Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

The Premiership and Pro14 seasons came to an end on Saturday with the showpiece events at Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium respectively. In the Premiership final, table-toppers Exeter started well but were unable to make the breakthroughs needed to defeat a clinical Saracens side, while a late Scarlets fightback at the Aviva was not enough to deny Leinster a Pro14/Champions Cup double.

I was at Twickenham with a few friends so was delayed watching the Pro14 final until late on Sunday, but also watched the Premiership final again to see if there was anything I missed from my position in the Twickenham stands. Keep an eye out over the next week (hopefully) for my write-up on our trip to HQ.

Before I get into this, a quick congratulations to Wayne Barnes, who was refereeing his 200th Premiership match on Saturday. He is a wonderful referee and in my opinion one of the best – if not the best – referees in the world at the moment.

Exeter 10 – 27 Saracens

Exeter were so effective against Newcastle in the semi-final with their possession-heavy attacking style to draw in the defence and create the space to exploit out wide. When they started the game with 100% possession for the first 9 and a half minutes I genuinely thought that they were on their way to a victory. However, the Saracens defence never allowed themselves to get drawn too narrow and dealt with everything the Chiefs threw at them. What really disappointed me was the fact that Exeter didn’t appear to have a Plan B. They kept trying to hit it up the middle and though they were able to hold possession relatively well they were not making much ground and when they went wide they had not earned it and were easily shut off on most occasions. Joes Simmonds did not have a bad game but he just couldn’t find a way to break down Saracens, and when Gareth Steenson came on in his place early in the second half he had only a little more luck. Exeter have a wonderful squad and most teams will struggle to deal with their usual tactics, but if they want to regularly win silverware, they need to have some backup tactics for teams that can deal with their usual style of play.

finalcongratWhat a performance by Saracens! Their defence was nigh-on impregnable, refusing to be drawn narrow while still effectively closing up the middle of the pitch. Their discipline was important too and they only gave away 2 kickable penalties in the first half before building up enough of a points difference in the second that Exeter were unable to rely on kicks at goal. In fact, Gareth Steenson’s try was the only time the Sarries try line really felt at risk and that was helped by Schalk Brits’ yellow card meaning a back (in this case Chris Wyles) had to be sacrificed to bring Jamie George back on from the scrum. With Paul Gustard leaving England for Harlequins following the South Africa tour, Eddie Jones could do much worse than asking Sarries’ defence coach Alex Sanderson to join the national team as Gustard’s replacement.

Leinster 40 – 32 Scarlets

They may not always be the most attractive team to watch, but Leinster are so effective and know how to win games. They have such depth in their squad but more than that, they adapt to the environment and the team they are playing against. Johnny Sexton is so used to the Aviva Stadium from matches with Leinster and Ireland so knows exactly how to deal with the conditions and after seeing the struggles the Scarlets were having under the high ball (more on that below), he continued to pepper them with high balls throughout the match, while Rob Kearney – one of the best in the world under the high ball – and Jordan Larmour put heavy pressure on the catcher every single time. As well as the high balls, Sexton also controlled the territory with some wonderful kicking to touch, including one penalty he put out about 3 metres from the try line, while his range of passing took advantage of any gaps in the Scarlets defence. They may be losing a couple of players this summer, but I find it hard to bet against them defending their Pro14 title next season.

Scarlets play such sexy rugby, but sometimes they just need to be a bit more pragmatic. Rhys Patchell and Gareth Davies are incredible attacking players, but they are not currently the best at playing the less sexy but possibly more important territorial game. Much like how Exeter need to create a Plan B, the Scarlets need to do so as well. On top of that, some players need to work on individual weaknesses over the summer. Steff Evans and Leigh Halfpenny failed to cope with 8 high balls throughout the course of the match, immediately gifting Leinster possession and territory. Winning against the big teams both in club and international rugby requires players in the back 3 that can deal with the high ball effectively, so if they don’t improve they could see their appearances limited in the big matches for both Scarlets and Wales next season as opposition teams will deliberately target them as Sexton did on Saturday.

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Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

The 2017/18 rugby season is coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been decided and there is only 1 more Champions Cup space still to be decided for next season. Thoughts now turn back to the leagues as the Pro14 and Premiership both had their semi-finals this weekend ahead of Saturday’s finals. Yesterday, I took a look at the Pro14, now here are my thoughts on the Premiership games.

Saracens and Wasps were breaking records left right a centre in a 55-7 thriller. Owen Farrell’s set a record for points scored in a semi-final (becoming the first player to break 100 points in Premiership semis), Chris Wyles scored his fifth semi-final try in 8 years in his final season before retiring and the combined 11 tries and 90 points were both records. In the other semi, defending Champions Exeter dominated Newcastle on their way to a 36-5 victory that sees them reach their third consecutive Premiership final.

semirefsNow you may remember I had a little rant yesterday about the performance of John Lacey and his officials. I generally feel that the quality of refereeing in the Premiership is better than the Pro14, however this weekend I was proved wrong. At Allianz Park, JP Doyle and TMO Graham Hughes both went temporarily blind watching the replays and disallowing as they agreed Elliot Daly had grounded the ball against the base of the corner flag, despite the replays clearly showing that the other end of the ball was clearly grounded on the line before the ball rolled against the flag. There were also a couple of tries (for both sides) that JP Doyle chose to award without checking with Doyle despite some questionable passes and some that were definitely forward. For one of the best leagues in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s just not good enough. I really hope the quality of officiating is better at Twickenham on Saturday (if it’s Wayne Barnes refereeing the final then I’m confident it will be).

Saracens 57 – 33 Wasps

When it comes to knockout rugby, it’s so hard to bet against Sarries. They may not have had the best of seasons by their standards, but they turned it on against Wasps to get the win. Owen Farrell has developed over the last few years from a good kicking and defensive 10 to a solid all-rounder who is now able to cause problems for the defence by taking the ball to the line and exploiting any gaps, as he did for Alex Lozowski’s opener. He was fantastic in his Man of the Match performance, nailing every kick off the tee to finish with 27 points (a record for a Premiership semi-final) almost had a try too, only to be held up over the line by Jimmy Gopperth. When you have such a metronomic kicker, having a defence as smothering as the Wolfpack almost makes playing rugby easy. What will peak Exeter’s interest though will be the way Wasps had some luck outside, with Gopperth and Daly both having tries disallowed in the corner and a number of other tries coming from beating the Sarries defence out wide. Given the way that Exeter have been playing recently (more on that later), I imagine that Sarries will be spending some time looking at their wide defence in the build-up to Saturday’s final.

sarwasWasps played some absolutely wonderful rugby in this match, but were simply too wasteful. Though Elliot Daly’s try should have been awarded but for a terrible call by the officials, Jimmy Gopperth should have scored and would have had he grounded the ball with 2 hands rather than putting an arm down to cushion his fall. Frequently they were turned over by a smothering Wolfpack defence as their support was too far away and they struggled at times to match Sarries in the set piece. What really killed Wasps in this match, though, was their defence. Owen Farrell exploited too large a gap between Joe Launchbury and Jake Cooper-Woolley for Lozowski’s try mere minutes into the match, while the Wasps defence struggled to get to terms with Saracens’ strong running close to the ruck, repeatedly losing ground when Sarries attacked the area 1-3 men out from the breakdown. Usually 33 points would be enough to win you a semi-final, especially away from home, but the Wasps defence is just not good enough to keep out the opposition on a regular basis. Can Wasps improve in this area next season? They will need to if they want to make it back to the final.

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Exeter’s dominant style of play is highly effective at inning games, but it’s not going to get much love from Scarlets fans apparently

Exeter 36 – 5 Newcastle

Some people may call it boring, but Exeter’s tactics are certainly effective! The Chiefs do the basics so well and run the ball so hard, they can dominate possession just by hitting the ball up repeatedly in narrow channels until the defence are all drawn in and they can be exploited out wide. This Exeter tactic made them completely dominate the halftime stats, as can be seen in the table below. While it may not be immediately high scoring, as the game wears down there is no way an opposition team cannot be tired out from such a constant defensive effort, and it showed as Exeter got the opening try right before half time through Nic White, before running away with the 2nd half 20-5. It may not be the sexy rugby of Scarlets, but it is effective and wins them games. When it comes to knockout rugby, that’s what matters.

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The halftime stats show just how dominant Exeter were in this game

How could I not feel sorry for Newcastle watching this game? They did such a great job to break into the top 4 at Leicester’s expense and won the most away matches of any team in the Premiership this season, but they just couldn’t get into the game at Sandy Park! They barely touched the ball in the first half and star wingers Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti were starved of ball – the only time I remember Goneva getting the ball was an interception! Fair play to the Falcons, they got a few attacks in the second half and got a try on the board, but it summed up the game for them when Alex Tait dropped the ball over the try line after collecting a cross-field kick in acres of space. I fully expect them to be pushing for the playoffs again next season, but this match showed just how far they still have to go to break into the top 3.

Final thought

This looks set to be a cracking game. Both teams are very similar in the way they rely on solid defence and effective attacking, doing the basics very well. This really could come down to a couple of questions: How long can Billy Vunipola last? Can Joe Simmonds keep his cool on the big stage? Can the Wolfpack stop Exeter’s usual tactics. When these teams met in the semi-final last year, we were treated to a wonderful match ending with Henry Slade’s incredible penalty to touch to set up Sam Simmonds’ winning try. I expect another thrilling match but would argue that Exeter are a better squad than this time last year, so I am going for them to win.

Exeter to beat Saracens

 

Thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have any thoughts on the matches, let me know in the comments.

Eyes On: Saracens v Wasps

Sunday saw a battle between the defending European Champions, Saracens and last year’s Premiership runners-up, Wasps at Allianz Park. Both teams came in fielding weakened sides due to injuries – a common sight in the Premiership this season – but on the day Brad Barritt made his 200th appearance for the home side, Sarries’ strength in depth saw them run out 38-19 victors, despite a late fightback from Wasps. The bonus point win puts Saracens top of the table, while Wasps currently find themselves down in tenth, with only London Irish and Worcester below them.

 

Costly injuries

Among the list of unavailable player for Wasps were fly half Danny Cipriani and 2016/17’s player of the season Jimmy Gopperth. Despite spending much of his time at centre since Cipriani returned to Wasps, Gopperth is also their second choice at fly half, so to lose both their playmakers at the same point was always going to make things hard for Wasps, before even taking into account the effectiveness of the Saracens defence. Rob Miller was given the number 10 shirt for this game but rarely looked comfortable or dangerous against the Wolfpack. I’m not putting the blame solely on him as his forwards could not consistently get front foot ball and his backs outside him could not get anything going either, but it also felt that the Wasps attack was very basic, making it very easy for the home team.

Saracens were also missing their first choice 10, Owen Farrell, for this game, as he had to pull out of his position on the bench due to injury, but Alex Lozowski – a former Wasp – is well established in that position and the quality around him takes a lot of pressure off of him. Third choice Max Malins, who came on for the last 15 minutes is also a very impressive young player but did not have much to do by that point other than join the defensive effort.

Right now, the Wasps side looks like it relies on the fly half, whereas Sarries look like losing a fly half is just a matter of bringing the next person through to keep the ship steady and on course.

Get him in the England squad!

Regular readers of my blog will know that I rate Wasps scrum half Dan Robson very highly. I was gutted to see him leave Gloucester as he looked a real talent when he split time with Jimmy Cowan for Gloucester, but since moving to Wasps his game has gone to another level! I am probably a bit biased but I would argue that despite only being on the pitch for just over 20 minutes, Robson – who is himself only just returning from injury – was the best scrum half on show at the Allianz! After his introduction, Wasps’ attack went up in tempo and he was managing to find gaps for both himself and teammates that Joe Simpson had not been able to.

He started the season in such great form with 4 tries against Sale and I honestly think his injury has been a big factor in Wasps’ recent slump along with the injuries at fly half. If he can quickly get back to his pre-injury form, I think he has to be given the chance by Eddie Jones in the Autumn Internationals.

Tactical thinking?

With star players Nathan Hughes, Cipriani and Gopperth all missing and players like James Haskell and Elliott Daly not yet reproducing last season’s form – a result of a heavily shortened offseason following the Lions Tour? – I was shocked to see Christian Wade on the bench when the teams were named. This is nothing against Josh Bassett and Marcus Watson, but Wade has clearly shown himself to be one of the most exciting and dangerous wingers in the league. He is a match-winner in a team desperate for a result. I assume that he was benched as Dai Young felt the other wingers would be able to match up better against the opposition, but it seemed to contribute to an attack that was very limited in what it could do and the danger it could pose. Maybe he was being rested in readiness for Friday’s trip to Ulster – it is ridiculous that they have such a short turnaround – but if that result does not go their way either, then it leaves Wasps in a very poor position.

Hat-trick hero

I was unable to watch the game live as it was my cousin’s birthday, but had the match on record. When I received an email update from my fantasy rugby team stating that Jamie George was my highest scoring player this week, I thought that he must have had a decent game, but even I wasn’t expecting to sit down and watch him score 3 tries!

A while back I wrote about the way that the prop position has evolved, well hooker has also evolved in a similar way. To be one of the best hookers in the world, it is no longer enough to just be solid at the set piece. A top international hooker must be able to act like a 4th back row on the field, able to pass and run effectively in open play. In my opinion, Jamie George is up there with the best in the world and at just 26 probably hasn’t yet reached his peak! He may not have had many chances to prove his ability in open play at the weekend, but he was 100% at the line-out, leading to his 2 drive-over tries. The one chance he did get to show his ability in the loose was for his opening try, where he reacted quickest to Chris Wyles’ quick-tap penalty and ran an attacking line a centre would be proud of to cross the line unchallenged.

I am hoping that Eddie Jones chooses to start George during the Autumn Internationals. Dylan Hartley has been a great servant for England and has done a great job as captain under Jones, but George is much more dangerous in the loose and has earned the chance to stat for England. It can certainly be argued that England have the best 1-2 punch at hooker in international rugby. I honestly think that if given the starting job for England, George could soon compete with New Zealand’s Dane Coles for the title of the World’s best hooker.

I’m sure he won’t be given the chance to get a big head though, it would be shocked if he is not receiving at least a gentle ribbing from his teammates for being bumped off by Willie le Roux…