Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Highlanders

Despite the Hurricanes keeping themselves in the title hunt yesterday, the Crusaders still had the chance to secure the title this weekend as they hosted the Highlanders to end Round 9. The Crusaders knew that a win would make it mathematically impossible for the Blues or ‘Canes to catch them, but found themselves behind almost immediately as Shannon Frizell crossed after just over a minute. Though the Crusaders were rattledand found themselves getting turned over with some regularity, a Sevu Reece break set Richie Mo’unga up for a 7-pointer to level the scores. Josh Ioane kicked a penalty to put the Highlanders back ahead, before Jona Nareki successfully gambled on going for the intercept against an overlap and just held off Reece in a footrace to extend the lead, with Ioane kicking the conversion and Mo’unga 2 penalties to take the teams in to halftime with the Higlanders leading 13-17.

After a tense start to the second half, the Crusaders looked set to take the lead through Bryn Hall, only for Josh McKay to force a knock-on on the line. Buoyed up by this, the Highlanders extended their advantage as Michael Collins crossed the line before the first points of the half. and then in a 5-minute spell on the hour mark, the game changed. An offload from replacement lock Luke Romano on the edge of his 22 sparked a break that ended in George Bridge crossing for a try – converted by Mo’unga – while the Crusader very next possession from the restart saw them go the length again and put Bridge over out wide, while the Highlanders were further hit by a yellow card for centre Sio Tomkinson for a shoulder charge off the ball in the build-up to the try. Though the Highlanders continued to fight, the Crusaders exploited the 1-man advantage as it expired for Braydon Ennor to score their 4ᵗʰ try, with MVP Richie Mo’unga converting to secure the 32-22 victory and the Super Rugby Aotearoa title with a game to spare.

 

Championship pedigree

The Crusaders sealed their 4ᵗʰ consecutive Super Rugby title with a week to spare but had it far from their own way in this match, and in doing so they highlighted their championship pedigree.

With so many handling errors, penalties and turnovers going against them in the first hour, so many teams would have been excused for going to a plan B and trying to get into the game with a tighter, more territory-focused gameplan. However, they kept playing the ball around as normal, going for the offload when they thought it was on and setting up the ruck when the offload wasn’t there. It didn’t always work out, such as for Nareki’s try, but the Crusaders had a 3-man overlap in that moment so he had to gamble!

In this game, the star players came to the fore in Mo’unga, Reece and captain Codie Taylor, who kept driving the team on and leading from the front, while Tom Christie also made some crucial turnovers. With the game going as it was, and the combination of Hall’s knock on and Collins’ try just after half time, so many teams would have thought that the game was getting beyond them and started looking ahead to next week’s match against the Blues as the title decider. Not the Crusaders though, and as always seems to be the case, the clock ticked pas the hour mark and they seemed to go up another couple of gears. The passes started sticking in the hands, the breakdowns were secured and in the space of less than 5 minutes the game changed completely.

With performances like this, you can see why the Crusaders have such an incredible level of success, and wonder why Scott Robertson is not the new All Blacks head coach.

Highland balance

It’s a shame that the competition is coming to an end, because the Highlanders have finally hit on the right balance for their team. A few weeks ago, I suggested the back line that they should go with, and it worked very well against the strongest team in the competition. Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt have controlled and varied the attack so well fromt heir 10/15 axis, Michael Collins has provided improved distribution in the midfield to complement Tomkinson’s physicality, Nareki has shown himself to be their best attacking option out wide and and McKay’s pace has been key in both attack and defence, and Aaron Smith has been Aaron Smith!

Meanwhile in the pack, both Shannon Frizell and Dillon Hunt have grown into the competition, creating a great back row with Marino Mikaele-Tu’u that exhibits a great balance between physicality, technical ability, carrying and defensive ability. Ash Dixon and Liam Coltman provide an experienced 1-2 punch at hooker while players like Pari Pari Parkinson work great as physical enforcers who also play a key role in the set piece.

In a trans-Tasman tournament, I’d be confident in this Highlanders team finishing in the top half. But in a 5-team Aotearoa tournament, it’s going to be a hard fight.

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Reds

With the Rebels beating the Brumbies, the race for the Super Rugby AU playoffs was wide open (except for the Western Force) with almost half of the competition still to go. The team in the best position to take advantage of this were the Queensland Reds, who travelled to Sydney to take on their rivals the NSW Waratahs.

The ‘Tahs soon found themselves behind to a penalty from Will Harrison (who went perfect off the tee on the day) and things soon got worse as scrum half Jake Gordon crossed for the opening try in the 10ᵗʰ minute. Gordon was over for his second just a few minutes later, reacting quickest to the awarding of a penalty 5 metres out between the posts and taking a quick tap to go over before either James O’Connor or Brandon Paenga-Amosa could react. Jack Maddocks soon added a third before Gordon and Harrison broke following a messy lineout, the scrumhalf completing his hat-trick in just 27 minutes. There was still time for Alex Newsome to add one more try with a spectacular finish, bringing the halftime score to 38-0.

With the rain arriving for the second half, the Waratahs went to a tighter game, this time scoring through Tom Horton, courtesy of a catch and drive lineout. Newsome and Jack Dempsey both had second half tries rightfully ruled out by TMO reviews, while the Reds finally got on the board as the hour mark approached, as replacement Jack Hardy was on hand to take advantage of Jack Maddocks failing to control James O’Connor’s cross-kick. O’Connor kept playing despite the match being out of reach and he got his just reward with the final play of the game, bursting through a gap to score the Red’s second try and converting to make the final score 45-12, a record margin between these teams in Super Rugby.

Thrown away

Perhaps last week’s match with the Brumbies took more out of each team than we thought, as just like the Brumbies at Leichhardt Oval, the Reds were never in this game.

While the intensity wasn’t really there for the most part, what really hindered them in this game was the lineout. The Reds lost a whopping 5/15 lineouts through this game, and when such a vital set piece is operating at just 67% you are always going to struggle to win matches. The ‘Tahs didn’t need to worry about going for 22/50 or 50/22 kicks, they could just kick for decent territory and know that there was a good chance they could win the ball back from the Reds’ lineout.

The lineout seemed to improve after hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa was replaced by Alex Mafi. Unfortunately for the Reds, the game was already over by that pint, then Mafi had to go off on 67 minutes with a head injury, meaning a return for Paenga-Amosa. It became clear that the team didn’t trust his throwing in the second half, as they twice went for tap-and-go penalties despite being deep in their own half, while they also took a quick lineout on their own 5m line late in the game when it clearly wasn’t on, leading to the series of scrums that saw replacement prop Zane Nonggorr sent to the sin bin.

Next week’s match at home to the Rebels is now a must-win match. Assuming he is fit, don’t be surprised to see Mafi given the starting spot, and Paenga-Amosa potentially drop out of the 23 altogether.

Left exposed

In the early stages of the game, the Waratahs found that they were having a lot of success on their left wing. James Ramm is a talented young winger with pace to burn and Jock Campbell had no way to cope with him.

While it wasn’t great for Campbell, it’s not really his fault, as he would usually be playing fullback and was originally set to play 15, until Jordan Petaia understandably pulled out late following the passing of his father. This led to Campbell covering the right wing, and it was clear that he’d had limited preparation for the match there as he didn’t know how to deal with the Tah’s attack. an early attack was allowed to make its way downfield on the Tahs’ left wing as Campbell was caught too deep, while the next time the ball got spread wide to the Tahs’ left, Campbell was caught too narrow coming up in the line and found himself easily stepped by Ramm as he rushed across to narrow down the space – this in fact led to the opening try. A knock in the early attack when he was caught deep certainly didn’t help things either, but by the time he was pulled off after 18 minutes, the game was already looking like a 1-way affair at 17-0.

Sometimes being a utility back makes your job a lot harder.

He’s back!

After a couple of off matches, I suggested that Jack Maddocks would really benefit from last week’s bye in order to reset. Well it certainly seemed that it worked on today’s performance!

Maddocks certainly seems to be a confidence player, and an early break down that left wing – which saw him beat a few defenders – will have done wonders to help. His play seemed so much better this week and his 86 metres from 9 carries was beaten by only Hunter Paisani (11 runs, 103m), while in the first half alone he made a couple of breaks, saved a 50/22 kick and of course got himself in the right position to get a try!

His impact was limited in the second half as the weather led to a tighter game, but what impressed me here is how he reacted to fumbling O’Connor’s cross-kick for Jack Hardy’s try. In recent games, we’d have probably seen his head drop, but not this time, and he still made some key contributions as the game went on.

I sincerely hope that this is the Jack Maddocks we see for the rest of the competition.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Chiefs

The Hurricanes opened up the penultimate weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa with the visit of the Chiefs. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs knew a loss would mean they would go the whole tournament without a win, while the ‘Canes knew they needed 2 bonus point wins and other results over the final 2 weeks to go their way in order to win the competition.

For those who have been following the Chiefs’ exploits this tournament, it was probably no real surprise to see the Hurricanes cross for an early try through Peter Umaga-Jensen. As the game evened out, Damian McKenzie kicked a penalty to open the scoring for the Chiefs, but Umaga-Jensen crossed again soon after to give the ‘Canes a 12-3 lead at halftime.

With Kobus van Wyk in the sin bin for a dangerous tackle, Sean Wainui scored early in the second half, but a quick attack from the Hurricanes right before van Wyk could rejoin the fray saw Dane Coles cross for a try. McKenzie kept things close with another penalty, but the ‘Canes soon had another try as a cross-kick from Jackson Garden-Bachop bounced perfectly into van Wyk’s hands. Mitch Karpik brought the Chiefs back inside bonus point range with a try off the back of a driving maul, but after Jamie Booth found a gap in the Chiefs defence, Billy Proctor collected his offload to turn a bonus point for the Chiefs into a bonus point for the Huricanes, with Jordie Barrett kicking the conversion and winning a late penalty to secure a 31-18 victory.

Man in the middle

One of the big names to emerge during Super Rugby Aotearoa is that of Hurricanes centre Peter Umaga-Jensen. The 22-year-old has solidified himself as the man at 13, despite the quality of teammates Vince Aso and Billy Proctor. Now, with Ngani Laumape out injured, Umaga-Jensen is taking on a bigger and more crucial role, running hard to create the platform for those around him as much as he is working the spaces created by others.

With 9 carries in this match, Umaga-Jensen carried more than every Hurricane other than Jordie Barrett (14), whose stats would always be inflated due to running back wayward kicks. He ran a great line to punch through the defence for his opening try, before running a great support line inside Wes Goosen for his second.

He is an incredible talent who will have benefited so much from playing weekly alongside and against such talented players. If he carries on like this, he will be hard for Ian Foster to ignore him when selecting his first All Blacks squad.

Missing the midfield

While it was nice to see the Chiefs willing to play a little more rugby this week, one thing became abundantly clear: this team was not earning the right to go wide. In players like Sean Wainui, Shaun Stevenson, Solomon Alaimalo and Etene Nanai-Seturo, they have a fantastic set of wingers, but if they can’t get the ball in space it means nothing.

The Chiefs need to do the hard work in the middle of the park, but I don’t think they have the right players for it in midfield at the moment. Kaleb Trask looks out of his depth and the constant switching between him and Aaron Cruden won’t have helped. Quinn Tupaea and Alex Nankivell look like they are still a season or two away from being difference-makers in the centre. While Anton Lienert-Brown had one of his better matches, I still don’t feel that he is the kind of player to significantly draw in tacklers.

Meanwhile in the pack, there are very few carriers besides Pita Gus Sowakula. The Chiefs need more from the pack and midfield if they are to start winning matches next season. Perhaps a different man at the helm while Warren Gatland focuses on the British and Irish Lions will be able to get the team playing with a better structure.

Plug and play

Considering up here in England we focus on fly halves controlling the game, the limited impact that Jackson Garden-Bachop has on games surprises me. Rather than the general of the team, or even a game manager, he feels just like a distributor, though this distribution did lead to him getting 2 assists in this game.

By keeping things basic though, it has allowed the Hurricanes to move TJ Perenara to first five-eighth midway through the second half and bring on Jamie Booth. Booth is a very talented and exciting player, but would not usually get more than a handful of minutes due to Perenara’s leadership meaning he generally stays on the park. However, by making the first five-eighth role in the team easy enough to plug Perenara in later in the game, it allows the team the best of both worlds, while also making the team even more dangerous against a tiring defence, as both Booth and Perenara will exploit the tiniest of gaps and ensure that they are on the shoulder of any break.

Will they need a plan B? Maybe, as they struggled without Jordie Barrett and with the big boys out of sorts. But while it’s working, it is a great tactic.

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Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Brumbies

Round 6 sees us enter the back half of Super Rugby AU’s regular season and that means it’s time to kick off the reverse fixtures. First up was a trip to Leichhardt Oval as the Melbourne Rebels took on the unbeaten Brumbies.

Though neither team would usually consider Leichhardt Oval home, it was a home away from home for the deposed Rebels and they got off to a near-perfect start with Reece Hodge crossing in the corner just 3 minutes in. Things soon got worse for the Brumbies as their next attack came to a costly end as an attempted grubber through the Rebels’s defence rebounded behind the attacking Brumbies, Marika Koroibete kicked the loose ball on and when Andy Muirhead missed trying to fall on the ball 5 metres from his line, Koroibete collected and offloaded to the onrushing Brad Wilkin, who was not being stopped from that range. The Brumbies quickly hit back as a catch and drive 10m out from the Rebels’ line setup Joe Powell to score, but this was quickly cancelled out as Reece Hodge scored again, beating Tom Banks to a grubber through. Matt To’omua added a penalty and Jordan Uelese powered over from short range to give the Rebels a 27-7 lead at the halfway mark.

While 27 point was the most the Rebels had scored away from Melbourne in their Super Rugby history, the second half was far from high scoring. To’omua added a penalty to extend the lead, before a combination of substitutions, handling errors and penalties against the attacking team saw the rest of the half go scoreless until the final minute, when Will Miller crossed from close range to give the final score a slightly more respectable look at 30-12.

Out of sorts

If someone watched this game with no knowledge of how the previous 5 rounds had gone, there is no way they would think that the Brumbies were the unbeaten side. They really didn’t turn up for this match.

Right from the opening whistle they were on the back foot, leading to Reece Hodge’s try on just 3 minutes. Their attacks often seemed half-hearted, while in defence, they were sluggish to react to the Rebels and found themselves pushed back by the Rebels’ carriers and made to chase the ball all game long as Andrew Deegan controlled the game and continually pinned them back deep in their own territory.

Their heads dropped and with that the game got even further away from them, as their attacks continued to lack the intensity of recent weeks, seeing the team pushed back in contact and ending lots of attacks with turnovers, penalties or handling errors.

This loss really opens up the table with the 1ˢᵗ place finisher getting an automatic spot in the final and 2ⁿᵈ getting home advantage against 3ʳᵈ in the playoff for the other spot in the final. The Brumbies need to recover quickly or this could be costly.

Out of position

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the replacements bench should be expanded so that players going off injured and a team not having a suitable replacement on the bench doesn’t end up negatively impacting the game. Well, this match had me doubling down n this opinion.

As if a raft of substitutions wasn’t already going to impact the Rebels’ consistency in the second half, they lost replacement back row Rob Leota to injury just 10 minutes after he came onto the pitch. With replacement lock Mike Stolberg already on, it left the Rebels turning to centre Bill Meakes to fill in at flanker. While Meakes did a good job and didn’t look out of place on the side of the scrum, he’s still playing in a position that he is wholly unprepared for and having a centre in the back row seriously hampers the pack’s options at the lineout and the moves that can be ran off a scrum.

To make matters even worse, Meakes’ appearance at flanker meant that he wasn’t available to come on 5 minutes later when Reece Hodge came off, leading to Frank Lomani having to once again fill in on the wing. As I said before, Lomani is a great player and dangerous runner, but he is not a winger and in a closer match, these 2 players being out of position could prove costly.

If World Rugby is determined to fiddle with the game, then increasing the options on the bench will be much more beneficial than a 50/22 kick or these new goal-line drop-outs.

Countermeasures

When the Brumbies get a lineout within 10 metres of the opponents’ line, it’s often a fair assumption that they will go for the catch and drive and end up with a try. Well the Rebels managed to stop this in the first half with the easiest of strategies: putting a man in the air. Folau Fainga’a underthrew the lineout and it was an easy steal for Matt Philip.

This got me thinking: why not always get a man competing in the air at Brumbies lineouts within your 22? The Brumbies maul is nigh-unstoppable, but the lineout is shaky. If you compete in the air and miss it, the result will probably be no different that if you had stayed on the ground. However, putting a man in the air – even if it is just at the front every time – adds extra pressure on the hooker. Fainga’a and Connal McInerney already struggle enough to hit double-top at lineouts, and with any extra pressure, the chances of an overthrow/underthrow/not straight increases.

And with the lineout being such an issue for the Brumbies, why limit that pressure to inside your own 22? Get a man in the air at the majority of lineouts and the job of the Brumbies hookers becomes so much harder.

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Premier League: July 2020

Premier League: July 2020

The longest Premier League season in history finally came to an end on the 26ᵗʰ July and what a season it was. This season gave us a newly promoted team pushing for Europe, teams turning their season around in the January transfer window, Manchester City being banned from European competition for breaking Financial Fair Play rules then being welcomed back with open arms because the sport is too corrupt to really punish any team with money, a global pandemic causing a 100-day pause to the season, controversies caused by the systems brought in to eradicate controversies, almost daily football for the final weeks of the season, and finally the first Premier League title for Liverpool.

It seemed somewhat fitting that the Reds found themselves on 96 points as they lifted the trophy to celebrate their first top flight title in 30 years. But the Reds will prepare over this shorter offseason for a much tighter challenge next ear as a number of their rivals look to bounce back. Meanwhile at the other end of the table, a win on the final day of the season was not enough to save Bournemouth as they joined Watford and Manchester City in being relegated to the Championship.


Premier League Round-up


Fond farewell

I may be a Manchester United fan, but even I won’t let any bias get in the way of admitting that we are losing a truly incredible talent from the league in the form of Manchester City midfielder David Silva.

The Spaniard is leaving Manchester City after 10 seasons with the club, and has been a key figure part of the team that has won 4 Premier Leagues, 2 FA Cups, 5 League Cups and 3 Community Shields. While he has chipped in a highly impressive 77 goals in 434 appearances for Manchester City, it is his 124 assists and numerous other goals where he as instrumental in the build-up that he will be remembered for.

The league may never have seen the talent of Lionel Mess, but with a player like Silva who has such incredible control and an eye for a pass, favourable comparisons to the stars of Pep’s old Barcelona are certainly fully deserved. Even with the arrival of Kevin de Bruyne in recent seasons, it may have taken some of the focus off of Silva, but it has not negatively impacted his impact on the team or the league. And with his style of play, he still has a few seasons of elite football in him at 34. Whoever picks him up is onto a winner.

VAR’s worst day

Thursday 9ᵗʰ July was a day that will live long in infamy for VAR, as the Premier League had to make statements confirming that the system brought in to improve the accuracy of the officials’ decisions had made mistakes in all 3 matches played that day.

In Manchester United’s 0-3 victory over Aston Villa, United were awarded a penalty after Bruno Fernandes was supposedly tripped just inside the box by Ezri Konsa. A VAR review clearly showed that if anything, it should have been a Villa free kick as Fernandes in fact stood on Konsa’s foot, but despite this the penalty decision stood.

It was another penalty that was wrongly allowed to stand in Everton’s 1-1 draw with Southampton, as the Saints were awarded a penalty for a foul by André Gomes on James Ward-Prowse, only for the VAR review to show that Ward-Prowse simply fell into Gomes… and still allow the penalty to be taken!

Finally in Bournemouth’s goalless draw with Spurs, the Cherries were lucky to avoid giving away a penalty after Josh King clumsily bundled Harry Kane over at a corner. No penalty was given and following a review, the decision inexplicably stood.

The one good thing from these incidents is that the league came out and admitted that the decisions were wrong, but now they need to sort out the system ahead of next season. And I can suggest a simple amendment: for all subjective decisions, make the referee review it on the pitchside monitor and make the decision rather than gormlessly standing around in the middle of the pitch. If they’re still getting the decisions wrong, then they clearly aren’t ready to referee in the supposedly best league in the world.

Faith pays off

Remember back in the opening months of the season when everyone was clamouring for Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Frank Lampard to be removed from their roles as managers of Manchester United and Chelsea? Well I hope those morons feel stupid now, as the season ended with them in 3ʳᵈ and 4ᵗʰ respectively.

It takes time to establish yourself on a team, and then you are limited by the players at the club. Luckily for Manchester United, they finally admitted that the quality of player wasn’t there for the manager and brought in Bruno Fernandes, who revolutionised the team in the second half of the season, while the front 3 they eventually settled on (Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford) have more goals over all competitions than Liverpool’s much-vaunted Sané, Firmino, Salah trio – and their season still isn’t finished with Europa League matches still to be played! Chelsea meanwhile managed to rely on youth to overcome the loss of Eden Hazard and the transfer ban.

Of course, neither team is the finished article and they both finished well behind both Liverpool and Manchester City. Both teams need to do some good work in the transfer window to compete for the title – Chelsea have definitely started well – but the future looks bright for these 2 teams.

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Bracket Breakdown: Ultimate Schmoedown Singles Tournament 2020 (Part 2)

Bracket Breakdown: Ultimate Schmoedown Singles Tournament 2020 (Part 2)

I’m a sucker for a Schmoedown tournament bracket, so welcome back to my attempt at predicting the 2020 Ultimate Schmoedown Singles Tournament. As it is a bumper 36-competitor tournament this year, I know you don’t want to read a mini novel so I’ve split my bracket into 2 articles. This will be covering from the quarterfinals onwards, so make sure you have checked out my predictions for the Play Ins, Round 1 and Round 2 here.

feat MTS Ultimate Schmoedown Singles Tournament 2020 bracket

Quarterfinals

mts brendan meyerJohn Rocha v Brendan Meyer: “The Outlaw” is never shy to take a jab at old rival William Bibbiani, but in order to face him, he will have to go through Bibbiani’s teammate Brendan Meyer. This will be Rocha’s biggest test so far in the tournament and I have it being one challenge too many, as “The Kid” will look to build on his narrow loss to Dan Murrell in February and 2 hugely challenging matches in the earlier rounds to make the semis.

Chance Ellison v William Bibbiani: William Bibbiani has the chance to set up an all-Shazam! semifinal, but finds a Cobra in his way. While Bibbiani is a great competitor, Chance took him close in his debit season and is now in the form of his life, so I have Chance continuing on in the tournament.

mts paul preston blenderPaul Preston v Tim Franco: Tim Franco is the lowest draft pick to make it into the quarterfinals but after taking out TOM in Round 1, he now faces the other half of TOM and Paul in Paul Preston. I can see this being a close match but Franco’s fairy tale run coming to an end here against a resurgent Paul Preston, bringing and end to the Quirky Mercs’ hopes of replicating the Innergeekdom tournament’s all-KOrruption final.

Mike Kalinowski v Paul Oyama: Were it not for KO’s “Flash” blunder against Jeff Sneider, he would have faced Oyama in New York and believes that he would have won on the day, giving the world “Mikey Three-Belts”, the first triple-belted Champion. Unfortnately for him though, he now faces a resurgent Paul Oyama and barring a favourable pair of wheel spins, I see Kalinowski’s run coming to an end, along with the chances of another KOrruption v KOrruption final.

Semifinals

mts chance ellison throwdownBrendan Meyer v Chance Ellison: And so we reach the semis. When I started planning my bracket, I had “The Kid” winning here, but having watched Chance’s run through the Innergeekdom tournament, it is clear that the IG slice can now be a dangerous weapon for him and I see him using that to make his second tournament final of the season.

mts paul oyama winston marshallPaul Preston v Paul Oyama: Paul will win. There you go. Oh, I have to be more specific? Fine. This is going to be a close match, but Oyama has shown his age to not be a weakness when it comes to older movies but potentially a weapons for genres like YA movies, so I have him making it to the final.

Final

 

Chance Ellison v Paul Oyama: Maybe I’m too much of a sucker for storylines, but what a final this would be. The first 2 Schmoedown Pros to come from the fan leagues, there has always been that rivalry in the Schmoedown between Chance and Paul. Paul got the win on the way to the Singles Title, but Chance got revenge in the opening round of the Innergeekdom tournament on the way to the final. This could easily go either way but Chance is in the form of his life right now and I can’t go against him winning his tournament of the season and all-but securing Player of the Year.

 

So there you have it, from an incredibly deep field of 36, Chance Ellison will emerge victorious to earn a shot at the Singles Title at Spectacular. what do think of my bracket? How does it compare to yours?

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Blues

The Blues kept their hopes of winning Super Rugby Aotearoa alive following today’s Round 8 win over the Highlanders in Dunedin.

The Aukland-based franchise had to do some late shuffling to their lineup with starting flanker Blake Gibson and replacement lock Josh Goodhue, but it didn’t seem to matter as the pack drove a 5m lineout over the Highlanders try line after just 3 minutes, only for Aaron Smith to have his foot in the perfect position to hold the ball up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as from the resultant scrums, Akira Ioane crashed over Scott Gregory to open the scoring. A few minutes later, a Highlanders handling error turned the ball over on halfway and after Beauden Barrett cross-kick to Caleb Clarke cutout the Highlanders defence, he had the support inside for Finlay Christie to cross fr another try. The Highlanders forced their way back into the game, and after Josh Ioane got them on the board with a penalty, Ash Dixon got their first try of the match from a 5m catch and drive. Dalton Papali’i had a try controversially ruled out for an offside penalty that allowed Ioane to kick the Highlanders into their first lead of the game, but the lead lasted just seconds as another turnover quickly saw TJ Faiane cross to put the Blues back ahead. With Barrett having an indifferent day off the tee, Ioane kicked another penalty to keep things close, but Ofa Tu’ungafasi crossed right before halftime and Barrett converted to give the Blues a 16-24 lead.

The Blues quickly extended the lead after the break with Christie crossing for his second try and Barrett added a penalty just before the hour to put the game all-but out of sight. The Highlanders continued to fight and after the Blues lost replacement prop Sione Mafileo to the bin with 7 minutes left, Shannon Frizell managed to cross to give the final score a more respectable look. The Highlanders looked to pull within 7, but the Blues managed to hang on to get the 21-32 bonus point win, their first win over the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

The spirit of the game

Another day of rugby, another controversial decision relating to a try referred to the TMO. This time it was a disallowed try as Dalton Papali’i interceted a pas on halfway to score under the posts, only for referee Mike Fraser to be badgered into checking with the TMO and then instead awarding a penalty to the Highlanders for offside against prop Karl Tu’inukuafe. So what actually happened.

Tu’inukuafe was involved in the tackle attempt that led to the final ruck before the try, but fell off the tackle. He went to get back to his feet, but realised that he was in the passing lane, with Aaron Smith ready to go at the back of the ruck, so he dropped back to the floor so as to not interfere with play. Rather than throw the pass, Smith chooses to run laterally and appears to trip over Tu’inukuafe as he passes, the Highlanders try to spread the ball without looking, but Papali’i has had time to come forwards and legally get in the passing lane, making the intercept and taking it to the house.

I can understand why Tu’inukuafe was penalised, but personally I think it was he wrong call, as unlike a lazy runner, he has made every attempt to keep himself out of the play and it is only through Aaron Smith’s decision to run directly over where he was led that brought him into the play. There was nothing else the prop could do, whereas Smith chose to run there in the full knowledge that he was on the floor, so I would argue that at best it was a stupid decision from a very good halfback rather than an illegal act by Tu’inukuafe.

When you watch the replays of the trip, though, it becomes a different story. Smith was on his way to the floor before he even reached Tu’inukuafe having done his best impression of Tom Daley and diving to the ground, throwing out a pass on his way down. All it needed were a few rolls on the ground and I’d have thought the Highlanders had Neymar playing at scrum half! There is milking a penalty, overreacting to an illegal offence to highlight it to the officials, but then there is simulation to buy a penalty, and that is what Smith did here.

This is completely against the spirit of the game, exactly like a scrum half deliberately throwing the ball into a retreating player at a ruck when there were clearly no teammates in the vicinity to receive that pass. There is no place for it in the sport and I would love to see officials do what Mike Fraser initially did here: wave play on and watch the other team pounce on the loose ball so the cocky halfback gets crucified by his teammates.

What made the situation even worse in this case is that the conversion was almost certain to be scored, but instead Ioane managed to kick a penalty. This decision caused a 10-point swing in the moment and put the Highlanders ahead, luckily the Blues got on with the game and put themselves back ahead almost immediately.

Playmaker

This game really highlighted the benefits of Beauden Barrett at fly half. I will continue to argue that Mo’unga is the better 10 as he is more reliable, but when Barrett is playing well, it is a sight to behold.

While Otere Black has done a great job managing the team around the pitch, Barrett brought more variety to the attack. As well as running it himself when it was on, he was utilising a range of passes and kicks to keep the defence guessing. This meant that it became difficult for the Highlanders to effectively organise their defence, especially given the quality of the options available to Barrett.

His abilities were especially highlighted at a couple of turnovers. Christie’s opener came one phase after a turnover, where Barrett caught the defence out with a cross-kick shallow enough to take the opposition winger out of contention and allowing the support me to create a simple numerical overlap against the winger and fullback, the only people with any chance of stopping the attack. Similarly for Christie’s second, Barrett took advantage of a turnover by throwing a wide pass to Tony Lamborn that cut out the entire defence – who had been caught too narrow in transition – and while Lamborn did not have the pace to make it to the line himself, it was still easier for the support in comparison to the covering Josh Ioane and the turning defenders.

The Blues now have a bye before their potential decider against the Crusaders (this would require the Crusaders to lose/draw without a bonus point at home to the Highlanders next week), so they have a choice to make: do they stick with Barrett at 10, or go back to Otere Black? I pick option 3: Carter at 10, Barrett at 15.

Stacked at the back

One thing that Super Rugby Aotearoa has highlighted is the depth that the Blues have in the back row. This match was no exception.

Back in Round 1, the starting trio was Blake Gibson, Tom Robinson and Hoskins Sotutu, with Papali’i coming on after half hour to take the place of the injured Gibson. Robinson is a fantastic player, but injury sadly robbed him of any further gametime in the tournament, while Gibson fund himself lower down the pecking order with Papali’i and Akira Ioane creating a dangerous trio with Sotutu. Sotutu’s injury has been largely dealt with by moving Ioane back to his preferred position of number 8 and he has got better by the week, while Gibson, Tony Lamborn and Aaron Carroll have all done a great job partnering Papali’i as flankers an minimising the impact on the team.

This week, with Gibson and Goodhue pulling out last, Lamborn was promoted to the XV with Carroll and lock Jacob Pierce coming onto the bench. Carroll was on early in the second half as Papali’i took a knock, but then Lamborn needed replacing for a HIA. This led to Pierce having to come on, and with 3 locks on the pitch (4 if you count Carroll too), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti found himself packing down at number 8 for a 5m scrum and doing a great job of keeping the ball in the scrum while a pack that was already big and was now even bigger following the substitutions steamrolled the Highlanders scrum for a penalty.

If you want to challenge for the title, you need to have strength in depth to cover for injuries and allow players to get sufficient rest, especially with the intensity these games are being played at. With available to the Blues in such a key unit, they are in a very good position to challenge both now and in the foreseeable future.

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Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU reached the halfway point of its regular season and in fitting fashion it was a table-topping clash between the 2 unbeaten teams in the competition as the Queensland Reds came to GIO Stadium.

The game couldn’t have started much worse for the Reds, as a series of penalties gave the Brumbies a lineout 5m from the Reds tryline just 5 minutes into the game. The Brumbies’ driving maul is one of the most deadly weapons in the game and it duly transported Folau Fainga’s over the line for the opening try. As a titanic battle continued, the Brumbies driving maul got another chance to shine and again transported Folau Fainga’a over for another try, before James O’Connor finally got the Reds on the scoreboard with a penalty.

The Reds came out firing after the break and number 8 Harry Wilson was put through a gap to score a try just minutes after the restart. Minutes later, Wilson was through another gap, and though he was stopped just short this time, his fellow back rower Angus Scott-Young took the ball the final few inches to put the Reds ahead for the first time in the game. O’Connor added another penalty and it looked like the Reds would get a huge victory, until a late penalty set the Brumbies up with another 5m lineout. Folau Fainga’a was off the pitch by this point, but his replacement Connal McInerney duly took the armchair ride over the line, but with the scores at 19-20, replacement Mack Hansen pulled the conversion wide, only to be given a lifeline at the death as the Brumbies won a penalty, which he duly dispatched to pull a 22-20 victory from the jaws of defeat.

Architects of their own defeat

The Reds have nobody to blame for this loss but themselves. If there is one team that you need to stay disciplined against, it’s the Brumbies, due to the danger of their driving maul. The Reds gave away a whopping 9 penalties and were lucky not to lose a man to the bin within just 6 minutes of the game starting. It massively impacted the Reds’ ability to get into the first half, as they found themselves continually pushed back deep into their own half and struggling to get possession. Meanwhile in the second half, the Reds managed to concede just 3 penalties (all in the last 10 minutes) and as a result they looked a much more dangerous team, able to play with ball in hand and express themselves.

More than that, though, when the Reds look back at this game, they will be absolutely kicking themselves as every point they conceded in this match came as a direct result of the penalties they conceded. Both of the first half’s tries and conversions came from penalties being kicked to the corner then driven over the line. Then, of those 3 second half penalties, the first was kicked to the corner and driven over, while the final one was kicked off the tee for the game-winner.

There is a chance that the final minutes of this game prove costly to the Reds’ playoff position. If so, they will be kicking themselves for their lack of discipline.

Give him the ball

The Brumbies have a number of top quality ball carriers in their ranks, including but not limited to Tevita Kuridrani, Irae Simone, Solomone Kata and Pete Samu, but the more ball carriers you have, the better, in order to create the space for the fliers on the pitch. For that reason, I want to see more from Rob Valentini.

Granted he is only 21 at the moment, so will surely improve over the next couple of years, but he is a big guy and they need to utilise that physicality. Right now, he appears to be held more as a defensive enforcer, but 44m from 9 carries (including 2 defenders beaten) in this match highlighted just how good he can be if they utilise him as a carrier.

With a new head coach, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto playing at lock and David Pocock retired, the back row spots for the Wallabies are wide open and as a young player who will be in his prime from RWC2023 through RWC2027 and an experienced veteran come RWC2031, this is the perfect time to consider making the youngster a regular in the squad and looking to add to his game.

Balls of steel

With the game looking certain to be a Reds victory, it looked like the scapegoat for the Brumbies loss was unfortunately going to be replacement fly half Mack Hansen. The 22-year-old (the eldest fly half to have featured for them in this competition by 3 months – talk about trusting in youth!) had the unenviable task of having to kick a potential game-winner with his first attempt at goal and pulled the kick wide. Then as the game ticked into the final minute of play, Hansen went for a 50/22 – understandable given the strength of their maul, but very risky – and got the kick completely wrong, gifting possession back to the Reds.

Thankfully for the Brumbies, poor game management from the Reds gave the Brumbies one more chance to win it, and at this point I have to give so much credit to Hansen. Those 2 poor kicks could have easily knocked his confidence, but he didn’t hesitate in pointing to the posts. Those 2 kicks could have put him off his rhythm, but instead he made corrections from his missed conversion and bisected the posts to win the game.

I couldn’t help be reminded of Jonny Wilkinson on that fateful night in Sydney in 2003, where the England fly half missed 4 drop goal attempts during the Rugby World Cup final, only to step up and kick the winning drop goal with just 26 seconds remaining with his weaker right foot! Now, I’m not saying that Hansen is the next Jonny Wilkinson (though if that ends up being the case you heard it here first), but it just highlighted how hard kickers must work to become experts at their craft, that in the moment they can put all those bad moments out of their mind and focus on the moment. That is dedication to one’s craft and this was a great moment to highlight it.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Crusaders

We’re entering the business end of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season with the beginning of Round 8, and it began with a trip to Waikato for the table-topping Crusaders to take on the winless Chiefs. The first half went according to the script for Chiefs matches in this tournament, with Tom Sanders and Will Jordan both crossing for tries in the opening 15 minutes. The Chiefs worked their way into the game and after a strong run by Pita Gus Sowakula, Lachlan Boshier crossed for a try, Damian McKenzie kicking the conversion and a penalty soon after to cut the deficit to 2. However with a minute left in the half, a deliberate knock-on from Shaun Stevenson saw him sent to the bin and allowed the Crusaders to kick to the corner, from which a catch and drive put captain Codie Taylor over to make it 10-17 at the break.

While the 3ʳᵈ quarter was one for the kickers – McKenzie kicking 3 penalties and Mo’unga 1 to keep a narrow lead – but the final quarter started in controversial fashion as Sevu Reece was awarded a try despite many thinking that Quinten Strange had knocked on in the build-up. The Chiefs continued to fight, but the Crusaders scored a 5ᵗʰ try through Leicester Fainga’anuku, before holding on to secure the double over Warren Gatland’s side with a 19-32 victory.

Wrong mentality

Warren Gatland is a hugely experienced coach, but right now I think that he is the wrong man to be leading the Chiefs. The former Wales head coach has spent the last 12 years coaching in the Northern Hemisphere and will be coaching the Lions on their tour of South Africa next year, and I can’t help but think that all this time away from New Zealand is proving costly now.

It was almost as if there were 2 different Chiefs teams taking part in this game. At times they ran the ball like you would expect from a New Zealand side and they looked dangerous. But then the Chiefs of every other week would return and they would start kicking possession away, usually with aimless kicks downfield that the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Will Jordan and George Bridge were only too happy to run back with interest. With a back line that includes Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie, that’s a waste of their talent.

Watching this team, it feels like Gatland is trying to stick to the same gameplan he used with Wales of kicking downfield (but keeping the ball in play) and relying on his team’s superior fitness and dogged defence to get the win. Unfortunately, that is just inviting too much pressure from exceptionally skilled athletes and they just aren’t able to deal with it. It may be too late for this tournament, but I think that Gatland needs to look at changing up his tactics if he wants the Chiefs to have any success during his tenure.

Fijian force

One of the players to benefit most from the moments when the Chiefs played running rugby today was Pita Gus Sowakula. The Chiefs number 8 did not have the best of days in their opener against the Highlanders, but has quietly gone about his business since then. In this game, with the Chiefs playing a more open game at times, the Fijian came alive. Though he only managed 35 metres with the ball in hand, his 16 carries were extremely positive and played a huge role in putting his team on the front foot (such as for Boshier’s try) or getting the team out of jail (such as a defensive scrum 5m out, where he carried to the edge of the 22 to take the pressure off his kickers.

On this performance, I can certainly see why Fijian head coach Vern Cotter is interested in bringing Sowakula into the squad as in a team like that which looks to play running rugby, he will do a great job of giving them a strong a secure base to build off. Hopefully even if Warren Gatland doesn’t make big changes to his gameplan for their final game, he will look to use Sowakula as a carrier much more.

A grey area

Controversy reigned in this match regarding the awarding of Sevu Reece’s try to help the Crusaders pull away on the hour. And to be honest, I’m still not sure if I agree with the ruling or not.

Will Jordan broke through the Chiefs defence just inside the Chiefs 22 and offloaded to replacement lock Quinten Strange as he was snagged from behind. Strange juggled the ball, which went to ground and bounced up perfectly for the onrushing Sevu Reece, who took it beneath the posts. Referee Ben O’Keeffe went to the TMO and the two of them, along with the 2 assistant referees came to an agreement that there was no knock-on by Strange and that the try should stand.

Now, let’s try to break down what happened to the ball during this and the arguments for and against this being a try.

  • First things first, the ball ends up behind Strange but that is due to his momentum carrying him on. Relative to the field, the ball goes forwards – therefore, a knock-on.
  • However, the last touch from Strange is clearly a backwards swat at the ball, so though the ball itself has gone forwards, it has come backwards out of the hand – therefore not a knock-on. This is what the officials based their decision on, though the commentators chose to ignore this while they moaned about the decision.

This all comes down to a matter of physics, which led to a change in the interpretation of the laws. When a player passes the ball when standing still, it will go in the direction they pass. However, when they are running at speed, their momentum will also still be on the ball, which leads to the ball continuing to some degree in the direction the player was running as well as the direction they passed. For this reason, a player can legitimately pass backwards, but the ball still go forwards relative to the pitch.

This led to a change in the interpretation of forward passes that if the ball went forward it was still a legal pass as long as it came out of the hands backwards. By making his last touch a backwards swat, Strange effectively made it a pass that went to ground, so I can fully understand why the officials made the decision they did and would probably say they made the right call.

However, I think we all know that if a fumble like this happened in the middle of the pitch and not immediately preceding a try, this is getting called a knock-on 99% of the time, along with a number of other fumbles that seem to come backwards out of the hand. It is a grey area and I don’t know how to get around it without judging forward passes and knock-ons by the movement of the ball relative to the pitch without any account for momentum, which would force everyone to pass much deeper , making it much harder to hit the gap and take an offload to break through the defence.

What do you think? Would you have given the try?

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