Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 3

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 3

So most rugby fans are probably waking up with a hangover today. I’m sure plenty of England fans will have been drinking to forget the day’s action, while the Scots will probably declare a national holiday following their Calcutta Cup victory – which I can imagine many fans in other countries celebrated too! Elsewhere in the tournament, France’s victory in Marseille all but assures Italy will finish with the wooden spoon, while Ireland are now the only team able to win the Grand Slam following their victory over Wales.

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France 34-17 Italy

We are far from having a great French team right now but there are certainly some good signs going forward. Mathieu Barstareaud may not look like your conventional centre but deserved the Man of the Match award in this game. His physicality in attack brought good ground and made space for the men outside of him – just watch Hugo Bonneval’s try again and see how important his part is in that. Remy Grosso looked very dangerous on the left wing and I look forward to seeing more of him in the current weeks. While I don’t think he was better than Bastareaud in this game, Yacouba Camara impressed me at 7 and I think he will do a great job helping the team get front-foot ball. While these guys impressed against Italy, I am still not being won over by Lionel Beauxis at 10. He has undoubted quality but no consistency, then will occasionally do something that nobody seems to expect (not in a good way). Sebastien Vahaamahina continues to concede penalties and I’m surprised that he has not yet received a yellow for persistent offending. It may be indicative of the numerous changes Jacques Brunel is making each week but there was very little resembling teamwork from the French team and it cost them inside the Italian 22 and stopped them earning a bonus point.

Much like the French, Italy are another team in the middle of a rebuild and with an number of relatively new players. I talked about Tommaso Boni and Sebastian Negri following Round 1 and they have continued to impress throughout the tournament – Negri especially growing into his role within the XV. Another player who has really impressed is fullback Matteo Minozzi. The Zebre 15 may look tiny next to many of his fellow players, but has looked electric in the 6 Nations and followed up his try in Round 2 with another on Friday night. As well as that he appears to have a good rugby brain judging by his recognition that a kick downfield was a better option than trying to run the length of the field following a turnover on their own line and recognised the opportunity for a quick 22-dropout, only to be cynically stopped by Benjamin Fall (who should have really received a yellow for this). He also has very good tackle technique when covering a break wide, as showed when he shepherded Grosso towards the touchline and then took him low around the legs to take him into touch. However like the French, I have not been impressed by the men controlling the game for Italy. Marcello Violi often seems to take his time behind the ruck and this gave the French defence time to reorganise and in some cases counter-ruck to turn the ball over, and I don’t think Tommy Allan has done enough with the number 10 shirt. With the wooden spoon 99% confirmed for another year I think O’Shea should restore Edoardo Gori to the starting lineup (provided his late injury wasn’t serious) and look at Carlo Canna or Ian McKinley at fly half.

Ireland 37-27 Wales

Considering Ireland lost 3 British and Irish Lions heading into this game (Furlong, Henderson and Henshaw) this was arguably their best performance in the tournament so far. Chris Farrell may have been making his 6 Nations debut on only his third cap, but he looked assured from the off against the Welsh. A starting back row of O’Mahony, Leavy and Stander (with Conan on the bench) shows just how strong the Irish are in this area that they can deal with missing Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier. Jacob Stockdale has been so impressive for the national team and continues to score tries at an average of about 1 per game, while Keith Earls could have had a couple of tries had the forwards not got white line fever. Johnny Sexton had an awful day off the kicking tee, but some of his play with ball in hand was sublime and helped remind me just how good a player he is. They have 2 huge matches to come at home to Scotland and away at England, but if they continue in this vein the Grand Slam is a real possibility.

“I will be very interested to see what happens when the usual starters are available again: how many of them will get straight back in the team and whether the style of play shifts back to what we have become used to seeing.” – Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

We got the first look at Wales with some of their stars coming back this week as Liam Williams and Dan Biggar returned to the squad for the first time in this year’s tournament. It wasn’t great viewing. Dan Biggar is a very good fly half so this is nothing against him, but his playing style does not easily fit with the Scarlets-esque style of play that Wales have been going for in recent weeks. Once Biggar was replaced by Gareth Anscombe the Welsh attack appeared much more dangerous. The general consensus between my mates and I was that dropping Rhys Patchell from the 23 the moment Biggar was back was a giant kick in the ball-sack considering how well he had played on the whole both for Scarlets and in the first 2 rounds of the tournament, it seems clear now that he will not get a fair shot at the Welsh squad while Gatland and Howley are in charge. Biggar’s big features for Wales (besides his experience) are his goal kicking – which is dealt with by Halfpenny anyway – and his work under the high ball which is already covered by Halfpenny and Williams. Patchell and Asncombe bring more to the Welsh game so I think the team would benefit from one of them starting, with Biggar on the bench able to come on and help see a game out with his territorial kicking or to take over goal kicking duties if Halfpenny is removed.

Scotland 25-13 England

Let’s start witht he positives here: Scotland were great! Finn Russell bounced back from a couple of bad games to win the Man of the Match award against the Auld enemy. John Barclay and his pack dominated their opposite numbers and stopped the England backs getting front-foot ball, while often winning turnovers when England did make ground. Huw Jones is a player that I have rated ever since he came on the scene for Scotland and he just seems to get better as he gets more international experience. With an eye for the gap and a great combination of pace and strength he has almost everything you want in a 13. I would argue that Jones is quickly becoming one of the best outside centres in the world and I look forward to watching him more over the next few seasons.

*Sigh* As an England fan, I’ve put off writing this for as long as I can. It is not easy having to relive last night, but it needs to be done. I can’t remember the last time that I was so disappointed by and England loss. I have no problem with England losing to a team that were better on the day, but they did not seem up for it at all! I hate to accuse the players of this as I doubt it was really the case, but it was as if the players were going through the motions and not playing with any heart! The first half especially was embarrassing and looked as if the players thought they were still in a training session against Georgia rather than a 6 Nations match. Support men were too often too far behind the man with the ball and when they were there they just leaned onto a ruck like you expect in junior rugby rather then clearing the man out or creating a strong bridge (something drilled into the minds of us Pistol Shrimps by Mr Mike Gledhill). If you want one moment that summarised the England performance, you just need to look at the final seconds of the game. Anthony Watson – who did a wonderful job of reminding me why I’ve never been sold on him defensively – reached out a lazy hand to catch a pass a bit far in front of him, only to knock the ball on into touch. Minimal skill, minimal effort… another England error. Hopefully this will be the kick up the ass that gets the team going again, it will be interesting to see what changes (if any) Eddie Jones makes for their trip to France. Personally, I would love to see Te’o brought in at 13 as his physicality will help the backs if the forwards are struggling to generate quick ball, while also replacing Watson with the more well-rounded Jack Nowell. Hughes looked good on his return but if Sam Simmonds is available for Le Crunch I would find a way to get them both in the starting lineup by playing 3 specialist back rowers and moving Courtney Lawes to the second row or the bench. I would also replace Richard Wigglesworth on the bench with Dan Robson as much like Biggar for Wales, I don’t think his playing style suits what England are trying to do, whereas Robson could easily push for a starting place if given fair chance. It wouldn’t surprise me though if Jones goes for the same 23 again with any changes being due to players returning or being unavailable through injury.

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France coming off a rare win, England with an equally rare loss… Le Crunch could be a huge match!

6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com

To Race or not to Race?

Chris Froome recently competed in the Ruta del Sol, his first race since his adverse drugs test was made public. Now I don’t go on cycling-specific news sites so it may be different there but the mainstream news certainly seemed to less on how Froome’s race was going and more on if he should be racing at all!

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Will Froome (in yellow) have his case sorted before the Giro? Should he race if not? – Picture from Flickr – @ruby_roubaix

The UCI and Team Sky have not suspended Froome while he attempts to prove his innocent and Froome has chosen not to step down while his case goes on and judging by his interviews intends to race in the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France if everything is not settled by that point. But should he carry on as normal or take a step back?

Even his fellow racers have seemed split on the question, with Tony Martin – who has spoken out against Froome a couple of times since news of the drugs test broke – critical of Froome taking part in the race, while last season’s teammate (and now General Classification rival with Movistar) Mikel Landa saying Froome was welcome.

It is a difficult to decide if Froome should have taken a step back while the case was going on and it will probably not be until the case is closed that we really know if it was the right choice. If Froome is found guilty then voluntarily stepping back would have allowed him to return to racing quicker, whereas now he would have to wait longer to come back and likely be stripped of any title he wins in the interim. However if Froome had stepped back from racing and proved himself innocent then he has effectively been stopped from racing for something that he didn’t do. If the case drags on much longer then stepping down could stop him from trying to become only the third rider (behind Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault) to be champion in all 3 Grand Tours at the same time. That would be a big loss for someone proved innocent.

Right now, I still believe Froome’s assertions that he has done nothing wrong so I have no problem with him continuing to race. I just continue to hope that I’m not proved wrong…

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 27

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 27

Hey guys apologies for how late this article is, I was away last weekend so it had taken me forever to catch up on the weekend’s action… good job there were no Premier League games this weekend!

Round 27 was an awful one for Manchester United, whose 1-0 loss at Newcastle allowed their chasers to catch up. Chelsea got back to winning ways against strugglers West Brom, and Liverpool beat a disappointing Southampton 0-2, while Spurs are now only 4 points off 2nd following their 1-0 victory over Arsenal. Further down the table, Huddersfield earned their first points of 2018 with a 4-1 victory of Bournemouth.

Struggling Baggies

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Spurs’ win over Arsenal was in front of a record crowd for the Premier League, the benefit of using Wembley as a home ground this season – From http://www.premierleague.com

One of the benefits of the delay in getting this post done is that I have been able to see a few more stories beyond the matches themselves. And what a week to see stories as news has come out to say that 4 senior West Brom players broke a curfew and stole a taxi when away in Barcelona. This is the sort of crap that I would expect from academy lads or players who have recently made it into the first team squad, rather than 4 experienced players. I was shocked when I heard the news and even more so when I saw the names – Jonny Evans, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore and Boaz Myhill. These players aren’t just senior players, they are 4 of the most senior players in the squad (Livermore is the youngest at 28 years old) and Evans and Barry have both played for title-winning sides. These are the players that should be setting an example, yet they are the ones causing issues and distractions. It is questionable whether West Brom have the quality to stay up anyway – though they have improved under Pardew they are still not getting enough results – but if some of the most senior players including the club captain are acting like this then I think we can guarantee West Brom’s place in the Championship next season.

Sad story, happy ending?

Away from the games this week, it has also been announced that Hull midfielder Ryan Mason has been forced to retire from football following recovery from a fractured skull suffered in a challenge with Gary Cahill just over a year ago. It is a shame to hear this as he was a talented midfielder but the injury was such a serious one, the risk is so high in a sport that includes heading the ball.

It looks like there could be a happy ending to the story though as reports suggest that Spurs have already contacted Mason about returning to his former club in a coaching role. It is great to see that they are giving Mason this chance considering he had left the club in August 2016 and I think that they have taken into account the fact that he had been with the club since he joined the academy aged 8 and only left due to not being a big part of the plans moving forward.

I wish him all the best in his future activities, whether he takes up Spurs’ offer or not.

Wrong call from Puel?

Claude Puel has had a lot to deal with in recent weeks with the Riyad Mahrez saga so deserves some sympathy, but I think he made a tactical blunder at the Etihad on Saturday. Leicester started the game with 5 at the back and though they conceded within the opening few minutes they improved after this and drew level through Jamie Vardy’s 24th minute goal. However with the score at 1-1, Puel chose to change things up in the second half and go to 4 at the back, replacing Danny Simpson with Adrien Silva. Did this work? Well City ran out 5-1 winners with 4 second half goals from Sergio Aguero, so you be the judge!

City have consistently showed this season how dangerous they are in the final third, so I think Leicester would have had a better chance of victory clogging the space at the back and hitting City on the bench or capitalising on errors as Vardy did for his goal. Unfortunately for the Foxes, changing to 4 at the back against them was always going to give players like Aguero and De Bruyne the space to work their magic, and they did exactly that.

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Burnley’s drop in form has resulted in a clear gap between the top 6 and the rest of the league – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

Poor performance

Chris Smalling had an absolute shocker on Sunday against Newcastle. His performance was characterised by missed passes and poor positioning and he was also lucky to not concede a penalty as he brought down Dwight Gayle just inside the box. But by far the worst moment though was his dive.

Centrebacks have often been some of the hardest players on the pitch – just think of Tony Adams or, more recently, Nemanja Vidic – so to see him diving under no contact is embarrassing. And to make things even worse, Newcastle scored the only goal of the game from the resulting free kick! People who regularly read these posts will know how much I hate diving, so I’m sure you can imagine how disgusted I am by his performance. Smalling was one of the few players who seemed to impress under Louis van Gaal, but he has appeared to regress since Mourinho arrived and I think a replacement should be a priority for United this summer, as David de Gea is arguably making this defence look better than it really is.

Round 28 predictions:

Leicester City v Stoke City – Leicester win

AFC Bournemouth v Newcastle United – Draw

Brighton & Hove Albion v Swansea City – Swansea win

Burnley v Southampton – Burnley win

Liverpool v West Ham United – Liverpool win

West Bromwich Albion v Huddersfield Town – Huddersfield win

Watford v Everton – Everton win

Manchester United v Chelsea – United win

Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

Arsenal v Manchester City – City win

Who Can Beat the Patriots?

Who Can Beat the Patriots?

Ahh the Patriots, possibly the greatest team in the history of the league. Every fan has an opinion on them, they are either loved by their fans and considered the greatest of all time or hated and called arrogant, with controversy following them like a bad smell. But regardless of your opinion on them, they are dominating the league and deserved champions.

Obviously I am talking about the Patriots from the Schmoedown, not the New England variety that lost in Super Bowl LII, though as can be seen above, there are certainly some similarities! Despite Jeff “The Insneider” Sneider being “Little Evil” JTE’s fall-back option after being turned down by “Classy” Clarke Wolfe at The Decision, the Patriots have gone on to be the most successful team in the league. Their 8-0 record includes a 17-18 victory over Top 10 to claim the Teams belt and 5 successful title defences against Team Trek, Wolves of Steel (Wolfe & Mark “Yodi” Reilly – who she picked over JTE), Top 10, Modok and Above the Line have seen them hold the belt for over a year now. Though they have not had quite the same success in the singles division, JTE was runner-up in the 2017 Ultimate Schmoedown to current champion Samm Levine and opened the 2018 season with a 2nd place in a #1 Contender Triple Threat match against Mike Kalinowski and Rachel Cushing. Sneider had his own shot in the singles with a #1 Contender match against the commissioner Kristian Harloff at Collider Collision 2017 and it was a loss to teammate JTE that halted Sneider’s progress in the Ultimate Schmoedown, so who knows how far he could have gone.

But it is as a team that they have been so dangerous. They cover for each other so well in matches, whilst JTE is probably one of the most dangerous competitors in a buzzer round – a staple of Title matches. They have come through JTE’s horror 2016 where he was unable to win a singles match and have also continued to dominate despite issues in both competitors personal lives during 2017 – just look at Sneider’s reaction to beating Above the Line and you can see what it meant to him!

So why do so many people root against them? Well to put it bluntly, they are jerks! As part of Tom Dagnino’s Lions Den they play their heel role to perfection, and their unbeaten record and obvious quality in the Schmoedown give them an arrogance that makes them a clear target for any babyface looking to right the wrongs in the league and triumph over evil.

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JTE may not be winning any spelling tournaments, but is one of the best competitors in the Singles and Teams Leagues

Aside from their desire to beat such heels, the Patriot’s belts are clearly a target for any team trying to prove their worth and I’m sure many would love to be the team that hands the Patriots their first ever loss. But who is most likely to dethrone the Patriots?

Top 10 – “The Outlaw” John Rocha & “Mighty” Matt Knost

The obvious team to discuss first as their victory over Top That has earned them a shot at a 3rd match against the Patriots. Top 10 are previous Team Champions having defeated Team Schmoes in October 2016, but they lost the belts to the Patriots at Schmoedown Spectacular and when they competed against them again on July 4th 2017 they were blown out the water. The only remaining members of the Four Horsemen have worked their way back since them and after working their way back and slowly turning face, they made it to the semi-finals of the 2017 Ultimate Schmoedown where they lost to Team Action, only to earn a #1 Contenders match by demolishing Team Action 12-22 in their Stipulation match at Schmoedown Spectacular II.

Rocha is a former Singles Champion having defeated Dan Murrell in 2016 so clearly knows his movie trivia, but as 2017 went on he did appear to lose his focus a little bit as he struggled to figure out if he was a heel or a face. The loss to Team Action appears to have given him a new lease of life to prove himself again and against Top That he was probably the most focused I had ever seen him, going so far as to keep the mask on throughout the match. When I first started watching in 2017, Knost appeared the weak link in the team, but as Rocha began to struggle his performances improved and since the Top 10! Show returned he has been even better, to the point that he and Rocha combined against Top That to have the first ever Perfect Round 1 (including the bonus question) for both team members.

“The second time didn’t happen! The first time was a fluke!” – Matt Knost after defeating Top That

With their focus at an all-time high and the prospect of another meeting against their old enemies, they are out for revenge and I think that it could be third time lucky for Top 10!

Above the Line – “The Godfather” Drew McWeeny & “The Inglorious One” Samm Levine

The first super-team to enter the Schmoedown, the Rookie Team of the Year did not form until after Collider Collision, but ran the gauntlet in the 2017 Ultimate Schmoedown, defeating Nerd’s Watch, DC Movie News, Wolves of Steel and Team Action on their way to setting up a title bout at Schmoedown Spectacular II, where they lost on the final question in Round 3.

Levine is the current Singles Champion and won both Singles & Overall Player of the Year in 2017 and while McWeeny has maybe not gone on to the heights expected in singles competition so far, his partnership with the Inglorious One has been a match made in heaven by Kristian Harloff. Their victory over Wolves of Steel in the semis of the 2017 Ultimate Schmoedown – just their third ever match as a team – saw them set a new record points haul for a Team match with 35 points – a feat recently matched by Top 10 against Top That. If only they’d Remembered the Titans, they would have the singles belts already.

Where they do lack at the moment in experience in the title matches, as they are not used to the buzzer and betting rounds, however with 1 unsuccessful title match under their belt as a team and (at time of writing) 2 singles title matches to Levine’s name, they will be getting more used to the longer format and the extra rounds. Between the 2 of them, they have already shown that the categories many would wish to avoid – 70s, 80s, Movie Release Dates etc. – are arguably strengths and have also already shown that they are not afraid to go away and work on their weaknesses, with Levine’s decision to watch animated movies highlighting the lengths they will go to.

When they get another title shot – and I’m sure they will soon – I think that they have every chance of taking the belts off the Patriots if they still hold them at this point.

Modok – “The Kahuna” Matt Atchity & Grae “Lights Out” Drake

Before Above the Line can get another shot at the title, they first have to come through a #1 Contender match against the next team on the list: Team Modok. Formerly Team Rotten Tomatoes, Atchity and Drake earned their title shot following a victory over Nerd’s Watch at Collider Collision and actually took the Patriots to Sudden Death Overtime, only for JTE to get the winning answer.

However the game wouldn’t have even gone to Overtime if Atchity had paid more attention to the rules of the buzzer round and less to keeping his Russian spy persona intact! There is clearly a deep movie knowledge there and they are fun to watch, but right now I think there are stronger teams out there and I would be surprised to see them take down Above the Line.

Top That – Eric Goldman & Jim Vejvoda

Their 3-2 record following defeat to Top 10 may not stand out, but the team formerly known as Team IGN have been very impressive in the Schmoedown. The have a KO and 2 TKOs to their name and if not for a controversial call in their match against Rotten Tomatoes, it could have very easily been these guys fighting Nerd’s Watch at Collider Collision.

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Could one of these teams be the Patriots’ eventual downfall?

Jim Vejvoda is a competitor the fans can’t wait to see in the Singles League as he doesn’t appear to have many weaknesses, while Eric Goldman also clearly knows his stuff having worked for IGN but really comes into his own with categories like Comic Book Movies. Their losing score of 30 points against Top 10 would be enough to win them most matches by at least TKO!

However as well as they have done, their recent #1 Contender match against Top 10 probably showed a dangerous weakness: they are not regular viewers of the show. They have a general idea of what most competitors will struggle with but not the idea of what an individual’s strengths and weaknesses are, which came back to bite them on the ass big time when Top 10 spun Opponents Choice but were handed Biopics – a Rocha specialty – and answered every question correctly. They also don’t appear to use their challenges and the JTE rule (3 question repeats) as well as other teams, maybe by not watching they don’t fully understand them? If they were to have a better understanding of the game and their competitors I would feel much more comfortable predicting them as a possible team to take down the Patriots, but I currently feel this, combined with their lack of experience in Title matches – I get the feeling they would struggle in the buzzer round – stops them being the heroes that can take down the Patriots.

The Shirewolves – “Classy” Clarke Wolfe & Rachel “The Crusher” Cushing

The team everyone has been hoping for ever since Yodi stepped away from competing and Ken Napzok lost his smile has finally formed! 2 of the most successful females in the league and the last 2 Rookies of the Year, the Shirewolves have plenty of beef with the Lions Den and will be looking to take them down, starting with Ken and Dagnino and hopefully ending with the Patriots.

Wolfe faced the Patriots as part of the Wolves of Steel in their second title defence, and while she hasn’t yet played a title match, Cushing will have likely faced Samm Levine for the Singles title and may even hold the belt by the time the Shirewolves earn a title shot. Having not seem them in a match together yet it is hard to judge, but I have the feeling they will be a formidable opponent.

It will take at least a few months before they have enough wins to take on the Patriots so it is very possible the Team title will have changed hands by then, but if not I think this would be a great match to watch from both a story and competition perspective.

The Wildberries – Eliot “The Mountain” Dewberry & Josh “The Wildman” Macuga

“0-10 is our goal!” – Josh Macuga at the 2017 Awards

Enough said! If the Patriots ever face the Wildberries then it’s because they have already lost the belt.

 Looking to the future?

yodi“But these heels… Don’t make me come out of retirement. Cos I eat heels for breakfast. You saw that.” – Mark Reilly on accepting the Yodi Award at the 2017 Awards

So picture this: Top 10 come up short against the Patriots for the third time in a row. Above the Line dispose of Modok but once again fail in their title match. The Shirewolves demolish Napzok & Dagnino and go on an unbeaten run to a title match, only to fail like everyone before them. On the sidelines, Mark “Yodi” Reilly watches his former teammate Clarke Wolfe miss out on the belt once again and is forced to watch the Lions Den gloat again.

While Dagnino and the Patriots crow at their latest victory in the post-match interview, Yodi crashes the interview and warns them that their time at the top is coming to an end, because he’s coming back with the sole purpose of taking them down. A team match is arranged for Yodi’s return, but nobody seems to know who his teammate will be. The match arrives and Reilly walks out alone, takes the mic and introduces his new teammate – former Singles Champion Dan Murrell. Team Champs are back! These 2 guys were teammates for the 2015 Ultimate Schmoedown and Murrell is a former member of the Lions Den and I’m sure he would relish an opportunity to cut his old faction down to size.

Like the Shirewolves before them, they beat all comers, taking down a few heels on the way to the Patriots. Would they be able to beat the Patriots? I can’t guarantee that but I’m sure it will be a match for the ages!

 

Do you think any of these teams will beat the Patriots? Do you think there’s another existing team that could beat them? Kristian Harloff has already teased that we will see more super-teams in 2018, so perhaps the team that ends the Patriots’ reign hasn’t even formed yet.

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 2

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 2

The Grand Slam dream is over for Wales in 2018 as they leave Twickenham with a losing bonus point following a tight, enthralling and controversial encounter. Following their victory against the Italians, Ireland and England are the only teams still able to go unbeaten but they cannot start eying up their Round 5 showdown yet as they each have 2 more games to win first. Meanwhile Scotland got their 6 Nations back on track with a win against the French, who currently join Italy as the only winless teams after 2 rounds.

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Ireland 56-19 Italy

I wonder how Ireland will react to the loss of Robbie Henshaw, who will likely be out of the tournament with a shoulder injury. Though I was not sure about the balance of the midfield in Round 1, I thought he and Aki were starting to work better and rebuild on their chemistry from Henshaw’s Connacht days. With Henshaw out, they have a couple of ways that they could replace him against Wales:

  • Dual Playmakers – take a leaf out of England’s book and copy the Ford/Farrell axis by playing either Ian Keatley or Joey Carbery in the centre. This would improve the distribution options in the backline and as it is something that Ireland have not really done recently, the extra playmaker may help to catch out a Wales team expecting 2 physical centres.
  • Safe options – bring in either Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell or Fergus McFadden as Aki’s centre partner. This would allow the Irish to continue with the same sort of gameplan, and while Farrell and Scannell are in the squad as centres, McFadden’s international experience (he has 33 caps compared to the combined 19 caps combined for the 4 players mentioned as options so far) could give him the advantage, though Farrell’s physicality could be crucial against Wales’ strong midfield.
  • The returner – Garry Ringrose is close to a return from injury and if everyone was available and fully fit he would probably be the 13 of choice. However I see this as an outside bet as coming into a clash against Wales is a big ask for someone who has just returned from injury. I think Joe Schmidt would do better in the long term allowing him to ease himself back in during the tournament with Leinster.
  • The switch – as well as just being a damn good winger for Munster and Ireland, one of Keith Earls’ best features is his versatility as he is comfortable at either wing or centre. Earls moved into the 13 position following Henshaw’s injury and while the defensive organisation did drop off a bit, 2 weeks of preparation would likely see to this. This could lead to a start for either Andrew Conway (who was man of the match against Fiji in the Autumn Tests) or the exciting Jordan Larmour, whose footwork against Italy was one of the highlights of the match. An improving Welsh team would be a big step up in quality for Larmour’s second cap, but the thought of him and Steff Evans attacking each other all day is mouth-watering.

I think that either McFadden or Farrell are the more likely options for Joe Schmidt, but it will be very interesting to see what the Kiwi chooses to do.

As with most Italy matches at the moment, there are clearly positives to take – they scored 3 tries against a team ranked in the top 4 in the world – but again there were negatives and clear areas to work on. The defence was bamboozled by some of the attacking lines from England in Round 1, but this week they were leaking some very disappointing tries. Obviously it is hard to defend effectively against interceptions like for Jacob Stockdale’s try and Robbie Henshaw’s second, but Henshaw’s first and Bundee Aki’s try were far too easy as they crashed over from close range taking the ball direct from Conor Murray on out-to-in lines. The defence was too busy looking inside and watching the ball rather than picking up the runners and that will prove costly against teams at this level. Scotland scored a similar try against France this weekend through Huw Jones, so I am sure they will be making notes on this Italian weakness ahead of their Round 5 fixture.

England 12-6 Wales

Whether at 10 or 12, you can always rely on Owen Farrell to put in a huge performance for England. Against Wales, Farrell was part of a miserly defence and shut down a number of attacks with well-timed tackles to cause knock-ons and also brought an end to Shingler’s attack and popped up with a key turnover deep in his own half to stop another Welsh advance. With ball in hand, he controlled the game so well, from his kick to set up Jonny May’s opener that got better every time you saw it, to his command of the phases in the build-up to May’s second and his willingness to take the big hit from Ross Moriarty as he floated the ball out to Joe Launchbury. It wasn’t just Farrell who controlled the game well, as George Ford pulled the strings well inside him while Danny Care looks to have really improved his box kicks and made almost all of them contestable for the chasers. Steff Evans is not the best in the air and Anthony Watson rightly dominated the air on that wing, while Jonny May also had some luck in the air on the left wing. England’s kicking game combined with their resolute defence won them the game and deserves a lot of credit. When even your Welsh mate is saying that, you know how well they’ve done!

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Things are levelling out between the teams in the fantasy league, feel free to join with the league code 1323867-57794

Looking at the game as a whole, England probably deserved the win, but Wales could have very easily come away with the victory. They chose to kick a couple of penalties to the corner rather than go for goal and combined with Rhys Patchell’s miss, this could have been enough to put the scoreboard in their favour. They also created some great chances, with the tackle of the tournament from Sam Underhill the only reason Scott Williams didn’t get a try, while a questionable decision to kick from Aaron Shingler stopped another attack. And then of course there’s that TMO decision. The TMO decided that the try should not stand as though Steff Evans played the ball with his knee rather than his hand, Gareth Anscombe did not clearly ground the ball. Wrong on both parts! Anscombe clearly grounded the ball but actually Scrum V proved that the ball did in fact go forward off Evans’ finger. So the TMO got the right decision for the wrong reasons, though I would argue if we look at clear and obvious evidence then the try should be awarded – and that’s coming from an England fan! To lose a goal kicker as accomplished as Leigh Halfpenny so close to the match, it was always going to make things more difficult for Wales but the team stepped up well and came so close to a huge win at Twickenham. What they really need to work on though is their kicking game, as Gareth Davies continually kicked too long which made it easy for Mike Brown to win the high ball. They are so close to getting the results despite the number of players missing, Ireland will have to be very careful in Round 3.

Scotland 32-26 France

Gregor Townsend made a very brave call by replacing Finn Russell midway through the second half and moving Greig Laidlaw to fly half. Laidlaw started his Scotland career at 10 and played there on occasions for Gloucester, but he has very much become a 9, yet his performance after being shifted from 9 to 10 was exactly what Scotland needed. The Glasgow centre partnership of Peter Horne and Huw Jones looked much better than last week and the back row had a much better balance, but despite this, Russell struggled for the second week in a row, misjudging a number of kicks from hand and giving the French easy territory – though he did not seem disappointed whenever they showed him following a poor kick. He was also at fault for the first France try as he allowed Teddy Thomas to beat him to the outside 1v1 then fell off with a weak tackle attempt. Laidlaw controlled the game so well from 9 and 10 and was perfect off the tee, while Russell’s removal allowed Stuart Hogg’s monster boot to earn Scotland the territory whenever the French gave away a penalty outside Laidlaw’s range.

In the early scrums it looked like France were going to give the Scots a torrid time as the French front row got an early advantage over their less experience rivals, however they failed to capitalise on this and gain dominance at the set piece, while they continued in the same vein as last week by giving away a high number of penalties, especially as the half went on. Without the pressure of kicking, Lionel Beauxis had on the whole a good afternoon, however a few times when he was put under pressure we saw flashes of the fly half who once tried – and failed – to kick a ball passed to him on the volley, as he flicked on an awful pass to his captain and also put fullback Geoffrey Palis under heaps of pressure when he slipped a pass to him rather than clear under pressure on their own try line. Baptiste Serin and Louis Picamoles both looked assured from the bench and I will be interested to see if these performances help them get a starting spot for the game against Italy, but right now the French attacks are far too infrequent and they do not have the fitness to make it through the full 80 minutes. Their fixture with Italy on the 23rd is really looking like the battle for the wooden spoon. Right now, I would predict a French victory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Italians pulled off the win.

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The match between France and Italy decide the wooden spoon

Fantasy rugby images are from the ESPN Fantasy Rugby website: http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk

6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 26

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 26

Another bad week for Antonio Conte! Chelsea’s 4-1 loss at Watford on Monday night meant that the Blues dropped back behind Liverpool in the standings, whilst Tottenham – who drew 2-2 at Anfield – are now only a point outside the top 4. Arsenal sent out a signal of intent following their big January signings by demolishing Everton 5-1, and they now sit only 5 points outside the top 4, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang already contributing for the Gunners. Swansea’s resurgence under Carlos Carvalhal has seen them rise out of the relegation zone at the expense of Huddersfield, whose winless run continues following a 2-0 loss at Manchester United.

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City’s draw at Burnley means they have dropped 5 points in their last 4 league games, they had only dropped 4 points in the preceding 22 games – From http://www.premierleague.com

Role models?

In all the hysteria surrounding the final minutes of Liverpool’s draw with Spurs, what has not been discussed much is Dele Alli’s yellow card for diving… again! This is his third yellow card for diving since his Premier League debut in 2015 and for a player of his undeniable quality he doesn’t need to do this! Now I have made my feelings clear previously that the FA’s ability to retrospectively ban diving is a step in the right direction, but to stamp diving out the game they need to be able to ban players for diving regardless of whether the ref is fooled or not.

Troy Deeney has also got himself in the headlines for the wrong reason this week after his middle-finger gesture in his goal celebration against Chelsea. Deeney has already been suspended twice this season for red cards including a violent conduct charge for a clash with Joe Allen but has avoided punishment for this transgression despite Alli receiving a 1-match suspension earlier this season for a gesture of his own. How Deeney has got away with this is beyond me!

But my biggest issue here is that both these players are role models to youngsters! As if them being Premier League footballers wasn’t enough, Deeney is his club’s captain while Alli is an England international. I understand that players can make mistakes but both are making them repeatedly and I would not want to be a parent and seeing my child idolise either of these guys at the moment.

Don’t get shirty

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Newcastle on Sunday. After a taking a lead through Mohamed Diamé, they were denied the 3 points at Crystal Palace by a 55th minute penalty for Ciaran Clark pulling on Christian Benteke’s shirt.

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Just one result can completely change the position of a team in the lower half of the table – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

When I say I feel sorry for Newcastle, I should clarify – I 100% agree that the incident was a foul and deserving of a penalty, but these are never called by officials! This happens in the box at every set piece and if you call every single one then the games get into double digits for penalties. Players don’t know what they can and can’t get away with as there have been much more impactful shirt pulls that have gone unpunished previously.

I see 2 options: this needs to always be penalised or never be penalised. In my opinion the former is a better option. We may get a couple of weeks with a ridiculously high number of penalties, but most players will adapt and stop giving away these fouls or they won’t get picked by their managers. Surely a couple of weeks of penalties is worth it for a cleaner game.

No defence for this

Stoke’s early improvement under Paul Lambert stalled at the weekend with a 2-1 loss at Bournemouth. While Stoke are clearly starting to improve, their defence is still suspect and cost them at the weekend. Bournemouth’s first goal was at best a comedy of errors and at worst a shambles at the back, while Lys Mousset had a free header for the winning goal. I feel sorry for Jack Butland, who has not played poorly on the whole this season but has had so little help from his defence. With Joe Hart out of favour at West Ham, he should have been pushing for the England number 1 shirt, but the fact that he is part of a team with the worst defensive record in the league will surely harm his chances and possibly his confidence too. If Stoke do go down this year – I think they will be safe but with it so close in the table it is too tough to call – then it will be down mainly to defence rather than the guys up front.

Round 27 predictions:

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal – Draw

Everton v Crystal Palace – Everton win

Stoke City v Brighton & Hove Albion – Draw

Swansea City v Burnley – Burnley win

West Ham United v Watford – Watford win

Manchester City v Leicester City – Man City win

Huddersfield Town v AFC Bournemouth – Draw

Newcastle United v Manchester United – Man United win

Liverpool A Southampton v Liverpool – Liverpool win

Chelsea v West Bromwich Albion – Chelsea win

Super Bowl LII: Moments that made the Eagles Fly

Super Bowl LII: Moments that made the Eagles Fly

The 52nd Super Bowl was a fantastic show of offensive ability with a record 1151 yards made from scrimmage over the 60 minutes. After a thrilling encounter, the Eagles came away with a 41-33 victory to lift the Vince Lombardi trophy for the first time in the franchise’s history.

Well it was a fantastic game, the amount of sport from this weekend that I already planned to write about and my inability to stay awake throughout meant that I was not going to write about the game, until my cousin decided to be helpful on twitter and promote an article that I wasn’t doing…

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Thanks Lucy!

Luckily though, I had the match recorded and the tweet had given me some inspiration so I watched the game back and the rest, as they say, is history!

In some sporting events, there is clearly one moment that decides the result of a game. A missed kick, a costly penalty, a Hail Mary. This game went so back and forth, the Pats were able to stay in it right to the last and were not far from taking the game to overtime. So with this in mind, I wanted to look at some of the moments that won Philadelphia their first ever Super Bowl. By this I do not necessarily mean the touchdowns and successful kicks – though some of these will certainly feature – but rather events that will have had an impact on who had the momentum and the way the game panned out.

Pre-game – Malcolm Butler was the hero of Super Bowl XLIX with his late interception of Russell Wilson and has developed into a dependable cornerback who has started all but 1 regular season game for the Patriots this season. Yet a decision was made at the eleventh hour to hold him out of the defense and only play him on special teams. It is not currently clear the exact reasons for his drop, but there have been mentions of poor practices following an illness early in the week and also a violation of team rules. To drop a starting defensive back at the last moment against a receiving corps that includes Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz is a dangerous move and will have surely put the Patriots at a disadvantage.

1st Quarter, 4:25 remaining, 3rd & 4 – With the Eagles settling for a field goal on the opening drive, Tom Brady drives the Pats the length of the field but his 3rd down pass to Rob Gronkowski in the end zone is deflected away by Jalen Mills and the Patriots are forced to kick a field goal to level the game at 3-3. Though it was well defended by Mills, Gronk should be a matchup nightmare but the pass made it too easy for the cornerback. This was systematic of the Brady-Gronkowski link in the first half as they only combined for a single 9-yard catch.

1st Quarter, 2:41 remaining, 1st & 10 – Following a 36-yard rush from former Patriot LeGarrette Blount, Nick Foles connects with Alshon Jeffery for a 34-yard touchdown. The field goal was missed, leaving the Eagles with a 9-3 lead. The coverage from the Patriots was not poor, but Jeffery is a large receiver that specialises in this kind of play. Whether it was caused by the late withdrawal of Butler, but it is odd that the Pats did not line up Stephon Gilmore against him considering he is usually the man to match up against the big-bodied receivers. When the Pats defense later adjusted to have Gilmore follow Jeffery, his effectiveness in the Philly passing game was reduced.

2nd Quarter, 15:00 remaining, 3rd & 2 – The Patriots again got in the Philly red zone but failed to convert the chance into a touchdown. A sweep play to Brandin Cooks was well blocked on the right, leaving the receiver with a 1v1 against safety Rodney McLeod to earn 1st & Goal. Rather than trying to step around McLeod, Cooks saw him begin to duck into the tackle so attempted a hurdle, but McLeod reacted quick enough to stop him making the necessary yards in what ended up being a bizarre looking play. New England were forced to attempt a field goal but a fumbled hold put Stephen Gostkowski off and he kicked wide, leaving the Eagles with a 9-3 lead.

2nd Quarter, 13:11 remaining, 1st & 10 – Tom Brady connects with Brandin Cooks for a first down, however he is blindsided by Malcolm Jenkins while trying to gain extra yards and left the game with a head injury. He did not return to the pitch. The hit was completely legal, but unfortunately there was a helmet-to-helmet clash in the collision that Cooks – who had been looking the other way when hit – came off worst from. This was a big loss for New England as Cooks was their downfield playmaker, so the offensive capability was reduced for the rest of the game.

2nd Quarter, 12:04 remaining, 3rd & 5 – The Patriots decided to go for a trick play on 3rd down and it so nearly worked! Brady handed off to James White and looked to get out of the way of the defense, but when White reversed the play to Danny Amendola, Brady was in space on the right and ready to make the first down. Unfortunately for the Pats, Brady may be an elite quarterback but he is not an elite wide receiver and he was unable to make the catch over his shoulder on the run. While a trick play was a great idea, Brady is still recovering from a hand injury that almost ended his season early and is not the most athletic of quarterbacks, so the decision to use him as a receiver here was an odd one. The Pats then decided to go for it on 4th down but were unable to convert and turned the ball over on the Eagles 35 yard line still 9-3 down.

2nd Quarter, 0:38 remaining, 4th & Goal – With Eagles 15-12 up and less than 2 yards away from the end zone, they decided to take a risk and make a trick play of their own. With Foles up at the line of scrimmage pretending to call an audible, the ball was snapped direct to Corey Clement who ran left and reversed to Trey Burton, who threw a pass to none other than Nick Foles, who had a simple catch for a touchdown! As well as an incredibly ballsy play, the fact the Eagles scored with a receiving touchdown for their quarterback must have been incredibly satisfying following Brady’s early drop. The successful conversion gave the Eagles a 22-12 lead going into halftime, and the morale boost may have proved vital considering the Pats came out swinging in the 3rd quarter.

3rd Quarter, 7:24 remaining, 3rd & 6 – Nick Foles scores with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Corey Clement, which is then converted for a 29-19 lead. In my mind, this is the most contentious play of the game as watching the replays I feel that Clement did not have enough control to have been classed as completing the catch before stepping out the back of the end zone. The officials had so many looks at this, but I feel that the decision on Sunday flies against other similar plays during the regular season. Considering the Pats end up needing a touchdown and 2-point conversion on their final drive, the decision to award the touchdown here rather than call an incomplete pass as leave Philly settling for a field goal has a huge impact on the remainder of the game. One thing for sure, the catch rule needs looking at before next season!

4th Quarter, 5:38 remaining, 4th & 1 – Nick Foles completes a 2-yard pass to Zach Ertz to keep the chains moving. While the Pats offense failed to convert many of their big plays, their defense allowed too many vital plays from the Eagles and could not get off the field. At this point in the game, the Pats led 32-33 and their offense was performing much better. Had they turned the ball over on downs here, I am sure they would have put at least 3 points on the board while using up as much time as possible, leaving Philly with a hard task to pull off the win.

4th Quarter, 2:25 remaining, 3rd & 7 – Foles connects with Ertz again on another vital play for an 11-yard touchdown. The play is reviewed a number of times due to the ball coming out as Ertz dives for the line and hits the ground, but in my view he was clearly a runner by that point so just had to cross the plane of the line. This put the Eagles back ahead 38-33 following a failed 2-point conversion, a lead that they would not relinquish.

4th Quarter, 2:16 remaining, 2nd & 2 – With the Patriots needing a touchdown to win, Tom Brady is sacked by Brandon Graham and fumbles. Eagles defensive lineman Derek Barnett recovers. This is the only sack of the entire game! The Eagles score a field gone from the ensuing drive and leave the Patriots with about a minute to go the length of the field, score a touchdown and a 2-point conversion.

The final play – The Patriots manage to drive into range to legitimately attempt a Hail Mary to the end zone. Rob Gronkowski goes up in coverage but is unable to collect the ball, which bobbles around a bit but hits the ground before any Patriots player can collect it. The game ends with the Philadelphia Eagles victorious.