Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

It’s hard to believe but we’re already 3 weeks through Super Rugby Aotearoa and the teams are already starting to really separate themselves from each other in the standings. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs went to Christchurch in search of a crucial win but will find themselves returning home with just a losing bonus point, having not led at any point in the match.

In wet conditions, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie each slotted a first half penalty but it looked like the match would be devoid of much excitement, until Sevu Reece beat McKenzie to a high cross-kick from Mo’unga and broke down the right wing, before feeding the ball inside to Will Jordan for the go-ahead try. The same 2 players combined again shortly after half time, with a quick lineout from Reece catching out the Chiefs and allowing Jordan to run in uncontested. The Chiefs began to fight back after this and Sean Wainui crossed to narrow the deficit, but the Crusaders managed to hold on and remain one of only 2 teams still unbeaten in the tournament – the other being the Blues (3-0), who have a bye next week before their trip to Christchurch.

New kid on the block

If there’s one person currently that will be making All Blacks Head Coach Ian Foster reconsider a 10/15 playmaker axis, it’s Crusaders fullback Will Jordan. The 22-year-old has started the tournament in fine form and is currently keeping David Havili on the bench with his great performances.

In bad conditions today, Jordan looked assured under the high ball and made some incisive runs, finishing with a match-high 98 metres. Not only that, but he is clearly developing a good link with Sevu Reece, being in the right place to support for the opening try and seeing the opportunity with Reece to take a quick lineout for the second try. If he carries on like this, international recognition can’t be far away.

The only thing going against him right now, though, is that he is much more of a prototypical fullback, as opposed to the second playmaker that I think the All Blacks will be going for, especially given the great performances Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett are putting in at the position. It may be that for the near future at least, Jordan has to prove that he can also have a great impact on the game from the wing, much like Ben Smith and Israel Dagg did at times to keep themselves in All Blacks contention.

Play every second

The Chiefs certainly weren’t happy with the awarding of Will Jordan’s second try, but they had only themselves to blame. The laws state that a quick lineout can be taken provided it is on/behind the mark, nobody else has touched the ball and the lineout had already formed, which was exactly the circumstance when Reece fed Jordan for the crucial score.

It seemed like many of the team saw Aaron Cruden go over to speak to referee James Doleman and assumed that time was off. However, Cruden was not the captain so had no right to speak to the referee and was rightfully brushed away.

I always remember being told to play to the whistle, but in situations like this, it is a little more complicated than that. Usually the moment the ball goes into touch you can have a quick rest as you prepare for the set piece, but the one thing you can’t do is switch off mentally, as the moment you start doing things by rote rather than reacting to what’s going on around you is the moment your opponent will make you regret it.

Hopefully with Warren Gatland at the helm, the players will have learned from this mistake. But in the meantime, with just 2 points from 3 games, that is a costly and completely unnecessary mistake.

Set piece success

When you’re playing in wet conditions like in this match, there a 2 things you need more than anything else: a playmaker who can control the game and put you in the right areas of the pitch, and a pack that can gain the upper hand at the set piece. While both teams certainly had the former in Cruden, McKenzie and Mo’unga, it was the Crusaders pack that gained the advantage that probably proved crucial.

Of course the set piece is always important, but in bad conditions it becomes even more so as the territory game leads to more lineouts, while the greasy ball will likely lead to more handling errors and therefore more scrums.

In this match, the Crusaders pack managed to stop a 5m catch and drive from the lineout midway through the first half, despite the Chiefs throwing in a couple of backs to increase their numbers. They caused the lineout problems all game, especially after Chiefs’ replacement hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho entered the fray. Overall, the Chiefs ended up losing 4/20 (20%) of their own lineouts, while they also lost 1/5 of their scrums (20%) and found themselves being pushed back and giving away penalties on multiple occasions.

The old adage is that the forwards win the match and the backs decide by how much. The Crusaders once again showed that to be true.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Highlanders

Round 3 of Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off at Eden Park today s the Blues took on the Highlanders. The Blues topped the standings with 2 wins from 2 and got off to a perfect start as Caleb Clarke scored the opening try within just 6 minutes. The Highlanders levelled things up as captain Ash Dixon was driven over the line, but they soon found themselves behind as Scott Gregory’s attempted clearance from his own try line was charged down to gift Dalton Papali’i a try, while Reiko Ioane got on the end of a Caleb Clarke break soon after to extend the lead to 22-10 by halftime.

The Blues were slow out of the blocks in the second half and paid the price as Mitch Hunt slipped through for a try, and things soon got worse as Reiko Ioane was sent to the sin bin and Shannon Frizell crossed for a try soon after, with Mitch Hunt kicking the conversion to give the Highlanders an 22-24 win. This provoked an immediate reaction from the Blues, though, who made their way downfield before retaking the lead as Dalton Papali’i crossed for a second try off a lineout drive. Then with just minutes left, the Blues managed to turn over an attempted catch and drive from the Highlanders before winning the penalty at the resultant scrum to clean their lines and hold on for the 27-24 victory.

A day to forget

Making your first Super Rugby start is so usually a moment to remember, but for Highlanders fullback Scott Gregory, it was a match to forget. The young player, available due to the Olympics being pushed back a year, was making only his second appearance for the Highlanders but looked out of his depth at 15.

The first half gave him very little chance to attack, but in a more defensive role, things didn’t really go well for him. He was ran over by Caleb Clarke for the first try, but his big issue was dealing with the Blues’ kicking game, where he dropped two high balls with pressure coming but no real contest for the space. He also really struggled covering the Blues’ kicks to the corners, most notably in the 23ʳᵈ minute when he took too long gathering the kick and found his own kick from his try line charged down by Hoskins Sotutu for Papali’i to score a crucial try. Gregory was eventually removed after an hour, but the damage had already been done.

Now Gregory is a fantastic player, but fullback is a very difficult position to play, especially when a team has multiple playmakers to keep their kicking options open – not to mention forwards Sotutu and James parsons, who also put in some quality kicks during the game. It will take a 7s player time to adapt to the lack of space on the pitch and the kicking game in 15s. I can see Gregory getting another shot to start next week, but I think that he would benefit from a slightly less exposed position like on the wing.

Caps coming

Being at the start of a new World Cup cycle and with a new coach at the helm of the All Blacks, this is a crucial time to be putting in big performances. A number of the Blues are surely putting their hands up for international selection.

Reiko Ioane found himself drop down the pecking order at wing during the latter days of Steve Hansen’s tenure, but he is proving a match-up nightmare at his preferred position of 13 and will surely be pushing for the starting spot there for the All Blacks, especially with Jack Goodhue currently playing at 12 for the Crusaders.

Caleb Clarke put in another stunning performance with a try and a break to set up Ioane, and the performance was made even more impressive with the news that his grandfather had passed away that morning – explaining his apparent emotion just before kickoff. He may only have a few matches under his belt at this point, but he’s been one of the stars of the tournament and is surely jumping up the pecking order.

Hoskins Sotutu has been probably the star of the tournament so far despite being only 21 and with the 6 and 8 shirts both up for grabs, you’d imagine that he will take one of those, while his fellow back row Dalton Papali’i is certainly having an impact on games and will be hoping to break into the All Blacks 23.

Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock have been the All Blacks lock pair for so long, but Patrick Tuipulotu has hit the form of his life at just the right time, while his leadership of a successful Blues team will really help put himself in contention for a starting spot.

Wrong priorities

Now first of all, I want to acknowledge that as fans, we would much rather see rugby being played than constant kicks off the tee. However, rugby is a business and winning needs to come first. New Zealand as a whole is a fantastic rugby playing nation, but sometimes, they play too much rugby, which was the case today.

With 10 minutes left and holding a 3-point lead, the Blues won an easily kickable penalty. However, rather than going for goal and making the Highlanders need a converted try to go ahead, they kicked for the corner and almost paid the price, as James Parsons dropped the ball over the line and a Highlanders counterattack ended in a penalty that would have drawn the teams level had Mitch Hunt not missed.

Then just 3 minutes from the end, the Highlanders turned down a kickable penalty that would have taken the game to extra time in favour of kicking for the corner and trying to win in 80 minutes. This proved costly as the Blues managed to hold out the maul and win the scrum, where they then won a penalty to clear their lines and confirm the win.

We all love seeing positive rugby, but there is also a time for pragmatism. New Zealand haven’t quite got the balance right and sometimes in close games, it will end up costing them.

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Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Bledisloe 3

Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Bledisloe 3

Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane played host to the third and final Bledisloe Cup match of 2013. Having won both of their matches during the Rugby Championship, today’s result couldn’t affect the destination of the cup, but this match looked anything but a dead rubber. In a game full of big hits, handling errors and the odd bit of unbelievable skill, the Wallabies outscored the All Blacks 3 tries to 2 on their way to a 23-18 victory that many will feel a fitting send off to the retiring Stephen Moore and coach Mario Ledesma, who is off to take the reins of the Jaguares Super Rugby side.

 

Room for improvement

The rain in the buildup certainly won’t have helped matters, but this was an error-strewn display from both teams.final

Australia saw a number of attacks ended though handling errors. Some were due to the ball being dislodged in contact, like when Ofa Tu’ungafasi obliterated Bernard Foley, but there were also a number of passes that either didn’t go to hand or were simply dropped. On top of this, Tevita Kuridrani allowed himself to be stripped by Sonny Bill Williams in his own 22 – which eventually resulted in 3 points for New Zealand. Foley (who had missed a couple of kicks at goal before giving the tee to Reece Hodge) kicked out on the full from inside his 22 despite Wayne Barnes calling that the ball had been taken in due to TJ Perenara’s box kick being touched in flight – which resulted in Rieko Ioane scoring a try in the corner. It’s very difficult to beat the All Blacks even when playing at your best, so when Ioane scored I genuinely thought all these errors were going to cost the Wallabies.

foley
Wayne Barnes called that Perenara’s box kick was touched in flight straight away and could clearly be heard yelling to Foley that the ball had been taken into the 22

New Zealand, however, were far from perfect in this match. This was by no means the strongest All Blacks lineup – Ben Smith, Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Joe Moody, Jerome Kaino, Israel Dagg and Nehe Milner-Skudder were all missing – but it still looked strong enough to win the game. However like Australia they made too many handling errors which, combined with an impressive Australian defence stopped them getting into their usual attacking flow with any regularity. Ioane was limited to just 2 runs of any note and besides the tries, the only other chance that stuck in my mind was a chip ahead from TJ Perenara – who upped the tempo after his introduction – after a quick-tap penalty. When Sam Cane knocked on at the back of a ruck as they went in search of a game-tying try in referee’s time, it was the kind of ending that summed up the day for New Zealand. Despite an early intercepted pass for Reece Hodge’s try, Lima Sopoaga had a decent game and I feel he deserves another chance in better conditions to prove he is an able backup for Barrett.

Stupid and costly

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…It did

By far the biggest killer for New Zealand were the penalties that if I’m being kind can be described as brain-dead. Cane may have inherited Richie McCaw’s number 7 shirt but apparently not his cloak of invisibility, as he was rightly pinged by Wayne Barnes for cleaning out a man who was off to the side of a ruck as the All Blacks were mounting an attack. Incredibly this wasn’t even the most moronic penalty of the night, as Tu’ungafasi obstructed the Australian kick chase as New Zealand began a counterattack that was not going to be affected by the impeded Australian. Not only did this deny the All Blacks an attacking opportunity with the score at 20-18, but this penalty was put through the posts by Hodge’s monster right boot, leaving them needing a try to draw rather than a penalty/drop goal to win.

I have said it so many times when writing about the Lions Tour and other matches, but good discipline is vital when playing against top teams. If they continue to give away penalties like this, the All Blacks will suddenly become that bit more beatable.

Culture shock

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The commentary on Sky Sports mentioned how they would live to see the didgeridoo used in future – Picture from Flickr – Bernard Spragg. NZ

I know a lot of people aren’t fans of seeing cultural shows like the haka at sports events, but personally, I love it! As well as the expected Kapo o Pango haka from the All Blacks, the Wallabies were also showing some of their culture by celebrating the role of Indigenous Australians in rugby. The new Indigenous kit looked beautiful and with the Wallabies having a 100% record in it I’m sure it will make a return, but it was also really good to see the Welcome to Country before the national anthems.

So often we moan that rugby is becoming like all other professional sports, so I would love to see more teams and unions embracing their national history and culture as part of the matchday experience.

Eyes On: New Zealand v British and Irish Lions – Third Test

What an 80 minutes of rugby! With the Test series tied at 1-1, the entire Northern Hemisphere rugby season had been building to the series-deciding final Test… which ended up deciding nothing! Though the All Blacks crossed for 2 tries, the metronomic kicking of Owen Farrell and the monster boot of Elliot Daly kept the Lions (who never created a try-scoring chance of note) in the game and some last-ditch Lions defending held the All Blacks just short in referee’s time to end the game 15-15 and end the series in a tie. While this felt like something of an anti-climax, the game itself was a fantastic affair and even though I knew the result by the time I was able to watch (I was at work when the game was played), I was still completely hooked on the game.

With the series now over, it feels odd not having to predict the next Test team, but I still wanted to carry on the tradition of putting pen to paper (finger to keyboard?) on my big thoughts from the game.

 

Controversy again

Ken Owens in my opinion is a very luck boy. At the final restart of the game with mere minutes left, Liam Williams fumbled the kick-off under pressure from Kieran Read and the ball bounced into the arms of the Welsh hooker, who was making his way back from an offside position. Romain Poite initially gave a penalty for offside and appeared to stick to this decision after speaking to the TMO, but by the time he spoke to the captains, he had changed his mind and ruled it an accidental offside, resulting in a New Zealand scrum that Rhys Webb was able to turn over.

The sections of World Rugby’s laws that would be applicable here is as follows:

11.6 Accidental offside

(a)

When an offside player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate carrying it, the player is accidentally offside. If the player’s team gains no advantage from this, play continues. If the player’s team gains an advantage, a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.

(b)

When a player hands the ball to a team-mate in front of the first player, the receiver is offside. Unless the receiver is considered to be intentionally offside (in which case a penalty kick is awarded), the receiver is accidentally offside and a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.

11.7 Offside after a knock-on

When a player knocks-on and an offside team-mate next plays the ball, the offside player is liable to sanction if playing the ball prevented an opponent from gaining an advantage.

Sanction: Penalty kick

To be fair to Poite, this does leave a grey area that I feel this incident has fallen into, as it was almost impossible for Ken Owens to avoid the ball, however on viewing, he did appear to initially grab for the ball – a reflex action in my opinion – and then let go the moment he realised he was offside. Going on similar previous incidents, my opinion is that had the ball simply bounced onto Owens then a scrum for accidental offside would have been fair. However by actively grabbing the ball, even for a moment, he has played the ball so it should have been a penalty. We will never know for certain whether Beauden Barrett would have been successful with the kick (he finished 2 from 4 on the day) however the penalty was in such a good position I feel it would have been the game winner.

Next off the conveyor belt…

Among the changes that Steve Hansen made for this third Test were the introduction of the inexperienced Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett tot the starting XV. Jordie especially had a mixed game, with some great moments like his involvement in both New Zealand tries, but he was also put under a lot of pressure by the Lions’ defence (more on that later). I have faith that he will improve with more experience and he certainly looks like a player for the near future.

Laumape, however, looks like a player for right now! After his impact (literally in many cases) on the Hurricanes game and the second Test, I was not surprised to see the Hurricanes centre given the 12 shirt in place of the suspended Sonny Bill Williams. After the way he played, I wonder how easy it will be for Williams to earn the shirt back. He may not be the fastest, as we saw when Jonathan Davies was able to chase him down, but he makes up for it with his strong direct running – just ask Dan Biggar! He read the intentions of both Barrett brothers to take his try well on 15 minutes, and his part in the second try just before half time could only be described as Williams-esque: drawing in both Farrell and Davies to make the tackle on the second phase, before offloading the ball while on the way down to Anton Leinert-Brown who duly put Jordie Barrett over. At 24, he will just be starting to hit his prime, and to play regularly alongside so many All Blacks for the Hurricanes will only improve the chemistry of the national team’s back line.

Lions defence

In the Disney film Remember the Titans, during a stirring team-talk with his defence, assistant coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) tells them “I don’t want them to gain another yard! You blitz all night!” I get the feeling the Lions were given a similar speech pre-game. While Sam Warburton led the harassing of the breakdown, the Lions defensive line were constantly up in their opponents’ faces as quickly as possible, forcing them into a number of mistakes that you would not usually expect from the All Blacks. Passes were off target, catches were fumbled and kicks were put out on the full, most notably from Jordie Barrett who was frequently targeted by Jonathan Davies. As I worried about earlier in the tour, there were a couple of occasions where Beauden Barrett took advantage of the narrow blitz defence with cross-kicks. Luckily for the Lions, their pacy back 3 were fast enough to recover and then willing to put their bodies on the line to make the necessary tackle (Liam Williams becoming a human speed bump for Julian Savea sticks in my mind). When next series of Test matches comes around for New Zealand, it will be interesting to see if their opponents try to emulate the Lions’ defensive tactics.

 

What were your thoughts on the final Test? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Lions 2017: The Final 23

The last year of rugby culminates in this weekend’s big match: the series-deciding (and series-defining) third Test between the British and Irish Lions and the New Zealand All Blacks.

After a demoralising 30-15 loss in the first Test, the Lions took advantage of Sonny Bill Williams’ first half red card to draw the series level with a 24-21 victory. Williams’ 4-week ban means that Steve Hansen will be forced into making a change at 12 – possibly a first start for Ngani Laumape of the Hurricanes – after having already lost Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty to injury in the first Test. Waisake Naholo also failed a HIA in the second Test but I have not heard anything to suggest that he will be ruled out of the final Test. The Lions have been fairly lucky with injuries on this tour, however they have lost Stuart Hogg, Ross Moriarty, Robbie Henshaw and George North as the weeks have passed. Jared Payne has also been struggling throughout the tour, first with calf injuries and then in recent weeks with headaches. They did receive a boost, though, with the news that Sean O’Brien will receive no punishment for his part in Naholo’s head injury.

On my recent write-ups of the Lions games, I have tried to predict the 23 man squad for the next Test. As this will be the last time I do so for this tour, I decided to do something a little different. As well as predicting Gatland’s selections, I will also be showing the 23 I would pick if I was in his position. Obviously many of the positions will be the same, but there will also be some differences that could drastically affect the way the Lions play.

My Lions 23:

  1. Jack McGrath
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Iain Henderson
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Mako Vunipola
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. Peter O’Mahony
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Jack Nowell

My predicted Lions 23:

  1. Jack McGrath
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Alun Wyn Jones
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Johnny Sexton
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Owen Farrell
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Mako Vunipola
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. Iain Henderson
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Ben Te’o
  23. Jack Nowell

 

In both these squads, Mako Vunipola drops to the bench in favour of Jack McGrath. The coaches have already mentioned the importance of discipline – had Beauden Barrett been more accurate with his goal kicking, this weekend’s game would be a dead rubber – and Vunipola gave away almost a third of the Lions penalties, including a stupid late hit on Barrett and the illegal clean out that earned him a yellow card. His talent and his ability in the loose will keep him in the squad, but I see McGrath being given the chance to get at the All Blacks scrum from the start.

In the second row, Maro Itoje has to start, but there is a tough fight for the number 5 shirt. Alun Wyn Jones had a much better second Test and brings a lot of experience to the pack – which I think will give him the start in Gatland’s squad – but I worry that he could struggle if the game becomes as open as the first Test. Courtney Lawes has played well when given the chance but I feel that he will be kept as reinforcements from the bench. His yellow card aside, Iain Henderson was one of the best performers against the Hurricanes and brings a great combination of strength and dynamism tot he side. In my 23, I have paired the Ulsterman with Itoje, with Courtney Lawes ready to come on from the bench. Gatland has surprised us with at least 1 selection for each Test (Williams at 15 for the first, Farrell at 12 for the second) and I feel that the selection of Henderson on the bench alongside Courtney Lawes will be his surprise this time. His selection of Stander over O’Mahony last week suggests that the captain of the first Test has fallen down the pecking order, despite Stander having not had the best of tours. Itoje, Lawes and Henderson all have experience of playing 6 at international level so I think Gatland may pick two of them on the bench to give him more options inboth the second row and back row.

In the backs, I expect Gatland to stick with the Sexton/Farrell axis that won at the weekend, however I feel that this leaves the Lions too lightweight in the centre with players like Jerome Kaino, Naholo, Laumape and Ardie Savea likely to attack the 10/12 channel on a regular basis. Before going off in the second Test, Kaino had already successfully ran over the top of Farrell to make extra metres and as Laumape grew into the game, he and Savea were having some success making metres through the centre of the Lions defence. I therefore decided to pick Te’o at 12 to combat the All Blacks’ physicality, as he did when he kept Sonny Bill Williams marshalled in the first Test. Having a runner as strong as him in the back line also gives the Lions extra options in attack.

 

Regardless of the 23 men that Warren Gatland picks, you can be sure that they will be fired up and looking to do everything they can to win the series 2-1. Good luck to them!

 

What do you think of the squads? How do you feel each would do in the third Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

International Rugby Ramble

Farewell to a legend

This weekend saw the USA national rugby team make history by qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup as the top American qualifier for the first time ever. Their win over the Canadians in San Diego – on Canada Day, no less! – was by no means perfect, as they frequently struggled at the scrum, but they frequently impressed in open play and scored some beautiful tries on their way to a 52-16 victory. This result has confirmed the USA’s place in Pool C alongside England, France, Argentina and the currently unconfirmed Oceania 2 qualifier.

While there was a lot to celebrate at full time, the moment was also bittersweet, as it signalled the international retirement of the USA’s most-capped player. Rugby’s very own Captain America, flanker Todd Clever made his international debut in 2003 and has gone on to amass 76 caps, as well as appearing for the USA in the World Sevens Series on a number of occasions. For a number of years, he was the face of USA rugby, and even with the emergence of a number of talented Americans, he has remained a key part of the national team. I can’t help but wonder if the USA would have been more successful in the 2015 World Cup had he not been left out following a disagreement with then-Head Coach Mike Tolkin.

Clever was the first American to play in Super Rugby (for the Lions in 2009) and has even competed against the British and Irish Lions on their tour that year. He spent 5 years playing in the Japanese Top League and also played in the Aviva Premiership for Newcastle in the 2015/16 season.

Now back in America, he is a player and co-owner for the Austin Huns, who will be part of the inaugural Major League Rugby. Though PRO Rugby did not work out, I have heard a lot of promising things regarding the MLR and I look forward to seeing how things go once the league begins. I still feel that the USA have the potential to be the next rugby superpower and seriously hope that players continue to come through to take Clever’s place.

 

Clever is not the first captain to announce his international retirement this summer, as he is joined by Geogia’s Mamuka Gorgodze, who has similarly helped to put Georgian rugby on the map. I am sure that both of these players have been inspirations not just for their teammates, but for the children who will now want to grow up to represent their country on the rugby pitch. Though the big names may be stepping down, I fully hope and expect both national teams to push on and continue to improve without them.

 

A hairy situation

Over the weekend I read an article on Pundit Arena stating the Japanese Rugby Union raised the hairstyle of hooker Shota Horie as a topic of discussion and expressed their disapproval at a recent board meeting.

The hooker has won over 50 caps for the national team and plays for the Sunwolves, so should be considered an inspiration for those looking to get into rugby in Japan. From what I have read, the union seem to be citing the idea of integrity, yet does a players hairstyle really constitute such a problem? It’s not like he’s got a cock and balls shaved into the side!

Maybe its something to do with me being follicly challenged, but I would never imagine playing rugby with the hairstlyes that some of these pros do. That said, I do not see any problem with players having their hair as such and if I’m completely honest I couldn’t imagine players like Todd Clever or Richard Hibbard playing with close-cropped hair.

Even if they are going to be strict on a player’s personal appearance, are there not more important things for the JRFU to be worrying about right now? The World Cup they are hosting is just over 2 years away and the Sunwolves have only managed 2 wins and a draw in their first 28 Super Rugby games and are on track to finish bottom of the combined table for the second year running. I think the JRFU need to get their priorities right, quickly!

 

Lions tour disciplinary results

When I wrote about Saturday’s second Test between the Lions and All Blacks, I mentioned that I would not be surprised to see Sonny Bill Williams receive a ban for his high tackle on Anthony Watson. I was proved right as it was announced yesterday that the cross-code star had received a 4-week ban.

It would appear that the commission felt the same as me, that the incident was more reckless than intentional. I was however a little surprised at the length of the ban. The incident was considered a mid-range offence, which has a starting point of 6 weeks, however the ban was reduced to 4 weeks after considering mitigating factors including his early admission, disciplinary record, good character and remorse. The mention of his good disciplinary record surprised me as there have been other occasions in the past where he has been penalised for not wrapping in the tackle, so considering how strict World rugby are being with contact to the head I would have expected the entry-level 6 weeks to stand, possibly with an extra week added as a deterrent.

 

Williams wasn’t the only player attending a hearing over the weekend though, as Sean O’Brien was cited for a forearm on Waisake Naholo. I was surprised when the citing was announced as to me the incident looked accidental rather than reckless. Had it been picked up during the game I feel there would have been some justification for a yellow – harsh perhaps, but there was enough force for Naholo to fail a HIA – but I did not feel that there was enough to warrant a red card. The case was dismissed, which shows the commission felt that no action was required, as they could have issued a Citing Commissioner Warning if they felt the challenge was worthy of a yellow. This will be a huge boost for the Lions as they prepare for the series-defining third Test this Saturday.

 

What are your thoughts on these stories? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: New Zealand v British and Irish Lions – Second Test

After New Zealand’s 30-15 last weekend, the Lions knew they needed a win in order to keep their hopes of a series victory alive. For this game, Warren Gatland made a number of changes – some expected, some surprising – to the 23-man squad, whereas Steve Hansen chose to limit his changes to those necessitated by the injuries to Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty.

In a game that started in awful conditions, the big talking point of an exciting but low-scoring first half was the red card shown to Sonny Bill Williams on 25 minutes for a shoulder to the head of Anthony Watson. The Lions went on to score 2 unanswered tries in the second half as conditions improved, but discipline issues allowed Beauden Barrett to keep the game tightly poised, before a late penalty from Owen Farrell gave the tourists a 21-24 victory.

With no midweek games remaining, both teams now have a week to recover and prepare for next Saturday’s third Test, which is now a winner-takes-all showdown. As we begin to look ahead to next weekend, these are my thoughts on today’s game.

 

The big moment

Where else could I start other than the red card? With the scores at 3-3 25 minutes into the game, Anthony Watson took possession of a high ball and was grabbed by Waisake Naholo as he came inside. Sonny Bill Williams came in to help complete the tackle but there was contact between his right shoulder and Watson’s head. After reviewing the replays, referee Jerome Garces made the decision to show the centre a red card.

The replays did not look good, but I do not feel that this was at all deliberate or an attempt to injure the player as some people have suggested, but instead an unfortunate accident. Despite Stuart Barnes’ insistence otherwise, Watson was not upright, but instead bent over due to Naholo tackling him around the torso and trying to drag him down. There was some force in the hit (would you expect anything else from a tackle by Williams?) however Watson passed a HIA in approximately 7 minutes, so the collision possibly looked worse than it felt. There was also the slightest attempt to wrap the left arm, however this was minimal enough that I feel the hit could still be considered a no-arms tackle, something that we arguably see too often in union from Williams and likely due in part to his switching between union and league.

I am not saying the punishment was harsh, when you look at the directives relating to high tackles this was clearly a reckless tackle and there were not enough mitigating factors, so there was no other option for Garces. It would not surprise me to see Williams fall foul of the citing commission and receive a ban.

The impressive thing is how well the All Blacks continued to play despite being a man down for 45 minutes (Mako Vunipola’s yellow meant that the numbers were even for 10 minutes of the second half) and they still created a couple of try-scoring chances and would have won the game had both kickers finished with 100% records (Barrett missed 3 penalties, Farrell a penalty and a conversion).

What did surprise me, though, was Hansen’s decision to immediately replace Jerome Kaino – an experienced operator and real physical presence – for the inexperienced Ngani Laumape. This is nothing against Laumape – he carried his form from the Hurricanes game into this match – but the decision to go down a man in the pack when the weather was resulting in a territorial game with a number of scrums baffles me and I wonder if the All Blacks would have done better delaying that substitution until conditions improved later in the game.

Justified selections?

I was very surprised to see Alun Wyn Jones retain his place in the starting lineup after a poor tour, however the conditions led to a less expansive game which appeared to suit him and he had a much better performance before being replaced by Courtney Lawes just before the hour mark. His partner in the second row, Maro Itoje, fully justified his promotion from the bench with a great performance. Despite his youth, Itoje led the line out with aplomb and the only real error I remember from him was a knock-on in the New Zealand 22 in the first half.

Due to the way the conditions were played, it was harder to judge how successful Gatland’s other changes were, though it must be noted that the Sexton/Farrell combination was highly influential in Taulupe Faletau’s try, which actually came when both teams were playing with 14 men. However towards the end of the game Ardie Savea and Laumape did begin to have some luck making big metres in the centre of the pitch, so I was a bit surprised Gatland refrained from bringing on Ben Te’o in the latter stages. I was also quite surprised not to see Rhys Webb introduced late on to take advantage of the extra man, but Conor Murray took his try well and controlled the game well with experienced play, including pulling an angry Kyle Sinckler away from Charlie Faumuina as Garces gave what ended up being the match-winning penalty, ensuring that there would be no reversal of the penalty for retaliation.

Given the weather and the man advantage in this game, it will be interesting to see what changes Gatland decides to make for next week.

Ill-disciplined Lions

Beauden Barrett was 100% from the tee last week, but Lions fans will be very happy to have seen him miss 3 penalties today. The discipline from the tourists today was absolutely shocking! The All Blacks had 10 shots at goal in this game and would have won the game had Barrett been a bit more accurate. Mako Vunipola alone gave away 4 penalties, including a stupid late charge on Barrett after he kicked downfield (Barrett nailed the kick at goal from where the ball landed) and then a silly clear out of Barrett at a ruck mere moments later, where he clearly used the shoulder as opposed to wrapping an arm. Admittedly this sort of challenge happens frequently in a game without punishment, but it was far too obvious from a player the referee is already paying attention to and Barrett did also take a while to get back to his feet following the challenge.

The Lions played with an extra man for 45 minutes, scored 2 tries to nil, yet still only won by 3 points. If they are to win the third Test, they will need to improve their discipline considerably

 

As next weekend is the final game of the tour, I have decided not to rush to name my final 23 today, but will instead have a post dedicated to it over the next few days, so keep your eyes open for that!

 

What were your thoughts on the second Test? Do you think I missed anything? How do you think the Lions will do next week? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: New Zealand v British and Irish Lions – First Test

The last couple of weeks have all been building up for this: the 3-match Test series between the Lions and New Zealand. After a mixed bag of results in the warm-up matches, Warren Gatland picked what he felt was his best 23 to face a New Zealand side missing star hooker Dane Coles but buoyed by the return of captain Kieran Read.

Despite a couple of early injuries to Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty, the All Blacks dominated the tourists on the way to a 30-15 victory, a score that was made to look better for the Lions courtesy of a try from replacement Rhys Webb with the final play of the game.

There is just 1 game against the Hurricanes, last season’s Super Rugby Champions, left before Gatland has to pick the squad for what is now the most important game of the tour: the second Test that the Lions must win in order to avoid losing the series.

With this in mind, here are my thoughts on the first Test:

 

Wasteful Lions

Writing these posts about each game of the tour has often left me feeling like a broken record. I feel like pretty much every time I’ve discussed the latest game there has been some mention of the Lions not being accurate enough in taking their chances when attacking. Unfortunately the Lions have not learned their lesson in the warm-up games and again left too many chances on the field. By my count, the Lions created 4/5 good try-scoring chances, but only scored a try from 2 of these. Jonathan Davies made a great break in the early minutes, but though Conor Murray was there in support he did not have the pace to make it to the line and the ball was too slow at the breakdown, allowing Israel Dagg the time to position himself to stop Elliot Daly scoring. Early in the second half, following another break from Davies, the ball came out to Ben Te’o just inside the All Blacks 22 with 2 men wide outside him. Rather than play the ball out, he instead decided to take advantage of the drifting defence to run inside Brodie Retallick, only to slip as he stepped back inside. The decision to go himself may have been wrong but watching it back there does appear to be a gap opening between Retallick and Anton Lienert-Brown, while there is no guarantee that Jerome Kaino and Sonny Bill Williams would not have denied the Lions had he spread it. Mere minutes later, Anthony Watson made a fantastic break only to panic and fling an offload at unsuspecting Conor Murray. They also allowed themselves to be turned over at an attacking line out on the All Blacks 5m line in between these last 2 breaks. 4 great chances to score a try… 0 points scored.

By contrast, I only remember New Zealand creating 3 clear-cut chances in the entire game, all 3 of which resulted in tries. Beauden Barrett was also 100% from the tee. The All Blacks are so clinical, they will generally put up 20-30 points per game against even the best defences. The Lions need to make sure that the points are going on the scoreboard rather than being left on the field.

Israel Dagg

When Israel Dagg was left out of New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup squad following a couple of injury-hit seasons, I thought we may be seeing the end of his All Blacks career. However, since then he has pushed hard and, though he has been unable to gain the 15 shirt back from Ben Smith, he has made a new home for himself on the right wing.

Against the Lions, he struggled a bit competing against Elliot Daly for the high ball, but the rest of his game was almost flawless. He gave the All Blacks options in attack and even swapped wings with Reiko Ioane for a period in the first half. On top of this, he was also used as an extra safety blanket when the All Blacks needed to clear their lines. If Ben Smith is unavailable for the second Test due to the head injury he suffered, I would not be surprised to see Dagg moved to 15 due to his experience as opposed to bringing in Jordie Barrett or Damian McKenzie, especially considering how good Waisake Naholo looked when the Highlanders beat the Lions.

Justifying selection

When Warren Gatland named his 23 for the first Test, there were a few surprise selections in there. On the whole, these players performed well and justified being selected. The entire back 3 looked dangerous in attack and Elliot Daly especially also caused a number of problems for Ben Smith and Israel Dagg under the high ball. Daly and Watson were both caught narrow for New Zealand’s first and second tries respectively, though in both cases they weren’t helped by the men inside being caught out, first by the quick tap penalty and second by the decimated scrum. Probably the biggest surprise of the back line selections, Liam Williams had a very good game in attack, especially countering from kicks downfield. His willingness to run from his own 5 metre line – and his step of Kieran Read – helped to set up a stunning try from Sean O’Brien, which has possibly beaten out Jack Nowell for try of the tour. Williams was also often solid in defence, but did struggle multiple times under the high ball when there was pressure on him, which proved costly for Ioane’s match-winning second try. Halfpenny may be a more reliable player, but I think there was enough from each of the 3 starters for them to justify selection for the second Test.

In the forwards, I felt that there seemed a better balance to the pack with Peter O’Mahony on the pitch and I expect him to retain the captaincy for the next game, however I expect Alun Wyn Jones to lose his starting spot to Maro Itoje. I have been a fan of Jones for a number of years but have often felt that he has looked off form against New Zealand. In the first half he looked continually off the pace of the game and I was not surprised to see Itoje – who impressed while on the pitch – come on early in the second half. If Courtney Lawes or Iain Henderson can put in a big performance against the ‘Canes, it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them was promoted to the bench for the weekend.

Another selection that has been suggested a number of times before and during the tour was the 12/12 partnership of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell. Saturday showed why this would not work against the All Blacks. Te’o and Davies caused or made a number of line breaks but after Farrell was moved to centre the attack looked so much more predictable – even more so than it had beforehand – while in defence Sonny Bill Williams started having much more success making it beyond the gain line. As Eddie Jones has generally started with a Ford/Farrell 10/12 combination for England, I hope he was taking note.

I don’t expect many changes for the second Test, so as it stands I would expect Warren Gatland to select the following 23 for Saturday:

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Peter O’Mahony
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Alun Wyn Jones
  20. Sam Warburton
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Jonathan Joseph

 

What were your thoughts on the first Test? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge