October 2018 in the Premier League

October 2018 in the Premier League

Just the 3 rounds of football in October as the international break took place after the first week of matches. Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea continue their unbeaten starts to the season with 2 wins and a draw each. City’s results were probably the most impressive of the 3 as they drew with Liverpool (who remain level on points) and won against Burnley and at Spurs. Arsenal matches the results of the teams ahead of them, as did Manchester United – who were denied a win at Stamford Bridge courtesy of a late Ross Barkley goal – and Bournemouth, who continue to surpass expectations and hold onto a spot in the top 6. The only team to win all their games in October was Brighton, who managed 3 consecutive 1-0 victories, while Fulham were the only team not to pick up a single point this month.


The best of football

Football fans don’t always get painted in the best light – often for good reason – but there were some instances this month that really caught my eye and thought were worthy of praise.

The biggest of these has come in circumstances that we wish had not happened, but centres around the reaction to the helicopter crash following Leicester’s 1-1 draw with West Ham that saw 5 people including Leicester owner and chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Football fans have not always been the best at showing respect for other clubs’ previous tragedies, but the way that the entire football community has responded to the incident is highly commendable.

On a lighter note, the other moments of class have been related to former players returning to their old home ground with new teams. I remember the shock when Juan Mata was sold to United. Mata was a fan-favourite at Stamford Bridge and has understandably become one at Old Trafford too, so it was wonderful to see both home and away fans give him a standing ovation as he left the pitch during United’s 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge. Similarly, it was great to see Manchester City fans give keeper Joe Hart such a warm welcome on his return to the Etihad with Burnley. He was such a big piece of the club through their early years of success and it never felt right with me the way he was so easily discarded by Pep Guardiola, so it was great to see the fans give him the respect he deserved. It’s just a shame that he was left picking the ball out the back of his net 5 times, especially given a couple of huge decisions from the officials really went in City’s favour during the game.


Kick it out

From some of the best of football to some of the worst.

We quickly find ourselves back at Stamford Bridge and in the final moments of the match as Ross Barkley salvaged a point for Chelsea. While I can understand that emotions would run high at a moment like that, there was no excuse for Chelsea coach Marco Ianni to come running out of the dugout and celebrate not just in front of the United bench, but also to direct his celebration towards them. There is no need whatsoever, it is taunting plain and simple and I have to comment José and the United bench for not reacting the first time. But because they didn’t react, Ianni decided to do it again, sparking ugly scenes at the tunnel. It’s great to see that Sarri apologised and that the FA reacted to the incidents, but a £6,000 fine is pathetically small. This is the Premier League, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – and most popular leagues in the world. Children will be watching Ianni’s actions and thinking that’s acceptable. It isn’t! It was a disgusting and blatant act of disrespect towards Mourinho and the United team and the punishment should have been much more severe.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t it this month as the diving epidemic continued in October. Now first things first, credit to the referees who are coming down hard on the players, with Laurent Depoitre, Aboubakar Kamara and Willian all booked this month for blatant dives, while Alvaro Morata was also cautioned for going down easily during a face-off with a couple of Burnley defenders. Diving is disgusting and needs eliminating from the game. The only problem is that as the referee has picked up on these instances of simulation and given the punishment they can (a yellow card is the maximum punishment on the pitch), the FA cannot give any further punishment. This needs to change if the FA are serious about stamping out diving. If a player knows that they will face a 3-match ban for diving regardless of whether or not they deceive the officials (or better yet get a longer ban if their deception is successful) then after a while players will not want to take the risk as they will know they are putting themselves at risk.


He needs to go!

At almost £90m Paul Pogba was always going to be considered an expensive signing, but I would also call him a costly one. The player has often felt like a distraction in the changing room this season, and if it comes to a matter of someone having to leave Old Trafford and the board picking between Pogba or Mourinho, then I am firmly behind keeping Mourinho.

Pogba has been frustrating on the pitch this season. He has some wonderful moments where he plays beautiful passes, but then he also has plenty of other moments where at best he is anonymous and at worse a liability. He lost his man Antonio Rüdiger far too easy at a corner to allow the German to open the scoring and his showboating lost the ball against Everton, leading to the foul by Chris Smalling that earned a penalty.

And then there’s the penalties. The most pathetic thing I have ever seen on a football pitch. forgoing a run-up for over 20 tiny steps, leaving no power in the shot and making him look stupid if he doesn’t score (he was lucky against Everton that Pickford’s save sent the ball back to him to score on the rebound). With the players in the United squad, there must be someone who can take a proper penalty and if United can get some decent players in January then I will have no problem with them selling Pogba for what will likely be a loss financially.


Attitudes need to change

It was good to see that Glenn Murray made such a quick recovery following Brighton’s win at Newcastle. Murray and Magpies defender Federico Fernández clashed heads competing for an aerial ball and as Murray landed, his body folded and his arms did not protect his fall, leading to his head hitting the floor with sickening force.

Full credit to the players and officials for stopping the game immediately and the medics for their quick actions to stop things from getting worse, but watching Match of the Day, I was shocked to hear commentator Guy Mowbray describe the incident as “something and nothing” as the replays showed Murray’s head hitting the ground. Concussion is a serious worry and this is unfortunately not the first time that the actions of people involved in the Premier League have made it look as if they are not so focused on it. I really hope they prove me wrong.


Top 6 prediction

  1. Manchester City
  2. Liverpool
  3. Chelsea
  4. Arsenal
  5. Tottenham Hotspur
  6. Manchester United

 

Playing It Safe

Now that we are in January and Premiership teams are allowed to make contact with rival team’s players (although they seem to have been doing that for months), there is clearly one main topic of conversation amongst rugby fans: the new high tackle directives from World Rugby.

The new directives, which came into effect on January 3rd, have redefined the high tackle into ‘reckless’ or ‘accidental’ tackles, with a greater sanction for reckless tackles:

Reckless tackle
A player is deemed to have made reckless contact during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game if in making contact, the player knew or should have known that there was a risk of making contact with the head of an opponent, but did so anyway. This sanction applies even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. This type of contact also applies to grabbing and rolling or twisting around the head/neck area even if the contact starts below the line of the shoulders.

Minimum sanction: Yellow card
Maximum sanction: Red card

Accidental tackle
When making contact with another player during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game, if a player makes accidental contact with an opponent’s head, either directly or where the contact starts below the line of the shoulders, the player may still be sanctioned. This includes situations where the ball-carrier slips into the tackle.

Minimum sanction: Penalty

It’s fair to say these new directives have had a mixed response from fans so far, with a number of controversial decisions in recent weeks – including Richard Barrington’s red card against Exeter and a couple of decisions in the Scarlets v Ulster match – souring people’s opinions. It certainly feels that the interpretations of high tackles, tip tackles and aerial challenges has brought us to a point where fans spend their free time trying to come to an agreement over whether a refereeing decision is correct almost every week.

However, what must be remembered is that World Rugby are not just making these changes for the sake of change, they are doing this with player safety in mind. Modern rugby has seen a drastic increase in the size and strength of the average rugby player, so any contact will have an increased effect on a player’s body.

After a number of discussions at work about the Barrington red card, and Brad Barritt’s subsequent ban for his part in the incident, I decided (with a bit of gentle persuasion) that it was worth getting this down in an article.

 

Intent vs Outcome

It’s safe to say that there will have been very little malicious intent in any of the challenges that have been carded over the last few weeks, but in a sport as physical as rugby accidents can happen. Some people will look at incidents like Tusi Pisi’s red card for a challenge in the air on Jamie Shillcock and argue that rugby is going soft as there was clearly no attempt to cause injury. We can’t judge severity of actions by intent though as referees are not mind readers. They must look at the cold hard facts of a challenge and the only way to do so effectively is to look at the outcome. Looking back at the 2011 World Cup with the way the tackle is refereed now, I can’t believe there was ever an argument against Sam Warburton being shown a red card for his tackle on Vincent Clerc!

Where it does become more difficult is the refereeing of an aerial challenge. Here the challenge only becomes an offence if there is not a ‘fair competition’ for the ball, otherwise this is just a rugby incident. Law 10.4(i) describes fair competition as ‘both players in a realistic position to catch the ball’. While this is good to see as it still encourages competition for the high ball, this puts the incident at the interpretation of the officials. I was happy to see Wayne Barnes recently speaking on Rugby Tonight about how the referees meet to review incidents from the weekend to make sure that they are all judging challenges the same. While any incident in a rugby game will generate a variety of opinions, all we can ask is that the individuals in charge of the game are making the right decisions with the evidence they have to hand.

Punishing the outcome of a challenge is also important as the actual physical incident is what causes injury rather than a player’s intent. By being strict on these challenges it is encouraging the players to adapt to the way the game is now being refereed, making challenges safer moving forward. As much as we may feel these rules are softening up the game, they are designed to protect players from injury. Are a couple of ‘soft’ cards and delays in play worth it if it improves the physical wellbeing of the players? I certainly think so.

What else am I meant to do?

It must be remembered that there are at least 2 people involved in a tackle: the tackler and the ball carrier. There is only so much a tackler can do to ensure player safety, if a ball carrier ducks or slips into a tackle unexpectedly, the tackler won’t always have a chance to modify the way he is tackling to keep it safe. Geoff Parling appeared to duck slightly just before contact with Brad Barritt. While I am not saying Barritt’s tackle would have been legal without Parling ducking, it certainly hasn’t helped the situation. There will also be times where another player has an effect on the tackle, as in the case of Sam Davies’ yellow card against Connacht. Davies lined up to tackle the man, but due to another Ospreys player already attempting to tackle him, the ball carrier appeared to drop in height right before the contact, moving Davies’ tackle into the danger zone. I am sure that referees will take mitigating factors into account, but it may also result in players tackling lower to ensure that even if the ball carrier slips at the last moment, the tackle is still safe.

There have also been some fair points on how try-line defence will be affected by the stricter directives with regards to tackles that slip up around the neck. Probably the most contentious card given under the new directives so far would be that of Ulster’s Sean Reidy against Scarlets. Reidy’s tackle around the shoulders of Aled Davies was deemed high and he was given a yellow card while Scarlets were awarded a penalty try. Ben Kay and Ugo Monye recently showcased how the current laws and directives make it difficult to defend the pick-and-go off the back of a ruck on the try-line. Ball carriers driving for the line in this position will stay low, increasing the risk of a tackler making contact with the head. However a tackler cannot go too low or they will be unable to wrap their arms and will be penalised for an illegal chop tackle. While we all want to see high-scoring games, the last thing we want as spectators is to see penalty tries and cards each game for making legitimate attempts to tackle the man when there is no other way to stop them from scoring.

An honest assessment

Since August 2012, World Rugby have allowed some form of temporary replacement while players are being tested for symptoms of concussion. In August 2015, this officially took the form of a 13 minute Head Injury Assessment. While this is a great measure to improve player safety, it is by no means perfect at the moment.

George North was famously allowed to play on after passing a HIA, even though everyone watching the replays (other than the Northampton coaches and medical team) could clearly see that he was knocked unconscious following an aerial collision with Leicester’s Adam Thompstone. Amidst a strong backlash from the rugby world, Northampton were cleared by a concussion panel review set up by the RFU and Premiership Rugby. Even World Rugby surprised fans by declaring themselves ‘disappointed’ in Northampton’s conduct but praising the response of Premiership Rugby and the RFU. In many fan’s eyes, this whole incident undermined the strong stance being taken on player welfare, specifically relating to head injuries. And unfortunately it’s not a one-off case. Sale Sharks, already being sued by former scrum half Cillian Willis for wrongful handling of a head injury that resulted in his early retirement, are now being investigated for a potential breach of concussion protocol after allowing TJ Ioane to continue playing without a HIA after appearing to be concussed when trying to make a tackle.

Perhaps even more scary was rugby hardman Jamie Cudmore’s interview on Rugby Tonight a few weeks back, when he spoke of how he was told his match was over following a head injury when playing for Clermont in the semi-final of the European Cup but was soon back on the pitch as his replacement was struggling. After being stood down for a couple of weeks, he went on to play in the final and began vomiting in the changing room whilst getting a blood injury stitched up but was still allowed to complete the game.

If World Rugby and the national unions want to prove they are serious about player safety, incidents like this cannot be allowed, especially when there are other teams who are following the concussion protocols and being put at a disadvantage by this. In a recent game against Exeter, Bath had already brought on both their replacement props due to injuries. One of these replacements then had to come off in the final 6 minutes due to a head injury, but as there were no more props available to come on, Bath had to see the game out a man down and ended up losing due to a 76th minute try. There is no way to guarantee that Bath would have held on with 15 men on the pitch, but with momentum already beginning to swing in Exeter’s direction, they could not afford to be playing a man down. Perhaps with HIAs becoming more common, the number of replacements allowed on the bench needs to be increased, even if the maximum number of permitted substitutions remains the same. At the very least, it seems harsh to penalize a team by making them play a man down if there is a player who can come on in this situation, even if he can’t play prop, though I understand that a team cannot be allowed to possibly gain an advantage by replacing an ‘injured’ prop with a hooker to allow uncontested scrums.

 

Every cloud has a silver lining

While it’s understandable that some people will feel unhappy at how strict rugby is becoming in the refereeing of any contact, it is clearly with good intentions. The big hit is not being outlawed from the game, it is simply being made safer for everyone involved… though I doubt that is any consolation to Jules Plisson when he wakes up from a nightmare of being tackled by Courtney Lawes!

In time, players will hopefully begin to tackle lower to avoid high tackles, and this could actually lead to an improvement in the quality of the game. Tackling around the legs or lower torso will increase the chances of a ball carrier being able to offload the ball out of the tackle, resulting in a better, more flowing game. If it reduces the number of scrums being caused by the choke tackle, I’m not going to be complaining!

Tackling the school rugby debate

Over the last couple of weeks there has been a lot of debate on whether school rugby should involve full contact or if it is better to just teach tag rugby in schools. When the debate began, my immediate thought was to keep the contact, but I’ve given myself a bit of time to think about it and thought it was about time to try to put together a balanced argument both ways on the matter.

Against the tackle

The main argument to ban the tackle is the risk of injury to the children playing. This is a valid concern, rugby is first and foremost a collision sport. At each contact, especially the ruck, the tackle and the scrum, there is a chance of a player getting injured. I have always been lucky to avoid any serious injuries, but I certainly developed enough cuts and bruises over my time to look like someone had been giving me a good beating. I’ve known plenty of people when I was at school who missed time due to injuries.Broken bones, sprains and dislocations are always a risk when going into contact.

On top of this, recent years have made a big focus on the risk of concussion. George North has missed significant playing time in recent seasons following a series of concussions, but this is not a risk limited to just the pros. I’ve helped out a bit in Junior level club rugby the last few years and seen kids pick up concussions.

There is no guarantee that playing tag rugby would completely eliminate all chance of injury, but it would certainly lead to a reduction in injuries, especially the more serious ones.

For the tackle

Rugby is a contact sport, plain and simple. That is a big part of what makes it such a popular game to watch and play. Would Twickenham or Murrayfield fill up for international tag rugby games? Call me a cynic, but I doubt it.

Furthermore, it’s not as if rugby is the only sport in schools that contains a risk of injury. Football is in itself a dangerous sport, there is plenty of chance to get injured from a poor football tackle. There is also a concussion risk in football from players attempting to head the ball, to the point that there were discussions of banning this for under 11s in America. Hockey is another sport played in schools that again naturally has a risk attached to it. Give a bunch of kids a big wooden stick and make them run around trying to hit a ball, what could possibly go wrong…?  As I said earlier I’ve been lucky with injuries, to the point that my worst injury (barring one unfortunate knock to the knee) was a broken nose doing the high jump of all events (I’m a certain kind of special). If rugby should be changed at school due to injury risk, then why should all of these other sports stay as they are?

One of the big arguments to not change rugby is that it is character building. As an 11 year old, I weighted 10 stone and was seriously unfit, I didn’t mind a kickabout with friends but would not have considered playing sport seriously. Fast forward a few months and I was a regular starter form my school’s rugby B-team. One of the big selling points of rugby is that it’s a game for everyone – tall, short, big or small – there’s a position for everyone.  If I hadn’t started playing when I did, I am pretty certain that I would be a very different person. Rugby has always prided itself on its values of respect and camaraderie, it certainly helped bring me out of my shell as a kid, and helped me through university too. Tag rugby puts ball skills, elusiveness and running lines at a premium, not a bad thing in itself, but certainly not a sport that 11 year old me would have felt comfortable in.

There is also the argument that if we delay the teaching of tackling, we will be making it harder for our pros to compete at the top of the game. Maro Itoje is only 21 years old but has 3 senior international caps (2 of them in the starting XV) and a man of the match to his name. Martyn Williams has already described him as a future British & Irish Lions captain. If he hadn’t been tackling in school, how long would it have taken him to break into the national team, or would he have missed out completely? While England as a rugby nation is certainly behind some of the top countries in terms of ball handling ability – just look at the New Zealand props during the World Cup – would delaying the introduction of tackling put us even further back in our battle to reach the top of the game?

Time to compromise?

It’s impossible to deny that playing full contact rugby will run the risk of injury. The real debate should be how can the risk be minimised so that the game can continue to expand whilst also protecting the players.

Proper coaching is vital. I lost count of the number of times I heard coaches say that it was important to go into contact with complete conviction, as being hesitant was more likely to result in injury to the players involved. A lot of the head injuries we see are at least in part down to poor tackling technique, players putting their head in the wrong place when making a tackle, or going for the big man-and-ball tackle so clashing heads. Incidents like this need to be shown as how NOT to tackle as well as careful coaching of correct and safe tackling technique. There also needs to be a greater focus on avoiding the big collision, running at a tackler’s arms and shoulders or, even better running at space, rather than running head on into a tackler front-on. Not only should that reduce the chance and severity of injuries, but it should also improve the quality of rugby played.

The good news is that the media is improving in how it deals with these incidents during a match. A few seasons back players would be applauded by commentators for carrying on playing after a knock to the head that had clearly caused them issues. They were warriors who would put their body on the line for their team, nothing was more important than the result. Now commentators are quick to discuss player safety and point out instances of poor and dangerous tackling technique, even if the incident itself hasn’t led to a noticeable injury. This shift in focus during match broadcasts will only help to educate kids in safe and proper technique.

I feel that tag rugby does have a place in the school curriculum, but not at the complete expanse of contact rugby. When I was at school, the boys were split into 2 groups for rugby: the team and the rest. Maybe the ‘rest’ category needs to be split into 2 groups, one for contact rugby and one for tag rugby. The team and the contact group should still play tag rugby to improve their rugby skills, but then at least there is a group available for any kids who do not want to play contact or whose parents don’t want them to play contact rugby.

But this is just my personal opinion. The people who get paid to make the big important decisions need to look at all the evidence and options available to make sure they are coming to the best possible outcome for all parties. Ministers, medical officers and RFU officials, its over to you…