Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

The Premiership is over for another season and it is time for club rugby to take a step back in favour of the international game. Congratulations to Exeter, whose dominance in the regular season saw them earn a playoff spot earlier than ever, also to Saracens who followed up their Champions Cup victory over Leinster with a victory over Exeter at Twickenham to complete the double. Commiserations to Newcastle as well, who finished the season bottom of the league and will drop down to the Championship, with London Irish taking their place.

But before thoughts can move fully onto the internationals and the upcoming Rugby World Cup, it is time to make my picks for the 3ʳᵈ annual Eyes on the Ball Awards: a set of awards slightly different to what you will see at official ceremonies. Let me know what your picks would be for each award.


Eyes on the Ball Awards:


Individual Awards

Best Breakthrough: Alex Dombrandt

This award is pretty clear in what it represents: a young player who can look back on the season as the year he broke out and earned the recognition of the wider public as opposed to just those in the know about their specific club.

Honourable mentions here must go to Harry Randall, who took his chances well stepping up from the Championship to the Premiership, Bath’s Ruaridh McConnochie and Rory Hutchinson and his fellow Northampton youngsters, who took their chances when injuries gave them the chance to play. Some people have called Tom Curry and Ollie Thorley breakthroughs this season, but I feel that they were already relatively widely established. Even if I had been considering them though, my pick would go to Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt. The back rower only made his debut in November but went on to be a regular for Harlequins, with his physicality and underrated speed a hard combination for opposition defences, while he also finished the season 3ʳᵈ in the turnover charts with 19. He finished his season with a deserved start against the Barbarians and was arguably one of the best players in the game, so could find himself pushing for a spot in Eddie Jones’ World Cup squad.

Best Newcomer: Danny Cipriani

In both of the previous seasons that I have done the award, this has gone to someone new to the league, however this award is actually open to anyone new to their team, even if they have moved from another Premiership club. Such has been the case with this year’s winner, Danny Cipriani. Teammate Franco Mostert was also in the running, but international commitments meant that he did not feature until later in the season, whereas Cipriani’s golden wrists were making highlights from round 1. Johan Ackermann gave the keys to the squad to Cipriani and he took the club’s performance to a completely new level, firing them from 7ᵗʰ to 3ʳᵈ in the space of a year. Named Premiership Player of the Season and RPA Player of the Year, it’s crazy to think that he may not make England’s World Cup Squad.

Fond Farewell: Mathew Tait

The Fond Farewell award is for someone who is retiring at the end of the season after a career worthy of note.

This year, there were so many players that deserved a mention – James Haskell, George Smith, Marcelo Bosch and James Horwill amongst them – but this year I ended up going for Mathew Tait. Formerly of Newcastle and Sale, Tait has been at Leicester since the 2011/12 season, while his career has also seen him represent England in both 7s and 15s, becoming a runner-up in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and RWC2007. A highly talented and versatile player, injuries have interrupted his career far too often and it ended up that a failure to recover from a Achilles injury saw him announce his retirement in February.

I also want to take a moment to mention Wayne Barnes here, who will be retiring after the World Cup so has just refereed his final Premiership game with the final. In my opinion, he is currently the best referee in the world and will be greatly missed over the coming seasons. If England don’t make it to the final, then he should be finishing his career in charge of the biggest game of the year.

Bon Voyage: Santiago Cordero & Tom Savage

This award is similar to the last, but instead looks at players leaving the Premiership to continue their career in another league.

I could not pick between two players for this award, for vastly different reasons. Tom Savage has been such a big part of Gloucester since making his debut in the 2011/12 season and has been a loyal servant, including captaining the club for the 2013/14 season. He now moves to Japan to play for Suntory Sungoliath and I wish him the best of luck. The other player to earn this award is Exeter’s Santiago Cordero. Joning from Jaguares in February 2018, Cordero may not have spent anywhere near as much time in the league, but has been one of its stars. I remember him wowing crowds at the last World Cup and was very excited to see him enter the league. He did not have the best start at Exeter however, but I love that he then requested to play in the 2018 Premiership 7s tournament to help play himself back into form and he has been incredible this year. Had he not found himself out injured in the final weeks of the season, the trophy may now be on its way to Sandy Park rather than Allianz Park. Now as he heads off to Bordeaux due to Exeter being unable to keep him while remaining within the salary cap, the Premiership will be a less exciting place.

Cojones Award: James Lang

The Cojones award goes to someone who had the balls to do something at great risk.

I found this a hard one to think of this year, but a moment stuck in my memory from Harlequins’ final game of the regular season, away to Wasps. Down 27-25 and requiring a win to take the final playoff spot away from Northampton, Quins earned a penalty on halfway, though when the spot was given by the referee it was a few metres further back. Despite appearing to be limping slightly and having not kicked such a long distance all season, replacement James Lang took the tee and went for the three points with the final play of the game… only to see the ball drop just short – to the point that the ball may have gone over had the kick been from the spot of the offence! While the call may not have worked out in Harlequins’ favour, I love that Lang was willing to put the pressure on his shoulders and take the risk rather than try kicking towards the corner and trying to work another scoring opportunity.

Team Awards

Head-scratcher Award: The Matt O’Connor Debacle

This award is for a team decision that just left me wondering why it went how it did.

To me, nothing came close this year to matching the mess that was the start of Leicester Tigers’ season. Last season did not go well for them and saw them miss out on a playoff space for the first time in 13 years, while they never really looked deserving of a spot in the top 4. I personally felt that Tigers should have moved on from him over the summer, but they kept him in place only to move on after an embarrassing 40-6 opening round defeat, leaving Geordan Murphy to try (and fail) to pick up the pieces all season. This was such a poor season for Leicester and I can’t help think that sticking with O’Connor until the season started was a big part of that.

Biggest Disappointment: Newcastle Falcons

It was hard not picking Leicester here after narrowly avoiding relegation, but last season hinted towards issues and they had some awful luck with injuries to stars like Mat Tait and Telusa Veainu, while their England stars missed time due to international commitments.

While Newcastle also had their issues with injuries and internationals, I did not feel that it was to anywhere near the same degree and they in fact dropped more places than Leicester by going from 4ᵗʰ to last and being relegated with a match still to play. It’s a shame to see one of the few northern clubs drop out of the league and I hope they make an immediate return, but I feel they can have no argument about coming bottom.

Biggest Success: Gloucester Rugby

Exeter and Sarries obviously need a mention for their successes in the league and final respectively. I was very close to picking Bristol here after narrowly missing out on Champions Cup rugby in their first season back in the top flight, but in the end I couldn’t look away from my cherry and whites.

Despite clear signs of improvement last season, they still finished 7ᵗʰ with 56 points. This year, the addition of a few big names saw Gloucester finish safely in the top 3 with 68 points. All that despite injuries leaving the club with minimal options in the front row (full credit to Josh Hohneck and Fraser Balmain who had to play a ridiculous number of minutes this season), back row (Matt Banahan had to be the replacement lock in one Champions Cup match) and back 3 (Jake Polledri came on as a winger towards the end of the season) at different points in the season… something that could have ruined any team! Both as a Gloucester fan and also from a less biased perspective, I can’t wait to see how they do next season!

Cherry-picking: A Gloucester Rugby 23

Cherry-picking: A Gloucester Rugby 23

Anyone who knows me will know that even though I don’t make it down to Kingsholm too often, I am a big Gloucester Rugby fan. With Gloucester currently sitting 3rd in the league with 5 wins, 1 draw and 2 losses, I have been loving the way the team has improved during the Johan Ackermann reign and with some big names just returning from injury or international duty, the club looks in great shape.

Such is my positivity right now that I have decided to take a look at the depth of the Gloucester squad and attempt to pick not just my ideal XV as I have done with my Uncapped XV and World XV Challenge posts, but to expand this to pick a full 23-man matchday squad.

For this squad I will be using players who are on senior or academy contracts, but I will not be including Jaco Visagie or Kyle Traynor as they are currently on a short-term deal. I will be assuming that every player if fully fit and available and will be judging the players on everything I have seen from them as opposed to just their play in cherry and white.

Now of course, selecting a squad like this can be very subjective as fans may prefer different players due to different strengths, so for this reason I have invited my colleague and fellow Gloucester fan, Phil to select his squad as well.

So without further ado, let’s get to the squad (Phil’s selections in red)

1: Val Rapava-Ruskin: Injuries have hampered the former Worcester loose-head but when he has been fit he has shown his quality. A strong scrummager, he comes to life in the loose and is a nightmare for the opposition at the breakdown. Phil’s Pick: Paddy McAllister

2: Franco Marais: Gloucester have made a habit of having a strong one-two punch at hooker in recent seasons and this year is no different. With Richard Hibbard now at the Dragons, Marais has arrived from the Sharks and he gets the nod from me as I think his lineout throwing has been a bit more consistent than that of Hanson. Phil’s Pick: Franco Marais

3: Fraser Balmain: This has been a bit more of a difficult one. Ruan Dreyer is yet to play as he recovers from injury, Josh Hohneck has been predominantly a loose-head in recent years and Ciaran Knight has done well stepping up to the 23 so much early in the season but is probably still a season or two away from regular starts. For this reason, Fraser Balmain became the default choice, but that is not to belittle him as he has done very well for Gloucester and been a reliable starter since John Afoa’s departure in the summer. Phil’s Pick: Fraser Balmain

4 & 5: Ed Slater & Franco Mostert: I’ll admit that I was sceptical when Gloucester and Leicester arranged a swap deal between Jonny May and Ed Slater, but the lock has managed to stay largely injury free and has really shown his quality. He’s brought great nous to the lineout and is a physical nuisance around the park, while he brings a large degree of leadership to the pack. Add in Springbok Mostert, who has really impressed me when I have seen him play for South Africa over the last season, and I would argue that Gloucester have one of the strongest second row pairings in the Premiership! Phil’s Picks: Ed Slater & Franco Mostert

6: Lewis Ludlow: The back row has become such an incredibly deep area with the development of some younger players and also some of the clever signings made over recent years. Lewis Ludlow may not be as much of a headline grabber as some of the players he is keeping out of the squad, but he was one of the top tacklers in the Premiership last season and is also a dangerous at the breakdown when given the chance. Phil’s Pick: Lewis Ludlow

7: Jaco Kriel: The South African flanker was out of the game for over a year with injury, but has been incredible since returning to the pitch and will likely continue to improve over the coming months. He has shown himself to be a strong runner with good pace in the loose, but where he really comes to the fore is in and around the breakdown where he is a great jackal but is also a smart defender who picks his moments and looks to position himself in the defensive line where he can cause most damage to the opposition. Phil’s Pick: Jaco Kriel

8: Jake Polledri: Anyone who has heard me talk rugby for more than a few minutes or has read many of my posts will know that I am a huge fan of Jake Polledri – so much so that he made the cut in my World XV Challenge! He has the pace to exploit a gap in the defence but also the strength to make a gap of his own. Since I first took notice of him in one of his early performances for the cherry and whites last year and since then I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have seen him go backwards in contact for either Gloucester or Italy! And as if that wasn’t enough, he is another danger at the breakdown and could easily play across the back row if needed. Phil’s Pick: Jake Polledri

9: Willi Heinz: I’m a big fan of Ben Vellacott and the way he speeds the game up, but for my starter I have gone for Heinz. The former Crusader has the best all-round game of the Gloucester scrum halves, being able to take advantage of a gap but also having a strong tactical kicking game, while he again brings leadership at such a crucial position. 50-60 minutes of Heinz putting Gloucester in the right areas of the pitch and then bringing on Vellacott to finish off a tiring defence is a brutal combination! Phil’s Pick: Ben Vellacott

10: Danny Cipriani: Who else could it be?! Cipriani has been in fantastic form this season for Gloucester and it feels like he and his golden wrists have been providing a contender for pass of the week every time he steps on the pitch. The team is set up around him and he is bringing the best out of so many players, knowing when to play a short ball to a forward on the crash ball or when to tease a blitzing winger with a pass just beyond his despairing fingers to put a winger through. He’s certainly done a good job of backing up his place on my list of new signings to watch in the Premiership. How he didn’t make the England squad for the Autumn Internationals is still beyond me! Phil’s Pick: Danny Cipriani

11: Ollie Thorley: It has been so good having Thorley back on the pitch in recent weeks following his return from injury! The young winger has been in incredible form for Gloucester and combines strong running with great pace and footwork. At just 22 years old, if his performances continue at this level he will surely have to be considered for the national team following the World Cup. Plus it gives another chance to watch his stunning try from a few weeks ago (sorry Tigers)! Phil’s Pick: Ollie Thorley

12: Mark Atkinson: I may be biased, but I would consider Mark Atkinson as one of the most underrated players in the league. A reliable defender and strong runner, Atkinson does a great job of punching through the defensive line and offloading the ball during the tackle so that Gloucester can take advantage of the break. I feel that he is better at 12 than 13 but he has the ability to work wonders in channels slightly further out too. Phil’s Pick: Billy Twelvetrees

13: Billy Twelvetrees: The turnaround in Gloucester’s fortunes under Johan Ackermann can be perfectly encapsulated by the performance of Billy Twelvetrees. A former British & Irish Lion, 36 went through a rough patch but looked much better again last season. Playing outside Cips this season appears to be bringing out the best of him again and he has gone from being a player who I wondered if he had a future at the club to being my first choice centre. Usually played at 12, he is also more than capable of moving out to 13, which is why I have placed him here to partner Atkinson. A strong runner and tireless defender, Twelvetrees also fills the second playmaker role in the back line and can pop up at first receiver, which gives Cipriani the freedom to play the game where he feels he can have the most impact. Phil’s Pick: Mark Atkinson

14: Matt Banahan: So this was one of the harder picks for me as I had to choose between two very talented players who have very different styles. Charlie Sharples is one of the fastest players in the squad and is having a career year, having already scored as many tries in 9 rounds of the Premiership as he has in any other season! I have however gone for Matt Banahan. The former Bath stalwart brings experience across the back line, but his main strength here is his strength and physicality, which will help the team defend against some of the larger wingers in the league like Taqele Naiyaravoro. Phil’s Pick: Charlie Sharples

15: Jason Woodward: Another player who regular readers may have expected to make this list, I have spoken very highly of Woodward over the past years and included him in my Uncapped XV. This is a guy who beat Julian Savea to a starting spot for the Hurricane’s 2016 Super Rugby final victory, such is his talent. Capable of playing most positions in the back line, he is working best at 15 where he is able to run back kicks to start a new attack and also join the line wherever is best to cause the defence issues. Phil’s Pick: Jason Woodward

Bench: James Hanson, Josh Hohneck, Ruan Dreyer, Tom Savage, Ben Morgan, Ben Vellacott, Henry Trinder, Charlie Sharples: After missing out on starting spots, Hanson and Hohneck were obvious choices for me and though I haven’t had a chance to see Dreyer play but his experience gets him the nod over Ciaran Knight. Ben Morgan has had a resurgence this year so gets the nod in the back row over Ruan Ackermann and Freddie Clarke, who have both been hugely impressive. As Morgan is less versatile, Savage beats out Gerbrandt Grobler as he has experience at flanker. Vellacott is on the bench to up the tempo against a flagging defence. I haven’t included any fly half cover on the bench, so would bring on Henry Trinder (who was unlucky to miss out on a starting spot) at 13 and move Twelvetrees to 10. The final position was really hard for me to pick as I was looking to include someone who was more experienced at 15 (If I’m being honest, Tom Hudson may have actually beat out Tom Marshall), but in the end I could not leave out Charlie Sharples after he came so close to making the XV. Though predominantly a wing, he has played at 15 for Gloucester before, or Gloucester could reshuffle the back line to move Cipriani to 15, Twelvetrees to 10 and Banahan into the centre to put Sharples on the wing. And with his pace, I would hate to play for 60 minutes and suddenly find myself facing a fresh Sharples. Phil’s Bench: James Hanson, Val Rapava-Ruskin, Josh Hohneck, Tom Savage, Ben Morgan, Willi Heinz, Matt Banahan, Tom Marshall

The comparison: I was honestly surprised by just how similar our squads ended up being. The biggest shock for me was McAllister’s inclusion, but I can understand the reasoning by using Hohneck as cover at 3 as we have little to go on for Dreyer and Knight. The back line differences were clearly a difference in tactics as he preferred Sharples speed from the start and having Heinz replace Vallacott later on to seal out the game. Interestingly, neither of us chose to have a replacement fly half on the bench, perhaps this something Gloucester will look at with their recruitment for next season, but there are some talented young players coming through at the position who are maybe a couple of seasons off regular contributions.

So those would be our ideal 23s, what would yours be?

Managing Expectations

Managing Expectations

Back in October, I had a look at how the season had started for Gloucester Rugby and the other #glawsfamily clubs: Hartpury RFC and Gloucester-Hartpury Women. Back then, Gloucester were a familiar story: 8th place in the league with a 100% winning record at home and 100% losing record away from home. Over the next few months however, the cherry and whites’ results improved and saw them break into the top 4, before a 25-15 loss at Worcester, 25-25 draw at home to Wasps and most recently this weekend’s 20-21 home loss to Newcastle have seen them drop to 6th, 4 points outside the playoffs.

Over the last couple of weeks I have noticed some negativity from fellow Gloucester fans on Twitter, and while I can understand fans’ disappointment, Gloucester are in a much better place than they have been in recent years.

Kingsholm is becoming a fortress again and though they may have dropped points in their last 2 home games, they were still the last team to lose their unbeaten home record in the Premiership this season. But for a couple of defensive lapses and missed kicks, both these matches could have been wins, and I would not compare the late try conceded against Wasps to the repeated late-match collapses of last season. Let’s not forget, Johan Ackermann only arrived from the Lions a couple of weeks before the season started following their run to the Super Rugby final, so imagine what this team will be able to do when they have a full offseason with him!

Ross Moriarty – a star of recent seasons – has barely featured, but with the form of Lewis Ludlow, Ruan Ackermann, Freddie Clarke and Jake Polledri (he needs to be playing for Italy!) he has not been missed as much as many fans would have feared. Polledri especially has been fantastic and I can not remember the last time I saw him pushed back in contact, while many teams have been caught out by his pace in open play. Lewis Ludlow on the opposite flank has been a tackling machine, while the second row is deeper than I can remember in years with Jeremy Thrush, Ed Slater, Tom Savage and Mariano Galarza and James Hanson has made an immediate impact at hooker, while Val Rapava-Ruskin will hope to put injuries behind him and show the quality Premiership fans have seen at Worcester.

In the backs, Willi Heinz and Ben Vellacott have both been great for Gloucester and their differing styles of play have created a great one-two punch at 9, while Billy Burns (who may have had a bad game off the tee against Newcastle but has been great all season) has really stepped up the the challenge set by the signing of Owen Williams and has earned the 10 shirt this season. Henry Trinder has stayed largely free of injury and has shown good consistency whether at 13 or on the wing, while the much-maligned Billy Twelvetrees appears to have his confidence back and is playing some of the best rugby I have seen from him in years. Moving on to the back 3 and Gloucester have not missed Jonny May as much as I feared, with Ollie Thorley, Henry Purdy, Trinder, David Halaifonua, Charlie Sharples, Tom Hudson, Tom Marshall and Jason Woodward all impressing at points in this season. Hudson runs such beautiful lines and looks to have reignited his career, while Woodward is something special and I would love to see Eddie Jones give him a chance in the England setup.

Yes it may be disappointing to see a couple of home games get away from the lads, but let’s not look at that in isolation and instead look at the season as a whole. In October’s piece I stated that as long as performances were improved I would be happy with finishing 6th/7th, especially when you consider they have not finished in the top half of the table since the 2012/13 season. If someone had told me back then that I would see my team in the top 4 for a couple of weeks this season, I’d have bitten their hand right off.

This is a minor rebuild under David Humphreys and Johan Ackermann, I truly think a top half finish is entirely possible this season. Next season? Well the future looks bright…

Eyes on: Aviva Premiership – Northampton v Gloucester

Eyes on: Aviva Premiership – Northampton v Gloucester

Northampton Saints got their first Premiership win since September at the weekend when Gloucester visited Franklin’s Gardens. Gloucester – in the top 4 and revitalised this season under Johan Ackermann – rested a couple of key players and never quite got hold of the game, but still went into half time 8-14 up, before John Afoa’s try extended the lead in the 53rd minute. Nick Groom scored within minutes, however and Saints grew into the game, eventually getting a last minute penalty try as their line-out drive was brought to ground illegally to win the game 22-19.

This will be looking at the game from a Gloucester perspective. Sorry Saints fans, but I’ve not been following Northampton’s season that much and I didn’t feel there was much really worth noting other than Luther Burrell’s injury and another poor performance (and early substitution) for Dylan Hartley.

 

Improving, but not the finished article

If someone had told me over the summer that Gloucester would be sitting in the top 4 at this stage of the season, I’d never have believed them. I had faith that Ackermann would have an impact, but thought it would take some time to see considering his late arrival after the Lions’ run to the Super Rugby final. However after an up-and-down start to the season, the cherry and whites went on a run of great results towards the end of 2017, despite not yet having put out their ideal XV courtesy of a number of injuries – British and Irish Lion Ross Moriarty has only played 62 minutes in the Anglo-Welsh Cup!

Ackermann used this game to rest some players who have been playing a lot of rugby recently, allowing some players like Ben Morgan to make their way back from time out.

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Gloucester were turned over going for a bonus point try and also lost a few line-outs against the throw in the final quarter

The impact of some of these selections could be seen on the performance – the back line did not appear to have the same chemistry with both Billy Burns and Billy Twelvetrees missing – but the performance on the whole was still good enough for the team to win. However this team are clearly not completely past the errors of previous systems and once again surrendered a promising lead in the latter quarter of the game, losing to a late try. This was probably not helped by a stomach bug that hit the team the night before (though credit to Ackermann not using this as an excuse) but it was an all-too-familiar sight for Gloucester fans.

The line-out which had functioned so well in the first half (including a 20m driving maul for a penalty try) fell apart after James Hanson was removed and allowed Northampton to get the territory to cause problems. A kickable late penalty was turned down in favour of a kick to the corner, but the maul was poorly controlled and turned over by Northampton. Nick Groom’s try also came from Gloucester not dealing with the restart following John Afoa’s try, while Owen Williams missed a couple of kicks at goal.

A couple of late decisions from Ian Tempest certainly didn’t help Gloucester – Jason Woodward’s fumble of a high ball clearly went backwards and I’m still to see an angle that convinces me Henry Trinder was offside for the penalty that led to Northampton’s winner – but I agree with Ackermann’s assessment that Gloucester’s indiscipline and mistakes lost them the game rather than Northampton winning it.

polledri
Polledri was probably lucky to avoid a card for an incident with Campese Ma’afu

Rising star

What a signing Jake Polledri has been for Gloucester this season! Last year, the young flanker was playing in National League 1 (the 3rd tier of English rugby) with Hartpury RFC, this year he has been tearing things up in the top flight. He has such strength, he always seems to make at least a couple of metres with every touch of the ball and it generally takes a couple of men to bring him down, creating space for others. He is still not the finished article, but has clearly taken advantage of Moriarty’s injury issues and become a vital cog in the back row alongside Ruan Ackermann and Lewis Ludlow.

He may have been a bit lucky to avoid stricter punishment for his reaction to Campese Ma’afu holding him beyond the ruck, but he will learn from experiences like this and be a better player for it. With his form at the moment, you have to imagine Conor O’Shea has a close eye on him and I wouldn’t be overly surprised to see him involved in the Italian squad for the 6 Nations.

Expanding your skills

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Gloucester remain in the top 4 but will consider this a missed opportunity to push for a playoff spot – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

Ben Vellacott is a fantastic young scrum half and I can’t speak highly enough of him and the impact he has had on the senior team. A former Scotland U20s player, he qualifies for England on residency and is believed to have caught the eyes on the England selectors. He brings such quick ball to the game and is always a danger at the back of a ruck or looking for a quick-tap penalty.

The one big area he needs to work on is his kicking game. In the first half against Saints, Willi Heinz was doing a great job of kicking Gloucester into the right areas of the field, but as Gloucester came under pressure in the final quarter, this territorial game was missing as this is not a strength of Vellacott’s game at the moment. While I love the impact that Vellacott can have on a game, there will be times when what is needed is a calm head and a mind-set of playing for territory. I’m not saying he needs to have a kicking game to rival Conor Murray or Richard Wigglesworth, but if he can learn from Heinz and expand that aspect of the game, he could arguably develop into one of the best 9s in the Premiership.

Movember 2017: Day 11

Movember 2017: Day 11

Hey guys! So the 5 days since my last update have really helped the Mo-gression and the Mo is much more noticeable now.

20171111_165850I wouldn’t usually bore you by telling you about my day, but I think today it feels right to given the circumstances today. I had the pleasure of a visit from an old uni friend and fellow Pistol Shrimp today, as he came down to watch his beloved London Irish take on Gloucester in the Anglo-Welsh Cup. The result was a 47-7 win for the cherry and whites, but while it was a good game to watch, what really made this game special – besides the obvious observation of the 2 minute silence for Armistice Day – was the way both teams got behind London Irish hooker Darren Dawidiuk.

For those who don’t know, Dawidiuk played for Gloucester from 2009-2017 before moving to the Madejski this summer. However he is yet to play competitively for the Exiles this season as he was diagnosed with testicular cancer during the preseason and is currently undergoing chemotherapy following an operation to remove a tumour in his right testicle.

With this being the first meeting of the 2 teams since his diagnosis, it was lovely to see them unite to support him by wearing shirts and bobble hats with the message ‘Dukey 2’ provided by OddBalls, a clothing manufacturer who have set up the OddBalls Foundation to raise awareness of testicular cancer. OddBalls appears to be a brand growing in popularity, especially in rugby circles, and it was great so see how many fans turned up in OddBalls clothing or sporting a moustache in support.

 

Please visit my Movember page and donate whatever you can. Together, we can help to change the face of men’s health!

For more information on OddBalls and the OddBalls Foundation, visit their site here.

My Movember 2017 journey:

Eyes On: Anglo-Welsh Cup – Leicester Tigers v Gloucester Rugby

Eyes On: Anglo-Welsh Cup – Leicester Tigers v Gloucester Rugby

The 2017/18 edition of the Anglo-Welsh Cup kicked off this weekend with a number of high scoring matches. On Saturday the defending champions Leicester welcomed Gloucester to Welford Road for a match that eventually finished 26-24 in favour of the Tigers after a late missed penalty from Gloucester fly half Lloyd Evans.

As is the way with the Anglo-Welsh Cup these days, both teams put out a number of youngsters and academy players, with a smattering of more experience players who have had limited time on the pitch so far this season, either due to competition at their position or due to injury. For Leicester, Joe Ford got his first meaningful game time since his move from Yorkshire Carnegie, whilst Gloucester welcomed back flanker Ross Moriarty for his first game since picking up an injury against the Provincial Barbarians in the first match of the Lions Tour.

 

Youthful inexperience

The vast majority of Gloucester’s experience in their starting XV was to be found in their pack, where Moriarty – who is himself only 23 – was joined by Gareth Evans, Paddy McAllister, Gareth Denman and James Hanson. In the backs only centre Andy Symons would be considered an experienced player, though Ben Vellacott is quickly gaining experience and looks like he will be a regular in the squad this season. Unfortunately for the cherry and whites, this lack of experience behind the forwards probably cost them the game.

Gloucester have frequently this season been willing to play the ball from anywhere on the pitch, including inside their own 22. This same mindset was very evident once again at Welford Road. Unfortunately, while the willingness to play rugby is great to see, the execution was nowhere near the level required and Tigers were frequently able to benefit from winning the ball back in great field position, allowing them to keep the scoreboard turning over.

I haven’t seen much of Lloyd Evans before this match, but I have heard a lot of good things about him. Sadly, I wasn’t impressed by him on this showing. We have already seen this season that Ben Vellacott is not a scrum half that will regularly be playing the territory game, instead choosing to look for quick ball away from the breakdown and quick tap-and-go penalties. This is fine, providing your 10 is then willing and able to control where the game is played, but Evans seemed too focused on trying to play rugby. A Freddie Burns-esque chip over the defence is great to see but it is a risky play and not something that should be attempted inside your own 22. The Leicester line-out was anything but reliable this weekend and if Gloucester had piled the pressure on them by kicking to touch and playing for territory, I’m fairly certain that they would have come away with he victory. To compound his bad day, Evans also missed a pair of penalties – not easy, but definitely kickable – which would have sent Glaws home with the win.

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The pragmatic approach won’t always win you fans, but it can win you games

I don’t want this to sound like I’m blaming Evans for the loss, everybody is going to have a bad game at some point, but it showed how important it can be for a young fly half to have an experienced back with him to help control the game. A lot of the Gloucester backs ave been playing regular rugby due to injury issues so far this season, but it may benefit Evans to bring in Billy Twelvetrees for the next match in place of Andy Symons in order to help control the game.

Depth in the back row

In my opinion, Gloucester’s best player on Saturday was flanker Jake Polledri. The former Italian U20s player signed from Hartpury RFC in the summer and has really taken his chances well when called upon so far this season. With Moriarty returning to fitness and Gareth Evans also looking OK in his first start of the season before going off following a collision with Fred Tuilagi, Gloucester are full of depth in the back row, despite Matt Kvesic and Sione Kalamafoni both leaving in the summer.

While there is nobody standing out as a proper ‘jackal’ style 7 so far, Lewis Ludlow has been huge in defence and currently tops Opta’s Premiership Rugby stats with 114 tackles – 16 more than his closest competitor – so if I was asked to pick my ideal Gloucester 23 assuming everyone was fit, he would be joining Moriarty and Ruan Ackermann in my starting back row. This then leaves Jacob Rowan, Ben Morgan, Polledri, Evans and Freddie Clarke (who showed on Saturday that he can also cover second row) all competing for the back row cover on the bench… which Tom Savage could also theoretically cover if Jeremy Thrush and Ed Slater start at lock. What makes this depth even better is that many of these players are still relatively early in their careers, so can hopefully continue to grow and improve at Kingsholm over the next few years… though Moriarty will likely be heading back to Wales due to the new eligibility criteria for the national team.

Taking the chance given

The Anglo-Welsh Cup is not about putting out your strongest lineup in order to win some silverware, this is a competition about letting the youth gain some first team experience and letting some players put their hand up for selection in league or European matches.

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Kingsholm has been named as the venue for the 2017/18 Anglo-Welsh Cup final

I’ve already mentioned Polledri, but I continue to be impressed by the quick ball and quicker thinking of Vellacott and think it’s surely just a matter of time before the Scottish national team come calling. Tom Hudson did not get many chances to impress in this game, but he seemed much more comfortable than when I watched him in Europe a few weeks back and he ran a superb line for his try – even if the pass from Vellacott was probably forward!

For Leicester, Joe Ford surely knows that he will find his opportunities limited behind younger brother George, but he has shown that he can control a game well and will surely get more game time in the league as the season progresses and they decide to rest some of their internationals. Jonah Holmes also signed from Carnegie over the summer but has struggled to break into the first team with the form of Jonny May and Nick Malouf on the wings, but looked good in this game and took his chance when it came to show why he was the top try scorer in the Championship last season. Adam Thompstone and full back Afa Pakalani will also hope their form in this game makes Matt O’Connor consider rotating his back 3. Looking to the younger lads, the latest Tuilagi to play at Welford Road, Fred – son of Freddie – was well dealt with by Gloucester but showed a few flashes of the talent that he will be as he continues to develop and will surely live up to the family name, while Charlie Thacker – younger brother of hooker Harry – impressed with some good handling and took his try very well in the first half as 3 Gloucester players failed to complete the tackle on him.

Meanwhile, on a similar note, Johan Ackermann and Matt O’Connor both stepped back for this tournament and allowed Head of Academy Richard Whiffin and Assistant Coach Geordan Murphy respectively to take charge. This is a great chance for both coaches to further their own development in the game and both look to be talented in this area. Whether they move on to other clubs in the next few years or eventually take over from the current bosses, I think the future is as bright for these 2 coaches as for some of the young players on the pitch.

Keeping Up with the Glaws Family

The Glaws family has been growing in recent years. As well as the main team, the academy has been going from strength to strength and one of the big benefits of this has been Hartpury RFC, who will generally have a couple of Gloucester players registered to play for them and last year won promotion to the Championship following an unbeaten campaign. Gloucester-Hartpury Women’s RFC were also formed in 2014 and have been included in the new Premier 15s competition.

With all 3 leagues now well underway – and the first break of the season coming up for the men’s leagues for Europe and the British & Irish Cup – I thought that this would be a good chance to look at how each of the teams are doing this season.

 

Gloucester-Hartpury

The first season of the Premier 15s could not have gone much better for the women so far. 4 rounds of matches see Glos-Hartpury sitting 4thin the league with 3 wins and 1 loss, with a points difference of +54. They have also scored 3 try-bonus points to total 15 points so far. They have won against Richmond, Wasps and Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, and even their loss was a narrow 28-20 defeat at Bristol.

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The Premier 15s table after 4 rounds. From http://www.premier15s.com

Considering they are such a new team and had been playing in a league below most of their opponents, I thought that this season may be a struggle for them, but they have recruited well and boast a number of players capped by England, including WRWC2017 squad members Zoe Aldcroft and Sarah Bern, Bianca Blackburn, World Cup winner Ceri Large and Megan Goddard, who has been named in the first ever Barbarians women’s squad.

It is still early days and they still need to play the early leaders Harlequins and Saracens – who are both currently unbeaten – but I feel that Glos-Hartpury have the ability to finish at least mid-table and perhaps even hold onto a top-4 spot.

Hartpury RFC

Despite going unbeaten – and getting try-bonus points in all but 2 – in National League 1 last season, I was worried that Hartpury may struggle with the jump up to the professional RFU Championship. So far those fears seem largely unfounded, as they have won 2, drawn 1 and lost 3 of their opening 6 matches, leaving them 7th in the table with 16 points. They may currently have a losing record, but even their losses have been close affairs: 31-28 at Nottingham, 19-20 against Jersey and the season opening 26-15 at Bristol. This Bristol team are probably one of the strongest teams to feature in the league in modern rugby, yet from what I’ve heard Hartpury were unlucky with a couple of decisions in this game that could have easily resulted in them stealing the win.

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The Championship table after Round 6. From http://www.championshiprugby.co.uk

Hartpury have a pair of experienced Premiership props in former Gloucester players Rupert Harden and Dan Murphy and also have a couple of capped internationals in Rhys Oakley and Robbie Shaw. But where Hartpury should be really excited is in their young players, and their links with Gloucester Rugby. Maliq Holden looked an evasive runner in the BUCS Men’s Rugby Championship Final in April, and Gloucester have also supplied 4 academy players this season: Charlie Chapman, Alex Craig, Harry Randall and Alex Seville.

I am a massive fan of former Hartpury and Gloucester scrum half Dan Robson and think he should be given the chance to start for England. But I am really excited by Harry Randall and honestly think he will be the starter for England in the future. He has really impressed me whenever I have seen him play, whether for Hartpury or the England U20s. When I went to Kingsholm for the Charlie Sharples Testimonial – 2 pre-season friendlies for Gloucester against Hartpury and Scarlets – my uncle and I came away both saying that Randall was the best 9 on the pitch that evening! He may not look like a stereotypical modern rugby player – he often looks dwarfed by the players around him – but he reads the game well and reacts quickly to take advantage of any gap in the defence. I can’t wait to see him featuring for Gloucester in future years.

Gloucester

We may have to go back to the 2012/13 season to find the last time Gloucester finished in the top half of the table, but the arrival of Johan Ackermann from the Lions have given fans hope that a return to the top could soon be on the cards. So far it has been a mixed bag for the cherry and whites: they have won all 3 of their home games – including the season-opener against the defending champions – but have lost all 3 away games and currently sit in a familiar 8th place with 14 points. The 57-10 loss at Sale a few weeks back has been a huge downer for fans but on the whole even if the results have not always been there, there has been evidence that things are picking up at the club. Kingsholm once again looks a fortress and there is some great attacking play coming from the team, so it is only a matter of time before the results start coming on the road.

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The Premiership table after 6 rounds. From http://www.englandrugby.com

Like many teams, Gloucester are down a number of players at the moment through injury: Tom Marshall and Ross Moriarty are both likely to be regular starters yet neither has featured yet this season. Other expected regulars Charlie Sharples, Matt Scott, Mark Atkinson, Ed Slater, Billy Burns and Owen Williams have all missed time too. Combined with that, they lost star winger Jonny May late in the summer to Leicester and also lost Carl Fearns after protracted negotiations. Considering all these losses, and with the Lion’s run to the Super Rugby Final delaying Ackermann’s arrival until 3 weeks before the start of the season, I think that 3 wins from 6 and 2 bonus points is a good starting point to build from when the big names are back.

There have been a couple of reasons for Gloucester fan to smile so far. New signings Ruan Ackermann and Jason Woodward have quickly made an impact at their new club. Let’s not forget that Woodward was able to beat out Julian Savea to a starting spot on the wing at the Hurricanes, so I expect him to move into the 11 shirt once Tom Marshall is back… the thought of 2 kiwis in our back 3 must surely be exciting Shedheads. A late signing, Ruan Ackermann has been big for Gloucester so far with Moriarty out injured. He is a big bruising player and at only 21 is just going to get better and better. Judging by the way Ackermann has been setting up his back rows so far, I can imagine Ackermann and Moriarty often taking the field together at 6 and 8. What must be remembered though is that he has not really had an offseason, so will likely need a break or heavily reduced minutes as the season goes on. But by far the best news so far for Gloucester has been the form of Henry Trinder. The centre – finally getting a run of games without injury – is showing the Harry Potter magic that earned him a call-up to the England squad to face the Barbarians in 2014 and you have to imagine that if he can keep this form going and sidestep any injuries like he is opposition players [full credit to my mate Phil Alder for that line] then he could put himself in contention for more England caps.

Some fans may disagree and feel that top 5 is a must this season. While this would be great, I will myself be happy with 6th/7th providing the performances are clearly improved from last year and there is less of questioning as to which team will turn up each week… we’re Gloucester, after all, not Les Bleus! If we don’t start to get this consistency, then I think it will be time to show David Humphreys the door.