Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

With coronavirus fears causing Ireland’s game against Italy to be postponed, Round 4 of the Six Nations eventually kicked off at Twickenham with England’s match against Wales. Anthony Watson gave England an early lead, which was added to by Elliot Daly and the boot of Owen Farrell, the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar keeping Wales just in it for a 20-9 halftime score. Wales hit back immediately after the break with a try from Justin Tipuric, but a try for Manu Tuilagi helped England pull away, before the centre’s late red card and a yellow for Ellis Genge gave Wales a 2-man advantage, which allowed them to have the final say through tries for Dan Biggar and Tipuric again to come away with a losing bonus point, the 33-30 final score earning England the Triple Crown.

 

England

England may go down as the victors, but they came so close to shooting themselves in the foot with their poor discipline. A game between these two nations is always going to be a tetchy affair, but there were moments that England took things too far. Captain Owen Farrell saw him penalised on his own line for an unnecessary shove that sparked a brawl and was potentially lucky to not be penalised again shortly later for shoving over Dan Biggar while chasing a kick, while Joe Marler may find himself in hot water for trying to get to know Alun Wyn Jones a little too well during one scuffle. Then with less than 10 minutes left, Ellis Genge was yellow carded for persistent offending from the team and Manu Tuilagi was given a red card for a high shot on George North, which almost cost England the game as Wales scored 14 points in the final 5 minutes. Had they had another 5 minutes, I can’t help but feel that their numerical advantage would have seen them come away with the win.

10 penalties is too many for a team to give away if they want to win a game, England need to buck up their ideas if they want to improve their chances of success in the big games.

Wales

When I asked my friend Gez (a Wales fan who has contributed on some previous posts) what he thought of Wales’ performance, I got the following reply:

So we can score against 13 and can’t defend wide, narrow or against hard runners, that’s what we’ve learned here

While I fully agree that the defensive set-up needs looking at as it is allowing teams to get around them too easily, I think that Wales’ current situation needs remembering. They have just had a change in coaches so will take a moment to adapt to a new playing style, but came into this match missing a number of players who have played key roles in the team recently: Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies, Tomas Francis, Josh Adams and Rhys Patchell. They also had Josh Navidi, Liam Williams, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar (who I question if he as really even 95% fit) playing having recently returned from injury and had Jake Ball and Dillon Lewis go off injured during the game and Alun Wyn Jones, George North and Aaron Shingler finish the game in varying degrees of fitness. Further to that, there were other players like Owen Lane and Willis Haloholo out injured, who could have positively impacted the team.

Given that injury list, it is hard to look into Wales performance too much right now. Yes, big improvements are needed quickly if Wales want to start winning more, but it is important to not make any snap reactions now. Having a key partnership like hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies return (or even have Halaholo covering for one of these players) with a fully fit Josh Navidi in the back row will immediately make the middle of the park feel ore secure against big runners like a Manu Tuilagi, giving a better platform to build the defence off. If the issues persist with a team much closer to the ideal XV, then change will be needed.


My standout players

Manu Tuilagi‘s game may have ended on a negative, but his hard carrying helped put England on the front foot, while Anthony Watson looked great on his return from injury. Ben Youngs also put in one of his best performances in recent years, controlling the game and exploiting a number of gaps around the breakdown.

It was harder to pick out for Wales in a largely disappointing performance, but Josh Navidi clearly had a positive impact on his return from injury and lasted the full 80 minutes, while his return also appeared to free up Justin Tipuric to have more impact in the loose. Finally, a mention for Dan Biggar, who completed the full 80 minutes despite not appearing to be fully fit after his injury last weekend and did everything he could to keep Wales in the game, though it did feel like somewhat of a kick in the teeth to keep Jarrod Evans on the bench.

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

Talking with one of my mates at work the other week, we both found ourselves feeling a bit of a disconnect in our interest for Premiership Rugby this season, despite competing against each other in fantasy rugby. I thought about that a bit over the next few days and realised that it’s not just the Premiership, I’m feeling some degree of apathy to rugby in general. Obviously not enough to stop me wanting to write about it, but enough that I’m finding myself less interested in watching everything I can over recent months.

But what’s causing this? Is it that I have reached rugby saturation due to the World Cup filling most of the usual break? Considering I’ve been known to watch 8 or 9 matches in a weekend and want to watch more, I don’t think it’s that. Is it Gloucester’s struggles this season? Well I’m used to that. Is it the frustration of watching players in the form of their life being ignored by Eddie Jones for players who don’t know the position? Potentially a little bit, but my apathy goes beyond England and the Premiership. Is it the absolute shambles of Sarries finally being found guilty of systematic cheating for years and the punishment that still doesn’t feel like it’s been dealt with right? Again, I think it’s had an impact, but my feelings go well beyond the Premiership.

Then watching the games the last few weeks, it hit me: I’m sick of watching every game get ruined by poor officiating. Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I have incredible respect for the officials and this is not an attack at them, more a point that officiating has reached a terrible level and things need to change soon in order to save the sport that I love.

What do I mean when I talk about the poor officiating? I’m not railing about seatbelt tackles being the softest of penalties, because I understand why the rules are how they are. It’s not even the prospective changes to the laws coming in, though I’m strongly against some of them. It’s the fact that officials are routinely ignoring even blatant offences, which is having a negative impact on the competitiveness of a game.

Let’s look at some examples. CJ Stander avoided punishment for taking the law into his own hands against England by striking Owen Farrell with an open hand multiple times after Farrell tried holding him in a ruck. Generally, retaliation will see the penalty reversed, while Law 9.12: “A player must not strike an opponent with the hand, arm or fist, including the elbow, shoulder, head or knee(s)” suggests that Stander was lucky to stay on the pitch, meanwhile Dragons’ Lloyd Fairbrother and Glasgow’s Oli Kebble were both yellow carded on the same weekend for a similar flare-up. Clear cases here of different referees treating the game different and not sticking to the laws of the game. And sometime’s it’s the same referee’s interpretation changing. In Round 2 of the Six Nations, Romain Ntamack’s try against Italy came off the back of Romain Taofifenua winning a penalty at the breakdown, despite Gaël Fickou making no attempt to roll after making the tackle, something that the referee had been quick to pick up earlier in the game. The breakdown is the wild west, with jackals winning penalties despite not supporting their weight and illegal cleanouts coming in form all directions except through the gate. Players are suffering serious injuries due to this, but Ben Ryan’s calls to start refereeing the breakdown correctly fall on deaf ears – cos we all know a 50-20 kick will benefit the game more than effectively-refereed breakdowns (note the sarcasm!).

Of course, it’s not just the referee in the middle, they have an AR on each touchline and a TMO to help them make the right decisions, but so much still gets missed. James Ryan appears to have somehow avoided a citing for the most ridiculous of cleanouts against England, where he basically torpedoed himself into England players twice in one breakdown, very clearly going against Law 15.12: “Players must endeavour to remain on their feet throughout the ruck.” In Gloucester’s recent loss to Exeter, the TMO rightly picked up a clear neck roll by Franco Mostert, which ended a promising Gloucester attack, but a later attack by Exeter was allowed to continue, with an equally clear neck roll from one of their players ignored. Gerbrandt Grobler found himself being called for a knock on as he stretched for the try line, but it was clear that the fumble was caused by an impact from Sam Simmonds, who had tucked his arm into his body and caused contact with his shoulder. It was a clear penalty try right under the referee’s nose, but was completely ignored not just by him, but also the TMO, despite it being obvious on replays.

Decisions like these change games. Going back to that game between Italy and France, the TMO called in at one point for a missed knock-on my Matteo Minozzi, but a later knock-on from a French tackler that resulted in Italy going from attacking in the French 22 to cleaning up the ball int heir own 22 was ignored, while in the same weekend, Kyle Sinckler’s blatant and cynical strip of the ball after a tackle had been completed 5m out from the England line (almost certainly a yellow card) was also ignored by all the officials and the TMO – an event that completely changed the momentum of the game as Scotland had been pressuring the England defence until that point. I also recently saw the most ridiculous of decisions as referee and TMO combined to yellow card Cheetahs centre Benhard Janse van Rensburg for a “dangerous challenge” on Leinster’s Fergus McFadden that anyone with half a brain could see was just a rugby incident. Finally in England’s U20s Six Nations loss to Ireland, a clear neck roll on England fly half George Barton was ignored in the build-up to Ireland’s final try, while an earlier England knock-on at a maul was changed to an Ireland knock-on by the TMO, despite the replays clearly showing that the Irish player had illegally swam up the side of the maul.

As much as I want my teams to win, I’m a fan of the sport first and foremost and I hate to see so many games being affected by iffy officiating.

How does all of this happen? I can only put it down to narratives being in the minds of the officials. There is a constant narrative that Italy are not good enough to deserve a place in the Six Nations, so if there’s a close (or even vaguely close-ish call) it will go against the Italians. Of course the French tackler didn’t knock the ball on, these Italians don’t know how to throw a pass. Likewise there is the narrative this season that Gloucester are struggling at the scrum, so an offence at the first scrum by Val Rapava Ruskin results in an Exeter penalty, while the following scrums for most of the match saw Fraser Balmain dominating Ben Moon (who was illegally angling in), but the scrums were just getting reset. Once officials have a narrative in their head, it is hard for them to look past that.

So why doesn’t this get called out more? Because the media also buys into these narratives. All the talk during Italy’s Six Nations losses is how they continue to lose every match in the tournament and Georgia continue to dominate in the Rugby Europe Championship, never about how Italian Rugby has been rebuilt under Conor O’Shea to start bringing the talent into the national team, who handily beat Georgia last time they faced off. When even the media is buying into the narratives, how is a casual fan of the sport meant to really see what is going on.

Right now, we have a chance to stop this. To put the focus back on the 4 officials working together to effectively police the game and clean it up. It may lead to a period of penalty-ridden games, but players and coaches will have to adapt to the laws which are already in place or we will begin to see interest wane as the sport just becomes a mess.

Hodge/Yato: What A Mess

Hodge/Yato: What A Mess

As we reach the 3rd round of World Cup matches, we have been blessed with plenty of fantastic rugby, even if the heat and humidity has led to a high number of handling errors. However, all that rugby was overshadowed in the news for the best part of a week, focusing on just a couple of seconds on the pitch.

The second match of the tournament saw Australia take on Fiji in a match that I thought had the potential to be the big upset of the tournament. It certainly looked like it could go that way, as Fiji started strong and had control for much of the first half. With 25 minutes on the clock and the score at 7-11 to Fiji, the islanders released Peceli Yato – who to this point had been the best player on the pitch – down the 5m channel following a lineout. The back row made good ground, before eventually being felled by a combination of Nic White and Reece Hodge. While White’s tackle was fine, Hodge’s didn’t look right on first viewing and it looked even worse as the broadcasters replayed it. There was little (to none) attempt to wrap an arm and there was clearly contact with Yato’s head – so much so that Yato was forced off the field for a HIA, which he failed!

Now let’s take a moment here to remind ourselves of the new high tackle framework that was brought in at the end of last season:

rugby high tackle framework

Apply that to the Hodge tackle. Is there foul play? Yes. Is it a shoulder charge or high tackle? The framework describes a shoulder charge as the tackling arm being behind the body or in a sling position, so while there is no real attempt to wrap – High Tackle. Shoulder/arm? Shoulder. Direct to the head/neck? Yes. Degree of danger? Hodge is attempting a dominant tackle – High. Before looking for mitigating factors, are there any aggravating factors? Hodge has a clear line of sight in open space – Yes. As there are aggravating factors, mitigating factors do not come into consideration. Result: RED CARD

So what happened in the match? Well apparently nothing. Play appeared to continue without referee Ben O’Keeffe referring the challenge to TMO Rowan Kitt – O’Keeffe would have been largely unsighted as he was behind Yato – or Kitt intervening in the game. So Fiji lost one of their stars and Australia, who should have played over half the game a man down, kept 15 men on the field. Even more galling, Hodge went on to contribute 8 points in a 39-21 victory. It was later revealed that the challenge was referred to the TMO, but Kitt felt that it was acceptable. Given that the referral wasn’t clear to TV viewers, it must have been the most cursory look from Kitt and I struggle to see how he could have not felt that this deserved even a penalty according to the framework if he was doing his job properly.

Unsurprisingly, Hodge was cited following the match and ended up with a 3-week ban (cut down from 6 weeks).

feat rugby hodge yato

While this could have been everything and the end of a poor moment from the TMO, the story only continues as reactions came in to the citing and ban. Michael Cheika blasted the Fijian coaches for being nice to his face and going behind his back to report the tackle to the citing commissioners. This is such a pathetic argument as the coaches have no responsibility to tell Cheika they are referring the incident, while it is hard to imagine the citing commissioner would not have chosen to review the incident anyway. Cheika also refused to accept that the challenge was a red card – even when saying they will not appeal the ban. The framework clearly proves that it was a red card, but as Cheika said following a penalty against Samu Kerevi in Australia’s match against Wales “I honestly don’t know the rules anymore.” – Pretty embarrassing for the head coach of a Tier 1 international team.

Things only got worse as the report form the tribunal made note that Hodge was unaware of the high tackle framework. As I said to some of my friends who were keeping up with the tournament, if a fan like me can have a copy of the framework saved to their phone (yes, I need a life) then there is no excuse for a professional playing for a Tier 1 nation to not know the framework. I would have also thought that given the number of players who were given red cards during the World Rugby U20 Championship, teams would have made sure their players were aware of the framework. Poor from the player, poor from the coaches. But even without knowing the framework, a tackle that involves contact with a ball carrier’s head has not been legal for years… there was no excuse to tackle that high.

Sadly, it wasn’t just Michael Cheika questioning the merits of a red card. Commentating on the match, Ben Kay chose to praise Hodge for putting in a hit rather than comment on the illegality of it. Clive Woodward went even further following the ban to tweet that it was a yellow card at most. If even the officials, pundits and commentators can’t stick to World Rugby’s frameworks when looking at an incident, what hope has the general public got of understanding what is legal? With player safety such a big issue, things need to improve.

Sadly in this case, Yato’s failed HIA meant that he was unavailable for Fiji’s loss to Uruguay that has effectively ended their chances of making the quarterfinals. Reece Hodge will miss Australia’s remaining pool games but return for the knockouts. Looking at everyone involved in this affair, it’s hard to argue that anyone comes out a winner.

Eyes On: France v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: France v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After matches against Scotland home and away, France continued their World Cup preparations on Friday night with a warm-up match against Italy. France made a number of changes but took an early lead through Yoann Huget. Italy scored through Mattia Bellini, with Tommaso Allan’s conversion putting the Azzuri ahead. A penalty try and a score for Camille Chat gave Les Bleus a 19-7 halftime lead and they ran away with it in the second half with tries from Antoine Dupont, Arthur Iturria, Wenceslas Lauret and Thomas Ramos giving them the 47-19 victory, with Bellini getting a second and Jake Polledri scoring an unconventional try as a commiseration.

France

Les Bleus came out the blocks hard in this game. The defensive line was flying up to minimise the time Italy had on the ball, the breakdown was often a battleground as players looked to slow the ball down or turn it over and the team were doing everything they could to win the ball back at the lineout.

While it clearly rattled the Italians early on, they soon grew into the game, helped in no part by the fact that France were being repeatedly penalised. France were coming too far across or playing the man at the lineout, they were playing the ball on the floor at the breakdown and they were frequently shooting up too soon and getting caught offside. So poor was their discipline, Louis Picamoles was sin binned in the 18th minute and Rabah Slimani 4 minutes later, both due to an accrual of penalties by the whole team.

Following Slimani’s card, the team appeared to back off a bit and reduced their penalty count significantly, though they still found themselves pushing things a little too far in the lineout. And it was at this point that they started having more success, as they stopped gifting Italy possession and territory.

Against Argentina and England, France will need to get the balance right between putting pressure on their opponents and not giving away too many penalties.

Italy

Italy were their own worst enemies in this match. A couple of their tries came from poor defensive mistakes, such as Michele Campagnaro shooting out the line to create a dogleg for the opening try and Bellini being stepped far too easily by Antoine Dupont for his try. In attack, they made far too many basic handling errors, bringing many of their promising attacks to an end. A good break by Matteo Minozzi ended when his offload back inside was straight to the hands of Gaël Fickou, leading to the France penalty try, while a couple of great opportunities from 5m lineouts were ruined by handling errors. Even Jake Polledri’s try appeared to be an accident – I struggle to imagine that’s how he planned for it to go!

If they play like this against New Zealand and South Africa, we could be seeing some very one-sided games. If they continue to play like this against Namibia and Canada, 3ʳᵈ place and automatic qualifying for RWC2023 may not look as comfortable as it should do.


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