The Verdict: My Thoughts on Super Rugby’s Law Trials

The Verdict: My Thoughts on Super Rugby’s Law Trials

With Super Rugby AU now over and the internationals still a few weeks away, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the last couple of months of Southern Hemisphere rugby.

As well as bringing more focus to the refereeing of the breakdown, both Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU trialled some new laws this season – with Super Rugby Aotearoa trialling a new law for red cards and Super Rugby AU trialling this and a number of other laws. A few of them came up while I was giving my thoughts on the individual matches, but now that I have had the chance to watch them in effect for a full tournament, I think it is fair to take a look at how successful the trials have been.

Mark

A kick originating in the attacking 22m area cannot be marked by the defending team within their own 22m area. The kick can however be marked within the defending team’s in-goal area and play restarts with a 22m line drop-out

Personally, I liked this amendment. Though there were very few instances where it came into play, it opens up the attacking options for a team close to the try line by and gives them more reason to try chips over the defensive line or cross-kicks without waiting for a penalty advantage.

Verdict: Keep

Red card

A red carded player can be substituted after 20 minutes, unless all substitutions have been used

If we thought that the Mark trial had barely come into play, the new red card trial had even less chance to have an impact, as the only red card was given to Scott Scrafton with less than 20 minutes of the match remaining, so there was no difference in the game. I can see a positive to this trial that a game is not ruined as a spectacle by an early red card following an accidental poor tackle/challenge in the air, however I also wonder if this will lead to worse discipline and also feel that sometimes teams need to learn the hard way how to play the game within the laws.

Verdict: Continue the trial

50/22 and 22/50

A kick taken from within the kicking team’s 50m area that travels into touch within the opposition’s 22m area having first bounced in the field of play results in a lineout throw to the kicking team. This does not apply following a free kick.

and

A kick taken from within the kicking team’s 22m area that travels into touch within the opposition’s 50m area having first bounced in the field of play results in a lineout throw to the kicking team. This does not apply following a free kick.

These just don’t do it for me. I understand that the idea of the law trial was that it would create space by forcing the defending teams to drop more players to cover the backfield, but teams have generally been able to do so without having to drop more players. Instead, the only times that these kicks have generally paid off have been when the defence is on the front foot and putting the attacking team under heavy pressure, leading to a complete change in momentum that has not been earned by the attacking team.

Verdict: Ditch

Goal line drop-out

When an attacking player carrying the ball is held up or knocks the ball on in the in-goal play restarts with a goal line drop-out

or 

When a kick enters the in-goal area and is grounded by the defending team play restarts with a goal line drop-out

So here’s an interesting one. Part of me disliked the change for an attacking team that had been camped on the opponents’ line being held up and then having to restart an attack from deep, but it has led to some great attacking and with players having ground to create momentum and generally get themselves quickly back in the 22. However, while it has been fun watching behemoths like Pone Fa’amausili, Cabous Eloff and Taniela Tupou crash into the defensive line after a 30m charge, I can’t help wonder if this is really what we want at a time where we are so focused on player safety – similar to how the NFL has changed the kickoff in recent years to reduce the run-ups before collisions.

Verdict: Continue the trial

Extra time

(Australia): 2 x 5min periods of extra time; in the event of a drawn game after regulation time where the first points scored wins the match for the scoring team

or 

(New Zealand): If matches are drawn after 80 minutes, teams will go into a 10-minute period of extra time and the first team to score any points will win the game.

Super Rugby Aotearoa’s only draw was due to a cancelled match so the 10-minute extra time was never trialled. Super Rugby AU saw a couple of matches go to “Super Time” – the first a boring pointless waste of 10 minutes, the second over in less than 2 minutes. To me, 5-minute halves are too short to get any quality momentum built, especially if teams are afraid to give away a penalty, and I think one 10-minute period works better. If I’m completely honest, I don’t feel that golden point works in a game where the game can be won by a penalty kicked from within the kicking team’s own half and think that more often than not, we will see teams playing to win a penalty without giving one away as opposed to looking for a try. Furthermore, in a round-robin competition, I can’t see why there is need to have extra time as there are already reduced points available for a draw.

Verdict: Ditch

Of course, these are only my personal opinions, what do you think about these law trials?

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

A Tour Like No Other

A Tour Like No Other

After a 2-month delay and fears throughout of an enforced early finish, the 2020 edition of the Tour de France has come and gone. 176 riders started the race and 146 successfully completed the 3484.2km route around France. the 21 stages were won by 15 different riders, while the coveted maillot jaune was held by 5 different riders.

The winners

cycling tour de france 2020 pogacar bennett

So it’s safe to say that I got my prediction wrong here, with only 1 of my top 3 even making the podium. Following stints in yellow for Alexander Kristoff, Julian Alaphilippe and Adam Yates, it was no shock to see Primož Roglič take the yellow jersey on Stage 9. Tadej Pogačar had lost 1′ 21″ in the crosswinds of Stage 7, and while he made up some time on Roglič with a couple of stage victories, he could not crack his countryman and looked destined to finish 2ⁿᵈ in the GC until a crazy uphill time trial on Stage 20 saw him turn a 57 second deficit into a 59 second lead with just the procession into Paris remaining to win the yellow jersey competition (and white jersey for young rider) in his first Tour de France, with Roglič finishing 2ⁿᵈ and Richie Porte finally making a Tour de France Podium after years of bad luck.

In the green jersey competition, Alexander Kristoff won the opening stage and held the green jersey for the first couple of days until Peter Sagan took the lead in the Points Classification on Stage 3. The Slovak had won the green jersey every year since 2012 (save 2017, when he was thrown out the race for causing Mark Cavendish to crash), but found himself in a fight with Irishman Sam Bennett, who had left Bora–Hansgrohe for Deceuninck–Quick-Step because Sagan got priority over him. Stage 11 effectively ended Sagan’s hopes of retaining the green jersey, as in a 4-way sprint between him, Bennett, Caleb Ewan and Wout van Aert, he used excessive force on the Jumbo–Visma rider, resulting in his 2ⁿᵈ-place finish being discounted as he was relegated to the back of the peloton and docked points. While he continued to fight, Bennett proved too strong and secured the green jersey, before ending his first Tour de France with the added highlight of winning the famous sprint on the Champs-Élysées.

Benoît Cosnefroy of AG2R La Mondiale held the polka dot jersey for the Mountains classification for much of the race, until the GC fight saw Pogačar take the jersey on Stage 17. Richard Carapaz’s attacks in the final week saw him take the jersey on Stage 18, but Pogačar’s success on the uphill time trial saw him secure his 3ʳᵈ classification of the Tour. Movistar won the Teams Classification for the 5ᵗʰ time in 6 years, while Marc Hirschi of Team Sunweb was rewarded with the Combativity Award following a number of breaks that saw him pushing for stage victories.

cycling tour de france 2020 podium roglic pogacar porte

General Classification:

  1. Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) – UAE Team Emirates – 87h 20′ 05″
  2. Primož Roglič (Slovenia) – Team Jumbo–Visma   + 00′ 59″
  3. Richie Porte (Australia) – Trek–Segafredo   + 03′ 30″

Points Classification:

  1. Sam Bennett (Ireland) – Deceuninck–Quick-Step – 380 points
  2. Peter Sagan (Slovakia) – Bora–Hansgrohe – 284 points
  3. Matteo Trentin (CCC Pro Team) – CCC Pro Team – 260 points

Mountains Classification:

  1. Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) – UAE Team Emirates – 82 points
  2. Richard Carapaz (Ecuador) – Ineos Grenadiers – 74 points
  3. Primož Roglič (Slovenia) – Team Jumbo–Visma – 67 points

Young Rider Classification:

  1. Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) – UAE Team Emirates – 87h 20′ 05″
  2. Enric Mas (Spain) – Movistar Team   + 06′ 07″
  3. Valentin Madouas (France) – Groupama–FDJ  + 1h 42′ 43″

Teams Classification:

  1. Movistar Team – 262h 14′ 58″
  2. Team Jumbo–Visma  + 18′ 31″
  3. Team Bahrain–McLaren  + 57′ 10″

Top Teams of the Tour

While Ineos Grenadiers grew into the race (except Egan Bernal) and Bora–Hansgrohe did a great job to energise some stages to help Peter Sagan in his chase for the green jersey, but there were 3 teams that really stood out to me on the Tour.

Team Jumbo–Visma came with arguably the strongest line-up of any team with former Grand Tour winners Primož Roglič & Tom Dumoulin, while George Bennett and Robert Gesink both have top 10 GC finishes in previous Grand Tours, Sepp Kuss is currently one of the form climbers since the resumption of races and Wout van Aert is arguably the best all-round rider in pro cycling at the moment, with an engine that never gives up and the ability to help power the peloton along all day then still fight it out with specialised sprinters. While individuals had the occasional off day, the team barely put a foot wrong, ruling the front of the peloton in a way that appeared even more dominant than what we are used to from watching Team Sky/Ineos over the last 5 years, and it was only on the time trial – where nobody could help Roglič – that the Slovenian cracked to lose what had just hours earlier looked to be a certain Grand Tour victory. The team came away with 3 stage victories (including 2 sprints for van Aert) and had a handful of other top 3 finishes.

cycling tour de france 2020 jumbo visma

Some of Bora–Hansgrohe’s moves may have caused issues for Deceuninck–Quick-Step, but Sam Bennett’s team did what they had to in order to wrest the green jersey away from Peter Sagan. While id didn’t ever feel like they were controlling the front of the peloton in the final 5 with dominant trains like in previous years, the entire team worked hard to look after Sam Bennett through the mountains and positioning him in the right places to attack the bunch sprint. What helped Bennett’s green jersey campaign so much was his lead-out man Michael Mørkøv. The Dane did so well to consistently get in the right position to lead Bennett out rather than force him onto the wheel of another sprinter, but even after he released Bennett he would keep riding as hard as he could like a 2ⁿᵈ sprinter, getting amongst Bennett’s rivals at both the end of the race and intermediate sprints and limiting the points available to those looking to compete against Bennett.

cycling tour de france 2020 deceuninck-quickstep

But to me, the team of the Tour – and the one that probably gained the support of many neutral fans – was Team Sunweb. While sprinter Cees Bol had a limited impact, Sunweb used clever tactics to great success. Marc Hirshci had some great success getting up the road, only to agonisingly lose in 2 sprints against GC opposition, before finally winning from a break in the middle of Stage 12. Even after this, he continued to fight and was unfortunate to crash on a descent in Stage 18 that ruled him out of competing for the stage win, but still finished in 3ʳᵈ on the stage. His success in the breaks saw him finish 4ᵗʰ in the Mountains Classifiaction. But it wasn’t just Hirschi who was the benefit of Sunweb’s tactics, as Søren Kragh Andersen was able to get away late on Stages 14 and 19 to provide the team 2 more stage wins. They may not have been in the hunt for the Points Classification or GC, but they certainly made the Tour a more enjoyable affair and in Hirschi and Andersen gave neutrals someone to cheer for as they did everything they could to convert their attacks into stage wins.

cycling tour de france 2020 sunweb

Silver linings to an Ineos cloud

Whether they are going by Team Sky, Team Ineos or now Ineos Grenadiers, one thing will never change: they are coming to a Grand Tour looking to win the GC. Unfortunately, none of their 3 prospective leaders (Egan Bernal, Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas) were at their best and the ne closest to being ready (Bernal) found himself struggling to stick with Roglič and abandoned after Stage 16, having fallen out of GC contention.

While this brought an end to the chances of a 6ᵗʰ consecutive Tour de France GC victory, there were certainly silver linings for the team. Despite being injured in multiple falls during a rain-drenched opening stage, Pavel Sivakov completed the race and made the top 10 in the Young Rider Classification and remains a hope for the future. Meanwhile without a leader to protect, Richard Carapaz showed his quality in the late mountain stages to put himself in with a shot of winning the Mountains Classification, while he could have had a stage win had he not allowed ever-reliable Michał Kwiatkowski to cross the line first on Stage 18 for his first ever stage victory at the Tour.

cycling tour de france 2020 ineos carapaz kwiatkowski

And for those who think this is the end of the success for Ineos Grenadiers, think again! Froome may be leaving at the end of the season, but they still have 3 proven Grand Tour winners in Bernal, Thomas and Carapaz and a strong team with some younger riders like Sivakov who will only get better, while they are bringing in some great talent in Andrey Amador, Rohan Dennis and Adam Yates, as well as some young Brits.

The good, the bad and the ugly

As is always the case, the Tour gave us some beautiful moments. From riders being overcome with emotion after winning stages to Julian Alaphilippe dedicating his stage win to his father, who had died on the day that the Tour was initially meant to start. Add in the usual beautiful scenery, some fun from some of the team’s Twitter accounts, Matteo Trentin channelling Michael Fish on Stage 1, Wout van Aert doing everything and a much-deserved stage win for Michał Kwiatkowski, and there is plenty to look back on fondly.

Unfortunately, as wonderful as the race was, it’s safe to say that there were some moments that really harmed my enjoyment.

First off was the support (or should I say lack of support) for Black Lives Matter. We have seen support from so many sports, for example in the Premier League (football), Premiership (rugby) and also Formula 1, which made the lack of support during the Tour even more conspicuous in its absence. If anything, this was highlighted even more by only 1 black rider (Kévin Reza of B&B Hotels–Vital Concept) in the peloton. It was great to see ITV run a feature highlighting black cyclists, but is that really enough? And then when we finally got an act of support for BLM on the final day, it was arguably worse than nothing at all, as all we had was pro-BLM messages or anti-racism messages written on masks that were removed before the race even started. Cycling needs to prove it doesn’t have a race problem, and step 1 is showing more suitable support for Black Lives Matter.

cycling tour de france 2020 BLM no to racism

Second was a horrible incident involving Romain Bardet. The AG2R La Mondiale rider went down heavy in a crash during Stage 13, but was helped back onto his bike and completed the stage, before abandoning with a suspected concussion that was revealed to be a “small haemorrhage”. The UCI regulations say the following regarding concussion: “All those in the presence of a rider and in particular all doctors and paramedical
assistants shall be watchful for riders showing symptoms of concussion … Any rider with a suspected concussion should be immediately removed from the competition or training and urgently assessed medically.” Footage clearly showed Bardet fall down as he was helped to his feet immediately after the crash – more than enough of a warning sign for concussion – and yet he was heled straight back onto his bike to continue the race and nobody made any attempt to stop him for an assessment following this. I completely understand that as a GC rider, having to go through a medical assessment will make it impossible to catch up with the peloton and most likely bring an end to your GC hopes, but the health and safety of the riders should be paramount and come before the race. Hopefully it won’t take something more serious to see an increased focus on checking riders.

And finally, but sticking with the idea that the health and safety of the riders should be paramount, I come to the “fans” who think that it is OK to break protocols during a pandemic and get right in the face of riders without a mask on. As well as potentially creating a risk of interfering with the rider’s race, it is putting the in so much danger of falling ill and potentially spreading it amongst the team and potentially even the peloton. Even in a normal race I hate seeing crowds filling the road; with the ongoing pandemic, it leaves me so angry and nervous!

 

Well that’s the Tour over for another year, but the good news is that we still have 2 more Grand Tours coming up in the next few weeks, while next year’s Tour should be back at the usual dates so we won’t have to wait quite as long as usual for it.

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

Assessing the Market: Who Will Ben Bateman Play for in Season 8?

Assessing the Market: Who Will Ben Bateman Play for in Season 8?

Ben Bateman’s time in the Finstock Exchange looks to be coming to an end. “The Boss” was the 1ˢᵗ round pick for Tom Dagnino, but following a heartbreaking Championship loss to Dan Murrell, he let his frustrations out and directed them towards his manager. Since then, Bateman has continued to double down on his stance against Bobby Gucci and it looks clear that a partnership that was formed midway through season 5 would be coming to an end.

Following this season, every Schmoedown Pro is set to become a Free Agent, with each manager able to sign 3 Free Agents ahead of the draft. This means that for the elite players like Bateman, the ball is firmly in their court as they have the power to decide if they are willing to stay with their current manager (assuming they are still wanted there) or take up an offer from another manager. As a former Singles Champion and one of the greatest strategic players in the game – arguably, his strategic influence has even improved Dan Murrell’s game – it’s impossible to envision a situation where Bateman is not one of these 3 pre-draft signings, but who will he be representing?

S.W.A.G.

MTS SWAG LogoThe team closest to overthrowing the Exchange at time of writing, S.W.A.G. have some high quality talent in Singles and Teams, but not necessarily someone who would be considered in the elite bracket. Winston Marshall has done a great job of adapting his managerial style to fit each of his players this season and has become a student of the game who is not afraid to throw out a challenge – something that will put him in good stead with Bateman.

However, S.W.A.G have a strong group already and with Chandru Dhandapani and Andres Cabrera both having title matches at Spectacular, there is the possibility that Winston already has to pick 3 out of the pair, Paul Oyama and Lon Harris, who have formed an impressive team this year as part of Final Exam. As great an addition as Bateman would be, Winston will surely want to show loyalty to those who have helped him this year, and that may leave him without room for The Boss.

KOrruption

feat mts korruption logo jpShannon Barney is another rookie manager who has done a great job this season, while her rookies Adam Collins and Marisol McKee have impressed when given a chance. Being able to bring Bateman in as one of the top 3, and then picking up either McKee or Collins early in the draft to partner him would make a great pair of teams alongside KOrruption, similar to how the Exchange had Who’s The Boss and the Founding Fathers.

However, KOrruption has the same issue as S.W.A.G in that McKee, Collins and Laura Kelly will likely be on other factions’ radars and it may be that Shannon needs to use her 3ʳᵈ pick to secure one of them, while it’s hard to imagine Bateman going to a faction with an already established team like KOrruption as it will likely end similar to this season, with issues over Bateman’s standing in the faction.

The Quirky Mercs

mts s7 The Quirky Mercs logoCoy Jandreau is another rookie manager who has impressed this season and with the potential that he and Bateman may be working on a show together soon, it may be that they find a good chemistry together. Under Coy’s leadership, the Mercs have done well and it is easy enough to imagine that many of this season’s roster would be available via the draft rather than requiring Coy to sign them in the opening round of Free Agency.

But the issue with The Mercs will be that Bateman would again find himself competing for top spot in the faction with Shazam! As incredible as that trifecta would be, I just can’t imagine Bateman willing to defer big matches or spots in tournaments to Bibbiani and Meyer.

The Den

mts s7 The Den Logo 2This is where things get interesting, as The Den have 4 high level competitors in TOM, Paul Preston, Ben Goddard and James White, but nobody that would necessarily be considered proven as an elite competitor. With White’s chances limited this year and Paul Preston having a down year, it is possible that Bateman could be picked up along with Ben Goddard and TOM, with at least one of the other 2 picked up in the draft, allowing Bateman to create a strong team with one of these competitors.

I do wonder however if Bateman would consider Kate Mulligan the right kind of manager for him. While Kate has been entertaining this season, there have been questions over her management style with some debatable strategic decisions. It may be that Bateman will take it as a chance to help mould her into the manager he wants, but he may also decide that there are more attractive managerial options out there that will allow him to focus on the trivia and his own game.

Roxstars

feat mts roxstars logo jpNow here is an interesting situation. Roxy Striar knows Ben well so will know how to work with him. She may not be quick to challenge at the moment – being more a cheerleader for her players – but it’s easy to imagine that she could change her style a little for the right person. Meanwhile, if you listen to Jeff Sneider, there is every chance that season 7 will see the end of The Odd Couple, which could then allow Bateman to join the Roxstars and partner with either Sneider or Marc Andreyko – either one would be a dangerous team!

However, it feels like Bateman’s chances of joining the Roxstars hinge on the fate of The Odd Couple. Roxy is loyal to her players – arguably too much so – and its hard to imagine her breaking up The Odd Couple unless Sneider or Andreyko decides to end it. Throw in Alex Damon, who has kept Roxy’s 2020 season alive, and there would be no space in the top 3 should The Odd Couple stay together, while Roxy may even still try to keep them both and find new teammates for them.

The Dungeon

MTS The Dungeon Logo JPKaiser took a risk this year by trying to monopolise the Innergeekdom Division, but losses for Smets and Robert Parker, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting the number of matches, has meant that this strategy backfired massively. Kaiser will know that he needs to bring in an elite Singles competitor, and Bateman would be the perfect fit. It’s hard to imagine Kaiser using 2 of his 3 picks on IG specialists, so I can see him keeping his Dungeon regulars Smets and Eric Zipper, then bringing in Bateman as the marquee signing. Zipper would be a good partner for Bateman – especially as the Individual IG slices become available in Teams from 2021 – while it’s possible that Kaiser could pick up another possible partner like Vinnie Mancuso or Liz Shannon Miller in the first round of the draft.

Probably the biggest worry here for Bateman is again the manager. Kaiser can talk the talk, but he’s never really proved himself as a great trivia mind. Bateman was vocal about the downside of having Dagnino as a manager compared to a knowledgeable manager like John Rocha, so could it be that this counts against Kaiser, who actually lost to Dagnino in Orlando last year?

The Usual Suspects

mts s7 The Usual Suspects logo 2The last couple of managers have had question marks beside their names but Samm Levine could arguably be the perfect manager for Ben Bateman. Levine was one of the original strategists in the game and is never shy to throw a challenge, while he also has the trivia knowledge that could make the difference at a crucial moment. Add to this that if the partnership between Andrew Ghai and Ethan Erwin doesn’t work out, Bateman has the chance of a Team Action reunion or forming a superteam with Erwin.

As for a downside, probably the biggest one right now is that if Ghai and Erwin work well together it will be hard to separate them next season, while the Usual Suspects won’t draft until the 2ⁿᵈ round following their blockbuster trade to get hold of Erwin. If that’s the case, it’s going to be much harder to get Bateman a partner that will be strong enough for them to push for the title while also picking up a proven IG competitor.

The Burning Droogs

MTS The Burning Droogs LogoThe team that at time of writing are propping up the table, it’s not been a great year for the Droogs, who no longer have their top 2 draft picks and have also undergone a change of manager. There are some strong competitors here but Bateman could come in as the alpha dog that would be expected to make a run in Singles, while Jader Paramo, Witney Seibold or Alonso Duralde would all be strong partners for Bateman. With Brandon Hanna about to enter the Teams Division and the IG slices entering the division next season, it may even be time for the Boss to team up with his former intern. The big thing here is that they have the chance to create a super strong faction with their 3 picks in the first round of Free Agency, while they then have 2 picks in the 1ˢᵗ round of the draft following the Erwin trade – there are plenty of chances to create a strong team (or 2) and have a strong IG representation by round 2 of the draft!

The big question with the Droogs will be the management, as it is not yet clear whether Ken Napzok will continue in his role next season or hand over to someone else. I can imagine Bateman would prefer a manager with some experience, however a manager willing to learn from him may also prove attractive.

 

The Verdict: Right now I’d have to give the advantage to The Dungeon, but if the right person is in charge of The Burning Droogs, the chance to build a strong team quickly with the extra draft pick could be an enticing enough offer.

Where do you think The Boss will end up?

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

Super Rugby AU: Tournament XV

Super Rugby AU: Tournament XV

It’s all over. 12 weeks of Super Rugby AU came to an end at the weekend with the Brumbies defeating the Reds in the final to become the first Super Rugby AU Champions. The tournament gave us the return of the Western Force to top flight rugby and introduced the world to many of the next generation of Wallabies as many of the experienced players moved on to ply their trade abroad.

With the tournament over, there is just one more duty to uphold: picking the Team of the Tournament. These are all my own picks and go by my own feel from watching the matches rather than statistics – though I may throw in the odd stat to help my point. Let me know who would be your selections!

1) Cameron Orr: First up in the squad is actually a former Gloucester boy and I assure you that it was not through any bias. Orr did a great job as part of a solid scrum and as the tournament went on began to really show his ability in the loose, most notably with a wide pass to set Reece Hodge up for a try in Round 10’s win over the Force.

2) Jordan Uelese: There was some impressive play from many of the hookers in the competition; unfortunately much of that didn’t extend to the lineout. While he may not have been as influential as some of the other hookers, he also felt much more balanced than some of the others between his play in both the loose and set piece.

3) Taniela Tupou: I’d go as far as to call the “Tongan Thor” one of the best tightheads in the world right now. The Reds prop not only dominated his side of the scrum in most games, but highlighted his dynamism both in attack and defence and keeping this level of performance going for the full 80 minutes.

4) Jeremy Thrush: The former All Black played such an important role for the Force that probably went somewhat unnoticed due to their lack of success. Led from the front and took on the captaincy in the absence of Ian Prior for much of the tournament. To top things off, he finished with the most lineouts won in the tournament (39), despite many of the names immediately below him in the list having played extra games courtesy of the playoffs.

5) Lukhan Salakaia-Loto: The Reds have an incredibly talented foursome in the back row and that has allowed Salakaia-Loto to cement his place in the second row. With Izack Rodda leaving, the lock has taken on much more responsibility in the engine room and at the set piece – 35 catches saw him finish 3ʳᵈ in the competition for lineout wins – but he has also kept that dynamism from his time in the back row, making him a dangerous weapon in the loose.

6) Henry Stowers: Probably not the name many would have expected due to the Force going 0-8, but Stowers was a massive positive for them. It didn’t matter how things were going for the team, you could always rely on the Samoan to take the ball and take the game to the opposition, while he also finished the tournament with 109 completed tackles (joint 3ʳᵈ).

7) Will Miller: Australia creates such great opensides, this was not an easy pick. Liam Wright, Fraser McReight and Michael Hooper all had impressive performances, but Wright won the spot for me. He may have got on the wrong side of Angus Gardner in the final, but was a constant menace at the breakdown throughout the round-robin phase, while also contributing 4 tries during the campaign.

8) Pete Samu: All 5 teams had an incredible number 8 to try picking from, so this was far from easy, but in the end Pete Samu won out. The Brumbies number 8 played such a big role in both attack and defence with his big carrying, his willingness to tackle and his threat at the breakdown, while also finishing 8ᵗʰ overall for lineouts won (23).

9) Tate McDermott: The Reds halfback was on fire throughout the competition, keeping a high tempo for the attack while also utilising his speed and elusiveness to create and finish chances. Finished the tournament with 4 tries, 13 clean breaks (joint 3ʳᵈ), 32 defenders beaten (2ⁿᵈ), 7 offloads (joint 6ᵗʰ) and 360 metres carried (10ᵗʰ), while he also came up with some key defensive interventions.

10) James O’Connor: This was a tough decision between Matt To’omua and O’Connor and the Rebels’ inability to play without To’omua gave him the advantage for a long time, until I looked at the squads and realised just how experienced the Rebels were compared to the Reds. O’Connor played a key role in the Reds’ success, getting the side playing some great rugby, and even n the days where things weren’t working for the Reds, he was clearly doing everything he could.

11) Marika Koroibete: The Rebels winger is such a vital part of their game and as such was one of the only constants within their back line. Finished 5ᵗʰ for clean breaks (11) and 4ᵗʰ for both defenders beaten (25) and metres carried (556m). Koroibete doesn’t just stick to the wing either but will constantly go looking or the ball, something you always want from a wing with such talent.

12) Irae Simone: Carrying, kicking, passing… Simone did it all for the Brumbies and it’s arguable that had he not been there, it may have been a much harder challenge for Bayley Kuenzle. Simone finished in the top 10 for both clean breaks (8) and defenders beaten (19). Don’t be surprised to see him starting in the Rugby Championship.

13) Kyle Godwin: 13 was a difficult selection as there was a lot of rotation at the position for a multitude of reasons. Eventually though I settled on Godwin. While he and the Force may have had limited success, he did a great job of solidifying the midfield and was consistently a willing runner looking to cause problems for the opposition and put his team on the front foot.

14) Filipo Daugunu: He may have spent the tournament on the left wing, but there was no way I could leave out Daugunu. The new Wallaby call-up finished as the top try scorer (6), while also finishing top for carries (117), clean breaks (15), defenders beaten (35), offloads (14) and metres made (775 – 162 more than the nearest competitor). Like Koroibete, Daugunu goes looking for the ball to great effect, so it will be interesting to see if Dave Rennie picks between the pair or looks to play them both.

15) Jock Campbell: It’s probably no surprise that I picked Campbell here after suggesting he should start for the Wallabies (I may have jinxed him as he ended up not making the 44-man squad) a few weeks ago. He may not have carried as much as some of the other fullback, but made the most of those carries by finishing top 3 in clean breaks (13) and defenders beaten (26). If he can continue this form next season, a gold shirt must surely be in his near future.

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Super Rugby AU Final: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU Final: Brumbies v Reds

12 weeks of Super Rugby AU action came to an end in Canberra today with the final, between the table-topping Brumbies and the Queensland Reds, who finished 2ⁿᵈ in the round-robin standings before defeating the Rebels in last weekend’s Qualifying Final.

After Noah Lolesio and James O’Connor traded early penalties, the Brumbies drew first blood as their ever-dangerous lineout drive managed to get Folau Fainga’a over the line for the opening try, with Lolesio kicking the extras. The Brumbies continued to pile on the pressure, and when Lolesio managed to draw the attention of 4 defenders in the 26ᵗʰ minute, his offload to Andy Muirhead gave the winger a clear gap to go through and he was able to ride the challenges of Taniela Tupou and Filipo Daugunu to make it across the line. It looked like the Brumbies were going to dominate the game, but Jordan Petaia found a gap in broken play just after the half hour mark and exploited it to full effect, going clear through before offloading to supporting number 8 Harry Wilson to cross for the try. O’Connor kicked the conversion and a penalty at the end of the half to make the score at the break 15-13.

The Brumbies struck first after the break, after a quick tap penalty from Muirhead put the Reds defence on the back foot, allowing Tom Banks to cross as the ball was spread wide, with Lolesio adding the extras, before adding a drop goal with the very next attack. Things went from bad to worse for the Reds, who had lost Petaia and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto to injury in the opening minutes of the half, as Filipo Daugunu was sent to the bin from the restart for a tip tackle on Lachlan McCaffrey, and Lolesio used this time to get the Brumbies in the Reds half and score another 3 pints off the tee. With the Reds back to a full complement, O’Connor kicked a penalty to bring the deficit back to within 2 converted tries, before Tate McDermott slipped his way inside the Brumbies 22. The scrum half was dragged down just short of the line and lost control of the ball, but TMO reviews showed that it went backwards, before being kicked over the line by a defender tackling Liam Wright and eventually dotted down by Angus Blyth for the try. O’Connor nailed the conversion, but any further attempts by the Reds to score were thwarted and the Brumbies held on to secure the 28-23 win and become the first Super Rugby AU Champions.

Indisciplined

When the Reds lost to the Brumbies earlier in the competition, it was their awful discipline that proved costly. In their win in the reverse fixture 2 weeks ago, the Reds kept their discipline and controlled the game. The Reds came into the final the least-penalised team in the competition, but quickly found themselves getting on the wrong side of Angus Gardner.

While it didn’t directly cost them in quite the same way as that previous loss, the ill discipline was still costly today, as it made it so hard for the team to create any pressure on the Brumbies as they could not get any consistent time inside the Brumbies half until they improved their discipline in the final quarter, while the penalties simply allowed the Brumbies to kick into the Reds 22 and put the pressure on.

What made this even more disappointing for the Reds is just how avoidable many of these penalties were. Tip tackles, high tackles and taking the man in the air were all stupid penalties, while Hamish Stewart also gave away a penalty for being lazy and not retreating to the hind foot as the Brumbies driving maul surged forwards.

It’s not as if the Brumbies were too disciplined themselves either, especially at the scrum, and if the Reds had been just a little more disciplined, the game was there to be won.

 Welcome return

The big talking point ahead of the match was the Brumbies’ decision to start Noah Lolesio at fly half in his first action since 18ᵗʰ July, where he picked an injury. Looking back on the match, it’s fair to say the risk paid off.

While Bayley Kuenzle has done a good job of stepping into the void following Lolesio’s injury, he plays more like a 12 than a 10, so getting Lolesio back in really helped the structure of the attack. It is no surprise that Tevita Kuridrani looked much more dangerous today with Lolesio pulling the strings, while his range of passes and kicks really opened the game up for the Brumbies.

Having been named as 1 of 4 fly halves in Dave Rennie’s Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship, how much will the youngster play? I envision that he’s currently ahead of Will Harrison, but it will depend on how much focus Rennie puts on development over results during this tournament. Personally, I can see James O’Connor and Matt To’omua getting the majority of the minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lolesio get some decent time against Argentina.

Injured again

Jordan Petaia is a fantastic talent and I’ve absolutely loved watching him in Super Rugby AU. There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one: the poor lad just can’t seem to stay fit. This latest injury came as he scythed through the Brumbies defence at the half hour mark. He was clean through and it looked like he would make it to the line, but appeared to feel a twinge in his groin and took the safe option of offloading to Harry Wilson, who crossed for the try. While Petaia played on, he did not return to the pitch following the halftime break.

Petaia has an incredible set of ball skills to go with great pace, power and elusiveness. I just can’t help but worry right now that he is set to join the list of players like James Simpson-Daniel – incredible talents who consistently find themselves missing time through injury, stopping them reaching the heights they should.

Personally, I feel that Petaia would benefit from being rested during the Rugby Championship even if he is fit, to ensure that he is 100% back to full fitness rather than just match-fit. The last thing we want is for such a great young talent to be lost from the game too soon.

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Super Rugby AU Qualifying Final: Reds v Rebels

Super Rugby AU Qualifying Final: Reds v Rebels

Last week saw the 2020 edition of Super Rugby AU come to an end for 2 of the 5 teams as the top 3 in the standings moved on to the playoffs. Today, another team would see their journey come to an end as the Melbourne Rebels faced the Queensland Reds at Suncorp Stadium in the Qualifying Final.

The Rebels came close to taking an early lead as Andrew Kellaway got on the end of a cross-kick from Matt To’omua, only for a referral to the TMO to show that he had put a foot on the dead ball line before dotting the ball down. The next Rebels attack just a minute later ended in even more disappointment, as Jordan Petaia intercepted a wide pass from To’omua and took it under the posts to allow James O’Connor an easy kick to give the Reds an early 7-0 lead. To’omua and O’Connor traded penalties, but in such a high pressure match, handling errors were frequently bringing chances to a disappointing end. As the half drew on, Isi Naisarani charged down O’Connor’s clearance from the try line, only for the bounce of the ball to elude him and deny him a try. However, Marika Koroibete found a gap at the fringe of a ruck and broke away to score as the half came to an end, To’omua converting to level the scores at 10-10.

The Reds struck first after the break as Lukhan Salakaia-Loto crashed over in the corner, with O’Connor nailing the conversion. Injuries disrupted the chemistry of both teams as O’Connor and Reece Hodge traded penalties. Marika Koroibete went over in the corner, but the try was not given as the final pass from Bill Meakes was correctly adjudged forward. Then with just 5 minutes remaining, an inside ball from Bryce Hegarty set Taniela Tupou loose and after making his way deep into the Rebels 22, he spread the ball to Filipo Daugunu to go over in the corner, securing a 25-13 victory and a place in next weekend’s final against the Brumbies.

Wallaby woes

While Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie will have certainly enjoyed some of the performances in this match, I’m sure he’ll also be feeling very nervous about the number of injuries so close to the start of the Rugby Championship.

Matt To’omua was likely one of the favourites for either the 10 or 12 shirt, but had to come off after less than an hour due to what appeared to be a groin injury, while fellow internationals Dane Haylett-Petty and Jordan Uelese also went off injured during the second half. Meanwhile, the Reds were forced into 2 changes in the first half as they lost both Jordan Petaia and Chris Feauai-Sautia – both of whom had already missed significant time in the competition due to injuries.

Of those 5 players, I think that at least 4 were likely to be included in the Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship and Rennie will be hoping that there is no lasting damage done. Meanwhile, the Reds will be hoping both players are available next week as they are great talents who would be sorely missed in the final.

Backup needed

Perhaps the most critical blow dealt to the Rebels during this match was not one from the Reds, but instead the loss of Matt To’omua.

With his impressive defence and running of the game, To’omua is arguably the key player for the Rebels and will always be missed when he is not on the pitch. Unfortunately for the Rebels, what makes his loss even more of a hit is the lack of success that they have had with his replacement Andrew Deegan playing in his stead.

Unfortunately, where To’omua plays flat to the line, Deegan plays from a deeper position, which makes it much harder for a centre pairing like Bill Meakes and Campbell Magnay, as they are most effective taking the ball at pace close to the line, where a 10 playing flat will have been able to open up holes. It’s not to say that Deegan is a bad player, he unfortunately doesn’t fit the style of play that the Rebels are going for.

This was the first time that the Rebels ever made it into a Super Rugby playoff. They have a strong team but if they want to remain consistent then they need to find another fly half to back up To’omua who will also play close to the line, in order to keep the consistency in their play.

The Final

With this win, the Reds have secured their spot as the Brumbies’ opponent in next week’s final. And so the question becomes “who will be the first Super Rugby AU Champion?”

The Brumbies won their last meeting in Canberra 22-20, while the Reds looked by far the stronger team in last week’s 26-7 victory at Suncorp Stadium. While the home advantage is certainly with the Brumbies, the Reds will know how close they came at the start of August and I would argue that they are a better team now.

The Brumbies may have had a week to recuperate, but as a Gloucester fan I know that the bye week in a 3-team playoff can be a killer, while the Reds now come into this game on the back of a 4-game winning streak.

To me, it all comes down to the Reds’ injuries. Petaia is an incredible talent who can play centre or wing, while Feauai-Sautia also provides quality at both positions. If they are both out injured then the Reds will find themselves stretched thin in the back line – though promoting Hunter Paisami from the bench back to the XV would still leave them with strong starting XV.

I feel that the Reds have enough to get the win, but will feel more confident if this week’s injuries do not rule the players out of the match.

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2021 NFL Division Predictions

2021 NFL Division Predictions

It’s hard to believe, but the NFL is almost here. Thursday Night Football returns this week with the opening match of the season as the Houston Texans face the World Champions, the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

With everything going on in America, this is going to be a very different season to what we are used to, as we have already seen a preseason heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic with no games played. One tradition that has remained, however, is my annual post where I make a complete fool of myself by trying to predict the winners of each Division. This year, I have also gone a little further by also throwing in my predictions for the Wildcard spots, of which there are 3 per conference as of this season with the playoffs expanding from 12 to 14 teams.

Now, obviously there is a risk this year that the pandemic could completely ruin a team’s season by having a key player or a number of players get infected. But just like a season-ending injury, this is something that you can’t plan for, so these picks are all under the assumption that the league season plays out with no significant disruption.

And with that giant caveat out of the way, let’s see the predictions:

AFC

AFC East

It’s been a long time since the AFC East prediction wasn’t a simple tick in the box next to the Patriots, but things are different this season, with Tom Brady now plying his trade elsewhere and a number of key players opting out of the season due to health fears. Of course the Pats have shown their ability to make serviceable QBs look great – Matt Cassel, Jacoby Brissett – so it will be interesting to see if Cam Newton can revitalise his career in Massachusetts. Unfortunately for Cam Newton, the receiver corps is not what it once was, with Julian Edelman the only player of note, and I can’t help feel that this maybe the first time since 2008 that the playoffs do not involve Bill Belichick’s team.

The one big thing in New England’s favour when going for a Wildcard spot is that 4 of their 16 matches will be against the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets, neither of whom have shown anything to suggest that they will be a danger this year. However, my clear favourite for the AFC East title is the Buffalo Bills. Last year’s Wildcard team has added star receiver Stefon Diggs, who will be a great weapon for Josh Allen, who should only be getting better in his 3ʳᵈ season.

AFC North

The Joe Burrow era is kicking off in Cincinnati, but (A. J. Green aside) does he have the support around him to immediately turn this team around, especially given his first taste of NFL football will come in Week 1 rather than preseason?

Pittsburgh will be hoping that James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster step up and that Ben Roethlisberger can stay fit all season, which he’s only done 4 times in his 15 seasons where he was a starter on Day 1 of the regular season.

The Browns will hopefully be better now that Freddie Kitchens is gone, but Baker Mayfield needs to prove that last season was a sophomore slump and not the start of a downward trend. He certainly has the weapons around him, assuming they all decide to put in the effort.

While I’m still not sold on Lamar Jackson as a long-term elite QB, he is an incredible athlete and the Ravens’ roster seems relatively settled and together following the dismissal of Earl Thomas, so I have them coming out top.

AFC South

The Jacksonville Jaguars are all aboard the Minshew train. Next stop: the #1 Draft pick.

The Colts looked good last year and a better QB could have been huge for them, but is 38-year-old Philip Rivers really the answer? He will certainly benefit from his home games being inside a dome, but he will face tough opposition from within the division.

To me, this will be a fight between the Texans and Titans for the top spot. The Titans will be hoping that “King” Derrick Henry can have another stellar season, but can probably pick up some slack in the passing game with A. J. Brown, Adam Humphries, Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith giving some great receiving options. On defense, they may have lost Logan Ryan and Jurrell Casey, but have brought in quality replacements in Jonathan Joseph and Jadeveon Clowney. In conrast, the Texans may have lost DeAndre Hopkins, but their WR corps still looks stacked, with Randall Cobb, Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller and Kenny Stills, while David Johnson will be a great pick-up if he can get back to his best.

I may be picking with heart more than head here, but right now I give the Titans the slightest of advantages.

AFC West

Let’s be honest, there’s only one team to trust here and that’s the defending champions. Having signed Pat Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Andy Reid to long-term contracts, the Chiefs look set to become the next NFL dynasty and would be my early pick for back-to-back Super Bowl victories. But can anyone cause an upset here?

Denver look the best of a bad bunch in the league – good enough to beat the worst teams but not strong enough to challenge against playoff hopefuls. Will a fight for the starting QB spot bring out the best in Marcus Mariota or David Carr? With the lack of offensive weapons (Josh Jacobs aside), it probably won’t make much difference. The Chargers are probably in the best position to challenge, but that may be asking too much of Tyrod Taylor, while Justin Herbert will benefit from a season holding a clipboard rather than being thrown to the wolves.

Divisional Champions: Bills, Ravens, Titans, Chiefs

Wildcards: Texans, Steelers, Patriots

NFC

NFC East

While it is incredible to see Alex Smith making the Washington Football Team’s 53-man roster, if he plays a snap then something has gone seriously wrong with Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen. This is a team in the middle of a historic change of name, and it feels like the team is also in the middle of a rebuild under Ron Rivera. I can see this team pulling off some upsets, but not being consistent enough to earn a winning record.

The New York Giants will find out this year if Daniel Jones is the man under centre, but with Nate Solder missing, will he have the protection he needs? He certainly has some decent targets to aim for and a stud running back in Saquon Barkley, who can carry a load but may be forced to carry the hopes of a city.

Expect this to come down to a fight between the Eagles and the Cowboys. Both have franchise QBs in place, but if Wentz goes down injured, that’s Philly’s season over, whereas the Cowboys have a safety net of Andy Dalton as backup to Dak Prescott, and also the ability to turn to the running game of Ezekiel Elliott. Furthermore the additions of Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith make the Cowboys defense look dangerous even with Sean Lee on IR. Advantage: Dallas.

NFC North

The Bears have named Mitchell Trubisky ahead of Nick Foles, which says everything you need to know about their season… It won’t matter if the defense shuts down every team or how good Allen Robinson and Jimmy Graham are, they aren’t winning more than a handful of games with those QBs.

The Lions need to hope that Matt Stafford is back to his best after his injury issues last season. Theoretically, they have decent weapons on offense, but enough to challenge for the title? I don’t think so.

The Packers are far from the team they used to be with many of the big name receivers long gone, but Davante Adams is still there and with Aaron Rodgers under center, you never rule them out of games.

While you may not rule them out, the smarter bet is still a more consistent team and that would be the Vikings. Kirk Cousins may be a moron when it comes to COVID-19 and he may not be the man to win them the Super Bowl, but he is good enough to utilise receivers like Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph, while the defense can also contribute with players like Harrison Smith.

NFC South

It’s a fresh new start for the Panthers and it’s great to see Teddy Bridgewater starting somewhere again, but he has limited experience in recent years so can still be considered a risk. If teams can limit the touches by Christian McCaffrey, Carolina are in trouble. The Falcons have some quality receivers in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley to help Matt Ryan, but they need Todd Gurley to shine in order to keep the offense balanced. A winning record for either team probably constitutes a good season.

The Saints have elite players in Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, while Taysom Hill remains one of those great offensive weapons. They also have a future Hall of Fame QB in Drew Brees who will utilise these weapons to the fullest, but there is a worry after last season that he may be on the decline. Luckily if that happens, they can put in Jameis Winston and replace the receiving corps with the Saints secondary, as he’s an expert at throwing passes to them.

Tampa Bay is truly the most fascinating team to watch going into this season. The Bucs finished 7-9 last season despite Jameis Winston throwing 30 interceptions. Now they have the GOAT Tom Brady under center and have brought in some other pieces to help him, including his fellow former Patriot Rob Gronkowski. Brady struggled last season with limited weapons, but now has a legit superstar to throw to in Mike Evans, and while Gronk surely won’t be the player he used to be, he could make a great partnership in a “12” package with O. J. Howard. If the Bucs can overcome the issues gelling as a team that the pandemic-hit preseason will have caused, they have a legit chance to challenge the Saints, but I will pick the safer option in New Orleans.

NFC West

This season of Hard Knocks hasn’t left me finding the Rams very likeable , or given me any reason to think that they will have much success this year, despite having Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey on defense. The Cardinals need to ensure Kyler Murray doesn’t go through a sophomore slump, but witht he ever-reliable Larry Fitzgerald and superstar WR DeAndre Hopkins on the roster, he has some great weapons to throw to.

The Seahawks can never be ruled out with the talent they have on their roster, provided they can keep Russell Wilson healthy. What will be interesting though is the absence of fans at their early home games, as the “12ᵗʰ man” really goes a long way towards the team’s success at home.

Right now, I have to give the advantage to the San Francisco 49ers. The cliché is that defense wins championships and the Niners have a fantastic defense. This is where Jimmy Garoppolo needs to prove himself as a top tier QB, and having an elite TE like George Kittle will certainly help that, while they have an impressive stable of running backs to set the platform and keep the rushers fresh.

Divisional Champions: Cowboys, Vikings, Saints, 49ers

Wildcards: Seahawks, Buccaneers, Packers


So those are my picks. Let me know what you think of them and who you would pick!

Before I go, I want to invite you all to join my Superbru league for the NFL. For those who have never heard of Superbru, it’s an online prediction game where you attempt to predict the winners and winning margins for each round of matches and get awarded points for how close you were. There is no cost to enter, it’s just for fun and open to everyone. You can join by clicking on this link or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with the code: ludojump

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North Island v South Island 2020

North Island v South Island 2020

I’ve been seriously missing Super Rugby Aotearoa these past few weeks, so on the eve of the All Blacks selection announcement, this match between the North Island and South Island – the first since a fundraiser in 2012 – was something I was looking forward to… and it didn’t really disappoint!

The North Island couldn’t have got a much better start to the match, as Reiko Ioane go on the end of a Beauden Barrett grubber kick to score the opening try after just 2 and a half minutes, with Damian McKenzie kicking the extras. It didn’t take long for the South Island to find an answer though, as a driving maul got them to the North Island try line and Nepo Laulala took the ball the final few inches, Jordie Barrett hitting the conversion and a penalty soon after to go ahead. Next came arguably the try of the match as the North Island attacked down the blind side 15m channel with some beautiful interplay from Reiko Ioane, Caleb Clarke, TJ Perenara and Damian McKenzie seeing the Chiefs fullback put North Island back ahead with the try and successful conversion. Jordie Barrett missed a penalty, but made amends just after the half hour mark, powering over int he corner after a slick pass out of the ruck from Codie Taylor, before hitting the conversion for a halftime lead of 14-17.

The North Island struck first again in the second half as replacement scrum half Aaron Smith followed up with an inside support line after the team made a break down the right through Damian McKenzie and Hoskins Sotutu, McKenzie converting again. 10 minutes later and North Island were on the attack again, but a pass from McKenzie went astray and while Caleb Clarke managed to keep the ball in play, he was unable to collect and South Island winger Will Jordan swooped in to steal the ball and take it to the house. while the South Island scored again just minutes later as Richie Mo’unga hit Tyrel Lomax on a perfect line with a beautiful flat pass, Barrett kicking both conversions to extend the lead. North Island refused to give up and narrowed the lead when Reiko Ioane slipped through the challenges of Shannon Frizell and Leicester Fainga’anuku to score under the posts, with McKenzie cutting the lead to 3 points. Then came the controversial moment on 71 minutes as Ash Dixon took an hard line off Aaron Smith to go under the posts. Referee Paul Williams awarded the try without consulting the TMO and the conversion was taken quickly, before replays could show that Dixon had been held up over the line. As the clock ticked past the 80 minutes, it looked like that decision may prove costly, but a series of penalties gave the South Island one more chance from a 5m lineout. With a penalty advantage given at the resultant maul, and with the North Island defence extremely narrow, replacement fly half Josh Ioane went for the cross-kick and Will Jordan rose above Mitch Hunt to take the ball above his head and score the winning try, Barrett adding the extras to confirm a 35-38 victory.

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Stand-out performers

While a couple of players may not have had the impact they would have hoped, there was no player in either 23 who came away from the match with a diminished reputation. Some definitely improved on theirs, though.

Jordie Barrett was arguably one of the best men on the pitch, frequently showing his skills in both attack and defence while going near-perfect off the tee. Will Jordan was quiet in the first half but grew into the game and picked his moments to have maximum impact with 2 crucial tries. To me, they are the top 2 options at fullback right now, and I would expect Jordie Barrett to get the All Blacks 15 shirt if Ian Foster picks on form as he creates the 10/15 playmaker axis, while Jordan will certainly be putting his hand up for a spot on the wing. Caleb Clarke put in a big performance that may be the only thing that stops Jordan taking one of the starting wing spots, with Foster unlikely to want 2 uncapped wingers along with a new fullback.

One person who won’t be in contention for a wing spot is Reiko Ioane, as he has shown that the experiment of moving him inside to outside centre has been a success. While we already knew of Ioane’s pace, this move has accentuated his defensive ability and his strength, while his slick handling skills in the 13 channel just make the team even more dangerous. Sticking with the Blues, Hoskins Sotutu was the star of Super Rugby Aotearoa until his injury, but looked immediately back to his best in this game with turnovers and some great attacking play.

The final mention has to go to Tom Christie. Openside flanker is a position where the All Blacks are never short of options, while there is a legacy to uphold after the reign of Richie McCaw. Tom Christie definitely wouldn’t have been the first name on people’s lips when discussing Ian Foster’s options there, but he had a fantastic season with the Crusaders and played a starring role in this game. As captain of the national team, if Sam Cane is fit then Christie’s best chance is probably a place on the bench, but don’t be surprised to see him actively fighting for the 7 shirt in the coming years.

Strength in depth

If nothing else, this match and the subsequent All Blacks squad announcement just highlighted the strength in depth available to New Zealand.

While all 8 back rowers to play in this match put in strong performances, Sam Cane was always going to make the All Blacks squad if fit, while Cullen Grace can be considered somewhat of a shock inclusion, having missed much of Super Rugby Aotearoa through injury. Beyond that, though, are players like Du’Plessis Kirifi, Luke Jacobsen and Lachlan Boshier who all missed out on both the All Blacks and this match!

In the halfbacks, it was a shame that Finlay Christie did not get more of a chance to show his quality in the match and I can’t help feel that on form he was very unlucky to miss out on international selection (cough… snap him up, Scotland… cough!). Finally, that the match 23s suggest Otere Black my be 6ᵗʰ choice at stand-off is another crazy sign of their depth, especially when you consider some of the other players who have retired from international rugby or are ineligible due to playing outside of New Zealand!

If New Zealand are to struggle at all int he coming seasons, it won’t be due to a lack of depth in the squad.

Wasted wonder

I’ve been on record as saying that I consider Richie Mo’unga to be the best fly half in the world at this moment in time. Unfortunately, following this match, I feel that his potential will not be reached while Ian Foster is in charge of the All Blacks.

Under Steve Hansen, Mo’unga was never given a fair shot to compete against the golden boy Beauden Barrett, and when Injury to Damian McKenzie forced Barrett to move to 15 and Mo’unga to come into the XV, he was basically used in a game manager role while Barrett was given the true reins to the attack – similar to how the Blues were set up with Barrett and Otere Black. This completely takes away from his game, as playing as the lead playmaker for the Crusaders has highlighted just how good he is, while having a second playmaker at 15 would be a great support for him.

As one of Steve Hansen’s assistants, I was already worried that his selection would be bad news for Mo’unga, and this game all-but confirmed it, as Foster’s assistants Brad Mooar and Greg Feek were in charge of the South Island team. What followed was a subdued match for Mo’unga – not helped by a HIA assessment midway through the first half – as fullback Jordie Barrett was frequently popping up at first receiver. Mo’unga certainly had his moments, with an early grubber through almost ending in a try but for a great defensive play from Hoskins Sotutu and then of course his inch-perfect pass to Tyrel Lomax, but if the All Blacks were to trust him with full control like Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson does, then they would be so much more dangerous.

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Super Rugby AU: Reds v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Brumbies

Suncorp Stadium played host to the final game of Super Rugby AU’s round-robin stage as the Reds hosted the Brumbies. With the Brumbies already having 1ˢᵗ place in the standings (and therefore an automatic spot in the final) secured, and the Reds already guaranteed of home advantage in the Qualifying Final by finishing 2ⁿᵈ, there was very little to play for ther than pride and momentum.

The Brumbies were coming in off the back of 2 convincing victories, but soon found themselves behind as Reds fullback Jock Campbell scythed through the defence out wide before offloading to captain Liam Wright to score in the corner. James O’Connor missed the conversion, but made up for this by kicking 2 penalties as the Reds took control of the game, before the Reds back line worked an overlap off the first phase of a scrum to put Chris Feauai-Sautia over in the same corner, O’Connor this time nailing the conversion. Things were looking bad for the Brumbies, but they managed to get on the scoresheet just before halftime as Pete Samu cut in from the left wing to score under the posts, giving Bayley Kuenzle an easy kick to make the score 18-7 at the break.

As the substitutions started early in the second half with a view to the coming weeks, the game presented very few chances for either team to score. O’Connor kicked another penalty in the 66ᵗʰ minute to extend the lead, and with the Brumbies unable to muster a response, Tate McDermott – who had saved a try in the first half by causing Tevita Kuridrani to knock on as he crossed the line – reacted quickest when Kuenzle muffed a high ball to score in the corner and secure a 26-7 victory for the Reds.

Straighten up

If the tries in this game showed one thing, it was the importance of running straight lines to maximise the space on the pitch.

Straight lines from the inside runners meant that when Jock Campbell got hands on the ball, he found himself still having almost a third of the pitch to work with, with 3 teammates outside him keeping the width, against 2 defenders who were both narrow, with Tom Banks covering the potential grubber kick in behind. This left Campbell with so many options on how to proceed that it was easier to score than anything else and he duly utilised his pace and the threat of his outside men to slip between the 2 defenders and draw Tom Banks to convert a 3v1 overlap.

Then again for their second try, the drift from James O’Connor (with Filipo Daugunu sticking on his shoulder) and then Jordan Petaia running a hard, straight line led to the Brumbies defence coming in too narrow and being completely exposed by the ball out the back to Hamish Stewart. This meant that the widest defender – Tom Wright panicked at the overlap and tried jamming up on Stewart too late (which was unnecessary as Tevita Kuridrani was able to drift out onto Stewart. With Wright biting too late, it was easy for Stewart to get the ball away to Jock Campbell, who again successfully completed the 2v1 against Tom Banks to put Chris Feauai-Sautia over in the corner.

While both these tries showed the impact of running straight in the middle of the pitch to create the space out wide, Pete Samu’s try for the Brumbies also showed the ease with which straightening up a play that is drifting can beat a defence. Tom Wright got the ball about 17m in from touch but the inside runners hadn’t successfully drawn their men so he was immediately continuing the outside arc that he caught the ball on, with Pete Samu the only man outside him. His arc failed to successfully draw the defender out wide (Tate McDermott), but even by cutting inside he still found him forced towards the touchline by the 4 defenders chasing over, with more on their way. Thankfully for the Brumbies, Samu gave him an option by cutting back inside and taking the offload from Wright, which immediately caught out the first wave of Reds defenders who had all over-chased and getting through the gap before the second wave could plug it. Samu makes it look easy, but too often you will see the wide man try to hold his wide line in these circumstances and find themselves eventually getting the ball with the defence already pushing them into touch.

There is a time and place to drift and arc outside, but if you want to create space, sometimes the simplest way to do so is just to run straight.

From red to gold?

If I’m being completely honest, there is no fullback in the competition that has stood head and shoulders above the others, but if I was selecting the next Wallabies squad, I would have a close eye on Jock Campbell.

The Reds’ utility back is making himself at home in the 15 shirt and looks more confident with every game. While his attacking stats were generally lower than Tom Banks in this game (10 runs for 44m versus 17 runs for 152), his impact on the game was much more noticeable. As a utility back, he has a great blend of pace with handling and footwork, all of which was highlighted for Liam Wright’s try as he used his pace to beat Tevita Kuridrani to the outside with an arcing run that took out Tom Wright, before drawing Tom Banks and slipping an offload to Wright out the back of his hand the moment Banks turned his shoulders inside.

With nobody else standing head and shoulders above him, I’d love to see him given a chance in the Wallabies 15 jersey. He certainly has competition for the position with Reece Hodge and Tom Banks both just a year older but far more experienced and Jack Maddocks a couple of years younger, but Campbell looks like he would provide that extra playmaking option coming into the line and is certainly one of the form players.

Will he get a shot? He’s certainly giving Dave Rennie some good headaches right now.

Kit talk

Something a little different to finish off today with a quick mention for the kits that both teams were wearing. Both the Reds and the Brumbies were wearing their indigenous kits.

Personally I love these kits as they immediately become something far more individual, while I can’t help find that the majority of professional rugby teams have somewhat boring designs. Personally, I love something with more individuality, which made me a fan of the Leicester Tigers home kit from the 2012/13 season, which saw the Leicester colours used in a design that imitated a tiger stripe pattern, while the alternate kit did similar in  shades of grey and black for a striking effect.

I’ve been a big fan of Pacific Island, Australian and New Zealand club and national team kits that have a design heavily influenced by their indigenous history. It is a great nod to the people of the country while also making a much more unique and recognisable look.

Personally, I would love it if teams used one of either their home or away kits to always have some form of indigenous design. After all, why should the indigenous people only be celebrated a couple of weeks in the season?

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Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Western Force

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Western Force

Super Saturday in the Southern Hemisphere kicked off in Newcastle as the Melbourne Rebels took on the Western Force at McDonald Jones Stadium in the opening match of Super Rugby AU’s 10ᵗʰ round.

With Round 10 being the final round of the round-robin format, this was the Force’s last chance to avoid an 0-8 whitewash in their return to Super Rugby, while the Rebels knew that a win by at least 4 points (or a bonus point win) was required to enter next weekend’s Qualifying Final at the expense of the Waratahs.

After Ian Prior opened the scoring off the tee, the Rebels got the opening try through Tom Pincus, only for Henry Taefu to put the Force back ahead just minutes later. A pair of penalties from Matt To’omua put the Rebels back ahead, before Trevor Hosea charged down an attempted box kick from Prior, which prop Cameron Orr collected and spread with a lovely wide pass to Reece Hodge to score in the corner. With a danger of the game getting away from the Force, Andrew Ready managed to cross at the back of a driving maul on the stroke of half time, to make the score 20-13.

The second half started like the first ended, with Ready crashing over for a try off the back of a driving maul, with Prior kicking the conversion and a penalty 11 minutes later to regain the lead, while the Rebels were left to rue Isi Naisarani pouncing off the back of a driving maul a bit too early and being stopped short of the line. With Pincus sent to the bin for a deliberate knock-on, Brynard Stander powered over the line and Prior converted to give the Force a 10-point lead. Things were beginning to look bad for the Rebels, but a moment of great interplay from Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge and Marika Koroibete down the right wing saw the fullback score on his return from injury. With the Rebels now only 3 points down, it felt like momentum was once again turning in their favour as Byron Ralston was sent to the sin bin as he took out the jumper in the air at the restart. And so began the siege of the Force’s try line as the Rebels looked to take control and score the converted try that would see them continue in the competition. Marika Koroibete thought he had scored, only for the try to be disallowed for a forward pass. With both Pincus and Ralston back on, the pressure intensified and Fergus Lee-Warner was sent to the bin with 6 minutes remaining.

What followed must have taken years off the lives of Rebels and Waratahs fans alike. Cabous Eloff thought he had scored the winning try, but was disallowed by the TMO – their 3ʳᵈ disallowed try of the game. Matt Philip became disallowed try number 4 and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one at this point thinking that the Force were about to hold on for the unlikeliest of wins. With just 90 seconds remaining, a call went up from the Rebels that replacement hooker Efitusi Ma’afu had dotted down over the line and it was up the the TMO again, who ruled that the ball had been grounded short. However, as Angus Gardner had not immediately blown the whistle, he allowed the footage to continue and with no clear knock-on or illegal act from the Rebels, the ball came to Cabous Eloff, who dotted down over the line while most players had already stopped thinking Ma’afu had scored. With the try awarded just to the right of the posts, it was an easy but high-pressure kick for To’omua, but he successfully bisected the posts as time ran out to secure a 34-30 victory and ensure the Rebels’ Super Rugby AU campaign lasts at least anther week.

Costly cards

While it feels harsh to pin the blame for this loss on anyone, I can’t help feel that the yellow cards to Byron Ralston and Fergus Lee-Warner proved costly. With just 20 minutes left, the Force found themselves with a 1-man advantage for the next 6 minutes. Instead, Ralston’s yellow levelled the numbers and gave the Rebels territory just as momentum appeared to be shifting back to them following Dane Haylett-Petty’s try. Granted no points were scored while Ralston was in the bin, but it went a long way to heaping the pressure on the Force that they eventually couldn’t withstand.

By far the more stupid yellow card, though, was that of Fergus Lee-Warner. The flanker was having a great game, but made a stupid decision to cynically – and obviously – play the ball while on the floor at the breakdown. As such a physical player, he was a big loss to the defensive line, who now knew they were at a numerical disadvantage so would probably end up leaving a gap somewhere if the Rebels attacked well. It’s not as if the illegal act was even required there to save a try (i.e. taking one for the team) as the defence was set quicker than the attack at that breakdown, still with a bit of distance to go to the line. There is every chance that the Rebels would have scored in those remaining 6 minutes, but losing Lee-Warner made things much harder for them, while also being a bad way for the player to end an impressive season.

Uncertain Future

Right now, things are very up in the air as to the future of Super Rugby. However one thing is for certain: the Western Force have proved that they deserve a spot in whatever regional competition the Australian sides end up playing in. They were not meant to play n Super Rugby this year and had very little time to put together a side capable of competing, and yet managed to do exactly that.

I expect that a lot of the players on short-term contracts will not remain with the club, but if they can build around young Australian talent like Jack McGregor, Bryron Ralston, Kane Koteca and Fergus Lee-Warner and convince some of these players like Brynard Stander, Henry Taefu and Henry Stowers to stay with the club, then they have a chance of remaining competitive.

The important thing is not to expect immediate results from them. Being cut from Super Rugby will have hared them beyond the 1ˢᵗ XV as the best Academy talent will have gone elsewhere too. It may take a few seasons for them to build a team capable of winning games. It may take longer for them to build a squad capable of finishing in the top half of any standings, but that time must be allowed to them, so that we can truly see a force of rugby in Western Australia again.

Midfield mayhem

The Rebels may have advanced to the Qualifying Final, but they look far from the quality of the Reds and Brumbies. I can’t help feel that part of their issue has been the lack of consistency in midfield (fly half and the centres).

Yes, the Reds have changed things up quite a bit there, but that has generally been due to injuries, so there has still been some degree of consistency from week to week, while the Brumbies have generally stuck to the same handful of players, again with injuries often causing the changes to the starting trio.

In contrast, the Rebels spent the first half of the tournament with Matt To’omua at 10 before trying a tactical change by moving him out to 12 and bringing in Andrew Deegan, before going back to the original plan in this final round after deciding the Deegan experiment hadn’t worked. Specialist centres Bill Meakes and Campbell Magnay have been in and out of the XV, which will have impacted their ability to get any consistency, while you have also seen Andrew Kellaway and Reece Hodge play outside centre, wing and fullback – is it any real wonder why Kellaway looked out of form in this competition with the constant chopping and changing?

While I understand some degree of rotation and tactical selection is necessary, if we are rarely seeing the same trio play together, it’s going to be so hard for them to build any real semblance of chemistry. And when it comes to the tight games, that chemistry makes a big difference as you naturally know where your teammate will be, allowing you to trust your teammates more and focus on your own game.

Right now, I think this lack of consistent selection in the Rebels midfield is going to prove costly against a Reds team that is going from strength to strength.

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