Picking the England Back Row

Picking the England Back Row

Without wanting to sound dramatic, England are reaching crisis point in the back row ahead of the Autumn Internationals. Billy Vunipola’s broken arm – mere weeks after returning from another injury – means that he will have to wait until the 6 Nations to make his return to the England squad. Sam Simmonds is potentially done for the season following an injury to his ACL, while Vunipola’s usual backup Nathan Hughes looks set to be unavailable after being cited for a punch on Lewis Ludlow which he has likely made worse by moronically tweeting out his displeasure during the hearing. The last 22 Tests have seen one of the above 3 players fill the number 8 shirt so Eddie Jones will be venturing into uncharted territory with his selection. To add to his troubles, regular starter Chris Robshaw, Joe Launchbury, Nick Isiekwe, Ellis Genge and Mako Vunipola are all out injured, while Joe Marler has also recently retired from international rugby.

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Chris Robshaw has been almost an ever-present in the England squad under Eddie Jones

Eddie Jones is going to have some big decisions to make in the back row, which will likely also be affected by his selections elsewhere. Jones has clearly favoured a larger, more physical presence at 8, which has limited Sam Simmonds’ chances so far, and often this year England have looked short of physical runners with a lightweight back line and Vunipola missing from the squad.

With this in mind, I will attempt to give my options for each position in the back row for the Autumn Tests. Due to Launchbuy’s absence, I will not be considering Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes in the back row as they will be needed in the tight 5, not to mention I have yet to be convinced they are international quality blind-side flankers.

 

8 – Judging by previous selections and current form, the next man up at number 8 would be Bath’s Zach Mercer. Anyone who regularly reads my blog will know I am a big fan of the former England U20s captain and I am sure that he would excel if given his first cap (his only appearance so far was a non-capped game against the Barbarians). At 6 foot 3 and 111kg, he is very similar in both physique and playing style to New Zealand’s Kieran Read and if he gets a good run in the team it will be hard to oust him from the XV. However given the need for a physical presence, another option would be a recall for Gloucester’s Ben Morgan. Morgan has not played for England since the 2015 World Cup and we already know that Eddie Jones is loath to pick Gloucester players no matter how well they are playing, but he is in the best form I have seen him in for a couple of the seasons and earned a timely Man of the Match award in Gloucester’s win over Castres with Jones in attendance. Morgan is more of a like-for-like replacement for Vunipola and Hughes, so with the lack of physical options currently available he would look to be the preferred option.

7 – While Sam Underhill is probably the most similar to Robshaw – he will tackle anything that moves in front of him – I think that Tom Curry is likely in the driving seat here following some impressive performances during the tour to South Africa. The Sale flanker has been around the squad for a couple of years and starting him in these Tests would be the logical progression. However, he could come under pressure from Matt Kvesic, who has been in incredible form so far this season after revitalising his career in his second season at Exeter. The former Gloucester flanker is a great nuisance at the breakdown, much like Curry, but has also really developed his game in open play. It has been a torrid couple of seasons for him since he was last in contention for an England spot, but this is probably the best chance he has had of a cap in years!

6 – The selection at 6 is very reliant on Jones’ selection at 8. Should Morgan get the nod at that position, I would pick Zach Mercer here as he is too good a player to leave out of the XV, while his versatility allows him to cover the entire back row. Should Mercer wear the 8 shirt, a more physical presence will be required at 6. EnterDom Armand, who really should have more than 2 caps to his name after a stellar couple of seasons for Exeter. The Zimbabwe-born flanker has had a limited effect from the bench against Argentina and then in the dismal performance that saw them lose to Ireland in the 6 Nations, but from the start he would be able to establish himself in the game as a solid runner while also providing a lineout option. If anyone but Jones were selecting the squads, he’d likely have a lot more caps to his name by now and at 30 years old, he would provide a more experienced head in a young back row alongside Mercer and Curry.

 

So those are my options and if I was the one making the picks, then I would go for a combination of Armand, Curry and Mercer with Morgan on the bench. Do I think Eddie will agree with me? Not at all, and I won’t be surprised to see players like Michael Rhodes, James Haskell, Brad Shields or Mark Wilson all selected ahead of at least a couple of these names. But I think we’ve come to expect that by now.

With the World Cup just a year away and only the 6 Nations and warm-up matches remaining following these Tests, Thursday’s squad announcement could potentially be the most important so far in Eddie Jones’ tenure…

Anarchy Round 1

Anarchy Round 1

The 2018 Ultimate Schmoedown is underway and as its name suggested, the Team tournament has been anarchy. For those of you who have missed a big chunk of this season (you’re missing out and really need to go back and watch what you missed), all teams were disbanded and picked from a hat, leading to 16 new teams – well technically 15 new and the Wildberries – and a number of new managers. Following the Shirewolves’ victory to earn the Team Title and a few other issues with the original selections, the 16 teams were confirmed along with the bracket and the tournament kicked off at the 3rd live event.

The Round 1 results were:

  • Founding Fathers beat Wait, I Know This! by TKO 20-17
  • The Paddington Two beat War Machine by TKO 23-21
  • The Odd Couple beat Team Seb’s by TKO 20-10
  • Who’s the Boss? beat Crazy Eighty-Greats 28-27
  • Cinemaniacs beat Franchise Force by TKO 26-19
  • KOrruption beat Inky and the Brain 19-18
  • Take the Cannoli beat The Self-Righteous Brothers 35-31
  • Evil Geniuses beat Wildberries by TKO 25-15

Now rather than try to do a write-up for each match as I did for the Innergeekdom Tournament, as many of these teams may not have much of a future I have decided instead to give my overall thoughts on the round instead.

Who stole Kal?

Ben Bateman was famously thrown out of Collider Collision II by Commissioner Thadd Williams after evidence suggested he was responsible for the theft of Kal the Schmoe Dog, which left Mark Reilly unable to attend fellow Horseman Dan Murrell’s match against Andrew Ghai.

mtskalgonebenIt became clear ahead of his first match with Ben as part of Who’s the Boss? that Reilly has not forgotten or forgiven “The Boss” for this. But Bateman once again declared his innocence and I’m still inclined to agree with him. It still seems far too convenient to me that Thadd was sent a picture of Kal in Bateman’s car as he was stood with Team Action.

But who would steal Kal and set up Bateman? Well Finstock is one potential culprit and that could play in great later down the line considering he is now managing this team, but I have a sneaky feeling that Kal’s disappearance was part of a greater corruption… or should I say KOrruption. Kalinowski has made it clear that he is not a fan of factions and the Horsemen are the one faction he has not made clear moves against, while it would have been a great chance to put Andrew Ghai off his game against Murrell (if that was the plan, it didn’t work) as revenge for Action’s win over DC Movie News.

Changes to the Viper Squad?

When it was first announced that Ethan Erwin and Jeannine “The Machine” would be on a team together and managed by Jay Washington, this looked like the perfect opportunity for the Viper Squad to recruit him. Unfortunately, plans may have been scuppered slightly by Ethan having to swap partners due to scheduling issues, but “The Urban Gladiator” managed to sweet-talk Thadd into allowing him to manage both teams. Sadly for Jay, neither of his teams could make it past Round 1, but it looks like he may still have a chance of winning over Erwin as he announced that he will remain as his manager for the remainder of the season.

The Viper Squad have done a good job this year considering two of the 3 competitors are rookies and there are some underrated talents in that faction, but if they can convince Ethan Erwin to join the faction, then that will instantly make their rivals sit up and take notice.

mtsmarkeiaBut will all of the other Vipers still be there? It looks like Jay has managed to keep the peace between Jeannine and Stacy Howard after they were put up against each other and Andreyko at Collision, but “Marvelous” Markeia McCarty appeared to be enjoying her time away from the Viper Squad as manager of Take The Cannoli, saying that she felt smothered and not allowed to shine in the Viper Squad. The Viper Squad could really push into the upper echelons of the factions if they can continue to grow together, if they have to keep rebuilding every year, it will be hard for them to dominate the league.

A star is born

As far as debuts go, they don’t go much better than Chance Ellison. “The Cobra” made his debut alongside Mike Kalinowski as part of KOrruption at the tender age of 20 (I feel old!) and looked instantly at home. Having come up from the fan leagues, people already knew that the knowledge was there, it was just a question of whether he could cope in the top flight with the pressure of the lights and the crowds. Well he’s already popped up onstage at the live event, joined Napzok and Kalinowski in a pre-match scene and won his debut team match.

mtschanceAnd in his debut match itself, he was the top scorer in the opening round, missing a perfect round by just 1 point whilst also correctly answering his solo question in the final round and working well with “The Killer” to work through a poor spin in Round 2. 1 match may be a small sample size, but so far he’s proving the crowd’s chants of “overrated” very wrong. The Founding Fathers will be a much sterner test than Inky and the Brain and there will be no easy matches as they work through the bracket, but if they can carry on through the tournament, Chance could add his name to the shortlist for Rookie of the Year.

One other thing that could help him go for Rookie of the Year would be a strong start to his Singles career. He’s been named as one of the 5 competitors in contention for the final 2 places in the Ultimate Schmoedown Singles Tournament. There are some strong names even in that group of 5 so there is no guarantee that he will progress, but if he can continue how he has started, we may have just seen a new tar enter the league.

mtstptRoom for improvement

The Paddington Two may have beat War Machine and impressed me along the way, but they will have sterner tests as the tournament progresses. They clearly have a strong knowledge of movies but I still worry that (despite Matt Atchity having now played 12 matches and both Free 4 Alls) they will struggle with their knowledge of how to play the game.

When Atchity and Duralde were conferring in Round 2 they were making no attempt to cover their mouths, so if they had got the question wrong, their conferring may have helped their opponents get to the right answer for the steal. Atchity also asked on a steal for multiple choice – not possible as War Machine went for a 2-point answer – which is something that I have noticed he does in most of his matches.

The Schmeodown has come on so far from its beginnings, movie trivia will get you so far but you need to be able to play the game if you are going to rise to the top. I can’t see them pulling off a result against The Odd Couple.

mtscoyMore please

One of the best bits of Round 1 has been seeing some other competitors reborn as managers. I’ve been a fan of Coy Jandreau’s happiness and enthusiasm when he is on the Schmoedown and I was so happy to see him named as a manger in this tournament. He didn’t disappoint at all with his Jeff-Goldblum-inspired promo at the live event and while I was happy as a Horsemen fan to see the Founding Fathers win, it was disappointing knowing that Coy’s time as a manger in this tournament would be over.

Jonny Loquasto is another who I have really enjoyed this year as a mouthpiece for his competitors and again it is a shame that his time in the competition was over almost as fast as his time at the announcer’s desk at Collision.

Markeia looked energised managing Take the Cannoli – who can blame her with competitors like Drew and Brianne! – and Ricky Hayberg was a wonderful addition to the Wildberries.

I really hope that the Anarchy tournament leads to some of these guys deciding to stay as managers as they have not all found success competing but all bring something to the league. They don’t all need to start factions, but even just being as mouthpieces for unaligned competitors would bring a new dimension to the league, whilst also ensuring it wasn’t the same 4 or 5 people competing in the Manager Bowl every year at Spectacular.

Predicting the Quarterfinals

I wrote this during the week before the quarterfinals started but due to a combination of work and travel, it is likely that the first match will have aired by the time this goes up.

The Odd Couple v The Paddington Two: Assuming Sneider and Andreyko can continue to work together, I think their better knowledge of the game will give The Odd Couple the victory

mtswtbCinemaniacs v Who’s the Boss?: Plenty of pedigree in this match with the current Singles Champion and former Team Champion facing off against the former 2-time Singles Champ and one of the best prospects in the game. Reilly is getting over his rust and I think the way that he and Bateman are gelling will see them make it to the semis

The Harris Bros v Take the Cannoli: It’s such a shame that JTE has had to step back from the Schmoedown for the rest of the season as he recovers (get well soon JTE!) as it looks like the Evil Geniuses could have been dangerous. I don’t know anything about Lon’s new competitor other than that it is his brother, so I have to lean towards Take the Cannoli

UntitledFounding Fathers v KOrruption: Putting aside all Horsemen bias here, I’ve still got to pick the Founding Fathers as they have experience on their side. That said, if Chance can put in another great performance and the categories fall right for Kalinowski, this could easily go against the former champions

What did you think about the first round of the tournament? Who stood out to you and who are you expecting to win in the Quarters? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

September 2018 in the Premier League

September 2018 in the Premier League

September saw things get interesting in the Premier League for the big teams. Manchester City went unbeaten, scoring 12 goals and conceding just 1 to keep themselves top of the league. Liverpool and Chelsea continue to suggest they will be City’s closest rivals this season, drawing 1-1 against each other while Liverpool won all their other games and Chelsea drew with West Ham (who appear to have turned the corner) but won the others. Arsenal are also on a great run, winning all their league games with an aggregate score of 9-3. Tottenham did not start the month well with losses to Watford and Liverpool but have got back on track since then, but they will still consider themselves better off then Manchester United, who have had to deal with a rift between José Mourinho and big-money signing Paul Pogba while drawing at home to Wolves and losing 3-1 at West Ham.


Help them!

People who regularly read my round-by-round series on the league last year will already know my views that the officials need help in the form of VAR or something similar. Having watched September’s matches, I picked up on a number of incidents that would surely have had different results had VAR been in the league:

  • Burnley 0-2 Manchester United: following a face-off with Phil Bardsley, Marcus Rashford is rightfully sent off for a headbutt. Bardsley received a yellow but replays showed Bardsley doing the same back to Rashford, so he should have also received a red.
  • Cardiff City 0-5 Manchester City: Joe Rawls received a yellow card for a tackle on Ilkay Gundogan. Replays showed that Rawls’ foot was high so he should have received a red card.
  • Fulham 1-1 Watford: Timothy Fosu-Mensah gets away with a yellow card for a challenge on Troy Deeney. Like Rawls, replays showed that the foot was high with studs showing, so he should have been sent for an early shower.
  • Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored Arsenal’s second goal after Aaron Ramsey failed to control Mesut Özil’s cross. Replays clearly show Aubameyang was in an offside position when Ramsey touched the ball.
  • West Ham 3-1 Manchester United: Felipe Anderson slots home Pablo Zabaleta’s cross to put West Ham 1-0 up. Replays showed that Zabaleta was in an offside position when the ball was played to him.

2 wrongly allowed goals and 3 red cards not given in just 1 month of football! And those are just the incidents I noted down! In one of the best leagues in the world, that is unacceptable, but I find it hard to lay the blame firmly on the officials as there is only so much 3 people can pick up. Football needs to move out of the dark ages and start using more technology to help the referees make the right decisions.


Changing of the guard?

Petr Čech did not start the season well for Arsenal. It has been a long time since I considered him one of the best keepers in the league and in the early weeks he looked to be struggling with the style of play, often making mistakes with the ball at his feet. He played better in Week 6 however, keeping his first clean sheet of the season. Things went wrong a week later though as he went off injured in the first half against Watford, with summer signing Bernd Leno coming on in his place.

Though his sample size with Arsenal is still small, Leno looked impressive on his league debut and at age 26, I think it is time for him to take over the reins between the sticks. With Čech out for about a month, this is certainly a great chance for the German to take over.


Smart selections?

I was very surprised with Marco Silva’s team selection for Everton’s Week 5 loss against West Ham. Midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin was selected in the starting XI despite his father passing away during the week. The Frenchman had an indifferent game and was taken off just before halftime.

The job of a manager is (unsurprisingly) to manage his players to ensure the team gets the best result. While I respect Schneiderlin for being willing to play so soon after a personal tragedy, I feel that Silva should have given him the match off and picked someone whose thoughts throughout the week and the match would have been on the game. I will not go as far as to say this decision cost Everton the game, but it was just immediately making the game harder for them.


Top 6 prediction

  1. Manchester City
  2. Liverpool
  3. Chelsea
  4. Arsenal
  5. Tottenham Hotspur
  6. Manchester United

 

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 6

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 6

The 2018 Rugby Championship came to a close in Round 6 with a reverse of the Round 4 fixtures. If Round 4 will be remembered as the week of upsets, Round 6 will go down as the week of stunning comebacks as champions New Zealand scored 2 converted tries in the final 5 minutes to beat South Africa, while Australia overturned a 31-7 halftime deficit in Argentina to win 34-45, clawing themselves into third place in the standings at the Pumas’ expense.


South Africa 30-32 New Zealand

At 30-18 with just 10 minutes left, South Africa looked set to do an incredible double over the All Blacks. At the final whistle, they were left shell-shocked, trying to figure out how they were on the losing side. I would argue that things started going wrong for them slightly earlier in the match, just after the hour mark. From this point, the Springboks made the following changes:

  • 60′ Vincent Koch for Frans Malherbe
  • 63′ RG Snyman for Eben Etzebeth
  • 66′ Damian Willemse for Willie le Roux
  • 70′ Sikhumbuzo Notshe for Francois Louw
  • 73′ Embrose Papier for Faf de Klerk, Mbongeni Mbonami for Malcolm Marx
  • 74′ Tendai Mtawarira for Steven Kitshoff
  • 78′ Elton Jantjies for Damian de Allende

Now I think some of these substitutions, especially the removal of de Allende and le Roux, were due to injury rather than tactical reasons, but that is a lot of experience leaving the pitch in the final 20 minutes – a time when New Zealand are know to be at their most dangerous. Koch is a quality replacement but has been away from international rugby for years, while Jantjies lacks the same physicality of de Allende. But the sheer quality and – probably even more importantly – the experience of the players coming off the pitch was always going to make things difficult for the Springboks. De Klerk and Marx had been arguably 2 of the best players on the pitch, so if they were able to continue, they should have remained on til the very end. It’s important to build experience and strength in depth, but the chance to beat the All Blacks (twice in a handful of weeks!) should have been too good to turn down. Hopefully moving forwards, Rassie Erasmus will be a bit more careful with his substitutions in big games.

 

It feels crazy to say when talking about New Zealand, but their midfield struggled on Saturday. Much like the week before, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty failed to consistently create a threat in attack and Beauden Barrett also struggled. The back 3 of Ioane, Naholo and Smith were arguably wasted for the first 50 minutes. However, once Richie Mo’unga came on for Waisake Naholo (with Ben Smith moving to the wing and Barrett to fullback), the back line suddenly looked more dangerous and the All Blacks’ fortunes improved. I wonder if Steve Hansen has inadvertently found a new way to set up his squad, making up for the lack of creativity provided by this centre pairing by playing a 10/15 hybrid like Damian McKenzie or one of the Barretts at 15, but using Ben Smith as a more reliable option with more attacking midfield pairings. With the quality of players available and the versatility of many of the New Zealand backs, Hansen will have so many options at his disposal when he comes to creating his match-day 23s, even when he has a more limited number of players in the squad come the World Cup.


Argentina 34-45 Australia

Momentum is a cruel thing in professional sports, just ask the Pumas. They could not have had a much better start, Pablo Matera crossing for a try within 2 minutes on the way to a 14-0 lead by the 5 minute mark. Despite a try from Michael Hooper, the momentum was clearly with Argentina, who went into halftime 31-7 up despite having lost Nicolas Sanchez to injury during the half. However, their momentum stalled at halftime and the Wallabies got an early try through Izack Rodda, while Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty also crossed in quick succession. The momentum was now firmly against the Pumas who could only muster a single penalty in the second half to the Wallabies’ 38. Argentina had 68% possession and 68% territory in the first half, but were limited to 35% possession and 33% territory after the break.

A bit like the Springboks’ final 10 minutes, I think Argentina struggled with a lack of leadership when it was so desperately needed. Agustin Creevy is not the superstar he used to be anymore and I would argue that the Pumas would benefit from swapping him and Julian Montoya around, as Montoya has recently appeared more reliable at set pieces while bringing Creevy on against tired defences could get the best out of him while also bringing a highly experienced leader onto the pitch later in the game. Perhaps even more importantly, they need to get their European-based leaders back in the fold, sooner rather than later!

 

Full credit to the Wallabies for a stunning comeback, but I do not think that this should save Michael Cheika’s job. I’m not one to enjoy seeing coaches lose their job, but despite a strong team, the results have been poor and the first half performance at the weekend was an embarrassment! They have never been lower in the world rankings and should consider themselves extremely lucky not to finish bottom of the table in this Rugby Championship. It may not be ideal switching coaches especially just a year out from the World Cup, but they have just under 3 weeks until Bledisloe 3 (where there would be no pressure on them, having a new coach and being 2-0 down) followed by Autumn Internationals against Wales, Italy and England… there will be no better time before the World Cup. It will be interesting to see how the ARU act…


 

Start or Sit?

Start or Sit?

When Baker Mayfield was named the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, it was always going to be a question of when, not if, he would become the starting Quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. In Week 4 of the season, Mayfield made his first start after coming on in relief of the injured Tyrod Taylor the week before and leading the Browns to their first win since December 2016. After the hit-and-miss play of Taylor over the first 2 and a bit games, it’s highly likely that the Mayfield era has now begun in Cleveland. But is it right for a QB to become the starter (permanent, not just as injury cover) in their rookie year?

The NFL does have its stories of stars being picked early and quickly becoming stars in the league. Peyton Manning was an immediate starter for the Colts in 1998 and didn’t miss a start in the regular season until injury saw him miss the 2011 season, while his heir Andrew Luck was also starting from the very beginning.

But for every star like Manning and Luck, there are busts. Manning’s rival for the number 1 draft pick, Ryan Leaf is probably one of the most famous draft busts and was out of league by May 2002. One of Luck’s fellow 2012 first round picks, Brandon Weedon was a regular starter for only his first season and has predominantly been a journeyman backup since the 2013 season, having last played in the regular season in 2015.

As a Titans fan, the 2011 draft was one of the few I paid attention to as I knew the Titans would be going for a new QB with the number 8 pick. After everything I had read and heard, I remember hoping that Blaine Gabbert would be available at the spot. He was available, but the Titans chose to go for Jake Locker instead and Gabbert went to the Jags 2 weeks later. After 2 bad performances by Luke McCown, Gabbert was given his first start in Week 3, but he seriously struggled behind a questionable O-line and has only started 50% or more of his team’s games in 3/7 completed seasons for 3 different teams. He’s now made his way to Tennessee as a backup for Marcus Mariota.

Gabbert is a prime example of the issue for so many rookie QBs, being thrust to the fore without having the real chance to adapt from college football to the NFL. Most QBs coming out of college will not be used to a pro-style offense and instead be more used to hurry-up offenses or spread offenses. Suddenly as well they will be up against players 10 years their senior who know every trick in the book and many that aren’t. Let’s look at Baker’s first start, against the Raiders. He may have made some lovely plays and thrown for just under 300 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he also had a number of bad plays, being picked twice and losing 2 fumbles, the second of which came on a fumbled snap likely caused by his lack of experience under center (he never played there in college).

For me, the ideal situation for a team is to go down the route of 2 of the best QBs currently playing. Tom Brady was never meant to be a star judging by his 6th round pick, but after a season on the bench behind Drew Bledsoe, he took over the reins of the Patriot following Bledsoe’s injury in the 4th quarter of their Week 2 match during the 2001 season and has never looked back since. Perhaps a more comparable tale is that of Aaron Rodgers. Picked by the Green Bay Packers 24th overall in 2005 (behind Alex Smith), Rodgers only appeared in 7 matches over his first 3 seasons as he sat behind the legend that is Brett Favre. Rodgers was made starter for the 2008 season following Favre’s retirement (he later returned but was traded to the Jets) and he has since gone on to win a Super Bowl and be named NFL MVP twice, while being regarded as one of the greatest QBs of all time.

Sitting a QB for their rookie makes sense as they can get used to the environment and adapt to the way football is played in the NFL. The big problem is that the NFL is a business and if a team is not getting results, then the people in charge won’t be there long enough to sort things out. Too often a team is taking a QB in the first round because they need someone who they feel is good enough to start and win immediately. A rookie QB may be able to do enough in the first season or two to keep a coach in their job while they build a team around their star.

But if a coach was brave enough to let that young lad sit for the first year, would the lack of results in year 1 be outweighed by the benefits down the line? I think so. A good QB is a comfortable QB and one year on the bench is surely worth it for potentially developing the franchise QB of the next 10 years. Now teams just need to start thinking a couple of years ahead and picking up a promising rookie while they still have a reliable veteran there to learn from.

How will Baker, Sam Darnold and the other rookie QBs work out down the line? Only time will tell…