Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 1

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 1

The 7th edition of the annual Rugby Championship got underway this weekend and I doubt it will shock anyone to see New Zealand take an early lead in the tournament. The All Blacks may not be at their strongest but this is still a team that looks likely to finish the tournament undefeated. They played against an Australian team who handed debuts off the bench to Jermaine Astley and Jack Maddocks, while also welcoming back Premiership starts Tatafu Polota-Nau and Matt Toomua. Following a recent change in selection criteria, Saracens’ Juan Figallo was also back in action, playing for an Argentinian team entering a new era with Mario Ledesma at the helm, while Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux also continued their run in the South Africa team that started against England, joined once again by Bath’s Francois Louw.

 


Australia 13-38 New Zealand

Are Australia relying too much on the same players? I was thinking during the match that Bernard Foley has become an ever-present in this team recently and, with Quade Cooper out of the picture, I was struggling to pick who would be second choice behind him. Israel Folau is another player who is an ever-present when fit and I can’t help but wonder if the lack of variation in the playing squad could come back to haunt them come the World Cup, especially when you see New Zealand spreading appearances around a selection of players. It appears that my thoughts were timely as Folau limped off injured and it has since been announced that he will be missing he reverse at Eden Park.

So what are the options at 10 and 15? Well I think the most obvious options at 10 were the guys playing just outside Foley at the weekend: Kurtley Beale and Reece Hodge. Beale has the all-round skill-set to play at 10 but I think he thrives a bit further out at international level. Reece Hodge’s long-range kicking will always keep him in or around this starting line-up due to Foley’s limited range. With his versatility, he has become the Adam Ashley-Cooper of the team, playing wherever he is needed, but I think he and the Wallabies could benefit from him moving to the fly half position, where he has been playing regularly for Melbourne Rebels. He is strong enough to defend the 10 channel so would not have to be hidden on the wing in defence like Foley was on Saturday, while there would not be much of a drop in kicking percentages as he is solid off the tee with a larger range. Moving him to 10 would also allow Beale/Toomua to be partnered in midfield by Samu Kerevi/Tevita Kuridrani to give the balance of playmaking and strong running, while also allowing Cheika to continue picking specialist players in the back 3. At 15, the obvious choice would be Dane Haylett-Petty, who has deputised there during Folau’s previous absences, but Jack Maddocks looked good on his debut and Beale could again be a danger picking his lines from further back. There are plenty of options available and while I appreciate nobody wants to lose a Bledisloe Cup match, there are only a handful of matches remaining before the World Cup. Previous World Cups have seen teams suffer multiple injuries all at the same position – think back to Stephen Donald’s appearance on the bench in the 2011 final. I’m sure Michael Cheika would rather be able to turn to seasoned veterans than a bunch of rookies.

As much as I expect New Zealand to remain unbeaten, they looked anything but unbeatable at the weekend. Their lineout was turned over far too often and the number of handling errors was unbelievable. And yet they still won comfortably, scoring 6 tries in the process. The reason: they were clinical when the chances appeared. Their opener came from a simple missed tackle on Ben Smith, the next a turnover by Waisake Naholo that was spread to the far wing where there was space, the third a knock on by Dane Haylett-Petty that Beauden Barrett fly hacked on and controlled over the line. Even the next try, New Zealand took advantage of the space caused by Folau leaving the pitch injured while play was still going. Though they may not be as consistently great in attack as they were a few years back, they are solid in defence even when Ryan Crotty is unavailable and have the ability to cut apart a team when given the opportunity. This team look like they could be beaten, but whoever beats them will need to be switched on for every second of the 80 minutes and minimise the errors.


South Africa 34-21 Argentina

South Africa are back on the up! After a torrid couple of years under Allister Coetzee, Rassie Erasmus appears to be getting the team back on track just in time for the World Cup. England and Argentina, plus and understrength Wales, may not have been the sternest of tests, but the signs are good so far. It does not surprise me either that part of this turnaround includes starring roles from Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux, both of whom have been revitalised playing in England. De Klerk has impressed me so much in recent internationals with his quick ball, eye for a gap (see his snipe to the line for South Africa’s last try) and his attacking box kicks that led to Aphiwe Dyantyi’s second try. Le Roux takes so much pressure off the fly half by becoming a second playmaker, he is dangerous collecting the high ball (though he failed to collect the bomb that led to Nicolas Sanchez’s try), targets the 13 channel and has a great range of passing and kicking – just look at his inch-perfect crosskick for Dyantyi’s opener. Similar to Australia though, they need to find some depth at key positions like fly half. Elton Jantjies has never convinced me when given the chance and I don’t feel he can be a long-term option. As such, it was good to see Damian Willemse come on for his debut at 10 with Pollard moved to 12 in order to support him. Japan 2019 may be a bit too soon for him to take the reins, but if he continues to get gametime in the competition then he could have a big impact on the biggest stage.

Though they may have conceded 6 tries, this performance from the Pumas was a far cry from the embarrassment of the Summer Tests. Despite being mainly the same players, this squad looked much more switched on and energised under Ledesma than in the final days of Daniel Hourcade’s reign. Nicolas Sanchez looked miles better than in the summer and the team looked dangerous after South Africa took an early lead. There is still a long way to go, as they were often caught out wide by the Springboks, but early signs are good for a team that appear close to welcoming back Europe-based stars like Facundo Isa and Juan Imhoff.


A Good Move?

A Good Move?

On Friday, it was announced that Utah Warriors captain Paul Lasike would be joining Harlequins for the upcoming season. A former NFL player with the Arizona Cardinals and Chicago Bears, Lasika is the newest star of USA rugby and has so far earned 6 caps during the Eagles unbeaten run this year. However, being so new to the sport and with the MLR having recently set up, is this the right move for him?

First off, I do not doubt that he has the ability. He clearly has the physical aspect from playing fullback in the NFL (a very different position to the rugby variant of the position) and when I have watched him play for the USA he has looked impressive. However, so far he has not had many tests against top quality opposition in the same way that he will playing in the Premiership and in Europe. It is a big step up and for every Samu Manoa and Chris Wyles who go on to forge strong careers in the Premiership, there will also be other players who are unable to make the cut. Danny Barrett and Seamus Kelly are both talented players, yet were unable to make the Gloucester squad following a 1-month trial at the start of the 2014/15 season. And it’s not as if Quins are light in the midfield, with Francis Saili, Ben Tapuai and Joe Marchant already competing with him and James Lang – now a Scottish international – also able to feature at centre. That’s a lot of quality competition for regular minutes.

Playing in the Premiership may also limit his availability for the national team. The Eagles will no always field their big stars based in Europe due to the timing of their matches falling outside the usual international windows. With just over a year until the World Cup, Lasike can surely not be guaranteed of a spot in the national team and if other players come in and impress, he could be at risk of missing out.

As for the MLR, with the league being so new, they will not want to lose any of their big stars as their top players – especially USA internationals – as they will be a huge draw when trying to entice fans in. Lasike was not only Utah’s captain, but as a USA international and former NFL player he was instantly marketable for the franchise. As great as it will be to see the top USA players getting offers from more prestigious leagues, I would hate it if the MLR began to struggle as a result.

That said, even if Lasike only plays a limited number of minutes this season and chooses to return to the MLR in time for next season, the chance to train regularly alongside experienced internationals like Mike Brown, Tim Visser, James Horwill and Chris Robshaw could be of great benefit to Lasike moving forwards in his career. There are some top quality coaches at the Stoop and if Lasike takes the chances available to learn from them, it could develop him so much as a player and in turn help him to develop his fellow Americans when training with the national team or if he does return to the MLR.

Is this the right move for him? It may limit him in the short-term, but I would say that centre is not one of the Eagles’ deepest positions currently, which will probably help his chances of World Cup selection even if the move to London doesn’t work out. But in the long-term, this could be just the move that he needs to take his game to the next level and thrive on the biggest stages. As a fan of USA rugby, I hope this works out for him and look forward to seeing him in the Premiership this season.

July 2018: A Rugby Ramble

July 2018: A Rugby Ramble

Change coming in Wales

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

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

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


An American Tale

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

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

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

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


A step too far

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

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

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

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

7 to Watch in Premiership Rugby 2018/19

7 to Watch in Premiership Rugby 2018/19

The weeks since the Summer Tours finished may have dragged but get ready to celebrate rugby fans – the Premiership’s return is just weeks away! With the season-opener between Bristol and Bath on 31st August, there is just over a month until the new season starts, but before that we have the fun of the Premiership 7s at Franklins Gardens on Friday and Saturdaythough I still feel that the old format for the 7s was better.

As I have the last couple of years, I’ve taken a look at the new signings for each team in order to select 7 players to watch. As previously, I have continued to only pick 1 player from each club, otherwise Gloucester and Bristol could have taken the majority of these positions.

If you want a reminder of my selections for previous seasons, have a look here:

Charles Piutau – Bristol Bears

Speaking of Bristol, the list starts with former All Black Piutau. The fact that he was unable to make the All Blacks squad on a regular basis shows just how strong the All Blacks are as the former 7s star has been wonderful for Wasps and Ulster over recent seasons. Bristol will be hoping to have a better run in the league than last time they were promoted and have bought in a number of talented individuals who could have made this list like John Afoa and Harry Randall, they need to hope that the new players can gel quickly, but with this guy in the back 3, they will always be a danger with ball in hand.

Alex Cuthbert – Exeter Chiefs

Exeter have not had much of a turnover in players this season and that consistency will likely help them in their quest to win the Premiership title back. One player they have brought in though is Cardiff Blues’ Alex Cuthbert. With only 47 Wales caps to his name, Cuthbert has effectively ruled himself out of selection for the national team so will be focussed on making this move a success. Over recent years, the Chiefs have done a great job of making unwanted wingers like James Short and Olly Woodburn into try-scoring machines. Now with a former Lion available, who was at his best during the peak of the Warrenball era, they could have a deadly finisher out wide to push for the record of most tries in a season.

Danny Cipriani – Gloucester Rugby

I wanted so much to include Matt Banahan or Jaco Kriel on this list, but if I was being honest there was only going to be one Gloucester player getting the attention here: Cipriani. Since returning to England, Cips has improved almost every season at Sale and Wasps and even worked his way back into the England fold, starting the 3rd Test this summer and setting up Jonny May for the match-winning try. Gloucester appear to be a team on the up under Johan Ackermann and I’m expecting Cipriani to thrive behind a pack that should be dominant against many teams. On top of that, he has a number of talented backs outside him, the perfect recipe for him to be at his best. Gloucester certainly feel confident judging by the fact they let Billy Burns move to Ulster, could Cipriani be the player to fire Gloucester back into the playoffs? I have my fingers crossed!

David Denton – Leicester Tigers

Tigers may again look a bit threadbare in the back line if Manu Tuilagi can’t stay fit, but Denton is a signing in line with the usual Tigers ethos of creating a strong pack to bully opposition. Sione Kalamafoni was one of the stars for Leicester last season with his tackling and carrying and Denton will do more of the same. A physically strong player, the back row will look to give the Tigers a physical edge and will probably be relied on in the loose even more now that Ellis Genge has been ruled out for the foreseeable future, but judging by recent appearances for Worcester and Scotland, he appears to be getting back to his best.

Dan Biggar – Northampton Saints

Saints really struggled last season and I think a big part of that was a lack of control at fly half. Piers Francis missed time through injury leaving Harry Mallinder and James Grayson – both relatively experienced at this level – to steer the ship. Bringing in Biggar could be a huge move for the club. He may not be the flashiest of fly halves on this list, but he is a supremely talented game manager and an accurate goal-kicker, which will be vital in lose games. With the recent form of his Welsh rivals Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe, the British and Irish Lion will need to be on top form if he wants to add to his 62 Wales caps and make it to the World Cup. Personally, I’m just hoping we less more of the Biggarena and less of the throwing his hands up appealing every decision this season.

Chris Ashton – Sale Sharks

Of course Ashton was going to make the list, how could I not include him?! The former Northampton & Saracens winger has returned from a year at Toulon citing family reasons. Despite only being there a year, he enhanced his reputation by breaking the single-season try record in the Top 14, while spending much of his time at fullback rather than his customary wing position. He then backed those exploits up with a hat-trick against England for the Barbarians. There are very few players who run better support lines than Ashton and I expect him to thrive in a Sale back line that has really improved over the last couple of seasons. If he can carry on his form from Toulon, it will be impossible for Eddie Jones to ignore him.

Alex Lewington – Saracens

Sarries may have lost Nathan Earle and Chris Wyles but they have brought in more than capable replacements in David Strettle and Alex Lewington. Such is Lewington’s quality that I have picked him over the man many consider unlucky to have not earned more England caps. Despite being in an often-struggling London Irish team, Lewington has repeatedly shone in the Premiership for the Exiles and I was honestly surprised that he remained with them the last time they went down. Now at 26 and with a lot of young competition at wing for spaces in the national team, Lewington has got the move that could take him to the next level. We have seen Ashton, Maitland, Wyles, Strettle and many others shine on the wing with the quality they get from their teammates, I expect Lewington to be no different, but he will have a fight on his hand to hold down a place against Strettle, Maitland and Williams.

Who are your ones to watch in the league this season? Let me know in the contents. Let the countdown to the new season commence!

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.

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.

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.