February 2019 in the Premier League

February 2019 in the Premier League

Hey there Premier League fans, thank you for you patience and sorry it has taken so long to get this written. The Six Nations largely took over my life over the last couple of months and typically my (usually quiet/non-existent) social life actually had some stuff going on to leave me with even less time. I promise you won’t be waiting anywhere near as long for my thoughts on March’s action.

Manchester City took the league lead back from Liverpool and 3 wins means that they are now in the driving seat (having a game in hand) over their title rivals, who dropped 4 points with draws at West Ham and Manchester United. The draw against Liverpool and 3 other wins continued United’s renaissance under Ole Gunnar Solskjær and a top 3 spot is beginning to look a real possibility. It was not all positive news though, as 2 more managers were let go in February: Claude Puel was dismissed by Leicester following an embarrassing 1-4 loss at home to Crystal Palace, while Claudio Ranieri lasted just over 3 months at Fulham.


Role models

Premier League footballers are watched by millions of people every week including thousands of children. They are some of the best players in the world playing in arguably the best league in the world. As such, they are arguably in a position where children will look up to them as role models.

So imagine my disappointment when I saw Burnley’s Ashley Barnes going absolutely crazy at a lineman after he was accused of diving to try winning a penalty. Yes, diving is disgusting and needs to be kicked out of the game, but this was a terrible call as he was clearly caught by Southampton keeper Alex McCarthy. It’s understandable that Barnes would be angry at not being awarded a clear penalty – the penalty given to them later in the game was their first in 68 league games – and in fact being given a yellow for diving, but that to me does not excuse the way he reacted to the officials and I am shocked he was not given a second yellow for this reaction.

This was not the first incident this season of players disrespecting officials as just the week before, Wilfried Zaha was given a second yellow card for dissent after sarcastically applauding the referee who had just booked him against Southampton.

There is no place for either of these reactions in football. Officials have a hard enough time doing their job and getting the right decision (more on that in a moment) without players and fans giving them abuse. Players need to control their emotions and cut out this behaviour as it will just lead to children doing the same in grassroots football, which will stop people wanting to become an official.


Costly decision

It takes just one second to potentially change the outcome of a game completely. During Brighton’s home match with Burnley, the Seagulls found themselves 0-2 down but on the attack with about 15 minutes left. The attack came to an end as Burnley’s Jeff Hendrick appeared to handle the ball, but this was missed by the officials. Burnley countered and Ashley Barnes beat the offside trap on halfway before being fouled by keeper Mathew Ryan in the box, scoring the penalty for a 0-3 lead and eventually a 1-3 victory.

Instead of a Burnley penalty, this should have been a Brighton penalty and the core would have likely been 1-2 rather than 0-3, which with 15 minutes left could have completely changed the result.

VAR is making its way to the league next season and while not everyone is sold on it yet, this is a perfect example of just how important it can be to get the right decision.


Penalty points

Leicester’s 3-1 loss at Tottenham threw up an interesting moment as the Foxes were awarded a penalty when 1-0 down. Demarai Gray had been given the start ahead of Jamie Vardy as Claude Puel wanted to develop other options, but as soon as the penalty was awarded, Vardy came on to replace him and take the penalty. Things didn’t work out for them though as his shot was saved by Hugo Lloris. This moment left me with a couple of questions:

  1. Why say you want to develop other options and then go back to the tried an tested for something that should be as guaranteed as a penalty. This could instead harm Gray’s development and confidence.
  2. Should Vardy have been able to take the penalty?

This second one is interesting to me as though there is nothing against it in the rules, it does not feel right to me. Much like how a team cannot substitute their keeper at full time for a penalty shootout but must instead bring them on before the end of extra time, I feel that the penalty should be taken by someone who was on the pitch when the penalty was awarded. As well as feeling right, it surely makes sense tactically as well as otherwise a player’s first touch of the ball is them taking the penalty, which as Vardy showed is not necessarily going to be good news for them.


A great turnaround

Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at home to Liverpool would probably be considered a good result for them looking back at how the first half of the season went, but when you look into the match even further you realise just how good the result was.

With Nemanja Matić already missing through injury, United’s midfield was dealt a blow about 20 minutes in as Ander Herrera left the pitch with an injury to leave United with a midfield pairing of Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay. Things got even worse as Jesse Lingard had to replace the injured Juan Mata about 5 minutes later and then himself left the pitch injured just before halftime, being replaced by Alexis Sanchez. Marcus Rashford had also been struggling with an injury from around the same time as Herrera’s injury but with no subs remaining had to play the rest of the game.

Granted, Liverpool lost Roberto Firmino to injury as well in the first half, but that still left them 2 available subs in the second half, so for United to hold on with 10½ men against the title contenders and in fact almost win it (Joel Matip’s own goal was disallowed due to Chris Smalling’s offside) shows just how far United have come under Ole Gunnar Solskjær.


Sarri v Kepa

Chelsea may not have had a league game in Round 27 as they were losing on penalties to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup Final, but they were still making waves that would continue into the next round of matches.

As extra time edged towards penalties, Maurizio Sarri chose to replace Kepa Arrizabalaga – who had gone down with cramp twice in the extra period – with Willy Caballero, who is known to have a good record against penalties. Kepa however refused to leave the pitch, leading to Sarri having to back down and be moved away from Kepa after the whistle.

While this was a public embarrassment, Chelsea media moved quickly to play the incident down, with Kepa’s statement saying that it was a misunderstanding and he was making it clear that he was fit enough to continue. Sarri’s actions in their next league match against Tottenham said otherwise though, as he dropped Kepa in favour of Willy Caballero. When asked about the change of keepers, Sarri stated:

“Kepa made a big mistake and so it was only a message for the whole team, all the dressing room”

While I completely agree with the decision to drop Kepa under normal circumstances, the fact that this went completely against the public line taken by Chelsea may have put him on shaky ground (as if he wasn’t already with the performances and results his team were getting) and showed that when push came to shove in the match, player power beat out the manager. If Sarri makes it beyond the end of this season, I will be shocked!


Top 6 prediction

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

 

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

With the Six Nations over for another year, there is just one more important job to do: picking a team of the tournament. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and this was probably the hardest so far as injuries and Jacques Brunel’s inability to settle on a team meant that some players had limited game time, while poor matches or halves of rugby harmed the chances of others. And yet despite that, at some positions I was spoiled for choice and could have picked from 4 or 5 players!

So without further ado, my team of the tournament is:

1- Allan Dell: Mako Vunipola was the choice early in the tournament and I genuinely think England missed him after his injury. Rob Evans has been getting a lot of love but the player who stood out to me was Allan Dell. Dell topped the tackle charts for Scotland with 76 (putting him 5ᵗʰ overall in the tournament) but what really impressed me was his carrying in the loose, which was so important for them given the number of carriers they lost to injury.

2- Jamie George: Did the Saracens hooker do enough to cement the number 2 shirt ahead of regular captain Dylan Hartley? In my opinion, yes. George was reliable in the lineout and a big part of the England defence, finishing the tournament joint-3ʳᵈ in the tackle count with 78, alongside Mark Wilson. What really stood out for me though was his pass to set up Manu Tuilagi for a try against Italy… I’m sure there are centres who would be proud to give a pass like that!

3- Demba Bamba: There wasn’t really any standout performer for me in this position and if I’m honest, I changed my mind as I was writing this. Kyle Sinckler was so close to getting the nod, but I swapped to Bamba at the last moment. At just 20 years old and not even playing in the Top 14, Bamba did not look out of place at all in senior international rugby despite having to take over the starting role early in the tournament following Uini Atonio’s injury. Bamba carried 42 times for 54 metres with a whopping 22 gain line successes (4ᵗʰ most of anyone) and 14 defenders beaten. He may have given away the most penalties in the tournament (8, level with Tom Curry) but this will improve as he gets more experience at this level. Watch out for him over the coming years.

4- Alun Wyn Jones: There have been people wondering if Jones has just played his last Six Nations game. If so, then he has gone out on a high. Despite all the off-field distractions surrounding Project Reset, Jones led the team to a deserved Grand Slam and led by example. He fronted up when he needed to and finished joint-6ᵗʰ in the tackle counts with 71 made and just 4 missed.

5- George Kruis: I wasn’t really enthused by Kruis’ selection at the start of the tournament, however he looked back to his best this year. Kruis was 4ᵗʰ for tackles made in the England squad with 67 (joint-11ᵗʰ overall). But his key point was his work solidifying the England lineout, amassing 17 catches himself to finish joint 3ʳᵈ in the table.

6- Josh Navidi: This was one of the hardest to pick from the quality of performances. Mark Wilson was Mr Reliable for England and Braam Steyn was a big presence for Italy. Peter O’Mahony was going to get the spot until his anonymous performance against Wales. Navidi gets the spot here and I would argue he is one of the most underrated players int he Wales squad. The Cardiff Blues back row finished 2ⁿᵈ overall with 83 tackles and 4 turnovers saw him just miss out on a spot in that top 5 list. He does not look huge but he is so strong and smart, leading to him playing a key role in the Welsh defence with a number of choke tackles and I would argue that his ability attacking in open play is underrated, making 45 metres from 30 carries.

7- Tom Curry: Jamie Richie had a great tournament being thrust into a starting role but in the end the 7 shirt has to go to Tom Curry. Sam Underhill’s injury gave Curry the chance to start and it is hard to imagine him handing the shirt over to anyone else now. Curry’s 86 tackles saw him top the charts and he was joint-4ᵗʰ for turnovers with 5. It has been rare that England have had a proper jackal at 7 under Eddie Jones and Curry has been a real breath of fresh air here. 2 tries didn’t harm his chances either.

8- Billy Vunipola: This was a shootout between Vunipola and Louis Picamoles, but Vunipola’s greater consistency over the tournament. Vunipola’s 71 carries was more than anyone else in the tournament and he finished with more metres than any other forward (231m) and 27 gain line successes (3ʳᵈ behind Braam Steyn and James Ryan). England seriously missed him last season.

9- Antoine Dupont: Not involved in Round 1 and on the bench in Round 2, Dupont took his chance and ran with it. He still has areas of him game to work on, such as controlling the game when his pack aren’t on the front foot, but he brought some great attacking quality to the French attack, finishing with 8 clean breaks (joint-5ᵗʰ overall), 17 defenders beaten (joint-4ᵗʰ) and 7 offloads (joint-2ⁿᵈ). Shockingly, he was also joint-2ⁿᵈ in the turnover charts with 6, going really under the radar with his defence.

10- Owen Farrell: This was probably the hardest pick for me. Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar split their time which made it hard to pick between them, while Finn Russell had some great moments in a struggling Scotland team. However Farrell gets the nod for me as I feel that – other than the second halves against Wales and Scotland – he was the most consistent of the 10s, while he finished with 2 assists and was the top scorer in the competition with 59 points.

11- Jonny May: I’m a big fan of May so to have seen him grow into one of England’s most reliable players in recent years has been wonderful! May carried 52 times (the most of any back, joint-6ᵗʰ overall) and made 284 metres (4ᵗʰ overall) and 11 clean breaks (2ⁿᵈ overall), while beating 9 defenders. He also played a big part in the kicking game, with his pace allowing him to outrun defenders chasing back to deep kicks and finishing with 23 kicks caught – 3ʳᵈ overall in the tournament. Oh, and there’s the small matter of his 6 tries making him the top try scorer and 4ᵗʰ highest points scorer.

12- Hadleigh Parkes: The stats may not back this selection up as much as some others, but Parkes gets the nod here over other impressive 12s Manu Tuilagi, Sam Johnson and Luca Morisi. The Welsh defence was the cornerstone of their tournament success and Parkes was one of the linchpins of that defence, putting his body on the line to protect the Welsh try line. Man of the Match against Scotland, he was involved in 2 of the Key moments against Ireland, scoring the early try and then bringing down Jacob Stockdale when he looked set to break away and score.

13- Henry Slade: When England were playing well, Henry Slade was shining. Despite having not played alongside Manu Tuilagi before this tournament, the pair worked great together and Slade’s range of skills helped him keep defences guessing and resulted in him carrying 38 times for 271 metres (8ᵗʰ overall) with 12 clean breaks (1ˢᵗ overall) and finishing with 3 tries and 2 assists. Outside centre is a difficult position to defend, but Slade was generally impressive at the position and did a great job of shutting down the channel.

14- Josh Adams: I heavily considered putting Josh Adams into my 6 to watch article ahead of the tournament but in the end he just missed out to Gareth Anscombe. Leigh Halfpenny’s concussion left room for Adams to come into the starting lineup and he grabbed the ball with both hand – just like his try against England! Adams’ 257 metres made (9ᵗʰ overall) and 9 clean breaks (4ᵗʰ overall) were the most of any player in the Welsh squad and he scored tries against Italy, England and Scotland.

15- Liam Williams: Elliot Daly and Jayden Hayward both had their moments in the tournament and Blair Kinghorn was certainly in with a shot of making the 15 spot until he got injured. Liam Williams gets the place after taking over the Wales 15 shirt in Halfpenny’s absence. He may have had a quieter tournament than we are used to, but he was so assured under the high ball (his 24 kicks caught was 2ⁿᵈ behind Daly) and this helped nullify an England team that was looking unstoppable at that point.

So there’s my XV, who makes yours?

Eyes On: England v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: England v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

With Wales having already secured the Six Nations title with their victory over Ireland, the tournament finale between England and Scotland was a dead rubber except for the rivalry between the 2 countries. England came out the blocks quickly with Jack Nowell crossing in the 2nd minute and they added 3 more tries by the half hour mark through Tom Curry, Joe Launchbury and Jonny May before Stuart McInally scored what appeared to be a consolation try to make the halftime score 31-7. The game was flipped on its head after the break though as Scotland scored tries through Darcy Graham, Magnus Bradbury, Finn Russell and Sam Johnson put Scotland ahead, only for George Ford’s converted try on the last play of the game to level the scores at 38-38 and end the game as the highest scoring draw in international rugby history.

Momentum swings

Maybe England hadn’t heard the result of the Wales match by the time they kicked off as they came out with such a fierce determination to rack up the score. Their attacks were clinical and they used their options in the back line to manipulate the Scottish defence in ways that made it easy for them to finish their tries. Scotland weren’t necessarily playing bad rugby, but they couldn’t get much going in attack that was dangerous enough to trouble England – who were flying up in defence and putting them under heavy pressure – and they struggled defensively to deal with all the attacking options their opponents had.

McInally’s try from a charged down kick and half time coming just a few minutes later brought England’s momentum to a complete half and gave the Scottish time to recover and reset. When the second half started, suddenly Scotland were cutting out the individual errors and starting to make some ground against an England defence that was no longer getting in their faces as fast. England were still making big metres in attack, but the accuracy of the first half was gone and they were beginning to make individual handling errors that would prove costly come the final whistle.

This was an extreme but perfect example of just how easy it is for a switch in momentum to completely change a game. Scotland will be hoping that they don’t find themselves in this position again, but given their injury issues this tournament it is a testament to the character of their team that they were able to turn the game around after such an awful opening half hour.

Finishers and Game Changers

Eddie Jones may call them “Finishers”, Harlequins may call them “Game Changers”. Yep, I’m on about substitutes. No matter what you call them, they’re all doing the same jobs. But perhaps Jones’ name for them has a bit more meaning that it originally appears.

I suggested after the Wales loss that Eddie Jones did not trust his replacements to change the game and that seemed to be the case here as well. As momentum first started to turn in Scotland’s favour and with Ellis Genge having already come on early for the injure Ben Moon, the only changes Jones made were to replace Mark Wilson and Kyle Sinckler (who had both been looking pretty impressive) and replacing them with Brad Shields and Dan Cole, who failed to have as much of an impact on the game. In the backs, it was only in the final 10 minutes that Jones began to make changes despite the Scottish having taken complete control well before this.

In contrast, the moment Scotland scored a couple of quick tries, Gregor Townsend recognised the shifting momentum and made a raft of changes, bringing on more experienced players like Greig Laidlaw, Josh Strauss and Fraser Brown on to take control of the game.

Some of Eddie Jones’ selections have been questioned in recent years, but in this match it felt like he did not trust his replacements to be able to change the game until he had no choice but to give them a shot. For such an experienced and talented coach, in this match he was thoroughly outplayed by Gregor Townsend. If England are to avoid these second half collapses, Jones needs to have a think about the players he is selecting on the bench and how they can be used.

Shoulder Boy

There were hearts in mouths for England fans in the second half as referee Paul Williams went to the TMO to look at a late challenge by Owen Farrell on Darcy Graham. Graham had kicked on and Farrell appeared to be trying to close him down but ended up clattering into him late, but the replays also showed that Farrell did not use his arms at all in the challenge.

The incident reminded me a lot of Samu Kerevi’s hit on Leigh Halfpenny during the Autumn Tests in that neither of them seemed to make much of a legitimate attempt to charge down the kick and instead took out the kicker after the ball was gone. What I found really interesting is that Paul Williams decided to punish Farrell for the late hit but did not take into account the use of a shoulder rather than the arms as he felt that Farrell was protecting himself rather than trying to make a tackle. While I can understand where he is coming from, this seems like an odd decision to me considering tackles are generally judged on their outcome rather then the players intent. For me, this was a yellow card incident and should have probably cost England the game.

This is the 3rd incident including a no-arms tackle by Owen Farrell in the last 10 Tests. Whether you agree with the decisions or not, Farrell’s uncompromising defence is such a big part of what makes him the great fly half that he is. He just needs to be a bit more careful with using his arms or one of these days a tackle could prove costly.

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

The entire tournament led to this moment: Wales taking on the Irish at the Principality Stadium with not just the tournament but also the Grand Slam on the line. A home victory would earn Wales the Grand Slam, whereas a victory for the Irish would see England win the title provided they beat Scotland. Unfortunately for Ireland and England fans, Hadleigh Parkes crossed the line in the second minute and Wales didn’t look back from there with 20 points from the boot of Gareth Anscombe seeing them go 25-0 up. Ireland looked set to be nilled but Jordan Lamour’s try on the final play of the game and Jack Carty’s conversion saw them come away with a slightly more respectable 25-7 score.

Shut down

This was an incredible performance from Wales! The nerve to go for a chip deep in the Irish 22 and take advantage of Rob Kearney’s wide positioning showed Anscombe’s confidence at 10 and he reacted well to his early shift to 15 following George North’s injury. Dan Biggar ran the game well following his early introduction and having Anscombe on the pitch as well gave them the extra playmaking ability to keep the Irish defence guessing. Coming into this game, Peter O’Mahony was in contention for my team of the tournament but he was invisible in this game, such was the quality of the Welsh support.

If anything, the defence was even more impressive. Though I would argue that the Irish attack was not at its best (more on that shortly), they were limited to just 2 chances of note, one of which was their try with the result already confirmed. A Johnny Sexton crosskick looked to have sent Jacob Stockdale away down the left wing, but Hadleigh Parkes quickly caught him and brought him down to end the attack. The choke tackle used to be an Irish speciality, but the Welsh made it their own this tournament and used it to great effect once again.

With the coaching staff set to leave following the World Cup, it looks like Wales could be hitting the form they will need to make a serious run in the tournament and send their coaches off on a high.

Over-reliance

During Ireland’s success over the last couple of years, some of the standout players for them have been CJ Stander and halfbacks Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. This year, none of them have been close to the player we know they can be.

Unfortunately, Joe Schmidt seemed very stuck in his ways this tournament and continued to rely on these players despite their drop in form. I was critical a few rounds ago about how long the halfbacks were kept on against Italy given the quality on the bench and this happened once again against Wales, with neither being replaced until the final 10 minutes with the victory already well beyond them. And yet despite this John Cooney and Jack Carty appeared to get the team functioning a little better – granted the Welsh may have taken their foot off the pedal slightly knowing they had won – and controlled the team on their way to the only points of the game. Stander as well also struggled to get Ireland on the front foot, generating just 9 metres from 14 carries over the 80 minutes. In comparison, Jack Conan took over at number 8 following Sean O’Brien’s replacement and made the same number of metres from just 6 carries, looking much more dangerous in attack.

Ireland have not turned into a bad team overnight, but in this match and this year’s tournament in general they have been poor. If Joe Schmidt wants a chance of finishing his Ireland career by winning the World Cup, then he needs to start selecting players on form rather than relying on players who have been stars in the past but are now struggling.

Growing options

Many teams will likely be jealous of Wale’s options at fly half, with both Anscombe and Biggar having impressed throughout the tournament. To have such quality options available, the question has often been which of them should be starting and who should be on the bench.

While Anscombe arguably brings more options to the overall attack, there have been questions over his place kicking, which has tested a lot this tournament with Leigh Halfpenny unavailable. Despite Dan Biggar being generally regarded as the better kicker, Anscombe was allowed to keep kicking duties following Biggar’s early arrival to the field this weekend and proved the faith in him well justified as he kicked a conversion and 6 penalties for a 100% kick success rate in this game.

While this not only suggests that he can hold the 10 shirt ahead of Biggar – who is an amazing player to bring off the bench – it also suggests that there may not need to be such a reliance on Leigh Halfpenny moving forward, which could open up extra options in the back 3 as it would allow the regular back 3 of this tournament (George North and Josh Adams on the wings, Liam Williams at centre) to continue playing together and building their chemistry as a group. If Halfpenny and these 3 players can keep themselves free of injury between now and the end of the season, it will be interesting to see who makes it into the back 3 for Wales’ next game.

Eyes On: Italy v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v France – 6 Nations 2019

The 2019 Six Nations reached its final weekend, beginning with a bottom of the table clash between Italy and France. Bonus points in the earlier rounds meant that it was impossible for Italy to avoid the Wooden Spoon but there was still plenty of pride to play for. Italy took an early lead through a pair of Tommaso Allan penalties, before Antoine Dupont scored a try and Romain Ntamack gave France a 6-10 halftime lead. Yoann Huget scored early in the second half and though Tito Tebaldi kept things close with a try of his own, France held on for the win and a late score from Damian Penaud confirmed a 14-25 victory for Les Bleus and consigned Italy to another year without a Six Nations victory.

Learning the hard way

Injuries to Michele Campagnaro and Tommaso Castello led to Conor O’Shea handing a debut at 13 to 21-year-old Marco Zanon. The Benetton centre has come through the international ranks via the U20s and Emerging Italy team, however did not make his first Pro14 start until September.

That inexperience in professional rugby showed in this match. On one of his first touches of the ball, he tried to arc his run around the French defence but was unable to get to the outside and found himself being bundled into touch too easily. With the score at 6-10 he had the chance to put Italy ahead as he ran onto Allan’s grubber through, only for the ball to bounce off the post and evade his grasp. While the bounce of a rugby ball is always hard to predict, I think many more experienced players would have recognised the chance of the ball hitting the post and – knowing the space they had – slowed their run so that they could react to the ball coming off the post.

Unfortunately for Zanon, that was not the moment people will remember looking back as with the score at 14-20 with just 6 minutes left, Italy worked the ball out to him on the overlap about 7 metres out. While he made it to the line, as he went to ground he allowed Damian Penaud to dislodge the ball and force a knock-on over the line. While it was a great effort from Penaud, it was made easier for him as Zanon dived for the line with the ball in his right hand rather than switching it to his left hand to protect it.

He is not the first and he won’t be the last person to mess up with the game on the line, but this was a game that Italy could and possibly should have won but for his errors. Hopefully he will be able to put this setback behind him and learn from this match.

The kids are alright

France may have had their good and bad moments during this tournament, but one plus point for them has been the development of some of their younger talents.

Demba Bamba was a player I picked as one to watch this tournament. Despite not celebrating his 21st birthday until the day after this match and not even playing in the Top 14 – he currently plays for Brive in Pro D2 but will be playing for Lyon next season – he did not look out of place on the senior international scene. He may have conceded a couple of penalties but this will improve with time, while he is already showing himself as a comfortable ball carrier.

Romain Ntamack has really grown into the tournament. Against Italy, he varied the attacking game well to keep the Italian defence guessing, while also controlling the game and knowing when to take a drop goal to keep the score ticking over. More importantly though, he also took on the role of goal kicker for this match and performed will, despite not even being the first choice kicker at his club. He will certainly have harder tests than against Italy, but this will be a great confidence boost for him and it is a sign that he is growing well into his role with the team.

Damian Penaud is developing into yet another great player on the wing for France. While it probably helped that he was not tested by the Italian kicking game in the same was as against England or Ireland, he looked very assured on the wing and seemed to be getting used to the position. He made a great covering tackle on Marco Zanon and was smart enough to target the ball rather than the player, dislodging it to save a vital try. In attack, his 98 metres made were the more than any other player on the pitch and it was his break that set up Antoine Dupont for his try, while his try in the final minutes secured the victory.

Dupont may not have had the perfect game as he occasionally struggled with forwards getting in his way at the breakdown, but this control of his pack is something that will develop as he continues to play with them… assuming the coaches don’t continue to overhaul the team every other match. He was one of the most exciting 9s in the tournament this year when given some space and his support line off Penaud that led to his try was typical of is playing style and I am sure we will see him getting over the try line plenty more times over the coming years.

The French Wolverine

While many of the younger players impressed in this match, one of the more experienced players also caught my eye. Maxime Médard has been in and out of the national team for years, but in this game I thought he really showed his quality.

Thomas Ramos has made the attack more exciting but has not been the safest defensively or in kick coverage, which is not what you want when you have attack-only Yoann Huget in the back three as well. Médard however was a calming influence at the back, tidying things up and generally making the right decision, while picking his moment to attack to create chaos, such as when he drew in Angelo Esposito and released Penaud with a simple pass to set up Dupont’s try.

With so many young players in the French back line at the moment, the coaches need to continue selecting Médard to increase their chances of success in Japan.

The Top 10: Live in London

The Top 10: Live in London

So people who know me well or who have been regular readers here last year will know that I am a big fan of a YouTube show called the Movie Trivia Schmoedown.

At the time I found the show, it was being broadcast on Collider Video’s channel. This may sound very odd from someone who loves a show about movie trivia, but I did not used to be a big fan of movies. Instead I was a big fan of a certain set of movies: Star Wars. This love of Star Wars, both the movies and the wider canon, had led to me finding Collider’s Jedi Council, a show that I have now been watching for years. To make sure that I never missed an episode, I subscribed to the Collider Video channel, but I found myself largely sticking to just the one show. I eventually found myself watching TV Talk though as they were covering a couple of shows that I was watching at the time, and I found that – like with Jedi Council – I really enjoyed the personalities on the show, so I soon found myself watching  every episode of TV Talk, Jedi Council and Behind the Scenes & Bloopers.

Being subscribed to the channel also led to me seeing the Schmoedown matches on the list of videos. However not really being a cinephile, the only matches that drew my attention were a special match between Sam Witwer and Freddie Prinze Jr. and the original 2 Star Wars matches: Force Bros v The Council and the Fatal Fiveway at Star Wars Celebration. I found myself really enjoying these matches and not long later I found myself watching an episode of Behind the Scenes that focused on the Schmoedown – specifically the Reilly v Rocha Championship Match – and found my interest piqued.

A few weeks later I saw a couple of Schmoedown matches go up on the channel: The Nerd’s Watch v Team Action, Josh Macuga v Tom Dagnino and Wolves of Steel v The Patriots. 3 matches all containing Collider personalities that I had got to know and love. I really enjoyed these matches and was soon hooked, just in time for Collider Collision. By the end of this event and the follow-up special that saw Bibbiani and Burnett both leave the Horsemen, I soon found myself rooting for John Rocha and Matt Knost – who I hadn’t seen much of but had already shown himself to be have a clever sense of humour.

S3 Schmoedown Spectacular Top 10

The months went on and by the end of Season 4, I was well and truly hooked, leading to me starting to write about the show on here and also expanding to watching more Collider or Schmoedown-themed content like the Schmoedown Rundown. I found myself starting to watch more movies when I had a bit of free time in the hope that I could answer more questions when playing along at home. It’s safe to say that the Schmoedown has changed my life. Getting into movies more, I finally found myself starting to listen to a couple of movie podcasts from people I knew from the shows. Obviously being a fan of the team, The Top 10 Show was top of my list to check out.

In those early days of listening, I would stick to the episodes that had a subject I thought would interest me, but I soon found that the back and forth between Rocha and Knost and their tangents throughout the discussion (of which there are many) were too good to miss and for about half a year now I have been listening to every episode. When the guys announced that they were doing a show in London on Saturday 23rd February, I was so excited! With all these guys I watch and love being based in the USA, I thought it unlikely I would ever see any of them in the flesh, but here was a chance to see 2 of the Horsemen in my own country! There had also been a few Schmoedown viewing parties that I had unfortunately not been able to attend due to other commitments, so it was a chance for me to finally meet other people in the Top 10/Schmoedown/Collider etc community. As soon as the tickets were on sale, I made sure that I didn’t miss out even though I still had to arrange the time off work. I got everything planned and then it was just a waiting game, until finally the week arrived.

I’m not one for going to the big cities very often – especially not alone! – so this was a new experience for me and I decided to go down to London on the Friday to make sure I was not rushing around like a headless chicken on the Saturday. I’d deliberately booked a place to stay close to the venue so that I couldn’t get lost (me and directions are not a good mix) and luckily this meant that I was just a short walk from both the venue, Kings Cross station and also a pub where a table had been booked for Top 10 fans during the England v Wales Six Nations match.

The travel down was pretty easy and I didn’t get too lost on the Tube either (result!) and after getting to my room, I set about devoting an evening to Collider Live, which I was behind on due to a busy week. Saturday saw me finish catching up on the Collider Live fun and then it was time for the rugby. Six Nations weekend, there was no way I wasn’t going to watch the rugby if I was able to, so I watched the match between Scotland and France, before slipping into my 5 Horsemen shirt and making my way to a nearby pub called The Fellow to meet my fellow fans and watch the England game. It’s a good job I got there early as the turnout was incredible and I was lucky to get a seat. I was all set to watch the game, but I found that the conversation with my fellow fans was so great I was barely even checking the screen as I was having such great conversations with these people I’d never met before but had a shared love of these shows. It was amazing having conversations about the recent Top 10 shows, the Schmoedown, Collider Live… all of it! I even found myself discussing with a couple of fans about how I’d ended up as a writer for the Schmoedown website. Before I knew it, it was time to make our way to Kings Place, the venue for the show.

Top 10 Live shirt

The venue was great – we were in room 2, which allowed a 200-strong audience. There was just time to grab a drink from the bar and a Top 10 Live shirt (I definitely did this in the wrong order and needed an extra set of hands), before going into the room and finding a seat. By the time I was in, most of the seats were already full so I ended up towards the back, but even so the view was great!

The show began and I won’t go into much detail, but I really recommend giving it a listen. Suffice to say John and Matt were brilliant, making it a full-on show rather than just going into the usual show. Not just in the opening but throughout the show their comedy was great and I will never be able to look at a “Way Out” sign or a cello the same again! The fan interaction throughout the show was really good and they did a great job of making references to other shows like Collider Live and the even got some of the history behind creating “The Outlaw” for the Schmoedown. And possibly the best bit: they already plan to return next year!

The show itself was about 2 hours, after which the majority of us hung around in the foyer to meet the guys. It was great to get to speak to these guys and get a picture with each of them and I honestly found myself nervous meeting them after watching them on the Schmoedown for so long! We also had an extra surprise while queuing as we realised that another Schmoedown competitor Jeannine “The Machine” was here as well, and having wrote some articles both for here and the Schmoedown site about her faction The Viper Squad, it was great to get to chat to her and get a picture with her too.

 

 

From there it was off to a nearby bar called Camino for some drinks with a number of other fans and the guys themselves. It was great to get to chat even more with them and a group of us must have been chatting with Matt about anything and everything (literally everything, including the NBA, comedy, going grey how we found the venue, the potential of a live Schmoedown in the UK and the Great British Bake Off) for an hour or two until the place closed. And that was the night over and it was back to my room and a much-needed bed!

I got myself up relatively early the next morning as I didn’t want to leave it too late to leave London and get back to Gloucester, but before leaving I wanted to make sure I got to watch the inaugural Schmoedown Throwdown that had aired the night before, as the on-demand stream was only available for 24 hours! The event was absolutely amazing: The Odd Couple v Scream Queens was a great undercard and the main event, the Innergeekdom Title Match between Mike Kalinowski and Rachel Cushing, was arguably one of the greatest matches in the history of the league!

Once I was over the excitement of the event, it was time to catch a train back to Gloucester and luck was on my side as I was able to get home just in time to catch Italy v Ireland and bring an end to a perfect weekend.

So thank you, John and Matt, for taking a chance on coming halfway round the globe. I hope you enjoyed your time here as much as we enjoyed having you. See you next year!

Top Ten, Bomaye!

Eyes On: Ireland v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Ireland v France – 6 Nations 2019

Ireland finished off the 4th round of Six Nations action with a match at home against France. For the first time this season, the French avoided making changes to the XV that put Scotland to the sword, but the performance would have left you thinking they had changed the entire squad. The French failed to get on the board in the first half, whereas tries from Rory Best, Johnny Sexton (who also contributed 2 conversions) and Jack Conan gave the Irish a 19-0 halftime lead. A Keith Earls try and Sexton conversion increased the lead to 26, before late tries from Yoann Huget and Camille Chat and 2 conversions from Baptiste Serin left the scoreline flattering Les Bleus with a final score of 26-14.

Work to do

Ireland may have come away with the bonus point victory in this game, but I think that this was more courtesy of poor French defence than anything special from the home team. Despite having 65% of the possession and 72% territory in the game, the Irish wasted a number of opportunities with poor handling errors. Potential tries from Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose were chalked off for knock-ons and a number of other great chances came to a premature end though poor handling. Had they been a bit more precise, then they could have had doubled their score.

Granted, there has been some rotation in the pack and centres due to a combination of injuries and resting players – including Rob Kearney’s late removal, leading to Jordan Larmour’s first start in the championship – will have hurt the team’s chemistry, however these players are still all regulars in the squad so you would expect better. I was happy to see Jack Carty and John Cooney get a solid 20+ minutes this week after barely being used against Italy and thought that Carty especially impressed with a couple of pinpoint kicks that kept the French deep in their own half.

The Irish will also be bitterly disappointed with conceding 14 points in the dying minutes as even when all the substitutions started they were in complete control and it was just a couple of defensive errors and penalties that cost them the chance of holding the French scoreless.

Coming into the tournament, many will have considered the Irish as the Northern Hemisphere team most likely to win the World Cup. On their recent performances that is looking less likely, but a big performance and victory in Cardiff at the weekend could change that outlook massively and still potentially win them the Six Nations.

Back to the beginning

Compare this French performance to the one against Scotland 2 weeks ago and you would never think that you were watching the same French team. While last week the French dominated the game, this week they struggled to even make an impact on it!

Despite having a recognised fullback in Thomas Ramos, it took less than a minute for the kick coverage to fail completely, with a kick form Jordan Larmour putting Ireland in position for what became Rory Best’s try. Ramos was also completely out-jumped when competing for a high ball in his own 22, which led to Ringrose’s disallowed try.

In defence, they found themselves manipulated by the Irish attack far too easily – most notably Yoann Huget biting on completely the wrong man, leading to him blocking off Fickou and leaving Sexton all the space in the world to take the ball on the loop and go over for a try – and can honestly consider themselves lucky to have not conceded more tries.

In attack they barely created anything, making just 138 metres in the entire game, a big difference from the 520 made against Scotland 2 weeks earlier! Louis Picamoles has been a big part of the French forward effort to create a platform, but in this game he was limited to just 2 metres from 2 carries – in fact all the forwards in the XV and on the bench combined for just 64 metres, half of which belonged to just 2 players!

While they just have enough points to avoid the Wooden Spoon regardless of the result at Italy, there is a distinct possibility that another performance like this could help Italy earn their first Six Nations victory since they won at Murrayfeld in February 2015. If the French are going to be so inconsistent in their performances, then they need to move on from Jacques Brunel, so that the next generation of players coming through like Antoine Dupont, Demba Bamba and Romain Ntamack can be in a team that actually has chances of success.

Inexperience shows

Last week I was very complimentary of the way Antoine Dupont played, however without the forward platform this week he struggled to perform anywhere near as well.

His running threat was gone – he made a total of 2 metres from 10 carries and was tackled in the in-goal by James Ryan on one occasion – but nowhere was his drop in performance more noticeable than when he was preparing to box kick. The kicking game is a more recent weapon in the 22-year-old’s arsenal and with his pack struggling to put him on the front foot, he was taking far too long at the back of the ruck and was caught out on a couple of occasions, most notably when Cian Healy almost scored a try as Dupont failed to notice that the ball had rolled onto the try-line, meaning that Ireland could come round and play it despite it still being in the ruck.

The kicking game is often one of the later things to develop in a young scrum half due to the experience needed to control the game effectively, so I am not overly worried for Dupont’s future prospects. However it looks like he will need a pack that can gain parity at least currently, so I feel that for now it would be beneficial to start Baptiste Serin in games where the pack may not be as strong, with Dupont there to come off the bench and take advantage of the gaps made as the opposition tires.