June 2018 Rugby Ramble

June 2018 Rugby Ramble

European nightmare

Heidelberger RK made history on 21st April when their Continental Shield semi-final victory over Timisoara Saracens confirmed their place in the 2018/19 Challenge Cup – the first time a German team had ever qualified for the tournament. The cheer was short-lived however, as doubts were raised as to whether they would be unable to compete due to being under the ownership of Dr Hans-Peter Wild, who is also the owner of Stade Francais, a possible opponent in this year’s tournament. It was announced in early June that HRK would not be allowed to compete and their place would instead be taken by Timisoara Saracens.

The IRFU and the SRU own the Irish Provinces and the Scottish clubs respectively, yet they are constantly able to field teams in the same European competition. The IRFU have even been actively shown to manipulate things to benefit Irish rugby as a whole such as moving Joey Carbery from Leinster to Munster. If there was suddenly player movement between the 2 clubs then we could question the fairness, but apparently it’s good for the rich unions and not the poorer ones.

Let’s also be honest, what sort of impact would HRK have to impact the competition? Nothing against them as a club but the clubs who quality from the Continental Shield generally struggle to get results as it is, what impact do EPRC officials expect HRK to have in their first ever season competing at this level? The chances are they could have played their top line-up in every match and tried harder than every other team in the competition and still given opponents bonus point victories in each of their 6 pool matches. If the EPCR were so worried about HRK impacting the competition, they could have found a way to ensure Stade could not end up in the same pool.

As if these rubbish reasons for excluding HRK weren’t bad enough, the fallout from this decision is going to be felt keenly. Following the decision, Dr Wild has chosen to withdraw his funding of the club. His funding is such a vital part of German rugby right now and Heidelberger players who are employed by his academy have now been told to seek other employment. How is this fair on the players whose chance to develop has now been stopped by the funding cuts caused by this decision?

While World Rugby continues to say that it aims to be more inclusive and help develop improving nations, this is yet another example of the established parties refusing to let the new boys eat at the same table. Hopefully World Rugby and the EPRC look to improve this in the very near future.


A tale of 2 teams

With Argentina only picking home-based players, their talent pool has been somewhat limited. There is only 1 Argentinian team in top-flight rugby: the Jaguares, who compete in Super Rugby. After 17 rounds, the Jaguares are 2nd in the South African Conference with a record of 9 wins and 5 losses, which includes a run of 7 straight victories. By contrast, the national team has only 2 wins in their last 15 matches – against Georgia and Italy. Their performances against Wales this summer were so poor it cost head coach Daniel Hourcade, his job and they were arguably even worse against Scotland!

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Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias was the only player to feature in the Summer Tests for Argentina but not in the last 3 Jaguares games

I couldn’t believe how poor the Pumas were in the 3 Tests and was expecting to see the performance carry over into their next Jaguares game, but it didn’t and they ran out 25-14 winners over a Stormers side containing a number of Springboks. The win made me decide to have a look at the squads for the respective matches, so I looked at the matchday 23s for the June Tests, the 2 Jaguares games immediately before the Tests and the Jaguares 23 against the Stormers. As you can see on the tables I’ve included, the 23s are almost identical, with only a handful of players featuring for Argentina/Jaguares but not the other! Even more so, most of the players have even played the same position, with the vast majority of the starting back line and tight 5 being the same over all 6 matches. Nicolas Sanchez is a perfect example of the difference between the performances as he has been a huge part of the Jaguares’ success but was absolutely dreadful in the June Tests.

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Only 4 players have featured in the last 3 Jaguares matches but not in any of the Argentina squads during the June Tests

To me, there a few potential reasons for the differing fortunes:

  • Higher level of quality in Test rugby: While this may be the case in many circumstances, like during the Rugby Championship, I do not feel that this is necessarily the case here. Neither Wales nor Scotland played their full strength squads, whereas Super Rugby squads do contain a number of internationals. Though I would still rank the national sides ahead of the South African franchises the Jaguares have faced recently, I do not feel there is enough of a difference in quality to explain the results
  • Burnout: I mention this one as a suggestion that perhaps playing the majority of a Super Rugby season then having the June Tests could cause them to be too tired. However, I feel that this is rule out by them winning this weekend against the Stormers, as if this was the case I’d have expected it to show in this game too
  • Opposition defence: Nicolas Sanchez never looked comfortable against Wales and their blitz defence. The Pumas never adapted to this aggressive defence and found themselves going backwards on a regular basis. Super Rugby defences are notoriously different to those of Northern Hemisphere teams, so it possible that the Pumas struggle to adapt to the tactics of Wales or Scotland. However, many of these players are experience internationals who have played against Northern Hemisphere teams on a number of occasions, so I cannot see this being the full reason for their struggles, especially when you consider how they looked like they had never played together as a team before!
  • Coaching: I hate to blame the coaches but when the matchday 23s are so similar and the results are so different, you need to look at what stimuli are different. Unfortunately for Daniel Hourcade, the clear difference is at the top. Whether it is the tactics he is using or the trust of the players disappearing, he has not been getting the same level of rugby out of the players as Mario Ledesma has for the Jaguares. Personally I hope it was more the tactical side of things than the players not playing for him as they should still want to play to represent their country

There will be change ahead for Argentina. A new head coach is needed and the foreign-based stars will hopefully soon be available for selection again. Hopefully then, they can look to build on the success of the Jaguares.

Picking a XV: 2018 Summer Tests

Picking a XV: 2018 Summer Tests

The June Tests are over for another year (sob!) and now rugby fans in the Northern Hemisphere are left to endure a summer without rugby until their club’s preseason matches start, while fans below the Equator can get back to watching Super Rugby and looking forward to the Rugby Championship. With an ever-decreasing number of matches remaining before the World Cup, it is getting important now for coaches to begin thinking about the players they want to take to Japan.

With this in mind, I have decided to have a look at my picks for the team of the summer. This is not counting England’s match against the Barbarians, only the capped Tests. I will also apologise in advance to Italy and Japan if I missed anyone deserving of a spot, but I was unable to see any of their matches.

1 – Tendai Mtawawira: Called “The Beast” for a reason, he continues to put in fine performances to keep Steven Kitshoff on the bench. In the 3-Test series against England, he caused Kyle Sinckler problems at the scrum and his barnstorming run from the back of a ruck on his 100th Tests set up Duane Vermeulen was one of the highlights of the 2nd Test

2 – George Turner: The Glasgow hooker may not have been up against the strongest of opponents this summer, but he took his chances. He came off the bench against Canada to score a rare hattrick for a hooker (granted they were team efforts from driving mauls but they required accurate lineouts to set up) and then scored another try against the USA a week later. He may have strong competition in front of him in the form of Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally, but if he continues to take his chances a run in the squad is surely not far away

3 – Tadhg Furlong: Arguably the best tight-head in the world at the moment, Furlong continues to show himself as a strong scrummager who is also a beast in the loose. His strength will always help him get through a weak tackle but he also has good enough pace and handling skills to take advantage of it. This Ireland squad looks so much stronger when he’s on the pitch

4 – RG Snyman: I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Snyman was only 23 years old and making his Test debut this summer, that’s how assured he looked in the series against England. He took full advantage of the space left by the missing Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager and played a big part in a pack that physically dominated the English for much of the series. Like Turner, he may not get the starts when everyone is available, but Rassie Erasmus will love the depth that is developing in the second row

5 – Scott Barrett: Made history along with brothers Beauden and Jordie in the 1st Test by becoming the first family to have 3 brothers in the same All Blacks starting line-up and in my opinion outshone his flashier brothers over the full series. Was a deserved Man of the Match in the 3rd Test against France and looked very impressive in every match. He’ll struggle to beat out Brodie Retallick or Sam Whitelock when they are fully fit but it’s doesn’t appear there would be much drop in quality if he was to come into the XV long-term

6 – David Pocock: An openside by trade but played at 6 and 8 for the majority of the series to accommodate Michael Hooper. It was so great to see Pocock back in the Australia squad following his sabbatical and the “Pooper” pairing was as good as ever. His performance at the breakdown was immense and even though he was often targeted by the Irish support men he still had a devastating effect on the breakdown

7 – Siya Kolisi: Made history by becoming the first black captain of the Springboks and led his team to a 2-1 series victory over England to hint at an improved future for the team. Under heavy pressure, Kolisi led by example and was aprt of a pack that generally outperformed England over the 3 Tests

8 – Duane Vermeulen: He’s just announced a short-term deal with Kubot Spears, but when that comes to an end I’m sure plenty of clubs will be chasing his signature off the back of his performances in the 2nd and 3rd Tests. In the 2nd Test especially, the former Toulon number 8 bullied the England forwards and was fully deserving of his try

9 – Faf de Klerk: Probably South Africa’s best player over the whole series, the Sale halfback was almost unplayable in the 1st Test against England. While he may not have been as much of a standout in the other matches, he still quietly went about his business while having a few wonderful moments like pushing Nathan Hughes back 5 metres in a 1-on-1 tackle in the 3rd Test

10 – AJ MacGinty: Probably not many people’s pick here after Johnny Sexton’s part in Ireland’s series victory Down Under, but I went for former Connacht outside half MacGinty. I was shocked that he didn’t get the Man of the Match award in the USA’s historic win over Scotland, but he did a week later against Canada and finished the summer with 38 points over 3 matches. A good fly half is vital in Test rugby and the American is exactly what the Eagles need as they look to build on their success

11 – Mike Brown: I’m not a fan of Mike Brown on the wing and still don’t understand why he wasn’t given a summer off by Eddie Jones, but Brown had a good tour on the whole. He scored and assisted tries in attack and in defence covered well when South Africa broke through the middle, while also helping Daly cover fullback. I do however think South Africa missed a trick by not trying to isolate him as much in the 2nd and 3rd Tests

12- Hadleigh Parkes: Came on in the first half of their opener against South Africa and gave the team much more balance, then starred in the 1st Test against Argentina despite suffering a compound fracture of his finger in the opening minutes. Parkes has been a revelation since becoming eligible for Wales and must surely be one of the first names on the team sheet

13 – Scott Williams: Williams was so reliable for Wales this summer and formed a strong partnership with his (now former) teammate Parkes. Jonathan Davies is arguably still the ideal partner for Parkes but Williams’ ability to play 12 or 13 will likely see him as the immediate backup in the squad

14 – Jonny May: A try in each match and assists in the first 2 Tests, May was arguably the player of the series for England. He may not have been tested too much in defence but in attack the flashes of skill are gone and we now have a reliable winger who makes chances out of nothing and has the pace to terrify defenders. Nobody else on the pitch was getting to Cipriani’s kick! This tournament has surely pushed him up the pecking order and he may even be Eddie’s number 1 winger now

15 – Willie le Roux: Making his first appearance for the Springboks since November 2016, le Roux carried on from his form this season with Wasps and looks back to his best. He caused England so many problems around the 13 channel in the series opener and this led to many of South Africa’s best chances in that match. Hopefully he will become a regular in the South Africa squad again now Rassie Erasmus is in charge

What do you think of my selections? Let me know in the comments who you would have picked, I’d be interested to see how many players we have in common.

2018 Summer Tests Week 3: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 3: A Rugby Ramble

The official verdict

There is a problem in international rugby that got far too much attention over the last couple of weeks: the standard of officiating. Right now there just don’t seem enough referees good enough for the importance for the matches. As I said the other week, I think Luke Pearce is a very good referee and on the whole had a good game on his Tier 1 debut, but should have probably gone to the TMO for the French yellow card and should have had much more support from the TMO for the Grosso incident and the final try. Last week, I was full supportive of Angus Gardner’s red card for Benjamin Fall, but World Rugby decided to rescind the card, appearing to go against every decision in recent months.

This week, the refereeing in some of the matches was, to put it nicely, dire! Not a single one of the New Zealand v France Tests could go without controversy, as this time John Lacey awarded a try to Damian McKenzie just before half time after clearly blocking Baptiste Serin from making an attempt to tackle the All Blacks fly half. With just 1 look at the replay, Lacey and TMO George Ayoub agreed that Lacey had not impeded Serin and allowed the try, despite evidence clearly to the contrary. An offensive line in the NFL would be proud of that block! I understand that it is not always easy for a referee to position himself, but in the first attacking channel, exactly where a defending scrum half will run, is definitely not the right place and this was not even the only time his positioning was off as he ran into the passing lane from the back of a ruck earlier in the half as the scrum half was playing the ball away.

Unbelievable as it may seem, the 3rd Test between Australia and Ireland may have been even worse in terms of officiating. Israel Folau was shown a yellow card after 30 minutes after playing Peter O’Mahony in the air, resulting in the Irish captain landing awkwardly on his back and having to leave the pitch. While I can’t argue with this decision – it was a fair contest for the ball but Folau then grabbed him in the air – this was not the first time he had done this to O’Mahony in the game, with an earlier challenge where the flanker landed on his head a shoulders (a straight red according to the laws) going unpunished. Folau should consider himself lucky to have made it to half time without a red, but he definitely should have seen one for a second yellow card late in the game as he was judged to deliberately knock on an Irish pass when they had a 2-man overlap. They may not have been in a scoring position but it was a professional foul with a chance of a break on and fully deserving of a second yellow. It wasn’t just Pascal Gauzere’s reluctance to send off Folau that could have cost Ireland the win, as they were also disallowed what looked like 2 certain penalty tries in the second half. With the ball at the back of a ruck on the Australian line, Conor Murray dived for the post with the ball in an attempt to score by placing the ball against the base of the post. Gauzere consulted the TMO and they agreed that he had been unable to make contact with the post, but theat he had been stopped by a player in an offside position. Sekope Kepu was still on the floor trying to (slowly) extricate himself from the last ruck, but moved his body to protect the post, while Adam Coleman’s low stance clearly saw him with hands on the ball ahead of the post rather than behind the try line. 2 players illegally stopping a chance to score, how that wasn’t a penalty try – or even a yellow card – is beyond me! Then not long later an Irish maul was advancing over the try line and clearly collapsed by the Australian pack. Gauzere awarded a penalty, but with the maul clearly moving forward and in the process of crossing the line, a penalty try appeared the only option to me

I hope this doesn’t sound like a piece blasting officials as it is not intended as such, rather it is highlighting the need for an improved and more consistent quality of refereeing. Rugby is a professional sport and while these matches were not in a tournament they could have affected the rankings. Players need to know what they will and won’t be penalised for and until we have players and officials singing off the same hymn sheet, how are fans expected to not react to what they feel t be a clear injustice? With the World Cup just over a year away, either the quality of the officials has to improve dramatically, or we need to find a way to clone Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens soon.

The American dream

The USA finished off their fixtures this summer with a 42-17 win over Canada. This win leaves the Eagles undefeated in 2018 and 15th in the World Rankings. Argentina meanwhile slumped to an embarrassing 15-44 loss to an understrength Scotland. Despite the Pumas being ranked 10th in the world, if they were to play the USA this weekend I would not be surprised to see the Eagles emerge victorious.

The Eagles are on a wonderful run and their success will only push them on and make them even more successful as more people become interested in the sport. I would expect Argentina to begin improving in the near future under new leadership, but I can’t see them getting a single win against New Zealand, Australia or South Africa as things stand and it is quite possible that when we see these 2 teams meet in Pool C of the World Cup, the winner could be looking at becoming the top-ranked American team. What a moment that would be!

80 minute performance

New Zealand may have come away from the Summer Tests with a 3-0 series victory, but they looked anything but unbeatable. Over the 3 tests, the combined first half scores were 50-33 in favour of the Kiwis, but the second half saw them comfortably ahead 77-7. The French played very well in parts but were unable to put in the full 80 minute performances. Granted the yellow card to Paul Gabrillagues in the 1st Test won’t have helped in that match – they conceded 3 tries while he was off the pitch – but once the All Blacks got the momentum hey ran away with the 1st and 3rd Tests. The only one you could argue the French put in the full 80 minute performance was the 2nd Test, where they played the majority of the match a man down.

The All Blacks are beatable and I’m not sold on McKenzie as an international 10 when Beauden Barrett isn’t available, but you need to be at the top of your game to beat them and need to keep the performance going from the first whistle to the last.

2018 Summer Tests Week 2: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 2: A Rugby Ramble

Wheels coming off the chariot

England slumped to another disappointing defeat with a 23-12 loss to an improving South Africa which leaves them unable to win the June series. The team have now lost 6 matches in a row (yes Eddie, I’m counting that Barbarians match!) and if I’m completely honest I don’t see that streak ending next week..

billyvWhat has gone wrong for this team? From an outsider looking in, things don’t look great. Players continue to get long-term injuries in training sessions. Eddie Jones is moaning that he has 25 players unavailable for selection – I’d love to hear the list and see if it includes players he continues to overlook like Don Armand and Alex Goode – which makes it sound like he doesn’t trust the players (many of them regulars) that he has with him. Ben Youngs is giving one of the rudest post-match interviews I’ve ever seen – he later apologised but it still left a nasty taste in the mouth – while Mike Brown and Joe Marler got into a row with fans in the crowd. And all the while Eddie Jones appears to feel that discipline is not an issue, despite a ridiculous penalty count, a stupid infringement from Nathan Hughes – who so frequently looks out of depth at this level – that left England a man down for 10 minutes, a positively brainless penalty from Mako Vunipola for a slap on Pieter-Steph du Toit and a kick that Maro Itoje appeared to aim at Faf de Klerk at the exact same ruck as the Vunipola slap. Players who star every week for Saracens are repeatedly poor for England recently and in some cases are actually liabilities with their lack of discipline. George Ford has had his moments where he has looked great but has largely disappeared from games once the Boks started getting into the game, while Billy Vunipola did not look fit enough in either match (possibly not being helped by not training at altitude, not that Eddie feels this is an issue) and is now out again with a broken arm. Is Eddie the man to take us through to the World Cup? Right now, I have my reservations about him, but with just a 6 Nations and a handful of other Tests remaining, I’m not sure there is someone who could come in and get the team ready in time.

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The 23 I would pick for the final Test against South Africa

With the series lost, changes should be made for the final Test, if only to rest some players and give others a fair chance to show what they can do. I would have selected Ellis Genge at 1, but he is returning to England injured and Mako is also returning for family reasons, Alex Hepburn is flying out and while I would love to start him I think the space needs to go to Marler, who has been training with the squad. Jamie George’s form has not been up to the level everyone expected when given his chances to start and I think it is time to give Luke Cowan-Dickie a chance to prove he can move ahead of the Saracen. Kyle Sinckler is another who has not backed up his form from the Lions Tour and I think it may benefit England to start the stronger scrummager Williams, leaving Sinckler to come off the bench when the Boks get tired. I’m dropping Itoje from my starting second row as he has been a penalty machine and has been lucky not to be penalised more with the way he has targeted Faf de Klerk over the 2 Tests, so I would bring Nick Isiekwe back in to partner Joe Launchbury, with Itoje on the bench, no more of this going without a specialist lock replacement. Curry and Shields both impressed me in this game so I would keep them, while I would begin to look away from Hughes as an international number 8 and look at giving Sam Simmonds some more international experience, though I see his international future on the flank. Ben Youngs was poor at scrum half and it is time Dan Robson and Ben Spencer got their chance to prove themselves. I would happily start either of them, but I have gone for Robson to start due to his experience playing with Danny Cipriani, who I have picked at 10. He looked good in his 12 minute cameo on Saturday and now deserves the chance to depose George Ford. Owen Farrell keeps his place at 12 to give Cirpiani the same help Ford has had, while Slade keeps his place at 13 for consistency in the midfield. In the back 3, Elliot Daly has not had the best of games defensively at 15, but is bringing so much with his attacking lines and deserves a chance to grow into the role. Jonny May has been one of the better players over the last 2 matches and has been involved in so many of the team’s best moments so keeps his place at 14. I’ve been critical of Mike Brown on a number of occasions in recent years but I thought he had a good game in this match, though I still worry about him if he is forced to defend normally against a specialist winger rather than coming across to make cover tackles as in this game. I would rest him for the final game and give the 11 shirt to Jason Woodward. Admittedly I am perhaps biased as a Gloucester fan, but this is a guy who has started for the Hurricanes ahead of Julian Savea in a Super Rugby final and his ability to play both on the wing and at fullback allows him to help Elliot Daly similar to how Mike Brown did at the weekend.

Awful Argentina

To say watching Argentina over the last couple of weeks has been disappointing is possibly the understatement of the century. They have been awful! Wales rested a number of players on this tour and have been chopping and changing the lineups to make sure everyone gets decent gametime, so their performances have not necessarily been great, but they still never looked like losing in either match against the Pumas.

A couple of years ago I would have had Nicolas Sanchez as one of the best fly halves in the world, but he has been dreadful over the last 2 weeks. The team have not done well enough at the breakdown,the forwards have not been able to control the set piece in the way they used to and the backs looked shorn of the flair we have got used to seeing over recent years. Taking off Pablo Matera and Agustin Creevy – often 2 of their best players – so early in the second half felt like the coaches were throwing in the towel for this match. In fact head coach Daniel Hourcade did throw in the towel, announcing that he will step down after next week’s game against Scotland.

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Despite an early red card for fullback Benjamin Fall, France looked much improved from last weekend in their match against New Zealand, though the All Blacks lost Beauden Barrett early and struggled to adapt to Angus Gardner’s refereeing of the breakdown

Hopefully new leadership will start the turnaround in fortunes, but the team needs more than that. As it stands, only players inside Argentina are selected for the national team, which means that the entire squad are from the Jaguares team – even though it has looked as if the guys had never played together before the last couple of weeks! While the familiarity should help the team, it cannot be easy to jump from Super Rugby to international rugby. There were rumours a few months ago that overseas-based players will be available for selection again soon, this needs to happen immediately so that stars like Facundo Isa can help this team get back to the level they were at.

The next megapower?

Massive congratulations to the USA who ran out 30-29 victors against Scotland last night to win their first match against Tier 1 opposition. Though it was by no means Scotland’s strongest squad, there was still enough experience to go with the talented youngsters to think the Scots would win and while they did miss a couple of kicks at goal and have a try disallowed for a knock-on by Mark Bennett, the USA were good value for their historic win to continue their unbeaten 2018.

Just over 2 years ago, I wrote about how PRO Rugby could be the next stage of a revolution that could see the USA become the next rugby superpower. While PRO Rugby may not have worked out as hoped, things seem to be going better with its replacement Major League Rugby (MLR). The majority of the squad are based in the MLR, with a handful of overseas-based players like Samu Manoa (Toulon), AJ MacGinty (Sale), Joe Taufete’e (Worcester) and Blaine Scully (Cardiff Blues) supplying a high level of top-quality experience despite the recent retirements of Todd Clever and Chris Wyles. The expansion of MLR (Ben Foden is rumoured to be joining expansion team Rugby United New York) will continue to help the development of the local players, while other players like Danny Barrett will continue to gain experience as part of a successful team on the World Sevens Series. And all the while the success of the national team (They have won the last 2 Americas Rugby Championships) and the MLR will draw in new talent, like centre Paul Lasike, who played fullback in the NFL for the Cardinals and Bears.

Qualification for the 2019 World Cup saw the USA qualify as Americas 1 for the first time. If their rise continues, it is possible they may soon start to qualify for the finals by finishing top 3 in their pool. 2019 may be too soon for that, but 2023 is certainly a possibility. In fact, if the USA’s love of rugby can continue to grow, then they could be the next team to break into the top tier. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

2018 Summer Tests Week 1: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 1: A Rugby Ramble

Hey everyone sorry it has taken so long to get this done, unfortunately I was working all weekend so it took a few days to catch up with all the action before I could write this, hopefully next week’s should be much sooner after the matches.

Referees can’t win

Refereeing your first Tier 1 international is always going to be something to remember, but for Luke Pearce it turned into something of a nightmare. The English referee was handed New Zealand’s first Test against France and had a very good first half, getting the big calls right and not being afraid to march Aaron Smith back 10 metres for backchat following a penalty decision. However in the second half things started to go wrong for him. 50 minutes into the game and with the scores level, France lock Paul Gabrillagues brought down Ryan Crotty with a seatbelt tackle. Pearce called a halt to proceedings and had no hesitation in showing the second row a yellow card, though television replays after the card showed that though there was a seatbelt tackle, there was no contact with the head or neck so a penalty would have been sufficient. The All Blacks took advantage of the extra man, running in 3 tries to take control of the game. And then as France would have been preparing to get back to a full complement things got even worse. Remy Grosso attempted to come away from the back of a ruck but was caught by Sam Cane, while Ofa Tu’ungafasi also became involved in the challenge and caught him on the head. Grosso would leave the pitch and go to hospital with a double fracture to his face. Remarkably, neither player was shown his marching orders, with Pearce heard to be saying as Grosso was going to ground it was just a penalty for Tu’ungafasi. But that still leaves no excuse for Cane’s seatbelt tackle which caught Grosso around the face. In the same way Gabrillagues should not have been carded, Cane should have been. And as the match came to an end there was time for one more debatable decision, as Ardie Savea was awarded a try despite his knee appearing to hit the ground (completing the tackle). Pearce awarded the try and from his position that is understandable as he would have been unable to see Savea’s knee touch the ground, especially as it was for such a brief moment.

While he did not have the best of times with these incidents, I would not be quick to start a witch hunt. Yes it was a shame that Pearce chose to give a card to Gabrillagues without checking with the TMO, but then at the same time how often have we found ourselves moaning that referees refuse to make a decision without 5 minutes of replays. As to the other incidents, while the collision with Tu’ungafasi looks horrible, I can understand Pearce’s reason no not give him a card. Cane deserved a card, but despite clear evidence in the replays and a substantial gap in play as medics saw to Grosso, I did not hear TMO George Ayoub give him any indication that Cane’s challenge needed looking at, nor did he give any indication that Savea’s try needed a second look despite the replays clearly showing his knee hitting the ground. The TMO needs to be working along with the referee and his two assistants, yet Ayoub threw Pearce under the bus with his silence.

I personally rate Pearce as a good referee and hope these incidents don’t hold him back in the matches he is assigned moving forward.

Back row balance

David Pocock made his return to the Australia squad at the weekend in their 18-9 victory over Ireland and it was like he’d never been away from the squad. While the whole defence looked strong and put in big hits, the breakdown nous of him and captian Michael Hooper constantly makes it difficult for teams at the breakdown. Not only are they both incredibly experienced players, but they are expert fetchers and also bring a lot to open play. With turnovers (and resultant penalties) so important to modern rugby, when I see the two of them combining so effectively, I can’t help but wonder why more teams don’t play 2 fetchers in a similar style. Ireland have unearthed so much talent at the number 7 position with Saturday’sstarter Jordi Murphy arguably 4th in the order behind Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy. However as long as Peter O’Mahony is on the park I don’t believe they would go for 2 specialist 7s at his expense as he is a force at the breakdown – though maybe not as finessed as some fetchers – while also contributing a lot to the game with his leadership and potential in the lineout. Wales however could really benefit from playing two specialist 7s. Aaron Shingler was great during the 6 Nations, but Josh Navidi, James Davies and Ellis Jenkins are all incredible talents that could make it into most international teams, and yet they also have to compete with captain Sam Warburton and his fellow Lion Justin Tipuric. Thomas Young can’t even get in the squad… I think many international coaches would love such depth! Warburton is a classy player and so experienced, but could also make room for one of the younger fetchers by moving to 6 at the expense of Shingler, allowing one of the younger 7s to play alongside him. It also wouldn’t surprise me if he retires from international rugby after the World Cup to allow the next generation 4 years to develop. With other back row options including Ross Moriarty, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate, and Welsh-qualified Lewis Ludlow starring for Gloucester this season, the Welsh back row is one of the units to watch over the next 18 months.

Strength of schedule

Currently ranked 6th in the world, Scotland’s opponents this summer make for strange reading. After impressive results over the last year they appear to be hitting their stride nicely in preparation for the World Cup, but this summer they are playing Tests against Canada, USA and Argentina. At best, Argentina will be ranked 9th when they play Scotland, providing they beat Wales, but USA are 15th and Canada are a disappointing 21st. I am all for Tier 1 teams playing Tests against Tier 2 and Tier 3 nations, but this does not seem to be the opponents I would expect such a highly ranked team to be playing so close to the World Cup. How many of the young lads making their debuts against Canada will have a realistic chance of getting on the plane to Japan next year? And what will the coaches learn of the players competing for starting spots against teams that are not up to their level? Argentina are the only team that should give the Scots a realistic challenge, and as such this you feels like a lose-lose situation for the squad, as they either field a highly weakened team that will barely benefit them come the World Cup, play their full squad and learn nothing from outclassing a weaker team or risk a poor performance against a minnow that should never have a chance. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the Scots’ American tour goes.

Eyes On: England v Barbarians

Eyes On: England v Barbarians

Sunday at Twickenham saw the start of the latest Summer Tests window with Engalnd’s annual fixture against the Barbarians. England were missing a number of players due to their appearances in the Premiership final the day before, and a handful of other players were either rested or unavailable through injury, but Eddie Jones was still able to put together an attractive looking squad, however it paled in comparison next to the big names Pat Lam had pulled together to represent the Barbarians. Whereas Saturday’s final would be described as solid play, this was certainly spectacular, with the Barbarians scoring 9 tries to win 45-63, a record score against England at Twickenham.

The squad

Before anything, I must admit I was surprise by some of Eddie Jones’ selections for this match. I have really wanted to see Elliot Daly given a chance at 15 and was thrilled to see him given the shirt when the team was announced. That thrill did not last long as I realised that Mike Brown was still in the XV, playing on the wing. Brown has been a wonderful servant for England over the years, but I don’t understand why Eddie Jones seems to consider him almost undroppable. In this match, he did not have the pace to cope with Josua Tuisova and did not provide much in attack to merit his inclusion. It’s not as if he was even the only option available as Denny Solomona was on the bench and Jason Woodward was left out of the 23 altogether. The Mike Brown as a winger experiment needs to stop now, hopefully Eddie realised this.

I was also really disappointed to see Ben Youngs, George Ford, Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler starting this game given the options available on the bench. I appreciate the 4 of them, along with Brown, made up most of the experienced contingent, but what better game to blood young talent like Robson, Cipriani, Genge and Wilson than against the Barbarians, in a match where the result is less important so the pressure is (somewhat) off. Ford had a good game in attack, but against a Barbarians team that is never going to have an incredibly organised defence I would expect nothing less from him. The real disappointment in this game was Robshaw. A man who has always been considered such a reliable tackler and defender, Robshaw missed a number of tackles in this game and many of them proved costly on the scoreboard. With Billy Vunipola returning to the England fold and a number of younger back row players impressing when given the chance, Robshaw’s days in the starting XV could be numbered.

lobbe
This match was Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe’s last before retiring. He led the Barbarians to a record victory and even got on the scoresheet by taking the final conversion

Odd subs

Tying in somewhat to the last point, I thought some of Eddie Jones’ replacements were odd. Henry Trinder may not have had the best start to the game defensively, but let’s be honest no one in an England shirt did! However as England started to improve, it looked like he was beginning to grow into the game, until he was removed for a Head Injury Assessment after 27 minutes, with Cipriani coming on at 15 and Daly moving into the centre. Daly had started the game relatively well but I felt his influence waned after this positional change, while Cipriani had a couple of good moments but not enough to really catch the eye as an option at 15 in the Tests. It was reported by the Sky Sports commentary that Trinder passed his HIA, yet Jones decided not to bring him back onto the pitch. For someone who has had such a torrid time with injuries and finally put together a wonderful season, to be yanked off so early after the whole team started poorly is awful and I really hope that the commentary was wrong and Trinder in fact failed his HIA. I’m starting to get the feeling that he will not be given a fair shot at the England 13 shirt while Eddie Jones is in charge, much like Alex Goode and the 15 shirt.

I was also shocked to see Zach Mercer removed so early in the second half by Eddie Jones. In case you haven’t noticed from previous articles, I am a big fan of the Bath number 8 and thought that while he was having a relatively quiet game – aside from his try, where he ran a brilliant support line as Daly went through a gap – he was not struggling in the same way Robshaw was. Mark Wilson looked decent off the bench and I do not begrudge him the game time, but I just feel that England would have benefitted more both on the day and long term from keeping Mercer on the pitch and replacing Robshaw.

Making a splash

The scrip almost wrote itself here: Chris Ashton rejected by Eddie Jones so moves to Toulon, breaks the Top 14 record, starts at fullback against England at Twickenham and scores 2 tries in the opening 10 minutes on the way to a 25-minute hat-trick.

Though his defence wasn’t at the best in this game (whose was if we’re being honest?), his attacking play was wonderful and after being gifted the first try by Josua Tuisova he scored 2 wonderful tries, the first a lovely chip over Daly and the second a classic Ashton try getting on the shoulder to take an offload. His great running lines also set up Finn Russell for his try and he was close to a 4th try but couldn’t get downward pressure on the ball, while George Ford also tracked back well to make a last ditch tackle in the first half.

I would argue that he is a better player now than he was in his heyday with England and it is a shame that Eddie Jones did not consider him before his move to Toulon. That said, now that he is at Toulon I completely agree that he is ineligible to play for England. I know a lot of people are clamouring for him to play, but if he can’t guarantee release to England whenever we need it why should he be picked? The rule about playing in England has been clear for years and, as good as he is, I would not consider his form an exceptional circumstance given the options available throughout the back 3.

Lions 2017: The Review

The Lions tour of 2017 is now over. An enthralling trip to New Zealand ended with the Lions winning 5 games, losing 3 and drawing 2, including the deciding third Test to end the Test series in a 1-1 tie.

Right from the moment the initial touring party was named, there have been controversies all the way through to the final minutes of the last Test. There were also a number of big individual performances, some from players we’d expect but many from players who many fans likely didn’t expect to have a big part on the tour, especially in the Tests.

As we begin to look ahead to the 2021 tour of New Zealand, I felt it right to say goodbye to the tour with a look back at what has happened this summer and a couple of suggestions as to what I feel should happen in future tours.

My individual match write-ups:

  1. Win v New Zealand Provincial Barbarians 7-13
  2. Loss v Blues 22-16
  3. Win v Crusaders 3-12
  4. Loss v Highlanders 23-22
  5. Win v Maori All Blacks 10-32
  6. Win v Chiefs 6-34
  7. Loss v New Zealand 30-15
  8. Draw v Hurricanes 31-31
  9. Win v New Zealand 21-24
  10. Draw v New Zealand 15-15

The coaches

While the Lions forwards did not always have their own way in the Tests, on the whole they did seem to have an advantage in the pack. I feel that both Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree both come away from this tour looking good, especially Borthwick. Borthwick is still relatively new to coaching a top-tier nation, having joined England alongside Eddie Jones in late 2015, so if he continues to improve I think he has a great chance of being involved with the 2021 tour.

Though a couple of the kickers struggled with the Adidas ball early in the tour, Owen Farrell really seemed to improve his success percentages as the tour reached the crucial last couple of Tests, which eventually proved the difference in the second and third Tests. To my memory, Leigh Halfpenny was the only Lion not to miss a kick at goal during this tour and Dan Biggar also had one of the better kicking percentages, so I feel this shows the importance Neil Jenkins had on this tour. Will he make the trip to South Africa in 4 years? It will probably depend in part as to which kickers are in the squad but he’s certainly got the experience.

Of all the Lions coaches, I feel that Andy Farrell comes out looking best. There were a number of times when the Lions defence held impressive attacking lineups to a low number of points. In the Tests, especially the third Test, Farrell made good use of the blitz defence to minimise the effect of the crash ball on the Sexton/Farrell channel and also put the All Blacks under heavy pressure, leading to a number of uncharacteristic mistakes. If the defence had not been so impressive, the All Blacks could have legitimately finished with a 3-0 whitewash. I think a lot of teams will have been taking note of Farrell’s defensive tactics ready for when they play the All Blacks. Much like Borthwick, if he can continue to impress over the next few years I expect to see him involved in 4 years.

Though the Lions did start to score a few more tries as the tour wore on, I feel that the attack was on the whole a real disappointment. In many of the matches, the Lions left too many chances on the field, and I cannot even remember them creating anything resembling a try-scoring opportunity in the last Test. This reflects badly on Rob Howley, who also didn’t impress in charge of Wales for the 6 Nations this year.

Warren Gatland may have orchestrated an unlikely series draw in New Zealand to go with his 2-1 victory in Australia 4 years ago, but I feel there were too many controversies relating to his decisions on this Tour. I am not a big fan of Gatland, as I feel his Warrenball tactics are outdated yet he has not made much effort to evolve them. When you consider the Lions needed a late – and somewhat controversial – penalty to beat an All Blacks side that spent over half the game a man down in the second Test, you could say that Gatland is extremely lucky to not be the only Kiwi disappointed at a New Zealand series victory. There were also a number of selection controversies that were surely heightened by his involvement with the Welsh national team, as a number of times the Welsh players appeared to be preferred both in the 41-man touring party and in the 23-man squads if there was a 50/50 decision to make. Even worse was his decision to call up 6 nearby players partway through the tour – including preferring a couple of Welsh players who could not even be considered squad regulars for Wales ahead of internationals who impressed in the 6 Nations and were considered extremely lucky not to make the initial 41 – only to then make an abrupt U-turn after seeing the public reaction and decide not to play the ‘Geographic 6’ unless there was no other choice. Personally I would not like to see Gatland or Howley involved with the 2021 tour, and also feel Wales will benefit from replacing both coaches at the end of their current contracts.

While I have no problem with the assistant coaches coming from the Home Nations national teams, as this will help the chemistry of the squad, I personally feel that the Head Coach at least should be a neutral as opposed to one of the Home Nations coaches. My preference would be to have a British/Irish head coach, though I appreciate there may not always be someone with enough experience for this role. Looking ahead to 2021, Eddie Jones has already suggested that he will leave his position with England after the 2019 World Cup, so I can see the Lions looking to bring him in to lead the tour of South Africa, but I will also be interested to see the development of international coaches like Gregor Townsend and Conor O’Shea over the next few years.

The schedule

With the increasing focus on player welfare in an already long season, it is always going to be difficult to get the scheduling right for a Lions Tour. Without even counting clubs releasing players in the buildup to their European Cup finals for the Messy Monday meeting of the Lions squad, there were some clear problems with the scheduling of this tour.

The performance against the provincial Barbarians was so poor, jet lag was commonly used as an excuse, due to the Lions having only arrived in New Zealand mere days earlier. Considering the players involved in their domestic league finals were never going to be involved in the first game – in fact Gatland tried to not even use players who had been involved in the semi-finals either – it would have made more sense to me for the majority of the squad to fly out a week earlier, with any remaining players making the trip out once their club commitments were over.

The suggestions are that the South Africa tour will contain fewer games, and while I initially thought these games were required to help find the right 23 for the Tests, I wonder if less games but more consistently challenging could be better. I feel the Lions could also be used as a way to give extra experience to lower-tier nations. For 2021, I would love to see a game against the Barbarians, 1 or 2 against Namibia and a couple of games against South Africa A and/or a ‘Super Rugby All-stars’ made up of the best available players from the South African Super Rugby franchises.

There has also been talk of including a test against Argentina as a warm-up game. While I agree they deserve a chance to play the Lions and appreciate there probably isn’t enough of an infrastructure yet to host an entire Lions tour, I would not be against a tour of the Americas, with the main test series being against the Pumas but also games against nations from the Americas Rugby Championship (USA, Canada, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile) as this would be good international experience for teams not yet in the top-tier and would also be good to improve the hype and visibility of rugby in these countries.

Player of the Tour

He may not have featured much outside of the Tests but Jonathan Davies gets my vote. In the 6 Nations I was not at all impressed and felt that the injury to Huw Jones and poor performances of Jonathan Joseph were the only factors putting him in contention of a place in the squad. However playing for Scarlets in the playoffs of the Pro12 he looked absolutely fantastic.

Not used until the third game against the Crusaders, a head injury saw him come off in the first half but in that time he had already done enough to show that he was the best option at 13 for the Tests and had worked well with Ben Te’o. During the Tests he was often heavily involved in the Lions’ best attacking play, but he was also an important part of the defence and caused the New Zealand backs no end of trouble in the third Test. I bet Jordie Barrett is still seeing him in his nightmares!

Team of the Tests

I am basing this purely on the 3 Test matches, so though Reiko Ioane was impressive in the first Test and for the Blues, he misses out here due to his quiet second Test and his non-involvement in the tour finale.

  1. Joe Moody
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Brodie Retallick
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Kieran Read
  9. Aaron Smith
  10. Beauden Barrett
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Owen Farrell
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Israel Dagg
  15. Liam Williams

 

What are your thoughts on the tour? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge