Post-Lockdown Blues

Post-Lockdown Blues

We’re 3 rounds into the return of Premiership Rugby following the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and if I’m being completely honest, I couldn’t care less! Almost as soon as the competition went on hiatus, my feelings were that the season should just be considered null and void and preparations should be made for the 2020/21 season. And while I have really tried to give the competition a chance, the action we’re seeing is making me feel that I was right.

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The season should have been over months ago, so in order to cause minimal disruption to the next season, the remaining games are being crammed into the shortest time possible. While this may work fr a limited contact game like football, the body needs time to recover and this is a nightmare for player well-being, as teams are having up to 3 matches in a week. What this is leading to is heavy rotation within teams between matches, and this has taken away any point of these games being competitive. Bristol’s rotation saw them put out a largely 2ⁿᵈ string (if no weaker) side against a Sale team that was close to its ideal XV. That Sale ran away with the game says nothing about their ability and everything about the lineups being used, while we had similar in Exeter’s demolition of Worcester and Bath’s win at Leicester. Even in Gloucester’s match against Tigers this weekend, the game was a rout in the first half until Tigers brought their stars off the bench and Gloucester took their big names off to keep them fresh. Yes, we as fans want to see tries, but we don’t want to see a team having a glorified training session running though a vastly inferior lineup. Alex Shaw put it best on Twitter when he asked if the integrity of the individual matches being sacrificed (uneven squads) to maintain integrity of the competition (play whole fixture list), and I can’t help feel that the answer is yes, which as a result is ruining the spectacle of such a good competition, while now a team may also make the playoffs thanks to playing a number of weakened teams at the expense of a better team who continually faced XVs that were close to the ideal selection. There is no easy way to get around all this, and it will leave questions over whoever wins the competition, which could have been avoided by having an extended preseason to prepare for 2020/21.

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Considering the amount of international rugby coming in the next 12 months – the Home Nations have the Autumn Tests, Summer Tests, the remains of the 2020 Six Nations, the 2021 Six Nations and the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa – the rest caused by a longer preseason would have benefited everybody, while also allowing players to adapt to the new interpretation of the breakdown, which has only further ruined the early weeks of matches as penalties are given continuously while players learn the limits of the officials’ tolerance.

feat rugby kingsholm gloucester main stand west terrace

The issue of player selection doesn’t even just come down to squad rotation, but also the players available to pick from. Due to the season having gone longer than usual, player contracts expired, and that has led to a number of players moving clubs mid-season (like Ben Spencer’s transfer from Saracens to Bath), leaving the league altogether (Will Skelton), signing short-term contracts to stay with the club until the end of the current season (Franco Marais), signing short-term deals with a new club until the end of this season (Matt Garvey, who is currently with Gloucester after leaving Bath) or entering the league midway through the season (Jonny Gray). Even the players Saracens are loaning out when they are in the Championship next season are already playing for their new clubs! What this has led to is completely different squads – especially when you look at the turnover at a club like Leicester – competing in this final stretch of the season, including the playoffs, and giving a completely different feel to this final stretch. You just have to look at Northampton’s struggles since the restart after being one of the best teams in the league pre-COVID to see how heavily impacted this season has been, and as such it doesn’t feel like a continuation of what came before.

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Obviously, I understand that with a league that is not ring-fenced, I understand that usually the league season would need to be completed if only to see who would be relegated, but this season that was not an issue as Saracens were already officially relegated as their punishment for years of cheating by breaching the salary cap. I would argue that the Sarries case even added to the argument to make the season null and void as if you look back at the lineups they were putting out before the lockdown, they were heavily varied first as they looked to try building up enough points to avoid relegation despite the initial points deduction, before then resting a their first XV as they switched their attention to Europe. How would it have been fair if a spot in the playoff was decided by one team beating Sarries’ 3ʳᵈ XV while another lost to their 1ˢᵗ XV? With Saracens relegated, it would have been easy enough to declare the season null and void, relegate Saracens – with Newcastle coming up in their place – and then using last season’s standings (with teams below Saracens pushed up a spot) to decide who qualified for the 2020/21 Champions Cup. It may be harsh on teams who improved this year, but it seems that it would have been a fairer way to do things.

Feat rugby london irish gloucester lineout

Instead, we’re stuck watching 1ˢᵗ XVs piling on the points against glorified A-League lineups in empty grounds that takes away home advantage, while being forced to listen to awful manufactured crowd noise. Coming off the back of Super Rugby Aotearoa, it looks an absolute shambles.

feat rugby Twickenham WC england wales empty

Unfortunately, what is right is not he priority for the RFU or Premiership Rugby. We see all the time that the organisations only care about what will get them money or keep them safe, as seen by the loss of contracts for the England 7s program, or the way that deserving teams like Georgia never get a shot in Tier 1 tournaments but Japan buy their way into SANZAAR competitions. The league season is being finished, the competition put in jeopardy and players put at risk is just for money, and that has to change if we want the rugby to go to the next level.

feat rugby kingsholm panorama

The Gloucester Rugby XV of my Life

The Gloucester Rugby XV of my Life

Anyone else missing rugby during this pandemic? Yeah, me too!

As you may have seen with my regular posts, I have been keeping my rugby brain working during this lockdown by creating XVs or matchday 23s. Recently I selected my Gloucester 23 for this season, but as I was doing so, I found myself going down memory lane and thinking of some of the brilliant players that have featured for the cherry and whites through the years… and so that is what I am looking at today.

For this, I will be selecting a Gloucester Rugby XV of my favourite players to have represented my beloved Gloucester Rugby since I took an interest. I got into rugby when I went to secondary school, which was just in time for the success of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph and Gloucester’s 2003 Powergen Cup win and loss in the Premiership final. What I have also done is made the decision to pick my favourite players rather than the players I think are the best (although some will be the same!) as the game has changed so much over the years, making it difficult to give a true comparison.

For this article, I also reached out to my friend and occasional contributor Phil for his list, to see the similarities. As we go through, Phil’s selections will be bracketed and in red.

1: Nick Wood (Nick Wood):- This was not an easy pick at all. For ages, I was thinking to the formidable Gloucester pack of my early years and trying to pick between World Cup winner Trevor Woodman and Argentine hero Rodrigo Roncero. Then, a couple of clips on YouTube reminded me of Nick Wood. “The Commander” was an underrated player and a great operator at the scrum. Since retiring, he has gone on to become a referee – how great must it be to a have a ref who knows exactly what is going on in a scrum?!

2: Richard Hibbard (Olivier Azam):- There were 2 clear standouts at hooker and it appears Phil and I were split as to who came top. Ollie Azam was a part of those legendary Gloucester packs and I always remember my cousin once saying that you could tell were he was on the pitch by seeing the opposition players being thrown into the air. Hibbs got my vote here though (potentially in part a recency bias) as he always looked to give 110% on the pitch and always enjoyed the sight of him in either attack or defence looking like a little cherry and white cannonball with flowing blonde locks.

3: Phil Vickey (Phil Vickery):- John Afoa was under consideration here, but recency bias wasn’t enough this time as he lost out to Phil Vickery. The Gloucester and England captain and World Cup winner certainly earned the nickname “The Raging Bull” with his physicality and was a fantastic player whose career was unfortunately hampered by injuries, which eventually led to his release in 2006.

4 & 5: Alex Brown & Jeremy Thrush (Alex Brown & Marco Bortolami):- This was not easy to pick at all and the fact that I probably missed names even in my honourable mentions (Bortolami, Ed Slater, Franco Mostert, Jim Hamilton and Tom Savage) shows just how great our options have been at lock. Bortolami was such a big name for club and country and at the time one of the best locks in the world, but I went for a much more recent (though not as long-serving) player in Jeremy Thrush, who brought his All Blacks quality to a team severely lacking in the pack at the time. Both of us were set on Alex Brown, though, in no small part due to his consistency (a record 87 consecutive starts, despite a series of injuries through his career) and his mastery of the lineout. Though injury forced him to retire in 2012, he continues to work at Gloucester Rugby to this day.

6: Jake Polledri (Jake Polledri):- That both of us picked a young flanker who only came into the squad in the last couple of seasons and probably hasn’t reached his peak yet shows just how highly we rate Jake Polledri. The Italian back rower is a fantastic talent, with the pace to cause trouble in open space, but the power to make ground almost every time he gets the ball. I can see him going on to be one of Italy’s superstars.

7: Akapusi Qera (Akapusi Qera):- The fact that we both picked Akapusi Qera over one-club man Andy Hazell shows just how highly we regard the Fijian. Q was a fantastic back rower for Gloucester and England, combining FIjian flair, physicality and breakdown nous to create one hell of a player. Though he left Gloucester in 2014, he is back as part of the Glaws family as he currently plays for Hartpury College.

8: James Forrester (Luke Narraway):- Luke Narraway was a fantastic player and a great servant to Gloucester Rugby, but my mind could not pass beyond a player who could have gone on to be a superstar were it not for injuries: James Forrester. Forrester had the blend of pace and power and also the ability to produce at the lineout, but his career was cut short by a knee injury aged 27. Despite this, he was a key part of Gloucester’s success in the early 2000s and scored the winning try in extra time of the 2006 European Challenge Cup Final, getting on the end of his own grubber kick through.

9: Dan Robson (Andy Gomarsall):- There have been so many quality 9s at Gloucester even just in the time that I have been watching rugby (Jimmy Cowan, Greig Laidlaw, Rory Lawson, Willi Heinz to name just a few) while I also just missed Dmitri Yachvili’s time at Kingsholm. World Cup winner Gomars quickly became one of my favourite players in my early days and the story of his career post-Gloucester that saw him go from struggling to find a club to being England’s starting scrum half in the 2007 Rugby World Cup is a great tale of not giving up. Having said all that, I was shocked to not find myself picking him, but I instead saw him just beaten out by Dan Robson. Robson was a fantastic player for Gloucester (and has remained so for Wasps) but I always felt that he never got his fair shot at the starting spot with a litany of star names being brought in ahead of him, and it was this defence of him during those seasons that came to mind first when picking my scrum half.

10: Danny Cipriani (Danny Cipriani):- Considering the amount of quality fly halves Gloucester have had since I became a fan (including Ludovic Mercier, the Burns brothers, James Hook and Nicky Robinson), the fact that Danny Cipriani was a unanimous pick says a lot about him. He is one of the most talented players I have ever seen and his golden wrists were key to Gloucester’s success last season. But what has elevated Cips even further is his openness regarding mental health and his #BeKind campaign this year – he’s made mistakes in his life but he is becoming a real role model and I would love him to see out his career at Kingsholm.

11: Jonny May (Lesley Vainikolo):- Big Les was a fantastic attacking player when on form and had an impact similar to that of Taqele Naiyaravoro currently at Northampton. Ollie Thorley has the potential to take this spot if he stays at Kingsholm long-term, but my current pick is Jonny May, who I am thrilled to see returning to the club next season. May is pure pace and I always loved seeing his meandering runs that would result in him finding and exploiting a gap by turning on the afterburners. His try for England against New Zealand will live long in the memory.

12: Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu (Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu):- I was very close to selecting Mark Atkinson, who I believe to be highly underrated, but in the end I found myself agreeing with Phil’s pick of Fuimaono-Sapolu. The Samoan may be a controversial figure, but there were 2 big moments that stuck in my mind making this selection: his intercept try in the dying seconds to salvage a 41-41 draw at Welford Road in 2011 and the craziest of one-handed dummies against Newport.

13: Terry Fanolua (Terry Fanolua):- Had injuries not ruined so much of his career, Henry Trinder had the potential to compete at this spot, but right now it was an easy choice. One of the first overseas players in the Premiership, I still remember to this day hearing the Shed chanting his name. Fanolua was a key player in the successful Gloucester squads of the early 2000s and at the time he left the club, he had more Premiership appearances and tries than any other player in cherry and white.

14: James Simpson-Daniel (James Simpson-Daniel):- Of course this was a unanimous pick! Charlie Sharples deserves a mention and Louis Rees-Zammit has the potential to fight for a spot in the XV in the future, but it would be at the expense of Jonny May, such is the level Sinbad is on! Ask a Gloucester rugby fan who should have received more caps, I doubt many would say someone other than him, such was his quality, but his career was heavily impacted by injuries. As well as scoring a wonderful try for England against the Baabaas that saw him round Jonah Lomu, he also played a key part in one of the greatest tries in Gloucester Rugby history – turning Lawrence Dallaglio inside out right in front of the Shed before feeding James Bailey for the try. He is without a doubt my favourite player in all of rugby.

rugby thinus delport15: Thinus Delport (Tom Marshall):- Very interesting selections here and it’s certainly one I look forward to discussing with Phil much more over a pint when the lockdown is over. Marshall is a fantastic all-round player but never really came into serious contention for me. Jason Woodward is a player I could watch with ball in hand all day, while Olly Morgan is the James Forrester of the backs, but Thinus Delport gets the nod for me. Perhaps a big part of it is the memories of him as the starting 15 during my early years as a fan as Gloucester fund success, but I think a big part of it is remembering my cousin having a massive crush on him. I finally managed to help her get a picture with him a few years back and was immediately cropped out of the image – that’s gratitude for you!

 

Who would make your list?

Until next time!

2019/20 Gloucester Rugby 23

2019/20 Gloucester Rugby 23

The COVID-19 pandemic is seeing me going crazy with no sport to watch and it’s no shock to say that I have been missing watching my beloved Gloucester Rugby play.

It’s not been the best of seasons for the cherry and whites, who find themselves 9ᵗʰ in the Premiership table with just 4 wins from 13 games, however one bright spark has been the amount of international representation this season during both the World Cup and the Six Nations. Despite the bad results, I still feel that this is a very strong squad, but there have been issues with injuries and dips in form that have left them lacking wins.

For this article, I will be looking at the Gloucester squad and selecting my ideal matchday 23 if everyone was fully fit.

Starting XV

1: Val Rapava-Ruskin:- Injuries have been the big issue for the Georgian, but he is an incredible talent when physically fit. He can hold his own in the scrum, but comes to life at the breakdown, where he becomes like and extra back row with his ability to jackal and win a turnover.

2: Franco Marais:- So let me get the negative out of the way first: for a top flight hooker, he has been unreliable at the lineout this season. However, his impact on the match is largely positive, as he carries hard and tackles even harder. I could imagine him being used as an emergency 6 and being able to hold his own at the position.

3: Fraser Balmain:- With my decision to go for a player known more for their play in the loose than their scrummaging at loosehead, I have gone for a scrummaging specialist at tighthead. That’s not to say Balmain is a one-trick pony as he also carries very well to help create a platform for the backs.

4 & 5: Ed Slater & Franco Mostert:- Slater was very much missed earlier in the season but has largely put his injuries behind him since moving from Leicester and I would argue that he should have got closer to England recognition when you look at some of the players who have been called up ahead of him. He is a proven leader, a strong carrier and a key part of the lineout. World Cup winner Franco Mostert is also strong at the lineout but more than anything, he is an engine who will keep going all game and top the tackle charts with regularity. Slater and Mostert are arguably one of the strongest second row pairings in the league.

6: Freddie Clarke:- I was initially thinking of putting Clarke on the bench due to his versatility, but eventually decided that he had earned a starting spot and could switch positions mid-game if needed. Clarke is an underrated talent who does not get the respect that he deserves for his work around the park, while he is a strong carrier who can make a team pay if they give him a big enough gap.

7: Jake Polledri:- Anyone who regularly reads my articles will know that I am a big fan of Polledri and while I would not consider him an out-and-out jackal, he is probably the most successful over the breakdown of my back row selections. Where he really comes into his own is as a carrier, where he rarely fails to make ground, while he is another who can fully exploit a gap that opens in front of them.

8: Ruan Ackermann:- Ben Morgan has failed to live up to last year’s performances and at 31, he may now be reaching his decline. Instead, I have gone with Ruan Ackermann who has a wealth of top flight experience for someone who is only 24. Ackermann is another strong carrier who can make the hard yards and tackle all day long.

9: Willi Heinz:- I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think Heinz should be in the England 23 right now as Dan Robson and Ben Spencer are the 9s I think should be building with the squad in this cycle, but I think that the kiwi is a fantastic player. Years of playing for the Crusaders and Gloucester have made him a proven leader and he controls the game so well, including having a strong kicking game to help take pressure off the fly half.

10: Danny Cipriani:- He may not have reached the heights of last season, but let’s be honest: this team’s attack is built around Danny Cipriani. He is one of the most skilful playmakers I have ever seen, who reads the game so well and has the ability to pick out a man with a pin-point accurate pass or kick.

11: Ollie Thorley:- If you’ve never seen his try against Leicester, you need to watch it! That try highlights his pace and footwork, but strangely enough that’s probably the underrate side of his attacking game, as his strength and ability to break a tackle is what put him on most people’s radar. And at just 23, he will only get better!

12: Mark Atkinson:- He’s started to get the plaudits from some pundits, but I still think that Atkinson is one of the most underrated players in the league. He has always been a solid defender and a hard runner with a dangerous offload, but over the last couple of years, he has become even more of an all-rounder and even developed a decent kicking game to exploit the defence out wide.

13: Billy Twelvetrees:- While I think that Chris Harris has got better as the season has gone on and he built chemistry with the players around him, I still think that the way the teams plays benefits from having a second playmaker in the centre… and that man is Billy Twelvetrees. He has had his ups and downs at Gloucester but always puts in 100% and is one of the players who really appeared to have benefited most from Johan Ackermann taking over at Kingsholm.

14: Louis Rees-Zammit:- I’d heard of Rees-Zammit and his crazy speed from the Gloucester age groups, but going into this season, I wasn’t expecting to see him much at all for the seniors this season. However, he came in and shocked the world with 12 tries in 1074 minutes (a try every 89.5 minutes) including a hat-trick against Northampton, fully earning his spot on the wing ahead of his far more experienced teammates.

15: Jason Woodward:- This was a difficult pick for me and I must admit that I am a big fan of Woodward so may have a degree of bias. However the former Hurricane gets the nod for me here. He is such a dangerous player on the counter-attack and his ability to play fullback/wing/centre makes him dangerous coming into the line at any spot. I will however give this caveat: in terrible conditions that favour a kick-heavy territorial game, I go for the more positionally sound Tom Marshall.

Bench

16: Todd Gleave:- This may be a bit of a shock considering James Hanson is still on the roster, but he was not the most reliable at the lineout and has been out for a long time. Gleave may be on paper the 3ʳᵈ or 4ᵗʰ hooker on the depth chart if everyone is fit, but he has impressed me when given the chance, causing some issues for the opposition at the breakdown while also being a bit more reliable at the lineout.

17 & 18: Josh Hohneck & Jamal Ford-Robinson:- As I mentioned when looking at my starting props, I looked to pair one specialist scrummager with one who is a bit more of a open-play threat. While being a kiwi means that he is naturally skilled in the loose, Josh Hohneck will provide a stable scrum, while Ford-Robinson can hold his own at the scrum and then cause issues for tired defences with his carrying.

19: Gerbrandt Grobler:- Say what you want about whether Grobler should be allowed to play having tested positive for an anabolic steroid in 2014, but Grobler served his ban and has gone about reviving his career since. He would be a fantastic starter for Gloucester but unfortunately finds himself at the club at the same time as Slater and Mostert,but that allows for great rotation at lock. Grobler will carry and tackle all day long and is yet another fine lineout operator.

20: Lewis Ludlow:- With 3 ball carriers in my starting back row, I have gone for Ludlow over Morgan for the bench spot as he provides a different dynamic. Ludlow is another potential jackal but has an issue with giving away penalties at the breakdown this season, however his best season came a few years back where he was used primarily as a tackle machine, allowing other players to then get in over the top and make the turnover.

21: Joe Simpson:- I was a little nervous when it was announced that Joe Simpson would be coming to Kingsholm as I had always seen him as a pacy attacking 9, who was now getting on in age. However in the absence of Willi Heinz, he instantly proved his quality as a game manager and leader while still causing the opposition problems with his own legs.

22: Chris Harris:- Henry Trinder was a wonderful talent ruined by a litany of injuries, so Chris Harris gets the nod here, as Billy Twelvetrees can cover fly half. Harris provides a defensively solid, strong running option from the bench to create a solid centre pairing with either Atkinson or Twelvetrees.

23: Tom Marshall:- It’s probably no real surprise given I mentioned him as a possible starter at 15, but Tom Marshall gets the final spot here to cover the back 3. He is a fantastic attacking player and good in the air. I would feel sorry for a team that saw him coming on when they felt tired after 50-60 minutes.

 

Who would make your squad?

Until next time…

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Premiership Rugby 2019/20: 6 to Watch

Premiership Rugby 2019/20: 6 to Watch

While the World Cup is in full flow, fans will be starting to split their focus over multiple competitions as the Premiership begins shortly. The Premiership Rugby Cup is well underway and we have started to get an early idea of how teams may look this season, but this is something at we will not know for certain until the league begins.

As I have done the last couple of years, I have taken a look at the players new to their teams this summer and tried to narrow everything down to 6 players to watch this season. Like with my recent look at the Pro14, I have chosen to limit myself to a maximum of 1 player per club. With a number of players set to arrive after the World Cup, the quality of player coming into the league this season is incredible (before we even begin to look at players moving from other Premiership clubs), so much so that some high quality players like Elliot Daly made the shortlist but found themselves cut when picking my final 6!

Who are you excited to see with a new club this season?

Dave Attwood (Bath – Bristol)

Starting this list off in the pack and to me, Dave Attwood has been the best second row on Bath’s books in recent seasons but has never seemed to get the minutes he deserved since returning from injury, despite an impressive loan spell at Toulon. Now moving to Bristol, he will be looking to form a top-quality partnership with Chris Vui. Attwood is a great all-rounder, dangerous when given too much space but also a highly physical player that will cause you problems at the ruck and maul, while his experience will be invaluable for a team hoping to make it into the Champions Cup.

Stuart Hogg (Glasgow – Exeter)

One of the best 15s in the world is on his way to Sandy Park. Exeter are often talked about as a “boring” team who just pick and go through their forwards repeatedly, but they are so much more than that and a joy to watch attacking. While fans will likely still miss Santiago Cordero, Hogg brings his own great attacking talent, while his style of play will also help control the game as he can come into the line to cause mayhem or work as a second fly half. Add in his monster boot and opponents won’t want to give away a penalty anywhere near their own half.

Dan du Preez (Sharks – Sale)

From one set of Sharks to another, Dan du Preez was initially coming on loan but has now signed perfectly alongside older brother Robert and twin Jean-Luc. Able to cover lock or the back row, Du Preez was a star for the Sharks in this year’s Super Rugby, scoring 7 tries (joint 2nd among forwards, level with Kwagga Smith and behind Folau Fainga’a) and coming 1st among forwards for carries (168) and 3rd among forwards for metres made. With the Du Preez and Curry twins, Jono Ross and Mark Wilson all fighting for 3 starting spots, Sale may have just got themselves one of the strongest back rows in the league.

Matteo Minozzi (Zebre – Wasps)

One of the starts of the Italy squad, Minozzi made my Six Nations Team of the Tournament in 2018 but missed this season’s tournament through injury. At just 23 years old, he is still to reach his prime, but has shown himself to be able to consistently find the try line, which will be helped even more by an increase in the quality of the players around him.

Paddy Jackson (Perpignan – London Irish)

Perhaps the most controversial signing of recent years, I’m not going to get into my thoughts on the morals of signing Jackson but instead look from the rugby perspective. With a raft of internationals arriving (including Allan Dell, Sekope Kepu, Sean O’Brien, Nick Phipps and Waisake Naholo), it looks like Irish are trying to emulate Bristol last season by not just avoiding relegation, but pushing for a Champions Cup position and potentially even a playoff spot. One thing that will be crucial to success is a top quality fly half and Jackson is certainly that. Before off-field issues brought an end to his Ireland career, Jackson was looking to be a high-quality backup for Johnny Sexton and while he didn’t get the chance to shine in the Top 14 for a Perpignan team that were relegated, he will be hoping to show his quality in one of the strongest leagues in the world.

Melani Nanai (Blues – Worcester)

Fans who don’t follow Super Rugby may not be familiar with Melani Nanai, so let me give you some figures. Despite playing for the Blues (5th in New Zealand Conference, 13th overall in 2019), Nanai finished the season with 178 carries (5th), 60 defenders beaten (5th), 1204 metres carried (1st) and 22 offloads (5th). Assuming he can quickly adapt to the change of scenery, if Worcester can get him the ball with a decent amount of space, he is going to be a thrill to watch in the league and potentially one of the signings of the season!


I will be running a fantasy rugby league for the Premiership on The Rugby Magazine, and you are all welcome to join! You can find the league here and using the unique token 429eb544c2c9

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.