Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

It’s hard to believe but we’re already 3 weeks through Super Rugby Aotearoa and the teams are already starting to really separate themselves from each other in the standings. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs went to Christchurch in search of a crucial win but will find themselves returning home with just a losing bonus point, having not led at any point in the match.

In wet conditions, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie each slotted a first half penalty but it looked like the match would be devoid of much excitement, until Sevu Reece beat McKenzie to a high cross-kick from Mo’unga and broke down the right wing, before feeding the ball inside to Will Jordan for the go-ahead try. The same 2 players combined again shortly after half time, with a quick lineout from Reece catching out the Chiefs and allowing Jordan to run in uncontested. The Chiefs began to fight back after this and Sean Wainui crossed to narrow the deficit, but the Crusaders managed to hold on and remain one of only 2 teams still unbeaten in the tournament – the other being the Blues (3-0), who have a bye next week before their trip to Christchurch.

New kid on the block

If there’s one person currently that will be making All Blacks Head Coach Ian Foster reconsider a 10/15 playmaker axis, it’s Crusaders fullback Will Jordan. The 22-year-old has started the tournament in fine form and is currently keeping David Havili on the bench with his great performances.

In bad conditions today, Jordan looked assured under the high ball and made some incisive runs, finishing with a match-high 98 metres. Not only that, but he is clearly developing a good link with Sevu Reece, being in the right place to support for the opening try and seeing the opportunity with Reece to take a quick lineout for the second try. If he carries on like this, international recognition can’t be far away.

The only thing going against him right now, though, is that he is much more of a prototypical fullback, as opposed to the second playmaker that I think the All Blacks will be going for, especially given the great performances Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett are putting in at the position. It may be that for the near future at least, Jordan has to prove that he can also have a great impact on the game from the wing, much like Ben Smith and Israel Dagg did at times to keep themselves in All Blacks contention.

Play every second

The Chiefs certainly weren’t happy with the awarding of Will Jordan’s second try, but they had only themselves to blame. The laws state that a quick lineout can be taken provided it is on/behind the mark, nobody else has touched the ball and the lineout had already formed, which was exactly the circumstance when Reece fed Jordan for the crucial score.

It seemed like many of the team saw Aaron Cruden go over to speak to referee James Doleman and assumed that time was off. However, Cruden was not the captain so had no right to speak to the referee and was rightfully brushed away.

I always remember being told to play to the whistle, but in situations like this, it is a little more complicated than that. Usually the moment the ball goes into touch you can have a quick rest as you prepare for the set piece, but the one thing you can’t do is switch off mentally, as the moment you start doing things by rote rather than reacting to what’s going on around you is the moment your opponent will make you regret it.

Hopefully with Warren Gatland at the helm, the players will have learned from this mistake. But in the meantime, with just 2 points from 3 games, that is a costly and completely unnecessary mistake.

Set piece success

When you’re playing in wet conditions like in this match, there a 2 things you need more than anything else: a playmaker who can control the game and put you in the right areas of the pitch, and a pack that can gain the upper hand at the set piece. While both teams certainly had the former in Cruden, McKenzie and Mo’unga, it was the Crusaders pack that gained the advantage that probably proved crucial.

Of course the set piece is always important, but in bad conditions it becomes even more so as the territory game leads to more lineouts, while the greasy ball will likely lead to more handling errors and therefore more scrums.

In this match, the Crusaders pack managed to stop a 5m catch and drive from the lineout midway through the first half, despite the Chiefs throwing in a couple of backs to increase their numbers. They caused the lineout problems all game, especially after Chiefs’ replacement hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho entered the fray. Overall, the Chiefs ended up losing 4/20 (20%) of their own lineouts, while they also lost 1/5 of their scrums (20%) and found themselves being pushed back and giving away penalties on multiple occasions.

The old adage is that the forwards win the match and the backs decide by how much. The Crusaders once again showed that to be true.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Highlanders

Round 3 of Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off at Eden Park today s the Blues took on the Highlanders. The Blues topped the standings with 2 wins from 2 and got off to a perfect start as Caleb Clarke scored the opening try within just 6 minutes. The Highlanders levelled things up as captain Ash Dixon was driven over the line, but they soon found themselves behind as Scott Gregory’s attempted clearance from his own try line was charged down to gift Dalton Papali’i a try, while Reiko Ioane got on the end of a Caleb Clarke break soon after to extend the lead to 22-10 by halftime.

The Blues were slow out of the blocks in the second half and paid the price as Mitch Hunt slipped through for a try, and things soon got worse as Reiko Ioane was sent to the sin bin and Shannon Frizell crossed for a try soon after, with Mitch Hunt kicking the conversion to give the Highlanders an 22-24 win. This provoked an immediate reaction from the Blues, though, who made their way downfield before retaking the lead as Dalton Papali’i crossed for a second try off a lineout drive. Then with just minutes left, the Blues managed to turn over an attempted catch and drive from the Highlanders before winning the penalty at the resultant scrum to clean their lines and hold on for the 27-24 victory.

A day to forget

Making your first Super Rugby start is so usually a moment to remember, but for Highlanders fullback Scott Gregory, it was a match to forget. The young player, available due to the Olympics being pushed back a year, was making only his second appearance for the Highlanders but looked out of his depth at 15.

The first half gave him very little chance to attack, but in a more defensive role, things didn’t really go well for him. He was ran over by Caleb Clarke for the first try, but his big issue was dealing with the Blues’ kicking game, where he dropped two high balls with pressure coming but no real contest for the space. He also really struggled covering the Blues’ kicks to the corners, most notably in the 23ʳᵈ minute when he took too long gathering the kick and found his own kick from his try line charged down by Hoskins Sotutu for Papali’i to score a crucial try. Gregory was eventually removed after an hour, but the damage had already been done.

Now Gregory is a fantastic player, but fullback is a very difficult position to play, especially when a team has multiple playmakers to keep their kicking options open – not to mention forwards Sotutu and James parsons, who also put in some quality kicks during the game. It will take a 7s player time to adapt to the lack of space on the pitch and the kicking game in 15s. I can see Gregory getting another shot to start next week, but I think that he would benefit from a slightly less exposed position like on the wing.

Caps coming

Being at the start of a new World Cup cycle and with a new coach at the helm of the All Blacks, this is a crucial time to be putting in big performances. A number of the Blues are surely putting their hands up for international selection.

Reiko Ioane found himself drop down the pecking order at wing during the latter days of Steve Hansen’s tenure, but he is proving a match-up nightmare at his preferred position of 13 and will surely be pushing for the starting spot there for the All Blacks, especially with Jack Goodhue currently playing at 12 for the Crusaders.

Caleb Clarke put in another stunning performance with a try and a break to set up Ioane, and the performance was made even more impressive with the news that his grandfather had passed away that morning – explaining his apparent emotion just before kickoff. He may only have a few matches under his belt at this point, but he’s been one of the stars of the tournament and is surely jumping up the pecking order.

Hoskins Sotutu has been probably the star of the tournament so far despite being only 21 and with the 6 and 8 shirts both up for grabs, you’d imagine that he will take one of those, while his fellow back row Dalton Papali’i is certainly having an impact on games and will be hoping to break into the All Blacks 23.

Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock have been the All Blacks lock pair for so long, but Patrick Tuipulotu has hit the form of his life at just the right time, while his leadership of a successful Blues team will really help put himself in contention for a starting spot.

Wrong priorities

Now first of all, I want to acknowledge that as fans, we would much rather see rugby being played than constant kicks off the tee. However, rugby is a business and winning needs to come first. New Zealand as a whole is a fantastic rugby playing nation, but sometimes, they play too much rugby, which was the case today.

With 10 minutes left and holding a 3-point lead, the Blues won an easily kickable penalty. However, rather than going for goal and making the Highlanders need a converted try to go ahead, they kicked for the corner and almost paid the price, as James Parsons dropped the ball over the line and a Highlanders counterattack ended in a penalty that would have drawn the teams level had Mitch Hunt not missed.

Then just 3 minutes from the end, the Highlanders turned down a kickable penalty that would have taken the game to extra time in favour of kicking for the corner and trying to win in 80 minutes. This proved costly as the Blues managed to hold out the maul and win the scrum, where they then won a penalty to clear their lines and confirm the win.

We all love seeing positive rugby, but there is also a time for pragmatism. New Zealand haven’t quite got the balance right and sometimes in close games, it will end up costing them.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Crusaders

We are now through the first 2 weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa and every franchise has now played a game following the Crusaders’ trip to the Hurricanes. The Christchurch-based franchise has a bye in the opening round due to there only being 5 teams in the tournament, but quickly made up for lost time as Sevu Reece crossed for the opening try after less than a minute. They crossed twice more in the first half, but the boot of Jackson Garden-Bachop kept the ‘Canes in touch, with a 15-19 halftime score.

The Crusaders weathered 10 minutes with Jack Goodhue in the sin bin and added 6 more points through the boot of Richie Mo’unga, but the Hurricanes kept chipping away and a try from substitute hooker Asafo Aumua levelled the score at 25-25 with 15 minutes remaining. However, that was as close as the ‘Canes came to taking the lead as a Billy Proctor offload to avoid being pushed into touch 5m from his own line was intercepted by Mitchell Drummond, who fed Mo’unga for the go-ahead score, while David Havili secured the win 5 minutes from time with a beautiful line onto a flat Drummond pass from the breakdown to cut clean through a gap in the defence for their 5ᵗʰ try of the game., the game ending 25-39.

Too quiet

When you’re taking on the franchise that has won the last 3 Super Rugby titles (and was leading the New Zealand Conference before the tournament was ended), you know that you’re going to need big performances from everyone, but especially your star players. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, too many of their stars were far too quiet.

Ngani Laumape was barely used last week and this week was limited to just 23 metres, though this wasn’t helped by a couple of knock-ons in and around the Crusaders 22. Ardie Savea finished with just 6 carries for 8 metres in his first start since the Rugby World Cup. Dane Coles was lacking the dynamism of last week, while he also had some issues at the lineout, overthrowing his jumper a couple of times. Perenara was probably the closest to form, but even he appeared limited by the performance of the team around him, though he did contribute a great break down the left wing and a key collection of a grubber kick that looked certain to end in a try for the Crusaders.

With so many players having quiet games, it made it so hard for players like Ben Lam, Vince Aso and Wes Goosen to positively impact the game with any regularity. Oddly enough, probably one of their better performers was fullback Chase Tiatia, but he was replaced after less than an hour, having also been removed just after the hour mark last week. Perhaps the Hurricanes are finding it a little tougher than others to get back to match fitness following the imposed break in rugby action…

Key deficiency

… Or perhaps part of the issue is also a lack of experience at a key position: fly half. Go back a couple of seasons and the Hurricanes were chock-full of talent at first five-eighth, however Ihaia West’s move to France in 2018 and Beauden Barrett’s move to the Blues a the end of last season has heavily limited their options, while Jordie Barrett has also been unavailable due to a shoulder injury. This has left the ‘Canes with Jackson Garden-Bachop as the only specialist fly half in the 23 for both of the opening rounds, while TJ Perenara has moved to 10 once Garden-Bachop was removed in both weeks.

Now with a replacement halfback of Jamie Booth’s quality, the ‘Canes can afford to move Perenara to stand-off, but he is not going to bring the same quality to the position as someone who is playing and training at the position full-time. To make things worse, with Jordie Barrett unavailable there is not really a second playmaker in the back line to help take the pressure off the fly half, as we have been seeing with the Blues and Chiefs. The ‘Canes will be hoping Barrett’s back soon to help utilise the back line to its fullest.

Adapt & evolve

With the Crusaders not involved in a match last week, I wondered how they would do this week with regards to the new referee’s interpretation of the breakdown. It certainly felt like they had done their homework, as in the early stages they looked to stand further behind the offside than usual, to ensure they were not penalised. However as the game went on, it looked like muscle memory took over as they began to find themselves offside and also penalised for a range of breakdown offences.

Players are so used to playing a certain way, it will take time to adapt to the changes, while it is also difficult to fully adapt in a match where both teams are going all-out compared to in training, when players will be going at a fraction of their top performance.

The Crusaders are a well-coached team, however, so it will be interesting to see just how quickly they can adapt to the new focus compared to the other teams.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Blues

Today should have been the Super Rugby final, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought a premature end to the competition. Thankfully, New Zealand have effectively combated the disease, so we sill managed to get professional rugby today in the form of the first match of Super Rugby Aotearoa’s second round.

Fresh off a narrow loss to the Highlanders last week, the Chiefs returned to Hamilton to host the Blues. So often, the Blues have been considered the weakest of the New Zealand franchises, but they came into this game off the back of a win and scored the opening try after 15 minutes as Hoskins Sotutu was driven over the line under the posts. However, poor discipline kept the Blues on the back foot for most of the fist half and allowed the Chiefs to stay close through the boot of Damian McKenzie. However, the game started to turn after the Blues survived 10 minutes with flanker Dalton Papali’i in the bin and the Chiefs then began to be the ones giving away the penalties, allowing Otere Black and Beauden Barrett to keep building a score, before Mark Telea crossed in the corner with 8 minutes left to confirm a 12-24 victory.

On the up

Since Super Rugby’s inception in 2011, New Zealand franchises have had a stranglehold on the competition, winning the title in 7 of the 9 completed seasons. The only New Zealand franchise to have not won the Super Rugby title is the Blues, who’s last win was back in 2003 when the competition was still Super 12! The Blues finished 4ᵗʰ in the inaugural 2011 season of Super Rugby, but lost in the semifinals and since then, their best finish in a season was 9ᵗʰ back in 2017. They have only had 2 seasons f Super Rugby where they finished with a winning record. And yet when Round 2 finishes, they will be on top of the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings.

It may still be early days, but his looks like a Blues team that is finally on the up and ready to compete towards the top of the table again. In winning this game, the Blues have just set a new franchise record for the most consecutive away wins (5). I wrote last week about the strength of the Blues back line, but the bad conditions today highlighted the strength of their pack. Even with the super-impressive Tom Robinson missing, they were able to put out a super physical and talented back row in Sotutu (who even at just 21 already looks like he should be playing for the All Blacks), Papali’i and Akira Ioane. Patrick Tuipulotu looks in the form of his life and leading by example, while Josh Goodhue is also putting in strong performances beside him. James Parsons provides great experience at hooker, while the props are all coming into their prime as they reach their late 20s. This is a team built to win not just now, but for the years to come too.

What may seem incredible right now is that the Blues are 2-0 without Dan Carter even making it into the matchday 23. Personally, I think that even if he barely takes the pitch, he will have been a fantastic signing as all the backs, especially young fly halves like Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta (whose injury opened the spot for Carter) will benefit so much from training with and learning from both Carter and Barrett, under the coaching of former All Blacks Leon MacDonald and Tana Umaga.

Obviously there’s still a long way to go, with 6 more matches to play over the remaining 8 rounds, but don’t be surprised to see the Blues challenging towards the top over the next few seasons.

Playmaker plans

Sadly the conditions in Hamilton denied us the thrill of watching Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie face off at fullback in a running battle as the kicking game became the focus of the day. However, the continued use of both players at 15 is something to keep an eye on.

For so long, New Zealand have had superstars at fly half, which has led to the next generation coming through initially at 15 and eventually transitioning to first five-eighth. While this has led to incredibly talented attacking playmakers like Barrett and McKenzie, I do not think that they are able to control the game as well as the players that came before them and instead benefit from playing at 15, where they have more space to exploit.

By having these guys stationed at 15 for their club rugby, it is now giving the new generation of talent the chance to learn how to play at this level already at fly half. This is going to benefit so many of these players – such as Harry Plummer, Perofeta and Black (Blues), Kaleb Trask (Chiefs), Josh Ioane (Highlanders) and Jackson Garden-Bachop (Hurricanes) – as it means that they are learning under the pressure of having flankers charging at them, but then have the benefit of experienced playmakers elsewhere in the back line to help guide them.

The next couple of seasons will be interesting to watch.

Set piece struggles

Last week, the Chiefs’ success was built largely on the strength of their catch-and-drive lineouts. This week, the set piece was an absolute nightmare.

At the lineout, the Blues were willing to put a man in the air to challenge and it led to a number of inaccuracies. The Chiefs lost 3 lineouts during the match, with one 5m out from the Chiefs line potentially costing them 5-7 points an another 5m out from their own line almost proving costly if not for a knock-on by Sam Nock as he tried to collect the loose ball.

It wasn’t even just the lineout that had issues, though, as the Chiefs lost 2 of the 6 scrums on their own feed. Tat already doesn’t sound good, but it’s even worse when you look back at the scrums and see them physically pushed off their own ball!

Mitchell Brown’s injury last week has left them with a talented by inexperienced pair at lock in Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Tupou Vaa’i, but this cannot be used as an excuse. The pack needs to improve the set piece soon, because if they can’t provide clean ball for their backs, it doesn’t matter how talented the players out there are.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Hurricanes

While the world continued to go to **** in the UK and USA, normalcy returned in New Zealand as a sell-out crowd gathered at Eden Park to watch the second game of Super Rugby Aotearoa, as the Blues hosted the Hurricanes.

This marked the debut of Beauden Barrett for the Blues, as the man widely considered the best fly half in the world faced off against his old team, but for this match he was at fullback while Otere Black took the reins at 10. Black put in one of his best Super Rugby performances to date, including a perfect performance off the tee that proved key in giving the team a 1-point lead at halftime, both teams having scored 2 tries. The skills of the Blues back line saw them pull away in the second half, however, with a late Jamie Booth try making the final score look more respectable at 30-20.

Star-studded Blues

One thing this match really highlighted is the talent of the Blues back line. With Beauden Barrett deployed at 15, he created a great playmaking axis that helped take the pressure off Black. On the wings, Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke (available due to the Olympics being pushed back) showed the game-changing ability that allows the Blues to move Reiko Ioane inside to 13, where his underappreciated strength and incredible pace create a nightmare match-up. TJ Faiane put in a an assured performance to solidify the back line, while also providing a lovely assist for Dalton Papali’i with a perfectly weighted grubber kick.

And the scariest thing about it all? They have options beyond this. Harry Plummer and Matt Duffie are both more-than-capable playmakers at 10 and 15 respectively, allowing so many different combinations with Barrett and Black… oh and then there’s some chap called Dan Carter with the team as injury cover for Stephen Perofeta. And finally, you have the quality of centre Joe Marchant who can create a different dynamic in the midfield if the coaches want to rest Ioane or utilise him in the wing.

Quit whining!

We’re only 2 matches into the tournament and already I’m sick of listening to the pundits and commentators complaining about the referees giving so many penalties. The focus on the breakdown during this tournament has been clearly advertised – including by these pundits during the game – and the onus should be on the players to play the game legally rather than on the referee to keep the game flowing in these cases.

Its not as if the players should really be having to change their game much if they played it right, as the only actual change to the laws is the need for the jackal to attempt to lift the ball rather than stay in place. The rest of the changes are just encouraging the officials to enforce the laws that are already in place.

Yes, we all want to see flowing games rather than 20+ penalties, but the referees are finally doing their job and enforcing the laws. If professionals are going to be paid by the broadcasters to come on and share their knowledge to the wider public, they should be highlighting the players’ lack of adaptation to the laws rather than encouraging the officials to wilfully ignore infringements – we’ve had enough of that in recent years and it’s frankly made the game dangerous!

Wasted talent

Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of Ngani Laumape and think that he should be the starting 12 for the All Blacks. So when he has a quiet game and his team lose, it’s something that I notice.

While Jackson Garden-Bachop had an assured game, he didn’t appear to utilise Laumape much in the midfield, at it was only in the final quarter that he appeared to really get the chance to run at the opposition, generally out wide rather than centrally. For a player so effective at setting a platform, he should have been getting the ball regularly, and I think the absence showed as there were very few players regularly putting the team on the front foot, which really caused issues in the second half as the Blues back line took over and the ‘Canes had no answer.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Chiefs

On 14ᵗʰ March 2020, the Super Rugby season came to a premature end due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, with New Zealand having gone 3 weeks without any coronavirus cases, rugby returned in New Zealand with Super Rugby Aotearoa, a 10-week round-robin tournament between the 5 New Zealand Super Rugby franchises.

The opening match of the tournament was at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin and saw the Highlanders take on Warren Gatland’s Chiefs. The Highlanders had been struggling in Super Rugby before the season was ended, with just 1 win and 1 draw from 6 matches, but found themselves leading the Chiefs (who had 4 wins before the tournament was stopped) 22-16 at half time, despite having Vilimoni Koroi in the bin. Anton Lienert-Brown crossed for a try late on and with just a couple of minutes left, Damian McKenzie knocked over a drop goal that looked to have won the game for the Chiefs, only for replacement fullback Bryn Gatland – who was not even in the initial 23 – to hand his father an opening day loss with a drop goal from about 35 metres out with just a minute left on the clock to win the game for the Highlanders, 28-27.

Breaking down the breakdown

One of the big changes for Super Rugby Aotearoa has been the promise of an increased focus on the breakdown from officials, with a number of existing laws finally being enforced (players entering through the gate, tacklers having to roll away, the tackled player being allowed one movement before placing the ball, players having to retreat beyond the hindmost foot to be onside) and one slight amendment in the need for the jackal to be clearly trying to lift the ball, rather than just staying in place.

In this first match, it was very clear that the focus is on the breakdown, but the teams still have some way to go to adapt to the impact it will have on games. The penalty count was one of the highest that I’ve ever seen, with most coming from the breakdown (side entry/holding on after being tackled) or offsides. While some people may feel that the amount of whistle blowing harms the game, it will improve as players get used to the way that the game is now being refereed. What I did notice though was how much safer the breakdowns looked and felt on the whole.

With support men having to come through the gate, it was giving the jackal the extra moment to get on the ball, while the necessity for the jackal to support their weight then lift the ball to earn the turnover meant that they were not staying super low to the ground and were able to be cleared out without players having to charge in recklessly. It’s early days, but I look forward to seeing how this focus changes the game.

Not-so-secret weapon

The high penalty count in the game probably played into the Highlanders’ hands, as it allowed them to repeatedly g to their major weapon: the lineout and the driving maul. The Chiefs had no answer for it – being unable to disrupt the lineout and already finding themselves pushed back a metre or more before they were even bound in to push back against the maul. Of the 3 tries they scored in the first half, the catch and drive played a key role in 2 of them, with Ash Dixon being driven over for the opening try, while it also died in defenders to create a big enough blind side for the Highlanders to take advantage of for Marino Mikaele-Tu’u score while a man down.

It wasn’t just their own lineouts where they profited, though. The Chiefs struggled with their rhythm due to referee Paul Williams making them get in place early and the early loss of Mitchell Brown, but it was accentuated by the efforts of the Highlanders pack to disrupt the ball, leaving it very rare that Brad Weber was getting clean ball off the top.

Against stronger packs they may not always have it their own way, but to have such a potent weapon that can benefit from a high penalty count – very likely in these early weeks – could give the Highlanders an advantage in these early weeks.

Change of scenery

New Zealand are in an enviable position of having 3 fantastic scrum halves in Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Brad Weber, who could all walk into most starting lineups. But there is one player who appears to have dropped down in consideration over the last couple of seasons: Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.

Tahuriorangi was already sharing to look like the next man up when the British and Irish Lions came to town 3 years ago, and was soon 3ʳᵈ choice for the All Blacks. However the form of his more experienced clubmate, Brad Weber, over recent seasons saw him drop to second string for the Chiefs and miss out on the All Blacks squad for the Rugby World Cup. Aged 25, this is the time you would want to be pushing for the starting spot in the national team, but his way looks blocked in the near future with Weber and Perenara in their late 20s and Aaron Smith having a few more seasons in him at 31. He’s not going to be forcing his way in anytime soon as Weber’s backup and if he harbours any hopes of an international career anytime soon, he should be looking to see if he can move to the Blues or Crusaders, where he could be a first string player and directly compete against his rivals for the All Black squad.

Quicksand

“You’re playing and you think everything is going fine. Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can’t move… you can’t breathe… because you’re in over your head. Like quicksand.”

The above quite is one of my favourites from the movie The Replacements and said by Keanu Reeves’ character, Quarterback Shane Falco. Having watched the game this morning, I can’t help feel that Chiefs number 8 Pita Gus Sowakula might know what Falco meant by this.

The Fijian is clearly a talented player, but everything he seemed to try in this game was the wrong decision. He gave away a number of penalties for a range of offences, including making multiple movements after being tackled without releasing the ball and tackling a player before they had the ball. He made a great break later in the first half, but then in an attempt to keep the ball alive, he threw an offload to nobody, resulting int he ball being turned over. And then finally, when the Chiefs chose to convert a late penalty into a scrum inside the Highlanders 22 while a man up, he failed to control the ball a the base of the scrum, leading to the chance being wasted.

It won’t be easy, but Sowakula needs to get this game out of his head as soon as possible and move his focus onto facing the Blues on Saturday. He just needs to be careful that eh doesn’t try to push things too hard, or he may find himself in quicksand.

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Pathway to Success?

Pathway to Success?

With sport slowly returning and NFL teams preparing to return to team facilities, we are entering a crucial stage in Christian Wade’s attempts to transition from rugby to the NFL. The Wasps superstar is going through the International Player Pathway and spent last season on the Practice Squad of the Buffalo Bills, with the Pathway allowing the Bills a roster exemption to keep him in that spot all season.

Now entering his second season in the league, he is at a key point. He is 29 years old, which is already old for a Running Back, though he may have a couple of extra seasons in him due to not having years of contact at the position behind him, but he may soon find his pace – a key part to his game – starting to diminish in the near future. During last year’s preseason, he had some impressive plays – including a touchdown on his first touch of the ball – but there is a lot more to the running back position, such a pass protection that will take time to learn.

Has he had that time? A year on the Bills practice squad will have helped, but the pandemic has surely disrupted his off-field practice and he needs as much time as possible to not just familiarise himself with the position, but make its requirements second nature. What also isn’t going to help is the potential reduction in preseason games this year due to the pandemic, giving Wade less chances in-game to prove himself worthy of a space.

But who is he up against? NFL teams will generally carry 4 running backs on the final roster, 1 of whom will usually be a fullback. Looking at the current wider roster, that means 1 spot will go to either Patrick DiMarco or rookie Reggie Gilliam. So that leaves 3 spots. Devin Singletary looks set to top the depth chart, and I can’t see the team spending a third-round pick on Zack Moss if they don’t intend to use him a decent amount this season. As for the final spot, I can see the Bills going for a more experienced option in T.J. Yeldon as he will probably be seen as a less risky option coming off a disrupted offseason and preseason. Right now it looks like Wade’s best chance of making the roster would be on Special Teams as a Punt Returner, but that will also cut into his time practicing as a RB.

So if we assume that Wade finds himself missing out on the roster, what happens next? Well, thefirst step would be to go through waivers, where the other 31 franchises would have a chance to sign him. There is always the chance that a team will take a shot on him, but with the running back role becoming very much a by-committee approach, there are a lot of options out there and I can see teams looking for players with more experience of the game rather than taking a risk on Wade’s intangibles.

The good news for Wade is that clearing waivers would not be the end of things. Back in April, he was given a roster exemption for a second season, which would leave the Bills with 3 options after clearing waivers:

  • They could cut him, but as we will see from the other options, there would be very little point to doing this
  • They could assign him to the Practice Squad using the IPP exemption, meaning that Bills would have 11 players on their Practice Squad compared to the usual 10. He would not be able to be claimed off Practice Squad by another team, but would also not be able to be called up to the main roster at all during the season
  • The could assign him to the Practice Squad without using the IPP exemption, meaning that he is just one of the normal 10 members of the Practice Squad, so could be called up to the main roster during the season, but would also be able to be claimed by another team during the season.

Now if Wade only just misses out on a roster spot, I can see the Bills taking a risk by assigning him as one of the 10 members of the Practice Squad so that they could call him up later in the season. More likely, though, I see them taking advantage of the roster exemption and having him as an 11ᵗʰ member of the Practice Squad for a second year. It stops other teams picking up a running back with great intangibles later in the season, while also meaning that they are not taking up a spot on their roster or Practice Squad for someone they don’t think is ready for the NFL.

And after 2 seasons on the Practice Squad, and being the wrong side of 30 by the time the 2021 season comes around, will that be the chance gone for a player who found himself underappreciated by the England coaches? Only time will tell…

Remember the Titans

Remember the Titans

Welcome to Sport on the Silver Screen. In this series, I will be looking back over sports movies that I have recently watched/re-watched and giving my thoughts on them. Getting into the Schmoedown and starting to follow a number of the personalities from the show has given me a much greater appreciation of movies and seen me starting to watch more.

Being a fan of both movies and sports, I have taken the chance to start highlighting the sheer volume of sports movies out there. For each movie I will be giving some details about the movie and then a quick review, including a section giving a sports fan’s perspective of the action’s realism.

This series has been heavily influenced by Ben Bateman and Andrew Ghai of Action Industries, and as such I will be borrowing a couple of sections that they use in their weekly show Action Movie Anatomy: Fist-pump moment and favourite line. Be aware, there will be spoilers, but I will try to keep them to a minimum.

Having looked at 2 of my favourite sports movies for my first 2 articles int eh series, I was planning to look at something new for my third. But after everything that has been going on over recent weeks, there was only one movie that felt right and topical: Remember the Titans

sport screen remember the titans

Key facts

Directed by Boaz Yakin

Music by Trevor Rabin

Released in 2000

Starring: Denzel Washington, Will Patton, Wood Harris, Ryan Hurst, Donald Faison

Synopsis: The movie is based on the true story of the 1971 T. C. Williams high school football team in Alexandria, Virginia. After the school integrated, Herman Boone is brought in to coach the team. The story shows how the black and white players (and the coaches) come together as a team and then follows them through a season while having to deal with the racism of those around them.

Review

Let me start by acknowledging that as a white male, I have things very easy in my life due to an undeserved privilege. I don’t know what it is like to experience racism or discrimination. Do I think that Remember the Titans accurately depicts the racism the team had to deal with? To a degree, yes, but I admit that as a Disney movie intended for families, certain dramatic liberties are bound to have been taken that will have likely toned down some moments but also created or hyped up others. What it does though is leave me with a feeling of how the situation was and allow for a clear growth from the characters throughout the film as they begin to see beyond the colour of each other’s skin, shown well by characters like Gerry Bertier’s mother who goes from her initial racism to helping comfort Julius Campbell and forcing him to stay strong following Gerry’s accident. Similarly we get the growth of Gerry’s girlfriend (played by Kate Bosworth) from not even wanting to touch Julius to shaking his hand before the final game. Similarly, I love the growth amongst the players, with initially just a few bonding but more over time as they find common ground (such as Ryan Gosling’s Alan Bosley bonding over music) or come to respect each other on the pitch like Gerry and Julius.

The movie itself could be considered somewhat formulaic – a new team of players comes together over time and has to overcome difficulties caused by those around them on their way to a climactic final match (note the similarities to The Replacements when summarised like that) – but that in no way makes it a bad movie as this will often be the case with sports movies. The characters themselves are on the whole likeable (except the ones who aren’t meant to be like Burgess Jenkins’ Ray Budds – who was made up for the movie), and while Coach Boone does often come across as too strict and not likeable – including deliberately showing up two of the players in front of the team and their families when they first meet, there are also some scenes that explain why he is strict and other moments, like with Ethan Suplee’s Louie Lastik or during his speech at Gettysburg, that shows his softer side. Of the players, the performance that really stands out for me is that of Wood Harris as Julius Campbell. As one of the driving forces and star players on the team, he gets a lot more serious screen time than others players, but he uses this time really well, with his notable scenes being an argument with Gerry about why he should play for the team when Gerry is captaining them but not calling out the whites for not blocking for their black Quarterback – a turning point for the pair and the team – and the scene where he reaches the hospital to find out that Gerry is paralysed from the waist down and breaks down, but has to try staying strong. Finally, I really need to praise the performance of Hayden Panettiere as the daughter of Will Patton’s Coach Yoast. Child actors can so often break a movie, but she does a great job here as a young girl obsessed with her father’s football team and she never feels out of place in scenes with greats like Patton and Denzel Washington.

Remember the Titans features a mix of a soundtrack along with a score from Trevor Rabin and the pair mesh brilliantly together, with the soundtrack providing the general tone to the movie, but then the score replacing it to underline many of the more inspirational speeches and moments, add tension where appropriate and place the focus on the football scenes. It does not draw your attention in the same way some scores will (though it certainly deserves the love) but it works underneath what we are watching to accentuate the moment.

Sports perspective

So as mentioned before, this is based on a true story, but a lot of changes have been made for theatrical reasons. The real Titans were more successful than the movie suggests with a number of big wins on the way to their 13-0 season, while the game with Marshall that the final game was based off was actually mid-way through their season (and the actual State Championship game was a 27-0 blowout). There is also no evidence that any of the Titans’ games were officiated as blatantly unfairly as we see in the Regional Championship, while in reality all of their opponents would have been integrated schools rather than all-white.

In terms of the actual action, though, Remember the Titans feels very believable. As high school football, it is easy enough to believe players would be able to switch between offense and defense with more ease, while the gameplay feels natural and not reliant on gimmick plays, even the last-ditch play to win the State Championship feels very natural and something that we could see even in an NFL game.

Useless trivia

Ironically, Remember the Titans is probably one of the least remembered movies in the Movie Trivia Schmoedown, with players having frequently missed questions relating tot he film, including Above The Line missing 2 questions on the film in their first shot at the Team Title, which cost them the match.

Fist-pump moment

Seeing the team begin to come together in the classic “Strong side”, “Left side!” scene was very close, I had to go for a moment mid-way through the Regional Championship game.

Having seen the team be unfairly penalised all game. Coach Yoast sacrifices his hall of Fame place by threatening to go to the press if the officials don’t let the game play out fairly. He goes back to the sidelines,makes some adjustments and gives the “Leave no doubt” speech (one of the most inspirational in the movie) and the defense immediately begins to dominate the game.

“All right now, I don’t want them to gain another yard! You BLITZ ALL NIGHT! If they cross the line of scrimmage, I’ll take every last one of you out! You make sure they remember, forever, the night they played the Titans! Leave no doubt!

Favourite line

While the “Leave no doubt” speech was certainly up there, I ended up picking something that felt much deeper. After Gerry’s accident, Julius goes to see him in hospital, but the nurse tries to stop him, leading to this great response from Gerry:

“Only kin’s allowed in here.”

“Alice, are you blind? Don’t you see the family resemblance? That’s my brother.”

As someone who has played team sports for years, your teammates really do begin to feel like family. And especially with my rugby 7s team the Pistol Shrimps, I find that we can go a year (or more) without speaking, but as soon as we meet up, we’re ripping into each other but will always stand up for each other if someone outside the group causes trouble.

More than that, though, this line is a beautiful reminder that the colour of your skin should not be defining you. Hopefully we are close to seeing a day where that is a reality rather than a dream.

 

What did you think of this movie? Let me know in the comments. Until next time!