Rugby Rambles – the March 2018 News

Rugby Rambles – the March 2018 News

Qualification nightmare

I’ve been planning this post for over a week but deliberately held off writing it while I waited for a resolution to this to discuss in full. However, the entire process appears to be dragging on indefinitely and I could not hold off writing this any longer.

As a fan who has pride in the values of rugby, the whole mess between Spain and Rugby Europe these last few weeks has been a shock to the system. With Georgia already qualified for the 2019 World Cup courtesy of finishing 3rd in the pool in 2015, the final European automatic qualifying spot for 2019 would go to whoever won the 2018 Rugby Europe Championship (or whoever came second if Georgia won). So often it would be expected that Romania would take the final spot, but their loss to Spain in Round 2 meant that Spain went into the final round of matches needing a win against Belgium – who had 1 win and 3 losses to their name – in order to take the final qualification spot, which would consign Romania to a play-off against first Portugal and then Samoa.

The game ended 18-10 in favour of the Belgians and all hell broke loose. The referee had to be escorted off the field at full time as a number of Spanish players surrounded the referee in outrage of his performance. Was this win due to biased refereeing? I wasn’t there so can only go on the word of people who were there, but Spain had a poor game, however it has also been noted that the referee did have a poor game. While that alone does not imply a bias, what makes this an issue is that both the referee and his touch judges were all Romanian. Considering Romania stood to benefit from the outcome of this match, to have set of Romanian officials is always going to put that seed of doubt in people’s minds. Granted the officials were picked well ahead of the tournament, but it doesn’t look good that Rugby Europe – whose president is Romanian – chose not to change the officials when requested by the Spanish Rugby Federation, despite South African Marius van der Westhuizen being removed from running touch during Ireland’s Grand Slam victory over England on the same weekend for a perceived conflict of interests having spent time with the England camp in the build-up. It’s going to be all-but impossible to prove something untoward happened here, but it certainly leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

The story has since taken another turn as Romania, Spain and Belgium have all been accused of fielding ineligible players during the tournament, which could lead to all 3 countries being disqualified from World Cup qualification – as happened recently to Tahiti. If this happens, then Russia (who finished 4th) would be the automatic qualifier and Germany (who face relegation from the Championship) would go into the play-off. These questions of eleigibility all centre around a stupid idea of when a player is considered “captured” by a country’s second team. The teams that “capture” players can change by the season but are generally an U20s team or a second team like the England Saxon. Then it also depends on the tournament the player was involved in or the team they were playing against to decide if they are captured. To consider a player captured because they played a couple of games for a U20s team years ago but also not players like Henry Trinder and Mike Haley (who have featured for the England first team in uncapped matches against the Barbarians) is absolutely ridiculous and far too complicated! In my opinion it would be much better for everyone involved if a player was only captured once they have been capped for their country.

With all this going on, European qualification for the World Cup is currently a mess and I think regardless of the results, there will be some who feel the team that qualifies does not deserve their place in the tournament. With World Rugby now involved, I’ll be interested to see the fallout from all this… once we finally get a decision!


Increasing availability

Though nothing has been confirmed as of yet, there are rumours that Argentina will relax their eligibility criteria for the national team to allow European-based players to feature for the Pumas. The rumours suggest this may be in place for the Summer Tests but more likely the Rugby Championship.

To me, this is wonderful news, as under the current rules, they are basically limiting themselves to the Jaguares squad and players in a domestic competition that would likely be too large of a step up to international rugby. Picking European-based players would strengthen the national team as players like Facundo Isa, Juan Figallo, Juan Imhoff, Santiago Cordero and Marcelo Bosch could all come back into consideration. Los Pumas have gone backwards since they hammered Ireland in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup. Hopefully this relaxation of the law comes in and we can get back to having a strong competitive Argentina team.


Going 4 the Champions Cup

Possibly the news that excited me most in March was that Channel 4 have bought the rights to show Champions Cup matches for the next 4 seasons. Fans will be able to watch one match from each round of the pool stages, one quarter-final, one semi-final and the final all on free-to-air TV.

This is great news for the sport as it means that top-level club rugby is becoming more accessible to more people and with the World Cup happening next year as well it will only help to grow the fanbase. Granted the Premiership matches on Channel 5 have not been quite up to the standard of BT Sport, but they have been good enough to draw in fans, hopefully having the top teams in European Rugby facing each other will draw the crowds. What is important is they get the right pundits involved, so that we get enthusiasm as well as good explanations from them to entice in new fans. I often find myself thinking the BBC panels during the 6 Nations are a little stale, but if Channel 4 can get pundits like David Flatman on board it will certainly help.

We are entering a golden age of rugby broadcasting, hopefully the amount of free-to-air top flight rugby just continues to grow. Now I just need to hope Gloucester qualify for the top competition…

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 32

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 32

Manchester City took another step towards the Premier League title this weekend with a 1-3 demolition of Everton. That win at Goodison Park means that they can win the league at the Etihad on Saturday with a victory against local rivals Manchester United, who beat Swansea 2-0 this weekend. Staying near the top of the table and Tottenham’s 1-3 victory at Stamford Bridge (including stunning goals from Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli – who needs Harry Kane?!) has almost guaranteed them a place in the Champions League next season, while the defending Premier League Champions will be back in the Europa League. West Brom’s relegation is as good as confirmed following their 1-2 loss against Burnley and with Alan Pardew leaving, the club will surely be looking for a manager who will help them in the Championship rather than rushing to find someone who can potentially save them from inevitable relegation. Mark Hughes’ attempts to save Southampton from relegation got off to poor start with a 3-0 loss at West Ham in an atmosphere unrecognisable to that of Round 30, while Stoke fell to a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal.


Undefendable

I feel so sorry for Jack Butland on pretty much a weekly basis. With Joe Hart out of favour, this is his big chance to represent England in a major tournament, yet Stoke’s form could be his undoing. The Potters have the worst defensive record in the league (61 goals conceded – 4 more than West Ham or Watford) and yet despite that, Butland has actually had a pretty good season. He has made some mistakes, but he has also put in a number of great performances an made some brilliant saves. In fact, he has made the most saves of any keeper in the league this season with 120, 11 more than Łukasz Fabiański in second.

Butland’s problem has been the men in front of him. Despite a selection of good quality defenders (Wimmer, Shawcross, Zouma, Martins Indi), Stoke just haven’t been able to defend effectively! This weekend the defence allowed Arsenal 11 shots on target, including 2 penalties… I doubt there are many keepers who would have conceded less than 3 goals had they been in Butland’s place. I still expect him to make the England squad, but he may have to make do with a space on the bench. Hopefully Gareth Southgate will look closely at Butland and give him every chance to compete with Jordan Pickford for the number 1 jersey.


Bright future

plstatNo Aguero? No problem this weekend for City as they ran out 1-3 winners at Goodison Park. Their front 3 of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sané all got on the score sheet in this game and showed that even if the City careers of the original stars that brought City success (like Aguero and Vincent Kompany) are coming to an end, there is still plenty of success to come for City. Take a look at the table to the side showing the 2017/18 Premier League stats for the starting front 3 against Everton. With the oldest of them being 23, it can be argued that none of these players have even yet reached their peak and yet they have scored more goals between them than almost half the teams in the league this season! With Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva playing just behind them, this attacking quintuplet will cause problems for any team and should probably be the focal point of this team going forward over the next few years. If they can keep Aguero then that will be fantastic for them as he is such an experienced and natural goal scorer that these players can learn off even if he is not playing so many minutes going forward. If not, bringing in a player like Riyad Mahrez would push all the front 3 to be at their best, though I feel they would be better suited to bringing in a striker with a bit more physicality and height to give them a Plan B if the usual beautiful attacking play doesn’t work.


Mixed day for Mané

Sadio Mané may have got Liverpool’s first goal against Crystal Palace but he had mixed fortunes in this match. As well as having a first half goal disallowed for offside, he was also booked for simulation following a challenge from Andros Townsend. While the replays clearly show Townsend making contact with Mané, the Senegalese winger’s fall to the floor was not only delayed but also highly theatrical. Going by the ban earlier in the season for Oumar Niasse when he “exaggerated the effect of a normal contact to deceive the referee”, then this is clearly a dive and I can see no defence for Mané. It’s just a shame that the referee punishing him for the dive means that eh will not receive a ban for his actions.

In the second half, he was lucky to stay on the pitch as he tussled on the edge of his box with a couple of Crystal Palace players, ended up on the floor and – with all the arrogance of a striker at a top-table club against a lesser raked team – reached out and grabbed the ball with his hand even though the ref was allowing play to continue. This denied Crystal Palace a chance in the final third so I have no idea how the referee has not given him a second yellow here. It was clear that Jürgen Klopp knew Sané had got lucky as he subbed him off within minutes of the incident. I can’t help but wonder how the match would have finished had Sané received the card he deserved.

While on the subject of cards not being given, there are very few things I hate more than players waving imaginary cards at referees as Yohan Cabaye did following Sané’s handball. There is no need for it and professional players should be setting a better example. Unfortunately, respect to referees generally seems low on FIFA or the FA’s agenda, so the Frenchman is sure to get away with this.


Round 33 predictions:

Everton v Liverpool – Liverpool win

AFC Bournemouth v Crystal Palace – Palace win

Brighton & Hove Albion v Huddersfield Town – Brighton win

Leicester City v Newcastle United – Leicester win

Stoke City v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

Watford v Burnley – Draw

West Bromwich Albion v Swansea City – Swansea win

Manchester City v Manchester United – City win

Arsenal v Southampton – Arsenal win

Chelsea v West Ham – Chelsea win

Schmoedown: Civil War

Schmoedown: Civil War

When Kristian Harloff announced that he would be taking a break from the Schmoedown in late 2017, speculation was rife as to who would be the Interim Commissioner in his absence. With many expecting Mark “Baby Carrots” Ellis or Ken “The Pitboss” Napzok to take over (and a number of people campaigning for “Tricky” Tom Dagnino). I think pretty much everyone was caught out with the announcement that Thadd “The Warlord” Williams would be taking the reigns and it certainly caused a stir, with Napzok citing Harloff overlooking him as one of the events that led to him joining the Lion’s Den.

oopsWith a number of calls during Harloff’s revenge tour and climb to the singles title leading to calls of the game being rigged in his favour, the decision to keep The Warlord in charge until Darth Harloff lost the title seemed a smart one, but things didn’t quite go to plan for “The Commissioner”. Following Kristian’s loss at Schmoedown Spectacular II to “The Inglorious One” Samm Levine, he was in for a rude awakening as Thadd announced that the contract Kristian had signed named him Commissioner for a whole 6 months!

It was no surprise that Kristian immediately called to settle the dispute with a match for the title of Commissioner, but this was turned down by Thadd. Though we may not have seen Kristian push hard for this match since, there have been moments that suggest he is not accepting the decision lying down. From heckling Thadd at the Schmoedown Awards to introducing himself as “the true Commissioner” when replacing Mark Reilly at the desk for McWeeny v Bibbiani, it certainly looks like Kristian is keen to get his role back.

Things have not all been hunky-dory during Thadd’s reign. While we may have seen the rise of the Fyffe Club and the Shirewolves, plus Sam Witwer winning the Star Wars belt in one of the most stunning matches ever, but we have also seen the first instance of physical violence with Andrew Ghai’s tackle on John Rocha and a number of controversies. Thadd’s decision to create a contract for each match was used to benefit the Lion’s Den during Kylo Ken’s betrayal of Rachel Cushing, as his failure to turn up for their match against Blofeld’s Cat meant that “The Crusher” was forced to play 2v1 or forfeit. The Patriots also benefited from a highly controversial re-spin in their recent title defence against Top 10 and Dagnino was also allowed a new question in Round 3 of his and Napzok’s match against the Shirewolves after picking the wrong Charlie’s Angels movie.

pre-live
“I needed to read it, that fucking contract”

In the build-up to the Live Schmoedown match between The Wildberries and the Reel Rejects we saw that Kristian has been pushing for the Rules to be cleared up for competitors and announcers but Thadd has been pushing back on this, instead planning to reduce Kristian’s time at the desk. Thadd also took this moment to announce that the contract Kristian signed also had a clause that would keep Thadd in power if there were too many complaints… suddenly the controversies make sense! Surely we have now reached the point where Kristian will act and being to make his move to win back his role as Commissioner. But will this lead to the Schmoedown Civil War? How could this go down?

Team Harloff

team harloff
I would be shocked if the competitors here did not side with Kristian in his challenge to win back control of the Schmoedown

If Harloff calls out Thadd again he will certainly have support. Mark Ellis has been vocal in his calls that Kristian had the role of Commissioner stolen from him by Thadd and I would be shocked if he and Mark Reilly were not involved in calling Thadd out. Top 10 made it clear in their interview following their loss to the Patriots that they think Thadd is benefiting the Lions Den, so I can see the also being extremely vocal in their support of the one true Commissioner should he call out The Warlord, especially now that they are unable to challenge The Patriots for the title again. Samm Levine and “The Godfather” Drew McWeeny were put together by Harloff and both have thrived since they became Above The Line, so I can also see them being firmly on Team Harloff, who will also likely have the support of the Shriewolves as Kristian has already shown himself to be a fan of them. In fact, I can see the entire Fyffe Club joining up against Team Thadd. The list of current and former champions in Team Harloff could expand even further as I wouldn’t be surprised to see Innergeekdom Champion Jason Inman joining many of his fellow faces in the team.

dagnino
Expect the Lion’s Den to cause any chaos they can to push towards Dagnino becoming Commissioner

Team Thadd

Thadd’s Deep Cuts teammate Aaron Wilhelm will surely side with his partner in crime, but beyond that there is nobody that you could clearly say is a firm supporter. The Lion’s Den have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Thadd’s reign and will want to use any tumult in the league to create an opportunity for Dagnino to run the Schmoedown, so I can see them (including prospective new recruit Mark “The Enforcer” Donica) supporting Thadd and pushing him towards accepting Harloff’s challenge. With Top 10 and Jason Inman both joining Team Harloff, I can imagine Team Action also wanting to cause chaos and choosing to support Thadd, especially if Ben Batemen can come to an agreement with Thadd that sees him take on Inman in a match. Robert Meyer Burnett has been quiet in the Schmoedown since he was thrown out of the Den, but if Thadd were to offer him a shot at an Innergeekdom Number 1 Contender’s match (or perhaps even a rematch against Hector Navarro) then he could also join The Warlord’s side in the Civil War.

The Wildcards

mikebrianneIn the past, I would have expected Mike Kalinowski to be a part of Team Harloff, but since he joined up with “Miss Movies” Brianne Chandler it has been less clear who “K.O.” would choose to support – if anyone! If her were to join Team Harloff, then I can see Jay Washington’s Viper Squad joining Team Thadd as a chance to front up against the two of them.

The Growling Commandos don’t have any clear allegiance either way but the chance of finally taking on “The Outlaw” could see Bibbiani align with Team Thadd and bring the rest of his faction with him.

And the Wildberries? Well they’ll probably be too drunk to realise what’s going on!

The match

The match itself could go a couple of different ways, depending in part on where The Warlord’s loyalties lie. Maybe Top 10 were more right than they thought when they said about Thadd working against them and he is in fact an undercover member of the Lion’s Den and another part of Dagnino’s plan to take over the Schmoedown. If this turns out to be the case then I can see a team match, where Thadd and Dagnino join up to take on Team Schmoes. If the Schmoes win then Kristian gets his role as Commissioner back, if Thadd and Dagnino win then all hell breaks loose as the reign of Tom Dagnino begins.

thadd lion
Could Thadd’s anti-Lion’s Den stance have been an act all along?

Perhaps Thadd is a neutral party and it has just been coincidence that most of the controversies have benefited the Den. In this case I can see the opportunity for either a singles match between Harloff and Thadd or a team match between Team Schmoes and Deep Cuts. In this case I can guarantee Dagnino finds some way to be involved, either as a third singles competitor or by joining forces with The Pitboss again to face off against Depp Cuts and Team Schmoes.

As to the result, I would expect Kristian (whether on his own or teamed with Ellis) to be strong enough to win back control of the Schmoedown, however one bad spin of the wheel could easily change the outcome of the match. And if Thadd or Dagnino were to win, who knows what could happen…

 

Obviously as you can see this is just a fictional suggestion of how the Commissioner story line could play out. I very much doubt that the Schmoedown will go down this route, though it could lead to some great matches like Bateman v Inman, Burnett v Navarro and Rocha v Bibbiani, but it would take a lot of effort to involve so many competitors who may not always be readily available. I will be shocked though if we don’t see more to the story over the next month or so as we build towards Collider Collision, which would be the perfect event at which to stage the fight for Commissioner.