Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Chiefs

After losing their last 2 games, the Blues returned to Eden Park to take on the Chiefs. With the Crusaders losing to the Hurricanes the day before, the Blues knew that a win would put them back in the hunt, and they got off to a great start just 6 minutes in when a slight of hand from Reiko Ioane and a brilliant line from Matt Duffie saw the fullback score from the first phase of a scrum with just 5 minutes gone. The Blues soon doubled their lead as captain Patrick Tuipulotu made it over the line, but the Chiefs soon pulled one back through flanker Lachlan Boshier, with Damian Mckenzie kicking the conversion to make it 14-7, a score which remained throughout the second quarter.

The Chiefs came out of the blocks quicker following the break and soon had their reward as a great move off a scrum down the blind side released Solomon Alaimalo to score – though he injured himself in the process. McKenzie kicked the conversion and added a penalty a few minutes later to put the team ahead for the first time in the match. The lead didn’t last long however, as Finlay Christie forced himself over for the go-ahead score on 55 minutes, with Beauden Barrett – starting at 10 for the first time in his Blues career following Otere Black’s late recovery from a neck injury – kicking his 3ʳᵈ conversion to make the score 21-7. Both teams continued to battle, but things didn’t look good for the Blues as they conceded a penalty 5 metres out in the middle of the pitch with 2 minutes left and lost Harry Plummer to the bin. However with the game on the line, Josh Goodhue managed to get over the ball on the line and won a crucial penalty, allowing the Blues to clear their lines and see out the final seconds in safety, before kicking the ball into touch to put them back to 2ⁿᵈ in the table.

Toeing the line

The Blues defence in this game was out to have an impact. The team were putting the pressure on the Chiefs right from the first minute, with Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Kurt Eklund, Tuipulotu, Blake Gibson and Akira Ioane all leading the way with double-digit tackles. It took a moment of great footwork from McKenzie to break through the defensive line and put the Blues on the back foot for Boshier’s try, while Alaimalo’s try came from a great move to effectively work the numbers down the blind side. With such dedicated defence like this, they won’t be easy to score against.

Except for one big problem. To have such an impact, they were playing so close to the line between what was legal and what was illegal. As a result, they finished the game with 14 penalties conceded, many for offside or defensive infringements at the breakdown as dominant tackles saw them end up on the wrong side of the ruck or the next player in went a little too far in trying to win the ball back. It was this accumulation of penalties that led to Harry Plummer’s yellow card for the team’s repeat infringements, and being a back down with a penalty where it was should have cost them the game (more on that later).

If the Blues can defend like this in the remaining games, they have a good chance of challenging for the title, but they need to be careful to stay on the right side of the officials or a better team will take advantage of the penalties.

Scrum success

The Blues’ scrum has been one of the most successful in the tournament, and it certainly looked it in this match. With some big bodies behind them, the Blues front row has done a great job of at least holding parity with their opponents, and often overpowering them. Ofa Tu’ungafasi looks in great form not just at the scrum but also around the park and had a great day against Reuben O’Neill. On the other side of the front row, Alex Hodgman appeared to struggle for almost the first time this tournament against All Black Nepo Laulala, but the coaches moved quickly, replacing him at the early signs that he was losing his duel and bringing on All Black Karl Tu’inukuafe, who immediately solidified that side of the scrum and got the Blues pack back on the front foot. Andit was clear that the Chiefs knew the Blues had the dominance there too.

With a 78ᵗʰ minute penalty being earned 5 minutes from the Blues try line in a central position, and with the Blues down a back following Plummer’s yellow card. The clear tactical decision is to go for a scrum, as it ties in the forwards and allows the backs to exploit the extra number. However such had been the performance of the Blues scrum, the Chiefs did not feel confident enough to call for the scrum, instead going for the tap-and-go and giving away the crucial penalty a few phases later.

As long as the Blues scrum can continue performing like this, they will remain in a strong position.

More of the same

It says it all really that when Josh Goodhue won that 79ᵗʰ minute penalty, my shock lasted just a couple of seconds. It’s a little harsh to say, but this was another typical Chiefs performance.

As with pretty much every match this season – last week’s loss to the Highlanders was an aberration – the Chiefs found themselves starting slowly and conceding 2 tries before they managed to score one of their own. Then once again with the game on the line in the final minutes, questionable decisions and not good enough play ended up costing them.

This is an horrific run from the Chiefs and it needs to be stopped soon. It says it all that from 5 matches, they have come away with 4 bonus points for losing by 7 or less. They are staying within games, but are failing to put together the 80 minute performance needed to turn these close defeats into wins. And with Warren Gatland taking the British and Irish Lions to South Africa in less than a year, I can’t help but wonder how much his mind is on the Chiefs and if any changes will be made any time soon.

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Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

As Super Rugby Aotearoa prepares for its 4ᵗʰ week of action, Australia kicked off its own domestic tournament, Super Rugby AU, as they continue to get over the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament sees the 4 Australian Super Rugby franchises (the Reds, Rebels, Brumbies and Waratahs) and axed Super Rugby franchise the Western Force combine for a 10-round, 5-team round-robin tournament similar to Super Rugby Aotearoa, but with a 2-week playoff at the end involving the top 3 teams in the standings.

The tournament kicked off at Suncorp Stadium with a match between North/South rivals the Queensland Reds and New South Wales Waratahs. After both packs traded early tries, the Reds took control with another 2 tries from Filipo Daugunu and Tate McDermott to take a 19-13 halftime lead. They were slow out of the blocks after halftime, however, and as their discipline disappeared, a great line from Jack Maddocks saw him cross for the the Waratahs’ second try and – though the Reds crossed again through Harry Wilson – the flawless kicking off the tee from fly half Will Harrison saw things all square with just 10 minutes late. The Reds ended the stronger, though, and 2 late penalties from James O’Connor saw them come away with a 32-26 victory, ending a run of 11 consecutive losses to the ‘Tahs.

 

No pushovers

Just last week, I wrote about the importance of a dominant pack at the set piece. While the lineout had issues (certainly not helped by the early loss of lock Angus Blyth) the scrum was an area of serious success for the Reds.

The Tahs chose to start with 19-year-old Angus Bell at loosehead and the poor kid was taken to school by Reds tighthead Taniela Tupou. He may be widely known as the “Tongan Thor” but at 5’9″ he is like a rhinoceros, and found it easy to get underneath 6’4″ Bell, allowing him to dominate the right hand side of the scrum. By the 30 minute mark, Bell had been penalised at the scrum 4 times and was finding himself sent to the sin bin.

The scrum is such a key component of the game and important weapon. While Tupou was certainly a big weapon at the scrum, it was a team effort, with a big second push from the pack often putting the ‘Tahs on the back foot. The Reds will be very happy with their performance here and hoping to repeat again in Melbourne next week. The Waratahs meanwhile, will have to decide whether to put Bell in again next week against the Western Force, or whether they take him out of the firing line for a week.

Kick out the new laws

Fans watching Super Rugby AU will notice some differences to how the game is usually played as the tournament is trialling a number of new laws. The 3 that I’m going to focus on right now are as follows:

  • Play will be restarted with goal line drop-outs following an attacking player being held up over the line (replacing 5m scrum)/the ball being grounded by the defending team over their own goal line, regardless of who took the ball over the line (replacing 2 drop-out/5m scrum)
  • If a player successfully kicks the ball from inside their own 22 to bounce into touch inside the opponents’ half, the kicking team will throw into the lineout
  • If a player successfully kicks the ball from inside their own half to bounce into touch inside the opponents’ 22, the kicking team will throw into the lineout

Now, I will start by admitting that I was not a fan of these law trials when they were initially announced and remain sceptical, but I am giving them a fair chance. One match in and I’m not convinced.

There was a moment in the second half when Michael Hooper found himself caught behind his own goal line after getting back to field a kick. Usually, this would have meant that a dominant Reds pack would have had a 5m scrum in the middle of the pitch, which feels like it would have ended in a try and perhaps even a numerical advantage. Instead, under the new law trial, the Waratahs were allowed to clear their lines and the Reds found themselves getting possession back over 40m from the line. How is that rewarding a good kick chase from the Reds?!

As for the 50/22 and 22/50 kicks, I was surprised that there weren’t more attempts from players to go for these, but the 2 that did pay off from the Reds – a 50/22 from Tate McDermott that got a lucky bounce to take it to 10m out from the Waratahs’ line, and a 22/50 from Bryce Hegarty – twice gave the Reds possession that did not feel earned at all.

I understand making changes to benefit the game, but these changes felt unnecessary when announced and one match in I can’t see how these are improving the game.

Golden future

The Wallabies have not been great for a while and with an ageing squad and Michael Cheika gone, it wouldn’t surprise me if new Head Coach Dave Rennie brings in a number of younger players early in this 4-year cycle with the intention of building for RWC2023. Judging by this game, the future could be bright for the Wallabies.

There were already a handful of young players in or around the national team, such as Jack Maddox and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (23), Tupou (24), and Liam Wright (22), as well as 20-year-old Jordan Petaia, who was not involved in this match, but there were also a number of other young players putting their hands up for selection.

Will Genia will be hard to replace, but Tate McDermott (21) looked fantastic, keeping a good tempo to the attack, while showing his wheels when given space and also some quick thinking to take a quick-tap penalty after a series of scrum penalties, when everyone was just expecting another scrum. Flyhalf has been a bit of a mess for the national team for a while, but Will Harrison (20) looked composed taking the ball to the line and was flawless off the tee to keep the ‘Tahs in the game.

Elsewhere on the pitch, Fijian-born wing Filipo Daugunu (25) – who recently turned down a lucrative contract in Japan with a view to wearing the green and gold – showed some good moments in attack and took his try well. Waratahs flanker Lachlan Swinton may have conceded one of the winning penalties by straying offside in the dying minutes, but he put in an otherwise great performance, really filling the role of enforcer at blindside with some big tackles, while also making the pass that put Jack Maddocks through for a try.

If these players can carry on with performances of this level, international recognition can’t be far off – once international rugby returns!

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

It’s hard to believe but we’re already 3 weeks through Super Rugby Aotearoa and the teams are already starting to really separate themselves from each other in the standings. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs went to Christchurch in search of a crucial win but will find themselves returning home with just a losing bonus point, having not led at any point in the match.

In wet conditions, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie each slotted a first half penalty but it looked like the match would be devoid of much excitement, until Sevu Reece beat McKenzie to a high cross-kick from Mo’unga and broke down the right wing, before feeding the ball inside to Will Jordan for the go-ahead try. The same 2 players combined again shortly after half time, with a quick lineout from Reece catching out the Chiefs and allowing Jordan to run in uncontested. The Chiefs began to fight back after this and Sean Wainui crossed to narrow the deficit, but the Crusaders managed to hold on and remain one of only 2 teams still unbeaten in the tournament – the other being the Blues (3-0), who have a bye next week before their trip to Christchurch.

New kid on the block

If there’s one person currently that will be making All Blacks Head Coach Ian Foster reconsider a 10/15 playmaker axis, it’s Crusaders fullback Will Jordan. The 22-year-old has started the tournament in fine form and is currently keeping David Havili on the bench with his great performances.

In bad conditions today, Jordan looked assured under the high ball and made some incisive runs, finishing with a match-high 98 metres. Not only that, but he is clearly developing a good link with Sevu Reece, being in the right place to support for the opening try and seeing the opportunity with Reece to take a quick lineout for the second try. If he carries on like this, international recognition can’t be far away.

The only thing going against him right now, though, is that he is much more of a prototypical fullback, as opposed to the second playmaker that I think the All Blacks will be going for, especially given the great performances Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett are putting in at the position. It may be that for the near future at least, Jordan has to prove that he can also have a great impact on the game from the wing, much like Ben Smith and Israel Dagg did at times to keep themselves in All Blacks contention.

Play every second

The Chiefs certainly weren’t happy with the awarding of Will Jordan’s second try, but they had only themselves to blame. The laws state that a quick lineout can be taken provided it is on/behind the mark, nobody else has touched the ball and the lineout had already formed, which was exactly the circumstance when Reece fed Jordan for the crucial score.

It seemed like many of the team saw Aaron Cruden go over to speak to referee James Doleman and assumed that time was off. However, Cruden was not the captain so had no right to speak to the referee and was rightfully brushed away.

I always remember being told to play to the whistle, but in situations like this, it is a little more complicated than that. Usually the moment the ball goes into touch you can have a quick rest as you prepare for the set piece, but the one thing you can’t do is switch off mentally, as the moment you start doing things by rote rather than reacting to what’s going on around you is the moment your opponent will make you regret it.

Hopefully with Warren Gatland at the helm, the players will have learned from this mistake. But in the meantime, with just 2 points from 3 games, that is a costly and completely unnecessary mistake.

Set piece success

When you’re playing in wet conditions like in this match, there a 2 things you need more than anything else: a playmaker who can control the game and put you in the right areas of the pitch, and a pack that can gain the upper hand at the set piece. While both teams certainly had the former in Cruden, McKenzie and Mo’unga, it was the Crusaders pack that gained the advantage that probably proved crucial.

Of course the set piece is always important, but in bad conditions it becomes even more so as the territory game leads to more lineouts, while the greasy ball will likely lead to more handling errors and therefore more scrums.

In this match, the Crusaders pack managed to stop a 5m catch and drive from the lineout midway through the first half, despite the Chiefs throwing in a couple of backs to increase their numbers. They caused the lineout problems all game, especially after Chiefs’ replacement hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho entered the fray. Overall, the Chiefs ended up losing 4/20 (20%) of their own lineouts, while they also lost 1/5 of their scrums (20%) and found themselves being pushed back and giving away penalties on multiple occasions.

The old adage is that the forwards win the match and the backs decide by how much. The Crusaders once again showed that to be true.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Blues

Today should have been the Super Rugby final, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought a premature end to the competition. Thankfully, New Zealand have effectively combated the disease, so we sill managed to get professional rugby today in the form of the first match of Super Rugby Aotearoa’s second round.

Fresh off a narrow loss to the Highlanders last week, the Chiefs returned to Hamilton to host the Blues. So often, the Blues have been considered the weakest of the New Zealand franchises, but they came into this game off the back of a win and scored the opening try after 15 minutes as Hoskins Sotutu was driven over the line under the posts. However, poor discipline kept the Blues on the back foot for most of the fist half and allowed the Chiefs to stay close through the boot of Damian McKenzie. However, the game started to turn after the Blues survived 10 minutes with flanker Dalton Papali’i in the bin and the Chiefs then began to be the ones giving away the penalties, allowing Otere Black and Beauden Barrett to keep building a score, before Mark Telea crossed in the corner with 8 minutes left to confirm a 12-24 victory.

On the up

Since Super Rugby’s inception in 2011, New Zealand franchises have had a stranglehold on the competition, winning the title in 7 of the 9 completed seasons. The only New Zealand franchise to have not won the Super Rugby title is the Blues, who’s last win was back in 2003 when the competition was still Super 12! The Blues finished 4ᵗʰ in the inaugural 2011 season of Super Rugby, but lost in the semifinals and since then, their best finish in a season was 9ᵗʰ back in 2017. They have only had 2 seasons f Super Rugby where they finished with a winning record. And yet when Round 2 finishes, they will be on top of the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings.

It may still be early days, but his looks like a Blues team that is finally on the up and ready to compete towards the top of the table again. In winning this game, the Blues have just set a new franchise record for the most consecutive away wins (5). I wrote last week about the strength of the Blues back line, but the bad conditions today highlighted the strength of their pack. Even with the super-impressive Tom Robinson missing, they were able to put out a super physical and talented back row in Sotutu (who even at just 21 already looks like he should be playing for the All Blacks), Papali’i and Akira Ioane. Patrick Tuipulotu looks in the form of his life and leading by example, while Josh Goodhue is also putting in strong performances beside him. James Parsons provides great experience at hooker, while the props are all coming into their prime as they reach their late 20s. This is a team built to win not just now, but for the years to come too.

What may seem incredible right now is that the Blues are 2-0 without Dan Carter even making it into the matchday 23. Personally, I think that even if he barely takes the pitch, he will have been a fantastic signing as all the backs, especially young fly halves like Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta (whose injury opened the spot for Carter) will benefit so much from training with and learning from both Carter and Barrett, under the coaching of former All Blacks Leon MacDonald and Tana Umaga.

Obviously there’s still a long way to go, with 6 more matches to play over the remaining 8 rounds, but don’t be surprised to see the Blues challenging towards the top over the next few seasons.

Playmaker plans

Sadly the conditions in Hamilton denied us the thrill of watching Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie face off at fullback in a running battle as the kicking game became the focus of the day. However, the continued use of both players at 15 is something to keep an eye on.

For so long, New Zealand have had superstars at fly half, which has led to the next generation coming through initially at 15 and eventually transitioning to first five-eighth. While this has led to incredibly talented attacking playmakers like Barrett and McKenzie, I do not think that they are able to control the game as well as the players that came before them and instead benefit from playing at 15, where they have more space to exploit.

By having these guys stationed at 15 for their club rugby, it is now giving the new generation of talent the chance to learn how to play at this level already at fly half. This is going to benefit so many of these players – such as Harry Plummer, Perofeta and Black (Blues), Kaleb Trask (Chiefs), Josh Ioane (Highlanders) and Jackson Garden-Bachop (Hurricanes) – as it means that they are learning under the pressure of having flankers charging at them, but then have the benefit of experienced playmakers elsewhere in the back line to help guide them.

The next couple of seasons will be interesting to watch.

Set piece struggles

Last week, the Chiefs’ success was built largely on the strength of their catch-and-drive lineouts. This week, the set piece was an absolute nightmare.

At the lineout, the Blues were willing to put a man in the air to challenge and it led to a number of inaccuracies. The Chiefs lost 3 lineouts during the match, with one 5m out from the Chiefs line potentially costing them 5-7 points an another 5m out from their own line almost proving costly if not for a knock-on by Sam Nock as he tried to collect the loose ball.

It wasn’t even just the lineout that had issues, though, as the Chiefs lost 2 of the 6 scrums on their own feed. Tat already doesn’t sound good, but it’s even worse when you look back at the scrums and see them physically pushed off their own ball!

Mitchell Brown’s injury last week has left them with a talented by inexperienced pair at lock in Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Tupou Vaa’i, but this cannot be used as an excuse. The pack needs to improve the set piece soon, because if they can’t provide clean ball for their backs, it doesn’t matter how talented the players out there are.

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Six Nations 2020: Italy v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Italy v Scotland

The Six Nations returned after a week off with our first trip to Rome in 2020. Scotland and Italy have generally shared the Wooden Spoon between them most years since the tournament took its current form, and the first 2 rounds made that likely to be the case again this year.

In a tight affair, Stuart Hogg put Scotland ahead with a wonderful solo attack on 23 minutes for the only points of the first half. The game continued in much the same way in the second half: Scotland and Italy both fighting hard for possession and territory with limited success in each other’s 22, though Chris Harris did manage to power himself over for a try 7 minutes after halftime. Then in the dying minute, a final attack from Italy was turned over and Adam Hastings was able to sneak away down the blind side to score and convert a try for an eventual 0-17 victory.

Italy

It’s never nice to see a player give the shepherd’s crook early in a game, but sometimes a player’s performance will be so bad, there is no way they can be kept on the pitch. Sadly, that was the case today for young Italian tighthead Giosuè Zilocchi. He may be great in the loose, but the Zebre prop put in one of the worst scrummaging performances I have seen in professional rugby. Every scrum saw him set up with his legs so far back that his body was almost perfectly aligned from head to toe – not a good scrummaging position at all as it left him unable to keep the scrum up the moment it began to move on his side. By the time that he had been replaced at the half-hour mark, he had already given away 3 penalties.

I can understand why the coaching staff want him involved, as he showed his abilities in the loose when an injury to his replacement Marco Riccioni forced him back on for the final 25 minutes (which were thankfully light on scrums), but with the scrum such a vital part of the game, play like that made him a liability.

This performance from Zilocchi has left me with some big questions. Has he been scrummaging like this in training or did this suddenly happen in the match? If this has happened out of nowhere in the match, why has this happened? If this has been happening in training, why was he selected if the coaches had not been able to get him scrummaging properly? The coaching team have had limited time with the squad, but this was something that would be obvious to an observer.

Hopefully Zilocchi can improve his technique over the coming fortnight.

Scotland

What has happened to this Scotland side? Even though they have struggled to win games at times over the last few years, one of their big positives has been the tries they score. Now they are seriously struggling to cross the line. Their 3 tries in this game were their first in the tournament… and even 2 of these were from counterattacks rather than structured attacking play – Stuart Hogg exploiting a mismatch when running back a kick and Adam Hastings sneaking away down the blind side following a turnover.

I’ve talked about how Scotland needed to get more of a balance to the squad between hard runners and flair players – which they now have – and supporting better around the park, but despite this, they could still barely break down the Italian defence. For me, some big changes need making over these final 2 rounds: Rory Hutchinson needs to be given a starting spot and Darcy Graham needs to return to the wing if he is fit.

Ideally as well would be the return of Finn Russell, but it doesn’t look like that will be happening while Gregor Townsend remains in charge. Right now, that could sound the death knell for Townsend’s time as head coach.


My standout players

Such was the disappointment in Scotland’s performance, the only players who really stood out to me for them were flankers Hamish Watson (who was named Man of the Match) and Jamie Ritchie, who made the breakdown a nightmare for the Italians with a number of turnovers, while they also played key roles in one of Scotland’s more promising attacks.

For Italy, the back three of Matteo Minozzi, Jayden Hayward and Mattia Bellini were limited in their chances to attack, but took them well when they arose, looking far more exciting than their opposite numbers. Bellini especially showed a set of hips that Shakira would be proud of on one first half break. Jake Polledri continued to stand out with his strong carrying and tireless tackling as well as a couple of big turnovers, while replacement back row Giovanni Licata also contributed well tot he defensive effort and made some big carries late in the game, so much so that I would love to see him start in the back row with Polledri and Braam Steyn in Round 4.

Eyes On: Georgia v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Georgia v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

It was a historic day on Saturday as Tbilisi’s Dinamo Arena hosted Georgia’s first home match against a Tier 1 nation. Scotland put out a strong team and it paid dividends, as tries from Ben Toolis and Rory Hutchinson helped to open up a 3-23 halftime lead. In the second half, a second for Hutchinson and tries for Darcy Graham and Scott Cummings confirmed the 10-44 victory, with Karlen Asieshvili’s try giving the home fans something to cheer.

Georgia

With Georgia not often playing against Tier 1 opposition on televised channels, it’s not very often that I get to watch them play outside of the World Cups. However, from what I have seen in recent seasons, the calls for them to replace Italy in the Six Nations are ridiculous.

In this game, Finn Russell and the Scottish team played well, but it was made easy for them as the Georgians struggled to cope with the quality of rugby they were forced to defend against. It was far too easy for Scotland to cut them apart – it felt like a highly physical training game too often. When they did manage to stop the Scots cutting them apart, it generally ended with them gifting Scotland points or territory through a penalty. Meanwhile, too many of their attacks ended in costly handling errors. The gulf in class was obvious and something that I also noticed when they played Italy during the 2018 November Tests.

This is not a critique of Georgia, more just a note that replacing Italy with them will not help anyone in the long run. There was plenty of good to see from the team: they kept going to the end, their catch and drive lineouts were a fantastic weapon and there is some quality coming trough the age groups, helped by incredible facilities. More than that, the crowd were amazing and the atmosphere seemed incredible when I was watching on TV. Georgia needs to be facing – and hosting – Tier 1 nations far more often. Directly replacing Italy in the Six Nations is not the answer, but they have outgrown the tournament they are in and something needs to be done to ensure Georgia is playing against better nations in order to continue improving.

Scotland

Georgia have become famous over the years for the strength of their pack. So many of the players who have made it into one of the top European leagues have been forwards. When you play against Georgia, you know that things will be tough in the scrum.

I make that point, so that when I say Scotland held their own in the scrums in this match, that achievement gets the recognition it deserves. Willem Nel has always been known as a good scrummager, but Allan Dell has improved so much over the recent years to make the number 1 shirt his own. Perhaps even more impressive is that their replacements Zander Fagerson and Jamie Bhatti also managed to keep the balance at the set piece.

Earlier that day, Ireland’s pack were in devastating form against Wales. With Ireland and Scotland likely facing off for the top spot in their pool, being able to nullify the Irish scrum could be a key factor in that match.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

So, for this I will only be focusing on the Scots for 2 reasons: 1. I don’t know enough about the Georgians to know where they have depth, and 2. By the time I post this, they will have already announced their squad!

Rory Hutchinson‘s rise at Northampton this year was already a great story, but I thought an international call-up was too soon. He has looked better with each appearance however and with 2 extremely well-taken tries on his first start, I think that he has put himself in a great position to force his way in as a bolter. I also thought that another great all-round performance from Darcy Graham, including dotting down Finn Russell’s grubber for a try, will have been enough to secure his seat on the plane.

Huw Jones is a quality player and a few years back I considered him one of the best 13s in international rugby, but the centre position suddenly looks extremely deep and he struggled to make an impact after replacing Sam Johnson in this game. I also think that Matt Fagerson will have been disappointed to be removed as he has had very little time on the pitch to prove himself worthy of a spot in the squad.


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Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After a week off, Wales were back to competing with a World Cup warm-up match against Ireland. With Warren Gatland’s tenure finishing after the World Cup, this was his last game at the Principality Stadium, but his second string squad found themselves 3-15 down to an experimental Irish side at halftime, courtesy of a brace from Jacob Stockdale. A penalty try while Wales were down to 14 men saw Ireland extend the lead, before tries from Owen Lane and Rhys Patchell closed the gap to the eventual final score of 17-22. This result will see New Zealand take the #1 spot in the World Rugby rankings back, with Wales dropping back to 2ⁿᵈ.

Wales

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Tomas Francis, but in this match, he was seriously missed! Wales weren’t just second-best at the scrum, they were dominated! Leon Brown found himself up against a tighthead who was playing loosehead, but was still penalised at the majority of scrums, leading to him being given a yellow card after just 12 minutes on the pitch. Samson Lee came back on while Brown was in the bin, but even he couldn’t rectify the situation, while Rob Evans didn’t really fare any better on the other side. With such a dominance at the scrum, it was no surprise to see Ireland awarded the penalty try.

I understand at the moment there is a focus from many coaches to find front props who are dangerous in the loose, but the set piece is still a key component of the game. With the Australian scrum looking dangerous of late and the Georgians known for their forward dominance, Wales need to sort out their scrum quickly if they want to advance to the latter stages in Japan.

Before I move on, I just want to address Wales’ substitution during the yellow card period. With Brown going off, Wales had to sacrifice a player to bring Samson Lee back onto the field in order to complete the front row. Despite the scrum struggling, Wales chose to remove flanker James Davies. This meant that Wales were occasionally packing down with 7 men, or bringing in centre Owen Watkin on the flank. While Watkin did an admirable job, it was clear he had no idea what he was meant to be doing and for that reason, I don’t understand why he wasn’t removed (or one of the wingers) and Davies left on, which would have given the scrum more cohesion. I can understand no wanting to go a man down in the back line, but they were doing that anyway by putting Watkin into the scrum, while Davies is a highly mobile player and has high level experience of playing rugby 7s. He has even played the majority of a game on the wing for a 14-man Scarlets team. If I was looking for someone to be a hybrid flanker/centre/wing, then I would pick Davies over any of the backs on the pitch.

Ireland

The old adage is that “form is temporary, class is permanent”. Jacob Stockdale proved that over the last 2 weeks. The Ulster winger shot onto the international scene with his regular try-scoring exploits, but has gone through a somewhat fallow period. With the Irish inside defence not working well last week, Stockdale came in for criticism for flying up to try the man-and-ball tackle when facing the overlap. This week, he looked much better defensively as Ireland dealt with the Welsh attack and looked much more confident in attack. Andrew Conway could have probably finished the first try himself, but Stockdale did the right thing to get up in support and was given the chance to get on the scoresheet, while his second try was a great opportunistic moment as he picked up the loose pass from Aaron Shingler and outpaced the turning Welsh defence to score. Every time he carried in this match, he looked dangerous and it appears he may be getting back to top form at just the right time.

RWC2019 Winner & Losers

While I didn’t think Jarrod Evans had a poor game in the first half, the impact that Rhys Patchell had after coming on at halftime was immense. He controlled the game well and appeared to expand the attack, including scoring one of the tries himself. Able to cover 10 or 15, he has to make it onto the plane off the back of this performance, though whether than is instead of or as well as Evans is a matter for debate. If we assume that Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Liam Williams and Josh Adams are all guaranteed spots on the plane, it is likely that the back 3 in this match were competing for a maximum of 2 places. Owen Lane has had a horrible luck with injuries ruling him out of making his debut until this match, but he performed very well, looking decent on defence and having a good impact on the attack, including the first try. Moving over to the men in green, Dave Kilcoyne looked one of the best players on the pitch until he was removed, making a huge impact in open play both offensively and defensively. His replacement at loosehead, Andrew Porter, was unstoppable at the scrum, causing no end of problems for Leon Brown and Samson Lee. Usually a tighthead, this proof of his versatility may have just guaranteed him a place in the squad.

Staying in the front row for a moment, Leon Brown‘s torrid time in the scrums and lack of impact to make up for it around the park may have just seen him miss out on a place in the Welsh squad. With Aaron Shingler’s return to fitness, James Davies‘ removal during Brown’s sin bin period suggests that he will miss out on a spot in a Welsh back row that is still deep despite injuries to Taulupe Faletau and Ellis Jenkins. For Ireland, Devin Toner‘s chances of making the squad may rely on the competency of World Rugby an the citing officer after a challenge reminiscent of that which earned Scott Barrett a red card and 4-week ban. With Peter O’Mahony looking equally good at 7 as 6 and Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson both able to cover 6 and lock, it may be that Jordi Murphy will find himself surplus to requirements when Joe Schmidt names his squad.


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