2021 Autumn Tests: Week 2

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 2

Hello and welcome to my look at the second week of the Autumn Tests. Sadly a lack of available broadcasts meant that I couldn’t cover Week 1 at all, but with this week having a limited schedule as it was outside World Rugby’s Test Window, this still gave us a chance to ease into the action.

The action started up in Edinburgh as Scotland took on a Tongan side who had only been together for a handful of days and were still missing a number of their players. While the Tongans certainly tried to make a game of it and caused some issues early on with their strong running, the Scottish players’ familiarity with each other—despite missing their Premiership players and Finn Russell, the chemistry was still there from everyone being based at just Edinburgh and Glasgow—was clear to see and they ran away with a 60-14 victory, with Rufus McLean scoring a brace on debut and fellow wing Kyle Steyn bagging 4 tries.

The action then continued at the Principality Stadium, where Wales were taking on the All Blacks. With New Zealand fielding an almost first choice XV, it was always going to be a tough task for a Welsh team missing its Premiership players and also a number of other regulars through injury, and things got even worse as Beauden Barrett kicked off his 100ᵗʰ Test cap by intercepting Gareth Anscombe and running in for the simplest of tries. Wales kept themselves in the fight for 60 minutes despite losing Alun Wyn Jones (on his record-breaking 148ᵗʰ Wales cap) and Ross Moriarty to injury in the first half, but fell off a cliff after the hour mark and shipped 4 tries without reply for a final score of 16-54, with Jordie Barrett’s missed conversion at the death just denying the All Blacks a record points haul against Wales.


Scotland

With Finn Russell and Adam Hastings both unavailable, Gregor Townsend made a big call for this match by selecting Blair Kinghorn at flyhalf. It’s been a long time since Scotland had such strength in depth at 10, with Russell and Hastings the clear regulars, but Duncan Weir and Jaco van der Walt also in the running and now young Ross Thompson making his debut off the bench, but I think that getting Kinghorn Test experience at fly half is a clever move.

When you go to a World Cup, spaces are limited, and while you could get away with 2 specialist fly halves, a third fly half would seem a waste, unless they could also fill in at other positions. While I’m sure some of them could probably fill in as emergency centres or fullbacks, they are not really multi-positional players, whereas Kinghorn can already cover the entire back 3 and being an option at 10 just adds another string to his bow come selection time as his versatility will make him indispensable, despite the strength in depth available in the Scottish back 3.

Not only that, but by gaining the experience at 10, it also gives the team much more tactical flexibility, as he can move into the first receiver position if the fly half is stuck in the breakdown, down injured or carded. He has the skillset to excel at the position, especially when you consider that if he was to play the position much in a World Cup, it would likely be against the lower-ranked teams. What he needs now is a chance to play there with a bit more regularity, both for Edinburgh and the national team, as he will face much better defences than a Tongan team missing a number of stars, who have only had 4 days training together and then had to reorganise on the fly with 2 injuries in the back line and a 6-2 split (including a scrum half) on the bench.

Tonga

You really have to feel for Tonga. They need to accept every game they can against Tier 1 opposition just to get matches, but so often they end up in situation like this or against New Zealand in the summer: facing off against teams outside World Rugby’s Test Window. What this means is they end up playing teams who are already stronger and better resourced, but then have the added difficulty of playing without many of their top players, who will not be released from the Premiership/Top 14 outside the Test windows. With such inexperienced squads and minimal prep time, it’s hardly even close to a fair contest.

Of course, it can lead to the discovery of some great players, like 32-year-old prop and former professional boxer Loni Uhila, who made his debut at Murrayfield. The “Tongan Bear” plays for in Fédérale 1 (the 3ʳᵈ tier of French rugby, and highest level of amateur rugby) and while he struggled a little at the scrum, he more than held his own in the loose, with some strong carrying and passes that a back would be proud of, all while playing in the most heavy-duty pair of rugby boots that I have ever seen!

Hopefully with the arrival of 2 Pacific Island franchises in Super Rugby Pacific, things will start to get a little easier for the Pacific Island teams, as they can try to bring talent to these franchises. But with just 2 teams for the whole Pacific Islands, there will still be plenty of players in the Premiership and Top 14. World Rugby needs to step in and help to a larger degree, even if it is only to outlaw the Tests outside set windows to ensure that the nations have everyone available for the matches.

Wales

While there was a lot to be disappointed about for Welsh fans, something that can’t be focussed on enough was the performances of the back row. With so many players unavailable through injury or playing in the Premiership, there was a real worry about the back row coming into the game. And yet they more then held their own.

Taine Basham looked like he had been playing Test rugby for years, popping up to steal the ball at breakdowns and making a couple of great breaks, while Aaron Wainwright put in a performance reminiscent of his rise to prominence towards the end of the Warren Gatland era, perhaps even better!

On the strength of those performances, the pair deserve to keep their places for the upcoming matches and have the quality to become regulars in the back row moving forward. Basham will only improve as he plays more at this level, while Wainwright will also benefit from consistently playing at this level. Add in a experienced cleaner like Justin Tipuric or Josh Navidi when they’re fit, and this is an incredibly dangerous unit going forwards toward the World Cup.

New Zealand

How great is Ardie Savea?! The Hurricanes back row has been a part of the squad for years, but has really come in to his own with the retirement of Kieran Read.

This game was another classic example of why he is so good. He has the power to just keep going in the tackle. If you go high on him to get on the ball, he will just carry you along as his leg drive gains him more metres. And yet if you go low and stop him from making more ground, he will simply offload the ball to a man in support. To properly stop him, it’s going to take at least 1 man going low and another going for the ball, which is then just going to create space elsewhere for the All Blacks to exploit with quick ball.

But that’s not it, as he also has solid pace and an impressive acceleration to make him a threat in more open play as well as the tight. You just need to look at Sevu Reece’s try, where he exchanged quick passes with Reece and Rieko Ioane down the left wing, you could easily have mistaken him for his older brother Julian. And to make him even better: he has that versatility, being able to play anywhere in the back row, allowing the coaches to adapt the back row to either the opposition or the way they are looking to play, putting him at 8 if they want to play fetchers like Dalton Papalii or Sam Cane, or on the flank with a quality number 8 like Hoskins Sotutu.

He probably doesn’t always get the recognition he should, as he puts in these performances weekly, but don’t be shocked to see him remain a key cog in the All Blacks XV for the coming years.

D3: The Mighty Ducks

D3: The Mighty Ducks

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

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

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

It’s been a while since I started watching the Mighty Ducks movies again, with a busy rugby schedule, work getting busier and a house move, but it’s time to finally complete the trilogy with a look at D3: The Mighty Ducks

ss d3 the mighty ducks

Key facts

Directed by Rob Lieberman

Music by J. A. C. Redford

Released in 1996

Starring: Emilio Estevez, Joshua Jackson, Jeffrey Nordling, Heidi Kling, Margot Finley

Synopsis: When the Ducks are enrolled at Eden Hall Academy on junior varsity sponsorships, they must adapt to a new environment, including romances, being seen as outsiders, dealing with bullies and the varsity hockey team and a new coach in Coach Orion. But is it too much change all at once for Charlie?

Review

I used to watch this and D2 all the time as a kid, and while I always enjoyed them both, I always did prefer the second, a feeling that persists with this re-watch. I think a part of this is the relative lack of actual hockey in this movie, with just 3 games given any time in the movie. Instead, we get a load of hijinks such as the constant rivalry between the Ducks and Varsity, Goldberg’s inability to skate and Charlie and Fulton’s truancy, many of which I feel could have been left out or shortened for more important story and character moments, such as the Ducks’ relationship with Banks after he gets picked for Varsity.

But probably the biggest surprise in this movie is that though he receives top billing, Emilio Estevez appears in just 1 scene in the first half of the movie, and though he has an important role later in the story, he is definitely not one of the main protagonists. Instead, after being the heart of the team for 2 movies, this movie sees Joshua Jackson’s Charlie Conway become the lead protagonist, and on this re-watch it really felt that rather than ending a trilogy, this was meant to be the movie in the middle of a larger franchise, which would see the focus move from Gordon to Charlie.

This is a very different movie to the previous 2: the Ducks are united (on the whole) for once, so the conflict is created by giving them a new coach, who is far stricter and has much more of a focus on defence than Gordon Bombay, who made it fun. Similarly, with the team now all in their teens it feels like the whole movie is an allegory for puberty, with a number of players ending the movie with some form of romantic interest and change all over the place: the style of hockey they play, their standing and role within the team, heck even the score feels similar but different to the previous movies.

But here we come to the issue, there are so many changes that they don’t always feel fully fleshed out in a movie with a runtime of 1 hour 24 minutes. Orion comes across overly strict and uncompromising, but then immediately becomes best pals with Charlie as he re-joins the team. Banks appears to be ostracised by the Ducks after being selected for Varsity and even fights with Charlie, but then the next time we see him he’s playing with the Ducks as if there’s never been an issue. With everything going on, I think that the Banks storyline was probably the biggest mistake as it separated him from the team for the third movie in a row, while having Ken Wu’s only story beat of note being that he gets bullied doesn’t look great—though that’s still more than some of the team got!

Ultimately though, this is a good tale of Charlie growing as a person. He learns the hard way not to judge someone by first impressions, to be willing to adapt and to stand up to bullies. But more than that, he learns that being the heart of the team and the captain is a role that must be earned rather than just given. Is it a perfect movie? No. Neither does it feel like an ending. Hopefully with The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers being renewed for season 2, we will see Charlie return to the story sometime soon and see how his life has gone on.

Sports perspective

Like with the other 2 movies, I’m not going to be able to go into much detail at all as Ice Hockey is not a sport that I’ve ever really been able to invest any significant time in. However the movie does a good job of not needing you to have a detailed knowledge of the rules, so that as long as you can understand the basics that each team is trying to put the puck in their opponent’s net more often than the other, you’re completely fine!

As in the previous matches, your rival team (previously the Hawks and Iceland, now Varsity) are a bigger and stronger team, while the officials always seem to punish the Ducks more than their rivals. However what I can comment on this time is Coach Orion’s focus on teaching the team defence. While any team can have success when you with great attacking play, once they get older it becomes more important to be able to stay organised and defend well, as the Ducks have shown themselves just how easy it can be to score in just a few seconds. And that really shows with the hockey being much more grounded than we saw in the previous movie.

One final thing to note is a side-story in this movie about attempts to get the name of Eden Hall’s sports teams changed from “The Warriors” to something less offensive, with the name eventually becoming the Ducks at the end of the movie. Considering this movie is 25 years old, this oddly mimics something that we are currently seeing in sports, with a number of American sports teams rebranding away from anything inspired by Native Americans, something that is also currently being requested of the English Premiership rugby team Exeter Chiefs.

Fist-pump moment

I had a feeling before the movie of what my fist-pump moment would be, and it didn’t change on this re-watch, though I will say that Dean Portman’s return ran it closer than I expected.

The moment in question: the final training session before the JV-Varsity game, when Orion calls in the team and while looking stern, tells them that they’re not skating like Warriors, before telling them they’re skating like Ducks and beginning to hand out the Ducks jerseys he took off them in the first session. This is one of the few times we hear the familiar Ducks fanfare through the whole movie as the team receives their jerseys before one final shot of them coming together skating in a circle and bringing back the classic “Quack” chant.

It shows in this moment that though they may have been changing though the whole film, with a new coach and a new focus on defence and two-way hockey, they are still always going to be the ducks at heart, and nothing can stand against that.

Favourite line

So I must admit that there weren’t many lines that in themselves stood out to me in this movie, though Gordon’s monologue to Charlie about how Charlie and the Ducks saved him and how he told Orion that Charlie was the Minnesota Miracle Man brought a ear to my eye as it mirrored D2’s scene between Jan and Gordon. Instead I settled on a line from Hans as he talked with Charlie:

“He took away the “C”, Charlie. Not what was under it.”

It’s a timely reminder to Charlie that he has put too much focus on his standing as captain of the Ducks. He was always the heart of the team well before this, and it is clear from the game the Hans has just been listening to that the Ducks are missing Charlie. He was never the best player on the team, but what made him so important was that he was what the Ducks embodied: honesty, integrity, fair play and a love of the game.

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

2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

Between the British & Irish Lions Tour and the Rugby Championship, we’ve been chock full of international rugby in recent months. But we’re far from over as the Southern Hemisphere teams come North for their end of season tours. And with the Rugby World Cup just 2 years away, it is now a crucial time for players to start proving themselves to secure a spot in their nation’s line-up and make themselves indispensable.

With that in mind, as I do for most of the major tournaments, I have looked at the majority of teams who you may find yourself watching over the next month and picked 1 player from each team who I think you should be keeping an eye on. Some will be youngsters trying to carry their club form onto a bigger stage, some will be fringe players trying to prove themselves, and some are players who you may not have heard much of unless you watch them frequently, but should really be paying attention to while they are on the pitch.

So let’s get started!

Argentina: Santiago Carreras

Carreras is one of the hot young outside backs on the scene for Argentina, an area where they have really been spoiled for choice in recent seasons. Capable of excelling at either wing or fullback, he’s reliable in the air and while he may not have the top-level speed of some of his fellow Gloucester wings (let’s be honest, few do!), he has the footwork to make up for it! He looked on the cusp of being one of the next stars at the position, if only Argentina could improve things further infield. However, things have got even more interesting following a Rugby Championship campaign that saw him start at fly half for the final couple of matches, despite never starting at the position in a top flight club match. Will he continue at the position or will he be moved back to the outside positions where I feel he is at his best? Only time will tell.

Australia: Hunter Paisami

What a couple of seasons for Paisami. The young Reds centre’s physicality and impressive defence saw him called up to the Wallabies squad as part of their rebuild and was looking pretty secure until he missed the majority of the Rugby Championship for the arrival of his first child, which coincided with the return of Samu Kerevi from the international exile. Well with Kerevi missing, Paisami is back in against July and while Kerevi’s presence may hinder his first team chances (with the quality available, I can’t imagine that Dave Rennie will frequently start with 2 physical centres) he still has the chance this Autumn to secure his spot in the wider squad.

England: Alex Dombrandt

I could have so easily gone for British & Irish Lions Sam Simmonds or Marcus Smith here as they finally find themselves getting picked by Eddie Jones, but I have instead gone for Dombrandt. While Simmonds is a quality 8, Eddie Jones has shown a preference for larger men at 8, so the young Harlequin could find himself at the head of the queue with Billy Vunipola finally left out. Despite being a big boy, Dombrandt has a turn of pace that will prove dangerous when put through a gap, but is more than just a carrier, as he also contributes more than a few turnovers at club level.

Fiji: Levani Botia

So now we come to a player who is firmly established in his nation’s XV, but due to the sheer quality of players around him at Test level he arguably doesn’t get the wider recognition he deserves. At 32, the La Rochelle centre is a veteran of the game and a physical specimen, happy to carry hard but even happier to tackle even harder. But what makes Botia very interesting is his versatility. While usually a 12, he is equally at home at 7 for both club and country, and has the ability to turn the ball over as good as any international 7. With the Fijian squad for these Tests only selecting from the Northern Hemisphere and missing injured players like Semi Radradra, expect Botia to come to the fore and lead by example.

France: Jonathan Danty

It’s crazy to believe that the Stade Français centre only has 8 caps to his name, but that just goes to show the quality available to France, while there was also a move towards youth following the last World Cup that saw him overlooked. However, he took his chance on his 2 appearances in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup that saw France test their depth and earned another 2 caps in their summer Tests against Australia as part of a weakened French team. While he may not be part of the first choice XV, he provides a physical carrying option at 12 and seems to impress whenever given a chance. If he can continue to put in similar consistent performances, he may just be able to secure himself a spot in the home World Cup.

Georgia: Giorgi Kveseladze

Georgia may be better known for their forwards but they are developing an impressive young backline and Kveseladze is a key part of that. You may remember him from his impressive solo try against Ireland in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup, but what has been really impressive is his defensive quality at 13, which will have only been helped by moving to Gloucester and training alongside Chris Harris. While his appearances at Kingsholm have been limited so far, most of the Lelos back line still play in Georgia, with Kveseladze one of only 5 backs at a top flight club (the other 4 all being based in France, while there is also 1 player in the Pro D2) and that constant experience in an elite professional setup will be vital for the team.

Ireland: Simon Zebo

He’s back! After returning from France, Simon Zebo is back in the Ireland squad a the first opportunity following his return to Munster. Capable of playing wing or fullback, Zebo still has a great turn of pace despite being 31 now, but has the experience to go with it, and has started the season strongly at Thomond Park. Ireland are chock full of talent in the back 3, but I can’t help feel that Zebo still has that special something to secure a spot in the starting XV by the start of the 2022 Six Nations.

Italy: Marco Riccioni

I remember as I was getting into rugby, Italy’s strength was it’s pack, including a front row that could dominate the scrum. Well Italy have quality throughout the squad now but need to start getting that fearsome pack back, and Riccioni could be a key part of that. The tighthead has been a part of the national team for a few years now and at 23 should be ready to take a step forward in his career and start becoming a veteran. But he is certainly going about it in the right way, having left a Benetton team that has never been this successful to join Saracens on their return to the Premiership. This is exactly the kind of move that Italy needs with just 2 top-flight club teams, and will hopefully lead to success both for Riccione and the Azzurri.

Japan: Tevita Tatafu

While I still feel that Kazuki Himeno doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, I have instead looked at his fellow back row Tatafu. Back row has been a position of strength for the Brave Blossoms for a while now, but Tatafu broke onto the scene in style with barnstorming performances against both the British & Irish Lions and Ireland over the summer, earning just his 4ᵗʰ and 5ᵗʰ caps 5 years after he earned his first 3 in the Asia Rugby Championship. Japan can sometimes look a little too lightweight in attack, but Tatafu’s carrying will be crucial in helping create a strong attacking platform against even the best international defences.

New Zealand: Akira Ioane

As great as the All Blacks are, they’ve struggled to find a true successor to Jerome Kaino in the 6 shirt. However they may finally have done to with the rise of Akira Ioane. It may have taken him a little longer that his younger brother Reiko to secure a spot in the All Blacks 23, but he has all the traits to excel in the team, with enough pace to hold his own on the 7s circuit and the power to be a true enforcer in the pack. Keep an eye out for him in wide positions on attack, where he will create matchup nightmares, being able to break away if given space or dominate contact against smaller wingers, while using his great handling skills to keep the attack going.

Scotland: Matt Scott

So if we’re all being honest, Chris Harris has become one of the best 13s in the world and has that spot secured. However the situation at 12 is much more open, and that gives Matt Scott a chance. Injuries have hampered his career, but he has always impressed when able to put a run of games together. Currently part of a Leicester Tigers team that has turned things around after a dismal spell, Scott is a great all-round talent, but what really stands out watching him play is the clever lines that he runs to burst through a hole and catch a defence flat-footed. If he can stay fit, he can really put his hand up for the 12 shirt.

South Africa: Damian Willemse

With Morné Steyn calling an end to his international career, the Springboks have decided to stick with just 2 specialist fly halves in their squad. The reason? Damian Willemse. Willemse is becoming something of the new utility back of world rugby, with a set of skills that allows him to play throughout the back line. Truly, this may be holding Willemse back, as he has struggled to excel at any position. However, if he can be given a run in a position, he could really start to excel, especially with the way that the Springboks use their fullback as a second playmaker. After a heavy fixture list this summer, don’t be shocked if the Boks start varying their back line a bit more in these Tests, and let’s see where Willemse fits in the plan.

Tonga: Hosea Saumaki

Probably a new name to most of you, and I must admit that even I know very little about Saumaki, but what I know has me excited. The wing recently moved to Leicester Tigers but has spent most of his career in Japan, where he has known how to make it over the try line, scoring 10 tries in 13 appearances for Canon Eagles in his debut season in the Top League. With the international retirement of Siale Piutau, there is very little experience (especially at an elite level) outside of fly half, so despite only having 3 caps to his name, Saumaki will need to step up and become a leader, while if he and fullback Telusa Veainu can both find space, they could be dangerous out wide!

Uruguay: Santiago Arata

One of the players who truly stood out to me during Uruguay’s RWC2019 campaign was young scrum half Santiago Arata. Arata looked a really exciting talent back then, and has since started to earn professional experience, first with the Huston Sabercats in the MLR and now in the Top 14 with Castres. If he can learn from a player of Rory Kockott’s quality, that will be huge for Los Teros, who still have most of their players playing in Uruguay for Peñarol Rugby in the Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR), South America’s answer to the MLR.

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

In the build-up to RWC2019, Gareth Anscombe looked to have secured the number 10 jersey ahead of Dan Biggar, only for a knee injury to completely derail his career as it was reaching new heights. Well the new season also brought a return to rugby for the Ospreys outside half, and he has picked up where he left off at club level. With the English-based players unavailable for the match against the All Blacks as it falls outside the Test window, will Anscombe be straight back into the Test arena? And will a good performance keep him in the 23, as Callum Sheedy has not had a promising start to the season with Bristol. Anscombe feels a better fit for Wane Pivac’s more expansive Wales team, so Anscombe’s return to Test rugby and the fight for the 10 shirt is worth keeping both eyes on.

Premier League 2021/22: September

Premier League 2021/22: September

Hey all! So before we get into everything, apologies for how late this is coming out. These last few weeks at work have been super busy, while my free time has been largely taken up recently moving house and a world that is slowly opening up again. With everything going on, it took be the best part of a week to realise we were even in a new month!

September may have only had 3 rounds of matches, but there was plenty to get football fans talking. Early pacesetters Tottenham followed up their 3-0 start to the season with 3 consecutive losses, including at local rivals Arsenal, which has dropped them behind the Gunners and into the bottom half of the table. The Top 4 has a rather unsurprising look, with Liverpool, Chelsea and the 2 Manchester clubs filling the spots, but the big surprises early in the season are Everton and Brighton, who are just 1 point behind leaders Liverpool and level with the other big names. Meanwhile at the other end of the table, newly-promoted Norwich ended the month still without a point, with Burnley and Leeds joining them in the bottom 3 and Newcastle on level points with Marcelo Bielsa’s side.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Jamie Vardy (Leicester) & Michail Antonio (West Ham) – 5 goals; Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Neal Maupay (Brighton & Hove Albion) & Ismaïla Sarr (Watford) – 4 goals

The race for the Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 5 clean sheets; Alisson (Liverpool) – 4 clean sheets; Hugo Loris (Tottenham Hotspur), Édouard Mendy (Chelsea), Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa), & David Raya (Brentford) – 3 clean sheets


Crucial posting

Football tactics have changed a lot over the years, even just the 30 I’ve been alive! We’ve seen the 4-4-2 go from the most common formation to a rarity at the top level, we’ve seen centrebacks requiring the ball skills of a midfielder… and let’s not even start on the sweeper keeper!

But there is one tactical change that I just can’t wrap my head around: no longer putting a man on the posts at a corner. The goalmouth is extremely wide and even if you assume a keeper stays on his line rather than trying to come claim the corner, they will struggle to reach the ball if it’s right at the far edges of the goal, and that is where having a man on the posts could save you a goal, as it likely would have in Manchester United’s 0-1 loss to Aston Villa.

The only reason that I can think a team would not do that is in the hopes that they can catch a player in an offside position “interfering” with the keeper, as happened twice to Harvey Barnes in Leicester’s 2-1 loss to Brighton. But that seems highly risky, as you are relying on the in-stadium officials to decide that the player has impacted the game, or VAR to feel that there was sufficient interference to overrule.

To me, the man on the post will always be the way forward.

Shades of Gray

Ahead of the new Premier League season, I was considering doing a post looking at some of the newly-transferred players to watch out for this season, similar to what I did with rugby’s Premiership and Ultimate Rugby Championship. While I ended up not going ahead with it, one player who I had circled to talk about was Demarai Gray.

When the winger signed for Leicester from Birmingham, he looked like a player who had an incredible potential. And while he showed flashes of quality, he never quite managed to step on in the way the Foxes hoped. However, after a short spell in Gerany with Bayer Leverkusen, he returned to the Premier League with Everton this summer for a fee of just £1m.

With such a small transfer fee, Gray always looked like he could be in a decent spot, with a chance to shine in a team who should have been on the up, and a small price tag leading to not too much pressure. Well after just 2 months of football, Gray is looking like he could be in the running for the bargain of the season, with 3 goals already in the league this season (he only scored 10 in 133 league matches for Leicester) just the tip of the iceberg. He is already becoming a key player for Rafael Benítez, while Everton have been one of the top-scoring teams in the league over the opening 2 months, despite both Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin missing games.

Keep an eye on this lad as the season goes on.


Team of the Month

Arsenal

Granted a 1-0 win at home to fellow pointless team Norwich isn’t anything spectacular, but you could have easily imagined the Gunners dropping a couple of points here after such a poor start, while a trip to Turf Moor always feels like a potential banana skin for them, and yet they came away with the win. But then to end the month with a dominant 3-1 win over your biggest rivals to leapfrog them in the table was perfect.

The Gunners were always better than a 0-3 start suggested, and while I never felt that they could compete for a top 4 spot, October and November will be crucial for how their season goes.


2021 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

2021 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

We are now 1 week on from the end of the 2021 Rugby Championship. A tournament that saw World Champions South Africa go on a 3-match losing streak while Australia welcomed back some of their exiles to go on a 4-match wining streak. Meanwhile New Zealand tied up the tournament in 5 weeks and went top of the world rankings, only for a last-gasp loss to South Africa in the tournament finale to give the top spot in the rankings back to the Springboks.

So with all the action out of the way, all that remains is for me to pick my Team of the Tournament. As always, this is just my personal opinion, so let me know if you think I missed someone. So without further ado, my Team of the 2021 Rugby Championship is:

1) Steven Kitshoff: He may be one of the best looseheads in the world, but the Stormers prop found himself largely on the bench in this tournament. However, the Springboks use their bench very differently, and Kitshoff became a key part of the “Bomb Squad” that would come on to help turn matches. An expert scrummager who pulls his weight in open play, Kitshoff was key to helping keep the Boks competitive.

2) Malcolm Marx: Codie Taylor came close to taking this spot but was harmed by the chopping and changing of the squad, while Julián Montoya was solid but unspectacular in a struggling Pumas team. So we look to South Africa, and again it’s the game-changing talent of the “Bomb Squad” that makes the list. Marx play like an extra back row and his work in the loose is crucial when the Boks play a more open game, while he finished the tournament with 3 tries—the most of any forward.

3) Taniela Tupou: If I could create an ultimate team using any player in the world, Tupou would be my pick at 3. The “Tongan Thor” is an absolute unit and tough to contend with at the scrum. But it is in open play where he really comes into his own, with a good turn of pace but an incredible engine that can see him still going late into a Test match, while his handling skills have him at risk of being expelled from the front row union.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Lood de Jager: Is it any real surprise how many of the South African pack are making the list considering how much reliance the Springboks had on them. Even in the poorer performances the tight five still held their own, while these two behemoths in the second row played a huge role in the defensive effort, creating a physical platform in attack and dominating at both theirs and their opponent’s lineouts.

6) Akira Ioane: Three and a half years ago I picked Ioane in my Uncapped XV. While he then dropped away for a few years, he is now living up to his potential and looks like the best option the All Blacks have had at 6 since Jerome Kaino. A great enforcer in defence, Ioane also has the pace (he spent time on the 7s circuit) and power to be a dangerous carrying threat in wide positions. If he can carry this on for a few more seasons, he could be coming into consideration as one of the best blindsides in the world.

7) Michael Hooper: It’s so hard to leave out Siya Kolisi, but Hooper gets the nod here. While both give 100% in every game and lead their teams with distinction, Hooper has been doing so in a team going through a a rebuild, while he also always appears to be in just the right place to make a crucial impact on the game.

8) Ardie Savea: Rob Valentini certainly grew into the role as the tournament went on and Duane Vermeulen had some great moments coming back from injury, but Ardie Savea was the most consistent. A 7 initially with the physicality and skillset that allows him to play across the entire back row, Savea has the physicality and carrying ability to help put the All Blacks on the front foot in attack and take advantage of any gaps that he is put through, while he also dealt admirably with the etra pressure of being named captain in Sam Cane’s absence.

9) Tate McDermott: He may have lost his starting spot to Nic White as the tournament went on, but McDermott remains one of the brightest lights on the world stage at scrum half. He has the eye for a gap and the pace and footwork to exploit it, keeping defences honest, while he also made a crucial intervention to deny Lukhanyo Am a try. He only turned 23 during this tournament so his best years are still ahead of him, which will only be heightened by the improving performances from his team around him.

10) Quade Cooper: Beauden Barett’s haplessness against the dominance of South Africa harmed his chances, but in truth Cooper would likely have taken this spot anyway. Coming back from such a long international exile, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat at this level and helped turn the team around by taking control of the team, finishing the tournament with the 3ʳᵈ-highest points tally despite not featuring in the first 2 rounds.

11) Makazole Mapimpi: He made my Team of the Lions Series earlier this summer and keeps his place in this team after another solid tournament. I can’t help feel sorry for Mapimpi, who is one of the best wings in the game currently. A proven try scorer, Mapimpi”s chances are so limited in a South African team that barely spreads the ball, but he willingly goes about his business in defence and the kicking game, while taking his chances when given them.

12) Samu Kerevi: Special mention to David Havili, who has done a great job of transitioning from back 3 to 12 and quickly excelling at international level, but Kerevi was the obvious pick here. Another of Australia’s returning exiles, Kerevi’s impact on the team has been monumental. He’s provided a regular and reliable option to put the Wallabies on the front foot, and this has also allowed the players around him the space to play their very best game. If he can continue in the same vein during the Autumn Tests, he has a great chance to push for World Player of the Year.

13) Lukhanyo Am: A missed try in the first Test against Australia proved costly, but Am had another great tournament. The Springbok remains probably the best defensive 13 in world rugby and continues to thrive in this team especially when they are able to control the speed of the game. Len Ikitau is unfortunate to miss out, but Am’s experience on the big stage shone through when it was needed.

14) Andrew Kellaway: How could Kellaway not make this team after finishing with a whopping 7 tries—4 more than his closest competitor! In his first season of Test rugby, he has shown that he knows how to get to the try line, with a brace in his first match against the All Blacks, but the improvement in the Wallabies performances has just given him even more chances which he has taken with aplomb!

15) Jordie Barrett: The clear choice here at 15, Barrett’s range of skills makes him a brilliant option at 15 (or anywhere in the back line), while his goal kicking has been op notch as he has been allowed to become the number one kicker, allowing him to nail some clutch kicks. As I said a few weeks back, this is the brother that I pick for my team, not Beauden.

 

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v New Zealand

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v New Zealand

And so we reached the end, 80 days after the 2021 Rugby Championship began, we reached the final match in Perth’s 4 double-headers. And what a match it would finish on, as World Champions South Africa took on World number 1 (and 2021 Rugby Championship winners) New Zealand.

The South Africans were looking to halt a 3-mach losing streak and took an early lead with a try for Damian de Allende. New Zealand had turned the ball over just inside their 22 and looked to spread it wide, only for Codie Taylor to fumble a pass above his head. Lukhanyo Am retrieved the loose ball and a clever behind-the-back pass to S’busiso Nkosi allowed the winger to put the Munster centre over in the corner. As a crazy start to the game continued, Jordie Barrett and Handré Pollard traded penalties, before Beauden Barrett’s chipped cross-kick found Sevu Reece in space, and the winger managed to stretch through Duane Vermeulen’s tackle to dot down in the corner. As the first quarter came to a close, the Boks thought they had scored again as they stole a New Zealand lineout in the Kiwis’ 22 and Bongi Mbonambi went on a one-man rampage, only for the hooker to go down just short of the line, though Pollard did add 3 points from the tee soon after. The All Blacks were looking to manage a clean sweep in the tournament however, and started to dominate as the half went on, and when Beauden Barrett slipped through a gap in the World Champions’ defence, Reiko Ioane was in support to keep the attack going and put captain Ardie Savea over for the try. The All Blacks came close again just after the half hour mark as Jordie Barrett ran back a kick and scythed through a poor kick chase to make it up to the 22, before spreading the ball wide to Anton Lienert-Brown, who was stopped just short as Nkosi bundled him into touch just short of the line with a fine try-saver. However the resulting South African lineout was spoiled by Scott Barrett, and when the loose ball bounced into Brad Weber’s hands, the Chiefs’ scrum half was able to dive over before anyone could react. The match was getting dangerously close to getting out of Springbok hands, but a complete change of the front row on 38 minutes gave the Springboks a boost and a late penalty from Pollard allowed them to go in at the break with just a 6-point deficit.

Coming out after the break, it was a very different game, as the Boks made more changes both at half time and in the early minutes of the half, while another penalty from the boot of Handré Pollard cut the All Black’s lead to 3. But then, around the 50 minute mark, came the crucial moment. Frans Steyn—brought on at halftime to replace Willie Le Roux—successfully kicked a 50:22 that gave the Boks a lineout just 10 metres from the New Zealand line, and after Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff charged in with crash ball in the middle of the pitch, the ball was spread out to Elton Jantjies, who drew Patrick Tuipulotu and fed Makazole Mapimpi for the go-ahead score. Pollard missed the conversion from the touchline, and relinquished kicking duties to Jantjies, who soon extended their lead to 5 points with a penalty, before Jordie Barrett cut the lead back to 2 with a kick of his own. As the game approached the final 5 minutes, what had turned into a titanic battle hung on a knife-edge, and the Kiwis re-took the lead as Frans Steyn was penalised for not rolling following a huge hit on Daman McKenzie, though replays showed that the hit was so big, the ball jarred loose in the tackle and shifted from McKenzie to Steyn before they reached the ground, so it should have been the All Black who had to roll away. This sparked a spate of lead changes, as Elton Jantjies kicked a drop goal, only for Barrett to kick another penalty after Mostert was pinged for not releasing. And then with just a minute left, it looked like the Boks had made a crucial error, as their restart did not go 10 metres. The All Blacks successfully retained possession, and it looked like they would be able to see out the final minute by keeping the ball tight, until Asafo Aumua was pinged for sealing off with just seconds remaining. Despite the tight angle, Steyn successfully kicked the Boks into the New Zealand 22, and when the All Blacks were caught offside just a couple of phases later, Elton Jantjies was left with the simplest of penalties to kick, giving South Africa a 31-29 victory.

What this match really showed was just how much impact the speed of the game will have on the way the Springboks play. It’s become clear to see that the Boks try to slow the game down, with as many stoppages as possible, which allows their behemoths time to recover slightly and then go all-out further into the game, almost like a game of American Football. However, when they are unable to slow down the game, they get in trouble.

In the first half, the All Blacks looked to keep the game going, with quick-tap penalties and quick lineouts, while also making sure they got into place for set pieces as quick as they could. This led to a half with limited stoppages, which started as a close affair but turned in the Kiwis’ favour as the half went on, as the Springboks started flagging from not having the opportunity to recover between play.

In the second half, though, the All Blacks began to let the Boks dictate the speed of the game, and the amount and length of stoppages skyrocketed. And with that, the game turned in South Africa’s favour, as the big boys were able to go hard for a couple of minutes, have a rest, then go again all throughout the half, rather than tiring out as it went on. This allowed the Boks to defend more stoutly and aggressively, which stopped the All Blacks from creating any chances of note in the second period, while in attack, the Boks were able to start dominating and forcing the All Blacks into repeated penalties.

While it’s a highly effective tactic, it makes the game long and dull, and is not going to attract new fans. If we’re going to look at speeding up the game, then these stalling tactics need to be looked at. To make clear, I would be saying this regardless of what team it is, this is nothing to do with piling on another nation. Hopefully after a disastrously dull Lions Tour and now their performances in this tournament, World Rugby will look at how this is going against their attempts to speedup the game and look for a way to combat this.

In doing so, it allowed all of the Springboks to go all-out from first minute to last, which was obviously then helped by the slowing down of the game in the second half. The Boks were able to go hard against the All Blacks, who had no answer for their physicality.

The All Blacks have shown in recent years that they are vulnerable if you can put heavy pressure on them at the breakdown and get in their faces, by making the changes at the times the Springboks did, they were able to throw the All Blacks completely off their game. Don’t be shocked to see some of the nations with deeper squads trying to replicate this in their upcoming Autumn Tests.

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v Australia

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v Australia

80 days on from the beginning of the tournament, the 2021 Rugby Championship reached its final day, which would see a fourth and final double header. First up on the final day was Australia’s chance to secure 2ⁿᵈ place in the standings with an “away” match against winless Argentina.

After both Quade Cooper and Emiliano Boffelli missed early penalty attempts in the opening minutes, it was Cooper who opened the scoring off the tee following a scrum offence, while Santiago Carreras’ attempted drop goal from halfway following an Australian goal-line drop-out sailed just wide. In a tight first half, the Wallabies finally found a breakthrough as the half hour approached, after a series of infringements at the lineout saw Tomás Lavanini sent to the sin bin, making him the most-carded player in the history of Test rugby. Though the Pumas sacked the resulting Australian lineout, the Wallabies successfully set up a new maul, which successfully escorted Folau Fainga’a to the line for the opening try. With Lavanini still in the bin, the Wallabies struck again at a lineout, setting the maul, but with Hooper peeling off at the back and feeding a looping Fainga’a. After drawing the defence, the hooker sent Rob Valentini through on a crash ball, and the back row duly released Andrew Kellaway to extend the lead. As the half came to an end and Lavanini returned to the pitch, Emilia Boffelli finally got the South Americans on the scoreboard with a penalty following a series of offences by the Australians 5 metres out from their line, cutting the hosts’ lead at the break to 3-15.

If it felt like a mistake to settle for 3 points at the end of the first half, it looked even worse just minutes into the second period, as Samu Kerevi and Andrew Kellaway came around the corner at the last minte to create a numbers advantage, and a double pump from Cooper created the gap for Kerevi to go over. 10 minutes later, another series of phases in the Pumas 22 ended in a try as Kellaway successfully dummied Matías Moroni and broke through the tackle of Santiago Chocobares to go over for his second try. Just minutes later, Australia used the same lineout move that proved so successful earlier in the match, but as the Pumas defence tightened up to protect against the crash ball, Fainga’a instead spread the ball to the backs, and when Len Ikitau attacked a massive gap out wide, he drew the defence and flicked the ball onto Kellaway to complete his hat-trick. With the game out of sight, the game opened up more going into the final quarter as the replacements came on, and when the Pumas finally made it back into the Australian 22 for the first time of note since the first half, replacement loosehead Thomas Gallo forced himself over for a try on his debut. Argentina were finishing on a high, and when they found themselves 5m out from the Wallabies line, Chocobares sniped off the back of a ruck but was stopped just short, only to transfer the ball to Gallo, who forced his way over to dot down for a second try, which gave the score a much more respectable look. As the match came to an end, Australian captain Michael Hooper was sent to the bin for killing the ball following a break from Julián Montoya, but after the Pumas went to the corner, the Wallabies successfully held out the maul to complete a 17-32 victory.

Julián Montoya is a fantastic hooker and a great all-round player. However, as captain of the Pumas, I think that he made a costly mistake today. This came in the final moments of the first half. At 0-15 down and with Lavanini having just returned to the pitch following his yellow card, the Pumas were camped on the Wallabies’ 5m line. The wallabies had given away 4 penalties in succession for a range of offences and arguably should have had a man in the bin as a no-arms tackle from Taniela Tupou on Gonzalo Bertranou went unpunished, but were just being put on a warning.

At this point, Montoya chose to take the easy 3 points to guarantee they were off the mark, but for me there was only one real option here: continue pushing for the line, either with another lineout or a tap-and-go penalty. This was the first time that they had been in any position to threaten the try line in the entire game, and (barring any unforced errors) should have resulted in either a try for the Pumas or a yellow card for one of the Australians at the next penalty (or possibly both).

However by going for the posts, Argentina let the Wallabies off the hook. They didn’t get back into the Australian 22 for 20 minutes, by which point the warning was long gone and Australia had scored 3 more tries to run away with the game. While I still feel like the Wallabies would have gone on to win the game, I think that a different decision here by Montoya could have led to a closer game.

Australia are in a historic spot. Having started the tournament with 2 bad defeats to the All Blacks, the Wallabies won 4 consecutive matches in the tournament for the first time ever on their way to finishing 2ⁿᵈ in the tournament standings and climbing to 3ʳᵈ in the World rankings.

While they are certainly on the up and have developed so much more depth by bringing through the kids over the last couple of seasons and now bringing back a number of veterans from abroad, fans should not get carried away just yet. While they have largely dominated the games against Argentina, they have never fully killed the game off, and that let the Pumas back in to some degree in both matches. Against a better team, these lapses in control could have proved critical.

Australia are on the up, but they are not the 3ʳᵈ best team in the world, they are instead there through the weakness of weekly updates to the World rankings, which will see winning teams leapfrog teams that are not playing due to the way the global calendar is set out (expect to see a couple of the Six Nations teams rise up the rankings in the spring).

The key for the Wallabies now is to build on this in their Autumn Tests against Japan, Scotland, England and Wales, continuing the strong performances, getting as many wins as they can (I think 3 is realistic, potentially 4 depending which England turns up) and hopefully changing the team up a little to avoid a reliance on one or two stars. If the Wallabies can do this, that is when it is time to start getting excited.