England Rugby: September Training Squad

England Rugby: September Training Squad

With 3 matches down in the Premiership, Eddie Jones has named a 36-man training squad who will meet from 23rd September to 25th September ahead of their Autumn Internationals, where they will play against South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Australia. The players announced in this squad are:

Forwards

Front Row: Jamie George, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler, Nick Schonert, Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola, Harry Williams

Back 5: Tom Curry, Nathan Hughes, Nick Isiekwe, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Zach Mercer, Michael Rhodes, Chris Robshaw, Brad Shields, Billy Vunipola, Mark Wilson

Backs

Scrum-halves: Danny Care, Dan Robson, Ben Youngs

Midfield: Owen Farrell, George Ford, Alex Lozowski, Henry Slade, Ben Te’o, Manu Tuilagi

Back 3: Chris Ashton, Mike Brown, Joe Cokanasiga, Elliot Daly, Nathan Earle, Jonny May, Jack Nowell

Notable Absentees

It appears that the Gloucester curse continues as once again the club have no representation in the training squad (newly-promoted Bristol are the only other team not to be supplying a player). Though I may be biased, I would argue that Ed Slater, Jason Woodward Lewis Ludlow and Henry Trinder could all feel hard done by for not being selected on their form last season and since the summer. One person who will feel absolutely gutted to miss out though is Danny Cipriani, who turned down more lucrative offers to come to Gloucester and stay eligible for England. After the incident in Jersey during preseason, Eddie Jones said that Cips would be judged on his rugby, yet despite leading Glaws to 3rd place, unbeaten in 3 games, with 2 Man of the Match awards, he has missed out yet again. Jones has said that it was 100% a rugby decision but I call bollocks on that as this means he has suddenly decided that Owen Farrell is a 10 again, despite having barely any options in the centre, while it was Cipriani who was at 10 when England finally remembered how to win in South Africa. Not just that, but if these selections were based purely on the rugby they’re playing, how are Ben Te’o and Chris Ashton (who have not appeared in a squad this season through injury and suspension respectively) involved? Jones is playing a very dangerous game by continuing to rely on George Ford – who has still not fully won me over – and Farrell, if one of them were to get injured on the eve of the World Cup, how much will he regret not getting Cipriani in in the squad more often? With the mixed response to John Mitchell being brought in as defence coach, leaving out Cipriani will not help get the fans enthused about the team after a disastrous 2017/18 season.

It’s not just Gloucester players that I feel have been hard done by though, as 2 of the best players in the Premiership last season (Sam Simmonds and Don Armand) have been left out. Armand especially seems to be one of those players like Cipriani or Alex Goode that could be the best in their position and still left out, while I can only imagine Eddie Jones is looking at Simmonds as a number 8, where he already has Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes. However Simmonds could easily feature on the flank and with Robshaw’s struggles last season, I can’t fathom how Simmonds brings less to this team the former captain or Mark Wilson. Brad Shields is selected and he’s injured at the moment, how does that make sense?! But even if Jones wants to just consider Simmonds at 8, I would have him in there. He offers something different to Hughes and Vunipola with extra pace while still being strong enough to hold his own. Vunipola has only just returned from injury while Hughes may have started the season well, but has never really lived up to his Wasps form when he pulls on the red rose. Once again it feels like Eddie Jones is sticking very much to his favourites and I worry that if they get injured or a loss of form makes them unselectable, he will have to look at players with just a handful of caps.

He’s Back!

Given his injury history, I don’t want to get carried away, but it is so great to see Manu Tuilagi back in the squad. He has had the worst time with injuries (he hasn’t played for England since the 2016 6 Nations) but has been looking good this season for Leicester. When on form, it is hard not to consider him one of the best centres in the world and his combination of pace and power will help England get the balance that has been sorely missing in their midfield. Now we just need to cross our fingers and hope his injury worries are behind him – though I wouldn’t mind if a little niggle made him conveniently miss matches against Gloucester.

The Back 3

Looking at the options available in the back 3 if Eddie Jones were to pick on form, I think Mike Brown will struggle to make a matchday squad. Elliot Daly may not have had the best summer at 15, but he has been looking much more comfortable there recently for Wasps. Joe Cokasaniga is in top form in a struggling Bath team. Jonny May is a shoe-in for one of the wing spots after his recent England and Leicester performances. Jack Nowell is a Lion and in my opinion possibly England’s best overall winger when on form. Add to that Nathan Earle’s speed and Chris Ashton’s top-quality support lines and it’s hard to see how Mike Brown will be able to get much time on the pitch.

The scary thing is the quality of options that haven’t been picked too. Anthony Watson may be down my pecking order but he is still a British & Irish Lion, but he is currently out injured. Denny Solomona and Christian Wade will always be looking to get on the scoresheet, while Matt Banahan and Jason Woodward have started the season strongly for Gloucester. And let’s not forget Alex Goode, who has consistently been one of the best 15s in the Premiership over recent seasons but can’t get a shot under Eddie Jones! If Jones can get the right team and they can play near the best of their ability, they have the players out wide to cut teams to shreds.

Schmoedown Live 3

Schmoedown Live 3

The 3rd and final live Schmoedown event of the year took place at the El Portal Theatre on September 8th. Living across the pond, I had to wait until last week to see the matches, but boy was it worth the wait! The Horsemen’s presence at every live event continued with John Rocha and Dan Murrell taking part in the first match of the Ultimate Schmoedown Teams Tournament, while Jason Inman prepared to defend his Innergeekdom title against Mara Knopic – the first live title match! While I would say the 2nd live event was my favourite to watch (I’m a Star Wars nut and the Horsemen reveal was perfect!), I really enjoyed watching this one and wanted to go back through the main bits.

The Matches

Founding Fathers (“The Outlaw” John Rocha & “Dangerous” Dan Murrell) 20-17 Wait, I Know This (“Sassy” Stacy Howard & “Blackman” Winston Marshall)

“Horsemen! Let’s mount up, it’s time to ride.” – John Rocha

If this match is a hint as to the fun we will have during the Anarchy tournament, we are in for a treat. Clearly underdogs against 2 former champions, Wait, I Know This played up to the fact, with a great promo from first-time manager Coy Jandreau, making ladies swoon everywhere with his Jeff Goldblum costume. The team came out flanked by 2 dinosaurs (it’s still to be confirmed if either was a Tricenatauratops) and certainly got a large portion of the crow on their side. And then came the Founding Fathers, escorted out by the other 3 Horsemen and with a great new entrance music. With Murrell having lost his last match to Andrew Ghai, we knew he’d be up for this and as such we were in for a treat.

mtsanarchy1The Founding Fathers took a strong lead in Round 1, with a combined score of 12 (7 for Rocha, 5 for Dan) while Wait, I know This struggled to keep up as often it turned out Winston (1/8) didn’t know this, though Stacy went under the radar and picked up an impressive 6 points to keep her team in the hunt.

The Founding Fathers chose to defer their spin in Round 2 and Winston spun Pixar Movies. Their fortunes were mixed in this round as they correctly answered all of their questions, however they had to check down to multiple choice for 5/6, only just putting them ahead of their opponents. At this point, it must be noted that Stacy Howard continued to show her Macuga-esque knack of being able to get the right answer on a complete guess. When her guessing game is on point, she will always be a danger. Rocha took the spin for the Founding Fathers, but he landed on Opponent’s Choice and after plenty of deliberation, the former Singles Champions were given Movie Release Dates. Watching the round, it looked like Dan Murrell took the lead on this round – something Rocha confirmed in the post-match interview – and they went 6/6 for 8 points, but it did seem that they could have got more 2-point answers had they chosen not to play it safe.

Things looked bad for Wait I Know This going into the final round 6 points down and things didn’t get any better as Winston missed his 2-point question in the category of Tom Cruise. Stacy nailed her 3-pointer in Brad Pitt and Wait, I Know This were left having to answer their 5-point question to avoid the TKO. I’m a big fan of the Middle Earth films and thought the question to name the 2 actors to appear in all 6 Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies was easy, but I made the same mistake as they did, picking Orlando Bloom (who was not in the first Hobbit movie) rather than Cate Blanchett. And so the Founding Fathers got the TKO victory to kick off the Anarchy Tournament and will next face the winner of KOrruption v Inky and the Brain.

mtsffwinI really liked the chemistry between Winston and Stacy in this match and think it is a shame they were facing one of the strongest teams in the tournament in their opener. Unfortunately with The World’s Finest having done so well in their rookie season, I can’t see Wait, I Know This remaining as a team long-term. As for the Founding Fathers, they will have tougher tests, but scoring 20 points in 2 rounds despite spinning Opponent’s Choice will have put the league on notice. Murrell is back and looks set to prove the Ghai loss was nothing more than a blip, while Rocha appears to have new life alongside Murrell and this could help draw out some of his best ever performances.

“It’s my honour to ride alongside the greatest.” – John Rocha

“Amazing” Mara Knopic 21-20 Jason “Justice” Inman

After her victories over Rachel Cushing and Mike Kalinowski, we knew that we were likely going to be in for a treat when Mara Knopic took on the Innergeekdom Champion Jason Inman. Both competitors were very complimentary about each other ahead of the match – no real surprise considering she is effectively a sister-in-law to the Horsemen – and while both clearly wanted to win, what was important was that we were treated to a great match. The mutual respect continued as Mara emerged with Dan Murrell and when the rest of the Horsemen led out Inman, there was clearly no animosity towards her.

mtsknoinRound 1 was a close affair as Mara – who has sometimes struggled in the opening round – looked to be on form with a score of 7, but Jason was showing his championship credentials by getting 8/10. Brad Gilmore from the Schmoedown Rundown won’t be happy though as once again both competitors missed on a question about the Back to the Future films!

“I don’t think I’m a rookie anymore.” – Mara Knopic

mtsmrd
The moment the match spun in Mara’s favour (literally)

Like his fellow Horsemen before him, Inman deferred his spin and Mara was up, landing on Movie Release Dates with her first spin and – to the shock of the crowd – accepting it without hesitation. She fired though the round and only had to check down to multiple choice for one question on her way to correctly answering 5/5 for a haul of 9 points. Jason was less lucky with his spins, initially landing on Mixed Bag and then Star Wars on his second attempt. Inman may not have many weaknesses, but this category certainly isn’t one of his strengths. He worked his way through the category well, going 4/5 for 6 points, missing on a Yoda quote that Mara was also unable to get despite multiple choice.

In Round 3, Mara spun Middle Earth and they got a question that I found easy, but as we already know I’m a Tolkien nut and I can imagine it wouldn’t have been as obvious to anyone else. Both competitors chose to risk 2 points but while Mara was able to pull out the correct answer, the defending champion was not able to and he fell 6 points behind.

Inman caught up slightly in Round 4 as he buzzed in for 3 correct answers to Mara’s 1. After 2 matches in the 5-round format, the speed round appears to be her biggest weakness as she is often beaten to the buzzer, but she clearly has the knowledge and if she can improve her speed she will be deadly here. I will also give her some slack as the buzzers did not appear to be the most reliable of things on the night.

Going into Round 5 with a 4-point deficit, things weren’t looking good for Inman, but if anyone could come back to win it would be him. He hit the mark with his 2- and 3-pointers and after Mara hit her 2-point question, he was left needing to answer his 5-pointer to stay in the match. I think it’s fair to say Chris Skalicky will not be in Inman’s good graces right now after the 5 pointer to name the type of wine Bilbo offered Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, but as someone able to quote the entire line I would call this question miles easier than the one that felled Kalinowski, though I still think it was a very worthy 5-pointer.

“This was a knowledge-based game and knowledge won it” – Jason Inman

mtsmkchampAnd so Mara Knopic became the first female to win a solo title in the Schmoedown, following hot on the heels of the Shirewolves becoming the first female champions. With a 5-0 record and a title to her name, it will be difficult to argue against her being named Rookie of the Year unless Ethan Erwin can have some serious success in the Ultimate Schmoedown. She clearly has a good breadth and depth of knowledge and with Movie Release Dates now appearing more regularly as a category she has more than proved herself worthy of the title and is in my opinion one of the top 4 Innergeekdom competitors.

Inman will come back strong. 20 points is a solid score considering he had one of his weaker categories in Round 2 and I am sure we will see him competing in title matches again in 2019.

More KOrruption

mtskalcrashIt was always going to be difficult to beat an ending as good as the Horsemen reveal, but the arrival of KOrruption to interrupt Mara’s post-match interview and announce that Mike will be taking on Mara for the title at Schmoedown Spectacular 3 without having to go though a contender match to earn a spot. As a beaten finalist in the tournament I can understand Kalinowski being in the hunt for the next title shot and with the Ultimate Schmoedown Teams and Singles Tournaments still to go there obviously isn’t much time to fit in Innergeekdom matches between now and Spectacular, but it is still a shock to see Kalinowski get a free pass to another title match. I guess it helps to be friends with the Commissioner.

As for the Commissioner, Thadd is going to be coming under heavy pressure over the next few months. At the start of the show he took credit for the live event, Innergeekdom tournament and Anarchy, which I’m sure won’t have been appreciated by hosts Mark Ellis and the one true Commish Kristian Harloff. While the Innergeekdom tournament took the division to a new level, the lack of a clear bracket will have certainly rubbed some competitors the wrong way, which won’t have been helped by the splitting of teams for the Anarchy Tournament. Jonny Loquasto has not been seen since he was unceremoniously dropped from the announcers desk at Collision but will be managing one of the Anarchy teams and may want to have a word with the Commissioner. The Fyffe Club are likely still seething at Sam Witwer being stripped of his title too. For some competitors, Kalinowski being given a title shot without having to go through a contenders match could be the last straw. Thadd has now been in charge of the league for about a year, I will be shocked if there has not been some serious challenge to his leadership by the end of the season.

Other Thoughts

mtsroghaiThere was a great moment during Inman’s entrance when Rocha and Ghai (in the crowd) fronted up to each other before shaking each other’s hand. This was a great moment as it shows Ghai’s victories over Murrell and Reilly have earned him even the grudging respect of the Outlaw ahead of their contenders match

It wasn’t shown much on the videos, but the Wildberries were at the El Portal to help get the crowd pumped for the show. I’ve seen a few clips online from people who were there (would you believe me if I said I wasn’t jealous? Me neither) and it looks like they did a great job. They may not be the best at trivia but they are so much fun and a role like this is perfect for them!

Sticking with the Wildberries, having Jeopardy as an answer at a live event with Josh Macuga present was just too perfect and it was great to see him rush the stage to celebrate. #JoshMacuga4Jeopardy

It was also great to see Chris Skalicky onstage judging the buzzers during the title match. His is a name many people have heard watching the show but for those who do not watch much other Schmoedown related content (seriously, there’s great stuff out there, you really should!) it must be great to finally see the infamous head writer

After Mara titled herself “Mara, first of her name, Queen of the Innergeekdom, Protector of the Realm, Brown Dwarf Star of the Movie Trivia Schmoedown, Mother of kittens, the Undefeated, the Breaker of brackets” on the Schmoedown Rundown, I really want Kristian to have to say all this when announcing her for her next match and see them fit the whole title onto the graphic!

mtscoyHey may not be the best of competitors, but we need so much more of Coy Jandreau as a manager in the league. His charisma and enthusiasm is wonderful and I think he could do a great job as a manager for a competitor who is not so confident with their promos. I think we could see a few other managers along similar lines as the Anarchy tournament goes on

It was great to see the improvements made for this show after the last one. After some issues with having only 1 mic per table during Team Action v The Shirewolves, the production crew did a great job to make sure there was a mic per person at the table

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 4

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 4

It was the weekend for upsets in Round 4 as both New Zealand and Australia came up just short against South Africa and Argentina respectively. The All Blacks could have won the tournament with 2 rounds to spare had they earned a bonus point victory, but they must now go to Argentina on the 29th and try to win there (so it would appear the inevitable has just been delayed), while this is the first time the Pumas have won more than one game per season in this tournament. Australia meanwhile have dropped to 7th in the World rankings, their lowest ever position!


New Zealand 34-36 South Africa

“It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile… winning’s winning” – Vin Diesel, The Fast and the Furious

The All Blacks shot themselves in the (kicking) foot in this match. While Handrè Pollard was nearly perfect off the tee, Beauden Barret was anything but, having success on only 2/6 kicks while hitting the post on multiple occasions. He may be arguably the best fly half in the world, but his kicking off the tee is erratic at best and nowhere near consistent enough for a Tier 1 team. New Zealand outscored South Africa 6 tries to 2, they carried them 624m to 245m, they beat 39 defenders to the Springboks’ 12 and had 75% of the possession… yet due to Barrett’s questionable kicking they lost by 2 points. Even at the end they should have won it, as they had over 10 phases camped on the South Africa line – many of them with Damian McKenzie in the pocket – but decided to forgo a simple drop goal attempt and spread the ball for a try, knocking on after the hooter had gone. The All Blacks are a wonderful team and a joy to watch, but I would argue that they are not pragmatic enough anymore. They have the ability to run it in from anywhere and will frequently, but with the game on the line, they do not have the rugby brain of a Dan Carter or Jonny Wilkinson to take the easy 3 points and keep the scoreboard ticking over. If more teams can find a way to score a similar amount of tries, then the All Blacks could be at risk of more losses in the near future.

While I am coming down hard on the All Blacks, it would be remiss of me not to also praise South Africa’s defensive effort. The Springboks made 196/235 tackles (83% success) and refused to give in, even when defending on their line or a man down. Yes they were broken on occasions, but anyone would be against such a good team. The All Blacks handling was poor at time, but I feel this often came from the pressure put on them by the defence, while Cheslin Kolbe intercepted Anton Leinert-Brown early in the second half for a try and Aphiwe Dyantyi (who I’m not sold on defensively if I’m honest) did just enough to fly out the line at the death and force the knock-on from McKenzie to give South Africa the game. I still think they are searching for the right formula in their line-up, but if they can continue to defend so doggedly, the results will keep coming.


Australia 19-23 Argentina

Something is not right in that Australian back line. Marika Koroibete, Israel Folau (at wing) and Dane Haylett-Petty is arguably one of the most dangerous back 3s in world rugby, but they are not getting enough ball aide from countering kicks they have fielded. Matt Toomua as well was pretty much anonymous in this game, other than his kicks at goal and a few other clearances. The midfield is not working at the moment!

Part of this may be down to fatigue, as Toomua has been clocking up the air miles and returning to play for Leicester on the rest weekends. I think that is a ridiculous decision as the extra travel and matches will be fatiguing him and stopping him playing at his best, while increasing his risk of injury.

More than that though, I feel the decision to pick Kurtley Beale at 10 is holding them back. He is a fantastic player and can play the position, but I think he works better in the centre where he has a bit more time and space to work his magic. I applaud the decision to try someone other than Foley at 10 as they need to look at options in case he gets injured, but I don’t think Beale is the option and would rather see Toomua or Hodge given the 10 shirt for the last 2 matches, allowing Beale to move back to centre. This team is not far from being successful and they have the quality of players, they just need to find the right mix.

Argentina are back to their beautiful and dangerous best! Nicolas Sanchez may be easily wound up, but he is one of the most complete packages at 10 in the game currently. The back 3 of Moyano, Boffelli and Delguy is one of the most exciting in international rugby, while Boffelli’s monster boot will punish teams from inside his own half. The scary thing is that players like Santiago Cordero and Joaqin Tuculet could also still come into contention ahead of the World Cup. In the forwards, their discipline seems vastly improved and they are also getting more front foot ball through players like Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer, bu8t again can get even stronger when Facundo Isa comes back in the fold.

Like many international teams recently, Argentina looked to hit their low in the Summer Tests against Wales and Scotland but with Mario Ledesma taking charge they are quickly climbing back up the mountain and will be very difficult to beat if they carry on like this.


NFL Bold Predictions

NFL Bold Predictions

Football is back! The 2018 NFL season kicked off this weekend and in honour of it, I decided to have a look at each Division in the league and try to predict the winner. Obviously it would have been great to get this out before the season started but I only had the inspiration at the last minute and then life got in the way, slowing things down, but I had all the predictions down before the matches started so still felt it was worth putting out.

Now for those who don’t know, I’m a Tennessee Titans fan and as last season was their first playoff appearance since I started cheering for them I’m obviously not the best judge of success, so I decided to get in a few friends to help me:

  • Rob is an old friend from uni, who I got to know through the 3 years. While at uni, he got into American football and began to play for the university’s team, Tarannau. He is (unfortunately) a Jaguars fan
  • Matt is a former work colleague who was actually one of the people who supported me as I initially set up this site. He was the one person at work I could actually have a conversation with about the NFL and not see their eyes glaze over. You can find his blog here. He is an Eagles fan and thinks Carson Wentz and Nick Foles are gods among men
  • Ed is an old friend from school who I recently got back in contact with via social media through a shared love of all things sporty and geeky. He is currently a Patriots fan, but feels dirty to admit it

Now when I set these lads the challenge, I got immediate responses from Rob and Matt but Ed actually took a few days to think about it and came back to me not just with his picks but mini essay’s for each division – in fact it would have probably made a better post than all my rubbish! So as we go through I thought I would throw in some of Ed’s pearls of wisdom too.


NFC North

The Bears will be better with Khalil Mack on defense and Mitch Trubisky entering his second year with an improved receiver corps, however I feel they are maybe 1 year away from competing in this division. The Lions will always be in with a shot as long at Matthew Stafford is throwing big numbers, but again I don’t feel they have the overall quality to make the top 2. The Packers have a great chance to win the division if Aaron Rodgers can stay fit, especially with Jimmy Graham now in Green Bay, however if A-Rod goes down they could easily end up bottom of the standings. For me, the division belongs to the Minnesota Vikings, who will combine one of the best defences in the league with an offense that should go to the next level with Kirk Cousins under center.

Rob’s pick: Vikings           Matt’s pick: Bears            Ed’s pick: Vikings

Ed says: “This is close between the Vikings and the Packers, but the Vikings should be able to build on a good season last year with a top WR corps and Defense now with a solid QB under centre in Kirk Cousins. A fit again packers should push them close in this division and will make the playoffs even without the Rodgers Nelson connection. Excited to see the Bears play this season with Trubisky under pressure to perform and a huge pickup in Khalil Mack – still a side in growth”

NFC East

With OBJ back and Saquon Barkley in the backfield, the Giants should do better than last year, but I do not feel their O-Line will be able to give Eli Manning the time he needs. The Redskins will do well with a strong team, but may be hampered by Alex Smith’s more limited short passing game. The Cowboys’ success depends heavily on Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten gone I can see them struggling in 2018. The clear favourite here is the Philadelphia Eagles, who may go through a sophomore slump but should still have enough to win the division having strengthened a roster that won the Super Bowl last season, they just need to hope Carson Wentz can get back to the same level when he returns from injury.

Rob’s pick: Eagles             Matt’s pick: Eagles           Ed’s pick: Eagles

NFC South

The Bucs have too many questions at quarterback to compete in arguably one of the tightest divisions in the competition. The Panthers need to hope that the good Cam Newton shows up and players like Greg Olsen can stay fit, but will probably be looking at a wildcard spot as opposed to winning the division. The Falcons have the potential, especially offensively, to win the division but do not usually perform to the level they need to for enough of the season. I give this division to the New Orleans Saints, who will always be able to stay in the game with Drew Brees at QB and a running game that includes Alvin Kamara and (once back from suspension) Mark Ingram Jr.

Rob’s pick: Saints             Matt’s pick: Saints           Ed’s pick: Saints

NFC West

The 49ers may have gone undefeated with Jimmy Garoppolo starting last season but I don’t expect that to last long, especially with Jerick McKinnon now out for the season. The Legion of Boom is gone in Seattle and while Russell Wilson will always keep them in the hunt, I think their questionable O-line will cost them even a wildcard spot. The Cardinals need to hope David Johnson and Sam Bradford can both stay healthy if they are to have any chance of making the playoffs. The LA Rams get the nod here as they have strengthened their defense with Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. This is a team in win-now mode and that’s exactly what I expect them to do this season.

Rob’s pick: Rams              Matt’s pick: Rams            Ed’s pick: Rams

Ed says: “A division that has been turned on its head within two years. Big offseason moves by the Rams look like they are heading for a Superbowl or Bust kind of season this year, no disagreement about their strength all over the field and they should easily win this division. Tough call between the 49ers and the Cardinals but if Jimmy G finds the form he left off on, the 49ers should just grasp the final playoff position in a tight, tight race. Without Russell Wilson the Seahawks would be 0-16!”

AFC North

The Browns are the Browns and there was nothing I saw on Hard Knocks that will make me think they can be genuine contenders, I do expect them to get a few wins though. The Bengals need to hope Andy Dalton have one of his rare above-average years but I don’t see them making it to .500. The Ravens are another team that need to see the best from their QB Joe Flacco, but even if they do I don’t think there is enough talent through the roster to get more than a wildcard spot. Clear favourites here are the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their defense may not be the best but can cope in a relatively easy division, while Ben Roethlisberger will love flinging the ball around to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster while James Conner (and Leveon Bell if/when he comes back) will cause havoc on the ground and out of the backfield.

Rob’s pick: Ravens           Matt’s pick: Steelers       Ed’s pick: Steelers

AFC East

The Bills may regret moving on from Tyrod Taylor as Nathan Peterman and Josh Allen fight for the starting job. The Jets showed promise last year but I think they will be happy with an 8-8 season. The Dolphins need Ryan Tannehill to not just stay healthy but also to have one of his best seasons ever. Of course the only team that I could pick here was the New England Patriots. They may have lost some big names (Malcolm Butler, Danny Amendola & Brandin Cooks) and be without the suspended Julian Edelman for the first few games, but it is impossible to bet against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick winning the division, especially if Gronk can stay healthy.

Rob’s pick: Patriots          Matt’s pick: Patriots        Ed’s pick: Patriots

AFC South

The Colts are pinning their season on the health of Andrew Luck, who has not played since the 2016 season, and I don’t think even a top form Luck can make up for the deficiencies in this roster. As much as it pains me to say it, I think the Titans will miss out on a wildcard spot this season as they begin life under Mike Vrabel. The Jags defense is immense but I don’t see how thay can have success with Blake Bortles at QB, especially now his top 3 receivers from last year are gone. Providing the majority of their top players can stay healthy, I would expect the Houston Texans to win the division as they also have a strong defense. There may currently be questions over how Deshaun Watson does returning from an ACL injury, but with Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins on the roster he has better targets than Bortles.

Rob’s pick: Jaguars          Matt’s pick: Texans         Ed’s pick: Texans

Ed says: “Very tough to call between the Jags and the Texans but if they can stay healthy in Houston there is a real buzz around this team on offense, with some absolute stars on D with Watt, Clowney and the addition of the Honey Badger, and I think they’ll make the playoffs. The Jags have the outstanding defense in the league without doubt but Blake Bortles just holds them back here…”

AFC West

Denver has the pass rush and the WR corps to win, but they are relying on Case Keenum replicating last year’s Vikings form, which is by no means a guarantee. The Raiders have some quality on offense but their defense has just taken a huge step back with the loss of Khalil Mack. I expect the Chargers to make the playoffs as they have a dangerous offense containing Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and the ageless Antonio Gates, while Joey Bosa will always be looking for a way to get to the opposition QB. However I think the Chargers reach the playoffs via a wildcard spot and the top spot goes to the Kansas City Chiefs. Though they lost Marcus Peters, they will be getting Eric Berry back, while moving on from Alex Smith and trusting Patrick Mahomes could see the offense go to a new level as he opens up the field with Sammy Watkins, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt.

Rob’s pick: Chiefs             Matt’s pick: Chargers     Ed’s pick: Chargers

Ed says: “I just cannot see the Raiders mounting a serious challenge in this division without Khalil Mack. The Broncos could do something if we see last years Case but for me this division is between the Chiefs and Chargers, and that very much hangs on how prolific Mahomes is going to be. The chargers are best set up here with a strong Defense and talent at skill positions”

So there you have it, our selections for every divisional winner. I was surprise just how all of our picks lined up considering we all picked separately, with only 1 pick even having a 50/50 split and many being unanimous. When I first started asking the lads for picks, Rob was the first to come back to me and also threw a little extra prediction in there that I loved, so I decided to get this from everyone else too:

Super Bowl LIII will be…

  • Me – Vikings v Patriots
  • Rob – Jaguars v Saints
  • Matt – Eagles v Texans
  • Ed – Chargers v Packers

Interestingly, though we were all very similar in our picks for who tops the division, we all have different franchises having success in the postseason, with Ed being brave enough to pick the Packers as NFC Champions after making their way in through a wildcard spot!

What do you think of our selections? Do you think we’re close or completely wrong? Let me know in the comments below. It will be fun to see how close we got come the end of the season!

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 3

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 3

We are now halfway through the tournament and I think we can give the title to New Zealand. Despite resting a number of players – allowing 2 payers to make their first starts and another to come off the bench for his debut – and losing 2 stars to injury in the opening 10 minutes, the All Blacks face of against a Pumas team that player really well… and still won by 22 points! Meanwhile, Australia had to contend with some late withdrawals and a halftime deficit to score the only points of the second half and get the win.


New Zealand 46-24 Argentina

I wrote recently about the incredible strength in depth the All Blacks have. This match was a prefect example. They lost starters Brodie Retallick and Ngani Laumape to injury within the first 10 minutes and were also without Ben Smith at that point as he went through the HIA process. Despite this, they still managed to come away with a convincing win in their first ever game at Trafalgar Park. As well as some regular bench warmers being given starts – most notably Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea and TJPerenara – Steve Hansen also handed first starts to flanker Shannon Frizell and fly half Richie Mo’unga.

Despite a shaky start – he missed his first penalty to touch – and the early loss of Laumape outside him, Mo’unga had an assured match, kicking 6/7 shots at goal for a personal haul of 14 point while showing a good range of passes and almost sending Jack Goodhue over for a try with a lovely popped pass, which led to Perenara’s try on the next phase. It currently appears that he is competing with Damian McKenzie for the role of Beauden Barrett’s backup. Personally, I’m not a fan of McKenzie at 10 as I feel that he is not able to play the structure game anywhere near as well as he is able to exploit the space by playing 15, so I would love to see Mo’unga given the 10 jersey for the next 3 Tests to give him every chance to grow into the position.

As for Frizell, he was arguably the star of the show. As well as making 16 tackles, the Highlander made 91 metres off 16 carries and was heavily involved in a number of tries (as well as scoring one!) with his strong runs and also his deft hands to play the pivot role in the critical phase that put Nehe Milner-Skudder over in the corner. At just 24 years old, this guy looks to be the future of the 6 jersey and the long-term replacement for Jerome Kaino. Liam Squire has done well at the position and is a more experienced player, but I feel that Frizell had more of an impact on this match than Squire has been having. I would be shocked if Frizell is not the regular starter moving forward.

 

Argentina played a wonderful game. They played some beautiful rugby. They scored some beautiful tries. They lost by 22 points. One of the few areas where the Pumas really struggled in this game was the scrum. Despite not an early change in the second row and Joe Moody being missing, the All Blacks were dominant and Karl Tu’inukuafe especially had success during the game.

Now Argentina certainly wouldn’t have been helped by the loss of Juan Figallo, who is now out until 2019 following an injury playing for Saracens – honestly, the fact that Premiership players are flying all the way back to play for their clubs during rest weeks is ridiculous! – but I don’t think this was all down to just him being missing. Watching the game, I noticed on Twitter some people had noticed the odd way the second rows were binding. Rather than binding with the prop in front through their legs, they were binding on the prop’s outside him. I’ve never tried binding like this but having spent much of my time in the tight five, I can’t see how this knits the scrum together better than the usual binding. With Australia looking good in the scrums this weekend, Argentina need to do some work in practice this week to ensure they can keep things close.


Australia 23-18 South Africa

Following the victory, captain Michael Hooper talked about his team’s resilience to get the victory in this match. Following the initial team announcement, the Wallabies had star David Pocock pull out ahead of the day with a neck injury suffered in Round 2, then Israel Folau and Adam Coleman were announced as also having withdrawn closer to the match.

In the match itself, the team put their issues behind them and put in a dogged defensive display, stopping South Africa from crossing the try line on a number of visits to the 22. Their attack was by no means perfect with Kurtley Beale shifted to 10 and Toomua brought in at 12, but they did enough to hold on for the victory. Special mention needs giving to Taniela Tupou. The Tongan Thor appeared to be injured following a collapsed scrum that left him on his back – having played tight head for years I hate to imagine the shapes his body made to get in that position – yet despite such visible discomfort he held his own an a series of 5m scrums at the death as the Wallabies held on for the win. Having seen the replays of the collapse and the discomfort he was in, I was certain he would have to come off so to see him make it to the end highlighted the resilience of this team on the day. Add back players like Pocock and Folau and get the attack working better, this team can quickly jump to the next level.

 

As resilient as Australia’s defence were, South Africa’s inability to cross the whitewash was costly. After a couple of indifferent matches, Handre Pollard was dropped to the bench and Elton Jantjies given a shot at 10. I have been very clear previously that I am not a fan of Jantjies at all so maybe I am being a bit harsh, but I don’t remember him doing much that had a positive impact on the game – other than his kicks at goal. Though the commentary praised his attempted cross-kick to Aphiwe Dyantyi under penalty advantage, he should have been putting the ball into the in-goal area rather than ahead of the line, which allowed Dane Haylett-Petty the opportunity to come forwards onto the ball and make the catch, while he also put a poor grubber kick over the dead ball line when the Springboks had a spell of pressure 5m out. While I’ve argued for Pollard’s inclusion over that of Janjies, right now I don’t know if either is the right option, so I would suggest another option to Rassie Erasmus.

With just 1 win from 3 and 2 games remaining against New Zealand, I would recommend putting in Damian Willemse at 10, and supporting him by going for Pollard at 12 as a second playmaker. The two of them in midfield, combined with Willie le Roux at 15, could form a devastating triangle of playmakers and finally allow the team to get the best out of their back line. That may be a lot to ask with home and away fixtures coming up against the All Blacks but I think at this point, the most important thing is developing the right players and finding the right squad, so I would go with this regardless of the result as long as the performances are good. Let’s be honest, nobody is beating the Kiwis anytime soon!


 

Risky Warm-up

Risky Warm-up

We are just over a year out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup and England, Ireland and Wales have been announcing their warm-up matches. To my memory, recent World Cups have usually seen teams have 3 warm-up matches, but this time England, Ireland and Wales have announced they will be playing 4 matches each:

Ireland v Italy – 10/8/19
England v Wales 11/8/19
Wales v England 17/8/19
England v Ireland 24/8/19
Wales v Ireland 31/8/19
Engand v Italy 6/9/19
Ireland v Wales 7/9/18

Now I’ve got to be honest, I am not a fan of the decision to play 4 matches. I understand that the players will need some warm-up matches to prepare following the summer, but to be playing 4 matches so close to the World Cup (Ireland and England play their first matches on 22/9/18, Wales a day later) is in my view very risky.

Assuming one of these teams reaches the final on 2/11/19, these teams will be playing 11 international matches in just under 3 months. Even though it does not have to be the same players involved in every match, the squad sizes mean that most players will be involved in the majority of matches, which will take a massive toll on them. There is also a very high chance that players will pick up injuries that could rule them out of the tournament. I can’t help but remember Morgan Stoddart’s broken leg against England in 2011 – an injury that ended his international career and caused him to retire from rugby having played just a few matches following his Scarlets return. Rugby is a contact sport and every time you take to the pitch you know there is a chance you will get injured, but if players do not go in with full commitment during these matches in an attempt to protect themselves for the tournament then they are more likely to do damage. Adding a fourth match just presents another chance for someone to get injured. Just imagine if Farrell or Sexton misses the World Cup courtesy of an injury picked up in one of these matches…

To me, this just feels like a chance for the unions to make a bit more money from ticket sales. Hopefully this is just me being a bit of a cynic and my worries come to nothing, but when these matches come around, I may have to watch them through my fingers.

Trouble for Tigers?

Trouble for Tigers?

Just 1 game into the season and change is already afoot at Welford Road. Following an embarrassing defeat to Exeter in Round 1, Leicester Tigers announced that they had parted company with head coach Matt O’Connor with immediate effect.

This has not been a great time for Tigers; they have not been the superpower they used to be for a number of years now and last year missed out on a place in the Premiership playoffs for the first time since 2005. I would argue that the squad they had last season and this season are the strongest they have had in a while, but in such a competitive league there is no guarantee they will be able to make the top 4 this season. But was now the right time to move on?

Honestly, I would have moved on in the summer. Ever since the popular Aaron Mauger was moved on following making the playoffs with a weaker team and replaced with O’Connor, I have had the feeling that something did not feel quite right at the club. Reports have suggested that players and coaches felt restricted under O’Connor and that seemed to be backed up by Ben Kay speaking on Rugby Tonight. Kay – a member of the Tigers board – also mentioned that they had a review at the end of last season and a number of actions were put into place, which O’Connor had said he could achieve, but following the preseason and the Exeter match they felt that these actions were not being met, so it was time to move on. I really appreciated Kay’s honesty and hearing him talk about how once they had made their decision it would not have been right to wait a few weeks made sense to me.

The important thing now is that the next man up is given every opportunity. Geordan Murphy has been an assistant coach at the club since 2013 and has consistently been in charge of the club in the Anglo-Welsh Cup as well as being in charge for a game against Bath just after O’Connor had arrived. He is Leicester through and through and will want to do everything to bring the glory days back, while he also has a number of other former Tigers players on the coaching staff. I really hope that, barring disaster, Murphy is given the whole season and that making the playoffs does not become the be all and end all in the board’s decision as to whether he gets the job on a permanent basis. One of the areas Kay mentioned that O’Connor seemed to struggle was in the development of young players, something that I’m confident Murphy will be able to do well. Speaking as a fan of rugby in general, hopefully this season will be about performances and player development and then next year they can look to focus more on getting back to winning silverware. Only time will tell.