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.

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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!

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 every 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.