Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

The 2017/18 rugby season is coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been decided and there is only 1 more Champions Cup space still to be decided for next season. Thoughts now turn back to the leagues as the Pro14 and Premiership both had their semi-finals this weekend ahead of Saturday’s finals. Yesterday, I took a look at the Pro14, now here are my thoughts on the Premiership games.

Saracens and Wasps were breaking records left right a centre in a 55-7 thriller. Owen Farrell’s set a record for points scored in a semi-final (becoming the first player to break 100 points in Premiership semis), Chris Wyles scored his fifth semi-final try in 8 years in his final season before retiring and the combined 11 tries and 90 points were both records. In the other semi, defending Champions Exeter dominated Newcastle on their way to a 36-5 victory that sees them reach their third consecutive Premiership final.

semirefsNow you may remember I had a little rant yesterday about the performance of John Lacey and his officials. I generally feel that the quality of refereeing in the Premiership is better than the Pro14, however this weekend I was proved wrong. At Allianz Park, JP Doyle and TMO Graham Hughes both went temporarily blind watching the replays and disallowing as they agreed Elliot Daly had grounded the ball against the base of the corner flag, despite the replays clearly showing that the other end of the ball was clearly grounded on the line before the ball rolled against the flag. There were also a couple of tries (for both sides) that JP Doyle chose to award without checking with Doyle despite some questionable passes and some that were definitely forward. For one of the best leagues in the Northern Hemisphere, it”s just not good enough. I really hope the quality of officiating is better at Twickenham on Saturday (if it’s Wayne Barnes refereeing the final then I’m confident it will be).

Saracens 57 – 33 Wasps

When it comes to knockout rugby, it’s so hard to bet against Sarries. They may not have had the best of seasons by their standards, but they turned it on against Wasps to get the win. Owen Farrell has developed over the last few years from a good kicking and defensive 10 to a solid all-rounder who is now able to cause problems for the defence by taking the ball to the line and exploiting any gaps, as he did for Alex Lozowski’s opener. He was fantastic in his Man of the Match performance, nailing evry kick off the tee to finish with 27 points (a record for a Premiership semi-final) almost had a try too, only to be held up over the line by Jimmy Gopperth. When you have such a metronomic kicker, having a defence as smothering as the Wolfpack almost makes playing rugby easy. What will peak Exeter’s interest though will be the way Wasps had some luck outside, with Gopperth and Daly both having tries disallowed in the corner and a number of other tries coming from beating the Sarries defence out wide. Given the way that Exeter have been playing recently (more on that later), I imagine that Sarries will be spending some time looking at their wide defence in the build-up to Saturday’s final.

sarwasWasps played some absolutely wonderful rugby in this match, but were simply too wasteful. Though Elliot Daly’s try should have been awarded but for a terrible call by the officials, Jimmy Gopperth should have scored and would have had he grounded the ball with 2 hands rather than putting an arm down to cushion his fall. Frequently they were turned over by a smothering Wolfpack defence as their support was too far away and they struggled at times to match Sarries in the set piece. What really killed Wasps in this match, though, was their defence. Owen Farrell exploited too large a gap between Joe Launchbury and Jake Cooper-Woolley for Lozowski’s try mere minutes into the match, while the Wasps defence struggled to get to terms with Saracens’ strong running close to the ruck, repeatedly losing ground when Sarries attacked the area 1-3 men out from the breakdown. Usually 33 points would be enough to win you a semi-final, especially away from home, but the Wasps defence is just not good enough to keep out the opposition on a regular basis. Can Wasps improve in this area next season? They will need to if they want to make it back to the final.

refscrap
Exeter’s dominant style of play is highly effective at inning games, but it’s not going to get much love from Scarlets fans apparently

Exeter 36 – 5 Newcastle

Some people may call it boring, but Exeter’s tactics are certainly effective! The Chiefs do the basics so well and run the ball so hard, they can dominate possession just by hitting the ball up repeatedly in narrow channels until the defence are all drawn in and they can be exploited out wide. This Exeter tactic made them completely dominate the halftime stats, as can be seen in the table below. While it may not be immediately high scoring, as the game wears down there is no way an opposition team cannot be tired out from such a constant defensive effort, and it showed as Exeter got the opening try right before half time through Nic White, before running away with the 2nd half 20-5. It may not be the sexy rugby of Scarlets, but it is effective and wins them games. When it comes to knockout rugby, that’s what matters.

dominant
The halftime stats show just how dominant Exeter were in this game

How could I not feel sorry for Newcastle watching this game? They did such a great job to break into the top 4 at Leicester’s expense and won the most away matches of any team in the Premiership this season, but they just couldn’t get into the game at Sandy Park! They barely touched the ball in the first half and star wingers Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti were starved of ball – the only time I remember Goneva getting the ball was an interception! Fair play to the Falcons, they got a few attacks in the second half and got a try on the board, but it summed up the game for them when Alex Tait dropped the ball over the try line after collecting a cross-field kick in acres of space. I fully expect them to be pushing for the playoffs again next season, but this match showed just how far they still have to go to break into the top 3.

Final thought

This looks set to be a cracking game. Both teams are very similar in the way they rely on solid defence and effective attacking, doing the basics very well. This really could come down to a couple of questions: How long can Billy Vunipola last? Can Joe Simmonds keep his cool on the big stage? Can the Wolfpack stop Exeter’s usual tactics. When these teams met in the semi-final last year, we were treated to a wonderful match ending with Henry Slade’s incredible penalty to touch to set up Sam Simmonds’ winning try. I expect another thrilling match but would argue that Exeter are a better squad than this time last year, so I am going for them to win.

Exeter to beat Saracens

 

Thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have any thoughts on the matches, let me know in the comments.

Eyes On: 2017/18 Pro14 Semi-finals

Eyes On: 2017/18 Pro14 Semi-finals

The 2017/18 rugby season is coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been decided and there is only 1 more Champions Cup space still to be decided for next season. Thoughts now turn back to the leagues as the Pro14 and Premiership both had their semi-finals this weekend ahead of Saturday’s finals. Today, I will be looking at the Pro14, but keep an eye out for my thoughts on the Premiership over the next couple of days.

Things started off on Friday evening at Scotstoun, where Glasgow did not turn up until the second half and as a result went down 13-28 to last season’s Pro12 Champions the Scarlets. The Scarlets will be joined in the final by Leinster, who are still on track for a Pro14/Champions Cup double after holding off a late Munster fightback.

laceyBefore I start with my thoughts about the individual matches, I do have one gripe to bring up: Considering these are the semi-finals of 1 of the 3 biggest rugby leagues in the Northern Hemisphere, some of the officiating was absolutely awful! Glasgow were denied a lineout deep in Scarlets territory when John Lacey and his assistant deemed that their restart had was already over the plane of the touchline when Tom Prydie caught the ball in touch (meaning a Scarlets scrum on halfway) only for replays to show that Prydie and the ball were clearly still in play when he caught it and then carried it in to touch. While this alone didn’t cost Glasgow the match, it does not help the team at all getting such a poor decision against them. Hopefully the quality of refereeing will be better in the final.

Glasgow 13 – 28 Scarlets

What a disappointment for Glasgow! After topping the combined table through the season, they didn’t really turn up until around the 50 minute mark, going in 3-21 down at half time. With the new playoff format for the Pro14 including a quarter-final and with them having gone out of the Champions Cup at the pool stages, Glasgow had 3 weeks between their last game and this semi, which probably put them at a slight disadvantage as they had to get back up to the pace of the game compared to the Scarlets, who defeated the Cheetahs in the quarter-finals. While a rest can be good for the players, sometimes it can get too long and my mind couldn’t help but go back to Gloucester in the 2002/3 season, where they won the league by 15 points but after a 3 week rest lost to London Wasps in the final 39-3. Glasgow tried to play their natural attacking game despite the late loss of Stuart Hogg to illness, but could not get things going and little inaccuracies like overthrowing a 5m lineout and a couple of close decisions like Jonny Gray’s disallowed try proved costly and gave the Scarlets the momentum needed to build up an unassailable lead.

proptryThe Scarlets must be becoming every neutral’s favourite team! In knockout rugby, getting points on the board is key so to go to the corner on a kickable penalty is a brave call, but the Scarlets backed it up by scoring within a couple of phases – a lovely finish by Man of the Match Rhys Patchell! From there, it was pure Scarlets rugby as they scored some wonderful tries, the most notable being try number 3, where Rob Evans got on the end of a wonderful counter down the Scarlets left wing. They can hold their own in the set piece and will look to dominate Leinster at the breakdown in in the final despite the loss of John Barclay. They may have been outplayed by Leinster in the semi-final of the Champions Cup, but I expect the rematch on Saturday to be a closer affair.

Leinster 16 – 15 Munster

Leinster’s strength in depth is incredible. Despite Jamie Heaslip’s enforced retirement and missing Sexton, Henshaw, both Kearneys, McFadden, O’Brien, Leavy and van der Flier (yes that’s 3 Irish international 7s missing!), Leinster were still able to play the first 62 minutes with former Australian international Scott Fardy on the bench and come out with a victory against their rivals. Fardy’s impact in defence towards the end was fantastic and young fly halves Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery controlled the game well from 10 and 15 respectively. Carbery was joined in the back line by Jordan Larmour and James Lowe, who is a real star and was a deserved Man of the Match, causing Munster issues throughout the match with his strong but elusive running, his offloads – including a beautiful one to Jack Conan for the opening try – and his kicking. He also almost had a try of his own, only to be put into touch through a lovely try-saver from Sam Arnold. Granted, Leinster are losing a couple of players this summer (Richardt Strauss and the timeless Isa Nacewa are retiring, Jordi Murphy and possibly Carbery/Byrne are on the way to Ulster – more on that in the next couple of weeks) but this looks to be a team set to compete at the top in the long term.

I hope the Scarlets were taking notes watching this game, because Munster may have shown the defending champions how to beat Leinster next weekend. The men in red struggled at times in the scrum but caused the European Champions some real problems at the lineout and the breakdown. Munster’s issue was there wastefulness. They outscored Leinster 2 tries to 1 and came close on a couple of other occasions before giving away penalties, while they also brought a number of moves to a disappointingly early end with a number of poor forward passes. Scarlets have the players to hurt Leinster in the same areas but I would argue they are also much better at playing the open game. Munster may not have got the win themselves, but they may have done enough to give the Scarlets a blueprint to victory.

Final thought

The final is set to be a fantastic affair. Leinster may have the recent head-to-head form in their favour and with the match being at the Aviva they will also have some degree of a home advantage. If Scarlets can get some control in the game – something they failed to o in the Champions Cup – then their attack could cause Leinster some real problems. That said, if Leinster can grab control again (or play the “boring rugby” as a certain Scarlets fan I know has taken to describing it) I can see them strangling the life out of the Scarlets. I honestly feel this could come down to whether Johnny Sexton is fit to play. If he is available I see him being able to control the game and give Leinster the double, otherwise I see Scarlets coming out narrow victors.

Leinster to beat Scarlets (sorry Gez!)

 

Thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have any thoughts on the matches, let me know in the comments.

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 5

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 5

The 6 Nations is over for another year following a last round that didn’t quite live up to the thrill of some of the recent final weeks. With their title already confirmed, Ireland completed their Grand Slam with an impressive performance over a different looking England squad. This result, combined with France’s 1 point loss in Wales left the defending Champions 5th in the table, behind all but Italy, who were denied a shock result against Scotland by a late Greig Laidlaw penalty.

6ntab
The final standings from the 2018 6 Nations – From http://www.sixnationsrugby.com

Italy 27 – 29 Scotland

After all the hype I have given him throughout the season, I am so glad Jake Polledri performed when finally given his chance by Conor O’Shea. The former Hartpury flanker has been one of Gloucester’s stars this season and did not look at all out of place on his international debut. He and Seb Negri (a former Hartpury teammate) gave the pack some much-needed physicality and repeatedly made ground with the ball. Polledri’s break for Tommy Allan’s second try especially stands out in my mind: pushing away Ryan Wilson, getting away from Greig Laidlaw and drawing Staurt Hogg before passing back inside to give his fly half an easy finish. Though they may not have got the result, there was clearly plenty for O’Shea to be proud of and it is clear this Italian team is building with young stars like Matteo Minozzi. One Italian who did have a quiet tournament though was captain Sergio Parisse. He is still clearly a highly talented player but he is nearing the end of his career and I will not be surprised if he announces his international retirement following the World Cup next year. He has been a talisman for the Azzuri for years but I would argue that Maxime Mbanda would create a better back row combination moving forward, with either Negri or Polledri moving to number 8. What about Parisse then? His experience both internationally and at a high level of competition should continually be utilised by O’Shea, but I think he would benefit from following a similar route to fellow centurion Alessandro Zanni and moving into the second row. The tight 5 appears to be an area lacking depth at the moment, moving Parisse to lock would immediately upgrade the position while also allowing Parisse to adapt his game and be less expansive. It would be a shame to hold Italy back by selecting a player on reputation rather than history, but at the same time Parisse has given so much for Italian rugby (he is the first player to lose 100 Test matches) and I think he has earned the right to go out on his own terms rather than fade away. It will be interesting to see if Conor O’Shea tries this in the Autumn Tests.

On the subject of talismanic players, I will be very interested in Greig Laidlaw’s place in the Scotland squad moving forward. He is a clear leader and one of the senior players in the squad, having been a large part of Scotland’s resurgence over recent seasons. But will he be a starter much longer? Laidlaw is one of the most accurate goal kickers in international rugby but he has a limited range, while Finn Russell has also developed into a high percentage kicker and Stuart Hogg has a huge boot. As a scrum half, he dictates play well but does not provide the same quick ball that Ali Price has when given a shot. Italy were arguably the better team in this match but Scotland looked much more dangerous once Ali Price came on for Russell and Laidlaw moved out to fly half – where he started his international career. Russell is a quality 10 but when he’s off form he really seems to struggle in this team and there is no other out-and-out fly half that looks an option for Scotland at the moment. I think it would benefit Gregor Townsend to start Price and Russell with Laidlaw on the bench to cover both halfback positions. This would allow Townsend to adapt his substitutions to the match situation while also allowing more options for the other 2 backs on the bench.

England 15 – 24 Ireland

fan6n
2 brains really did prove better than 1 as the joint effort from myself and Phil Alder topped the EOTB Championship, but congratulations must also go to Gez Williams who had the top-scoring team for a solo manager – From http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk

Eddie Jones made some much-needed changes to his starting lineup for the final round and put out what on paper looked a strong team, yet they were still dominated by the Irish. 3 losses in a row does not look great for England but I don’t think the panic button needs pressing yet. I would argue that the poor England performances are due to more to fatigue than anything else. Ireland’s players are centrally contracted to the IRFU whereas the England players are all contracted to their individual clubs. This means that the England players are being asked to play more minutes against top quality opposition, whereas Ireland’s stars are getting significantly more rest. This will never show more than following a Lions Tour, half of the England players have played a season and a half with limited rest! England’s player base is significantly bigger than the other Home Nations. The RFU need to take advantage of this by either rotating the players in the national team much more (giving more players international experience but possibly effecting chemistry) or by coming to some agreement with the clubs to limit the playing time of England’s key players. I can imagine many of the England regulars will be given the summer off by Eddie Jones, but then again he may decide to take them to South Africa to ensure the losing run does not continue against a Springboks team that are surely about to improve under Rassie Erasmus.

When England beat Wales in Round 2 it was built on a stunning defence that shut out the Welsh following a strong attacking start. Fast forward a month and England were at the mercy of the Irish defence. Despite CJ Stander not hitting the highs of last year and Sean O’Brien missing the entire tournament through injury, the Irish dominated the breakdown in much the same way that Scotland and France did in recent weeks, winning a number of penalties and turnovers. They also stripped the England players in the tackle a number of times. Even when they were beaten, they still managed to recover, with Keith Earls’ tap tackle on Elliot Daly saving a guaranteed try. Any team would have struggled to beat the Irish with their defence in such fine form!

Wales 14 – 13 France

A cynical part of me can’t help but wonder how much of the different style is due to Gatland & Howley compared to the Scarlets contingent playing their natural game and the rest of the team joining in. I will be very interested to see what happens when the usual starters are available again: how many of them will get straight back in the team and whether the style of play shifts back to what we have become used to seeing. – Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

I was disappointed but not wholly surprised to see Wales revert back to type as the tournament went on. Despite Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe both performing well on the whole when given the shot at 10, Dan Biggar was straight back in the starting lineup against the big teams. Not just that, but Aaron Shingler (arguably one of Wales’ best players this season) was left on the bench in favour of Justin Tipuric, who did not seem anywhere near the form we know him to be capable of. Wales were back to their usual self against France and it should have cost them the match. A strong defensive performance is important (they did very well to limit Mathieu Bastareaud’s impact on the match) but I don’t think Wales will reach their potential until they start focusing on the more expansive attack that I don’t think will be given a real chance until Warren Gatland moves on. I hope Gatland proves me wrong and gives Patchell the shot he deserves.

When the commentators are suggesting Lionel Beauxis should be brought on to improve the French performance, you know François Trinh-Duc is having an awful game! The Toulon fly half had not been having the best of seasons with his club and was only brought into the squad after Matthieu Jalibert was injured and Anthony Belleau was dropped along with a host of players following a night out. He had a game to forget against Wales, with a missed penalty (which would have won France the game) the least high profile of his errors. Nobody in blue came out of the Liam Williams try looking good, but I doubt even Trinh-Duc knows what he was trying to do when he came over and completely missed the ball! His missed touch-finder from a penalty was enough to piss off any forward and his forward pass to Benjamin Fall under no pressure was inexcusable! France really missed the injured Camille Lopez this 6 Nations, it will be interesting to see how the French perform once they have him and Jalibert available again.

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 30

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 30

Manchester City took another step closer to winning the title on Monday night with a 0-2 victory over Stoke. This victory means that a win against Everton on 31st March will set up the chance to win the title at home to United on 7th April. United took a great stride towards finishing second by beating Liverpool 2-1 over the weekend, while Spurs’ victory at Bournemouth allowed them to leapfrog the Reds. In London, Chelsea and Arsenal both got back to winning ways with wins over Crystal palace and Watford respectively, but I still find it unlikely either will be able to make up the gap to the top 4. Towards the bottom of the table, Newcastle’s 3-0 win over Southampton brought an end to Mauricio Pellegrino’s time in charge of the Saints with them just 1 point outside the relegation zone.


Too little, too late?

It was a while back now that I suggested Pellegrino’s job could be in danger, so I am surprised they have waited until so late in the season. They don’t have another league match until 31stMarch (at West Ham) so they have a bit of time to get used to a new manager, but the performances have been so poor the extra points earlier in the year would have likely been a big help. Their 8 remaining games include trips to Arsenal, Leicester and Everton and home matches against Chelsea and Man City, so with so few matches remaining there is no guarantee a new manager will be able to save them. Clearly something needs changing as they were dire against Newcastle with the defence not dealing with Kennedy’s run and a simple ball forward for the first goal, while the second goal was far too simple for the Magpies to break downfield following a Southampton corner. They have sold their best players for years and it was always going to catch up with them eventually, I just hope that they are getting a manager who will not run if they don’t avoid the drop.

plres
Swansea held out for a goalless draw at Huddersfield despite going a man down within 11 minuted – From http://www.premierleague.com

Bad scenes in London

Next time I want to remind myself why I prefer rugby over football, I just need to watch West Ham’s match against Burnley. I can understand that the fans are not happy but there is a way to show it and that was not it! To invade the pitch on multiple occasions not only disrupts the game, I would also argue it disrupted the focus for the West Ham players. The defence were at sixes and sevens for the second goal and I can’t help but wonder if Joe Hart would have dealt better with Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson’s long range shot for the third goal. Not only that, a football match is a family day out, and yet the actions of some fans were so bad, the Burnley players felt they needed to empty the bench to make room for children from the crowd (max respect to them for this). Scenes like this should not be seen at football matches in 2018 and I hope we don’t see a repeat anytime soon. If I was a West Ham player, I would want to get out of that toxic atmosphere as soon as I could!


The good, the bad or the ugly?

Within the space of a few seconds during Leicester’s 1-4 win at Leicester, I saw the best of Jamie Vardy before being reminded why I struggle to like him as much as many people do. His goal to pull Leicester level against the Baggies was a contender for goal of the season! The skill required to volley that ball as it came over his shoulder – with his weaker foot! – and not just get it on target but control it beyond the keeper and into the far corner without taking eyes off the ball was absolutely sublime. Unfortunately the celebration was less sublime as he appeared to goad the fans and front up to someone in the crowd. I can imagine that if someone is hurling abuse from the crowd (again going back to why I prefer rugby) it can be hard not to react, but Vardy often appears to toe the line between celebrating and provoking the fans. If he put that extra effort into playing, then he could perhaps push Harry Kane for a starting spot in the England squad.


Seeing red

There were 2 red cards in this weekend’s matches, but there really should have been 3. Jordan Ayew and Anthony Knockaert both received straight red cards at the weekend for poor challenges with high feet and neither of them have any grounds to argue the decision.

plta
West Brom are as good as down, who else will be joining them in the Championship? – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

Knockaert appeared to see the red missed having had the ball kicked into his face moments before by Leighton Baines, and then seconds later dived into him and was lucky to not make more of a contact. I can understand that it won’t feel nice taking a football to the face at close range, but that was pathetic!

I have more sympathy for Ayew as I genuinely feel he was reaching for the ball and got his challenge wrong, but he made contact high up Jonathan Hogg’s leg with his studs. Hogg was lucky to not receive a red though as his boot was also off the ground and he did (accidentally in my opinion) stamp on Ayew as they collided, much like Pogba’s sending off against Arsenal earlier this season.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the tackler and tackle both get sent off before – unless the tackle has reacted and struck out – but in this case a double red would have been warranted. With the incident happening in the 11th minute, I can’t help but wonder what impact that would have had on the game.


Round 31 predictions:

So this will be a bit of an odd round as only 4 games are being played in this round at the moment, with the other games to be played at a later date (still to be confirmed). As injuries and form fluctuations could affect my predictions for those games, I will just be predicting the confirmed games for now and will add in the other games as they come up.

AFC Bournemouth v West Bromwich Albion – Bournemouth win

Huddersfield Town v Crystal Palace – Draw

Stoke City v Everton – Everton win

Liverpool v Watford – Liverpool win

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 4

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 4

Congratulations to Ireland whose victory over Scotland wrapped up the 2018 6 Nations with a week to spare, winning their record 11th Test match in a row. They will be hoping to end the tournament with a Grand Slam on Saturday at Twickenham against an England team reeling from back-to-back losses to Scotland and now France. Meanwhile making 10 changes to the starting XV was not enough to deny Wales a bonus point victory over Italy, which leaves them 2nd in the table, a point above England.

 6ntab

Ireland 28 – 8 Scotland

Injuries have forced Ireland to test their depth at 13 this tournament, but things are looking very good for them there. Jared Payne will always be an option but still hasn’t played since the Lions tour, while an injury to Garry Ringrose led to Robbie Henshaw playing for the first 2 rounds until his own injury. Chris Farrell put in a man of the match performance against Wales, but injury ruled him out against the Scots and Ringrose was back just in time to take back the 13 shirt. You wouldn’t have thought the Leinster centre had just returned from injury with the way he played as he nullified Huw Jones for much of the game, while in attack he made a number of breaks. He is the heir apparent to Brian O’Driscoll’s 13 jersey both for Leinster and Ireland and when 100% fit will likely be one of the first names on the team sheet. The quality available in the centre means that Keith Earls can remain as a winger, opening up the depth in the back 3 despite the retirement of Tommy Bowe.

28-8 is not an accurate representation of the game. Though Ireland were arguably the better team, the match would have been a lot closer were it not for some timely errors from Scotland. The opening try was gifted to Jacob Stockdale through a horribly overthrown pass by Peter Horne, while Huw Jones did everything right to break through the Irish defence, only to get the pass horribly wrong when he and Stuart Hogg had a 2v1 against Rob Kearney. Hogg and Horne also both sent passes to Blair Kinghorn – who impressed on his first start – too high, denying them opportunities. There was a lot to be happy about in the Scotland performance, especially considering the number of players they have still missing or just returning form injury, but there is still improvement needed if Scotland want to be winning away from home and pushing for titles.

France 22 – 16 England

Not a stunning performance from France but they did what they had to in order to get the win. Their attack may not have been too flashy, but defensively they were very solid. Mathieu Bastareaud had another good game at 13 and fronted up well against Ben Te’o, while the entire team took a leaf out of Scotland’s books and caused England untold agony at the breakdown. They really need to cut out the stupid mistakes though, as Hugo Bonneval’s blind pass back infield almost put his team in trouble, while Lionel Beauxis gave England one last chance to win it at the death when he failed to find touch with a clearance following Luke Cowan-Dickie’s overthrown line out. If the French can continue to build as a squad while cutting out these stupid error, they will become a formidable team again.

Following Ireland’s bonus point victory over Scotland, it didn’t take a maths genius to calculate England’s hopes of winning the 6 Nations relied on bonus point victories in booth their remaining games. Yet England continued to kick their penalties at goal rather than touch, leaving them needing 4 tries in the second half. Barring a monumental collapse, that was not going to happen in Paris. As someone who has felt Dylan Hartley’s time in the 2 shirt has reached an end I hate to admit but there was no leadership from the players out there. Owen Farrell would have been my shout for the captaincy but did not appear to thrive in the role, while fellow starters Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw and Danny Care have all been club captains (Robshaw even has plenty of experience as England captain). Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes were also starters with over 50 caps, while Mako Vunipola and George Ford are also highly experienced internationals. Between the lot of them they should have been able to adapt to the game better. Hughes’ early injury would have been a blow to their plans but injuries happen and an international team should be prepared. I don’t want to come down too hard on this team as many have not had an ideal rest period following the Lions Tour due to the level of competition in the Premiership. It’s no real surprise that Elliott Daly and Kyle Sinckler looked two of the better players considering they have just had a chance to rest while recovering from injury and coming back from suspension! With the chances of victory gone I would love to see Eddie make a few changes against Ireland and rest a few regulars to give players like Kyle Sinckler, Denny Solomona, Don Armand and Luke Cowan-Dickie a chance to start.

Wales 38 – 14 Italy

Job done for Wales who got a bonus point win despite 10 changes to the starting XV, but that really doesn’t give a real idea of the game. They scored 2 tries in no time but one was poor Italian defending (more on that below) and the other came from an interception. Other than that, there was not much for the time to write home about in the first half and they can consider themselves lucky that Liam Williams only saw a yellow card for his hit on the impressive Matteo Minozzi. Wales have a habit of underperforming after making a high number of changes against a weaker team and this was no exception, and it was more poor play from the Italians that helped the Welsh to the win. Warren Gatland needs to be very careful when selecting his teams against supposedly weaker opposition, otherwise he could get left with egg on his face when a ‘lesser’ team turns them over and gets the result.

“The defence was too busy looking inside and watching the ball rather than picking up the runners and that will prove costly against teams at this level.”

I wrote the above following Bundee Aki & Robbie Henshaw’s tries against the Italians in Round 2, unfortunately, they do not seem to have sorted this yet and were once again weak either side of the ruck against Wales. The opening try from Hadleigh Parkes was another pass from the back of a ruck to a centre running out-to-in running line. The defence were too busy looking in at the ruck again and though they managed to attempt a tackle this time, their positioning was all wrong and led to Parkes spinning out of the contact and dotting down, while the attempted tackler had to go off with a head injury. Cory Hill’s try was also far too easy for international rugby as the Italian forwards were too slow to come out of the scrum and wrap around tot h far side of the ruck, making it easy for Hill to push over for a killer score while Wales were at a numerical disadvantage. There have clearly been some signs of improvement from the Italians when you consider the massive rebuild Italian rugby as a whole is currently going through, but they need to sort out such a glaring defensive issue soon or they will struggle to win many games.

6nfi
Super Saturday’s fixtures to see out the 2018 tournament

6 Nations table and upcoming fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 3

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 3

So most rugby fans are probably waking up with a hangover today. I’m sure plenty of England fans will have been drinking to forget the day’s action, while the Scots will probably declare a national holiday following their Calcutta Cup victory – which I can imagine many fans in other countries celebrated too! Elsewhere in the tournament, France’s victory in Marseille all but assures Italy will finish with the wooden spoon, while Ireland are now the only team able to win the Grand Slam following their victory over Wales.

6nt

France 34-17 Italy

We are far from having a great French team right now but there are certainly some good signs going forward. Mathieu Barstareaud may not look like your conventional centre but deserved the Man of the Match award in this game. His physicality in attack brought good ground and made space for the men outside of him – just watch Hugo Bonneval’s try again and see how important his part is in that. Remy Grosso looked very dangerous on the left wing and I look forward to seeing more of him in the current weeks. While I don’t think he was better than Bastareaud in this game, Yacouba Camara impressed me at 7 and I think he will do a great job helping the team get front-foot ball. While these guys impressed against Italy, I am still not being won over by Lionel Beauxis at 10. He has undoubted quality but no consistency, then will occasionally do something that nobody seems to expect (not in a good way). Sebastien Vahaamahina continues to concede penalties and I’m surprised that he has not yet received a yellow for persistent offending. It may be indicative of the numerous changes Jacques Brunel is making each week but there was very little resembling teamwork from the French team and it cost them inside the Italian 22 and stopped them earning a bonus point.

Much like the French, Italy are another team in the middle of a rebuild and with an number of relatively new players. I talked about Tommaso Boni and Sebastian Negri following Round 1 and they have continued to impress throughout the tournament – Negri especially growing into his role within the XV. Another player who has really impressed is fullback Matteo Minozzi. The Zebre 15 may look tiny next to many of his fellow players, but has looked electric in the 6 Nations and followed up his try in Round 2 with another on Friday night. As well as that he appears to have a good rugby brain judging by his recognition that a kick downfield was a better option than trying to run the length of the field following a turnover on their own line and recognised the opportunity for a quick 22-dropout, only to be cynically stopped by Benjamin Fall (who should have really received a yellow for this). He also has very good tackle technique when covering a break wide, as showed when he shepherded Grosso towards the touchline and then took him low around the legs to take him into touch. However like the French, I have not been impressed by the men controlling the game for Italy. Marcello Violi often seems to take his time behind the ruck and this gave the French defence time to reorganise and in some cases counter-ruck to turn the ball over, and I don’t think Tommy Allan has done enough with the number 10 shirt. With the wooden spoon 99% confirmed for another year I think O’Shea should restore Edoardo Gori to the starting lineup (provided his late injury wasn’t serious) and look at Carlo Canna or Ian McKinley at fly half.

Ireland 37-27 Wales

Considering Ireland lost 3 British and Irish Lions heading into this game (Furlong, Henderson and Henshaw) this was arguably their best performance in the tournament so far. Chris Farrell may have been making his 6 Nations debut on only his third cap, but he looked assured from the off against the Welsh. A starting back row of O’Mahony, Leavy and Stander (with Conan on the bench) shows just how strong the Irish are in this area that they can deal with missing Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier. Jacob Stockdale has been so impressive for the national team and continues to score tries at an average of about 1 per game, while Keith Earls could have had a couple of tries had the forwards not got white line fever. Johnny Sexton had an awful day off the kicking tee, but some of his play with ball in hand was sublime and helped remind me just how good a player he is. They have 2 huge matches to come at home to Scotland and away at England, but if they continue in this vein the Grand Slam is a real possibility.

“I will be very interested to see what happens when the usual starters are available again: how many of them will get straight back in the team and whether the style of play shifts back to what we have become used to seeing.” – Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

We got the first look at Wales with some of their stars coming back this week as Liam Williams and Dan Biggar returned to the squad for the first time in this year’s tournament. It wasn’t great viewing. Dan Biggar is a very good fly half so this is nothing against him, but his playing style does not easily fit with the Scarlets-esque style of play that Wales have been going for in recent weeks. Once Biggar was replaced by Gareth Anscombe the Welsh attack appeared much more dangerous. The general consensus between my mates and I was that dropping Rhys Patchell from the 23 the moment Biggar was back was a giant kick in the ball-sack considering how well he had played on the whole both for Scarlets and in the first 2 rounds of the tournament, it seems clear now that he will not get a fair shot at the Welsh squad while Gatland and Howley are in charge. Biggar’s big features for Wales (besides his experience) are his goal kicking – which is dealt with by Halfpenny anyway – and his work under the high ball which is already covered by Halfpenny and Williams. Patchell and Asncombe bring more to the Welsh game so I think the team would benefit from one of them starting, with Biggar on the bench able to come on and help see a game out with his territorial kicking or to take over goal kicking duties if Halfpenny is removed.

Scotland 25-13 England

Let’s start witht he positives here: Scotland were great! Finn Russell bounced back from a couple of bad games to win the Man of the Match award against the Auld enemy. John Barclay and his pack dominated their opposite numbers and stopped the England backs getting front-foot ball, while often winning turnovers when England did make ground. Huw Jones is a player that I have rated ever since he came on the scene for Scotland and he just seems to get better as he gets more international experience. With an eye for the gap and a great combination of pace and strength he has almost everything you want in a 13. I would argue that Jones is quickly becoming one of the best outside centres in the world and I look forward to watching him more over the next few seasons.

*Sigh* As an England fan, I’ve put off writing this for as long as I can. It is not easy having to relive last night, but it needs to be done. I can’t remember the last time that I was so disappointed by and England loss. I have no problem with England losing to a team that were better on the day, but they did not seem up for it at all! I hate to accuse the players of this as I doubt it was really the case, but it was as if the players were going through the motions and not playing with any heart! The first half especially was embarrassing and looked as if the players thought they were still in a training session against Georgia rather than a 6 Nations match. Support men were too often too far behind the man with the ball and when they were there they just leaned onto a ruck like you expect in junior rugby rather then clearing the man out or creating a strong bridge (something drilled into the minds of us Pistol Shrimps by Mr Mike Gledhill). If you want one moment that summarised the England performance, you just need to look at the final seconds of the game. Anthony Watson – who did a wonderful job of reminding me why I’ve never been sold on him defensively – reached out a lazy hand to catch a pass a bit far in front of him, only to knock the ball on into touch. Minimal skill, minimal effort… another England error. Hopefully this will be the kick up the ass that gets the team going again, it will be interesting to see what changes (if any) Eddie Jones makes for their trip to France. Personally, I would love to see Te’o brought in at 13 as his physicality will help the backs if the forwards are struggling to generate quick ball, while also replacing Watson with the more well-rounded Jack Nowell. Hughes looked good on his return but if Sam Simmonds is available for Le Crunch I would find a way to get them both in the starting lineup by playing 3 specialist back rowers and moving Courtney Lawes to the second row or the bench. I would also replace Richard Wigglesworth on the bench with Dan Robson as much like Biggar for Wales, I don’t think his playing style suits what England are trying to do, whereas Robson could easily push for a starting place if given fair chance. It wouldn’t surprise me though if Jones goes for the same 23 again with any changes being due to players returning or being unavailable through injury.

6nf
France coming off a rare win, England with an equally rare loss… Le Crunch could be a huge match!

6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 2

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 2

The Grand Slam dream is over for Wales in 2018 as they leave Twickenham with a losing bonus point following a tight, enthralling and controversial encounter. Following their victory against the Italians, Ireland and England are the only teams still able to go unbeaten but they cannot start eying up their Round 5 showdown yet as they each have 2 more games to win first. Meanwhile Scotland got their 6 Nations back on track with a win against the French, who currently join Italy as the only winless teams after 2 rounds.

6n tab

Ireland 56-19 Italy

I wonder how Ireland will react to the loss of Robbie Henshaw, who will likely be out of the tournament with a shoulder injury. Though I was not sure about the balance of the midfield in Round 1, I thought he and Aki were starting to work better and rebuild on their chemistry from Henshaw’s Connacht days. With Henshaw out, they have a couple of ways that they could replace him against Wales:

  • Dual Playmakers – take a leaf out of England’s book and copy the Ford/Farrell axis by playing either Ian Keatley or Joey Carbery in the centre. This would improve the distribution options in the backline and as it is something that Ireland have not really done recently, the extra playmaker may help to catch out a Wales team expecting 2 physical centres.
  • Safe options – bring in either Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell or Fergus McFadden as Aki’s centre partner. This would allow the Irish to continue with the same sort of gameplan, and while Farrell and Scannell are in the squad as centres, McFadden’s international experience (he has 33 caps compared to the combined 19 caps combined for the 4 players mentioned as options so far) could give him the advantage, though Farrell’s physicality could be crucial against Wales’ strong midfield.
  • The returner – Garry Ringrose is close to a return from injury and if everyone was available and fully fit he would probably be the 13 of choice. However I see this as an outside bet as coming into a clash against Wales is a big ask for someone who has just returned from injury. I think Joe Schmidt would do better in the long term allowing him to ease himself back in during the tournament with Leinster.
  • The switch – as well as just being a damn good winger for Munster and Ireland, one of Keith Earls’ best features is his versatility as he is comfortable at either wing or centre. Earls moved into the 13 position following Henshaw’s injury and while the defensive organisation did drop off a bit, 2 weeks of preparation would likely see to this. This could lead to a start for either Andrew Conway (who was man of the match against Fiji in the Autumn Tests) or the exciting Jordan Larmour, whose footwork against Italy was one of the highlights of the match. An improving Welsh team would be a big step up in quality for Larmour’s second cap, but the thought of him and Steff Evans attacking each other all day is mouth-watering.

I think that either McFadden or Farrell are the more likely options for Joe Schmidt, but it will be very interesting to see what the Kiwi chooses to do.

As with most Italy matches at the moment, there are clearly positives to take – they scored 3 tries against a team ranked in the top 4 in the world – but again there were negatives and clear areas to work on. The defence was bamboozled by some of the attacking lines from England in Round 1, but this week they were leaking some very disappointing tries. Obviously it is hard to defend effectively against interceptions like for Jacob Stockdale’s try and Robbie Henshaw’s second, but Henshaw’s first and Bundee Aki’s try were far too easy as they crashed over from close range taking the ball direct from Conor Murray on out-to-in lines. The defence was too busy looking inside and watching the ball rather than picking up the runners and that will prove costly against teams at this level. Scotland scored a similar try against France this weekend through Huw Jones, so I am sure they will be making notes on this Italian weakness ahead of their Round 5 fixture.

England 12-6 Wales

Whether at 10 or 12, you can always rely on Owen Farrell to put in a huge performance for England. Against Wales, Farrell was part of a miserly defence and shut down a number of attacks with well-timed tackles to cause knock-ons and also brought an end to Shingler’s attack and popped up with a key turnover deep in his own half to stop another Welsh advance. With ball in hand, he controlled the game so well, from his kick to set up Jonny May’s opener that got better every time you saw it, to his command of the phases in the build-up to May’s second and his willingness to take the big hit from Ross Moriarty as he floated the ball out to Joe Launchbury. It wasn’t just Farrell who controlled the game well, as George Ford pulled the strings well inside him while Danny Care looks to have really improved his box kicks and made almost all of them contestable for the chasers. Steff Evans is not the best in the air and Anthony Watson rightly dominated the air on that wing, while Jonny May also had some luck in the air on the left wing. England’s kicking game combined with their resolute defence won them the game and deserves a lot of credit. When even your Welsh mate is saying that, you know how well they’ve done!

fant
Things are levelling out between the teams in the fantasy league, feel free to join with the league code 1323867-57794

Looking at the game as a whole, England probably deserved the win, but Wales could have very easily come away with the victory. They chose to kick a couple of penalties to the corner rather than go for goal and combined with Rhys Patchell’s miss, this could have been enough to put the scoreboard in their favour. They also created some great chances, with the tackle of the tournament from Sam Underhill the only reason Scott Williams didn’t get a try, while a questionable decision to kick from Aaron Shingler stopped another attack. And then of course there’s that TMO decision. The TMO decided that the try should not stand as though Steff Evans played the ball with his knee rather than his hand, Gareth Anscombe did not clearly ground the ball. Wrong on both parts! Anscombe clearly grounded the ball but actually Scrum V proved that the ball did in fact go forward off Evans’ finger. So the TMO got the right decision for the wrong reasons, though I would argue if we look at clear and obvious evidence then the try should be awarded – and that’s coming from an England fan! To lose a goal kicker as accomplished as Leigh Halfpenny so close to the match, it was always going to make things more difficult for Wales but the team stepped up well and came so close to a huge win at Twickenham. What they really need to work on though is their kicking game, as Gareth Davies continually kicked too long which made it easy for Mike Brown to win the high ball. They are so close to getting the results despite the number of players missing, Ireland will have to be very careful in Round 3.

Scotland 32-26 France

Gregor Townsend made a very brave call by replacing Finn Russell midway through the second half and moving Greig Laidlaw to fly half. Laidlaw started his Scotland career at 10 and played there on occasions for Gloucester, but he has very much become a 9, yet his performance after being shifted from 9 to 10 was exactly what Scotland needed. The Glasgow centre partnership of Peter Horne and Huw Jones looked much better than last week and the back row had a much better balance, but despite this, Russell struggled for the second week in a row, misjudging a number of kicks from hand and giving the French easy territory – though he did not seem disappointed whenever they showed him following a poor kick. He was also at fault for the first France try as he allowed Teddy Thomas to beat him to the outside 1v1 then fell off with a weak tackle attempt. Laidlaw controlled the game so well from 9 and 10 and was perfect off the tee, while Russell’s removal allowed Stuart Hogg’s monster boot to earn Scotland the territory whenever the French gave away a penalty outside Laidlaw’s range.

In the early scrums it looked like France were going to give the Scots a torrid time as the French front row got an early advantage over their less experience rivals, however they failed to capitalise on this and gain dominance at the set piece, while they continued in the same vein as last week by giving away a high number of penalties, especially as the half went on. Without the pressure of kicking, Lionel Beauxis had on the whole a good afternoon, however a few times when he was put under pressure we saw flashes of the fly half who once tried – and failed – to kick a ball passed to him on the volley, as he flicked on an awful pass to his captain and also put fullback Geoffrey Palis under heaps of pressure when he slipped a pass to him rather than clear under pressure on their own try line. Baptiste Serin and Louis Picamoles both looked assured from the bench and I will be interested to see if these performances help them get a starting spot for the game against Italy, but right now the French attacks are far too infrequent and they do not have the fitness to make it through the full 80 minutes. Their fixture with Italy on the 23rd is really looking like the battle for the wooden spoon. Right now, I would predict a French victory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Italians pulled off the win.

6nr3
The match between France and Italy decide the wooden spoon

Fantasy rugby images are from the ESPN Fantasy Rugby website: http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk

6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com