July 2018: A Rugby Ramble

July 2018: A Rugby Ramble

Change coming in Wales

The Warren Gatland era is nearing an end for Wales. We now know for certain that his tenure with the national team will come to an end after the 2019 Rugby World Cup. I may not be a fan of his and feel that some of Wales and the British and Irish Lions success over the last few years has been despite his presence, but his tenure has brought Wales 3 6 Nations titles, including 2 Grand Slams, and they were only 1 long-range penalty miss and a Sam Warburton red card away from making the final of the 2011 World Cup. The focus on fitness and solid defence int he early years, along with the adoption of “Warrenball” and a number of big ball carriers paved the way for competition for a number of years, but I don’t think he has done enough since then to adapt as the game has caught up and passed his tactics, often sticking with tried and tested players rather than give chances to people who many would argue should walk into the team.

There will be a big change coming at the end of next year though as he is replaced by countryman Wayne Pivac. Pivac has been a huge part of the development of the Scarlets, first as an assistant coach to Simon Easterby, then as Head Coach following Easterby’s move to Ireland. Over the last couple of years, the Scarlets have consistently thrilled fans with their tendency to play exciting attacking rugby and have tied this in with getting the results, becoming the last Pro12 Champions and making the final in the first season of the Pro14, while also bringing through an number of players into the national squads -not just for Wales, John Barclay has become a regular in the Scotland squad and Tadhg Beirne is surely set to do the same for Ireland now that he has moved to Munster. Personally, despite being an Englishman, I am so excited to see how the Welsh team plays once Pivac takes over and think rugby fans are in for a real treat.

One player who will not be involved moving forward, though, is Sam Warburton. The Cardiff Blues flanker announced his retirement from rugby aged 29 as he felt that his body was unable to allow him to play to the level he wanted. It is a sad way for his playing career to end as he has been sidelined since the final Lions Test, whereas a player of his quality deserved the chance to bow out on the big stage at the World Cup. Despite such an early retirement, he was still able to amass 74 Wales caps (49 as captain), captain 2 Lions Tours (a win in Australia and a draw in New Zealand) and play in 5 Lions Test matches. He learned from the best behind Martyn Williams but arguably surpassed his mentor and became a star. Much like Gatland, I have not always been a fan of him and think that he has been at his best in recent years playing at 6, allowing him to focus on his tireless tackling while nabbing the turnovers when the chance comes. However, I’m sure that he won’t be done with rugby as his knowledge of the game is so good I expect him to be a regular pundit if not going into coaching. The good news for Wales right now is that he has retired at a time when the national team in enviably deep at flanker. Ross Moriarty could feature at 6 but has so far been considered an 8, but that still leaves new Cardiff Blues captain Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Aaron Shingler and James Davies to name just a few. Hell, Thomas Young has been a star for Wasps and can’t even get near the squad! While it is a shame to see Warbuton’s career on the pitch come to a premature end, it will be great to see how the young Welsh back row develops ahead of the World Cup.


An American Tale

The inaugural season of Major League Rugby came to an end this month with Seattle Seawolves and Glendale Raptors meeting in the final. Despite coming out second best both times these teams met during the season, the Seawolves came away winners with a 19-23 victory.

rugseawolves
The Seawolves celebrate winning the inaugural MLR season – image from the MLR YouTube channel

I’d been really excited for the season and stupidly didn’t realise until just before the playoffs that the matches were all available to watch back on YouTube – needless to say I’m subscribed for the next year! From what I have seen though from watching match highlights and the full video of the final, things are looking very promising for the league and rugby in the USA in general. As much as I liked what I saw of PRO Rugby, when I compare to the MLR, the 2 competitions are poles apart. Despite being new, the teams feel established, probably helped by the kits from XBlades that blew the old Champion System kits out the water. The MLR also didn’t feel like it was relying on marquee names and instead focused on the teams as a whole, while teams still managed to bring in experienced players to help build the quality in the competition like 7s stars Osea Kolinisau and Mat Turner. The league season may have been short – 8 matches per team over 10 weeks, 2 semi-finals and the final – but that is in keeping with the American sporting formats and as Ben Foden pointed out recently, the players may actually benefit from a short season as they do not get burned out in the same way players might in the longer leagues that we are used to over here in Europe.

Will the league suffer a sophomore slump? I don’t think so. The league will surely grow in quality as the players get used to the competition, while Rugby United New York are set to join the league and boast a couple of experienced USA internationals, not to mention Foden! There are also plenty of other teams interested in joining over the coming seasons. It looks like this is a league and a sport that is set to take off and that is great news for USA rugby and the sport in general. I’m already looking forward to next season.


A step too far

Sponsors on kits… a difficult balance. Rugby obviously doesn’t have the money that football does and needs to get money wherever it can, but I must admit that some wonderful kits are brought down by the sheer number of sponsors. My own team, Gloucester, have arguably gone a bit sponsor-heavy at times to the detriment of some lovely kits, while the Scarlets’ new home kit reminds me of a Formula 1 driver’s overalls, there are that many sponsors on there!

rug20180731_215253
They may be more sponsors than I would ideally like, but at least Gloucester still have the (new) crest where it belongs

While sponsors are important and can be done right (full credit to Mitsubishi who allowed Gloucester to use a different version of their logo to improve the look of their kits after their first season as main sponsor) but some decisions on the kits are horribly wrong.

Enter Racing 92, who this season have tried to fit so many sponsors into visible spots, they have now relegated the club badge to just above the waistline. Nope, I’m not joking! Call me old fashioned, but I think that the club crest should always be somewhere on the chest in ride of place. Putting the badge down by the waist seems just 1 step away from taking it off the shirt altogether and not respecting the history of the club itself. I really hope the powers that be at Racing realise their mistake and put the badge back where it belongs next season, and I really hope that this idea doesn’t catch on with other teams.

2018 Summer Tests Week 3: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 3: A Rugby Ramble

The official verdict

There is a problem in international rugby that got far too much attention over the last couple of weeks: the standard of officiating. Right now there just don’t seem enough referees good enough for the importance for the matches. As I said the other week, I think Luke Pearce is a very good referee and on the whole had a good game on his Tier 1 debut, but should have probably gone to the TMO for the French yellow card and should have had much more support from the TMO for the Grosso incident and the final try. Last week, I was full supportive of Angus Gardner’s red card for Benjamin Fall, but World Rugby decided to rescind the card, appearing to go against every decision in recent months.

This week, the refereeing in some of the matches was, to put it nicely, dire! Not a single one of the New Zealand v France Tests could go without controversy, as this time John Lacey awarded a try to Damian McKenzie just before half time after clearly blocking Baptiste Serin from making an attempt to tackle the All Blacks fly half. With just 1 look at the replay, Lacey and TMO George Ayoub agreed that Lacey had not impeded Serin and allowed the try, despite evidence clearly to the contrary. An offensive line in the NFL would be proud of that block! I understand that it is not always easy for a referee to position himself, but in the first attacking channel, exactly where a defending scrum half will run, is definitely not the right place and this was not even the only time his positioning was off as he ran into the passing lane from the back of a ruck earlier in the half as the scrum half was playing the ball away.

Unbelievable as it may seem, the 3rd Test between Australia and Ireland may have been even worse in terms of officiating. Israel Folau was shown a yellow card after 30 minutes after playing Peter O’Mahony in the air, resulting in the Irish captain landing awkwardly on his back and having to leave the pitch. While I can’t argue with this decision – it was a fair contest for the ball but Folau then grabbed him in the air – this was not the first time he had done this to O’Mahony in the game, with an earlier challenge where the flanker landed on his head a shoulders (a straight red according to the laws) going unpunished. Folau should consider himself lucky to have made it to half time without a red, but he definitely should have seen one for a second yellow card late in the game as he was judged to deliberately knock on an Irish pass when they had a 2-man overlap. They may not have been in a scoring position but it was a professional foul with a chance of a break on and fully deserving of a second yellow. It wasn’t just Pascal Gauzere’s reluctance to send off Folau that could have cost Ireland the win, as they were also disallowed what looked like 2 certain penalty tries in the second half. With the ball at the back of a ruck on the Australian line, Conor Murray dived for the post with the ball in an attempt to score by placing the ball against the base of the post. Gauzere consulted the TMO and they agreed that he had been unable to make contact with the post, but theat he had been stopped by a player in an offside position. Sekope Kepu was still on the floor trying to (slowly) extricate himself from the last ruck, but moved his body to protect the post, while Adam Coleman’s low stance clearly saw him with hands on the ball ahead of the post rather than behind the try line. 2 players illegally stopping a chance to score, how that wasn’t a penalty try – or even a yellow card – is beyond me! Then not long later an Irish maul was advancing over the try line and clearly collapsed by the Australian pack. Gauzere awarded a penalty, but with the maul clearly moving forward and in the process of crossing the line, a penalty try appeared the only option to me

I hope this doesn’t sound like a piece blasting officials as it is not intended as such, rather it is highlighting the need for an improved and more consistent quality of refereeing. Rugby is a professional sport and while these matches were not in a tournament they could have affected the rankings. Players need to know what they will and won’t be penalised for and until we have players and officials singing off the same hymn sheet, how are fans expected to not react to what they feel t be a clear injustice? With the World Cup just over a year away, either the quality of the officials has to improve dramatically, or we need to find a way to clone Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens soon.

The American dream

The USA finished off their fixtures this summer with a 42-17 win over Canada. This win leaves the Eagles undefeated in 2018 and 15th in the World Rankings. Argentina meanwhile slumped to an embarrassing 15-44 loss to an understrength Scotland. Despite the Pumas being ranked 10th in the world, if they were to play the USA this weekend I would not be surprised to see the Eagles emerge victorious.

The Eagles are on a wonderful run and their success will only push them on and make them even more successful as more people become interested in the sport. I would expect Argentina to begin improving in the near future under new leadership, but I can’t see them getting a single win against New Zealand, Australia or South Africa as things stand and it is quite possible that when we see these 2 teams meet in Pool C of the World Cup, the winner could be looking at becoming the top-ranked American team. What a moment that would be!

80 minute performance

New Zealand may have come away from the Summer Tests with a 3-0 series victory, but they looked anything but unbeatable. Over the 3 tests, the combined first half scores were 50-33 in favour of the Kiwis, but the second half saw them comfortably ahead 77-7. The French played very well in parts but were unable to put in the full 80 minute performances. Granted the yellow card to Paul Gabrillagues in the 1st Test won’t have helped in that match – they conceded 3 tries while he was off the pitch – but once the All Blacks got the momentum hey ran away with the 1st and 3rd Tests. The only one you could argue the French put in the full 80 minute performance was the 2nd Test, where they played the majority of the match a man down.

The All Blacks are beatable and I’m not sold on McKenzie as an international 10 when Beauden Barrett isn’t available, but you need to be at the top of your game to beat them and need to keep the performance going from the first whistle to the last.

2018 Summer Tests Week 1: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 1: A Rugby Ramble

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

Referees can’t win

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

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

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

Back row balance

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

Strength of schedule

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

May 2018 Rugby Ramble

May 2018 Rugby Ramble

Legend of the game

It was announced right at the start of the month that England fullback and legend of the game Danielle “Nolli” Waterman would be retiring from international rugby. A star of the women’s game, Nolli made her England debut in 2003 and went on to earn 82 caps for the Red Roses, playing in 4 World Cups and scoring in the 2014 final. Having also spent some time with the England 7s team, her time with the 15s has been a little more limited in recent years, but she has still been consistently one of the best players on the park whenever she has featured and finishes her career with only 1 loss in the 6 Nations to her name – against France this year. She has been an outstanding servant to England Rugby and women’s rugby – in fact rugby as a whole! – and it will be a shame to no longer see her representing England. With the Barbarians having now created a women’s team I sincerely hope she becomes a regular in this while she continues to play at club level.

The good news for England fans is that her replacement already seems to be in place. Ellie Kildunne has had a wonderful season for Gloucester-Hartpury and England. She has pace, footwork, good handling skills and is also strong enough to hold her own against larger opposition. Having trained and played alongside Nolli with England this year, she will have learned so much and it is possible that in 15 or so years we may be looking back on an equally impressive career.

Congratulations Nolli and thank you for everything!


Qualification nightmare

It feels like every time I write one of these recently we end up coming back to the absolute ****storm caused by Vlad Iordachescu’s refereeing of Spain v Belgium’s Rugby Europe Championship match that denied the Spanish qualification to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

It was eventually announced this month that the match will not be replayed as Belgium successfully argued that having Romania officials for this match is no different than a team of officials from 1 country in the 6 Nations refereeing a match in the tournament between 2 other teams. In my eyes, that is absolute bollocks as this wasn’t just any old match, but a match that decided whether Romania or Spain qualified for the World Cup. When there is such a prize at stake, neutrality is a must and I would not call Iordachescu and his team wholly neutral in the circumstances.

On top of that, Spain have been deducted 40 points from the Rugby Europe Championship, with Belgium and Romania being deducted 30 points each, for fielding ineligible players. This means that Russia have qualified automatically, while Germany – who were due to have a playoff to avoid relegation – will now have a playoff with Portugal to play Samoa in the next round of qualification.

While I agree that punishments must be meted out for fielding ineligible players, it just shows how difficult World Rugby have made player eligibility in the past. Moving forward something needs to be done to make sure someone else doesn’t unknowingly play for an international team as they were not aware they were already captured by another nation.


Get low

The above nightmare was not the only announcement from World Rugby this month, as they also announced recently that they will be trialling some new laws relating to high tackles in the upcoming U20s tournaments. There will be 2 separate trials taking place, 1 in the World Rugby U20 Championship and 1 in the World Rugby U20 Trophy. Per World Rugby’s announcement:

WORLD RUGBY U20 TROPHY

Law 9.13 The acceptable height of the tackle is reduced from the line of shoulders to below the nipple line.

The law will now read: A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the nipple line even if the tackle starts below the nipple line.

WORLD RUGBY U20 CHAMPIONSHIP

Tackles that increase the risk of head injury will be cited.

The match citing commissioner will issue a “High Tackle Warning” to THE TACKLER WHO IS DEEMED TO BE UPRIGHT (NOT BENT AT THE WAIST)

A tackler will be deemed to be upright when:

  • They are in an approximate upright standing position
  • They have made no clear attempt to lower the height of contact with the ball carrier to avoid the head or shoulders of the ball carrier
  • There is no knee flexion and minimal bending at the waist which brings the head into a dangerous position for collision with ball carrier’s head or shoulder
  • The high tackle warning will be issued in one of four types of incidents:
    • All HIGH-CONTACT PENALTIES, irrespective of sanction, during matches
    • All TACKLES THAT RESULT IN AN HIA, irrespective of whether to tackler or ball-carrier
    • High tackles that are missed during the match
    • Accidental clear and obvious head to head and head to shoulder contact

Sanctions:

The High Tackle Warning is issued ONLY IF THE TACKLER IS UPRIGHT, AND THERE IS CLEAR AND OBVIOUS HEAD CONTACT for either player

Each High Tackle Warning carries ‘one strike’. When ‘two strikes’ (two High Tackle Warnings) have been issued, a player will receive a one-match suspension (a right to appeal will operate)

High Tackle Warnings also form part of the usual accumulation of sanctions, including Citing Commissioner Warnings (CCWs) and yellow cards. A strong education element will be run in parallel, explaining that this player welfare initiative protects the tackler and their opponents.

While I understand the need for increased safety both at professional and grassroots level, I think the lowering of the tackle height will become a difficult one to police, while it is already hard enough for the tallest players to get low enough to tackle the shorter player as they try to step around them. The idea of a “High Tackle Warning” from a citing commissioner seems a good idea though as it will encourage better technique whilst it also appears to be fair to the tackler by looking at the effort they have made to lower the tackle. I just wonder if 2 strikes for a ban will be a bit too strict over a season of weekly club rugby, though if this works well in the World Rugby U20 Championship then I would be interested to see how well this works over a season of club rugby.

Jared Payne has not played since the Lions Tour due to repeated headaches and it has now been announced that he has been forced to retire aged 32 and take up a coaching role with Ulster, this is a timely reminder of how important player safety is. It may be softening up the game to a degree, but players are larger, stronger and faster than ever so anything that improves a player’s safety should be considered.


WRUWelsh woes

I was so happy when the Welsh squad for the June Tests was announced with Josh Adams included. He had such a good season for Worcester, finishing joint top try scorer in the Premiership, but was not given enough of a chance by Warren Gatland before being dropped during the 6 Nations. I was hoping that this June, he would get the chance to prove himself. Unfortunately, that chance will have to wait as he has been dropped from the squad along with Tom Francis and Luke Charteris.

The reason the players were dropped? As Wales are playing their opening match of the tour outside the international window, Premiership clubs are not forced to release their players, so the 3 players will be unavailable for the 1st Test and as such Gatland does not see the point in taking them. While I feel it is a bit pathetic of the Premiership Clubs to not release their players, especially considering Adams and Charteris have not even had any club matches to play the last couple of weeks, I put the blame firmly on the WRU.

The international windows are clearly defined, yet for some reason the WRU continue to arrange matches outside these periods and then complain that their players are not available to them. It is not a hard job to stick to a designated period of time, but for them it seems near-impossible. I really sympathise with Adams especially and hope that he is a regular in the Welsh XV soon.

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 The Final Rounds

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 The Final Rounds

Hey guys, sorry for the delay in getting back to this series. It took me a little longer than I expected to catch up on life after my trip away so by the time I had caught up the final round of games was upon us.

So the Premier League is now over for another season. Manchester City are the Champions of England and have broken most records on the way to their title. Meanwhile West Brom’s valiant efforts under caretaker manager Darren Moore were not enough to overcome the odds and they were relegated along with Stoke and Swansea (even more galling as Cardiff have been promoted). Chelsea’s loss at Newcastle on the final day means that they will be playing in the Europa League next season along with Arsenal and Burnley, while Manchester United, Spurs (who waved goodbye to Wembley with a goal-fest against Leicester) and Liverpool will be joining City in the Champions League next season.

 


Record Breakers

What season City had. They ended up proving my prediction that their defence would lose them the league completely wrong, not only winning by 19 points, but also facing the fewest shots over a season since Opta records began (236). Their possession (71.9%), total passes (28,242) and pass accuracy (89%) were all records since Opta records began, as was their 15.9% shot conversion rate, which helped them towards a league-record 106 goals in a season. Their 32 wins and 4 draws saw them become the first team in the history of the league to reach 100 points, 10 more than the famed Arsenal “Invincibles” of 2003/4! This is a fantastic achievement and while I would expect their rivals to improve and get closer to them next season, it is hard to imagine this team not defending their title in 2018/19.

Along with all these records they broke, they also held the top 4 spots on the list of assists this season, with Kevin De Bruyne’s last minute assist for Gabriel Jesus earning him the top spot with 16, one ahead of Leroy Sané and 5 ahead of Raheem Sterling and David Silva.

In fact, pretty much the only record City didn’t break this season was that of most goals for a player in a 38-game season. That went to Golden Boot winner Mohamed Salah, whose opener against Brighton put him on 32 goals for the season, not only 2 goals ahead of Harry Kane’s impressive haul of 30 goals, but also enough to break Shearer, Ronaldo and Suarez’s record of 31 goals. Unlike City’s dominance, I doubt that Salah will be able to live up to these heights next year (though I would not be surprised with him making it into the 20s), but the guy has been on fire this season and rightfully earned his spot in the record books. It will be interesting to see if Liverpool can hold off attention from the more attractive clubs like Man City, Barcelona and Real Madrid, especially if he fires the Reds to Champions League glory.


Down but not out

With the season coming to an end, teams will now begin to turn their eyes to the future and start considering who they will sign for the coming season. While Stoke, Swansea and West Brom go down to the Championship, there are some players who I am sure will be leaving, either for another Premiership team or a different league. Stoke especially have a number of Premiership quality players who I will likely be finding a new club in the coming months:

Having spent time at Bayern Munich and Inter in the past, there is no way Xherdan Shaqiri will follow Stoke to the Championship. The Swiss international was one of Stoke’s stars in an awful season and topped the stats for goals (8) and assists (7) in the league this season. Only Joe Allen and Jack Butland played more minutes for Stoke than him in the league in 2017/18. With Marko Arnautovic leaving for West Ham and Jesé not working out as hoped, Shaqiri was not left with much help up front but still looked impressive during a doomed campaign. He may decide to move back to the continent, but if he does choose to remain in the Premier League, I could see him working well as a rotational player in the Spurs attack. They need more depth and more players who can chip in with goals and Shaqiri can certainly provide that, whilst also allowing the men up front to stay fresh throughout the season.

As mentioned above, Joe Allen’s 3,142 minutes in the league for Stoke was bested only by Jack Butland this season. He was also second to Shaqiri for assists (5) while also scoring 2 league goals. Though the numbers may not be anything special, he is a much more talented player than these stats suggest. The “Welsh Xavi” played 189 more passes than anyone else in a Stoke shirt and his 1,977 touches was almost 200 more than the next on the list for Stoke. He may not be the flair player that top teams will be looking for, but with 7 years of Premier League experience under his belt – including 4 at Liverpool – he will be an attractive prospect to a team towards the middle of the table hoping to push for Europe. With it announced that Scott Arfield will be leaving Burnley for Rangers, I think that Burnley are a potential landing spot for Allen, as they will want to get some players in to help them live up to this season’s exploits and also hold their own in the Europa League.

Jack Butland played more minutes than any Stoke player in the league this season and finished the season with the most saves of any keeper (144) despite Stoke having the joint worst number of goals conceded. A potential member of Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad, there is no way that he will be playing Championship football next season. He will want to maximise his chance of playing for England by signing for the best team he can, and as such I can see Liverpool as an attractive option, or Arsenal if they decide to move on from Petr Cech. Both squads have had somewhat questionable defences over recent years but will still look more secure than what he has had in front of him at Stoke, while both teams will appreciate a young, talented shot stopper who is English-qualified but due to relegation can probably come at a discounted price.

With so many influential players likely to leave Stoke, it will be a difficult job for whoever is in charge next season to bring them straight back into the top flight.


Back fighting?

What a great end to the season for Newcastle! At one point earlier in the season they looked at real risk of relegation, but pulled themselves up the table in 2018 and despite a string of losses towards the end of the season finished on a high with a dominant 3-0 victory over Chelsea to finish 10th. The Premier League needs a Newcastle side that is competing in the top half of the table, but that has been a rarity in recent seasons. But what do they need to do to give themselves the best chance of this?

  • Keep hold of Rafa – Rafael Benitez is a former Champions League winner and has arguably worked wonders with the side he has this season. A manager of his quality should not have been relegated to the Championship but such was his willingness to take on the role at Newcastle in 2016 despite their precarious position, and his willingness to see the Magpies back into the Premier League at the first opportunity, he has the good graces of the fans. The worry now will be losing him. He has been frequently frustrated by the lack of support financially in the transfer market and many will be worried that he may look for greener pastures, especially with an attractive position available at Arsenal and possibly a spot at Chelsea too. With Rafa at the helm, I feel that this Newcastle side can do better than expected, but I do worry for them should he leave.
  • Make the loans permanent – Newcastle’s results improved in 2018 following the arrivals of Kenedy and Martin Dubravka on loan. These 2 players made such a huge impression on matches the improvement in performance was clear to see. If Newcastle want to compete in the right parts of the league, they need to be getting players like this on the books as permanent deals rather than as short-term loans, otherwise the squad will struggle to get the consistency over the seasons.
  • Get a reliable striker – Especially in the first half of the season, Newcastle struggled with goals. Though they improved as they went through 2018, only Burnley (36) scored less goals out of the top 14 than Newcastle’s 39. Ayoze Perez was their top scorer with a “whopping” 8 goals, whereas fellow strikers Dwight Gayle and Joselu only managed 6 and 4 goals respectively. When your centre back is 4th on the list of goals scored with 3, you know there’s a problem! Newcastle desperately need a player who can score 12-15 goals per season if they want to regularly challenge in the top half of the table. Jay Rodriguez may not have head the best couple of seasons since his injury issues, but 7 goals in a struggling West Brom team suggested he could be getting back to his best and a better supporting cast. Southampton may have only just avoided relegation this season but they will be at risk next year if they don’t substantially improve after the season. Charlie Austin missed a number of matches through injury and yet still ended up as their top scorer with 7 goals. He’s a quality striker but has never quite managed to hold down a starting spot at Southampton on a regular basis, so I would not be surprised to see him move on to a team that can guarantee him a starting spot while also providing him the players around him to provide him with the opportunities. But of course for this, Newcastle will need to likely put their hand in their pocket and spend a bit of money.

And each of these ends up coming back to the same point: Newcastle needs to spend money to get the players in that Rafa Benitez wants. I have genuinely felt sorry for Newcastle fans in recent years when prospective takeovers have fallen through. If Mike Ashley will continue to refuse to spend money then he needs to find a buyer soon!


 

Thanks to everyone who has been reading this series over the past year. I do not know if I will do exactly the same next year but writing these has really helped me get back into the Premier League after a couple of years of not really caring, so I’m sure there will be something. Watch this space guys!

April 2018 Rugby Ramble

April 2018 Rugby Ramble

Costly actions

The farce surrounding Spain’s loss to Belgium – and Romania’s subsequent qualification for the World Cup – continued this month as it was announced that 5 players were receiving bans totalling over 2 years! Brothers Sebastien and Guillaume Rouet received 43 and 36 week bans respectively, while teammates Pierre Barthere, Lucas Guillaume and Mathieu Bélie each received bans of 14 weeks.

I’ve seen the footage of the incident and it does not make easy watching. The behaviour of some of the Spanish players was deplorable and they certainly deserve to be punished for their actions. What rankles me is that the chance of an incident was allowed to happen in the first place. For such an important match where World Cup qualification was on the line, the officials should be completely neutral. Yes the Romanian officials were neutral to judge it by an individual match, but considering Romania stood to qualify if Spain lost there is no way Romanian officials should have been allowed. Granted the officials were appointed before the tournament, but on the same weekend a South African official was removed from the England v Ireland match late in the day as he had been with England during the week, Rugby Europe – who have a Romanian as President – in my opinion have no legitimate reason as to why they could not change the officials. Maybe the match would have gone the same, but at least the calls of bias would have been unfounded.

World Rugby were investigating this and also the suggestion that Spain, Belgium and Romania all fielded ineligible players during the tournament but everything has gone quiet on that front other than the announcement of the bans. Too often it appears that World Rugby are hesitant to change the status quo and with usual competitors Romania now set to feature in Japan, if fear that the investigation and findings will be swept under the rug in a similar way to France’s abuse of Head Injury Protocols over recent seasons. I really hope World Rugby prove me wrong…


Sinner

One player who did escape punishment this month was Israel Folau. Folau caused outrage following his comment on Instagram that God’s plan for gay people was “HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God”, yet he escaped punishment from the ARU after explaining his views and religious beliefs to them.

Now I have no problem with freedom of speech and also with religious beliefs – though I would not consider myself especially religious. My issue is that Folau is not just some random member of the public, he is one of Australia’s star players and as such he is meant to be a role model to others. Folau has a responsibility to be careful what he says on social media as it will get around to millions of people in no time. Further to this he is making a conscious choice to use passages from the bible that are against homosexuality, but conveniently doesn’t appear to follow the Bible fully as it is stated in Leviticus that ”You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.” If you can ignore your religious beliefs to get a bit more ink, don’t use them as an excuse to get out of being a homophobe.

folauThe ARU have panicked and avoided punishing him because he is out of contract soon and they are afraid he will walk away from the sport. That Denny Solomona can be banned for likely using a homophobic slur, Folau commenting on social media that gay people can go to Hell definitely deserves a ban. I wonder how the ARU would have acted if the question was about people of a different religion rather than a different sexuality.

Following his comments, it was great to see both Brad Weber and TJ Perenara come out against his remarks. I’d love to hear David Pocock’s views on Folau’s comments considering how supportive he was of legalising gay marriage in Australia. That next training camp with the national team could be a little tense…


Over too soon

It’s that time of year where the lists of players hanging up their boots at the end of the season start to come out. As always, there are so many quality players leaving the game that have become such a big part of our viewing over the years. One name that people would not have been expecting to see on those lists though is that of Northampton and Australia back Rob Horne.

At 28 years old, the former Waratah would have been looking forward to a successful couple of years with the Saints and it was suggested that he could be a potential captain next season. Unfortunately, in his first match as Northampton captain, he lasted just 13 seconds of their derby against Leicester Tigers before going off injured. Sione Kalamafoni jumped to catch the kickoff and as he came down, Horne appeared to catch him awkwardly. He went down immediately and did not look good trying to get up. Watching at the time, I assumed that he had got a stinger and possibly caught his head awkwardly. However, later that week it was announced that he had suffered nerve damage severe enough to bring an end to his career.

It is a sobering reminder of just how easy it is to pick up an injury and of how fragile our bodies really are despite us putting them on the line and making them take a beating for 80 minutes a week. I wish the best to Rob in his retirement and hope that he will get the support he needs both in his recover and his earlier-than-expected transition to life after rugby.

Premier League Ramble – The Elongated Week

Premier League Ramble – The Elongated Week

It’s been an odd week of Premier League action. With just a few teams still involved in the FA Cup, teams have been playing league matches throughout the week, leaving just over half the league still with a game in hand. Champions Manchester City were welcomed onto the Etihad pitch by a guard of honour by Swansea and thanked the Welsh side by putting 5 goals past them. Stoke and Southampton drew their matches, moving them closer to the Championship, while West Brom followed up their win over Manchester United by coming back from 2 goals down to draw at home to Liverpool, who still had something to cheer this weekend as Mo Salah was named PFA Player of the Year.

Possibly more important than the football this week was the announcement that this season will be Arsene Wenger’s last in charge at Arsenal.


End of an era

Though results over the last 2 seasons have suggested change was coming and despite me even predicting as much, it was still a shock when the news broke on Friday that Arsene Wenger will be stepping down as manager of Arsenal at the end of the season. Having taken over at Arsenal on 1st October 1996, he has been the Arsenal manager through the entire time I have been watching football! I doubt the Premier League will ever see another manager have such a long tenure with a single club.

The results and standings may not have been to the level Arsenal – and Wenger – would have hoped over the last couple of seasons, but at a time like this it is important to look back at his achievements with the Gunners. These last 2 seasons are the only times Arsenal have not finished in the top 4 of the Premier League under Wenger, with the Gunners always finishing in the top 2 until 2005/06, while he has won 3 league titles (1997/98, 2001/02 and 2003/4), 7 FA Cups (1997/98, 2001/02, 2002/03, 2004/05, 2013/14, 2014/15 and 2016/17) and 7 Community Shields (1998, 1999, 2002, 2004, 2014, 2015 and 2017). “The Invincibles” of 2003/04 remain the only team to go an entire 38-match Premier League campaign without losing a single match. Individually, Wenger has been named Premier League Manager of the Season in 1998, 2002 and 2004 and was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2006. He has always sought to create teams who play attractive football and has maintained a high level of success throughout the years with only a handful of big-money signings, while also seeing the club through their move from Highbury to the Emirates in 2006.

wengUnfortunately for Wenger, his long tenure has perhaps harmed Arsenal in recent years as they have been unable to adapt to the football played by some teams, with organised, physical defences often denying them points they should not be dropping and expensive attacking teams exposing an inconsistent defence. For this reason, I do not think we will see managers getting anywhere near Wenger’s 22 years with a single club moving forward as managers will be changed to freshen things up once a team does not adapt. It is a credit to Arsenal that in such a cut-throat business they have stuck by Arsene Wenger despite the lack of silverware between 2005 and 2014. I can’t imagine any of the other classic “Big 4” teams would go more than a couple of seasons without silverware before changing manager. There has been a lot of fan hostility towards him in recent seasons, but I sincerely hope that they continue to use these final games as a way to thank Wenger for his service to the club over the year.

This summer, the focus turns to who will replace him… I don’t envy that manager at all!


The king has been crowned

It will come as no surprise to anyone that Mohammed Salah has won the PFA Player of the Year award for 2017/18. The Egyptian has been in fine form this season and looked a completely different player to the one who struggled for minutes at Chelsea.

He may not have had the best of performances at the weekend against West Brom, but he still managed to score another goal, leaving him with 31 goals from 33 Premier League games, level with Shearer, Ronaldo and Suarez for the most in a 38-game league season. I can’t imagine many people would bet against him breaking that record against Stoke. In fact at £34m he has already been worth less than £1m for each goal he has scored in all competitions, good value for money in the modern game!

When Philippe Coutinho was sold to Barcelona many fans may have been worried, but Salah has more than picked up the slack and has been a big part in one of the most destructive attacks in the league this season, providing 9 assists to go along with those goals. Liverpool’s 80 goals scored leaves them comfortably second in the league rankings, and Salah has been directly involved (scored/assisted) half of them! I can’t even begin to imagine how many others involved him playing a big part in the build-up.

The question now will become what happens going forward? Will he have a sophomore slump in 2018/19 or will he be able to keep up the performances, even if the numbers drop slightly (I can’t imagine anyone being able to keep scoring so regularly over 2 seasons)? More than that, how long until Real Madrid or Barcelona inevitably come calling? And how long can Liverpool keep hold of him when they do?


A long-awaited goal

931 days. That’s how long Danny Ings went without scoring ahead of his 4th minute opener against West Brom. He’s had 2 serious knee injuries since moving from Burnley to Liverpool and as such was making only his second start under Jurgen Klopp. As well as his goal, he also had another great chance and should have also had a penalty when he was impeded by Craig Dawson trying to reach a ball through.

Ings remains a quality player and at 25 years old he can still be a star in the league if given the chance to play regularly, but despite Klopp backing him to start scoring I can’t see him getting the minutes he deserves with Roberto Firmino ahead of him in the pecking order and the front 3 being so effective as a group. There are very few top class English strikers so regular football could easily see Ings pushing for a spot in the England squad. I really think that Ings would benefit from a move away this summer to get his career back on track. But where could he go?

Spurs could do with another reliable goal scorer to back up Harry Kane, but that leaves Ings in the same situation as he is in now. The rest of the Big 6 are sorted up front or will be looking for more expensive options. In my opinion, the best spots for him would be the teams currently occupying 7th to 10th: Burnley, Leicester, Everton and Newcastle. All of these teams will be looking to compete for the spots outside the top 6 and a striker who can score 15-20 goals a season would be a huge benefit. Of those, I would see Burnley and Everton as the most attractive options. Burnley are Ings’ former club so he is used to the environment and 0Sean Dyche’s style of management, while I’m sure the fans would love to have back a player who was their top scorer in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons. Everton on paper probably have the strongest of the squads and Ings would certainly benefit from the calibre of players providing him with the ball.

Personally, I’d suggest he pick Everton, they have had a poor season but I would expect them to be more competitive next year, whereas Burnley’s smaller squad could struggle to repeat their heroics of this season. That said, if Burnley do manage to make it into the Europa League, the chance of European football would be a huge draw and really help his aspirations. A return to his former club to help them in Europe would be a wonderful story heading into next season.


Round 36 predictions:

Liverpool v Stoke City – Liverpool win

Burnley v Brighton & Hove Albion – Burnley win

Crystal Palace v Leicester City – Draw

Huddersfield Town v Everton – Everton win

Newcastle United v West Bromwich Albion – Draw

Southampton v AFC Bournemouth – Draw

Swansea City v Chelsea – Chelsea win

West Ham United v Manchester City – City win

Manchester United v Arsenal – United win

Tottenham Hotspur v Watford – Spurs win