June 2018 Rugby Ramble

June 2018 Rugby Ramble

European nightmare

Heidelberger RK made history on 21st April when their Continental Shield semi-final victory over Timisoara Saracens confirmed their place in the 2018/19 Challenge Cup – the first time a German team had ever qualified for the tournament. The cheer was short-lived however, as doubts were raised as to whether they would be unable to compete due to being under the ownership of Dr Hans-Peter Wild, who is also the owner of Stade Francais, a possible opponent in this year’s tournament. It was announced in early June that HRK would not be allowed to compete and their place would instead be taken by Timisoara Saracens.

The IRFU and the SRU own the Irish Provinces and the Scottish clubs respectively, yet they are constantly able to field teams in the same European competition. The IRFU have even been actively shown to manipulate things to benefit Irish rugby as a whole such as moving Joey Carbery from Leinster to Munster. If there was suddenly player movement between the 2 clubs then we could question the fairness, but apparently it’s good for the rich unions and not the poorer ones.

Let’s also be honest, what sort of impact would HRK have to impact the competition? Nothing against them as a club but the clubs who quality from the Continental Shield generally struggle to get results as it is, what impact do EPRC officials expect HRK to have in their first ever season competing at this level? The chances are they could have played their top line-up in every match and tried harder than every other team in the competition and still given opponents bonus point victories in each of their 6 pool matches. If the EPCR were so worried about HRK impacting the competition, they could have found a way to ensure Stade could not end up in the same pool.

As if these rubbish reasons for excluding HRK weren’t bad enough, the fallout from this decision is going to be felt keenly. Following the decision, Dr Wild has chosen to withdraw his funding of the club. His funding is such a vital part of German rugby right now and Heidelberger players who are employed by his academy have now been told to seek other employment. How is this fair on the players whose chance to develop has now been stopped by the funding cuts caused by this decision?

While World Rugby continues to say that it aims to be more inclusive and help develop improving nations, this is yet another example of the established parties refusing to let the new boys eat at the same table. Hopefully World Rugby and the EPRC look to improve this in the very near future.


A tale of 2 teams

With Argentina only picking home-based players, their talent pool has been somewhat limited. There is only 1 Argentinian team in top-flight rugby: the Jaguares, who compete in Super Rugby. After 17 rounds, the Jaguares are 2nd in the South African Conference with a record of 9 wins and 5 losses, which includes a run of 7 straight victories. By contrast, the national team has only 2 wins in their last 15 matches – against Georgia and Italy. Their performances against Wales this summer were so poor it cost head coach Daniel Hourcade, his job and they were arguably even worse against Scotland!

puma
Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias was the only player to feature in the Summer Tests for Argentina but not in the last 3 Jaguares games

I couldn’t believe how poor the Pumas were in the 3 Tests and was expecting to see the performance carry over into their next Jaguares game, but it didn’t and they ran out 25-14 winners over a Stormers side containing a number of Springboks. The win made me decide to have a look at the squads for the respective matches, so I looked at the matchday 23s for the June Tests, the 2 Jaguares games immediately before the Tests and the Jaguares 23 against the Stormers. As you can see on the tables I’ve included, the 23s are almost identical, with only a handful of players featuring for Argentina/Jaguares but not the other! Even more so, most of the players have even played the same position, with the vast majority of the starting back line and tight 5 being the same over all 6 matches. Nicolas Sanchez is a perfect example of the difference between the performances as he has been a huge part of the Jaguares’ success but was absolutely dreadful in the June Tests.

jaguar
Only 4 players have featured in the last 3 Jaguares matches but not in any of the Argentina squads during the June Tests

To me, there a few potential reasons for the differing fortunes:

  • Higher level of quality in Test rugby: While this may be the case in many circumstances, like during the Rugby Championship, I do not feel that this is necessarily the case here. Neither Wales nor Scotland played their full strength squads, whereas Super Rugby squads do contain a number of internationals. Though I would still rank the national sides ahead of the South African franchises the Jaguares have faced recently, I do not feel there is enough of a difference in quality to explain the results
  • Burnout: I mention this one as a suggestion that perhaps playing the majority of a Super Rugby season then having the June Tests could cause them to be too tired. However, I feel that this is rule out by them winning this weekend against the Stormers, as if this was the case I’d have expected it to show in this game too
  • Opposition defence: Nicolas Sanchez never looked comfortable against Wales and their blitz defence. The Pumas never adapted to this aggressive defence and found themselves going backwards on a regular basis. Super Rugby defences are notoriously different to those of Northern Hemisphere teams, so it possible that the Pumas struggle to adapt to the tactics of Wales or Scotland. However, many of these players are experience internationals who have played against Northern Hemisphere teams on a number of occasions, so I cannot see this being the full reason for their struggles, especially when you consider how they looked like they had never played together as a team before!
  • Coaching: I hate to blame the coaches but when the matchday 23s are so similar and the results are so different, you need to look at what stimuli are different. Unfortunately for Daniel Hourcade, the clear difference is at the top. Whether it is the tactics he is using or the trust of the players disappearing, he has not been getting the same level of rugby out of the players as Mario Ledesma has for the Jaguares. Personally I hope it was more the tactical side of things than the players not playing for him as they should still want to play to represent their country

There will be change ahead for Argentina. A new head coach is needed and the foreign-based stars will hopefully soon be available for selection again. Hopefully then, they can look to build on the success of the Jaguares.

Eyes On: Gloucester v Stade Francais

The 2017 European Challenge Cup final was a meeting between two teams whose historic greatness has fallen away somewhat in recent seasons, with 2016/17 being especially turbulent for both of them. Gloucester had to deal with the mid-season departure of Head Coach Laurie Fisher, whilst Stade had the shock of a planned merger with local rivals Racing 92, with the players going on strike and captain Sergio Parisse nailing his Stade colours to the mast whilst on international duty before the plans were eventually scrapped.

After an enthralling – and at times controversial – game, the Parisians ran out 17-25 winners, achieving their first ever piece of European silverware. Stade’s route to next season’s Champions Cup now comprises of a home game against Cardiff Blues, with the winner facing either Northampton or Connacht. Gloucester’s season is now over, as their 9th place finish in the Premiership meant that their only way of making it into the Champions Cup was to win last night, allowing them to take Northampton’s place in the playoffs.

I was paying so much attention to the game I completely forgot to take notes (rookie error!) so these are my thoughts on the game as well as I remember them after a couple of shifts at work. I am a Gloucester supporter so am understandably disappointed with the result and certain incidents within the game. However I have tried to be as unbiased as possible and to look at the game without my cherry and white-tinted specs.

 

Fond farewells

Man of the Match Sergio Parisse, Stade Francais captain and still arguably one of the most impressive number 8s in the world, will be leaving Paris at the end of this campaign for pastures new. Likewise, vice-captain Pascal Papé, who was banned for the final, will be retiring at the end of the season. Head Coach Gonzalo Quesada is also leaving Paris for Biarritz this summer. While there is still some real quality left at Stade, that is a lot of experience leaving and I worry that they may struggle even more next season.

Gloucester are also losing a number of players. From the 23 in the squad last night, they are saying goodbye to Darren Dawidiuk, Yann Thomas and club captain Greig Laidlaw, as well as other players not featuring: James Hook, Matt Kvesic and a number of promising youngsters. Though there are some quality young talents arriving to replace these players, the cherry and whites will be losing a lot of big game and international experience especially from Hook and Laidlaw. Head Coach Laurie Fisher has of course already left a few months ago and will be replaced by Johan Ackermann from the Lions, but it does look like Director of Rugby David Humphreys will remain, which I am not sure I agree with.

It will be very interesting to see where both these teams are by this time next year. Hopefully they will both be enjoying more success, but I would not be surprised to find them in similar positions to this year.

An unwelcome return

When Stade replaced prop Rabah Slimani at half time for ‘tactical reasons’, my colleague and I laughed along at home with the BT Sport pundits’ jokes that he would be back on for the last 10 minutes like in France’s 6 Nations game against Wales. I think we were all shocked when, with about 10 minutes left, he re-entered the fray as a blood substitution that quickly became a permanent replacement!

I’m no medical professional, but when seeing the treatment that the prop was receiving for his ‘blood injury’ it did seem that the injury was very minor and in fact something that we would usually see patched up on the field without any need for a replacement. It could have all been completely legitimate but after the French antics in that 6 Nations game, for a similar situation to arise mere months later was bound to provoke scepticism from many watching. To remove Slimani for ‘tactical reasons’ at half time when he had been dominating (admittedly not always legally) first Josh Hohneck and then Paddy McAllister seems an odd decision, which just adds to the suspicion.

I really hope that World Rugby look into this soon, as games will be ruined either by teams cheating in this way, or people accusing the teams of cheating. As I did back during the 6 Nations, I feel that the best way to sort this would be to have an independent medic assigned to each game to assess any injuries and agree that a substitution is needed in order to bring a player back on. This is the only way that I can think for player safety to still be protected, whilst also keeping the game’s reputation intact.

Questionable decisions

This is the section where I will probably be accused of Gloucester bias, so I want to start by making it very clear that I think the best team won on the night. That said, there were a number of instances where I questioned the decision of referee John Lacey and his officials.

Many Gloucester fans appeared to disagree with the penalty against Jonny May for tackling the man in the air, however that was one of the decisions that I do agree with, though it was very close. The yellow to Heinz was not a decision that I agreed with, however in this day and age I do understand why that decision was made.

However there were two occasions earlier in the match where Stade players dived off their feet at the ruck to tackle Willi Heinz as he picked up the ball – clear penalties, both given as Stade scrums for Heinz knocking on. I also didn’t see any problem with Lewis Ludlow’s clean out of Will Genia that sparked a mass brawl just after the yellow card, and honestly feel that the TMO should have jumped in to have a look at what appeared to be shoulder from Hugo Bonneval to the face of Billy Burns while he was on the ground right in front of the camera. Bonneval then got doubly lucky by not being penalised for a pull back on Tom Marshall as he tried to dot down a kick into the Stade in-goal area. Granted, it did appear to be the slightest of pulls but at the speed Marshall was going, and considering how close he was to scoring even after the pull, this was likely enough to cost Gloucester a try and in my opinion should have been at least a penalty, if not a penalty try.

I do not want to say that the officials cost Gloucester the game, as Stade were the better team, but if just a few of these decisions had gone the other way, we could have been looking at a completely different result.

Trust in the youth

Billy Burns may not have been at his attacking best on Friday night, but he still controlled the game well and continued to be accurate from the tee, as he has been all season. He also continues to put his body on the line for the team and is not afraid to tackle the opposition’s big boys. With Owen Williams joining this summer, I think Burns has done enough to make the battle for the 10 shirt a mouth-watering contest nest season.

Ross Moriarty has had a fantastic season! Voted Gloucester’s Young Player of the Season and also receiving the Chairman’s Award at last week’s end of season awards dinner, the former England U20 was a regular starter for Wales in the 6 Nations and was also picked by Warren Gatland to go on the Lions Tour to New Zealand this summer. Against Stade, he had a great game and it was nice to see him keep playing until the very end, supporting Darren Dawidiuk for a well-taken try to give Gloucester the slimmest of hopes with a couple of minutes left. When available, he is surely one of the first names on the team sheet and I hope Gloucester do everything they can to sign him to a new contract as soon as possible.

Perhaps even better than Moriarty on Friday night was his fellow flanker Lewis Ludlow. The 22-year old has done well this season when given the chances and in recent weeks seems to have been preferred over Jacob Rowan, who has often been the first choice at open side this season. In this match he was a constant nuisance at breakdowns and lineouts and was always looking to put in a good hit on the opposition. With classic 7s Matt Kvesic and Dan Thomas on their way out and Carl Fearns deciding to stay in France, it would not surprise me if Ludlow’s recent big-hitting performances have helped earn him a starting spot for next season.

 

What did you think about the game? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: La Rochelle vs Gloucester

Gloucester and La Rochelle met for the third time this season on Saturday night in the semi-final of the European Rugby Challenge Cup. After a tense 80 minutes full of deft offloads and huge impacts, the cherry and whites booked their spot in the final with a 14-16 victory over the Top 14 leaders, their only loss at home all season.

For a relatively low-scoring game, there was actually quite a bit to discuss, so I’ve tried to limit myself to what I felt to be the main talking points from the match.

 

Taking chances

Before kickoff, the BT Sport team mentioned that one of the keys to La Rochelle’s success this season has been having the majority of possession. Gloucester stopped this in the first half, but in the second half the home team had 70% of possession and 77% of territory (though I’m sure most Gloucester fans will agree that it felt like much more than that!). Over the course of the game, they also made over 300 more metres, 6 more clean breaks and beat twice as many defenders as Gloucester! Yet it was Gloucester who came away from the Stade Marcel Deflandre with the victory, as the French were far too wasteful with the ball.

When La Rochelle broke through the Gloucester line, it often felt like the defence was all over the place, but they would quickly recover once the tackle was made and put the home team back under pressure with a quick, physical defensive line, which often led to turnovers or errors from the attackers. Henry Trinder (it’s so good to see him playing regularly again after all his injury issues) was fantastic on the night, winning a number of turnovers and penalties at the breakdown and almost scoring a try.

Despite this, La Rochelle will still feel that they should have won the game, as Brock James – one of the most experienced players on the pitch – left 8 points on the field through missed kicks, as well as throwing the pass that Billy Burns intercepted for Gloucester’s try.

Burns night

Brock James may not have had the best of nights, but his opposite number Billy Burns had a great game. With older brother Freddie watching on in the BT Sport studio, Burns Jr. scored all 16 of Gloucester’s points courtesy of the aforementioned try and a 100% kick success rate , despite the home crowd’s vocal attempts to put him off. Even many of his shakier moments in the game seemed to end up working in his favour, such as a poor cross field early in the 1st half that conveniently bounced into touch when the La Rochelle winger completely lost his bearings.

Gloucester also did a good job of looking after him in this match. At one of the line outs, Ugo Monye pointed out that Burns was lining up in the 5m channel as opposed to in the fly half’s usual position, so that he was not a target for La Rochelle’s gargantuan strike runners on the first phase. Yet he fronted up whenever necessary and was more than happy to get in the way of the big men, one tackle on a charging Levani Botia off a stolen line out specifically sticking in my mind.

With Owen Williams arriving from Leicester this summer, Billy is certainly doing everything he can to prove that he deserves the number 10 jersey ahead of the Welshman next season.

Dealing with the opposition

As Gloucester played La Rochelle in the pool stages (winning 35-14 at Kingsholm before going down 42-13 in France) they had a good idea of how La Rochelle were going to play this game. It just takes one look at players like Uini Atonio and Jone Qovu in the pack to know that they pride themselves on physical dominance to help them win games. Gloucester knew this and worked their tactics around this. John Afoa scrummages so low, it becomes difficult for a larger opponent to compete against him at the scrums. Josh Hohneck and Paddy McAllister also did a very good job of holding their own against the French team’s props. But more importantly, Gloucester tried to make sure that scrums on their feed were over as quickly as possible by feeding the ball as directly as they could to the number 8 (it wasn’t even done slyly) and getting the ball out as soon as it reached his feet. This meant that provided they could withstand the initial engagement they were generally able to get the ball away without a problem, though they did not necessarily have the platform for the backs to create much on the first phase.

They also did a good job of keeping possession in the first half (61%) and spreading the ball from side to side as much as possible in an attempt to wear out La Rochelle’s big boys, which seemed to work as a number of them were replaced relatively soon after half time. In the second half, when La Rochelle began to take control, Gloucester used their line speed to stop the strike runners before they could get going and were happy to clear the ball downfield to force the home team to run back towards their own line while the cherry and whites reorganised their defence for the next attack.

French discipline

As much as Gloucester can consider themselves lucky that Brock James left his kicking boots at home, La Rochelle can also consider themselves lucky to have only spent 10 minutes playing with 14 men!

Jone Qovu’s elbow drop on Willi Heinz got worse with every viewing and was arguably deserving of a red card on its own. But he didn’t stop there and was lucky the officials missed his punch to the midriff of Richard Hibbard, who was unbelievably warned about simulation by the referee! Granted, Hibbard may have – in my opinion accidentally – grabbed the Fijian in a sensitive area, but that is no excuse for his actions. Either of these incidents is worthy of a suspension, so I will be flabbergasted if Qovu plays again this season.

Captain Uini Atonio was also probably lucky to escape sanction during the game, with one late – and possibly high – hit on Heinz quickly followed up by a hit on Hibbard that was so far off the ball it wasn’t even visible on the live transmission, yet neither of these incidents even resulted in a Gloucester penalty!

I can’t really say much more on the Atonio incidents, and I also have a lot of sympathy for the match officials, as the French broadcasters in charge of the pictures we see are notorious for avoiding replays of anything that could result in a home player being sent off. The BT Sport commentators even mentioned this when they expressed surprise at the fact we got to see replays of Qovu’s elbow. Meanwhile, the footage of his punch on Hibbard was not picked up on until the end of the game and I am yet to see a replay of either of Atonio’s challenges!

 

This was a stunning game, and with so much on the line it was good to see Gloucester hold on under such heavy pressure. The last few seasons under Director of Rugby David Humphreys have not been the success anyone would have hoped, but Gloucester have generally pulled it together for Challenge Cup games, having only lost 2 in the last 3 seasons (at home to the Dragons in last season’s quarter-final and this season’s pool match at La Rochelle), while they are now appearing in their second Challenge Cup final in 3 years. Hopefully they can go on to repeat their heroics at Murrayfield, when they take on Stade Francais!

 

What did you think of the game? Have I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge