May 2018 Rugby Ramble

May 2018 Rugby Ramble

Legend of the game

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

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

Congratulations Nolli and thank you for everything!


Qualification nightmare

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

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

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

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


Get low

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

WORLD RUGBY U20 TROPHY

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

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

WORLD RUGBY U20 CHAMPIONSHIP

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

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

A tackler will be deemed to be upright when:

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

Sanctions:

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

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

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

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

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


WRUWelsh woes

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

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

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

Keeping Up with the Glaws Family

The Glaws family has been growing in recent years. As well as the main team, the academy has been going from strength to strength and one of the big benefits of this has been Hartpury RFC, who will generally have a couple of Gloucester players registered to play for them and last year won promotion to the Championship following an unbeaten campaign. Gloucester-Hartpury Women’s RFC were also formed in 2014 and have been included in the new Premier 15s competition.

With all 3 leagues now well underway – and the first break of the season coming up for the men’s leagues for Europe and the British & Irish Cup – I thought that this would be a good chance to look at how each of the teams are doing this season.

 

Gloucester-Hartpury

The first season of the Premier 15s could not have gone much better for the women so far. 4 rounds of matches see Glos-Hartpury sitting 4thin the league with 3 wins and 1 loss, with a points difference of +54. They have also scored 3 try-bonus points to total 15 points so far. They have won against Richmond, Wasps and Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, and even their loss was a narrow 28-20 defeat at Bristol.

Prem15s
The Premier 15s table after 4 rounds. From http://www.premier15s.com

Considering they are such a new team and had been playing in a league below most of their opponents, I thought that this season may be a struggle for them, but they have recruited well and boast a number of players capped by England, including WRWC2017 squad members Zoe Aldcroft and Sarah Bern, Bianca Blackburn, World Cup winner Ceri Large and Megan Goddard, who has been named in the first ever Barbarians women’s squad.

It is still early days and they still need to play the early leaders Harlequins and Saracens – who are both currently unbeaten – but I feel that Glos-Hartpury have the ability to finish at least mid-table and perhaps even hold onto a top-4 spot.

Hartpury RFC

Despite going unbeaten – and getting try-bonus points in all but 2 – in National League 1 last season, I was worried that Hartpury may struggle with the jump up to the professional RFU Championship. So far those fears seem largely unfounded, as they have won 2, drawn 1 and lost 3 of their opening 6 matches, leaving them 7th in the table with 16 points. They may currently have a losing record, but even their losses have been close affairs: 31-28 at Nottingham, 19-20 against Jersey and the season opening 26-15 at Bristol. This Bristol team are probably one of the strongest teams to feature in the league in modern rugby, yet from what I’ve heard Hartpury were unlucky with a couple of decisions in this game that could have easily resulted in them stealing the win.

Champ
The Championship table after Round 6. From http://www.championshiprugby.co.uk

Hartpury have a pair of experienced Premiership props in former Gloucester players Rupert Harden and Dan Murphy and also have a couple of capped internationals in Rhys Oakley and Robbie Shaw. But where Hartpury should be really excited is in their young players, and their links with Gloucester Rugby. Maliq Holden looked an evasive runner in the BUCS Men’s Rugby Championship Final in April, and Gloucester have also supplied 4 academy players this season: Charlie Chapman, Alex Craig, Harry Randall and Alex Seville.

I am a massive fan of former Hartpury and Gloucester scrum half Dan Robson and think he should be given the chance to start for England. But I am really excited by Harry Randall and honestly think he will be the starter for England in the future. He has really impressed me whenever I have seen him play, whether for Hartpury or the England U20s. When I went to Kingsholm for the Charlie Sharples Testimonial – 2 pre-season friendlies for Gloucester against Hartpury and Scarlets – my uncle and I came away both saying that Randall was the best 9 on the pitch that evening! He may not look like a stereotypical modern rugby player – he often looks dwarfed by the players around him – but he reads the game well and reacts quickly to take advantage of any gap in the defence. I can’t wait to see him featuring for Gloucester in future years.

Gloucester

We may have to go back to the 2012/13 season to find the last time Gloucester finished in the top half of the table, but the arrival of Johan Ackermann from the Lions have given fans hope that a return to the top could soon be on the cards. So far it has been a mixed bag for the cherry and whites: they have won all 3 of their home games – including the season-opener against the defending champions – but have lost all 3 away games and currently sit in a familiar 8th place with 14 points. The 57-10 loss at Sale a few weeks back has been a huge downer for fans but on the whole even if the results have not always been there, there has been evidence that things are picking up at the club. Kingsholm once again looks a fortress and there is some great attacking play coming from the team, so it is only a matter of time before the results start coming on the road.

Prem
The Premiership table after 6 rounds. From http://www.englandrugby.com

Like many teams, Gloucester are down a number of players at the moment through injury: Tom Marshall and Ross Moriarty are both likely to be regular starters yet neither has featured yet this season. Other expected regulars Charlie Sharples, Matt Scott, Mark Atkinson, Ed Slater, Billy Burns and Owen Williams have all missed time too. Combined with that, they lost star winger Jonny May late in the summer to Leicester and also lost Carl Fearns after protracted negotiations. Considering all these losses, and with the Lion’s run to the Super Rugby Final delaying Ackermann’s arrival until 3 weeks before the start of the season, I think that 3 wins from 6 and 2 bonus points is a good starting point to build from when the big names are back.

There have been a couple of reasons for Gloucester fan to smile so far. New signings Ruan Ackermann and Jason Woodward have quickly made an impact at their new club. Let’s not forget that Woodward was able to beat out Julian Savea to a starting spot on the wing at the Hurricanes, so I expect him to move into the 11 shirt once Tom Marshall is back… the thought of 2 kiwis in our back 3 must surely be exciting Shedheads. A late signing, Ruan Ackermann has been big for Gloucester so far with Moriarty out injured. He is a big bruising player and at only 21 is just going to get better and better. Judging by the way Ackermann has been setting up his back rows so far, I can imagine Ackermann and Moriarty often taking the field together at 6 and 8. What must be remembered though is that he has not really had an offseason, so will likely need a break or heavily reduced minutes as the season goes on. But by far the best news so far for Gloucester has been the form of Henry Trinder. The centre – finally getting a run of games without injury – is showing the Harry Potter magic that earned him a call-up to the England squad to face the Barbarians in 2014 and you have to imagine that if he can keep this form going and sidestep any injuries like he is opposition players [full credit to my mate Phil Alder for that line] then he could put himself in contention for more England caps.

Some fans may disagree and feel that top 5 is a must this season. While this would be great, I will myself be happy with 6th/7th providing the performances are clearly improved from last year and there is less of questioning as to which team will turn up each week… we’re Gloucester, after all, not Les Bleus! If we don’t start to get this consistency, then I think it will be time to show David Humphreys the door.

WRWC2017: A Tournament in Review

Hi guys, sorry for the delay in getting this one out, I’ve been planning this since the start of the tournament but the last week has been pretty busy with work and my personal life! Hopefully the wait will have been worth it.

 

Last Saturday saw the end of the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup. The first tournament since the 4-year cycle was brought forward by a year to line up with the Olympics and Sevens World Cup, this was a great advert for women’s rugby that finished with the top 2 teams in the world playing each other in a thrilling final. New Zealand ran out eventual winners – their fifth time as World Champions – to continue the record of England having never beat the kiwis in a senior Rugby World Cup in either the men’s or the women’s game. The final standings in the tournament were:

  1. New Zealand
  2. England
  3. France
  4. USA
  5. Canada
  6. Australia
  7. Wales
  8. Ireland
  9. Italy
  10. Spain
  11. Japan
  12. Hong Kong

Due to the coverage moving from Sky to ITV, I was able to see much more of the tournament this time around (though not as much as I’d have liked) and as such, these are my overall thoughts on the tournament:

 

As good a game as the men’s

Oddly in this day and age, the idea of women playing rugby still seems amusing to some people. Hopefully they watched a couple of matches while the World Cup was on and took note of how wrong they are.

Though the strength of some of the lesser teams in the tournament may have been lacking, the top teams were throwing themselves into tackles every bit as hard as the men would, with Australia’s opening match against Ireland full of big hits. During the tournament I heard the play described as being similar to Colts rugby. While this may initially sound like an insult, the reasoning behind it made sense to me, as the women’s game still relies heavily on talent and passing skills rather than a team’s ability to hit someone hard, kick for territory or land every penalty kick within 45 metres of the posts.

The important thing now is that the women’s game continues to push on. England were the only team all on professional contracts, yet even they are now reducing down to professional contracts for the 7s team only, which is what we currently see for many of the top teams like New Zealand and Australia. Imagine how much better these teams could be if they were able to focus on rugby as a profession, the game would just get better and better! England’s strength in depth was making them look almost unbeatable until the second half of the final. Australia won the gold medal for 7s at the Rio Olympics, just imagine the quality that they could bring to 15s if given the funding by the ARU. Hopefully by the next tournament, we will have at least a couple of fully professional teams.

Disappointing Irish

Everything that I have seen or heard suggests that the host nation got everything right in the way the tournament went, from the organisation to the behaviour of the local supporters. The only thing the hosts didn’t get right was the performance of their own team. Having made the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup courtesy of a group stage win over the Black Ferns and, more recently, facing the Red Roses in a Grand Slam showdown at the end of this years 6 Nations, the Irish only managed narrow wins over Australia and Japan before a loss to France denied them a place in the semis. In the knockouts, they lost to the Wallaroos and then Wales to finish outside the top 7, meaning they will not automatically qualify for the next World Cup.

The hosts could consider themselves unlucky, as they did lose captain Niamh Briggs to injury not long before the tournament and they were also in arguably the Group of Death as with both France and Australia in their pool, Pool C was the only team with 3 real possibilities for the semis. Regardless, much more was expected from the women in green and they will be understandably disappointed by the way things went.

The also-rans

I felt so sorry for Hong Kong in this tournament. This was the first time they had qualified for the World Cup and they end up in Pool A alongside possible semi-finalists New Zealand and Canada and an improving Wales team. I watched their match against New Zealand and if truth be told the one-sidedness was at times painful to watch. This is not a criticism of Hong Kong, but more a comment at the difference in quality across the tournament.

A look back through the results shows that Japan were the only team to manage competitive results whilst finishing bottom of their pool, yet even they did not manage a bonus point. Neutrals are more likely to watch competitive games, so I have 2 possible ways in which we could increase the number of competitive games as the tournament moves on:

  1. Change the pool format: One option would be to spread the 12 nations over 2 pools of 6 rather than 3 pools of 4. Not only will the lower-ranked teams have more competitive games, but so will the higher ranked teams, meaning that there will be more importance to strength of the entire squad as there will be more competition throughout the tournament. This format also leads itself nicely into the current format for the playoffs, where the top 4 teams go into the semi-finals, the rest of the top 8 go into another playoff and the bottom 4 go into a final playoff.
  2. Expand the tournament: Another option would be to expand the tournament to 16 teams, allowing 4 pools of 4. While there is such a gap in quality, this may make it easier for the top teams to cruise through the pools, it would allow the lower ranked teams more competitive matches. By doing this, World Rugby would then have option as to how they want to do the playoffs. The playoffs could have 4 tiers, with the pool winners competing in the semis, second place from each pool in the next tier and so on. Alternatively they could expand the playoffs to include a quarter-final stage, with the top 2 from each pool qualifying for this (they could increase the automatic qualifiers to be the 8 teams who make it into the quarters) while the other 8 teams go into a playoff of their own.

I think of the 2 options, the first would be better in current circumstances due to the money available to women’s rugby, however I would love to see the tournament expand to include more teams. Scotland, Fiji, Samoa and Brazil come straight to mind as other possible competitors, and I’m sure there are other nations out there who feel they would be able to compete at this level.

Give us more!

While I was happy that the tournament was being shown on free-to-air TV, I was disappointed that we did not see more of the matches on live TV. With all games within a round being played on the same day, I can understand why not all the games were shown, however I was surprised that on Saturdays we often only had England’s match being broadcast, I would have thought we could at least get coverage of all the home nations’ games!

Yes these games may have been available online, but that will not grow the fan base as much as having the games on live TV. Would people really have missed their re-runs of Storage Wars that much for just a couple of weeks?

I was also very disappointed that there was no highlights show for the tournament. During the U20s World Championship in the summer, the only game shown live was the final, however there was a highlights show for each round of the tournament. With the quality of punditry ITV had – David Flatman is probably one of my favourite pundits and Maggie Alphonsi has transitioned well from pitch to studio – a highlights show would have been the perfect way to draw in new fans to the sport.

Eyes On: WRWC2017 Final – England v New Zealand

The 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup was given the send-off it deserved with a titanic battle between England and New Zealand. This match, shown live in the primetime evening slot on ITV1 started in terrific fashion with a minute’s silence for the late Colin Meads between the anthems and the haka, a start that the game lived up to. After an early New Zealand try, the Red Roses took control of the first half, only for a late try to make the halftime score 17-10 in favour of the defending champions. However the Black Ferns upped the ante in the second half and ran out 32-41 winners, earning their 5th World Cup tournament victory.

This was a disappointing loss for the Red Roses, the only fully professional team in the tournament, but there was also plenty for the players to be proud of and a good sign of things to come:

 

New stars

Though there were a number of players representing England in their 4th World Cup, there were also a number of players making their debuts in this year’s tournament, with 2 notable names in the starting XV for the final.

With many England centres having spent time in 7s recently, Megan Jones took the chance given to her to grab a place in the World Cup squad. Impressive when used earlier in the tournament, it was great to see her trusted with a starting spot against the Black Ferns with Danielle Waterman missing through concussion. She may not have been as impressive as in some of the earlier games, but she held her own at outside centre, allowing Emily Scarratt to move to fullback, from where she caused the Black Ferns a number of issues in the first half.

Even more impressive though was prop Sarah Bern. The 20-year-old just seemed to get better as the tournament went on and was probably one of England’s best players in the opening 40. She followed up her try in the semi-final with a strong early run down the right wing and was causing the New Zealand scum so many issues, helping lead to a penalty try.

Both these players should continue to improve and be even better come the next tournament in 2021, I just worry that the RFU’s decision to cut the number of professional contracts to focus on 7s will negatively impact their progression, especially that of Bern who I highly doubt will be part of the 7s setup.

Questionable England

Back when Stuart Lancaster was in charge of the men’s national team, there were often comments made about the way he often appeared to pre-plan his substitutions rather than react to how the game is going. It felt like Simon Middleton had gone to the Stuart Lancaster School of Substitutions for the final. The entire front row was replaced soon after half time, despite having a clear advantage over their Kiwi counterparts. Even more surprising to me was the early replacement of Rachael Burford, as I have often felt that she is the linchpin of the defence. The French looked much more likely to score after Burford was removed in the semi-final, and it certainly felt like the Kiwis started to get the upper hand once the substitutions began.

They were also defending very narrow on a regular basis, with Scarratt and Kay Wilson having to defend against a number of cross-kicks to their wing. While one of these was off target and led to nothing, 2 of these resulted in New Zealand tries. I understand that a narrow defence is often preferred as it is easier to scramble defence outside rather than through the middle, but if you are going to invite such a skilful team to attack you in a certain way, you need to make sure that you can cope with it.

More than that, I don’t understand the tactics that England were trying to play after the break. It felt like almost every time the Red Roses got the ball, they were kicking possession back to New Zealand and inviting them to attack again. There was clearly some quality in the England attack, so I don’t understand why they didn’t trust themselves to keep the ball and go through the phases a bit more. In an interview after the game, Scarratt was quoted as saying “Rugby is really hard to play without the ball and we didn’t have the ball in the second half”. As good as the Black Ferns were in the second half, they were certainly given a helping hand by England.

Luck of the Irish

Let me start this section by making something very clear: New Zealand were the better team over 80 minutes and fully deserved the win. That said, there were a number of decisions that they could consider lucky to have gone their way.

Selica Winiata’s opening try came from a lucky bounce that benefited her. If that had bounced almost anywhere else or been taken on the full by Portia Woodman – who England kept quiet on the night – then it is unlikely this try would have been scored.

Their 1st try after half time should have been disallowed as fly half Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali presented the ball after being tackled on the line, before grabbing the ball again and offloading from the floor to try scorer Toka Natua when still on the floor. This is a clear penalty to England and would have given the Red Roses a chance to clear their lines and get possession back. Natua’s 3rd try was also questionable as to my eyes it seemed that the ball was knocked on when she initially presented the ball in the tackle and got back to her feet about 10m out. I was very surprised by how quickly the TMO awarded the try in that case as when I saw the initial replay I felt it was a knock on and I still feel that having watched the incident numerous times.

I also felt that hat-trick hero Natua was lucky not to receive a yellow early in the game for what was deemed to be a high tackle but also contained no arms and think that the Black Ferns should have received a team yellow for persistent offending much earlier than the 76thminute, considering how early in the game referee Joy Neville gave a warning to the captain.

As I said, I still feel that the Black Ferns deserved the win, but on the biggest stage it is important to get the big calls right. I think that on the whole the officials did a good job in the game, but these decisions could have easily changed the course of the match.

 

 

Keep an eye out for my views on the tournament as a whole, likely due up in the next few days as I’ve had a busy couple of days.

2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back

What a summer it is turning into for women’s sport in England! The Cricket team won the World Cup and the Football team made back-to-back semi-finals in a major tournament before losing to host nation the Netherlands in the Euros. Now attention turns to the Rugby World Cup, where the Red Roses begin the defence of their title in Ireland. The title defence begins on Wednesday against Spain, with further group games against Italy and the USA following in order to earn their place in the semi-finals.

Recent results suggest that the Red Roses are in fine form so, despite a couple of late injuries, they will consider themselves in with a good chance of winning consecutive World Cups for the first time ever. The build-up will have been greatly helped by 50 players spending the last season on professional contracts on either a full- or part-time basis. To go alongside this, the RFU have created a new top-tier league, the Premier 15s, as the new top tier in English club rugby, due to start in September. While this all looks like a big step forward for Women’s Rugby, things may not be as perfect as it seems.

 

With the Premier 15s having 2 teams more than its predecessor the Women’s Premiership, it would have made sense for all 8 of those teams to be included along with 2 other teams, however Lichfield were unsuccessful in their application – the only Women’s Premiership team to be excluded – as there was a team considered a better option in their geographical area (Loughborough Students), despite 3 of the 10 teams coming from the South West and a further 4 from London. This is nothing against Loughborough Students, but this is a step up in level for them, whereas Lichfield have been in the Women’s Premiership since 2003 and have boasted a number of current England internationals, who are now going to have to leave clubs that in some cases they have spent their whole rugby career at in order to keep pushing for the national team.

But it’s not just the selection of clubs that has seemed questionable from the RFU. The much-lauded 50 professional contracts will be reduced back down to just 17 full-time professional contracts, with the RFU’s international focus switching from 15s to 7s after the World Cup. This seems like a huge step backwards for a couple of reasons:

A number of players gave up their jobs for these professional contracts, now many of them are going to have to go and seek employment again, simply because they are only considered suitable for the 15-a-side game as opposed to 7s. This is not fair on the players who every couple of years will have the chance of a 15s contract but are then left to fend for themselves after the World Cup, but will still be expected to turn up and perform for the national team during the 6 Nations and other internationals. The 50 contracts spread over 15s and 7s was brilliant and really helped put England at the forefront of women’s rugby. The danger is that a focus on 7s could see the current World Champions begin to struggle, much like they did in the first 6 Nations when most of their stars were playing in the World Sevens Series.

What makes this even worse is that the RFU are switching the focus between 15s and 7s, but expecting some of the players to also switch focus. 7s and 15s are very different variations in the game, to the point that they could be considered different sports! The basic skills are the same, but there is much more focus on speed and fitness in 7s and the tactics are very different. We saw how few stars of the men’s 15 sides made it into the 7s sides for the Olympics simply because it’s something very different to what they usually play. The RFU cannot focus on just one of these variations as it will be to the detriment of the other. As I mentioned above, the 15s team struggled in a 6 Nations tournament the first season that their stars were moved to the 7s side. With many of the stars back in the 15s side in preparation for the World Cup this season, the 7s team finished outside the top 6 of the World Sevens Series for the first time in the tournament’s 5-year history. Players should be allowed to focus on one variation of the sport to be the best that they can, with perhaps a couple of players who’s skillset makes them perfect for both playing in whichever format is required.

 

Given the funding that the RFU puts into the women’s game, England should be competing near the top of both disciplines of the game rather than focusing on 1. If they were able to hand out 50 professional contracts this year, then the player base is clearly there and will just continue to grow if the Red Roses can continue to be successful. Women’s Super Rugby will help towards this, but I hope the RFU change their decision to focus on one discipline at a time. After all, we all want to see England winning tournaments, don’t we?

Bringing Rugby to the Masses

Amidst the copious write-ups of the 6 Nations and stories about the sad passing of both Joost van der Westhuizen and Sione Lauaki, one story that probably didn’t get as much attention as it deserved last week was the announcement that ITV have secured the rights to broadcast the 2019 and 2023 Rugby World Cups. Well it is great to see such a big tournament still being kept visible to such a wide audience on free-to-air TV, probably the best bit of the story was that this year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup and the U20s World Championships 2017-2019 will also be broadcast on ITV.

One of my earliest ever articles on this site was rather critical of the amount of broadcasting that the women’s game gets, and it looks like some of the people at the top agreed, as this year has so far been very promising for the broadcasting of the women’s game.

Though there are not just one or two broadcasters showing the Women’s 6 Nations tournament in the UK as it is for the men’s game, all the England matches are being shown live on Sky Sports. Likewise many of the Wales games are also featuring on S4C or BBC Wales, so it is good to see that, even if it is not on free-to-air TV, broadcasters are becoming more willing to show this tournament. Hopefully this will be the first step in a process that will end with all games in the tournament being broadcast by the same company, or spread over just a couple of broadcasters, allowing people to watch more of the tournament as a whole.

The BBC have also created a 30 minute weekly highlights show for the Women’s 6 Nations. This is part of the reason that I have held off writing this for a week, as I wanted to watch this show for a couple of weeks to properly judge it. I have been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the program, with decent highlights being shown – it does tend to focus more on England, but that is almost to be expected – and also a good calibre of guests giving analysis. There is no point getting the usual BBC pundits if they have no knowledge of the women playing, so I have been very happy to see big names from the women’s game like Gary Street and Non Evans on the show so far. In recent years, we have had to rely on the BBC giving a quick montage of any games that had been played up to that point in the week, or games from the week before, so it is good to now have these highlights in more detail and on free-to-air TV. Some people may be unable to watch games that are on Sky, or may not yet be big enough fans of the women’s game to consider it worth 2 hours of their time to watch live, so this highlights show will help keep fans up to date and hopefully help to build up a bigger fan base for the women’s game.

It is great to see that the Women’s World Cup is getting the same treatment as the men’s by broadcasting it on ITV. ITV already have the highlights show for the Premiership and broadcast half the 6 Nations as well as all of the men’s World Cup, and will also be showing a number of live Premiership games from next season. It certainly feels as if they are trying to become the definitive free-to-air broadcaster of rugby union, and I think they have realised that the women’s game is an area of the sport that is growing at an impressive rate, especially after the performance of Team GB in Rio. With the (now professional) Red Roses defending their title so close to home, the interest in the tournament will stretch outside its usual group of fans, so free-to-air broadcasting will help spread women’s rugby to the masses. The agreement only seems to be for the 2017 tournament at the moment, but hopefully if this goes well we will see future tournaments being added to this.

While I was very happy to see the Women’s World Cup picked up by ITV, I was extremely surprised, but not in a bad way, to see ITV also pick up the next three U20s World Championships, starting this summer. Many of the games that I have seen in recent years have been entertaining affairs, with England’s regular success again likely increasing the interest in the tournament. We have also seen a number of recent graduates from the U20s featuring at the top levels, including Baptiste Serin, Jack Clifford, Ross Moriarty, Jack Nowell and Maro Itoje all starting games in the opening rounds of this year’s 6 Nations, and current members of the England U20s like Zach Mercer and Sale’s Curry twins regularly playing top-level rugby for their clubs. As we begin to build towards Tokyo 2019, some of these players may be making it into the senior national teams in time for the World Cup, and I’m sure many more will be making the step up in the years following, it’s never to early to start watching the stars of the future.

I may not be the biggest fan of ITV sports coverage in general – I hate the regular ad breaks – but the quality of the rugby broadcasts have generally impressed me over recent years. I can only see this new deal with ITV as a positive. Current and new fans will have more access to live rugby, the sport will be able to reach a wider audience and ITV will have the chance to increase their viewing figures during these tournaments, whilst improving their monopoly over a number of free-to-air sporting events. Next thing on the list: get the Women’s Premiership televised!

 

What are your thoughts on the new broadcasting deal? Are you enjoying the increased coverage for the Women’s 6 Nations? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

A Welcome Bonus?

This week it was announced that Bonus Points will be added to the 6 Nations competition as of 2017. The biggest shake-up to the tournament in years, the announcement has certainly divided opinion in the rugby world. Having spoken to 4 of my close friends, I have found myself feeling very much positive about the change, but only half of them have agreed with me.

Moving forward, the points on offer in the 6 Nations will be:

  • Win – 4 points
  • Draw – 2 points
  • Loss –  0 points
  • Scoring 4+ tries – 1 bonus point
  • Lose by fewer than 7 points – 1 bonus point
  • Win all 5 games (the Grand Slam) – 3 bonus points

While it may not impact the standings every year (the 2016 table looks the same under both point systems), here are my thoughts on what this change means to the competition:

Attack! Attack! Attack!

While the last couple of 6 Nations tournaments have had thrilling final weekends, the rest of the tournament has not regularly reached even close to the same level of excitement. Admittedly, February and March are not always the best months for playing expansive rugby from your own 22, but hopefully the new bonus points will encourage more attacking play. Teams are clearly able to score tries, they just need the incentive to do so throughout the tournament.

It frequently comes up in conversation how different the quality of rugby appears to be when you see teams from the Rugby Championship (maybe excluding South Africa at the moment) executing stunning attacks involving everyone on the field. The skill set seems to put more of an emphasis on playing rugby rather than physically dominating your opposite number. It can be highlighted by the decision of the Welsh coaching staff to repeatedly pick Dan Lydiate, arguably a great defensive player and relentless tackler but not much of a factor in attack, in favour of Justin Tipuric, who frequently impresses with his ball-playing abilities in open play.

Hopefully the addition of bonus points will lead to teams being more willing to go for the try, leading not just to the selection of talented attacking players, but also to a change of mindsets to encourage more penalties to be kicked to the corner rather than at goal. It will hopefully also encourage teams to continue playing for the full 80 minutes in the hopes of getting something from the game, reducing the number of games where the final 20 minutes feel like 2 teams going through the motions. Surely this can only be good for the fans…

Protecting the Grand Slam

The idea of introducing bonus points to the 6 Nations is not a new thing. Whenever it has been mooted previously, I have liked the idea behind it, but been worried about the possibility of a team winning the Grand Slam but losing the tournament to a team who has lost a game but earned more bonus points. Luckily, someone had their thinking cap on and included an extra 3 bonus points for beating all the opposition.

I’ve done the maths here (maybe with the help of a calculator) and calculated that the minimum number of points that can be earned in a Grand Slam campaign (5 wins, no 4 try BPs, 3BPs for the GS) is 23. The maximum number of points a team with 4 wins and a loss can manage (4 wins, 5 BPs for 4 tries, 1 BP for losing by fewer than 7) is 22.

The ultimate prize of the Grand Slam has been protected by the people at the top, which was surely the biggest worry whenever bonus points were considered previously. Players are used to this points system from their domestic leagues and the World Cup. With the caveat of the extra points for a Grand Slam, doesn’t it make sense to make this points system universal in the top league?

What next?

The change to the points system will be in effect for the U20’s 6 Nations as well as both the men’s and women’s 6 Nations tournaments in 2017, with plans to review it after the tournament. I am a bit surprised that it will be reviewed after just one season, but hope that it is given a real chance and not ditched if the effect is limited in the first year. It may take fans a bit of time to get used to it, but I have faith that it will be well received for the most part if given a chance.

This could possibly be the biggest shake-up to the tournament since the inclusion of Italy, but I am sure that it won’t be so long until the next one. The performance of Georgia in recent seasons has rightly led to many calling for them to be brought into the tournament, either through an expansion or the introduction of promotion and relegation. I am very much in favour of expansion, but definitely feel that whatever the decision is, it needs to be sooner rather than later. This Autumn has shown that the quality of International Rugby in Europe is at a high point right now, it needs to be given every chance to flourish, and what better way than to have regular games between Tier 1 teams and Tier 2/3 teams.

What will happen next? Only time will tell…