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?

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 4

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 4

The Autumn Tests came to a close for most teams this week, but there was still much on the line. England and Australia both knew that a victory would go a long way to making a poor 2018 look better, but the Wallabies looked second-best throughout the match. The USA’s run of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018 eventually came to an end against the Irish, but they made it a contest and have reached their highest ever position in the World Rankings as a result. The result of the weekend though belonged to Fiji, whose win over the French on Saturday night saw them leapfrog France and Argentina into 8ᵗʰ place.

The Week 4 results were:

  • France 14-21 Fiji
  • Ireland 57-14 USA
  • Wales 20-11 South Africa
  • England 37-18 Australia
  • Scotland 14-9 Argentina
  • Japan 32-27 Russia
  • Italy 3-66 New Zealand
  • Spain 10-28 Samoa
  • Georgia 20-9 Tonga
  • Romania 20-27 Uruguay

England

England have generally had an advantage over the Wallabies in the pack, but with Australia having improved in threat department and England missing so many starters (and replacements in some cases!) it would have been understandable if Australia had the edge there this week. They didn’t. Ben Moon has well and truly taken his chance this autumn and may have put himself in contention for a trip to Japan next year as he looks to have replace the now-retired Joe Marler as England’s best scrummager at loose-head. Meanwhile Kyle Sinckler put in a stunning performance and has surely guaranteed himself the number 3 shirt for the 6 Nations. Mark Wilson continued to put in strong performances and I think he could conceivably find himself starting at 6 next time England play. 2018 was not a good year for England on the whole, but the performances that some of the players have put in when given the chance this November has suddenly given fans some hope that things may be getting back on the right track for a strong World Cup campaign.

Australia

Having been unable to watch Australia face Italy last week, I was interested to see how a midfield with Matt Toomua at 10 and Bernard Foley at 12 would function. To say that Foley was anonymous for most of the match is an understatement as his 2 main impacts on the game were missing a despairing tackle on Elliot Daly as he went past for a try and his grubber kick to put Israel Folau over in the corner at the end of the match. While I am beginning to think Cheika has the right idea with Folau at 15 and Haylett-Petty on the wing (Folau appears to cut more effective lines entering the line late than Haylett-Petty), he still seems to be struggling to organise the rest of the back line, which is leading to an incoherent mess. If Australia want to have any chance of reaching another World Cup final next year, they need to sort something out quick!


Wales

Wales’ gameplan appeared to change the moment Dan Biggar stepped on to the pitch. After a game where they had been spreading the ball well and causing the Springboks across the park, suddenly the game devolved into kicking the ball back to South Africa and surviving another onslaught with their staunch defence. While Biggar and his back 3 – especially George North – caused the Boks problems as they tried to collect the high ball, it put so much pressure on the Welsh defence and against a team playing better that could have proved fatal. Dan Biggar is undoubtedly a talented player and a clutch goal kicker, but I do not think his style of play matches the style that Wales are trying to play. For me, Gareth Anscombe has nailed down the 10 shirt – even if he did miss a few kicks to touch – and it is now up to Warren Gatland to decide if he wants Rhys Patchell or Dan Biggar on the bench, though Patchell’s ability to play 15 will likely see both of them on the plane to Japan.

South Africa

I’ve often heard the phrase “earning the right to go wide” but I can’t remember a match where the need to do that was more obvious than in this one. Too often South Africa were looking to spread the ball wide early in their possession without the forwards having dragged in defenders or any backs running effective dummy lines. In fact, they were often throwing a miss pass to the winger, which allowed the defence to drift across. They are a team clearly building back to their best, but they need to learn to control the game better regardless of the personnel on the pitch if they are to become more consistent.


Scotland

Laidlaw, Hastings, Kinghorn, Russell, Jones, Maitland, Hogg

Scottish rugby has been so exciting in recent years, but when I saw this back line announced to face an attacking team like the Pumas I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the weather gods were not on our side and rain early in the first half denied us the expansive game we were hoping for. Personally, I like the look of a back 3 including both Hogg and Kinghorn as they are both such impressive players and with them both being fullbacks, it gives Scotland solidity under the high ball while also a great option to attack the high ball and try to win it back. Russell, Hastings and Hogg are all such great playmakers and controllers of the game with a range of passes and kicks and the legs to run it themselves, so having all three of them on the pitch at the same time could make it so hard for opposition teams to defend against them. I’m not sure if Russell and Jones is the best centre partnership defensively, especially in matches where the pack is not the most phyical, but I would love to see it used again in the 6 Nations to see how it can workout, with Alex Dunbar on the bench in case they need to improve their defensive solidity.

Argentina

I’ve got to admit, I’ve been really disappointed by the Argentinian’s attacking tactics during this tour. During the Rugby Championship, their attacking play through their backs was ripping through teams, however over recent weeks, the back 3 stars of Boffelli, Delguy and Moyano have had limited opportunities to attack and in this game, Nicolás Sánchez continually put boot to ball and forced the Scots to show their composure under the high ball with mixed results. I think that this is a team currently set to compete against more attack-minded teams like the rest of the Rugby Championship, while against Tier 1 teams who focus on a solid defence, as you find with most 6 Nations teams, they do not yet have the quality in their overall game to threaten the line as well.


Ireland

The Irish are developing such depth in their squad! It’s fair to say that as things stand, only Garry Ringrose, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne would be in contention for a place in the first choice starting XV, yet all the players who featured suggested that they would be more than capable of coming into that team and doing a good job. The pack may have had some issues against the American lineout in the first half, but they were too strong for the Eagles at the scrum and the entire team pounded away mercilessly for 80 minutes both in attack and defence, eventually grinding the tiring Eagles down enough for the back line to cut them apart as the game wore on. The incredible defensive efforts and ball-control tactics, combined with the depth they have developed in their squad is why Ireland are currently my favourites for the World Cup.

USA

I never thought that the USA had a chance of winning this game, such is the strength of Ireland, but they came out the blocks so well and did better than the 24-14 halftime score suggests. The move at the lineout that saw them initially set up a maul but then get the ball back to Joe Taufete’e who had remained on the touchline to rampage into the 22 was really good to see and he reacted well to the poor tackling technique to go over for a try. Perhaps even more beautiful, but in a slightly different way, was the driving maul that resulted in a penalty try. In Taufete’e, Manoa and (currently injured) AJ MacGinty, the Eagles have some great talent to build the team around and the success that they have had this season will surely help get more Americans into the sport.


Japan

After what I feel should have been a Man of the Match performance against England, Michael Leitch saved Japan at Kingsholm on Saturday. The Japanese had played so well against England but struggled to reach the same heights against Russia. Leitch’s tries came at crucial times, with his first coming after a strong Russian start had the Brave Blossoms 3-16 down, while his second try with just 8 minutes left proved to be the match-winner. Japan need to make sure their talismanic captain stays fit if they want to have some degree of success when they host the World Cup.

Russia

Yuri Kushnarev is one of the stars of this Russian team, so to see him go off during the first half could have been a huge loss for the Bears. However Ramil Gaisin did a great job off the bench and gave his team every chance to win. He ran the back line well and did a great job of pegging Japan back with some of his kicks, while his cross-kick to hooker Stanislav Sel’skiy for his try was inch-perfect. Now I’ll be completely honest and say that I don’t know much about Russian rugby, so I have had to rely on Wikipedia a bit here and I noticed that Gaisin is listed as a fullback on the national team’s page. Vasily Artemyev is a great player but he did not look comfortable at fullback, especially when forced to kick, so I think it would benefit Russia to promote Gaisin to 15 and move Artemyev back to the wing while Kushnarev stays at 10. With 7s star Vladimir Ostroushko playing well at 13, the Bears have the making of a good back line that could cause opponents unseen problems at the World Cup.


France

This was not a good match for Les Bleus. The pack did well on their own scrum and in the lineouts, while captain Guilhem Guirado was the scorer of both tries on the night. However, the back line struggled to have a positive impact on the game. The back three were limited in attack and the centre pairing of Gaël Fickou and Mathieu Bastareaud were almost anonymous in this game. The French back line has to play so much better if they are to be competitive against other Tier 1 nations and the first thing is stability. With Camille Lopez and Matthieu Jalibert having both missed considerable time this year (Jalibert’s injury in his 6 Nations debut ended last season and he suffered another injury in preseason with Bordeaux) and that has seen the national team run though a number of options at 10, while the 9 jersey has also been a competition between Morgan Parra (due to start this match until he was injured), Baptiste Serin, Antoine Dupont and Sébastien Bézy. Less than a year out from the world Cup, finding consistency in your halfbacks is key and that is what France need to do going into 2019 is narrow down their selections and stick to the same players when possible. In my eyes, Lopez, Serin and Parra should be nailed onto the World Cup squad, as should Jalibert if he can get himself fit and perform as he did before his injuries. I would also take Dupont as a third scrum half option to keep things fresh in a dangerous pool, as Parra could (if needed) move to 10 as he has in the past – it may not be a natural it, but he has played there before at international level and has the skills to control the game.

Fiji

Last week I was saying how Fiji need to play against a competitor who will force them to play a more structured game. France were that team and so it was great to see how a more structured Fijian approach would look. What stood out to me was the lack of a kicking game from the halfbacks. Neither Frank Lomani nor Ben Volavola were looking to play a tactical kicking game, and while it did not cost them in this game, against better defences they will struggle if they are always trying to play the ball out of their own half. Equally costly could be their discipline. The Fijians had 2 tries cancelled out on the night and while Semi Radradra’s picking up of the ball from an offside position was an easy mistake to make, Tevita Cavubati’s late hit on Yoann Huget was just stupid and unnecessary. With Australia, Wales, Georgia and Uruguay as their opponents in Pool D of the World Cup, Fiji could come anywhere in the top 4 of this pool (sorry Uruguay) and improving their tactical kicking and discipline could be just what they need to make it into the top 2.


 

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 3

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 3

Week 3 is in the book and if we’re being honest, there’s only one result everyone is talking about. Ireland shocked the world when they beat New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 and they did it again at the weekend in front of a raucous Irish crowd at the Aviva Stadium. Away from this match, a number of Tier 1 nations gave the fringe players a run-out this weekend as they played nations a little lower in the rankings, with mixed results.

The Week 3 results were:

  • France 28-13 Argentina
  • Ireland 16-9 New Zealand
  • Chile 0-73 Maori All Blacks
  • Scotland 20-26 South Africa
  • England 35-15 Japan
  • Wales 74-24 Tonga
  • Italy 7-26 Australia
  • Georgia 27-19 Samoa
  • Uruguay 7-68 Fiji

Before we get into my thoughts, a quick thank you to my colleague and fellow rugby not Phil, who abandoned me for a trip to Twickenham this weekend but made up for it by sending me the photos you will see today and a few others that you will see in later posts.


England

With less than a year until the World Cup, a number of (largely fringe) players were given a chance against Japan to improve their odds of selection. Come full time, new cap Joe Cokanasiga was the only player from the starting XV to come away with a heightened reputation. Danny Care is so often a danger off the bench but once again he struggled to have the same positive impact from the start, as did Alec Hepburn and Harry Williams. Elliot Daly continues to struggle under the high ball in this series, Alex Lozowski made a crucial tackle to stop Michael Leitch but also missed a number of crucial tackles and did not bring anything to the attack. Once again George Ford showed that he is unable to effectively lead an international back line without Owen Farrell outside him to take the pressure off him. Meanwhile, Zach Mercer was treated awfully by being pulled for Dylan Hartley during Jamie George’s sin bin and then getting subbed early in the 2nd half.

I expect the line-up against Australia will be very similar to what we saw against South Africa and New Zealand. So the question then becomes “what should be done in the 6 Nations?” Personally I think that if Eddie Jones plans to take Farrell and just one other out-and-out 10 to Japan, then George Ford has proved he is not the man and Danny Cipriani needs to be given a realistic chance to earn a spot in the squad. I would love to see Chris Ashton or Jack Nowell given the chance at 15 against Australia as the Wallabies are bound to target us with high balls for Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty to chase.

rugEJ
With less than a year until the World Cup, Eddie Jones still has a number of big decisions to make

Obviously England are missing a number of top players and don’t want to peak too far ahead of the World Cup, but right now I struggle to see how this team will be competitive in the latter stages of the tournament… if they get that far.

Japan

I understand why Man of the Match is almost always given to a player from the winning team, but it was a travesty that Michael Leitch did not win the award for this match. The Japan captain was everywhere on the pitch and led his team from the front. He was involved in many of their best moments and scored a try where he broke a number of (admittedly poor) English tackles before stepping inside Elliot Daly. Japanese rugby may not have stepped on as much as some would have hoped since the last World Cup, but with players like Leitch there to inspire them, things will hopefully improve in the coming years.


Ireland

Not many teams can say they have a defence coach who has beaten the All Blacks. Ireland however can boast a defence coach in Andy Farrell who has beat them 4 times (with England in 2012, with Ireland this weekend and in 2016 and the 2nd Lions Tests in 2017) and drawn once (2017 Lions Tour 3rd Test). Andy Farrell has done a wonderful job of teaching his teams to front up at the breakdown and keep their discipline in defence. For Chris Robshaw in 2012, see Peter O’Mahony in 2018, the Munster skipper is a perfect representation of what Farrell is looking for from his back row. Meanwhile Johnny Sexton and Kieran Marmion (who arguably had his best match in an Irish shirt on Saturday night) did a wonderful job of controlling the game and the defence refused to give an inch and worked as a pack, forcing New Zealand to have the ball where they don’t want it. If you want to see how to beat the All Blacks, take a look at Farrell’s work.

New Zealand

I’ve been saying for a while now that New Zealand have looked beatable and boy did they look it on Saturday night! Under heavy pressure from the Irish defence, players were making uncharacteristic errors. Beauden Barrett has not had the best of seasons in my view and in this match his threat was almost completely nullified, while even Damian McKenzie struggled to positively impact the game. Ardie Savea is a talented player but it is clear that this team are missing Sam Cane at the breakdown. The All Blacks can arguably consider themselves fortunate to not find themselves with a man in the bin as they gave a number of penalties away in and around their 22, but Wayne Barnes was lenient towards both teams’ indiscretions in this match. With just one match against Italy remaining, I will be shocked if Richie Mo’unga is not given a starting spot as it is becoming clear that they need to look at their options beyond Barrett ahead of the World Cup. They have chopped and changed a number of players in 2018 – their strength in depth is incredible – but I feel that entering 2019, Steve Hansen needs to start narrowing down and looking at the players he will take to Japan and working on the combinations. They may look beatable right now, but actually doing so is still a challenge and it won’t take much for them to peak in time for another tournament.


Uruguay

As much as Uruguay struggled to be competitive in this game, there were some good moments from them and a suggestion that, given the right chances, they could become more competitive. As such, I was thrilled to hear during the commentary that almost half of their squad are set to compete in the upcoming season of the MLR. While obviously some way off the level of the top leagues, this is still a great way for Uruguay to benefit as the players will be facing a higher standard of competition weekly. Potentially they could look to enter their own expansion team in the future, similar to how Canada have the Toronto Arrows as of this season and make the MLR develop into a truly American league.

Fiji

No offence to Uruguay, but I don’t really see what Fiji really gained from this choice of opposition. With 8 places between the teams in World Rugby’s ranking system, there was a clear gulf in quality despite Fiji resting a number of players and giving players from the NRC team Fijian Drua a run-out on the international stage. We know how good Fiji are in an open game and unfortunately the Uruguayans could not give them enough opposition to make them work on a more cohesive performance. I feel that Fiji should be looking to arrange matches with teams that will force them to play a more structure style as this is going to be key to the national team moving up the rankings. Just take a look at the nations ranked higher than them following this weekend:

  1. New Zealand
  2. Ireland
  3. Wales
  4. England
  5. South Africa
  6. Australia
  7. Scotland
  8. France
  9. Argentina

Fiji are putting together a group of players that can equal these teams and arguably play better rugby than some of them (looking your way Eddie Jones!) but the one thing they lack right now is the ingrained structure that they can build a match around to ensure they are playing in the right areas of the pitch. To quote Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious: “It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning”. Fiji now need an opponent that will teach them the importance of keeping the scoreboard ticking over force them to take their structured game to the next level.


Wales

Like England, Wales made wholesale changes to their starting line-up this week for the visit of Tonga. Unlike England, most of the players given a chance in this match showed they deserved to be playing on the international stage. One intercepted pass aside, Tomos Williams looked good at scrum half and Aled Davies also impressed off the bench, including finishing off one of the tries of the month. Even if Rhys Webb comes back to Wales, he’s going to have some competition for his place in the national squad. Dan Biggar had a solid game but for me still kicked too much (thought they were more attacking cross-kicks, which is an improvement), but Rhys Patchell also did a great job of bringing the back line into the game. Jonah Holmes was solid at 15 on his debut (but I imagine Liam Williams will take the 15 shirt in Leigh Halfpenny’s absence this weekend), Steff Evans was at his best in a free-flowing attacking game and the centre pairing of Owen Watkin and Tyler Morgan showed that there is some depth developing in the midfield and Wales may not have to rely so heavily on Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies. In the forwards, Jake Ball put in a timely performance to remind everyone of his credentials, while Aaron Wainwright and Seb Davies were wonderful throughout and Ellis Jenkins continued to cement himself as my latest man-crush while showing himself as a more than international captain. I don’t expect many of these players will feature against South Africa this weekend, but as the World Cup draws near they have done a good job of pushing themselves into contention for a seat on the plane.

Tonga

After a poor start not helped by a harsh yellow card mere minutes into the game, Tonga did a stellar job to get back into the match in the 2nd quarter and draw the scores level soon after halftime. However, their higher average age showed in the second half as Wales’ fresher youngsters ran away with things, leaving a scoreline that did not do the islanders justice. Tonga’s issue right now is that too many of their top players are reaching their twilight years and not enough of the new generation are playing in the top leagues. Sione Vailanu looked great but he will not be a regular in the Saracens back row, while many of the players in the Southern Hemisphere will play in the Mitre 10 Cup or the NRC but not the Premiership. Tonga need to get more players into top level competition if they want to remain competitive in the foreseeable future. How can they do that? I have some ideas, which would benefit not just them but all the Pacific Island teams and I will look to write about that in the coming weeks.


Scotland

Watching Scotland in recent years, I have loved the way that they have been willing to try something slightly different to catch teams out in a game. In last year’s 6 Nations, they left the Irish pack looking stupid after putting Alex Dunbar in the lineout and throwing straight to him to run over from 5 metres out. Their latest lineout try was a little more conventional (it was actually scored by a forward this time) but no less clever. The movement forward of front man Gordon Reid and the lift of Ben Toolis by the front pod left a wonderful gap for Hamish Watson (standing in the conventional scrum half position) to run into to receive the throw and go over for a try. Add to that the incredible decision to set up a maul in the middle of the field during open phase play – a ploy which saw the Scots push the Springboks back. A team cannot rely on gimmicks to win games, but Scotland under Vern Cotter and now Gregor Townsend have done a wonderful job of playing smart rugby while also making it attractive and adding in the occasional clever ploy to catch the defence off guard. I can’t wait to see what they have in store when we reach the World Cup!

South Africa

The more I watch South Africa this season, the more I think they need Pat Lambie. Elton Jantjies has an incredible skill-set but I do not see him as a reliable 10 at international level and wonder if he would benefit from a move to 12 similar to Kurtley Beale. Meanwhile Handré Pollard is a more reliable option in general play but his kicking off the tee can be questionable. Meanwhile, it is likely too close to the World Cup for Damian Willemse to earn the 10 jersey, unless one of the more experienced fly halves would play outside him. It’s going to be very hard to reach the top without a consistent and reliable 10. If Rassie Erasmus can sort this, then I think this team is very close tot he finished article.


France

Argentina managed to get more ball to their electric back 3 this week compared to against Ireland last week. However they still struggled to have the impact they would want on the game as France were so disciplined at keeping their defensive line spread wide to ensure Ramiro Moyano, Bautista Delguy and Emiliano Boffelli had minimal space to work their magic in. The French have an annoying knack of peaking just in time for the World Cup, it looks like they’re building towards it again.

Argentina

The Pumas can be great to watch, but they can also be infuriating. One moment that stuck in my mind from this game was an Argentinian scrum in their own 22. The Pumas have struggled somewhat with the scrum this year, but in this scrum they got the push on against the French. Then they ruined everything by not listening to the referee’s instructions to use the ball, resulting in the scrum being reset with turnover ball. It is criminal to give away the ball at a set piece in your own 22 and it was only a great tackle by Nicolás Sánchez that allowed Argentina to get the ball back and clear their lines. They surprised the world when they reached the semi-finals of RWC2015 at Ireland’s expense, but they need to cut out stupid mistakes like this if they are to reach the semis again.


 

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

After last weekend’s early start for a number of teams, the Autumn Internationals kicked off in full force this weekend. The match between England and New Zealand that people wanted years ago finally took place and, despite England’s struggles in 2018, the match went right down to the final minutes. Wales finally ended years of hurt with a low-scoring win over Australia, while the USA got their first win over Samoa to continue their record of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018, though that will likely come to an end soon as they face Ireland in a few weeks.

The Week 2 results were:

  • Brazil 3-35 Maori All Blacks
  • France 26-29 South Africa
  • Ireland 28-17 Argentina
  • USA 30-29 Samoa
  • Wales 9-6 Australia
  • England 15-16 New Zealand
  • French Barbarians 38-49 Tonga
  • Scotland 54-17 Fiji
  • Italy 28-17 Georgia

England

The first 35 minutes against New Zealand was probably the best I have seen England play all season. Players were tackling as if their lives depended on it and if someone missed a tackle, there was someone else there to put the carrier down. The rucks were being hit with a desire to get the ball back on the English side and the backs were pinning the All Blacks back with their tactical kicking. And that maul for Dylan Hartley’s try was like porn for a former prop like me!

Unfortunately, the team could not keep it up for the full 80 minutes and they struggled to have the same impact in the second half. While it could be said that England were handed the match against South Africa by Malcolm Marx’s throwing, this time it was England throwing he game away in the second half as Jamie George managed to connect on only 5 of his 10 throws, with a number of them being pilfered by Brodie Retallick. While the throws were by no means perfect as they did not seem to be hitting the golden “double top” (top of the throw, top of the jump), I do not want to put the blame fully on George as the lineouts were continually called to Maro Itoje (I got the feeling he was the one calling the lineout but am not certain) despite Retallick covering him at the set piece.

If England are to win the tight games, they need to make sure their set piece is flawless on their own ball.

New Zealand

Damian McKenzie was wonderful on Saturday. While I don’t rate him as an international fly half, he is a fantastic attacking fullback. Despite his small stature, he popped straight back up after numerous big hits from Sam Underhill and the rest of the England back row, while his footwork, vision, pace and ability to pick an attacking line played such a big part in New Zealand’s resurgence. He may not be the best yet under the high ball, but this is an area of his game that he can develop. If he’s given the number 15 shirt on a regular basis over the next year, he could be one of the best at his position in the World Cup.


Wales

Alan Wyn Jones was a lucky man on Saturday, as he probably should have seen a red card for leading with a forearm into Bernard Foley. While the incident didn’t look much, leading with the forearm is considered a red card offence. Alafoti Fa’osiliva received a red card for when playing for Worcester against Gloucester a few years ago and just the night before this match, USA’s Megan Rom was shown red for the same offence, which I would argue was even softer as she appeared to initially attempt to hand the player off in the shoulder – something Jones didn’t. Meanwhile in the Pro14, both Uzair Cassiem and Kieron Fonotia have both been banned this season for similar offences. All we ask for in the rugby community is consistency, and going by previous examples, the Ospreys lock should have been taking an early bath, but not even a penalty was given.

Australia

Jones wasn’t the only player who probably got lucky not to be penalised in this game, as Samu Kerevi also escaped punishment for a collision with Leigh Halfpenny that saw the fullback ft with concussion. This to me is a really difficult one and even after a couple of days thinking about it and discussing with a few friends, I still can’t decide what the outcome should have been.

Kerevi does leave the ground in an attempt to charge down the kick, which is the only reason I can imagine Ben O’Keeffe was willing to call it a “rugby incident” and play on – similar to Andrew Conway’s attempted charge down of Gareth Steenson’s conversion in the Champions Cup. However, it did not look like a wholly committed attempt to block the kick and he did end up leading into Halfpenny with his shoulder as opposed to an arm. Later that night, Faf de Klerk had a penalty given against him for a late hit on Camille Lopez that looked like a much more committed attempt to block the kick and a considerably less nasty looking contact with the kicker. What makes this incident even worse is that Kerevi’s shoulder appears to make contact with Halfpenny’s head, which is backed up by his concussion as his head does not bash against the floor as he drops. In this current climate, it is a shock that there was not even a penalty given for something that was at best reckless and at worst dangerous. Like with the Jones incident, all we ask for is consistency, there does not appear to have been much this weekend.


USA

They still have some way to go to take on the Tier 1 nations, but this USA team is one that’s on the up. Despite missing 2 of their stars in AJ MacGinty and Samu Manoa, and having captain Blaine Scully leave the field early, the Eagles impressed with some wonderful play from back rows Cam Dolan and Hanco Germishuys and powerful running form Joe Taufete’e and Paul Lasike. These two guys kept the Eagles on the front foot throughout the game and the Worcester hooker even continued his scoring run form the Summer Tests. Lasike, though really impressed me. The former NFL fullback, now playing in the Premiership for Harlequins consistently made ground when given the ball, but was not a one-trick pony (or shire horse given his size) and also worked the Samoa defence well by drawing them in expecting the crash ball but then playing the ball off to the men now in space outside him. If they continue to grow as a team over the coming years and more players like Psalm Wooching choose rugby over a career in the NFL, then the sky could be the limit for them.

Samoa

I really don’t understand the tactical decisions made in this game. Despite an experienced 10 in Tusi Pisi and players outside like Ahsee Tuala, JJ Taulagi, Alapati Leiua and Ray Lee-Lo, the Samoan strategy seems to have been to kick first. While it is great to see them playing a more structured style (something that has not always been seen with the Pacific Island teams), I really don’t think it played to their strengths. I have no problem with a tactical kicking game, but this should have been more interspersed with crash balls and spreading the ball wide to keep the defence on their toes. For so long, Samoa appeared to be the best and most well-rounded of the Pacific Islands, but now they are slipping down the World Rankings, which is a massive shame to see. They need to sort out their tactics soon if they want to start winning again on a regular basis.


Italy

Italy are a team on the up once again. Conor O’Shea has been improving Italian rugby as a whole and it is starting to show. They have some experienced internationals in captain Sergio Parisse (rested for this match), Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni (who has converted from flanker to lock), but they also now have a generation of quality young players coming through. Michele Campagnaro has been on the scene for an number of years but is only 25, while Jake Polledri and Seb Negri have taken the back row to a new level and consistently give the team front-foot ball. Add in the currently injured Matteo Minozzi, who was a star in the 6 Nations, and the signs are positive for the national team. The important thing is to give O’Shea the time as this is not a short-term plan, but instead a long-term reboot of Italian rugby to keep them competitive.

Georgia

Talk for a number of years has focused on whether Georgia should replace Italy in the 6 Nations. While I do agree that they are at a stage where they are too good for their current competition, this game showed that they still have a way to go to compete in the 6 Nations. After this match, I had a look at both the Georgian and Italian squads for the Autumn Internationals to see how they compared in their top flight experience. The entire Italian squad play in top 3 European leagues, with Parisse and Ghiraldini in the Top 14, Campagnaro and Polledri in the Premiership and the remainder of the squad playing for Benetton or Zebre in the Pro14. In contrast, the Lelos have 1 player in Super Rugby, 1 in the Premiership and 9 in the Top 14. Beyond that, the team has 1 player in the Championship (English second tier), 2 in the Professional Rugby League (Russian top flight), 7 in Rugby Pro D2 (French second tier) and the remainder of the players (all backs) are playing in the Georgian top tier. To make the next step, the Lelos need to be able to pick a squad full of players who are in the top European leagues and therefore playing weekly against other internationals. Now I’m not suggesting an exodus from Georgia, but instead a Georgian franchise in the Pro14. They may not have immediate success, but if they can start to bring through the next generation then they could begin to reach the next level much as Italy are currently improving again.


Scotland

The Scots may have ran away with the match in the end, but the match remained tight for the best part of an hour. Part of that was due to Scotland missing chances. Fraser Brown may have scored towards the end of the first quarter following a series of pick-and-go drives from the pack, but the try should have been scored a number of phases earlier when Peter Horne drew the last defender and had a chance to put Tommy Seymour over in the corner but instead chose to dummy the pass and appeared lucky to avoid a knock-on decision as he was tackled just short. Later in the game, Horne made a break through the middle and again held onto the ball rather than play it back inside to Greig Laidlaw who had a chance to keep the move going. Horne is a good player, but as someone in as a second distributor, he missed the chance to distribute the ball too many times and will need to improve to hold his spot in a competitive midfield.

Fiji

It will come as no surprise when I say that Fiji play some beautiful rugby. Add to that a improving structure to their play and they are really beginning to turn heads in international rugby. Unfortunately they still have a way to go to regularly compete against the Tier 1 teams and a big part of that comes down to discipline. The Fijians conceded 12 penalties in this match, which is too many against a Tier 1 nation, and lost both Tevita Cavubati and Leone Nakarawa sin binned, with the 10 minute periods overlapping to leave the team with only 13 men for about 5 minutes. Against a team as dangerous in attack as Scotland, it is hard enough to defend with 15 men on the pitch; it becomes pretty much impossible when 2 men down. Even worse, it will make it harder for the other players to keep going for the full match as they need to work harder during the sin bin periods to cover the extra space. The have a talented team but will not win regularly if they can’t keep the penalty count down.


France

35 minutes in with the score at 9-9, Teddy Thomas broke out from his own 22 down the right wing. Getting up towards the South African 22, he had only Willie le Roux to stop him but numerous teammates in support to put over for the try. Instead, the winger chose to keep the ball and was well tackled by the South African 15. Luckily for France, they scored a few minutes later after the Springboks failed to clear their lines, but it is criminal to not finish that chance by being selfish.

After finishing the first half on a high with Guirado’s try, France continued to build the momentum with a try for Matthieu Bastareaud just 95 seconds into the second half. However they then shot themselves in the foot at the restart and lost all momentum as Sébastien Vahaamahina attempted to catch the restart over his shoulder while moving towards his own line, but fumbled, allowing S’busiso Nkosi to go over for possibly the easiest try he will ever score. This was a stupid mistake from a player who should have known better. One of the first things I remember being taught about catching a high ball is that if you are moving towards your own line and have a teammate coming forwards able to take it, they should leave it for the player coming onto the ball, yet this was not done by Vahaamahina despite Camille Lopez being in position to take the ball. As well as letting the Springboks back into the game on the scoreboard, this also shifted the momentum firmly in the direction of the away team.

Despite all this, with just 1 minute remaining on the clock, the French found themselves with the lead and a scrum inside the South African 22. There was no way they could lose from there… but they did. With half a minute remaining, they gave away a penalty at the breakdown and when the Springboks put a bit too much length on the kick, Damian Penaud caught the ball in play, but then stepped into touch just before the 80 minutes was up, giving the Boks one last chance in the French half. From here, a series of French penalties gave South Africa the chance to win the game by driving over a lineout from close range.

Typical France. This is a game they should have won but they managed to throw it away with stupid mistakes.

South Africa

This was not a good match for the South African backs. Faf de Klerk’s kicking game was nowhere near the level of his recent appearances, while conversely the back line struggled to adapt to France’s kicking game as they heavily varied their kicks from chips to cross-kicks (Penaud was mere inches from collecting one for an early try) to high bombs like the one that led to Bastareaud’s try. In attack, the back line seemed nowhere near as effective as against England, while on one of the few times they did beat the French defence, Cheslin Kolbe did not protect the ball well enough as he went over the try line, leading to a try being disallowed – which should have cost them the game if not for the French errors. There has been a clear improvement in the Springboks since Rassie Erasmus took over, but they still have some way to go to be more consistent.


Ireland

Ireland did not look at their usual level against the Pumas. Jordan Larmour surely knows that he will be put under some pressure with the high ball, but at this point there is a clear difference in how well Ireland deal with the opponent’s kicking game when he is at 15 compared to Rob Kearney, who is arguably one of the best in the world under the high ball. But it wasn’t just Larmour who struggled, as Jacob Stockdale also fumbled a number of high balls and the team also failed to deal with a couple of restarts. Heading into the coming match against the All Blacks, Ireland will have to do much better in this area if they are to beat the World Champions.

Argentina

In recent seasons, the best part of the Argentinian team has been their back 3. Bautista Delguy has been fantastic since coming on the scene and in my opinion should have been nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year 2018 and along with Ramiro Moyano and Emiliano Boffelli they have formed one of the most exciting and dangerous back 3s in World Rugby, yet they didn’t get much ball in this game other than when they were collecting Irish kicks and I think this limited the Pumas’ effectiveness during this game. I can’t help but wonder if the reticence to spread the ball was a worry as to Ireland’s effectiveness at the breakdown, so it will be interesting to see if their tactics will be any different this weekend against France, especially considering how good Bastareaud can be at the breakdown.


 

World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year 2018: The Shortlist

World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year 2018: The Shortlist

Last week, World Rugby announced their 5-man shortlist for the World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year 2018. This year’s list surprisingly omits Tadhg Furlong (a prop has still never been nominated) and David Pocock despite impressive seasons, leaving Malcolm Marx as the only forward on the list, while Ireland’s Johnny Sexton is the only representative from the Northern Hemisphere.

So who deserves the award this year? I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the 5 nominees and see who I feel should be named Player of the Year.

Beauden Barrett

The New Zealand fly half has been the winner the last 2 years and has the opportunity to match Dan Carter and Richie McCaw as the only players to win the award 3 times, but honestly I think he has made the list this year on the strength of his previous seasons and his role as the All Blacks’ starting 10 rather than on the strength of his performances.

While he is still an above average fly half, I think that this season he has benefited from the quality of his supporting cast and I think that his goal kicking has been too unreliable. I may be in the minority here, but I would love to see Richie Mo’unga to be given the starting 10 role for a while to create a fight for the coveted position.

Barrett is undeniably a talent, but I think both David Pocock and Tadhg Furlong have done more this year to justify a spot on the list.

Faf de Klerk

The Springboks turnaround under Rassie Erasmus has been phenomenal and a big part of that has been the play of de Klerk. The Sale scrum half is probably the form 9 in World Rugby at the moment and does a wonderful job of hassling the opposition (just ask Aaron Smith during the Rugby Championship and Nathan Hughes in the June Tests). Not only that but in attack he has done a good job of keeping the ball coming to the backs quickly and has also given an extra dimension to South Africa’s play with his tactical kicking.

Though I may be an England fan, I really wish the weekend’s Test match against South Africa had been inside World Rugby’s Test window so that he and Willie le Roux could play, even though that would have likely given them the victory.

Rieko Ioane

Ioane has played in 8 matches for the All Blacks this year and amassed 11 tries, 2 assists, and 771 metres off 35 carries with 36 defenders beaten and 26 clean breaks.

Like Barrett, while he obviously benefits from being in a fantastic team, Ioane is a real talent with incredible space and footwork but is also deceptively strong in contact. This year has been no fluke as he has 22 tries from 21 Tests for New Zealand in his career and I will not be surprised to see him pushing for the record of most tries in a World Cup, currently held by Brian Habana, Jonah Lomu and Julian Savea.

Malcolm Marx

The second South African on this list, I am a big fan of Marx and recently picked him in my World XV Challenge. He is a powerful ball carrier and in defence it is like having an extra flanker on the pitch. When South Africa have a lineout within 10 metres of the opponent’s line, I have just got to the point now that I expect to see Marx at the back of a driving maul going over for a try.

Unfortunately for Marx, he does have a weakness at the moment – his unreliable lineout throwing – which proved costly against England at the weekend and will probably stop him from winning this year’s award.

Johnny Sexton

What a year Ieland have had! A 6 Nations Grand Slam and a series victory against Australia in the June Tests represents on of their best ever years, and Sexton has been at the heart of this.

He may not be the most reliable kicker off the tee, but his command of his back line is incredible and even though everyone knows his classic wraparound move is coming, they still seem incapable of stopping it. Add in his willingness to play a high bomb into the opposition 22 and his supremely accurate kicking out of hand and he is arguably one of – if not the best – 10s in the world right now, especially when he can stay in one piece as he has done more so this year.

If he can earn Irleand the victory over New Zealand later this month, then he is surely a shoe-in for the award!

 

So who gets the vote? I decided to ask a couple of friends for their opinions having looked at the shortlist. Phil is a colleague from work and an England fan, while Tino is an old uni friend and former Pistol Shrimps teammate who supports England and Italy.

Phil’s vote: Faf de Klerk

Tino’s vote: Johnny Sexton

As for me? While I want to give the award to Ioane for such a prolific season, I think the run of 6 consecutive awards for Kiwis is coming to an end. De Klerk very nearly got my vote and could still get it if he can help lead South Africa to victories over France, Scotland and Wales. But for me, this year’s winner has to be Johnny Sexton, irrespective of the result against the All Blacks.

Who gets your vote?

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 1

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 1

November is here and for rugby fans that means one thing: the Autumn Internationals are here. Following up on their Bledisloe Cup whitewash, the All Blacks fielded a much-changed XV against Japan to begin their journey to the Northern Hemisphere, while the Home Nations all kicked off their month, including a trip to Chicago for Ireland to face Italy.

The results from Week 1 were:

  • Japan 31-69 New Zealand
  • Wales 21-10 Scotland
  • England 12-11 South Africa
  • USA 22-59 Maori All Blacks
  • Ireland 54-7 Italy

Now unfortunately due to where certain games were televised, I was only able to watch the England and Wales games so this week I will be focusing on these 2 matches. But first a couple of other points that I felt necessary to mention…


Calendar issues

People may be surprised by the lack of international matches this weekend, but there is an important reason for this: World Rugby’s window for Test matches did not cover this weekend. For this reason, teams were not required to release players to the national teams, which is why players like Liam Williams and Dan Biggar were not involved in the Doddie Weir Cup game at the Principality Stadium and a number of influential South Africans like Willie le Roux, Faf de Klerk and Franco Mostert did not feature against England.

I do not understand for one moment why World Rugby are allowing these games to go ahead. Yes, players missing gives coaches a chance to test players on the fringe of the squad but they could do that in their other matches anyway. It’s just yet another match where players have a chance of getting injured (as happened to Tom Curry against South Africa and Ben Morgan & Manu Tuilagi in the preceding week) and in a time when many people would already argue that players play too much, this is yet another risk to those taking part.

I understand the unions need to generate revenue, but in a week where the WRU and SRU have had to be publicly shamed into donating to the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, it just feels like this is another example of the greedy unions putting money before player well-being.

That tackle

Watching the England match at home with my colleague Phil was a roller coaster of emotions, and none more so than in the final moments of the game as Owen Farrell put in a huge hit on André Esterhuizen. Next to me, Phil was yelling out a slightly less polite variant of “what a hit!” and while I initially began to cheer, the moment quickly caught me as I began to wonder if the hit was legal, not helped at all when I saw that referee Angus Gardner was speaking with the TMO. My heart was in my mouth and the relief when Gardner announced he was happy with the challenge and ended the game was overwhelming.

Unsurprisingly, this became the most talked about moment of the weekend’s action, but I must admit I was shocked by how many fans, reporters and pundits felt that the hit was illegal, with people throwing out sanctions from just a penalty all the way to a red card! My personal feeling when I saw the replays along with the officials was that it was a legal hit.

I saw some people online comparing this to Danny Cipriani’s red against Munster and – while I didn’t agree fully with that call – I don’t see how that comparison can be made here as Cipriani clearly did make contact with the head, whereas Farrell’s shoulder made contact with the head. To me the question about legality came down to whether this was a tackle or a shoulder charge. Farrell hits with his right shoulder and I won’t argue that his right arm is down by his side, but the angle from behind Esterhuizen showed that his left arm did attempt to wrap and he in fact almost managed to rip the ball out, but the force of the hit pushed them apart.

What I have not seen many people mention online was that South Africa’s penalty to go 9-11 up came after Thomas du Toit and RG Snyman tackled George Kruis together, each with the arm they were tackling with down by their side. If you say Farrell’s was illegal then so are those hits, so the blame cannot be put on Angus Gardner or the officials for “blowing” the call at the end. Gardner has been consistent on his rulings in this match, it is now up to World Rugby to ensure this consistency continues. Farrell may have avoided a citing, but I doubt we have heard the end of this just yet.


England

Back when I was playing junior rugby, I remember being constantly coached that the first tackler should go low to stop the ball carrier, then the second man should go high. It seems that not many of the England team remembered this at the weekend. Going into the game, I was worried by how the pack would front up against the Boks and I would argue that the answer was all too often not very well. Players continually went high and it allowed players like Eben Etzebeth and Damian de Allende to continually make ground and put the Springboks on the front foot for much of the match. One of the few times that someone went low on Etzebeth, Kyle Sinckler stopped him in his tracks and dumped him on the floor. While I understand going for the ball, the important thing must always be to stop the carrier first.

Looking ahead to the next match against the All Blacks, I think Eddie Jones has to make some changes. While I thought Alec Hepburn was unfortunate to be pulled at halftime, I think Ben Moon did very well off the bench and would in fact suggest starting Moon and Williams (probably the stronger scrummagers) then having the more mobile Hepburn and Sinckler come off the bench in the second half. I have been critical of Mark Wilson’s selection previously, but I think he went about his business well and think he has earned his spot for the next match. I would also give Zach Mercer an overdue first Test start as I feel he made a really positive impact off the bench and (assuming Tom Curry is fit to face New Zealand) I would drop the largely ineffectual Brad Shields to the bench. I don’t think there should be any changes to the back line – though I do wonder if Elliot Daly’s struggles under the high ball may see a return for Mike Brown – but if Manu Tuilagi is fit then I would love to see both him and Ashton on the bench in place of George Ford as they would probably be bigger game changers, while Henry Slade can play 10 if something happens to Farrell.

South Africa

Regardless of your thoughts on Farrell’s tackle, that one moment did not lose South Africa the game. Malcolm Marx is a fantastic player – he recently made my team in my World XV Challenge – but he had a poor game at Twickenham and overthrew a number of crucial lineouts. In the 10 minutes that Maro Itoje was in the sin bin, England won 3-0 despite the Boks starting the period with a penalty 5m out from the England line. Perhaps even worse, they made the same mistake that New Zealand did against them in the Rugby Championship by not going for the drop goal. They had Handrè Pollard and Elton Jantjies both on the field and had the ball pretty central int he England 22 with just minutes left, yet neither made an attempt to get in the pocket or set up for a match-winning drop goal and instead Lood de Jager allowed Owen Farrell to rip the ball away. Had England been a little smarter with their time management and held onto the ball for just a few phases after this, that would have been the match over and the debate about Farrell’s tackle would have never begun. This South Africa team has come a long way since Rassie Erasmus took over and they wee arguably missing a number of key players due to European clubs not releasing them, but if they want to take the next step then they need to start managing the game better in the key moments.


Wales

With Warren Gatland having returned to New Zealand ahead of the Doddie Weir Cup following the passing of his father, I can’t help but feel that Shaun Edwards took charge of training in his absence. This was a vintage performance from the Welsh reminiscent of some of their most successful seasons with Gatland at the helm.

The Scottish forwards were unable to get on the front foot, such was the physicality of the Welsh defending, and this then allowed the defence to hassle Adam Hastings and make it all but impossible to get the back line working effectively on a regular basis. I was surprised and disappointed when I saw Dan Lydiate had been named in the starting XV as I was really looking forward to seeing Ellis Jenkins get a shot in the team but the Ospreys flanker rolled back the clock with a wonderful performance and with so many back rows currently unavailable he may have just put himself back in contention for the World Cup squad.

Scotland

Despite the dominance of the Welsh defence, Scotland still had some great chances and could potentially have come away with victory. George Horne (who did a wonderful job off the bench) put in a lovely little chip into the Welsh in-goal area for his brother Peter, but the centre just couldn’t quite get hold of the ball and dot it down. Jonny Gray did actually dot the ball down over the line but the try was rightfully disallowed and a penalty given against the lock for a double movement.

While the Horne drop was unfortunate, it was by no means an easy catch to make, but to me the Gray penalty was so stupid as he knows that he is making a double movement (I have been in a similar position before where I have started reaching for the line and realised that I will be short, so instead presented the ball to my team) and his support is clearly there. It is not a matter of reach for the line or get turned over, if he presents the ball back, Scotland keep the pressure on and potentially score a couple of phases later. Instead, a penalty allows the Welsh to not just clear their line but also get possession back. This was a costly mistake from one of the most experienced players in the squad.


 

Eyes On: Bledisloe III 2018

Eyes On: Bledisloe III 2018

New Zealand and Australia prepared to kick off their Autumn tours to the Northern Hemisphere this weekend with their third and final meeting of the year in Yokohama. After a tight first half that saw the All Blacks lead by 7 points, the Australian defence was unable to keep up in the second half as New Zealand scored 5 tries in total to win 20-37 and take the Bledisloe Cup in a 3-0 whitewash this year.

Options in the backs

I have a couple of times recently been critical of the Williams/Crotty centre partnership as I do not feel the balance is right in midfield when they are together. While I do still think this, I think that Steve Hansen may have a solution. Ben Smith is in my opinion still the best fullback New Zealand have, but moving him to the wing and playing Damian McKenzie at 15 (where I rate him so much higher than at 10) meant that there was still another playmaking option beyond Beauden Barrett. Personally, I think there are better options than Smith on the wing but he is too good a player to leave out, so I imagine whether he plays at 14 or 15 will often depend on who is selected at centre.

Beyond that, it’s great to see TJ Perenara getting a start as he so often has to play second fiddle to Aaron Smith but would walk into pretty much any other international team, but I still feel that Richie Mo’unga needs to be given more gametime (he did not come on until 12 minutes remained) and especially as the starting 10. I can’t imagine him starting against England and Ireland but I will be shocked if he doesn’t start against Japan and Italy.

The backup

Very similar to Mo’unga, I really think Nick Phipps needs to get the starts at scrum half for Australia this summer. Will Genia is a talented player but did not have a good game in Yokohama. He was too quick to shift away from Kieran Read as he came off a scrum and – combined with Ned Hanigan being slow to break off the scrum – this made it easy for Read to go over for a try, while he also didn’t cover the blind side well enough from another scrum, allowing Reiko Ioane to break away and put Barrett over for another try. There was also another moment when I found myself yelling at the television as Australia took the ball into contact and gave away a penalty at the breakdown because he didn’t clean out and instead waited in position for a ball that was never coming back. It may be time to look at moving on from him.

Regardless of whether his starting place should be under threat or not, Phipps needs to get more game time as a starter in case something happens to Genia during the World Cup. Australia have a great set of players and if they can get their act together then they have the potential to challenge for the victory, but if they then have to turn to a 9 who is used to only playing about 10 minutes at the end of games, they are bound to struggle. The problem for Phipps now will be that recent results have been so poor for Australia, Cheika needs a successful tour, so I expect to see him stick with Genia for the matches against Wales and England.

What’s the plan?

Anyone who read my series throughout the Rugby Championship will know that I was not impressed with the way Michael Cheika was setting up his backline. This match was no exception. Israel Folau was wasted at 13 and his few decent breaks came from when he was back retrieving kicks. Even odder was the way that at every set piece, the Wallabies seemed to be swapping their position in the back line. While that could be done to great effect to confuse the defence, the only ones who looked confused were in green and gold! Folau’s best attribute is arguably his ability to contest the high ball – something wasted in the centre. I was not surprised to see the back line begin to look more organised once Samu Kerevi came on in the centre and Folau was moved to the wing. Suddenly players were in their correct positions and they had a hard, physical runner in the midfield. I’ll be interested to see what Michael Cheika does in the next few matches.

World Cup warm-up

While an important match in itself, the hosting of this match at Nissan Stadium – set to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final – was also meant to be a warm-up and test ahead of the tournament. To say I was not encouraged is a bit of an understatement.

Granted Australia have been in poor form, but to only have an attendance of 46,143 in a stadium with a capacity of over 72,000 seems hugely disappointing. Being a football stadium, the pitch also did not fill me with hope as it started cutting up almost immediately. While it can maybe withstand the odd game of rugby, will it be able to hold up to matches on 21st & 22nd September, 12th & 13th October, 26th & 27th October and then still be in a good enough condition to make the final on 2nd November the spectacle it should be? I have my doubts.

But perhaps worst of all in this match was the sponsors on the pitch. I completely understand the reasons for the sponsors to show on the pitch and I accept that, but to have them digitally added onto the broadcast rather than painted onto the pitch was a dismal failure! The computer systems seemed unable to differentiate between the pitch itself and the players, with the players constantly disappearing as they ran “over” the sponsors. If this is technology they plan to use for the World Cup, they have a lot of work to do!