Post-Lockdown Blues

Post-Lockdown Blues

We’re 3 rounds into the return of Premiership Rugby following the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and if I’m being completely honest, I couldn’t care less! Almost as soon as the competition went on hiatus, my feelings were that the season should just be considered null and void and preparations should be made for the 2020/21 season. And while I have really tried to give the competition a chance, the action we’re seeing is making me feel that I was right.

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The season should have been over months ago, so in order to cause minimal disruption to the next season, the remaining games are being crammed into the shortest time possible. While this may work fr a limited contact game like football, the body needs time to recover and this is a nightmare for player well-being, as teams are having up to 3 matches in a week. What this is leading to is heavy rotation within teams between matches, and this has taken away any point of these games being competitive. Bristol’s rotation saw them put out a largely 2ⁿᵈ string (if no weaker) side against a Sale team that was close to its ideal XV. That Sale ran away with the game says nothing about their ability and everything about the lineups being used, while we had similar in Exeter’s demolition of Worcester and Bath’s win at Leicester. Even in Gloucester’s match against Tigers this weekend, the game was a rout in the first half until Tigers brought their stars off the bench and Gloucester took their big names off to keep them fresh. Yes, we as fans want to see tries, but we don’t want to see a team having a glorified training session running though a vastly inferior lineup. Alex Shaw put it best on Twitter when he asked if the integrity of the individual matches being sacrificed (uneven squads) to maintain integrity of the competition (play whole fixture list), and I can’t help feel that the answer is yes, which as a result is ruining the spectacle of such a good competition, while now a team may also make the playoffs thanks to playing a number of weakened teams at the expense of a better team who continually faced XVs that were close to the ideal selection. There is no easy way to get around all this, and it will leave questions over whoever wins the competition, which could have been avoided by having an extended preseason to prepare for 2020/21.

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Considering the amount of international rugby coming in the next 12 months – the Home Nations have the Autumn Tests, Summer Tests, the remains of the 2020 Six Nations, the 2021 Six Nations and the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa – the rest caused by a longer preseason would have benefited everybody, while also allowing players to adapt to the new interpretation of the breakdown, which has only further ruined the early weeks of matches as penalties are given continuously while players learn the limits of the officials’ tolerance.

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The issue of player selection doesn’t even just come down to squad rotation, but also the players available to pick from. Due to the season having gone longer than usual, player contracts expired, and that has led to a number of players moving clubs mid-season (like Ben Spencer’s transfer from Saracens to Bath), leaving the league altogether (Will Skelton), signing short-term contracts to stay with the club until the end of the current season (Franco Marais), signing short-term deals with a new club until the end of this season (Matt Garvey, who is currently with Gloucester after leaving Bath) or entering the league midway through the season (Jonny Gray). Even the players Saracens are loaning out when they are in the Championship next season are already playing for their new clubs! What this has led to is completely different squads – especially when you look at the turnover at a club like Leicester – competing in this final stretch of the season, including the playoffs, and giving a completely different feel to this final stretch. You just have to look at Northampton’s struggles since the restart after being one of the best teams in the league pre-COVID to see how heavily impacted this season has been, and as such it doesn’t feel like a continuation of what came before.

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Obviously, I understand that with a league that is not ring-fenced, I understand that usually the league season would need to be completed if only to see who would be relegated, but this season that was not an issue as Saracens were already officially relegated as their punishment for years of cheating by breaching the salary cap. I would argue that the Sarries case even added to the argument to make the season null and void as if you look back at the lineups they were putting out before the lockdown, they were heavily varied first as they looked to try building up enough points to avoid relegation despite the initial points deduction, before then resting a their first XV as they switched their attention to Europe. How would it have been fair if a spot in the playoff was decided by one team beating Sarries’ 3ʳᵈ XV while another lost to their 1ˢᵗ XV? With Saracens relegated, it would have been easy enough to declare the season null and void, relegate Saracens – with Newcastle coming up in their place – and then using last season’s standings (with teams below Saracens pushed up a spot) to decide who qualified for the 2020/21 Champions Cup. It may be harsh on teams who improved this year, but it seems that it would have been a fairer way to do things.

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Instead, we’re stuck watching 1ˢᵗ XVs piling on the points against glorified A-League lineups in empty grounds that takes away home advantage, while being forced to listen to awful manufactured crowd noise. Coming off the back of Super Rugby Aotearoa, it looks an absolute shambles.

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Unfortunately, what is right is not he priority for the RFU or Premiership Rugby. We see all the time that the organisations only care about what will get them money or keep them safe, as seen by the loss of contracts for the England 7s program, or the way that deserving teams like Georgia never get a shot in Tier 1 tournaments but Japan buy their way into SANZAAR competitions. The league season is being finished, the competition put in jeopardy and players put at risk is just for money, and that has to change if we want the rugby to go to the next level.

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Tour de France 2020: Preview

Tour de France 2020: Preview

We are just days away from the Grand Départ of the 2020 edition of the Tour de France. Usually the second of road cycling’s 3 Grand Tours to be raced each year, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in this being the first of the 3 this year, while the race itself has also been pushed back.

Saturday will see the beginning of 3470 kilometres being covered over a space of 23 days (21 stages and 2 rest days), with 22 teams of 8 riders rolling out of Nice and making their way around the country – mainly Southern and Eastern France this year – before 20ᵗʰ September’s ceremonial procession into Paris and the final sprint to down the Champs-Élysées. And when all is said and done, the best overall rider over the 3 weeks will be the yellow jersey and winner of the race’s General Classification.

COVID-19

This is going to be a very different race than usual due to the Coronavirus pandemic that has hit the world this year. The race was initially slated to start on the 27ᵗʰ June, so a delay of 2 months could lead to different conditions to usual as we find the race taking part later in the summer.

Further than that, every cyclist will find that their preparation for the race has been heavily disrupted, and it was clear in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné that a number of riders were not yet at their best. If some of the top teams find their riders not quite as conditioned as they hope, then don’t be surprised if some less fancied teams find themselves in a more competitive situation to usual.

It looks like the Tour is taking plenty of precautions to keep everybody safe, with a number of plans in place, including regular testing. Perhaps the most noticeable that could impact the race is that a team with 2 positive tests will be pulled out of the race. Imagine if with a couple of days left the overwhelming leader in the GC was pulled out of the race due to 2 members of the team testing positive. With all things considered, this year’s race will be anything but predictable!

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As an aside, we will also see the impact on the roads with much smaller crowds. While it is obviously going to be a shame to see less fans at the roadside, I can’t help but think that it may lead to a safer race on some f those hard climbs where we see the road reduced to a width of less than a metre due to the crowds pushing forward, making things dangerous for the riders, especially with the motorbikes carrying camera operators right next to them. While the images of Chris Froome running up Mont Ventoux will go down in history, the last thing we want is riders having their races ruined – or worse, their safety put at risk – by crowds flooding the roads the cyclists are trying to race on.

Clash of the Titans

Of the last 8 iterations of the Tour, the yellow jersey has been won by Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky) on 7 occasions, with their only miss in that time coming when Chris Froome was forced to retire injured in the first week. This year, Ineos may find their hopes of a 6ᵗʰ consecutive victory at risk, as they look to face a tough challenge from Team Jumbo-Visma.

It looked like Froome would have the ultimate trio of potential leaders in Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal, but neither of the Brits looked close to readiness at the Dauphiné and have been pulled out to focus on prepping to be the leaders at the Vuelta and Giro respectively. Meanwhile, even Bernal did not seem close to competing with Jumbo-Visma’s Primož Roglič on the tough climbs before being withdrawn with a back issue. Ineos have named a strong lineup regardless, but even key domestiques like Michał Kwiatkowski looked far from their best, putting a lot of pressure on Pavel Sivakov. The inclusion of 2019 Giro d’Italia winner Richard Carapaz looks a shrewd call as he can be a key domestique if the team chooses to go all-in on Bernal, or a viable leader himself if Bernal is struggling – expect to see him in a limited-effort role early in the race to keep him fresh to fight so that the team an go all-in on him if needed, or even to use him to pressure Bernal’s other GC rivals by sending him off the front. But what must also be noted is that this will be the team’s first Grand Tour since the passing of directeur sportif Nicolas Portal, who has been a key part of their success. Now under pressure from Jumbo-Visma, with some big names missing and questions over others, this will be a big test for Dave Brailsford’s team.

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Team Jumbo-Visma are probably the only team who come close to being such a threat in the GC in recent years. Like Ineos, it looked like they would be riding the Tour with 3 potential leaders in Primož Roglič, Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk, however injury on the Dauphiné has robbed Kruijswijk of his spot, while Roglič also left the race early following a fall. However, the Slovenian’s injuries did not look too severe and his great ability on both the climbs and in time trials surely leaves him as the favourite, while Dumoulin will likely be used in a similar role to what I described for Carapaz. Beyond that, though, the Team Jumbo-Visma team is a well-oiled machine, with George Bennett often able to hold his own amongst the leaders on climbs and surely now taking more of a domestique role, while Sepp Kuss looks in great form and Wout van Aert appears to have an engine that others find near-impossible to match. Inexperience leading the race has cost them in the past, but don’t expect that to be an issue now.

Brit-watch

With Froome and Thomas withdrawn and Mark Cavendish not being selected by Bahrain-McLaren, British interest may not be as high as in recent years, but there are still 4 riders out there representing GB.

Reliable Luke Rowe is still there as road captain for Team Ineos. Don’t expect to see him in breaks or going for stage wins at any point, but if Bernal/Carapaz are to come away with the yellow jersey, he will have played a key role.

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Mitchelton-Scott have brought one of the Yates twins, Adam, but they have already admitted that they will be going for stage wins rather than the yellow jersey. If he can pick his days right, he can certainly be a threat on the mountain stages.

Hugh Carthy is a strong rider who will likely be a key domestique for EF Pro Cycling if they hope to have any success with Rigoberto Urán or Dani Martinez, while Connor Swift will be making his Tour de France debut for Arkéa–Samsic, riding in support of Nairo Quintana.

All for one, and one for all?

It’s no surprise to see a strong list of Frenchmen on the start line for their home race, but what are the chances of a first French victory since Bernard Hinault in 1985?

Thibaut Pinot of Groupama-FDJ is probably the best bet of a victory and looked in good form at the Dauphiné, though he couldn’t get it right on the final stage. Julian Alaphilippe excited a nation with his performance in last year’s Tour and while he will probably fall off a little on the hardest mountains, he looked to be riding into form on the Dauphiné and will surely look to light up the race. Guillaume Martin is coming in off the back of a podium finish in the Dauphiné, but it’s hard to imagine that Team Cofidis have the strength to give him sufficient support to win the yellow jersey. The other notable French leader is Romain Bardet of Team Ag2r-La Mondiale, but he has never shown himself strong enough to win the Tour, with his time trials especially letting him down.

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What will be interesting to see though is if we get a repeat of the events of the final day of this year’s Dauphiné. With Martin unable to get away from Pinot, but Dani Martinez riding away, victory looked all-but assured for the Colombian. Alaphilippe had gone for the stage win but dropped away and was caught by a group of leaders: Tom Dumoulin, Pinot, Martin, Bardet and climber Warren Barguil. What followed was a beautiful moment as rather than try to hold with the group, Alaphilippe decided to spend his last energy taking a turn at the front of the group, effectively working as a domestique for his countrymen and apparently inspiring the other French riders to all ride as support for Pinot to help their countryman get the GC victory despite them all riding for different teams.

With Stage 19 being one for the sprinters, 20 a time trial and 21 the procession into Paris, if there is only one French hope for the yellow jersey, it would be beautiful to see something similar happening to create a team of super-domestiques to go against Ineos and Jumbo-Visma and bring success back to France. With the way 2020 is going, anything is possible!

Sprint finish

Despite Dylan Groenewegen and Fabio Jakobsen both missing following the horror crash at the Tour de Pologne, and Mark Cavendish missing out on selection, there is a strong field of sprinters here at the Tour.

Peter Sagan has won the green jersey in 7 of the last 8 years (the only time he didn’t was following his disqualification in 2017 following a crash with Mark Cavendish) and I honestly can’t see things being any different this year, as Bora–Hansgrohe are one of the stronger sprint teams, while Sagan is also one of the few sprinters that will also be able to cope with the more minor climbs, allowing him to pick up extra points on intermediate sprints as well as uphill sprints. On the flatter stages, expect riders like Sam Bennett, Caleb Ewan and Elia Viviani to come to the fore, but it is likely that one will continually beat the others to the line, leading to them taking points off each other in the race to catch Sagan.

Right now, I’m predicting Sagan to win the green jersey but Sam Bennett of Deceuninck–Quick-Step to take the stage win in Paris.

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Dark horses

While Roglič would be my favourite for the race followed by Bernal, there are certainly some dark horses. Their seconds Dumoulin and Carapaz are equally capable of winning if the focus switches to them early enough in the race, especially given Dumoulin’s ability in time trials.

Outside the 2 big teams, Thibaut Pinot would be the favourite, but I also feel that Dani Martinez has a strong chance given his form in the mountains at the Dauphiné, as long as he is given a fair chance to race and not used up as a domestique for Urán. Tadej Pogačar of UAE Team Emirates looks to be one of the most exciting young riders in the peloton and must never be ruled out, especially if Fabio Aru rides in support of him. As I mentioned earlier, Guillaume Martin could push for a podium spot but will likely miss out due to not having such a strong team.

My final dark horse pick is Mikel Landa of Bahrain-McLaren. The Spaniard has top 10 finishes in the last 3 Tours, and while he may not have the punchy attacks of Pogačar, he is a tireless engine and with a team including Pello Bilbao and Wout Poels he should never be ruled out on the climbs.

My General Classification Prediction:

  1. Primož Roglič (Team Jumbo-Visma)
  2. Egan Bernal (Team Ineos)
  3. Dani Martinez (EF Pro Cycling)

To add a little extra fun to this year’s Tour, I have set up a pool on SuperBru and you’re all invited! You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code acmemock

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Premier League: March 2020

Premier League: March 2020

Well… this was an odd month!

It feels like forever since we had any football, but we did in fact manage to get a week’s worth of matches (and those from the latter half of the week before) before all football was shut down due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought not just sport, but everyday life to a standstill. This is a very strange time for us all and the season is currently in a strange form of limbo, but in an attempt to keep things as normal as possible, I am still here with a look at the action and stories to come out this month.


Premier League Round-up


Offside?

Manchester United’s improvement was continuing in March with a 1-1 draw at Everton and a 2-0 victory over Manchester City at Old Trafford. A big moment in the Everton match came when VAR overruled an own goal from Harry Maguire (which would have won Everton the match) due to an offside decision against Gylfi Sigurðsson.

The Icelandic international was on the floor in the 6-yard box after having his shot saved by David de Gea. The ball came to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who’s shot towards the far post took a heavy deflection off Harry Maguire and into the goal at the near post after Sigurðsson – who was still on the floor with less than 2 United players between him and the goalline – pulled his legs out of the way. Sigurðsson was definitely in an offside position, but was he offside?

Per the FA’s Laws of the Game on their website:

A player in an offside position at the moment the ball is played or touched* by a team-mate is only penalised on becoming involved in active play by:

  • interfering with play by playing or touching a ball passed or touched by a team-mate or
  • interfering with an opponent by:
    • preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or
    • challenging an opponent for the ball or
    • clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent or
    • making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball

*The first point of contact of the ‘play’ or ‘touch’ of the ball should be used

or

  • gaining an advantage by playing the ball or interfering with an opponent when it has:
    • rebounded or been deflected off the goalpost, crossbar or an opponent
    • been deliberately saved by any opponent
    • A player in an offside position receiving the ball from an opponent who deliberately plays the ball (except from a deliberate save by any opponent) is not considered to have gained an advantage.

A ‘save’ is when a player stops, or attempts to stop, a ball which is going into or very close to the goal with any part of the body except the hands/arms (unless the goalkeeper within the penalty area).

The clear argument here is that Sigurðsson was in de Gea’s line of vision, which is in itself enough to disallow the goal. I would also make an argument that the offside could be given for another point as well: “clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent”. In this case, the playing of the ball is the deliberate lifting of the legs just in time for the ball to pass by untouched, in a similar way to a player deliberately stepping over a pass as a dummy to allow a player behind them to get the ball. Were it not for this action, the ball is being blocked by him, and it is only this late evasion that stops this.

If nothing else, I’m sure we can agree that Sigurðsson had more than enough time to get back to his feet and get onside, but chose instead to just stay on the floor, which proved costly.

How do we proceed?

The Premier League is in limbo at the moment as we wait to see how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic clears up. If it happens relatively quickly, then I imagine we will see the league continue as it was and finish slightly further into the summer than usual, which is now possible due to the Euros being pushed back a year. Obviously this would be the ideal situation, but what if the pandemic carries on for another couple of months and completing the season becomes impossible?

Should the season stand with the final standings as they are? Should we go back a couple of weeks to the last point every team had played the same number of matches? Or should the season just be struck off and replayed next season?

There is so much to consider. If the season in stopped early, there is plenty of argument to award Liverpool the title, but as it is not mathematically impossible for them to be caught at this stage, I feel that their title victory would need an asterisk next to it. European places and the bottom 3 also become very contentious decisions as it can be argued that some teams will have had a harder or easier playing schedule, giving advantage to some teams. There is also the issue that right now, not all teams have played the same number of games, but going back to the last time all teams had played the same number of matches could see a team drop down a position that they had fairly climbed above. Any partial season automatically gives an advantage to teams who had a strong first half of the season. Teams like Manchester United and Arsenal started the season poorly but have seen their results improving of late, and could have found themselves rising even higher in the standings.

Though it is harsh on the teams that have been doing well this season like Liverpool and Sheffield United (also teams pushing for promotion from the Championship), I think that the only fair way to deal with this season is to strike it off, with prize money split equally between all the teams, no champion, no promotion/relegation and the same teams competing in European competition next season (with Manchester City’s ban being pushed back a year). It is far from ideal and would really need all UEFA nations to agree to do the same to basically replay the competition next season, but these are unheralded times and I can’t see a fairer way to deal with such an unprecedented situation.

Let’s hope the situation improves quick enough for the seasons to be completed to make all of this a moot point!

Coping with the times

In this very difficult time, clubs have been reacting in very different ways to the COVID-19 pandemic and I just wanted to take a moment to praise a couple of teams who have acted admirably in the circumstances before throwing some shade at others whose actions have been less praiseworthy.

First of all, a massive credit to Brighton, who announced that they will donate 1000 tickets to NHS staff once matches are back on, and Bournemouth, who agreed to match this. NHS Staff are so underappreciated and are putting themselves at risk to look after those who are ill, so I would argue that 1000 tickets from each team should be an absolute minimum! A shout-out too for Burnley, who announced earlier in the month that all the matchday and non-matchday staff (including those in the community) will receive their usual pay while the break goes on.

On the flip-side however, a number of teams including Newcastle and Tottenham are taking advantage of the government’s job retention scheme to pay 80% of staff’s wages to a maximum of £2,500 a month. Meanwhile the players and big-earners remain on full salaries. The average Premier League player has a salary of over £3m per year, so it is disgusting that they are still getting full salaries while the public’s taxes are used to help the rest of the club staff survive. In my opinion, a minimum salary should be set in place, players above which should automatically receive a pay cut with their cut wages going to the rest of the staff being affected. Let’s be honest, those diving primadonnas earn ridiculous money for what they do anyway!

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