Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

The 6 Nations finally kicked off in shocking fashion on Saturday in exciting fashion as Wales and Scotland both tried to emulate the style of their most competitive teams of the moment (the Scarlets & Glasgow). While it worked for Wales, an error-strewn performance from the Scots saw them come crashing back down to earth after a fantastic Autumn series. In France, controversy was the word of the day with a few questionable calls from medical ‘professionals’ but karma proved a bitch for Les Bleus as Johnny Sexton nailed a 45m drop goal on the final play to earn the Irish the win. On Sunday a relatively inexperienced Italian team recovered from 2 early Anthony Watson tries to stick close to England until late in the game when 3 tries in the last 12 minutes gave the scoreline a more one-sided feel.

6n tab

Wales 34-7 Scotland

This Welsh performance was probably the most beautiful I have seen them play in years! With so many players out injured, Josh Adams was the only non-Scarlet in the starting back line, while half of the initial pack also play for the Pro12 champions. This Scarlets presence was clear in the way they played with open attacking rugby rather than the Warrenball tactics we have become used to. Leigh Halfpenny has been much maligned in recent years as not bringing enough to the attack, but contributed 2 tries as well as 14 points with the boot, while Stef Evans – who did not have the best of Autumns with Wales – finished wonderfully to earn the bonus point and would have scored a contender for try of the tournament much earlier in the game had the offload from Alun Wyn Jones been better. The midfield trio of Patchell, Parkes and Williams looked incredible both in attack and defence, while Adams looked at home on the wing in his Test debut. In the back row, Josh Navidi and man of the match Aaron Shingler were spectacular and outplayed their opposite numbers. A cynical part of me can’t help but wonder how much of the different style is due to Gatland & Howley compared to the Scarlets contingent playing their natural game and the rest of the team joining in. I will be very interested to see what happens when the usual starters are available again: how many of them will get straight back in the team and whether the style of play shifts back to what we have become used to seeing.

Scotland’s inaccuracy was their undoing at the Principality Stadium. The intent to play good attacking rugby was there but too often the ball was going to floor. While the main focus of the talk on Scotland’s injuries was towards the front row, they were also missing defensive linchpin Alex Dunbar, while other regulars at centre over recent years Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor and Matt Scott were all unavailable or not selected having recently recovered from injuries. Huw Jones’ centre partner for this match Chris Harris had only 21 minutes of international rugby against Samoa under his belt and the lack of chemistry showed, while Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg failed to have much of a positive influence on the game. Meanwhile, captain John Barclay was outplayed by his Welsh rivals and failed to adapt to the way the ruck was being refereed and was penalised multiple times for clearly putting his hands on the floor beyond the ball and bringing himself back. A player of his experience should know that it is illegal and change what he’s doing the moment the referee pings him.

France 13-15 Ireland

Remind me never to go to a French doctor. In France’s last 6 Nations game, they abused the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocols to get a competitive advantage in the scrums, leading to them scoring the winning try. After all the furore from fans, there was no way they would try that again in their very next match in the competition, right? Right? Wrong! Debutante Matthieu Jalibert went down just before half time following a collising of knees with Bundee Aki. It was clear that the physio attending to him was giving all his attention to the fly half’s knee, yet when he limped off it was announced that his removal had gone down as a HIA, meaning that as long as he passed that (there was nothing in the replays to suggest he took a knock to the head) he would be able to return to the pitch. It looked like a less-than-sneaky attempt to give Jalibert a chance to walk off the knock and continue. And then with just minutes left in the game and the score at 13-12, it got even worse! Replacement scrum half Antoine Dupont came away from the back of a French scrum but suddenly went down without any contact. Again the physio’s looked at the knee while the call comes to Nigel Owens that the match doctor has called a HIA. Had Dupont been going off injured, then France would have seen out the game without a specialist scrum half, yet the call for a HIA allowed Maxime Machenaud to come back on. Listening over the ref’s mike I got the feeling that Owens didn’t believe what he was being told but he had no choice. This is disgusting cheating from the French 3 times in their last 2 games! The investigation after the 2017 incident found the French at fault but things were very much swept under the carpet, there is no way that can happen again. As I am writing this I have read that Dupont is out with a torn ACL while Jalibert is also out for about a month with a knee injury. Nothing to suggest either of them is suffering from concussion or any other head injury. If France are found guilty of such abuse of a system in place for player welfare they should be thrown out of the tournament! At least that way we can get Georgia into the tournament.

6n fan
I’ve taken an early lead in the Eyes on the Ball Championship, feel free to join with the league code 1323867-57794

It will be interesting to see how other teams fare against the French, but on the whole I was not impressed by Ireland’s performance. Despite having 68% possession and territory, they did not manage a single clean break according to ESPN’s stats. The French gave away so many penalties and yet they were not clinical enough and clearly preferred to take 3 points rather than go in search of a try. In my tournament preview I said that I don’t think there will be a Grand Slam this year, in which case bonus points could prove crucial. If Ireland continue to rely on the boot of Johnny Sexton rather than getting tries, I can see them falling short against someone and losing the title due to a lack of bonus points.

Italy 15-46 England

Considering how inexperienced many of the squad were and the quality of players missing, I was impressed by how well Italy stuck in the game against England following Watson’s early brace. Tommaso Boni at 13 was especially impressive and I would be interested to see if he could play beside Michele Campagnaro when he recovers from injury. What is great to see is that like the Italian Pro14 teams, the national team is improving, but they are not yet the finished article. Former Hartpury flanker Seb Negri made ground but very few others did on a regular basis and again I feel adding Jake Polledri to the 23 would make them more dangerous. They also need to find a way to improve in the front row. With props like Andrea Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni, the Italian scrum used to be one of the most feared in the tournament but in recent years it has become an area that teams can attack to win penalties. The Italians need to improve here to get the backs more front-foot ball and better field position.

No offence to Anthony Watson, but I do not agree with the decision to award him man of the match. Other than his 2 tries – the first of which especially was a relatively simple run in – he did very little else to impact the game. Sam Simmonds, on the other hand scored a brace of his own and provided the assist for Jack Nowell with a perfectly executed draw and pass. He finished the game with 75 metres off 13 carries. Per ESPN’s stats, he also finished top of all players in the game for clean breaks (3), defenders beaten (6) and tackles made (22 – 7 more than his closest competitor Chris Robshaw). His pace provides something different at 8 to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes and even when one of them is back, I think he is doing enough to suggest that he deserves a spot on one of the flanks.

6n fix
Wales’ trip to Twickenham will be the pick of Round 2… which I will be watching deep in enemy territory

Fantasy rugby images are from the ESPN Fantasy Rugby website: http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk

6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 18

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 18

The turn in fortunes continued in Round 18 of the Premier League as Everton, Crystal Palace and West Ham all earned 3 points in their respective fixtures to climb up the table. Palace and West Ham now find themselves 2 points above the relegation zone while Everton are up into 9th and are getting closer to where we would have expected them to be before the season started.

Swansea and Newcastle both find themselves in the relegation zone, with Stoke and Bournemouth only a point above the drop, and you wonder how much longer things can continue before a change is made somewhere in the setup.


Room for improvement

Played 18, Won 17, Drawn 1, Lost 0, Goals scored 56, Goals Conceded 12… The stats are outstanding and you wonder who (if anyone) will be able to halt City’s charge into the history books, but perhaps the scariest thing is that the Champions-in-waiting could be even better.

With the world’s most expensive left back Benjamin Mendy out long-term following a ruptured ACL, former midfielder Fabian Delph has become the Sky Blues’ first choice in the position. While City have continued to win, Delph’s performances haven’t quite matched the quality of his attacking teammates. In recent weeks, Delph was at fault for Manchester United’s best chances in their Round 16 clash and picked up a yellow card for a desperate challenge on Kieran Trippier, who had gotten away from him inside the final third. While this has not proved costly in either match, the time could still come where a Delph mistake in an unfamiliar position could cost City a result.

The latest round of Premier League results – From http://www.premierleague.com

Injuries can never be predicted, but the decision to allow both Aleksandar Kolarov and Gaël Clichy to leave in the summer was an odd one considering both are experienced left backs and there was no real backup for Mendy in the squad. It will be interesting to see in January whether Guardiola decides to bring in another left back to bolster the squad or decides to continue with the Delph experiment.

A refereeing lottery

Let me start this section by making it clear that I appreciate the work of match officials and respect that the job they do is not an easy one. This is by no means an attack at them. However, there were a number of incidents at the weekend where I couldn’t help but question the officials’ decisions.

Huddersfield’s opener in the 1-4 victory at Watford should have been disallowed for offside not once, not twice, but 3 times! Yet amazingly the officials never picked up any of the offences. The main job of the linesman is to watch for the offside in these situations, so to miss all 3 is embarrassing! Leicester’s attempted comeback at home to Crystal Palace was dealt a blow when Vicente Iborra’s goal was disallowed for a push on the defender in front of him. While it was arguably the correct decision by the officials, I imagine Leicester players and fans would have been less than amused watching the City v Tottenham match and seeing the referee allow play to continue when Danny Rose did the same to Eliaquim Mangala in the Spurs box. 2 pushes in the back, yet one ends in a foul and the other play gets waved on.

Staying with the City game, there were 6 yellow cards given out in total by referee Craig Pawson, but 3 of these could arguably have been straight reds. Nicolas Otamendi’s boot into the face of Harry Kane may not have been leading with the studs, but it was still a dangerously high boot and warranted a red card. Kane’s lunge on Raheem Sterling with his studs showing looked a worse challenge then that of Troy Deeney on Collin Quaner, yet Kane gets away with a yellow and the Watford captain gets an early bath. Paul Pogba will have likely been unimpressed to see Dele Alli receive just a yellow for his challenge on Kevin de Bruyne, considering the Frenchman saw red the other week for a similar challenge.

I appreciate that referee’s positioning can greatly impact what they see and that different officials may see an incident slightly differently without the benefit of replays. But surely the FA should be doing everything it can to ensure consistency, otherwise the players will not know what they can and can’t do. I love seeing Wayne Barnes’ appearances on Rugby Tonight talking about how the Premiership referees get together to look over incidents from the weekend and feel that the Premier League would benefit from something similar if they don’t already have this. It would also help referees if they had some access to video replay technology if there is uncertainty over the severity of a challenge to ensure the correct decision is made.

After all, nobody wants an official’s mistake to affect the result of a match.

Dive! Dive! Dive!

Have the new FA laws surrounding retroactive bans for diving helped solve the issue? So far, I’ve got to say no. Manuel Lanzini has just become the 2nd Premier League player to be banned for “successful deception of a match official” after earning the penalty that put West Ham ahead at Stoke. The dive was in my opinion much worse than the one that resulted in Oumar Niasse’s ban, as Niasse exaggerated the effect of contact whereas Lanzini was clearly going to ground without any contact being made.

There have been so many dives in the league this season, but the new FA laws are too limited at when they can ban a player, as the dive must result in a benefit to the diving player’s team in order for the FA panel to intervene. So many times this season we’ve seen players get a yellow for a dive or the referee to wave play on. Other than the referee’s decision, what real difference was there between the Lanzini dive and the one by Brighton’s José Izquierdo against Burnley? Yet Lanzini is now banned for 2 games and Izquierdo didn’t even get a yellow.

The Premier League table after 18 rounds – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

The only way to get diving out of the game is to retroactively punish each offense, regardless of the impact it has on a game. If a player knows that simulation will result in a 2-game (or more for serial offenders) ban regardless of if it results in a goal, then the FA panels may have a few busy months initially but simulation will soon come down to a bare minimum when players see there is zero tolerance.

As it stands, the current laws are a step in the direction, but there is still a long way to go to kick diving out of the game.

Round 19 & 20 predictions:

Due do Christmas plans taking me away from my trusty TV, I’m going to need some time to catch up on the action over the Christmas period so will be combining the next 2 rounds of Premier League action into one article. I’m sure 20 matches will give me plenty to talk about…

Round 19

Arsenal v Liverpool – Draw

Everton v Chelsea – Draw

Brighton & Hove Albion v Watford – Brighton win

Manchester City v AFC Bournemouth – City win

Southampton v Huddersfield Town – Southampton win

Stoke City v West Bromwich Albion – Draw

Swansea City v Crystal Palace – Palace win

West Ham United v Newcastle United – West Ham win

Burnley v Tottenham Hotspur – Draw

Leicester City v Manchester United – United win

Round 20

Tottenham Hotspur v Southampton – Spurs win

AFC Bournemouth v West Ham United – Draw

Chelsea v Brighton & Hove Albion – Chelsea win

Huddersfield Town v Stoke City – Draw

Manchester United v Burnley – United win

Watford v Leicester City – Leicester win

West Bromwich Albion v Everton – Everton win

Liverpool v Swansea City – Liverpool win

Newcastle United v Manchester City – City win

Crystal palace v Arsenal – Arsenal win

Bad Week for Cycling

Chris Froome: 4-time Tour de France winner, 2017 Vuelta a España winner, 2-time Olympic Time Trial bronze medallist, Sports Journalists’ Association Sportsman of the Year 2017… drugs cheat?

This been another bad week for cycling as news has come out that Froome returned an adverse drug test following Stage 18 of this year’s Vuelta, as his urine was found to contain anti-asthma drug salbutamol in concentrations of 2000 nanograms per millilitre – twice the amount the UCI allow without a therapeutic use exemption (TUE).

Cycling has a bad history of doping with big names like Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong having been stripped of Grand Tour victories following doping offences, and the sport has been working hard to improve its image to the general public. Froome’s dominance has caused many people to accuse him of cheating in the past – a view not helped considering the investigations into Team Sky and the ‘mysterious package’ that Bradley Wiggins received during the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine – and though I personally don’t think he has deliberately or knowingly done wrong, it does not look good.

Has the drug helped him? Froome regularly takes salbutamol as he suffers from asthma, like many athletes. Studies have found minimal performance benefits to using salbutamol, other than combatting the effects of asthma, and as it is a drug that clearly shows on tests – and being the race leader, Froome knows that he will be tested – it would seem a poor attempt at illegally doping.

Will we be seeing Chris Froome (right) at the Giro following the latest news? – Picture from Flickr – @ruby_roubaix

Has he done something wrong? Studies have suggested that dehydration can dramatically affect the concentration of salbutamol in urine, so this could always be having an impact on the result. However from what I have read it is only Stage 18 where the readings have seemed off as opposed to throughout the Vuelta, the studies also don’t usually result in the concentration doubling through dehydration. It is now up to Chris Froome and Team Sky to prove there is a legitimate reason for the adverse reading. That won’t be easy to do!

If Froome is found guilty, chances are he will be stripped of his Vuelta victory and he will also face a ban. Regardless of the result, this is yet more ammunition for those who want to look down on cycling in general and Chris Froome specifically. The timing could not have been much worse as it has recently been announced that Froome will be racing at the 2018 Giro d’Italia with a view to becoming only the third rider to hold all 3 Grand Tour titles at the same time, while he is also nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award on Sunday. In my opinion, his efforts this year should have been enough for him to win the award but he was already likely to miss out due to the negative perception of cycling and his perceived lack of Britishness. This revelation will likely stop him even making the top 3!

I for one will continue to hope that a legitimate reason for this result can be found as I do not believe Froome to be a doper. I sincerely hope that I’m not proved wrong.

International Rugby Ramble: Autumn Internationals Week 2

International Rugby Ramble: Autumn Internationals Week 2

Déjà vu

I’m sure many fans remember where they were when they saw the 6 Nations match between France and Wales last for 100 minutes. More than that, I’m sure many remember how wrong it felt watching the French conveniently need to switch props due to a ‘head injury’, which benefited Les Bleus by providing them a better scrum with the game on the line. Fans and pundits everywhere felt that this was an exploitation of the HIA laws to cheat the Welsh out of the win.

When even your Welsh friend calls it blatant cheating, it doesn’t look good for Wales

Fast forward to this November and we see some more conveniently injured props, but this time from the Welsh! Against Georgia, the inexperienced pairing of Nicky Smith and Leon Brown were dominated by the Lelos’ scrum for the opening 56 minutes before being replaced by Wyn Jones and Tomas Francis. The new props shored up the scrum considerably and made the set piece a much more even contest… until Francis decided to give away a stupid penalty on his own line with the clock in the red and get sent to the bin. With Wales a man down in the pack and the score at 13-6, it was no surprise to see the Georgians choose the 5m scrum, which meant that Wales needed to bring one of their original props back on. In a shocking twist though, both Brown and Smith had conveniently started suffering from cramp after their removal and were unable to come back on, meaning that any scrum would be uncontested and the Georgian advantage nullified. The Georgians switched their decision to a 5m lineout (I’m not sure if this was entirely legal but given the circumstances I think it was fair) but were unable to get across the line and had to settle for a 7-point loss.

I’m not even close to being a medical professional so it may be that Brown was genuinely injured – Smith does not play tight-head so the scrum would have still been uncontested – however he did not seem to be hindered when leaving the pitch and looked to be ready to come back on following Francis’ yellow until he “remembered he’s supposed to be injured” as Martyn Williams put it. We’ve had a couple of dubious ‘injuries’ in international rugby over the last 12 months and there was also a similar incident in the Challenge Cup Final. I think that it would be prudent for World Rugby to mandate at least one independent medic at games to confirm a player’s injury status, as this would probably make any similar situations in the future less controversial if a neutral entity is declaring a player unable to continue.

Angry man

Just days after Steve Diamond finally gets banned for his outburst about the match officials following Sale’s loss to Exeter, we were reminded that he is not the only angry man leading a rugby team. Michael Cheika is known to wear his heart on his sleeve but his actions at Twickenham crossed a line. I can understand being frustrated at the way the game was going, but his anger seemed directed towards the officials and it certainly looked like he called the ref a “cheat” after one of the decisions went against him. He also appeared to get into some verbals with a fan on his way down to the pitch and appeared to be remonstrating with the officials at half time. Granted the 50/50 decisions did seem to go England’s way, but did Cheika really have any argument that the officials’ calls were wrong?

I can also understand why Michael Hooper was shown yellow considering he gave away a couple of cynical penalties close to the try line in quick succession, but I would have also understood him getting a final warning rather than a card. However I am totally in agreement with Beale’s yellow as it did not realistically look like he had a chance of catching the ball and his professional foul stopped an England break down the wing.

Looking to the tries that were allowed and disallowed, whether Elliot Daly’s try should have stood will come down to which side you support. I initially thought the ball touched the line, but there was no camera angle that clearly proved one way or another. I am 100% behind the referee disallowing Hooper’s try as he was clearly in front of Tevita Kuridrani when he initially kicked the ball and continues to move forward before being played on by Marika Koroibete, so I feel that the offside penalty was right despite Hooper being onside by the time Koroibete kicked the ball on. The decision as to whether Koroibete’s try should have stood comes down to whether you feel Stephen Moore was interfering with play. He was clearly in front of the ball and in my opinion he impeded Chris Robshaw – who appeared to try tackling both players at the same time – so I feel the decision to disallow the try was correct… but then I am an England fan so I may be a bit biased.

The results from this weekend’s internationals from http://www.worldrugby.org

Regardless of the decisions, Cheika is meant to be a role model in a sport that prides itself on its respect of officials and I feel that his actions on Saturday reflect badly on him. I have read today that World Rugby have referred the case to the disciplinary authorities, it will be very interesting to see what punishment (if any) he gets for his outbursts.

The gaps are closing

The best news from the second week of the Autumn Internationals is that the gap between Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations is closing. Wales and Ireland may have both fielded less experienced teams, but they still had plenty of talent and experience, yet still only beat Georgia and Fiji by 7 and 3 points respectively. The Georgian scrum looks like it will be a match for most national teams and if their backs continue to improve the calls for them to join the 6 Nations will just continue to grow. Romania also beat Samoa and Scotland will consider their loss to New Zealand the one that got away, despite being down to their third choice at some positions and spending most of the second half with a hooker playing flanker.

As the gap closes between the tiers, this will just improve the quality of international competition – both the Summer & Autumn Tests and the World Cup – which will then just continue to improve the popularity of the sport in Tier 2 and Tier 3 countries. I for one can’t wait for the day we have to re-think the Tiers or scrap them altogether!

Simulate This!

The English FA have today announced a new regulation that should help to combat diving in football. Under the new rules, If a player is found to have dived in order to win a penalty or get a player sent off – either a straight red card or a second yellow – then he will be punished retrospectively for “successful deception of a match official”. Until now, the only punishment available to divers was a yellow card if the referee picked up on the simulation.

Diving has become such an issue in the modern game, it’s rare that we are able to go a week without seeing a commentator or pundit discussing whether a player dived to win a penalty or free kick. The most memorable one in recent months was by Middlesbrough’s Gaston Ramirez against Bournemouth, a laughable flop about 4 steps after the tackle that rightly saw him receive a yellow card (he was later sent off after receiving a second yellow).

It is good to see that the FA are taking steps to stop players diving. Though calling it ‘simulation’ may sound fancy, diving should be called what it is: cheating! So in this regard it is good to see that the cheaters will be punished from next season.

This can’t be the last move against diving though. ‘Successful’ divers will only be punished if their cheating wins their team a penalty or gets an opponent sent off, so plenty of successful dives will still go unpunished if they are outside the box and either don’t result in a card or only result in an opponent receiving a first yellow card. Therefore incidents like Alexis Sanchez’s embarrassing gymnastic routine after Christian Fuchs threw a ball at him would still not be picked up post-game by a panel (Sanchez did get a yellow but that was for not being far enough away at the throw-in rather than his theatrics). It also wouldn’t pick up if a player’s dive earned a defender their first yellow and they later got a second one for a legitimate foul. Perhaps worst of all, it wouldn’t pick up if a free kick was awarded due to a successful dive and a goal was scored, unless the defender was also sent off for the challenge.

This is a great first step but once this is up and running it should be extended to any clear dive that is missed by a referee can be punished. Otherwise players will just get smarter about how and where they cheat. Only once there is zero tolerance can this be properly removed from the game.

Hopefully this is the next step towards making the beautiful game beautiful again.


What do you think about the new regulation? Do you think enough is being done to combat diving? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge