URC 2022/23: 7 to Watch

URC 2022/23: 7 to Watch

We are now just days away from the return of the URC. The debut season of the new league was a roaring success and the new season, kicking off on Friday evening as Benetton host Glasgow, will surely even be more exciting.

And so with jut days to go, there is only one thing that remains: my look at all the players who have moved clubs this summer and selection of 7 players who I think we should be keeping an eye on this season. And as usual, we have a nice blend of domestic transfers and new arrivals to the league…


Marcus Watson

Not my original pick of Benetton’s new signings as I was going to look at Alessandro Garbisi, however with the announcement that Monty Ioane has been released from his contract, the acquisition of Marcus Watson suddenly goes from being a great signing to a crucial signing. The former England 7s star and Olympic silver medallist has impressed in the 15s game for years with Newcastle and Wasps, and I can only assume that he was one of the many casualties of the reduced salary cap in the Premiership, but I expect him to thrive in the URC. He may have lost a little pace from his prime but is still more than fast enough, while his years of top flight experience will be vital as Benetton push for a Champions Cup spot.

Sio Tomkinson

It’s a new name for Dragons RFC and (hopefully) a new and more successful start. Well the signing of Sio Tomkinson from the Highlanders certainly feels like a step in the right direction. Tomkinson is a highly physical centre who, at 26, should be in his prime years. The former New Zealand U20 will have a key role to play in a team that has not qualified for the top tier of European Cup competition since the 2010/11 season, helping to set and organise the defence, while using his hard running to create space out wide for the wings.

Malakai Fekitoa

Tomkinson isn’t the only former Highlanders centre joining the league this year as Malakai Fekitoa makes the journey from Coventry to Limerick. With Damian de Allende leaving, there wouldn’t have been many replacements of the same quality available but Munster managed to find one as they look to rebuild under Graham Rowntree. A solid and dependable all-rounder, the former All Black and now Tongan international will be looking to provide an X-factor that will help the province compete with Leinster.

Vaea Fifita

The second former All Black to leave Wasps for the URC this summer, Fifita is one of many who tried and failed to secure the All Blacks 6 shirt since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand, but that does not mean that he is not a talented player. Has transitioned from blindside flanker to lock over the years, creating a dynamic option in the Scarlets tight five with solid handling skills. New World Rugby eligibility laws could make this signing interesting, as he is now eligible for Tonga, so have the Scarlets signed someone who will be an ever-present, or someone who will be absent during international windows?

Vincent Tshituka

Considering the Sharks have also signed Eben Etzebeth and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, this may seem like an odd pick, but such is the potential of Tshituka. One of the few players to stand out for the Lions against the British & Irish Lions, Tshituka is a hard-hitting, dynamic loose forward and one of the new generation of impressive loose forwards coming through in South African rugby. With the Bulls and Stormers facing off in last season’s final, Tshituke is the kind of player who can help the Sharks be even more dangerous this season, while also giving them a true talent to build around in the future.

Josh Furno

It’s been all change at Zebre Parma this summer, with 21 players leaving and 22 arriving. One of the most recent of the 22 is my pick here, Melbourne-born Italian international lock Josh Furno., who returns to the club he played for in the 2016-2017. A journeyman whose list of former clubs includes Newcastle, Biarritz, Otago, San Diego Legion and most recently Union Sportive Bressane (Bourg-en-Bresse), Furno brings years of experience, including 37 caps for the Azzurri. With such a turnover of playing staff, such experience will be crucial to help the suad gel quickly and effectively in a competitive league.

Byron Ralston

This time last year, Irish-qualified Australian Mack Hansen was preparing to make his competitive debut for Connacht after a summer move from the Brumbies, and we all know how well the last 12 months have turned out for him. Well Connacht will be hoping that lightning strikes twice as this summer sees 22-year-old Irish-qualified Australian wing Byron Ralston arrive from Western Force. A real speedster whose chance came when COVID saw the return of the Force to top-flight competition in Super Rugby AU, which led to a place in Super Rugby Pacific. While a repeat of Hansen’s first season feels unlikely given the depth Ireland have on the wing, don’t be shocked to see Ralston become a regular starter at The Sportsground.


Which new signings are you most looking forward to watching?

Thanks for reading!

Premiership Rugby 2022/23: 7 to Watch

Premiership Rugby 2022/23: 7 to Watch

It feels like it has been gone for ages, but we are now just weeks away from the beginning of the new Premiership Rugby season! While there may still be plenty of stories to play out between now and the opening games on 9ᵗʰ September (Bristol v Bath and Sale v Northampton), it’s time for us to start getting excited for another season of rugby.

And that can only mean one thing: the return of my “Players to Watch” series, where I look at all the players who have moved clubs this summer and pick out 7 players who I think we should be keeping an eye on this season. And as usual, we have a nice blend of domestic transfers and new arrivals to the league…


Ellis Genge

The news that Leicester Tigers captain Ellis Genge would be returning back home to Bristol was already somewhat of a shock, and now feels even more of a surprise after last season ended with him lifting the Premiership title, but after developing from a dynamic young prop into a genuine world-class talent it will be interesting to see just how well the baby rhino adapts to a new team. Genge’s ability in the loose certainly seems a good mix with Bristol’s expansive attacking game as they look to put the disappointment of last season behind them.

Albert Tuisue

Gloucester’s only new arrival of the season, the Fijian back row will be looking to quickly establish himself as a favourite of the Shed following his move from London Irish. In a back row corps that already boasted Jordy Reid, Lewis Ludlow, Ben Morgan, Ruan Ackermann, Jake Polledri (returning from injury) and Jack Clement (Senior Academy) among a number of other talented academy players, Tuisue will bring his own brand of strength and athleticism, and if rumours of Zach Mercer arriving a Kingsholm for the 2023/24 season are to be believed, he will have to be consistently at the top of his game to make the 23.

Handré Pollard

Tigers may have just won the title, but they are facing a big reset this season with a number of big names leaving. And part of that reset is the arrival of South African Pollard to be the new fly half. On paper, it feels like Leicester would have a playstyle that would suit him, with a strong pack and a back line featuring game managers at 9, physical centres and explosive game changers in the back 3, but he comes in with the pressure of having to follow on from George Ford, while much of his last season in France was spent at 12.

Danilo Fischetti

One of my favourite signings of the summer, I’m just absolutely gutted that he isn’t coming to Kingsholm. The Italian loosehead is quickly developing into one of the top props in the world, and this move from Zebre to London Irish will see him training with and competing against some of the best i the world on a weekly basis, which can only be good news for his development and the Azzurri. Watch out for him racking up the turnovers at the breakdown.

Lukhan Salakaia-Loto

This seems an interesting move for the 25-cap Wallaby, as it will be bringing a halt to his international career. The Queensland Red makes the move to Northampton, and I feel that this could be the move that makes his career. Formerly a back row but now a lock, Salakaia-Loto brings dynamism and strength, and has plenty of experience for a 25-year-old. An expansive attacking team like Northampton will surely benefit from his qualities, while I think that a couple of years in the Premiership could help his development as a lock, setting him up to be a key part of the Wallabies squad when he returns Down Under in a couple of years.

George Ford

As I alluded to earlier, Ellis Genge isn’t the only big name leaving the defending champions this summer, as George Ford moves to Sale. Ford is a clearly talented player, and was in some of the form of his life at Leicester with Steve Borthwick. Will he be able to maintain this form at Sale, whose back line’s most notable talents will be the injury Risk called Manu Tuilagi and fellow new signing Tom O’Flaherty?

Hugh Tizard

And finally we reach Hugh Tizard, who moves to Saracens off the back of a fantastic season with Harlequins. Tizard was a standout player at the Stoop last season and I was honestly shocked that he did not tour with England this summer, such was his dynamism and general talent. Now the big question is on the gametime he will get, as he moves from a club where he was a guaranteed starter to a side that already boasts Maro Itoje, Nick Isiekwe and Theo McFarland at the position.


Which new signings are you most looking forward to watching?

Thanks for reading!

Upward Trajectories

Upward Trajectories

After a highly impressive victory over Toulouse in the semifinal, many were expecting Leinster to once again win the Champions Cup final last weekend. However, La Rochelle had different ideas, and Arthur Retière’s late try helped secure a 24-21 victory for the Top 14 outfit.

And while many people will be celebrated for the victory, one notable name is really adding to their legacy: Ronan O’Gara. The Munster and Ireland fly half had a legendary playing career which has seen him inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, but his coaching career is taking him to even higher levels. After retiring from playing in 2013, O’Gara joined Racing 92 as a defence coach, who won the Top 14 once during his 4-year spell. From there, he moved to New Zealand to join Scott Robertson’s Crusaders team as a backs coach, and during his spell there, the Crusaders won back-to-back Super Rugby titles. After this success, O’Gara jumped up to the top spot as head coach of La Rochelle. Having been promoted to the Top 14 in 2014, the team had been developing some consistency in making the playoffs, and O’Gara built on that, with the team losing in the finals of both the Top 14 and the Champions Cup (both to Toulouse), before taking the step forward to win the ultimate European prize this season. And while results have generally gone well, it is also the performances and O’Gara’s way of thinking that has drawn praise from players, pundits and fans alike. It’s hard to imagine anyone else being the frontrunner for the Irish job if Andy Farrell were to step away right now, and in fact probably the bigger question is whether he comes back to lead a province beforehand, especially with Munster going through somewhat of a rebuild this summer and also seeing Graham Rowntree come in as head coach.

With O’Gara’s growth and development surely making an international appointment just a matter of “when” rather than “if”, it got me thinking of some other coaches whose success surely has them deserving of—or well on their way to—an international head coaching gig.

Scott Robertson

If I’d been in charge of selecting Steve Hansen’s successor, Robertson would already be the head coach of the All Blacks. While the All Blacks have faltered, the Crusaders have continued their success, and Robertson has been key to it. After the dark days of the end of Todd Blackadder’s reign, which saw the team finish as low as 7ᵗʰ in the 2015 and 2016 Super Rugby seasons, the team won 3 Super Rugby tournaments in a row and were running 3ʳᵈ when the 2020 Super Rugby season was halted by COVID. However, they then won back-to-back Super Rugby Aotearoa titles, while a 3ʳᵈ-place finish in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman saw them miss out on a spot in the final by just 6 points (which must have hit them hard as they conceded a try at the death in 2 wins, one of which even denied them a bonus point). However, they once again finished in the top 2 of the table in the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season and (at time of writing, ahead of the quarterfinals) will be looking to earn that title over the coming weeks.

Robertson is (in my opinion) one of the top coaches out there, and I’ll be shocked if he is not appointed the All Blacks head coach following the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

 Steve Borthwick

Another player whose quick turnaround of a struggling team to return them to greatness, Steve Borthwick already has experience in an international coaching setup as England forwards coach, before moving to Leicester. Tigers had just finished 11ᵗʰ in back-to-back seasons, but Borthwick immediately turned things around and got the team back into the top half of the table in the 2020/21 season, before topping the table in the 2021/22 season to secure a home semi-final.

Though he has limited experience as a head coach, he has showed that he can get a team united in one vision and turn around a team with high expectations in a tough league, while his experience at Test level both as a player and forwards coach would set him up as a great option for many international teams, perhaps he will even be Eddie Jones’ replacement after RWC2023.

Stuart Lancaster

The former England head coach has the ignominy of leading England to their pool-stage exit at RWC2015, but it is clear that other parties were interfering with that run—highlighted by the Sam Burgess saga. However his move to Leinster, where he is a senior coach, has seen him earn praise across the board, while Leinster have won 4 consecutive Pro14s, a Champions Cup and at time of writing are probably the favourites to win the inaugural URC having topped the combined table.

Such has been his success, it’s time that he gets another shot at Test level, perhaps with a nation that has slightly lower expectations than England (how much would an Italy/Georgia/USA benefit from a coach of his calibre) while teams like Wales and Scotland may also want someone reliable to steady the ship following the disappointing (so far) reigns of Wayne Pivac and Gregor Townsend.

Shaun Edwards

The best defensive coach in World Rugby. The former Wigan rugby league star has become known for his time as defence coach of Wales, the 2009 British & Irish Lions and now France, where he has solidified himself as one of the best coaches in the game. But he also has plenty of head coaching experience, having led Wasps (then London Wasps) from 2005-2011, having started there as a defence/backs coach in 2001. Edwards’ trophy cabinet speaks for itself:

  • Wasps assistant coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 3 Premierships
  • Wasps head coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 1 European Challenge Cup, 1 Premiership
  • Wales assistant coach: 3 Six Nations
  • France assistant coach: 1 Six Nations

Edwards sets a culture within the team, which helps lead to success. If the RFU aren’t looking at him as Eddie Jones’ replacement following the World Cup, it will be a crime!

Who else would you add to this list?

Seeing Red

Seeing Red

If recent reports are to be believed, World Rugby are considering expanding the 20-minute red card to more competitions. If they do this, it will just show how out of touch the governing body is with the sport and how it is putting the spectacle before player safety.

So let’s take a step back first and look at what the law is. Much like football, if a player is red carded, they are immediately removed from the field of play and their team plays the remainder of the game with a player less. However under the new variation that is currently being trialled in Super Rugby Pacific, while the red carded player’s match is over, the team is allowed to bring on a replacement after 20 minutes.

So what’s happening in Super Rugby. Well I think the only appropriate word would be “mayhem”! It’s not much of an overstatement to say that the majority of games are seeing at least one red card, generally for dangerous play that included contact with the head.

Red cards are surely at an all-time high worldwide, with amendments to the laws in recent years that have been intended to make the game safer by reducing contact with the head. And yet despite the increased sanctions with the risk of a red card—and despite stories in the news of James “Cubby” Davies recently retiring due to a concussion, having not played since November 2020, and former players Steve Thompson and Alix Popham’s revelations that they now suffer from early-onset dementia—players appear to be unwilling or incapable of adapting to the new laws.

The red card is meant to be a deterrent, a punishment to encourage better behaviour, but it has clearly not been enough and the arrival of a 20-minute red card is even less of a punishment, so it is no surprise to see Super Rugby matches turning into a contest of “who can crack a man’s skull open first?” And the reason that this 20-minute red card is being considered: because there is a group of people out there—unfortunately fuelled by a number of so-called “experts” in the media—who complain that red cards ruin the game. Newsflash: they don’t. What ruins the game is players suffering avoidable injuries.

So what should be done?

Well first of all, the 20-minute red card should be scrapped altogether rather than expanding. Current punishments are clearly not a sufficient deterrent, so reducing them will just make things worse, as we are seeing in the Southern Hemisphere.

Secondly, the post-match disciplinary process needs a complete overhaul. As it stands, different offences have different minimum entry points depending on the severity of the offence, while extra weeks may be added for repeat offenders. However, this is all ruined by having weeks taken off for such rubbish as accepting the charge, remorse, attending a “tackle school”, good behaviour in the disciplinary hearing and a previously clean record. You just need to look at the recent case of Axel Müller, whose horror tackle started at a 10-week entry point but ended up being just a 5-week ban once everything was considered! I would argue that any reasons to reduce a ban are removed, while a financial impact also be brought in, with both club and player receiving a fine dependent on the severity of the incident and the disciplinary history that season, with the money being spread among grass-roots rugby and charities focused on head injuries and player welfare. If bans haven’t been enough to encourage better behaviour, perhaps losing money will give players the impetus to improve their technique, or give teams the reason to focus on improving technique.

In line with this, World Rugby needs to enforce more consistency across the board, both from match officials and disciplinary panels. While nobody could argue Hame Faiva’s red card in the Six Nations against Ireland, Ireland’s Ryan Baird escaped even a citing for exactly the same thing later in the match. English referee Karl Dickson is accruing a horribly long list of incidents that he has adjudged to be a yellow card or less, which have then resulted in a citing and the disciplinary panel deciding the incident worth of a red card. Meanwhile, some of the decisions of the judiciary panels SANZAAR have put together have been questionable to say the best, as a number of red cards have been overturned, including a horror shot from Tom Banks on Toni Pulu that rightly ended in a penalty try and red card, but also left the Brumbies fullback requiring facial surgery. You need consistency in order to set a precedent, otherwise players will be able to cite previous incidents where players have escaped punishment for the same offence.

Finally, there is a law that I thin needs changing and that is the one that if a maul becomes unplayable, the ball is turned over. Instead I feel that whichever team was the more dominant right before it became unplayable should get the scrum feed. The reason for this is that the law encourages players to go high for the “man and ball” challenge that holds the player up and creates a maul, leading to a turnover. Look back at England’s match against Ireland and Charlie Ewels’ early red card. England went for a number of high tackles in those opening minutes in an attempt to hold up the ball, and it was a combination of this and Ewels’ inability to adapt to the tackle laws that led to him getting an early shower.

World Rugby has a big decision to make regarding the 20-minute red card. I just hope that they make the right decision.

Super Rugby Pacific 2022: Signings to Watch

Super Rugby Pacific 2022: Signings to Watch

While most rugby fans in the Northern Hemisphere are getting ready for the return of the Six Nations, the Southern Hemisphere is getting ready for the beginning of the next phase of Super Rugby. Starting on February 18ᵗʰ, Super Rugby Pacific will be the biggest tournament since the pandemic caused the early cancellation of the 2020 competition. The South Africans are now gone and a part of the United Rugby Championship, and we have also lost Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves, leaving us with 5 Australian teams (the 4 from the 2020 season, and the Western Force, who were axed but returned in Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman), 5 New Zealand teams and 2 new teams in Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua.

Now I love watching Super Rugby—though I’m not sure if I’ll be able to this year as there is still no news on a UK broadcaster for the competition— as we get some wonderful attacking rugby, so as I like to do for most of the leagues that I can follow with some degree of regularity, I’ve picked 1 new signing per team who I think fans should be keeping an eye on this year. In some cases (most notably the Reds, who have only brought in a couple of new players) this was very hard, whereas for our 2 new teams, I was lucky enough to have the entire roster to pick from.

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Blues

Starting with the Blues, and the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman Champions may have one of the most exciting signings of the year in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. The 28-year-old has been a superstar in rugby league and now makes his move over to show what he can do in the 15-man code. Expected to play centre, he adds a real playmaking ability into the midfield—as if they needed more attacking quality! With the World Cup fast approaching and questions over the best All Blacks centre pairing, don’t be shocked to see him getting capped in the June Tests.

Brumbies

For the Brumbies, we look at a familiar face for fans in fullback Jesse Mogg. The 3-cap Wallaby returns to Canberra after 6 years in France with Montpellier and Pau. A dynamic runner with the ball, Mogg’s presence will force Tom Banks to play at the top of his game to keep the 15 shirt, while he can also appear on the wing to help alleviate the loss of Solomone Kata.

Chiefs

An easy pick here for the Chiefs, in Josh Ioane. Aaron Cruden was clearly never a long-term option when he returned to Hamilton, and with him gone, neither Kaleb Trask nor Bryn Gatland looked like the player who could lead the Chiefs to the very top. However in young Josh Ioane, they have a player who is entering his prime and will be keen to push for a spot in the All Black’s World Cup squad, or put himself at the forefront of the discussion for the next cycle. Could he be the guy to bring the Chiefs back to the top?

Crusaders

How do you improve one of the strongest teams in rugby? Well by adding Pablo Matera. The former Pumas captain is one of the best blindside flankers in the world, a monster on defence and a great carrier, who also isn’t afraid to put boot to ball with surprisingly good effect. If you want to create a strong pack who can also get around the park to keep up with the backs, this is the kind of signing you want to make!

Fijian Drua

Probably a surprise pick here as I go for prop Manasa Saulo. You wouldn’t expect me to look at a squad of Fijians and pick a prop as one to watch, but if you can’t hold your own at the scrum, it won’t matter how exciting the attacking talent in your team is. Well Saulo comes to Super Rugby with top flight rugby experience from his time at Toulon and London Irish, as well as 43 caps. With a relatively young and inexperienced batch of props on the roster, Saulo will be a great teacher to help take the new generation of Fijian players to the next level.

Highlanders

Another player returning to known pastures, my pick for the Highlanders is Marty Banks. With Ioane, Caleb Makene and Tim O’Malley all gone, it’s just Banks and Mitch Hunt left to cover fly half. The good news is that, now on his third spell at the club, it should be easy for Banks to slip straight in. But will he be there to provide cover for Hunt, or will he be a regular at 10, allowing Hunt to shine at 15?

Hurricanes

While the return of TJ Perenara is huge, I’ve instead gone for Owen Franks. The ‘Canes roster is very young at prop, and so the arrival of a player of Franks’ experience (150 Crusaders appearances and 108 New Zealand caps from 2009-2019) will not just help shore up the scrum when he is on the pitch, but also greatly help the development of the new generation coming through.

Melbourne Rebels

Another returning player to make the list, Matt Philip comes back to Melbourne following a brief spell with Pau. While the Wallabies have been up and down over the last few years, Philip has been one of the more consistently good players. Reliable at the set piece and a strong carrier, Philip will play a key role in trying to put the Rebels pack on the front foot as the team tries to cope with the loss of Isi Naisarani.

Moana Pasifika

There were so many ways that I could go with this pick, but I eventually landed on fly half Christian Leali’ifano. The Australian fly half is of Samoan heritage, and will help provide shape and stability to the team as they find their footing against much more experienced opposition, while helping William Havili and Lincoln McClutchie grow into players of Super Rugby quality.

NSW Waratahs

While Michael Hooper’s return is the obvious pick here, I chose to look beyond the obvious and instead pick Jamie Roberts. Aged 35 and 5 years on from his last Wales cap, Roberts is still more than capable of excelling at the top of his game. His experience at centre will be vital in shoring up the defence, while his reliability and his picking of a line will be a real attacking boon for Will Harrison and co.

Queensland Reds

Without a doubt one of the hardest to pick, the Reds only have 4 incoming faces this season: 3 from Queensland Premier Rugby which is well beyond my scope of knowledge, and one from Harlequins’ academy. It is that academy player, Tom Lynagh, who gets the nod though. At 17 and with no top-flight rugby under his belt, he will surely be third choice at fly half, but if he possesses half the quality of dad Michael or brother Louis (who has been called in the England Six Nations squad), we may only be an injury or two away from seeing him come in at 15 to get some experience.

Western Force

And last but not least, we reach the Force and their new signing, Izack Rodda. Rodda brings an impressive degree of experience and international quality to partner Jeremy Thrush in the second row, while proving a solid yet dynamic carrier in the loose. The Force have been steadily improving since their return in Super Rugby AU, and Rodda is just the kind of signing they need to step up against the quality of the New Zealand franchises.

Do you think I missed someone? Let me know who your picks would have been.

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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