Uncapped XV

Uncapped XV

With a number of players missing at least part of the 6 Nations due to injury, this tournament was a chance for a number of players to make not just their tournament debuts, but also win their first caps. Matthieu Jalibert was unable to take much of his chance following an injury in his first half of senior international rugby, but other players like Jordan Larmour, James Davies and Jake Polledri really shone when given their chances. With the World Cup on the horizon early next season, a number of other players have also made their international debuts in the last Autumn and Summer Test windows – such as 2018 6 Nations Player of the Championship Jacob Stockdale, who made his Ireland debut in June 2017.

Thinking of all the players who have impressed after making recent debuts, I started thinking of the players who haven’t even got caps to their name that could impress if given the chance. This list will be a combination of young players who likely have long international careers ahead of them and other players whose chance of getting capped is likely all but gone. As you read you’ll probably notice a slight bias towards players based in the UK, especially Premiership-based players. I have tried to be as fair as possible, but as the Premiership and Pro14 are the leagues I know best there are bound to be players I have missed – especially at less glamorous positions like the tight five – so feel free to let me know if you think I’ve missed someone.

Loosehead prop – Beno Obano: Obano could quite possibly have been capped at the start of this year’s 6 Nations tournament due to Ellis Genge’s injury and Joe Marler’s suspension, but was unfortunate to get injured himself in the build-up. A strong carrier and tackler, the 23-year old cousin of Maro Itoje is developing into a key player for Bath and will likely be challenging for a spot in the England squad after the World Cup. Honourable mentions: Thomas du Toit, Ox Nché

Hooker – Asafo Aumua: Aumua has the distinction of playing for the All Blacks twice before even making an appearance in Super Rugby, but is still eligible for this list due to the games being uncapped matches against the Barbarians and a French XV. Aumua’s pick here comes from the incredible talent he showed during the U20s World Championship on the way to winning the title. His record with the Baby Blacks stands at 7 tries from 14 games, incredible figures for any layer, let alone a hooker. His ability in the open is what really draws the eye and similar to Dane Coles his pace is going to be a real weapon that will catch opposition players out. Honourable mentions: Tom Dunn, Santiago Socino

Tighthead prop – D’Arcy Rae: Another player who almost made his debut in this 6 Nations due to players in front of him being absent, Glasgow prop Rae made 18 appearances for the Scotland U20s including 2 World Championships and 2 6 Nations tournaments. The lack of Scottish Pro14 sides may be limiting his chances of getting capped in the near future, but he is someone to watch out for after the World Cup, especially considering WP Nel is 31 years old and has missed a number of internationals over the last couple of years. Honourable mention: Nicky Thomas

Second rows: Tadhg Beirne & Matt Garvey: I will be shocked if Beirne remains on this list much longer. He has excelled for Scarlets in recent years and has signed for Munster on a 2-year deal. He is able to play in the back row as well but is definitely at his best in the second row and I can see him striking up a dangerous partnership alongside Iain Henderson in the middle of the Irish scrum. At 30 years old, I will be shocked if Garvey gets capped, but he is an extremely reliable lock who can also play flanker. He has good leadership experience and his physicality is a big part of the Bath team. Unfortunately for him, second row is one of the deepest positions in the England squad, with the current crop all younger than him, so it would likely take a monstrous injury list to see him wear the rose. Honourable mention: James Gaskell

Blindside flanker – Akira Ioane: Reiko Ioane is firmly entrenched in the All Blacks squad now and I think it is a matter of time before his brother Akira joins him in the black shirt. The flanker has started the season so well for the Blues and is one of the leading try scorers with 5 from 4 games. Vaea Fifita has impressed for the All Blacks recently, if he and Ioane push each other to be the best they can, I feel sorry for their opposite number! Honourable mention: Brad Shields, Lewis Ludlow

Openside flanker – Kwagga Smith: a superstar on the 7s circuit, Kwagga Smith has been an increasing part of the Lions’ success over recent years. With Commonwealth gold and Olympic bronze medals to his name, his pace and elusiveness is something different to the classic behemoths that are often seen representing the Springboks. Playing for the Barbarians against the all Blacks at the start of November, Smith was one of the best players on the pitch. Hopefully with Rassie Erasmus taking over from Allister Coetzee we will soon see Smith starring for South Africa. Honourable mention: Luke Wallace, Mike Williams

Number 8 – Zach Mercer: Regular readers will already know that I am a massive fan of Zach Mercer. He is such a good technical player and makes up for his lack of bulk with good footwork and handling skills. He has been a superstar for the U20s and for Bath over the last couple of years and has already been involved in the England squad, first as an apprentice player and then as a regular squad member following injuries to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes. Unfortunately, illness robbed him of the chance to make his debut against Italy, but I expect him to become a regular in the England squad after the World Cup, if not beforehand. Honourable mention: Ruan Ackermann

Scrum half – Dan Robson: I don’t know how Robson has gone so long and not been capped by England! A star for Gloucester and more recently Wasps, the scrum half has featured for the Saxons and attended some England camps, but has generally fallen foul of Eddie Jones’ policy to only name 2 halfbacks in the England squad. His attacking play is outstanding and he also controls the game so well, hopefully with Ben Youngs currently injured he will be given his chance to impress in the Summer Tests against South Africa. Honourable mentions: Ben Vellacott, Ben Spencer, Willi Heinz

Fly half – Gareth Steenson: Ireland’s loss has been Exeter’s gain as Steenson’s decision to play outside Ireland has denied him to represent the country of his birth. The Exeter fly half controls the game so well and is a highly accurate goal kicker (he won the Premiership Golden Boot award in the 2016 awards) with nerves of steel, as shown by his kick in extra time to win the Premiership Final in 2017. He would have had solid competition for the 10 jersey against Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan, however I think his reliability would have been enough to see him potentially make the bench for Ireland. Honourable mentions: Damian Willemse, Marcus Smith, Brock James

Inside centre – Jimmy Gopperth: OK, maybe I cheated a little with this pick, but Gopperth has often played 12 for Wasps when Danny Cipriani has also been available and I don’t see that changing with the arrival of Lima Sopoaga next season, plus there were clearly enough other talented fly halves to try picking from! To think that last season’s Premiership Player of the Season would probably not get a look-in with the All Blacks shows the quality of New Zealand rugby, but his quality compared to other Kiwis is a moot point as he has been playing outside New Zealand since 2009 with Newcastle, Leinster and currently Wasps. A reliable kicker, Gopperth has also shown how good he is in an attacking sense playing outside Danny Cipriani over the last couple of seasons. I look forward to seeing how Wasps’ Kiwi 10/12 axis works next season. Honourable mention: Bill Meakes

Outside centre – Vince Aso: Whether on the wing or at 13, Aso has been dynamite for the Hurricanes. His partnership with Ngani Laumape was huge for the Canes last season and saw him finish with 14 tries in the last Super Rugby campaign – with only Laumape (15) scoring more! He has started the 2018 season well with 2 tries and will surely love to join his cousins Akira and Reiko Ioane in the national team. The centre positions are very much up for grab at the moment, whether before or after the World Cup, I will be shocked if Aso doesn’t get a chance in the next couple of years. Honourable mentions: Joe Marchant, Izaia Perese, Henry Trinder, Robbie Fruean

Wings – James Lowe & Nathan Earle: 25 tries in 52 Super Rugby matches for the Chiefs puts Leinster winger Lowe on this list. Lowe has featured for the NZ Maori team – he was at fullback against the British and Irish Lions – but found himself competing in too deep a position to make the All Blacks squad before moving to Ireland. One of the last players able to qualify using the 3-year residency rule, if he continues to match this sort of form over the next couple of seasons we could see him in the green or Ireland soon enough. Earle is another player who has already turned out for his country but only in an uncapped match. I remember seeing Earle play for the U20s and thinking at the time what an incredible talent he looked. With Sarries focusing on bigger names like Ashton, Williams and Maitland, Earle’s opportunities have been limited but he has taken his chances well over the last 2 seasons and got himself firmly on Eddie Jones’ radar. With bags of pace but also deceptively strong, a move to Quins next season will hopefully give him the chance to play more regular rugby and prove he deserves to be in the England squad. Wing is a very deep spot for England at the moment with a number of young individuals. I won’t be shocked to see him capped within the next year, but think he may need to wait until after the World Cup to push for a regular starting spot. Honourable mentions: Ben Lam, Keelan Giles, Alex Lewington, Joe Cokanasiga, Gabriel Ibitoye

Fullback – Jason Woodward: I’ve talked about Woodward’s quality before (he was selected ahead of none other than “The Bus” Julian Savea for the Hurricanes in their 2016 Super Rugby final victory) and he has backed it up for both Bristol and Gloucester. Capable of playing at outside centre or across the back 3, Woodward’s made the 15 shirt at Kingsholm his own with a series of wonderful performances. A former New Zealand U20s player but also qualified for England, Woodward was called up to a training camp in May 2017, but has not yet been named in a squad. With Mike Brown likely nearing the end of his England career, Mike Haley off to Ireland and Anthony Watson injured, could a strong end to the season propel Woodward into the squad for the Summer Tests against South Africa? Honourable mentions: Mike Haley, Melani Nanai, Phil Dollman

6 Nations 2018: Combined XV

6 Nations 2018: Combined XV

Now that the dust has settled on the 6 Nations for another year it is time to start looking at the top performers and pick my Team of the Tournament, much as I did last year. I found it much harder to pick a line-up this year due to a combination of injuries and drops in form so I am sure some people will disagree with some of my selections. If you think I’ve missed someone feel free to let me know in the comments.

Loose-head prop – Rob Evans: This was probably one of the hardest positions to pick as there was nobody that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Mako Vunipola understandably looked tired and was not at his best this year and while I nearly picked Cian Healy I have instead gone for Rob Evans of Wales. Evans gives that extra dimension in open play and even over a month later I still remember him playing a key part of what would have been a stunning try for Steff Evans had Alun Wyn Jones’ offload gone to hand. Wales appear to be lacking depth at prop currently but I can see Evans having a long run in the squad.

Hooker – Guilhem Guirado: Honourable mentions to Rory Best for captaining Ireland to the Grand Slam and Leonardo Ghiraldini who carried well and put in solid performances for Italy, but my selection at hooker has to be Guirado. The French captain may have missed the last round and struggled at times in the lineout, but he was relentless defensively. He was a tackling machine, second only to Jonny Gray in the tackle count over the first 4 rounds (69 tackles, 31 against Ireland) and also chipping in with a couple of turnovers. If he had been there in Round 5, I can’t help but wonder if the French would have ended the tournament with a victory.

Tight-head prop – Tadhg Furlong: Much like on the other side of the front row, I found it difficult to pick a standout performer at 3. In the end, a moment from Ireland’s victory over England cemented Furlong’s place in the team despite coming off injured a couple of minutes into one game and missing the next due to injury. An absolute wrecking ball, it was his deft hands to put Bundee Aki through the gap for CJ Stander’s try while making it look like the ball was going to the looping Johnny Sexton that impressed me so much. If a guy can bulldoze right over you or slip a silky pass like that, you don’t want to be the one defending against him!

Second rows – Jonny Gray & Cory Hill: If Guirado is a tackling machine, then Jonny Gray is a master. The Scottish lock finished top of the tackle charts with a whopping 100 tackles (20 per game on average!) and played a big part in keeping the Scottish pack on track despite all the players missing from the front row due to injuries. His partner was much harder for me to pick. Had Iain Henderson stayed fit he could have got the nod, as could France’s Sébastien Vahaamahina who was a nuisance at the breakdowns and in the line outs but gave away too many penalties. Instead I went for Cory Hill. I could have picked either Hill or Alun Wyn Jones as they both had solid tournaments, but Hill’s performances stood out more in my memory, perhaps due to his try against Italy.

Blindside flanker – Aaron Shingler: I am not just picking him to prove a point about Warren Gatland’s selections, I genuinely think Shingler had a great tournament and has probably been one of Wales’ best players this season. Despite being rested against Italy and dropped to the bench for the final game, the Scarlet finished the tournament with the most line out steals. He also showed his ability in the loose that makes him such a key player for the Scarlets. Seb Negri was one of Italy’s stars in this tournament, John Barclay had a strong tournament at 6 other than his match against Wales and Peter O’Mahony was his usual disruptive self at the breakdown, but Shingler gets my vote. I can’t help but wonder though how things might have been had he not put boot to ball following his break against England.

Openside flanker – Dan Leavy: With Sean O’Brien missing the tournament and Josh van der Flier going off injured in the first half of Ireland’s tournament opener against France, some people likely thought that the Irish could be in trouble. However Dan Leavy came on and the men in green never looked back. Along with O’Mahony and Stander, he caused a nuisance at the breakdown and also seemed to give the back row more balance after his introduction against France. Even with Jamie Heaslip having retired, the strength in depth of the Irish back row is incredible and I don’t envy Joe Schmidt having to pick from Stander, Leavy, O’Mahony, O’Brien, van der Flier and Jack Conan – and they’re just the names that come to mind immediately!

Number 8 – CJ Stander: Sam Simmonds was wonderful against Italy, but injury and England’s drop in form limited him for the rest of the tournament, Moriarty’s lack of game time this season showed before Taulupe Faletau’s return and most of the number 8s who started frequently could be described as solid but not spectacular. CJ Stander eventually got my vote here when I saw his 96 carries put him second on the all time list (only his tally from last year has been higher). The Munster back row may not have set the world alight in the same way as last year, but his tireless work rate helped the Grand Slam Champions set the platform to their success.

Scrum half – Conor Murray: Is there a scrum half in international rugby who does what Conor Murray does better? He may not be as much of a threat in open play as Gareth Davies or Rhys Webb, but his tactical kicking is a big part of Ireland controlling the game and it is rare you see him throw a poor pass. Murray topped the charts for passes (542) and kicks from hand (43) and was level with Greig Laidlaw at the top of the assist charts (4) as well as scoring 2 tries and finding success with a couple of kicks at goal. Honourable mention to Maxime Machenaud who was top points scorer this season with 50 points).

Fly half – Johnny Sexton: Let me just start by saying, I am not a fan of Sexton so he may not always get the credit he is due on here. That said, I think this was a really good tournament from him whereas none of his rivals really stood out. Finn Russell, George Ford and Tommy Allan had their moments but were also incredibly inconsistent, while Wales couldn’t decide who they wanted at 10. Sexton however managed to keep himself largely free of injury and play consistently well despite the changing personnel outside him. He needs to work on his kicking off the tee to be considered one of the very best in the world, but he controls his back line so well and his tactical kicking is usually so effective. If I needed any other reason to pick him, I just needed to watch his 45-metre drop goal to win the game against France. It takes balls to attempt it and talent to make it. Also as an aside: if you haven’t yet a video of it set to the Titanic music, you’re missing out!

Inside centre – Bundee Aki: If I was picking on just 1 game, Owen Farrell would have got the nod for his display against Wales, however his performances dipped along with England’s results. Hadleigh Parkes was my initial pick, however when I thought a bit more I decided to pick yet another of the Champions. He may not have stood out in the way some players selected have, but for a man who only made his international debut in the Autumn Tests and had to start with 3 different 13s (Henshaw, Farrell and Ringrose) and have a further 2 players (Earls and Larmour) spend time in the position throughout the tournament, he was incredibly consistent and still managed to chip in with 2 tries and a couple of assists. The more time he spends in the Irish team, the better this guy is going to get!

Outside centre – Mathieu Bastareaud: Huw Jones so nearly got the vote here but he did have a couple of quiet performances, so instead I have gone for Toulon captain Mathieu Bastareaud. He may have missed the first 2 matches through suspension, but I would argue his performances in the final 3 games made him France’s player of the tournament! He was a nightmare for the opposition at the breakdown and his physicality in attack opened up space for the men around him. With a number of players already injured and then more being exiled from the squad after Round 2, getting Basta back for the remaining games was vital. I can’t help but wonder how the Ireland and Scotland matches may have finished had he been there…

Wings – Jacob Stockdale & Keith Earls: It looked like Teddy Thomas would be getting selected after 3 tries in the first 2 weeks before being dropped from the squad. Jonny May and Sean Maitland can maybe consider themselves unlucky after scoring 4 and 3 tries respectively, but in the end I couldn’t not pick the Irish pair. Stockdale is an obvious pick here having made the most clean breaks this year (11) and more importantly broken the record for the number of tries in the tournament in one season (7) on the way to picking up the award for Player of the Championship. His record of 11 tries in 9 Test matches is just incredible and Ireland will be hoping he can continue this try-scoring for right through to the World Cup. Earls may not have been able to match his teammate’s scoring exploits, but he put in an incredible shift in each match both in attack and defence and even moved into the outside centre position following Robbie Henshaw’s injury against Italy. It was defensively that Earls’ impact was really felt as he was often the man working hardest to get back when a team broke against the Irish, while his tap tackle on Elliot Daly saved what looked a certain try. There’s clearly some talent coming through out wide for Ireland but I fully expect Earls to remain a key part of the Irish squad through to the World Cup.

Fullback – Matteo Minozzi: Stuart Hogg finished with the most metres made (479) and Rob Kearney looked back to his best on the way to beating 18 defenders, but Minozzi was one of my easiest selections any position. Despite Italy missing a couple of key players in the backs, Minozzi still became the first Italian to score 4 tries in a 6 Nations campaign. He was fully deserving of his spot on the shortlist for Player of the Championship despite Italy failing to win a game. He looked such a danger throughout the tournament and will surely be one of the players Conor O’Shea builds his team around over the coming seasons.

 

Find my thoughts on each round of the tournament here:

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 5

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 5

The 6 Nations is over for another year following a last round that didn’t quite live up to the thrill of some of the recent final weeks. With their title already confirmed, Ireland completed their Grand Slam with an impressive performance over a different looking England squad. This result, combined with France’s 1 point loss in Wales left the defending Champions 5th in the table, behind all but Italy, who were denied a shock result against Scotland by a late Greig Laidlaw penalty.

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The final standings from the 2018 6 Nations – From http://www.sixnationsrugby.com

Italy 27 – 29 Scotland

After all the hype I have given him throughout the season, I am so glad Jake Polledri performed when finally given his chance by Conor O’Shea. The former Hartpury flanker has been one of Gloucester’s stars this season and did not look at all out of place on his international debut. He and Seb Negri (a former Hartpury teammate) gave the pack some much-needed physicality and repeatedly made ground with the ball. Polledri’s break for Tommy Allan’s second try especially stands out in my mind: pushing away Ryan Wilson, getting away from Greig Laidlaw and drawing Staurt Hogg before passing back inside to give his fly half an easy finish. Though they may not have got the result, there was clearly plenty for O’Shea to be proud of and it is clear this Italian team is building with young stars like Matteo Minozzi. One Italian who did have a quiet tournament though was captain Sergio Parisse. He is still clearly a highly talented player but he is nearing the end of his career and I will not be surprised if he announces his international retirement following the World Cup next year. He has been a talisman for the Azzuri for years but I would argue that Maxime Mbanda would create a better back row combination moving forward, with either Negri or Polledri moving to number 8. What about Parisse then? His experience both internationally and at a high level of competition should continually be utilised by O’Shea, but I think he would benefit from following a similar route to fellow centurion Alessandro Zanni and moving into the second row. The tight 5 appears to be an area lacking depth at the moment, moving Parisse to lock would immediately upgrade the position while also allowing Parisse to adapt his game and be less expansive. It would be a shame to hold Italy back by selecting a player on reputation rather than history, but at the same time Parisse has given so much for Italian rugby (he is the first player to lose 100 Test matches) and I think he has earned the right to go out on his own terms rather than fade away. It will be interesting to see if Conor O’Shea tries this in the Autumn Tests.

On the subject of talismanic players, I will be very interested in Greig Laidlaw’s place in the Scotland squad moving forward. He is a clear leader and one of the senior players in the squad, having been a large part of Scotland’s resurgence over recent seasons. But will he be a starter much longer? Laidlaw is one of the most accurate goal kickers in international rugby but he has a limited range, while Finn Russell has also developed into a high percentage kicker and Stuart Hogg has a huge boot. As a scrum half, he dictates play well but does not provide the same quick ball that Ali Price has when given a shot. Italy were arguably the better team in this match but Scotland looked much more dangerous once Ali Price came on for Russell and Laidlaw moved out to fly half – where he started his international career. Russell is a quality 10 but when he’s off form he really seems to struggle in this team and there is no other out-and-out fly half that looks an option for Scotland at the moment. I think it would benefit Gregor Townsend to start Price and Russell with Laidlaw on the bench to cover both halfback positions. This would allow Townsend to adapt his substitutions to the match situation while also allowing more options for the other 2 backs on the bench.

England 15 – 24 Ireland

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2 brains really did prove better than 1 as the joint effort from myself and Phil Alder topped the EOTB Championship, but congratulations must also go to Gez Williams who had the top-scoring team for a solo manager – From http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk

Eddie Jones made some much-needed changes to his starting lineup for the final round and put out what on paper looked a strong team, yet they were still dominated by the Irish. 3 losses in a row does not look great for England but I don’t think the panic button needs pressing yet. I would argue that the poor England performances are due to more to fatigue than anything else. Ireland’s players are centrally contracted to the IRFU whereas the England players are all contracted to their individual clubs. This means that the England players are being asked to play more minutes against top quality opposition, whereas Ireland’s stars are getting significantly more rest. This will never show more than following a Lions Tour, half of the England players have played a season and a half with limited rest! England’s player base is significantly bigger than the other Home Nations. The RFU need to take advantage of this by either rotating the players in the national team much more (giving more players international experience but possibly effecting chemistry) or by coming to some agreement with the clubs to limit the playing time of England’s key players. I can imagine many of the England regulars will be given the summer off by Eddie Jones, but then again he may decide to take them to South Africa to ensure the losing run does not continue against a Springboks team that are surely about to improve under Rassie Erasmus.

When England beat Wales in Round 2 it was built on a stunning defence that shut out the Welsh following a strong attacking start. Fast forward a month and England were at the mercy of the Irish defence. Despite CJ Stander not hitting the highs of last year and Sean O’Brien missing the entire tournament through injury, the Irish dominated the breakdown in much the same way that Scotland and France did in recent weeks, winning a number of penalties and turnovers. They also stripped the England players in the tackle a number of times. Even when they were beaten, they still managed to recover, with Keith Earls’ tap tackle on Elliot Daly saving a guaranteed try. Any team would have struggled to beat the Irish with their defence in such fine form!

Wales 14 – 13 France

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. – Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

I was disappointed but not wholly surprised to see Wales revert back to type as the tournament went on. Despite Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe both performing well on the whole when given the shot at 10, Dan Biggar was straight back in the starting lineup against the big teams. Not just that, but Aaron Shingler (arguably one of Wales’ best players this season) was left on the bench in favour of Justin Tipuric, who did not seem anywhere near the form we know him to be capable of. Wales were back to their usual self against France and it should have cost them the match. A strong defensive performance is important (they did very well to limit Mathieu Bastareaud’s impact on the match) but I don’t think Wales will reach their potential until they start focusing on the more expansive attack that I don’t think will be given a real chance until Warren Gatland moves on. I hope Gatland proves me wrong and gives Patchell the shot he deserves.

When the commentators are suggesting Lionel Beauxis should be brought on to improve the French performance, you know François Trinh-Duc is having an awful game! The Toulon fly half had not been having the best of seasons with his club and was only brought into the squad after Matthieu Jalibert was injured and Anthony Belleau was dropped along with a host of players following a night out. He had a game to forget against Wales, with a missed penalty (which would have won France the game) the least high profile of his errors. Nobody in blue came out of the Liam Williams try looking good, but I doubt even Trinh-Duc knows what he was trying to do when he came over and completely missed the ball! His missed touch-finder from a penalty was enough to piss off any forward and his forward pass to Benjamin Fall under no pressure was inexcusable! France really missed the injured Camille Lopez this 6 Nations, it will be interesting to see how the French perform once they have him and Jalibert available again.

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 31 (Part 1)

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 31 (Part 1)

This weekend’s football was a bit of an odd one as we only had 4 games due to other Premiership teams still being involved in FA Cup action. However with the international break now upon us, I felt that it was right to still discuss the 4 matches that were played in the league and pick up the other matches when they are rearranged.

Liverpool felt they had a point to prove following defeat to Manchester United and took out their anger on Watford in a 5-0 demolition. Elsewhere, Crystal Palace picked up a vital 3 points at Huddersfield, while their relegation rivals Stoke and West Brom both fell to defeats at home to Everton and away to Bournemouth respectively.

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There may have only been 4 matches this week,but there were potentially still some crucial results – From http://www.premierleague.com

The Prince of Egypt

Who would have thought that the guy who made only 19 appearances in all competitions over a 2-year span at Chelsea would go on to be the clear front-runner for Player of the Season for Liverpool this season? Mohamed Salah never looked good enough for the Chelsea teams of 2013/14 and 20124/15 and though he did better at Roma, there was still little to suggest the sensation that he would be for the Reds this season.

We always knew that he had pace, but he has also showed incredible footwork and strength on his way to topping the Premier League goal scoring charts with 28 goals (so far). He has been equally prolific in other competitions too and currently has 36 goals from 41 appearances in all competitions this season. Those are almost Messi/Ronaldo figures. It will be very interesting to see if he can keep these statistics going for multiple seasons – something that many players struggle with. What makes him even scarier is that he is not even a striker but a wide player, so I am not surprised to see him near the top of the assist charts (joint third with 9, behind only Leroy Sané and Kevin De Bruyne). It is no surprise that Roberto Firmino is having his best return of goals in his professional career this season with players like Salah catching the defenders’ attention.

He is an incredible talent and providing he continues to get the support from his teammates the sky could be the limit for the Egyptian. Liverpool now just need to hope they can hold onto him!


Timely returns

Crystal Palace’s 2-0 win at Huddersfield was a huge result for them. They had been on a bad run of form as their team was blighted by injuries, but this victory pulled them closer to safety while dragging Huddersfield back into the mix. Palace currently lie in 16th but while they could drop back into the relegation zone if Southampton and West Ham win their games in hand, they would only lie 1 point away from safety!

Roy Hodgson has proved me wrong with the way he has salvaged Palace’s season from such a poor start and it has only been the injuries to many of his key players that has halted their march to safety.

Wilfried Zaha may have moved to United too soon and seen his career stall, but he has been revitalised back at Palace and shown the talent that he has. He causes so many problems for defenders and they are often left with the decision of letting him get away from them or fouling him. With all their remaining matches coming against teams who are mid-table or higher, Hodgson needs to hope he and his fellow key players can keep a clean bill of health to the end of the season. If so, they may just have enough to pull off what at one point looked unthinkable and stay in the league.


Round 32 predictions:

Crystal Palace v Liverpool – Liverpool win

Brighton & Hove Albion v Leicester City – Leicester win

Manchester United v Swansea – United win

Newcastle United v Huddersfield Town – Newcastle win

Watford v AFC Bournemouth – Watford win

West Bromwich Albion v Burnley – Burnley win

West Ham United v Southampton – Draw

Everton v Manchester City – City win

Arsenal v Stoke City – Arsenal win

Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 30

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 30

Manchester City took another step closer to winning the title on Monday night with a 0-2 victory over Stoke. This victory means that a win against Everton on 31st March will set up the chance to win the title at home to United on 7th April. United took a great stride towards finishing second by beating Liverpool 2-1 over the weekend, while Spurs’ victory at Bournemouth allowed them to leapfrog the Reds. In London, Chelsea and Arsenal both got back to winning ways with wins over Crystal palace and Watford respectively, but I still find it unlikely either will be able to make up the gap to the top 4. Towards the bottom of the table, Newcastle’s 3-0 win over Southampton brought an end to Mauricio Pellegrino’s time in charge of the Saints with them just 1 point outside the relegation zone.


Too little, too late?

It was a while back now that I suggested Pellegrino’s job could be in danger, so I am surprised they have waited until so late in the season. They don’t have another league match until 31stMarch (at West Ham) so they have a bit of time to get used to a new manager, but the performances have been so poor the extra points earlier in the year would have likely been a big help. Their 8 remaining games include trips to Arsenal, Leicester and Everton and home matches against Chelsea and Man City, so with so few matches remaining there is no guarantee a new manager will be able to save them. Clearly something needs changing as they were dire against Newcastle with the defence not dealing with Kennedy’s run and a simple ball forward for the first goal, while the second goal was far too simple for the Magpies to break downfield following a Southampton corner. They have sold their best players for years and it was always going to catch up with them eventually, I just hope that they are getting a manager who will not run if they don’t avoid the drop.

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Swansea held out for a goalless draw at Huddersfield despite going a man down within 11 minuted – From http://www.premierleague.com

Bad scenes in London

Next time I want to remind myself why I prefer rugby over football, I just need to watch West Ham’s match against Burnley. I can understand that the fans are not happy but there is a way to show it and that was not it! To invade the pitch on multiple occasions not only disrupts the game, I would also argue it disrupted the focus for the West Ham players. The defence were at sixes and sevens for the second goal and I can’t help but wonder if Joe Hart would have dealt better with Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson’s long range shot for the third goal. Not only that, a football match is a family day out, and yet the actions of some fans were so bad, the Burnley players felt they needed to empty the bench to make room for children from the crowd (max respect to them for this). Scenes like this should not be seen at football matches in 2018 and I hope we don’t see a repeat anytime soon. If I was a West Ham player, I would want to get out of that toxic atmosphere as soon as I could!


The good, the bad or the ugly?

Within the space of a few seconds during Leicester’s 1-4 win at Leicester, I saw the best of Jamie Vardy before being reminded why I struggle to like him as much as many people do. His goal to pull Leicester level against the Baggies was a contender for goal of the season! The skill required to volley that ball as it came over his shoulder – with his weaker foot! – and not just get it on target but control it beyond the keeper and into the far corner without taking eyes off the ball was absolutely sublime. Unfortunately the celebration was less sublime as he appeared to goad the fans and front up to someone in the crowd. I can imagine that if someone is hurling abuse from the crowd (again going back to why I prefer rugby) it can be hard not to react, but Vardy often appears to toe the line between celebrating and provoking the fans. If he put that extra effort into playing, then he could perhaps push Harry Kane for a starting spot in the England squad.


Seeing red

There were 2 red cards in this weekend’s matches, but there really should have been 3. Jordan Ayew and Anthony Knockaert both received straight red cards at the weekend for poor challenges with high feet and neither of them have any grounds to argue the decision.

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West Brom are as good as down, who else will be joining them in the Championship? – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

Knockaert appeared to see the red missed having had the ball kicked into his face moments before by Leighton Baines, and then seconds later dived into him and was lucky to not make more of a contact. I can understand that it won’t feel nice taking a football to the face at close range, but that was pathetic!

I have more sympathy for Ayew as I genuinely feel he was reaching for the ball and got his challenge wrong, but he made contact high up Jonathan Hogg’s leg with his studs. Hogg was lucky to not receive a red though as his boot was also off the ground and he did (accidentally in my opinion) stamp on Ayew as they collided, much like Pogba’s sending off against Arsenal earlier this season.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the tackler and tackle both get sent off before – unless the tackle has reacted and struck out – but in this case a double red would have been warranted. With the incident happening in the 11th minute, I can’t help but wonder what impact that would have had on the game.


Round 31 predictions:

So this will be a bit of an odd round as only 4 games are being played in this round at the moment, with the other games to be played at a later date (still to be confirmed). As injuries and form fluctuations could affect my predictions for those games, I will just be predicting the confirmed games for now and will add in the other games as they come up.

AFC Bournemouth v West Bromwich Albion – Bournemouth win

Huddersfield Town v Crystal Palace – Draw

Stoke City v Everton – Everton win

Liverpool v Watford – Liverpool win

Championship Week – March 2018

Championship Week – March 2018

Viewers of the Schmoedown were given an absolute treat last week as we reached the first Championship week of the season. In the singles, Rachel Cushing got her first shot at the Singles Championship belt against Samm Levine, while in the Teams League, Top 10 attempted to make it third time lucky against the unbeaten Patriots. After a lot of right answers (these guys are all title matches for a reason) and perhaps even more controversy, both the Patriots and “The Inglorious One” managed to hold onto their titles.

Samm “The Inglorious One” Levine 22 – 21 Rachel “The Crusher” Cushing

What a match this was between the 2017 Player of the Year and 2017 Rookie of the Year. After plenty of compliments and nice talk, they could not be separated in Round 1, going into Round 2 at 6-6. Cushing had the wheel on her side in Round 2, spinning Fantasy/Sci-Fi and getting a perfect Round 2 (watch out Innergeekdom competitors), while Levine matched her with his own perfect round after spinning Scorsese (twice!). Round 3 finally saw Levine open up a 1 point lead as both correctly guessed the right answer, but Cushing only bet 2 points compared to Levine’s 3. 17-6 Levine going into the Round 4, and then everything went crazy. The Crusher clearly knew most – if not all – of the answers in the speed round, but was never given a look-in as Levine beat her to the buzzer on all 5 questions and got all of them right to open up a 22-16 lead. Going into the final round 6 points down is always going to be difficult to overcome and unfortunately The Crusher missed on her 5 point question to hand Samm Levine a TKO victory and his first title defence.

levcruI saw enough in this match to believe that the Crusher will hold the Singles Belt at some point in 2018, unfortunately Levine’s experience in title matches was probably the difference in this game, as he has title matches in Singles (a loss to Dan Murrell and a victory over Kristian Harloff) and in Teams (a loss to the Patriots), whereas this was Rachel’s first title match. I know that many people were not happy with the Speed Round following this match but as Harloff said, this is first and foremost a game, so the person with the best knowledge will not always win. The extra rounds in titles matches probably give a disadvantage to a competitor with no experience of a title match, but I think it helps prove who is the best all-round. Rachel’s knowledge is solid and she just needs to work on her speed round, she will learn from this experience and come back stronger than ever.

Let’s not forget, as a member of the Fyffe Club, there is the possibility of Emma using her Number 1 Contender shot on the Crusher to get her an immediate rematch, or maybe she will take some time to build her experience and aim for a match against the Patriots with her new teammate Clarke Wolfe. I feel confident in predicting that we will not have to wait too long to see the Crusher in another title match.

The Patriots 28 – 15 Top 10

The third meeting of these teams is a match that will not be forgotten in a hurry due to the controversy. I will give my thoughts on the Round 3 controversy shortly, but first let’s take a moment to look at what happened before this.

After the (inevitable) trash talk from both teams The Patriots took an early lead in this game, coming out of Round 1 with an 11-9 lead. In Round 2, The Patriots took maximum points fromMovie Quotes, whereas Top 10 had to check down to multiple choice on 2 questions, leaving them 23-19 down. And then we came to Round 3 and all hell broke loose. Westerns was spun on the wheel and The Patriots bet 1 point while Top 10 went for the maximum 3 points courtesy of this being one of “The Outlaw” John Rocha’s specialties. Sneider & JTE could not get the right answer, losing 1 point, whereas Rocha was correct, but his answer on the whiteboard was horribly illegible. Rocha initially argued that as he was the first person to say the correct answer he could still get the points, a decision that Harloff agreed with, deciding to award the 3 points, only for Sneider to challenge immediately. After a lengthy challenge, the decision was made to restart Round 3 with a new category spun – Will Smith. Both teams bet the maximum points but only The Patriots were able to answer correctly, leaving them 26-16 ahead. Everyone was getting involved in the speed round but The Patriots even managed to increase their lead in this round (scoring to points to Top 10’s -1) and they won by KO 28-15.

fondaSo, to my thoughts on the Round 3 controversy. Watching the video, Rocha clearly writes an answer in the middle of the board, but as time is expiring he changes his answer and writes the correct one – Jane Fonda – in the bottom corner. The safe thing to do would be to use Top 10’s last JTE rule, but I can understand that he wanted to keep hold of that with Rounds 4&5 remaining. I can understand Rocha’s argument that other players have had their answers accepted in the past with illegible writing provided that they were the first to give the correct answer, however I also agree that when a whiteboard is involved the answer should be clear on there – even if the spelling is not right *ahem ‘Japeto’*. Kristian Harloff said in an interview with Take 3 Productions that in hindsight he would have disallowed the points and played on (which he has said will be the rule moving forward). I think that this would have been the right answer, or if not, that another question from the same category would have been a better solution than a re-spin.

I am glad though that Kristian and the crew showed more of the challenge process than we usually see and have come out and spoken about it immediately, I can’t even imagine how much controversy there could have been had the creator stayed silent.

It is a shame though that the commissioner Thadd Williams in all his wisdom has decreed that Top 10 cannot challenge for the title again while The Patriots are champions. These 2 teams give you great trivia knowledge and great entertainment, much like Manchester United v Liverpool there is a mutual dislike there that draws you into the event even more. I can’t help but wonder if this could lead to Top 10 helping push for the return of Kristian Harloff as commissioner. Could this be the next stage of the Schmoedown Civil War?

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 4

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 4

Congratulations to Ireland whose victory over Scotland wrapped up the 2018 6 Nations with a week to spare, winning their record 11th Test match in a row. They will be hoping to end the tournament with a Grand Slam on Saturday at Twickenham against an England team reeling from back-to-back losses to Scotland and now France. Meanwhile making 10 changes to the starting XV was not enough to deny Wales a bonus point victory over Italy, which leaves them 2nd in the table, a point above England.

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Ireland 28 – 8 Scotland

Injuries have forced Ireland to test their depth at 13 this tournament, but things are looking very good for them there. Jared Payne will always be an option but still hasn’t played since the Lions tour, while an injury to Garry Ringrose led to Robbie Henshaw playing for the first 2 rounds until his own injury. Chris Farrell put in a man of the match performance against Wales, but injury ruled him out against the Scots and Ringrose was back just in time to take back the 13 shirt. You wouldn’t have thought the Leinster centre had just returned from injury with the way he played as he nullified Huw Jones for much of the game, while in attack he made a number of breaks. He is the heir apparent to Brian O’Driscoll’s 13 jersey both for Leinster and Ireland and when 100% fit will likely be one of the first names on the team sheet. The quality available in the centre means that Keith Earls can remain as a winger, opening up the depth in the back 3 despite the retirement of Tommy Bowe.

28-8 is not an accurate representation of the game. Though Ireland were arguably the better team, the match would have been a lot closer were it not for some timely errors from Scotland. The opening try was gifted to Jacob Stockdale through a horribly overthrown pass by Peter Horne, while Huw Jones did everything right to break through the Irish defence, only to get the pass horribly wrong when he and Stuart Hogg had a 2v1 against Rob Kearney. Hogg and Horne also both sent passes to Blair Kinghorn – who impressed on his first start – too high, denying them opportunities. There was a lot to be happy about in the Scotland performance, especially considering the number of players they have still missing or just returning form injury, but there is still improvement needed if Scotland want to be winning away from home and pushing for titles.

France 22 – 16 England

Not a stunning performance from France but they did what they had to in order to get the win. Their attack may not have been too flashy, but defensively they were very solid. Mathieu Bastareaud had another good game at 13 and fronted up well against Ben Te’o, while the entire team took a leaf out of Scotland’s books and caused England untold agony at the breakdown. They really need to cut out the stupid mistakes though, as Hugo Bonneval’s blind pass back infield almost put his team in trouble, while Lionel Beauxis gave England one last chance to win it at the death when he failed to find touch with a clearance following Luke Cowan-Dickie’s overthrown line out. If the French can continue to build as a squad while cutting out these stupid error, they will become a formidable team again.

Following Ireland’s bonus point victory over Scotland, it didn’t take a maths genius to calculate England’s hopes of winning the 6 Nations relied on bonus point victories in booth their remaining games. Yet England continued to kick their penalties at goal rather than touch, leaving them needing 4 tries in the second half. Barring a monumental collapse, that was not going to happen in Paris. As someone who has felt Dylan Hartley’s time in the 2 shirt has reached an end I hate to admit but there was no leadership from the players out there. Owen Farrell would have been my shout for the captaincy but did not appear to thrive in the role, while fellow starters Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw and Danny Care have all been club captains (Robshaw even has plenty of experience as England captain). Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes were also starters with over 50 caps, while Mako Vunipola and George Ford are also highly experienced internationals. Between the lot of them they should have been able to adapt to the game better. Hughes’ early injury would have been a blow to their plans but injuries happen and an international team should be prepared. I don’t want to come down too hard on this team as many have not had an ideal rest period following the Lions Tour due to the level of competition in the Premiership. It’s no real surprise that Elliott Daly and Kyle Sinckler looked two of the better players considering they have just had a chance to rest while recovering from injury and coming back from suspension! With the chances of victory gone I would love to see Eddie make a few changes against Ireland and rest a few regulars to give players like Kyle Sinckler, Denny Solomona, Don Armand and Luke Cowan-Dickie a chance to start.

Wales 38 – 14 Italy

Job done for Wales who got a bonus point win despite 10 changes to the starting XV, but that really doesn’t give a real idea of the game. They scored 2 tries in no time but one was poor Italian defending (more on that below) and the other came from an interception. Other than that, there was not much for the time to write home about in the first half and they can consider themselves lucky that Liam Williams only saw a yellow card for his hit on the impressive Matteo Minozzi. Wales have a habit of underperforming after making a high number of changes against a weaker team and this was no exception, and it was more poor play from the Italians that helped the Welsh to the win. Warren Gatland needs to be very careful when selecting his teams against supposedly weaker opposition, otherwise he could get left with egg on his face when a ‘lesser’ team turns them over and gets the result.

“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.”

I wrote the above following Bundee Aki & Robbie Henshaw’s tries against the Italians in Round 2, unfortunately, they do not seem to have sorted this yet and were once again weak either side of the ruck against Wales. The opening try from Hadleigh Parkes was another pass from the back of a ruck to a centre running out-to-in running line. The defence were too busy looking in at the ruck again and though they managed to attempt a tackle this time, their positioning was all wrong and led to Parkes spinning out of the contact and dotting down, while the attempted tackler had to go off with a head injury. Cory Hill’s try was also far too easy for international rugby as the Italian forwards were too slow to come out of the scrum and wrap around tot h far side of the ruck, making it easy for Hill to push over for a killer score while Wales were at a numerical disadvantage. There have clearly been some signs of improvement from the Italians when you consider the massive rebuild Italian rugby as a whole is currently going through, but they need to sort out such a glaring defensive issue soon or they will struggle to win many games.

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Super Saturday’s fixtures to see out the 2018 tournament

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