Challenge Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

Challenge Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

The pools for the 2019/20 Challenge Cup were announced on Wednesday and now teams can begin to plan for their campaigns. 20 teams are split into 5 pools, with each team playing the other 3 in their pool at home and away. Once the 6 rounds of pool matches are over, the pool winners and 3 best runners-up qualifying for the knock-out stages.

While the impact of the Rugby World Cup can’t be fully predicted yet, and the order of the fixtures currently remains unknown, predictions can be made over how each pool will play out as the teams aim to make it to the final in Marseille and a victory that could help them qualify for next year’s Champions Cup.

rugby Challenge Cup 2019-20 Pools

Pool 1

Castres, Worcester, Dragons, Enisei-STM

Let’s be honest, this looks like an easy group for Castres. Worcester will likely be fighting against relegation from the Premiership, the Dragons seem to struggle every year and Enisei are always going to struggle to compete in the competition until they get to play weekly against high-level opposition. If Worcester do choose to put in the effort with this competition, they do have the chance of winning home and away against Dragons and Enisei, which could give them a shot of a best runner-up spot.

Pool 2

Scarlets, Toulon, London Irish, Bayonne

If we don’t see 2 teams from this pool qualify for the knockouts, then I’ll be shocked! Bayonne and Irish are both here by virtue of being promoted into the Top 14 and Premiership respectively, so will likely focus on consolidating their league position. The Scarlets had a poor season but if they can get their squad back in fighting shape with no adverse effects from the World Cup, then I think they have every chance of topping the group given Toulon are losing a number of influential players. If Irish’s new stars can quickly gel and they put some effort into qualifying for the knockouts, then I think they have every chance of pushing Toulon down to 3rd.

Pool 3

Wasps, Edinburgh, Bordeaux, Agen

Given the strength of the Top 14, I can’t see Bordeaux or Agen putting too much stake in this competition given they both finished in the bottom 5 last season. Wasps has a poor season and have lost some stars this summer, but they have also brought in some quality replacements and will also have Jimmy Gopperth back from injury, while Lima Sopoaga will hopefully do better this year with a season of playing in the Premiership under his belt. Meanwhile, I expect further success from Edinburgh, provided the aftermath of the World Cup does not impact them too much. If these 2 play in the final week, it would not surprise me if the winner takes the pool.

Pool 4

Stade Francais, Bristol, Zebre, Brive

Like Bayonne, I don’t expect Brive to put any real focus into this competition as they will be looking to stay in the Top 14 following their recent promotion from Pro D2. Zebre showed some promise last season in the Pro 14, but I worry that they may struggle in the aftermath of the World Cup. Bristol and Stade Francais look the clear favourites in this group and if either of them can beat the other away from home, then I would expect to see them finish top.

Pool 5

Cardiff Blues, Leicester, Pau, Calvisano

Leicester had a torrid season but expect to see them improve this year and challenge for at least a best runner-up spot. Calvisano are a great example of the success Italy are beginning to have since Conor O’Shea came in to sort everything from the bottom up, but I think they will be lucky to get anything other than potential bonus points in this pool. Cardiff are on the up and have signed some dangerous wingers, but Gareth Anscombe will be a loss and they need to hope that Jarrod Evans continues to grow as he has been if they want to progress. Pau look to be the strongest in this pool, especially with Ben Smith, Luke Witelock and Dominiko Waqaniburotu joining, but I don’t expect Leicester and Cardiff to make it easy for them.

 

So, putting my neck on the line, I think the 8 semi-finalists will be:

Pool winners: Castres, Scarlets, Wasps, Stade Francais, Pau

Best runners-up: Edinburgh, Bristol, Toulon

Who do you think will make the knockouts? If you enjoyed this, you can also find my thoughts on the Champions Cup pools here.

Champions Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

Champions Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

The pools for the 2019/20 Champions Cup were announced on Wednesday and now teams can begin to plan for their campaigns. 20 teams are split into 5 pools, with each team playing the other 3 in their pool at home and away. Once the 6 rounds of pool matches are over, the pool winners and 3 best runners-up qualifying for the knock-out stages.

While the impact of the Rugby World Cup can’t be fully predicted yet, and the order of the fixtures currently remains unknown, predictions can be made over how each pool will play out as the teams aim to make it to the final in Marseille.

rugby Champions Cup 2019-20 Pools

Pool 1

Leinster, Lyon, Northampton, Benetton

Last season, Leinster had the challenge of emerging from a group that also contained soon-to-be Top 14 Champions Toulouse and did it with aplomb, qualifying with 5 wins and 25 points. This season it appears that things will be far simpler as I can’t imagine any teams here will be able to seriously compete against them over the pool stages, while their strength in depth means that they can also likely survive the impact of players returning from World Cup duty. Benetton did a great job to qualify on merit with the new qualification set-up, but I think that they will see qualification for the knockouts as a step too far this year, though I could see them potentially winning home matches against Lyon and Northampton. I’m not sure if either Northampton or Lyon will be able to separate themselves sufficiently enough to earn a best runner-up spot, but if one of them can win all 3 home games and at Benetton, they are putting themselves in a strong position.

Pool 2

Exeter, Glasgow, La Rochelle, Sale

Could this finally be the year that Exeter finally start living up to expectations in Europe? To me, there is a big drop off after the first 2 teams and I think that the matches between Exeter and Glasgow will decide the pool, while the loser has every chance of a best runner-up spot. That said, Sale and La Rochelle are not easy away matches and having to travel to one or both of them before they are mathematically eliminated could be a serious banana skin.

Pool 3

Clermont, Ulster, Harlequins, Bath

Clermont look the overwhelming favourites in this pool, but Ulster showed last year that they are a dangerous team and another season’s experience makes me confident that they can win their home games and pull off at least 1 victory away from home. Harlequins showed some good stuff in 2018/19, but I think that they may struggle to balance competing in the Premiership and this competition. Meanwhile Bath are an unknown prospect having moved on from Todd Blackadder as Director of Rugby, but I struggle to envision a club with a rookie DoR being competitive in this pool.

Pool 4

Saracens, Munster, Racing 92, Ospreys

Poor Ospreys! Wales’ only representative this season qualified by beating the Scarlets in a playoff, but it is hard to imagine them emerging with more than 2 home victories (and even that may be optimistic) from what is arguably the pool of death. It’s hard to imagine any of the other 3 losing away from home, but this could very much come down to how each team deals with the impact of the World Cup. Despite that, Sarries still have incredible depth and I expect them to come out with a victory, and Ospreys could prove crucial in determining who earns a best runner-up spot as a win at the Liberty Stadium will likely be a key component in separating Munster and Racing.

Pool 5

Toulouse, Gloucester, Connacht, Montpellier

Understandably the group that I was paying closest attention to during the announcement as it involved my beloved Gloucester Rugby. Toulouse will be the clear favourites in the group, but if they face Gloucester soon after the World Cup, then I think the Cherry & Whites have every chance of picking up a crucial win. I expect Toulouse to still earn to spot, but if Gloucester can win all their home games, I think that they can win in Ireland and if Montpellier is their final game, then a Gloucester victory is very possible if Montpellier are already out, which I think could be likely as I don’t think they will travel as well to Connacht.

 

So, putting my neck on the line, I think the 8 semi-finalists will be:

Pool winners: Leinster, Glasgow, Clermont, Saracens, Toulouse

Best runners-up: Exeter, Ulster, Munster

Who do you think will make the knockouts?

Struggling Scarlets: What’s gone wrong?

Struggling Scarlets: What’s gone wrong?

In recent years, the Scarlets have become the team to watch in European rugby. Under the leadership of Wales-bound Wayne Pivac, the Scarlets have attacked from deep and spread the ball wide, leading to them winning the 2016/17 Pro12 and reaching the 2017/18 Pro14 final and Champions Cup semi-final.

However, things aren’t going as well this season as they are still without a win in the Champions Cup with just 2 bonus points from 4 games, while in the Pro14 they may be 2nd in their conference (on level points with Ulster) but their 6 wins and 4 losses with just 5 bonus points laves them 15 points behind leaders Leinster. It’s far from a disaster, but for a team that were so impressive last season it is a big drop. But what has caused it?

They’ve been found out

Scarlets have been playing the same style of rugby for a couple of seasons now and with that comes the chance for teams to pick up on their tactics and find ways to exploit them. It may not be easy to defend effectively against Scarlets’ expansive style but if it can be done, then it makes it very hard for them to score big points. In defence, they can be vulnerable as many of their back 3 are better attacking with ball in hand than competing for the aerial ball. Leinster’s kicking game gave them victory over the Scarlets in last season’s Pro14 final and Champions Cup semi-final, which will have given other teams a blueprint to follow in order to get victory.

Players leaving

Tadhg Beirne joined from Leinster ahead of the 2016/17 season and was one of the stars of the team in his 2 seasons at Parc y Scarlets. Capable of playing in the back row but at his best when playing lock, the Irishman was always a threat at the breakdown and had the range of skills to prove dangerous in the loose too – just ask Anthony Watson, who fell foul of his sidestep when they faced bath in last season’s Champions Cup. Beirne returned to Ireland this summer with a move to Munster, making him eligible for selection to the national team.

While Beirne is in my opinion the biggest loss, they also lost 2 great players with bags of experience in John Barclay (Edinburgh) and Scott Williams (Ospreys). To lose 3 such important players is always going to hit a team hard.

International call-ups

With the team’s success, there has big a large increase in the number of Scarlets being selected for the national team over recent years. Rhys Webb’s injuries and subsequent move to France have seen Gareth Davies become the first choice 9 for Wales, while Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, Hadleigh Parkes and Rhys Patchell are just a few of the Scarlets to have spent significant time away with Wales recently.

While this is a deserved reward for the players’ performances, this does mean that the Scarlets will frequently be without top players. Losing them for a couple of matches while Wales are playing is bad enough, but they will also miss a number of training sessions, reducing their chemistry with the team – especially new arrivals – and they will also miss time while they recuperate from their international exertions.

Injuries

The Scarlets have had some horrible luck with injuries this season. Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, James Davies, Blade Thomson, Aaron Shingler and Rhys Patchell have all missed significant time this season with injuries, while an injury to Angus O’Brien has left the region short of depth at fly half. That is an entire international quality back row missing at the same time, bad enough at the best of times but worse when you remember they have just waved goodbye to Beirne and Barclay. Even when the players come back from injury, it will generally take a couple of matches at least for a player to get back up to the speed of the game.

Money

When injuries and internationals mount up, you need to have a deep squad to be able to cope. Unfortunately for Scarlets, the funding isn’t there to have the depth of squad that teams in England and France can boast, which then leads to the same players having to play regularly in the Pro14 and then take on much stronger squads in Europe the next week.

Does it all have to be doom and gloom? Not necessarily. Despite their struggles, they are still in currently in a playoff position and an early exit from the Champions Cup will give them extra rest weeks to recuperate, while some of their players are returning or close to returning form injury. There is still every chance that they could make the playoffs but if I’m honest, with the behemoth that is Leinster in their conference, I cannot see them getting further than the semi-finals.

Finding a Fly Half

Finding a Fly Half

The Scarlets’ Champions Cup campaign has not started how they would have hoped. After a late penalty try gave Racing 92 the victory at Parc y Scarlets in Round 1, they were blown away at Welford Road by Manu Tuilagi’s Leicester Tigers and currently find themselves bottom of their pool with just 1 losing bonus point to their name. While they have undoubtedly been hurt by the loss of injured duo James Davies and Aaron Shingler from the back row (combined with Tadhg Beirne’s move to Munster), I would argue that their biggest struggle over the opening 2 rounds has been at fly half.

Rhys Patchell has missed both matches due to injury and his replacements Dan Jones and Angus O’Brien have not come close to effectively filling his boots. Against Racing, O’Brien looked nervous in poor conditions and was then unfortunate enough to suffer an ACL injury just before halftime which has likely ended his season. Jones was a big part of the team’s success last year but at the moment does not appear to be in a good run of form and does not appear to be able to get the back line going – something crucial to the region’s recent success. Between injuries and international duties, Patchell is likely to miss time this season and with O’Brien also out, there are no other recognised 10s in the Scarlets squad, centre Steffan Hughes coming on towards the end of the Tigers match.

Watching the Tigers game, I couldn’t help feel that the Scarlets need to get another 10 in for the rest of the season, either on a permanent basis or even just a loan. They could potentially go for a player from the Welsh Premier Division, but if they want continued success I think they would do better finding a player already used to top-tier rugby, so have pulled together a couple of potential options.

Matthew Morgan/Steven Shingler – Cardiff Blues

If you are looking for experience of the league, these woud be the best bets. With Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe the preferred options at 10, it leaved limited minutes for Morgan and Shingler. The sheer number of quality fly halves may even make the Blues willing to part with one of their talents as they have the depth to cover the position even when Anscombe is away with Wales. For Shingler, it would be an opportunity to play alongside older brother Aaron, while Morgan is a talented attacker who could shine in the Scarlets back line.

Jason Tovey – Cross Keys

I was honestly shocked when I found out Tovey was currently playing in the Welsh Premier Division! At 29 and with experience playing in the league for the Dragons (two stints), Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh, he clearly knows the league well and can still bring something to the Scarlets. While he may not be as attacking as Patchell, he is a reliable 10 and his tactical kicking could be just what they need in a harder match. The only problem here is that the Scarlets may have left it too late, as it is looking increasingly likely that Tovey will be starting a third stint with the Dragons as they look to cover their own injuries at the position.

Demetri Catrakilis – Harlequins

Brought in to the Stoop from Montpellier to replace Nick Evans, the South African was unfortunate to pick up an injury early in his Quins career that led to the emergence of Marcus Smith. Add to that the further development of James Lang and Catrakilis looks to be third choice this season having struggled somewhat when he got on the pitch. Now aged 29, could a change of scenery be just what he needs to revitalise his career? He is a highly experienced player and featured in a few South Africa training camps when younger and his experience of playing in South Africa could benefit the Scarlets when they are facing the Kings and the Cheetahs. However, considering Smith has featured in the England squad as an apprentice player and Lang was capped by Scotland in the Summer Tests, I doubt they would want to let Catrakilis go and risk leaving themselves short in the case of international call-ups.

Owen Williams/Lloyd Evans – Gloucester

Like with Cardiff, Gloucester have options at 10 with Danny Cipriani looking set to get the majority of the minutes and still not in line for an England spot, while Billy Twelvetrees looks back to form and can also cover the position. Gloucester were willing to let Billy Burns go to Ulster and could potentially afford to let either Williams or Evans to go. Williams would be the more attractive signing due to his experience and big boot from the tee (handy when Leigh Halfpenny is unavailable) while he has also spent a lot of time at 12, allowing the Scarlets some flexibility during the internationals. Not only that, but it would likely be an attractive move for the player too, as the increased minutes and playing in Wales may help to put him back on Warren Gatland’s radar. Evans may not have the experience of the other names on the list, but he is also training as part of a Gloucester team that it looking to play attractive rugby anywhere on the pitch – sound familiar Scarlets fans? The one issue right now would be the potential unavailability of Cipriani as he is likely to receive a ban following his red card against Munster and could still come into the England squad, so Gloucester may not be willing to spread themselves too thin in the midfield.

Max Malins – Saracens

Potentially the England 10 of the next generation, Malins will find his first team opportunities limited this season with Owen Farrell, Alex Lozowski and Alex Goode all seeing time at the position. He has a good all-round game and has impressed when given a chance with the first team while excelling with England U20s. The issue here would be that I can’t see Sarries wanting to let go of such a talent on anything more than a season-long loan, while I doubt Malins would want to leave England long-term as this could push him back on his pathway to the senior England squad.

Jamie Shillcock – Worcester

At just 21 years old, Shillcock already has a decent amount of Premiership experience due to Worcester’s issues at 10 in recent seasons. Now with Jono Lance and Duncan Weir both at Sixways and depth in the centre allowing Ryan Mills to also cover 10, suddenly opportunities look more limited for the youngster. With so many players in front of him and none of them likely to disappear during the internationals a move away to a team like the Scarlets could be just what he needs to further his career, either in a short- or long-term capacity.

June 2018 Rugby Ramble

June 2018 Rugby Ramble

European nightmare

Heidelberger RK made history on 21st April when their Continental Shield semi-final victory over Timisoara Saracens confirmed their place in the 2018/19 Challenge Cup – the first time a German team had ever qualified for the tournament. The cheer was short-lived however, as doubts were raised as to whether they would be unable to compete due to being under the ownership of Dr Hans-Peter Wild, who is also the owner of Stade Francais, a possible opponent in this year’s tournament. It was announced in early June that HRK would not be allowed to compete and their place would instead be taken by Timisoara Saracens.

The IRFU and the SRU own the Irish Provinces and the Scottish clubs respectively, yet they are constantly able to field teams in the same European competition. The IRFU have even been actively shown to manipulate things to benefit Irish rugby as a whole such as moving Joey Carbery from Leinster to Munster. If there was suddenly player movement between the 2 clubs then we could question the fairness, but apparently it’s good for the rich unions and not the poorer ones.

Let’s also be honest, what sort of impact would HRK have to impact the competition? Nothing against them as a club but the clubs who quality from the Continental Shield generally struggle to get results as it is, what impact do EPRC officials expect HRK to have in their first ever season competing at this level? The chances are they could have played their top line-up in every match and tried harder than every other team in the competition and still given opponents bonus point victories in each of their 6 pool matches. If the EPCR were so worried about HRK impacting the competition, they could have found a way to ensure Stade could not end up in the same pool.

As if these rubbish reasons for excluding HRK weren’t bad enough, the fallout from this decision is going to be felt keenly. Following the decision, Dr Wild has chosen to withdraw his funding of the club. His funding is such a vital part of German rugby right now and Heidelberger players who are employed by his academy have now been told to seek other employment. How is this fair on the players whose chance to develop has now been stopped by the funding cuts caused by this decision?

While World Rugby continues to say that it aims to be more inclusive and help develop improving nations, this is yet another example of the established parties refusing to let the new boys eat at the same table. Hopefully World Rugby and the EPRC look to improve this in the very near future.


A tale of 2 teams

With Argentina only picking home-based players, their talent pool has been somewhat limited. There is only 1 Argentinian team in top-flight rugby: the Jaguares, who compete in Super Rugby. After 17 rounds, the Jaguares are 2nd in the South African Conference with a record of 9 wins and 5 losses, which includes a run of 7 straight victories. By contrast, the national team has only 2 wins in their last 15 matches – against Georgia and Italy. Their performances against Wales this summer were so poor it cost head coach Daniel Hourcade, his job and they were arguably even worse against Scotland!

puma
Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias was the only player to feature in the Summer Tests for Argentina but not in the last 3 Jaguares games

I couldn’t believe how poor the Pumas were in the 3 Tests and was expecting to see the performance carry over into their next Jaguares game, but it didn’t and they ran out 25-14 winners over a Stormers side containing a number of Springboks. The win made me decide to have a look at the squads for the respective matches, so I looked at the matchday 23s for the June Tests, the 2 Jaguares games immediately before the Tests and the Jaguares 23 against the Stormers. As you can see on the tables I’ve included, the 23s are almost identical, with only a handful of players featuring for Argentina/Jaguares but not the other! Even more so, most of the players have even played the same position, with the vast majority of the starting back line and tight 5 being the same over all 6 matches. Nicolas Sanchez is a perfect example of the difference between the performances as he has been a huge part of the Jaguares’ success but was absolutely dreadful in the June Tests.

jaguar
Only 4 players have featured in the last 3 Jaguares matches but not in any of the Argentina squads during the June Tests

To me, there a few potential reasons for the differing fortunes:

  • Higher level of quality in Test rugby: While this may be the case in many circumstances, like during the Rugby Championship, I do not feel that this is necessarily the case here. Neither Wales nor Scotland played their full strength squads, whereas Super Rugby squads do contain a number of internationals. Though I would still rank the national sides ahead of the South African franchises the Jaguares have faced recently, I do not feel there is enough of a difference in quality to explain the results
  • Burnout: I mention this one as a suggestion that perhaps playing the majority of a Super Rugby season then having the June Tests could cause them to be too tired. However, I feel that this is rule out by them winning this weekend against the Stormers, as if this was the case I’d have expected it to show in this game too
  • Opposition defence: Nicolas Sanchez never looked comfortable against Wales and their blitz defence. The Pumas never adapted to this aggressive defence and found themselves going backwards on a regular basis. Super Rugby defences are notoriously different to those of Northern Hemisphere teams, so it possible that the Pumas struggle to adapt to the tactics of Wales or Scotland. However, many of these players are experience internationals who have played against Northern Hemisphere teams on a number of occasions, so I cannot see this being the full reason for their struggles, especially when you consider how they looked like they had never played together as a team before!
  • Coaching: I hate to blame the coaches but when the matchday 23s are so similar and the results are so different, you need to look at what stimuli are different. Unfortunately for Daniel Hourcade, the clear difference is at the top. Whether it is the tactics he is using or the trust of the players disappearing, he has not been getting the same level of rugby out of the players as Mario Ledesma has for the Jaguares. Personally I hope it was more the tactical side of things than the players not playing for him as they should still want to play to represent their country

There will be change ahead for Argentina. A new head coach is needed and the foreign-based stars will hopefully soon be available for selection again. Hopefully then, they can look to build on the success of the Jaguares.

Rugby Rambles – the March 2018 News

Rugby Rambles – the March 2018 News

Qualification nightmare

I’ve been planning this post for over a week but deliberately held off writing it while I waited for a resolution to this to discuss in full. However, the entire process appears to be dragging on indefinitely and I could not hold off writing this any longer.

As a fan who has pride in the values of rugby, the whole mess between Spain and Rugby Europe these last few weeks has been a shock to the system. With Georgia already qualified for the 2019 World Cup courtesy of finishing 3rd in the pool in 2015, the final European automatic qualifying spot for 2019 would go to whoever won the 2018 Rugby Europe Championship (or whoever came second if Georgia won). So often it would be expected that Romania would take the final spot, but their loss to Spain in Round 2 meant that Spain went into the final round of matches needing a win against Belgium – who had 1 win and 3 losses to their name – in order to take the final qualification spot, which would consign Romania to a play-off against first Portugal and then Samoa.

The game ended 18-10 in favour of the Belgians and all hell broke loose. The referee had to be escorted off the field at full time as a number of Spanish players surrounded the referee in outrage of his performance. Was this win due to biased refereeing? I wasn’t there so can only go on the word of people who were there, but Spain had a poor game, however it has also been noted that the referee did have a poor game. While that alone does not imply a bias, what makes this an issue is that both the referee and his touch judges were all Romanian. Considering Romania stood to benefit from the outcome of this match, to have set of Romanian officials is always going to put that seed of doubt in people’s minds. Granted the officials were picked well ahead of the tournament, but it doesn’t look good that Rugby Europe – whose president is Romanian – chose not to change the officials when requested by the Spanish Rugby Federation, despite South African Marius van der Westhuizen being removed from running touch during Ireland’s Grand Slam victory over England on the same weekend for a perceived conflict of interests having spent time with the England camp in the build-up. It’s going to be all-but impossible to prove something untoward happened here, but it certainly leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

The story has since taken another turn as Romania, Spain and Belgium have all been accused of fielding ineligible players during the tournament, which could lead to all 3 countries being disqualified from World Cup qualification – as happened recently to Tahiti. If this happens, then Russia (who finished 4th) would be the automatic qualifier and Germany (who face relegation from the Championship) would go into the play-off. These questions of eleigibility all centre around a stupid idea of when a player is considered “captured” by a country’s second team. The teams that “capture” players can change by the season but are generally an U20s team or a second team like the England Saxon. Then it also depends on the tournament the player was involved in or the team they were playing against to decide if they are captured. To consider a player captured because they played a couple of games for a U20s team years ago but also not players like Henry Trinder and Mike Haley (who have featured for the England first team in uncapped matches against the Barbarians) is absolutely ridiculous and far too complicated! In my opinion it would be much better for everyone involved if a player was only captured once they have been capped for their country.

With all this going on, European qualification for the World Cup is currently a mess and I think regardless of the results, there will be some who feel the team that qualifies does not deserve their place in the tournament. With World Rugby now involved, I’ll be interested to see the fallout from all this… once we finally get a decision!


Increasing availability

Though nothing has been confirmed as of yet, there are rumours that Argentina will relax their eligibility criteria for the national team to allow European-based players to feature for the Pumas. The rumours suggest this may be in place for the Summer Tests but more likely the Rugby Championship.

To me, this is wonderful news, as under the current rules, they are basically limiting themselves to the Jaguares squad and players in a domestic competition that would likely be too large of a step up to international rugby. Picking European-based players would strengthen the national team as players like Facundo Isa, Juan Figallo, Juan Imhoff, Santiago Cordero and Marcelo Bosch could all come back into consideration. Los Pumas have gone backwards since they hammered Ireland in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup. Hopefully this relaxation of the law comes in and we can get back to having a strong competitive Argentina team.


Going 4 the Champions Cup

Possibly the news that excited me most in March was that Channel 4 have bought the rights to show Champions Cup matches for the next 4 seasons. Fans will be able to watch one match from each round of the pool stages, one quarter-final, one semi-final and the final all on free-to-air TV.

This is great news for the sport as it means that top-level club rugby is becoming more accessible to more people and with the World Cup happening next year as well it will only help to grow the fanbase. Granted the Premiership matches on Channel 5 have not been quite up to the standard of BT Sport, but they have been good enough to draw in fans, hopefully having the top teams in European Rugby facing each other will draw the crowds. What is important is they get the right pundits involved, so that we get enthusiasm as well as good explanations from them to entice in new fans. I often find myself thinking the BBC panels during the 6 Nations are a little stale, but if Channel 4 can get pundits like David Flatman on board it will certainly help.

We are entering a golden age of rugby broadcasting, hopefully the amount of free-to-air top flight rugby just continues to grow. Now I just need to hope Gloucester qualify for the top competition…

Eyes On: Toulon v Scarlets

Eyes On: Toulon v Scarlets

The 2017/18 European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup began this week and boy have we been treated to some fantastic games. Saracens piled on the tries at Franklin’s Gardens to beat Northampton 13-57, Castres were denied a late penalty and missed a last-gasp drop goal at home in a 17-17 draw with Munster. Meanwhile Russian side Krasny Yar pulled off the shock of the round in the Challenge Cup with a 34-29 over last season’s winners Stade Francais, while last season’s other finalists Gloucester left Pau with a losing bonus point after a 27-21 loss.

The game that I will be focusing on, however, is the visit of the Scarlets to Toulon. Last season’s Pro12 champions had a poor start to the game at the Stade Mayol to find themselves 18-3 down at half time. However they recovered well to go ahead, only for a Francois Trinh-Duc penalty to give last season’s losing Top 14 finalists a 21-20 victory.

 

A killer start

When Scarlets watch this game back, they will know it was lost in the first quarter. In the first 20 minutes they tried to play a territorial game but found themselves 18-0 down after 2 tries (1 converted) and 2 penalties from Anthony Belleau, while Leigh Halfpenny had missed a kickable penalty. As the half wore on, Scarlets finally switched to the expansive attacking play that has won them so many fans and finally began to get on the front foot, with a succesful kick at goal and Johnny McNicholl knocking on as he stretched for the line in the corner. They continued to take control in the second half, adding a further 17 unanswered points before Trinh-Duc’s late penalty sealed victory. They did well to hold on at the end and keep the losing bonus point as Toulon came on a late charge.

InkedInkedScreenshot_2017-10-16-11-16-21_LI
I hate to imagine how this conversation would have gone if my mate had been able to see the first 20 minutes…

Looking at the game as a whole, I would say that Scarlets were good for the win, but the opening 20 minutes were so catastrophic it cost them the game. Much like Gloucester’s losses at Leicester and Pau so far this season, a poor start has been the difference between defeat and a possible victory. If they can put in the 80 minute performances in the remaining games then I think they have every chance of topping the group.

The right calls?

In this game, there were a number of interesting calls from both coaches.

Considering he is the national team captain and arguably one of the best hookers in the world, I was surprised to see Guilhem Guirado taken off just before the hour mark. Other than his try, he may not have been having the same visible impact he has on many matches, but he brings so much experience to whatever side he is playing in. It didn’t prove costly, but had they gone on to lose, could Fabien Galthié have been on the receiving end of some flak for that call?

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Luckily the Scarlets did get going and we got a great game

Wayne Pivac also made a couple of surprising calls in his team selection. Considering stars John Barclay and James Davies were both missing through injury, I would have expected the Scarlets to start with their strongest possible lineup against a Toulon side overflowing with big names and talent. However, they started with captain Ken Owens and Wales scrum half Gareth Davies on the bench. Nothing against Aled Davies, but would the more experienced Gareth Davies have thrown the pass that was intercepted for the first try, or would he have held on to the ball under pressure and allowed the forwards to recycle? There is no way to know for certain, but playing the best available XV from the start may have been enough to avoid the poor start and win the game. That said, having such quality come on later in the game could have saved Scarlets as Toulon went in search of another try near the end. At the end of the day, the records will show that Toulon won this game by a point, but I’m sure some Scarlets fans will beleft wondering what might have been had Davies and Owens been in the starting XV.

A mixed return

Having been deemed surplus to requirements by Mourad Boudjellal, I’m sure Leigh Halfpenny would have had extra incentive to have a big game at Toulon. He had a mixed day at the Stade Mayol with a try but missed 2 penalty kicks that he should have scored.

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Could Scarlets’ losing bonus point prove crucial? From http://www.epcrugby.com

In defence, he was willing to put his body on the line as usual and at one point saved a try by forcing Josua Tuisova into a knock on. However his attempt to tackle Tuisova for Guirado’s try was terrible! Players much bigger than Halfpenny may also struggle to stop the Fijian winger, but Halfpenny’s technique was terrible and he got his head int he complete wrong place and required a HIA after being bumped off. This is not the first time he has tackled like this – I mentioned when he first moved to the Scarlets that his tackle technique was questionable – and he really needs to work on this soon or his career will be ended early and not on his terms.

Credit where it’s due

Referees don’t often get the recognition they deserve after a good game, so I’m saying it here: I was very impressed by Luke Pearce’s performance at the Stade Mayol.

He may not have got every decision right, but what referee does? The important thing is that he got the big decisions right and considering the way that everybody will interpret the same incident differently that is no easy feat. Just take the penalty against Tadhg Beirne for his challenge on Belleau. Beirne attempted to charge down his clearance kick, only to catch the fly half’s left leg after the ball was gone. Pearce initially allowed play to continue, saying the Berine was already committed, however after watching the replay he gave a penalty to Toulon, which I can understand as the contact is nowhere near Belleau’s kicking leg and is entirely on the other side of his body. #RugbyToulon (@rugbytoulon_) ran a poll on twitter, which at the time of me writing this has had 57 responses. 47% felt that the clash was nothing, 40% felt it was a penalty, while a further 13% felt the incident warranted a yellow card! As fans, we can all check the Laws of the game and we have the benefit of multiple replays, so if we struggle to agree on an incident it must be even harder for a referee who has thousands of home fans baying for blood all around him.

Pearce kept his cool throughout despite the ‘assistance’ of the home fans on any possible incidents. My one criticism would be the lack of communication in French, but this is the case with most referees from outside of France. Pearce frequently impresses me and I would argue that he is one of the best referees in the Northern Hemisphere.

Eyes On: Gloucester v Stade Francais

The 2017 European Challenge Cup final was a meeting between two teams whose historic greatness has fallen away somewhat in recent seasons, with 2016/17 being especially turbulent for both of them. Gloucester had to deal with the mid-season departure of Head Coach Laurie Fisher, whilst Stade had the shock of a planned merger with local rivals Racing 92, with the players going on strike and captain Sergio Parisse nailing his Stade colours to the mast whilst on international duty before the plans were eventually scrapped.

After an enthralling – and at times controversial – game, the Parisians ran out 17-25 winners, achieving their first ever piece of European silverware. Stade’s route to next season’s Champions Cup now comprises of a home game against Cardiff Blues, with the winner facing either Northampton or Connacht. Gloucester’s season is now over, as their 9th place finish in the Premiership meant that their only way of making it into the Champions Cup was to win last night, allowing them to take Northampton’s place in the playoffs.

I was paying so much attention to the game I completely forgot to take notes (rookie error!) so these are my thoughts on the game as well as I remember them after a couple of shifts at work. I am a Gloucester supporter so am understandably disappointed with the result and certain incidents within the game. However I have tried to be as unbiased as possible and to look at the game without my cherry and white-tinted specs.

 

Fond farewells

Man of the Match Sergio Parisse, Stade Francais captain and still arguably one of the most impressive number 8s in the world, will be leaving Paris at the end of this campaign for pastures new. Likewise, vice-captain Pascal Papé, who was banned for the final, will be retiring at the end of the season. Head Coach Gonzalo Quesada is also leaving Paris for Biarritz this summer. While there is still some real quality left at Stade, that is a lot of experience leaving and I worry that they may struggle even more next season.

Gloucester are also losing a number of players. From the 23 in the squad last night, they are saying goodbye to Darren Dawidiuk, Yann Thomas and club captain Greig Laidlaw, as well as other players not featuring: James Hook, Matt Kvesic and a number of promising youngsters. Though there are some quality young talents arriving to replace these players, the cherry and whites will be losing a lot of big game and international experience especially from Hook and Laidlaw. Head Coach Laurie Fisher has of course already left a few months ago and will be replaced by Johan Ackermann from the Lions, but it does look like Director of Rugby David Humphreys will remain, which I am not sure I agree with.

It will be very interesting to see where both these teams are by this time next year. Hopefully they will both be enjoying more success, but I would not be surprised to find them in similar positions to this year.

An unwelcome return

When Stade replaced prop Rabah Slimani at half time for ‘tactical reasons’, my colleague and I laughed along at home with the BT Sport pundits’ jokes that he would be back on for the last 10 minutes like in France’s 6 Nations game against Wales. I think we were all shocked when, with about 10 minutes left, he re-entered the fray as a blood substitution that quickly became a permanent replacement!

I’m no medical professional, but when seeing the treatment that the prop was receiving for his ‘blood injury’ it did seem that the injury was very minor and in fact something that we would usually see patched up on the field without any need for a replacement. It could have all been completely legitimate but after the French antics in that 6 Nations game, for a similar situation to arise mere months later was bound to provoke scepticism from many watching. To remove Slimani for ‘tactical reasons’ at half time when he had been dominating (admittedly not always legally) first Josh Hohneck and then Paddy McAllister seems an odd decision, which just adds to the suspicion.

I really hope that World Rugby look into this soon, as games will be ruined either by teams cheating in this way, or people accusing the teams of cheating. As I did back during the 6 Nations, I feel that the best way to sort this would be to have an independent medic assigned to each game to assess any injuries and agree that a substitution is needed in order to bring a player back on. This is the only way that I can think for player safety to still be protected, whilst also keeping the game’s reputation intact.

Questionable decisions

This is the section where I will probably be accused of Gloucester bias, so I want to start by making it very clear that I think the best team won on the night. That said, there were a number of instances where I questioned the decision of referee John Lacey and his officials.

Many Gloucester fans appeared to disagree with the penalty against Jonny May for tackling the man in the air, however that was one of the decisions that I do agree with, though it was very close. The yellow to Heinz was not a decision that I agreed with, however in this day and age I do understand why that decision was made.

However there were two occasions earlier in the match where Stade players dived off their feet at the ruck to tackle Willi Heinz as he picked up the ball – clear penalties, both given as Stade scrums for Heinz knocking on. I also didn’t see any problem with Lewis Ludlow’s clean out of Will Genia that sparked a mass brawl just after the yellow card, and honestly feel that the TMO should have jumped in to have a look at what appeared to be shoulder from Hugo Bonneval to the face of Billy Burns while he was on the ground right in front of the camera. Bonneval then got doubly lucky by not being penalised for a pull back on Tom Marshall as he tried to dot down a kick into the Stade in-goal area. Granted, it did appear to be the slightest of pulls but at the speed Marshall was going, and considering how close he was to scoring even after the pull, this was likely enough to cost Gloucester a try and in my opinion should have been at least a penalty, if not a penalty try.

I do not want to say that the officials cost Gloucester the game, as Stade were the better team, but if just a few of these decisions had gone the other way, we could have been looking at a completely different result.

Trust in the youth

Billy Burns may not have been at his attacking best on Friday night, but he still controlled the game well and continued to be accurate from the tee, as he has been all season. He also continues to put his body on the line for the team and is not afraid to tackle the opposition’s big boys. With Owen Williams joining this summer, I think Burns has done enough to make the battle for the 10 shirt a mouth-watering contest nest season.

Ross Moriarty has had a fantastic season! Voted Gloucester’s Young Player of the Season and also receiving the Chairman’s Award at last week’s end of season awards dinner, the former England U20 was a regular starter for Wales in the 6 Nations and was also picked by Warren Gatland to go on the Lions Tour to New Zealand this summer. Against Stade, he had a great game and it was nice to see him keep playing until the very end, supporting Darren Dawidiuk for a well-taken try to give Gloucester the slimmest of hopes with a couple of minutes left. When available, he is surely one of the first names on the team sheet and I hope Gloucester do everything they can to sign him to a new contract as soon as possible.

Perhaps even better than Moriarty on Friday night was his fellow flanker Lewis Ludlow. The 22-year old has done well this season when given the chances and in recent weeks seems to have been preferred over Jacob Rowan, who has often been the first choice at open side this season. In this match he was a constant nuisance at breakdowns and lineouts and was always looking to put in a good hit on the opposition. With classic 7s Matt Kvesic and Dan Thomas on their way out and Carl Fearns deciding to stay in France, it would not surprise me if Ludlow’s recent big-hitting performances have helped earn him a starting spot for next season.

 

What did you think about the game? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Lions Rugby Ramble

Messy Monday? Messy Situation

The big problem with the timings of the Lions’ squad announcement and their opening match is that there is very little time in between to get the team together. This has caused a situation this week where Saracens and Gloucester have had to release their Lions for the traditional ‘Messy Monday’ even though they have European cup finals at the end of the week.

I understand the necessity of Messy Monday, players and coaches need to build chemistry together both on and off the pitch. They also need to get all their Lions stash, which sounds like enough to fill a couple of cupboards! However Monday is a very important day in the week leading up to a match, so to lose a number of star players on such a crucial day is understandably annoying.

I have some sympathy for Saracens – losing half a dozen of your 1st XV is certainly disrupting – but it should have been clear there was a chance of them having a considerable number of players picked and as defending champions in the Challenge Cup, there was always a good chance of them being in the final, so why did they not request for the date to be changed when it was originally organised? I haven’t heard any complaints from Gloucester, who were missing 2 players on Monday but have an even shorter build-up with their final being on the Friday evening.

The chance of 2 all-French finals was so low, it does feel that the Lions could have organised it better. In my opinion the meet should have been a week or two earlier. More teams would have had their training weeks affected, but as this is in a week of domestic league matches, the chances are much higher that their opponents would have been in the same situation.

It will be interesting to see what effect it has on the performances of Gloucester and Saracens in these finals. Moriarty is starting for Gloucester with Laidlaw on the bench, though I believe that is more due to Willi Heinz being the form 9 than a lack of readiness. Hopefully nobody at the clubs uses Messy Monday as an excuse if they lose their final!

Regardless of the outcomes, I hope we won’t be having the same complaints 4 years from now.

 

Family first

I’m sure that many of the rugby family will have joined me in sending their thoughts the way of the Youngs family this week after the news broke that Ben Youngs was pulling out of the Lions tour after finding out his brother Tom’s wife was terminally ill.

The chance to play for the Lions is a fantastic opportunity that many players will never get, so turning down the chance of touring New Zealand with the Lions in order to spend time with the family is a big decision. Ben will be 31 once the next tour comes around, and with a number of impressive young scrum halves starting to come through, there is no guarantee that he will be pushing for selection come the next tour. Luckily he was part of the last tour to Australia, alongside Tom, so he has still had the chance to experience the Lions and will have likely considered a victorious tour with his brother even more special.

I was very interested by Matt Dawson’s recent comments that he would have probably gone on the tour but later regretted it. Personally I feel that Ben has made the right decision here and have complete admiration for him. It is nice to see a player putting family before personal gain in a time when fans begin to worry if rugby is becoming too much about the money.

Though I’m sure he wouldn’t have wanted to make the squad in these circumstances, I am happy for Greig Laidlaw, who has been called up in his place. If it hadn’t been for an awfully timed injury in the 6 Nations, I think that Laidlaw would have been pushing Youngs hard for the third scrum half position in the initial squad. He is a great player in his own right and plays a different style of game, allowing the Lions more variety in their style of play.

Ben Youngs’ actions this week are the perfect example of showing what is most important in life. Rugby may be life, but at times like this family should always come first.

 

What are your thoughts on these stories? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: La Rochelle vs Gloucester

Gloucester and La Rochelle met for the third time this season on Saturday night in the semi-final of the European Rugby Challenge Cup. After a tense 80 minutes full of deft offloads and huge impacts, the cherry and whites booked their spot in the final with a 14-16 victory over the Top 14 leaders, their only loss at home all season.

For a relatively low-scoring game, there was actually quite a bit to discuss, so I’ve tried to limit myself to what I felt to be the main talking points from the match.

 

Taking chances

Before kickoff, the BT Sport team mentioned that one of the keys to La Rochelle’s success this season has been having the majority of possession. Gloucester stopped this in the first half, but in the second half the home team had 70% of possession and 77% of territory (though I’m sure most Gloucester fans will agree that it felt like much more than that!). Over the course of the game, they also made over 300 more metres, 6 more clean breaks and beat twice as many defenders as Gloucester! Yet it was Gloucester who came away from the Stade Marcel Deflandre with the victory, as the French were far too wasteful with the ball.

When La Rochelle broke through the Gloucester line, it often felt like the defence was all over the place, but they would quickly recover once the tackle was made and put the home team back under pressure with a quick, physical defensive line, which often led to turnovers or errors from the attackers. Henry Trinder (it’s so good to see him playing regularly again after all his injury issues) was fantastic on the night, winning a number of turnovers and penalties at the breakdown and almost scoring a try.

Despite this, La Rochelle will still feel that they should have won the game, as Brock James – one of the most experienced players on the pitch – left 8 points on the field through missed kicks, as well as throwing the pass that Billy Burns intercepted for Gloucester’s try.

Burns night

Brock James may not have had the best of nights, but his opposite number Billy Burns had a great game. With older brother Freddie watching on in the BT Sport studio, Burns Jr. scored all 16 of Gloucester’s points courtesy of the aforementioned try and a 100% kick success rate , despite the home crowd’s vocal attempts to put him off. Even many of his shakier moments in the game seemed to end up working in his favour, such as a poor cross field early in the 1st half that conveniently bounced into touch when the La Rochelle winger completely lost his bearings.

Gloucester also did a good job of looking after him in this match. At one of the line outs, Ugo Monye pointed out that Burns was lining up in the 5m channel as opposed to in the fly half’s usual position, so that he was not a target for La Rochelle’s gargantuan strike runners on the first phase. Yet he fronted up whenever necessary and was more than happy to get in the way of the big men, one tackle on a charging Levani Botia off a stolen line out specifically sticking in my mind.

With Owen Williams arriving from Leicester this summer, Billy is certainly doing everything he can to prove that he deserves the number 10 jersey ahead of the Welshman next season.

Dealing with the opposition

As Gloucester played La Rochelle in the pool stages (winning 35-14 at Kingsholm before going down 42-13 in France) they had a good idea of how La Rochelle were going to play this game. It just takes one look at players like Uini Atonio and Jone Qovu in the pack to know that they pride themselves on physical dominance to help them win games. Gloucester knew this and worked their tactics around this. John Afoa scrummages so low, it becomes difficult for a larger opponent to compete against him at the scrums. Josh Hohneck and Paddy McAllister also did a very good job of holding their own against the French team’s props. But more importantly, Gloucester tried to make sure that scrums on their feed were over as quickly as possible by feeding the ball as directly as they could to the number 8 (it wasn’t even done slyly) and getting the ball out as soon as it reached his feet. This meant that provided they could withstand the initial engagement they were generally able to get the ball away without a problem, though they did not necessarily have the platform for the backs to create much on the first phase.

They also did a good job of keeping possession in the first half (61%) and spreading the ball from side to side as much as possible in an attempt to wear out La Rochelle’s big boys, which seemed to work as a number of them were replaced relatively soon after half time. In the second half, when La Rochelle began to take control, Gloucester used their line speed to stop the strike runners before they could get going and were happy to clear the ball downfield to force the home team to run back towards their own line while the cherry and whites reorganised their defence for the next attack.

French discipline

As much as Gloucester can consider themselves lucky that Brock James left his kicking boots at home, La Rochelle can also consider themselves lucky to have only spent 10 minutes playing with 14 men!

Jone Qovu’s elbow drop on Willi Heinz got worse with every viewing and was arguably deserving of a red card on its own. But he didn’t stop there and was lucky the officials missed his punch to the midriff of Richard Hibbard, who was unbelievably warned about simulation by the referee! Granted, Hibbard may have – in my opinion accidentally – grabbed the Fijian in a sensitive area, but that is no excuse for his actions. Either of these incidents is worthy of a suspension, so I will be flabbergasted if Qovu plays again this season.

Captain Uini Atonio was also probably lucky to escape sanction during the game, with one late – and possibly high – hit on Heinz quickly followed up by a hit on Hibbard that was so far off the ball it wasn’t even visible on the live transmission, yet neither of these incidents even resulted in a Gloucester penalty!

I can’t really say much more on the Atonio incidents, and I also have a lot of sympathy for the match officials, as the French broadcasters in charge of the pictures we see are notorious for avoiding replays of anything that could result in a home player being sent off. The BT Sport commentators even mentioned this when they expressed surprise at the fact we got to see replays of Qovu’s elbow. Meanwhile, the footage of his punch on Hibbard was not picked up on until the end of the game and I am yet to see a replay of either of Atonio’s challenges!

 

This was a stunning game, and with so much on the line it was good to see Gloucester hold on under such heavy pressure. The last few seasons under Director of Rugby David Humphreys have not been the success anyone would have hoped, but Gloucester have generally pulled it together for Challenge Cup games, having only lost 2 in the last 3 seasons (at home to the Dragons in last season’s quarter-final and this season’s pool match at La Rochelle), while they are now appearing in their second Challenge Cup final in 3 years. Hopefully they can go on to repeat their heroics at Murrayfield, when they take on Stade Francais!

 

What did you think of the game? Have I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge