Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Highlanders

It feels like only days since Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off with Bryn Gatland’s winning drop goal against his father’s team, but we have already reached the halfway point of the competition following the Highlanders’ trip to Wellington to face the Hurricanes.

After each team had a try disallowed for obstruction in the opening six minutes, the ‘Canes finally started to take control of the game and took the lead on 28 minutes as TJ Perenara sniped around the side of a ruck and beat his All Blacks rival Aaron Smith to score the opening try. The home side kept their foot on the pedal and as halftime approached, Cobus van Wyk crossed to give them a 12-0 lead.

The second half began much in the same vein, with flanker Devan Flanders capping off a great performance by crossing for the Hurricanes’ 3ʳᵈ try. With the wind behind them and the ‘Canes wasting chances, the Highlanders grew into the game and Mitch Hunt got them on the board with a penalty. Then from a 5m lineout drive, Ash Dixon broke off the back, drew in the lone defender on the blind side and fed Aaron Smith. With time running out, Hunt kicked another penalty to cut the deficit to 6, but the Highlanders could not get back down the field to steal the win and the ‘Canes held on to win 17-11.

Room for improvement

The Hurricanes are a highly talented team and are definitely growing into the tournament. Admittedly part of it maybe down to going from facing the top 2 teams to the weaker teams, but the performances have also looked much better over the last couple of weeks.

Jordie Barrett had an immediate impact unlocking the team last week an the replacement of Jackson Garden-Bachop with Fletcher Smith appeared to take the team to yet another level, as Smith would take the ball to the line, allowing the team to take the ball at pace and utilise their physicality. All of the back row carried positively, with Devan Flanders especially standing out, and Ngani Laumape had arguably his best match of the tournament so far, with 20 carries for 88 metres and 9 defenders beaten.

There is still room for improvement, though. While the they were successfully getting over the gainline with relative ease, they allowed the Highlanders to stay in the game by wasting a number of chances, often due to trying to keep the phase going by offloading once they were tackled. Now an offload is a dangerous weapon, but there is a time and place for it, and I think they tried it too much. Too often, the ball ended up going to floor as they tried an offload that wasn’t on, such as when Jordie Barrett could only get his arm partially free so couldn’t pop the ball up enough to the onrushing Fletcher Smith, or when Du’Plessis Kirifi butchereda break by offloading into touch. Similarly Jordie Barrett found himself taking a ball to the face on the line as van Wyk tried to flick the ball up as he took a pass low and stumbled. With the way the Hurricanes were creating chances and getting through the Highlanders defence, they could have ran up a score by holding onto half of these balls, setting up the ruck – which would have often probably led to quick ball – and attacked the defence again.

They face a tough text next week as they host the Blues, but if they play similar to this but attempt to retain the ball better, they could put up a strong fight.

Powering back

Back in 2018, I selected Asafo Aumua at hooker when selecting my Uncapped XV. He didn’t initially step on as well as I expected, but at 23 years old he is starting to really make a name for himself. With Dane Coles unavailable for this match, Aumua was given the start and showed just how much of a talent he was.

Coles is like a winger in a hooker’s body, but while Aumua can also exploit open space, he is also an incredibly physical player who will continue to make the hard yards after the initial contact, such that he finished the match with 11 carries for 63 metres – only Laumape, Mitch Hunt and Jona Nareki (11 carries, 66m) made more metres in this game. Beyond that, he also contributed some monstrous hits on defence and had a highly successful day at the lineout, which has been an issue in earlier matches.

Now with a new head coach, you can imagine that Coles and Codie Taylor will probably still be 2 of the picks at hooker for the All Blacks, but what chance does Aumua have of gaining that 3ʳᵈ spot? Dane Coles is 33 so unlikely to make it to the next Rugby World Cup, while 29-year-old Codie Taylor will also be nearing the end of his career by the time that tournament comes around. Liam Coltman was the 3ʳᵈ choice at the Rugby World Cup, but is now 30 years old and finds himself behind 31-year-old Ash Dixon at the Highlanders. Blues starter James Parsons is 33 and his impressive replacement Kurt Eklund is 28, as is Taylor’s Crusaders understudy Andrew Makalio. And then for the Chiefs, Nathan Harris is currently out injured but is again 28, but this has made a space for 21-year-old Bradley Slater. With Coles and Taylor both getting on, I would expect the coaches to be looking towards the future and looking for a younger option to start getting used to the environment and embed in the squad with a view to becoming the starter either in the next couple of seasons or after the next Rugby World Cup. That would narrow things down to Aumua or Slater and right now, the Hurricanes’ hooker is the standout of the pair, despite Slater starting more often.

On the hunt

While he will be disappointed to find himself on the losing side once again, Mitch Hunt should be proud of his performance. The Highlanders first five-eighth put in a stellar performance, with a number of great breaks, including the one for Aaron Smith’s disallowed try after just 3 minutes, which was disallowed for a soft obstruction by Ash Dixon. Hunt finished the game with 76 metres made and 6 defenders beaten from 7 carries, including 2 clean breaks. But what was probably even more impressive in this game was his defence. He may have made only 5/7 tackles, but many of them were vital 1v1 tackles to stop the ‘Canes when they were on the break.

Such is the talent of player in New Zealand, I struggle to envision seeing the 25-year-old winning many caps over the coming years, but if he can continue to put in great performances like this, there is a chance that he could find himself in the wider squad.

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Western Force

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Western Force

1092 days after their last Super Rugby game following their axing from the competition, the Western Force returned to the big leagues as the 5ᵗʰ team in Super Rugby AU. They didn’t waste any time in Sydney, coming out the blocks quicker than the Waratahs and building up a 0-14 lead through a try from Byron Ralston and 3 penalties from scrum half Ian Prior. The Tahs grew into the game though, and Angus Bell crossed with the final play of the half, with Will Harrison’s conversion making it 7-14 at the break.

The second half struggled to hit the heights seen in New Zealand a couple of hours earlier, but replacement lock Tom Staniforth crashed over for the Waratahs’ second try and Will Harrison remained perfect from the tee to secure a 23-14 win for the ‘Tahs.

The Force Unleashed

As someone who was firmly against the axing of the Western Force from Super Rugby, it was great to see them back in the tournament – a rare sporting positive during this pandemic.

While they may not have been able to carry on their strong start for the full 80 minutes, it is clear that they are not going to be the walkovers that some probably expected after so long away from the elite competition. They may have the Australian players that couldn’t get a Super Rugby contract for the initial Super Rugby season, but that gives them a chip on their shoulder and a desire to prove themselves, while they then have a spine of experienced Super Rugby players (eg. Brynard Stander and Jono Lance) internationals (Jeremy Thrush, Henry Stowers and Marcel Brache) and some returning former Australian internationals (Nick Frisby, Greg Holmes and Kyle Godwin), all of which puts them in a strong position.

I’m not expecting them to compete for the title, but I’m hoping that they continue to show the ARU that they can hold their own and find a way to push for more inclusion if the hanging rugby landscape leads to changes in Super Rugby.

“The law is an ass”

As I mentioned in my look at the Rebels’ draw with the Reds, I’ve not been a fan of most of the law changes being trialled in the tournament. I wasn’t very confident in them when they were initially announced, and 4 games into the tournament, they’re not growing on me.

While I still feel that the 22/50 and 50/22 kicks are giving an undeserved advantage, they felt even worse in this game as they slowed the game down due to officials all having to debate whether the last breakdown before the kick was actually in a position to make the kick a 50/22, highlighted by a ridiculously close call that led to Staniforth’s try – the ball carrier was tackled in his own half, momentum took him into the Force half but he managed to reach the ball back onto the halfway line, making a 50/22 a possibility. The officials already have too much to worry about and already ignore too much. Having them pay attention to whether a 22/50 or 50/22 is applicable will just lead to more serious infringements being missed.

I seriously hope this is one trial that goes no further.

A familiar issue

Watching the match, something finally began to click in my mind why the Waratahs are struggling for results. They have some fantastically talented players in their squad, but they are lacking ball carriers.

Now before I go any further, I want to clarify that by this, I mean the players who will be able to carry into the defensive line over and over again and put the team on the front foot, the men you’re looking to put on a crash ball to do some damage. They have some wonderful runners on the ball like Michael Hoper and Ned Hanigan, but they generally only come alive in space, while the team is lacking the firepower of a Taniela Tupou, Samu Kerevi or Pone Fa’amausili. It’s a familiar issue and one that will probaby feel familiar to many Wallabies fans, and it makes the game so much harder as the team must work harder to break over the gainline, as the defence can spread themselves more without the fear of missing a 1v1 tackle.

This can certainly be fixed though. Lachlan Swinton is already developing a name as an enforcer at 6 defensively and with 16 carries, they are clearly looking to build him into one of those ball carriers, while I can’t help think that promoting Jack Dempsey (16 metres from 4 carries) from the bench will also help in this area. Further than this, though, a team can try to make up for a lack of physical carriers by running hard and straight. Karmichael Hunt is far from what you would consider a crash ball runner, but he made such an impact after his introduction by running hard at the gaps between players. While it is certainly more effective having a more physical player do that, a good line and committed run will go a long way to break through a gap, while all it takes is a few players straightening their lines to start forcing the defence to get narrower and stop drifting, immediately creating space out wide for players like Jack Maddocks and Mark Nawaqanitawase to exploit.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Blues

We’ve reached Round 5 of Super Rugby Aotearoa and with the table starting to take clear shape, the round began with arguably the biggest match so far as 3-0 the Blues made the trip to Christchurch to take on the table-topping Crusaders. Coming off a bye week, the Blues looked slightly fresher in the early stages and took the lead on 10 minutes as Mark Telea crossed in the corner. Otere Black kicked the conversion, but 2 penalties from Richie Mo’unga kept the home team in touch as they went into the break down 6-7.

After Black and Mo’unga traded penalties early in the first half, a quick-tap penalty from Akira Ioane took the Blues up to the Crusaders try line and as the ball came wide, younger brother Reiko powered over to extend the lead, but Black’s conversion was blocked by Braydon Ennor. The game had already been played at a great level, but it went up a couple of notches from the restart as Richie Mo’unga caught the Blues out with a quick kick-off to himself, and the Crusaders began to take control. Great timing by Mo’unga set George Bridge free down the left wing and he played the ball back inside for replacement scrum half Mitchell Drummond to put his team back ahead. Mo’unga scored another penalty and then replacement Will Jordan crossed with 5 minutes left to secure a 26-15 win and their 36ᵗʰ consecutive unbeaten game at home.

Game of the tournament?

The Blues may have come away with no points from this game, but everyone who watched it was a winner. It’s hard to imagine that we will see a better game in this season’s tournament, and if we do then we are so incredibly lucky!

Sometimes you will see a game reach halftime with a scoreline around double figures and wonder why you wasted the last 40 minutes of your life, but this was a much better affair than the 6-7 scoreline suggested. Neither team wanted to give an inch as they knew their opponent would try to take a mile and it led to a full-blooded contest as both teams went all out for the win, while not overflowing into handbags or any nasty situations. And then following Ioane’s try the game reached an even higher level, leaving me unable to take my eyes off the game! The skill of the New Zealand franchises has led to some wonderful matches that Super Rugby AU teams have been unable to replicate – though admittedly they are earlier in their run so are still working out any rustiness – and I am currently finding myself uninterested in the return of Northern Hemisphere rugby as I can’t see it reaching the same level.

From a rugby perspective, Super Rugby Aotearoa has been one of the best stories to come out of the pandemic, giving us 2 great games of rugby every week But even more than that, this was the perfect advert for the game of rugby.

Routine change

“To beat them, you need to start big to get the momentum, defend to the death and ensure that you come away with points every time you get a chance… and then hope they don’t have a moment of magic!” – Highlanders v Crusaders

Well, the Blues almost managed the above, but unfortunately for them Braydon Ennor’s charge down of Otere Black’s conversion attempt following Reiko Ioane’s try proved to be a huge momentum changer, from which the Crusaders took control and scored 17 unanswered points. Black’s conversion was from a position relatively close to the posts, but as his kicking routine sees him take a step backwards to begin his advance towards the ball, giving Ennor the time to get out and make the block.

The laws state that players cannot begin to advance beyond their try line “until the kicker begins the approach to kick”, but so many kickers these days have developed a routine for their kicks that involves some kind of step backwards or other movement that is generally counted as the beginning of their kicking motion. I always remember a young James O’Connor having Peter Stringer steal the ball off of his tee due to a tell that was counted as the start of his kicking movement, while Rob Cook had an interesting and a few other players have had some interesting stances and start their movement by going to a more traditional stance. All of these situations are just giving the defence that extra little chance to get out and stop the kick, or at least put pressure on the kicker.

Going forwards, kickers need to look at this incident and consider the impact their kicking routine has on their success. Kickers are creatures of habit, which is why you often see them still take the time to go through their full process for the easy kicks right in front of the posts. As I see it, those with the riskier kicking routines should be considering one of the following:

  • Having a much shorter routine for the kicks closer to the posts (unlikely in my opinion as switching between 2 routines could upset their kicking rhythm)
  • Working with a kicking coach to develop a new routine where they feel comfortable and are able to have success without having any step back or movement that could slow down/be considered as the start of their move forward
  • Moving the more central kicks further from the try line to give them more time by forcing the defenders to cover more ground

Taking your chance

James Parsons has started the campaign so well, it would often be considered a big hit to lose him less than 30 minutes into the game following a head injury in a friendly fire incident with Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Not in this match, though, as replacement hooker Kurt Eklund played an absolute blinder.

As well as having a good day at the set piece on the whole, Eklund’s 30 metres made from 6 carries was 2ⁿᵈ highest in the Blues team in this game, behind only Mark Telea. He continually helped to put the Blues on the front foot and if anything, I felt that his use made the team even more dangerous than Parsons.

Hopefully Parsons will recover quickly following his failed HIA, but even if he is fit, don’t be shocked if Eklund is given the starting spot next weekend.

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Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Reds

Another weekend of Southern Hemisphere rugby got underway with the Melbourne Rebels taking on the Queensland Reds. The Rebels were being forced to play in Sydney due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but they found themselves leading at the break through 2 penalties from Matt To’omua. The Reds started the second half strongly though and wing Filipo Daugunu crossed within a few minutes of the restart. In a tight game that saw the Reds play a quarter of the match a man down due to 2 red cards, Reece Hodge scored after a lovely first phase play off the top of a lineout, before Bill Meakes intercepted James O’Connor and took it to the house with just over 10 minutes left. The Reds fought back though, and after O’Connor landed a penalty to bring them within 7 points, replacement hooker Alex Mafi scored in the final play, with O’Connor’s conversion levelling the scores as the clock went into the red.

Now usually, this would be the end of the game, but in this case, it meant that we had the first look at Super Rugby AU’s “Super Time”: two 5-minute periods of rugby under the Golden Point rule (first score wins). In a close territorial affair, Bryce Hegarty missed a long-range penalty and the periods ended with the teams unable to be separated, the final score remaining 18-18.

Wrong place, wrong time?

When you talk about utility backs, look no further than James O’Connor. The 30-year-old has played every position in the back line (from fly half out) and currently finds himself holding the number 10 shirt for the Reds in these opening weeks of Super Rugby AU. Personally, I think that that is not getting the best out of him.

O’Connor is certainly a playmaker with his range of skills including a strong passing game – just look at his zipped (slightly forward) passed for Daugunu’s try, dangerous running game and cultured boot. He can manage a game, however I think that he benefits from doing so away from fly half, where he has less pressure on him. Not only that, but he showed in this game just how great he is at identifying a gap and exploiting it with the perfect line and timed run, however playing at stand-off limits his chances to make this play. Personally, I think that O’Connor is at his best when playing in the centre. He can be used as a second playmaker, but can also run the hard lines and carry into the defensive line, while he also has the defensive solidity – as shown by his try-saving tackle on the line in the first half of this match – to hold his own at the position.

I can understand why O’Connor is being used at fly half when you consider the quality the team has at centre, but I’d be interested to see O’Connor and Paisani paired together, with Chris Feauai-Sautia (who was incredible off the bench) taking one of the wing spots. At fly half, they could then either move Bryce Hegarty to fly half or, potentially even better in the long-term, utilise O’Connor and Hegarty at 12 and 15 as a support network to bring through a young fly half like Hamish Stewart.

Don’t expect heavy changes for their match against the Western Force next week, but I’d love them to use their Round 4 bye to look at shuffling their back line to get the best out of their stars.

Marked change

While I’ve not been a fan of many of the trial laws being used during the tournament, one that I am enjoying is the changes to being able to call a mark. Usually, if a defending player catches a kick on the full inside their own 22, they can call a mark, allowing them the usual free kick options (minus a scrum). However under the new law being trialled in Super Rugby AU, the mark can no longer be called on attacking kicks that have been made within the 22, unless they are catching the ball within their own in-goal, which will lead to a 22-drop out.

Personally, I like it this change as it allows the attacking team to take more risk with chips and cross-kicks even if they don’t have a penalty advantage, as now the defenders will still be under pressure if they take the kick rather than an attacking player. Having had Freddie and Billy Burns at Gloucester, I can talk first hand of the joy in seeing your team score off a chip-and-chase within the 22, and can also note the skill required to get the kick right.

Further than this though, the increased use of attacking cross-kicks could lead tot he next change in positional requirements. Already we see some teams utilising the aerial skills of fullbacks by playing them on the wing to beat their opponent in the air. If we’re going to see an increase in attacking kicks, don’t be surprised if we see more teams looking for wingers who can get in the air and dominate the space.

Replacement nightmare

With the score at 11-8 and the Rebels on the up, it looked like the game was playing into their hands. Then disaster struck as an accidental swinging arm from Hunter Paisani caught Marika Koroibete high and ended his game as he failed a HIA. What made this such an issue was that the Rebels had gone with a 6-2 split on the bench, and had already brought on utility back Reece Hodge. This meant that the final 25 minutes of the game (and Super Time) with Frank Lomani. Lomani is a quality player, but he is not a wing, while Koroibete is a difference maker for the Rebels. It’shard to imagine that the game would have finished the same were it not for this moment.

With only 8 replacements available and 3 of those required to be front row forwards, it is very difficult to cover for all potential eventualities and I can’t help but find it a shame when a game is so heavily impacted by a team not having a proper replacement when a player is injured. As a result, I have a suggestion that I feel could improve the game and reduce the chances of this happening.

Rather than selecting 8 replacements – and then having a few more players on standby in case of a late withdrawal – I would suggest all fit players not in the lineup (or up to 15 if you want to create a limit) are included on the bench. Substitutions are still limited to a maximum of 8 (I wouldn’t mind reducing this to 6 to help shift the focus back to players who can play a whole game rather than 50-minute behemoths), but due to a wider bench it should be easier for a tea to replace someone with a player who is experienced at playing the position. This way, in theory, a team could replace their entire front row and 3 backs, but then still have the option to replace 2 of the other backs rather than 2 more forwards if it felt suitable.

It may not completely fix the situation, but it will make it less commonplace.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Hurricanes

A weekend of rugby came to an end with the Hurricanes’ trip to Hamilton to face off against the Chiefs. The ‘Canes were welcoming back Jordie Barrett from injury and he made an almost immediate impact as he spread the ball wide for Kobus van Wyk to score the opening try just 5 minutes in. Barrett and McKenzie traded penalties, before a Dane Coles intercept set up Du’Plessis Kirifi to score a couple of phases later, while Barrett put an exclamation point on the first half by nailing a penalty from about 60 metres out to send the teams into the break with the score at 3-20.

McKenzie kicked another penalty early in the second half, but a Jamie Booth break put van Wyk over in the corner again to extend the lead. Then around the hour, the Chiefs began to put more sustained pressure on their opponents and with 15 minutes left, Damian McKenzie’s quick-tap penalty looked set to end in a try, but he was snagged by Scott Scrafton – only just back on following a yellow card – before he had retreated the 10 metres, resulting in a penalty try and an early shower for the second row. With the game back on, the final 15 minutes became an open affair and Lachlan Boshier crossed with a couple of minutes left to bring the Chiefs in bonus point range, but McKenzie missed the conversion and the Chiefs were unable to mount another successful attack, eventually going down 18-25.

A welcome return

“The ‘Canes will be hoping Barrett’s back soon to help utilise the back line to its fullest.” – Hurricanes v Crusaders

Jordie Barrett made his return to the Hurricanes lineup this week and it’s impossible to argue that he didn’t improve the team. Jackson Garden-Bachop has played well but not utilised the back line by taking the ball to the line often enough. With Barrett now at 15, it created that same dual playmaker axis that we have seen the Chiefs and Blues using, which immediately helped the team. Players like Dane Coles, Ardie Savea and Peter Umaga-Jensen were released through the midfield to devastating effect, while Barrett’s wide pass for van Wyk’s opener was effective even if it wasn’t pretty.

But Barrett did more than just that. He is an incredible athlete and strong runner as well as a talented playmaker, giving him multiple ways to take on his opponent and put the ‘Canes on the front foot. But his biggest weapon of all was his monster boot. Whether it was kicks to touch, a drop goal attempt from close to halfway or his penalty that was (when you consider the angle) probably about 60 metres out, he was so accurate from such long range. Straight away this gives his team an advantage, as any penalties close to the Hurricanes 10m line can be kicked into a great attacking position, any close to halfway or within the opponent’s half are a legitimate opportunity to keep the scoreboard ticking over, and any loose clearance kicks without an effective chase could also end in a long range drop goal.

The only issue with his return is that putting him at fullback comes at the expense of Chase Tiatia, who has been one of their more dangerous runners in the opening rounds. They could try moving Barrett to fly half and having Garden-Bachop enter the fray later in the game (which is surely better than a part-time stand-off like Perenara), but I think the success in this game came in part from the dual playmakers as opposed to just having Barrett there. it would be tough to have Barrett play a similar role from the wing, but with Tiatia playing more of a prototypical fullback role, potentially he could be utilised on the wing while Barrett stays at 15, which would create a dangerous counterattacking duo for any wayward kicks.

What will the ‘Canes do? Only time will tell.

2 strikes, you’re off!

It’s not very often that you see a player sent off in a rugby match after receiving 2 yellow cards, but that was the fate that befell Hurricanes lock Scott Scrafton in this game. The lock was initially yellow carded by referee Ben O’Keeffe for repeated offences in the lineout, and then minutes after coming on did not retreat far enough back to be legal when stopping Damian McKenzie from scoring at a quick-tap penalty.

Now the commentary team did not seem happy with Ben O’Keeffe’s decision – neither did the ‘Canes players, which is no surprise – but I think that O’Keeffe was spot on in his decision, though you could tell even he wasn’t happy about having to show Scrafton a red card. Scrafton was penalised at least 3 times at the lineout, which is criminal, and should have adapted his game after the first one or 2 penalties. Repeat offending is always going to end in a yellow and an experienced lock like Scrafton (who is the team’s key lineout operator) should know to adapt the way he is playing in order to get on the right side of the officials. Then, for the second yellow, there is no argument. Scrafton was clearly never onside (back behind the try line), McKenzie took the penalty legally and Scrafton tackled him from an illegal position which clearly stopped the scoring of a try. The penalty try was completely justified and (unfortunately, in my opinion) the laws state that a penalty try is an automatic yellow card, though I would argue that even if it wasn’t denying a legitimate attack by not being back 10 metres at a penalty would usually also be a yellow card offence.

Now it’s only fair to also comment on the decision to only give a penalty against Sam Cane about 5 minutes before the red card. Yes, the contact was late. Yes, the contact was with the shoulder and not the arm. However, the slow-mo replays made the incident look so much worse and re-watching the incident live showed that the incident was something and nothing – in fact Dane Coles did worse to Beauden Barrett off the ball in the opening round and everybody just had a laugh about that!

Power pairs

It’s been something on my mind for a while, but this round of matches really cemented for me just how much quality the New Zealand franchises have at scrum half. Aaron Smith reminded everyone yesterday of his quality, while today, both starting scrum halves TJ Perenara and Brad Weber put in strong performances and their replacements Jamie Booth and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi managed to have positive impacts on the match.

Looking at all of the New Zealand franchise squads, they all have such strong 1-2 punches at scrum half. Jamie Booth has looked incredible coming off the bench and attacking tiring defences when Perenara has moved to stand-off. I’ve already mentioned how I think that Tahuriorangi could benefit from a move to get more regular starts and challenge for the All Blacks squad. Sam Nock has improved by the week but hasn’t seemed at quite the same level as many of the other starters (he could work great as Weber’s back-up if the Blues and Chiefs could arrange a swap, though), but Finlay Christie has then done a great job of upping the tempo from the bench and the Scottish selectors should be talking with him. The Crusaders may not have a big name at halfback, but Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond are great talents and Drummond especially gets the quick ball coming. The fact that Kayne Hammington is left to last is not so much a judgement of his talent, but more just the fact that with Aaron Smith leading the team, he plays so infrequently compared to many of his fellow scrum halves.

When you look at the quality of those 10 names and compare to the top 10 available for any other country (assuming Finlay Christie is not picked up by the Scots), do many other countries come close to such a level of talent? None immediately come to mind.

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Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Rebels

The day after Australia were intended to play Ireland during the Summer Tours, the opening round of Super Rugby AU was finished with The Brumbies taking on the Melbourne Rebels in Canberra.

In front of a socially distanced crowd of 1500 at GIO Stadium, the home team took an early lead as wing Andy Muirhead crossed within minutes of the game kicking off. While Matt To’omua pulled things back a little with a couple of penalties, it was short lived as 2 more tries from Joe Powell and Folau Fainga’a created a 19-6 score at the break. It was more of the same when play resumed as a break from young fly half Noah Lolesio resulted in a try for Tom Wright. Something finally clicked for the Rebels just before the hour and they pulled themselves back into the game with 2 quick tries from Jordan Uelese and Dane Haylett-Petty. 4 points down with 10 minutes left, the Rebels chose to kick a penalty to bring it within a point, hut they could not create another scoring opportunity and a when Will Miller scored from a lineout drive with just minutes left, the win was confirmed for the Brumbies, with Lolesio’s successful conversion making the score 31-23 and denying the Rebels a losing bonus point.

Round 1 rustiness

I’m not going to lie: this was not the best of adverts for Australian rugby, as it was very clear that there was some rustiness from both teams. Though the competition was announced in mid-May, there is no real substitute for live match experience, and it certainly showed as a number of passes went to floor from both teams, bringing an end to a number of attacks early on.

Even more than that, is the adaptation to the way that the breakdown is being refereed. We saw huge numbers of penalties in the early matches of Super Rugby Aotearoa, and while I’m sure the players have watched tape in an attempt to learn the new adaptations, we are still seeing a large number of penalties conceded for a range of breakdown offences.

As Super Rugby Aotearoa has show, the penalty count will drop over the coming weeks. Expect whoever can adapt quickest over the next couple of weeks to have a slight advantage.

The Brumbies not-so-secret weapon

The Brumbies have a not-so-secret weapon in their arsenal that teams just don’t seem able to stop: their lineout. You just have to look at the amount of tries Folau Fainga’a has scored in recent seasons to get a idea just how dangerous the Brumbies are at this set piece.

In this match, the lineout played a heavy role in 3 of the Brumbies’ 5 tries. Their opener came on the first phase, with the maul being set to draw in the pack and then turned to open up the open side. rather than join the back of the maul, Fainga’a took the ball on the loop and ran an outside line, before passing back inside to the hidden Andy Muirhead, who raced through the gap that had been created to reach the line. For the next try, the driving maul drew in a number of players to halt it’s progress, allowing Joe Powell to snipe for the line before the remaining defenders could get set. And then finally the winning try from Will Miller was just a example of a devastating catch and drive that spat the Rebels forwards out the back as it rushed to the line.

The Brumbies weapon means that as an opponent, you can’t afford to give a penalty away anywhere in or around your own half, as they will just kick to touch and use the platform of the lineout to make you pay the ultimate price. Similarly, you can imagine that they will be looking to take advantage of the new 50/22 and 22/50 kicks as much as possible to work their way up the field. With the higher penalty counts likely in the early rounds, the Brumbies could get off to a strong start in the tournament.

New star

This match was meant to be a special occasion for Matt To’omua, who was making his 100ᵗʰ Super Rugby appearance. Sadly, he was completely overshadowed by his opposite number Noah Lolesio.

Though he missed a couple of kicks off the tee, the 20-year-old put in a great performance, controlling the game well and moving the team around the park, including a great break early in the second half, after which he was mature enough to draw in Dane Haylett-Petty before calmly feeding Tom Wright for the try.

Fly half has been a bit of a problem position for Australia for a while, with nobody managing to regularly and effectively control the game. But it looks like Lolesio and Waratahs fly half Will Harrison could be the future for the Wallabies at the position an should be in and around the squad as soon as possible if they maintain their performances from this round.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Crusaders

Today, we should have been enjoying watching the All Blacks face off against Wales, but the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to that. Thankfully though, New Zealand’s impressive efforts to combat the pandemic meant that they wee the first country to bring back professional rugby, allowing us to still get a great match today in the form of a South Island derby: the Highlanders hosting the Crusaders in the 4ᵗʰ round of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

After a tight start, the Crusaders took the lead through yet another try for Will Jordan – playing at wing this week – but they looked a little off the pace of their previous matches and tries from Shannon Frizell and Ngane Punivai saw the Highlanders go into the break ahead 17-14. The home team continued to be the stronger team after the break, but butchered what looked a certain try and were made to rue their mistake as Crusaders flanker Tom Christie – on his first start of the tournament – crossed to give his team the lead. This sparked a change in momentum as the Crusaders began to hit their stride and , though Mitch Hunt hit back with a penalty, Sevu Reece crossed in the corner to open up a 6 point lead. As the clock ticked down, Christie scored again to secure the victory, while in the final play of the game Will Jordan (who else?!) managed to collect his own chip by the narrowest of margins, allowing him a clear run to the line from halfway to seal a 20-40 victory and put them top of the table ahead of their home match against fellow 3-0 franchise the Blues next week.

Finishing strong

A 20-point margin of victory really doesn’t tell the story of the match, but it highlighted something important: how clinical the Crusaders are. Over the first 48-odd minutes, they looked rather ordinary, and looked very beatable despite having the push on at the scrum. Will Jordan’s opener should have been an easy finish – if the ball even needed to get that wide – but David Havili entered the back line too flat, which saw him have to get out of contact rather than power through a gap like he did for his try last week, then everyone after him continued to move sideways before passing, allowing the defence to drift across and take all of Jordan’s space.

Then came the moment of the match. Jona Nareki got the ball in the Crusaders 22 with 2 men outside him and just Richie Mo’unga in any position to possibly influence the outcome. Nareki drew Mo’unga, but then it looks like he became selfish as he dummied the pass a couple of times as if trying to make Mo’unga drift to the men outside, but Mo’unga read the dummies, planted himself and put in a thundering hit on Nareki that brought an end to the chance. A couple of minutes later, Tom Christie scored at the other end of the pitch.

Momentum is an important thing in sport, and the Crusaders are so successful because they get the momentum early and hold onto it by taking and finishing their chances, and it’s exactly the same with the All Blacks. To beat them, you need to start big to get the momentum, defend to the death and ensure that you come away with points every time you get a chance… and then hope they don’t have a moment of magic!

The little general

Aaron Smith is widely regarded as one of the best halfbacks in the modern game. In this match, he showed why.

The Highlanders scrum half controlled the game for his team, making sure that they were playing the rugby where they wanted to be and communicating with referee Mitch Fraser throughout,without pushing things too far. But his big moment came after 24 minutes, when a Highlanders lineout was overthrown. Last week, I wrote about the need to stay switched on, and that is exactly what Smith did here, not just going where he expected the ball to be, but reacting to the overthrow faster than anyone to snap up the loose ball and break deep into Crusaders territory. In doing so, he put the team on the front foot behind the Crusaders defence, which the Highlanders were able to take advantage of to score the go-ahead try.

At 31, he still has a couple more good years in him. It will be interesting to see if he can hold onto the All Blacks 9 shirt through the entire World Cup cycle despite the quality of competition.

The prodigal son?

Just a few weeks ago, the Highlanders were beating the Chiefs at the death with a late drop goal from Bryn Gatland against his father’s team. While Gatland was not in the initial 23 for that match, he has remained in the matchday squad since, but has had limited time on the pitch. With the title already looking somewhat out of sight, I think that now is the time to look at giving him a starting role.

Mitch Hunt has been doing a good job of keeping the Highlanders in the game and controlled the team well, but despite some great attacking talent they just haven’t looked dangerous enough. Meanwhile, the team has had 3 different starters at fullback over 3 games… why not make it 4 from 4 by creating a 10/15 axis of Hunt and Gatland.

With the way the breakdown is leading to penalties against both sides, the territory game is becoming even more important, and having another playmaker to help with that can only benefit a team. Likewise, it will also allow Hunt to take the ball to the line even more as Gatland can fill in at first receiver if he is unavailable for the next phase. It will also probably benefit players with hopes of playing for the All Blacks as it will see them playing in a dual playmaker system similarly to what they may be playing internationally, while that extra playmaker also may be able to help the exciting wingers get more chances.

Will Aaron Mauger give this a try? Only time will tell.

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Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

As Super Rugby Aotearoa prepares for its 4ᵗʰ week of action, Australia kicked off its own domestic tournament, Super Rugby AU, as they continue to get over the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament sees the 4 Australian Super Rugby franchises (the Reds, Rebels, Brumbies and Waratahs) and axed Super Rugby franchise the Western Force combine for a 10-round, 5-team round-robin tournament similar to Super Rugby Aotearoa, but with a 2-week playoff at the end involving the top 3 teams in the standings.

The tournament kicked off at Suncorp Stadium with a match between North/South rivals the Queensland Reds and New South Wales Waratahs. After both packs traded early tries, the Reds took control with another 2 tries from Filipo Daugunu and Tate McDermott to take a 19-13 halftime lead. They were slow out of the blocks after halftime, however, and as their discipline disappeared, a great line from Jack Maddocks saw him cross for the the Waratahs’ second try and – though the Reds crossed again through Harry Wilson – the flawless kicking off the tee from fly half Will Harrison saw things all square with just 10 minutes late. The Reds ended the stronger, though, and 2 late penalties from James O’Connor saw them come away with a 32-26 victory, ending a run of 11 consecutive losses to the ‘Tahs.

 

No pushovers

Just last week, I wrote about the importance of a dominant pack at the set piece. While the lineout had issues (certainly not helped by the early loss of lock Angus Blyth) the scrum was an area of serious success for the Reds.

The Tahs chose to start with 19-year-old Angus Bell at loosehead and the poor kid was taken to school by Reds tighthead Taniela Tupou. He may be widely known as the “Tongan Thor” but at 5’9″ he is like a rhinoceros, and found it easy to get underneath 6’4″ Bell, allowing him to dominate the right hand side of the scrum. By the 30 minute mark, Bell had been penalised at the scrum 4 times and was finding himself sent to the sin bin.

The scrum is such a key component of the game and important weapon. While Tupou was certainly a big weapon at the scrum, it was a team effort, with a big second push from the pack often putting the ‘Tahs on the back foot. The Reds will be very happy with their performance here and hoping to repeat again in Melbourne next week. The Waratahs meanwhile, will have to decide whether to put Bell in again next week against the Western Force, or whether they take him out of the firing line for a week.

Kick out the new laws

Fans watching Super Rugby AU will notice some differences to how the game is usually played as the tournament is trialling a number of new laws. The 3 that I’m going to focus on right now are as follows:

  • Play will be restarted with goal line drop-outs following an attacking player being held up over the line (replacing 5m scrum)/the ball being grounded by the defending team over their own goal line, regardless of who took the ball over the line (replacing 2 drop-out/5m scrum)
  • If a player successfully kicks the ball from inside their own 22 to bounce into touch inside the opponents’ half, the kicking team will throw into the lineout
  • If a player successfully kicks the ball from inside their own half to bounce into touch inside the opponents’ 22, the kicking team will throw into the lineout

Now, I will start by admitting that I was not a fan of these law trials when they were initially announced and remain sceptical, but I am giving them a fair chance. One match in and I’m not convinced.

There was a moment in the second half when Michael Hooper found himself caught behind his own goal line after getting back to field a kick. Usually, this would have meant that a dominant Reds pack would have had a 5m scrum in the middle of the pitch, which feels like it would have ended in a try and perhaps even a numerical advantage. Instead, under the new law trial, the Waratahs were allowed to clear their lines and the Reds found themselves getting possession back over 40m from the line. How is that rewarding a good kick chase from the Reds?!

As for the 50/22 and 22/50 kicks, I was surprised that there weren’t more attempts from players to go for these, but the 2 that did pay off from the Reds – a 50/22 from Tate McDermott that got a lucky bounce to take it to 10m out from the Waratahs’ line, and a 22/50 from Bryce Hegarty – twice gave the Reds possession that did not feel earned at all.

I understand making changes to benefit the game, but these changes felt unnecessary when announced and one match in I can’t see how these are improving the game.

Golden future

The Wallabies have not been great for a while and with an ageing squad and Michael Cheika gone, it wouldn’t surprise me if new Head Coach Dave Rennie brings in a number of younger players early in this 4-year cycle with the intention of building for RWC2023. Judging by this game, the future could be bright for the Wallabies.

There were already a handful of young players in or around the national team, such as Jack Maddox and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (23), Tupou (24), and Liam Wright (22), as well as 20-year-old Jordan Petaia, who was not involved in this match, but there were also a number of other young players putting their hands up for selection.

Will Genia will be hard to replace, but Tate McDermott (21) looked fantastic, keeping a good tempo to the attack, while showing his wheels when given space and also some quick thinking to take a quick-tap penalty after a series of scrum penalties, when everyone was just expecting another scrum. Flyhalf has been a bit of a mess for the national team for a while, but Will Harrison (20) looked composed taking the ball to the line and was flawless off the tee to keep the ‘Tahs in the game.

Elsewhere on the pitch, Fijian-born wing Filipo Daugunu (25) – who recently turned down a lucrative contract in Japan with a view to wearing the green and gold – showed some good moments in attack and took his try well. Waratahs flanker Lachlan Swinton may have conceded one of the winning penalties by straying offside in the dying minutes, but he put in an otherwise great performance, really filling the role of enforcer at blindside with some big tackles, while also making the pass that put Jack Maddocks through for a try.

If these players can carry on with performances of this level, international recognition can’t be far off – once international rugby returns!

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Lions Tour 2021: Predicting the Squad

Lions Tour 2021: Predicting the Squad

It’s hard to believe, today sees us reach the one year mark before the British & Irish Lions’ first match of their 2021 South Africa tour. This time next year (barring any delays given the current state of the world) the Lions will be taking on the Stormers in Cape Town as the first of 8 matches on their tour, culminating in a 3-Test series against the World Champions South Africa.

In honour of this day, I have decided to try predicting the players who will make up the Lions touring party. The last 2 touring parties have been just either side of the 40-man mark, but I have gone a little larger due to Warren Gatland’s decision in 2017 to add 6 extra players midway through the tour to help keep the Test team fresh. The “Geography 6” did not get a great reception when they were announced, which led to Gatland largely backtracking and keeping them as unused substitutes. With player welfare having become even more important over the last 4 years and the 5 games before the Tests being spread over just 15 days, I can see Gatland picking a larger squad this time around, so I have gone on the idea of a 46-man touring party, which would allow Gatland to put out 2 completely different matchday 23s without any overlap of players.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has not made selection easy for Warren Gatland, as it has left the Six Nations unfinished and also ruled out the Summer and Autumn Test windows, so 2021’s Six Nations will be huge, but players may also find that their form in club matches is given more consideration this time due to the lack of international rugby. So, who do I think will be travelling to South Africa?

Hooker

With 46 players going, I would expect 40 of them to be specialist hookers. Ken Owens is probably in prime position to start the Tests and I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him captain some of the early matches. Owens is such a reliable player and was an ever-present for Wales under Gatland. With such limited time together, that familiarity will be key for the Lions. Next up is Jamie George, who has had control of the England number 2 shirt for a couple of years now. While he doesn’t seem as flashy as in his earlier years, he is super reliable at the set piece and will tackle all day long. For the other 2 spots, things get very interesting. Rory Best’s retirement has left Ireland lacking experience at the position and the lack of matches between now and the squad announcement is likely to count against them. Scotland have seen the number 2 jersey split between Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown, so it is highly possible that they could take both remaining spots, but I think that the strong carrying of Luke Cowan-Dickie will earn him a spot in the party,leaving space for just one of the Scots. While McInally brings a more open attacking game, I’m not sure that’s what Gatland will be looking for on this tour, so I can see him picking Fraser Brown, who can also cover as a back row in an emergency.

Prop

When I started looking at props, I must admit that I was surprised just how many players immediately clicked into place, leaving me only a few slots to fill.

At tighthead, Kyle Sinckler has become one of the best in the world, with good hands t go with his incredible strength and refusal to take a backwards step. It’s fair to say that his early removal in the World Cup final was a huge loss for England. I expect Sinckler’s biggest rival for the 3 shirt in the Tests will be Tadhg Furlong, who is another that can make a positive impact in both the set piece and the loose. 3 years ago, Tomas Francis was one of the infamous “Geography 6” but this time around I expect him to be a part of the initial squad as he has become a force in the scrums and is arguably another 3 whose removal benefited the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup. And for the final spot, I can see Zander Fagerson getting the nod, as he has become a regular for Scotland and impressed in a scrum that was improving during the Six Nations.

Moving over to the other side of the front row, I think that the current lack of a nailed down starter for Wales will leave them without representation at this position. Joe Marler had such a positive impact off the bench during the Rugby World Cup final, that I expect him to get a call-up alongside England teammate Mako Vunipola, who is arguably one of the best all-round looseheads when on top form. Cian Healy is another of the top looseheads and will provide plenty of experience. By the time the tournament comes around he will be 33, so I can see the tour being his international swansong. As for the final spot, strong performances over the net year could see Ellis Genge squeeze in as a physical carrier against the Super Rugby and Invitational teams, but right now I think the more likely player is Rory Sutherland, who was having a strong Six Nations before the pandemic brought it to an early end.

Lock

When initially starting my selections, I set aside 6 spots for the second row, but by the end I increased that to 7, as I noticed that a number of the locks I was picking were also experienced at playing in the back row, and with the strength of the Springbok pack I can imagine Warren Gatland going for a large pack. First off is the likely pick for the captaincy: Alun Wyn Jones, who brings so much experience and leadership to the team, as well as very rarely having a bad game. Next up were the youngsters that have quickly become key members of their teams, Maro Itoje and James Ryan. It wouldn’t surprise me to see these 3 making up the lock contingent for the first Test, but if anyone was to put themselves in contention, I can see it being Iain Henderson, especially as he could also provide a super physical option at 6. At this point I should probably make clear that I have excluded Geroge Kruis due to his upcoming move to Japan that will bring an end to his England career. Completing the group of specialist locks, I have Jake Ball getting in due to his larger size helping to bring some balance in the scrums. And then we come to Courtney Lawes, who in recent years has spent almost as much time at 6 as lock (though I personally think he is somewhat wasted at 6 internationally) and bolter Tadhg Beirne, who as well as being a large unit capable of covering lock/back row, has great ability in the loose and will be a big threat at the breakdown.

Back row

It’s probably no surprise that taking an extra lock came at the expense of a back row spot due to the players able to cover both, leaving me with 7 spots to fill here.

Personally, I feel that Taulupe Faletau could find that the pandemic leaves him with too little time to prove himself back to top form, so I can see him missing out here in favour of Billy Vunipola and CJ Stander, who can also cover openside flanker and will be keen to shine in the Test squad to show the Springboks just what they missed out on. They are the only specialist 8s I have going, with Ross Moriarty finding himself too far down the list with so many options at back row, however Josh Navidi has experience playing the position at international level and has the strength to hold his own against larger players. Navidi can be used at 8 due to the inclusion of fellow opensides Justin Tipuric and Hamish Watson, who both bring a lot to the attacking game in open play as well, while Sam Underhill can come in to fill the role of reliable tackler that Gatland used to see filled by Dan Lydiate, while he can also pick his moments to attack the breakdown. With so many other similar options, Jamie Ritchie and Tom Curry both see them missing out this time around in favour of Aaron Shingler, who provides a lineout option and more ballast at 6 to nullify the size of the South African packs.

Scrum half

Moving into the backs and scrum half was probably the hardest position for me to fill, just because I think that a lot of the current starters have serious questions about them. Wales are in the early days of trying to figure out their depth chart at 9 under Wayne Pivac, but Gareth Davies was so successful under Gatland that I’m confident he will go, while Rhys Webb was another Gatland favourite until his move to France made him ineligible.

For the other 2 spots at the position, I considered the Scottish pair of Ali Price and George Horne but don’t think Price has done enough to stand out from the crowd, while I see Horne being considered too small and not enough of a game manager to make the party this time around. Tomos Williams has been largely impressive for Wales, but I also see him missing out as I can’t see Gatland picking 75% of the scrum halves from the same nation. So that brings us on to England and Ireland, who wee both going through the Six Nations with players who were in the 9 shirts through the strength of their name and history rather than their recent performances. If we’re looking at the form performer before the pandemic, that was clearly John Cooney, and I think that he will get the recognition from Warren Gatland if he can continue the performances once rugby returns, especially as he also provides an option off the tee. This leaves a race between Conor Murray and Ben Youngs, and I think that based on current form, Ben Youngs has the slight edge, while he also has the running game to complement his tactical kicking that Murray lacks.

Fly half

So at fly half, I felt comfortable that Gatland would look to go for 3 specialists, with the potential for a couple of selections elsewhere in the back line also being able to cover the position in an emergency.

So immediately this throws up the question of where to class someone who will clearly make the squad: Owen Farrell. Farrell is perfectly capable of playing both fly half or centre, so could very easily be classed as a centre, allowing for another specialist fly half to be called up to the squad. However, for reasons that I will discuss shortly, I see him being looked at more as a fly half. Dan Biggar also makes the list as he continues to put in great performances that may not lead to super flashy attacking play, but effective, pragmatic play. Both Farrell and Biggar were picked alongside Jonathan Sexton in New Zealand, but I can see the trio being broken this time as Sexton’s poor form will see him left out in favour of Finn Russell, who probably won’t make the Test 23 but will prove a great attacking talent for the midweek games.

Now, on the off-chance that Farrell does make the squad but is considered more as a centre, I still don’t see Sexton getting picked barring a massive upturn in form, which leaves that final spot to be fought between Gareth Anscombe, Adam Hastings and George Ford. For me, Hastings loses out due to his lack of experience leading a team at this point, so it then comes down to the fitness of Gareth Anscombe. It’s worth remembering that he was set to be the starter for Wales at the Rugby World Cup before his injury against England, so if he can prove himself fully fit and back to top form, then I think his ability to also cover 15 will earn him the spot over George Ford, while any questions over Anscombe’s readiness will see Ford get the nod.

Centre

Owen Farrell being classed as a centre means that there are 5 spots to fill at the position in this squad. Now, when picking his centres, I think that Warren Gatland will take a moment to consider the opposition they are likely to face and choose to go for a highly physical set of midfielders to combat the Springboks.

As arguably one of the best 13s in the world, Jonathan Davies seems certain to make the squad provided he is fit, while I also think that Manu Tuilagi will be guaranteed a spot if fit. Hadleigh Parkes’ move to Japan has made it unlikely that he will be selected. The Scottish midfield seems somewhat unsettled at the moment, which I think will hinder them getting any representation at the position. For Ireland, I think that the physicality of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, combined with their experience playing together, will see the pair selected.

Now, these 4 players will do a good job bringing physical parity to the match, but there’s not much in the way of playmaking ability. This could be answered by utilising Farrell alongside one of them, but I can instead be the form of Henry Slade being rewarded with a spot in the touring party, as he has the extra playmaking ability from his time as a fly half earlier in his career, while he has also demonstrated surprisingly impressive physicality over recent years to make the England 13 shirt his own.

Back 3

And so we come to the back 3 and if you were counting, you’ll know that I’ve left 8 spots free to cover this area.

Stuart Hogg is the first person named here as an obvious selection at fullback and will be hoping to get his shot in the Tests after being forced to leave the tour of New Zealand early. Also joining him will be fullbacks Liam Williams and Anthony Watson, who will also be able to play on the wing if Gatland desires. Jonny May and Josh Adams have been 2 of the form wingers in the Six Nations in recent years so will be hoping to secure the wing spots for the Tests. And that leaves 3 spots for players who I think can have hugely positive impacts on the tour but will need some incredible fortune to make the Test squad as things stand. Darcy Graham has looked highly impressive for Scotland and will benefit from the experience of being on this tour with a view to competing for a Test spot on the next tour. Andrew Conway has taken over from Jacob Stockdale as the top Irish winger at the moment, while Stockdale will actually miss out on the final spot to bolter James Lowe, who becomes eligible through residency later this year and has averaged a try every 1.7 games though his time with the Chiefs and Leinster.


So, that’s my prediction. Who do you think Gatland will take with him?

Premier League: June 2020

Premier League: June 2020

Premier League football is back. 100 days after the last match prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league returned to finish it’s season.

And what an end to the season it is already proving to be. Games are being played in empty stadiums, while being broadcast on a range of streaming services and channels including some matches on free-to-air TV. Marcus Rashford’s campaign to force the government into a U-turn on free school meal vouchers saw Manchester City and Liverpool fans praising him and defending him against online trolls like Katie Hopkins. The league as a whole took a stance to support the Black Lives Matter movement with everybody taking a knee for the opening seconds of each match, while matchday kits also had the players’ surnames replaced with “Black Lives Matter” for the early matches after the return. We had our usual dose of thrilling football, beautiful goals and controversies… Oh and Liverpool finally won the Premier League, their first top flight league title in 30 years!


Premier League Round-up


Champions

At one point, it looked like they may be denied or have an asterisk next to their name on a technicality, but thankfully the season was able to return and Liverpool were able to win the title that they had thoroughly earned this season. Their last top flight league title was back in the 1989/90 season, back before the Premier League existed. Since then, they have come close on occasion, most notably when Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea proving costly in the 2013/14 season.

The Reds were fully deserving of the title this season. Yes, they have had limited injuries to their key players and certainly benefited from all of their title rivals having a down year, with City not suitably having suitable options at centreback to cope with the injury of Aymeric Laporte and most of the other “Big 6” going through rebuilds, but the Reds can only play the teams that are put in front of them and did so with aplomb, with just 7 points dropped over their first 31 matches meaning that Manchester City’s 2-1 loss at Chelsea on 25ᵗʰ June secured their 19ᵗʰ league title. They have an incredible front 3 in Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah, who have contributed 40 league goals to date this season, while the rest of the squad has supplied a further 28 goals spread between 13 players, as well as benefiting from 2 own goals. Meanwhile at the other end of the pitch, the acquisitions of Virgil van Dyke and Alisson in recent seasons have solidified a defence that used to be called porous by people who were being polite!

But how will they do defending the title next year? You have to imagine that many of their rivals will be more competitive and, as defending champions, Liverpool will have a target on their backs. But as long as they can continue to score with regularity and stay tight at the back, they will be hard to beat. Young players like Trent Alexander-Arnold will have another season of experience under their belt and probably be an even better player for it, while if you look at the goal tallies for the team, there is room for someone beyond the front 3 to stand out from the crowd with a higher goal tally, much like Steven Gerrard back in the day. Don’t rule out a 20ᵗʰ league title for the Reds next season.

Sad end to special season

While the return to action has been great for Liverpool, another team in the top half of the table has not had it so well. Nobody would have thought at the star of the season that newly-promoted Sheffield United would be pushing for European qualification, but the Blades were having a sensational season, finding themselves in 7ᵗʰ when the league stopped – which in terms of European qualification was actually 6ᵗʰ due to Manchester City’s European ban.

Unfortunately, things haven’t gone so well since the return. In the opening match, they were denied a clear goal by a freak failure of Hawk-Eye’s goal-line tech and a failure of VAR (more on that soon) and had to settle for a 0-0 draw at Aston Villa. In their next match at Newcastle, a questionable yellow card for John Egan proved costly as he later received a second yellow, with the game going from 0-0 to a 3-0 loss following his dismissal. And then finally so far, a trip to face a resurgent Manchester United at Old Trafford.

3 away matches in a role is a far-from-ideal way to start off a run of games, and they certainly had some bad luck with some questionable (or just downright wrong) decisions going against them, but it is clear that the break has robbed them of any momentum that they had. What also really hurts them is that they have nowhere near the same strength in depth of the teams around them, which is going to really hurt them now as the remaining games are jammed into the shortest amount of time possible.

While this season can still be considered a resounding success, I think fans will have a legitimate excuse to wonder what might have been had we not had to cope with a pandemic.

Tech troubles… again

Warning: Rant incoming – including some bad language

VAR is an absolute fucking mess! The technology itself is sound and has been shown to work in other tournaments around the world, but in the Premier League it is an absolute shambles.We didn’t even have a full month of matches and yet the amount of errors were staggering…

In the opening game after the return, Villa keeper Ørjan Nyland clearly carried a Oliver Norwood cross from a free kick over his own line, but in a freak situation, the position of the ball, keeper, post and nearby players meant that Hawk-Eye were in a position where the goal-line technology could 100% confirm the goal. Luckily, TV crews had an angle that clearly showed the ball fully over the line, but for some unbelievable reason, VAR never intervened, costing Sheffield United the win.

Arsenal’s midfield moron Mattéo Guendouzi looked certain to face a ban after grabbing Brighton striker Neal Maupay by the throat following Arsenal’s 2-1 loss at Brighton. It was a clear red card, but he escaped a ban after it was revealed that VAR had reviewed the incident and determined that it was not sufficient to deserve a red card… I give up!

Sticking with red cards not being given, VAR also decided that Jordan Ayew did not deserve a red after his forearm made contact with Josh Brownhill’s face. VAR took about a thousand looks and, despite Ayew clearly taking a look to see Brownhill was and raising his arm into an unnatural position, ruled that Ayew was not deserving of a red card.

I am a big supporter of VAR and technology being brought into football to help the officials get the right decisions, but the Premier League will just become a farce. As one of my close friends said to me when we were discussing VAR earlier, “there’s a lot of things they could improve if the FA just stopped being assholes.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Sounds like a waste of money

While we may be watching games being played in empty stadiums, the broadcasters have tried to make the experience seem as close to normal as possible buy including artificial crowd noise. I really hope they didn’t spend too much money on this because it’s completely unnecessary and in my opinion actually harms the spectacle.

Though you are focusing on the football, you can still see that the stands are empty, which means that something just feels off as you’re watching. The other problem is that the broadcasters are limited to certain soundbites, so it will never feel as natural as a real crowd, while there is also the issue of this relying on Joe Bloggs in the studio pressing the right button on his soundboard at the right point. It all just becomes a distraction. And it’s not even necessary!

You’re not trying to create an atmosphere for people living at home, so the crowd noise isn’t needed. Instead, it is a chance for us to take advantage of the situation to hear how a pair of professional football teams sound in a live match. Thanks to the “crowd” noise though, my mute button has been getting a lot of work.

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