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!

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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.

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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.

Picking a XV: 2018 Summer Tests

Picking a XV: 2018 Summer Tests

The June Tests are over for another year (sob!) and now rugby fans in the Northern Hemisphere are left to endure a summer without rugby until their club’s preseason matches start, while fans below the Equator can get back to watching Super Rugby and looking forward to the Rugby Championship. With an ever-decreasing number of matches remaining before the World Cup, it is getting important now for coaches to begin thinking about the players they want to take to Japan.

With this in mind, I have decided to have a look at my picks for the team of the summer. This is not counting England’s match against the Barbarians, only the capped Tests. I will also apologise in advance to Italy and Japan if I missed anyone deserving of a spot, but I was unable to see any of their matches.

1 – Tendai Mtawawira: Called “The Beast” for a reason, he continues to put in fine performances to keep Steven Kitshoff on the bench. In the 3-Test series against England, he caused Kyle Sinckler problems at the scrum and his barnstorming run from the back of a ruck on his 100th Tests set up Duane Vermeulen was one of the highlights of the 2nd Test

2 – George Turner: The Glasgow hooker may not have been up against the strongest of opponents this summer, but he took his chances. He came off the bench against Canada to score a rare hattrick for a hooker (granted they were team efforts from driving mauls but they required accurate lineouts to set up) and then scored another try against the USA a week later. He may have strong competition in front of him in the form of Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally, but if he continues to take his chances a run in the squad is surely not far away

3 – Tadhg Furlong: Arguably the best tight-head in the world at the moment, Furlong continues to show himself as a strong scrummager who is also a beast in the loose. His strength will always help him get through a weak tackle but he also has good enough pace and handling skills to take advantage of it. This Ireland squad looks so much stronger when he’s on the pitch

4 – RG Snyman: I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Snyman was only 23 years old and making his Test debut this summer, that’s how assured he looked in the series against England. He took full advantage of the space left by the missing Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager and played a big part in a pack that physically dominated the English for much of the series. Like Turner, he may not get the starts when everyone is available, but Rassie Erasmus will love the depth that is developing in the second row

5 – Scott Barrett: Made history along with brothers Beauden and Jordie in the 1st Test by becoming the first family to have 3 brothers in the same All Blacks starting line-up and in my opinion outshone his flashier brothers over the full series. Was a deserved Man of the Match in the 3rd Test against France and looked very impressive in every match. He’ll struggle to beat out Brodie Retallick or Sam Whitelock when they are fully fit but it’s doesn’t appear there would be much drop in quality if he was to come into the XV long-term

6 – David Pocock: An openside by trade but played at 6 and 8 for the majority of the series to accommodate Michael Hooper. It was so great to see Pocock back in the Australia squad following his sabbatical and the “Pooper” pairing was as good as ever. His performance at the breakdown was immense and even though he was often targeted by the Irish support men he still had a devastating effect on the breakdown

7 – Siya Kolisi: Made history by becoming the first black captain of the Springboks and led his team to a 2-1 series victory over England to hint at an improved future for the team. Under heavy pressure, Kolisi led by example and was aprt of a pack that generally outperformed England over the 3 Tests

8 – Duane Vermeulen: He’s just announced a short-term deal with Kubot Spears, but when that comes to an end I’m sure plenty of clubs will be chasing his signature off the back of his performances in the 2nd and 3rd Tests. In the 2nd Test especially, the former Toulon number 8 bullied the England forwards and was fully deserving of his try

9 – Faf de Klerk: Probably South Africa’s best player over the whole series, the Sale halfback was almost unplayable in the 1st Test against England. While he may not have been as much of a standout in the other matches, he still quietly went about his business while having a few wonderful moments like pushing Nathan Hughes back 5 metres in a 1-on-1 tackle in the 3rd Test

10 – AJ MacGinty: Probably not many people’s pick here after Johnny Sexton’s part in Ireland’s series victory Down Under, but I went for former Connacht outside half MacGinty. I was shocked that he didn’t get the Man of the Match award in the USA’s historic win over Scotland, but he did a week later against Canada and finished the summer with 38 points over 3 matches. A good fly half is vital in Test rugby and the American is exactly what the Eagles need as they look to build on their success

11 – Mike Brown: I’m not a fan of Mike Brown on the wing and still don’t understand why he wasn’t given a summer off by Eddie Jones, but Brown had a good tour on the whole. He scored and assisted tries in attack and in defence covered well when South Africa broke through the middle, while also helping Daly cover fullback. I do however think South Africa missed a trick by not trying to isolate him as much in the 2nd and 3rd Tests

12- Hadleigh Parkes: Came on in the first half of their opener against South Africa and gave the team much more balance, then starred in the 1st Test against Argentina despite suffering a compound fracture of his finger in the opening minutes. Parkes has been a revelation since becoming eligible for Wales and must surely be one of the first names on the team sheet

13 – Scott Williams: Williams was so reliable for Wales this summer and formed a strong partnership with his (now former) teammate Parkes. Jonathan Davies is arguably still the ideal partner for Parkes but Williams’ ability to play 12 or 13 will likely see him as the immediate backup in the squad

14 – Jonny May: A try in each match and assists in the first 2 Tests, May was arguably the player of the series for England. He may not have been tested too much in defence but in attack the flashes of skill are gone and we now have a reliable winger who makes chances out of nothing and has the pace to terrify defenders. Nobody else on the pitch was getting to Cipriani’s kick! This tournament has surely pushed him up the pecking order and he may even be Eddie’s number 1 winger now

15 – Willie le Roux: Making his first appearance for the Springboks since November 2016, le Roux carried on from his form this season with Wasps and looks back to his best. He caused England so many problems around the 13 channel in the series opener and this led to many of South Africa’s best chances in that match. Hopefully he will become a regular in the South Africa squad again now Rassie Erasmus is in charge

What do you think of my selections? Let me know in the comments who you would have picked, I’d be interested to see how many players we have in common.

2018 Summer Tests Week 3: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 3: A Rugby Ramble

The official verdict

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

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

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

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

The American dream

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

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

80 minute performance

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

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

2018 Summer Tests Week 2: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 2: A Rugby Ramble

Wheels coming off the chariot

England slumped to another disappointing defeat with a 23-12 loss to an improving South Africa which leaves them unable to win the June series. The team have now lost 6 matches in a row (yes Eddie, I’m counting that Barbarians match!) and if I’m completely honest I don’t see that streak ending next week..

billyvWhat has gone wrong for this team? From an outsider looking in, things don’t look great. Players continue to get long-term injuries in training sessions. Eddie Jones is moaning that he has 25 players unavailable for selection – I’d love to hear the list and see if it includes players he continues to overlook like Don Armand and Alex Goode – which makes it sound like he doesn’t trust the players (many of them regulars) that he has with him. Ben Youngs is giving one of the rudest post-match interviews I’ve ever seen – he later apologised but it still left a nasty taste in the mouth – while Mike Brown and Joe Marler got into a row with fans in the crowd. And all the while Eddie Jones appears to feel that discipline is not an issue, despite a ridiculous penalty count, a stupid infringement from Nathan Hughes – who so frequently looks out of depth at this level – that left England a man down for 10 minutes, a positively brainless penalty from Mako Vunipola for a slap on Pieter-Steph du Toit and a kick that Maro Itoje appeared to aim at Faf de Klerk at the exact same ruck as the Vunipola slap. Players who star every week for Saracens are repeatedly poor for England recently and in some cases are actually liabilities with their lack of discipline. George Ford has had his moments where he has looked great but has largely disappeared from games once the Boks started getting into the game, while Billy Vunipola did not look fit enough in either match (possibly not being helped by not training at altitude, not that Eddie feels this is an issue) and is now out again with a broken arm. Is Eddie the man to take us through to the World Cup? Right now, I have my reservations about him, but with just a 6 Nations and a handful of other Tests remaining, I’m not sure there is someone who could come in and get the team ready in time.

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The 23 I would pick for the final Test against South Africa

With the series lost, changes should be made for the final Test, if only to rest some players and give others a fair chance to show what they can do. I would have selected Ellis Genge at 1, but he is returning to England injured and Mako is also returning for family reasons, Alex Hepburn is flying out and while I would love to start him I think the space needs to go to Marler, who has been training with the squad. Jamie George’s form has not been up to the level everyone expected when given his chances to start and I think it is time to give Luke Cowan-Dickie a chance to prove he can move ahead of the Saracen. Kyle Sinckler is another who has not backed up his form from the Lions Tour and I think it may benefit England to start the stronger scrummager Williams, leaving Sinckler to come off the bench when the Boks get tired. I’m dropping Itoje from my starting second row as he has been a penalty machine and has been lucky not to be penalised more with the way he has targeted Faf de Klerk over the 2 Tests, so I would bring Nick Isiekwe back in to partner Joe Launchbury, with Itoje on the bench, no more of this going without a specialist lock replacement. Curry and Shields both impressed me in this game so I would keep them, while I would begin to look away from Hughes as an international number 8 and look at giving Sam Simmonds some more international experience, though I see his international future on the flank. Ben Youngs was poor at scrum half and it is time Dan Robson and Ben Spencer got their chance to prove themselves. I would happily start either of them, but I have gone for Robson to start due to his experience playing with Danny Cipriani, who I have picked at 10. He looked good in his 12 minute cameo on Saturday and now deserves the chance to depose George Ford. Owen Farrell keeps his place at 12 to give Cirpiani the same help Ford has had, while Slade keeps his place at 13 for consistency in the midfield. In the back 3, Elliot Daly has not had the best of games defensively at 15, but is bringing so much with his attacking lines and deserves a chance to grow into the role. Jonny May has been one of the better players over the last 2 matches and has been involved in so many of the team’s best moments so keeps his place at 14. I’ve been critical of Mike Brown on a number of occasions in recent years but I thought he had a good game in this match, though I still worry about him if he is forced to defend normally against a specialist winger rather than coming across to make cover tackles as in this game. I would rest him for the final game and give the 11 shirt to Jason Woodward. Admittedly I am perhaps biased as a Gloucester fan, but this is a guy who has started for the Hurricanes ahead of Julian Savea in a Super Rugby final and his ability to play both on the wing and at fullback allows him to help Elliot Daly similar to how Mike Brown did at the weekend.

Awful Argentina

To say watching Argentina over the last couple of weeks has been disappointing is possibly the understatement of the century. They have been awful! Wales rested a number of players on this tour and have been chopping and changing the lineups to make sure everyone gets decent gametime, so their performances have not necessarily been great, but they still never looked like losing in either match against the Pumas.

A couple of years ago I would have had Nicolas Sanchez as one of the best fly halves in the world, but he has been dreadful over the last 2 weeks. The team have not done well enough at the breakdown,the forwards have not been able to control the set piece in the way they used to and the backs looked shorn of the flair we have got used to seeing over recent years. Taking off Pablo Matera and Agustin Creevy – often 2 of their best players – so early in the second half felt like the coaches were throwing in the towel for this match. In fact head coach Daniel Hourcade did throw in the towel, announcing that he will step down after next week’s game against Scotland.

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Despite an early red card for fullback Benjamin Fall, France looked much improved from last weekend in their match against New Zealand, though the All Blacks lost Beauden Barrett early and struggled to adapt to Angus Gardner’s refereeing of the breakdown

Hopefully new leadership will start the turnaround in fortunes, but the team needs more than that. As it stands, only players inside Argentina are selected for the national team, which means that the entire squad are from the Jaguares team – even though it has looked as if the guys had never played together before the last couple of weeks! While the familiarity should help the team, it cannot be easy to jump from Super Rugby to international rugby. There were rumours a few months ago that overseas-based players will be available for selection again soon, this needs to happen immediately so that stars like Facundo Isa can help this team get back to the level they were at.

The next megapower?

Massive congratulations to the USA who ran out 30-29 victors against Scotland last night to win their first match against Tier 1 opposition. Though it was by no means Scotland’s strongest squad, there was still enough experience to go with the talented youngsters to think the Scots would win and while they did miss a couple of kicks at goal and have a try disallowed for a knock-on by Mark Bennett, the USA were good value for their historic win to continue their unbeaten 2018.

Just over 2 years ago, I wrote about how PRO Rugby could be the next stage of a revolution that could see the USA become the next rugby superpower. While PRO Rugby may not have worked out as hoped, things seem to be going better with its replacement Major League Rugby (MLR). The majority of the squad are based in the MLR, with a handful of overseas-based players like Samu Manoa (Toulon), AJ MacGinty (Sale), Joe Taufete’e (Worcester) and Blaine Scully (Cardiff Blues) supplying a high level of top-quality experience despite the recent retirements of Todd Clever and Chris Wyles. The expansion of MLR (Ben Foden is rumoured to be joining expansion team Rugby United New York) will continue to help the development of the local players, while other players like Danny Barrett will continue to gain experience as part of a successful team on the World Sevens Series. And all the while the success of the national team (They have won the last 2 Americas Rugby Championships) and the MLR will draw in new talent, like centre Paul Lasike, who played fullback in the NFL for the Cardinals and Bears.

Qualification for the 2019 World Cup saw the USA qualify as Americas 1 for the first time. If their rise continues, it is possible they may soon start to qualify for the finals by finishing top 3 in their pool. 2019 may be too soon for that, but 2023 is certainly a possibility. In fact, if the USA’s love of rugby can continue to grow, then they could be the next team to break into the top tier. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

2018 Summer Tests Week 1: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 1: A Rugby Ramble

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

Referees can’t win

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

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

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

Back row balance

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

Strength of schedule

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

Eyes On: South Africa v Wales

Eyes On: South Africa v Wales

The Summer Tests are officially underway. Though World Rugby’s international window was not yet open, South Africa and Wales decided to kick things off early with a match in Washington’s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Both teams fielded sides that can be kindly called B teams and its safe to say it showed as the two teams toiled to a 20-22 final score in Wales’ favour.

 

Scaring off the States

I really hope American fans don’t put too much thought into this match or they will never ant to watch rugby again. This was probably the worst Tier 1 international rugby match I have ever seen! Both teams had a number of debutantes and inexperienced players and very few of them did enough to try and catch their head coach’s attention (more on that later). Granted the rainfall just before kickoff would not have helped, but the handling skills of the players would have been considered unacceptable even in the Welsh Premiership.

Hallam Amos’ try came from a smart turnover from Ellis Jenkins, but he was only given the opportunity because the South Africans were too busy bumping each other to notice the ball had come out of the ruck. Tomos Williams’ try came off the back of a counterattack from Gareth Anscombe that was only possible due to a poor South African clearance that should have been put into touch. Travis Ismaiel intercepted a blind pass from Amos in the Welsh 22 and Ryan Elias’ winner summed up the game perfectly, falling on the ball over the try line after Robert du Preez had 2 clearances charged down in quick succession, the second ricocheting off Ismaiel into the dead ball area. It’s fair to say the only try that didn’t come as a result of an error was Makazole Mapimpi’s, though it could be argued that a penalty try should have been awarded when Owen Watkin deliberately played Elton Jantjies’ chip out of play to deny Jesse Kriel a chance to score.

As if all those errors weren’t enough, Watkin also knocked on with an overlap of approximately 7v3 following a great break by Ross Moriarty. Inexcusable play for a match at this level. And what could make the poor handling even worse? God awful scrummaging! It felt like the scrums went on forever as they were being reset so often. If there is anything that will stop more people becoming fans it is endless scrums.

From a wonderful game like Ireland’s win against the All Blacks in Chicago to a pile of rubbish like this… On behalf of the rugby community, I apologise to every American watching and hope you will give the sport another chance.

Though saying that, was anyone watching? The stadium didn’t even reach half capacity. Despite rugby growing in the USA due to the continued success of the men’s 15s and 7s teams and the introduction of Major League Rugby, people did not seem interested in this game! Is it any real surprise though? The springboks have been poor under Allister Coetzee and memories of their poor results and performances will not just go away now Rassie Erasmus is in charge. Put them against a Wales team that has very rarely been called exciting in recent years and you can’t help but feel sorry for the American fans at the drop in quality from previous matches. If we want to bring in new fans, we should be giving them a match involving the Barbarians, that can’t help to build excitement whilst also introducing new fans to rugby’s values.walsa

The broadcast

Wales’ Summer Tests are being broadcast on Channel 4, who will also be showing a match in each round of the upcoming season’s Champions Cup. On this showing, I’m not looking forward to it. While they got a number of quality pundits (Shane Williams, Ugo Monye and Thinus Delport) and experienced commentators in Eddie Butler and Martyn Williams, the whole thing was an absolute shambles!

The broadcast was apparently relying on pictures from an American feed and it was as if the people in charge had never seen a game of rugby before. The first half especially was full of poor camera angles and closeups that didn’t even show the ball, it was almost impossible at some moments to know what was going on. And those were the moments when the feed actually worked, as we were left without pictures on at least 2 occasions, not good enough for an international match. It wasn’t even just technical difficulties, with some of the commentary being of questionable quality and I must admit I still don’t understand why Eddie Butler felt the need to comment on the passing of Elton Jantjies’ father after complications following a bee sting, not helped by the manner of the comment before moving on to another subject making it sound as if it was humorous… safe to say I wasn’t laughing.

And with all of this going on, how did Channel 4 react on social media? By posting god awful tweets that someone clearly thought were funny. They weren’t and this was just made even worse by the poor broadcast. I was so excited to hear that we would be getting more rugby on free to air TV, but if they don’t improve their quality quickly, Channel 4 won’t be getting many viewers on a regular basis.

Laying down a marker

With the World Cup just over a year away, players are running out of chances to earn a spot in the tournament squad. Every international match is a huge opportunity but there were only a few people who really put their hands up.

André Esterhuizen made some good strong runs from inside centre and was arguably the best player for South Africa on the night. With Ben Te’o out of the June Tests, England’s midfield will be rather lightweight and I would not be surprised to see him given a chance to stake a more permanent claim in that match.

wals2For Wales, co-captain Ellis Jenkins was in my opinion the best player on the pitch, making a number of important turnovers that either stopped South African chances or created chances for Wales. Though he did have a couple of handling errors he also had a decent game in attack. He has a lot of competition at flanker but if he continues to play like this it will take a brave man to drop him form the starting XV. Scrum half Tomos Williams showed some good flashes around the fringes on his debut and had good strength to break through 2 attempted tackles for his try. However, there were times when his control of the game was lacking, he needs to work on that going forward at international level if he wants to become a regular in the 23 now that Rhys Webb is out of contention. Gareth Anscombe did enough for me to keep the 10 shirt for the next match, but there is room for improvement. He did a great job to draw in Elton Jantjies off a lineout and exploit the space with a flat pass to put Ross Moriarty through a gap, and his counterattack off a poor clearance set Wales up for Williams’ try, however his game was not consistent enough against a poor South African team and he had a mixed day with the boot, though a couple of his misses were very close and from out wide. If Gatland does want to create a more attacking gameplan, he needs to stick with Anscombe and Rhys Patchell rather than go back to Dan Biggar.

In international rugby, you’re not going to win regularly without a reliable fly half. Elton Jantjies is not that. The Lions 10 has never impressed me when I have seen him play, either for the Lions or the national team and I was always impressed by the way the Lions were able to have such success in recent years of Super Rugby despite him. In this match he was anything but reliable, with a couple of good moments being generally outweighed by a lack of control of his back line. Robert du Preez started well after replacing him by nailing his first kick at goal but he did not see out the game well with his attempted clearances being charged down twice within less than a minute to gift Wales the winner. I will not judge du Preez on one game (with the small dead ball areas I would have put the onus on the scrum half to make the clearance at the end) but he will need someone to support him to make sure his confidence does not drop from this. Last season, it appeared Curwin Bosch could be set to be the next big thing at 10 for the Boks, but this season he has been moved to 15 for the Sharks and has not looked as good there. While the Springboks have a history of grooming future fly halves in the fullback position, his play was not good enough in this match with poor kicking and limited attacking impact, so I fully expect Willie le Roux to be back in the 15 shirt against England. If South Africa are to improve, they need to find the answer at 10 quickly.

May 2018 Rugby Ramble

May 2018 Rugby Ramble

Legend of the game

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

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

Congratulations Nolli and thank you for everything!


Qualification nightmare

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

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

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

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


Get low

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

WORLD RUGBY U20 TROPHY

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

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

WORLD RUGBY U20 CHAMPIONSHIP

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

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

A tackler will be deemed to be upright when:

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

Sanctions:

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

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

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

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

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


WRUWelsh woes

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

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

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

South Africa Tour: The England Squad

South Africa Tour: The England Squad

This morning, Eddie Jones named his 34-man squad to tour South Africa this summer. Coming off 3 consecutive losses in a disappointing 6 Nations campaign, Jones has decided to include a number of regulars despite having played long seasons (some have barely had a break since the start of last season due to the Lions Tour), but he has also rested a number of players.

As per every Eddie Jones squad, there were a few surprises, including a heavily publicised England recall (more on that shortly) and 8 uncapped players as the England boss continues to look at his options less than 500 days before the World Cup. In this article I will be looking at the players selected and giving my thoughts on the Australian’s decisions. There was also a 31-man training squad announced for training in Brighton ahead of the Barbarians match. As this squad will contain replacements for the England players still involved in the Premiership playoffs, I will not discuss it too much, but there may be some moments I refer to it to get a better idea of Eddie’s mind.

So without further ado, let’s look at the squad…

Front Row: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Jamie George, Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola, Harry Williams

A bit of a mixed bag here for me. No real surprises in the selections other than some of the players who weren’t given a rest. Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola are both well established in the England squad, so given they both featured for the Lions I thought that they would be rested to give Beno Obano and Alex Hepburn (who have both been in fine form of late) a chance along with Ellis Genge to break the established one-two punch at loosehead.

Jamie George is another I thought may have been rested, but with Dylan Hartley missing, this is his chance to prove he deserves the number 2 shirt, while Luke Cowan-Dickie will be dangerous in the loose.

At tighthead, Dan Cole is getting a ell-earned rest and Kyle Sinckler will finally have the chance to wrest the number 3 shirt from his grasp as he did on the Lions Tour. There may not be the same depth at 3 as there is at 1 but Harry Williams has impressed for Exeter in recent seasons and is rightfully the next in line for England.

Back Five: Tom Curry, Ben Earl, Jonny Hill, Nick Isiekwe, Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw, Brad Shields, Sam Simmonds, Billy Vunipola, Jack Willis, Mark Wilson

While it’s great to see Billy Vunipola named in the squad after such a long absence, after his recent injury history I would have quite liked to see him given the summer off just to rest and fully recover, similar to Sam Underhill. Chris Robshaw is another I was surprised to see included as everybody knows what he can and can’t do, so I felt this was the perfect time to rest him.

Brad Shields is a highly controversial call here but I have no problem for it. He has been a big part of a successful Hurricanes back row and has captained the side, so brings a lot of experience to the team. A lot of people feel that he has been fast-tracked in but I think he has earned hist shot with his performances in Super Rugby, while his move to Wasps next summer makes him eligible in the same way Piers Francis’ move to Northampton allowed him to be selected last year (yet I don’t remember the arguments against him being selected despite a lot less top-level experience).

Curry, Earl, Willis and Wilson have all had wonderful seasons but I cannot understand how Zach Mercer has dropped out of the squad. Simmonds was a great option at number 8 but I still see his international future on the flank, whereas Mercer’s natural ability gives England a completely different option at the position to Vunipola. More than that, the omission of Don Armand despite being one of the best players in the Premiership this year baffles me. He brings a strength that was missing in Vunipola’s abscence and has been a vital piece in Exeter’s run to the playoffs.

Moving into the second row and I am a bit surprised at the inclusion of Launchbury and Itoje, though with Kruis, Lawes and Ewels unavailable I can understand the need to get some experience in there. Isiekwe could potentially be the next big thing in the second row, but the selection of Jonny Hill admittedly surprises me. He may have won the most lineouts in the Premiership, but Dave Attwood has been in such good form while on loan at Toulon and has previous international experience, so I thought this may be a chance for him to break back into the squad.

Inside Backs: Danny Cipriani, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Alex Lozowski, Cameron Redpath, Dan Robson, Henry Slade, Ben Spencer, Ben Te’o, Ben Youngs

And now we come to the biggest shock of the entire squad: Eddie’s taking 3 scrum halves! OK, I kid, that’s not the biggest shock, but it is a big change for Eddie Jones and one I’m not sure I fully understand. It’s great to see Robson and Spencer in there finally, but the selection of Ben Youngs makes me worry that they will be reduced to a handful of minutes each. Youngs is clearly the starting 9 for the World Cup as it stands, so why risk him picking up another injury and instead give Robson and Spencer all the minutes so that they can get used to the international game. They both have the ability to start for England in Japan so should be given every chance possible to compete with the established options of Youngs and Care.

I was shocked to see Farrell named in the squad as he was another I was sure would be given a well-earned summer off. However in my eyes he is the clear successor to Dylan Hartley as captain so I think Eddie maybe taking him to prove himself in the leadership role in case he does decide to move on from Hartley come the World Cup. The decision to take 3 other fly halves (Cipriani, Redpath and Ford) suggests to me that Farrell will again be used as a centre rather than at 10.

Cipriani’s return to the England squad is understandably getting the headlines. He is an incredible player especially in attack, but as it stands his future is unknown as he is leaving Wasps but his next club has not yet been announced. If he decides to move to France now, this will have been a wasted opportunity to give a younger player some experience. What interests me a lot is Eddie Jones commenting about him as a 10 or a 15. With the aforementioned other 3 fly halves and Alex Lozowski and Henry Slade both experienced at 10, it would seem very odd to select Cipriani as a 15 considering Alex Goode has had another stunning season for Saracens, making a record 1,808m over the gainline in the Premiership this season (according to Opta stats).

Cameron Redpath’s inclusion is an odd one for me. I would have personally selected Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds over Redpath, and I can’t help feel that Redpath is being capped so quickly to capture him before Scotland can (which then surprises me as to why Ben Vellacott only made the training squad). I assume that Smith’s omission means that he will be allowed to take part in the U20s World Championship this summer, which is a highly exciting prospect and may work out better for hi in the long term.

With Slade, Lozowski and Te’o joining Farrell in the centre, I can’t help but feeling there are too many centre/fly half hybrids. Slade has looked fantastic for Exeter at 13, but has not yet lived up to the expectations when wearing the rose, while Lozowski is clearly a good player but I do not see what he brings to the squad different to the other hybrids. Ben Te’o clearly gives a more physical option at either 12 or 13, and I feel that another specialised centre should have been included at the expense of Lozowski/Farrell/Redpath. How Henry Trinder has not been included in either the touring squad or the training squad is beyond me as he appears to have put his injury issues largely behind him while also being one of the form 13s in the Premiership. With Eddie Jones bringing in Scott Wisemantel as attacking coach for the tour, we will hopefully see more from the midfield in South Africa, but I still worry about this area of the pitch as we near the World Cup.

Full Backs: Mike Brown, Elliot Daly, Nathan Earle, Jonny May, Denny Solomona

Why is Mike Brown in this squad? Nothing against him, but we already clearly know what he can do in this squad. I imagine were Anthony Watson avaialable, Brown would have been given the summer off. Elliot Daly has been one of the form wingers in recent internationals, so unless he is to be played as a fullback (unlikely given Brown’s inclusion and Jones’ mention of Cipriani as a 15) I do not see the point of taking him following his exertions on the Lions Tour. This would have been the perfect time to bring Alex Goode back into the fold, or even to test Jason Woodward, who is clearly in Eddie Jones’ thinking judging by his place in the training squad, but apparently experience and reputation once again counts for more than form.

On the wings it will be interesting to see Jones’ selections on the wing for the First Test. May and Earle have bags of pace, as does Daly, whereas Solomona is adept at finding the try line. If I was picking the starting lineup for the First Test, I would be going for May and Solomona on the wings, with Daly at 15, so I can pretty much guarantee Eddie Jones will select something completely different!

 

What are your thoughts on Eddie’s selections? Is there anyone missing you would have selected? How do you see this squad faring in South Africa? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Lions 2017: The Review

The Lions tour of 2017 is now over. An enthralling trip to New Zealand ended with the Lions winning 5 games, losing 3 and drawing 2, including the deciding third Test to end the Test series in a 1-1 tie.

Right from the moment the initial touring party was named, there have been controversies all the way through to the final minutes of the last Test. There were also a number of big individual performances, some from players we’d expect but many from players who many fans likely didn’t expect to have a big part on the tour, especially in the Tests.

As we begin to look ahead to the 2021 tour of New Zealand, I felt it right to say goodbye to the tour with a look back at what has happened this summer and a couple of suggestions as to what I feel should happen in future tours.

My individual match write-ups:

  1. Win v New Zealand Provincial Barbarians 7-13
  2. Loss v Blues 22-16
  3. Win v Crusaders 3-12
  4. Loss v Highlanders 23-22
  5. Win v Maori All Blacks 10-32
  6. Win v Chiefs 6-34
  7. Loss v New Zealand 30-15
  8. Draw v Hurricanes 31-31
  9. Win v New Zealand 21-24
  10. Draw v New Zealand 15-15

The coaches

While the Lions forwards did not always have their own way in the Tests, on the whole they did seem to have an advantage in the pack. I feel that both Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree both come away from this tour looking good, especially Borthwick. Borthwick is still relatively new to coaching a top-tier nation, having joined England alongside Eddie Jones in late 2015, so if he continues to improve I think he has a great chance of being involved with the 2021 tour.

Though a couple of the kickers struggled with the Adidas ball early in the tour, Owen Farrell really seemed to improve his success percentages as the tour reached the crucial last couple of Tests, which eventually proved the difference in the second and third Tests. To my memory, Leigh Halfpenny was the only Lion not to miss a kick at goal during this tour and Dan Biggar also had one of the better kicking percentages, so I feel this shows the importance Neil Jenkins had on this tour. Will he make the trip to South Africa in 4 years? It will probably depend in part as to which kickers are in the squad but he’s certainly got the experience.

Of all the Lions coaches, I feel that Andy Farrell comes out looking best. There were a number of times when the Lions defence held impressive attacking lineups to a low number of points. In the Tests, especially the third Test, Farrell made good use of the blitz defence to minimise the effect of the crash ball on the Sexton/Farrell channel and also put the All Blacks under heavy pressure, leading to a number of uncharacteristic mistakes. If the defence had not been so impressive, the All Blacks could have legitimately finished with a 3-0 whitewash. I think a lot of teams will have been taking note of Farrell’s defensive tactics ready for when they play the All Blacks. Much like Borthwick, if he can continue to impress over the next few years I expect to see him involved in 4 years.

Though the Lions did start to score a few more tries as the tour wore on, I feel that the attack was on the whole a real disappointment. In many of the matches, the Lions left too many chances on the field, and I cannot even remember them creating anything resembling a try-scoring opportunity in the last Test. This reflects badly on Rob Howley, who also didn’t impress in charge of Wales for the 6 Nations this year.

Warren Gatland may have orchestrated an unlikely series draw in New Zealand to go with his 2-1 victory in Australia 4 years ago, but I feel there were too many controversies relating to his decisions on this Tour. I am not a big fan of Gatland, as I feel his Warrenball tactics are outdated yet he has not made much effort to evolve them. When you consider the Lions needed a late – and somewhat controversial – penalty to beat an All Blacks side that spent over half the game a man down in the second Test, you could say that Gatland is extremely lucky to not be the only Kiwi disappointed at a New Zealand series victory. There were also a number of selection controversies that were surely heightened by his involvement with the Welsh national team, as a number of times the Welsh players appeared to be preferred both in the 41-man touring party and in the 23-man squads if there was a 50/50 decision to make. Even worse was his decision to call up 6 nearby players partway through the tour – including preferring a couple of Welsh players who could not even be considered squad regulars for Wales ahead of internationals who impressed in the 6 Nations and were considered extremely lucky not to make the initial 41 – only to then make an abrupt U-turn after seeing the public reaction and decide not to play the ‘Geographic 6’ unless there was no other choice. Personally I would not like to see Gatland or Howley involved with the 2021 tour, and also feel Wales will benefit from replacing both coaches at the end of their current contracts.

While I have no problem with the assistant coaches coming from the Home Nations national teams, as this will help the chemistry of the squad, I personally feel that the Head Coach at least should be a neutral as opposed to one of the Home Nations coaches. My preference would be to have a British/Irish head coach, though I appreciate there may not always be someone with enough experience for this role. Looking ahead to 2021, Eddie Jones has already suggested that he will leave his position with England after the 2019 World Cup, so I can see the Lions looking to bring him in to lead the tour of South Africa, but I will also be interested to see the development of international coaches like Gregor Townsend and Conor O’Shea over the next few years.

The schedule

With the increasing focus on player welfare in an already long season, it is always going to be difficult to get the scheduling right for a Lions Tour. Without even counting clubs releasing players in the buildup to their European Cup finals for the Messy Monday meeting of the Lions squad, there were some clear problems with the scheduling of this tour.

The performance against the provincial Barbarians was so poor, jet lag was commonly used as an excuse, due to the Lions having only arrived in New Zealand mere days earlier. Considering the players involved in their domestic league finals were never going to be involved in the first game – in fact Gatland tried to not even use players who had been involved in the semi-finals either – it would have made more sense to me for the majority of the squad to fly out a week earlier, with any remaining players making the trip out once their club commitments were over.

The suggestions are that the South Africa tour will contain fewer games, and while I initially thought these games were required to help find the right 23 for the Tests, I wonder if less games but more consistently challenging could be better. I feel the Lions could also be used as a way to give extra experience to lower-tier nations. For 2021, I would love to see a game against the Barbarians, 1 or 2 against Namibia and a couple of games against South Africa A and/or a ‘Super Rugby All-stars’ made up of the best available players from the South African Super Rugby franchises.

There has also been talk of including a test against Argentina as a warm-up game. While I agree they deserve a chance to play the Lions and appreciate there probably isn’t enough of an infrastructure yet to host an entire Lions tour, I would not be against a tour of the Americas, with the main test series being against the Pumas but also games against nations from the Americas Rugby Championship (USA, Canada, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile) as this would be good international experience for teams not yet in the top-tier and would also be good to improve the hype and visibility of rugby in these countries.

Player of the Tour

He may not have featured much outside of the Tests but Jonathan Davies gets my vote. In the 6 Nations I was not at all impressed and felt that the injury to Huw Jones and poor performances of Jonathan Joseph were the only factors putting him in contention of a place in the squad. However playing for Scarlets in the playoffs of the Pro12 he looked absolutely fantastic.

Not used until the third game against the Crusaders, a head injury saw him come off in the first half but in that time he had already done enough to show that he was the best option at 13 for the Tests and had worked well with Ben Te’o. During the Tests he was often heavily involved in the Lions’ best attacking play, but he was also an important part of the defence and caused the New Zealand backs no end of trouble in the third Test. I bet Jordie Barrett is still seeing him in his nightmares!

Team of the Tests

I am basing this purely on the 3 Test matches, so though Reiko Ioane was impressive in the first Test and for the Blues, he misses out here due to his quiet second Test and his non-involvement in the tour finale.

  1. Joe Moody
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Brodie Retallick
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Kieran Read
  9. Aaron Smith
  10. Beauden Barrett
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Owen Farrell
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Israel Dagg
  15. Liam Williams

 

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

Lions 2017: The Final 23

The last year of rugby culminates in this weekend’s big match: the series-deciding (and series-defining) third Test between the British and Irish Lions and the New Zealand All Blacks.

After a demoralising 30-15 loss in the first Test, the Lions took advantage of Sonny Bill Williams’ first half red card to draw the series level with a 24-21 victory. Williams’ 4-week ban means that Steve Hansen will be forced into making a change at 12 – possibly a first start for Ngani Laumape of the Hurricanes – after having already lost Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty to injury in the first Test. Waisake Naholo also failed a HIA in the second Test but I have not heard anything to suggest that he will be ruled out of the final Test. The Lions have been fairly lucky with injuries on this tour, however they have lost Stuart Hogg, Ross Moriarty, Robbie Henshaw and George North as the weeks have passed. Jared Payne has also been struggling throughout the tour, first with calf injuries and then in recent weeks with headaches. They did receive a boost, though, with the news that Sean O’Brien will receive no punishment for his part in Naholo’s head injury.

On my recent write-ups of the Lions games, I have tried to predict the 23 man squad for the next Test. As this will be the last time I do so for this tour, I decided to do something a little different. As well as predicting Gatland’s selections, I will also be showing the 23 I would pick if I was in his position. Obviously many of the positions will be the same, but there will also be some differences that could drastically affect the way the Lions play.

My Lions 23:

  1. Jack McGrath
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Iain Henderson
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Mako Vunipola
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. Peter O’Mahony
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Jack Nowell

My predicted Lions 23:

  1. Jack McGrath
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Alun Wyn Jones
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Johnny Sexton
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Owen Farrell
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Mako Vunipola
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. Iain Henderson
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Ben Te’o
  23. Jack Nowell

 

In both these squads, Mako Vunipola drops to the bench in favour of Jack McGrath. The coaches have already mentioned the importance of discipline – had Beauden Barrett been more accurate with his goal kicking, this weekend’s game would be a dead rubber – and Vunipola gave away almost a third of the Lions penalties, including a stupid late hit on Barrett and the illegal clean out that earned him a yellow card. His talent and his ability in the loose will keep him in the squad, but I see McGrath being given the chance to get at the All Blacks scrum from the start.

In the second row, Maro Itoje has to start, but there is a tough fight for the number 5 shirt. Alun Wyn Jones had a much better second Test and brings a lot of experience to the pack – which I think will give him the start in Gatland’s squad – but I worry that he could struggle if the game becomes as open as the first Test. Courtney Lawes has played well when given the chance but I feel that he will be kept as reinforcements from the bench. His yellow card aside, Iain Henderson was one of the best performers against the Hurricanes and brings a great combination of strength and dynamism tot he side. In my 23, I have paired the Ulsterman with Itoje, with Courtney Lawes ready to come on from the bench. Gatland has surprised us with at least 1 selection for each Test (Williams at 15 for the first, Farrell at 12 for the second) and I feel that the selection of Henderson on the bench alongside Courtney Lawes will be his surprise this time. His selection of Stander over O’Mahony last week suggests that the captain of the first Test has fallen down the pecking order, despite Stander having not had the best of tours. Itoje, Lawes and Henderson all have experience of playing 6 at international level so I think Gatland may pick two of them on the bench to give him more options inboth the second row and back row.

In the backs, I expect Gatland to stick with the Sexton/Farrell axis that won at the weekend, however I feel that this leaves the Lions too lightweight in the centre with players like Jerome Kaino, Naholo, Laumape and Ardie Savea likely to attack the 10/12 channel on a regular basis. Before going off in the second Test, Kaino had already successfully ran over the top of Farrell to make extra metres and as Laumape grew into the game, he and Savea were having some success making metres through the centre of the Lions defence. I therefore decided to pick Te’o at 12 to combat the All Blacks’ physicality, as he did when he kept Sonny Bill Williams marshalled in the first Test. Having a runner as strong as him in the back line also gives the Lions extra options in attack.

 

Regardless of the 23 men that Warren Gatland picks, you can be sure that they will be fired up and looking to do everything they can to win the series 2-1. Good luck to them!

 

What do you think of the squads? How do you feel each would do in the third Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge