England’s Magic Victories

England’s Magic Victories

For sports fans, Sunday 14th July is a day that will live long in the memory. Lewis Hamilton won a 6th British GP in a race that saw Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen praised for some of the best racing in years. The Scottish Open reached its end. The Tour de France continued towards its first rest day. England’s men’s and women’s rugby 7s team won their respective tournaments to qualify Team GB for the Olympics. New Zealand’s beat England to win the Women’s Rugby Super Series title and remain #1 in the world. Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer in the longest Wimbledon men’s final and England won the Cricket World Cup against New Zealand.

That win for Eoin Morgan’s men – by virtue of number of boundaries in the match, after the teams could not be separated over 50 overs and a super over – gave cricket one of its greatest finishes of all time and made England the only nation to have won the Men’s World Cups in cricket, football and rugby. While that stat may not be too surprising given the number of countries that play all 3 of these sports to an elite level, what makes this incredible is that all 3 of these victories have come following some form of extra time.

England’s 1966 FIFA World Cup victory saw them concede a late equaliser from Wolfgang Weber to make the scores 2-2 at the 90-minute mark, but 2 goals from Geoff Hurst in extra time – including one in the final seconds of the game – saw Bobby Moore lift the trophy as the nation celebrated a 4-2 victory.

The RWC2003 final saw defending champions and hosts Australia bring the scores level in the final moments, as Elton Flatly kicked a penalty to level the scores at 14-14. Extra time saw Flatley and Jonny Wilkinson trade a penalty each, before a Wilkinson drop goal won the game with just 26 seconds left on the clock.

Sunday’s final at Lord’s saw England hold New Zealand to a reachable total of 241, before struggling themselves with the bat. Requiring 15 runs from the last over, luck was on England’s side and they tied things up with the final ball, taking things to a super over. England got 15 runs from their over, but things got off to a bad start in New Zealand’s over as Jofra Archer started with a wide and was hit for 6 a few balls later. He tightened things up on the final balls though, leaving New Zealand needing 2 runs from the final ball to win. Martin Guptil got the first run to pull things level, but was unable to get back down the wicket quick enough and was run out, leaving the scores level and seeing England win through the tie-breaker of most boundaries in the match.

With all these matches, they have their moments that will be remembered for how differently they could have gone. Hurst’s first goal in extra time was an early case for goal-line technology, as the ball hit the crossbar, bounced off the ground and was cleared away, only for the assistant referee to decree that the ball had crossed the line. Ben Kay agonisingly dropped Matt Dawson’s popped pass with the try line at his mercy, while Wilkinson’s successful drop goal came with his weaker right foot after having missed 2 drop goal attempts earlier in the match. At Lord’s England’s saviour Ben Stokes was almost caught out in the penultimate over, only for Trent Boult to step backwards onto the boundary to turn the ball into a 6, while the next over saw an even luckier moment as a fielder’s throw deflected off his bat and reached the boundary to total 6 runs off that ball – though in hindsight it should have actually been 5 runs.

It’s safe to say England have had their fair share of luck, with the Rugby World Cup just months away, hopefully they haven’t used it all up at the weekend. Perhaps that will be England’s first victory in regular time. I’m not sure our hearts can take another close finish!

RWC2019: Predicting the USA Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the USA Squad

With the Northern Hemisphere’s domestic leagues over and Super Rugby coming to an end, the thoughts of many rugby fans will be turning towards the World Cup and who will make it into each team’s 31-man squad.

As the USA’s professional league Major League Rugby (the MLR) came towards the end of its 2ⁿᵈ season (congratulations to the Seattle Seawolves, who successfully defended their title), USA Eagles Head Coach Gary Gold named a 50-man training squad to prepare for the World Cup, with 40 of them set to get together for the Pacific Nations Cup. The squad contains a number of stars from the MLR, along with foreign-based Americans and 3 players form the 7s squad who came 2ⁿᵈ to Fiji in this season’s World Sevens Series. Unfortunately, soon after the announcement of the squad they were hit by Samu Manoa retiring from international rugby, while Folau Niua would have probably been in contention for a place in the squad until he suffered a serious leg injury in the season-ending Paris 7s.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for USA rugby and I am loving the way that the sport is growing across the pond. As such, I decided to make them the next team for my series of World Cup squad predictions. This was by far the hardest for me to put together so far, as though I have a soft spot for USA rugby, I have generally found them harder to follow as I found it hard to follow the MLR and World Sevens Series this season beyond YouTube highlights packages (which are very poor in the case of the MLR are very poor), while match times and broadcasting makes it difficult to watch the USA play on a regular basis.

When putting these squads together, I usually take a look at the position breakdown for a team or their Head Coach from their last couple of World Cups as a starting point, but given how much things have changed for rugby in the USA since 2015, I have instead looked at the players available and used a similar position break down to other teams I have predicted.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I think that Gary Gold will select…

Prop

If you’re part of the Saracens squad then you have to be a player of some quality, so Titi Lamositeli was an obvious first pick here. Beyond that, things got harder as I recognised the names Eric Fry and Olive Kilife from the 2015 tournament, so they were initially making my list until I realised that neither of them played in the most recent Americas Rugby Championship. As a result, I replaced them with the other regulars from that tournament Dino WaldrenPaul Mullen and Chance Wenglewski. For the 5ᵗʰ spot at prop, I have gone for David Ainu’u, who I don’t know anything about but did feature in the ARC and must be a good quality player to be part of the Toulouse squad. I can’t imagine that he will play much in this tournament but at just 19 years old, this will be great experience for him with a view to 2023.

Hooker

As the player with the most international tries of any tight five in word rugby, Worcester’s Joe Taufete’e is the clear starter going into the tournament, while his backup appears to be All-MLR 1ˢᵗ XV pick Dylan Fawsitt. The final spot likely depends on whether Gary Gold wants to go for experience (taking James Hilterbrand) or look to the future again with Kapeli Pifileti, who turns 20 a month before the tournament. As a 3ʳᵈ choice hooker, whoever goes will probably not get many minutes, so I think that Pifileti gets the nod here, similar to Ainu’u.

Second Row

Samu Manoa’s retirement probably hits more in this position than it does in the back row, but there are still good options at lock. Nick Civetta and Greg Peterson have become the regular pairing in the second row so are clear favourites to be picked, along with regular replacement and RUNY’s All-MLR 1ˢᵗ team lock Nate Brakely. For the final spot, Lou Stanfill’s place in the All-MLR 2ⁿᵈ team will do his chances no harm, but he hasn’t been capped since the last World Cup, so I envisage him missing out in favour of Ealing’s Ben Landry, who has played 18 times since February 2016.

Back Row

Hanco GermishuysJohn Quill and All-MLR 2ⁿᵈ team number 8 Cam Dolan have become the regular back row trio and with Samu Manoa retired, I can’t see that changing. Tevita Tameilau has also been a regular in the 23 of late and if USA are considering him as an option at lock and in the back row then he will surely travel to Japan. This leaves 2 spaces in my 6-strong back row, which I feel will go to former college football linebacker Psalm Wooching and USA 7s player Ben Pinkelman, who will add different dynamics into the position group.

Scrum Half

The regular one-two punch at 9 for the Eagles recently has been Shaun Davies and Ruben de Haas, so it will be a shock if either of these players misses out on a spot in the squad. Nate Augspurger and Mike Petri made the All-MLR 1ˢᵗ and 2ⁿᵈ teams respectively this season, so both have every chance of forcing their way onto the plane, but I give the advantage to Augspurger as he can also play wing, giving Gold extra options in the squad.

Fly Half

The obvious selection here is Sale’s AJ MacGinty, who stood out to me 4 years ago and has only improve since then. When MacGinty has not been available, the go-to replacement has been Glendale Raptors’ Will Magie, who will surely make it onto the plane. Despite winning back-to-back MLR titles, Ben Cima has not played for the Eagles since March 2018, so I think that he misses out on a place here as there is fly half cover elsewhere in the squad.

Centre

Former NFL fullback Paul Lasike gives a hard-running option at 12 and has developed a solid partnership with Bryce Campbell. Thretton Palamo has struggled to get consistent rugby in recent years so I think he misses out this time in place of USA 7s’ Martin Iosefo.

Back 3

As captain and one of the players with the most experience in a top league, it will be a shock if Blaine Scully were to miss out on a place in the squad. Will Hooley can cover fly half as well as fullback, while Marcel Brache is also able to cover both 15 and wing. Madison Hughes adds big-game experience and leadership even if he is more commonly found on the Sevens circuit. Mike Te’o has looked dangerous for the national team and was having a strong MLR campaign before injury, so as long as he is fit, he will surely take the final spot in the back 3.


So those are my picks for the USA 31-man World Cup squad, who do you think makes the list and how well do you think they will do in a tough pool?

RWC2019: Predicting the England Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the England Squad

Ever since the Premiership finished for another season, thoughts have started to turn towards the World Cup and who Eddie Jones would be selecting to represent England in Japan. Having played a squad for the future against the Barbarians, Eddie Jones has spent the last couple of weeks bringing players in for training once 5 weeks had played since their last game of rugby, so was today able to name an official training squad with everyone available.

With England and the Premiership being one of my stronger areas of knowledge, it was no shock that this squad announcement saw me quickly starting to predict the 31-man World Cup squad as part of this ongoing series. Like the original article looking at the Wales squad, I have brought in the talents of a close friend and fellow rugby nut in the form of my colleague Phil. We will each pick our squads separately and I will then compare our selections to see how familiar they are. As a reminder, these are not the squads that we would be selecting (which I can imagine would look very different to this), but instead the squad that we think Eddie Jones will select.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, Phil and I think that Eddie Jones’ squad for the World Cup will contain:

Hooker

With Dylan Hartley confirmed to be missing the World Cup though injury, Jamie George becomes the clear starter. Luke Cowan-Dickie has been the next up of late and while Jack Singleton has made a strong push, both Phil and I feel that the Exeter hooker will take the second spot.

When it comes to Jack Singleton however, our opinions vary. I think that the former Worcester hooker will also travel to Japan to provide depth and competition for Cowan-Dickie, however Phil thinks that Jones will choose to take only 2 hookers, freeing up a spot elsewhere in the squad.

Prop

Mako Vunipola is one of the best props in the world, so it is no surprise that Phil and I both expect him to make the squad, provided he recovers in time. Joe Marler has come out of international retirement and we both feel that Jones will take him for his experience and scrummaging ability, while we also both feel that Ellis Genge will travel as either 2nd or 3rd choice loosehead depending on Vunipola’s fitness. On the other side of the front row, we both feel that Kyle Sinckler and Harry Williams have got ahead of Dan Cole on the pecking order, despite him being vastly more experienced at international level.

Given the state of Vunipola’s injury, I instructed Phil to also pick a player who would replace him in the squad should he fail to recover in time. On this we differed, as Phil went for a like-for-like swap by bringing in Ben Moon, whereas I felt that Jones would be happy with the combination of Genge and Marler, so choose to bring in Dan Cole as a more experienced presence in the squad.

Second Row

No massive surprises at lock, where both of us expect the usual 4 of Maro ItojeCourtney LawesJoe Launchbury and George Kruis – who has really come back to form this season – to all make their way onto the plane.

Due to Eddie Jones’ history of utilising Itoje and Lawes at 6, I think that he will also include Charlie Ewels in the squad as another specialist lock, whereas Phil has stuck to the big 4.

Back Row

rugby chris robshaw samoa
Former captain Chris Robshaw looks set to miss out on a place in the squad

It looks like Phil and I are in agreement over who Jones will take in the back row, though I’m also pretty certain we would see some different players if we were picking our own squads. Billy Vunipola at full fitness is one of the best number 8s in the world, so was an easy pick, while Tom Curry has all-but cemented the 7 jersey. Sam Underhill will keep the pressure on Curry, while he could also be used as a 6 and will also likely find himself competing with Mark Wilson for that starting spot. Lewis Ludlam and Alex Dombrandt (who missed out on selection for the most recent training squad) have had great seasons but come on too late for this tournament, though they should start featuring straight after with a view to 2023. Ben Morgan & Matt Kvesic haven’t even featured in the training squads despite stellar seasons, nor have Zach Mercer, Don Armand or Nathan Hughes, who has really fallen down the pecking order. Chris Robshaw is another who has found himself out of the loop after other players took advantage of the space his injury created. The 5th and final back row we each selected was Brad Shields, who has the versatility to cover multiple positions and also has experience of southern Hemisphere rugby.

Scrum Half

Though he has brought 3 scrum halves into recent squads, Eddie Jones generally prefers to have just 2 in his squads as otherwise it becomes difficult to spread reps. As such, Phil and I both found ourselves selecting just 2 players at the position when predicting the squad. Ben Youngs was the obvious option as he has remained Jones’ first choice despite times of poor form and also Leicester’s struggles this season. The 2nd place looked difficult, until the most recent training squad was announced. The way that Danny Care has dropped down the pecking order over the last 12 months is incredible, but it looks like the Quins 9 is no longer in the hunt, while Dan Robson appears to have missed out after a season that has been severely hampered by injury and illness. This left Ben Spencer and Willi Heinz fighting for the second spot. While Heinz has more experience, Saracens’ success and the high number of representatives in the squad led to both of us giving the advantage to Ben Spencer, who has a great all-round game, can kick off the tee if needed and is also young enough to push for the starting spot over the next 4-year cycle.

Fly Half

Going on the last season, Owen Farrell is now seen specifically as a fly half and looks bolted on to start, while he could push out to 12 if needed to make room for George Ford, who we both felt makes the squad almost by default given he is the only other experienced fly half Eddie Jones has regularly had with the squad during recent international windows.

Beyond this, there were not really many other options, with Danny Cipriani the other name in the current training squad and Marcus Smith having come into training camps instead of Cipriani during the Six Nations. Perhaps it is Phil’s Gloucester bias coming through, but he managed to find a spot for Danny Cipriani in the squad, however I can’t see it happening given how little Jones has included him since the Summer Tour to South Africa and instead feel that Jones will take just 2 specialised 10s and rely on players elsewhere to cover the position in an emergency.

Centre

Henry Slade has become the constant in recent England squads and we both felt that his performances for England and Exeter solidified his seat on the plane. Ben Te’o gets picked by Jones regardless of how little rugby he has played, so will surely make the squad despite being currently unattached, while we also both agree that Manu Tuilagi makes the squad (if fit) as when he is on form he is a game changer who can cover either 12 or 13.

Both of us felt that Jones would go for 4 specialist centres (we have both counted Daly as part of the back 3 but he will also give some depth here), but we have varied in our final pick. Phil has gone for Bath’s Jonathan Joseph, who has been defensively solid at 13 and can also cover the wing if needed. However, given all the back 3 options in the training squad are able to cover wing and also 13 at a push, I instead picked Piers Francis, who has come off a strong finish to the season for Northampton and provides a playmaker option at 12, while he can also cover fly half in an emergency.

Back 3

Our thoughts surrounding the back 3 were very similar, the one difference being that Phil had 6 spaces left to fill, whereas I only had 5. Jonny May and super-versatile Elliot Daly have become ever-presents in this squad, while we both think that Anthony Watson’s speed and ability in the air have brought him back into the squad after a lengthy injury layoff. All 3 of these players are relatively lightweight, pacy individuals, but Joe Cokanasiga and Jack Nowell add a more physical attribute to the position group, while Nowell is able to cover 13 and 15 as well.

With Chris Ashton having pulled out for personal reasons, Ollie Thorley untested at international level and Denny Solomona & Nathan Earle having dropped down the pecking order of late – let’s not even get into Alex Goode! – I felt that there was nobody else that Jones would choose to include at this position, which led to me using the 31st pick on Charlie Ewels, however Phil has chosen to include a bolter in Bath and former England 7s star Ruaridh McConnochie, who took advantage of injuries in the Bath back line to have a great season.


So on the whole, we had largely the same squad, with just the last couple of positions on the fringes of the squad differing. This doesn’t surprise me too much considering how much we talk about rugby, we have probably converged our opinions over the last 6 years. Interestingly, I found myself putting more numbers into the pack to boost the chances of taking control of the game, whereas Phil included some very exciting backs to take advantage of the possession the forwards win.

Who do you think makes it onto the plane?