Faction Rundown: The Fyffe Club

Faction Rundown: The Fyffe Club

Welcome to my first Faction Rundown. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be looking at each of the factions in the Schmoedown to see how things are going for them in Season 5 of the Schmoedown. I will be looking at the titles they hold, the chances they have coming up and the general strength of each faction. At the end I will also be giving my personal ranking of the team based on how the season is going and the potential I see going forward. Today I will be starting with The Fyffe Club

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Emma Fyffe won the first Manager Bowl before going on to unveil Marc Andreyko as her first competitor

Members: Emma Fyffe (manager), Marc Andreyko, Sam Witwer, Clarke Wolfe, Rachel Cushing

Current titles: Star Wars – Sam Witwer

History: The most recent of the big factions, the Fyffe Club came into existence as Marc Andreyko defected from the Lion’s Den to become Emma Fyffe’s first competitor and grant her access to the Manager Bowl at Schmoedown Spectacular. She quickly added to her stable by snapping up Sam Witwer following his title victory over Ken Napzok. Then, as Season 5 got going, Rachel Cushing’s new team the Shirewolves nailed their flag to Fyffe’s mast ahead of their victorious debut against the Lion’s Den.

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The moment the Fyffe Club recruited their first Champion

Season 5 so far: Both individually and as a team, “The Crusher” and “Classy” Clarke Wolfe are having good seasons. The Shirewolves are 2-0 following victories against The Dreamcrushers and Team Action at the recent live event. Rachel earned herself a title match in the Singles Division following a Triple Threat match where she TKO’d JTE and KO’d Mike Kalinowski, but the Speed Round proved her undoing against Samm Levine and she was unable to get the win. Most recently, she returned to what she considers her strongest Division, the Innergeekdowm, where she KO’d debutante Markeia McCarty in the opening round of the currently ongoing Innergeekdom tournament. Clarke Wolfe’s first singles match of the season was the Number 1 Contender match “The Golden Mic” earned by winning the Manager Bowl and took full advantage of it, beating Kalinowski in a close-fought match before going on to lose to “The Inglorious One” in sudden death. “The Android” has been regularly there in support of his colleagues but has only played once so far this season – a victory over Ben Bateman – and as yet he has not had a teammate since he switched allegiances from Blofeld’s Cat and the Lion’s Den. While Emma Fyffe is arguably the manager of the season up to now, she has had a mixed start to the season in terms of competing. After being called out by The Viper Squad, she lost in Singles to Jeannine “The Machine” but got back to winning ways soon after with a victory over rival manager Jay Washington in the 1st round of the Innergeekdom tournament. With only a handful of Star Wars matches each year, “The Warrior” is yet to play a match since his last second victory over Napzok at Schmoedown Spectactular II.

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Not only are the Fyffe Club competitors talented individuals, they support each other and have worked together to prep for matches

Future Prospects: Looking forward, the sky is the limit for some of these competitors. Rachel’s crushing of Markeia – including a strong Round 2 performance in the category of Star Trek – makes her my personal favourite for the Innergeekdom tournament and I think that a title match against Jason Inman would be impossible to call in advance. Wolfe is hungry for a belt but following her loss to Samm and with the Singles Division packed with so much talent at the moment, it may be a while before she gets another shot there. However the Shirewolves’ next match is a Number 1 Contender match against World’s Finest for a chance to face either Above The Line or the Patriots. I think the defending champions will have too much for the Shirewolves, but the wheel could easily work in their favour. I don’t see Fyffe regularly competing outside the Innergeekdom Division and honestly I don’t see her going much further in the tournament. Outside of a couple of categories, most notably Harry Potter, her knowledge seemed quite limited and I think the moment she comes up against a contender she will struggle to keep pace with them. Sam Witwer will be defending his belt against Alex Damon at Collision and I am honestly scared to call this one. Witwer is a beast at Star Wars trivia and is so strong at the quotes, a section which has tripped up some other competitors in the past, but Alex’s win at the live event was highly impressive – he only missed 1 question and 1 steal attempt – and I have seen him get answers in the past that have been missed by The Warrior. Andreyko is a difficult one to judge due to the lack of games. He has a good ranking in the Singles Division, but needs to play more often to hold onto the position. But what he really needs right now is a teammate, and I’m sure Emma Fyffe will be keeping an eye on any free agents to find someone right for the Fyffe Club.

Record this season (all divisions): 6-3          This is only taking into account matches as a member of the Fyffe Club. Rachel’s Number 1 Contender match was before she and Clarke Wolfe joined the faction, if we look at the full 2018 record for all competitors the record becomes 7-3

Mid-season Ranking: 1st          The Fyffe Club have had a remarkable start to the season with only 3 losses (2 in title matches). They have a Number 1 Contender match and a title defence coming up in the near future and have 2 competitors through to the next round of the Innergeekdom tournament, with Cushing one of the favourites to win the tournament. A great start to the season and a good chance of continued success, I expect a regular presence in the Top 5 rankings of each Division.

2018 Summer Tests Week 2: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 2: A Rugby Ramble

Wheels coming off the chariot

England slumped to another disappointing defeat with a 23-12 loss to an improving South Africa which leaves them unable to win the June series. The team have now lost 6 matches in a row (yes Eddie, I’m counting that Barbarians match!) and if I’m completely honest I don’t see that streak ending next week..

billyvWhat has gone wrong for this team? From an outsider looking in, things don’t look great. Players continue to get long-term injuries in training sessions. Eddie Jones is moaning that he has 25 players unavailable for selection – I’d love to hear the list and see if it includes players he continues to overlook like Don Armand and Alex Goode – which makes it sound like he doesn’t trust the players (many of them regulars) that he has with him. Ben Youngs is giving one of the rudest post-match interviews I’ve ever seen – he later apologised but it still left a nasty taste in the mouth – while Mike Brown and Joe Marler got into a row with fans in the crowd. And all the while Eddie Jones appears to feel that discipline is not an issue, despite a ridiculous penalty count, a stupid infringement from Nathan Hughes – who so frequently looks out of depth at this level – that left England a man down for 10 minutes, a positively brainless penalty from Mako Vunipola for a slap on Pieter-Steph du Toit and a kick that Maro Itoje appeared to aim at Faf de Klerk at the exact same ruck as the Vunipola slap. Players who star every week for Saracens are repeatedly poor for England recently and in some cases are actually liabilities with their lack of discipline. George Ford has had his moments where he has looked great but has largely disappeared from games once the Boks started getting into the game, while Billy Vunipola did not look fit enough in either match (possibly not being helped by not training at altitude, not that Eddie feels this is an issue) and is now out again with a broken arm. Is Eddie the man to take us through to the World Cup? Right now, I have my reservations about him, but with just a 6 Nations and a handful of other Tests remaining, I’m not sure there is someone who could come in and get the team ready in time.

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The 23 I would pick for the final Test against South Africa

With the series lost, changes should be made for the final Test, if only to rest some players and give others a fair chance to show what they can do. I would have selected Ellis Genge at 1, but he is returning to England injured and Mako is also returning for family reasons, Alex Hepburn is flying out and while I would love to start him I think the space needs to go to Marler, who has been training with the squad. Jamie George’s form has not been up to the level everyone expected when given his chances to start and I think it is time to give Luke Cowan-Dickie a chance to prove he can move ahead of the Saracen. Kyle Sinckler is another who has not backed up his form from the Lions Tour and I think it may benefit England to start the stronger scrummager Williams, leaving Sinckler to come off the bench when the Boks get tired. I’m dropping Itoje from my starting second row as he has been a penalty machine and has been lucky not to be penalised more with the way he has targeted Faf de Klerk over the 2 Tests, so I would bring Nick Isiekwe back in to partner Joe Launchbury, with Itoje on the bench, no more of this going without a specialist lock replacement. Curry and Shields both impressed me in this game so I would keep them, while I would begin to look away from Hughes as an international number 8 and look at giving Sam Simmonds some more international experience, though I see his international future on the flank. Ben Youngs was poor at scrum half and it is time Dan Robson and Ben Spencer got their chance to prove themselves. I would happily start either of them, but I have gone for Robson to start due to his experience playing with Danny Cipriani, who I have picked at 10. He looked good in his 12 minute cameo on Saturday and now deserves the chance to depose George Ford. Owen Farrell keeps his place at 12 to give Cirpiani the same help Ford has had, while Slade keeps his place at 13 for consistency in the midfield. In the back 3, Elliot Daly has not had the best of games defensively at 15, but is bringing so much with his attacking lines and deserves a chance to grow into the role. Jonny May has been one of the better players over the last 2 matches and has been involved in so many of the team’s best moments so keeps his place at 14. I’ve been critical of Mike Brown on a number of occasions in recent years but I thought he had a good game in this match, though I still worry about him if he is forced to defend normally against a specialist winger rather than coming across to make cover tackles as in this game. I would rest him for the final game and give the 11 shirt to Jason Woodward. Admittedly I am perhaps biased as a Gloucester fan, but this is a guy who has started for the Hurricanes ahead of Julian Savea in a Super Rugby final and his ability to play both on the wing and at fullback allows him to help Elliot Daly similar to how Mike Brown did at the weekend.

Awful Argentina

To say watching Argentina over the last couple of weeks has been disappointing is possibly the understatement of the century. They have been awful! Wales rested a number of players on this tour and have been chopping and changing the lineups to make sure everyone gets decent gametime, so their performances have not necessarily been great, but they still never looked like losing in either match against the Pumas.

A couple of years ago I would have had Nicolas Sanchez as one of the best fly halves in the world, but he has been dreadful over the last 2 weeks. The team have not done well enough at the breakdown,the forwards have not been able to control the set piece in the way they used to and the backs looked shorn of the flair we have got used to seeing over recent years. Taking off Pablo Matera and Agustin Creevy – often 2 of their best players – so early in the second half felt like the coaches were throwing in the towel for this match. In fact head coach Daniel Hourcade did throw in the towel, announcing that he will step down after next week’s game against Scotland.

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Despite an early red card for fullback Benjamin Fall, France looked much improved from last weekend in their match against New Zealand, though the All Blacks lost Beauden Barrett early and struggled to adapt to Angus Gardner’s refereeing of the breakdown

Hopefully new leadership will start the turnaround in fortunes, but the team needs more than that. As it stands, only players inside Argentina are selected for the national team, which means that the entire squad are from the Jaguares team – even though it has looked as if the guys had never played together before the last couple of weeks! While the familiarity should help the team, it cannot be easy to jump from Super Rugby to international rugby. There were rumours a few months ago that overseas-based players will be available for selection again soon, this needs to happen immediately so that stars like Facundo Isa can help this team get back to the level they were at.

The next megapower?

Massive congratulations to the USA who ran out 30-29 victors against Scotland last night to win their first match against Tier 1 opposition. Though it was by no means Scotland’s strongest squad, there was still enough experience to go with the talented youngsters to think the Scots would win and while they did miss a couple of kicks at goal and have a try disallowed for a knock-on by Mark Bennett, the USA were good value for their historic win to continue their unbeaten 2018.

Just over 2 years ago, I wrote about how PRO Rugby could be the next stage of a revolution that could see the USA become the next rugby superpower. While PRO Rugby may not have worked out as hoped, things seem to be going better with its replacement Major League Rugby (MLR). The majority of the squad are based in the MLR, with a handful of overseas-based players like Samu Manoa (Toulon), AJ MacGinty (Sale), Joe Taufete’e (Worcester) and Blaine Scully (Cardiff Blues) supplying a high level of top-quality experience despite the recent retirements of Todd Clever and Chris Wyles. The expansion of MLR (Ben Foden is rumoured to be joining expansion team Rugby United New York) will continue to help the development of the local players, while other players like Danny Barrett will continue to gain experience as part of a successful team on the World Sevens Series. And all the while the success of the national team (They have won the last 2 Americas Rugby Championships) and the MLR will draw in new talent, like centre Paul Lasike, who played fullback in the NFL for the Cardinals and Bears.

Qualification for the 2019 World Cup saw the USA qualify as Americas 1 for the first time. If their rise continues, it is possible they may soon start to qualify for the finals by finishing top 3 in their pool. 2019 may be too soon for that, but 2023 is certainly a possibility. In fact, if the USA’s love of rugby can continue to grow, then they could be the next team to break into the top tier. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

2018 Summer Tests Week 1: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 1: A Rugby Ramble

Hey everyone sorry it has taken so long to get this done, unfortunately I was working all weekend so it took a few days to catch up with all the action before I could write this, hopefully next week’s should be much sooner after the matches.

Referees can’t win

Refereeing your first Tier 1 international is always going to be something to remember, but for Luke Pearce it turned into something of a nightmare. The English referee was handed New Zealand’s first Test against France and had a very good first half, getting the big calls right and not being afraid to march Aaron Smith back 10 metres for backchat following a penalty decision. However in the second half things started to go wrong for him. 50 minutes into the game and with the scores level, France lock Paul Gabrillagues brought down Ryan Crotty with a seatbelt tackle. Pearce called a halt to proceedings and had no hesitation in showing the second row a yellow card, though television replays after the card showed that though there was a seatbelt tackle, there was no contact with the head or neck so a penalty would have been sufficient. The All Blacks took advantage of the extra man, running in 3 tries to take control of the game. And then as France would have been preparing to get back to a full complement things got even worse. Remy Grosso attempted to come away from the back of a ruck but was caught by Sam Cane, while Ofa Tu’ungafasi also became involved in the challenge and caught him on the head. Grosso would leave the pitch and go to hospital with a double fracture to his face. Remarkably, neither player was shown his marching orders, with Pearce heard to be saying as Grosso was going to ground it was just a penalty for Tu’ungafasi. But that still leaves no excuse for Cane’s seatbelt tackle which caught Grosso around the face. In the same way Gabrillagues should not have been carded, Cane should have been. And as the match came to an end there was time for one more debatable decision, as Ardie Savea was awarded a try despite his knee appearing to hit the ground (completing the tackle). Pearce awarded the try and from his position that is understandable as he would have been unable to see Savea’s knee touch the ground, especially as it was for such a brief moment.

While he did not have the best of times with these incidents, I would not be quick to start a witch hunt. Yes it was a shame that Pearce chose to give a card to Gabrillagues without checking with the TMO, but then at the same time how often have we found ourselves moaning that referees refuse to make a decision without 5 minutes of replays. As to the other incidents, while the collision with Tu’ungafasi looks horrible, I can understand Pearce’s reason no not give him a card. Cane deserved a card, but despite clear evidence in the replays and a substantial gap in play as medics saw to Grosso, I did not hear TMO George Ayoub give him any indication that Cane’s challenge needed looking at, nor did he give any indication that Savea’s try needed a second look despite the replays clearly showing his knee hitting the ground. The TMO needs to be working along with the referee and his two assistants, yet Ayoub threw Pearce under the bus with his silence.

I personally rate Pearce as a good referee and hope these incidents don’t hold him back in the matches he is assigned moving forward.

Back row balance

David Pocock made his return to the Australia squad at the weekend in their 18-9 victory over Ireland and it was like he’d never been away from the squad. While the whole defence looked strong and put in big hits, the breakdown nous of him and captian Michael Hooper constantly makes it difficult for teams at the breakdown. Not only are they both incredibly experienced players, but they are expert fetchers and also bring a lot to open play. With turnovers (and resultant penalties) so important to modern rugby, when I see the two of them combining so effectively, I can’t help but wonder why more teams don’t play 2 fetchers in a similar style. Ireland have unearthed so much talent at the number 7 position with Saturday’sstarter Jordi Murphy arguably 4th in the order behind Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy. However as long as Peter O’Mahony is on the park I don’t believe they would go for 2 specialist 7s at his expense as he is a force at the breakdown – though maybe not as finessed as some fetchers – while also contributing a lot to the game with his leadership and potential in the lineout. Wales however could really benefit from playing two specialist 7s. Aaron Shingler was great during the 6 Nations, but Josh Navidi, James Davies and Ellis Jenkins are all incredible talents that could make it into most international teams, and yet they also have to compete with captain Sam Warburton and his fellow Lion Justin Tipuric. Thomas Young can’t even get in the squad… I think many international coaches would love such depth! Warburton is a classy player and so experienced, but could also make room for one of the younger fetchers by moving to 6 at the expense of Shingler, allowing one of the younger 7s to play alongside him. It also wouldn’t surprise me if he retires from international rugby after the World Cup to allow the next generation 4 years to develop. With other back row options including Ross Moriarty, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate, and Welsh-qualified Lewis Ludlow starring for Gloucester this season, the Welsh back row is one of the units to watch over the next 18 months.

Strength of schedule

Currently ranked 6th in the world, Scotland’s opponents this summer make for strange reading. After impressive results over the last year they appear to be hitting their stride nicely in preparation for the World Cup, but this summer they are playing Tests against Canada, USA and Argentina. At best, Argentina will be ranked 9th when they play Scotland, providing they beat Wales, but USA are 15th and Canada are a disappointing 21st. I am all for Tier 1 teams playing Tests against Tier 2 and Tier 3 nations, but this does not seem to be the opponents I would expect such a highly ranked team to be playing so close to the World Cup. How many of the young lads making their debuts against Canada will have a realistic chance of getting on the plane to Japan next year? And what will the coaches learn of the players competing for starting spots against teams that are not up to their level? Argentina are the only team that should give the Scots a realistic challenge, and as such this you feels like a lose-lose situation for the squad, as they either field a highly weakened team that will barely benefit them come the World Cup, play their full squad and learn nothing from outclassing a weaker team or risk a poor performance against a minnow that should never have a chance. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the Scots’ American tour goes.

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2017/18

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2017/18

With the Premiership over for another season and the big matches all out the way, I have finally had some time to sit down and think about this season’s awards. This is something I began last year with the Alternative Awards, looking at awards for something a little different to the classic Player/Team of the Season awards that you will usually see looked at. If you disagree with any of my picks, let me know in the comments who you would have chosen.

Individual Awards

Best Breakthrough: Marcus Smith

So many players came to mind while I thought of this. Exeter’s Sam Simmonds may have come on the scene at the end of last season, but it was this season where he really broke into the first team squad and he also went on to play for England. His brother Joe has also broken into the squad in the latter months of the season and deposed Gareth Steenson from the starting fly half berth as the Chiefs went all the way to the final, in fact had he been part of the winning team on the day he may have won the award. I’m sure nobody who has read my articles this year will be surprised to see that I considered Gloucester’s Jake Polledri, who went from playing in Nat 1 to the Premiership in the space of 1 summer and excelled in the back row, earning his first Italy cap during the 6 Nations. However, the award this season goes to Marcus Smith of Harlequins. Though Quins did not have the best of seasons by any standards, Smith excelled after being shoved into the limelight early on following a nasty injury to Demetri Catrakilis, and now he has surely proved himself the long-term successor to Nick Evans. He played more minutes in the league than anyone else in the Quins squad and ended the season 3rd in the race for the Golden Boot behind his countrymen Owen Farrell and George Ford. He was so impressive he has already been included as an apprentice player in the England squad by Eddie Jones and though he spends this summer with the U20s, another good season will make him difficult to ignore building towards the 2019 World Cup.

Best Newcomer: Faf de Klerk

Rob Horne was having a solid season in a poor Northampton team until his injury-enforced retirement and Juan de Jongh gave Wasps a different dimension in their midfield. However the winner came to a toss-up between 2 representatives of Sale Sharks. Jono Ross finished the season with the most tackles of any player in the league (336, 7 more than Gloucester’s Lewis Ludlow) and was a big part of the Sale pack’s efforts to get front-foot ball for their team. However I chose to go with his teammate and fellow South African Faf de Klerk. De Klerk regularly provided a threat for Sale, both with his quick ball from the back of the ruck and also his ability to make plays himself. He also chipped in with a number of points off the tee. Scrum half is not the strongest of positions for the Springboks at the moment, will this season have put de Klerk in the driving seat despite playing outside the country?

britsFond Farewell: Schalk Brits

This award goes to a player who is retiring from rugby as opposed to just leaving the league. I was very close to selecting Chris Wyles of Saracens, who retires from the game with the record number of tries in Premiership semi-finals and also joint to with Chris Ashton for most Premiership tries scored for Saracens. However, I have instead chosen his fellow Saracen Schalk Brits. The South African was an early member of the hooker revolution, moving away from being a 3rd prop to a mobile player that was more like an extra back rower. Just look at the stats on the tweet from Opta, this guy has dominated in open play while not shirking his responsibilities as a hooker. Capped 10 times for the Springboks, I can’t help but wonder how many caps he would have won had he stayed in South Africa, though he would have still had plenty of competition from Bismarck du Plessis and former captain John Smit. The Premiership will be a less exciting place with Brits no longer playing.

Bon Voyage: Ben Foden

Similar to the Fond Farewell Award, the Bon Voyage Award looks at players who are leaving the league to ply their trade in another competition. Richard Hibbard has become a fan favourite at Kingsholm and always gave maximum effort so will be missed as he returns to Wales to play for the Dragons. Thomas Waldrom was one of the early stars of the Exeter Chiefs as they began working their way to the top of the league and while the development of Sam Simmonds and Dave Ewers may have reduced him gametime this season he remained a popular as ever. However, Northampton’s Ben Foden gets the nod here. The former England fullback made 250 appearances across all competitions for Northampton following his move from Sale. Formerly a scrum half, he made a name for himself in the 15 jersey but has also spent time on the wing in recent years. A deceptively strong runner, I always felt that his 34 caps was far too low for a player of his quality, but a period of injury unfortunately saw him drop out of international contention. Now that his time with Northampton is coming to an end, the word is that he will be joining Rugby United New York, who will be joining the new American professional competition Major League Rugby next season. Having players of his quality playing out there will surely help grow the legitimacy and the quality of the league quickly.

Cojones Award: Rob Baxter

The Cojones Award goes to someone who had the balls to do something audacious this season despite the huge risk. I found this a difficult award to think of at first, until my mind looked away from the rugby field slightly and instead to the team selection. Rob Baxter was in a comfortable position with Exeter riding high in the league and Gareth Steenson, though aging, still one of the most reliable fly halves in the competition. Instead, halfway through the season he made the decision to demote the Irishman to the bench and promote the relative unknown youngster Joe Simmonds. Fast forward a couple of months and Simmonds helped lead the Chiefs to the top of the table with some dominant performances and though they lost to Saracens in the final, I’m not sure having Steenson start would have won them the match either. On top of that, Simmonds also won them silverware with an assured performance in the Anglo-Welsh Cup final at Kingsholm. A decision with more than a hint of looking to the future, but it worked in the present too.

Team Awards

Head-scratcher Award: The lack of DTH

In only my second year of the Alternative Awards, I am already starting to sense a theme with this award, as last year’s reduction in Matt Kvesic’s gametime has been mirrored this year by the almost complete absence of DTH van der Merwe from the Newcastle squad before his move back to Glasgow. The Canadian winger was a fan favourite for years at Glasgow and found his way over the try line with regularity. Following a move to Scarlets he continued his regular scoring despite competition from players like Johnny McNicholl and Liam Williams. When it was announced that he was moving to a Newcastle Falcons team that was clearly improving in attack, I got excited to be able to see his talent on a regular occasion, but he made a grand total of 3 appearances before moving back to Glasgow midway through March. Granted he had competition from Sinoti Sinoti and Player of the Season Vereniki Goneva, but with such a long season I don’t understand why there was not more rotation amongst the wingers, especially with such a quality option available. Still, Newcastle’s loss was Glasgow’s gain and he was immediately back in the tries during the final months of the season. Now just imagine if Newcastle and Glasgow are drawn in the same Champions Cup pool…

Biggest Disappointment: London Irish

This was not as easy a pick as it may have been due to the struggles of Harlequins and Northampton this season, while Gloucester also fell away in the last few weeks of the season, but when I sat down and thought about it there was only 1 team I could really pick here. After earning an immediate promotion back to the Premiership and with a number of talented young players coming through alongside experienced heads like Petrus du Plessis and Blair Cowan, things looked good for the Exiles as they won their opening match of the season against Quins at Twickenham. But things went downhill after that and they only managed 2 more league victories during the season – doing the double over Quins and beating Worcester at the Madejski. Add to everything the backroom issues with Les Kiss and Declan Kidney arriving in March and Director of Rugby Nick Kennedy leaving the club soon after. With their relegation back to the Championship, they are losing a number of talented players and I hope that we can see them back in the Premiership soon, though I doubt it will be as easy as it was for Bristol this year.

Biggest Success: Newcastle Falcons

At one point in the season I thought I’d be able to pick Gloucester here, but their end of season slump put an end to that and the award goes to Newcastle Falcons for the second year in a row. The Falcons built on last season’s success and despite missing Toby Flood for large portions of the season managed to break into the top 4 come the end of the season, ending Leicester’s run of 13 consecutive playoff appearances. Though it is a talented squad, it is not chock full of the big names in the same way some of the top squads are, and though they were steamroller by Exeter in the semi-final, their efforts this season are something to be proud of. Now if they can make the next step and consistently make the top 4, that will be highly effective, but with their reliance on an ageing Niki Goneva and with a number of squads around them strengthening, I think next season could be a struggle for them to repeat their success.

Eyes On: South Africa v Wales

Eyes On: South Africa v Wales

The Summer Tests are officially underway. Though World Rugby’s international window was not yet open, South Africa and Wales decided to kick things off early with a match in Washington’s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Both teams fielded sides that can be kindly called B teams and its safe to say it showed as the two teams toiled to a 20-22 final score in Wales’ favour.

 

Scaring off the States

I really hope American fans don’t put too much thought into this match or they will never ant to watch rugby again. This was probably the worst Tier 1 international rugby match I have ever seen! Both teams had a number of debutantes and inexperienced players and very few of them did enough to try and catch their head coach’s attention (more on that later). Granted the rainfall just before kickoff would not have helped, but the handling skills of the players would have been considered unacceptable even in the Welsh Premiership.

Hallam Amos’ try came from a smart turnover from Ellis Jenkins, but he was only given the opportunity because the South Africans were too busy bumping each other to notice the ball had come out of the ruck. Tomos Williams’ try came off the back of a counterattack from Gareth Anscombe that was only possible due to a poor South African clearance that should have been put into touch. Travis Ismaiel intercepted a blind pass from Amos in the Welsh 22 and Ryan Elias’ winner summed up the game perfectly, falling on the ball over the try line after Robert du Preez had 2 clearances charged down in quick succession, the second ricocheting off Ismaiel into the dead ball area. It’s fair to say the only try that didn’t come as a result of an error was Makazole Mapimpi’s, though it could be argued that a penalty try should have been awarded when Owen Watkin deliberately played Elton Jantjies’ chip out of play to deny Jesse Kriel a chance to score.

As if all those errors weren’t enough, Watkin also knocked on with an overlap of approximately 7v3 following a great break by Ross Moriarty. Inexcusable play for a match at this level. And what could make the poor handling even worse? God awful scrummaging! It felt like the scrums went on forever as they were being reset so often. If there is anything that will stop more people becoming fans it is endless scrums.

From a wonderful game like Ireland’s win against the All Blacks in Chicago to a pile of rubbish like this… On behalf of the rugby community, I apologise to every American watching and hope you will give the sport another chance.

Though saying that, was anyone watching? The stadium didn’t even reach half capacity. Despite rugby growing in the USA due to the continued success of the men’s 15s and 7s teams and the introduction of Major League Rugby, people did not seem interested in this game! Is it any real surprise though? The springboks have been poor under Allister Coetzee and memories of their poor results and performances will not just go away now Rassie Erasmus is in charge. Put them against a Wales team that has very rarely been called exciting in recent years and you can’t help but feel sorry for the American fans at the drop in quality from previous matches. If we want to bring in new fans, we should be giving them a match involving the Barbarians, that can’t help to build excitement whilst also introducing new fans to rugby’s values.walsa

The broadcast

Wales’ Summer Tests are being broadcast on Channel 4, who will also be showing a match in each round of the upcoming season’s Champions Cup. On this showing, I’m not looking forward to it. While they got a number of quality pundits (Shane Williams, Ugo Monye and Thinus Delport) and experienced commentators in Eddie Butler and Martyn Williams, the whole thing was an absolute shambles!

The broadcast was apparently relying on pictures from an American feed and it was as if the people in charge had never seen a game of rugby before. The first half especially was full of poor camera angles and closeups that didn’t even show the ball, it was almost impossible at some moments to know what was going on. And those were the moments when the feed actually worked, as we were left without pictures on at least 2 occasions, not good enough for an international match. It wasn’t even just technical difficulties, with some of the commentary being of questionable quality and I must admit I still don’t understand why Eddie Butler felt the need to comment on the passing of Elton Jantjies’ father after complications following a bee sting, not helped by the manner of the comment before moving on to another subject making it sound as if it was humorous… safe to say I wasn’t laughing.

And with all of this going on, how did Channel 4 react on social media? By posting god awful tweets that someone clearly thought were funny. They weren’t and this was just made even worse by the poor broadcast. I was so excited to hear that we would be getting more rugby on free to air TV, but if they don’t improve their quality quickly, Channel 4 won’t be getting many viewers on a regular basis.

Laying down a marker

With the World Cup just over a year away, players are running out of chances to earn a spot in the tournament squad. Every international match is a huge opportunity but there were only a few people who really put their hands up.

André Esterhuizen made some good strong runs from inside centre and was arguably the best player for South Africa on the night. With Ben Te’o out of the June Tests, England’s midfield will be rather lightweight and I would not be surprised to see him given a chance to stake a more permanent claim in that match.

wals2For Wales, co-captain Ellis Jenkins was in my opinion the best player on the pitch, making a number of important turnovers that either stopped South African chances or created chances for Wales. Though he did have a couple of handling errors he also had a decent game in attack. He has a lot of competition at flanker but if he continues to play like this it will take a brave man to drop him form the starting XV. Scrum half Tomos Williams showed some good flashes around the fringes on his debut and had good strength to break through 2 attempted tackles for his try. However, there were times when his control of the game was lacking, he needs to work on that going forward at international level if he wants to become a regular in the 23 now that Rhys Webb is out of contention. Gareth Anscombe did enough for me to keep the 10 shirt for the next match, but there is room for improvement. He did a great job to draw in Elton Jantjies off a lineout and exploit the space with a flat pass to put Ross Moriarty through a gap, and his counterattack off a poor clearance set Wales up for Williams’ try, however his game was not consistent enough against a poor South African team and he had a mixed day with the boot, though a couple of his misses were very close and from out wide. If Gatland does want to create a more attacking gameplan, he needs to stick with Anscombe and Rhys Patchell rather than go back to Dan Biggar.

In international rugby, you’re not going to win regularly without a reliable fly half. Elton Jantjies is not that. The Lions 10 has never impressed me when I have seen him play, either for the Lions or the national team and I was always impressed by the way the Lions were able to have such success in recent years of Super Rugby despite him. In this match he was anything but reliable, with a couple of good moments being generally outweighed by a lack of control of his back line. Robert du Preez started well after replacing him by nailing his first kick at goal but he did not see out the game well with his attempted clearances being charged down twice within less than a minute to gift Wales the winner. I will not judge du Preez on one game (with the small dead ball areas I would have put the onus on the scrum half to make the clearance at the end) but he will need someone to support him to make sure his confidence does not drop from this. Last season, it appeared Curwin Bosch could be set to be the next big thing at 10 for the Boks, but this season he has been moved to 15 for the Sharks and has not looked as good there. While the Springboks have a history of grooming future fly halves in the fullback position, his play was not good enough in this match with poor kicking and limited attacking impact, so I fully expect Willie le Roux to be back in the 15 shirt against England. If South Africa are to improve, they need to find the answer at 10 quickly.

Lads on Tour: Aviva Premiership Final 2018

Lads on Tour: Aviva Premiership Final 2018

On Saturday June 26th, 4 lads from Gloucester set out on an adventure to London to watch Exeter take on Saracens in the Premiership final. Myself and 3 other friends from work – Ash, Phil and Sam – had gone to last year’s final and after thoroughly enjoying ourselves decided to make it an annual occurrence, booking our tickets early to make sure we didn’t miss out. offtolondonAfter a late shift swap at work (apparently I can’t count alternate weekends correctly) we were all set to go.

Wanting to get there relatively early to avoid the traffic, we met at Sam’s at 8am and travelled in style in his Merc (yes, he’s a show-off but getting to ride in the car we didn’t care!). Of course heading off so early, there was only one way to start the day: a carvery breakfast… perfection! From there it was time to get on the road, with DJ Phil in charge of the tunes and blasting out the cheese and 90s hits for the whole trip down.

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Someone was happy to be the only one putting money on Saracens…

As with last year, parking wasn’t an issue as we had rented out a driveway months in advance – if you haven’t tried this before, I highly recommend it – and this left us just a few minutes’ walk from the stadium. Having got our bearings we went in search of a watering hole and found a pub not too far out the way full of Exeter fans… always fun when 3 of us have been given Sarries flags on the way there! While enjoying the sun to varying degrees (I’m ginger so not very much!) we decided to make a friendly wager on the final score, whilst also selecting our picks for first try scorer and Man of the Match (though the money was based only on the result). After a pint there, we made our way back to Twickenham and through the gates. Arriving at the ground earlier than last year, we were able to join the crowds to welcome the teams into the stadium and all but Ash replaced our Sarries flags with Exeter ones. We then spent some time enjoying the atmosphere, chatting to some other fans – including a discussion with a lovely Saracens fan about the new Gloucester badge – and also taking part in a couple of the challenges.

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Our predictions ahead of the game

Phil, Ash and I made a passable makeshift front row for a scrum simulator, while Sam was the only one to have any success on the place kick simulator, putting his final kick through the posts while the rest of us struggled to even get the ball to reach the posts in the air. And of course, there was no way we were going to turn down the chance of a photo with the trophy! 33714942_10160497822865191_8037362314652942336_n.jpgThis chance to enjoy the entertainment alongside fans of all the different Premiership teams reminded me just why I love rugby so much; you wouldn’t be able to do this in many football leagues.

From there we made our way up to our seats in the top tier and we were able to appreciate just how well the seating at HQ had been designed as despite being so far from the pitch we had a wonderful view and were still able to discern who most of the players were with relative ease. The game began and even though the result did not go the way 3 of us wanted, we all enjoyed the match and the atmosphere so much! For more on my thoughts on the match itself, see my article here. After the game, we stayed in the stadium a while to applaud Saracens while they celebrated their win, allowing the worst of the crowds to disperse as we knew that the road we needed to get onto would be closed until 6pm.33767874_10160497821650191_4259702857130835968_n

From the stadium, it was a short stroll back to the car and by this point the roads were beginning to open up, though it still took a while to get out of London on some of the busier roads. Phil was given the honour of being allowed to drive the Merc home and Sam took over as DJ for the return journey, treating us to some easy 90s, cos everybody loves a bit of Phil Collins. Similar to how the day needed a good start at the carvery, it needed a good finish too, so we stopped at the Harvester at Swindon services and filled ourselves up while catching the first half of the Champions League final on Phil’s phone, while I relied on a friend for updates on the Pro14 final. Suitably well-fed, we got back in the car to complete the last leg of the journey and found ourselves bidding ach other farewell about 9pm.

A 13 hour day well worth it, bring on next year – hopefully with Gloucester competing in the final!

The Italian Job: Giro 101

The Italian Job: Giro 101

The 2018 Giro d’Italia came to an end last weekend. 3 weeks of some of the best cyclists in the world making their way around Italy (mostly) in the first of this year’s Grand Tours.

Defending Champion Tom Dumoulin started as he finished in 2017 by winning the short time trial on Stage 1, however he handed over the pink jersey to BMC’s Rohan Dennis after he picked up some bonus seconds during an intermediate sprint on Stage 2 and never manged to get the jersey back, with Simon Yates and eventually Chris Froome the only other riders to wear the jersey during the race. The final standings in the main classifications were:froomepink

  • General Classification:
    1. Chris Froome (Team Sky)
    2. Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb)
    3. Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana)
  • Points Classification:
    • Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors)
  • Mountains Classification:
    • Chris Froome (Team Sky)
  • Young Rider Classification:
    • Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana)
  • Team Classification:
    • Team Sky

Hard-fought victory

This was far from the usual Grand Tour victory that we have come to know from Chris Froome. His preparation for the Giro could not have gone much worse as he has been forced to protest his innocence following an adverse test result during last year’s Vuelta that found his with twice the legal level of Salbutamol in his blood. Things got even worse for him after he came off his bike on his recon ahead of Stage 1, injuring his leg.

zoncolanDave Brailsford said in interviews that due to the Giro being so early in the season, Froome was coming into the race a little below where he would usually be starting a Tour, with the idea of growing into the race, but that his injury meant that he spent the early days recovering before he could begin to grow into the race. He struggled for the first half of the race, being dropped from the leaders’ pack on a number of occasions and not looking at all comfortable on his bike following a slip about 5km from the end on Stage 8. Team Sky stuck with their man though and if anything probably benefited from not having to control the race for the majority of the stages and Froome gave a hint that he was building into the race with his climb up the Monte Zoncolan to win Stage 14. A poor day on Stage 15 suggested that maybe Froome had pushed himself too hard the day before, but after the second rest day he really came into his own. A top 5 placing on Stage 16’s time trial left him less than 40 seconds off the podium and it was his attack on Stage 18 that finally suggested Simon Yates could be beaten. The very next day, Froome attacked from about 80km out to be the first to crest Cima Coppi – the race’s highest point, in this case the Colle delle Fenestre – and take first place in the GC, which he held through the final mountain stage despite a number of late attacks from Dumoulin to become the first Brit to win the Giro d’Italia.

Not only is he the first Brit to win the race, he becomes only the seventh man to win all 3 Grand Tours and the third to hold all 3 Grand Tour titles at the same time, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault being the other 2. Now Froome needs to find away to prove his innocence in the case of his adverse test result, otherwise all his hard work will have been for nothing.

So near yet so faryatesdrop

While Chris Froome may have struggled in the first 2 weeks, another Brit excelled: Mitchelton-Scott’s Simon Yates. The elder of the team’s Yates twins, Simon Yates has shown in previous Grand Tours that he can run with the best GC riders. He din not take long to make a mark on this year’s race, finishing in the top 10 of the short time trial. Much as he has done on previous Grand Tours, he stuck with the favourites whenever they attacked from the lead groups, but this time he was also able to pick his moments to attack and take time on his rivals, taking the pink jersey on Stage 6. He continued this tactic throughout the race and was the only person to even stick close to Froome on Monte Zoncolan, finishing just 6 seconds behind him. He continued to build on his lead the next day, attacking about 17km out to win Stage 15 – his third stage win of the race – before putting in another strong time trial to hold a 56 second lead over Dumoulin going into the final rest day.

And then on Stage 18, everything began to go wrong for the man who looked destined for the top step of the podium. After covering an attack by Tom Dumoulin, Yates was unable to find the strength to stick with the leaders when Chris Froome came back onto the group and passed them for an attack of his own, eventually finding his lead over Dumoulin halved, before being completely dropped on the Colle della Fenestre the next day and finishing almost 39 minutes behind Chris Froome to relinquish the pink jersey. Yates was broken and he eventually finished the race just outside the top 20, 75 minutes and 11 seconds behind Froome and just under 17 minutes behind teammate Mikel Nieve, who won the final mountain stage.

While Yates will undoubtedly be disappointed in the way the race finished, he has a lot to be proud of and will surely be back competing at the top of the GC in future Grand Tours. Perhaps he needs to take a look at Froome’s style of leading, where he rides more defensively once leading a race. Granted, Froome is a better in the time trials so can afford to make up time there rather than on the mountains, but he is not generally one to expend energy attacking when he is already ahead and instead paes himself to make it through even the hardest climbs.

Odd route

Despite being called the Giro d’Italia, it was not until Stage 4 that the race took place actually in Italy, with the first 3 stages taking place in Israel. This is not the first time a Grand Tour has started in another country, but I just don’t understand the need for it, especially when the country is not even geographically close! It was made even worse when you consider the controversy relating to the conflict with Palestine and human rights issues. I understand the importance of funding, and this is not just a dig at this race as many sports are starting to do similar, but it is starting to feel like money is more important than morals for many at the top in pro sports.

The final stage of this year’s Giro, 10 laps of a route around Rome, was always intended as a procession for the GC riders and just a fight for the sprinters, however the importance of the final stage dropped soon after the riders complained of the road conditions (many sections including cobbles) until the race was neutralised for the General Classification, leaving the riders only needing to complete the race in order to keep their GC position. I don’t understand how the race organisers could not envisage a problem with the route, especially if there had been adverse weather. I have said before that the race organisers need to do more to improve the safety for the riders, before someone has a big accident.

 

Feature image from Mussi Katz on Flickr