Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

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

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


Eyes on the Ball Awards:


Individual Awards

Best Breakthrough: Alex Dombrandt

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

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

Best Newcomer: Danny Cipriani

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

Fond Farewell: Mathew Tait

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

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

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

Bon Voyage: Santiago Cordero & Tom Savage

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

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

Cojones Award: James Lang

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

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

Team Awards

Head-scratcher Award: The Matt O’Connor Debacle

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

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

Biggest Disappointment: Newcastle Falcons

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

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

Biggest Success: Gloucester Rugby

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

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

Premiership XV Challenge

Premiership XV Challenge

When it comes to rugby, I’m a sucker for a pick a XV challenge and watching the Premiership recently I decided to set myself a new challenge: picking a Premiership XV with no more than 1 player per nation. I did something similar a while back in picking a World XV, but at first I was nervous that I would be able to find players from enough different nationalities in the league. Going through all the squads though, my fears were easily quashed and I found myself also able to add in the caveat of not including an England player and still find myself leaving some nationalities out.

So without further ado, let’s look at the team:

  1. Val Rapava Ruskin: The Gloucester loosehead has had more than his fair share of injury issues, but when he is fit is a quality operator. A former Georgia U19 captain, he is one of the more mobile props in the league and is like an extra back row at the breakdown. He is yet to play at senior international level which does leave him eligible to play for England, but such is the depth at this position right now, I can’t see him playing for them anytime soon, so I couldn’t leave such a talented player off the list.
  2. Joe Taufete’e: The USA international may find his playing time at Worcester limited with Jack Singleton also on the roster, but he is a quality hooker. A strong runner, at just 26 years old, he already has the most international tries of any player in the tight five, with 20 tries from 22 matches.
  3. Vincent Koch: One of the few Premiership-based Springboks likely to feature in the World Cup, the Saracens tighthead combines reliable scrummaging with good ability in open play. At time of writing this, no prop has been selected by more players (28%) on the Rugby Magazine Premiership Fantasy Rugby game, 7th overall of any position.
  4. Andrei Ostrikov: Not many Russian rugby players have made it outside of their own domestic league at the moment but Ostrikov is one of the success stories. A regular for Sale since the 2013/14 season, he has to date made 146 appearances for the Sharks, scoring 7 tries.
  5. Chris Vui: A former Blues and Worcester player, Vui moved to Bristol ahead of the 2017/18 Championship season and made the league’s Team of the Season. Now playing for the Bears in the Premiership, he is a regular and reliable contributor in the second row. Vui become the youngest captain in World Rugby when he began skippering Samoa in 2017.
  6. Sam Skinner: Capable of playing at lock or in the back row, Skinner became the latest Exeter player to gain international honours when he made his Scotland debut in November, receiving the Man of the Match award in the same game. Injury severely limited his playing time in the Six Nations this year, but at 24 years old, he looks like he will be a regular fixture in the Scotland squad over the coming years.
  7. Thomas Young: The fact that he struggles to even make it into the Wales squad, let alone the 23, shows the quality the Welsh have in the back row at the moment. Things didn’t work out for him at Cardiff Blues or at Gloucester, but a move to Wasps (where dad Dai is Director of Rugby) for the 2014/15 season has seen him become a star. Dangerous in the loose, Young comes alive around the breakdown and is a turnover king.
  8. Renaldo Bothma: South African-born, Bothma qualified for Namibia through his mother and has gone on to be one of their star players. A highly physical back rower, Bothma has scored 8 tries in 17 Tests since making his debut against Kenya in June 2018.
  9. Nic White: With only Australia caps to his name, White’s decision to leave the Brumbies for Europe brought a premature end to his international career. Now at Exeter, he brings experience and a cultured kicking game to the Chiefs’ scrum half corps and has been known to rock some exquisite facial hair.
  10. Gareth Steenson: He made it onto my Uncapped XV and now he makes another list. Playing for Exeter has made him ineligible for Ireland but he is a quality player regardless. One of the most accurate kickers in the league, he controls the Exeter back line so well and makes sure his team are playing in the right areas of the pitch.
  11. Vereniki Goneva: He may be 35 now but you wouldn’t think it when you watch him play. A star at Leicester, the Fijian has carried on his form since moving to Newcastle. He may have lost a step of pace but has the footwork and experience to still cause the defence major issues.
  12. Jimmy Gopperth: Another player who makes it onto both this list and my Uncapped XV, the fact that Jimmy Gopperth has never played for the All Blacks shows the quality of players available to New Zealand. Things didn’t really work out for him with the Hurricanes or Blues in Super Rugby, but he has been a star in the Premiership, first for Newcastle then more recently Wasps. Equally dangerous at 10, he comes alive at 12 where he plays the second playmaker role with aplomb. Wasps have sorely missed him this season as he recovers from an ACL injury.
  13. Michele Campagnaro: One of Italy’s real stars in the back line. Injuries have really hampered his career but he has an undeniable talent. Stuck in a highly competitive Exeter back line, Campagnaro got his chance with a move to Wasps and next season will be calling the Stoop his home. Also able to play wing, he has good pace and elusiveness but also the strength to keep going through tackles.
  14. Santiago Cordero: Cordero on form is box office! The Argentine first came on my radar with his stunning performances in the 2015 World Cup, but his move to Exeter in 2018 has stopped him from featuring for the Pumas. Able to star on the wing or at fullback, his pace and footwork makes him a nightmare for opposition defences. A casualty of the salary cap, Sandy Park will miss him when he moves to Bordeaux this summer.
  15. Telusa Veainu: Another player who has missed the majority of the season through injury, Veainu is almost unstoppable when on form. A great counter-attacker, he has 22 tries in 52 appearances for the Tigers and 5 tries in 9 matches for Tonga. It’s crazy to think that despite great try-scoring records for Canterbury, Hawke’s Bay and Melbourne Rising, he only made 16 appearances (3 starts) in 5 seasons of Super Rugby.

Who would make your XV?

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

If you are a regular reader, you may have noticed that I watch a lot of sport (probably more than is healthy) and in some cases – most notably rugby – follow a number of different domestic leagues within a sport. As a result of this, I have come to see that most sports leagues will follow one of 2 formats:

The first is what I would call a League Format, where every team will play home and away against every other team in the league, as seen in the Premier League, Top 14 and the Gallagher Premiership.

The second is what I would call a Conference Format, where the league is split into a number of conferences and teams play a schedule that does not feature matches against every opposition, these league will then have a playoff at the end to determine the champion. Leagues that follow this format would include the Pro14, Super Rugby and the NFL, which takes things even further by splitting its 2 16-team conferences into 4-team divisions.

Now, imagine you were able to create and organise a professional league of your own, what format would you pick?

League Format

The big draw of the league format is that it has a balanced schedule. Each team plays everybody else both home and away so – beyond the changes in form through a season – every team is on an even playing field by playing the same fixtures.

While this is great in principle, it does have its drawbacks. It is harder to have a large number of teams in a league of this format as for each team that is added, that is a further 2 matches that must be added to the schedule. Just look at the Premier League, which contains 20 teams and runs from August to May (there will be some international breaks, but there will also be some midweek games to make up for this).

Tying into the long season is the lack of a rest for players as this means that there is very little time between the end of one season and the beginning of the next preseason – something made even worse in rugby by the international Test matches being straight after the European seasons finish. This means that players get very little time to rest and recuperate away from the sport itself, and may lead to more frequent injuries if they are not recovering fully.

This format is also beneficial in a tiered league structure that includes promotion and relegation, as it is very clear from the standings which teams should go up or down as the balanced schedule makes it clear which teams have been strongest and weakest throughout the season.

This format also allows the league organisers to decide if they want any playoffs to determine the overall winner (as in the Gallagher Premiership) or name the team that tops the table as the winner (as in the Premier League).

Conference Format

The big benefit of this format is that as teams don’t have to play home and away against everybody else in the league, which allows for a much larger number of teams but also a shorter season (the NFL has 32 teams play up to a maximum of 20 matches over 22 weeks, 16 matches in 17 weeks if they don’t make the playoffs). This means that there is much more time for players to recover and recuperate between the end of the season and the beginning of the next preseason.

However, this shorter schedule may not be ideal as it will not be balanced. Teams may play home and away against some teams, but there will also be a number of teams that they will not play every season, leading to an unbalanced schedule where one team may play a higher proportion of weaker teams that some of the opponents they are directly competing against in the standings. Just take a moment to look at the Pro14 this season, where Conference B contains Leinster (10 wins, 1 loss at time of writing) but Conference A’s strongest team is Glasgow (8 wins, 3 losses). However, Conference A has 4 teams with more points than Conference B’s 3rd-placed team (Scarlets) and their spread of points (41-16 – 25 points) is less than in Conference B (49-12 – 37 points). Considering every team will have the same number of matches in the regular season, a stronger schedule will immediately put some teams at a disadvantage, so this type of format is not necessarily as fair.

Along with the strength of schedule, the teams that qualify for the playoffs will usually also be decided within each conference, so if we keep with the Pro14 example, Connacht are currently set to miss out on the playoffs as they are 4th in their Conference, despite having 2 points more than Scarlets, who would qualify for the playoffs as 3rd place in their Conference.

For the same reasons, promotion and relegation would be harder in this format as it would be harsh to relegate a team that had a point less if they have had a much harder schedule than the next team, so a playoff would likely be required for this. This also requires playoffs to establish a winner, unless teams were at the end of the season grouped into a combined table, but again this gives a benefit to a team with a weaker schedule.

My preference

For me, the balanced schedule is a huge draw and it makes the playing field fair, therefore if I was developing a new league, I would want to run a League Format however to avoid overly long seasons and too many games I would limit the league to probably no more than 10 teams and just increase the number of tiers in the sporting structure, with one or 2 teams being promoted and relegated each year, depending on the size of the league and the quality of the leagues below. I would personally not see the need to include a playoff at the end of the season, however if it was required – I can see the benefits both to the money coming in and the guarantee of when the title will be confirmed – then I would have no more than 4 teams competing in the playoffs, most likely just 3 in a smaller tournament.

So that would be my preference, but what tournament format do you prefer?

Cherry-picking: A Gloucester Rugby 23

Cherry-picking: A Gloucester Rugby 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Good Move?

A Good Move?

On Friday, it was announced that Utah Warriors captain Paul Lasike would be joining Harlequins for the upcoming season. A former NFL player with the Arizona Cardinals and Chicago Bears, Lasika is the newest star of USA rugby and has so far earned 6 caps during the Eagles unbeaten run this year. However, being so new to the sport and with the MLR having recently set up, is this the right move for him?

First off, I do not doubt that he has the ability. He clearly has the physical aspect from playing fullback in the NFL (a very different position to the rugby variant of the position) and when I have watched him play for the USA he has looked impressive. However, so far he has not had many tests against top quality opposition in the same way that he will playing in the Premiership and in Europe. It is a big step up and for every Samu Manoa and Chris Wyles who go on to forge strong careers in the Premiership, there will also be other players who are unable to make the cut. Danny Barrett and Seamus Kelly are both talented players, yet were unable to make the Gloucester squad following a 1-month trial at the start of the 2014/15 season. And it’s not as if Quins are light in the midfield, with Francis Saili, Ben Tapuai and Joe Marchant already competing with him and James Lang – now a Scottish international – also able to feature at centre. That’s a lot of quality competition for regular minutes.

Playing in the Premiership may also limit his availability for the national team. The Eagles will no always field their big stars based in Europe due to the timing of their matches falling outside the usual international windows. With just over a year until the World Cup, Lasike can surely not be guaranteed of a spot in the national team and if other players come in and impress, he could be at risk of missing out.

As for the MLR, with the league being so new, they will not want to lose any of their big stars as their top players – especially USA internationals – as they will be a huge draw when trying to entice fans in. Lasike was not only Utah’s captain, but as a USA international and former NFL player he was instantly marketable for the franchise. As great as it will be to see the top USA players getting offers from more prestigious leagues, I would hate it if the MLR began to struggle as a result.

That said, even if Lasike only plays a limited number of minutes this season and chooses to return to the MLR in time for next season, the chance to train regularly alongside experienced internationals like Mike Brown, Tim Visser, James Horwill and Chris Robshaw could be of great benefit to Lasike moving forwards in his career. There are some top quality coaches at the Stoop and if Lasike takes the chances available to learn from them, it could develop him so much as a player and in turn help him to develop his fellow Americans when training with the national team or if he does return to the MLR.

Is this the right move for him? It may limit him in the short-term, but I would say that centre is not one of the Eagles’ deepest positions currently, which will probably help his chances of World Cup selection even if the move to London doesn’t work out. But in the long-term, this could be just the move that he needs to take his game to the next level and thrive on the biggest stages. As a fan of USA rugby, I hope this works out for him and look forward to seeing him in the Premiership this season.

7 to Watch in Premiership Rugby 2018/19

7 to Watch in Premiership Rugby 2018/19

The weeks since the Summer Tours finished may have dragged but get ready to celebrate rugby fans – the Premiership’s return is just weeks away! With the season-opener between Bristol and Bath on 31st August, there is just over a month until the new season starts, but before that we have the fun of the Premiership 7s at Franklins Gardens on Friday and Saturdaythough I still feel that the old format for the 7s was better.

As I have the last couple of years, I’ve taken a look at the new signings for each team in order to select 7 players to watch. As previously, I have continued to only pick 1 player from each club, otherwise Gloucester and Bristol could have taken the majority of these positions.

If you want a reminder of my selections for previous seasons, have a look here:

Charles Piutau – Bristol Bears

Speaking of Bristol, the list starts with former All Black Piutau. The fact that he was unable to make the All Blacks squad on a regular basis shows just how strong the All Blacks are as the former 7s star has been wonderful for Wasps and Ulster over recent seasons. Bristol will be hoping to have a better run in the league than last time they were promoted and have bought in a number of talented individuals who could have made this list like John Afoa and Harry Randall, they need to hope that the new players can gel quickly, but with this guy in the back 3, they will always be a danger with ball in hand.

Alex Cuthbert – Exeter Chiefs

Exeter have not had much of a turnover in players this season and that consistency will likely help them in their quest to win the Premiership title back. One player they have brought in though is Cardiff Blues’ Alex Cuthbert. With only 47 Wales caps to his name, Cuthbert has effectively ruled himself out of selection for the national team so will be focussed on making this move a success. Over recent years, the Chiefs have done a great job of making unwanted wingers like James Short and Olly Woodburn into try-scoring machines. Now with a former Lion available, who was at his best during the peak of the Warrenball era, they could have a deadly finisher out wide to push for the record of most tries in a season.

Danny Cipriani – Gloucester Rugby

I wanted so much to include Matt Banahan or Jaco Kriel on this list, but if I was being honest there was only going to be one Gloucester player getting the attention here: Cipriani. Since returning to England, Cips has improved almost every season at Sale and Wasps and even worked his way back into the England fold, starting the 3rd Test this summer and setting up Jonny May for the match-winning try. Gloucester appear to be a team on the up under Johan Ackermann and I’m expecting Cipriani to thrive behind a pack that should be dominant against many teams. On top of that, he has a number of talented backs outside him, the perfect recipe for him to be at his best. Gloucester certainly feel confident judging by the fact they let Billy Burns move to Ulster, could Cipriani be the player to fire Gloucester back into the playoffs? I have my fingers crossed!

David Denton – Leicester Tigers

Tigers may again look a bit threadbare in the back line if Manu Tuilagi can’t stay fit, but Denton is a signing in line with the usual Tigers ethos of creating a strong pack to bully opposition. Sione Kalamafoni was one of the stars for Leicester last season with his tackling and carrying and Denton will do more of the same. A physically strong player, the back row will look to give the Tigers a physical edge and will probably be relied on in the loose even more now that Ellis Genge has been ruled out for the foreseeable future, but judging by recent appearances for Worcester and Scotland, he appears to be getting back to his best.

Dan Biggar – Northampton Saints

Saints really struggled last season and I think a big part of that was a lack of control at fly half. Piers Francis missed time through injury leaving Harry Mallinder and James Grayson – both relatively experienced at this level – to steer the ship. Bringing in Biggar could be a huge move for the club. He may not be the flashiest of fly halves on this list, but he is a supremely talented game manager and an accurate goal-kicker, which will be vital in lose games. With the recent form of his Welsh rivals Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe, the British and Irish Lion will need to be on top form if he wants to add to his 62 Wales caps and make it to the World Cup. Personally, I’m just hoping we less more of the Biggarena and less of the throwing his hands up appealing every decision this season.

Chris Ashton – Sale Sharks

Of course Ashton was going to make the list, how could I not include him?! The former Northampton & Saracens winger has returned from a year at Toulon citing family reasons. Despite only being there a year, he enhanced his reputation by breaking the single-season try record in the Top 14, while spending much of his time at fullback rather than his customary wing position. He then backed those exploits up with a hat-trick against England for the Barbarians. There are very few players who run better support lines than Ashton and I expect him to thrive in a Sale back line that has really improved over the last couple of seasons. If he can carry on his form from Toulon, it will be impossible for Eddie Jones to ignore him.

Alex Lewington – Saracens

Sarries may have lost Nathan Earle and Chris Wyles but they have brought in more than capable replacements in David Strettle and Alex Lewington. Such is Lewington’s quality that I have picked him over the man many consider unlucky to have not earned more England caps. Despite being in an often-struggling London Irish team, Lewington has repeatedly shone in the Premiership for the Exiles and I was honestly surprised that he remained with them the last time they went down. Now at 26 and with a lot of young competition at wing for spaces in the national team, Lewington has got the move that could take him to the next level. We have seen Ashton, Maitland, Wyles, Strettle and many others shine on the wing with the quality they get from their teammates, I expect Lewington to be no different, but he will have a fight on his hand to hold down a place against Strettle, Maitland and Williams.

Who are your ones to watch in the league this season? Let me know in the contents. Let the countdown to the new season commence!

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2017/18

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2017/18

With the Premiership over for another season and the big matches all out the way, I have finally had some time to sit down and think about this season’s awards. This is something I began last year with the Alternative Awards, looking at awards for something a little different to the classic Player/Team of the Season awards that you will usually see looked at. If you disagree with any of my picks, let me know in the comments who you would have chosen.

Individual Awards

Best Breakthrough: Marcus Smith

So many players came to mind while I thought of this. Exeter’s Sam Simmonds may have come on the scene at the end of last season, but it was this season where he really broke into the first team squad and he also went on to play for England. His brother Joe has also broken into the squad in the latter months of the season and deposed Gareth Steenson from the starting fly half berth as the Chiefs went all the way to the final, in fact had he been part of the winning team on the day he may have won the award. I’m sure nobody who has read my articles this year will be surprised to see that I considered Gloucester’s Jake Polledri, who went from playing in Nat 1 to the Premiership in the space of 1 summer and excelled in the back row, earning his first Italy cap during the 6 Nations. However, the award this season goes to Marcus Smith of Harlequins. Though Quins did not have the best of seasons by any standards, Smith excelled after being shoved into the limelight early on following a nasty injury to Demetri Catrakilis, and now he has surely proved himself the long-term successor to Nick Evans. He played more minutes in the league than anyone else in the Quins squad and ended the season 3rd in the race for the Golden Boot behind his countrymen Owen Farrell and George Ford. He was so impressive he has already been included as an apprentice player in the England squad by Eddie Jones and though he spends this summer with the U20s, another good season will make him difficult to ignore building towards the 2019 World Cup.

Best Newcomer: Faf de Klerk

Rob Horne was having a solid season in a poor Northampton team until his injury-enforced retirement and Juan de Jongh gave Wasps a different dimension in their midfield. However the winner came to a toss-up between 2 representatives of Sale Sharks. Jono Ross finished the season with the most tackles of any player in the league (336, 7 more than Gloucester’s Lewis Ludlow) and was a big part of the Sale pack’s efforts to get front-foot ball for their team. However I chose to go with his teammate and fellow South African Faf de Klerk. De Klerk regularly provided a threat for Sale, both with his quick ball from the back of the ruck and also his ability to make plays himself. He also chipped in with a number of points off the tee. Scrum half is not the strongest of positions for the Springboks at the moment, will this season have put de Klerk in the driving seat despite playing outside the country?

britsFond Farewell: Schalk Brits

This award goes to a player who is retiring from rugby as opposed to just leaving the league. I was very close to selecting Chris Wyles of Saracens, who retires from the game with the record number of tries in Premiership semi-finals and also joint to with Chris Ashton for most Premiership tries scored for Saracens. However, I have instead chosen his fellow Saracen Schalk Brits. The South African was an early member of the hooker revolution, moving away from being a 3rd prop to a mobile player that was more like an extra back rower. Just look at the stats on the tweet from Opta, this guy has dominated in open play while not shirking his responsibilities as a hooker. Capped 10 times for the Springboks, I can’t help but wonder how many caps he would have won had he stayed in South Africa, though he would have still had plenty of competition from Bismarck du Plessis and former captain John Smit. The Premiership will be a less exciting place with Brits no longer playing.

Bon Voyage: Ben Foden

Similar to the Fond Farewell Award, the Bon Voyage Award looks at players who are leaving the league to ply their trade in another competition. Richard Hibbard has become a fan favourite at Kingsholm and always gave maximum effort so will be missed as he returns to Wales to play for the Dragons. Thomas Waldrom was one of the early stars of the Exeter Chiefs as they began working their way to the top of the league and while the development of Sam Simmonds and Dave Ewers may have reduced him gametime this season he remained a popular as ever. However, Northampton’s Ben Foden gets the nod here. The former England fullback made 250 appearances across all competitions for Northampton following his move from Sale. Formerly a scrum half, he made a name for himself in the 15 jersey but has also spent time on the wing in recent years. A deceptively strong runner, I always felt that his 34 caps was far too low for a player of his quality, but a period of injury unfortunately saw him drop out of international contention. Now that his time with Northampton is coming to an end, the word is that he will be joining Rugby United New York, who will be joining the new American professional competition Major League Rugby next season. Having players of his quality playing out there will surely help grow the legitimacy and the quality of the league quickly.

Cojones Award: Rob Baxter

The Cojones Award goes to someone who had the balls to do something audacious this season despite the huge risk. I found this a difficult award to think of at first, until my mind looked away from the rugby field slightly and instead to the team selection. Rob Baxter was in a comfortable position with Exeter riding high in the league and Gareth Steenson, though aging, still one of the most reliable fly halves in the competition. Instead, halfway through the season he made the decision to demote the Irishman to the bench and promote the relative unknown youngster Joe Simmonds. Fast forward a couple of months and Simmonds helped lead the Chiefs to the top of the table with some dominant performances and though they lost to Saracens in the final, I’m not sure having Steenson start would have won them the match either. On top of that, Simmonds also won them silverware with an assured performance in the Anglo-Welsh Cup final at Kingsholm. A decision with more than a hint of looking to the future, but it worked in the present too.

Team Awards

Head-scratcher Award: The lack of DTH

In only my second year of the Alternative Awards, I am already starting to sense a theme with this award, as last year’s reduction in Matt Kvesic’s gametime has been mirrored this year by the almost complete absence of DTH van der Merwe from the Newcastle squad before his move back to Glasgow. The Canadian winger was a fan favourite for years at Glasgow and found his way over the try line with regularity. Following a move to Scarlets he continued his regular scoring despite competition from players like Johnny McNicholl and Liam Williams. When it was announced that he was moving to a Newcastle Falcons team that was clearly improving in attack, I got excited to be able to see his talent on a regular occasion, but he made a grand total of 3 appearances before moving back to Glasgow midway through March. Granted he had competition from Sinoti Sinoti and Player of the Season Vereniki Goneva, but with such a long season I don’t understand why there was not more rotation amongst the wingers, especially with such a quality option available. Still, Newcastle’s loss was Glasgow’s gain and he was immediately back in the tries during the final months of the season. Now just imagine if Newcastle and Glasgow are drawn in the same Champions Cup pool…

Biggest Disappointment: London Irish

This was not as easy a pick as it may have been due to the struggles of Harlequins and Northampton this season, while Gloucester also fell away in the last few weeks of the season, but when I sat down and thought about it there was only 1 team I could really pick here. After earning an immediate promotion back to the Premiership and with a number of talented young players coming through alongside experienced heads like Petrus du Plessis and Blair Cowan, things looked good for the Exiles as they won their opening match of the season against Quins at Twickenham. But things went downhill after that and they only managed 2 more league victories during the season – doing the double over Quins and beating Worcester at the Madejski. Add to everything the backroom issues with Les Kiss and Declan Kidney arriving in March and Director of Rugby Nick Kennedy leaving the club soon after. With their relegation back to the Championship, they are losing a number of talented players and I hope that we can see them back in the Premiership soon, though I doubt it will be as easy as it was for Bristol this year.

Biggest Success: Newcastle Falcons

At one point in the season I thought I’d be able to pick Gloucester here, but their end of season slump put an end to that and the award goes to Newcastle Falcons for the second year in a row. The Falcons built on last season’s success and despite missing Toby Flood for large portions of the season managed to break into the top 4 come the end of the season, ending Leicester’s run of 13 consecutive playoff appearances. Though it is a talented squad, it is not chock full of the big names in the same way some of the top squads are, and though they were steamroller by Exeter in the semi-final, their efforts this season are something to be proud of. Now if they can make the next step and consistently make the top 4, that will be highly effective, but with their reliance on an ageing Niki Goneva and with a number of squads around them strengthening, I think next season could be a struggle for them to repeat their success.