marcus Mariota could just start throwing touchdown passes to himself again! Mariota is one of the most impressive young quarterbacks in the league in my (somewhat biased) opinion and will treat the Wembley crowd to one hell of a show with his dual-threat ability. On defense, the Titans have an impressive front 7 and a set of young defensive backs including Adoree’ Jackson and 2017 interception leader Kevin Byard who will benefit so much from their playoff run this season.

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Fans will be hoping Marcus Mariota is at his best when he comes to London – From http://www.titansonline.com

The Chargers narrowly missed out on a playoff spot this season, but quarterback Philip Rivers reminded us all of the quality he possesses in 2017, while Joey Bosa continues to impress at defensive end and was named to his first Pro Bowl this year.

This may not have the same attraction as the other 2 games, but this could also be a great spectacle between 2 improving teams. Every team who won in London this season made it into the playoffs as Divisional champions, while Jacksonville have previously use the London games to get themselves back on track after poor starts to the season. I imagine both franchises will be looking to use this game as a springboard to launch forwards in their quest for a 2018 playoff berth.

 

Will you be going to any of the games? Which one are you most looking forward to?