Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 4

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 4

It was the weekend for upsets in Round 4 as both New Zealand and Australia came up just short against South Africa and Argentina respectively. The All Blacks could have won the tournament with 2 rounds to spare had they earned a bonus point victory, but they must now go to Argentina on the 29th and try to win there (so it would appear the inevitable has just been delayed), while this is the first time the Pumas have won more than one game per season in this tournament. Australia meanwhile have dropped to 7th in the World rankings, their lowest ever position!


New Zealand 34-36 South Africa

“It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile… winning’s winning” – Vin Diesel, The Fast and the Furious

The All Blacks shot themselves in the (kicking) foot in this match. While Handrè Pollard was nearly perfect off the tee, Beauden Barret was anything but, having success on only 2/6 kicks while hitting the post on multiple occasions. He may be arguably the best fly half in the world, but his kicking off the tee is erratic at best and nowhere near consistent enough for a Tier 1 team. New Zealand outscored South Africa 6 tries to 2, they carried them 624m to 245m, they beat 39 defenders to the Springboks’ 12 and had 75% of the possession… yet due to Barrett’s questionable kicking they lost by 2 points. Even at the end they should have won it, as they had over 10 phases camped on the South Africa line – many of them with Damian McKenzie in the pocket – but decided to forgo a simple drop goal attempt and spread the ball for a try, knocking on after the hooter had gone. The All Blacks are a wonderful team and a joy to watch, but I would argue that they are not pragmatic enough anymore. They have the ability to run it in from anywhere and will frequently, but with the game on the line, they do not have the rugby brain of a Dan Carter or Jonny Wilkinson to take the easy 3 points and keep the scoreboard ticking over. If more teams can find a way to score a similar amount of tries, then the All Blacks could be at risk of more losses in the near future.

While I am coming down hard on the All Blacks, it would be remiss of me not to also praise South Africa’s defensive effort. The Springboks made 196/235 tackles (83% success) and refused to give in, even when defending on their line or a man down. Yes they were broken on occasions, but anyone would be against such a good team. The All Blacks handling was poor at time, but I feel this often came from the pressure put on them by the defence, while Cheslin Kolbe intercepted Anton Leinert-Brown early in the second half for a try and Aphiwe Dyantyi (who I’m not sold on defensively if I’m honest) did just enough to fly out the line at the death and force the knock-on from McKenzie to give South Africa the game. I still think they are searching for the right formula in their line-up, but if they can continue to defend so doggedly, the results will keep coming.


Australia 19-23 Argentina

Something is not right in that Australian back line. Marika Koroibete, Israel Folau (at wing) and Dane Haylett-Petty is arguably one of the most dangerous back 3s in world rugby, but they are not getting enough ball aide from countering kicks they have fielded. Matt Toomua as well was pretty much anonymous in this game, other than his kicks at goal and a few other clearances. The midfield is not working at the moment!

Part of this may be down to fatigue, as Toomua has been clocking up the air miles and returning to play for Leicester on the rest weekends. I think that is a ridiculous decision as the extra travel and matches will be fatiguing him and stopping him playing at his best, while increasing his risk of injury.

More than that though, I feel the decision to pick Kurtley Beale at 10 is holding them back. He is a fantastic player and can play the position, but I think he works better in the centre where he has a bit more time and space to work his magic. I applaud the decision to try someone other than Foley at 10 as they need to look at options in case he gets injured, but I don’t think Beale is the option and would rather see Toomua or Hodge given the 10 shirt for the last 2 matches, allowing Beale to move back to centre. This team is not far from being successful and they have the quality of players, they just need to find the right mix.

Argentina are back to their beautiful and dangerous best! Nicolas Sanchez may be easily wound up, but he is one of the most complete packages at 10 in the game currently. The back 3 of Moyano, Boffelli and Delguy is one of the most exciting in international rugby, while Boffelli’s monster boot will punish teams from inside his own half. The scary thing is that players like Santiago Cordero and Joaqin Tuculet could also still come into contention ahead of the World Cup. In the forwards, their discipline seems vastly improved and they are also getting more front foot ball through players like Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer, bu8t again can get even stronger when Facundo Isa comes back in the fold.

Like many international teams recently, Argentina looked to hit their low in the Summer Tests against Wales and Scotland but with Mario Ledesma taking charge they are quickly climbing back up the mountain and will be very difficult to beat if they carry on like this.


Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 2

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 2

We may only be a third of the way through the tournament, but it would take a brave/foolish person to bet against New Zealand winning another title again. On the occasion of Owen Franks’ 100th Tests cap, the All Blacks romped away to a 40-12 victory over Australia to Ensure they keep hold of the Bledisloe Cup for another year, while Argentina got their first win under Mario Ledesma at home to South Africa.


New Zealand 40-12 Australia

Despite having considerably less registered players than England, South Africa and France (according to World Rugby’s latest data), the depth of the all Blacks has been incredible! Though they have been far from perfect, they have ran out comfortable victors both weeks against Australia. Even crazier is that they are doing this with Scott Barrett – probably their star player in the Summer Tests – back on the bench now that Brodie Retallick has returned. The loss of Ryan Crotty last week has not seemed to have an impact on the team as Jack Goodhue has been impressive at 13, while Ngani Laumape (who was not even in the original squad) had an increasing impact on the game as the match went on. Reiko Ioane was barely missed either, as Ben Smith moved to the win and Jordie Barrett deputised at fullback. Even crazier is that Richie Mo’unga, who has just led the Crusaders to back-to-back Super Rugby titles, has not even made the matchday 23 for either of the last 2 matches! Even with Julian Savea now out of the picture, stars like Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ben Lam are unable to make the 23 either! Even Dane Coles could struggle to get his place back in the starting XV once he is available, such has been the form of Codie Taylor – though a bit more reliability is needed currently in the lineout. I wrote last week about Australia possibly coming undone with a couple of injuries to key players; I can’t see this happening any time soon with New Zealand.

Looking at the Australia 23 on paper, that is a strong squad. Despite Israel Folau’s absence, there is plenty of skill and experience in a back line containing Will Genia, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beala Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete. In the forwards, Australia have 2 of the best jackals currently in rugby in the form of experienced duo Michael Hooper and David Pocock and a good blend of youth and experience. And yet for all this, they never looked to have a shot of winning once we got into the second half. They conceded 6 tries on the day but it could have been so much worse as Beauden Barrett had a try disallowed for a knock-on in the build-up, a forward pass from Laumape denied Waisake Naholo a late try and a wonderful last-ditch tackle from Foley put Jordie Barrett into touch just short of the line.

It just felt like there was something wrong with the system Australia were playing. 13 is such a difficult position to play defensively and Reece Hodge was caught out on a number of occasions in only his 2nd Test match in that position. Kurtley Beale also began struggling against Laumape in the second half. Yet despite this, Matt Toomua was kept on the bench until the 65th minute, by which point the game was over. Australia also butchered one of the biggest ovrlaps I’ve seen after winning the ball back on the New Zealand line in the left corner, hitting it up through the forwards for multiple phases when there had been 7 men free outside New Zealand’s widest defender Brodie Retallick. Something really needs changing ahead of the next round and I would suggest starting Toomua. The Leicester centre is a more physical player than Beale, and has a range of kicking and passing to be an effective playmaker in midfield. If Folau is still unavailable for the next game, Cheika could do much worse than moving Hodge to the wing in place of Jack Maddocks (who was largely anonymous in his first start) and bringing Toomua into the centre.


Argentina 32-19 South Africa

Argentina are back! They have looked so much better under Ledesma in the last 2 weeks than they did under Hourcade in the summer. Nicolas Sanchez looked a shadow of the player we know him to be against Wales and Scotland, but he ran things for the Pumas in this match and had a full house of try, conversion, penalty and drop goal by half time on the way to a personal tally of 17 points in this match. With Sanchez impressing, the back line are firing on all cylinders again, with them working overlaps for Ramiro Moyano’s try and both of Bautista Delguy’s. They are by no means perfect yet and were let off by South Africa on a number of occasions, but the signs of improvement are clear and by the World Cup they could be a real threat again.

After a number of improvements under Rassie Erasmus, this match was a real step back for the Springboks. They completed only 64% of their tackles as they were frequently caught out when Argentina spread the ball wide. In attack, they missed some great chances, with Lukhanyo Am’s forward pass denying Aphiwe Dyantyi a try, while I found myself yelling at the screen when Faf de Klerk looked for a runner to an empty blind side to the left of a ruck, only to have to go back to the open side as nobody else reacted to the opportunity. There were some wonderful moments in attack, often from de Klerk and Willie le Roux again, but they just weren’t accurate enough. Add to that Eben Etzebeth’s yellow card for cynically slowing down a breakdown on the South African line and they were always up against it against an Argentina side that seemed to grow in confidence following 2 quick tries. Handre Pollard appears to be the best option at 10, but his goal kicking has been unreliable so far this tournament and I would recommend giving de Klerk kicking duties and allowing Pollard to focus on the rest of the game. I would love to see Damian Willemse given some starts at 10 with Pollard outside him at 12, but considering Argentina would usually be considered the 2 easiest matches, I think this tournament will be more about establishing the best XV and then using the Autumn Internationals to give less experienced players a chance.


Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 1

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 1

The 7th edition of the annual Rugby Championship got underway this weekend and I doubt it will shock anyone to see New Zealand take an early lead in the tournament. The All Blacks may not be at their strongest but this is still a team that looks likely to finish the tournament undefeated. They played against an Australian team who handed debuts off the bench to Jermaine Astley and Jack Maddocks, while also welcoming back Premiership starts Tatafu Polota-Nau and Matt Toomua. Following a recent change in selection criteria, Saracens’ Juan Figallo was also back in action, playing for an Argentinian team entering a new era with Mario Ledesma at the helm, while Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux also continued their run in the South Africa team that started against England, joined once again by Bath’s Francois Louw.

 


Australia 13-38 New Zealand

Are Australia relying too much on the same players? I was thinking during the match that Bernard Foley has become an ever-present in this team recently and, with Quade Cooper out of the picture, I was struggling to pick who would be second choice behind him. Israel Folau is another player who is an ever-present when fit and I can’t help but wonder if the lack of variation in the playing squad could come back to haunt them come the World Cup, especially when you see New Zealand spreading appearances around a selection of players. It appears that my thoughts were timely as Folau limped off injured and it has since been announced that he will be missing he reverse at Eden Park.

So what are the options at 10 and 15? Well I think the most obvious options at 10 were the guys playing just outside Foley at the weekend: Kurtley Beale and Reece Hodge. Beale has the all-round skill-set to play at 10 but I think he thrives a bit further out at international level. Reece Hodge’s long-range kicking will always keep him in or around this starting line-up due to Foley’s limited range. With his versatility, he has become the Adam Ashley-Cooper of the team, playing wherever he is needed, but I think he and the Wallabies could benefit from him moving to the fly half position, where he has been playing regularly for Melbourne Rebels. He is strong enough to defend the 10 channel so would not have to be hidden on the wing in defence like Foley was on Saturday, while there would not be much of a drop in kicking percentages as he is solid off the tee with a larger range. Moving him to 10 would also allow Beale/Toomua to be partnered in midfield by Samu Kerevi/Tevita Kuridrani to give the balance of playmaking and strong running, while also allowing Cheika to continue picking specialist players in the back 3. At 15, the obvious choice would be Dane Haylett-Petty, who has deputised there during Folau’s previous absences, but Jack Maddocks looked good on his debut and Beale could again be a danger picking his lines from further back. There are plenty of options available and while I appreciate nobody wants to lose a Bledisloe Cup match, there are only a handful of matches remaining before the World Cup. Previous World Cups have seen teams suffer multiple injuries all at the same position – think back to Stephen Donald’s appearance on the bench in the 2011 final. I’m sure Michael Cheika would rather be able to turn to seasoned veterans than a bunch of rookies.

As much as I expect New Zealand to remain unbeaten, they looked anything but unbeatable at the weekend. Their lineout was turned over far too often and the number of handling errors was unbelievable. And yet they still won comfortably, scoring 6 tries in the process. The reason: they were clinical when the chances appeared. Their opener came from a simple missed tackle on Ben Smith, the next a turnover by Waisake Naholo that was spread to the far wing where there was space, the third a knock on by Dane Haylett-Petty that Beauden Barrett fly hacked on and controlled over the line. Even the next try, New Zealand took advantage of the space caused by Folau leaving the pitch injured while play was still going. Though they may not be as consistently great in attack as they were a few years back, they are solid in defence even when Ryan Crotty is unavailable and have the ability to cut apart a team when given the opportunity. This team look like they could be beaten, but whoever beats them will need to be switched on for every second of the 80 minutes and minimise the errors.


South Africa 34-21 Argentina

South Africa are back on the up! After a torrid couple of years under Allister Coetzee, Rassie Erasmus appears to be getting the team back on track just in time for the World Cup. England and Argentina, plus and understrength Wales, may not have been the sternest of tests, but the signs are good so far. It does not surprise me either that part of this turnaround includes starring roles from Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux, both of whom have been revitalised playing in England. De Klerk has impressed me so much in recent internationals with his quick ball, eye for a gap (see his snipe to the line for South Africa’s last try) and his attacking box kicks that led to Aphiwe Dyantyi’s second try. Le Roux takes so much pressure off the fly half by becoming a second playmaker, he is dangerous collecting the high ball (though he failed to collect the bomb that led to Nicolas Sanchez’s try), targets the 13 channel and has a great range of passing and kicking – just look at his inch-perfect crosskick for Dyantyi’s opener. Similar to Australia though, they need to find some depth at key positions like fly half. Elton Jantjies has never convinced me when given the chance and I don’t feel he can be a long-term option. As such, it was good to see Damian Willemse come on for his debut at 10 with Pollard moved to 12 in order to support him. Japan 2019 may be a bit too soon for him to take the reins, but if he continues to get gametime in the competition then he could have a big impact on the biggest stage.

Though they may have conceded 6 tries, this performance from the Pumas was a far cry from the embarrassment of the Summer Tests. Despite being mainly the same players, this squad looked much more switched on and energised under Ledesma than in the final days of Daniel Hourcade’s reign. Nicolas Sanchez looked miles better than in the summer and the team looked dangerous after South Africa took an early lead. There is still a long way to go, as they were often caught out wide by the Springboks, but early signs are good for a team that appear close to welcoming back Europe-based stars like Facundo Isa and Juan Imhoff.


Eyes On: South Africa v Wales

Eyes On: South Africa v Wales

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

 

Scaring off the States

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

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

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

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

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

The broadcast

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

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

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

Laying down a marker

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

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

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

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

Eyes On: England v Barbarians

Eyes On: England v Barbarians

Sunday at Twickenham saw the start of the latest Summer Tests window with Engalnd’s annual fixture against the Barbarians. England were missing a number of players due to their appearances in the Premiership final the day before, and a handful of other players were either rested or unavailable through injury, but Eddie Jones was still able to put together an attractive looking squad, however it paled in comparison next to the big names Pat Lam had pulled together to represent the Barbarians. Whereas Saturday’s final would be described as solid play, this was certainly spectacular, with the Barbarians scoring 9 tries to win 45-63, a record score against England at Twickenham.

The squad

Before anything, I must admit I was surprise by some of Eddie Jones’ selections for this match. I have really wanted to see Elliot Daly given a chance at 15 and was thrilled to see him given the shirt when the team was announced. That thrill did not last long as I realised that Mike Brown was still in the XV, playing on the wing. Brown has been a wonderful servant for England over the years, but I don’t understand why Eddie Jones seems to consider him almost undroppable. In this match, he did not have the pace to cope with Josua Tuisova and did not provide much in attack to merit his inclusion. It’s not as if he was even the only option available as Denny Solomona was on the bench and Jason Woodward was left out of the 23 altogether. The Mike Brown as a winger experiment needs to stop now, hopefully Eddie realised this.

I was also really disappointed to see Ben Youngs, George Ford, Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler starting this game given the options available on the bench. I appreciate the 4 of them, along with Brown, made up most of the experienced contingent, but what better game to blood young talent like Robson, Cipriani, Genge and Wilson than against the Barbarians, in a match where the result is less important so the pressure is (somewhat) off. Ford had a good game in attack, but against a Barbarians team that is never going to have an incredibly organised defence I would expect nothing less from him. The real disappointment in this game was Robshaw. A man who has always been considered such a reliable tackler and defender, Robshaw missed a number of tackles in this game and many of them proved costly on the scoreboard. With Billy Vunipola returning to the England fold and a number of younger back row players impressing when given the chance, Robshaw’s days in the starting XV could be numbered.

lobbe
This match was Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe’s last before retiring. He led the Barbarians to a record victory and even got on the scoresheet by taking the final conversion

Odd subs

Tying in somewhat to the last point, I thought some of Eddie Jones’ replacements were odd. Henry Trinder may not have had the best start to the game defensively, but let’s be honest no one in an England shirt did! However as England started to improve, it looked like he was beginning to grow into the game, until he was removed for a Head Injury Assessment after 27 minutes, with Cipriani coming on at 15 and Daly moving into the centre. Daly had started the game relatively well but I felt his influence waned after this positional change, while Cipriani had a couple of good moments but not enough to really catch the eye as an option at 15 in the Tests. It was reported by the Sky Sports commentary that Trinder passed his HIA, yet Jones decided not to bring him back onto the pitch. For someone who has had such a torrid time with injuries and finally put together a wonderful season, to be yanked off so early after the whole team started poorly is awful and I really hope that the commentary was wrong and Trinder in fact failed his HIA. I’m starting to get the feeling that he will not be given a fair shot at the England 13 shirt while Eddie Jones is in charge, much like Alex Goode and the 15 shirt.

I was also shocked to see Zach Mercer removed so early in the second half by Eddie Jones. In case you haven’t noticed from previous articles, I am a big fan of the Bath number 8 and thought that while he was having a relatively quiet game – aside from his try, where he ran a brilliant support line as Daly went through a gap – he was not struggling in the same way Robshaw was. Mark Wilson looked decent off the bench and I do not begrudge him the game time, but I just feel that England would have benefitted more both on the day and long term from keeping Mercer on the pitch and replacing Robshaw.

Making a splash

The scrip almost wrote itself here: Chris Ashton rejected by Eddie Jones so moves to Toulon, breaks the Top 14 record, starts at fullback against England at Twickenham and scores 2 tries in the opening 10 minutes on the way to a 25-minute hat-trick.

Though his defence wasn’t at the best in this game (whose was if we’re being honest?), his attacking play was wonderful and after being gifted the first try by Josua Tuisova he scored 2 wonderful tries, the first a lovely chip over Daly and the second a classic Ashton try getting on the shoulder to take an offload. His great running lines also set up Finn Russell for his try and he was close to a 4th try but couldn’t get downward pressure on the ball, while George Ford also tracked back well to make a last ditch tackle in the first half.

I would argue that he is a better player now than he was in his heyday with England and it is a shame that Eddie Jones did not consider him before his move to Toulon. That said, now that he is at Toulon I completely agree that he is ineligible to play for England. I know a lot of people are clamouring for him to play, but if he can’t guarantee release to England whenever we need it why should he be picked? The rule about playing in England has been clear for years and, as good as he is, I would not consider his form an exceptional circumstance given the options available throughout the back 3.

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

The Premiership and Pro14 seasons came to an end on Saturday with the showpiece events at Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium respectively. In the Premiership final, table-toppers Exeter started well but were unable to make the breakthroughs needed to defeat a clinical Saracens side, while a late Scarlets fightback at the Aviva was not enough to deny Leinster a Pro14/Champions Cup double.

I was at Twickenham with a few friends so was delayed watching the Pro14 final until late on Sunday, but also watched the Premiership final again to see if there was anything I missed from my position in the Twickenham stands. Keep an eye out over the next week (hopefully) for my write-up on our trip to HQ.

Before I get into this, a quick congratulations to Wayne Barnes, who was refereeing his 200th Premiership match on Saturday. He is a wonderful referee and in my opinion one of the best – if not the best – referees in the world at the moment.

Exeter 10 – 27 Saracens

Exeter were so effective against Newcastle in the semi-final with their possession-heavy attacking style to draw in the defence and create the space to exploit out wide. When they started the game with 100% possession for the first 9 and a half minutes I genuinely thought that they were on their way to a victory. However, the Saracens defence never allowed themselves to get drawn too narrow and dealt with everything the Chiefs threw at them. What really disappointed me was the fact that Exeter didn’t appear to have a Plan B. They kept trying to hit it up the middle and though they were able to hold possession relatively well they were not making much ground and when they went wide they had not earned it and were easily shut off on most occasions. Joes Simmonds did not have a bad game but he just couldn’t find a way to break down Saracens, and when Gareth Steenson came on in his place early in the second half he had only a little more luck. Exeter have a wonderful squad and most teams will struggle to deal with their usual tactics, but if they want to regularly win silverware, they need to have some backup tactics for teams that can deal with their usual style of play.

finalcongratWhat a performance by Saracens! Their defence was nigh-on impregnable, refusing to be drawn narrow while still effectively closing up the middle of the pitch. Their discipline was important too and they only gave away 2 kickable penalties in the first half before building up enough of a points difference in the second that Exeter were unable to rely on kicks at goal. In fact, Gareth Steenson’s try was the only time the Sarries try line really felt at risk and that was helped by Schalk Brits’ yellow card meaning a back (in this case Chris Wyles) had to be sacrificed to bring Jamie George back on from the scrum. With Paul Gustard leaving England for Harlequins following the South Africa tour, Eddie Jones could do much worse than asking Sarries’ defence coach Alex Sanderson to join the national team as Gustard’s replacement.

Leinster 40 – 32 Scarlets

They may not always be the most attractive team to watch, but Leinster are so effective and know how to win games. They have such depth in their squad but more than that, they adapt to the environment and the team they are playing against. Johnny Sexton is so used to the Aviva Stadium from matches with Leinster and Ireland so knows exactly how to deal with the conditions and after seeing the struggles the Scarlets were having under the high ball (more on that below), he continued to pepper them with high balls throughout the match, while Rob Kearney – one of the best in the world under the high ball – and Jordan Larmour put heavy pressure on the catcher every single time. As well as the high balls, Sexton also controlled the territory with some wonderful kicking to touch, including one penalty he put out about 3 metres from the try line, while his range of passing took advantage of any gaps in the Scarlets defence. They may be losing a couple of players this summer, but I find it hard to bet against them defending their Pro14 title next season.

Scarlets play such sexy rugby, but sometimes they just need to be a bit more pragmatic. Rhys Patchell and Gareth Davies are incredible attacking players, but they are not currently the best at playing the less sexy but possibly more important territorial game. Much like how Exeter need to create a Plan B, the Scarlets need to do so as well. On top of that, some players need to work on individual weaknesses over the summer. Steff Evans and Leigh Halfpenny failed to cope with 8 high balls throughout the course of the match, immediately gifting Leinster possession and territory. Winning against the big teams both in club and international rugby requires players in the back 3 that can deal with the high ball effectively, so if they don’t improve they could see their appearances limited in the big matches for both Scarlets and Wales next season as opposition teams will deliberately target them as Sexton did on Saturday.

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Eyes On: 2018 FA Cup Final

Eyes On: 2018 FA Cup Final

Last weekend was a busy one for sport in the UK. Not only were the semi-finals underway for both the Pro14 and the Premiership, but British hopes looked good with Simon Yates leading the Giro d’Italia and as if that wasn’t enough, The FA Cup final took place on Saturday!

This was by no means the thriller that some previous finals have been, with few real chances actually being created, but Antonio Conte’s Chelsea ran out 1-0 winners over Manchester United, courtesy of Eden Hazard’s penalty, to provide the Italian with some silverware this season in (possibly) his last game in charge.

Rash decisions

Marcus Rashford has become the darling of fans in recent seasons, but he has not had the best couple of months. His minutes have been limited and when he has been started ahead of Romelu Lukaku, his performances through the middle have not matched the level of what he has produced out wide.

With Lukaku only fit enough for the bench, Rashford was given the start up front but was wasteful with the ball, frequently giving it away in the first half with poor passes or tame shots. Though he did improve after half time, he still couldn’t find a way to get the ball in the back of the net, with an attempted chip over Thibaut Courtois in the 72nd minute his best chance, but easily saved after being too low. He was removed just after this last attempt and right now it is hard to imagine him being a big part of José Mourinho’s plans next season considering the need to compete with free-scoring teams like Liverpool and Manchester City.

World Cup worry

I must admit that I was a bit surprised when Phil Jones was named in England’s World Cup squad for this summer. Though he can be a very good player, he is by no means consistent and has been part of a defence that has been bailed out too many times by David de Gea.

Chelsea’s goal lays squarely at Jones’ feet as he did not position himself well to defend against Eden Hazard and was thoroughly beaten by the Belgian’s first touch. Rather than take one for the team and bringing Hazard down about 35 metres out from goal, Jones tried to chase level with him and dived in to try and get the ball away inside the box, missing the ball completely and taking down Hazard to give away the match-winning penalty in the 21st minute.

There were a number of comments that this should have been a red card as he was the last defender, but I personally approve of the amended law that states a player can receive only a yellow card if there is a genuine attempt to win the ball, avoiding the “triple punishment” of a penalty, red card and subsequent suspension.

What worries me here is that Jones will potentially be playing in an England shirt soon against none other than Eden Hazard and Belgium. Hazard knows he has the beating of him and I would be shocked if Belgium don’t try to create 1-on-1 matchups between the pair should Jones feature in that match.

A classy touch

As President of the FA, Prince William would usually be presenting the trophy to the winners, but due to his brother’s wedding earlier in the day, he was unable to make the match (even royals have to miss football for family events). With a need to find someone else to present the trophy this year, I think the FA made the perfect decision.

The FA chose to give the job to Jackie Wilkins, the widow of Ray Wilkins, who passed away in April aged 61. The former England midfielder made over 300 appearances for Chelsea and Manchester United, before going on to help coach Chelsea in 1998-2000 and then 2008-2010, including 2 spells as caretaker manager in 2000 and 2009. For the FA to pay tribute to Wilkins in this fashion was wonderful to see. I have not always agreed with their decisions, but this one was spot on!