2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Argentina

Round 3 of the 2021 Rugby Championship kicked off with the first of a double-header as New Zealand took on Argentina. The All Blacks were coming in off the back of a 3-0 whitewash of Australia in the Bledisloe Cup, and took the lead in fortuitous circumstances after 10 minutes as Beauden Barrett’s pass was batted down by Bautista Delguy, only to bounce into the in-goal for Reiko Ioane to dot down. Just a few minutes later, Beauden Barrett took an opportunity under penalty advantage to chip into the back of the Puma’s in-goal, with brother Jordie collecting on the full but his momentum just carrying him out the back of the in-goal before he could dot the ball down. While the Pumas’ defence was just about holding on, there was very little for the team to write home about in attack, but they finally won a penalty just after the 20 minute mark, only for Nicolás Sánchez’s shot to drop short, while Beauden Barrett stretched his team’s lead to 10 points with a penalty just after the half hour. As the half came to an end, the All Blacks attack began to start creating more chances. Jordie Barrett again just ran out of space chasing his brother’s grubber into the in-goal, but Sevu Reece squeezed over from close range with just 5 minutes left in the half. The Pumas likely would have considered a 15-0 halftime deficit fortunate, however one last attack from the All Blacks saw Pablo Matera sent to the bin for killing the ball, and the All Blacks took advantage of the extra man to drive Dalton Papali’i over from a 5m lineout for a 22-0 halftime score.

If the first half had been one-sided, the second would be even worse. One of the rare times the Pumas got to the New Zealand 22, the Kiwis won a penalty and TJ Perenara went quick, sparking an attack which saw them reach the Pumas half with ease. George Bridge was finally brought down out wide, but quick ball allowed Beauden Barrett to scythe through a gap in the defence, and as he finally ran out of space on the edge of the 22, he through an outrageous wide pass out the back of his hand to put Luke Jacobson over for a try. The Kiwis could have ran away with the game over the next 20 minutes, with Reece and Ethan Blackadder having tries disallowed and Bridge and Quinn Tupaea both being held up over the line. However, with the Pumas again down to 14 following a yellow card to Carlos Muzzio, New Zealand got a wheel and push on a 5m scrum, which allowed Jacobson to peel off and go over for his second try of the game, with Jordie Barrett adding the simplest of conversions and a late penalty to secure a 39-0 victory.

Lacking

It’s hard to believe that less than a year ago, we were watching Argentina defeat New Zealand. This team at the moment is severely lacking, and I honestly can’t see where they’re going to get a point in this year’s tournament.

Despite having quality throughout the squad, their attack has looked almost non-existent bar a few short periods over these opening 3 rounds. And the defence in this match was questionable to say the least. Rather than coming up in the opposition’s faces, the Pumas appeared to almost sit off and allow the ball carrier to come to them. Why? I think the plan was to try isolating the ball carrier and turning them over at the breakdown—which they did to great success in some moments—but it instead allowed the All Blacks to get on the front foot, which then led to the Pumas having to kill the ball illegally or get ripped to shreds as their defence failed to set in time.

And then we come to the lineout. While the Pumas continued to have some success getting up to spoil opposition ball, if they failed to win it they were in trouble, as they had no way to legally stop the All Blacks driving maul. With coaches like Mario Ledesma and Michael Cheika on the books, to be so bad at a key set piece is embarrassing, and it gifted the All Blacks so many chances alongside Papali’i’s try. Until the Pumas start to seriously sort things out, a team that looked on the up will continue to drop down the World Rankings.

Plan B

With just 8 spots on the bench and usually only 3 at most for backs, it is hard to decide who to pick to maximise your chances of a win while also making sure that you have cover for as many positions as possible. As such a specialist position, one of these spots will almost always be taken by a scrumhalf, to ensure that there is cover should the starting 9 be forced off injured.

What really surprised me with this match was Mario Ledesma’s decision to go without any real cover at fly half. Nicolás Sánchez is an elite 10 on his day, but has been struggling in this tournament, yet neither Domingo Miotti nor Joaquín Díaz Bonilla was on the bench, while Santiago Carreras—who could fill in at the position but is far from a specialist—was also not included in the 23. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly leaves a large degree of risk should anything happen to the starting 10, which is exactly what happened in this match as Sánchez hobbled off on 53 minutes to be replaced by Emiliano Boffelli.

Granted it probably didn’t effect this game much, as the Pumas spent most of the second half either defending or under their own posts, but in a close match, losing your game manager with nobody really experienced at the position to cover for him could be very costly. It will be interesting to see if the Pumas take this risk again. I would expect that at the very least, Carreras makes the bench due to his quality and versatility.

Limited opportunity

I’ve not been silent in my belief over recent years that Asafo Aumua is the All Black’s next star at hooker. The Hurricane has an incredible balance of physicality and athleticism that would surprise many people.  And yet due to the continued presence of Dane Coles, Aumua has struggled to solidify himself as a starter at Super Rugby level, which has now seen him fall behind Chiefs’ Samisoni Taukei’aho, who is a physical player but not quite as mobile as the ‘Canes hookers or Codie Taylor.

Well Aumua got a chance in this game, but it certainly felt like that chance was limited. The Hurricanes contingent in the squad is well lower than a few years ago, and with Ardie Savea missing this match there were no potential lineout options that Aumua would have an established connection with. And then to make his job even harder, lineout master Sam Whitelock wasn’t even playing in this game, which would have immediately impacted the set piece regardless of who was at hooker.

Aumua didn’t play bad but he certainly didn’t have as big an impact as he would have wanted and was unfortunately pulled off surprisingly early, just 4 minutes into the second half. Hopefully he gets another, more significant chance in the near future.

United Rugby Championship 2021/22: 7 to Watch

United Rugby Championship 2021/22: 7 to Watch

It’s that time of year again as the Northern Hemisphere’s top flight leagues prepare to kick off again when I look at the all the teams in a competition and select 7 players new to their clubs this season who I think we should all be keeping an eye on. It’s something I’ve done a few times with the Premiership (check out my picks for this season here), while 2 years ago I also branched out to look at the Pro14, so now I’m looking at it’s replacement tournament: the United Rugby Championship. It’s safe to say that I’ve had mixed results in the past with my picks, but hopefully after a season off, I’ll find myself doing a bit better with my selections.

A quick reminder of the rules:

  • Players must be new transfers into the club. Academy graduates/short-term contracts from last year that have now signed longer permanent contracts/players who joined the club midway through last season/players returning from loans will not be included
  • Maximum 1 player per team, even if they have multiple players deserving of a spot on the list

So without further ado, let’s get on with the list…

Rhys Priestland

Its the start of a new era for Cardiff Rugby after their rebrand dropped the “Blues” moniker from their name ahead of this season, and they also find themselves with a new face at fly half in Rhys Priestland. The former Welsh international leaves Cardiff Rugby with options in the back line as they now have an experienced and reliable fly half as well as Jarrod Evans, who has shown quality but not quite stepped on as many would have hoped. Not only does Priestland give an alternative to Evans, but there is always the possibility of moving Evans out to 12 to create a dual-playmaker system similar to what was utilised on occasion when Gareth Anscombe was at the region.

Emiliano Boffelli

Losing Duhan van der Merwe is understandably a massive blow for Edinburgh, but the arrival of Boffelli will certainly go some way to alleviate that loss. The Argentine international brings 30+ caps worth of experience to the club, and at 26years old could be considered to be entering his prime. His versatility in the back 3 will open up options for Edinburgh and his quality in the air will be a real weapon for the team.

Josh McKay

Sticking in Scotland, we go over to Glasgow, who will be hoping that Josh McKay will become a key part of their rebuild. The 23-year-old arrives from the Crusaders, but it was at the Highlanders where he really came to the fore. This guy has pace to burn! Give him some space or a kick in behind the defence to chase and he will hurt the opposition. He just needs to hope that his team can get back to the level they were at a few years ago in order to give him the chances…

Michael Ala’alatoa

This feels like the most unnecessary signing ever when you consider how successfully Leinster bring players through, but the inclusion of Michael Ala’alatoa gives the province arguably the deepest 3-man depth chart at tighthead prop of any club in the world. With Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong also at the club, expect the trio to split minutes, while Ala’alatoa will provide a reliable and experienced presence when the internationals are away during the Six Nations.

Simon Zebo

The prodigal son returns! No, I’m not talking about Cristiano Ronaldo, I’m talking about Simon Zebo, who returns to Thomond Park after 3 seasons at Racing 92. A threat at both wing and fullback, Zebo brings great attacking flair to the game as well as plenty of experience at the elite level. Andy Farrell may have plenty of options in the back 3, but don’t be shocked to see Zebo back in the Ireland squad in the coming months now that he is eligible again.

Michael Collins

As someone who would consider the Scarlets my team of choice in the URC, hearing that the Ospreys had signed Michael Collins certainly made me nervous! The 28-year-old has been a key player for the Highlanders in recent seasons, splitting his time between fullback and outside centre. It was at centre where he really stood out to me, with his range of skills leaving a number of options on in attack and his experience of playing fullback allowing him to pick the right line to attack any gap he finds. Collins qualifies for Wales through his grandfather, so don’t be shocked if a solid start to the season sees him come into consideration for the Six Nations.

Gerbrandt Grobler

This final pick may come as a shock to some people, but Grobler has had a quietly successful career since returning from a drugs ban, having become a regular part of matchday squads at Racing 92, Munster, Gloucester and Stade Français. It was at Gloucester that I really got a chance to watch him play, and I was honestly gutted to see him leave. Despite being at the club at the same time as Ed Slater and Franco Mostert, Grobler took every chance to show his quality with some strong carrying, but his lineout skills were what really stood out. Now that he finds himself back in South Africa with the Sharks, expect to see him playing a key role securing the set piece—something which will be key to success in the URC.

Who would you put on this list?


This year, I will be running a predictions league for the URC on Superbru, and you are all invited! It’s free to enter and entirely for fun.

For those of you who have never done this before, each week you select who you think will win each match and by what margin (a draw is also an option) and you will be awarded points depending on how successful your predictions are.

Interested? You can join my league here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code partdour

Thanks for reading!

Premiership Rugby 2021/22: 7 to Watch

Premiership Rugby 2021/22: 7 to Watch

With the newest season of the Premiership just weeks away, it’s that time of year again when I look at the all the Premiership teams and select 7 players new to their clubs this season who I think we should all be keeping an eye on. It’s safe to say that I’ve had mixed results in the past with my picks, but hopefully after a season off (sadly with the amateurish way the league was being ran in COVID and a number of loan moves just allowing Saracens to get a leg up on this season, I found myself not interested) I’ll find myself doing a bit better with my selections.

A quick reminder of the rules:

  • Players must be new transfers into the club. Academy graduates/short-term contracts from last year that have now signed longer permanent contracts/players who joined the club midway through last season/players returning from loans will not be included
  • Maximum 1 player per team, even if they have multiple players deserving of a spot on the list

So without further ado, let’s get on with the list…

Adam Hastings

The arrival of Danny Cipriani to Gloucester had a massive impact on the team. The pack were able to get on the front foot and the former England international had the skill and vision to unlock the backline, leading to the Cherry & Whites’ most successful season in years. Sadly a combination of injuries and issues in his private life, combined with less success from the Gloucester pack meant that the success was fleeting and after he was able to leave his contract early, Gloucester were left with Lloyd Evans and young George Barton as the team’s specialist 10s. Bringing in Hastings from Glasgow once again gives the team a top international quality 10 to unlock a team full of potent attacking threats, while his goal kicking percentages (an issue for many Gloucester kickers bar Barton in recent years) could be the difference in close games.

Huw Jones

Last year’s champions Harlequins are seeing quite a change of personnel in their midfield this summer, with centres James Lang, Michele Campagnaro and Ben Tapuai all on their way out, but Huw Jones arriving from Glasgow. Jones has had his ups and downs for both Glasgow and Scotland since arriving from South Africa, but is a real attacking talent who at his best can be a top tier 13. Combine him with Marcus Smith at 10 and with either Paul Lasike/André Esterhuizen drawing defenders’ attention at 12, and this could be the chance for Jones to thrive.

Marco van Staden

The Tigers have had a few down years but look to be getting back on track with the arrival of Steve Borthwick and a new exciting back line. What they need now is to secure the ball for said backs. And who better to help with that than Marco van Staden. The 26-year-old arrives from the Bulls off the back of a summer with the Springboks, where he has been showing his impact (literally) with some physical performances off the bench. Tigers fans are never going to turn down a big bruising forward, don’t be shocked to quickly see him become a fan favourite at Welford Road.

Mike Brown

While Nathan Earl was also a potential pick here, I’ve gone for Mike Brown as my new arrival in Newcastle. After 16 years at the club, Mike Brown was unceremoniously considered surplus to requirements at Quins, but rather than end his career as a one-club man, he has signed for the Falcons and will surely have a point to prove. A former England regular, Brown’s form in recent seasons has arguably been as good as (if not better than) when he was playing Test rugby. His experience, grit and determination will be great for young outside backs like Adam Radwan and Mateo Carreras to learn from.

Ruben de Haas

So this is maybe a bit of an outside pick as with former Wales international already at the club and 6-cap Springbok Ivan van Zyl also joining, de Haas’ game time may not be at the same level as many of the other players on this list. And yet the USA international (yes, Salarycens can still field 3 internationals at 1 position!) is a quality young player who has really impressed with the Eagles and certainly deserves his chance to play and learn in a top league.

Vaea Fifita

All Blacks coming over to the Premiership tend to fall into one of 2 categories: superstars or disappointments. Fifita certainly seems like a player with the potential to go either way. The former Hurricane looked to be the man to replace Jerome Kaino in the All Blacks’ 6 jersey when he was first capped, but never managed to secure the position and has dropped down the pecking order over the years. However, he is still a strong player who is a dangerous carrying option in the loose, while his ability to play either lock or flanker gives a degree of versatility to Wasps’ team selections.

Duhan van der Merwe

With plenty of handy players arriving at Sixways, a Worcester signing was always going to make this list, and the one who secured the spot was Duhan van der Merwe. Scotland’s South African-born winger has impressed in recent years for Edinburgh, and replicated his form for both Scotland and the British & Irish Lions. With great pace and incredible strength, van der Merwe will be a nightmare match-up for opposition wingers. Don’t be shocked to see him high up on the try-scoring charts come the end of the season.

 

Who would you put on this list?


This year, I will be running a predictions league for the Premiership on Superbru, and you are all invited! It’s free to enter and entirely for fun.

For those of you who have never done this before, each week you select who you think will win each match and by what margin (a draw is also an option) and you will be awarded points depending on how successful your predictions are.

Interested? You can join my league here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code densjest

 

Thanks for reading!

A Prize Worth Fighting For

A Prize Worth Fighting For

There were crazy scenes in France over the weekend as Steffon Armitage slotted the kick that won Biarritz a penalty shoot-out against Bayonne to earn the final spot in next season’s Top14. Biarritz had finished 3ʳᵈ in Pro D2, but made it through the playoffs (which include the top 6 teams, with the top 2 getting byes in the first round) to the final, where they lost to table-topping Perpignan.

Meanwhile over in England, RFU Championship table-toppers Ealing Trailfinders were hammered 0-60 at home in the home leg of the final against Premiership cheaters Saracens, who were fielding a team chock-full of internationals. Saracens are now just 80 minutes away from being welcomed back into the Premiership, despite rules on promotion stating that a team needs to be able to show proof that they have been within the salary cap for the past 2 seasons (which they haven’t) in order to be promoted. Get ready for a season of BT peddling the “revenge tour” or “redemption tour” narratives for all of their matches.

The final was just a formality anyway, as Ealing had just found out that Premiership Rugby had denied them the opportunity to be promoted as they failed to provide proof before a set deadline that they had a home ground that met requirements. Of course, it’s never that simple though, as Ealing knew their home ground wasn’t sufficient so arranged a ground share for a suitable stadium, but were awaiting confirmation from Premiership Rugby as to the finding they would receive as a non-shareholder in the Premiership. In a league where the majority of teams are being forced to go semi-pro due to the lack of funding from the RFU, it is already hard enough for a team to rise up and challenge the relegated Premiership team (who get a parachute payment to help them) for a spot in the top flight without all the extra red tape and efforts against them from Premiership Rugby.

This is not sustainable in the long term, and it is a clear ploy to introduce a long-term ringfencing of the Premiership sooner rather than later (this is already happening this season due to the impact of COVID-19 on the table). Meanwhile, talent continues to leave these shores to go to France, where both the Top14 an Pro D2 are fully professional and a third tier of professional rugby is soon to come into effect. Only with such a model can a top-flight team have any realistic chance of holding onto its top players when being relegated, while the depth in the quality of player base grows as teams face tougher tests on a weekly basis.

The Premiership may be one of the best rugby leagues in the world, but by the RFU letting them have their own way and not sufficiently supporting the other leagues, the chance of another fairytale story like that of Exeter looks like nothing more than a work of fiction…

Unite The League

Unite The League
This is rugby like you have never seen it before. Welcome to the United Rugby Championship.”

Today was a big day for European rugby, with the official announcement of the new-look United Rugby Championship. Replacing the Pro14/Pro16 and with investment from CVC, the United Rugby Championship (URC) will be the top flight league for Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy and South Africa, with 16 teams taking part. But how will it look, what format will it take and what does this mean for European qualification? Read on to have these questions answered and get my opinion as an England-based lover of all rugby.


The Teams

feat rugby URC teams

So there’s no real shock in the teams being announced here for anyone who has followed the Pro14/Pro16/Rainbow Cup saga over recent years. The teams from the Pro14 will continue in the tournament, except for the Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings, who have been replaced by the 4 South African teams who were playing in Super Rugby until COVID-19 changed the world. This will leave us with 16 teams covering 5 countries:

  • Ireland: Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Connacht
  • Wales: Scarlets, Dragons, Ospreys, Cardiff Rugby
  • South Africa: Sharks, Stormers, Lions, Bulls
  • Scotland: Glasgow Warriors, Edinburgh
  • Italy: Benetton, Zebre

So no real surprises here and while it is a shame to see the Kings (who disbanded after going into liquidation) and the Cheetahs included, the 4 South African franchises leave the league with a manageable number and no nation having a real monopoly on the league.


The Format

For the purposes of creating the fixture list and European qualification (more on that later), the teams will be split into 4 geographical pools:

  • Ireland
  • Wales
  • South Africa
  • Scotland & Italy

A season will see each team face the other 3 in their pool home and away, thereby keeping the local derbies that everybody loves. They will then play a further 12 matches (6 home, 6 away) against teams from the other 3 pools. The expectation is that South African teams will play their 6 away matches against the Northern Hemisphere teams in 2 3-week tours, while teams travelling down to South Africa will likely play their 2 away matches against South African opposition in back-to-back weeks. From these suggestions, I imagine that as far as possible, each team will play 2 home and 2 away matches against each of the other pools, though that has not been explicitly stated.

rugby URC Martin Anayi QuoteNow this is where things get very interesting: matches will be played outside of Test windows, so rather than the frequently understrength teams of the Pro14, teams will usually have their internationals available. Of course, matches outside the Test window (as Wales love to do) will still lead to some matches where the internationals are missing. This to me is probably one of the biggest and best bits of news from the entire announcement, as the lack of top players was one of the biggest complaints about the URC’s predecessor in recent years.

Once all 18 rounds have been played, the top 8 teams in the league table (yes, we’re back to just one table rather than conferences!) will go into a seeded playoff, that will be played over 3 weeks: quarterfinals, semifinals and then the final. So 21 weeks of rugby for a team who goes all the way, down from 24 under the most recent Pro14 format.

The first round of the competition will take place on the final weekend of September, and the URC Grand Final weekend will take place in mid-June.


Europe

So here’s the big thing: the 4 South African teams will be eligible to play in the EPCR competitions. Now I admit that I’m a little disappointed by this that a Tier 1 non-European nation will be taking up 4 spot rather than trying to grow opportunities for emerging European nations like Georgia, Russia, Spain and Romania. Once again money speaks louder than any words about growing the game. However, with all 1 teams able to qualify for the Champions Cup, it will mean that the teams qualifying are their on merit.

rugby URC Jurie Roux QuoteSo how will it work? Well remember those pools from earlier? This is where they return.

The top team from each pool will automatically qualify for the Champions Cup, guaranteeing 1 Welsh, 1 Irish, 1 South African and 1 Scottish/Italian team will qualify. But of course that’s only 4 teams, and there are 8 Champions Cup places. So now we return to the overall league table, where the top 4 teams who have not already qualified will make up the remaining spots. Seeing for the Champions Cup will be based on standings in the overall table, so if a team tops their pool but finishes 8ᵗʰ in the league, they will get the 8th seed, while a team who finished 2ⁿᵈ in the league behind another from their pool would still get a number 2 seed.

While this isn’t necessarily ideal for the Scots and Italians, I can’t really think of a better way to ensure a variety of nations being represented in the Champions Cup and adding extra meaning to the derby games while also suitably rewarding the most successful teams of the season.


Broadcasting

rugby URC logo blue symbol black type

It doesn’t look like everything has been confirmed with regards to broadcasting yet, but I would imagine that for us in the UK, Premier Sports will remain the broadcaster. As someone who already pays for both Sky Sports and BT Sport, it is hard to justify paying for another channel, but with a more attractive prospect in the URC and some o the other rugby they have recently got hold of, I may have to try and find some funds, but this only highlights the issue for a rugby fan who wants to watch as many leagues as possible.

Hopefully if nothing else, the quality of highlight packages on YouTube will improve, while there will hopefully be a free-to-air highlights show that runs every week at the same time, rather than when the channel can be bothered. Honestly, living in England and trying to keep up with the Pro14 while not being able to afford another subscription services has been an absolute nightmare!


So overall, I’m feeling very positive about this new start. How about you?

feat rugby URC ball blue flat

5 to watch from Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021

5 to watch from Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it brought a premature end to the biggest club rugby tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby. With conditions improving in Australia and New Zealand, they returned with more domestic versions of the competition, Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa respectively.

The second season of Super Rugby AU kicked off on Friday – 10 weeks of rugby that will see each of the 5 Australian teams face each other home and away, with the teams finishing 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ facing off in a Qualifying Final and the winner facing the 1ˢᵗ-placed finisher in the final a week later. This Friday will see the beginning of a slightly shorter Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament (which is just a 10-week round-robin tournament, without the playoffs), which is running concurrently with Super Rugby AU before all 10 teams face off in a new tournament: Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like those of us who live in the UK will get the chance to watch after no company picked up broadcasting rights, but for those of you who can watch, who should you be looking out for in these tournaments? I’ve looked at each of the New Zealand teams and picked one player per team to keep an eye on this year. If you missed my Australian picks, you can find them here.

Blues

If you read my thoughts on last year’s tournament, it’s probably no surprise that I’m picking Finlay Christie for the Blues. Having signed from the Hurricanes, the Scotland-born halfback put in some great performances to earn the starting spot in the latter half f the campaign, bringing quick ball to the attack and repeatedly getting himself in the right position to exploit a teammate’s break, while in defence he was a complete nuisance for opposition scrum halves. If he can put together another similar campaign, the All Blacks should come calling.

Chiefs

While Super Rugby Aotearoa may be best known for its stunning attacking play, you only get that due to the hard work f the tight 5. While Tupou Vaa’i was the one to earn an All Blacks call-up last season, it was his lock partner Naitoa Ah Kuoi who stood out for me. Ah Kuoi was a solid enforcer in defence and did a great job of carrying to help put the Chiefs on the front foot. He missed the middle of last year’s competition through injury, but if he can stay fit this season, he will add some much-needed clout to the Chiefs pack.

Crusaders

My initial pick here was Will Jordan, who got more minutes than expected due to David Havili’s injury issues, but after such a great season that also included his All Blacks debut, that seemed too obvious. Instead, I have gone for Tom Christie, who at just 22 already looks like he will be close to an All Blacks cap and potentially becoming the long-term option at 7 in the coming years. The flanker is already a top quality jackal and does a great job of making the important metres in attack. Have the Crusaders found their new Richie McCaw in Tom Christie?

Highlanders

The Highlanders had a disappointing 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, but things certainly got better for them with the return of Josh Ioane from injury. Capable to play across most of the back line, Ioane is at his best at fly half and will be looking to take advantage of Beauden Barrett’s sabbatical to Japan to push his cause for an All Blacks call-up. A young and highly skilful player, he Highlanders should be building their team around him in the coming years.

Hurricanes

While Peter Umaga-Jensen certainly deserves a mention here, TJ Perenara’s Japanese sabbatical has opened up the door for Jamie Booth to show his quality. The 26-year-old has made his way around the Super Rugby franchises, being contracted for the Blues (where he never made an appearance) and playing for the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Sunwolves. It was with the Sunwolves that I first noticed his quality, which he continued to show off the bench last year for the ‘Canes. Now, with Perenara gone, he will likely get much more of a chance to show his ability to generate quick ball, while his quick footwork makes him a real danger if given any space around the fringes of the ruck or following up a break.


During the competitions, I will be running predictions pools on Superbru. For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was. The pools are entirely for fun, so everyone is welcome to join and there is no buy-in!

Super Rugby AU: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: lidsbops

Super Rugby Aotearoa: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: harmgirt

5 to watch from Super Rugby AU 2021

5 to watch from Super Rugby AU 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it brought a premature end to the biggest club rugby tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby. With conditions improving in Australia and New Zealand, they returned with more domestic versions of the competition, Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa respectively.

On Friday, the second season of Super Rugby AU will kick off – 10 weeks of rugby that will see each of the 5 Australian teams face each other home and away, with the teams finishing 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ facing off in a Qualifying Final and the winner facing the 1ˢᵗ-placed finisher in the final a week later. This will run concurrently with a slightly shorter Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament (which is just a 10-week round-robin tournament, without the playoffs), before all 10 teams face off in a new tournament: Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

But, assuming that someone picks up the broadcast rights to the competitions here in the UK (I’m getting very nervous with no news just a few days out) who should we be looking out for in these tournaments? I’ve looked at each of the Australian teams and picked one player per team to keep an eye on this year. Keep an eye out for my New Zealand picks, which will come out early next week.

Brumbies

Kicking things off in Canberra and my pick is fly half Noah Lolesio. The youngster missed most of the 2020 tournament through injury, but has since gone on to appear for the Wallabies. he was a big miss for the Brumbies last year despite their success, as it hampered the back line’s ability to take advantage of the quality front-foot ball that the forwards will provide. Expect to see him pushing for a more regular spot in the Wallabies squad moving forward.

Rebels

Moving from fly half to the engine room for the Rebels as my pick here is Cameron Orr. The former Gloucester prop is starting to come into his prime at 25 years old and last season really grew into his role with the Rebels. Orr is improving at the scrum, but really came into his own in the loose, with his strong carrying and impressive handling skills add an extra dimension that makes any front rower even more of a threat.

Reds

If anyone watches the Reds regularly during their 2020 campaign, then they probably won’t be shocked to see me pick Tate McDermott here. The 22-year-old was an absolute livewire and was duly rewarded with a call-up to the Wallabies squad at the end of last year. With incredible pace, he can’t be given an inch of space around the breakdown, while he will often find himself in the right spot to carry on a break and often finish it off. With another season like 2020, it will be almost impossible to keep him out of the Wallabies 23.

Waratahs

Lachlan Swinton was about to get my vote here, until my scanning of the 2021 squad’s backs noticed a familiar name: Izaia Perese. The 23-year old first came to my attention with some impressive performances at 13 for the Australian U20s, and his form on the wing for the Reds led to a Wallabies call-up in 2017. He disappeared with a move to rugby league and the NRL, but was sacked by the Brisbane Broncos for drug-related offences and returned to union with a short spell at Bayonne. Now back in Australia, this is the chance for the youngster to have a do-over, and if he gets it right, he will be a welcome addition to the Tahs’ back line.

Western Force

Maybe it’s from my time as a prop, but I’m going back to the front row here with Santiago Medrano. At 24 years old, the tighthead is already an experienced international and the disappearance of the Jaguares is a great benefit to the Force, wo also picked up fellow Pumas Tomás Lezana, Tomás Cubelli and Domingo Miotti. One of the big issues for the Force last year was a reliance on props coming tot he end of their careers, who did not have the fitness to keep playing at the required high level all match, but Medrano will bring more youthful energy to the front row alongside former Waratah Tom Robertson.


During the competitions, I will be running predictions pools on Superbru. For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was. The pools are entirely for fun, so everyone is welcome to join and there is no buy-in!

Super Rugby AU: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: lidsbops

Super Rugby Aotearoa: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: harmgirt

The Verdict: My Thoughts on Super Rugby’s Law Trials

The Verdict: My Thoughts on Super Rugby’s Law Trials

With Super Rugby AU now over and the internationals still a few weeks away, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the last couple of months of Southern Hemisphere rugby.

As well as bringing more focus to the refereeing of the breakdown, both Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU trialled some new laws this season – with Super Rugby Aotearoa trialling a new law for red cards and Super Rugby AU trialling this and a number of other laws. A few of them came up while I was giving my thoughts on the individual matches, but now that I have had the chance to watch them in effect for a full tournament, I think it is fair to take a look at how successful the trials have been.

Mark

A kick originating in the attacking 22m area cannot be marked by the defending team within their own 22m area. The kick can however be marked within the defending team’s in-goal area and play restarts with a 22m line drop-out

Personally, I liked this amendment. Though there were very few instances where it came into play, it opens up the attacking options for a team close to the try line by and gives them more reason to try chips over the defensive line or cross-kicks without waiting for a penalty advantage.

Verdict: Keep

Red card

A red carded player can be substituted after 20 minutes, unless all substitutions have been used

If we thought that the Mark trial had barely come into play, the new red card trial had even less chance to have an impact, as the only red card was given to Scott Scrafton with less than 20 minutes of the match remaining, so there was no difference in the game. I can see a positive to this trial that a game is not ruined as a spectacle by an early red card following an accidental poor tackle/challenge in the air, however I also wonder if this will lead to worse discipline and also feel that sometimes teams need to learn the hard way how to play the game within the laws.

Verdict: Continue the trial

50/22 and 22/50

A kick taken from within the kicking team’s 50m area that travels into touch within the opposition’s 22m area having first bounced in the field of play results in a lineout throw to the kicking team. This does not apply following a free kick.

and

A kick taken from within the kicking team’s 22m area that travels into touch within the opposition’s 50m area having first bounced in the field of play results in a lineout throw to the kicking team. This does not apply following a free kick.

These just don’t do it for me. I understand that the idea of the law trial was that it would create space by forcing the defending teams to drop more players to cover the backfield, but teams have generally been able to do so without having to drop more players. Instead, the only times that these kicks have generally paid off have been when the defence is on the front foot and putting the attacking team under heavy pressure, leading to a complete change in momentum that has not been earned by the attacking team.

Verdict: Ditch

Goal line drop-out

When an attacking player carrying the ball is held up or knocks the ball on in the in-goal play restarts with a goal line drop-out

or 

When a kick enters the in-goal area and is grounded by the defending team play restarts with a goal line drop-out

So here’s an interesting one. Part of me disliked the change for an attacking team that had been camped on the opponents’ line being held up and then having to restart an attack from deep, but it has led to some great attacking and with players having ground to create momentum and generally get themselves quickly back in the 22. However, while it has been fun watching behemoths like Pone Fa’amausili, Cabous Eloff and Taniela Tupou crash into the defensive line after a 30m charge, I can’t help wonder if this is really what we want at a time where we are so focused on player safety – similar to how the NFL has changed the kickoff in recent years to reduce the run-ups before collisions.

Verdict: Continue the trial

Extra time

(Australia): 2 x 5min periods of extra time; in the event of a drawn game after regulation time where the first points scored wins the match for the scoring team

or 

(New Zealand): If matches are drawn after 80 minutes, teams will go into a 10-minute period of extra time and the first team to score any points will win the game.

Super Rugby Aotearoa’s only draw was due to a cancelled match so the 10-minute extra time was never trialled. Super Rugby AU saw a couple of matches go to “Super Time” – the first a boring pointless waste of 10 minutes, the second over in less than 2 minutes. To me, 5-minute halves are too short to get any quality momentum built, especially if teams are afraid to give away a penalty, and I think one 10-minute period works better. If I’m completely honest, I don’t feel that golden point works in a game where the game can be won by a penalty kicked from within the kicking team’s own half and think that more often than not, we will see teams playing to win a penalty without giving one away as opposed to looking for a try. Furthermore, in a round-robin competition, I can’t see why there is need to have extra time as there are already reduced points available for a draw.

Verdict: Ditch

Of course, these are only my personal opinions, what do you think about these law trials?

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

Super Rugby AU: Tournament XV

Super Rugby AU: Tournament XV

It’s all over. 12 weeks of Super Rugby AU came to an end at the weekend with the Brumbies defeating the Reds in the final to become the first Super Rugby AU Champions. The tournament gave us the return of the Western Force to top flight rugby and introduced the world to many of the next generation of Wallabies as many of the experienced players moved on to ply their trade abroad.

With the tournament over, there is just one more duty to uphold: picking the Team of the Tournament. These are all my own picks and go by my own feel from watching the matches rather than statistics – though I may throw in the odd stat to help my point. Let me know who would be your selections!

1) Cameron Orr: First up in the squad is actually a former Gloucester boy and I assure you that it was not through any bias. Orr did a great job as part of a solid scrum and as the tournament went on began to really show his ability in the loose, most notably with a wide pass to set Reece Hodge up for a try in Round 10’s win over the Force.

2) Jordan Uelese: There was some impressive play from many of the hookers in the competition; unfortunately much of that didn’t extend to the lineout. While he may not have been as influential as some of the other hookers, he also felt much more balanced than some of the others between his play in both the loose and set piece.

3) Taniela Tupou: I’d go as far as to call the “Tongan Thor” one of the best tightheads in the world right now. The Reds prop not only dominated his side of the scrum in most games, but highlighted his dynamism both in attack and defence and keeping this level of performance going for the full 80 minutes.

4) Jeremy Thrush: The former All Black played such an important role for the Force that probably went somewhat unnoticed due to their lack of success. Led from the front and took on the captaincy in the absence of Ian Prior for much of the tournament. To top things off, he finished with the most lineouts won in the tournament (39), despite many of the names immediately below him in the list having played extra games courtesy of the playoffs.

5) Lukhan Salakaia-Loto: The Reds have an incredibly talented foursome in the back row and that has allowed Salakaia-Loto to cement his place in the second row. With Izack Rodda leaving, the lock has taken on much more responsibility in the engine room and at the set piece – 35 catches saw him finish 3ʳᵈ in the competition for lineout wins – but he has also kept that dynamism from his time in the back row, making him a dangerous weapon in the loose.

6) Henry Stowers: Probably not the name many would have expected due to the Force going 0-8, but Stowers was a massive positive for them. It didn’t matter how things were going for the team, you could always rely on the Samoan to take the ball and take the game to the opposition, while he also finished the tournament with 109 completed tackles (joint 3ʳᵈ).

7) Will Miller: Australia creates such great opensides, this was not an easy pick. Liam Wright, Fraser McReight and Michael Hooper all had impressive performances, but Wright won the spot for me. He may have got on the wrong side of Angus Gardner in the final, but was a constant menace at the breakdown throughout the round-robin phase, while also contributing 4 tries during the campaign.

8) Pete Samu: All 5 teams had an incredible number 8 to try picking from, so this was far from easy, but in the end Pete Samu won out. The Brumbies number 8 played such a big role in both attack and defence with his big carrying, his willingness to tackle and his threat at the breakdown, while also finishing 8ᵗʰ overall for lineouts won (23).

9) Tate McDermott: The Reds halfback was on fire throughout the competition, keeping a high tempo for the attack while also utilising his speed and elusiveness to create and finish chances. Finished the tournament with 4 tries, 13 clean breaks (joint 3ʳᵈ), 32 defenders beaten (2ⁿᵈ), 7 offloads (joint 6ᵗʰ) and 360 metres carried (10ᵗʰ), while he also came up with some key defensive interventions.

10) James O’Connor: This was a tough decision between Matt To’omua and O’Connor and the Rebels’ inability to play without To’omua gave him the advantage for a long time, until I looked at the squads and realised just how experienced the Rebels were compared to the Reds. O’Connor played a key role in the Reds’ success, getting the side playing some great rugby, and even n the days where things weren’t working for the Reds, he was clearly doing everything he could.

11) Marika Koroibete: The Rebels winger is such a vital part of their game and as such was one of the only constants within their back line. Finished 5ᵗʰ for clean breaks (11) and 4ᵗʰ for both defenders beaten (25) and metres carried (556m). Koroibete doesn’t just stick to the wing either but will constantly go looking or the ball, something you always want from a wing with such talent.

12) Irae Simone: Carrying, kicking, passing… Simone did it all for the Brumbies and it’s arguable that had he not been there, it may have been a much harder challenge for Bayley Kuenzle. Simone finished in the top 10 for both clean breaks (8) and defenders beaten (19). Don’t be surprised to see him starting in the Rugby Championship.

13) Kyle Godwin: 13 was a difficult selection as there was a lot of rotation at the position for a multitude of reasons. Eventually though I settled on Godwin. While he and the Force may have had limited success, he did a great job of solidifying the midfield and was consistently a willing runner looking to cause problems for the opposition and put his team on the front foot.

14) Filipo Daugunu: He may have spent the tournament on the left wing, but there was no way I could leave out Daugunu. The new Wallaby call-up finished as the top try scorer (6), while also finishing top for carries (117), clean breaks (15), defenders beaten (35), offloads (14) and metres made (775 – 162 more than the nearest competitor). Like Koroibete, Daugunu goes looking for the ball to great effect, so it will be interesting to see if Dave Rennie picks between the pair or looks to play them both.

15) Jock Campbell: It’s probably no surprise that I picked Campbell here after suggesting he should start for the Wallabies (I may have jinxed him as he ended up not making the 44-man squad) a few weeks ago. He may not have carried as much as some of the other fullback, but made the most of those carries by finishing top 3 in clean breaks (13) and defenders beaten (26). If he can continue this form next season, a gold shirt must surely be in his near future.

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Super Rugby AU Final: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU Final: Brumbies v Reds

12 weeks of Super Rugby AU action came to an end in Canberra today with the final, between the table-topping Brumbies and the Queensland Reds, who finished 2ⁿᵈ in the round-robin standings before defeating the Rebels in last weekend’s Qualifying Final.

After Noah Lolesio and James O’Connor traded early penalties, the Brumbies drew first blood as their ever-dangerous lineout drive managed to get Folau Fainga’a over the line for the opening try, with Lolesio kicking the extras. The Brumbies continued to pile on the pressure, and when Lolesio managed to draw the attention of 4 defenders in the 26ᵗʰ minute, his offload to Andy Muirhead gave the winger a clear gap to go through and he was able to ride the challenges of Taniela Tupou and Filipo Daugunu to make it across the line. It looked like the Brumbies were going to dominate the game, but Jordan Petaia found a gap in broken play just after the half hour mark and exploited it to full effect, going clear through before offloading to supporting number 8 Harry Wilson to cross for the try. O’Connor kicked the conversion and a penalty at the end of the half to make the score at the break 15-13.

The Brumbies struck first after the break, after a quick tap penalty from Muirhead put the Reds defence on the back foot, allowing Tom Banks to cross as the ball was spread wide, with Lolesio adding the extras, before adding a drop goal with the very next attack. Things went from bad to worse for the Reds, who had lost Petaia and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto to injury in the opening minutes of the half, as Filipo Daugunu was sent to the bin from the restart for a tip tackle on Lachlan McCaffrey, and Lolesio used this time to get the Brumbies in the Reds half and score another 3 pints off the tee. With the Reds back to a full complement, O’Connor kicked a penalty to bring the deficit back to within 2 converted tries, before Tate McDermott slipped his way inside the Brumbies 22. The scrum half was dragged down just short of the line and lost control of the ball, but TMO reviews showed that it went backwards, before being kicked over the line by a defender tackling Liam Wright and eventually dotted down by Angus Blyth for the try. O’Connor nailed the conversion, but any further attempts by the Reds to score were thwarted and the Brumbies held on to secure the 28-23 win and become the first Super Rugby AU Champions.

Indisciplined

When the Reds lost to the Brumbies earlier in the competition, it was their awful discipline that proved costly. In their win in the reverse fixture 2 weeks ago, the Reds kept their discipline and controlled the game. The Reds came into the final the least-penalised team in the competition, but quickly found themselves getting on the wrong side of Angus Gardner.

While it didn’t directly cost them in quite the same way as that previous loss, the ill discipline was still costly today, as it made it so hard for the team to create any pressure on the Brumbies as they could not get any consistent time inside the Brumbies half until they improved their discipline in the final quarter, while the penalties simply allowed the Brumbies to kick into the Reds 22 and put the pressure on.

What made this even more disappointing for the Reds is just how avoidable many of these penalties were. Tip tackles, high tackles and taking the man in the air were all stupid penalties, while Hamish Stewart also gave away a penalty for being lazy and not retreating to the hind foot as the Brumbies driving maul surged forwards.

It’s not as if the Brumbies were too disciplined themselves either, especially at the scrum, and if the Reds had been just a little more disciplined, the game was there to be won.

 Welcome return

The big talking point ahead of the match was the Brumbies’ decision to start Noah Lolesio at fly half in his first action since 18ᵗʰ July, where he picked an injury. Looking back on the match, it’s fair to say the risk paid off.

While Bayley Kuenzle has done a good job of stepping into the void following Lolesio’s injury, he plays more like a 12 than a 10, so getting Lolesio back in really helped the structure of the attack. It is no surprise that Tevita Kuridrani looked much more dangerous today with Lolesio pulling the strings, while his range of passes and kicks really opened the game up for the Brumbies.

Having been named as 1 of 4 fly halves in Dave Rennie’s Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship, how much will the youngster play? I envision that he’s currently ahead of Will Harrison, but it will depend on how much focus Rennie puts on development over results during this tournament. Personally, I can see James O’Connor and Matt To’omua getting the majority of the minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lolesio get some decent time against Argentina.

Injured again

Jordan Petaia is a fantastic talent and I’ve absolutely loved watching him in Super Rugby AU. There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one: the poor lad just can’t seem to stay fit. This latest injury came as he scythed through the Brumbies defence at the half hour mark. He was clean through and it looked like he would make it to the line, but appeared to feel a twinge in his groin and took the safe option of offloading to Harry Wilson, who crossed for the try. While Petaia played on, he did not return to the pitch following the halftime break.

Petaia has an incredible set of ball skills to go with great pace, power and elusiveness. I just can’t help but worry right now that he is set to join the list of players like James Simpson-Daniel – incredible talents who consistently find themselves missing time through injury, stopping them reaching the heights they should.

Personally, I feel that Petaia would benefit from being rested during the Rugby Championship even if he is fit, to ensure that he is 100% back to full fitness rather than just match-fit. The last thing we want is for such a great young talent to be lost from the game too soon.

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