Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

After last weekend’s early start for a number of teams, the Autumn Internationals kicked off in full force this weekend. The match between England and New Zealand that people wanted years ago finally took place and, despite England’s struggles in 2018, the match went right down to the final minutes. Wales finally ended years of hurt with a low-scoring win over Australia, while the USA got their first win over Samoa to continue their record of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018, though that will likely come to an end soon as they face Ireland in a few weeks.

The Week 2 results were:

  • Brazil 3-35 Maori All Blacks
  • France 26-29 South Africa
  • Ireland 28-17 Argentina
  • USA 30-29 Samoa
  • Wales 9-6 Australia
  • England 15-16 New Zealand
  • French Barbarians 38-49 Tonga
  • Scotland 54-17 Fiji
  • Italy 28-17 Georgia

England

The first 35 minutes against New Zealand was probably the best I have seen England play all season. Players were tackling as if their lives depended on it and if someone missed a tackle, there was someone else there to put the carrier down. The rucks were being hit with a desire to get the ball back on the English side and the backs were pinning the All Blacks back with their tactical kicking. And that maul for Dylan Hartley’s try was like porn for a former prop like me!

Unfortunately, the team could not keep it up for the full 80 minutes and they struggled to have the same impact in the second half. While it could be said that England were handed the match against South Africa by Malcolm Marx’s throwing, this time it was England throwing he game away in the second half as Jamie George managed to connect on only 5 of his 10 throws, with a number of them being pilfered by Brodie Retallick. While the throws were by no means perfect as they did not seem to be hitting the golden “double top” (top of the throw, top of the jump), I do not want to put the blame fully on George as the lineouts were continually called to Maro Itoje (I got the feeling he was the one calling the lineout but am not certain) despite Retallick covering him at the set piece.

If England are to win the tight games, they need to make sure their set piece is flawless on their own ball.

New Zealand

Damian McKenzie was wonderful on Saturday. While I don’t rate him as an international fly half, he is a fantastic attacking fullback. Despite his small stature, he popped straight back up after numerous big hits from Sam Underhill and the rest of the England back row, while his footwork, vision, pace and ability to pick an attacking line played such a big part in New Zealand’s resurgence. He may not be the best yet under the high ball, but this is an area of his game that he can develop. If he’s given the number 15 shirt on a regular basis over the next year, he could be one of the best at his position in the World Cup.


Wales

Alan Wyn Jones was a lucky man on Saturday, as he probably should have seen a red card for leading with a forearm into Bernard Foley. While the incident didn’t look much, leading with the forearm is considered a red card offence. Alafoti Fa’osiliva received a red card for when playing for Worcester against Gloucester a few years ago and just the night before this match, USA’s Megan Rom was shown red for the same offence, which I would argue was even softer as she appeared to initially attempt to hand the player off in the shoulder – something Jones didn’t. Meanwhile in the Pro14, both Uzair Cassiem and Kieron Fonotia have both been banned this season for similar offences. All we ask for in the rugby community is consistency, and going by previous examples, the Ospreys lock should have been taking an early bath, but not even a penalty was given.

Australia

Jones wasn’t the only player who probably got lucky not to be penalised in this game, as Samu Kerevi also escaped punishment for a collision with Leigh Halfpenny that saw the fullback ft with concussion. This to me is a really difficult one and even after a couple of days thinking about it and discussing with a few friends, I still can’t decide what the outcome should have been.

Kerevi does leave the ground in an attempt to charge down the kick, which is the only reason I can imagine Ben O’Keeffe was willing to call it a “rugby incident” and play on – similar to Andrew Conway’s attempted charge down of Gareth Steenson’s conversion in the Champions Cup. However, it did not look like a wholly committed attempt to block the kick and he did end up leading into Halfpenny with his shoulder as opposed to an arm. Later that night, Faf de Klerk had a penalty given against him for a late hit on Camille Lopez that looked like a much more committed attempt to block the kick and a considerably less nasty looking contact with the kicker. What makes this incident even worse is that Kerevi’s shoulder appears to make contact with Halfpenny’s head, which is backed up by his concussion as his head does not bash against the floor as he drops. In this current climate, it is a shock that there was not even a penalty given for something that was at best reckless and at worst dangerous. Like with the Jones incident, all we ask for is consistency, there does not appear to have been much this weekend.


USA

They still have some way to go to take on the Tier 1 nations, but this USA team is one that’s on the up. Despite missing 2 of their stars in AJ MacGinty and Samu Manoa, and having captain Blaine Scully leave the field early, the Eagles impressed with some wonderful play from back rows Cam Dolan and Hanco Germishuys and powerful running form Joe Taufete’e and Paul Lasike. These two guys kept the Eagles on the front foot throughout the game and the Worcester hooker even continued his scoring run form the Summer Tests. Lasike, though really impressed me. The former NFL fullback, now playing in the Premiership for Harlequins consistently made ground when given the ball, but was not a one-trick pony (or shire horse given his size) and also worked the Samoa defence well by drawing them in expecting the crash ball but then playing the ball off to the men now in space outside him. If they continue to grow as a team over the coming years and more players like Psalm Wooching choose rugby over a career in the NFL, then the sky could be the limit for them.

Samoa

I really don’t understand the tactical decisions made in this game. Despite an experienced 10 in Tusi Pisi and players outside like Ahsee Tuala, JJ Taulagi, Alapati Leiua and Ray Lee-Lo, the Samoan strategy seems to have been to kick first. While it is great to see them playing a more structured style (something that has not always been seen with the Pacific Island teams), I really don’t think it played to their strengths. I have no problem with a tactical kicking game, but this should have been more interspersed with crash balls and spreading the ball wide to keep the defence on their toes. For so long, Samoa appeared to be the best and most well-rounded of the Pacific Islands, but now they are slipping down the World Rankings, which is a massive shame to see. They need to sort out their tactics soon if they want to start winning again on a regular basis.


Italy

Italy are a team on the up once again. Conor O’Shea has been improving Italian rugby as a whole and it is starting to show. They have some experienced internationals in captain Sergio Parisse (rested for this match), Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni (who has converted from flanker to lock), but they also now have a generation of quality young players coming through. Michele Campagnaro has been on the scene for an number of years but is only 25, while Jake Polledri and Seb Negri have taken the back row to a new level and consistently give the team front-foot ball. Add in the currently injured Matteo Minozzi, who was a star in the 6 Nations, and the signs are positive for the national team. The important thing is to give O’Shea the time as this is not a short-term plan, but instead a long-term reboot of Italian rugby to keep them competitive.

Georgia

Talk for a number of years has focused on whether Georgia should replace Italy in the 6 Nations. While I do agree that they are at a stage where they are too good for their current competition, this game showed that they still have a way to go to compete in the 6 Nations. After this match, I had a look at both the Georgian and Italian squads for the Autumn Internationals to see how they compared in their top flight experience. The entire Italian squad play in top 3 European leagues, with Parisse and Ghiraldini in the Top 14, Campagnaro and Polledri in the Premiership and the remainder of the squad playing for Benetton or Zebre in the Pro14. In contrast, the Lelos have 1 player in Super Rugby, 1 in the Premiership and 9 in the Top 14. Beyond that, the team has 1 player in the Championship (English second tier), 2 in the Professional Rugby League (Russian top flight), 7 in Rugby Pro D2 (French second tier) and the remainder of the players (all backs) are playing in the Georgian top tier. To make the next step, the Lelos need to be able to pick a squad full of players who are in the top European leagues and therefore playing weekly against other internationals. Now I’m not suggesting an exodus from Georgia, but instead a Georgian franchise in the Pro14. They may not have immediate success, but if they can start to bring through the next generation then they could begin to reach the next level much as Italy are currently improving again.


Scotland

The Scots may have ran away with the match in the end, but the match remained tight for the best part of an hour. Part of that was due to Scotland missing chances. Fraser Brown may have scored towards the end of the first quarter following a series of pick-and-go drives from the pack, but the try should have been scored a number of phases earlier when Peter Horne drew the last defender and had a chance to put Tommy Seymour over in the corner but instead chose to dummy the pass and appeared lucky to avoid a knock-on decision as he was tackled just short. Later in the game, Horne made a break through the middle and again held onto the ball rather than play it back inside to Greig Laidlaw who had a chance to keep the move going. Horne is a good player, but as someone in as a second distributor, he missed the chance to distribute the ball too many times and will need to improve to hold his spot in a competitive midfield.

Fiji

It will come as no surprise when I say that Fiji play some beautiful rugby. Add to that a improving structure to their play and they are really beginning to turn heads in international rugby. Unfortunately they still have a way to go to regularly compete against the Tier 1 teams and a big part of that comes down to discipline. The Fijians conceded 12 penalties in this match, which is too many against a Tier 1 nation, and lost both Tevita Cavubati and Leone Nakarawa sin binned, with the 10 minute periods overlapping to leave the team with only 13 men for about 5 minutes. Against a team as dangerous in attack as Scotland, it is hard enough to defend with 15 men on the pitch; it becomes pretty much impossible when 2 men down. Even worse, it will make it harder for the other players to keep going for the full match as they need to work harder during the sin bin periods to cover the extra space. The have a talented team but will not win regularly if they can’t keep the penalty count down.


France

35 minutes in with the score at 9-9, Teddy Thomas broke out from his own 22 down the right wing. Getting up towards the South African 22, he had only Willie le Roux to stop him but numerous teammates in support to put over for the try. Instead, the winger chose to keep the ball and was well tackled by the South African 15. Luckily for France, they scored a few minutes later after the Springboks failed to clear their lines, but it is criminal to not finish that chance by being selfish.

After finishing the first half on a high with Guirado’s try, France continued to build the momentum with a try for Matthieu Bastareaud just 95 seconds into the second half. However they then shot themselves in the foot at the restart and lost all momentum as Sébastien Vahaamahina attempted to catch the restart over his shoulder while moving towards his own line, but fumbled, allowing S’busiso Nkosi to go over for possibly the easiest try he will ever score. This was a stupid mistake from a player who should have known better. One of the first things I remember being taught about catching a high ball is that if you are moving towards your own line and have a teammate coming forwards able to take it, they should leave it for the player coming onto the ball, yet this was not done by Vahaamahina despite Camille Lopez being in position to take the ball. As well as letting the Springboks back into the game on the scoreboard, this also shifted the momentum firmly in the direction of the away team.

Despite all this, with just 1 minute remaining on the clock, the French found themselves with the lead and a scrum inside the South African 22. There was no way they could lose from there… but they did. With half a minute remaining, they gave away a penalty at the breakdown and when the Springboks put a bit too much length on the kick, Damian Penaud caught the ball in play, but then stepped into touch just before the 80 minutes was up, giving the Boks one last chance in the French half. From here, a series of French penalties gave South Africa the chance to win the game by driving over a lineout from close range.

Typical France. This is a game they should have won but they managed to throw it away with stupid mistakes.

South Africa

This was not a good match for the South African backs. Faf de Klerk’s kicking game was nowhere near the level of his recent appearances, while conversely the back line struggled to adapt to France’s kicking game as they heavily varied their kicks from chips to cross-kicks (Penaud was mere inches from collecting one for an early try) to high bombs like the one that led to Bastareaud’s try. In attack, the back line seemed nowhere near as effective as against England, while on one of the few times they did beat the French defence, Cheslin Kolbe did not protect the ball well enough as he went over the try line, leading to a try being disallowed – which should have cost them the game if not for the French errors. There has been a clear improvement in the Springboks since Rassie Erasmus took over, but they still have some way to go to be more consistent.


Ireland

Ireland did not look at their usual level against the Pumas. Jordan Larmour surely knows that he will be put under some pressure with the high ball, but at this point there is a clear difference in how well Ireland deal with the opponent’s kicking game when he is at 15 compared to Rob Kearney, who is arguably one of the best in the world under the high ball. But it wasn’t just Larmour who struggled, as Jacob Stockdale also fumbled a number of high balls and the team also failed to deal with a couple of restarts. Heading into the coming match against the All Blacks, Ireland will have to do much better in this area if they are to beat the World Champions.

Argentina

In recent seasons, the best part of the Argentinian team has been their back 3. Bautista Delguy has been fantastic since coming on the scene and in my opinion should have been nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year 2018 and along with Ramiro Moyano and Emiliano Boffelli they have formed one of the most exciting and dangerous back 3s in World Rugby, yet they didn’t get much ball in this game other than when they were collecting Irish kicks and I think this limited the Pumas’ effectiveness during this game. I can’t help but wonder if the reticence to spread the ball was a worry as to Ireland’s effectiveness at the breakdown, so it will be interesting to see if their tactics will be any different this weekend against France, especially considering how good Bastareaud can be at the breakdown.


 

September 2018 in the Premier League

September 2018 in the Premier League

September saw things get interesting in the Premier League for the big teams. Manchester City went unbeaten, scoring 12 goals and conceding just 1 to keep themselves top of the league. Liverpool and Chelsea continue to suggest they will be City’s closest rivals this season, drawing 1-1 against each other while Liverpool won all their other games and Chelsea drew with West Ham (who appear to have turned the corner) but won the others. Arsenal are also on a great run, winning all their league games with an aggregate score of 9-3. Tottenham did not start the month well with losses to Watford and Liverpool but have got back on track since then, but they will still consider themselves better off then Manchester United, who have had to deal with a rift between José Mourinho and big-money signing Paul Pogba while drawing at home to Wolves and losing 3-1 at West Ham.


Help them!

People who regularly read my round-by-round series on the league last year will already know my views that the officials need help in the form of VAR or something similar. Having watched September’s matches, I picked up on a number of incidents that would surely have had different results had VAR been in the league:

  • Burnley 0-2 Manchester United: following a face-off with Phil Bardsley, Marcus Rashford is rightfully sent off for a headbutt. Bardsley received a yellow but replays showed Bardsley doing the same back to Rashford, so he should have also received a red.
  • Cardiff City 0-5 Manchester City: Joe Rawls received a yellow card for a tackle on Ilkay Gundogan. Replays showed that Rawls’ foot was high so he should have received a red card.
  • Fulham 1-1 Watford: Timothy Fosu-Mensah gets away with a yellow card for a challenge on Troy Deeney. Like Rawls, replays showed that the foot was high with studs showing, so he should have been sent for an early shower.
  • Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored Arsenal’s second goal after Aaron Ramsey failed to control Mesut Özil’s cross. Replays clearly show Aubameyang was in an offside position when Ramsey touched the ball.
  • West Ham 3-1 Manchester United: Felipe Anderson slots home Pablo Zabaleta’s cross to put West Ham 1-0 up. Replays showed that Zabaleta was in an offside position when the ball was played to him.

2 wrongly allowed goals and 3 red cards not given in just 1 month of football! And those are just the incidents I noted down! In one of the best leagues in the world, that is unacceptable, but I find it hard to lay the blame firmly on the officials as there is only so much 3 people can pick up. Football needs to move out of the dark ages and start using more technology to help the referees make the right decisions.


Changing of the guard?

Petr Čech did not start the season well for Arsenal. It has been a long time since I considered him one of the best keepers in the league and in the early weeks he looked to be struggling with the style of play, often making mistakes with the ball at his feet. He played better in Week 6 however, keeping his first clean sheet of the season. Things went wrong a week later though as he went off injured in the first half against Watford, with summer signing Bernd Leno coming on in his place.

Though his sample size with Arsenal is still small, Leno looked impressive on his league debut and at age 26, I think it is time for him to take over the reins between the sticks. With Čech out for about a month, this is certainly a great chance for the German to take over.


Smart selections?

I was very surprised with Marco Silva’s team selection for Everton’s Week 5 loss against West Ham. Midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin was selected in the starting XI despite his father passing away during the week. The Frenchman had an indifferent game and was taken off just before halftime.

The job of a manager is (unsurprisingly) to manage his players to ensure the team gets the best result. While I respect Schneiderlin for being willing to play so soon after a personal tragedy, I feel that Silva should have given him the match off and picked someone whose thoughts throughout the week and the match would have been on the game. I will not go as far as to say this decision cost Everton the game, but it was just immediately making the game harder for them.


Top 6 prediction

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

 

May 2018 Rugby Ramble

May 2018 Rugby Ramble

Legend of the game

It was announced right at the start of the month that England fullback and legend of the game Danielle “Nolli” Waterman would be retiring from international rugby. A star of the women’s game, Nolli made her England debut in 2003 and went on to earn 82 caps for the Red Roses, playing in 4 World Cups and scoring in the 2014 final. Having also spent some time with the England 7s team, her time with the 15s has been a little more limited in recent years, but she has still been consistently one of the best players on the park whenever she has featured and finishes her career with only 1 loss in the 6 Nations to her name – against France this year. She has been an outstanding servant to England Rugby and women’s rugby – in fact rugby as a whole! – and it will be a shame to no longer see her representing England. With the Barbarians having now created a women’s team I sincerely hope she becomes a regular in this while she continues to play at club level.

The good news for England fans is that her replacement already seems to be in place. Ellie Kildunne has had a wonderful season for Gloucester-Hartpury and England. She has pace, footwork, good handling skills and is also strong enough to hold her own against larger opposition. Having trained and played alongside Nolli with England this year, she will have learned so much and it is possible that in 15 or so years we may be looking back on an equally impressive career.

Congratulations Nolli and thank you for everything!


Qualification nightmare

It feels like every time I write one of these recently we end up coming back to the absolute ****storm caused by Vlad Iordachescu’s refereeing of Spain v Belgium’s Rugby Europe Championship match that denied the Spanish qualification to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

It was eventually announced this month that the match will not be replayed as Belgium successfully argued that having Romania officials for this match is no different than a team of officials from 1 country in the 6 Nations refereeing a match in the tournament between 2 other teams. In my eyes, that is absolute bollocks as this wasn’t just any old match, but a match that decided whether Romania or Spain qualified for the World Cup. When there is such a prize at stake, neutrality is a must and I would not call Iordachescu and his team wholly neutral in the circumstances.

On top of that, Spain have been deducted 40 points from the Rugby Europe Championship, with Belgium and Romania being deducted 30 points each, for fielding ineligible players. This means that Russia have qualified automatically, while Germany – who were due to have a playoff to avoid relegation – will now have a playoff with Portugal to play Samoa in the next round of qualification.

While I agree that punishments must be meted out for fielding ineligible players, it just shows how difficult World Rugby have made player eligibility in the past. Moving forward something needs to be done to make sure someone else doesn’t unknowingly play for an international team as they were not aware they were already captured by another nation.


Get low

The above nightmare was not the only announcement from World Rugby this month, as they also announced recently that they will be trialling some new laws relating to high tackles in the upcoming U20s tournaments. There will be 2 separate trials taking place, 1 in the World Rugby U20 Championship and 1 in the World Rugby U20 Trophy. Per World Rugby’s announcement:

WORLD RUGBY U20 TROPHY

Law 9.13 The acceptable height of the tackle is reduced from the line of shoulders to below the nipple line.

The law will now read: A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the nipple line even if the tackle starts below the nipple line.

WORLD RUGBY U20 CHAMPIONSHIP

Tackles that increase the risk of head injury will be cited.

The match citing commissioner will issue a “High Tackle Warning” to THE TACKLER WHO IS DEEMED TO BE UPRIGHT (NOT BENT AT THE WAIST)

A tackler will be deemed to be upright when:

  • They are in an approximate upright standing position
  • They have made no clear attempt to lower the height of contact with the ball carrier to avoid the head or shoulders of the ball carrier
  • There is no knee flexion and minimal bending at the waist which brings the head into a dangerous position for collision with ball carrier’s head or shoulder
  • The high tackle warning will be issued in one of four types of incidents:
    • All HIGH-CONTACT PENALTIES, irrespective of sanction, during matches
    • All TACKLES THAT RESULT IN AN HIA, irrespective of whether to tackler or ball-carrier
    • High tackles that are missed during the match
    • Accidental clear and obvious head to head and head to shoulder contact

Sanctions:

The High Tackle Warning is issued ONLY IF THE TACKLER IS UPRIGHT, AND THERE IS CLEAR AND OBVIOUS HEAD CONTACT for either player

Each High Tackle Warning carries ‘one strike’. When ‘two strikes’ (two High Tackle Warnings) have been issued, a player will receive a one-match suspension (a right to appeal will operate)

High Tackle Warnings also form part of the usual accumulation of sanctions, including Citing Commissioner Warnings (CCWs) and yellow cards. A strong education element will be run in parallel, explaining that this player welfare initiative protects the tackler and their opponents.

While I understand the need for increased safety both at professional and grassroots level, I think the lowering of the tackle height will become a difficult one to police, while it is already hard enough for the tallest players to get low enough to tackle the shorter player as they try to step around them. The idea of a “High Tackle Warning” from a citing commissioner seems a good idea though as it will encourage better technique whilst it also appears to be fair to the tackler by looking at the effort they have made to lower the tackle. I just wonder if 2 strikes for a ban will be a bit too strict over a season of weekly club rugby, though if this works well in the World Rugby U20 Championship then I would be interested to see how well this works over a season of club rugby.

Jared Payne has not played since the Lions Tour due to repeated headaches and it has now been announced that he has been forced to retire aged 32 and take up a coaching role with Ulster, this is a timely reminder of how important player safety is. It may be softening up the game to a degree, but players are larger, stronger and faster than ever so anything that improves a player’s safety should be considered.


WRUWelsh woes

I was so happy when the Welsh squad for the June Tests was announced with Josh Adams included. He had such a good season for Worcester, finishing joint top try scorer in the Premiership, but was not given enough of a chance by Warren Gatland before being dropped during the 6 Nations. I was hoping that this June, he would get the chance to prove himself. Unfortunately, that chance will have to wait as he has been dropped from the squad along with Tom Francis and Luke Charteris.

The reason the players were dropped? As Wales are playing their opening match of the tour outside the international window, Premiership clubs are not forced to release their players, so the 3 players will be unavailable for the 1st Test and as such Gatland does not see the point in taking them. While I feel it is a bit pathetic of the Premiership Clubs to not release their players, especially considering Adams and Charteris have not even had any club matches to play the last couple of weeks, I put the blame firmly on the WRU.

The international windows are clearly defined, yet for some reason the WRU continue to arrange matches outside these periods and then complain that their players are not available to them. It is not a hard job to stick to a designated period of time, but for them it seems near-impossible. I really sympathise with Adams especially and hope that he is a regular in the Welsh XV soon.

April 2018 Rugby Ramble

April 2018 Rugby Ramble

Costly actions

The farce surrounding Spain’s loss to Belgium – and Romania’s subsequent qualification for the World Cup – continued this month as it was announced that 5 players were receiving bans totalling over 2 years! Brothers Sebastien and Guillaume Rouet received 43 and 36 week bans respectively, while teammates Pierre Barthere, Lucas Guillaume and Mathieu Bélie each received bans of 14 weeks.

I’ve seen the footage of the incident and it does not make easy watching. The behaviour of some of the Spanish players was deplorable and they certainly deserve to be punished for their actions. What rankles me is that the chance of an incident was allowed to happen in the first place. For such an important match where World Cup qualification was on the line, the officials should be completely neutral. Yes the Romanian officials were neutral to judge it by an individual match, but considering Romania stood to qualify if Spain lost there is no way Romanian officials should have been allowed. Granted the officials were appointed before the tournament, but on the same weekend a South African official was removed from the England v Ireland match late in the day as he had been with England during the week, Rugby Europe – who have a Romanian as President – in my opinion have no legitimate reason as to why they could not change the officials. Maybe the match would have gone the same, but at least the calls of bias would have been unfounded.

World Rugby were investigating this and also the suggestion that Spain, Belgium and Romania all fielded ineligible players during the tournament but everything has gone quiet on that front other than the announcement of the bans. Too often it appears that World Rugby are hesitant to change the status quo and with usual competitors Romania now set to feature in Japan, if fear that the investigation and findings will be swept under the rug in a similar way to France’s abuse of Head Injury Protocols over recent seasons. I really hope World Rugby prove me wrong…


Sinner

One player who did escape punishment this month was Israel Folau. Folau caused outrage following his comment on Instagram that God’s plan for gay people was “HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God”, yet he escaped punishment from the ARU after explaining his views and religious beliefs to them.

Now I have no problem with freedom of speech and also with religious beliefs – though I would not consider myself especially religious. My issue is that Folau is not just some random member of the public, he is one of Australia’s star players and as such he is meant to be a role model to others. Folau has a responsibility to be careful what he says on social media as it will get around to millions of people in no time. Further to this he is making a conscious choice to use passages from the bible that are against homosexuality, but conveniently doesn’t appear to follow the Bible fully as it is stated in Leviticus that ”You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.” If you can ignore your religious beliefs to get a bit more ink, don’t use them as an excuse to get out of being a homophobe.

folauThe ARU have panicked and avoided punishing him because he is out of contract soon and they are afraid he will walk away from the sport. That Denny Solomona can be banned for likely using a homophobic slur, Folau commenting on social media that gay people can go to Hell definitely deserves a ban. I wonder how the ARU would have acted if the question was about people of a different religion rather than a different sexuality.

Following his comments, it was great to see both Brad Weber and TJ Perenara come out against his remarks. I’d love to hear David Pocock’s views on Folau’s comments considering how supportive he was of legalising gay marriage in Australia. That next training camp with the national team could be a little tense…


Over too soon

It’s that time of year where the lists of players hanging up their boots at the end of the season start to come out. As always, there are so many quality players leaving the game that have become such a big part of our viewing over the years. One name that people would not have been expecting to see on those lists though is that of Northampton and Australia back Rob Horne.

At 28 years old, the former Waratah would have been looking forward to a successful couple of years with the Saints and it was suggested that he could be a potential captain next season. Unfortunately, in his first match as Northampton captain, he lasted just 13 seconds of their derby against Leicester Tigers before going off injured. Sione Kalamafoni jumped to catch the kickoff and as he came down, Horne appeared to catch him awkwardly. He went down immediately and did not look good trying to get up. Watching at the time, I assumed that he had got a stinger and possibly caught his head awkwardly. However, later that week it was announced that he had suffered nerve damage severe enough to bring an end to his career.

It is a sobering reminder of just how easy it is to pick up an injury and of how fragile our bodies really are despite us putting them on the line and making them take a beating for 80 minutes a week. I wish the best to Rob in his retirement and hope that he will get the support he needs both in his recover and his earlier-than-expected transition to life after rugby.

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 34

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 34

Congratulations to Manchester City whose 1-3 win at Wembley, combined with United’s shock defeat at home to West Brom, won them their third Premier League title, proving my early season prediction wrong in the process. Despite the win at Old Trafford, West Brom’s chances of survival are still slim (at best) as they are at least 9 points behind Swansea – who have a game in hand – with an inferior goal difference. Andy Carroll’s late equaliser may have doomed Stoke to life in the Championship, while Southampton’s 2-0 start against Chelsea was ruined by 3 goals in 9 minutes and leaves Mark Hughes close to his first ever relegation as a player or a manager.

Congratulations also to Wolves, who are now guaranteed a place in the Premier League next season!


What’s next for the best?

City’s run to the title has been dominant this season! In 33 matches, they have only failed to take maximum points 5 times (2 losses and 3 draws) and they currently have a goal difference of +68, 25 higher than the next best goal difference (Liverpool). Pep Guardiola will have very little competition for Manager of the Season – I would argue only Sean Dyche can potentially beat him to this award – as he has made this team almost unbeatable in the toughest of the top domestic leagues. He has clearly worked hard on developing his players and it is helping players like Raheem Sterling begin to live up to their potential.

But the Sky Blues cannot rest on their laurels and will need to work hard to defend their title next year, especially if they plan to progress further in the Champions League.So what do they need to look at ahead of next season:

  • Plan B – As dangerous as City have been in attack this season, they will eventually come up against teams who set up well enough to stop the Sky Blues’ current tactics. For that reason I feel they need to look at finding another striker. Jesus and Aguero (if he stays) are both fantastic strikers but they have similar playing styles, I would argue that Guardiola needs to find a taller and more physical striker to give their attack an extra dimension and a more direct option. Imagine the fun De Bruyne and Sané would have crossing the ball in to a target man. The quality of the supporting players is such that it will not require a top name to fill this spot, as they will get the chances and just need to be able to finish them – just look at how Kelechi Iheanacho has struggled since leaving the Etihad. If they could get him, a player like Fernando Llorente would probably have more success in this team than he has had at Spurs this season.
  • Increased depth – If City want to defend their league title and win the Champions League next season then they need to improve their depth. They were heavilylinked with Riyad Mahrez in January and I think that he would be a great addition for them as he, Sané and Starling will give Guardiola great selection headaches and allow for greater rotation, while Phil Foden should also continue to get more minutes as he develops. Fernandinho is probably one of the most underrated players in the squad and I would recommend Guardiola try to find a capable understudy to ensure City do not struggle if he picks up a long-term injury, while the team could also do with improving their depth at fullback, as we saw this year that the quality wasn’t quite there behind Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, who missed so much of the season he will almost feel like a new signing next season.
  • Settled defence – 
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    Is Pep set for the Manager of the Season award? – Image from Flickr – Pedro Haas

    Last week when discussing the importance of David de Gea to United’s season, I compared some of his key stats to the main keepers in the other Top 6 clubs. Despite playing the same number of games and Ederson having to make only half as many saves, United had still managed to keep more clean sheets in the league so far this season. City have a number of quality centre backs (Stones, Kompany, Laporte and Otamendi) yet they still concede more goals than they should. Injuries have not helped, but the form of these players has been up and down like a yo-yo. It will be difficult for City to keep scoring at such an impressive rate next season, so they need to make things safer at the back. They have the players, now they just need to perform.


Crime and punishment

2 challenges this weekend, both awful, but different punishments. Ben Davies put in a horrible high challenge on Vincent Kompany with his studs catching him not far below the knee. How he did not receive a red card I don’t know, I can only assume the officials had a bad angle as he only received a yellow. Even more ridiculous was the lack of punishment from Mike Dean when Marcos Alonso planted his studs in the top of Shane Long’s calf right under the referee’s nose. It was an unnecessary and horrible challenge, but luckily as Dean missed it Alonso will receive a retroactive punishment, unfortunately Davies will not receive any further punishment as the referee clearly saw the incident and acted on it during the match. To me, this is ridiculous.

This isn’t the first time this season that I have suggested introducing an idea from rugby, but I think that football could benefit from a citing system. In rugby, a player can be cited for an on-pitch incident regardless of whether the referee has seen and acted on the incident. This means that if an independent panel finds that the referee’s punishment has been too lenient – as with the yellow card to Davies – the player can still receive a fitting punishment for his actions. For such a professional sport, there is far too much of an opportunity for a poor refereeing decision to impact the league, not just that week but for the next couple of weeks! I can see already the arguments that football has managed fine without this for years and that it is taking away the authority of the referee, but nobody treats the referee with any respect or authority as it is (just look at the hordes of players around him every time he blows his whistle) and surely as fans of the sport we would rather see the right decisions being made and players receiving the punishments they deserve. Just imagine if Davies nets the winner against Brighton…


The race for Europe

Who would have thought all those months ago when Burnley started the season well that they would still be in with a shot of qualifying for the Europa League with just 5 games remaining. They had a poor spell towards the middle of the season but have recovered well and are back to winning ways, just 2 points behind Arsenal. Regardless of whether they do qualify, for a team with the smallest playing budget in the league, to be pushing for such a high league position – despite having lost Robbie Brady and Tom Heaton to injury early in the season –  is fantastic and I would argue Sean Dyche is the only person who can realistically compete with Guardiola for Manager of the Season honours.

They have been solid at the back all season and players like James Tarkowski and Nick Pope have deservedly received England call-ups during the season, but earlier in the season they did not necessarily look overly dangerous up front. Recently though, the decision to pair Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes has made them look much more dangerous up front. It reminds me of Stoke’s progression in the past from a defensively organised team under Tony Pulis to a team that could also attack well under Mark Hughes, but this has been done over the space of a season and with the same manager, which is very impressive.

The high league position will be huge for the Burnley budget and with such an impressive manager I think players will be interested in coming to Turf Moor next season. However I have faith that Dyche will be smart with his signings and continue to bring in players that complement the team. Could a return for Danny Ings or Charlie Austin be on the cards this summer? I wouldn’t bet against it.


17/4/18 – 23/4/18 predictions:

So the next week of football will be interesting for the table as some teams try to make up their game in hand while other teams end up playing twice. I have no idea how soon I will be able to write about any of these games (it will most likely not be until after the weekend), so rather than class it as a specific round of matches, I have decided to group all these matches together for my next set of predictions. Typical cup football getting in the way of league schedules, eh?

Brighton & Hove Albion v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

AFC Bournemouth v Manchester United – United win

Burnley v Chelsea – Draw

Leicester City v Southampton – Leicester win

West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool – Liverpool win

Watford v Crystal Palace – Draw

Arsenal v West Ham United – Arsenal win

Stoke City v Burnley – Burnley win

Manchester City v Swansea City – Man City win

Everton v Newcastle United – Draw

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 32

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 32

Manchester City took another step towards the Premier League title this weekend with a 1-3 demolition of Everton. That win at Goodison Park means that they can win the league at the Etihad on Saturday with a victory against local rivals Manchester United, who beat Swansea 2-0 this weekend. Staying near the top of the table and Tottenham’s 1-3 victory at Stamford Bridge (including stunning goals from Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli – who needs Harry Kane?!) has almost guaranteed them a place in the Champions League next season, while the defending Premier League Champions will be back in the Europa League. West Brom’s relegation is as good as confirmed following their 1-2 loss against Burnley and with Alan Pardew leaving, the club will surely be looking for a manager who will help them in the Championship rather than rushing to find someone who can potentially save them from inevitable relegation. Mark Hughes’ attempts to save Southampton from relegation got off to poor start with a 3-0 loss at West Ham in an atmosphere unrecognisable to that of Round 30, while Stoke fell to a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal.


Undefendable

I feel so sorry for Jack Butland on pretty much a weekly basis. With Joe Hart out of favour, this is his big chance to represent England in a major tournament, yet Stoke’s form could be his undoing. The Potters have the worst defensive record in the league (61 goals conceded – 4 more than West Ham or Watford) and yet despite that, Butland has actually had a pretty good season. He has made some mistakes, but he has also put in a number of great performances an made some brilliant saves. In fact, he has made the most saves of any keeper in the league this season with 120, 11 more than Łukasz Fabiański in second.

Butland’s problem has been the men in front of him. Despite a selection of good quality defenders (Wimmer, Shawcross, Zouma, Martins Indi), Stoke just haven’t been able to defend effectively! This weekend the defence allowed Arsenal 11 shots on target, including 2 penalties… I doubt there are many keepers who would have conceded less than 3 goals had they been in Butland’s place. I still expect him to make the England squad, but he may have to make do with a space on the bench. Hopefully Gareth Southgate will look closely at Butland and give him every chance to compete with Jordan Pickford for the number 1 jersey.


Bright future

plstatNo Aguero? No problem this weekend for City as they ran out 1-3 winners at Goodison Park. Their front 3 of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sané all got on the score sheet in this game and showed that even if the City careers of the original stars that brought City success (like Aguero and Vincent Kompany) are coming to an end, there is still plenty of success to come for City. Take a look at the table to the side showing the 2017/18 Premier League stats for the starting front 3 against Everton. With the oldest of them being 23, it can be argued that none of these players have even yet reached their peak and yet they have scored more goals between them than almost half the teams in the league this season! With Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva playing just behind them, this attacking quintuplet will cause problems for any team and should probably be the focal point of this team going forward over the next few years. If they can keep Aguero then that will be fantastic for them as he is such an experienced and natural goal scorer that these players can learn off even if he is not playing so many minutes going forward. If not, bringing in a player like Riyad Mahrez would push all the front 3 to be at their best, though I feel they would be better suited to bringing in a striker with a bit more physicality and height to give them a Plan B if the usual beautiful attacking play doesn’t work.


Mixed day for Mané

Sadio Mané may have got Liverpool’s first goal against Crystal Palace but he had mixed fortunes in this match. As well as having a first half goal disallowed for offside, he was also booked for simulation following a challenge from Andros Townsend. While the replays clearly show Townsend making contact with Mané, the Senegalese winger’s fall to the floor was not only delayed but also highly theatrical. Going by the ban earlier in the season for Oumar Niasse when he “exaggerated the effect of a normal contact to deceive the referee”, then this is clearly a dive and I can see no defence for Mané. It’s just a shame that the referee punishing him for the dive means that eh will not receive a ban for his actions.

In the second half, he was lucky to stay on the pitch as he tussled on the edge of his box with a couple of Crystal Palace players, ended up on the floor and – with all the arrogance of a striker at a top-table club against a lesser raked team – reached out and grabbed the ball with his hand even though the ref was allowing play to continue. This denied Crystal Palace a chance in the final third so I have no idea how the referee has not given him a second yellow here. It was clear that Jürgen Klopp knew Sané had got lucky as he subbed him off within minutes of the incident. I can’t help but wonder how the match would have finished had Sané received the card he deserved.

While on the subject of cards not being given, there are very few things I hate more than players waving imaginary cards at referees as Yohan Cabaye did following Sané’s handball. There is no need for it and professional players should be setting a better example. Unfortunately, respect to referees generally seems low on FIFA or the FA’s agenda, so the Frenchman is sure to get away with this.


Round 33 predictions:

Everton v Liverpool – Liverpool win

AFC Bournemouth v Crystal Palace – Palace win

Brighton & Hove Albion v Huddersfield Town – Brighton win

Leicester City v Newcastle United – Leicester win

Stoke City v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

Watford v Burnley – Draw

West Bromwich Albion v Swansea City – Swansea win

Manchester City v Manchester United – City win

Arsenal v Southampton – Arsenal win

Chelsea v West Ham – Chelsea win

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 26

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 26

Another bad week for Antonio Conte! Chelsea’s 4-1 loss at Watford on Monday night meant that the Blues dropped back behind Liverpool in the standings, whilst Tottenham – who drew 2-2 at Anfield – are now only a point outside the top 4. Arsenal sent out a signal of intent following their big January signings by demolishing Everton 5-1, and they now sit only 5 points outside the top 4, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang already contributing for the Gunners. Swansea’s resurgence under Carlos Carvalhal has seen them rise out of the relegation zone at the expense of Huddersfield, whose winless run continues following a 2-0 loss at Manchester United.

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City’s draw at Burnley means they have dropped 5 points in their last 4 league games, they had only dropped 4 points in the preceding 22 games – From http://www.premierleague.com

Role models?

In all the hysteria surrounding the final minutes of Liverpool’s draw with Spurs, what has not been discussed much is Dele Alli’s yellow card for diving… again! This is his third yellow card for diving since his Premier League debut in 2015 and for a player of his undeniable quality he doesn’t need to do this! Now I have made my feelings clear previously that the FA’s ability to retrospectively ban diving is a step in the right direction, but to stamp diving out the game they need to be able to ban players for diving regardless of whether the ref is fooled or not.

Troy Deeney has also got himself in the headlines for the wrong reason this week after his middle-finger gesture in his goal celebration against Chelsea. Deeney has already been suspended twice this season for red cards including a violent conduct charge for a clash with Joe Allen but has avoided punishment for this transgression despite Alli receiving a 1-match suspension earlier this season for a gesture of his own. How Deeney has got away with this is beyond me!

But my biggest issue here is that both these players are role models to youngsters! As if them being Premier League footballers wasn’t enough, Deeney is his club’s captain while Alli is an England international. I understand that players can make mistakes but both are making them repeatedly and I would not want to be a parent and seeing my child idolise either of these guys at the moment.

Don’t get shirty

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Newcastle on Sunday. After a taking a lead through Mohamed Diamé, they were denied the 3 points at Crystal Palace by a 55th minute penalty for Ciaran Clark pulling on Christian Benteke’s shirt.

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Just one result can completely change the position of a team in the lower half of the table – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

When I say I feel sorry for Newcastle, I should clarify – I 100% agree that the incident was a foul and deserving of a penalty, but these are never called by officials! This happens in the box at every set piece and if you call every single one then the games get into double digits for penalties. Players don’t know what they can and can’t get away with as there have been much more impactful shirt pulls that have gone unpunished previously.

I see 2 options: this needs to always be penalised or never be penalised. In my opinion the former is a better option. We may get a couple of weeks with a ridiculously high number of penalties, but most players will adapt and stop giving away these fouls or they won’t get picked by their managers. Surely a couple of weeks of penalties is worth it for a cleaner game.

No defence for this

Stoke’s early improvement under Paul Lambert stalled at the weekend with a 2-1 loss at Bournemouth. While Stoke are clearly starting to improve, their defence is still suspect and cost them at the weekend. Bournemouth’s first goal was at best a comedy of errors and at worst a shambles at the back, while Lys Mousset had a free header for the winning goal. I feel sorry for Jack Butland, who has not played poorly on the whole this season but has had so little help from his defence. With Joe Hart out of favour at West Ham, he should have been pushing for the England number 1 shirt, but the fact that he is part of a team with the worst defensive record in the league will surely harm his chances and possibly his confidence too. If Stoke do go down this year – I think they will be safe but with it so close in the table it is too tough to call – then it will be down mainly to defence rather than the guys up front.

Round 27 predictions:

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal – Draw

Everton v Crystal Palace – Everton win

Stoke City v Brighton & Hove Albion – Draw

Swansea City v Burnley – Burnley win

West Ham United v Watford – Watford win

Manchester City v Leicester City – Man City win

Huddersfield Town v AFC Bournemouth – Draw

Newcastle United v Manchester United – Man United win

Liverpool A Southampton v Liverpool – Liverpool win

Chelsea v West Bromwich Albion – Chelsea win