Magic Moments on the Tour de France 2019

Magic Moments on the Tour de France 2019

The Tour de France is the one cycling event that is so famous, its name is known well beyond cycling and sporting circles. The 2nd of the 3 Grand Tours every year, injuries to Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin saw them both replaced ahead of the race, but while this impacted the battle for the General Classification, it did not overly harm what ended up being a great race.

We had Movistar and Team INEOS showing the strength of their squads at the front of the peloton… We had one of the closest fights for both the green and yellow jerseys in recent memory… We so nearly had a French champion again, but instead ended up with the youngest champion in 100 years and the first Colombian Tour de France winner ever in Egan Bernal.


General Classification (GC – Yellow Jersey):

  1. Egan Bernal (COL) – Team Ineos – 82 hours, 57 minutes
  2. Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Ineos + 1 minute, 11 seconds
  3. Steven Kruijswijk (NED) – Team Jumbo–Visma + 1 minute, 31 seconds

Points Classification (Green Jersey)

  1. Peter Sagan (SVK) – Bora–Hansgrohe – 316 points
  2. Caleb Ewan (AUS) – Lotto–Soudal – 248 points
  3. Elia Viviani (ITA) – Deceuninck–Quick-Step – 224 points

Mountains Classification (KOM – Polka Dot Jersey)

  1. Romain Bardet (FRA) – AG2R La Mondiale – 86 points
  2. Egan Bernal (COL) – Team Ineos – 78 points
  3. Tim Wellens (BEL) – Lotto–Soudal – 75 points

Young Rider Classification (White Jersey)

  1. Egan Bernal (COL) – Team Ineos – 82 hours, 57 minutes
  2. David Gaudu (FRA) – Groupama–FDJ + 23 minutes, 58 seconds
  3. Enric Mas (ESP) – Deceuninck–Quick-Step + 58 minutes, 20 seconds

Team Classification

  1. Movistar Team – 248 hours, 58 minutes, 15 seconds
  2. Trek–Segafredo + 47 minutes, 54 seconds
  3. Team Ineos + 57 minutes, 52 seconds

In celebration of the 2019 Tour, I wanted to look back at some of my personal highlights of the race. Let me know what your highlights were.

Alaphilippe in yellow

French success in the Tour’s General Classification has been limited in recent years, with Tony Gallopin the last French rider to wear the Yellow Jersey, back in 2014.

Deceuninck–Quick-Step’s Julian Alaphilippe though has been giving his country something to cheer about recently, following up winning the KOM last year with victory at the Tour of Britain on his way to becoming the Number 1 ranked rider. On Stage 3, Alaphilippe took his chance on the final climb, attacking the main group and passing Tim Wellens – who had been the last remaining rider from the breakaway – to cross the line in first, 26 seconds ahead of anyone else. The win and time difference were enough for the popular Frenchman to take the Yellow Jersey from Team Jumbo–Visma’s Mike Teunissen.

Finishing the trifecta

2018 saw Elia Viviani win stages in both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, leaving the Tour as the only one of the Grand Tours where he was still looking for a stage victory. This year’s Giro saw him consistently just missing out to other riders in the bunch sprints and eventually finishing without a win, so coming into the Tour it was obvious that he would want to get a stage victory and complete the trifecta. That came on Stage 4 as a great lead-out from his Deceuninck–Quick-Step teammates saw him cross the line first.

cycling sprint
The Deceuninck–Quick-Step lead-outs throughout the race were a kaleidoscope of colour. Image Source

While that in itself was great, Viviani’s emotional response when he reached his team showed just how much it meant for him, especially as he will be leaving at the end of the season. But what made it even more beautiful was watching the lead-out, as Alaphilippe (Yellow Jersey), Michael Mørkøv (Danish National Champion Jersey) and Max Richeze (Argentine National Champion Jersey) provided a rainbow of colours as they led their man to victory.

Masters of the climbs

Stage 6 and its finish on La Planche des Belles Filles is one that will live in the memory and got my so hyped watching it. It feels so long since Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde has been looked at as a leader and GC contender, but winning the 2018 UCI Road World Championship was a great reminder of his quality. As the race heated up on the penultimate climb, Valverde made his way to the front of the GC group and began to set an incredible pace. Such was the pace he was setting on a tough climb, even the much-vaunted super-domestiques of Team Ineos and other teams found themselves being dropped from a quickly-thinning group. Unfortunately, his Movistar teammates Mikel Landa – who attempted to attack after Valverde was spent and was soon caught – and Nairo Quintana were unable to take advantage and lost time to some of their GC rivals.

Beyond that, in the final kilometre of the final climb, the Yellow Jersey of Julian Alaphilippe suddenly sprung away from the GC group in the dust in an attempt to hold onto the Jersey (he would eventually miss out to Giulio Ciccone, who had been in the break, by 6 seconds). After initially leaving everyone else behind, defending champion Geraint Thomas and France’s best hope for a GC win Thibaut Pinot also pulled away from the group and managed to pass Alaphilippe (on the line in Pinot’s case) to put a couple of seconds into all their rivals. After losing 5 seconds on Stage 3, Thomas showed he was going to be fighting hard to defend his title, while Pinot showed that he is going to put up a challenge this year after a strong performance at the Critérium du Dauphiné.

Gone with the (cross)wind

Stage 10 was meant to be a nice easy day off for the GC riders before the rest day. And then the winds arrived. EF Education First and Team Ineos both tried to throw the peloton into disarray by upping the pace at the front to little effect. Things changed though when Julian Alaphilippe (yes, him again!) decided to take control in the yellow jersey and up the pace with the help of his Deceuninck–Quick-Step teammates, splitting the peloton into multiple groups. EF found themselves outside the lead group, along with Thibaut Pinot and many of the other GC contenders, so Ineos joined in with Deceuninck to take advantage of the situation, resulting in Geraint Thomas rising to 2nd in the GC behind Alaphilippe. Spare a thought as well for George Bennett, who started the stage 4th in the GC (1’ 12” behind the maillot jaune) but due to a questionable team decision found himself at the back of the peloton picking up water bottles for the team as Alaphilippe attacked, resulting in him dropping down to 27th overall, 11’ 01” off the lead.

The first of many

Moving away from Alaphilippe for a moment, Stage 11 is one that will live long in the memory for Lotto–Soudal’s Caleb Ewan. The Australian, riding his first ever Tour de France, took what would go on to be the first of 3 stage victories in this year’s race. While that is obviously great for him, what gets it on this list is that when you watch the stage back, you realise that he lost his lead-out man Jasper De Buyst a few kilometres out from the finish as he came off the road leading Ewan to the front of the peloton. So many people could have given up at that point, but Ewan got himself on the right wheel and timed his sprint perfectly to just get ahead of Dylan Groenewegen before the line.

Trial of the yellow jersey

With Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome not involved in this year’s race and Rohan Dennis pulling out the day before, the Individual Time Trial looked wide open. Wout van Aert was looking good for an amazing time, until he took a turn a little too tight and caught the fence, coming down hard and having to abandon the race through injury. This left things open for Thomas De Gendt to set the fastest time. Geraint Thomas was the penultimate rider off the ramp and when he crossed the finish line 12 seconds ahead of De Gendt, a stage victory looked on the cards.

cycling alaphilippe ITTAnd then came Alaphilippe. As race leader, he was last off the ramp and though the route was favourable for him, the expectation was that he would lose time to some of his GC rivals on this stage. Instead, he passed the checkpoints with better split times than Thomas and as the home crowd cheered him on, he powered up the final climb and through the last couple of hundred metres to finish 14 seconds ahead of Thomas and increase his lead in the maillot jaune.

French revolution

If Stage 13 was where Alaphilippe would likely lose time to his rivals, Stage 14 and its finale on the Col du Tourmalet was where he was bound to break. Alaphilippe, however, had other plans, as he gained more time on Geraint Thomas in the final kilometre when he, Thibaut Pinot, Egan Bernal, Steven Kruijswijk, Emanuel Buchmann and Mikel Landa pulled away from the defending champion.

In a great day for French cycling fans, Pinot attacked in the final 250 metres to win the stage, while Alaphilippe was next across the line to increase his lead over everyone else in the General Classification.

Weather woes

If Stage 14 was a great day for French cycling fans, Stage 19 was the opposite for them. A tearful Thibaut Pinot was forced to abandon early in the stage with a torn thigh muscle, ending what had looked to be a hugely promising race for him.

Things got even worse as Egan Bernal attacked during the climb up the Col de l’Iseran. While Kruijswijk, Buchmann and Thomas could not stick with Bernal, they were still able to drop Alaphilippe enough for Bernal to take the virtual lead before the summit.

Then things went crazy as the weather turned dramatically on the descent, with a hail storm and snow making the descent treacherous and a mudslide blocking a section of the road, leading to the race being neutralised and cancelled, with finish times being taken from the summit of the Iseran, resulting in Bernal taking the yellow jersey and Alaphilippe dropping down to 2nd.

While this was far from ideal, I can’t imagine any better way to have dealt with this freak occurrence, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for some of the riders as Alaphilippe was gaining time back on the descent and Steven Kruijswijk admitted that he had planned to attack on the final climb.

cycling bernal yellow thomasClimbing to history

The weather that prematurely ended Stage 19 had a huge impact on Stage 20 too, as a series of other landslides blocked sections of road and led to the final stage of climbing being cut from 130km to 59.5km, with just the final climb (Val Thorens) remaining.

Vincenzo Nibali won the stage from the break, but the big highlight here was Alaphilippe being dropped again on the climb, which saw him fall to 5th overall in the GC, while Bernal and Thomas crossed the line together to take the 1-2 on GC, Bernal becoming the first Colombian to win the Tour de France.

Eyes On: Australia v Argentina – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Australia v Argentina – Rugby Championship 2019

Saturday saw us enter the second half of this season’s Rugby Championship with Argentina’s trip to Brisbane. Both teams were looking to get some momentum following losses in the opening round, but it was the Wallabies who took an early lead at the Suncorp Stadium through the boot of Christian Leali’ifano and a Reece Hodge try from a set move gave then a 10-3 halftime lead. The Pumas got a try back through Facundo Isa, but were unable to find another try in the final 5 minutes, falling to a 16-10 loss.

Australia

While last week they were depressingly poor, there were better signs from the Wallabies in this match. Argentina’s pack are not as strong as South Africa’s and it really showed in this match, as Australia quickly painted the picture that they were dominant at the scrums, while Izack Rodda (33m), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (13m), Scott Sio (20m), Michael Hooper (30m) and Isi Naisarani (64m) all hit double figures for metres made, which along with 52m for Samu Kerevi did a great job of keeping the team on the front foot. Marika Koroibete also made good metres and did a great job of keeping Santiago Cordero quiet, while Leali’ifano looked at home on his return to international rugby following his comeback from leukaemia.

What will worry them, though is the sheer number of times Argentina managed to get in behind them defensively. If it wasn’t for some questionable decisions in contact, this result could have been very different. They may also be a little worried by the performance of Kurtley Beale, who was far less influential in attack compared to last week’s cameo off the bench and was lucky to get away with an awful kick that sat up nicely for the Argentina backs to counter.

Their upcoming Bledisloe Cup match will see the quality of opposition rise, if Australia aren’t careful, it could be a long 80 minutes for them.

Argentina

Last week I was disappointed with the amount of ball Argentina kicked away and wished that they would keep the ball in hand more. They certainly did that against the Wallabies, but I was still left disappointed with the style of play.

The backs are highly dangerous and they have great ball carriers in the pack, but too often they tried to offload the ball from contact when it wasn’t on, leading to many great chances ending prematurely. I can completely understand wanting to offload the ball as it stops the Australian defence from getting set and keeps them on the back foot, but so often it was leading to players getting isolated or handling errors that resulted in Australia either turning the ball over or regrouping. Even one time that they made it close to the try line, the ball was knocked on by a prop who couldn’t keep his eyes on the ball.

I think this team would really benefit from looking at the way Exeter play (Cordero could give them some tips), as Exeter get a great balance of quick, devastating attacks with offloads and also playing a more patient game, taking the tackle and setting up the breakdown, while when they reach to the line going through phases of pick-and-go drives to draw in the defence before spreading it wide to the open backs.

If Argentina can get the balance of play right in time for the World Cup, they will b extremely dangerous.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Christian Leali’ifano looked comfortably at home in the 10 jersey and has looked the best alternative to Bernard Foley (potentially even enough to compete for the starting role), which would be a great continuation of a wonderful story. Likewise, Facundo Isa managed to fit in on his return to the squad after a change in eligibility criteria allowed him to feature despite playing in France. For the Aussies, James Slipper did a great job of dominating (or at least making it look to the referee like he was dominating) his opposite number at the scrum and that, combined with his experience, is going to be pushing him towards a seat on the plane to Japan. Felipe Ezcurra was once again only given a handful of minutes at the end of the game, but earned a penalty at the breakdown with his jackaling and also seemed to up the tempo, which will certainly help his case for selection in a strong scrum half corps.

While Leali’ifano had a strong game, his replacement at 10 Matt To’omua struggled to have any impact on the game and get the back line firing in the same way. With the positions he covers (fly half and centre) being well covered by other more versatile players, he needs to put in a big performance to guarantee a spot in the squad. Joaquín Tuculet has found his 15 shirt under pressure from Emiliano Boffelli, while winger/fullback Santiago Cordero could be deemed surplus to requirements due to playing his club rugby in Europe. With such depth in the back 3, both needed big games but were kept relatively quiet by the Australians. James O’Connor may also be feeling nervous about his chances of going to Japan, as his return to the Australian team was limited to just 10 minutes at the end in a back line that was no longer firing.


As we get close to RWC2019, I will be running a fantasy rugby league on the rugby magazine website, and you are all invited to join! Simply follow this link and use the Unique Token: b6c1e40d48e6

Eyes On: New Zealand v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: New Zealand v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

We reached the halfway point of this season’s Rugby Championship on Saturday (that’s a sad thought!) with a match between New Zealand and South Africa. The 2 teams will both be in Pool B at the World Cup, so while both teas were looking to test the depth of their squads in an attempt to pick the 31 men they take to Japan, both teams will have also wanted the psychological edge of a win over their rival.

In a match full of handling errors from the All Blacks, 2 South Africa penalties gave them an early lead, but a try for Jack Goodhue and Beauden Barrett’s conversion gave New Zealand a 7-6 lead at halftime. The game remained close throughout the second half and with the final play of the game Herschel Jantjies (on for much of the half following a failed HIA for Faf de Klerk) managed to collect a chip forward from Cheslin Kolbe to score out wide and Handrè Pollard slotted the conversion to secure a 16-16 tie. The All Blacks will more likely be concerned with the health of Brodie Retallick, however, as he suffered a dislocated shoulder that could put his World Cup in jeopardy.

New Zealand

Beauden Barrett had been the go-to fly half for New Zealand for a while now, but this match found him moved to fullback, while Richie Mo’unga took the 10 jersey. I really like this decision from Steve Hansen as I have been saying to my friends for a while that I would pick Mo’unga over Barrett as I find him a more reliable option, while moving Barrett to 15 keeps his playmaking ability on the park and arguably enhances it by giving him more space to work from, similar to what we were seeing with Damian McKenzie prior to his injury.

While Mo’unga had a shaky start with a couple of charged kicks, he grew into the game, while Barrett also had a strong game and got the assist for Goodhue’s try. What did surprise me though was the decision to give Barrett the kicking duties. Barrett has been the kicker for the All Backs on plenty of occasions so there is nothing new to learn there compared to Mo’unga. As it turns out, that decision arguably cost them the game as Barrett left 6 points on the field with 2 missed kicks that a top-level international kicker should be making, before being replaced off the tee by Mo’unga.

South Africa

So often in the past, a team has needed to play the best match of their season and still require some luck to avoid losing in New Zealand. That was not the case here though, as South Africa put in a good workmanlike performance that I would describe as solid rather than spectacular.

With Faf de Klerk at the helm, they did a great job of keeping the All Blacks down their end of the pitch and putting them under pressure, with Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am doing a great job of stopping them making ground through the middle. Cheslin Kolbe is tiny by present international rugby standards but was anything but a pushover, completing 13 of his 15 attempted tackles – only Kwagga Smith (15/16) and Pieter-Steph du Toit (14/16) made more for the Springboks.

The set piece saw them largely keep parity with the number 1 team in the world, and watching the replacement props come on and immediately win a scrum penalty against New Zealand’s starting front row will have given the team a huge psychological boost with a crucial rematch in Japan just months away.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

If 2 tries on debut wasn’t good enough for Herschel Jantjies, he did not look like a player earning just his second cap against the All Blacks and scoring the crucial try at the death by beating opposite number Aaron Smith to the ball will have made it even sweeter. Off the back of these 2 performances it’s hard to imagine Rassie Erasmus not taking him to Japan. The starting pack for the Boks certainly looked like the first choice players minus injured captain Siya Kolisi, which seems to suggest that Kwagga Smith is being heavily considered for a spot in the squad. By being the team’s top tackler and also having some great moments on the ball and at the breakdown, he certainly didn’t do himself any harm. For the All Blacks, Shannon Frizell was given a shot in the number 6 shirt that currently seems up for grabs and certainly grew into the game, while one of his rivals for the place, Vaea Fifita, was probably given a better shot of making the squad by covering the second row position on the bench. Brodie Retallick’s hopes of making the plane depend on how quickly he can recover from his dislocated shoulder, while Scott Barrett is also currently missing through injury, which gives Fifita a great chance to prove himself as an option at lock to increase his chances of making it onto the plane.

The player whose World Cup hopes were hurt most (literally in this case) was arguably Brodie Retallick, who has suddenly gone from a definite starter to someone hoping he can recover in time to make it into the squad. Sonny Bill Williams is making his way back from injury and though he was involved in the try, he struggled to have any significant impact on the match and put his team on the front foot in the same way that Ngani Laumape has. Moving over to South Africa, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi both struggled at times in the lineout without providing as much as usual around the park, which could put them at risk if Schalk Brits can prove himself worthy of being first or second choice in the squad. Likewise, the success of Herschel Jantjies will put Cobus Reinach as risk if Rassie Erasmus decides to only take 2 scrum halves.


As we get close to RWC2019, I will be running a fantasy rugby league on the rugby magazine website, and you are all invited to join! Simply follow this link and use the Unique Token: b6c1e40d48e6

Eyes On: Argentina v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Argentina v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

New Zealand and Argentina got underway in 2019’s shorter-format Rugby Championship on Saturday in Buenos Aires. The Pumas chose to stick largely to the Jaguares players that just went all the way to a Super Rugby final, while the New Zealand squad was a blend of experience and experimental.

A try from Ngani Laumape and a Brodie Retallick interception just before halftime helped to give the All Blacks a 9-20 lead at the break. After the break, the Pumas held them scoreless, but could not fully make up the deficit, with Emiliano Boffelli’s try bringing the final score to 16-20.

Argentina

This was an odd match for the Pumas. Both as the Jaguares and the national team, they have shown over recent seasons that they are at their best when they are playing an open game and getting their outside backs into the game. While they looked dangerous when given the chance, their impact was limited in the first hour as Tomás Cubelli and Nicolás Sánchez played a territory-heavy game. While this kicking game did cause the All Blacks some problems – Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett surprisingly struggled under the high ball – and led to Boffelli’s try, it certainly felt like Argentina hared their chances by not keeping hold of the ball more.

When they started playing their usual game more in the second half, they started creating chances and came very close to getting the winner, only for a foot in touch to see the have a late try disallowed. With a 59% tackle completion percentage in this game, it could be suggested that playing a more possession-heavy game would have actually benefited them and quite possibly seen them come away with victory.

New Zealand

Ever since Richie McCaw’s retirement, the battle for the number 7 shirt has been a close one between Sam Cane and Ardie Savea. This match saw the battle temporarily put on hold though, as Cane was given the 7 shirt and Ardie Savea settled in at 8. Obviously, captain Kieran Read will still be the starter at the position until after the World Cup, but such was Savea’s performance, it could have seen him earn a starting spot in the 6 shirt. While he will cause issues at the breakdown, he comes into his own as a ball carrier and he did a good job of helping put the All Blacks on the front foot in the first half.

Vaea Fifita struggled to have an impact on the match in a 6 shirt that nobody has managed to claim as their own since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand. This close to the World Cup and with Matt Todd emerging as another potential option at 7, a switch across the scrum for Savea could allow the All Blacks to get their best players on the pitch at the same time.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Arguably the biggest winner from this game was Ngani Laumape, who was a star of this season’s Super Rugby and carried that form into this match with 72 metres (the most of anyone on the pitch) and a try. Sevu Reece didn’t get many chances to have the ball in space but looked good when he did and was also willing to go looking for the ball. For Argentina, Matías Moroni has been cementing his position on the right wing in the absence of Bautista Delguy and has surely guaranteed himself a spot on the plane.

While Laumape had a strong game, Anton Lienert-Brown was very quiet and once again seemed to suggest that he is better coming off the bench in a Test match compared to starting. Likewise, Vaea Fifita struggled to impact the game in attack while also giving away a couple of silly penalties, which will not help him in his battle for the 6 shirt. For the Pumas, nobody really played themselves out of contention, but getting only 10 minutes at the end will not have helped Felipe Ezcurra work his way up the pecking order in a deep scrum half depth chart.


As we get close to RWC2019, I will be running a fantasy rugby league on the rugby magazine website, and you are all invited to join! Simply follow this link and use the Unique Token: b6c1e40d48e6

Eyes On: South Africa v Australia – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: South Africa v Australia – Rugby Championship 2019

2019’s shorter-format Rugby Championship got underway on Saturday as South Africa hosted Australia in Johannesburg. The Wallabies had a poor 2018 and would have been hoping to get some momentum ahead of the World Cup, however things have not started well with the Springboks taking a 14-10 halftime lead , before pulling away for a final score of 35-17, with tries from Lood de Jager, S’busiso Nkosi, Cobus Reinach and a brace from debuting scrum half Herschel Jantjies.

South Africa

Carlsberg don’t do Test rugby debuts, but if they did they would probably be similar to that of Herschel Jantjies. The diminutive Stormers halfback appears to have pulled ahead of the other South African-based scrum halves following a strong Super Rugby campaign and backed that up with a great performance here. Helped by a pack that generally kept him on the front foot, he barely looked phased by being on the big stage and scored 2 good tries – running a good supporting line off Nkosi for his first and taking advantage of an undefended 5m channel for his second – while he could have had another in between, only to be stopped just short.

Go back a couple of seasons and South Africa seemed to be really missing a quality 9, but suddenly they are spoiled for choice with Faf de Klerk currently one of the best in the world and Cobus Reinach back in the national team after being arguably the best int he Premiership at his position this season. Coming off the bench, Reinach showed that he was also ready to play at Test level for the first time since 2015 by keeping the ball moving quickly and even managed to cross for a try of his own.

It may be that Rassie Erasmus was considering taking 3 scrum halves to Japan anyway, but on these performance he may just decide to do so in order to avoid a selection headache.

Australia

I can’t imagine things changing this close to the World Cup, but I can’t see Australia having too good of a record this year with Michael Cheika at the helm.

Taniela Tupou’s yellow card was clear as day. It came after the whistle was blown, there was no attempt to wrap his arms around Rynhard Elstadt, it’s questionable whether he came through the (oft ignored these days) gate to enter the breakdown and he clearly didn’t attempt to keep his feet while doing so. It was a brainless infringement – especially considering Australia had just won the scrum – and he can honestly consider himself lucky that he made contact with Elstadt’s chest rather than head or a red would have been a no-brainer. And yet Cheika still came out questioning the quality of referee Paul Williams instead of his team’s awful performance.

I’ve had questions over some of his selections in the back line for a while and this match proved no different, as the backs struggled to put anything together for much of the match. Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty had awful games and Tom Banks was barely involved as the midfield struggled to create anything for them. Things improved once Matt To’omua and Kurtley Beale came on, which I really think is down to Foley having a second playmaker on the pitch to help him break down the defence. Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani are both quality centres but did not work well together in this team. It will be interesting to see if Cheika pairs one of the two (in my opinion, Kerevi) with a second playmaker in the centre for their next match.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

While Herschel Jantjies was one of the clear winners here in terms of pushing for a space on the plane to Japan, he was not the only one. Francois Louw rolled back the years with a strong performance, while also giving a timely reminder that he can cover the number 8 position while Warren Whiteley tries to get himself fit in time for the tournament. Isi Naisarani and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto put in good performances but their impact was hampered by a tight 5 that struggled to gain parity with their opposite numbers. Coming off the bench, Frans Steyn reminded fans of his quality with a strong cameo, carrying the ball more than André Esterhuizen had and for double the metres, while he also appeared to get the back line looking more cohesive.

As if Steyn’s impressive cameo wasn’t bad enough for André Esterhuizen, his own performance was pretty poor, with a series of mistakes and minimal impact running the ball, while in defence he struggled to deal with Samu Kerevi. Warrick Gelant‘s kicking was poor and his running was often aimless and sideways. As I mentioned above, if I was adding a playmaker into the Australian centre, I would pair them with Kerevi, who brought his Super Rugby form into this match, whereas Tevita Kuridrani struggled to impact the game. Perhaps the most unfortunate though was substitute hooker Jordan Uelese, who is fighting to be backup to Folau Fainga’a but found himself coming off just minutes after his introduction due to a head injury. Hopefully he gets another chance in the coming matches.


As we get close to RWC2019, I will be running a fantasy rugby league on the rugby magazine website, and you are all invited to join! Simply follow this link and use the Unique Token: b6c1e40d48e6

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?