The Verdict: My Thoughts on Super Rugby’s Law Trials

The Verdict: My Thoughts on Super Rugby’s Law Trials

With Super Rugby AU now over and the internationals still a few weeks away, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the last couple of months of Southern Hemisphere rugby.

As well as bringing more focus to the refereeing of the breakdown, both Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU trialled some new laws this season – with Super Rugby Aotearoa trialling a new law for red cards and Super Rugby AU trialling this and a number of other laws. A few of them came up while I was giving my thoughts on the individual matches, but now that I have had the chance to watch them in effect for a full tournament, I think it is fair to take a look at how successful the trials have been.

Mark

A kick originating in the attacking 22m area cannot be marked by the defending team within their own 22m area. The kick can however be marked within the defending team’s in-goal area and play restarts with a 22m line drop-out

Personally, I liked this amendment. Though there were very few instances where it came into play, it opens up the attacking options for a team close to the try line by and gives them more reason to try chips over the defensive line or cross-kicks without waiting for a penalty advantage.

Verdict: Keep

Red card

A red carded player can be substituted after 20 minutes, unless all substitutions have been used

If we thought that the Mark trial had barely come into play, the new red card trial had even less chance to have an impact, as the only red card was given to Scott Scrafton with less than 20 minutes of the match remaining, so there was no difference in the game. I can see a positive to this trial that a game is not ruined as a spectacle by an early red card following an accidental poor tackle/challenge in the air, however I also wonder if this will lead to worse discipline and also feel that sometimes teams need to learn the hard way how to play the game within the laws.

Verdict: Continue the trial

50/22 and 22/50

A kick taken from within the kicking team’s 50m area that travels into touch within the opposition’s 22m area having first bounced in the field of play results in a lineout throw to the kicking team. This does not apply following a free kick.

and

A kick taken from within the kicking team’s 22m area that travels into touch within the opposition’s 50m area having first bounced in the field of play results in a lineout throw to the kicking team. This does not apply following a free kick.

These just don’t do it for me. I understand that the idea of the law trial was that it would create space by forcing the defending teams to drop more players to cover the backfield, but teams have generally been able to do so without having to drop more players. Instead, the only times that these kicks have generally paid off have been when the defence is on the front foot and putting the attacking team under heavy pressure, leading to a complete change in momentum that has not been earned by the attacking team.

Verdict: Ditch

Goal line drop-out

When an attacking player carrying the ball is held up or knocks the ball on in the in-goal play restarts with a goal line drop-out

or 

When a kick enters the in-goal area and is grounded by the defending team play restarts with a goal line drop-out

So here’s an interesting one. Part of me disliked the change for an attacking team that had been camped on the opponents’ line being held up and then having to restart an attack from deep, but it has led to some great attacking and with players having ground to create momentum and generally get themselves quickly back in the 22. However, while it has been fun watching behemoths like Pone Fa’amausili, Cabous Eloff and Taniela Tupou crash into the defensive line after a 30m charge, I can’t help wonder if this is really what we want at a time where we are so focused on player safety – similar to how the NFL has changed the kickoff in recent years to reduce the run-ups before collisions.

Verdict: Continue the trial

Extra time

(Australia): 2 x 5min periods of extra time; in the event of a drawn game after regulation time where the first points scored wins the match for the scoring team

or 

(New Zealand): If matches are drawn after 80 minutes, teams will go into a 10-minute period of extra time and the first team to score any points will win the game.

Super Rugby Aotearoa’s only draw was due to a cancelled match so the 10-minute extra time was never trialled. Super Rugby AU saw a couple of matches go to “Super Time” – the first a boring pointless waste of 10 minutes, the second over in less than 2 minutes. To me, 5-minute halves are too short to get any quality momentum built, especially if teams are afraid to give away a penalty, and I think one 10-minute period works better. If I’m completely honest, I don’t feel that golden point works in a game where the game can be won by a penalty kicked from within the kicking team’s own half and think that more often than not, we will see teams playing to win a penalty without giving one away as opposed to looking for a try. Furthermore, in a round-robin competition, I can’t see why there is need to have extra time as there are already reduced points available for a draw.

Verdict: Ditch

Of course, these are only my personal opinions, what do you think about these law trials?

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Blues

The Blues kept their hopes of winning Super Rugby Aotearoa alive following today’s Round 8 win over the Highlanders in Dunedin.

The Aukland-based franchise had to do some late shuffling to their lineup with starting flanker Blake Gibson and replacement lock Josh Goodhue, but it didn’t seem to matter as the pack drove a 5m lineout over the Highlanders try line after just 3 minutes, only for Aaron Smith to have his foot in the perfect position to hold the ball up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as from the resultant scrums, Akira Ioane crashed over Scott Gregory to open the scoring. A few minutes later, a Highlanders handling error turned the ball over on halfway and after Beauden Barrett cross-kick to Caleb Clarke cutout the Highlanders defence, he had the support inside for Finlay Christie to cross fr another try. The Highlanders forced their way back into the game, and after Josh Ioane got them on the board with a penalty, Ash Dixon got their first try of the match from a 5m catch and drive. Dalton Papali’i had a try controversially ruled out for an offside penalty that allowed Ioane to kick the Highlanders into their first lead of the game, but the lead lasted just seconds as another turnover quickly saw TJ Faiane cross to put the Blues back ahead. With Barrett having an indifferent day off the tee, Ioane kicked another penalty to keep things close, but Ofa Tu’ungafasi crossed right before halftime and Barrett converted to give the Blues a 16-24 lead.

The Blues quickly extended the lead after the break with Christie crossing for his second try and Barrett added a penalty just before the hour to put the game all-but out of sight. The Highlanders continued to fight and after the Blues lost replacement prop Sione Mafileo to the bin with 7 minutes left, Shannon Frizell managed to cross to give the final score a more respectable look. The Highlanders looked to pull within 7, but the Blues managed to hang on to get the 21-32 bonus point win, their first win over the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

The spirit of the game

Another day of rugby, another controversial decision relating to a try referred to the TMO. This time it was a disallowed try as Dalton Papali’i interceted a pas on halfway to score under the posts, only for referee Mike Fraser to be badgered into checking with the TMO and then instead awarding a penalty to the Highlanders for offside against prop Karl Tu’inukuafe. So what actually happened.

Tu’inukuafe was involved in the tackle attempt that led to the final ruck before the try, but fell off the tackle. He went to get back to his feet, but realised that he was in the passing lane, with Aaron Smith ready to go at the back of the ruck, so he dropped back to the floor so as to not interfere with play. Rather than throw the pass, Smith chooses to run laterally and appears to trip over Tu’inukuafe as he passes, the Highlanders try to spread the ball without looking, but Papali’i has had time to come forwards and legally get in the passing lane, making the intercept and taking it to the house.

I can understand why Tu’inukuafe was penalised, but personally I think it was he wrong call, as unlike a lazy runner, he has made every attempt to keep himself out of the play and it is only through Aaron Smith’s decision to run directly over where he was led that brought him into the play. There was nothing else the prop could do, whereas Smith chose to run there in the full knowledge that he was on the floor, so I would argue that at best it was a stupid decision from a very good halfback rather than an illegal act by Tu’inukuafe.

When you watch the replays of the trip, though, it becomes a different story. Smith was on his way to the floor before he even reached Tu’inukuafe having done his best impression of Tom Daley and diving to the ground, throwing out a pass on his way down. All it needed were a few rolls on the ground and I’d have thought the Highlanders had Neymar playing at scrum half! There is milking a penalty, overreacting to an illegal offence to highlight it to the officials, but then there is simulation to buy a penalty, and that is what Smith did here.

This is completely against the spirit of the game, exactly like a scrum half deliberately throwing the ball into a retreating player at a ruck when there were clearly no teammates in the vicinity to receive that pass. There is no place for it in the sport and I would love to see officials do what Mike Fraser initially did here: wave play on and watch the other team pounce on the loose ball so the cocky halfback gets crucified by his teammates.

What made the situation even worse in this case is that the conversion was almost certain to be scored, but instead Ioane managed to kick a penalty. This decision caused a 10-point swing in the moment and put the Highlanders ahead, luckily the Blues got on with the game and put themselves back ahead almost immediately.

Playmaker

This game really highlighted the benefits of Beauden Barrett at fly half. I will continue to argue that Mo’unga is the better 10 as he is more reliable, but when Barrett is playing well, it is a sight to behold.

While Otere Black has done a great job managing the team around the pitch, Barrett brought more variety to the attack. As well as running it himself when it was on, he was utilising a range of passes and kicks to keep the defence guessing. This meant that it became difficult for the Highlanders to effectively organise their defence, especially given the quality of the options available to Barrett.

His abilities were especially highlighted at a couple of turnovers. Christie’s opener came one phase after a turnover, where Barrett caught the defence out with a cross-kick shallow enough to take the opposition winger out of contention and allowing the support me to create a simple numerical overlap against the winger and fullback, the only people with any chance of stopping the attack. Similarly for Christie’s second, Barrett took advantage of a turnover by throwing a wide pass to Tony Lamborn that cut out the entire defence – who had been caught too narrow in transition – and while Lamborn did not have the pace to make it to the line himself, it was still easier for the support in comparison to the covering Josh Ioane and the turning defenders.

The Blues now have a bye before their potential decider against the Crusaders (this would require the Crusaders to lose/draw without a bonus point at home to the Highlanders next week), so they have a choice to make: do they stick with Barrett at 10, or go back to Otere Black? I pick option 3: Carter at 10, Barrett at 15.

Stacked at the back

One thing that Super Rugby Aotearoa has highlighted is the depth that the Blues have in the back row. This match was no exception.

Back in Round 1, the starting trio was Blake Gibson, Tom Robinson and Hoskins Sotutu, with Papali’i coming on after half hour to take the place of the injured Gibson. Robinson is a fantastic player, but injury sadly robbed him of any further gametime in the tournament, while Gibson fund himself lower down the pecking order with Papali’i and Akira Ioane creating a dangerous trio with Sotutu. Sotutu’s injury has been largely dealt with by moving Ioane back to his preferred position of number 8 and he has got better by the week, while Gibson, Tony Lamborn and Aaron Carroll have all done a great job partnering Papali’i as flankers an minimising the impact on the team.

This week, with Gibson and Goodhue pulling out last, Lamborn was promoted to the XV with Carroll and lock Jacob Pierce coming onto the bench. Carroll was on early in the second half as Papali’i took a knock, but then Lamborn needed replacing for a HIA. This led to Pierce having to come on, and with 3 locks on the pitch (4 if you count Carroll too), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti found himself packing down at number 8 for a 5m scrum and doing a great job of keeping the ball in the scrum while a pack that was already big and was now even bigger following the substitutions steamrolled the Highlanders scrum for a penalty.

If you want to challenge for the title, you need to have strength in depth to cover for injuries and allow players to get sufficient rest, especially with the intensity these games are being played at. With available to the Blues in such a key unit, they are in a very good position to challenge both now and in the foreseeable future.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Crusaders

We’re entering the business end of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season with the beginning of Round 8, and it began with a trip to Waikato for the table-topping Crusaders to take on the winless Chiefs. The first half went according to the script for Chiefs matches in this tournament, with Tom Sanders and Will Jordan both crossing for tries in the opening 15 minutes. The Chiefs worked their way into the game and after a strong run by Pita Gus Sowakula, Lachlan Boshier crossed for a try, Damian McKenzie kicking the conversion and a penalty soon after to cut the deficit to 2. However with a minute left in the half, a deliberate knock-on from Shaun Stevenson saw him sent to the bin and allowed the Crusaders to kick to the corner, from which a catch and drive put captain Codie Taylor over to make it 10-17 at the break.

While the 3ʳᵈ quarter was one for the kickers – McKenzie kicking 3 penalties and Mo’unga 1 to keep a narrow lead – but the final quarter started in controversial fashion as Sevu Reece was awarded a try despite many thinking that Quinten Strange had knocked on in the build-up. The Chiefs continued to fight, but the Crusaders scored a 5ᵗʰ try through Leicester Fainga’anuku, before holding on to secure the double over Warren Gatland’s side with a 19-32 victory.

Wrong mentality

Warren Gatland is a hugely experienced coach, but right now I think that he is the wrong man to be leading the Chiefs. The former Wales head coach has spent the last 12 years coaching in the Northern Hemisphere and will be coaching the Lions on their tour of South Africa next year, and I can’t help but think that all this time away from New Zealand is proving costly now.

It was almost as if there were 2 different Chiefs teams taking part in this game. At times they ran the ball like you would expect from a New Zealand side and they looked dangerous. But then the Chiefs of every other week would return and they would start kicking possession away, usually with aimless kicks downfield that the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Will Jordan and George Bridge were only too happy to run back with interest. With a back line that includes Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie, that’s a waste of their talent.

Watching this team, it feels like Gatland is trying to stick to the same gameplan he used with Wales of kicking downfield (but keeping the ball in play) and relying on his team’s superior fitness and dogged defence to get the win. Unfortunately, that is just inviting too much pressure from exceptionally skilled athletes and they just aren’t able to deal with it. It may be too late for this tournament, but I think that Gatland needs to look at changing up his tactics if he wants the Chiefs to have any success during his tenure.

Fijian force

One of the players to benefit most from the moments when the Chiefs played running rugby today was Pita Gus Sowakula. The Chiefs number 8 did not have the best of days in their opener against the Highlanders, but has quietly gone about his business since then. In this game, with the Chiefs playing a more open game at times, the Fijian came alive. Though he only managed 35 metres with the ball in hand, his 16 carries were extremely positive and played a huge role in putting his team on the front foot (such as for Boshier’s try) or getting the team out of jail (such as a defensive scrum 5m out, where he carried to the edge of the 22 to take the pressure off his kickers.

On this performance, I can certainly see why Fijian head coach Vern Cotter is interested in bringing Sowakula into the squad as in a team like that which looks to play running rugby, he will do a great job of giving them a strong a secure base to build off. Hopefully even if Warren Gatland doesn’t make big changes to his gameplan for their final game, he will look to use Sowakula as a carrier much more.

A grey area

Controversy reigned in this match regarding the awarding of Sevu Reece’s try to help the Crusaders pull away on the hour. And to be honest, I’m still not sure if I agree with the ruling or not.

Will Jordan broke through the Chiefs defence just inside the Chiefs 22 and offloaded to replacement lock Quinten Strange as he was snagged from behind. Strange juggled the ball, which went to ground and bounced up perfectly for the onrushing Sevu Reece, who took it beneath the posts. Referee Ben O’Keeffe went to the TMO and the two of them, along with the 2 assistant referees came to an agreement that there was no knock-on by Strange and that the try should stand.

Now, let’s try to break down what happened to the ball during this and the arguments for and against this being a try.

  • First things first, the ball ends up behind Strange but that is due to his momentum carrying him on. Relative to the field, the ball goes forwards – therefore, a knock-on.
  • However, the last touch from Strange is clearly a backwards swat at the ball, so though the ball itself has gone forwards, it has come backwards out of the hand – therefore not a knock-on. This is what the officials based their decision on, though the commentators chose to ignore this while they moaned about the decision.

This all comes down to a matter of physics, which led to a change in the interpretation of the laws. When a player passes the ball when standing still, it will go in the direction they pass. However, when they are running at speed, their momentum will also still be on the ball, which leads to the ball continuing to some degree in the direction the player was running as well as the direction they passed. For this reason, a player can legitimately pass backwards, but the ball still go forwards relative to the pitch.

This led to a change in the interpretation of forward passes that if the ball went forward it was still a legal pass as long as it came out of the hands backwards. By making his last touch a backwards swat, Strange effectively made it a pass that went to ground, so I can fully understand why the officials made the decision they did and would probably say they made the right call.

However, I think we all know that if a fumble like this happened in the middle of the pitch and not immediately preceding a try, this is getting called a knock-on 99% of the time, along with a number of other fumbles that seem to come backwards out of the hand. It is a grey area and I don’t know how to get around it without judging forward passes and knock-ons by the movement of the ball relative to the pitch without any account for momentum, which would force everyone to pass much deeper , making it much harder to hit the gap and take an offload to break through the defence.

What do you think? Would you have given the try?

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Western Force

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Western Force

1092 days after their last Super Rugby game following their axing from the competition, the Western Force returned to the big leagues as the 5ᵗʰ team in Super Rugby AU. They didn’t waste any time in Sydney, coming out the blocks quicker than the Waratahs and building up a 0-14 lead through a try from Byron Ralston and 3 penalties from scrum half Ian Prior. The Tahs grew into the game though, and Angus Bell crossed with the final play of the half, with Will Harrison’s conversion making it 7-14 at the break.

The second half struggled to hit the heights seen in New Zealand a couple of hours earlier, but replacement lock Tom Staniforth crashed over for the Waratahs’ second try and Will Harrison remained perfect from the tee to secure a 23-14 win for the ‘Tahs.

The Force Unleashed

As someone who was firmly against the axing of the Western Force from Super Rugby, it was great to see them back in the tournament – a rare sporting positive during this pandemic.

While they may not have been able to carry on their strong start for the full 80 minutes, it is clear that they are not going to be the walkovers that some probably expected after so long away from the elite competition. They may have the Australian players that couldn’t get a Super Rugby contract for the initial Super Rugby season, but that gives them a chip on their shoulder and a desire to prove themselves, while they then have a spine of experienced Super Rugby players (eg. Brynard Stander and Jono Lance) internationals (Jeremy Thrush, Henry Stowers and Marcel Brache) and some returning former Australian internationals (Nick Frisby, Greg Holmes and Kyle Godwin), all of which puts them in a strong position.

I’m not expecting them to compete for the title, but I’m hoping that they continue to show the ARU that they can hold their own and find a way to push for more inclusion if the hanging rugby landscape leads to changes in Super Rugby.

“The law is an ass”

As I mentioned in my look at the Rebels’ draw with the Reds, I’ve not been a fan of most of the law changes being trialled in the tournament. I wasn’t very confident in them when they were initially announced, and 4 games into the tournament, they’re not growing on me.

While I still feel that the 22/50 and 50/22 kicks are giving an undeserved advantage, they felt even worse in this game as they slowed the game down due to officials all having to debate whether the last breakdown before the kick was actually in a position to make the kick a 50/22, highlighted by a ridiculously close call that led to Staniforth’s try – the ball carrier was tackled in his own half, momentum took him into the Force half but he managed to reach the ball back onto the halfway line, making a 50/22 a possibility. The officials already have too much to worry about and already ignore too much. Having them pay attention to whether a 22/50 or 50/22 is applicable will just lead to more serious infringements being missed.

I seriously hope this is one trial that goes no further.

A familiar issue

Watching the match, something finally began to click in my mind why the Waratahs are struggling for results. They have some fantastically talented players in their squad, but they are lacking ball carriers.

Now before I go any further, I want to clarify that by this, I mean the players who will be able to carry into the defensive line over and over again and put the team on the front foot, the men you’re looking to put on a crash ball to do some damage. They have some wonderful runners on the ball like Michael Hoper and Ned Hanigan, but they generally only come alive in space, while the team is lacking the firepower of a Taniela Tupou, Samu Kerevi or Pone Fa’amausili. It’s a familiar issue and one that will probaby feel familiar to many Wallabies fans, and it makes the game so much harder as the team must work harder to break over the gainline, as the defence can spread themselves more without the fear of missing a 1v1 tackle.

This can certainly be fixed though. Lachlan Swinton is already developing a name as an enforcer at 6 defensively and with 16 carries, they are clearly looking to build him into one of those ball carriers, while I can’t help think that promoting Jack Dempsey (16 metres from 4 carries) from the bench will also help in this area. Further than this, though, a team can try to make up for a lack of physical carriers by running hard and straight. Karmichael Hunt is far from what you would consider a crash ball runner, but he made such an impact after his introduction by running hard at the gaps between players. While it is certainly more effective having a more physical player do that, a good line and committed run will go a long way to break through a gap, while all it takes is a few players straightening their lines to start forcing the defence to get narrower and stop drifting, immediately creating space out wide for players like Jack Maddocks and Mark Nawaqanitawase to exploit.

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Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Reds

Another weekend of Southern Hemisphere rugby got underway with the Melbourne Rebels taking on the Queensland Reds. The Rebels were being forced to play in Sydney due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but they found themselves leading at the break through 2 penalties from Matt To’omua. The Reds started the second half strongly though and wing Filipo Daugunu crossed within a few minutes of the restart. In a tight game that saw the Reds play a quarter of the match a man down due to 2 red cards, Reece Hodge scored after a lovely first phase play off the top of a lineout, before Bill Meakes intercepted James O’Connor and took it to the house with just over 10 minutes left. The Reds fought back though, and after O’Connor landed a penalty to bring them within 7 points, replacement hooker Alex Mafi scored in the final play, with O’Connor’s conversion levelling the scores as the clock went into the red.

Now usually, this would be the end of the game, but in this case, it meant that we had the first look at Super Rugby AU’s “Super Time”: two 5-minute periods of rugby under the Golden Point rule (first score wins). In a close territorial affair, Bryce Hegarty missed a long-range penalty and the periods ended with the teams unable to be separated, the final score remaining 18-18.

Wrong place, wrong time?

When you talk about utility backs, look no further than James O’Connor. The 30-year-old has played every position in the back line (from fly half out) and currently finds himself holding the number 10 shirt for the Reds in these opening weeks of Super Rugby AU. Personally, I think that that is not getting the best out of him.

O’Connor is certainly a playmaker with his range of skills including a strong passing game – just look at his zipped (slightly forward) passed for Daugunu’s try, dangerous running game and cultured boot. He can manage a game, however I think that he benefits from doing so away from fly half, where he has less pressure on him. Not only that, but he showed in this game just how great he is at identifying a gap and exploiting it with the perfect line and timed run, however playing at stand-off limits his chances to make this play. Personally, I think that O’Connor is at his best when playing in the centre. He can be used as a second playmaker, but can also run the hard lines and carry into the defensive line, while he also has the defensive solidity – as shown by his try-saving tackle on the line in the first half of this match – to hold his own at the position.

I can understand why O’Connor is being used at fly half when you consider the quality the team has at centre, but I’d be interested to see O’Connor and Paisani paired together, with Chris Feauai-Sautia (who was incredible off the bench) taking one of the wing spots. At fly half, they could then either move Bryce Hegarty to fly half or, potentially even better in the long-term, utilise O’Connor and Hegarty at 12 and 15 as a support network to bring through a young fly half like Hamish Stewart.

Don’t expect heavy changes for their match against the Western Force next week, but I’d love them to use their Round 4 bye to look at shuffling their back line to get the best out of their stars.

Marked change

While I’ve not been a fan of many of the trial laws being used during the tournament, one that I am enjoying is the changes to being able to call a mark. Usually, if a defending player catches a kick on the full inside their own 22, they can call a mark, allowing them the usual free kick options (minus a scrum). However under the new law being trialled in Super Rugby AU, the mark can no longer be called on attacking kicks that have been made within the 22, unless they are catching the ball within their own in-goal, which will lead to a 22-drop out.

Personally, I like it this change as it allows the attacking team to take more risk with chips and cross-kicks even if they don’t have a penalty advantage, as now the defenders will still be under pressure if they take the kick rather than an attacking player. Having had Freddie and Billy Burns at Gloucester, I can talk first hand of the joy in seeing your team score off a chip-and-chase within the 22, and can also note the skill required to get the kick right.

Further than this though, the increased use of attacking cross-kicks could lead tot he next change in positional requirements. Already we see some teams utilising the aerial skills of fullbacks by playing them on the wing to beat their opponent in the air. If we’re going to see an increase in attacking kicks, don’t be surprised if we see more teams looking for wingers who can get in the air and dominate the space.

Replacement nightmare

With the score at 11-8 and the Rebels on the up, it looked like the game was playing into their hands. Then disaster struck as an accidental swinging arm from Hunter Paisani caught Marika Koroibete high and ended his game as he failed a HIA. What made this such an issue was that the Rebels had gone with a 6-2 split on the bench, and had already brought on utility back Reece Hodge. This meant that the final 25 minutes of the game (and Super Time) with Frank Lomani. Lomani is a quality player, but he is not a wing, while Koroibete is a difference maker for the Rebels. It’shard to imagine that the game would have finished the same were it not for this moment.

With only 8 replacements available and 3 of those required to be front row forwards, it is very difficult to cover for all potential eventualities and I can’t help but find it a shame when a game is so heavily impacted by a team not having a proper replacement when a player is injured. As a result, I have a suggestion that I feel could improve the game and reduce the chances of this happening.

Rather than selecting 8 replacements – and then having a few more players on standby in case of a late withdrawal – I would suggest all fit players not in the lineup (or up to 15 if you want to create a limit) are included on the bench. Substitutions are still limited to a maximum of 8 (I wouldn’t mind reducing this to 6 to help shift the focus back to players who can play a whole game rather than 50-minute behemoths), but due to a wider bench it should be easier for a tea to replace someone with a player who is experienced at playing the position. This way, in theory, a team could replace their entire front row and 3 backs, but then still have the option to replace 2 of the other backs rather than 2 more forwards if it felt suitable.

It may not completely fix the situation, but it will make it less commonplace.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Hurricanes

A weekend of rugby came to an end with the Hurricanes’ trip to Hamilton to face off against the Chiefs. The ‘Canes were welcoming back Jordie Barrett from injury and he made an almost immediate impact as he spread the ball wide for Kobus van Wyk to score the opening try just 5 minutes in. Barrett and McKenzie traded penalties, before a Dane Coles intercept set up Du’Plessis Kirifi to score a couple of phases later, while Barrett put an exclamation point on the first half by nailing a penalty from about 60 metres out to send the teams into the break with the score at 3-20.

McKenzie kicked another penalty early in the second half, but a Jamie Booth break put van Wyk over in the corner again to extend the lead. Then around the hour, the Chiefs began to put more sustained pressure on their opponents and with 15 minutes left, Damian McKenzie’s quick-tap penalty looked set to end in a try, but he was snagged by Scott Scrafton – only just back on following a yellow card – before he had retreated the 10 metres, resulting in a penalty try and an early shower for the second row. With the game back on, the final 15 minutes became an open affair and Lachlan Boshier crossed with a couple of minutes left to bring the Chiefs in bonus point range, but McKenzie missed the conversion and the Chiefs were unable to mount another successful attack, eventually going down 18-25.

A welcome return

“The ‘Canes will be hoping Barrett’s back soon to help utilise the back line to its fullest.” – Hurricanes v Crusaders

Jordie Barrett made his return to the Hurricanes lineup this week and it’s impossible to argue that he didn’t improve the team. Jackson Garden-Bachop has played well but not utilised the back line by taking the ball to the line often enough. With Barrett now at 15, it created that same dual playmaker axis that we have seen the Chiefs and Blues using, which immediately helped the team. Players like Dane Coles, Ardie Savea and Peter Umaga-Jensen were released through the midfield to devastating effect, while Barrett’s wide pass for van Wyk’s opener was effective even if it wasn’t pretty.

But Barrett did more than just that. He is an incredible athlete and strong runner as well as a talented playmaker, giving him multiple ways to take on his opponent and put the ‘Canes on the front foot. But his biggest weapon of all was his monster boot. Whether it was kicks to touch, a drop goal attempt from close to halfway or his penalty that was (when you consider the angle) probably about 60 metres out, he was so accurate from such long range. Straight away this gives his team an advantage, as any penalties close to the Hurricanes 10m line can be kicked into a great attacking position, any close to halfway or within the opponent’s half are a legitimate opportunity to keep the scoreboard ticking over, and any loose clearance kicks without an effective chase could also end in a long range drop goal.

The only issue with his return is that putting him at fullback comes at the expense of Chase Tiatia, who has been one of their more dangerous runners in the opening rounds. They could try moving Barrett to fly half and having Garden-Bachop enter the fray later in the game (which is surely better than a part-time stand-off like Perenara), but I think the success in this game came in part from the dual playmakers as opposed to just having Barrett there. it would be tough to have Barrett play a similar role from the wing, but with Tiatia playing more of a prototypical fullback role, potentially he could be utilised on the wing while Barrett stays at 15, which would create a dangerous counterattacking duo for any wayward kicks.

What will the ‘Canes do? Only time will tell.

2 strikes, you’re off!

It’s not very often that you see a player sent off in a rugby match after receiving 2 yellow cards, but that was the fate that befell Hurricanes lock Scott Scrafton in this game. The lock was initially yellow carded by referee Ben O’Keeffe for repeated offences in the lineout, and then minutes after coming on did not retreat far enough back to be legal when stopping Damian McKenzie from scoring at a quick-tap penalty.

Now the commentary team did not seem happy with Ben O’Keeffe’s decision – neither did the ‘Canes players, which is no surprise – but I think that O’Keeffe was spot on in his decision, though you could tell even he wasn’t happy about having to show Scrafton a red card. Scrafton was penalised at least 3 times at the lineout, which is criminal, and should have adapted his game after the first one or 2 penalties. Repeat offending is always going to end in a yellow and an experienced lock like Scrafton (who is the team’s key lineout operator) should know to adapt the way he is playing in order to get on the right side of the officials. Then, for the second yellow, there is no argument. Scrafton was clearly never onside (back behind the try line), McKenzie took the penalty legally and Scrafton tackled him from an illegal position which clearly stopped the scoring of a try. The penalty try was completely justified and (unfortunately, in my opinion) the laws state that a penalty try is an automatic yellow card, though I would argue that even if it wasn’t denying a legitimate attack by not being back 10 metres at a penalty would usually also be a yellow card offence.

Now it’s only fair to also comment on the decision to only give a penalty against Sam Cane about 5 minutes before the red card. Yes, the contact was late. Yes, the contact was with the shoulder and not the arm. However, the slow-mo replays made the incident look so much worse and re-watching the incident live showed that the incident was something and nothing – in fact Dane Coles did worse to Beauden Barrett off the ball in the opening round and everybody just had a laugh about that!

Power pairs

It’s been something on my mind for a while, but this round of matches really cemented for me just how much quality the New Zealand franchises have at scrum half. Aaron Smith reminded everyone yesterday of his quality, while today, both starting scrum halves TJ Perenara and Brad Weber put in strong performances and their replacements Jamie Booth and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi managed to have positive impacts on the match.

Looking at all of the New Zealand franchise squads, they all have such strong 1-2 punches at scrum half. Jamie Booth has looked incredible coming off the bench and attacking tiring defences when Perenara has moved to stand-off. I’ve already mentioned how I think that Tahuriorangi could benefit from a move to get more regular starts and challenge for the All Blacks squad. Sam Nock has improved by the week but hasn’t seemed at quite the same level as many of the other starters (he could work great as Weber’s back-up if the Blues and Chiefs could arrange a swap, though), but Finlay Christie has then done a great job of upping the tempo from the bench and the Scottish selectors should be talking with him. The Crusaders may not have a big name at halfback, but Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond are great talents and Drummond especially gets the quick ball coming. The fact that Kayne Hammington is left to last is not so much a judgement of his talent, but more just the fact that with Aaron Smith leading the team, he plays so infrequently compared to many of his fellow scrum halves.

When you look at the quality of those 10 names and compare to the top 10 available for any other country (assuming Finlay Christie is not picked up by the Scots), do many other countries come close to such a level of talent? None immediately come to mind.

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Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

As Super Rugby Aotearoa prepares for its 4ᵗʰ week of action, Australia kicked off its own domestic tournament, Super Rugby AU, as they continue to get over the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament sees the 4 Australian Super Rugby franchises (the Reds, Rebels, Brumbies and Waratahs) and axed Super Rugby franchise the Western Force combine for a 10-round, 5-team round-robin tournament similar to Super Rugby Aotearoa, but with a 2-week playoff at the end involving the top 3 teams in the standings.

The tournament kicked off at Suncorp Stadium with a match between North/South rivals the Queensland Reds and New South Wales Waratahs. After both packs traded early tries, the Reds took control with another 2 tries from Filipo Daugunu and Tate McDermott to take a 19-13 halftime lead. They were slow out of the blocks after halftime, however, and as their discipline disappeared, a great line from Jack Maddocks saw him cross for the the Waratahs’ second try and – though the Reds crossed again through Harry Wilson – the flawless kicking off the tee from fly half Will Harrison saw things all square with just 10 minutes late. The Reds ended the stronger, though, and 2 late penalties from James O’Connor saw them come away with a 32-26 victory, ending a run of 11 consecutive losses to the ‘Tahs.

 

No pushovers

Just last week, I wrote about the importance of a dominant pack at the set piece. While the lineout had issues (certainly not helped by the early loss of lock Angus Blyth) the scrum was an area of serious success for the Reds.

The Tahs chose to start with 19-year-old Angus Bell at loosehead and the poor kid was taken to school by Reds tighthead Taniela Tupou. He may be widely known as the “Tongan Thor” but at 5’9″ he is like a rhinoceros, and found it easy to get underneath 6’4″ Bell, allowing him to dominate the right hand side of the scrum. By the 30 minute mark, Bell had been penalised at the scrum 4 times and was finding himself sent to the sin bin.

The scrum is such a key component of the game and important weapon. While Tupou was certainly a big weapon at the scrum, it was a team effort, with a big second push from the pack often putting the ‘Tahs on the back foot. The Reds will be very happy with their performance here and hoping to repeat again in Melbourne next week. The Waratahs meanwhile, will have to decide whether to put Bell in again next week against the Western Force, or whether they take him out of the firing line for a week.

Kick out the new laws

Fans watching Super Rugby AU will notice some differences to how the game is usually played as the tournament is trialling a number of new laws. The 3 that I’m going to focus on right now are as follows:

  • Play will be restarted with goal line drop-outs following an attacking player being held up over the line (replacing 5m scrum)/the ball being grounded by the defending team over their own goal line, regardless of who took the ball over the line (replacing 2 drop-out/5m scrum)
  • If a player successfully kicks the ball from inside their own 22 to bounce into touch inside the opponents’ half, the kicking team will throw into the lineout
  • If a player successfully kicks the ball from inside their own half to bounce into touch inside the opponents’ 22, the kicking team will throw into the lineout

Now, I will start by admitting that I was not a fan of these law trials when they were initially announced and remain sceptical, but I am giving them a fair chance. One match in and I’m not convinced.

There was a moment in the second half when Michael Hooper found himself caught behind his own goal line after getting back to field a kick. Usually, this would have meant that a dominant Reds pack would have had a 5m scrum in the middle of the pitch, which feels like it would have ended in a try and perhaps even a numerical advantage. Instead, under the new law trial, the Waratahs were allowed to clear their lines and the Reds found themselves getting possession back over 40m from the line. How is that rewarding a good kick chase from the Reds?!

As for the 50/22 and 22/50 kicks, I was surprised that there weren’t more attempts from players to go for these, but the 2 that did pay off from the Reds – a 50/22 from Tate McDermott that got a lucky bounce to take it to 10m out from the Waratahs’ line, and a 22/50 from Bryce Hegarty – twice gave the Reds possession that did not feel earned at all.

I understand making changes to benefit the game, but these changes felt unnecessary when announced and one match in I can’t see how these are improving the game.

Golden future

The Wallabies have not been great for a while and with an ageing squad and Michael Cheika gone, it wouldn’t surprise me if new Head Coach Dave Rennie brings in a number of younger players early in this 4-year cycle with the intention of building for RWC2023. Judging by this game, the future could be bright for the Wallabies.

There were already a handful of young players in or around the national team, such as Jack Maddox and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (23), Tupou (24), and Liam Wright (22), as well as 20-year-old Jordan Petaia, who was not involved in this match, but there were also a number of other young players putting their hands up for selection.

Will Genia will be hard to replace, but Tate McDermott (21) looked fantastic, keeping a good tempo to the attack, while showing his wheels when given space and also some quick thinking to take a quick-tap penalty after a series of scrum penalties, when everyone was just expecting another scrum. Flyhalf has been a bit of a mess for the national team for a while, but Will Harrison (20) looked composed taking the ball to the line and was flawless off the tee to keep the ‘Tahs in the game.

Elsewhere on the pitch, Fijian-born wing Filipo Daugunu (25) – who recently turned down a lucrative contract in Japan with a view to wearing the green and gold – showed some good moments in attack and took his try well. Waratahs flanker Lachlan Swinton may have conceded one of the winning penalties by straying offside in the dying minutes, but he put in an otherwise great performance, really filling the role of enforcer at blindside with some big tackles, while also making the pass that put Jack Maddocks through for a try.

If these players can carry on with performances of this level, international recognition can’t be far off – once international rugby returns!

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Hurricanes

While the world continued to go to **** in the UK and USA, normalcy returned in New Zealand as a sell-out crowd gathered at Eden Park to watch the second game of Super Rugby Aotearoa, as the Blues hosted the Hurricanes.

This marked the debut of Beauden Barrett for the Blues, as the man widely considered the best fly half in the world faced off against his old team, but for this match he was at fullback while Otere Black took the reins at 10. Black put in one of his best Super Rugby performances to date, including a perfect performance off the tee that proved key in giving the team a 1-point lead at halftime, both teams having scored 2 tries. The skills of the Blues back line saw them pull away in the second half, however, with a late Jamie Booth try making the final score look more respectable at 30-20.

Star-studded Blues

One thing this match really highlighted is the talent of the Blues back line. With Beauden Barrett deployed at 15, he created a great playmaking axis that helped take the pressure off Black. On the wings, Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke (available due to the Olympics being pushed back) showed the game-changing ability that allows the Blues to move Reiko Ioane inside to 13, where his underappreciated strength and incredible pace create a nightmare match-up. TJ Faiane put in a an assured performance to solidify the back line, while also providing a lovely assist for Dalton Papali’i with a perfectly weighted grubber kick.

And the scariest thing about it all? They have options beyond this. Harry Plummer and Matt Duffie are both more-than-capable playmakers at 10 and 15 respectively, allowing so many different combinations with Barrett and Black… oh and then there’s some chap called Dan Carter with the team as injury cover for Stephen Perofeta. And finally, you have the quality of centre Joe Marchant who can create a different dynamic in the midfield if the coaches want to rest Ioane or utilise him in the wing.

Quit whining!

We’re only 2 matches into the tournament and already I’m sick of listening to the pundits and commentators complaining about the referees giving so many penalties. The focus on the breakdown during this tournament has been clearly advertised – including by these pundits during the game – and the onus should be on the players to play the game legally rather than on the referee to keep the game flowing in these cases.

Its not as if the players should really be having to change their game much if they played it right, as the only actual change to the laws is the need for the jackal to attempt to lift the ball rather than stay in place. The rest of the changes are just encouraging the officials to enforce the laws that are already in place.

Yes, we all want to see flowing games rather than 20+ penalties, but the referees are finally doing their job and enforcing the laws. If professionals are going to be paid by the broadcasters to come on and share their knowledge to the wider public, they should be highlighting the players’ lack of adaptation to the laws rather than encouraging the officials to wilfully ignore infringements – we’ve had enough of that in recent years and it’s frankly made the game dangerous!

Wasted talent

Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of Ngani Laumape and think that he should be the starting 12 for the All Blacks. So when he has a quiet game and his team lose, it’s something that I notice.

While Jackson Garden-Bachop had an assured game, he didn’t appear to utilise Laumape much in the midfield, at it was only in the final quarter that he appeared to really get the chance to run at the opposition, generally out wide rather than centrally. For a player so effective at setting a platform, he should have been getting the ball regularly, and I think the absence showed as there were very few players regularly putting the team on the front foot, which really caused issues in the second half as the Blues back line took over and the ‘Canes had no answer.

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Change for the Best?

Change for the Best?

Interesting news came out of Paris late last month as a three-day Player Welfare symposium suggested 8 change proposals to be put forward to the Law Review Group next month. World Rugby regularly make amendments to the laws with a view to improving player safety and the quality of the game itself, but this close to the World Cup there will be no changes brought in ahead of the tournament.

There is understandably a need for change: as money has come into rugby, players have got bigger and fitter, which has led to more and larger collisions. The danger of head injuries has become clearer to everyone, while a number of other players have suffered serious injuries at the breakdown.

But are these proposed changes the right way to go? I’ve taken a look at some of the suggested changes to give my thoughts on the idea.


50-22 kick

Probably the most widely publicised of the suggestions, this is a variation of the 40-20 kick from rugby league. The suggestion is that if a team kicks the ball from within their own half and bounces it into touch inside the opposition 22, then the throw-in at the lineout would belong to the kicking team rather than the opposition.

I can understand the reasoning behind this, as it will likely lead to more players covering in the backfield to deal with the potential kick, which will lead to more gaps in the defensive line, reducing collisions and promoting more attacking rugby. However I am not a fan of this change as the kicking team already has an advantage at the lineout due to the pressure of playing rugby in your own 22, so they will often be fielding a kick within a couple of phases anyway. With the way the lineout and maul are currently refereed to benefit the team throwing in, bringing in this law would make it far too easy for teams to kick into the 22 and then maul it over. Even as a former front row who can enjoy a forwards battle, I’d soon begin to find that boring!

Sin-bin reviews

The suggestion here is that when a player is yellow carded, the citing commissioner will review the incident during the 10-minute sin-bin period and would be able to upgrade the sanction to a red card.

We all want to see the right decisions made on the pitch and a post-match ban is no help to a team who should have played with a numerical advantage for half the game, so I generally like the suggestion. That said, I hope that the referees will still continue to call the red cards if they see them, rather than play it safe by giving a yellow card and allowing the citing commissioner to make the big decision.

It will also be important to find a way for this to be clear to fans watching both in the stadium and at home, which has been one of the main criticisms of VAR in football so far.

The tackle

A number of the prospective law changes (unsurprisingly) centre around the tackle.

One is to expand the ‘high tackle warning system’ from last year’s World Rugby U20 Championship into another elite competition. This system gave players a post-match warning following any challenges that result in a HIA or contact with the head of either player if the tackler was found to be upright (not bent at the waist) when tackling. Each warning is classed as a strike and 2 strikes in the tournament would lead to a 1-match ban. Early tests in the U20 Championship saw concussion incidents reduced by 50% so I would be very interested to see this tested further. If brought in to a league, I will be interested to see if the 2-strikes rule remains or if further strikes are required due to a longer format. Personally, I think sticking with 2 strikes will be a good deterrent without being too harsh, as no players reached the 2-strike mark in the U20 Championship.

2 others that are going to be trialled by amateur clubs in France next season are lowering the height of the tackle to the waist and also eliminating 2-man tackles. I am all for eliminating the choke tackle and reducing the tackle height, but to lower it all the way to the waist seems to be a drastic change and will need a big shift from players. It will lead to more offloads and potentially a more exciting game but at this moment I need to see this in action to be won around to such a drastic change.

I am firmly against outlawing the double tackle, though. I understand that there is a risk of players clashing heads when both tackling the same player, but this is generally down to poor communication as players are taught to tackle 1 high and 1 low. While single-man tackles only will again increase the chance of offloads and better attacking play, it could also make things hard for defenders if an attacker targets the space between them and they are hesitant to risk giving away a penalty for both making a tackle. Again, though, seeing this in action could change my mind.

The ruck

The last potential change I will mention is to ban the use of hands in the ruck, leading to defenders having to win the ball back by driving over the ball.

I’m not a fan of this at all. The jackal has become such a great part of the sport, but it is seen as bad for player safety due to the number of injuries, especially to the back and neck. I would counter that this would not be an issue if the laws were applied correctly as we consistently see jackals clearly off their feet but not being penalised – in fact often praised by commentators for such a great jackal – and players going off their feet to clear them out. Doing this and banning the crocodile/judo roll (as former England and Fiji 7s coach Ben Ryan has spent years campaigning for, as it leads to a number of serious knee injuries) will make the breakdown a much safer place without making and serious changes.


What do you think of these potential changes? Are there any changes you would like to see made to the laws?

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.