Cherry-picking: A Gloucester Rugby 23

Cherry-picking: A Gloucester Rugby 23

Anyone who knows me will know that even though I don’t make it down to Kingsholm too often, I am a big Gloucester Rugby fan. With Gloucester currently sitting 3rd in the league with 5 wins, 1 draw and 2 losses, I have been loving the way the team has improved during the Johan Ackermann reign and with some big names just returning from injury or international duty, the club looks in great shape.

Such is my positivity right now that I have decided to take a look at the depth of the Gloucester squad and attempt to pick not just my ideal XV as I have done with my Uncapped XV and World XV Challenge posts, but to expand this to pick a full 23-man matchday squad.

For this squad I will be using players who are on senior or academy contracts, but I will not be including Jaco Visagie or Kyle Traynor as they are currently on a short-term deal. I will be assuming that every player if fully fit and available and will be judging the players on everything I have seen from them as opposed to just their play in cherry and white.

Now of course, selecting a squad like this can be very subjective as fans may prefer different players due to different strengths, so for this reason I have invited my colleague and fellow Gloucester fan, Phil to select his squad as well.

So without further ado, let’s get to the squad (Phil’s selections in red)

1: Val Rapava-Ruskin: Injuries have hampered the former Worcester loose-head but when he has been fit he has shown his quality. A strong scrummager, he comes to life in the loose and is a nightmare for the opposition at the breakdown. Phil’s Pick: Paddy McAllister

2: Franco Marais: Gloucester have made a habit of having a strong one-two punch at hooker in recent seasons and this year is no different. With Richard Hibbard now at the Dragons, Marais has arrived from the Sharks and he gets the nod from me as I think his lineout throwing has been a bit more consistent than that of Hanson. Phil’s Pick: Franco Marais

3: Fraser Balmain: This has been a bit more of a difficult one. Ruan Dreyer is yet to play as he recovers from injury, Josh Hohneck has been predominantly a loose-head in recent years and Ciaran Knight has done well stepping up to the 23 so much early in the season but is probably still a season or two away from regular starts. For this reason, Fraser Balmain became the default choice, but that is not to belittle him as he has done very well for Gloucester and been a reliable starter since John Afoa’s departure in the summer. Phil’s Pick: Fraser Balmain

4 & 5: Ed Slater & Franco Mostert: I’ll admit that I was sceptical when Gloucester and Leicester arranged a swap deal between Jonny May and Ed Slater, but the lock has managed to stay largely injury free and has really shown his quality. He’s brought great nous to the lineout and is a physical nuisance around the park, while he brings a large degree of leadership to the pack. Add in Springbok Mostert, who has really impressed me when I have seen him play for South Africa over the last season, and I would argue that Gloucester have one of the strongest second row pairings in the Premiership! Phil’s Picks: Ed Slater & Franco Mostert

6: Lewis Ludlow: The back row has become such an incredibly deep area with the development of some younger players and also some of the clever signings made over recent years. Lewis Ludlow may not be as much of a headline grabber as some of the players he is keeping out of the squad, but he was one of the top tacklers in the Premiership last season and is also a dangerous at the breakdown when given the chance. Phil’s Pick: Lewis Ludlow

7: Jaco Kriel: The South African flanker was out of the game for over a year with injury, but has been incredible since returning to the pitch and will likely continue to improve over the coming months. He has shown himself to be a strong runner with good pace in the loose, but where he really comes to the fore is in and around the breakdown where he is a great jackal but is also a smart defender who picks his moments and looks to position himself in the defensive line where he can cause most damage to the opposition. Phil’s Pick: Jaco Kriel

8: Jake Polledri: Anyone who has heard me talk rugby for more than a few minutes or has read many of my posts will know that I am a huge fan of Jake Polledri – so much so that he made the cut in my World XV Challenge! He has the pace to exploit a gap in the defence but also the strength to make a gap of his own. Since I first took notice of him in one of his early performances for the cherry and whites last year and since then I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have seen him go backwards in contact for either Gloucester or Italy! And as if that wasn’t enough, he is another danger at the breakdown and could easily play across the back row if needed. Phil’s Pick: Jake Polledri

9: Willi Heinz: I’m a big fan of Ben Vellacott and the way he speeds the game up, but for my starter I have gone for Heinz. The former Crusader has the best all-round game of the Gloucester scrum halves, being able to take advantage of a gap but also having a strong tactical kicking game, while he again brings leadership at such a crucial position. 50-60 minutes of Heinz putting Gloucester in the right areas of the pitch and then bringing on Vellacott to finish off a tiring defence is a brutal combination! Phil’s Pick: Ben Vellacott

10: Danny Cipriani: Who else could it be?! Cipriani has been in fantastic form this season for Gloucester and it feels like he and his golden wrists have been providing a contender for pass of the week every time he steps on the pitch. The team is set up around him and he is bringing the best out of so many players, knowing when to play a short ball to a forward on the crash ball or when to tease a blitzing winger with a pass just beyond his despairing fingers to put a winger through. He’s certainly done a good job of backing up his place on my list of new signings to watch in the Premiership. How he didn’t make the England squad for the Autumn Internationals is still beyond me! Phil’s Pick: Danny Cipriani

11: Ollie Thorley: It has been so good having Thorley back on the pitch in recent weeks following his return from injury! The young winger has been in incredible form for Gloucester and combines strong running with great pace and footwork. At just 22 years old, if his performances continue at this level he will surely have to be considered for the national team following the World Cup. Plus it gives another chance to watch his stunning try from a few weeks ago (sorry Tigers)! Phil’s Pick: Ollie Thorley

12: Mark Atkinson: I may be biased, but I would consider Mark Atkinson as one of the most underrated players in the league. A reliable defender and strong runner, Atkinson does a great job of punching through the defensive line and offloading the ball during the tackle so that Gloucester can take advantage of the break. I feel that he is better at 12 than 13 but he has the ability to work wonders in channels slightly further out too. Phil’s Pick: Billy Twelvetrees

13: Billy Twelvetrees: The turnaround in Gloucester’s fortunes under Johan Ackermann can be perfectly encapsulated by the performance of Billy Twelvetrees. A former British & Irish Lion, 36 went through a rough patch but looked much better again last season. Playing outside Cips this season appears to be bringing out the best of him again and he has gone from being a player who I wondered if he had a future at the club to being my first choice centre. Usually played at 12, he is also more than capable of moving out to 13, which is why I have placed him here to partner Atkinson. A strong runner and tireless defender, Twelvetrees also fills the second playmaker role in the back line and can pop up at first receiver, which gives Cipriani the freedom to play the game where he feels he can have the most impact. Phil’s Pick: Mark Atkinson

14: Matt Banahan: So this was one of the harder picks for me as I had to choose between two very talented players who have very different styles. Charlie Sharples is one of the fastest players in the squad and is having a career year, having already scored as many tries in 9 rounds of the Premiership as he has in any other season! I have however gone for Matt Banahan. The former Bath stalwart brings experience across the back line, but his main strength here is his strength and physicality, which will help the team defend against some of the larger wingers in the league like Taqele Naiyaravoro. Phil’s Pick: Charlie Sharples

15: Jason Woodward: Another player who regular readers may have expected to make this list, I have spoken very highly of Woodward over the past years and included him in my Uncapped XV. This is a guy who beat Julian Savea to a starting spot for the Hurricane’s 2016 Super Rugby final victory, such is his talent. Capable of playing most positions in the back line, he is working best at 15 where he is able to run back kicks to start a new attack and also join the line wherever is best to cause the defence issues. Phil’s Pick: Jason Woodward

Bench: James Hanson, Josh Hohneck, Ruan Dreyer, Tom Savage, Ben Morgan, Ben Vellacott, Henry Trinder, Charlie Sharples: After missing out on starting spots, Hanson and Hohneck were obvious choices for me and though I haven’t had a chance to see Dreyer play but his experience gets him the nod over Ciaran Knight. Ben Morgan has had a resurgence this year so gets the nod in the back row over Ruan Ackermann and Freddie Clarke, who have both been hugely impressive. As Morgan is less versatile, Savage beats out Gerbrandt Grobler as he has experience at flanker. Vellacott is on the bench to up the tempo against a flagging defence. I haven’t included any fly half cover on the bench, so would bring on Henry Trinder (who was unlucky to miss out on a starting spot) at 13 and move Twelvetrees to 10. The final position was really hard for me to pick as I was looking to include someone who was more experienced at 15 (If I’m being honest, Tom Hudson may have actually beat out Tom Marshall), but in the end I could not leave out Charlie Sharples after he came so close to making the XV. Though predominantly a wing, he has played at 15 for Gloucester before, or Gloucester could reshuffle the back line to move Cipriani to 15, Twelvetrees to 10 and Banahan into the centre to put Sharples on the wing. And with his pace, I would hate to play for 60 minutes and suddenly find myself facing a fresh Sharples. Phil’s Bench: James Hanson, Val Rapava-Ruskin, Josh Hohneck, Tom Savage, Ben Morgan, Willi Heinz, Matt Banahan, Tom Marshall

The comparison: I was honestly surprised by just how similar our squads ended up being. The biggest shock for me was McAllister’s inclusion, but I can understand the reasoning by using Hohneck as cover at 3 as we have little to go on for Dreyer and Knight. The back line differences were clearly a difference in tactics as he preferred Sharples speed from the start and having Heinz replace Vallacott later on to seal out the game. Interestingly, neither of us chose to have a replacement fly half on the bench, perhaps this something Gloucester will look at with their recruitment for next season, but there are some talented young players coming through at the position who are maybe a couple of seasons off regular contributions.

So those would be our ideal 23s, what would yours be?

Wade to the NFL

Wade to the NFL

In the big news of the week, Christian Wade has left Wasps and rugby union as a whole with the intention of pursuing a career in the NFL. The winger, capped just once by England, could potentially have broken the Premiership record for tries in a career but appears to have played his last game (for now at least).

Since the news broke, I have not yet been able to find anything saying how he plans to enter the league: whether he plans to train with a view to entering the draft, or will he sign on directly with a team as an undrafted free agent in a similar way to rugby league star Jarryd Hayne.

Wade becomes the latest in a list of pro rugby players who have made the switch to the NFL in recent years. The aforementioned Hayne had an impressive preseason but struggled in the regular season and split his time between the active roster and practice squad before leaving for the Fiji rugby 7s team less than a year after signing for the 49ers. 2015 RPA Sevens Player of the Year came through the NFL’s International Player Pathway program and currently finds himself on the Atlanta Falcon’s practice squad. Former Worcester lock Christian Scotland-Williamson also finds himself on the practice squad, in case for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As can be seen from those players, it is not an easy transition from rugby to the NFL. The two sports may share many similar skills but they are also two very different games. Whereas rugby requires endurance to keep going for 80 minutes, the NFL is about 4-6 seconds of going flat out with rests in between. Roles are much more specialised and involve skills such as precise route running and blocking. On top of this, there is the extra equipment (a gumshield looks insignificant next to NFL pads and helmets) and also the extra physicality from more larger players and plenty of impacts that would be far from legal in rugby.

Assuming Wade can make the transition, where will he play? Personally, I see him playing offense due to his dangerous footwork and ability to make a player miss. With that footwork and pace, I expect his earliest contributions to be as a returner, much with Hayne in San Francisco. If he develops well enough to feature away from special teams, then I can see him at one of two positions.

My initial thoughts when I heard he was leaving rugby was to imagine him as a Wide Reciever. At 5’8″ it will not be easy for him especially in the redzone, but if he can run precise routes then he could become a dangerous slot receiver like Wes Welker, while his pace could also make him a dangerous downfield threat.

The other position I can see Wade would be in the backfield. Obviously he’s not someone that I would want to see running between the tackles regularly but in more of a scatback role – running outside the tackles and catching out of the backfield. My only worry about this position would be the need for him to learn to pass block and pick up the blitz, or his Quarterback could be in trouble.

How will he do? Well judging by the fact that Wasps look set to sign Malakai Fekitoa, Wade must have been on a pretty nice contact at Wasps, so to give that up he must be confident that he can make it in the NFL and, I would assume, have taken advice from people who know the league. The important thing will be getting a team that will be willing to take the time to develop him rather than expecting him to be an immediate star. It will also help to end up on a team with coaches who can scheme to take advantage of his skills while also trying to limit the impact of his weaknesses. Suffice to say, I will be following the progression of this story with great interest.

Trouble for Tigers?

Trouble for Tigers?

Just 1 game into the season and change is already afoot at Welford Road. Following an embarrassing defeat to Exeter in Round 1, Leicester Tigers announced that they had parted company with head coach Matt O’Connor with immediate effect.

This has not been a great time for Tigers; they have not been the superpower they used to be for a number of years now and last year missed out on a place in the Premiership playoffs for the first time since 2005. I would argue that the squad they had last season and this season are the strongest they have had in a while, but in such a competitive league there is no guarantee they will be able to make the top 4 this season. But was now the right time to move on?

Honestly, I would have moved on in the summer. Ever since the popular Aaron Mauger was moved on following making the playoffs with a weaker team and replaced with O’Connor, I have had the feeling that something did not feel quite right at the club. Reports have suggested that players and coaches felt restricted under O’Connor and that seemed to be backed up by Ben Kay speaking on Rugby Tonight. Kay – a member of the Tigers board – also mentioned that they had a review at the end of last season and a number of actions were put into place, which O’Connor had said he could achieve, but following the preseason and the Exeter match they felt that these actions were not being met, so it was time to move on. I really appreciated Kay’s honesty and hearing him talk about how once they had made their decision it would not have been right to wait a few weeks made sense to me.

The important thing now is that the next man up is given every opportunity. Geordan Murphy has been an assistant coach at the club since 2013 and has consistently been in charge of the club in the Anglo-Welsh Cup as well as being in charge for a game against Bath just after O’Connor had arrived. He is Leicester through and through and will want to do everything to bring the glory days back, while he also has a number of other former Tigers players on the coaching staff. I really hope that, barring disaster, Murphy is given the whole season and that making the playoffs does not become the be all and end all in the board’s decision as to whether he gets the job on a permanent basis. One of the areas Kay mentioned that O’Connor seemed to struggle was in the development of young players, something that I’m confident Murphy will be able to do well. Speaking as a fan of rugby in general, hopefully this season will be about performances and player development and then next year they can look to focus more on getting back to winning silverware. Only time will tell.

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.

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!

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2017/18

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2017/18

With the Premiership over for another season and the big matches all out the way, I have finally had some time to sit down and think about this season’s awards. This is something I began last year with the Alternative Awards, looking at awards for something a little different to the classic Player/Team of the Season awards that you will usually see looked at. If you disagree with any of my picks, let me know in the comments who you would have chosen.

Individual Awards

Best Breakthrough: Marcus Smith

So many players came to mind while I thought of this. Exeter’s Sam Simmonds may have come on the scene at the end of last season, but it was this season where he really broke into the first team squad and he also went on to play for England. His brother Joe has also broken into the squad in the latter months of the season and deposed Gareth Steenson from the starting fly half berth as the Chiefs went all the way to the final, in fact had he been part of the winning team on the day he may have won the award. I’m sure nobody who has read my articles this year will be surprised to see that I considered Gloucester’s Jake Polledri, who went from playing in Nat 1 to the Premiership in the space of 1 summer and excelled in the back row, earning his first Italy cap during the 6 Nations. However, the award this season goes to Marcus Smith of Harlequins. Though Quins did not have the best of seasons by any standards, Smith excelled after being shoved into the limelight early on following a nasty injury to Demetri Catrakilis, and now he has surely proved himself the long-term successor to Nick Evans. He played more minutes in the league than anyone else in the Quins squad and ended the season 3rd in the race for the Golden Boot behind his countrymen Owen Farrell and George Ford. He was so impressive he has already been included as an apprentice player in the England squad by Eddie Jones and though he spends this summer with the U20s, another good season will make him difficult to ignore building towards the 2019 World Cup.

Best Newcomer: Faf de Klerk

Rob Horne was having a solid season in a poor Northampton team until his injury-enforced retirement and Juan de Jongh gave Wasps a different dimension in their midfield. However the winner came to a toss-up between 2 representatives of Sale Sharks. Jono Ross finished the season with the most tackles of any player in the league (336, 7 more than Gloucester’s Lewis Ludlow) and was a big part of the Sale pack’s efforts to get front-foot ball for their team. However I chose to go with his teammate and fellow South African Faf de Klerk. De Klerk regularly provided a threat for Sale, both with his quick ball from the back of the ruck and also his ability to make plays himself. He also chipped in with a number of points off the tee. Scrum half is not the strongest of positions for the Springboks at the moment, will this season have put de Klerk in the driving seat despite playing outside the country?

britsFond Farewell: Schalk Brits

This award goes to a player who is retiring from rugby as opposed to just leaving the league. I was very close to selecting Chris Wyles of Saracens, who retires from the game with the record number of tries in Premiership semi-finals and also joint to with Chris Ashton for most Premiership tries scored for Saracens. However, I have instead chosen his fellow Saracen Schalk Brits. The South African was an early member of the hooker revolution, moving away from being a 3rd prop to a mobile player that was more like an extra back rower. Just look at the stats on the tweet from Opta, this guy has dominated in open play while not shirking his responsibilities as a hooker. Capped 10 times for the Springboks, I can’t help but wonder how many caps he would have won had he stayed in South Africa, though he would have still had plenty of competition from Bismarck du Plessis and former captain John Smit. The Premiership will be a less exciting place with Brits no longer playing.

Bon Voyage: Ben Foden

Similar to the Fond Farewell Award, the Bon Voyage Award looks at players who are leaving the league to ply their trade in another competition. Richard Hibbard has become a fan favourite at Kingsholm and always gave maximum effort so will be missed as he returns to Wales to play for the Dragons. Thomas Waldrom was one of the early stars of the Exeter Chiefs as they began working their way to the top of the league and while the development of Sam Simmonds and Dave Ewers may have reduced him gametime this season he remained a popular as ever. However, Northampton’s Ben Foden gets the nod here. The former England fullback made 250 appearances across all competitions for Northampton following his move from Sale. Formerly a scrum half, he made a name for himself in the 15 jersey but has also spent time on the wing in recent years. A deceptively strong runner, I always felt that his 34 caps was far too low for a player of his quality, but a period of injury unfortunately saw him drop out of international contention. Now that his time with Northampton is coming to an end, the word is that he will be joining Rugby United New York, who will be joining the new American professional competition Major League Rugby next season. Having players of his quality playing out there will surely help grow the legitimacy and the quality of the league quickly.

Cojones Award: Rob Baxter

The Cojones Award goes to someone who had the balls to do something audacious this season despite the huge risk. I found this a difficult award to think of at first, until my mind looked away from the rugby field slightly and instead to the team selection. Rob Baxter was in a comfortable position with Exeter riding high in the league and Gareth Steenson, though aging, still one of the most reliable fly halves in the competition. Instead, halfway through the season he made the decision to demote the Irishman to the bench and promote the relative unknown youngster Joe Simmonds. Fast forward a couple of months and Simmonds helped lead the Chiefs to the top of the table with some dominant performances and though they lost to Saracens in the final, I’m not sure having Steenson start would have won them the match either. On top of that, Simmonds also won them silverware with an assured performance in the Anglo-Welsh Cup final at Kingsholm. A decision with more than a hint of looking to the future, but it worked in the present too.

Team Awards

Head-scratcher Award: The lack of DTH

In only my second year of the Alternative Awards, I am already starting to sense a theme with this award, as last year’s reduction in Matt Kvesic’s gametime has been mirrored this year by the almost complete absence of DTH van der Merwe from the Newcastle squad before his move back to Glasgow. The Canadian winger was a fan favourite for years at Glasgow and found his way over the try line with regularity. Following a move to Scarlets he continued his regular scoring despite competition from players like Johnny McNicholl and Liam Williams. When it was announced that he was moving to a Newcastle Falcons team that was clearly improving in attack, I got excited to be able to see his talent on a regular occasion, but he made a grand total of 3 appearances before moving back to Glasgow midway through March. Granted he had competition from Sinoti Sinoti and Player of the Season Vereniki Goneva, but with such a long season I don’t understand why there was not more rotation amongst the wingers, especially with such a quality option available. Still, Newcastle’s loss was Glasgow’s gain and he was immediately back in the tries during the final months of the season. Now just imagine if Newcastle and Glasgow are drawn in the same Champions Cup pool…

Biggest Disappointment: London Irish

This was not as easy a pick as it may have been due to the struggles of Harlequins and Northampton this season, while Gloucester also fell away in the last few weeks of the season, but when I sat down and thought about it there was only 1 team I could really pick here. After earning an immediate promotion back to the Premiership and with a number of talented young players coming through alongside experienced heads like Petrus du Plessis and Blair Cowan, things looked good for the Exiles as they won their opening match of the season against Quins at Twickenham. But things went downhill after that and they only managed 2 more league victories during the season – doing the double over Quins and beating Worcester at the Madejski. Add to everything the backroom issues with Les Kiss and Declan Kidney arriving in March and Director of Rugby Nick Kennedy leaving the club soon after. With their relegation back to the Championship, they are losing a number of talented players and I hope that we can see them back in the Premiership soon, though I doubt it will be as easy as it was for Bristol this year.

Biggest Success: Newcastle Falcons

At one point in the season I thought I’d be able to pick Gloucester here, but their end of season slump put an end to that and the award goes to Newcastle Falcons for the second year in a row. The Falcons built on last season’s success and despite missing Toby Flood for large portions of the season managed to break into the top 4 come the end of the season, ending Leicester’s run of 13 consecutive playoff appearances. Though it is a talented squad, it is not chock full of the big names in the same way some of the top squads are, and though they were steamroller by Exeter in the semi-final, their efforts this season are something to be proud of. Now if they can make the next step and consistently make the top 4, that will be highly effective, but with their reliance on an ageing Niki Goneva and with a number of squads around them strengthening, I think next season could be a struggle for them to repeat their success.

Lads on Tour: Aviva Premiership Final 2018

Lads on Tour: Aviva Premiership Final 2018

On Saturday June 26th, 4 lads from Gloucester set out on an adventure to London to watch Exeter take on Saracens in the Premiership final. Myself and 3 other friends from work – Ash, Phil and Sam – had gone to last year’s final and after thoroughly enjoying ourselves decided to make it an annual occurrence, booking our tickets early to make sure we didn’t miss out. offtolondonAfter a late shift swap at work (apparently I can’t count alternate weekends correctly) we were all set to go.

Wanting to get there relatively early to avoid the traffic, we met at Sam’s at 8am and travelled in style in his Merc (yes, he’s a show-off but getting to ride in the car we didn’t care!). Of course heading off so early, there was only one way to start the day: a carvery breakfast… perfection! From there it was time to get on the road, with DJ Phil in charge of the tunes and blasting out the cheese and 90s hits for the whole trip down.

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Someone was happy to be the only one putting money on Saracens…

As with last year, parking wasn’t an issue as we had rented out a driveway months in advance – if you haven’t tried this before, I highly recommend it – and this left us just a few minutes’ walk from the stadium. Having got our bearings we went in search of a watering hole and found a pub not too far out the way full of Exeter fans… always fun when 3 of us have been given Sarries flags on the way there! While enjoying the sun to varying degrees (I’m ginger so not very much!) we decided to make a friendly wager on the final score, whilst also selecting our picks for first try scorer and Man of the Match (though the money was based only on the result). After a pint there, we made our way back to Twickenham and through the gates. Arriving at the ground earlier than last year, we were able to join the crowds to welcome the teams into the stadium and all but Ash replaced our Sarries flags with Exeter ones. We then spent some time enjoying the atmosphere, chatting to some other fans – including a discussion with a lovely Saracens fan about the new Gloucester badge – and also taking part in a couple of the challenges.

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Our predictions ahead of the game

Phil, Ash and I made a passable makeshift front row for a scrum simulator, while Sam was the only one to have any success on the place kick simulator, putting his final kick through the posts while the rest of us struggled to even get the ball to reach the posts in the air. And of course, there was no way we were going to turn down the chance of a photo with the trophy! 33714942_10160497822865191_8037362314652942336_n.jpgThis chance to enjoy the entertainment alongside fans of all the different Premiership teams reminded me just why I love rugby so much; you wouldn’t be able to do this in many football leagues.

From there we made our way up to our seats in the top tier and we were able to appreciate just how well the seating at HQ had been designed as despite being so far from the pitch we had a wonderful view and were still able to discern who most of the players were with relative ease. The game began and even though the result did not go the way 3 of us wanted, we all enjoyed the match and the atmosphere so much! For more on my thoughts on the match itself, see my article here. After the game, we stayed in the stadium a while to applaud Saracens while they celebrated their win, allowing the worst of the crowds to disperse as we knew that the road we needed to get onto would be closed until 6pm.33767874_10160497821650191_4259702857130835968_n

From the stadium, it was a short stroll back to the car and by this point the roads were beginning to open up, though it still took a while to get out of London on some of the busier roads. Phil was given the honour of being allowed to drive the Merc home and Sam took over as DJ for the return journey, treating us to some easy 90s, cos everybody loves a bit of Phil Collins. Similar to how the day needed a good start at the carvery, it needed a good finish too, so we stopped at the Harvester at Swindon services and filled ourselves up while catching the first half of the Champions League final on Phil’s phone, while I relied on a friend for updates on the Pro14 final. Suitably well-fed, we got back in the car to complete the last leg of the journey and found ourselves bidding ach other farewell about 9pm.

A 13 hour day well worth it, bring on next year – hopefully with Gloucester competing in the final!