Super Rugby AU: Tournament XV

Super Rugby AU: Tournament XV

It’s all over. 12 weeks of Super Rugby AU came to an end at the weekend with the Brumbies defeating the Reds in the final to become the first Super Rugby AU Champions. The tournament gave us the return of the Western Force to top flight rugby and introduced the world to many of the next generation of Wallabies as many of the experienced players moved on to ply their trade abroad.

With the tournament over, there is just one more duty to uphold: picking the Team of the Tournament. These are all my own picks and go by my own feel from watching the matches rather than statistics – though I may throw in the odd stat to help my point. Let me know who would be your selections!

1) Cameron Orr: First up in the squad is actually a former Gloucester boy and I assure you that it was not through any bias. Orr did a great job as part of a solid scrum and as the tournament went on began to really show his ability in the loose, most notably with a wide pass to set Reece Hodge up for a try in Round 10’s win over the Force.

2) Jordan Uelese: There was some impressive play from many of the hookers in the competition; unfortunately much of that didn’t extend to the lineout. While he may not have been as influential as some of the other hookers, he also felt much more balanced than some of the others between his play in both the loose and set piece.

3) Taniela Tupou: I’d go as far as to call the “Tongan Thor” one of the best tightheads in the world right now. The Reds prop not only dominated his side of the scrum in most games, but highlighted his dynamism both in attack and defence and keeping this level of performance going for the full 80 minutes.

4) Jeremy Thrush: The former All Black played such an important role for the Force that probably went somewhat unnoticed due to their lack of success. Led from the front and took on the captaincy in the absence of Ian Prior for much of the tournament. To top things off, he finished with the most lineouts won in the tournament (39), despite many of the names immediately below him in the list having played extra games courtesy of the playoffs.

5) Lukhan Salakaia-Loto: The Reds have an incredibly talented foursome in the back row and that has allowed Salakaia-Loto to cement his place in the second row. With Izack Rodda leaving, the lock has taken on much more responsibility in the engine room and at the set piece – 35 catches saw him finish 3ʳᵈ in the competition for lineout wins – but he has also kept that dynamism from his time in the back row, making him a dangerous weapon in the loose.

6) Henry Stowers: Probably not the name many would have expected due to the Force going 0-8, but Stowers was a massive positive for them. It didn’t matter how things were going for the team, you could always rely on the Samoan to take the ball and take the game to the opposition, while he also finished the tournament with 109 completed tackles (joint 3ʳᵈ).

7) Will Miller: Australia creates such great opensides, this was not an easy pick. Liam Wright, Fraser McReight and Michael Hooper all had impressive performances, but Wright won the spot for me. He may have got on the wrong side of Angus Gardner in the final, but was a constant menace at the breakdown throughout the round-robin phase, while also contributing 4 tries during the campaign.

8) Pete Samu: All 5 teams had an incredible number 8 to try picking from, so this was far from easy, but in the end Pete Samu won out. The Brumbies number 8 played such a big role in both attack and defence with his big carrying, his willingness to tackle and his threat at the breakdown, while also finishing 8ᵗʰ overall for lineouts won (23).

9) Tate McDermott: The Reds halfback was on fire throughout the competition, keeping a high tempo for the attack while also utilising his speed and elusiveness to create and finish chances. Finished the tournament with 4 tries, 13 clean breaks (joint 3ʳᵈ), 32 defenders beaten (2ⁿᵈ), 7 offloads (joint 6ᵗʰ) and 360 metres carried (10ᵗʰ), while he also came up with some key defensive interventions.

10) James O’Connor: This was a tough decision between Matt To’omua and O’Connor and the Rebels’ inability to play without To’omua gave him the advantage for a long time, until I looked at the squads and realised just how experienced the Rebels were compared to the Reds. O’Connor played a key role in the Reds’ success, getting the side playing some great rugby, and even n the days where things weren’t working for the Reds, he was clearly doing everything he could.

11) Marika Koroibete: The Rebels winger is such a vital part of their game and as such was one of the only constants within their back line. Finished 5ᵗʰ for clean breaks (11) and 4ᵗʰ for both defenders beaten (25) and metres carried (556m). Koroibete doesn’t just stick to the wing either but will constantly go looking or the ball, something you always want from a wing with such talent.

12) Irae Simone: Carrying, kicking, passing… Simone did it all for the Brumbies and it’s arguable that had he not been there, it may have been a much harder challenge for Bayley Kuenzle. Simone finished in the top 10 for both clean breaks (8) and defenders beaten (19). Don’t be surprised to see him starting in the Rugby Championship.

13) Kyle Godwin: 13 was a difficult selection as there was a lot of rotation at the position for a multitude of reasons. Eventually though I settled on Godwin. While he and the Force may have had limited success, he did a great job of solidifying the midfield and was consistently a willing runner looking to cause problems for the opposition and put his team on the front foot.

14) Filipo Daugunu: He may have spent the tournament on the left wing, but there was no way I could leave out Daugunu. The new Wallaby call-up finished as the top try scorer (6), while also finishing top for carries (117), clean breaks (15), defenders beaten (35), offloads (14) and metres made (775 – 162 more than the nearest competitor). Like Koroibete, Daugunu goes looking for the ball to great effect, so it will be interesting to see if Dave Rennie picks between the pair or looks to play them both.

15) Jock Campbell: It’s probably no surprise that I picked Campbell here after suggesting he should start for the Wallabies (I may have jinxed him as he ended up not making the 44-man squad) a few weeks ago. He may not have carried as much as some of the other fullback, but made the most of those carries by finishing top 3 in clean breaks (13) and defenders beaten (26). If he can continue this form next season, a gold shirt must surely be in his near future.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Tournament XV

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Tournament XV

Super Rugby Aotearoa came to an end at the weekend and by am I missing it. It’s probably not much of an exaggeration to say that the competition may have been 10 rounds of the most consistently exciting rugby I can ever remember watching, while seeing 9 weeks of busy stadiums was a great sight during the lonely times of the lockdown here in the UK. Sadly the final round saw the Highlanders and Hurricanes forced to play in an empty stadium and we were denied the opportunity of a stunning finale between the Blues and Crusaders, though thankfully the Crusaders had managed to secure the title in Round 9.

With the tournament over, there is just one more duty to uphold: picking the Team of the Tournament. These are all my own picks and go by my own feel from watching the matches rather than statistics – though I may throw in the odd stat to help my point. Let me know who would be your selections!

1) Joe Moody: Typically, the first position to talk about was one of the ones I found hardest to fill as there were no loose-heads that stood out to me in the same way as players did in most positions. So in the end I defaulted to one of the key roles of a prop: the scrum. The Crusaders scrum was one of the most dominant in the competition and a regular in that pack (starting all 7 matches played) was Joe Moody.

2) Kurt Eklund: There were so many ways I could have gone at hooker. Asafo Aumua could have got the spot had he been a more regular player, while Dane Coles could have also been in the hunt had he played more. Codie Taylor was let down early on by some issues at the lineout but came on strong when needed, while Ash Dixon was super-reliable and chalked up 4 tries. Instead though, I went for Eklund, who did a great job coming in when James Parsons went down injured. Eklund added physicality to the role, making metres when he carried but frequently pushing the opposition back in defence. With form like that, he’d have surely won the Blues’ starting spot even if Parsons had returned.

3) Ofa Tu’ungafasi: The Blues’ scrum was right up there with the Crusaders at the top of the charts, in no small part thanks to Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Having been a bench option often for the All Blacks due to his ability to play both sides, he has proved himself to be the best tight-head in New Zealand – if not the world – with performances full of strong scrummaging, heavy carrying and big tackling.

4) Patrick Tuipulotu: The Blues captain is in the form of his life right now and will surely be starting for the All Blacks should the Rugby Championship go ahead. The lock led from the front, finishing top amongst his team for lineouts won, while carrying and offloading to put his team on the front foot and putting in great shifts in defence.

5) Pari Pari Parkinson: The role of Tuipulotu’s partner was the final spot I filled in this squad. Both of his Blues teammates Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and Josh Goodhue were in the hunt but their shared minutes counted against them, while Naitoa Ah Kuoi’s injury in the middle of the competition saw him miss out in favour of Parkinson. His 26 lineouts won saw him finish behind only Mitchell Brown, while like Ah Kuoi he used his physicality effectively in attack and defence. At just 23, if he can cut down the penalties he gives away, he will be an incredible talent.

6) Lachlan Boshier: The Chiefs flanker was the star player in a poor team. Finished in the top 5 for lineouts won and scored a team-high 4 tries, but the big draw with Boshier in such a deep back row was how quickly he adapted to the new interpretations at the breakdown to consistently win crucial turnovers.

7) Dalton Papali’i: Openside was such a tough position to pick due to the depth of quality. Tom Christie looks like a future All Black, Dillon Hunt came alive as the tournament went on and Du’Plessis Kirifi consistently made big metres in the loose. Instead I went for Papali’i, who split time between 6 and 7 but regardless of where he played would put in 100% for the team. Finished 5ᵗʰ overall for tackles made and was a reliable carrier in attack. The flanker finished the competition joint-2ⁿᵈ (1 of 7) n the try charts with 4, but arguably should have had another after his interception try against the Highlanders was disallowed.

8) Akira Ioane: Hoskins Sotutu looked destined for this spot until he got injured, and even then still managed to hold onto it for a couple of weeks. Ardie Savea almost won the spot but a quiet start and end to the tournament saw him just miss out to Akira Ioane. Started at 6 until Sotutu’s injury and continued the role of defensive enforcer throughout the competition, finishing joint-9ᵗʰ overall with 68 tackles, but as he got more comfortable he became a more regular carrier off the back of the scrum, helping put the Blues on the front foot consistently.

9) Aaron Smith: I really wanted to pick Finlay Christie here but I couldn’t ignore the performances of Aaron Smith. The All Black, who won his 150ᵗʰ Super Rugby cap in the last match of the competition, controlled the games so well for the Highlanders and was constantly exploiting any gaps in the defence, resulting in some crucial tries.

10) Richie Mo’unga: I could wax lyrical about the Crusaders fly half but I will keep it brief here. When you see him play for the Crusaders, you see just how talented an individual he is. Accurate off the tee, great footwork, great range of passing, and strong enough to hold his own in both attack and defence. Scored 84 points with the boot t finish as the top scoring kicker and 3 tries ensured that he finished with 16 points more than the nearest player. I would call him the Player of the Tournament and also currently the best fly half in the world!

11) Will Jordan: A bit of a cheat here as Jordan didn’t play on the wing too much during the tournament, but I had 2 undroppable options at 15, while players like Caleb Clarke, Mark Telea and George Bridge impressed at times but also had quiet games. Just look at Jordan’s figures and you’ll see why he had to be included: 6 tries (1ˢᵗ overall), 88 carries (4ᵗʰ), 15 clean breaks (1ˢᵗ), 39 defenders beaten (1ˢᵗ), 724 metres carried (1ˢᵗ – 235 ahead of his nearest competitor, Damian McKenzie, who had more carries). Whether at wing, fullback or o the bench, this guy has to be in the All Blacks 23.

12) Jack Goodhue: If we were going by single-game performance, then Ngani Laumape had this secured. However we are looking at the entire competition, so his quiet start and untimely injury counted against him. TJ Faiane is probably one of the most underrated players of the tournament, while Sio Tomkinson was a consistently solid option for the Highlanders, but I have gone for Jack Goodhue, who did a great job in both attack and defence, keeping everything tidy while also running hard to commit defenders in attack.

13) Reiko Ioane: Peter Umaga-Jensen is unfortunate to miss out after a breakout tournament, while Michael Collins came alive at 13 for the Highlanders, but Reiko Ioane got the nod here. It took a few weeks for teams to figure out how to deal with his blend of pace and power at 13, but when they did, he let his handling skills put other players through gaps, while his defensive workrate was not discussed enough. Dropped down the pecking order on the wing in the latter days of Hansen’s reign, but at just 23 years old a move to 13 may reignite his international career.

14) Sevu Reece: The All Blacks winger is an absolute joy to watch on the rugby field and continues to make magic out of nothing. Has the pace and footwork to beat most and the handling skills to offload when he is finally stopped by someone. What makes Reece even more impressive is his willingness to come inside looking for work. With him and Will Jordan in the back 3, the opposition need to make sure their kicks are spot on.

15) Jordie Barrett: If I’m selecting the All Blacks starting XV tomorrow, there is a Barrett in the backline, but not Beauden. Jordie Barrett’s return from injury revolutionised the Hurricanes’ season. Has the ability to be a playmaker in a 10/15 axis, but is also a strong runner with a big boot, scoring 52 points off the tee, and winning some key turnovers in games. The youngest of the All Blacks’ Barrett trio at just 23, his versatility has counted against him in the past, but this could be the moment that he starts to secure his spot in the squad despite a high level of competition.

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Six Nations 2020: Team of the (Partial) Tournament

Six Nations 2020: Team of the (Partial) Tournament

… Well that was an interesting weekend! The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was keenly felt for rugby fans as Super Saturday went by without a single match being played. At this point in the calendar, the tournament should be over, but there are now 4 matches still to be played and 4 teams with the potential to win the tournament.

Right now, things are up in the air about when the tournament will be completed, so I have taken the decision to proceed with my annual Tournament XV selection, only taking into account the matches that have been played to this point. If and when the tournament is completed, I will look to put out an XV for the whole tournament.

This certainly makes selection more difficult, as due to Ireland v Italy being postponed during Round 4, those teams have played a game less than the other 4. Who would make your XV?

1: Joe Marler:- While his decision to interact with Alun Wyn Jones’ junk was ill-advised, Marler has had an otherwise impressive Six Nations. In the absence of Mako Vunipola, Marler has done a fine job of creating a solid set piece for the team to play off, while making 7 dominant tackles (the most of any prop).

2: Ken Owens:- No hooker has played more minutes in this season’s tournament than Ken Owens and as such, he leads his fellow hookers Julien Marchand and Jamie George in tackles, metres made and carries.

3: Kyle Sinckler:- Kyle Sinckler is slowly establishing himself as one of the best tightheads in World Rugby, and as such has played all but 20 minutes of this tournament so far. As well as helping England put together a super strong scrum, he has made more tackles (49) or passes (17) than any other tighthead.

4: Maro Itoje:- Though he may be one of the most penalised players in this year’s tournament, Maro Itoje makes the list off the back of his defensive prowess. The Saracens lock has made more tackles (74) than anyone else in the tournament and his 20 dominant tackles is 7 more than his closest competitor Bernard le Roux. He also finds himself joint-second in turnovers won with 4, 1 less than CJ Stander. Itoje has also been an important figure at the lineout with 11 lineouts won and 2 lineout steals (joint-second among locks).

5: James Ryan:- Joining Itoje at lock is Jame Ryan, creating what could arguably be the Test pairing for the British and Irish Lions. The Irishman is top among locks for lineouts won (15) and has also been a key factor in both Ireland’s attack and defence, racking up 145 metres off 38 carries, 43 tackles, 10 dominant tackles and a turnover despite having only played 3 matches so far.

6: Jake Polledri:- Jamie Ritchie has been a nightmare for the opposition but narrowly loses out to Jake Polledri. The only player I highlighted as one to watch before the tournament who has consistently started, Jake Polledri is making himself indispensable in the Italian squad. The Gloucester flanker is joint-second for turnovers despite having only played in 3 games, while his 186 metres made puts him third among all forwards.

7: Charles Ollivon:- Hamish Watson and Justin Tipuric deserve some recognition, but Ollivon gets the nod here. The new French captain has done a wonderful job leading his team through the tournament but has also been a big part of their success. He tops the try-scoring charts with 4 touchdowns and has assisted a further 4 tries. Only Bernard le Roux has made more tackles for France than Ollivon’s 55 (tied with Grégory Alldritt), while Ollivon’s 25 lineouts won is the most of any player.

8: Grégory Alldritt:- Alldritt has been one of the stars of the tournament this year and therefore one of the easiest picks to make. As well as having scored a try, the French number 8’s 353 metres made is almost double that of the nearest forward (Hamish Watson) and the second-most of all players. Right now, he would be my pick for Player of the Tournament.

9: Antoine Dupont:- One of the best Northern Hemisphere scum halves, Dupont has been on fire in this tournament. His late transmission from pass to kick for Damian Penaud’s try (one of his 3 assists) was one of the moments of the tournament, while his 158 metres made, 8 offloads and 32 tackles blows his competition out of the water.

10: Romain Ntamack:- While credit needs to be given to Adam Hastings for stepping into the starring role at short notice after Finn Russell’s disagreement with Gregor Townsend, Romain Ntamack gets my pick here due to the way that he has so calmly played the game as required to win France’s first 3 games. He is not yet perfect, but is such a young player, he will only get better over the coming years.

11: Jonny May:- Matteo Minozzi and Gaël Fickou can consider themselves unlucky here, but Jonny May gets the spot as he has become such a key part of the England kicking game, while his 2 tries from nowhere against France showed his pure talent as well as putting an undeserved shine on a poor England performance.

12: Hadleigh Parkes:- You know what you’re going to get with Hadleigh Parkes: a solid, dependable 12 who will carry hard (290 metres from 50 carries) and defend to his last breath. He has had to get used to a new midfield partner and new defensive system, but has continued to be a super reliable cog for Wales.

13: Manu Tuilagi:- Nick Tompkins deserves some recognition for his attacking prowess as he continues to grow into international rugby, but Manu Tuilagi got the pick here. With playmakers at 10 and 12, Tuilagi becomes a key physical component of the England back line, which was seriously missed after his early injury against France. His hard running has caused issues for defences, while on the flip side his strong defence has helped to limit the opposition’s attacks.

14: Mattia Bellini:- Perhaps a surprise pick given Italy’s lack of tries, but Bellini has been in impressive form during this tournament, averaging just over 10 metres per carry (292 metres from 29 carries). Against Scotland especially, Bellini was able to show just how dangerous he could be when given space with some smooth footwork and hips that would make Shakira proud.

15: Anthony Bouthier:- Made his mark on his debut against England with a kick from his own 5m line that finally found touch 10m from the England try line and his just gone from strength to strength. He has looked at home in the 15 shirt, answering any questions asked of him while asking his own with the boot, while he took his chance well to score against Wales.