The Wrong Move?

The Wrong Move?

This weekend just gone, myself and a group of fellow Pistol Shrimps found ourselves on a Zoom call to wish a teammate a happy birthday, and talk invariably turned to the future. May 2021 should have seen the Shrimps competing in their 10ᵗʰ Aber 7s, but the COVID-19 pandemic has left us stuck on 8, with last year’s tournament cancelled and this year’s likely not going ahead either.

And yet the professional tournaments for “elite” players continue, despite people going down with COVID left, right and centre. Squads are currently being named for the Six Nations, despite the most recent 2 rounds of European rugby being canned due to France taking a stand against the pandemic. The whole build-up seems like a farce and after the boredom of the Autumn Nations Cup – with it’s empty stadiums and matches cancelled due to COVID outbreaks – I have never found myself less enthused about the start of the Six Nations.

I am a die-hard rugby fan, but right here, right now, the health of the population – in every country – is much more important. And yet as each round of Premiership rugby goes on, we hear of more players testing positive. Celebrations for scoring a try become limited, but if you can’t high five someone from your own bubble, why should you be able to scrum down against someone from outside your bubble? I understand that rugby needs to keep going as much as possible to avoid financial trouble, but the league is a farce when teams are getting more points for having to cancel due to COVID than teams who are successfully avoiding outbreaks, while the wrong people having to isolate can prove costly.

To me, rugby should be stopping its elite competitions right now and creating more localised bubbles containing a handful of local teams (Premiership teams could link with Championship teams) for smaller exhibition tournaments and effectively use this season as a long preseason ahead of next season, by which point we should be in a better place.

Taking players to the Six Nations is just a recipe for spreading the disease among a wider group, so I sincerely feel that the Six Nations should be missed this year, and I also find it hard to imagine that rugby will be ready for the Lions Tour to South Africa in the summer.

 

Right now, it’s hard to feel that professional rugby has any credibility, with money appearing to be much more important than health, safety or even the integrity of the game. I can’t help feel that if we look back at the end of 2021, I can’t help feel that we would agree that a break from competition ended up being the right call.

In the meantime, I will just continue to look ahead to the return of the COVID-free Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Oceans Apart

Oceans Apart

Welcome to Sport on the Silver Screen. In this series, I will be looking back over sports movies that I have recently watched/re-watched and giving my thoughts on them. Getting into the Schmoedown and starting to follow a number of the personalities from the show has given me a much greater appreciation of movies and seen me starting to watch more.

Being a fan of both movies and sports, I have taken the chance to start highlighting the sheer volume of sports movies out there. For each movie I will be giving some details about the movie and then a quick review, including a section giving a sports fan’s perspective of the action’s realism.

Now, today I’m doing something a little different, by looking at a recently released documentary that is currently available to watch on Amazon Prime: Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal and Pacific Island Rugby

Ocans Apart Cover

Directed by Callum Drummond & Axel Haudiquet

Released in 2020

Starring: Dan Leo

Synopsis: Former Samoa captain Dan Leo looks at the issues faced by Pacific Islands rugby players to see why these nations that are responsible for so many of the game’s superstars are struggling so much on the world stage.

documentary Oceans Apart

This was a fantastic documentary and a real eye-opener. As a fan of rugby in general, I have been so disappointed to see the way that the Pacific Islands – especially Samoa and Tonga – have struggled over the last couple of decades as rugby has gone professional. So many times, I’ve been disappointed to see players from the Pacific Islands choosing to play for Tier 1 nations where they may earn just a handful of caps, rather than playing 40-odd times for the country of their birth – a notable example being Charles Piutau, who won 17 caps for New Zealand but had not played international rugby since 2015. Watching this though made me really begin to understand why the players choose to play elsewhere as there is limited financial incentive to play for the Pacific Island nations.

As the documentary explains, Dan Leo was the captain of Samoa when the team threatened to boycott a match against England at Twickenham in 2014 due to financial discrepancies within the Samoan Rugby Union, as publicly-funded money was not reaching the team. The game eventually went ahead with the promises that everything would be investigated, but nothing ever came of it bar a few headlines at the time, and Leo found himself omitted from the squad moving forwards. Leo was not the only influential Samoa player to be dropped from the national team following criticism of the union, which is headed by the Prime Minister, and the way that funds are used.

In this 1 documentary, Leo really highlights the impact of the lack of funding – showing a player who has been left to fend for himself in Romania after losing his contract due to a kidney issue while also updating us on what happened to Fijian wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca, who was one of the stars of RWC2003. As we follow his investigations, which also involve interviews with a key members of the rugby community, including James Haskell (who played in the 2014 match against Samoa), Ben Ryan (who coached Fiji to Olympic Rugby 7s Gold), outspoken Samoan centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and a number of Pacific Islanders who play in the Premiership and Pro14, the issues become clear.

As the documentary shows, many of these unions are led by people who could be considered problematic due to their role in the nation’s government, but as the documentary shows, the issues go beyond the national unions and to the way that the nations are treated by World Rugby, who clearly favour the “Tier 1” nations, with Brett Gosper (who was at the time CEO of World Rugby, but will now be stepping down to take up a role within the NFL in the New Year) coming across very poorly in an interview.

I won’t say any more about this, except that this should be a must-watch for all rugby fans, and that hopefully this will lead to pushes for change that will give more support to nations outside of Tier 1.

 

What did you think of the documentary? Let me know in the comments. Until next time!

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Team of the Tournament

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Team of the Tournament

We are now 1 week removed from the end of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup, and so the only thing left to do is pick my Team of the Tournament. This year’s competition was far from perfect, with COVID-19 causing all of Fiji’s pool games to be cancelled, very little prep time for the Georgians and a player usage agreement with the Top 14 leaving the French only able to use each player a couple of times – leading to them playing their final with an inexperienced squad of fringe players.

Of course, this did not help for picking a team of the tournament as some players only featured in 1 match, whereas others got the full 4 matches, and I have generally chosen to give more credit for consistency than a great one-off performance.

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As always, I’d love to hear who you would pick, but without further ado, my Team of the 2020 Tri Nations is:

1) Danilo Fischetti: It’s so great seeing an Italian prop putting in great performances again! The Zebre prop has secured the number 1 jersey for the Azzurri over the last year with a number of powerful performances. Fischetti throws his weight about in defence but also has the control of his body to stay on his feet and lock in over the ball to win a number of turnovers.

2) Jamie George: The England pack is an absolute beast, and Jamie George is certainly a grateful beneficiary of that, being able to hang on at the back of the maul to drop over the line for simple tries. However, he plays a key role in setting this up with his reliability at the set piece, while he is also a solid defender who is also comfortable with the ball in hand. 

3) Kyle Sinckler: Sticking with the England pack and Kyle Sinckler gets the nod here as part of a front row that demolished all that challenged it. The Bristol tighthead has always had the talent but has matured and cut out the stupid penalties, to make himself a real force in the game.

4) Maro Itoje: I’m not the biggest fan of the England lock as he gives away some truly brainless penalties an should be penalised much more often, but even I can recognise that he is a phenomenal player and when he gets it right, he gets it very right, with a number of turnovers and constant hassling at the opposition lineout.

5) James Ryan: I certainly found it hard to pick a second player here, but instead settled on James Ryan. Similar to Itoje, I am not as high on him as the rest of the world seems to be, and the issues with the Irish lineout certainly don’t help, but he has an engine on him and will continually put in the hard carries and tackles.

6) Jamie Ritchie: The Scottish flanker is a constant nuisance, there is no finer praise I can give. Dangerous at the breakdown and a threat with ball in hand when there is space in front of him, you can always rely on him to put in consistent performances.

7) Justin Tipuric: The Welshman was one of the few positives for Wayne Pivac’s men and like Ritchie, you always know that you’re going to get a 110% performance from him. We always know that he is dangerous around the breakdown, but this tournament also gave us a timely reminder of just how dangerous he is carrying in space.

8) Caelan Doris: I really enjoy watching the Leinster back row play, as he provides such a reliable carrying option for Andy Farrell, able to make the hard yards in tight, but also able to open up his stride in wider areas to make the big metres. He’s the kind of player who will take Ireland to the next level.

9) Antoine Dupont: Dupont is without a doubt one of the best scrum halves in the world and an absolute joy to watch. He may have had limited minutes in the tournament, but does so much with his time on the pitch that he still set himself above everyone else, helped in part with a number of teams lacking consistency at the position during their matches.

10) Matthieu Jalibert: Jalibert looks to be locked in as the back-up to Romain Ntamack for now and certainly needs to get more experience at international level, but looked very promising during this tournament. He continued the running of the French attack in Ntamack’s absence an was reliable off the tee, being a key part of France’s run to the final, where his injury proved costly.

11) Duhan van der Merwe: Scotland’s new 6′ 4″ wing gives an extra dimension to their attack. Allowed the freedom to come looking for the ball, van der Merwe gives a physical option in the back line, while still having the pace to take advantage of any clean air, and the brain to create great attacking opportunities with snipes around the breakdown or clever running lines.

12) Merab Sharikadze: Many may be surprised to see a Georgian make the list, but the Lelos’ captain led by example throughout the tournament and constantly provided a staunch defensive barrier to hassle opponents.

13) Chris Farrell: The Munster centre took his chances to play with aplomb, providing a solid defence while being arguably one of their better players in attack, though his chances were much more limited with Ireland’s territory-focused gameplan when Ross Byrne was at 10.

14) Hugo Keenan: The new man on the scene for Ireland has surely secured his place in the Irish back 3. Comfortable under the high ball and with good footwork, Keenan provides reliability at the highest level while also bringing a genuine attacking threat.

15) Brice Dulin: Arguably one of the biggest beneficiaries from the match limit agreement between the Top 14 and the French national team, Dulin was given the chance to show his quality against Italy and England. His silky footwork made him dangerous in space and his high bomb added another weapon to the French arsenal.

Rugby Championship 2020: Team of the Tournament

Rugby Championship 2020: Team of the Tournament

With the Rugby Championship over for another year, there is only 1 thing left to do: pick my Team of the Tournament. This year’s competition was a little different, with World Champions South Africa sitting out as they looked to get back on track following the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving us with a Tri Nations featuring just New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, while the entire tournament was played in Australia to make COVID precautions easier to deal with.

New Zealand may have won the tournament, but they will not look back on this year fondly as they struggled for any consistency under Ian Foster and lost in consecutive matches to Argentina and Australia. The Wallabies and Pumas meanwhile played out 2 draws that left them unable to claim the top spot, though they should be proud of their accomplishments given the inexperience of the Australia team and the lack of post-COVID rugby for the Pumas.

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As always, I’d love to hear who you would pick, but without further ado, my Team of the 2020 Tri Nations is:

1) Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro: The loosehead position was one of the harder ones to pick due to the variation in the starting players. However for me, Tetaz Chaparro’s absence was keenly felt when he wasn’t on the pitch as the scrums went from a weapon to a liability.

2) Julián Montoya: A number of hookers showed moments of real quality, but Montoya got the nod here. A long-term understudy at international level for Agustín Creevy, Montoya has bags of experience at the international level despite just a handful of Test starts, and proved his quality as a key piece of Argentina’s robust defensive efforts. 

3) Taniela Tupou: The “Tongan Thor” may not have had things all his own way in the tournament, splitting time with Allan Ala’alatoa during the tournament, but when he was on the pitch, he added physicality and bite to Australia’s attack and defence, while also gaining an advantage over his opponents in the scrum.

4) Guido Petti: The Argentine lock sat out the last match as part of the fallout from the re-emergence of some controversial tweets, but ahead of that he was a key part of Argentina’s set piece, giving reliability on their own lineout throw while frequently stealing or hassling opposition ball.

5) Matt Philip: The Rebels lock may only have a handful of caps to his name, but he looks like he has been playing Test rugby for years – there can be no higher compliment than that. Philip looked controlled the lineout and also carried well to add more power to the Wallabies pack.

6) Pablo Matera: The Argentina captain led from the front and led by example. A key physical part of the Pumas defence with organised tackles and opportunistic turnovers. Meanwhile on attack, he carried hard and almost won Argentina their first Test against the Wallabies with a cultured kick forwards at the death that should have been finished by Santiago Cordero. I would call the Argentinian one of the best – but also most underrated – opensides in world rugby.

7) Sam Cane: Marcos Kremer was another key part of the Pumas’ defensive effort, while Michael Hooper added experience to a young back row. However I instead went for Sam Cane. He’s not the flashiest of players by any means, but is such a threat at the breakdown and always seems to be in the right place to make a key turnover, while also putting his body on the line for the win.

8) Rodrigo Bruni: Harry Wilson looked good and will get better as he gains experience at this level, but I went for Rodrigo Bruni this time around. He may not have played as much as his fellow number 8s, but when he was on the pitch he just added to the formidable Pumas defence. Argentina never looked stronger than when they had their first choice back row on the pitch.

9) Nic White: I may not be the biggest fan of White, but with such an inexperienced team around him and limitations at fly half, White did a key job of bringing experience and control to the game. I’m hoping hat Tate McDermott will be given more frequent game time moving forwards, as his youth and attacking ability would create a strong counterpoint to White’s control and kicking game.

10) Nicolás Sánchez: It had looked like Sánchez may be past his prime, but he was back with a bang in this tournament. While his attacking opportunities may have been a little limited, his control of the game was highlighted whenever he came off the pitch, while his kicking off the tee allowed the Pumas to keep the scoreboard ticking over despite a largely defensive performance.

11) Marika Koroibete: The Rebels winger just beats out Caleb Clarke as I feel he was a little more consistent. Koroibete’s attacking talents are clear for all to see, but something that often gets forgotten is his workrate both on and off the ball and his accomplished defence, which often comes to the fore at key moments.

12) Hunter Paisami: Matt To’omua’s injury could have been costly, but Hunter Paisami did a fantastic job of replacing him. He was more commonly seen at 13 for the Reds during Super Rugby AU, but looked more reliable at 12, where the defensive job allowed him to focus on using his physicality, while he also provided a great carrying option in attack.

13) Matías Orlando: The new signing for the Newcastle Falcons gets the nod here as much for his consistency at the position while Australia and New Zealand chopped and changed. That consistency at the 13 position is a key factor in Argentina’s success as he helped to keep the defence organised and stop teams breaking wider out fromthe breakdown. 

14) Bautista Delguy: He may only be 23 years old, but it feels like Delguy has been around for years. Unfortunately he wasn’t at his best in the World Cup as he was just returning from injury, but he showed us all what we were missing in this tournament. While being solid in defence, he was a bright spark with ball in hand, proving very difficult to bring down.

15) Santiago Carreras: He may have had a torrid time when moved to fly half, but Carreras looked so solid at 15. He’s known for his attacking quality, but was reliable in the more defensive performances from the Pumas and used his big boot to good effect. At just 22, he is anther player to keep your eye on over the coming years.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v France

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v France

With Saturday having seen 3ʳᵈ-8ᵗʰ decided, Sunday saw England hosting France at Twickenham to decide the overall winner of the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. A player usage agreement with the Top 14 meant that France were using fringe players against what Eddie Jones would probably consider close to his ideal XV, and it was the home team who opened the scoring in front of 2000 fans with a penalty from Owen Farrell. Les Bleus weren’t just there to make up the numbers, though, and when Matthieu Jalibert broke through the England defence on the edge of their 22, he quickly spread it wide to put Brice Dulin over for the opening try, which Jalibert converted. Elliot Daly and Jalibert traded penalties, but England were gifted an opportunity at the end of the half as Dulin failed to recognise that he had been passed the ball by a player outside his 22, kicking the ball out on the full to give England a lineout deep in the French 22. England went through 12 phases camped on the French line – during which George Ford butchered an overlap to go for the line himself – before Ellis Genge knocked on as he tried to fight his was across from a pick-and-go. The French won the free kick at the resulting scrum and were able to put the ball into touch to end the half with a 6-13 lead.

The second half stared as the first ended, with Anthony Watson knocking on Owen Farrell’s cross kick in the air, but Farrell soon kicked a penalty to narrow the gap, before missing a couple of kicks in a row. Jalibert left the pitch early with an injury and was replaced by fellow youngster Louis Carbonel, and though he struggled to get the offence running as well with Jonathan Danty also off, his kicking from the tee was on point as he kicked to penalties to one more from Farrell to give Les Bleus a 7-point lead with just minutes left. It looked like the French would hold out for the unlikeliest of victories, but referee Andrew Brace and TMO Ben Whitehouse both failed to spot 2 clear knock-ons from the English in their last gasp attack, before Brace awarded England a penalty. George Ford kicked to the corner and the England pack managed to drive the ball infield for Luke Cowan-Dickie to go over with the clock in the red, Farrell kicking the conversion in the clutch to leave the scores level at 19-19 at full time.

And so the game entered sudden death extra time, and for a moment it looked as if it would be over almost immediately as England were awarded a penalty, but Owen Farrell’s kick hit the right post and flew across the face of the posts without going between them. France worked their way downfield but were unable to set up the drop goal, ending the first period still at 19-19. England started getting the decisions in the second period, though, which allowed them to control the territory. France were clearly tiring quicker and when Alivereti Raka was isolated following a clever kick to the corner, England were awarded another penalty and Farrell bisected the posts to complete the most undeserving of victories and be crowned the first ever Autumn Nations Cup Champions.

Kick to nowhere

You know what you’re getting with England these days: a solid defence, and the ball being kicked within a couple of phases of winning possession. And yet despite having a back line full of talented kickers of the ball – Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly – the kicking game was an absolute shambles in this game.

In Anthony Watson and Jonny May, England have 2 premier talents, with the pace and aerial ability to cause problems for their opponents, and yet they were barely given a chance to compete, while Brice Dulin and Matthieu Jalibert had a relatively easy job of dealing with most of their kicks.

George Ford is supposedly one of the premier attacking 10s in World Rugby – as the commentary repeatedly told us – and yet he did nothing of note in attack other than butcher a try just before half time, while his kicking was aimless, other than one quality kick to the corner to set up the game-tying try. Meanwhile, reliable kicker Owen Farrell may as well have flipped a coin before each kick to decide if it was going ever or not – he never seemed to get fully comfortable on the day, which almost proved costly.

If England are going to rely on defence and the kicking game rather than trying to play rugby, they need to be perfect in everything they do. This is a game that they should have lost, and they need to seriously improve if they want to even stand a chance against the French in the Six Nations.

La fiabilité

For so long, the cliché has been that you never know which French team will turn up from week to week. Well that can be well and truly forgotten right now. Under Fabien Galthié, the French team has been largely consistent in its selection – though don’t be surprised to see a few fringe players fighting for a spot after the last couple of performances – but the consistency has gone even beyond that.

With Shaun Edwards coaching the defence, the French have become so solid and reliable, while their discipline is also far better than it was beforehand. And even this week, with the fringe players on the pitch who have likely had less time in camp, that defensive solidity was clear to all to see.

And yet unlike some teams with strong defences, they also have the attacking skills to match it. Yes, they were a little lacking towards the end of the game, but Louis Carbonel will only improve as he gets more experience both for Toulon and France, and will also benefit from playing with a settled team that has more chemistry.

From the early stages of the 2020 Six Nations, I felt confident that France would be my favourites to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The more I see of them, the more confident I feel of that prediction.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Italy

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Italy

Saturday’s 3ʳᵈ and final Autumn Nations Cup game came took us to Parc y Scarlets, where Wales hosted Italy in the fight for 5ᵗʰ place. Wayne Pivac had selected a team with a blend of youth and experience, and they got off to the better start as Taulupe Faletau put Justin Tipuric through a gap and the flanker fed Kieran Hardy to go over for his first Test try, which Callum Sheedy converted. 10 minutes later and another Welsh player was celebrating their first Test try, as Wales went through the phases and Sam Parry eventually pushed over from close range, Sheedy converting again. Italy finally started to get some possession in the Welsh half and Paolo Garbisi opened their account with a penalty. Just a few minutes later, Italy had a lineout on the Welsh 22, and when the maul came infield, Carlo Canna played a grubber in behind the defensive line and his centre partner Marco Zanon collected the ball to cross for his first Test try, which Garbisi duly converted. The Welsh were shook and on a warning for repeat infringements, which proved costly just before the end of the half, as a break from a ruck released Stephen Varney and the Gloucester halfback took the ball all the way to the Welsh 22. Josh Adams finally brought him down, but did not support his weight as he tried to force the turnover and found himself being sent to the sin bin, while Garbisi kicked the penalty to cut Wales’ lead to 14-13 at the break.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, it was Wales who had the better start to the second half, with Sheedy kicking a penalty to extend the lead, but Italy made use of the width of the pitch and the extra man to release Johan Meyer down the right wing, and the flanker sent Ioan Lloyd flying as crashed over for the go-ahead score. As the hour mark approached, Wales began to bring on the replacements, and they saw a marked improvement in the team’s performance. having been put through a gap by Taulupe Faletau in the first half, Justin Tipuric repaid the favour, and the number 8 released Gareth Davies, who outpaced the Italian defence to go over for the try, converted by Sheedy. The game was still in the balance, but Italy played too much in the midfield and were turned over with very few players left to defend out wide, which Wales took advantage of to get up to the Italian try line, before George North picked from the back of the ruck to go the final metres to score, Sheedy converting again. The result had already been decided but there was still time for Wales to add 1 more try, as Callum Sheedy’s delayed pass put the ball behind Federico Mori to Faletau, who put Tipuric over for the final try, which Sheedy converted for a final score of 38-18.

Breaking down

Wales have seriously been missing the breakdown talents of Josh Navidi, and it became apparent in this game. The team gave away a whopping 8 penalties in the first half for offences at the breakdown, with a couple of penalties coming on their own ball but most coming as they tried to win turnovers that weren’t on, either not releasing the tackled player, not coming through the gate or going off their feet. A few penalties is understandable, but the volume they were giving them away was embarrassing!

With all these penalties, it was a simple matter for Italy to claw themselves back into the match from 14-0 down. And much of this came from Wales’ inability to control the contact area. They will face much sterner tests than the Azzurri, and for this reason they need to be smarter at the breakdown. Josh Navidi’s return will be a massive help, as he is such a physical player and a great operator at the breakdown, but they cannot rely on him and a number of the other players in the squad, especially players in the pack, need to step up and do more if this team wants to improve anytime soon.

Defensive unity

Wales had clearly done their homework on the Italy defence as they found a weakness and ruthlessly exploited it. The Italians have added some real physicality to their defence, but too often they were not defending as a unit, but instead looking for the gang tackle on the ball carrier or jamming up on a potential receiver.

The Welsh attack took advantage of this to great effect, with a number of pops off to a runner on their shoulder right before contact catching out the defenders. Both hardy’s and Davies’ tries came from this, putting the runner through a hole to get through the defensive line, then playing it off to a support man.

Similarly, Tipuric’s try at the end came from Federico Mori jamming up on his own, which Sheedy had read. The delay on his pass took Mori completely out of the game and released Faletau, who again had support with him in the form of Tipuric to fully exploit the line break.

While their improved physicality is certainly helping them win more turnovers, the Azzurri need to work as a unit if they want to solidify their defence and keep the opposition’s score to a manageable level.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Scotland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Scotland

With 7ᵗʰ place sorted, it was on to Dublin, where Ireland faced off against Scotland for 3ʳᵈ place in the overall standings. The Irish were playing what Andy Farrell would probably consider his best available team and had the first chance to put points on the board with a penalty, only for Jonathan Sexton to put his kick wide. Scotland grew into the game and after Jaco van der Walt missed a kick on his Test debut, he successfully kicked his next 3 while Sexton also found success with a second effort. As the game began to open up around the half hour mark, an Irish attack was stopped by what referee Matthew Carley considered a deliberate knock on by Duncan Taylor and the centre was sent to the sin bin. The Irish took advantage of the extra man, kicking the initial penalty, and scoring the opening try just before the break, as Robbie Henshaw beat Darcy Graham in the air to a Sexton high ball into the Scotland in-goal, and Keith Earls beat Ali Price to the loose ball on the floor, though Sexton missed the conversion for an 11-9 lead at the halfway point.

The momentum remaining with Ireland after the break and they took advantage of it, with Cian Healy pushing over from a pick-and-go following a series of phases deep in the Scottish 22, before another set of phases in the 22 created a one-man overlap that allowed Peter O’Mahony to send Earls over in the corner, with Sexton adding both conversions. Scotland hit back with a wonderful solo effort from Duhan van der Merwe, sniping down the side of a ruck and past an oblivious Rob Herring before rounding Jacob Stockdale with an arcing run, van der Walt converting. However, the Scottish discipline let them down and Ross Byrne kicked a penalty. The Irish thought they had another try as O’Mahony was fed the ball in acres of space on the right wing, only for a covering tackle from van der Merwe to force him to put a toe in touch, but Byrne kicked another penalty to take the score to 31-16, and the Scots could find no answer in the final minutes.

Man of the match

Man of the Match Caelan Doris should be quickly becoming one of the first names on the team sheet. The Leinster back row brings an extra dimension to the Irish back row, making the hard metres alongside CJ Stander but also being able to open his legs and eat up the ground when given space.

Ireland need to find more ball carriers who can consistently make metres in attack in order to compete against the more physical teams like England, France and South Africa, and a back rower like Doris who can truck the ball up in the tight but also take the ball wider out helps to create a match-up nightmare.

Combining Doris with Stander also creates a degree of tactical flexibility, as both could conceivably pack down at 8 or 6 and do the same job around the pitch, allowing the team to vary who is at the base of the scrum to keep the defence guessing. With Stander an adept jackal, bringing in a flanker who will tackle non-stop would create a great balance to the back row and allow the star players to do what they do best.

Finding the balance

For so long, I have talked about how Scotland will be a threat if they can find the right balance, and it looks like they now have it in the back line. Ali Price is rowing into a very mature halfback and is probably underrated in his ability. In Stuart Hogg at 15 and whoever they have at 10 (van der Walt adding to the depth at the position with Duncan Weir, Adam Hastings and Finn Russell), they have a great playmaker axis, with Hogg creating space when he gets the ball out wide or coming in at first receiver to allow his fly half to play wider.

Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham are arguably the most dangerous pairing on the wings, with Sean Maitland and Blair Kinghorn providing great alternatives, and with the current centre pairing, it looks like they are finally getting released.

Today’s pairing of Duncan Taylor and Chris Harris may be known more for their defensive organisation, which is an important factor in Test rugby, but they also help to create the platform in midfield by running at the line and also knowing when to pass. Harris especially has developed a better attacking game since his move to Gloucester and can be a danger in the 13 channel, while Taylor has the work rate that all coaches cherish. Combine this with the danger of the carriers in the pack and the dual playmakers, and the space will come for the stars out wide to shine.

It was notable that Scotland struggled to create without Taylor on the pitch, and also looked much more beatable in defence. Scotland need to get the Taylor/Harris centre pairing on the pitch as much as they can, or find someone who can come in and keep the dynamic going.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Georgia v Fiji

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Georgia v Fiji

The Finals of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup kicked off at Murrayfield, where Georgia were facing off against Fiji for 7ᵗʰ place in the overall standings. The Fijians were competing in their first match of the tournament following COVID-19 issues, but soon made up for lost time with 2 tries in the opening 10 minutes. First, Nemani Nadolo picked up a bouncing ball and powered through 2 tackles to score in the corner on his return from retirement, then just a few minutes later, young flanker Johnny Dyer pushed himself over from a pick-and-go following a neat move off a lineout, Ben Volavola kicking the second try. The Georgians finally got on the board with a penalty from Tedo Abzhandadze, but Fiji hit back again, with a late switch of sides from centre Levani Botia giving Volavola an overlap on the right, which they exploited to put Josua Tuisova over in the corner, with Volavola converting. The Georgians were growing into the game though, and won a series of penalties off the restart, which eventually ended in replacement prop Giorgi Melikidze getting over the line with a pick-and-go, which Abzhandadze converted for a 10-19 halftime score.

Conditions began to improve after the break, and Fiji continued to control the game for the most part, though Peni Ravai was adjudged to have knocked on as he tried to dot the ball down on the line. Any questions that a lack of match fitness would see Fiji tire in the second half were soon answered as they only seemed to get stronger as the weather brightened, and the game was effectively over as a contest as they scored 3 tries (2 of which Volavola converted) in an 8 minute spell around the hour mark. First, Tuisova fended off Sandro Todua and rode 3 tackles before offloading to flanker Mesulame Kunavula to score in the corner, then Volavola fed a grubber to the left corner and the experienced Nadolo reacted quickest, diving down on the ball and sliding the final metres over the line, before finishing his hat trick just minutes later with a crash ball off a lineout to draw level with Vereniki Goneva at the top of the team’s scoring charts and cap off a Man of the Match performance. The Georgians didn’t give up though, and they were able to get some consolation, with flanker Beka Saghinadze crashing through the Fijian defence with 12 minutes left and riding Botia’s tackle to dot down next to the posts, and he popped up again in the final minute with a strong drive off a pick-and-go to get a second try on the day, with Abzhandadze converting both of his tries for a final score of 24-38.

Naive Lelos

With legend Mamuka Gorgodze retired and new star Beka Gorgadze missing through injury, Tornike Jalaghonia was given the start at number 8. While the 21-year-old was certainly doing well with the ball in hand and making some good metres- so much so that he surely nailed on a starting spot somewhere in the pack for their next match – I can’t help feel that his inexperience and naivety proved costly at times.

The Georgian scrum appeared to have the dominance over Fiji, but on a number of occasions, Jalaghonia would break off the back of the scrum and go for a run. While that attacking play would often be praised for improving the spectacle, it was depriving the Lelos of the territory they would have gained had they kept the ball in the scrum and kicked the resultant penalty to touch.

Conditions in Edinburgh were poor for running rugby, and the Fijians were earning some dominance at the breakdown, but some smarter play at the scrum could have seen the Fijians lose a man to the bin for persistent offending as well as giving the Lelos better areas from which to attack or put the pressure on.

What we were missing

One of the big stories of this tournament has been the shambles of Fiji’s chance to play, with a spate of COVID-19 amongst the squad leading to all 3 of their pool matches being cancelled and each match considered a 28-0 win (bonus point win) for the other team, leaving them to fight for 7ᵗʰ.

Thankfully, the trip to Britain wasn’t wholly wasted for the Fijians – who included Mesulame Kunavula, who was unable to attend his own mother’s funeral – as they put on a great show to remind everyone of their quality. With former referee Glen Jackson on Vern Cotter’s staff, the discipline is clearly improving, but not at the expense of their incredible attacking play.

In Lomani and Volavola, they have a 9 and 10 who can control the game, while the back row and the majority of the backline are incredible man-mountains who are strong enough to run right over you, but also fleet enough of foot to sashay around you and slight of hand to offload if you do somehow manage to tackle them. Fiji are a team everyone wants to see more of, and the best way to do that is exactly what Georgia needs too: regular matches against Tier 1 nations, with a fair split between home and away matches. If Fiji can get this, the sky is the limit.

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Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

The Tri-Nations edition of the Rugby Championship reached its end in Parramatta as hosts Australia took on Argentina. New Zealand’s victory last week meant that – bar the unlikeliest of routs – the 2 teams on show were fighting to finish 2ⁿᵈ, but both teams were coming in looking to finish the tournament on a high.

The Pumas have had a tough week following a heavy defeat and the re-emergence of racist social media posts from 3 players including captain Pablo Matera, but it didn’t seem to affect them on the pitch with their defence being as ferocious as ever in the wet. They found themselves temporarily down to 14 at the quarter-hour mark though, as Marcos Kremer was sent to the bin for a dangerous clean-out on James O’Connor, Reece Hodge kicking the penalty to put the Wallabies ahead. Nicolás Sánchez soon levelled with a penalty of his own from halfway, and just minutes after Kremer returned, it was Australia who had a man sent to the bin, Michael Hooper for the same offence on Sánchez, who was forced off for a HIA. Sánchez’s replacement Domingo Miotti – on for his Test debut – kicked the Pumas into a lead, before the Pumas took advantage of the extra man in the pack, driving a maul from their own 22 up tot he 10m line, before Felipe Ezcurra broke down the blind side and fed Bautista Delguy, who scythed between Hunter Paisami and Marika Koroibete to score the opening try, which Miotti converted. Sánchez returned to the pitch, but the Wallabies had a chance to narrow the gap right before the break with a scrum penalty right under the posts, which Hodge duly kicked for a 6-13 halftime score.

The Aussie comeback continued in the second half with Hodge landing another penalty, but their hopes soon took a hit as replacement Lukhan Salakaia-Loto was sent off on the hour mark for a high tackle on Santiago Grondona, who had to go for a HIA. Miotti, back on the pitch as Sánchez struggled with a niggling injury, kicked the penalty to take the Pumas to 16 points. Australia didn’t give up though and after some sustained pressure, Grondona’s replacement Lucas Paulos was sent to the bin for collapsing a maul after Angus Gardner tired of the Puma’s repeat offending. Australia kicked the penalty to the corner and a well-worked lineout saw captain Hooper driven over for the try, with Reece Hodge converting to level the scores. With just minutes left, Australia earned a penalty wide right just inside the Argentina half and Hodge stepped up to try and win the game, only for his 100% record to disappear as the kick sailed wide right to secure a 16-16 draw. The result means that Argentina and Australia finish on equal points, but points difference gave the Pumas 2ⁿᵈ place in the standings and the Wallabies had to settle for 3ʳᵈ.

Midfield might

Australia were very unlucky to lose their starting 10/12 combo of James O’Connor and Matt To’omua very early in the tournament, with O’Connor only returning in this final game. However, what it did do is open up an early opportunity for some of the youngsters in the squad to shine. None did that more so than Hunter Paisami, who has excelled as a physical presence at 12, becoming a key part of the defence and a solid runner in the channels.

His centre partner in this game, Jordan Petaia, has been less successful. He is an extremely skilled player and stronger than he first looks, but he has looked out of sorts in recent games and lacking in confidence, which is hampering his game. Just in this game alone, he wasted a couple of good attacking opportunities by putting boot to ball.

Once To’omua is back, the Wallabies have a choice to make: do they stick with the risk/reward of Petaia, or do they look at the more defensively secure Paisami? To’omua’s ability as a playmaker would make up for some of the lost attacking flair, but would Paisami find himself more exposed in the 13 channel than he currently is at 12? Thankfully for Dave Rennie, he will have plenty of options when you also consider Reece Hodge and Irae Simone, while Noah Lolesio gaining experience will also allow the option to push O’Connor out to the centres. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a few headaches.

Power pack

On thing that this match really highlighted was the strength in depth of the Pumas in the back 5 of the pack. The apparently ideal back row trio coming into the tournament was Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Rodrigo Bruni, with Matías Alemanno and Guido Petti at lock. However, with Matera and Petti both left out this week following the reveal of racist tweets years ago, Kremer’s versatility was utilised by moving him into the second row, while Facundo Isa and Santiago Grondona came into the back row.

Isa is a fantastic talent who is always going to be fighting with the initial trio for a starting spot in that Pumas back row, and the very best compliment that Grondona can be given is how little his selection instead of Matera – an incredible talent and inspirational leader – appeared to change of affect the Pumas. Even the replacements for this game, Lucas Paulos and Francisco Gorrissen, looked at home on the international stage despite their inexperience.

If a team hopes to go far in a tournament, they need to be able to rotate their squad with minimum drop in quality. Looking at the Pumas’ options in the back 5 of the pack, it’s fair to say that they are setting themselves up nicely with a couple of years still to go until the World Cup.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

The pool stages of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup came to an end in Dublin as Ireland hosted Georgia. The Irish have been having an up and down tournament but got off to a good start as a series of phases in the Georgian 22 ended with Billy Burns gliding through a gap to score a try on his first Test start. Burns added the conversion and a penalty shortly after, but the Georgians hit back as Giorgi Kveseladze found a gap in the Irish midfield and exploited it, using Vasil Lobzhanidze as a distraction to beat Jacob Stockdale and stepping around Burns’ tackle to score under the posts, leaving Tedo Abzhandadze with an easy conversion to bring the score back within 3. Burns soon added another penalty to double the lead, and the Irish thought they had a second try around the half-hour mark after Rob Herring was driven over following a lineout, but replays showed that Beka Gorgadze had managed to get under the ball and hold it up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as Ireland went through the phases off the resultant scrum and created the space out wide for Hugo Keenan to score, with Burns converting. It looked like the Irish had another try as half time approached when Jacob Stockdale set Stuart McCloskey free down the left wing, however a review from the TMO showed that the pass from Stockdale had gone forwards, while one final attempt to score before the break was also adjudged to have been held up over the line.

The Lelos were looking much more competitive in this match and got the opening points of the second half with a penalty from Abzhandadze, but Ross Byrne – on early in the half for the injured Burns – replied with a penalty of his own. Substitutions, a couple of head knocks and a serious injury to Gorgadze stopped either team from building any real momentum in the second half, but the Irish finished the game on the attack and after earning an attacking lineout 5m from the Georgian try line, they faked the maul and instead sent CJ sStander on a charge for the line, however the Lelos succeeded in holding him up and holding onto a tied second half and a 23-10 final score. The result means that Ireland will face the Scots in the 3ʳᵈ-Place Final, while Georgia will face Fiji for 7ᵗʰ, assuming the islanders are able to play.

Taking their chance

Andy Farrell is going to have some big calls to make against Scotland. He needs to be looking to the future and figuring out the players who will be a key part of his RWC2023 campaign, but a 4ᵗʰ-placed finish would also be a very disappointing result, especially given the manner of their defeat to England.

For this game, Ireland put out a strong squad, but still managed to test their depth at some positions, with starts for players like Burns, Bealham and McCloskey and a debut for Shane Daly off the bench. I would expect that next week, they will go with their strongest available team, so who put their hands up for selection in this game?

Billy Burns had a strong first half, looking comfortable in his first start and getting the back line moving well for the second week running, while it was noticeable that the attacking quality dropped off in the second half after he came off. As someone who can also hold his own in defence, I would argue that the focus should be on Burns as the starting 10 moving forwards, with a view to having him as a leader within the squad by the time the World Cup comes around.

Hugo Keenan has had a great tournament and once again looked both dangerous with ball in hand and solid under the high ball. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be a nailed on starter come the Six Nations.

Chris Farrell has been unlucky over the years that he has had to compete against Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, but he is taking his chance well and consistently helped the Irish get on the front foot in attack while remaining pretty solid in defence and has been one of their more consistent players in the tournament.

Tadhg Beirne is in such an interesting position, as he never really seems to have a bad match, but seems to struggle to hold down a place in the squad. An incredibly mobile player who is super dangerous at the breakdown, Beirne showed both of these skills in the first half, appearing a 6 in this game, but equally adept at lock. He feels like a slightly bigger version of Peter O’Mahony, but I feel he would be a great option as a 4, providing mobility and an extra breakdown threat to complement what appears to be the most balanced Irish back row of CJ Stander, Caelan Doris and Will Connors.

Building to success

It feels harsh to say, but the Lelos were poor in the first 2 weeks. This week however, they looked legitimately competitive against a 23 that was maybe not full strength, but still plenty strong enough to leave me expecting a very one-sided affair. That proved far from the case though, as the Lelos competed for the full 80 and were fully deserving of the draw in the second half, often pushing back the Irish with their solid defence.

To me, this is showing that part of the Georgian problem in the opening weeks was he lack of preparation, with them not getting to spend much time together ahead of the tournament and players spread throughout the French leagues, Georgian teams and a few in Russia or England. With such little time together – and much of that spent having to travel to Tier 1 nations who are too worried about themselves to travel to Georgia.

The Lelos need to start getting fair treatment, in the same was as people discuss the importance of Tier 1 Nations travelling to the Pacific Islands, they also need to be travelling to Tbilisi so that the Lelos can face top teams in front of a home crowd on a ground they know well. If they start getting that, it’s just a matter of time before they start getting results against Tier 1 nations.

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