2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Australia

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Australia

With New Zealand having earned their victory over Argentina, it was time for part 2 of the double header as World Champions South Africa faced off against hosts Australia. After the return of Izack Rodda and Samu Kerevi to the Wallabies 23 last week, this time it was the return of Quade Cooper that was grabbing people’s attention, and he god off to a solid start, trading 2 penalties apiece with Handré Pollard. The game was a tight affair, but could have taken a drastic turn on 15 minutes as Siya Kolisi tip tackled Tom Banks and was lucky that the fullback braced his fall with an arm, leading to just a yellow card for the Springbok captain. With the Boks a man down, Australia immediately took advantage of the extra space, and when Kerevi stepped inside Faf de Klerk, he created the space to send Andrew Kellaway over in the corner. The Springboks fought back, but failed to take their chances, with Pollard missing a penalty, then Lukhanyo Am fumbling the ball as he collected a grubber in the Australian in-goal under pressure from Tate McDermott. However a series of strong mauls forced the Wallabies pack to infringe, and as Kolisi returned to the pitch, Matt Philip was sent to the bin, and the change in numbers saw the Boks maul over for Bongi Mbonambi to score. Pollard missed the conversion, though, while Cooper maintained his 100% record with two more penalties to open up an 11-19 lead at the break.

Pollard had a chance to cut the lead early in the second half, only for his attempt to come back off the post, but his next attempt successfully cut the lead to 5. Australia’s next attack showed promise but came to an early end as Willie Le Roux was adjudged to have knocked on deliberately, leading to another penalty from Cooper and a 10-minute spell on the sidelines for the fullback, where he was soon joined by Australia’s Folau Fainga’a following a no-arms tackle to the lower leg. With the Boks again having a man advantage in the pack, they one again drove a 5m lineout over for a try, with replacement hooker Malcolm Marx the beneficiary this time. As the game entered the final quarter, Cooper kicked another penalty, but a second try for Marx from a third 5m lineout gave the Boks a late lead, though replacement fly half Damian Willemse pushed his kick wide to the right. It looked like a valiant effort from the Wallabies would fall just short, but a powerful drive at a later South African scrum saw Kwagga Smith drop on the loose ball and, with the rest of his pack being pushed backwards, Nic White was able to win the holding on penalty and Cooper, playing his first Test since 2017, stepped up to complete his perfect day off the tee and give the Wallabies a 26-28 victory.

He’s back!

With a couple of below-par performances, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see a change to Australia’s playmaking set-up this week. And while it was a shame to see Noah Lolesio drop out of the 23, there was the excitement of seeing what Quade Cooper could do in his first Test appearance since facing Italy 4 years ago. Looking back at the match, it’s safe to say that it worked out well.

I suggested after the last match that being the sole playmaker in the backline and dealing with the goal kicking was too much pressure on Lolesio’s young shoulders. But Cooper has the experience to shoulder this responsibility and finished the game with a 100% (8/8) record off the tee for a total of 23 points, which ended up being the difference as South Africa’s misses off the tee proved costly.

But more than that, Cooper got the back line firing in a way Lolesio hadn’t against the All Blacks. Kerevi’s inclusion last week started to improve things, but with Cooper now pulling the strings the centre was truly unleashed, as Cooper would take the ball on to interest the defence, then play his man through a gap. Similarly, Cooper also did a great job of varying the attack to keep the vaunted South African defence guessing, much like when Finn Russell was introduced in the final Lions Test this summer.

At 33 years old, Cooper clearly isn’t the future of Australian rugby, but he is a talent that the team will truly benefit from having among them as the youngsters gain experience at this level. And with the World Cup just 2 years away, could he bring his career to an end at the showpiece event in France.

Broken down

We’re so used to seeing the Springboks dominate at the breakdown, but in this match, they really seemed to struggle. While I think part of this is down to missing a player with the nous of Pieter-Steph du Toit, I think that they were genuinely shocked by the ferocity with which the Australians attacked the breakdown. And not just the initial battle over the ball, but the continued fighting and nuisance-making from the Wallabies players once the Boks had secured the ball.

Sometimes the Wallabies went a little too far and gave away a penalty, but on the whole they toed the line just right, and that left Faf de Klerk under too much pressure to be able to control the game in the way that we expect him to, putting more pressure on Handré Pollard and the rest of the team. Don’t be shocked to see the Boks trying to better secure the ball at the back of the rucks this week.

Tipping the balance

Watching Australia in recent weeks, their back row has looked so much better once Pete Samu has come off the bench. Michael Hooper remains one of the best—and potentially most underrated—7s in world rugby, while Rob Valentini is successfully growing into his role as the muscle of the trio. However, I feel that Lachlan Swinton is finding it difficult to be an enforcer at 6 following such a quick step up to international level. Similarly, I also feel that, as someone who usually plays flanker, Valentini is a little limited at number 8, as he does not have that same experience especially at the back of the scrum.

Personally, I think that moving Valentini to 6 would allow him to become that big carrier similar to how Akira Ioane is currently being utilised by the All Blacks, then bringing in a more specialised number 8. Bringing in either Samu or Harry Wilson would then provide the Wallabies with another carrying option as both run incredibly smart supporting lines.

At Test level, you need to be getting the most out of all 23 players in the squad. I’m not sure that the starting back row has quite done this in recent weeks, but the change I’ve done above could be the next step on making the Wallabies a constant threat again, while also increasing the likelihood that they are attacking with quick ball on the front foot.

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Argentina

Round 3 of the 2021 Rugby Championship kicked off with the first of a double-header as New Zealand took on Argentina. The All Blacks were coming in off the back of a 3-0 whitewash of Australia in the Bledisloe Cup, and took the lead in fortuitous circumstances after 10 minutes as Beauden Barrett’s pass was batted down by Bautista Delguy, only to bounce into the in-goal for Reiko Ioane to dot down. Just a few minutes later, Beauden Barrett took an opportunity under penalty advantage to chip into the back of the Puma’s in-goal, with brother Jordie collecting on the full but his momentum just carrying him out the back of the in-goal before he could dot the ball down. While the Pumas’ defence was just about holding on, there was very little for the team to write home about in attack, but they finally won a penalty just after the 20 minute mark, only for Nicolás Sánchez’s shot to drop short, while Beauden Barrett stretched his team’s lead to 10 points with a penalty just after the half hour. As the half came to an end, the All Blacks attack began to start creating more chances. Jordie Barrett again just ran out of space chasing his brother’s grubber into the in-goal, but Sevu Reece squeezed over from close range with just 5 minutes left in the half. The Pumas likely would have considered a 15-0 halftime deficit fortunate, however one last attack from the All Blacks saw Pablo Matera sent to the bin for killing the ball, and the All Blacks took advantage of the extra man to drive Dalton Papali’i over from a 5m lineout for a 22-0 halftime score.

If the first half had been one-sided, the second would be even worse. One of the rare times the Pumas got to the New Zealand 22, the Kiwis won a penalty and TJ Perenara went quick, sparking an attack which saw them reach the Pumas half with ease. George Bridge was finally brought down out wide, but quick ball allowed Beauden Barrett to scythe through a gap in the defence, and as he finally ran out of space on the edge of the 22, he through an outrageous wide pass out the back of his hand to put Luke Jacobson over for a try. The Kiwis could have ran away with the game over the next 20 minutes, with Reece and Ethan Blackadder having tries disallowed and Bridge and Quinn Tupaea both being held up over the line. However, with the Pumas again down to 14 following a yellow card to Carlos Muzzio, New Zealand got a wheel and push on a 5m scrum, which allowed Jacobson to peel off and go over for his second try of the game, with Jordie Barrett adding the simplest of conversions and a late penalty to secure a 39-0 victory.

Lacking

It’s hard to believe that less than a year ago, we were watching Argentina defeat New Zealand. This team at the moment is severely lacking, and I honestly can’t see where they’re going to get a point in this year’s tournament.

Despite having quality throughout the squad, their attack has looked almost non-existent bar a few short periods over these opening 3 rounds. And the defence in this match was questionable to say the least. Rather than coming up in the opposition’s faces, the Pumas appeared to almost sit off and allow the ball carrier to come to them. Why? I think the plan was to try isolating the ball carrier and turning them over at the breakdown—which they did to great success in some moments—but it instead allowed the All Blacks to get on the front foot, which then led to the Pumas having to kill the ball illegally or get ripped to shreds as their defence failed to set in time.

And then we come to the lineout. While the Pumas continued to have some success getting up to spoil opposition ball, if they failed to win it they were in trouble, as they had no way to legally stop the All Blacks driving maul. With coaches like Mario Ledesma and Michael Cheika on the books, to be so bad at a key set piece is embarrassing, and it gifted the All Blacks so many chances alongside Papali’i’s try. Until the Pumas start to seriously sort things out, a team that looked on the up will continue to drop down the World Rankings.

Plan B

With just 8 spots on the bench and usually only 3 at most for backs, it is hard to decide who to pick to maximise your chances of a win while also making sure that you have cover for as many positions as possible. As such a specialist position, one of these spots will almost always be taken by a scrumhalf, to ensure that there is cover should the starting 9 be forced off injured.

What really surprised me with this match was Mario Ledesma’s decision to go without any real cover at fly half. Nicolás Sánchez is an elite 10 on his day, but has been struggling in this tournament, yet neither Domingo Miotti nor Joaquín Díaz Bonilla was on the bench, while Santiago Carreras—who could fill in at the position but is far from a specialist—was also not included in the 23. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly leaves a large degree of risk should anything happen to the starting 10, which is exactly what happened in this match as Sánchez hobbled off on 53 minutes to be replaced by Emiliano Boffelli.

Granted it probably didn’t effect this game much, as the Pumas spent most of the second half either defending or under their own posts, but in a close match, losing your game manager with nobody really experienced at the position to cover for him could be very costly. It will be interesting to see if the Pumas take this risk again. I would expect that at the very least, Carreras makes the bench due to his quality and versatility.

Limited opportunity

I’ve not been silent in my belief over recent years that Asafo Aumua is the All Black’s next star at hooker. The Hurricane has an incredible balance of physicality and athleticism that would surprise many people.  And yet due to the continued presence of Dane Coles, Aumua has struggled to solidify himself as a starter at Super Rugby level, which has now seen him fall behind Chiefs’ Samisoni Taukei’aho, who is a physical player but not quite as mobile as the ‘Canes hookers or Codie Taylor.

Well Aumua got a chance in this game, but it certainly felt like that chance was limited. The Hurricanes contingent in the squad is well lower than a few years ago, and with Ardie Savea missing this match there were no potential lineout options that Aumua would have an established connection with. And then to make his job even harder, lineout master Sam Whitelock wasn’t even playing in this game, which would have immediately impacted the set piece regardless of who was at hooker.

Aumua didn’t play bad but he certainly didn’t have as big an impact as he would have wanted and was unfortunately pulled off surprisingly early, just 4 minutes into the second half. Hopefully he gets another, more significant chance in the near future.

Premier League 2021/22: August

Premier League 2021/22: August

Football may not have quite come home this summer, but the Premier League has returned, along with grounds full of cheering fans!

Kicking off midway through the month, we have had 3 rounds of football before the first international break of he season, and boy did it leave the table in an interesting place. Champions Manchester City opened up their campaign with a loss to a Tottenham side who were not even playing star striker Harry Kane as they tried to avoid loving him to the sky blues, while newly-promoted Brentford defeated Arsenal in Friday night’s opener. And for the two North London rivals things just continued in the same manner, leaving Spurs top of the table with the only 100% winning record, while the Gunners find themselves dead last, one of 3 teams yet to earn a point.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Michail Antonio (West Ham) – 4 goals; Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton) & Mason Greenwood (Manchester United) – 3 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Paul Pogba (Manchester United) – 5 assists; Michail Antonio (West Ham) & Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City) – 3 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Hugo Loris (Tottenham Hotspur) – 3 clean sheets; Édouard Mendy (Chelsea), Alisson (Liverpool), Ederson (Manchester City) & David Raya (Brentford) – 2 clean sheets


Heading for trouble

Remember how both last season and during the summer professional football continued to show that it doesn’t care about player safety when it comes to concussions? Well it appears that narrative will continue this season.

The game: Chelsea’s 0-2 win at Arsenal. Reece James went up to compete with Nuno Tavares for an aerial ball and the pair made contact, with James flopping to the ground on landing, before lying there unmoving in a star shape. To everyone watching, it looked like James had been knocked out, but after the game was stopped and he received medical attention, the Chelsea fullback was allowed to play on. The incident conveniently didn’t even appear in the Match of the Day highlights.

Now if James was knocked out (more on this shortly), then it is absolutely disgusting that medical professionals allowed him to play on. Contact sports like rugby and American football continue to sponsor research that shows the danger of head injuries, and yet football—a game where you are legally allowed to play the ball with your head—continues to bury its head in the sand, which will likely have fatal (and expensive, to use language the people in charge may actually care about) consequences.

Of course, if you ask anyone at Chelsea, James never lost consciousness, with Thomas Tuchel saying that he stayed down as he was afraid that he had broken a tooth. Now watching the footage of James staying down, that is not how I imagine someone reacting if they think they’ve broken a tooth. Especially given the visible worry of players and officials, it feels like James would have had more of a reaction if this was the issue. It feels like a poor excuse to cover for the fact that they risked their players life. And if it is true, then you have to ask why acting as if you’ve been knocked out is acceptable.

Hopefully this is the last time we see an event like this, but given recent history, I very much doubt it!

Wingman

It’s been a strange old summer for Manchester City. The defending champions successfully brought in Jack Grealish, but with Sergio Agüero no longer at the club and Gabriel Jesus apparently not fully trusted as the lead striker (judging by the amount of times the team played without a recognised number 9 last season), many would argue that their summer spending was somewhat of a failure as they failed to come to terms with Spurs for Harry Kane and similarly failed to bring in a striker, which was even more noticeable given the signings some of their rivals made (more on that later).

So with no new striker signed, it has been interesting to see how City have began the season up front, with Ferran Torres in the middle of a front three, with Grealish on the left and Jesus on the right. And yet it’s working. Jesus has had a brilliant start to the season, causing all manner of problems for defenders on his side and putting in a number of super dangerous crosses, which should have led to more than 3 assists so far, while he has also been able to come in from a wider position to cause trouble in the box, or move more centrally once substitutions are made.

While I still think that City will regret not bringing in a bigger striker before the season is out, it looks like Gabriel Jesus may just have found the opportunity to become a regular in the starting XI.

Building for success

It’s been a mixed summer transfer-wise for the big six. But who has been put in the best position by their summer’s business.

While Jack Grealish is in my personal opinion an upgrade on Raheem Sterling, he is arguably a luxury in a position where City already have plenty of options, especially with Jesus now playing a wide position. Much more important was getting a star striker in. Harry Kane would have been the perfect option, as someone who can play as a classic 9 but also has the skill to play a little deeper, so to miss out on him could be costly. That said, with the depth they have elsewhere in the squad, don’t be shocked to see them still remain favourites for the title.

Moving across the city and Manchester United have had a busy summer! Though Dan James will be a loss, the Red Devils had already secured his replacement in Borussia Dortmund starlet Jadon Sancho, while the arrival of Raphaël Varane should go a long way to solidifying things at the back, something the team has needed for years! But to then end the transfer window by bringing back the prodigal son in Cristiano Ronaldo was a masterstroke. Not only will his return pump up a crowd that is already excited to be back, but his talent belies his age and he will be such a threat leading the line and at set pieces. But what United also benefit from now is leadership. In Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani—who has vacated the 7 shirt to let Ronaldo have it back—United now have 2 world class strikers to teach Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood the finer points of the position whilst also ensuring the supply men are putting the ball in exactly the right position. But more than that, the leadership of those 2 and Varane, combined with a high number of top class players will hopefully bring out the best in Paul Pogba, whose prodigious talent has too often been outweighed by a lack of effort. They may still be a man short in the midfield, but this looks like a team that can compete for the title once again.

United aren’t the only team who look really set to challenge now, though. Chelsea looked a real threat under Thomas Tuchel last season, and the only thing that appeared to be missing was an elite striker, with Timo Werner struggling to get the results his effort deserved and Tammy Abraham never quite convincing. However, a return for Chelsea’s own prodigal son in Romelu Lukaku has given them the missing piece and I think that they will be genuinely pushing for the title this season.

As for Spurs, they’ve had some ins and outs, but arguably their most important piece of business was keeping hold of Harry Kane. They have started the season well with 3 clean sheets helping them earn 3 wins, but having a player of Kane’s quality around for another season is huge. Will it be enough for them to compete with some of the other teams for a top 4 spot? Only time will tell.

Liverpool’s summer has been largely quiet, with their one signing being defender Ibrahima Konaté. It’s a lot of money for a young defender and has the potential to be a bust, but if he can live up to expectations, he and the returning Virgil van Dijk could become one of the strongest—if not the strongest—centreback partnerships in the league. However, with the loss of Georginio Wijnaldum and no new names coming in up front (unless you count some of the younger players beginning to take a slightly larger role), there is a risk that things could get stale further up the field. With Chelsea and United both strengthening, I expect a top 4 finish but I think they will fall short in the title race.

And so we reach Arsenal, and what do I really say here? While they managed to sign Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith-Rowe to new contracts and sign Martin Ødegaard following a successful loan spell last season. However while Ben Smith looks a promising young player, £50 million is far too much for a young defender with just 1 season of top flight football under his belt, especially when previous seasons have continually shown the Gunners to have defensive frailties regardless of who plays in the defence. Elsewhere, signing Aaron Ramsdale for more money than the vastly superior Emiliano Martínez was sold for is just bad business. Arsenal have had a shocking start to the season, which hasn’t been helped by ongoing COVID issues, but even before the first 3 rounds, I would have struggled to envision the Gunners getting anywhere near a Champions League spot. If things don’t turn round soon, Mikel Arteta will be in trouble.


Team of the Month

Tottenham Hotspur

While West Ham were certainly in contention after scoring 10 goals in 3 games to finish the month second in the table, in the end I had to go for Spurs. Not only have they started the season with 3 wins from 3, but they are yet to even concede a goal! Meanwhile, they have barely used Harry Kane so far as it looked like just a matter of time before their star player left, and yet they still managed to pull out the wins, including what must have been an especially sweet victory over defending champions Manchester City in Round 1.

They certainly weren’t perfect and need to start finishing more of their chances, but after a positive start, keeping hold of Harry Kane will be a huge boost, which they can use to push on this month.


2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v New Zealand

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v New Zealand

After a few weeks of wondering what involvement New Zealand would have in the remainder of this season’s Rugby Championship, the All Blacks were back in action facing Australia in Perth for the third and final Bledisloe Cup game of the season. With the All Blacks having already secured the Bledisloe Cup for another year by winning the first 2 fixtures, the timing of this third Test at such an early stage of the Rugby Championship meant that there was still plenty to play for.

This game saw the first appearance of Samu Kerevi in a Test since the Rugby World Cup as part of a relaxation of the Giteau Law, and for a moment it looked like it ha proved an immediate boon as he broke from a ruck deep inside his own half before feeding Marika Koribete to just get over the line just minutes in, only for the try to be ruled out as a TMO referral rightly adjudged that he had been a part of the ruck and therefore not in a legal position to pick up the ball. While the Wallabies had a couple of early attacking opportunities, it was the All Blacks who looked more dangerous, and after Beauden Barrett opened the scoring with a pair of penalties, they found the opening try on 17 minutes. In what appeared to be a planned move, Beauden Barrett slotted a grubber kick through the midfield defensive line, which Will Jordan ran onto, quickly feeding the ball to Brad Weber as he realised Tom Banks had committed by coming up for the grubber. Weber took the ball on and after drawing the covering Noah Lolesio, he released fullback Jordie Barrett for an easy jog beneath the posts. Barrett’s game would soon have an early end , though, as just before the half hour mark he went up for a high ball, but as his leg shot our to keep his balance, he caught Marika Koroibete in the head and was sent off. The extra space created by Barrett’s dismissal allowed Australia to be a bit more expansive with their attacking, and after a series of offloads helped the Wallabies make their way into the New Zealand 22 and earn a penalty advantage, Noah Lolesio kicked to the corner, where Andrew Kellaway outjumped Anton Lienert-Brown but failed to secure the ball. The penalty advantage meant that they ha another chance though, and after kicking to the corner and winning the lineout, Koroibete went over as part of the maul, only to be denied again as the TMO picked up that he had gone to ground with the ball earlier in the maul and got back to his feet, thereby being adjudged a double movement. With the half coming to an end, the missed chances from Australia were compounded after a series of penalties beginning with the double movement took the All Blacks from their own 5m line to a lineout 15m from the Australian line, and when they won the ball and got the drive going, David Havili joined the forwards in their push and found himself with the ball as they crossed the line, dropping down for the try and a 0-18 halftime lead.

With the second half starting and the clock ticking down on Australia’s numerical advantage—due to the Rugby Championship using the law trials that include allowing a replacement to be brought on 20 minutes after a red card—the Wallabies knew that they needed to begin taking their chances, and looked like they may be in as Samu Kerevi stripped Scott Barrett of possession and saw the ball quickly spread to Andrew Kellaway, only for the wing to be chased down by Reiko Ioane. With the 20 minute red card period coming to an end, Damian McKenzie came onto the pitch, but Australia finally found themselves converting a chance despite the even numbers, as Tate McDermott sniped from a ruck deep into the 22, and after a couple of phases kept New Zealand on the back foot, Samu Kerevi twice popped up at acting scrum half to keep the ball quick before sending Folau Fainga’a over to finally get them on the scoresheet. However, any Australian hopes of momentum swinging in their favour were soon dashed as they kicked a goal-line drop-out (another of the law variations) only just beyond their 22, and when New Zealand spread the ball wide to the right, Akira Ioane bumped off a blitzing Koribete, fended off Len Ikitau and dummied Lolesio before drawing the cover and feeding Will Jordan for the easiest of finishes. As the game continued to open up, Lolesio broke deep into the New Zealand half, but the Wallabies tried forcing things with the wrong personnel in place and Matt Philip’s pass to Fainga’a was intercepted by David Havili, who ran it all the way back to give the All Blacks another try. Just minutes later, it looked like they had another long range run-in as Beauden Barrett released McKenzie with a switch out wide, only for replays to show that McKenzie fumbled the pass and only recovered it after in bounced off the offside Barrett. This reprieve, combined with some substitutions, appeared to reignite the Wallabies, and when Pete Samu sniped down the blind side of a ruck, he was able to feed the newly-introduced Nic White for an immediate try. However the All Blacks were still looking dangerous when given any possession in the Wallabies half, and when some quick hands from Will Jordan left a blitzing Koribete in no-man’s land, Akira Ioane made it close to the try line before feeding Anton Lienert-Brown to crash over, while George Bridge completed the scoring for New Zealand just minutes later as TJ Perenara intercepted Rob Valentini’s offload to Reece Hodge, drew all the covering defenders as he scampered up to halfway, before kicking into wide open space, with the ball holding up perfectly for the replacement wing. With just a handful of minutes left, a Bledisloe Cup clean sweep was confirmed for the All Blacks, but the Wallabies did manage the last word as Nic White ran lateral off the back of a ruck trying to find a gap, before feeding Tom Banks on the switch to crash over from close range, giving the fulltime score a slightly more respectable look at 21-38. With a bonus point from each of their victories over the Wallabies, the All Blacks leapfrog World Champions South Africa to go top of the table, while Australia find themselves bottom of the table after 2 rounds on points difference.

A welcome return

This was a match of note for fans of Australian rugby, as it saw a slight relaxing of the Giteau Law that only allows overseas-based players to feature for the Test team if they have accrued at least 60 caps and 7 years of playing Super Rugby in Australia. For this match 2 players who don’t fit those criteria were allowed to join the squad, namely Japan-based Samu Kerevi, who started at 12, and replacement lock Izack Rodda, who is returning from Lyon to join the Western Force.

While Rodda’s impact was limited in this match, Kerevi was heavily involved in many of Australia’s best moments, carrying hard and on good lines to great effect. While Hunter Paisami has been growing into his role as the more physical centre, Kerevi is in his prime years and also has the Test experience that this rebuilding Wallabies side so desperately needs. Even just having another player like him in the Tests squad will be so important for the younger players, while also increasing the depth the Wallabies have in midfield when everyone is available.

While I can understand that Australian Rugby wants to keep it’s big names in the country, the career of a professional rugby player is hard and relatively short, so if they can’t make the same money at home as they can abroad then they should not be penalised. By allowing the big names to go abroad, it allows the next generation to come through and gain plenty of top flight experience earlier in their career, which will surely only add more depth to the national team in the long run. Just imagine what Matt Philip and Darcy Swain will learn from playing and training beside players like Rodda and Will Skelton, while players in other top flight leagues could also be developing skills different to those playing Super Rugby, which could add another dimension to the national team’s tactics.

Hopefully with this relaxation, we are seeing the first steps towards either abolishing the rule altogether or reducing the criteria to make more overseas players eligible.

Too much too soon

Imagine being just 21 years old and already the starting fly half for a Tier 1 nation who faces the All Blacks 3 times a year. Well that’s the situation for Noah Lolesio. The young Brumbies stand-off is a clearly talented player, but I can’t help feel that there is too much pressure being put on young shoulders right now.

With the back line picked to face the All Blacks this weekend, Lolesio was left as the sole playmaker in the starting XV, but also the only goal kicker. Now Lolesio’s goal kicking has not been great of late, and this was just another example, with him missing a 3-pointer in the first half that international goal kickers should be nailing in their sleep under normal conditions. That’s got to be knocking his confidence, and yet he also has the pressure of running the team.

Personally, I think that at this stage in his Test career, Lolesio would benefit from having a second playmaker in the lineup, either in the centre as Matt To’omua often is, or at fullback, where Reece Hodge would be an option. Not only could they take over the goal-kicking duties and allow Lolesio to focus on running the game, but they would also be able to provide support in open play and also to allow him the flexibility to attack with ball in hand himself without the team losing all shape.

Hopefully with the new format Super Rugby Pacific next season, Lolesio will begin to see more regular action against higher quality opposition. Combine that with Tests against a slightly more forgiving opposition and hopefully we will see Lolesio develop into the star he looks like he can be. However if not given support, he may find himself in trouble.

Opportunity knocks

While I’m still not sure that Ian Foster is the right man at the helm of the team, one thing that can’t really be argued is that there is no more dangerous team on the transition than New Zealand. What do I mean by “on the transition”? I mean that moment when the ball gets turned over and New Zealand transition from defence to attack.

While so many teams will use a turnover as an opportunity to either secure possession by keeping things close for a few phases or secure territory by kicking in behind a team that isn’t set to defend a kick, the All Blacks will frequently look to exploit the opposition defence not being set by immediately moving the ball away from the point of contact and finding a spot either in the midfield or out wide where they can have a back or a back row exploiting the space around a forward who has been caught out of position. In doing so, they can get over the gain line and in behind the opposition defence, where there will then only be maybe a couple of players able to chase back or cover across. Meanwhile, the team trusts the ability of their players to make the break, which means that when they get through and draw whatever cover is left, they have so many players on the shoulder in support, they either have options of who to pass to, or the first support man has support for when that final defender gets over to cover.

So how do you stop this? Well it’s very difficult because the whole idea of attacking on the transition is that it catches you out as you are in an attacking setup and ned to organise defensively. So really, it is all about being disciplined with the ball and not giving the All Blacks that chance to turn the ball over. By playing an open and attacking game, Australia play into New Zealand’s hands as there is more chance to a mistake. South Africa on the other hand keep things very tight and organised, as we saw throughout the tournament. Wins against Australia and Argentina (who they face in Rounds 3 & 4) will be one thing, but expect a completely different type of challenge when the All Blacks face the Springboks in the final 2 rounds. That will be the true test for Ian Foster’s side.

United Rugby Championship 2021/22: 7 to Watch

United Rugby Championship 2021/22: 7 to Watch

It’s that time of year again as the Northern Hemisphere’s top flight leagues prepare to kick off again when I look at the all the teams in a competition and select 7 players new to their clubs this season who I think we should all be keeping an eye on. It’s something I’ve done a few times with the Premiership (check out my picks for this season here), while 2 years ago I also branched out to look at the Pro14, so now I’m looking at it’s replacement tournament: the United Rugby Championship. It’s safe to say that I’ve had mixed results in the past with my picks, but hopefully after a season off, I’ll find myself doing a bit better with my selections.

A quick reminder of the rules:

  • Players must be new transfers into the club. Academy graduates/short-term contracts from last year that have now signed longer permanent contracts/players who joined the club midway through last season/players returning from loans will not be included
  • Maximum 1 player per team, even if they have multiple players deserving of a spot on the list

So without further ado, let’s get on with the list…

Rhys Priestland

Its the start of a new era for Cardiff Rugby after their rebrand dropped the “Blues” moniker from their name ahead of this season, and they also find themselves with a new face at fly half in Rhys Priestland. The former Welsh international leaves Cardiff Rugby with options in the back line as they now have an experienced and reliable fly half as well as Jarrod Evans, who has shown quality but not quite stepped on as many would have hoped. Not only does Priestland give an alternative to Evans, but there is always the possibility of moving Evans out to 12 to create a dual-playmaker system similar to what was utilised on occasion when Gareth Anscombe was at the region.

Emiliano Boffelli

Losing Duhan van der Merwe is understandably a massive blow for Edinburgh, but the arrival of Boffelli will certainly go some way to alleviate that loss. The Argentine international brings 30+ caps worth of experience to the club, and at 26years old could be considered to be entering his prime. His versatility in the back 3 will open up options for Edinburgh and his quality in the air will be a real weapon for the team.

Josh McKay

Sticking in Scotland, we go over to Glasgow, who will be hoping that Josh McKay will become a key part of their rebuild. The 23-year-old arrives from the Crusaders, but it was at the Highlanders where he really came to the fore. This guy has pace to burn! Give him some space or a kick in behind the defence to chase and he will hurt the opposition. He just needs to hope that his team can get back to the level they were at a few years ago in order to give him the chances…

Michael Ala’alatoa

This feels like the most unnecessary signing ever when you consider how successfully Leinster bring players through, but the inclusion of Michael Ala’alatoa gives the province arguably the deepest 3-man depth chart at tighthead prop of any club in the world. With Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong also at the club, expect the trio to split minutes, while Ala’alatoa will provide a reliable and experienced presence when the internationals are away during the Six Nations.

Simon Zebo

The prodigal son returns! No, I’m not talking about Cristiano Ronaldo, I’m talking about Simon Zebo, who returns to Thomond Park after 3 seasons at Racing 92. A threat at both wing and fullback, Zebo brings great attacking flair to the game as well as plenty of experience at the elite level. Andy Farrell may have plenty of options in the back 3, but don’t be shocked to see Zebo back in the Ireland squad in the coming months now that he is eligible again.

Michael Collins

As someone who would consider the Scarlets my team of choice in the URC, hearing that the Ospreys had signed Michael Collins certainly made me nervous! The 28-year-old has been a key player for the Highlanders in recent seasons, splitting his time between fullback and outside centre. It was at centre where he really stood out to me, with his range of skills leaving a number of options on in attack and his experience of playing fullback allowing him to pick the right line to attack any gap he finds. Collins qualifies for Wales through his grandfather, so don’t be shocked if a solid start to the season sees him come into consideration for the Six Nations.

Gerbrandt Grobler

This final pick may come as a shock to some people, but Grobler has had a quietly successful career since returning from a drugs ban, having become a regular part of matchday squads at Racing 92, Munster, Gloucester and Stade Français. It was at Gloucester that I really got a chance to watch him play, and I was honestly gutted to see him leave. Despite being at the club at the same time as Ed Slater and Franco Mostert, Grobler took every chance to show his quality with some strong carrying, but his lineout skills were what really stood out. Now that he finds himself back in South Africa with the Sharks, expect to see him playing a key role securing the set piece—something which will be key to success in the URC.

Who would you put on this list?


This year, I will be running a predictions league for the URC on Superbru, and you are all invited! It’s free to enter and entirely for fun.

For those of you who have never done this before, each week you select who you think will win each match and by what margin (a draw is also an option) and you will be awarded points depending on how successful your predictions are.

Interested? You can join my league here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code partdour

Thanks for reading!