Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

The 6 Nations finally kicked off in shocking fashion on Saturday in exciting fashion as Wales and Scotland both tried to emulate the style of their most competitive teams of the moment (the Scarlets & Glasgow). While it worked for Wales, an error-strewn performance from the Scots saw them come crashing back down to earth after a fantastic Autumn series. In France, controversy was the word of the day with a few questionable calls from medical ‘professionals’ but karma proved a bitch for Les Bleus as Johnny Sexton nailed a 45m drop goal on the final play to earn the Irish the win. On Sunday a relatively inexperienced Italian team recovered from 2 early Anthony Watson tries to stick close to England until late in the game when 3 tries in the last 12 minutes gave the scoreline a more one-sided feel.

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Wales 34-7 Scotland

This Welsh performance was probably the most beautiful I have seen them play in years! With so many players out injured, Josh Adams was the only non-Scarlet in the starting back line, while half of the initial pack also play for the Pro12 champions. This Scarlets presence was clear in the way they played with open attacking rugby rather than the Warrenball tactics we have become used to. Leigh Halfpenny has been much maligned in recent years as not bringing enough to the attack, but contributed 2 tries as well as 14 points with the boot, while Stef Evans – who did not have the best of Autumns with Wales – finished wonderfully to earn the bonus point and would have scored a contender for try of the tournament much earlier in the game had the offload from Alun Wyn Jones been better. The midfield trio of Patchell, Parkes and Williams looked incredible both in attack and defence, while Adams looked at home on the wing in his Test debut. In the back row, Josh Navidi and man of the match Aaron Shingler were spectacular and outplayed their opposite numbers. A cynical part of me can’t help but wonder how much of the different style is due to Gatland & Howley compared to the Scarlets contingent playing their natural game and the rest of the team joining in. 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.

Scotland’s inaccuracy was their undoing at the Principality Stadium. The intent to play good attacking rugby was there but too often the ball was going to floor. While the main focus of the talk on Scotland’s injuries was towards the front row, they were also missing defensive linchpin Alex Dunbar, while other regulars at centre over recent years Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor and Matt Scott were all unavailable or not selected having recently recovered from injuries. Huw Jones’ centre partner for this match Chris Harris had only 21 minutes of international rugby against Samoa under his belt and the lack of chemistry showed, while Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg failed to have much of a positive influence on the game. Meanwhile, captain John Barclay was outplayed by his Welsh rivals and failed to adapt to the way the ruck was being refereed and was penalised multiple times for clearly putting his hands on the floor beyond the ball and bringing himself back. A player of his experience should know that it is illegal and change what he’s doing the moment the referee pings him.

France 13-15 Ireland

Remind me never to go to a French doctor. In France’s last 6 Nations game, they abused the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocols to get a competitive advantage in the scrums, leading to them scoring the winning try. After all the furore from fans, there was no way they would try that again in their very next match in the competition, right? Right? Wrong! Debutante Matthieu Jalibert went down just before half time following a collising of knees with Bundee Aki. It was clear that the physio attending to him was giving all his attention to the fly half’s knee, yet when he limped off it was announced that his removal had gone down as a HIA, meaning that as long as he passed that (there was nothing in the replays to suggest he took a knock to the head) he would be able to return to the pitch. It looked like a less-than-sneaky attempt to give Jalibert a chance to walk off the knock and continue. And then with just minutes left in the game and the score at 13-12, it got even worse! Replacement scrum half Antoine Dupont came away from the back of a French scrum but suddenly went down without any contact. Again the physio’s looked at the knee while the call comes to Nigel Owens that the match doctor has called a HIA. Had Dupont been going off injured, then France would have seen out the game without a specialist scrum half, yet the call for a HIA allowed Maxime Machenaud to come back on. Listening over the ref’s mike I got the feeling that Owens didn’t believe what he was being told but he had no choice. This is disgusting cheating from the French 3 times in their last 2 games! The investigation after the 2017 incident found the French at fault but things were very much swept under the carpet, there is no way that can happen again. As I am writing this I have read that Dupont is out with a torn ACL while Jalibert is also out for about a month with a knee injury. Nothing to suggest either of them is suffering from concussion or any other head injury. If France are found guilty of such abuse of a system in place for player welfare they should be thrown out of the tournament! At least that way we can get Georgia into the tournament.

6n fan
I’ve taken an early lead in the Eyes on the Ball Championship, feel free to join with the league code 1323867-57794

It will be interesting to see how other teams fare against the French, but on the whole I was not impressed by Ireland’s performance. Despite having 68% possession and territory, they did not manage a single clean break according to ESPN’s stats. The French gave away so many penalties and yet they were not clinical enough and clearly preferred to take 3 points rather than go in search of a try. In my tournament preview I said that I don’t think there will be a Grand Slam this year, in which case bonus points could prove crucial. If Ireland continue to rely on the boot of Johnny Sexton rather than getting tries, I can see them falling short against someone and losing the title due to a lack of bonus points.

Italy 15-46 England

Considering how inexperienced many of the squad were and the quality of players missing, I was impressed by how well Italy stuck in the game against England following Watson’s early brace. Tommaso Boni at 13 was especially impressive and I would be interested to see if he could play beside Michele Campagnaro when he recovers from injury. What is great to see is that like the Italian Pro14 teams, the national team is improving, but they are not yet the finished article. Former Hartpury flanker Seb Negri made ground but very few others did on a regular basis and again I feel adding Jake Polledri to the 23 would make them more dangerous. They also need to find a way to improve in the front row. With props like Andrea Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni, the Italian scrum used to be one of the most feared in the tournament but in recent years it has become an area that teams can attack to win penalties. The Italians need to improve here to get the backs more front-foot ball and better field position.

No offence to Anthony Watson, but I do not agree with the decision to award him man of the match. Other than his 2 tries – the first of which especially was a relatively simple run in – he did very little else to impact the game. Sam Simmonds, on the other hand scored a brace of his own and provided the assist for Jack Nowell with a perfectly executed draw and pass. He finished the game with 75 metres off 13 carries. Per ESPN’s stats, he also finished top of all players in the game for clean breaks (3), defenders beaten (6) and tackles made (22 – 7 more than his closest competitor Chris Robshaw). His pace provides something different at 8 to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes and even when one of them is back, I think he is doing enough to suggest that he deserves a spot on one of the flanks.

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Wales’ trip to Twickenham will be the pick of Round 2… which I will be watching deep in enemy territory

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 25

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 25

It was goals galore in most matches of Round 25, with Stoke’s 0-0 draw against Watford the only game not to include at least 2 goals. Before I go any further I need to apologise to my friend Chris, who is a Spurs supporter. When I was predicting this week’s results on my last roundup, I was so tempted to predict a Spurs win against United but I saw them coming up short and failing to capitalise on home advantage against another rival. How wrong I was as Christian Eriksen’s goal after just 11 seconds put them on their way to a deserved 2-0 victory.

Elsewhere Bournemouth shocked Chelsea with a 0-3 victory at Stamford Bridge and Swansea continued their revival with a 3-1 victory over Arsenal, while Liverpool got back to winning ways with 3 goals at Huddersfield.

In other news, the January transfer window closed with Premier League clubs having spent a record £150 million on deadline day and a 3-way deal taking place between Arsenal, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund. But more on that later.

Before we get into the big stuff, a quick shoot-out to Southampton defender Jack Stephens who scored their equaliser against Brighton with a lovely backheel – if Messi did that we’d be raving about it for weeks!

Top refereeing

People are always quick to criticise referees and their assistants when they make a mistake – I myself have mentioned a number of errors this season as examples for why more technology is needed in the sport – but it is much less frequent that a ref gets praised for his actions. But watching Manchester City’s 3-0 victory over West Brom, I saw a moment of refereeing from Robert Madley that deserves much more attention and praise.

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Chelsea’s loss was great news for Liverpool and Spurs in the race for the Champions League – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

With the score at 1-0, City began an attack from halfway through Kevin de Bruyne. Knowing the danger that West Brom were in, Baggies winger James McClean chose to dive in and bring down the Belgian with no attempt to get the ball. A cynical foul that will clearly result in a yellow card, but also bring a halt to the game and allow the defence to organise. His challenge failed to bring down de Bruyne, though he was clearly impeded and I don’t think anyone would have blamed Madley for blowing the whistle and awarding a free kick, however seeing de Bruyne managing to keep his feet, he chose to hold his arms out for advantage. City used this advantage to continue into the box and through a lovely combination down the left, which was finished by de Bruyne putting the ball in the back of the West Brom net. While City’s players and fans celebrated, Madley found McClean and gave him a deserved yellow card.

I feel that this was great refereeing and use of the advantage by Madley. Many would likely have blown for the foul immediately and watched the resultant free kick come to nothing against a reorganised defence, however to play advantage gave City the chance they deserved and (as usual this season) they took it. To book McClean as well also ensured that he was given the punishment that he deserved for his actions.

It is not always easy to see in a split second whether there is an advantage or not. When a referee gets it right like Madley did, he deserves to get recognition for his actions.

Bad business

I really feel for Newcastle fans. They are a club with a long history of success and their fan base has stayed loyal even through their struggles in the Premier League and their previous relegations. They also have arguably one of the better managers in the league in Rafa Benitez, but are sadly missing the most important part: a squad capable enough of winning in the top flight.

The majority of Newcastle’s players this season are part of the squad that played in the Championship last year, but despite impressive players like Jamaal Lascelles and players like Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie who have Premier League experience, this is not a squad that can expect to be challenging any higher than mid-table. To make things even worse for them, the difference between mid-table and relegation is minimal this season, with only 5 points separating 10th placed Bournemouth and 19th placed Swansea. Newcastle drastically needed signings in January in order to stay up.

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Spurs; win over United was in front of a Premier League record crowd, a benefit to playing at Wembley this season – From http://www.premierleague.com

The problem though, is that Mike Ashley does not like to put his hand in his pocket. At all. To him, Newcastle United is a business and he is doing very well in that regard, but the fans need and deserve results and a financial input that he is just not willing to give. The takeover that was giving fans hope fell through in December and rather than seeing the club compete for long-term signings, the fans once again had to settle for 3 short-term loans, namely Kenedy, Islam Slimani and Sparta Prague keeper Martin Dubravka.

Newcastle’s issues have not been so much at the back – only Brighton and West Brom have conceded less goals out of the teams in the bottom half of the table – but up front, where they have struggled to find the back of the net. Is Slimani going to help here? He has not really impressed at Leicester so the immediate signs are not good. The only one of the 3 loan signings that currently looks promising for the Magpies is that of Kenedy, who looked impressive on his debut against Burnley and won the penalty that Joselu (unsurprisingly) failed to score. Ashley needs to sell the club soon to someone who cares, or Newcastle will find themselves back in the Championship, while Benitez will choose to move on to a club that will allow him to bring in the players he wants.

Transfer talk

Their results and league position may not be ideal, but I would say that Arsenal have had a great time in the transfer market. They were already resigned to losing Alexis Sanchez (who was out of contract in the summer) but managed to offload him while bringing in a player with the potential to star in this team as a direct replacement. They also offloaded Olivier Giroud who was clearly not seen as a starter this season despite a record of 4 goals in 16 league appearances mainly off the bench, while bringing in the highly rated Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and also securing Mesut Özil to a new contract. Combined with the signing of Alexandre Lacazette in the summer, the Gunners are putting together a formidable team, but they are suspect at the back and this will likely stop them from getting Champions League football again next season. I expect to see them looking to strengthen their defence in the summer.

Continuing the 3-way swap, Chelsea upgraded their striking options for a steal at a reported £18m, while managing to offload Michy Batshuayi to Dortmund on loan. This a great signing for Chelsea as Giroud is a striker with enough quality to start and will surely push Alvaro Morata when he is fit, whereas Batshuayi was clearly not high in Antonio Conte’s thinking due to the number of times Eden Hazard was deployed as a false 9. As good as Hazard is, that is not something that will work on a regular basis, so to sign a proven goal scorer with years of Premier League experience will help them so much.

For Everton, Theo Walcott looks revitalised following his move from Arsenal and with Seamus Coleman returning from injury, they could form a deadly partnership down the right flank. Sticking with wingers and Watford’s signing of Gerard Deulofeu on loan from Barcelona is another astute signing as he has undoubted talent and experience in the league.

It will be interesting to see how much Riyad Mahrez features for Leicester over the next few weeks. The Algerian wanted to leave in the summer and handed in a transfer request on Tuesday amid speculation that Manchester City were interested, but the Sky Blues were unwilling to meet Leicester’s valuation having just shelled out £57m for Aymeric Laporte, who on early evidence may finally be a centreback worth the price tag (as far as anyone is worth millions of pounds). Mahrez did not feature this week against Everton and I can’t help but wonder how much his heart will be in it over the next few months. He will surely move in the summer so it would not surprise me if Claude Puel limits his game time going forward and uses it as a chance to start developing other players as replacements for him.

Round 26 predictions:

Burnley v Manchester City – City win

AFC Bournemouth v Stoke City – Draw

Brighton & Hove Albion v West Ham United – Draw

Leicester City v Swansea City – Draw

Manchester United v Huddersfield Town – United win

West Bromwich Albion v Southampton – Draw

Arsenal v Everton – Arsenal win

Crystal Palace v Newcastle United – Draw

Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur – Liverpool win

Watford v Chelsea – Chelsea win