Finding a Fly Half

Finding a Fly Half

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

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

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

Matthew Morgan/Steven Shingler – Cardiff Blues

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

Jason Tovey – Cross Keys

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

Demetri Catrakilis – Harlequins

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

Owen Williams/Lloyd Evans – Gloucester

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

Max Malins – Saracens

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

Jamie Shillcock – Worcester

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

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

The Premiership and Pro14 seasons came to an end on Saturday with the showpiece events at Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium respectively. In the Premiership final, table-toppers Exeter started well but were unable to make the breakthroughs needed to defeat a clinical Saracens side, while a late Scarlets fightback at the Aviva was not enough to deny Leinster a Pro14/Champions Cup double.

I was at Twickenham with a few friends so was delayed watching the Pro14 final until late on Sunday, but also watched the Premiership final again to see if there was anything I missed from my position in the Twickenham stands. Keep an eye out over the next week (hopefully) for my write-up on our trip to HQ.

Before I get into this, a quick congratulations to Wayne Barnes, who was refereeing his 200th Premiership match on Saturday. He is a wonderful referee and in my opinion one of the best – if not the best – referees in the world at the moment.

Exeter 10 – 27 Saracens

Exeter were so effective against Newcastle in the semi-final with their possession-heavy attacking style to draw in the defence and create the space to exploit out wide. When they started the game with 100% possession for the first 9 and a half minutes I genuinely thought that they were on their way to a victory. However, the Saracens defence never allowed themselves to get drawn too narrow and dealt with everything the Chiefs threw at them. What really disappointed me was the fact that Exeter didn’t appear to have a Plan B. They kept trying to hit it up the middle and though they were able to hold possession relatively well they were not making much ground and when they went wide they had not earned it and were easily shut off on most occasions. Joes Simmonds did not have a bad game but he just couldn’t find a way to break down Saracens, and when Gareth Steenson came on in his place early in the second half he had only a little more luck. Exeter have a wonderful squad and most teams will struggle to deal with their usual tactics, but if they want to regularly win silverware, they need to have some backup tactics for teams that can deal with their usual style of play.

finalcongratWhat a performance by Saracens! Their defence was nigh-on impregnable, refusing to be drawn narrow while still effectively closing up the middle of the pitch. Their discipline was important too and they only gave away 2 kickable penalties in the first half before building up enough of a points difference in the second that Exeter were unable to rely on kicks at goal. In fact, Gareth Steenson’s try was the only time the Sarries try line really felt at risk and that was helped by Schalk Brits’ yellow card meaning a back (in this case Chris Wyles) had to be sacrificed to bring Jamie George back on from the scrum. With Paul Gustard leaving England for Harlequins following the South Africa tour, Eddie Jones could do much worse than asking Sarries’ defence coach Alex Sanderson to join the national team as Gustard’s replacement.

Leinster 40 – 32 Scarlets

They may not always be the most attractive team to watch, but Leinster are so effective and know how to win games. They have such depth in their squad but more than that, they adapt to the environment and the team they are playing against. Johnny Sexton is so used to the Aviva Stadium from matches with Leinster and Ireland so knows exactly how to deal with the conditions and after seeing the struggles the Scarlets were having under the high ball (more on that below), he continued to pepper them with high balls throughout the match, while Rob Kearney – one of the best in the world under the high ball – and Jordan Larmour put heavy pressure on the catcher every single time. As well as the high balls, Sexton also controlled the territory with some wonderful kicking to touch, including one penalty he put out about 3 metres from the try line, while his range of passing took advantage of any gaps in the Scarlets defence. They may be losing a couple of players this summer, but I find it hard to bet against them defending their Pro14 title next season.

Scarlets play such sexy rugby, but sometimes they just need to be a bit more pragmatic. Rhys Patchell and Gareth Davies are incredible attacking players, but they are not currently the best at playing the less sexy but possibly more important territorial game. Much like how Exeter need to create a Plan B, the Scarlets need to do so as well. On top of that, some players need to work on individual weaknesses over the summer. Steff Evans and Leigh Halfpenny failed to cope with 8 high balls throughout the course of the match, immediately gifting Leinster possession and territory. Winning against the big teams both in club and international rugby requires players in the back 3 that can deal with the high ball effectively, so if they don’t improve they could see their appearances limited in the big matches for both Scarlets and Wales next season as opposition teams will deliberately target them as Sexton did on Saturday.

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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.

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

Pro14 Rugby Ramble

The Lion King

Now I may not be the smartest guy in England, but I’d like to think I still know better than to pet a lion, especially when they are the other side of a fence. Unfortunately for the Ospreys, hooker Scott Baldwin decided that this would be a good idea when visiting Weltevrede Game Lodge ahead of the team’s match against the Cheetahs. The Welsh international missed the game as he required stitches to his hand, which will leave him out of action while he recovers.

The Ospreys went on to lose 44-25 which is not leaving them in a good position. They have now lost their last 4 games – including a 16-6 defeat away to Benetton – despite having a squad containing a number of internationals. They need an uplift in their fortunes soon, but to lose their first choice hooker will certainly not help.

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They’re called the King of the Jungle for a reason – Picture from Flikr – Mathias Appel

We all make mistakes, hopefully Scott Baldwin will remember this moment – and how lucky he is to have not been hurt worse! – and learn from his mistake. Meanwhile, I’m sure Ospreys fans will be hoping for a swift recovery.

The Italian Job

How great is it to see the Italian teams being competitive in the Pro14! It wasn’t that long ago people were discussing whether they still even deserved a place in the league, now Benetton have beaten Ospreys at home and Edinburgh away, while Zebre have picked up wins in South Africa against the Kings and most recently at home to Ulster, who were unbeaten until then. To put into perspective how well they are doing, Benetton (9 points) and Zebre (10 points) have both earned more points than more respected opponents Cardiff Blues and Ospreys (both on 5 points) and 2015/16 Pro12 Champions Connacht (8 points).

It may still be early days, but it looks like the Italians could finally be improving and making an impact on the league. I really hope this continues for the rest of the season and begins to benefit Conor O’Shea and the national team.

An African Adventure

People who know me will know that I have been very sceptical about the addition of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings to the competition, partially because I’m not sure that they belong there and also because I feel that the whole organisation of this has been rushed.

Leinster were forced to alter their squad after Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson-Park were unable to enter South Africa due to visa issues arising from a change in regulations relating to New Zealand nationals from January this year. Leinster have admitted that this was an administrative error, but considering how close it was to the season before the league and fixtures were announced, my gut feeling is that the competition organisers should have been informing all clubs of any visa regulations to ensure there were no issues.

The big arguments towards including the 2 South African sides was that it would bring extra revenue to the league through TV deals and an increased fan base, but is that really working so far? In their 3 home games so far, the Cheetahs have attendances of 13,982 against Zebre, 6,980 against Leinster and 4,589 against the Ospreys. The Kings have fared even worse with 4,062 against Zebre and 3,011 against Leinster. These attendances are on the whole shocking, and are made worse when you remember that the Cheetahs play at the 46,000-seater Free State Stadium and the Kings play in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium (48,000 capacity), leaving us with stadiums that look pretty much empty. We have also seen Friday’s game between the Cheetahs and Ospreys kick off at 4pm UK time, which is not at all sociable for UK rugby fans who work for a living and as a result can’t even watch the match live.

Finally, and most importantly, the rugby itself:

Week 1: Ulster 42-19 Cheetahs   –   Scarlets 57-10 Kings

Week 2: Munster 51-18 Cheetahs   –   Connacht 32-10 Kings

Week 3: Cheetahs 54-39 Zebre   –   Kings 10-31 Leinster

Week 4: Cheetahs 38-19 Leinster   –   Kings 17-43 Zebre

Week 5: Cheetahs 44-25 Ospreys   –   Dragons 29-13 Kings

To be fair to both teams, starting a season in foreign conditions with games against 3 of the Irish provinces and the reigning champions was always going to be a difficult task. In the last 3 rounds, though, the Cheetahs have used the favourable conditions in Bloemfontein to amass a 100% record at home, whereas the Kings have continued to struggle (they are the only team without a win or even a point to their name) and this weekend allowed the Dragons their first 4-try bonus point since March 2015.

It will take a while for both teams to get used to the different conditions and style of play in the Northern Hemisphere Rugby. Both of these teams are used to the much more flowing style of Super Rugby, so I am not too surprised to see them having conceded the most points over the first 5 weeks (192 allowed by the Kings, 176 by the Cheetahs). I think that if the Cheetahs can tighten up a bit defensively and continue to take advantage of playing their home matches at altitude, they could push for a spot in the playoffs, but the Kings need to find a way to improve quickly or they could find themselves at the foot of the table come May.

The Great Divide

I completely understand why the Pro14 was split into 2 conferences, a 26-game regular season and then playoffs would be far too long. However, we are already beginning to see the big issue with a conference system: the inequality.

The conferences were organised according to the finishing positions of teams last year, this does not mean the teams will be of a similar quality this year. After 5 weeks of competition last season’s weakest Welsh team, the Dragons, are currently on 9 points, whereas the Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys’ talented squad both find themselves on just 5 points. Benetton’s 9 points sees them above only the Kings in Conference B, but in a combined table they would actually just be in the top 10 right now.

Hopefully the Conferences will balance out by the end of the season, I would hate for a team to miss out on the playoffs or the Champions Cup due to being in the stronger Conference.

Money Talks

In my perusing of the internet last night, I came across articles from RugbyLAD and WalesOnline discussing some findings from data collected by Esportif Intelligence about the salaries of players in the Premiership compared to last year’s Pro12. Unfortunately I was not able to find their data/findings directly, but looking through the summaries from these other sites, there were a few things that I thought were worthy of discussion:

It’s no real surprise that the data showed the average salary of a player in the Premiership last season was higher than in the Pro12. The Premiership’s bumper TV deals have allowed clubs to splash the cash in order to compete against the Top14, whereas the failure of the Pro12 to have a centralised TV deal has made it hard for the teams to compete financially with their European rivals. What was interesting though is that despite the average salary being £30k lower than in the Premiership, the salaries for top players in the Pro12 last year were actually higher than the Premiership, to the point that a Pro12 combined XV would be more expensive than a Premiership combined XV. The disparity in the average player salary comes from the squad players, who appear to be paid considerably more in the Premiership than in the Pro14. If you’re a Pro12 player that is not being considered for national selection then there is very little incentive to stay in country when you see players in the Premiership being paid more to do the same or less!

The other big talking points come from the breakdown of average salaries by position. These figures were calculated by looking at player salaries and their starting position last year. From highest to lowest, the positions with the highest average salaries are:

Premiership:

  1. 10
  2. 12
  3. 4/5
  4. 15
  5. 3
  6. 11/14
  7. 8
  8. 7
  9. 9
  10. 13
  11. 1
  12. 2
  13. 6

Pro12:

  1. 10
  2. 4/5
  3. 8
  4. 15
  5. 9
  6. 6
  7. 11/14
  8. 13
  9. 2
  10. 7
  11. 1
  12. 12
  13. 3

It’s no real surprise that fly half is the best-paid position in both leagues as the fly half really is the quarterback of the team. A starting quality fly half is always in demand so this will also help to drive up the cost at this position. Combined with this, the fly half will often be a reliable goal kicker, so that will push the price of the position up even further.

What did surprise me was that open-side flanker was so low on the list in both countries, especially compared to second row, which features in the top 3 of both leagues. I think this shows something of the mentality of Northern Hemisphere rugby, as they prioritise a dominant set piece and dealing with the breakdown as a team rather than focusing on a specialised fetcher in the mould of Richie McCaw or David Pocock. The role of the second row is also becoming more diverse, with the set piece still vital but also an impact in open play now expected from even the average player. It would be very interesting to see the comparative salaries for Super Rugby over this time period.

It’s very interesting the discrepancy in salary for inside centres between the 2 leagues. In the Pro12 they are one of the lowest salaries, however in the Premiership they are second only to the fly half! As this looks at the starting positions of players last year, I think part of this comes down to the way the position is viewed. Over recent years, a number of Premiership clubs have regularly played a fly half at the centre position – Harry Mallinder, Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto and Jimmy Gopperth immediately spring to mind. We have already established that fly half is an expensive position, if fly halves are also plying their trade at 12, then it makes sense that this position is becoming more expensive.

The other big discrepancy was with the salary for a tighthead prop. This has traditionally been one of the most expensive positions in rugby due to the importance of the scrum and the technicality of the position. I’m pretty certain John Afoa has been one of the highest paid players in the Premiership over recent seasons. I think 5th in the Premiership sounds about right for the position, but I am shocked that it is actually the worst-paid position in the Pro12 last season. Beyond Tadhg Furlong and WP Nel, I would argue that there is not a depth in quality at the position, so it may be that clubs are currently hesitant to pay big money until they know a player is deserving of it.

 

It will be interesting to see how these figures continue to change over the coming year. The report suggests the salary gap will be even higher this year, but with the addition of the South African sides to the (now) Pro14, will this see the salaries become more competitive over the coming years? Only time will tell…

Gatland’s Law: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

“Gatland’s Law”: 2 words that can elicit a range of opinions from fans. The basic premise is that players can only be picked for the Welsh national team if they play their club rugby in Wales. Players who have signed new contracts outside of Wales since the law was brought in are ineligible unless they are picked as one of up to 3 ‘wildcards’. This is the Welsh equivalent of the rule that many unions are bringing in regarding eligibility for the national team in an effort to keep the talent in the country and improve the national team’s access to its stars.

However, due to the rules relating to contracts (more on this soon) and due to the availability of wildcard selections, Gatland’s law has become one of the most controversial and ridiculed of its kind, also arguably one of the least successful as internationals continue to leave for other leagues – most recently starting fly half Dan Biggar who will be moving to Northampton next summer.

For this article, I’ve decided to have a look at the pros and the cons of Gatland’s Law to see if this is something that the WRU should look at changing or scrapping

 

The Good

As mentioned above, a number of unions have similar rules about international selection in place, as there are legitimate reasons for keeping your players in country.

First and foremost is the benefit to the club game. Fans and broadcasters pay good money to watch the Regions play in the Pro14 and the European Cups. If all the international stars left the Regions then I doubt the interest would be anywhere near as high. The WRU need the regions to be successful and draw in revenue so that they can try to compete against other, richer unions. By enticing (blackmailing?) players to stay in Wales in order to feature for the national team, it allows the fans to see their heroes play on a regular basis and also helps the Regions to be competitive in competitions. Jonathan Davies looked fantastic in Scarlets’ playoff run as they won the Pro12 last season, having returned to Wales following a couple of seasons at Clermont. Would he have made this move if he had been free to play in a different league and yet still play for the national team? Likewise would Leigh Halfpenny have been more open to a move to the Premiership (there was clearly interest from a couple of attractive teams) if it wasn’t putting his international career at risk?

As well as helping the club game, it also helps the WRU at international level. In recent years the WRU have enjoyed arranging Test matches or training camps outside of the international window governed by World Rugby. During the windows, clubs must allow their players to attend camps or matches, however this is not required at other times and is at the discretion of the club. Though the club may be willing to let its players fulfil international commitments outside the window, Premiership Rugby Limited do not generally approve of players leaving outside the windows and have been known to sanction clubs for allowing it. By having the vast majority of the internationals playing for the Regions, it guarantees their availability whenever the national team requires them. It also allows their playing time to be managed over the season to ensure that they are not burned out when they are due to be playing in Test matches. Due to the size of the population and number of Regions playing in the top flight, the Welsh national team will never have the same possible player base as some countries, the WRU must do what they can to make the national team an clubs competitive.

The Bad

While the WRU understandably wants to keep star players with the Regions, they may in some circumstances benefit from playing outside of Wales. Without sounding harsh, how does being the star of a poor Dragons team benefit Taulupe Faletua compared with competing for a space in Bath’s all-star back row. Getting away from the Welsh for a moment, it’s always worth having a look at Jonny Wilkinson’s move to France. Being at Toulon appeared to give him a new lease of life and got him back into the international setup whilst also going on to be named ERC European Player of the Year in 2013.

Having all the stars playing regularly for the Regions also limits the opportunities for the up-and-coming young talent to play at the top level. Sam Davies looks to have real potential but has been having to share his playing time for the Ospreys with Dan Biggar. Had Biggar been playing outside the Pro14 the last couple of years, it would not surprise me to see Davies (IRB Junior Player of the Year 2013) starting for Wales on a more regular basis.

Gatland’s Law also puts players in a difficult position come contract negotiation time. Even with the Welsh dual-contracts, the Regions cannot afford to pay the same salaries that Premiership/Top 14 clubs can. A rugby player’s career is finite and playing the game for a long period is highly likely to cause health problems later in life. For those reasons can a player really be blamed for wanting to leave Wales for a more lucrative contract? I used the word ‘blackmail’ earlier in the article and while that may be a bit of a strong word, I’m sure that some players must have felt that they are in a difficult position when trying to arrange their future.

Finally, the national team as a whole does lose out if players choose to move abroad, as they are limited to just 3 wild card selections from outside Wales. By my count, Dan Biggar, Taulupe Faletau, George North, Jamie Roberts and Rhys Priestland will currently all be fighting for wildcard spots next season. There have been rumours swirling in recent weeks that Rhys Webb will moving to England or France when his contract expires this summer. Even if we ignore Roberts and Priestland, that’s already 4 starters fighting for 3 places. Who benefits from that? Certainly not the player or the national team.

The Ugly

There may actually be more regular internationals at risk from Gatland’s Law than I have mentioned above, however I am not certain due to one very worrying reason: nobody seems to know all of the conditions! Luke Charteris has moved to Bath since this was brought in yet he appears to be eligible for the national team without being a wildcard. My previous understanding was that if an exiled player chose to re-sign with the same club then he was still eligible for Wales, it was only if he moved to another club outside Wales that he became a wildcard, yet some of the articles I read to research this suggested that any new contract outside of Wales made you a wildcard. As a Gloucester fan hoping that Ross Moriarty signs an extension sooner rather than later, I would love to have some clarity relating to this! I also saw one article that suggested whether signing a new contract outside Wales made you a wildcard depended on there being a competitive offer from Wales at the same time. If that is the case, then what represents a competitive offer? If a player is offered a contract that makes him the best-paid player in the regions, but he can still get double the wage in England/France, then does that get considered a competitive offer?

Being an Englishman, I assumed that I was simply missing something that was common knowledge to Welsh fans so asked my go-to Welsh rugby expert what the situation was… He didn’t know either!

How is a fan meant to get on board with something if nobody knows the ins and outs. I remember when there was confusion over the RFU’s wording of ‘exceptional circumstances’ allowing a player outside of England to play for the national team, but that has since been cleared up. Now players, coaches and fans all know that you must be playing in England in order to be selected, so everybody is singing off the same hymn sheet.

 

I can see that there are some obvious benefits to keeping players within the country, but feel that something needs to be changed with Gatland’s Law. One way would be to go down the RFUs route of excluding anyone playing outside the country, however due to there only being 4 Regions compared to 12 Premiership teams I think the WRU would benefit from a selection policy similar to that of the ARU. Under the ARU’s selection policy, a player is eligible to play for Australia if they:

  • Play within Australia
  • Play outside Australia, but have held a professional contract with Australian rugby for at least 7 years and have played 60 or more Tests
  • Returns to Australia from exile on a contract that is at least 2 years long

This rewards those players who have been regulars for the national team by allowing them the chance to search for a more lucrative contract elsewhere while still being eligible for the national team, opening up a space for a talented youngster within the country’s top flight setup. Considering the WRU has for years allowed its players to go abroad, I would suggest leaving out the necessity for players to have held a professional contract within Wales for 7 years. I would also suggest perhaps a slightly lower number of caps, perhaps making the mark 50 caps as this is already a big milestone for a player to reach so would be a good way for the WRU to celebrate a player and thank them for their service.

I’m sure Gatland’s Law will continue to divide opinion amongst fans, so I would love to hear your opinions. What selection criteria (if any) would you apply if you were in charge of the WRU?