Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

The 2017/18 rugby season is coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been decided and there is only 1 more Champions Cup space still to be decided for next season. Thoughts now turn back to the leagues as the Pro14 and Premiership both had their semi-finals this weekend ahead of Saturday’s finals. Yesterday, I took a look at the Pro14, now here are my thoughts on the Premiership games.

Saracens and Wasps were breaking records left right a centre in a 55-7 thriller. Owen Farrell’s set a record for points scored in a semi-final (becoming the first player to break 100 points in Premiership semis), Chris Wyles scored his fifth semi-final try in 8 years in his final season before retiring and the combined 11 tries and 90 points were both records. In the other semi, defending Champions Exeter dominated Newcastle on their way to a 36-5 victory that sees them reach their third consecutive Premiership final.

semirefsNow you may remember I had a little rant yesterday about the performance of John Lacey and his officials. I generally feel that the quality of refereeing in the Premiership is better than the Pro14, however this weekend I was proved wrong. At Allianz Park, JP Doyle and TMO Graham Hughes both went temporarily blind watching the replays and disallowing as they agreed Elliot Daly had grounded the ball against the base of the corner flag, despite the replays clearly showing that the other end of the ball was clearly grounded on the line before the ball rolled against the flag. There were also a couple of tries (for both sides) that JP Doyle chose to award without checking with Doyle despite some questionable passes and some that were definitely forward. For one of the best leagues in the Northern Hemisphere, it”s just not good enough. I really hope the quality of officiating is better at Twickenham on Saturday (if it’s Wayne Barnes refereeing the final then I’m confident it will be).

Saracens 57 – 33 Wasps

When it comes to knockout rugby, it’s so hard to bet against Sarries. They may not have had the best of seasons by their standards, but they turned it on against Wasps to get the win. Owen Farrell has developed over the last few years from a good kicking and defensive 10 to a solid all-rounder who is now able to cause problems for the defence by taking the ball to the line and exploiting any gaps, as he did for Alex Lozowski’s opener. He was fantastic in his Man of the Match performance, nailing evry kick off the tee to finish with 27 points (a record for a Premiership semi-final) almost had a try too, only to be held up over the line by Jimmy Gopperth. When you have such a metronomic kicker, having a defence as smothering as the Wolfpack almost makes playing rugby easy. What will peak Exeter’s interest though will be the way Wasps had some luck outside, with Gopperth and Daly both having tries disallowed in the corner and a number of other tries coming from beating the Sarries defence out wide. Given the way that Exeter have been playing recently (more on that later), I imagine that Sarries will be spending some time looking at their wide defence in the build-up to Saturday’s final.

sarwasWasps played some absolutely wonderful rugby in this match, but were simply too wasteful. Though Elliot Daly’s try should have been awarded but for a terrible call by the officials, Jimmy Gopperth should have scored and would have had he grounded the ball with 2 hands rather than putting an arm down to cushion his fall. Frequently they were turned over by a smothering Wolfpack defence as their support was too far away and they struggled at times to match Sarries in the set piece. What really killed Wasps in this match, though, was their defence. Owen Farrell exploited too large a gap between Joe Launchbury and Jake Cooper-Woolley for Lozowski’s try mere minutes into the match, while the Wasps defence struggled to get to terms with Saracens’ strong running close to the ruck, repeatedly losing ground when Sarries attacked the area 1-3 men out from the breakdown. Usually 33 points would be enough to win you a semi-final, especially away from home, but the Wasps defence is just not good enough to keep out the opposition on a regular basis. Can Wasps improve in this area next season? They will need to if they want to make it back to the final.

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Exeter’s dominant style of play is highly effective at inning games, but it’s not going to get much love from Scarlets fans apparently

Exeter 36 – 5 Newcastle

Some people may call it boring, but Exeter’s tactics are certainly effective! The Chiefs do the basics so well and run the ball so hard, they can dominate possession just by hitting the ball up repeatedly in narrow channels until the defence are all drawn in and they can be exploited out wide. This Exeter tactic made them completely dominate the halftime stats, as can be seen in the table below. While it may not be immediately high scoring, as the game wears down there is no way an opposition team cannot be tired out from such a constant defensive effort, and it showed as Exeter got the opening try right before half time through Nic White, before running away with the 2nd half 20-5. It may not be the sexy rugby of Scarlets, but it is effective and wins them games. When it comes to knockout rugby, that’s what matters.

dominant
The halftime stats show just how dominant Exeter were in this game

How could I not feel sorry for Newcastle watching this game? They did such a great job to break into the top 4 at Leicester’s expense and won the most away matches of any team in the Premiership this season, but they just couldn’t get into the game at Sandy Park! They barely touched the ball in the first half and star wingers Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti were starved of ball – the only time I remember Goneva getting the ball was an interception! Fair play to the Falcons, they got a few attacks in the second half and got a try on the board, but it summed up the game for them when Alex Tait dropped the ball over the try line after collecting a cross-field kick in acres of space. I fully expect them to be pushing for the playoffs again next season, but this match showed just how far they still have to go to break into the top 3.

Final thought

This looks set to be a cracking game. Both teams are very similar in the way they rely on solid defence and effective attacking, doing the basics very well. This really could come down to a couple of questions: How long can Billy Vunipola last? Can Joe Simmonds keep his cool on the big stage? Can the Wolfpack stop Exeter’s usual tactics. When these teams met in the semi-final last year, we were treated to a wonderful match ending with Henry Slade’s incredible penalty to touch to set up Sam Simmonds’ winning try. I expect another thrilling match but would argue that Exeter are a better squad than this time last year, so I am going for them to win.

Exeter to beat Saracens

 

Thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have any thoughts on the matches, let me know in the comments.

Eyes On: 2017/18 Pro14 Semi-finals

Eyes On: 2017/18 Pro14 Semi-finals

The 2017/18 rugby season is coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been decided and there is only 1 more Champions Cup space still to be decided for next season. Thoughts now turn back to the leagues as the Pro14 and Premiership both had their semi-finals this weekend ahead of Saturday’s finals. Today, I will be looking at the Pro14, but keep an eye out for my thoughts on the Premiership over the next couple of days.

Things started off on Friday evening at Scotstoun, where Glasgow did not turn up until the second half and as a result went down 13-28 to last season’s Pro12 Champions the Scarlets. The Scarlets will be joined in the final by Leinster, who are still on track for a Pro14/Champions Cup double after holding off a late Munster fightback.

laceyBefore I start with my thoughts about the individual matches, I do have one gripe to bring up: Considering these are the semi-finals of 1 of the 3 biggest rugby leagues in the Northern Hemisphere, some of the officiating was absolutely awful! Glasgow were denied a lineout deep in Scarlets territory when John Lacey and his assistant deemed that their restart had was already over the plane of the touchline when Tom Prydie caught the ball in touch (meaning a Scarlets scrum on halfway) only for replays to show that Prydie and the ball were clearly still in play when he caught it and then carried it in to touch. While this alone didn’t cost Glasgow the match, it does not help the team at all getting such a poor decision against them. Hopefully the quality of refereeing will be better in the final.

Glasgow 13 – 28 Scarlets

What a disappointment for Glasgow! After topping the combined table through the season, they didn’t really turn up until around the 50 minute mark, going in 3-21 down at half time. With the new playoff format for the Pro14 including a quarter-final and with them having gone out of the Champions Cup at the pool stages, Glasgow had 3 weeks between their last game and this semi, which probably put them at a slight disadvantage as they had to get back up to the pace of the game compared to the Scarlets, who defeated the Cheetahs in the quarter-finals. While a rest can be good for the players, sometimes it can get too long and my mind couldn’t help but go back to Gloucester in the 2002/3 season, where they won the league by 15 points but after a 3 week rest lost to London Wasps in the final 39-3. Glasgow tried to play their natural attacking game despite the late loss of Stuart Hogg to illness, but could not get things going and little inaccuracies like overthrowing a 5m lineout and a couple of close decisions like Jonny Gray’s disallowed try proved costly and gave the Scarlets the momentum needed to build up an unassailable lead.

proptryThe Scarlets must be becoming every neutral’s favourite team! In knockout rugby, getting points on the board is key so to go to the corner on a kickable penalty is a brave call, but the Scarlets backed it up by scoring within a couple of phases – a lovely finish by Man of the Match Rhys Patchell! From there, it was pure Scarlets rugby as they scored some wonderful tries, the most notable being try number 3, where Rob Evans got on the end of a wonderful counter down the Scarlets left wing. They can hold their own in the set piece and will look to dominate Leinster at the breakdown in in the final despite the loss of John Barclay. They may have been outplayed by Leinster in the semi-final of the Champions Cup, but I expect the rematch on Saturday to be a closer affair.

Leinster 16 – 15 Munster

Leinster’s strength in depth is incredible. Despite Jamie Heaslip’s enforced retirement and missing Sexton, Henshaw, both Kearneys, McFadden, O’Brien, Leavy and van der Flier (yes that’s 3 Irish international 7s missing!), Leinster were still able to play the first 62 minutes with former Australian international Scott Fardy on the bench and come out with a victory against their rivals. Fardy’s impact in defence towards the end was fantastic and young fly halves Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery controlled the game well from 10 and 15 respectively. Carbery was joined in the back line by Jordan Larmour and James Lowe, who is a real star and was a deserved Man of the Match, causing Munster issues throughout the match with his strong but elusive running, his offloads – including a beautiful one to Jack Conan for the opening try – and his kicking. He also almost had a try of his own, only to be put into touch through a lovely try-saver from Sam Arnold. Granted, Leinster are losing a couple of players this summer (Richardt Strauss and the timeless Isa Nacewa are retiring, Jordi Murphy and possibly Carbery/Byrne are on the way to Ulster – more on that in the next couple of weeks) but this looks to be a team set to compete at the top in the long term.

I hope the Scarlets were taking notes watching this game, because Munster may have shown the defending champions how to beat Leinster next weekend. The men in red struggled at times in the scrum but caused the European Champions some real problems at the lineout and the breakdown. Munster’s issue was there wastefulness. They outscored Leinster 2 tries to 1 and came close on a couple of other occasions before giving away penalties, while they also brought a number of moves to a disappointingly early end with a number of poor forward passes. Scarlets have the players to hurt Leinster in the same areas but I would argue they are also much better at playing the open game. Munster may not have got the win themselves, but they may have done enough to give the Scarlets a blueprint to victory.

Final thought

The final is set to be a fantastic affair. Leinster may have the recent head-to-head form in their favour and with the match being at the Aviva they will also have some degree of a home advantage. If Scarlets can get some control in the game – something they failed to o in the Champions Cup – then their attack could cause Leinster some real problems. That said, if Leinster can grab control again (or play the “boring rugby” as a certain Scarlets fan I know has taken to describing it) I can see them strangling the life out of the Scarlets. I honestly feel this could come down to whether Johnny Sexton is fit to play. If he is available I see him being able to control the game and give Leinster the double, otherwise I see Scarlets coming out narrow victors.

Leinster to beat Scarlets (sorry Gez!)

 

Thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have any thoughts on the matches, let me know in the comments.

Aber 7s 2018: A Shrimpy Adventure

Aber 7s 2018: A Shrimpy Adventure

The 2018 Aberystwyth 7s tournament saw the return of the Pistol Shrimps for a 7th consecutive year. 11 lads in perfect shape (round is a shape) packed their bags and as the mist descended on Aber, the Shrimps came back.

Having formed the team in 2012, this was my 5th Aber 7s and I was looking forward to getting back with the Shrimps, having not seen any of them for 12 months. Some of the regulars weren’t able to make it this year due to other commitments (apparently we’re meant to be responsible adults now) but we still had 3 lads making their Shrimpy debuts this year.

Friday

Travelling from Gloucester to Aberystwyth by train is not a quick journey. I left Gloucester just before 11am knowing that I would be back in the bubble about half 3. Luckily after a quick stop at Birmingham New Street – including a frantic run around trying to figure out the new layout to get to my second train – I joined fellow Shrimp Limmer on the Birmingham – Aberystwyth stage of the journey. With 2 Shrimps now together it would be rude not to start drinking and luckily the ever-prepared Limmer had some lagers for us classy blokes to get through. We arrived in Aber to the flat we were renting to find that the Chairman of the Bridge himself, Mike Gledhill had already arrived and filled the treasure chest (fridge) with the nectar of the gods.IMG-20180504-WA0003

The next few hours were spent making a start on the collection of beers while more Shrimps arrived as the afternoon went on, and once the majority of the team were there we went to our sponsors Scholars for our annual pre-tournament dinner, wearing previous years kits and in the case of Meat Bag a banana outfit (for being the dope who almost turned up a week early). As a huge Star Wars fan, the decision to wear old kits out on May 4th (Star Wars Day) was great as it left me wearing my original kit with “Chewbacca” on the back! From Scholars, we could have gone for an early night to prepare for the next day… but instead decided to follow our Shrimpy instincts and began a long tour of half the pubs in town – and there’s a lot of pubs! As any night in Aberystwyth goes, we ended up dancing the night away in Yokos until it closed – not caring at all that we’re about double the age of the freshers – and making our eventual way back to the flat at 5:30am. Personal highlights of the night included a rousing rendition of YMCA in Downies and my helpful attempts at wingmanning for a fellow Shrimp (when it turns out that was the last thing he wanted/needed) and repeated hugs and cries of “Why are we both still out?!” every time I ran into one of the backs for our first opponents, Lingboks in the middle of Yokos.

Saturday

Whose stupid idea was it to stay out until half 5 when our first match was at 9:40am?! After a measly 2 and a half hours sleep I fell out of bed and made a beeline for the toilet to become the weekend’s first chunder bumder. Feeling very much worse for wear, we dragged ourselves down to Blaendolau playing fields for our opening match, which we lost 14-34 to Lingboks – who went on to top the group.

With the sun out in full force and my skin partial to burning under a full moon, the sun cream was out every 30 minutes and by our next match the team were feeling more alive, helped by the arrival of Seb who had missed the first match having got lost on the night out and slept in the back of his car! No luck catching them Swans then? faced a much-revived Pistol Shrimps and we ran out 17-29 victors in our second match, but we then lost our third match of the day 19-28 to Al-try-eda. To me this match was probably my biggest disappointment of the weekend as we should have had a penalty try on the stroke of halftime as their last man deliberately knocked on what would have been the killer pass to put our captain Ste over in the corner, only for a scrum to be awarded. The automatic 7 points, combined with the 2 minutes he would have spent in the sin bin would have been the turning point in this match.

IMG-20180506-WA0004With results being very up-and-down, we finished Day 1 on a high with a 52-0 win over A bit Pongy and a 14-22 victory against Budgie Smugglers to leave us 3-2 for the day. Our match with A bit Pongy will stick long in my memory as twice I was denied my first ever Shrimps try mere metres from the line.

Back to the flat and the old man in me wanted nothing more than to climb into bed and sleep for a year, but I dragged myself out with the team to watch the Haye v Bellew fight – which I surprised myself by calling a Bellew win. Once that was over, the old man in me won out and I went home to recover ahead of Sunday’s guaranteed 3 matches.

Sunday

As one of the few Shrimps to get an early night, I was certainly one of the fresher lads on Sunday morning. Luckily we had a slightly later start, but not by much, and after a delay getting through the gates we had about 15 minutes to get our boots on and warm up (if you can call 2 half-hearted stretches and a couple of passes of a ball a warm-up). We saw off Fish and a Rice Cake 29-12 and then completed our group with a 24-5 loss at the hands of Aukland BLBs to finish in 5th place on points difference.

We then had a couple of hours off before our Trophy quarter-final, so I took a chance to go watch a friend’s team Wolfpack Legends – who we have developed a relationship with due to both playing decent standards of rugby and coming back for the rugby (and the sesh) every year and having often played in the same league – win their next couple of matches.

Losing track of time, I almost missed our own match and after finally finding the pitch (as far away from our regular pitch as possible) I turned up for what proved to be our final match: a 0-5 loss to Triglycerides. To say this was not a classic 7s match is an understatement, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many scrums in a game before. Lack of sleep and proper stretching between matches took its toll on both teams and the handling ability of pretty much every player and Triglycerides finally got the only score of the game from first phase off a scrum (shock!) with the final play of the game.

From the field, we stopped at a pub on the way back to fill up with as much food as we can, and prepared for the big night out with some drinking games. I don’t know if it has a real name, but it was introduced to us by Andy the year before as the Stacky Cuppy Drinking Game… I now like to call it the Stacky Cuppy Fucky Timmy Uppy Drinking Game as a general lack of motor skills led to me getting absolutely ruined before the night out even began.

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Big thanks to Scholars for their hospitality yet again and also for the show of support behind the bar

When we left the flat, it was off to Harrys for a GAA – can’t have a trip to Aber without one of them! – before returning to Scholars for Kangaroo Court, led this year by The Right “Honourable” Judge Limmer. I wish I could tell you some fun stories from this and from the night after, but I’ll be honest I was such a state I don’t really remember anything and I’m not sure I even made it to 11pm before being back in the flat passed out in my bed.

Monday

The biggest benefit of being passed out so early on the Sunday night? No hangover on Monday! Though saying that I still had to be woke 30 minutes before our 10:30am checkout and still felt dead to the world.

After cleaning up the flat and checking out, it was off to Wetherspoons for the annual Monday debrief over a giant breakfast. As the next couple of hours went on, the group began to thin out as people began to leave to go home, and at half 12 I waved goodbye to Aber for another year and began my journey back to Gloucester, arriving back just after 6 and proudly showing off my numerous bruises on the way home.

Getting in, it was pretty much a case of going straight to bed and continuing my recovery, being very thankful that I had booked time off so I did not have to be back in work until Friday.

Same again next year chaps!

Caligo est descendens

In squilis venire

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.

April 2018 Rugby Ramble

April 2018 Rugby Ramble

Costly actions

The farce surrounding Spain’s loss to Belgium – and Romania’s subsequent qualification for the World Cup – continued this month as it was announced that 5 players were receiving bans totalling over 2 years! Brothers Sebastien and Guillaume Rouet received 43 and 36 week bans respectively, while teammates Pierre Barthere, Lucas Guillaume and Mathieu Bélie each received bans of 14 weeks.

I’ve seen the footage of the incident and it does not make easy watching. The behaviour of some of the Spanish players was deplorable and they certainly deserve to be punished for their actions. What rankles me is that the chance of an incident was allowed to happen in the first place. For such an important match where World Cup qualification was on the line, the officials should be completely neutral. Yes the Romanian officials were neutral to judge it by an individual match, but considering Romania stood to qualify if Spain lost there is no way Romanian officials should have been allowed. Granted the officials were appointed before the tournament, but on the same weekend a South African official was removed from the England v Ireland match late in the day as he had been with England during the week, Rugby Europe – who have a Romanian as President – in my opinion have no legitimate reason as to why they could not change the officials. Maybe the match would have gone the same, but at least the calls of bias would have been unfounded.

World Rugby were investigating this and also the suggestion that Spain, Belgium and Romania all fielded ineligible players during the tournament but everything has gone quiet on that front other than the announcement of the bans. Too often it appears that World Rugby are hesitant to change the status quo and with usual competitors Romania now set to feature in Japan, if fear that the investigation and findings will be swept under the rug in a similar way to France’s abuse of Head Injury Protocols over recent seasons. I really hope World Rugby prove me wrong…


Sinner

One player who did escape punishment this month was Israel Folau. Folau caused outrage following his comment on Instagram that God’s plan for gay people was “HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God”, yet he escaped punishment from the ARU after explaining his views and religious beliefs to them.

Now I have no problem with freedom of speech and also with religious beliefs – though I would not consider myself especially religious. My issue is that Folau is not just some random member of the public, he is one of Australia’s star players and as such he is meant to be a role model to others. Folau has a responsibility to be careful what he says on social media as it will get around to millions of people in no time. Further to this he is making a conscious choice to use passages from the bible that are against homosexuality, but conveniently doesn’t appear to follow the Bible fully as it is stated in Leviticus that ”You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.” If you can ignore your religious beliefs to get a bit more ink, don’t use them as an excuse to get out of being a homophobe.

folauThe ARU have panicked and avoided punishing him because he is out of contract soon and they are afraid he will walk away from the sport. That Denny Solomona can be banned for likely using a homophobic slur, Folau commenting on social media that gay people can go to Hell definitely deserves a ban. I wonder how the ARU would have acted if the question was about people of a different religion rather than a different sexuality.

Following his comments, it was great to see both Brad Weber and TJ Perenara come out against his remarks. I’d love to hear David Pocock’s views on Folau’s comments considering how supportive he was of legalising gay marriage in Australia. That next training camp with the national team could be a little tense…


Over too soon

It’s that time of year where the lists of players hanging up their boots at the end of the season start to come out. As always, there are so many quality players leaving the game that have become such a big part of our viewing over the years. One name that people would not have been expecting to see on those lists though is that of Northampton and Australia back Rob Horne.

At 28 years old, the former Waratah would have been looking forward to a successful couple of years with the Saints and it was suggested that he could be a potential captain next season. Unfortunately, in his first match as Northampton captain, he lasted just 13 seconds of their derby against Leicester Tigers before going off injured. Sione Kalamafoni jumped to catch the kickoff and as he came down, Horne appeared to catch him awkwardly. He went down immediately and did not look good trying to get up. Watching at the time, I assumed that he had got a stinger and possibly caught his head awkwardly. However, later that week it was announced that he had suffered nerve damage severe enough to bring an end to his career.

It is a sobering reminder of just how easy it is to pick up an injury and of how fragile our bodies really are despite us putting them on the line and making them take a beating for 80 minutes a week. I wish the best to Rob in his retirement and hope that he will get the support he needs both in his recover and his earlier-than-expected transition to life after rugby.

Rugby Rambles – the March 2018 News

Rugby Rambles – the March 2018 News

Qualification nightmare

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

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

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

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

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


Increasing availability

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

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


Going 4 the Champions Cup

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

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

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

Uncapped XV

Uncapped XV

With a number of players missing at least part of the 6 Nations due to injury, this tournament was a chance for a number of players to make not just their tournament debuts, but also win their first caps. Matthieu Jalibert was unable to take much of his chance following an injury in his first half of senior international rugby, but other players like Jordan Larmour, James Davies and Jake Polledri really shone when given their chances. With the World Cup on the horizon early next season, a number of other players have also made their international debuts in the last Autumn and Summer Test windows – such as 2018 6 Nations Player of the Championship Jacob Stockdale, who made his Ireland debut in June 2017.

Thinking of all the players who have impressed after making recent debuts, I started thinking of the players who haven’t even got caps to their name that could impress if given the chance. This list will be a combination of young players who likely have long international careers ahead of them and other players whose chance of getting capped is likely all but gone. As you read you’ll probably notice a slight bias towards players based in the UK, especially Premiership-based players. I have tried to be as fair as possible, but as the Premiership and Pro14 are the leagues I know best there are bound to be players I have missed – especially at less glamorous positions like the tight five – so feel free to let me know if you think I’ve missed someone.

Loosehead prop – Beno Obano: Obano could quite possibly have been capped at the start of this year’s 6 Nations tournament due to Ellis Genge’s injury and Joe Marler’s suspension, but was unfortunate to get injured himself in the build-up. A strong carrier and tackler, the 23-year old cousin of Maro Itoje is developing into a key player for Bath and will likely be challenging for a spot in the England squad after the World Cup. Honourable mentions: Thomas du Toit, Ox Nché

Hooker – Asafo Aumua: Aumua has the distinction of playing for the All Blacks twice before even making an appearance in Super Rugby, but is still eligible for this list due to the games being uncapped matches against the Barbarians and a French XV. Aumua’s pick here comes from the incredible talent he showed during the U20s World Championship on the way to winning the title. His record with the Baby Blacks stands at 7 tries from 14 games, incredible figures for any layer, let alone a hooker. His ability in the open is what really draws the eye and similar to Dane Coles his pace is going to be a real weapon that will catch opposition players out. Honourable mentions: Tom Dunn, Santiago Socino

Tighthead prop – D’Arcy Rae: Another player who almost made his debut in this 6 Nations due to players in front of him being absent, Glasgow prop Rae made 18 appearances for the Scotland U20s including 2 World Championships and 2 6 Nations tournaments. The lack of Scottish Pro14 sides may be limiting his chances of getting capped in the near future, but he is someone to watch out for after the World Cup, especially considering WP Nel is 31 years old and has missed a number of internationals over the last couple of years. Honourable mention: Nicky Thomas

Second rows: Tadhg Beirne & Matt Garvey: I will be shocked if Beirne remains on this list much longer. He has excelled for Scarlets in recent years and has signed for Munster on a 2-year deal. He is able to play in the back row as well but is definitely at his best in the second row and I can see him striking up a dangerous partnership alongside Iain Henderson in the middle of the Irish scrum. At 30 years old, I will be shocked if Garvey gets capped, but he is an extremely reliable lock who can also play flanker. He has good leadership experience and his physicality is a big part of the Bath team. Unfortunately for him, second row is one of the deepest positions in the England squad, with the current crop all younger than him, so it would likely take a monstrous injury list to see him wear the rose. Honourable mention: James Gaskell

Blindside flanker – Akira Ioane: Reiko Ioane is firmly entrenched in the All Blacks squad now and I think it is a matter of time before his brother Akira joins him in the black shirt. The flanker has started the season so well for the Blues and is one of the leading try scorers with 5 from 4 games. Vaea Fifita has impressed for the All Blacks recently, if he and Ioane push each other to be the best they can, I feel sorry for their opposite number! Honourable mention: Brad Shields, Lewis Ludlow

Openside flanker – Kwagga Smith: a superstar on the 7s circuit, Kwagga Smith has been an increasing part of the Lions’ success over recent years. With Commonwealth gold and Olympic bronze medals to his name, his pace and elusiveness is something different to the classic behemoths that are often seen representing the Springboks. Playing for the Barbarians against the all Blacks at the start of November, Smith was one of the best players on the pitch. Hopefully with Rassie Erasmus taking over from Allister Coetzee we will soon see Smith starring for South Africa. Honourable mention: Luke Wallace, Mike Williams

Number 8 – Zach Mercer: Regular readers will already know that I am a massive fan of Zach Mercer. He is such a good technical player and makes up for his lack of bulk with good footwork and handling skills. He has been a superstar for the U20s and for Bath over the last couple of years and has already been involved in the England squad, first as an apprentice player and then as a regular squad member following injuries to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes. Unfortunately, illness robbed him of the chance to make his debut against Italy, but I expect him to become a regular in the England squad after the World Cup, if not beforehand. Honourable mention: Ruan Ackermann

Scrum half – Dan Robson: I don’t know how Robson has gone so long and not been capped by England! A star for Gloucester and more recently Wasps, the scrum half has featured for the Saxons and attended some England camps, but has generally fallen foul of Eddie Jones’ policy to only name 2 halfbacks in the England squad. His attacking play is outstanding and he also controls the game so well, hopefully with Ben Youngs currently injured he will be given his chance to impress in the Summer Tests against South Africa. Honourable mentions: Ben Vellacott, Ben Spencer, Willi Heinz

Fly half – Gareth Steenson: Ireland’s loss has been Exeter’s gain as Steenson’s decision to play outside Ireland has denied him to represent the country of his birth. The Exeter fly half controls the game so well and is a highly accurate goal kicker (he won the Premiership Golden Boot award in the 2016 awards) with nerves of steel, as shown by his kick in extra time to win the Premiership Final in 2017. He would have had solid competition for the 10 jersey against Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan, however I think his reliability would have been enough to see him potentially make the bench for Ireland. Honourable mentions: Damian Willemse, Marcus Smith, Brock James

Inside centre – Jimmy Gopperth: OK, maybe I cheated a little with this pick, but Gopperth has often played 12 for Wasps when Danny Cipriani has also been available and I don’t see that changing with the arrival of Lima Sopoaga next season, plus there were clearly enough other talented fly halves to try picking from! To think that last season’s Premiership Player of the Season would probably not get a look-in with the All Blacks shows the quality of New Zealand rugby, but his quality compared to other Kiwis is a moot point as he has been playing outside New Zealand since 2009 with Newcastle, Leinster and currently Wasps. A reliable kicker, Gopperth has also shown how good he is in an attacking sense playing outside Danny Cipriani over the last couple of seasons. I look forward to seeing how Wasps’ Kiwi 10/12 axis works next season. Honourable mention: Bill Meakes

Outside centre – Vince Aso: Whether on the wing or at 13, Aso has been dynamite for the Hurricanes. His partnership with Ngani Laumape was huge for the Canes last season and saw him finish with 14 tries in the last Super Rugby campaign – with only Laumape (15) scoring more! He has started the 2018 season well with 2 tries and will surely love to join his cousins Akira and Reiko Ioane in the national team. The centre positions are very much up for grab at the moment, whether before or after the World Cup, I will be shocked if Aso doesn’t get a chance in the next couple of years. Honourable mentions: Joe Marchant, Izaia Perese, Henry Trinder, Robbie Fruean

Wings – James Lowe & Nathan Earle: 25 tries in 52 Super Rugby matches for the Chiefs puts Leinster winger Lowe on this list. Lowe has featured for the NZ Maori team – he was at fullback against the British and Irish Lions – but found himself competing in too deep a position to make the All Blacks squad before moving to Ireland. One of the last players able to qualify using the 3-year residency rule, if he continues to match this sort of form over the next couple of seasons we could see him in the green or Ireland soon enough. Earle is another player who has already turned out for his country but only in an uncapped match. I remember seeing Earle play for the U20s and thinking at the time what an incredible talent he looked. With Sarries focusing on bigger names like Ashton, Williams and Maitland, Earle’s opportunities have been limited but he has taken his chances well over the last 2 seasons and got himself firmly on Eddie Jones’ radar. With bags of pace but also deceptively strong, a move to Quins next season will hopefully give him the chance to play more regular rugby and prove he deserves to be in the England squad. Wing is a very deep spot for England at the moment with a number of young individuals. I won’t be shocked to see him capped within the next year, but think he may need to wait until after the World Cup to push for a regular starting spot. Honourable mentions: Ben Lam, Keelan Giles, Alex Lewington, Joe Cokanasiga, Gabriel Ibitoye

Fullback – Jason Woodward: I’ve talked about Woodward’s quality before (he was selected ahead of none other than “The Bus” Julian Savea for the Hurricanes in their 2016 Super Rugby final victory) and he has backed it up for both Bristol and Gloucester. Capable of playing at outside centre or across the back 3, Woodward’s made the 15 shirt at Kingsholm his own with a series of wonderful performances. A former New Zealand U20s player but also qualified for England, Woodward was called up to a training camp in May 2017, but has not yet been named in a squad. With Mike Brown likely nearing the end of his England career, Mike Haley off to Ireland and Anthony Watson injured, could a strong end to the season propel Woodward into the squad for the Summer Tests against South Africa? Honourable mentions: Mike Haley, Melani Nanai, Phil Dollman