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.


 

International Rugby Ramble: Autumn Internationals Week 1

International Rugby Ramble: Autumn Internationals Week 1

Never give up

Saturday gave us the next chapter in possibly one of the greatest rugby stories of the modern era: that of Ian McKinley. The fly half, who played for Ireland U20s was forced to retire from rugby in 2011 after a stray boot caused him to lose sight in his left eye. McKinley moved to Italy to help coach junior rugby, but over recent years has worked his way back into playing professional rugby through the Italian leagues wearing a pair of specially manufactured goggles. His performances with Viadana and then Zebre led to him earning a contract with Benetton ahead of the 2016/17 Pro12 season.

The 2017/18 season has seen McKinley’s incredible comeback continue, as he has was called into the Italian national team’s squad for the Summer Tests – though he did not make an appearance – and was called up again for the Autumn Internationals. On Saturday, McKinley earned his first senior cap for Italy coming off the bench to replace Carlo Canna and even slotted the final penalty in their 19-10 victory over Fiji.

I can understand why people do not like the residency rules – and when it comes to project players I completely agree – but this is one of those wonderful circumstances where it has really benefited a player and given them a second chance. It is also a real benefit to Italy, as fly half has for years been a weak spot for them but they are now getting a bit of depth at the position with Canna, McKinley and Tommy Allan. Italian rugby is on the up in the Pro14, hopefully the national team won’t be far behind.

Persistence pays off

Another rugby story that shows the importance of never giving up is that of Welsh back row Josh Navidi. The Cardiff Blues back row made his senior debut for Wales way back in June 2013, when Wales played in Japan, but did not gain another cap until this summer, when he started against Tonga and Samoa during the Summer Tests. On Saturday, over 4 years after his first start, Navidi finally made his home debut for Wales in their 21-29 loss to Australia. Navidi has been so consistent for the Blues over the years, it is great to see that he is finally getting the caps his performances have deserved.

Of course, it is the unavailability of other players that has given him this chance. His first 3 caps have all come when players have been away with the British & Irish Lions and this autumn the Welsh are missing Ross Moriarty, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. Against the Wallabies, both Navidi and fellow flanker Aaron Shingler put in solid (if not spectacular) performances that suggest they can at least hold their own on the international scene. Wales currently have incredible depth in the back row, and if everyone was available I would not want the job of picking the best out of Navidi, Shingler, Warburton, Moriarty, Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, James Davies, Sam Cross, Dan Lydiate and James King. Just imagine if Sam Underhill or Ben Morgan had picked Wales over England too…

An unfortunate incident

If I was asked to pick the best outside centre in rugby at the moment, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick Jonathan Davies. It is a huge shame then that we will not see him in the 2018 6 Nations as he is expected to be out for 6 months following surgery for what looked to be an ankle injury but is being reported as a foot injury. The replays of the incident did not look nice as Davies twisted awkwardly as he was brought down by Marika Koroibete, but should he have even had the ball?

The restart from Australia was taken when the clock was already in the red beyond the 80 minute mark. It is great to see the new-look Welsh team willing to play from deep, but with the score at 21-29 there is no way they could win that game. The kickoff was taken by Dan Biggar who had enough time to kick the ball dead, however he immediately shipped it off to Davies. Trying to play the length on the field had no benefits in this circumstance, but has proved extremely costly for Wales.

On the plus side for Davies, at least he didn’t have a medic making things worse like South African prop Coenie Oosthuizen did!

Falling foul of the laws

There have been talks of a global season for a long time, but I appreciate that it is not easy to implement due to differing seasons. However even if there is no global season, I think World Rugby need to look at when they implement law changes.

When I looked at the new law changes back in July, I was looking at all the laws being brought into Northern Hemisphere rugby at the start of this season. However half of the laws had already been in place in the Southern Hemisphere since the New Year and the other half are not coming in until the coming New Year. This does not make it easy for referees or players who are suddenly having to play different laws than what they are used to, while knowing that they will be back to their usual laws in just a couple of weeks. We saw South African flanker Siya Kolisi fall foul of the law variations as he was penalised for kicking a ball out of a ruck – still legal for now in the South, but illegal in the North – and I’m sure this won’t be the last time someone gets caught out during the Autumn Internationals.

If World Rugby do not feel that a global calendar in feasible I can understand that, but I think that they need to ensure any law variations take effect at the same time worldwide and need to find a date when they can do so without changing the laws part way through a competition.

Laws Made Simple

World Rugby have been busy bees this year. Usually there will be a couple of amendments to the laws of the game ahead of the next season, but for teams in the Northern Hemisphere, there are a whole lot of changes all coming together. Some of these you may already be familiar with as some have been trialled in the Southern Hemisphere since January (the Lions Tour went by these laws) but you may not have heard of the newer ones as they will only take effect below the equator at the start of the new year – though some of these were used during the recent U20s World Championship in Georgia.

Many of these law amendments are aimed to make the game simpler for fans, players and officials alike, but in some cases have they gone too far? Below are the law amendments as described on a Powerpoint presentation available from the World Rugby website, along with my thought on these amendments:

 

Definition – Possession – This happens when a player carrying the ball (or attempting to bring it under control) or the team has the ball in its control; for example the ball in one half of a scrum or ruck is in that team’s possession

I have no idea what the wording was before this amendment as this just seems like common sense to me!

Law 3.6 Number of Players – The Team – Uncontested scrums as a result of sending off, temporary suspension or injury must be played with 8 players per side

This seems fair to me. How often have we seen a dominant scrum negated due to uncontested scrums, giving less disadvantage to the team that should theoretically be getting punished for a yellow card. While the advantage in the scrum is still lost, this means that there should be an overlap for the attacking team’s backs to exploit.

Law 5.7(e) Time – If a penalty is kicked into touch after time has elapsed without touching another player, the referee allows the throw-in to be taken and play continues until the next time the ball becomes dead. To end the half, the ball must be tapped before the kick to touch

Personally, I love this amendment to the law as it gives a team chasing the game the choice of kicking a penalty to touch beyond 80 minutes to gain territory rather than having to run the ball the length of the pitch. In the past we have often seen teams defending a narrow lead willing to give away penalties deep in the opposition half as their opponents are forced to run the ball out, but now they will have to be more careful.

Players will have to be careful in the opening weeks of the season that they remember to tap the ball before kicking the ball out to finish the game – Conor Murray was caught out on the Lions tour this summer – but I imagine that we will only see this mistake a few times at most.

Law 8.1(a) Advantage – When there are multiple penalty infringements by the same team, the referee may allow the captain of the non-offending team to choose the most advantageous of the penalty marks

Much like the rule above, this is something I like as it forces teams to be more careful with their discipline whilst also allowing the team who have been impeded the option of which penalty to take, allowing them to better play to their strengths and the needs in that game (scrum, line-out, kick to touch). This may also encourage teams to use the advantage more, as even if they don’t score during it, they may win a more advantageous penalty.

Law 9.A.1 Method of Scoring – penalty Try. If a player would probably have scored a try but for foul play by an opponent, a penalty try is awarded. No conversion is attempted. Value: 7 points

Now this rule has come in, I’m surprised that it hasn’t been done sooner. Not only will this speed up the game, but it also removes the chance of an offending team being let off 2 points by a kicker slipping.

Law 15.4(c) Amended Tackle – The player must get up before playing the ball and then can only play from their side of the tackle gate

I can understand why this has been amended as often it could be difficult for both the tackler to determine if he could play the ball or if the ruck had already formed. Now it is clear that a player must come through the gate, there is no excuse for a player getting this wrong and will hopefully reduce what could often look to be somewhat of a grey area.

Law 16: Amended Ruck Law – A ruck commences when at least one player is on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground (tackled player, tackler). At this point the offside line is created. A player on their feet may use their hands to pick up the ball as long as this is immediate. As soon as an opposition player arrives no hands can be used

I can understand why this has been changed as Italy’s no-ruck tactics against England caught out so many players and fans who were unaware of the law. However, I am not a fan of this at all as it feels like a reaction to Italy’s performance – and England’s inability to deal with it! While I am all for rugby being made easier to understand, the rule was actually quite clear-cut and it was a way that players could gain an advantage by knowing the laws and taking advantage of them.

What also interests me here is the wording that no hands can be used once an opposition player arrives. As it stands I don’t know if this means that they are allowed to keep hold of the ball if they already have hands on the ball, or if they must release the moment there is opposition.

Law 16.4: Other Ruck Offences – A player must not kick the ball out of a ruck. Sanction: Penalty kick. The player can only hook it in a backwards motion

This makes sense to me as this is effectively the same rule that we have in scrums. More importantly, this will improve player safety in the rucks. We have had instances in the past where players have suffered injuries after being caught by a player trying to kick the ball out, so hopefully we will see less incidents during games.

Law 18 Definition Mark – To make a mark a player must have one or both feet on or behind that player’s 22-metre line and catch a ball that has reached the plane of the 22-metre line

Law 19 Touch Definition – If the ball has passed the plane of touch when it is caught, then the catcher is not deemed to have taken the ball into touch. If the ball has not passed the plane of touch when it is caught or picked up, then the catcher is deemed to have taken the ball into touch, regardless of whether the ball was in motion or stationary. If a player jumps and knocks the ball back into the playing area (of if that player catches the ball and throws is back into the playing area) before landing in touch or touch-in-goal, play continues regardless of whether the ball reaches the plane of touch

Law 19.1(c) – No Gain in Ground – If a player, with one or both feet on or behind the 22-metre line, picks up the ball, which was outside the 22, or catches the ball in front of the 22-metre line and kicks it directly to touch from within the 22, then that player has taken the ball back inside the 2, so there is no gain in ground

Again these amendments make sense as they simplify things to ensure that the ball must cross the plane of the lines on the pitch under its own momentum. I quite liked players using their spacial awareness to catch a ball infield but with a foot already in touch to earn a line-out in good position, but this will make things so much easier for officials trying to catch up with play and with fans who are newer to the game.

Law 20.5 Throwing the ball into the scrum – No signal from referee. The scrum must be stable and there must be no delay once the ball has been presented to the scrum

Law 20.6(d) How the scrum-half throws in the ball – The scrum-half must throw the ball in straight, but is allowed to align their shoulder on the middle line of the scrum, therefore allowing them to stand a shoulder width towards their side of the middle line

Law 20 Striking after the throw-in – Once the ball touches the ground in the tunnel, any frontrow player may use either foot to try to win possession of the ball. One player from the team who put the ball in must strike for the ball. Sanction: Free-kick

Law 20.9(b) handling in the scrum – exception – allow the number 8 to pick the ball from the feet of the second-rows

Yet again, more changes to the scrum! However these changes I feel could have a positive impact. The ruling that there must be no delay with the feed will mean that the engagement of the front rows is no unnecessarily prolonged, which will also be helped by allowing any member of the front row to hook whilst penalizing a team for not attempting to hook when putting the ball in. There’s nothing I hate more at the scrum than both teams pushing against each other but not making any ground while the ball sits untouched in the tunnel, only or the scrum to eventually collapse as someone gives out – and I played prop so I can’t imagine how bad it is for other fans!

I also really like the number 8 being allowed to pick the ball up from within the scrum as it allows us to get on with play even if the scrum is going backwards at an alarming rate. Hopefully these rules lead to more rugby and less reset scrums/penalties.

Initially I didn’t like the new alignment of the scrum half when I first heard about it during the U20s World Championship, however the more I think about it, the more I have changed my view. The important thing here is that crooked feeds MUST be penalised, as this should be a way of giving the team putting in an advantage, whilst also making the scrum a fair contest.

Law 22.9(b) Defending Player in In-goal – If a player with one or both feet on or behind the goal line picks up the ball from within the field of play, or catches the ball in front of the goal line, that player has taken possession of the ball in the field of play

Law 22.9(d) Defending Player in In-goal – If a player with one or both feet on or behind the dead ball line picks up or catches a ball that has not reached the dead ball line, or touch-in-goal line, that player is deemed to have made the ball dead

These are basically an extension to the amendments in Laws 18 and 19 above, so I won’t bore you by saying the same thing again.

 

On the whole I am happy with these amendments, with the exception of what defines a ruck but I would be interested to hear your view on these changes. Do you think these amendments are the right way to go or are we simplifying the game too much? Are there any other laws you would like to see amended? Let me know in the comments or tweet me @PS_tetheridge

International Rugby Ramble

Farewell to a legend

This weekend saw the USA national rugby team make history by qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup as the top American qualifier for the first time ever. Their win over the Canadians in San Diego – on Canada Day, no less! – was by no means perfect, as they frequently struggled at the scrum, but they frequently impressed in open play and scored some beautiful tries on their way to a 52-16 victory. This result has confirmed the USA’s place in Pool C alongside England, France, Argentina and the currently unconfirmed Oceania 2 qualifier.

While there was a lot to celebrate at full time, the moment was also bittersweet, as it signalled the international retirement of the USA’s most-capped player. Rugby’s very own Captain America, flanker Todd Clever made his international debut in 2003 and has gone on to amass 76 caps, as well as appearing for the USA in the World Sevens Series on a number of occasions. For a number of years, he was the face of USA rugby, and even with the emergence of a number of talented Americans, he has remained a key part of the national team. I can’t help but wonder if the USA would have been more successful in the 2015 World Cup had he not been left out following a disagreement with then-Head Coach Mike Tolkin.

Clever was the first American to play in Super Rugby (for the Lions in 2009) and has even competed against the British and Irish Lions on their tour that year. He spent 5 years playing in the Japanese Top League and also played in the Aviva Premiership for Newcastle in the 2015/16 season.

Now back in America, he is a player and co-owner for the Austin Huns, who will be part of the inaugural Major League Rugby. Though PRO Rugby did not work out, I have heard a lot of promising things regarding the MLR and I look forward to seeing how things go once the league begins. I still feel that the USA have the potential to be the next rugby superpower and seriously hope that players continue to come through to take Clever’s place.

 

Clever is not the first captain to announce his international retirement this summer, as he is joined by Geogia’s Mamuka Gorgodze, who has similarly helped to put Georgian rugby on the map. I am sure that both of these players have been inspirations not just for their teammates, but for the children who will now want to grow up to represent their country on the rugby pitch. Though the big names may be stepping down, I fully hope and expect both national teams to push on and continue to improve without them.

 

A hairy situation

Over the weekend I read an article on Pundit Arena stating the Japanese Rugby Union raised the hairstyle of hooker Shota Horie as a topic of discussion and expressed their disapproval at a recent board meeting.

The hooker has won over 50 caps for the national team and plays for the Sunwolves, so should be considered an inspiration for those looking to get into rugby in Japan. From what I have read, the union seem to be citing the idea of integrity, yet does a players hairstyle really constitute such a problem? It’s not like he’s got a cock and balls shaved into the side!

Maybe its something to do with me being follicly challenged, but I would never imagine playing rugby with the hairstlyes that some of these pros do. That said, I do not see any problem with players having their hair as such and if I’m completely honest I couldn’t imagine players like Todd Clever or Richard Hibbard playing with close-cropped hair.

Even if they are going to be strict on a player’s personal appearance, are there not more important things for the JRFU to be worrying about right now? The World Cup they are hosting is just over 2 years away and the Sunwolves have only managed 2 wins and a draw in their first 28 Super Rugby games and are on track to finish bottom of the combined table for the second year running. I think the JRFU need to get their priorities right, quickly!

 

Lions tour disciplinary results

When I wrote about Saturday’s second Test between the Lions and All Blacks, I mentioned that I would not be surprised to see Sonny Bill Williams receive a ban for his high tackle on Anthony Watson. I was proved right as it was announced yesterday that the cross-code star had received a 4-week ban.

It would appear that the commission felt the same as me, that the incident was more reckless than intentional. I was however a little surprised at the length of the ban. The incident was considered a mid-range offence, which has a starting point of 6 weeks, however the ban was reduced to 4 weeks after considering mitigating factors including his early admission, disciplinary record, good character and remorse. The mention of his good disciplinary record surprised me as there have been other occasions in the past where he has been penalised for not wrapping in the tackle, so considering how strict World rugby are being with contact to the head I would have expected the entry-level 6 weeks to stand, possibly with an extra week added as a deterrent.

 

Williams wasn’t the only player attending a hearing over the weekend though, as Sean O’Brien was cited for a forearm on Waisake Naholo. I was surprised when the citing was announced as to me the incident looked accidental rather than reckless. Had it been picked up during the game I feel there would have been some justification for a yellow – harsh perhaps, but there was enough force for Naholo to fail a HIA – but I did not feel that there was enough to warrant a red card. The case was dismissed, which shows the commission felt that no action was required, as they could have issued a Citing Commissioner Warning if they felt the challenge was worthy of a yellow. This will be a huge boost for the Lions as they prepare for the series-defining third Test this Saturday.

 

What are your thoughts on these stories? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: New Zealand v British and Irish Lions – Second Test

After New Zealand’s 30-15 last weekend, the Lions knew they needed a win in order to keep their hopes of a series victory alive. For this game, Warren Gatland made a number of changes – some expected, some surprising – to the 23-man squad, whereas Steve Hansen chose to limit his changes to those necessitated by the injuries to Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty.

In a game that started in awful conditions, the big talking point of an exciting but low-scoring first half was the red card shown to Sonny Bill Williams on 25 minutes for a shoulder to the head of Anthony Watson. The Lions went on to score 2 unanswered tries in the second half as conditions improved, but discipline issues allowed Beauden Barrett to keep the game tightly poised, before a late penalty from Owen Farrell gave the tourists a 21-24 victory.

With no midweek games remaining, both teams now have a week to recover and prepare for next Saturday’s third Test, which is now a winner-takes-all showdown. As we begin to look ahead to next weekend, these are my thoughts on today’s game.

 

The big moment

Where else could I start other than the red card? With the scores at 3-3 25 minutes into the game, Anthony Watson took possession of a high ball and was grabbed by Waisake Naholo as he came inside. Sonny Bill Williams came in to help complete the tackle but there was contact between his right shoulder and Watson’s head. After reviewing the replays, referee Jerome Garces made the decision to show the centre a red card.

The replays did not look good, but I do not feel that this was at all deliberate or an attempt to injure the player as some people have suggested, but instead an unfortunate accident. Despite Stuart Barnes’ insistence otherwise, Watson was not upright, but instead bent over due to Naholo tackling him around the torso and trying to drag him down. There was some force in the hit (would you expect anything else from a tackle by Williams?) however Watson passed a HIA in approximately 7 minutes, so the collision possibly looked worse than it felt. There was also the slightest attempt to wrap the left arm, however this was minimal enough that I feel the hit could still be considered a no-arms tackle, something that we arguably see too often in union from Williams and likely due in part to his switching between union and league.

I am not saying the punishment was harsh, when you look at the directives relating to high tackles this was clearly a reckless tackle and there were not enough mitigating factors, so there was no other option for Garces. It would not surprise me to see Williams fall foul of the citing commission and receive a ban.

The impressive thing is how well the All Blacks continued to play despite being a man down for 45 minutes (Mako Vunipola’s yellow meant that the numbers were even for 10 minutes of the second half) and they still created a couple of try-scoring chances and would have won the game had both kickers finished with 100% records (Barrett missed 3 penalties, Farrell a penalty and a conversion).

What did surprise me, though, was Hansen’s decision to immediately replace Jerome Kaino – an experienced operator and real physical presence – for the inexperienced Ngani Laumape. This is nothing against Laumape – he carried his form from the Hurricanes game into this match – but the decision to go down a man in the pack when the weather was resulting in a territorial game with a number of scrums baffles me and I wonder if the All Blacks would have done better delaying that substitution until conditions improved later in the game.

Justified selections?

I was very surprised to see Alun Wyn Jones retain his place in the starting lineup after a poor tour, however the conditions led to a less expansive game which appeared to suit him and he had a much better performance before being replaced by Courtney Lawes just before the hour mark. His partner in the second row, Maro Itoje, fully justified his promotion from the bench with a great performance. Despite his youth, Itoje led the line out with aplomb and the only real error I remember from him was a knock-on in the New Zealand 22 in the first half.

Due to the way the conditions were played, it was harder to judge how successful Gatland’s other changes were, though it must be noted that the Sexton/Farrell combination was highly influential in Taulupe Faletau’s try, which actually came when both teams were playing with 14 men. However towards the end of the game Ardie Savea and Laumape did begin to have some luck making big metres in the centre of the pitch, so I was a bit surprised Gatland refrained from bringing on Ben Te’o in the latter stages. I was also quite surprised not to see Rhys Webb introduced late on to take advantage of the extra man, but Conor Murray took his try well and controlled the game well with experienced play, including pulling an angry Kyle Sinckler away from Charlie Faumuina as Garces gave what ended up being the match-winning penalty, ensuring that there would be no reversal of the penalty for retaliation.

Given the weather and the man advantage in this game, it will be interesting to see what changes Gatland decides to make for next week.

Ill-disciplined Lions

Beauden Barrett was 100% from the tee last week, but Lions fans will be very happy to have seen him miss 3 penalties today. The discipline from the tourists today was absolutely shocking! The All Blacks had 10 shots at goal in this game and would have won the game had Barrett been a bit more accurate. Mako Vunipola alone gave away 4 penalties, including a stupid late charge on Barrett after he kicked downfield (Barrett nailed the kick at goal from where the ball landed) and then a silly clear out of Barrett at a ruck mere moments later, where he clearly used the shoulder as opposed to wrapping an arm. Admittedly this sort of challenge happens frequently in a game without punishment, but it was far too obvious from a player the referee is already paying attention to and Barrett did also take a while to get back to his feet following the challenge.

The Lions played with an extra man for 45 minutes, scored 2 tries to nil, yet still only won by 3 points. If they are to win the third Test, they will need to improve their discipline considerably

 

As next weekend is the final game of the tour, I have decided not to rush to name my final 23 today, but will instead have a post dedicated to it over the next few days, so keep your eyes open for that!

 

What were your thoughts on the second Test? Do you think I missed anything? How do you think the Lions will do next week? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: Maori All Blacks v British and Irish Lions

With just a week to go until the first Test match, the Lions took on a strong Maori All Blacks side that contained a number of players capped by New Zealand. After the All Blacks’ 78-0 demolition of Samoa in their warm-up match on Friday, the Lions surely knew that it was important to send a message with a good result of their own.

The opening 40 minutes was a close affair, with 4 penalties from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny cancelling out Liam Messam’s converted try and a penalty from the Chiefs’ Damian McKenzie. As conditions worsened after half time however, the Lions took control of the game through territorial kicking and the strength of their pack, with a penalty try and one from Maro Itoje contributing towards a 10-32 victory.

This will likely be the last game many of these players are involved in before the first Test, especially now that Warren Gatland has called up reinforcements, so with just 1 match left to go before the big games begin, here are my thoughts on the latest game.

 

Falling foul of the law

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but the Lions’ discipline was shocking yet again, especially in the first half! I don’t expect teams to go the whole game without being penalised, but against the All Blacks they will not be able to give away any cheap penalties if they want to win. Against the Blues, I noted that they kept getting penalised for stupid infringements at the line out and they did this again conceding a free kick 5m from the Maori line. Tadhg Furlong also gave away a penalty at the breakdown despite referee Jaco Peyper giving him a number of warnings and teammate Mako Vunipola also giving him a hefty slap on the bum.

What was also a worry is that a scrum half as experienced as Conor Murray does not appear to have learned the laws of the game that are being played on the tour. Under the new laws – which have been in place in the Southern Hemisphere since the start of their season and will be coming to the Northern Hemisphere once the new season begins – the line out will still be played if a penalty is kicked directly to touch, even if time is up on the clock. The players on this tour should all be fully aware of the changes to the laws, so there is no excuse for a mistake like this. Hopefully we won’t see the Lions fall foul of any law amendments at a crucial point in the Tests.

A strong game plan

Though the weather certainly played into the Lions’ hands, the Lions tactics were perfect for dealing with the Maoris. The pressure from the defence caused McKenzie to stand so deep, it was all but impossible for them to get their dangerous backs and back row into the game. Nehe Milner-Skudder showed a few flashes of the skill that lit up the World Cup, but his grubber kick that led to Messam’s try was speculative at best and should have been dealt with by George North. It’s fair to say that the most exciting moment from the Maoris was their stunning haka, the best I can remember watching!

The tight five looked a weakness for the Maoris and the Lions pack took full advantage of it in the scrums and line outs. Once the weather deteriorated and the ball got slippy, the Lions took full advantage by using the high ball to test the Maoris’ handling under pressure and were often rewarded with scrums that they duly dominated. The penalty try was just reward for their efforts today and I’m sure many of the forwards cemented their Test squad status with that performance. I don’t expect the All Blacks pack to be bullied so easily, but this is definitely an area where the Lions could have an advantage and if conditions are poor – they have been for a lot of the matches so far – the chances of a Lions victory will increase.

Their attacking still needs some work though. There appeared to be more breaks from the tourists, many courtesy of Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies – surely they must be the centre pairing for the Tests – but too often the support was lacking. There were also a couple of occasions where the Lions were turned over close to the Maori line. At risk of sounding like a broken record, to have a chance of beating the All Blacks the Lions must take any chance they create.

Naming the 23

In my last article I named what I felt would be the 23-man squad for the first Test assuming everyone is fit. As I picked this before the Lions named their squad for this game, I have decided to reassess my selection after each of the remaining games, as players continue to get more game-time. This match has made me change a couple of selections, but it has also solidified a number of picks. As with last time, this is on the assumption that everyone is fully fit (Owen Farrell’s injury means he is currently a doubt for the first Test and I have not heard anything about Courtney Lawes’ head injury) so if there is a player who is currently an injury doubt I will put their replacement next to them in brackets.

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Sam Warburton (Peter O’Mahony)
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell (Johnny Sexton)
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. George North
  15. Leigh Halfpenny
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes (Alun Wyn Jones)
  20. Peter O’Mahony/CJ Stander
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton (Dan Biggar)
  23. Anthony Watson

Whilst I have kept the same 6 front rowers, I have switched the starter at hooker as I feel today’s starters were so successful they will be selected as a group. Conor Murray came through the game looking very good and did not appear to be struggling with his shoulder in the same way he did against the Crusaders. With Stuart Hogg out, Leigh Halfpenny was reliable and positioned himself well to field kicks from the Maoris, whilst his metronomic kicking off the tee becomes very important if Farrell is unavailable for the fist Test. The wings have been very difficult to pick as there have been no standout performers. Despite his error for Messam’s try, George North keeps his spot as I can’t imagine Gatland wanting to go up against Julian ‘The Bus’ Savea with the slighter wingers he has to pick from. Anthony Watson was given the full 80 minutes again today which makes me think he will be preferred to Liam Williams, though I have not seen much special in attack, but I do not feel that his defence is good enough to start against the All Blacks. Daly has not started since the Blues game but has come off the bench for the last two games. Due to his versatility, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him and Watson swapped around, however I feel that he is a more reliable defender and his all-round skill set gives the Lions extra options in attack or when looking to clear their Lines. I have picked Courtney Lawes on the bench over Alun Wyn Jones due to his versatility and the way he can put the fear of God into a fly half when they get the ball. Jones was my pick for the Tour captaincy this time last year but has not seemed to be at his best form and has also been rather undisciplined in his Lions outings so far. CJ Stander has been solid if not spectacular so far in the tour, so I feel that today’s impressive performance by the Lion’s pack could have put O’Mahony ahead of him. Further to this, O’Mahony captained the team well today so if Warburton is deemed not ready for the first Test, I could imagine the Irishman coming in to lead the side.

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Change Please!

After Italy’s ‘no-ruck’ tactics against England, there were a number of fans and pundits who were unhappy with the tactic and felt that there was no place for it in rugby. There were also rumours that World Rugby would look into amending the rule at the end of the season. I seem to have been in the minority that actually really enjoyed watching the Italians use such a different tactic so well and will be disappointed if World Rugby outlaw this just because the England players weren’t able to adapt to the Italian game.

Though I have no problem with the no-ruck tactics, I do feel that there are some rules and situations that World Rugby do need to have a look at changing to improve the game:

 

Scrums

As someone who has regularly played in the front row, it would be fair to expect me to enjoy watching scrums. I really don’t! So much of the 80 minutes is wasted on constant reset scrums, only for the whole debacle to finally end in a penalty or free kick 5 minutes after the scrum was initially awarded. If I’m not enjoying this part of the game, then I hate to imagine how someone who is less of a fanatic feels. I think this could be improved by taking a similar approach to that of PRO Rugby in the USA, where a free kick would be awarded if a team delayed formation of the scrum within 30 seconds, set up incorrectly, didn’t crouch ear-to-ear, bound incorrectly, did not remain square and steady or fed the ball into the scrum at an angle.

I think it would be great if this was taken on board as it is infuriating watching teams taking forever to get ready correctly. These are professional front rowers and yet they are having to be coached by the ref as to how to scrummage properly, this should not be the case! Anything that can speed up the scrum while keeping it safe is surely better for the game.

If nothing else, the feeding at the scrum needs addressing. The only thing rarer than a straight feed in professional rugby is a scrum half getting penalised for feeding at an angle! The whole idea of the scrum is for it to be a contest as well as a means to restart the game. Though I don’t agree with everything Brian Moore says, I firmly believe his assessment that straight feeds would help stabilise the scrums, as the defending team would not have to push early in order to have a chance to steal the ball. A straight feed would also encourage the hookers to hook the ball back through the scrum (hence the name of their position), so this would also help reduce the number of scrums that end up collapsing after the ball has got stuck half way back to the number 8.

So not only would this stricter approach to scrums improve the quality of play, but it may also improve the safety of the forwards, especially those in the tight five.

Buying penalties

If there’s one thing that annoys me more than scrums at the moment, it would be scrum halves buying offside penalties by deliberately passing the ball into a retreating defender. I understand that the defender is technically offside, but is he really interfering with play if the pass is not going anywhere near a member of the attacking team? In my opinion, buying a penalty is no different to diving or flopping at minimal contact. Under World Rugby’s amended laws from last summer, ‘Any player who dives or feigns injury in an effort to influence the match officials will be liable for sanction’ so why should throwing a pass into a retreating player in an effort to influence the match officials be treated any different? I have noticed a couple of referees recently give penalties for offside but then give the scrum half a warning that next time they would be the one penalised, so it is good to see referees are paying attention to it, but why should the scrum half get away with cheating in the first instance, as that could be the instance that decides the outcome of a game?

Forward pass

When is a forward pass not a forward pass? Apparently, the answer is ‘when the hands go backwards’. I can understand the logic behind this, as momentum and high winds could cause the ball to go forward even if the hands have gone backwards, but surely we should not be getting to a point where we are having to rely on cameras far from the action and atless-than-ideal angles in order to decide whether a player’s hands went backwards. It’s not as if the quality of attacking play was poor before a forward pass was judged by the direction of the hands – just watch that Gareth Edwards try for the Barbarians in 1973 – and would make the job of the officials a lot easier!

Obstruction

Law 10.1 (c) & (d) states that ‘a player must not intentionally move or stand in a position that prevents an opponent from tackling a ball carrier/playing the ball’ and yet every time we see a scrum half preparing to clear their lines with a box kick, we see a number of players fanning out either side of the ruck to stop the opposition getting close enough to charge the kick down. Anywhere else on the field this would be a penalty but at a breakdown officials will turn a blind eye. The vast majority of the time the player can’t even use the excuse that they were in the ruck as they have not entered through the gate as they should, so there is no reason that this should be allowed.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I have noticed a lot of games recently where players have successfully cleared out a ruck and then grab hold of a defender near the breakdown to prevent them moving away into a position to counter the next attack. If anything, this is even worse than blockers at a kick as rather than buying a player an extra half a second to get a kick away this could potentially lead to a gap for a player to break through and lead to a try.

 

Though some of these, such as the forward pass rule would require World Rugby to amend the existing laws, many of these are already in the laws but do not get penalised by the officials. I appreciate that there is a lot for the officials to watch out for, but many of these offences are so blatant from players it would be relatively simple to take a zero tolerance approach to these actions. Hopefully doing so would help contribute to a safer and more exciting game of rugby for players and fans alike.

 

If you could change one law, what would it be and why? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge