Time for an Update: Changes I’d love to see in FIFA 22

Time for an Update: Changes I’d love to see in FIFA 22

With much of the last year being spent alone in lockdown, I have found myself putting much more time into FIFA 21 than I usually would, getting through a number of years in my career and even dabbling for a little bit in Ultimate Teams. Having spent so much time playing, there are a number of things that I have picked up on that could make the FIFA experience better. Of course, EA don’t generally care too much about the player experience and just wants to make money off game sales and money being spent in UT, so I doubt many of the things on this list will come to fruition even over the next couple of years, as I will be focusing mainly on gameplay and the manager mode career.


All the licences

Now I know this is going to be a hard one due to FIFA not being the only football game, but having licences missing is a real drawback, especially when you get big name teams like Juventus, Roma and the Italian national team under different names and having generic kits. Coming up against one of these teams really takes out some of the immersion, which is a real shame and even worse for people who are fans of those teams.

More leagues

A couple of seasons into my career mode with Cheltenham Town, I picked up an Italian striker called Sebastiano Esposito, who has gone on to become my star striker. If I were to lose my save and restart career now, he would be unavailable as he has moved to a team in Serie B, which is not included in the game. It seems crazy to me that there is only 1 Italian league and I feel that all the top European leagues need at least their second tier, if not also their third, to allow for players who may be out on loan from big name clubs to lower tiers, while also providing more options for progression in career mode – it’s been great being able to rise up from League 2 to the Premier League as manager of Cheltenham Town.

Further to this, it’s beyond time that the Women’s game was added beyond just the international teams, with the top women’s leagues and competitions being added, so that those who dream of seeing Daniëlle van de Donk score the winner for Arsenal in the Champions League can make it a reality in the game.

Change throw-ins

Watching Ben Tozer and Cheltenham Town this season has reminded me just how dangerous a player with a giant throw-in can be. Unfortunately, if you try to utilise that in-game when you reach the final third of the pitch, you’re lucky to have any players positioning themselves in the middle of the box.

The usual throw-in system could stay as it is, but with a button you can press to change to a throw deep into the box, which will see whoever has the “long throw” or “giant throw” trait prepare to throw in and players to set up in the box similar to a corner, with he throw either using the current corner dynamic of picking the rough area you’re aiming for and how long you hold the power bar deciding if the throw is looped in or more of a bullet, or instead going for a power cone, where you can choose the rough direction, but more powerful throws will be less accurate.

Just this one simple addition to the game will make it feel more realistic and give more importance to the players with long throws.

Make management jobs more realistic

Let’s be honest, there’s a lot about the manager mode that doesn’t feel realistic. and it could be simple changes that help this. For starters, let’s just use my career as manager of Cheltenham Town. I started with them on a £13,000 contract, and despite 3 promotions in 4 years, my contract has remained the same every year. I’m not saying that I should now be theoretically getting Pep Guardiola money, but I think that these contracts could be more realistic and have a range of salaries dependant on the league, success in previous years and the club’s own financial situation.

Similarly, through all 4 seasons, I have received offers from pretty much every national team in the game. It’s hard to imagine that one of the top 10 nations will come asking me to be their manager when I’ve never managed above Championship level. Even more crazy is the thought that these top national teams would allow someone to manage them on a part-time basis while still managing a club team!

Obviously they would be shorter seasons, but I think that the international management role should become a full-time role, with us choosing to focus on international football rather than club football, as is the case in real life. Similarly, to make managerial opportunities more realistic, I would add a new feature – reputation points – which group and down according to how well you perform as a manager, but higher weightings to more prestigious competitions, with each team having a minimum amount of reputation required before they would consider you.

FIFA 21 Career (In Menus)
FIFA 21 Career (In Menus)

Imagine for example my Cheltenham Town manager mode. I have taken them from League 2 to the Premier League, with 3 promotions in 4 seasons and some strong cup runs. A decent first season in the Premier League could lead to a team like Everton – who are pushing for European qualification – to offer me a role, but a poor season with them that saw us close to relegation could then leave my reputation at such a point that only the bottom couple of Premier League teams would offer me a contract, leading to me needing a couple of seasons of success in the Championship or fighting at the bottom of the Premier League in order to become an interest to a mid-ranked international team.

Manager profiles

Not all managers are the same. We’ve seen for years how Pep Guardiola favours a possession-heavy game, José Mourinho favours a solid defence over a stunning attack, while Eddie Howe provides a more attacking game. Currently in the game, the manager is basically just a unique character you see in some cutscenes, with the team already being set to their usual formation and tactics. But what if the tactics were changed to rely on the manager?

Imagine if each manager came with 3 or 4 preferred formations (which could account for differing personnel between teams) and their own unique tactical set-up. This will lead into my next point, but imagine then if we had Burnley go from Sean Dyche as manager to Pep Guardiola, and you would see the team go from a super-organised defence-first team to a possession-first team. This could be taken even further in career mode with certain managers having certain player types they prefer, for example players with high technical and short passing skills for Guardiola, while a manager who favours route 1 football would be more likely to be in the hunt for a tall and physical striker like Diego Costa than a small but agile striker like Sergio Agüero, while some managers will be more willing to use the Academy and some will prefer to bring in veterans.

Add more of a story to career mode

This would be something relatively simple to do, and would actually be a great culmination of some of the earlier points.

In my career mode, Manchester United are currently 9ᵗʰ in the league with just a handful of matches left, well below the position they should be with the quality of players in their squad, and yet Ole Gunnar Solskjær is still the manager. The only manager who currently moves around is you, despite many players having played for 3 or 4 clubs in the 4 and a half seasons that I’ve played. It doesn’t feel natural.

But how easy would it be for even the managers of all the other teams to have a meter tracking their own safety at a team – and thereby getting sacked if they drop below a certain level – as well as their own reputation meter to see what jobs would be available for them. Let’s take the example above from my career: United’s troubles would lead to Solskjær’s sacking. If our reputation was high enough, we could be offered the role, with our offered salary being affected by a base range for a Premier League team, United’s finances and prestige, and my own reputation meter. If I turned down the offer, or my reputation wasn’t high enough, the AI would pick a manager with suitable reputation from another less/equally prestigious team – let’s assume Sean Dyche has earned enough reputation – and they take over the role, while some managers could spend some time unattached and older managers could choose to retire like players do.

This could then be taken even further by having some players who retire also go into management roles – generally with less prestigious teams initially. We see it all the time in real life, how great would it be to see a player like Jordan Henderson or James Milner become a manager after retiring from playing and working their way to become Liverpool manager later in their career. This could also utilise Ultimate Team having likenesses of retired players to have players who have previously retired (including some who have gone on to become pundits) also appear.

With the men’s and women’s game and international football all combined in one large story, how great would it be to see Steph Houghton finish her playing career, become a manager of a League 2 team, lead them to the Championship before being picked up by a team in the WSL, where a couple of years of strong performances sees her earn a role as a Premier League manager and after a few years there, take over the lead the England Women’s national team to World Cup glory.

Further to this, take out the option to include a financial takeover and just have these happen as random events, with between 4 and 10 happening around the footballing world each season. We saw how the influx of money changed Manchester City, imagine if an AI League 2 team suddenly had a huge financial influx that allowed them to bring in top players and earn back-to back promotions, while you do the same on a shoestring budget, creating a great rivalry over the years.

This could also tie in to the increased story potential, but it seems really odd to me that I have led Cheltenham Town to the Premier League… and yet we still play in a stadium with a capacity below 10,000. Though it does not fall under the manager’s remit, it would make sense to be able to upgrade stadiums as teams move up through the leagues, with the option also available if a team goes on a rapid rise – like in my career mode – to build a new stadium tat is more fitting for where a team finds itself. In order to do this though, teams need to be regularly reaching capacity, which brings me to my final point in this category…

fifa 21 town park

How great would it be to see dynamic crowds?! If we stick to my aforementioned career, my success with Cheltenham Town would surely be leading to capacity crowds week in week out, but Manchester United’s poor season would probably see empty seats in the crowd. Further than this, imagine if Cheltenham took a 0-3 lead over United by the hour mark, how great would it be to see a shot of some United fans leaving early, with shots of the crowd showing more empty seats as the match progresses. Such small touches, and yet it makes everything feel and look more realistic.

More commentary options

I should begin this with an admission: When I play the game, I have it muted and just listen to podcasts. The reason? We have just 1 pair of commentators, so once you have played a few games, it gets boring. While I’m sure that it would involve some time and cost, it would be great to have 3 or 4 commentary pairs, each with a fair degree of unique dialogue. Whether you have these pairs in a rotation, or just randomly selected for each match, that little bit of variety just adds to the whole experience.

Expand the youth development

Youth development took a great step forward in FIFA 21, but it could be taken even further. To properly grow a young prospect once they are promoted from the Academy, they need regular gametime. But imagine that you have a young centre midfield who has the potential to become one of the best players in the game, but is currently a mid-50s overall, while you play with 2 centre mids and already have 3 with overalls in the mid-high 60s. You can’t really justify playing him with any regularity, and a loan probably won’t see him get many more starts either.

But what clubs would do in real life, is have him train with the seniors and play with the u20s. Though we wouldn’t need u20 games to be playable, selecting as much as you can of an u20 matchday squad from youth players in your senior team and also the youth academy (which could be renamed your senior academy), while any empty spots would be hypothetically filled by other members of the academy who are younger and less ready for promotion tot he senior team. Then at the start of each season, the game could create 1 or 2 of these players who would have filled the blank spots and have them be “promoted” to the senior academy, while we can also use the current scouting system to find kids for the senior academy.

Regular selection in these u20s games would allow the players to keep progressing and growing better than if they were an unused substitute, while also making them available if you did want to play them in the occasional senior fixture to test how they are developing.

Scouting changes

While I do appreciate the way scouting is at the moment, I have thought of a way that this could be improved. At the moment, the focus of the scouting is fully on attributes, with just a quick mention of their form. I feel that the specific attributes should actually be something that only the best scouts can get. I would suggest Scout Judgement decide what you are able to view in the following way:

1 Star – Already know player’s age, height, weight, position(s), preferred foot, market value, release clause & current wage. Scout to learn player’s OVR and stats (eg appearances, starts, goals, assists, yellow cards, red cards, clean sheets – for current season, previous season, career)

2 Stars and above – Already know player’s age, height, weight, position(s), preferred foot, market value, release clause, current wage, OVR and stats.

2 Stars – Scout to learn work rates, weak foot, skill moves

3 Stars – Scout to learn work rates weak foot, skill moves, physical attributes

4 Stars – Scout to learn work rates weak foot, skill moves, physical attributes, skill attributes

5 Stars – Scout to learn work rates weak foot, skill moves, physical attributes, skill attributes, mental attributes

In doing so, you are getting a real benefit to what information a scout can get you. Even the worst scout would be able to get a player’s overall and stats, so you can get an idea of how well they are doing, but it would take the best scouts for you to see accurately if a player fits your style.

Improved loan system

Usually if you are loaning a player out, it will be a youth player who you want to develop by sending to a team where they can play more regular. However, there is currently little way to validate this.

Taking the loan system deeper could see you coming to an agreement as to how often the player plays, with monthly updates from the club as to how the player is doing to ensure they remain within the terms of the agreement, and allowing us to see how our loaned out player is developing. 

What do you think about these suggestions? Is there anything you would add?

Thanks for reading. Until next time…

Ford v Ferrari

Ford v Ferrari

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

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

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

Today I will be looking at a more recent movie: Ford v Ferrari

ss ford v ferrari le mans '66

Key facts

Directed by James Mangold

Music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders

Released in 2019

Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Caitriona Balfe

Synopsis: Henry Ford II tasks former racing driver Carroll Shelby (Damon) and his team, including racing engineer and driver Ken Miles (Bale), with creating a Ford racing car capable of ending Ferrari’s dominance at the annual 25 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.

Review

I remember when this movie was first coming out hearing rave reviews from people who saw it, but had no time to go see it in cinemas. Luckily, getting access to my friend’s Sky Go for a week to watch Zack Snyder’s Justice League gave me a chance to catch up on a couple of other films that I’d missed, so this was top of the list. Safe to say that it didn’t disappoint!

I was a massive fan of Mangold’s Logan and the way it made a superhero movie feel so grounded and real. Well Mangold did it again, and though that should be obvious from the fact that it is a biographical sports drama, he – and everyone involved – did a fantastic job of making me feel like I was actually watching something from the 60s in how realistic it all looked. He also did a fantastic job of keeping the film grounded and full of heart rather than just action, by regularly coming back to scenes between Ken Miles and his wife or son. Much like Warrior, it is these moments of heart that can so easily be left out of a sports movie, but in fact take the film to another much more emotional level as we get even more invested in the character by seeing their family life and how that is being impacted. Most notable for me was a pair of scenes between Bale and Noah Jupe (playing Miles’ son, Peter), one talking about being kind to the car and feeling it, and another following a map Peter has made of the Le Mans circuit and using it to talk through the perfect lap.

Of course, these scenes add great feeling, but it is only possible due to the quality of acting, which is top class across the board. Jupe is brilliant for a young actor, while Matt Damon puts in another strong performance as Shelby, with moments of weakness, but also moments where he is fully in control and in his element. Josh Lucas is incredible as Leo Beebe, playing a perfect sh*tweasel character as the main antagonist in a personal sense (Ferrari racers obviously being the overall antagonists). But the best performance by a mile is Christian Bale as Ken Miles. We get moments of elation, anger, joy, sadness and focus from Bale, and he is deep in this role, such that I never for a moment felt that there was any overlap between this performance and any of his other roles that I had seen. having seen this, I’m shocked that he missed out on a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars.

Would I recommend it? Definitely! This is not just an out-and-out sports movie, but a drama with heart and humour, while the idea of racing is easy enough for people to understand even if they do not know the details of the sport. If you have seen Rush and enjoyed it, then this is definitely worth finding a couple of hours to watch.

Sports perspective

So I’ll keep this short and sweet as I’ll be completely honest and admit that motor racing is not my forté, and that if I am usually watching the sport, then it will be Formula 1, rather than endurance racing. Add to that the way that motor racing has changed so much from the 60s to now, and this is certainly something outside of my wider knowledge.

Obviously the big point here is that the narrative focuses mainly on the one Ford that Miles is driving and just a handful of Ferraris, when in actuality there were much larger numbers in the race. We also keep the focus mainly on Miles in the car, when these endurance races have teams of 2 drivers due to their length – we do see shots making this clear, but the action itself sticks to when Miles is in the car. (MAJOR SPOILER WARNING) As a result, the finale of the race is framed somewhat as a defeat as Miles is cheated out of first place, whereas in the wider scope of things it was still a win for Ford.

I also feel that some of Shelby’s shenanigans with the neighbouring Ferrari pit crew were tough to believe actually happened, but they added some fun moments to the race, while also adding tot he feeling of Shelby and co. having to overcome a more experienced and prepared opposition.

Useless trivia

Though I have gone with the title of Ford v Ferrari, as this is what I most commonly heard it called due to listening to shows and podcasts by Americans – such as the Schmoedown Entertainment Network and Action Industries – the movie was actually titled Le Mans ’66 in the UK and some other European countries. Personally, I think that the Ford v Ferrari title is better and more fitting as though Le Mans 66 was the climax of the film and the end of Ferrari’s dominance, the film does in fact cover a couple of years and at the heart of it is about the work that Shelby, Miles and co. put in to create a car that could beat Ferrari and went on to do so for a number of years.

Fist-pump moment

The finale of the race at Daytona gets my vote here. With Miles (unknowingly) needing to win the race in order to get a spot for Le Mans, Beebe has supplied his rival with a far superior pit crew to give them an advantage over him, whilst also giving both cars the order not to push the cars over 6,000 RPM, which would give Miles an advantage due to how closely he had been involved in the design of the car. Seeing Miles will fall just short, Shelby walks out to the side of the track and shows Miles a sign: 7000+ GO LIKE HELL. With this instruction, Miles opens up and goes on a tear to take the lead on the final lap and win the race.

This scene has everything, fantastic racing action, Shelby’s trust in Miles and willingness to stick the proverbial middle finger up at Beebe, who has no way of stopping him, and a grandstand finish with Miles getting the crucial win against the odds.

Favourite line

There were a few that I considered here, including a speech by Shelby about 7,000 RMP which is said at the start of the movie and repeated again towards the end, while “This is about the place where the uninitiated soil themselves” was a humorous moment, but I instead found myself picking this moment from Henry Ford II after the failure of Le Mans ’65 as Shelby convinces him that he needs control of the team rather than being overruled by suits like Beebe.

“This isn’t the first time Ford Motors has gone to war in Europe. We know how to do more than push paper. And there is one man running this company. You report to him. You understand me? Go ahead, Carroll, go to war.”

At a time where many of the male characters would have served during WWII, its a completely understandable sentiment in such a big rivalry between Ford and Ferrari for Henry Ford to liken Le Mans to a battlefield, while we often see in war movies how incapable officers cause the problems, much like Beebe and the other suits are for Shelby.

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

The Kids Are Alright…

The Kids Are Alright…

If you are a regular reader of my articles about English rugby, then you will know that I am firmly of the stance that Eddie Jones should have left his role as head coach of the England national team years ago, and that England should have done as France have this World Cup cycle – immediately turned towards youth and the players who will be pushing for a spot at the RWC2023, so that they have 4 years of international experience – both individually and as a team – by the time the World Cup comes around.

With that in mind, I decided to take a look at picking an alternative England XV made entirely of players who are aged 25 or under by the end of this season, as this highlights the players who would be coming around to their prime around 2023 – 2028 window and potentially cover both of those World Cups. Having made this decision, I also then chose to leave out anyone in this category who has been a regular in the England 23s in recent seasons, to show the incredible depth available out there – even more so when you look at some of the players (like Sam Simmonds) who just missed out on this squad due to their age, but would arguably still have the potential to play a key role in an ideal England squad.

rugby england crest shirt red

1) Alex Seville: I will admit that during the last year, the way competitions have been ran despite the impact of COVID has significantly reduced the amount of club rugby that I have been watching, leading to limited options in some positions. But one young lad who has been standing out has been Gloucester’s Alex Seville. The loosehead has been in and around the Gloucester senior team for a few seasons now and has been reaping the benefits this season, showing his quality in the scrum and carrying with strength.

2) Will Capon: Harry Thacker’s extended time out has allowed Will Capon a chance to show what he can do for Bristol and has highlighted another great talent at the hooker position. Capable of not just keeping up with Bristol’s expansive attacking, but also being able to seamlessly fit into it, Capon also has the strength to look after himself in contact and jump above some more experienced options to claim the number 2 jersey in my XV.

3) Marcus Street: Will Stuart is in the age bracket to get picked here, but is excluded as a regular in the England 23, so Marcus Street gets the nod here. Exeter have an abundance of quality at tighthead prop with Tomas Francis and Harry Williams, so Street will be learning from some of the best, and will surely be hoping to get more regular appearances in the near future.

4) Nick Isiekwe: One of the players who chose to be loaned to another Premiership club whilst Saracens were relegated to the Championship, the regular top flight rugby will surely be helping Isiekwe, even if his playing time is split between the second row and back row. The youngster does have a few caps to his name but has not been picked for since 2018 and will surely be hoping that his play with Northampton gets him back in contention in the near future.

5) Joel Kpoku: From the man who (temporarily) left Sarries to a man who should have left, Joel Kpoku found his opportunities limited at Saracens with their raft of international locks, and would have surely benefited from either a permanent or a loan move away when the club were relegated in order to give themselves the chance of regular Premiership rugby at a key point in their development. Kpoku is just the latest in the train of talented young locks coming through the Saracens ranks, following Itoje and Isiekwe, and it’s surely just a matter of time until he follows them into the senior England XV.

6) Zach Mercer: And so we reach the back row, and this is where things get crazy, as England have a plethora of young talent to cover the back row. Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Ben Earl and Jack Willis were all ruled out due to their regularity in the England 23, while Sam Simmonds aged out, and yet I still struggled to narrow it down to a trio. Ted Hill should consider himself very unlucky to miss out here as I moved Zach Mercer from his regular 8 shirt to number 6 – for reasons you will see soon enough. It is an absolute travesty that Mercer has not been given a fair shot in the England squad as he has been Bath’s best number 8 for years, but has unfortunately decided that enough is enough and agreed a move to France for next season. Expect him to follow in the footsteps of Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon by winning European Rugby Player of the Year in the coming seasons.

7) Lewis Ludlam: Will Evans and Ben Curry are unfortunate to be left out here, but Lewis Ludlam has proved himself previously in the England jersey – making the World Cup squad in 2019 – and has shown a carrying ability to go with his quality at the breakdown.

8) Alex Dombrandt: Keep an eye on Rusiate Tuima, who is currently working his way through the depth chart at Exeter, but here and now, it’s Alex Dombrandt of harlequins who gets the nod here. He carries with such incredible power -hence moving Mercer to 6 to take advantage of Dombrandt off the back of a scrum, while he also has the pace to exploit a gap in the defensive line and the awareness and handling skills to keep an attack going after making the initial break. On top of this, he is also another serious threat at the breakdown for the opposition to deal with.

9) Harry Randall: I’m still not over the fact that Gloucester had Harry Randall on their books but either couldn’t keep hold of him or decided he wasn’t worth holding onto. Randall is a player I have enjoyed since his days at Hartpury College. By no means the most physical player on the pitch, he makes up for that with his wits and talent, quickly becoming a regular in the Bristol XV.

10) Joe Simmonds: Allow me a moment of bias by mentioning George Barton, who is finally seizing on his opportunity at Gloucester and showing his quality to hopefully secure the job as Adam Hastings’ back-up next season. He’s probably a bolter for RWC2023 or more likely a player to come into the squad soon after the tournament ready for 2028, but there are plenty of other options who should have replaced George Ford in the 23 years ago and arguably had the chance to prove themselves at international level. While Marcus Smith certainly deserves his shot, I believe that Joe Simmonds is the best option as he has been developed so well at Exeter, slowly taking over from Gareth Steenson as the leader of the back line.

11) Ollie Thorley: Thorley has been on the fringes of the England squad for a while now but not been able to regularly win a place in the 23. It’s a pity, as he has a great blend of pace and power that will cause defences no end of issues as they try to figure out if he will try to run around them or through them.

12) Piers O’Conor: Though he’s not been able to hammer down a weekly spot in the England 23, Ollie Lawrence has been enough of a regular that I chose to make my job harder by leaving him out. Luckily, Bristol’s O’Conor fell just within the age range so gets the nod here. A utility back who has played for England XV in an uncapped match, O’Conor has a great range of skills that would make him indispensable in any team.

13) Paolo Odogwu: You’ve got to feel for Odogwu, who has been a revolution for Wasps sine his move in from the wing. Such was his form, he was called into the England training squad for the Six Nations and kept with the team each week, only to find himself leapfrogged by Joe Marchant by the end of the tournament without ever making the 23. He has an incredible talent, with pace to burn and strong legs to keep driving in contact. The danger for England right now is that while he remains uncapped, he could choose to switch allegiance to Italy, who would certainly benefit from having him on board.

14) Joe Cokanasiga: A major knee injury has kept the Bath winger quiet over the last year, while he has also been dealing with issues relating to his father’s visa. However, if he can get back on track next year, it won’t take him much to remind us of the quality that saw him called up to the England squad with good pace and great physicality and handling to go with it, giving England something different on the wing.

15) Josh Hodge: Max Malins fell out of the running by becoming a regular for England during the Six Nations, and while an on-form George Furbank has a big draw and both Freddie Steward and Tom de Glanville have impressed of late, I have instead gone for Josh Hodge. Another Exeter player who may not be getting as many minutes as they would at some other teams, Hodge is learning off a top-quality 15in Stuart Hogg and has many of the same attributes, with quality handling skills and the ability to beat players with just his pace and footwork, while also having a monster kick to pin the opposition back.

rugby england crest shirt black

Premier League 2020/21: March

Premier League 2020/21: March

With the FA Cup and international football taking up much of March, we only had a few rounds of Premier League action, but that doesn’t mean nothing of note happened. Manchester City’s unbeaten run came to an end at the Etihad with a 0-2 loss to Manchester United, Fulham picked up a crucial victory against Liverpool, Arsenal came back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 a West Ham and Sheffield United moved on from Chris Wilder with relegation looking likely, only to lose their next match 5-0.

Despite the loss to United, City remain in a commanding position and likely to win the title, with United and Leicester having opened up a small gap between them and 4ᵗʰ-placed Chelsea, with just 5 points separating them and 8ᵗʰ-placed Everton in the fight for European qualification. At the bottom end of the table, Sheffield United and West Brom may as well begin preparing for life in the Championship, while Fulham are keeping themselves in the hunt for safety, currently just 2 points behind Newcastle, who do have a game in hand.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Harry Kane (Tottenham) & Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 17 goals; Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) – 16 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 13 assists; Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) – 11 assists; Bruno Fernandes & Jack Grealish (Aston Villa) – 10 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 16 clean sheets; Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa) & Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 14 clean sheets


End of an era

The first story I will be looking at is actually something that has happened in recent weeks during the Premier League break, with the announcement that Sergio Agüero will be leaving Manchester City at the end of the season. The Argentine has been one of the best strikers of his generation, but after an injury-hit start to the campaign, he has featured infrequently in the starting XI, as Pep Guardiola has often preferred Gabriel Jesus up front, or a formation with a false 9, taking advantage of their midfield options and the goal-scoring form of İlkay Gündoğan this season.

After being such a key part of the squad for so long, it is a shame to see his City career coming to such an end. Along with Vincent Kompany and David Silva, Agüero ushered in a new era of success for Manchester City, so to see him getting such infrequent minutes is heart-breaking as a fan of football and just shows how cut-throat a business football is now.

Of course, the one thing Agüero hasn’t won at City has been the Champions League, but they are looking strong this season and are still in the hunt. Could Agüero still get the fairy tale ending to his Manchester City career by scoring the winner in the final?

Bale balling

It’s surely taken longer than Spurs would have hoped, but in the last couple of months, Gareth Bale has finally become an integral part of the squad following his loan move from Real Madrid.

After putting together some impressive performances in the cup, Bale has made his way into the starting XI in the league and has become such a key part of the attack, playing a vital part in their sole goal against Fulham and scoring a brace against Crystal Palace.

When on form, Bale is a fantastic player, but injuries and falling down the pecking order at the Bernabéu have left him not always reaching his potential, and for so long it looked like his return to Spurs would be a bust. But recent months will have given the team hope and it will be interesting to see if Spurs try to make the loan permanent. If he can carry on like this until the end of the season, letting him return to Spain would be a big loss for the team.

G-real problems

Aston Villa have struggled as of late, and it’s no surprise that these struggles have coincided with the loss of Jack Grealish to injury. While they have still had some attacking quality, Grealish has the talent to unlock defences and change games in Villa’s favour.

At 25 years old and now in and now pushing for a spot in the England XI, it’s hard to imagine that Grealish will be at the club much longer, as clubs pushing for titles and European qualification on the regular will want a player like this, who will also benefit for regular football in Europe when it comes to winning a place in the national team. I’ll be shocked if Villa don’t receive some hard-to-ignore offers this summer.

As a result, these recent weeks without Grealish could prove beneficial. They have shown that they are still a functional team, and it won’t take much to get them secure in the league and competitive around the middle of the table.


Team of the Month

Leicester City

With just 3 rounds of games, it’s certainly harder to pick out one team, but Leicester got my vote here. They have had a torrid time with injuries, but have pushed through to a draw and 2 wins during March. So many teams would come unstuck with their injury list – just look at Villa without Grealish – so to still be pushing into the top 3 is a great achievement. 


Six Nations 2021: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2021: Team of the Tournament

rugby six nations 2021 wales champions

Of course, there is only one way for me to cap off the competition: picking my Team of the Tournament. As always, I’d love to hear who you would pick, but without further ado, my Team of the 2020 Tri Nations is:

1) Cyril Baille: The general consensus used to be that a prop doesn’t reach their prime until their 30s, and while John Afoa may still be a great example of this, Cryril Baille is showing that this prime may now be coming earlier. The Toulouse loosehead is already a dominant scrummager, but the way that he gets involved around the park takes his performances to another level, with strong carries and reliable handling skills.

2) Julien Marchand: After years of being a superb back-up to Guilhem Guirado, it felt like this was finally the time for Camille Chat to dominate the French number 2 jersey. Instead, he finds himself now behind Julien Marchand, as one of the most dangerous hooker pairings in World Rugby. The Toulouse hooker is solid at the set piece and showed against Scotland how he could combine with Baille to dominate a tighthead, while throughout the tournament he showed his threat with ball in hand, combining with Antoine Dupont to make significant ground around the fringes.

3) Kyle Sinckler: Sinckler gets the spot here off the back of some strong displays, but the tighthead spot certainly wasn’t full of players clamouring for selection, while the fight for the starting spot between Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter proved costly for the Irish pair. Sinckler is a strong scrummager and physical defender, and hopefully a more attacking mentality for the English going forward can utilise him here too.

4) Iain Henderson: If you read my thoughts on the Irish second row last week, then you probably won’t be too surprised by my selections here. Henderson combines the physicality and set piece organisation of a lock with the engine and breakdown threat of a back row while also bringing plenty of leadership from his time captaining Ulster.

5) Tadhg Beirne: I was a massive fan of Beirne when he was at Scarlets due to his qualities, and now with a regular run of games in the Ireland XV he is showing that ability to the world. Equally capable of playing at lock or in the back row, I feel that he is still better suited as a lock as it opens up another spot in the back row for more tactical flexibility. After multiple Man of the Match awards in this year’s tournament, expect to see him as a regular in the Irish XV for the rest of this cycle.

6) Seb Negri: It was a tournament to forget for the Azzurri, but Seb Negri makes the list here by continuing to give a physical edge to the Italian attack despite the loss of Jake Polledri. The flanker continually gave 100% for the team and regularly looked one of their better players. Hopefully that effort will soon start translating into wins.

7) Hamish Watson: Anyone who says Watson is too lightweight to face the Springboks as part of the British and Irish Lions needs to watch him play more closely. The openside may not be the biggest guy on the park, but carries with such strength and determination you will often see him throwing players off and breaking the gain line when given the ball. Meanwhile in defence, he is a reliable tackler, and when you get him latched over the ball as a jackal, you’re not moving him until he completes the turnover or wins the penalty.

8) CJ Stander: Taulupe Faletau looked much better this season than he has in a couple of years and is unfortunate to just miss out here to Stander. The South African looked more mobile this year when carrying while still having a great impact around the park. Caelan Doris will be a great player for Ireland once back from injury, but Stander will be tough to replace.

9) Antoine Dupont: Is there a better scrum half in the world right now? Dupont seems able to do everything. He has pace, guile and elusiveness, while he always seems to pop up in the right spot to carry on (or finish off) attacks. Not only that, but unlike many young attacking 9s, he also has the cultured boot and tactical kicking game to put the team in the right areas on the pitch.

10) Matthieu Jalibert: Jalibert was my pick following the Autumn Nations Cup and just keeps hold of the spot here, ahead of Jonathan Sexton. He came into the tournament as aa starter courtesy of Romain Ntamack’s injury, but he quality of his play was such that he must surely be running his rival close now. Had he not suffered a head injury in the first half against Wales, I can’t help wonder if the Six Nations trophy would have gone to Les Bleus.

11) Duhan van der Merwe: He may not be the most reliable defensively, but the Edinburgh wing had a huge impact on matches when Scotland were going forwards. He has that strength to run over people out on the wing or even to crash through in midfield, but he also has the speed and athleticism to exploit any space given to him. I’ll be shocked if Warren Gatland doesn’t take him to South Africa after breaking Brian O’Driscoll’s record for defenders beaten in this year’s tournament.

12) Robbie Henshaw: My vote for player of the tournament. It doesn’t matter who you put around him or whether you play him at 12 or 13, you know that Henshaw will put in 100% effort from first whistle to last. Not only that, but he has such a broad range of skills that he can excel in defence, crashing up the middle or spreading the ball wide.

13) George North: I’ve been questioning how long North’s international career could continue with the quality of players now available to Wales on the wing, but a move to outside centre looks like it may have just extended his international career by a couple of years, and he even beats out Chris Harris for the spot in this XV. North has a great blend of pace and physicality that come in handy at a position where you will see such a variety of attacking play, but he has also adapted well to arguably the hardest position on the pitch to defend, while Wales look to be moving him around well in attack to create match-up nightmares or draw in defenders to release players like…

14) Louis Rees-Zammit: The Gloucester flier has the kind of pace that a former prop like me could only ever dream of… and he knows how to use it to get to the try line. Capable of also slotting in at 15 if required, he is capable under the high ball, and is not the defensive liability you may expect from many young attacking wingers.

15) Stuart Hogg: The Scottish captain is on fine form and will surely be wearing the 15 shirt in the first Lions Test. Hogg has the all-round game to act as a second playmaker, with a howitzer of a right boot to put his team in the right areas of the pitch. And you can always guarantee that the Exeter fullback will give 100% to the cause and wear his heart on his sleeve.

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2021: France v Scotland

Six Nations 2021: France v Scotland

The 2021 Six Nations came to a slightly later end than usual – though still much earlier than the 2020 edition – on Friday night with France hosting Scotland in Paris. This match was originally part of Round 3, but a COVID outbreak in the French squad saw the match delayed. Unfortunately for the Scots, this led to the match being played outside of the international window, and the greed of Premiership Rugby meant that Scotland were only allowed to pick a maximum 5 England-based players.

The French may have denied Wales the Grand Slam in dramatic fashion on Super Saturday, but they knew coming into Friday’s match that they had a sizeable mountain to climb in order to win the title: a bonus point win, with a points difference of at least 21 (or 20 if they could score 6 tries) and with the rain pouring down, the mountain was already beginning to look like Everest. So, all things considered, it was a bit of a shock to see France settle for the 3 points after 9 minutes when given a choice of 2 penalties 5m out from the Scottish line. The decision looked even more suspect on the 15 minute mark as George Turner was stopped just short of the line following a Scottish lineout from 5m out. Hamish Watson was similarly stopped just short, Duhan van der Merwe forced his way over for the opening try, though Welsh fans must have been considering themselves lucky as replays showed that a clear double movement had been missed. Finn Russell added the conversion before trading penalties with Romain Ntamack, and after 30 minutes the French were still looking for their first try. It finally came though with 5 minutes left in the half, as a period of France pressure led to a raft Scottish penalties, and from a scrum in the Scottish 22, Antoine Dupont looped the pass out to Damian Penaud, who evaded the clutches of van der Merwe and drew the covering defence before popping inside to Brice Dulin. Ntamack converted to give Les Bleus a 13-10 lead, and they were back on the attack in the final minutes of the half, which led to Stuart Hogg being sent to the sin bin as a result of Scotland’s high penalty count. France went to the corner and it looked like they were about to get try number 2 right before the break, only for Julien Marchand’s throw to be stolen by the Scots to end the half.

The French onslaught continued against the 14 men of Scotland after the break, and n 46 minutes they made the breakthrough, with Virimi Vakatawa offloading to Damian Penaud, who chipped Russell and beat Ali Price to the ball, successfully dotting down despite a tackle off the ball from the Scottish halfback. With Scotland back to 15 men, Russell kicked a penalty and the French continued to probe for an opening but struggled to find it, with one notable attack going from the French try line to the Scottish 22 in a matter of moments, only for Dupont’s chip to be cleaner up by Russell. This moment appeared to be a turning point in the momentum, as France began to lose their discipline and the Scots took advantage to put on some pressure of their own, and they found the breakthrough on the hour with a lineout 5 metres out. Dave Cherry found his jumper and the ball was switched to the back of the line, but Swan Rebbadj managed to get a hand in to rip the ball loose before the maul could be fully formed. Cherry, who had only been on the pitch for about 90 seconds, was coming round to join the maul and reacted quicker than anyone, picking up the loose ball and going over for the try to level the scores, with Russell converting to give the Scots the lead. France quickly hit back and after a strong carry from Grégory Alldritt brought play up to the Scottish try line, Dupont sent Rebbadj over for the try, with Ntamack missing the conversion from out wide to leave Les Bleus with a 3-point lead. The clock was ticking down but Welsh fans would know that 15 minutes was more than enough time to score 18 unanswered points, and they must have got even more nervous with 10 minutes left as Finn Russell was shown a red card for leading with a forearm into the neck of Brice Dulin. However, the chance of a late run took a real shot when replacement scrum half was sent to the bin as Wayne Barnes lost patience with French indiscipline. As the clock ticked down it looked like the game would end in a narrow French victory, but when France won the ball back as the clock went red, Brice Dulin tried to launch an attack rather than settle for the 3-point win, leading to Scotland winning a penalty. And after 5 minutes of pressure in the French 22, Adam Hastings spread the ball wide to van der Merwe, who stepped inside to avoid a tackle and went over for the winning try, Hastings kicking the conversion to secure a 23-27 victory, the first Scottish win away to France since 1999.

The result confirmed Wales as 2021 Six Nations Champions, while a losing bonus point saw France hold onto 2ⁿᵈ and the Scots finished 4ᵗʰ.

France have a fantastic squad with some enviable depth, helped a little by the willingness to bring in younger players and also the player use agreement with the Top 14 during the Autumn Nations Cup that led to them blooding a number of players. However, in the big games you want your big players, and I think that – as well as the COVID outbreak causing issues – the French were undone by bringing Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa back in right after they recovered from injury, rather than waiting to ensure they were back to match fitness.

Both players are fantastic talents, but they have been a shadow of themselves in recent rounds and not looked up to the pace of international rugby. Granted, Matthieu Jalibert would have probably got the starting spot for consistency had he not been ruled out due to the short turnaround, but there would have still been options in Louis Carbonel, or even moving Dupont out to 10 and bringing Serin in at 9, while having Fickou in the centre with Arthur Vincent and having Teddy Thomas on the wing would have probably been a better set-up given the weather conditions.

Of course, this is still an inexperienced French team, with a head coach in Fabien Galthié who now only has 15 Test matches under his belt as head coach. They will improve in this area with experience, and I still feel comfortable in making them my favourites for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Scotland

Conditions in the first half can could only be described as horrible, with the rain pouring down. While France probably tried to play too much in the poor weather – perhaps understandable given the requirements to win the tournament – the Scots got their tactics right in the bad weather, which went a long way to winning the match.

With Chris Harris having become such a reliable figure in defence and flankers Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie in fine form, the Scots were happy to put boot to ball, either kicking to the corners and forcing Les Bleus to play from deep – one notable kick from Finn Russell holding up just short of the French try line and forcing the French to play the ball under pressure, leading to Jamie Ritchie tackling Brice Dulin and winning the turnover penalty in the 22 between the sticks. And when they weren’t kicking deep, they were kicking to compete, putting extra pressure on Brice Dulin – who struggled last weekend under the high ball – to field a slippery ball.

We know all about Finn Russell’s ability as an attacking 10. While his red card may not have helped him, the rest of his performance will have been a timely reminder to Warren Gatland that he can be the starting 10 of the Lions.

Lions Watch

After another great performance around the breakdown, that back row duo of Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie must be heavily in Warren Gatland’s thoughts.

On the other end of things, Zander Fagerson had a tough time in the scrum against Julien Marchand and Cyril Baille, while if Duhan van der Merwe misses out, it will be due to his frailties in defence being deemed not enough to make up for his abilities going forwards.

Six Nations 2021: France v Wales

Six Nations 2021: France v Wales

Because 2 matches just aren’t enough for one day, Super Saturday finished off with Wales’ trip to Paris to face France in a Grand Slam decider. Usually the finale of the competition, France’s mid-tournament COVID outbreak meant that Les Bleus would have 1 more match to play, on Friday evening against Scotland, but knew that the rearranged fixture would be irrelevant should they lose, draw or win with less than 4 tries and allowing Wales a bonus point – as either of these 3 scenarios would make it mathematically impossible for Wales to be caught in the standings.

Everything was pointing towards an open attacking game and it certainly didn’t disappoint, as France were on the attack immediately, with Cyril Baille being held up over the line. This only delayed the inevitable though, and Les Bleus took the lead a minute later as Romain Taofifenua managed to dot down for the opening try. Wales were soon putting on the pressure themselves though, and when Lois Rees-Zammit popped up unexpectedly at first receiver from a scrum in the French 22, he released Gareth Davies, who was adjudged to have been held up by the narrowest of margins. Wales kept the possession though and went through the phases camped on the French line, until Dan Biggar found the gap and hit it at pace with a beautiful out-to-in line, before kicking the conversion to level the scores. The stalemate lasted just minutes however, as a clever chip from Brice Dulin was collected by Matthieu Jalibert, who fed Antoine Dupnt to score under the posts. Once again though, the Welsh found an answer with their next attack, as Josh Navidi managed to force himself over. After 4 tries and 2 players held up in the opening quarter, things finally settled down a little – potentially helped by Jalibert’s early removal due to a head injury – and Biggar and replacement fly half Romain Ntamack each added 3 points off the tee to send the teams in at the break with the scores level at 17-17.

Biggar soon extended the lead after the break with another penalty, and it felt like the Welsh were in the ascendency in the early stages of the second half. Just a few minutes later, they made the breakthrough, with Justin Tipuric putting in a clever grubber kick out wide. Josh Adams was first to the ball and kicked it infield, where Tomos Williams went to ground to secure it and offload to Adams, who following a TMO referral was adjudged to have got the ball down in-goal. Ntamack cut the lead with a penalty, but the Welsh were straight back on the attack with a devastating driving maul that was collapsed just short of the French line. With advantage being played, the ball was fired to Rees-Zammit who dived for the corner, but a referral to TMO Wayne Barnes showed that the ball was grounded on the touch-in-goal line, so they were forced to settle for 3 points off the tee and a yellow card to French prop Mohamed Haouas for bringing down the maul. 10 points down with just 20 minutes left, the French suddenly seemed galvanised at the thought of their tournament being ended early, and Julien Marchand was held up over the line after peeling off a maul. Then, as the game entered the final 15 minutes, everything went crazy. Having gone through a series of phases in the Welsh 22, the French finally found a way over the line, but the try was disallowed after a lengthy, but expertly handled referral to TMO Wayne Barnes by referee Luke Pearce. The referral found that Paul Willemse had committed an act of foul play with a neck roll on Wyn Jones, which would overrule not just the try put also a penalty advantage that was likely to see Alun Wyn Jones sent to the bin, but further looks found that Willemse was also guilty of making contact with the eye area, leading to the lock being shown a red card and Wales clearing their lines. The French were soon back on the attack though, and after Charles Ollivon was held up over the line, Taulupe Faletau was sent to the bin with less than 10 minutes left. He was soo joined by Liam Williams, who stupidly went off his feet to slap the ball out of Dupont’s hands at a ruck near halfway. The French made it into the 22 and with just 4 minutes left, captain Charles Ollivon managed to get over for a try, which Ntamack converted to bring them within 3 points. Wales tried to see out the final minutes in possession, but that is a long time to keep things tight and they gave away a penalty on halfway with less than 2 minutes left for sealing off. A draw would still hand Wales the title, so France kicked up to the 22 and went through the phases looking for a breakthrough, which they found with 81 minutes on the clock as they used their one man advantage to work an overlap and send Brice Dulin over on the left to break Welsh hearts and secure a 32-30 victory.

While the “Jam Slam” may be off the table, Wales arguably remain in the driving seat for the title, as tie-breaker rules mean that France will need to beat come off a short week to beat Scotland with at least 4 tries and a points difference of at least 21.

Perhaps the scariest thing about France’s performances in this year’s competition is that they have been looking super dangerous with arguably their second choice at fly half. Romain Ntamack had secured the starting spot, but was ruled out for much of the tournament with injury, returning to the bench for the 2 most recent games. With Matthieu Jalibert suffering a head injury midway through the first half, Ntamack got his chance to get some minutes under his belt.

But did that almost cost France in this game? After some time out, Ntamack certainly didn’t seem fully up to speed, with it taking until the hour mark before he managed to get much going on attack as he got back into the flow of international rugby and playing with this backline, whereas Jalibert had been looking super dangerous. Unfortunately for France, the turnaround will be too quick for Jalibert to be involved, so Ntamack will have to get back up to speed quickly.

If he can get up to speed in this shortened week, then Scotland should be worried, as he has shown his attacking quality plenty when at full fitness, while he is also probably a more robust defender than Jalibert, which could prove crucial when every point counts. If he is still not back to his usual level though, a 21-point points difference and the necessity of scoring 4 tries could prove too much for Les Bleus.

Wales

While we joke about how a win would have given Wales the “Jam Slam” due to the luck that went their way, it must be acknowledged that Wales improved so much during the tournament. as well as developing some degree of depth at positions like centre, they have seen players returning from injury and also former key players like Taulupe Faletau returning to form, while newer faces like Kieran Hardy, Callum Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit have brought a new dimension to the team.

While they are still somewhat lacking in physicality, they are finding ways to compensate for this, with players popping up in unexpected positions and running smart lines at pace to give them momentum and help them get over the gain line. Watching Wales on Saturday evening, I really started to see the similarities to Wayne Pivac’s Pro12-winning Scarlets team, who were similarly lacking in physicality.

This is not to say that they don’t have physicality, with George North’s move inside proving a remarkable success so far and surely extending his international career by a number of years, and rather than just expecting him to run into other big men, they are moving players like him and Louis Rees-Zammit around the pitch to get maximum advantage from them.

Will this be enough to beat everyone? No. I worry for the team at lock and hooker without Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, while there appears to be a big drop-off behind the starting back row. Similarly, there will be teams that you will need a more physical approach to beat. But right now, this is a team going in the right direction and looking like they can be competitive again.

Lions Watch

He always puts in quality performances that often go under the radar, but his grubber to set up Josh Adams’ try was a welcome reminder of Justin Tipuric‘s broad skillset, while George North and Louis Rees-Zammit showed just how dangerous they can be if used right.

However, Gareth Davies may have to hope that Warren Gatland remembers how well he suited Gatland’s play as he was removed early in the second half, while Liam Williams‘ moronic yellow card could leave questions over his temperament with plenty of players in the back 3 putting their hands up for selection.

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Super Saturday’s second match saw England and Ireland completing their 2021 Six Nations campaigns in Dublin. England had been the victors in their recent encounters and soon took a 0-3 lead through the boot of Owen Farrell, though Jonathan Sexton soon cancelled this out. The match was a tight contest but Ireland found the breakthrough going into the second quarter with a lineout move, overthrowing to Jack Conan who peeled off the back of the line and – under pressure from Tm Curry – played the ball back into the gap between him and the line and straight into the hands of Keith Earls, who had timed his run to perfection an rounded Jonny May to go over in the corner. Sexton added the conversion before trading penalties with Farrell, and it looked like the game would see itself out to half time, until Hugo Keenan beat Elliot Daly in the air competing for a Sexton bomb into the 22. This put the Irish on the front foot and after a couple of phases, they managed to bring the ball up to the English 5m line, before Jack Conan picked from the base of the ruck and managed to power and stretch his way to the line for a second try, which Sexton converted for a 20-6 lead at the break.

Ireland looked like they had scored another try 9 minutes into the second half when Earls dotted down a Sexton cross-kick, however the try was chalked off for a knock on from Cian Healy in the build-up and the men in green were forced to settle for a penalty to extend their lead, while Sexton added another penalty on the hour. Things were looking bad for England, who were without a recognised fly half having replaced George Ford and then lost Owen Farrell to a head injury just minutes later – Max Malins having also pulled out the night before – but they were given a lifeline as Bundee Aki was shown a red card for a high tackle on Billy Vunipola. England kicked the resulting penalty to touch and after pulling in the Irish pack to defend the driving maul, Jamie George peeled off to the blind side and fed Ben Youngs to cross in the corner. The English discipline was – unsurprisingly for this tournament – lacking and Sexton added 2 more penalties to secure the game. There was still time for one final hurrah from England, and after Conor Murray was sent to the bin, stand-in fly half Dan Robson threw a wide pass to put Jonny May over with just minutes left, Daly converting for a final score of 32-18, that condemned England to a 5ᵗʰ-place finish.

James Ryan may be one of the darlings of Irish rugby, but I would argue that Saturday’s pairing of Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne is Ireland’s strongest second row.

While both of the pair have the physicality of locks, they play like extra back rows in the way they carry in the loose and act around the contact area, while they both have the energy to play the full 80 minutes at 100%. Even with CJ Stander having just played his last game in an Ireland shirt, the team has so many great options in the back row – Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris and Will Connors to name just a few – that having Beirne and Henderson in the second row allows the team more chance to tailor the back row to fit their opposition, such as playing carriers at 6 and 8 or a more defensive option of Connors and van der Flier on the flanks.

Do I expect the Irish to stick to this pairing once Ryan returns from injury? Not likely, though Beirne may return to 6 to keep the pair in the starting XV, but I feel that this is the second row partnership that will lead to the best Irish performances.

England

After last week’s great performance against France, was it any surprise to see England revert to type against Ireland?

Less that 2 years ago, England were playing in a World Cup final, but if you look deeper, the team was already stagnating under Eddie Jones. The win over New Zealand was the only performance of note in that tournament, with England benefitting from facing France and Argentina – both of whom were woefully lacking form – in the pools, and playing a quarterfinal against an Australian team that was also at a low point.

Following the tournament, England should have done as France had, change coaches and bring in the youth to give them a full 4 years playing together to build ready for RWC2023. Instead, Jones has stayed in place and the team has fallen apart. Too many players are picked on the strength of their name and performances years ago, while the form players who should be the stars of this team are not even getting picked for the squad. This has proved especially disastrous this year with the decision to keep picking Saracens players who had been relegated the the Championship so not played rugby for months, and it has left the team with players lacking match fitness in key positions. Meanwhile, the team has also unquestioningly gone for the new Eddie Jones approach of kicking the ball away at every opportunity and trusting a defence that isn’t actually as good as the think they are, while giving away dozens of ridiculous and completely avoidable penalties that kill off any chance of competing.

This 5ᵗʰ-place finish should be the last straw. Now is the time to move on from Jones before the team stagnates any further. 2 years is still enough time to bed in players like the Simmonds brothers and build this team up ready for the next World Cup.

Come on RFU, make the right decision!

Lions Watch

As well as the lock pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain HendersonKeith Earls put in a timely performance to remind Warren Gatland of his reliability. Jonathan Sexton has also done a great job of guiding the Irish attack as it has grown more expansive during the tournament.

Meanwhile, another anonymous display that included an early removal will surely put the nail in the coffin of George Ford‘s Lions chances, while Mako Vunipola was pulled off at half time after struggling in the scrum.

Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Italy

Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Italy

Super Saturday kicked off with a strange feeling in Murrayfield as Scotland prepared to play their penultimate match in the 2021 Six Nations against Italy. The Scots were coming in off the back of a disappointing loss to Ireland, but soon found themselves falling behind to a try from Luca Bigi, who powered over from short range after the Scottish pack collapsed the Italian lineout drive, Paolo Garbisi kicking the conversion from the touchline. Poor Italian discipline soon gave the Scots a chance to repay the favour in kind, and David Cherry rode the power of his pack to go over for his first Test try. Stuart Hogg missed the conversion but the Scots soon had the lead, with Huw Jones breaking from his own 22 off the restart and bringing the ball up to the Italian 22, and when the ball came to the left, the Scots worked an overlap to release Duhan van der Merwe, who brought the ball under the posts to score and allow his captain an easy conversion. Garbisi cut the lead with a penalty, but Italy then shot themselves in the foot once again, with Federic Mori getting sent to the bin on his first Test start for a no-arms challenge on Sam Johnson. The Scots kicked the resulting penalty to touch, and after a series of phases in the Italian 22, Sean Maitland scythed through a gap in midfield. He was stopped just short of the line but offloaded to Huw Jones, who was tackled immediately, but an offload off the floor allowed Darcy Graham to go over for the try, Hogg again missing off the tee. Italy defended strongly but once again found themselves conceding a second try while down a man, with van der Merwe breaking down the left wing and holding himself up long enough in the tackle to offload to a supporting Stuart Hogg, who released the flying Huw Jones with a lovely switch to send the centre over for the bonus point try – the fastest against Italy in this year’s competition, clocked at 28 minutes – which Hogg converted for a 24-10 halftime lead.

The Scots were in no mood to sit back and rest after the break, with David Cherry being quickly sent over for another try from a driving maul just minutes after the restart and things got even worse for the Azzurri on 53 minutes as Seb Negri was adjudged to have deliberately slapped the ball down right after 2 other penalty offences from teammates, leading to him being sent to the bin. Once again, Scotland took advantage of the extra man by calling for the scrum, and after Sam Johnson took the crash ball ball up to the try line, Scott Steele sniped off the breakdown and twisted his was over for his first Test try. The Azzurri’s defence stood firm despite the numerical disadvantage and it looked like they would see out the rest of the period unscathed, until Monty Ioane was sent to the bin with 1 minute left on Negri’s removal for a tip tackle on Stuart Hogg. Though they couldn’t take advantage of the 2-man difference, Scotland were camped inside the Italian 22, and when Stuart Hogg released van der Merwe with a pass between his legs, the winger looked certain t score, only for the covering Marco Zanon to dislodge the ball on the line. This only delayed the Scots for a few minutes though, as Scotland won a penalty in the corner and went for the quick tap, and after a couple of phases, Sam Johnson came on a beautiful out-to-in line to crash over for another try. Entering the final minutes, the Azzurri found themselves in the Scotland 22, but the ball was turned over and a show-and-go from replacement halfback Ali Price saw him break away to the halfway line, where he found van der Merwe on the charge and set him free for his second try of the game. As the clock went into the red, Italy had one final chance to finish on a high with a lineout 5m from the Scottish line, but the Scots got up to steal the ball and kick the ball out to finish with a 52-10 victory, their biggest margin of victory over the Azzurri.

With Finn Russell still going through concussion protocols and Adam Hastings banned for this match, we knew that we would be seeing someone different at fly half for this match. That said, it was still a shock to see Stuart Hogg being selected to wear the 10 shirt.

While Hogg had a good game, it was a big risk to put him in considering any concussion would rule him out of Friday’s finale against France while even more importantly in the short term, it was taking him away from a position where he had been excelling and putting him into an area with less space.

In years gone by, I could have understood this decision as Hogg would often be the third on the depth chart in the Scottish camp, but now, he must surely be fifth at best, with Duncan Weir and Jaco van der Walt giving Gregor Townsend the great situation of having 4 legitimate specialist 10s in contention to play, before we reach players like Hogg, who can fit in there. To me, this was the perfect opportunity for Townsend to play van der Walt from the start and give him the full 80 minutes against a struggling defence, to get him more experienced at the international level, perhaps with Hogg providing support from the fullback position if Townsend thought it necessary.

When it comes to the big matches, you are going to want to put out your best available team, and with Russell and Hastings missing, putting Hogg at 10 is not going to be as good for the team as playing him at 15 with a specialist at 10. Hopefully, van der Walt gets the chance to show what he can do in the near future.

Italy

Every week during the Six Nations, I find myself having to defend Italy and their inclusion in a Tier 1 tournament, but now it’s getting really hard to do so.

This tournament started with some shades of positivity as the youth was brought in, but as time went on, that positivity drained away as the Azzurri failed to keep 15 men on the pitch while their discipline disappeared altogether. And it’s not just the discipline. Throughout the tournament, restarts were put out on the full, kicks in open play were aimless, penalties to touch either stayed in play or went out to touch in goal, players were pinged for advancing in front of the kicker.

Yes, some key players were missing, while inexperienced players were played in some key positions, but the attacking promise would last for a while, then the team would concede a couple of easy tries and everything would fall apart, with the second half being spent largely in the Italian half, with the Azzurri never looking threatening.

When you look at the players, there is quality there, but the team performances are not living up to their promise, and a record losing margin against Scotland has consigned the team to their worst Six Nations in terms of tries and points conceded.

Something needs to change, and for me, that comes at the head coach position. There needs to be leadership from the top, but Franco Smith seems to be struggling to get the team playing even more than he has struggled with his mask throughout the tournament. He has moved the team in the right direction since replacing Conor O’Shea, but his is a tenure full of losses. Conor O’Shea had to rebuild the framework of Italian rugby, Franco Smith introduced the youngsters to Test rugby, and now it is time to bring in a new coach to give this team a clean slate and take this team to the next level and become to Italy what Milton Haig was to Georgia and Eddie Jones was to Japan.

Lions Watch

Similar to last week, this was such an abject performance from Italy, it makes it harder to form a proper opinion on players, but Duhan van der Merwe put in a great response to last week’s quiet game, with today’s performance highlighting both his pace and power. He offers something different to other Home Nations wings and reminds me of George North on the tour to Australia 8 years ago. Meanwhile, a Man of the Match performance from Hamish Watson will certainly help his case with so much depth available in the back row.

Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Ireland

After a COVID outbreak caused their Round 3 match against France to be delayed, Scotland got back to playing by hosting Ireland at Murrayfield. It’s safe to say that they didn’t get off to the start they wanted, as Jonathan Sexton kicked a penalty after just 3 minutes to give the Irish the lead. The early phase of the game saw Ireland continue in the ascendency, and when Keith Earls, Chris Harris and Stuart Hogg failed to claim Sexton’s cross-kick into the in-goal, Robbie Henshaw was there to follow up an dot down the loose ball for the opening try, which Sexton failed to convert. This try appeared to wake up the Scots, and after Finn Russell opened his account for the day with a penalty and Hamish Watson won a crucial turnover penalty on his line, Scotland scored a try of their own that could only be described as rugby chaos: Stuart Hogg charged down a Garry Ringrose kick following a turnover and appeared to try kicking the ball up into his hands, only for it to bounce forward off his chin – not a knock on – before Hogg’s next kick sent the ball infield towards Finn Russell, whose own hack on caught out the retreating James Lowe and allowed the Scottish fly half to collect the ball and go over, giving himself an easy conversion to take the lead. That lead didn’t last long as good pressure on the kick chase gave Sexton another penalty, and after Russell missed a kick of his own, a silly offside from Ali Price let Sexton kick a third penalty to end the half with a 10-14 lead.

Ireland struck first in the second half with a lineout 5 metres from the Scottish line. The Scots successfully sacked the maul at source, but Ireland went through the phases with maximum aggression and Tadhg Beirne eventually found his way over the line, with Romain Poite adamant that he had seen a grounding of the ball despite relays suggesting otherwise. Sexton kicked the conversion and added a penalty to expand the lead to 14. As the half went on, the game became so fast and furious all that was missing was a cameo from Vin Diesel, but substitute Huw Jones managed to brush off a grasping tackle from James Lowe and burst between him and Hugo Keenan to score a crucial try for the Scots, which was converted by Stuart Hogg, who was taking over the kicking and fly half responsibilities due to Finn Russell suffering a head injury. An injury to Scott Cummings after Scotland had brought on all their replacement forwards saw replacement scrum half Scott Steele employed as a makeshift blindside flanker, but he didn’t look out of place and got stuck in with the pack as Scotland hammered on the Irish try line following a series of penalties in the Irish 22, and Hamish Watson finally managed to twist and turn his way over the line and get the ball to ground, with Hogg kicking the conversion to draw things level. Unfortunately for the Scots, Ali Price saw his box kick charged down in his 22 – not the first time in this year’s tournament – and though he recovered the loose ball, he was pinged for holding on with Iain Henderson latched in over the top, and Sexton took his time to kick the crucial penalty to hand the Irish a 24-27 victory.

While some poor discipline certainly cost the Scots at crucial times, there was something else that proved even more costly: their lineout. The men in blue won just 2 of their 8 lineouts, while they also gave away a free kick at one before the throw.

Of course the Irish lineout – under the tutelage of Paul O’Connell – will cause any team problems, but a team looking to regularly win against Tier 1 nations needs to be doing better. This far into the tournament, you can’t even use the absence of Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally as an excuse, as George Turner has had plenty of time with the starting XV and with 14 caps to his name can no longer be considered a rookie at international level.

With Italy up next, Scotland need to show a massive improvement in this area if they are to have any chance of being competitive there when they play their rearranged fixture against the French. If not, then then a season that promised so much will see them finish in the bottom half of the standings again.

Ireland

As well as stealing most of the Scottish lineouts, the Irish also managed to somewhat dominate the breakdown. The physicality of the Irish pack is always there with players Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander, and having players like Robbie Henshaw and James Lowe just adds to that and helps put the team on the front foot in the contact, while other players are very technically good in contact too, allowing them to bring down their man maybe not with a dominant tackle, but till in a way that gives the jackal every chance of winning a turnover.

And now let’s talk about those jackals. The Irish don’t rely on just 1 or 2 players for their jackaling, 1-23 will be happy to get in there and latch on the ball, and so many of them are famed for their jackaling ability, especially when you have one or both of Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson in the second row.

With so many jackals on the pitch and players trained to tackle in a way that will give them the best chance to win the turnover, it makes it hard for a side to attack effectively, as they will have to commit numbers to the breakdown, and will eventually run out of support after a number of phases. Usually it would be the defence that would tire quicker during a protracted period of play, but by defending in this way, it allows the Irish to stay organised and limit the effort they are putting out, keeping them fresh to attack with clinical ferocity.

The Irish attack may still be a work in progress under Andy Farrell, but their defence will keep them in contention against most teams.

Lions Watch

While CJ Stander had a quieter match (by his standards), Man of the Match Tadhg Beirne and lock Iain Henderson must be securing their places in the Lions squad with fantastic all-round games, while Robbie Henshaw is arguably a contender for Player of the Tournament. Meanwhile, Hamish Watson once again showed that his talents at the breakdown are just the tip of the iceberg with some ferocious carrying.

Unfortunately, in an area with such depth, both Duhan van der Merwe and James Lowe will be disappointed with their performances in this match considering their lack of Test experience, while Jamison Gibson-Park struggled for consistency with his box kicks and Ali Price may have found himself getting charged down once too often for Warren Gatland’s liking.