Struggling Scarlets: What’s gone wrong?

Struggling Scarlets: What’s gone wrong?

In recent years, the Scarlets have become the team to watch in European rugby. Under the leadership of Wales-bound Wayne Pivac, the Scarlets have attacked from deep and spread the ball wide, leading to them winning the 2016/17 Pro12 and reaching the 2017/18 Pro14 final and Champions Cup semi-final.

However, things aren’t going as well this season as they are still without a win in the Champions Cup with just 2 bonus points from 4 games, while in the Pro14 they may be 2nd in their conference (on level points with Ulster) but their 6 wins and 4 losses with just 5 bonus points laves them 15 points behind leaders Leinster. It’s far from a disaster, but for a team that were so impressive last season it is a big drop. But what has caused it?

They’ve been found out

Scarlets have been playing the same style of rugby for a couple of seasons now and with that comes the chance for teams to pick up on their tactics and find ways to exploit them. It may not be easy to defend effectively against Scarlets’ expansive style but if it can be done, then it makes it very hard for them to score big points. In defence, they can be vulnerable as many of their back 3 are better attacking with ball in hand than competing for the aerial ball. Leinster’s kicking game gave them victory over the Scarlets in last season’s Pro14 final and Champions Cup semi-final, which will have given other teams a blueprint to follow in order to get victory.

Players leaving

Tadhg Beirne joined from Leinster ahead of the 2016/17 season and was one of the stars of the team in his 2 seasons at Parc y Scarlets. Capable of playing in the back row but at his best when playing lock, the Irishman was always a threat at the breakdown and had the range of skills to prove dangerous in the loose too – just ask Anthony Watson, who fell foul of his sidestep when they faced bath in last season’s Champions Cup. Beirne returned to Ireland this summer with a move to Munster, making him eligible for selection to the national team.

While Beirne is in my opinion the biggest loss, they also lost 2 great players with bags of experience in John Barclay (Edinburgh) and Scott Williams (Ospreys). To lose 3 such important players is always going to hit a team hard.

International call-ups

With the team’s success, there has big a large increase in the number of Scarlets being selected for the national team over recent years. Rhys Webb’s injuries and subsequent move to France have seen Gareth Davies become the first choice 9 for Wales, while Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, Hadleigh Parkes and Rhys Patchell are just a few of the Scarlets to have spent significant time away with Wales recently.

While this is a deserved reward for the players’ performances, this does mean that the Scarlets will frequently be without top players. Losing them for a couple of matches while Wales are playing is bad enough, but they will also miss a number of training sessions, reducing their chemistry with the team – especially new arrivals – and they will also miss time while they recuperate from their international exertions.

Injuries

The Scarlets have had some horrible luck with injuries this season. Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, James Davies, Blade Thomson, Aaron Shingler and Rhys Patchell have all missed significant time this season with injuries, while an injury to Angus O’Brien has left the region short of depth at fly half. That is an entire international quality back row missing at the same time, bad enough at the best of times but worse when you remember they have just waved goodbye to Beirne and Barclay. Even when the players come back from injury, it will generally take a couple of matches at least for a player to get back up to the speed of the game.

Money

When injuries and internationals mount up, you need to have a deep squad to be able to cope. Unfortunately for Scarlets, the funding isn’t there to have the depth of squad that teams in England and France can boast, which then leads to the same players having to play regularly in the Pro14 and then take on much stronger squads in Europe the next week.

Does it all have to be doom and gloom? Not necessarily. Despite their struggles, they are still in currently in a playoff position and an early exit from the Champions Cup will give them extra rest weeks to recuperate, while some of their players are returning or close to returning form injury. There is still every chance that they could make the playoffs but if I’m honest, with the behemoth that is Leinster in their conference, I cannot see them getting further than the semi-finals.

Cherry-picking: A Gloucester Rugby 23

Cherry-picking: A Gloucester Rugby 23

Anyone who knows me will know that even though I don’t make it down to Kingsholm too often, I am a big Gloucester Rugby fan. With Gloucester currently sitting 3rd in the league with 5 wins, 1 draw and 2 losses, I have been loving the way the team has improved during the Johan Ackermann reign and with some big names just returning from injury or international duty, the club looks in great shape.

Such is my positivity right now that I have decided to take a look at the depth of the Gloucester squad and attempt to pick not just my ideal XV as I have done with my Uncapped XV and World XV Challenge posts, but to expand this to pick a full 23-man matchday squad.

For this squad I will be using players who are on senior or academy contracts, but I will not be including Jaco Visagie or Kyle Traynor as they are currently on a short-term deal. I will be assuming that every player if fully fit and available and will be judging the players on everything I have seen from them as opposed to just their play in cherry and white.

Now of course, selecting a squad like this can be very subjective as fans may prefer different players due to different strengths, so for this reason I have invited my colleague and fellow Gloucester fan, Phil to select his squad as well.

So without further ado, let’s get to the squad (Phil’s selections in red)

1: Val Rapava-Ruskin: Injuries have hampered the former Worcester loose-head but when he has been fit he has shown his quality. A strong scrummager, he comes to life in the loose and is a nightmare for the opposition at the breakdown. Phil’s Pick: Paddy McAllister

2: Franco Marais: Gloucester have made a habit of having a strong one-two punch at hooker in recent seasons and this year is no different. With Richard Hibbard now at the Dragons, Marais has arrived from the Sharks and he gets the nod from me as I think his lineout throwing has been a bit more consistent than that of Hanson. Phil’s Pick: Franco Marais

3: Fraser Balmain: This has been a bit more of a difficult one. Ruan Dreyer is yet to play as he recovers from injury, Josh Hohneck has been predominantly a loose-head in recent years and Ciaran Knight has done well stepping up to the 23 so much early in the season but is probably still a season or two away from regular starts. For this reason, Fraser Balmain became the default choice, but that is not to belittle him as he has done very well for Gloucester and been a reliable starter since John Afoa’s departure in the summer. Phil’s Pick: Fraser Balmain

4 & 5: Ed Slater & Franco Mostert: I’ll admit that I was sceptical when Gloucester and Leicester arranged a swap deal between Jonny May and Ed Slater, but the lock has managed to stay largely injury free and has really shown his quality. He’s brought great nous to the lineout and is a physical nuisance around the park, while he brings a large degree of leadership to the pack. Add in Springbok Mostert, who has really impressed me when I have seen him play for South Africa over the last season, and I would argue that Gloucester have one of the strongest second row pairings in the Premiership! Phil’s Picks: Ed Slater & Franco Mostert

6: Lewis Ludlow: The back row has become such an incredibly deep area with the development of some younger players and also some of the clever signings made over recent years. Lewis Ludlow may not be as much of a headline grabber as some of the players he is keeping out of the squad, but he was one of the top tacklers in the Premiership last season and is also a dangerous at the breakdown when given the chance. Phil’s Pick: Lewis Ludlow

7: Jaco Kriel: The South African flanker was out of the game for over a year with injury, but has been incredible since returning to the pitch and will likely continue to improve over the coming months. He has shown himself to be a strong runner with good pace in the loose, but where he really comes to the fore is in and around the breakdown where he is a great jackal but is also a smart defender who picks his moments and looks to position himself in the defensive line where he can cause most damage to the opposition. Phil’s Pick: Jaco Kriel

8: Jake Polledri: Anyone who has heard me talk rugby for more than a few minutes or has read many of my posts will know that I am a huge fan of Jake Polledri – so much so that he made the cut in my World XV Challenge! He has the pace to exploit a gap in the defence but also the strength to make a gap of his own. Since I first took notice of him in one of his early performances for the cherry and whites last year and since then I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have seen him go backwards in contact for either Gloucester or Italy! And as if that wasn’t enough, he is another danger at the breakdown and could easily play across the back row if needed. Phil’s Pick: Jake Polledri

9: Willi Heinz: I’m a big fan of Ben Vellacott and the way he speeds the game up, but for my starter I have gone for Heinz. The former Crusader has the best all-round game of the Gloucester scrum halves, being able to take advantage of a gap but also having a strong tactical kicking game, while he again brings leadership at such a crucial position. 50-60 minutes of Heinz putting Gloucester in the right areas of the pitch and then bringing on Vellacott to finish off a tiring defence is a brutal combination! Phil’s Pick: Ben Vellacott

10: Danny Cipriani: Who else could it be?! Cipriani has been in fantastic form this season for Gloucester and it feels like he and his golden wrists have been providing a contender for pass of the week every time he steps on the pitch. The team is set up around him and he is bringing the best out of so many players, knowing when to play a short ball to a forward on the crash ball or when to tease a blitzing winger with a pass just beyond his despairing fingers to put a winger through. He’s certainly done a good job of backing up his place on my list of new signings to watch in the Premiership. How he didn’t make the England squad for the Autumn Internationals is still beyond me! Phil’s Pick: Danny Cipriani

11: Ollie Thorley: It has been so good having Thorley back on the pitch in recent weeks following his return from injury! The young winger has been in incredible form for Gloucester and combines strong running with great pace and footwork. At just 22 years old, if his performances continue at this level he will surely have to be considered for the national team following the World Cup. Plus it gives another chance to watch his stunning try from a few weeks ago (sorry Tigers)! Phil’s Pick: Ollie Thorley

12: Mark Atkinson: I may be biased, but I would consider Mark Atkinson as one of the most underrated players in the league. A reliable defender and strong runner, Atkinson does a great job of punching through the defensive line and offloading the ball during the tackle so that Gloucester can take advantage of the break. I feel that he is better at 12 than 13 but he has the ability to work wonders in channels slightly further out too. Phil’s Pick: Billy Twelvetrees

13: Billy Twelvetrees: The turnaround in Gloucester’s fortunes under Johan Ackermann can be perfectly encapsulated by the performance of Billy Twelvetrees. A former British & Irish Lion, 36 went through a rough patch but looked much better again last season. Playing outside Cips this season appears to be bringing out the best of him again and he has gone from being a player who I wondered if he had a future at the club to being my first choice centre. Usually played at 12, he is also more than capable of moving out to 13, which is why I have placed him here to partner Atkinson. A strong runner and tireless defender, Twelvetrees also fills the second playmaker role in the back line and can pop up at first receiver, which gives Cipriani the freedom to play the game where he feels he can have the most impact. Phil’s Pick: Mark Atkinson

14: Matt Banahan: So this was one of the harder picks for me as I had to choose between two very talented players who have very different styles. Charlie Sharples is one of the fastest players in the squad and is having a career year, having already scored as many tries in 9 rounds of the Premiership as he has in any other season! I have however gone for Matt Banahan. The former Bath stalwart brings experience across the back line, but his main strength here is his strength and physicality, which will help the team defend against some of the larger wingers in the league like Taqele Naiyaravoro. Phil’s Pick: Charlie Sharples

15: Jason Woodward: Another player who regular readers may have expected to make this list, I have spoken very highly of Woodward over the past years and included him in my Uncapped XV. This is a guy who beat Julian Savea to a starting spot for the Hurricane’s 2016 Super Rugby final victory, such is his talent. Capable of playing most positions in the back line, he is working best at 15 where he is able to run back kicks to start a new attack and also join the line wherever is best to cause the defence issues. Phil’s Pick: Jason Woodward

Bench: James Hanson, Josh Hohneck, Ruan Dreyer, Tom Savage, Ben Morgan, Ben Vellacott, Henry Trinder, Charlie Sharples: After missing out on starting spots, Hanson and Hohneck were obvious choices for me and though I haven’t had a chance to see Dreyer play but his experience gets him the nod over Ciaran Knight. Ben Morgan has had a resurgence this year so gets the nod in the back row over Ruan Ackermann and Freddie Clarke, who have both been hugely impressive. As Morgan is less versatile, Savage beats out Gerbrandt Grobler as he has experience at flanker. Vellacott is on the bench to up the tempo against a flagging defence. I haven’t included any fly half cover on the bench, so would bring on Henry Trinder (who was unlucky to miss out on a starting spot) at 13 and move Twelvetrees to 10. The final position was really hard for me to pick as I was looking to include someone who was more experienced at 15 (If I’m being honest, Tom Hudson may have actually beat out Tom Marshall), but in the end I could not leave out Charlie Sharples after he came so close to making the XV. Though predominantly a wing, he has played at 15 for Gloucester before, or Gloucester could reshuffle the back line to move Cipriani to 15, Twelvetrees to 10 and Banahan into the centre to put Sharples on the wing. And with his pace, I would hate to play for 60 minutes and suddenly find myself facing a fresh Sharples. Phil’s Bench: James Hanson, Val Rapava-Ruskin, Josh Hohneck, Tom Savage, Ben Morgan, Willi Heinz, Matt Banahan, Tom Marshall

The comparison: I was honestly surprised by just how similar our squads ended up being. The biggest shock for me was McAllister’s inclusion, but I can understand the reasoning by using Hohneck as cover at 3 as we have little to go on for Dreyer and Knight. The back line differences were clearly a difference in tactics as he preferred Sharples speed from the start and having Heinz replace Vallacott later on to seal out the game. Interestingly, neither of us chose to have a replacement fly half on the bench, perhaps this something Gloucester will look at with their recruitment for next season, but there are some talented young players coming through at the position who are maybe a couple of seasons off regular contributions.

So those would be our ideal 23s, what would yours be?

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 4

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 4

The Autumn Tests came to a close for most teams this week, but there was still much on the line. England and Australia both knew that a victory would go a long way to making a poor 2018 look better, but the Wallabies looked second-best throughout the match. The USA’s run of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018 eventually came to an end against the Irish, but they made it a contest and have reached their highest ever position in the World Rankings as a result. The result of the weekend though belonged to Fiji, whose win over the French on Saturday night saw them leapfrog France and Argentina into 8ᵗʰ place.

The Week 4 results were:

  • France 14-21 Fiji
  • Ireland 57-14 USA
  • Wales 20-11 South Africa
  • England 37-18 Australia
  • Scotland 14-9 Argentina
  • Japan 32-27 Russia
  • Italy 3-66 New Zealand
  • Spain 10-28 Samoa
  • Georgia 20-9 Tonga
  • Romania 20-27 Uruguay

England

England have generally had an advantage over the Wallabies in the pack, but with Australia having improved in threat department and England missing so many starters (and replacements in some cases!) it would have been understandable if Australia had the edge there this week. They didn’t. Ben Moon has well and truly taken his chance this autumn and may have put himself in contention for a trip to Japan next year as he looks to have replace the now-retired Joe Marler as England’s best scrummager at loose-head. Meanwhile Kyle Sinckler put in a stunning performance and has surely guaranteed himself the number 3 shirt for the 6 Nations. Mark Wilson continued to put in strong performances and I think he could conceivably find himself starting at 6 next time England play. 2018 was not a good year for England on the whole, but the performances that some of the players have put in when given the chance this November has suddenly given fans some hope that things may be getting back on the right track for a strong World Cup campaign.

Australia

Having been unable to watch Australia face Italy last week, I was interested to see how a midfield with Matt Toomua at 10 and Bernard Foley at 12 would function. To say that Foley was anonymous for most of the match is an understatement as his 2 main impacts on the game were missing a despairing tackle on Elliot Daly as he went past for a try and his grubber kick to put Israel Folau over in the corner at the end of the match. While I am beginning to think Cheika has the right idea with Folau at 15 and Haylett-Petty on the wing (Folau appears to cut more effective lines entering the line late than Haylett-Petty), he still seems to be struggling to organise the rest of the back line, which is leading to an incoherent mess. If Australia want to have any chance of reaching another World Cup final next year, they need to sort something out quick!


Wales

Wales’ gameplan appeared to change the moment Dan Biggar stepped on to the pitch. After a game where they had been spreading the ball well and causing the Springboks across the park, suddenly the game devolved into kicking the ball back to South Africa and surviving another onslaught with their staunch defence. While Biggar and his back 3 – especially George North – caused the Boks problems as they tried to collect the high ball, it put so much pressure on the Welsh defence and against a team playing better that could have proved fatal. Dan Biggar is undoubtedly a talented player and a clutch goal kicker, but I do not think his style of play matches the style that Wales are trying to play. For me, Gareth Anscombe has nailed down the 10 shirt – even if he did miss a few kicks to touch – and it is now up to Warren Gatland to decide if he wants Rhys Patchell or Dan Biggar on the bench, though Patchell’s ability to play 15 will likely see both of them on the plane to Japan.

South Africa

I’ve often heard the phrase “earning the right to go wide” but I can’t remember a match where the need to do that was more obvious than in this one. Too often South Africa were looking to spread the ball wide early in their possession without the forwards having dragged in defenders or any backs running effective dummy lines. In fact, they were often throwing a miss pass to the winger, which allowed the defence to drift across. They are a team clearly building back to their best, but they need to learn to control the game better regardless of the personnel on the pitch if they are to become more consistent.


Scotland

Laidlaw, Hastings, Kinghorn, Russell, Jones, Maitland, Hogg

Scottish rugby has been so exciting in recent years, but when I saw this back line announced to face an attacking team like the Pumas I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the weather gods were not on our side and rain early in the first half denied us the expansive game we were hoping for. Personally, I like the look of a back 3 including both Hogg and Kinghorn as they are both such impressive players and with them both being fullbacks, it gives Scotland solidity under the high ball while also a great option to attack the high ball and try to win it back. Russell, Hastings and Hogg are all such great playmakers and controllers of the game with a range of passes and kicks and the legs to run it themselves, so having all three of them on the pitch at the same time could make it so hard for opposition teams to defend against them. I’m not sure if Russell and Jones is the best centre partnership defensively, especially in matches where the pack is not the most phyical, but I would love to see it used again in the 6 Nations to see how it can workout, with Alex Dunbar on the bench in case they need to improve their defensive solidity.

Argentina

I’ve got to admit, I’ve been really disappointed by the Argentinian’s attacking tactics during this tour. During the Rugby Championship, their attacking play through their backs was ripping through teams, however over recent weeks, the back 3 stars of Boffelli, Delguy and Moyano have had limited opportunities to attack and in this game, Nicolás Sánchez continually put boot to ball and forced the Scots to show their composure under the high ball with mixed results. I think that this is a team currently set to compete against more attack-minded teams like the rest of the Rugby Championship, while against Tier 1 teams who focus on a solid defence, as you find with most 6 Nations teams, they do not yet have the quality in their overall game to threaten the line as well.


Ireland

The Irish are developing such depth in their squad! It’s fair to say that as things stand, only Garry Ringrose, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne would be in contention for a place in the first choice starting XV, yet all the players who featured suggested that they would be more than capable of coming into that team and doing a good job. The pack may have had some issues against the American lineout in the first half, but they were too strong for the Eagles at the scrum and the entire team pounded away mercilessly for 80 minutes both in attack and defence, eventually grinding the tiring Eagles down enough for the back line to cut them apart as the game wore on. The incredible defensive efforts and ball-control tactics, combined with the depth they have developed in their squad is why Ireland are currently my favourites for the World Cup.

USA

I never thought that the USA had a chance of winning this game, such is the strength of Ireland, but they came out the blocks so well and did better than the 24-14 halftime score suggests. The move at the lineout that saw them initially set up a maul but then get the ball back to Joe Taufete’e who had remained on the touchline to rampage into the 22 was really good to see and he reacted well to the poor tackling technique to go over for a try. Perhaps even more beautiful, but in a slightly different way, was the driving maul that resulted in a penalty try. In Taufete’e, Manoa and (currently injured) AJ MacGinty, the Eagles have some great talent to build the team around and the success that they have had this season will surely help get more Americans into the sport.


Japan

After what I feel should have been a Man of the Match performance against England, Michael Leitch saved Japan at Kingsholm on Saturday. The Japanese had played so well against England but struggled to reach the same heights against Russia. Leitch’s tries came at crucial times, with his first coming after a strong Russian start had the Brave Blossoms 3-16 down, while his second try with just 8 minutes left proved to be the match-winner. Japan need to make sure their talismanic captain stays fit if they want to have some degree of success when they host the World Cup.

Russia

Yuri Kushnarev is one of the stars of this Russian team, so to see him go off during the first half could have been a huge loss for the Bears. However Ramil Gaisin did a great job off the bench and gave his team every chance to win. He ran the back line well and did a great job of pegging Japan back with some of his kicks, while his cross-kick to hooker Stanislav Sel’skiy for his try was inch-perfect. Now I’ll be completely honest and say that I don’t know much about Russian rugby, so I have had to rely on Wikipedia a bit here and I noticed that Gaisin is listed as a fullback on the national team’s page. Vasily Artemyev is a great player but he did not look comfortable at fullback, especially when forced to kick, so I think it would benefit Russia to promote Gaisin to 15 and move Artemyev back to the wing while Kushnarev stays at 10. With 7s star Vladimir Ostroushko playing well at 13, the Bears have the making of a good back line that could cause opponents unseen problems at the World Cup.


France

This was not a good match for Les Bleus. The pack did well on their own scrum and in the lineouts, while captain Guilhem Guirado was the scorer of both tries on the night. However, the back line struggled to have a positive impact on the game. The back three were limited in attack and the centre pairing of Gaël Fickou and Mathieu Bastareaud were almost anonymous in this game. The French back line has to play so much better if they are to be competitive against other Tier 1 nations and the first thing is stability. With Camille Lopez and Matthieu Jalibert having both missed considerable time this year (Jalibert’s injury in his 6 Nations debut ended last season and he suffered another injury in preseason with Bordeaux) and that has seen the national team run though a number of options at 10, while the 9 jersey has also been a competition between Morgan Parra (due to start this match until he was injured), Baptiste Serin, Antoine Dupont and Sébastien Bézy. Less than a year out from the world Cup, finding consistency in your halfbacks is key and that is what France need to do going into 2019 is narrow down their selections and stick to the same players when possible. In my eyes, Lopez, Serin and Parra should be nailed onto the World Cup squad, as should Jalibert if he can get himself fit and perform as he did before his injuries. I would also take Dupont as a third scrum half option to keep things fresh in a dangerous pool, as Parra could (if needed) move to 10 as he has in the past – it may not be a natural it, but he has played there before at international level and has the skills to control the game.

Fiji

Last week I was saying how Fiji need to play against a competitor who will force them to play a more structured game. France were that team and so it was great to see how a more structured Fijian approach would look. What stood out to me was the lack of a kicking game from the halfbacks. Neither Frank Lomani nor Ben Volavola were looking to play a tactical kicking game, and while it did not cost them in this game, against better defences they will struggle if they are always trying to play the ball out of their own half. Equally costly could be their discipline. The Fijians had 2 tries cancelled out on the night and while Semi Radradra’s picking up of the ball from an offside position was an easy mistake to make, Tevita Cavubati’s late hit on Yoann Huget was just stupid and unnecessary. With Australia, Wales, Georgia and Uruguay as their opponents in Pool D of the World Cup, Fiji could come anywhere in the top 4 of this pool (sorry Uruguay) and improving their tactical kicking and discipline could be just what they need to make it into the top 2.


 

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 3

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 3

Week 3 is in the book and if we’re being honest, there’s only one result everyone is talking about. Ireland shocked the world when they beat New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 and they did it again at the weekend in front of a raucous Irish crowd at the Aviva Stadium. Away from this match, a number of Tier 1 nations gave the fringe players a run-out this weekend as they played nations a little lower in the rankings, with mixed results.

The Week 3 results were:

  • France 28-13 Argentina
  • Ireland 16-9 New Zealand
  • Chile 0-73 Maori All Blacks
  • Scotland 20-26 South Africa
  • England 35-15 Japan
  • Wales 74-24 Tonga
  • Italy 7-26 Australia
  • Georgia 27-19 Samoa
  • Uruguay 7-68 Fiji

Before we get into my thoughts, a quick thank you to my colleague and fellow rugby not Phil, who abandoned me for a trip to Twickenham this weekend but made up for it by sending me the photos you will see today and a few others that you will see in later posts.


England

With less than a year until the World Cup, a number of (largely fringe) players were given a chance against Japan to improve their odds of selection. Come full time, new cap Joe Cokanasiga was the only player from the starting XV to come away with a heightened reputation. Danny Care is so often a danger off the bench but once again he struggled to have the same positive impact from the start, as did Alec Hepburn and Harry Williams. Elliot Daly continues to struggle under the high ball in this series, Alex Lozowski made a crucial tackle to stop Michael Leitch but also missed a number of crucial tackles and did not bring anything to the attack. Once again George Ford showed that he is unable to effectively lead an international back line without Owen Farrell outside him to take the pressure off him. Meanwhile, Zach Mercer was treated awfully by being pulled for Dylan Hartley during Jamie George’s sin bin and then getting subbed early in the 2nd half.

I expect the line-up against Australia will be very similar to what we saw against South Africa and New Zealand. So the question then becomes “what should be done in the 6 Nations?” Personally I think that if Eddie Jones plans to take Farrell and just one other out-and-out 10 to Japan, then George Ford has proved he is not the man and Danny Cipriani needs to be given a realistic chance to earn a spot in the squad. I would love to see Chris Ashton or Jack Nowell given the chance at 15 against Australia as the Wallabies are bound to target us with high balls for Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty to chase.

rugEJ
With less than a year until the World Cup, Eddie Jones still has a number of big decisions to make

Obviously England are missing a number of top players and don’t want to peak too far ahead of the World Cup, but right now I struggle to see how this team will be competitive in the latter stages of the tournament… if they get that far.

Japan

I understand why Man of the Match is almost always given to a player from the winning team, but it was a travesty that Michael Leitch did not win the award for this match. The Japan captain was everywhere on the pitch and led his team from the front. He was involved in many of their best moments and scored a try where he broke a number of (admittedly poor) English tackles before stepping inside Elliot Daly. Japanese rugby may not have stepped on as much as some would have hoped since the last World Cup, but with players like Leitch there to inspire them, things will hopefully improve in the coming years.


Ireland

Not many teams can say they have a defence coach who has beaten the All Blacks. Ireland however can boast a defence coach in Andy Farrell who has beat them 4 times (with England in 2012, with Ireland this weekend and in 2016 and the 2nd Lions Tests in 2017) and drawn once (2017 Lions Tour 3rd Test). Andy Farrell has done a wonderful job of teaching his teams to front up at the breakdown and keep their discipline in defence. For Chris Robshaw in 2012, see Peter O’Mahony in 2018, the Munster skipper is a perfect representation of what Farrell is looking for from his back row. Meanwhile Johnny Sexton and Kieran Marmion (who arguably had his best match in an Irish shirt on Saturday night) did a wonderful job of controlling the game and the defence refused to give an inch and worked as a pack, forcing New Zealand to have the ball where they don’t want it. If you want to see how to beat the All Blacks, take a look at Farrell’s work.

New Zealand

I’ve been saying for a while now that New Zealand have looked beatable and boy did they look it on Saturday night! Under heavy pressure from the Irish defence, players were making uncharacteristic errors. Beauden Barrett has not had the best of seasons in my view and in this match his threat was almost completely nullified, while even Damian McKenzie struggled to positively impact the game. Ardie Savea is a talented player but it is clear that this team are missing Sam Cane at the breakdown. The All Blacks can arguably consider themselves fortunate to not find themselves with a man in the bin as they gave a number of penalties away in and around their 22, but Wayne Barnes was lenient towards both teams’ indiscretions in this match. With just one match against Italy remaining, I will be shocked if Richie Mo’unga is not given a starting spot as it is becoming clear that they need to look at their options beyond Barrett ahead of the World Cup. They have chopped and changed a number of players in 2018 – their strength in depth is incredible – but I feel that entering 2019, Steve Hansen needs to start narrowing down and looking at the players he will take to Japan and working on the combinations. They may look beatable right now, but actually doing so is still a challenge and it won’t take much for them to peak in time for another tournament.


Uruguay

As much as Uruguay struggled to be competitive in this game, there were some good moments from them and a suggestion that, given the right chances, they could become more competitive. As such, I was thrilled to hear during the commentary that almost half of their squad are set to compete in the upcoming season of the MLR. While obviously some way off the level of the top leagues, this is still a great way for Uruguay to benefit as the players will be facing a higher standard of competition weekly. Potentially they could look to enter their own expansion team in the future, similar to how Canada have the Toronto Arrows as of this season and make the MLR develop into a truly American league.

Fiji

No offence to Uruguay, but I don’t really see what Fiji really gained from this choice of opposition. With 8 places between the teams in World Rugby’s ranking system, there was a clear gulf in quality despite Fiji resting a number of players and giving players from the NRC team Fijian Drua a run-out on the international stage. We know how good Fiji are in an open game and unfortunately the Uruguayans could not give them enough opposition to make them work on a more cohesive performance. I feel that Fiji should be looking to arrange matches with teams that will force them to play a more structure style as this is going to be key to the national team moving up the rankings. Just take a look at the nations ranked higher than them following this weekend:

  1. New Zealand
  2. Ireland
  3. Wales
  4. England
  5. South Africa
  6. Australia
  7. Scotland
  8. France
  9. Argentina

Fiji are putting together a group of players that can equal these teams and arguably play better rugby than some of them (looking your way Eddie Jones!) but the one thing they lack right now is the ingrained structure that they can build a match around to ensure they are playing in the right areas of the pitch. To quote Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious: “It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning”. Fiji now need an opponent that will teach them the importance of keeping the scoreboard ticking over force them to take their structured game to the next level.


Wales

Like England, Wales made wholesale changes to their starting line-up this week for the visit of Tonga. Unlike England, most of the players given a chance in this match showed they deserved to be playing on the international stage. One intercepted pass aside, Tomos Williams looked good at scrum half and Aled Davies also impressed off the bench, including finishing off one of the tries of the month. Even if Rhys Webb comes back to Wales, he’s going to have some competition for his place in the national squad. Dan Biggar had a solid game but for me still kicked too much (thought they were more attacking cross-kicks, which is an improvement), but Rhys Patchell also did a great job of bringing the back line into the game. Jonah Holmes was solid at 15 on his debut (but I imagine Liam Williams will take the 15 shirt in Leigh Halfpenny’s absence this weekend), Steff Evans was at his best in a free-flowing attacking game and the centre pairing of Owen Watkin and Tyler Morgan showed that there is some depth developing in the midfield and Wales may not have to rely so heavily on Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies. In the forwards, Jake Ball put in a timely performance to remind everyone of his credentials, while Aaron Wainwright and Seb Davies were wonderful throughout and Ellis Jenkins continued to cement himself as my latest man-crush while showing himself as a more than international captain. I don’t expect many of these players will feature against South Africa this weekend, but as the World Cup draws near they have done a good job of pushing themselves into contention for a seat on the plane.

Tonga

After a poor start not helped by a harsh yellow card mere minutes into the game, Tonga did a stellar job to get back into the match in the 2nd quarter and draw the scores level soon after halftime. However, their higher average age showed in the second half as Wales’ fresher youngsters ran away with things, leaving a scoreline that did not do the islanders justice. Tonga’s issue right now is that too many of their top players are reaching their twilight years and not enough of the new generation are playing in the top leagues. Sione Vailanu looked great but he will not be a regular in the Saracens back row, while many of the players in the Southern Hemisphere will play in the Mitre 10 Cup or the NRC but not the Premiership. Tonga need to get more players into top level competition if they want to remain competitive in the foreseeable future. How can they do that? I have some ideas, which would benefit not just them but all the Pacific Island teams and I will look to write about that in the coming weeks.


Scotland

Watching Scotland in recent years, I have loved the way that they have been willing to try something slightly different to catch teams out in a game. In last year’s 6 Nations, they left the Irish pack looking stupid after putting Alex Dunbar in the lineout and throwing straight to him to run over from 5 metres out. Their latest lineout try was a little more conventional (it was actually scored by a forward this time) but no less clever. The movement forward of front man Gordon Reid and the lift of Ben Toolis by the front pod left a wonderful gap for Hamish Watson (standing in the conventional scrum half position) to run into to receive the throw and go over for a try. Add to that the incredible decision to set up a maul in the middle of the field during open phase play – a ploy which saw the Scots push the Springboks back. A team cannot rely on gimmicks to win games, but Scotland under Vern Cotter and now Gregor Townsend have done a wonderful job of playing smart rugby while also making it attractive and adding in the occasional clever ploy to catch the defence off guard. I can’t wait to see what they have in store when we reach the World Cup!

South Africa

The more I watch South Africa this season, the more I think they need Pat Lambie. Elton Jantjies has an incredible skill-set but I do not see him as a reliable 10 at international level and wonder if he would benefit from a move to 12 similar to Kurtley Beale. Meanwhile Handré Pollard is a more reliable option in general play but his kicking off the tee can be questionable. Meanwhile, it is likely too close to the World Cup for Damian Willemse to earn the 10 jersey, unless one of the more experienced fly halves would play outside him. It’s going to be very hard to reach the top without a consistent and reliable 10. If Rassie Erasmus can sort this, then I think this team is very close tot he finished article.


France

Argentina managed to get more ball to their electric back 3 this week compared to against Ireland last week. However they still struggled to have the impact they would want on the game as France were so disciplined at keeping their defensive line spread wide to ensure Ramiro Moyano, Bautista Delguy and Emiliano Boffelli had minimal space to work their magic in. The French have an annoying knack of peaking just in time for the World Cup, it looks like they’re building towards it again.

Argentina

The Pumas can be great to watch, but they can also be infuriating. One moment that stuck in my mind from this game was an Argentinian scrum in their own 22. The Pumas have struggled somewhat with the scrum this year, but in this scrum they got the push on against the French. Then they ruined everything by not listening to the referee’s instructions to use the ball, resulting in the scrum being reset with turnover ball. It is criminal to give away the ball at a set piece in your own 22 and it was only a great tackle by Nicolás Sánchez that allowed Argentina to get the ball back and clear their lines. They surprised the world when they reached the semi-finals of RWC2015 at Ireland’s expense, but they need to cut out stupid mistakes like this if they are to reach the semis again.


 

Eyes On: Bledisloe III 2018

Eyes On: Bledisloe III 2018

New Zealand and Australia prepared to kick off their Autumn tours to the Northern Hemisphere this weekend with their third and final meeting of the year in Yokohama. After a tight first half that saw the All Blacks lead by 7 points, the Australian defence was unable to keep up in the second half as New Zealand scored 5 tries in total to win 20-37 and take the Bledisloe Cup in a 3-0 whitewash this year.

Options in the backs

I have a couple of times recently been critical of the Williams/Crotty centre partnership as I do not feel the balance is right in midfield when they are together. While I do still think this, I think that Steve Hansen may have a solution. Ben Smith is in my opinion still the best fullback New Zealand have, but moving him to the wing and playing Damian McKenzie at 15 (where I rate him so much higher than at 10) meant that there was still another playmaking option beyond Beauden Barrett. Personally, I think there are better options than Smith on the wing but he is too good a player to leave out, so I imagine whether he plays at 14 or 15 will often depend on who is selected at centre.

Beyond that, it’s great to see TJ Perenara getting a start as he so often has to play second fiddle to Aaron Smith but would walk into pretty much any other international team, but I still feel that Richie Mo’unga needs to be given more gametime (he did not come on until 12 minutes remained) and especially as the starting 10. I can’t imagine him starting against England and Ireland but I will be shocked if he doesn’t start against Japan and Italy.

The backup

Very similar to Mo’unga, I really think Nick Phipps needs to get the starts at scrum half for Australia this summer. Will Genia is a talented player but did not have a good game in Yokohama. He was too quick to shift away from Kieran Read as he came off a scrum and – combined with Ned Hanigan being slow to break off the scrum – this made it easy for Read to go over for a try, while he also didn’t cover the blind side well enough from another scrum, allowing Reiko Ioane to break away and put Barrett over for another try. There was also another moment when I found myself yelling at the television as Australia took the ball into contact and gave away a penalty at the breakdown because he didn’t clean out and instead waited in position for a ball that was never coming back. It may be time to look at moving on from him.

Regardless of whether his starting place should be under threat or not, Phipps needs to get more game time as a starter in case something happens to Genia during the World Cup. Australia have a great set of players and if they can get their act together then they have the potential to challenge for the victory, but if they then have to turn to a 9 who is used to only playing about 10 minutes at the end of games, they are bound to struggle. The problem for Phipps now will be that recent results have been so poor for Australia, Cheika needs a successful tour, so I expect to see him stick with Genia for the matches against Wales and England.

What’s the plan?

Anyone who read my series throughout the Rugby Championship will know that I was not impressed with the way Michael Cheika was setting up his backline. This match was no exception. Israel Folau was wasted at 13 and his few decent breaks came from when he was back retrieving kicks. Even odder was the way that at every set piece, the Wallabies seemed to be swapping their position in the back line. While that could be done to great effect to confuse the defence, the only ones who looked confused were in green and gold! Folau’s best attribute is arguably his ability to contest the high ball – something wasted in the centre. I was not surprised to see the back line begin to look more organised once Samu Kerevi came on in the centre and Folau was moved to the wing. Suddenly players were in their correct positions and they had a hard, physical runner in the midfield. I’ll be interested to see what Michael Cheika does in the next few matches.

World Cup warm-up

While an important match in itself, the hosting of this match at Nissan Stadium – set to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final – was also meant to be a warm-up and test ahead of the tournament. To say I was not encouraged is a bit of an understatement.

Granted Australia have been in poor form, but to only have an attendance of 46,143 in a stadium with a capacity of over 72,000 seems hugely disappointing. Being a football stadium, the pitch also did not fill me with hope as it started cutting up almost immediately. While it can maybe withstand the odd game of rugby, will it be able to hold up to matches on 21st & 22nd September, 12th & 13th October, 26th & 27th October and then still be in a good enough condition to make the final on 2nd November the spectacle it should be? I have my doubts.

But perhaps worst of all in this match was the sponsors on the pitch. I completely understand the reasons for the sponsors to show on the pitch and I accept that, but to have them digitally added onto the broadcast rather than painted onto the pitch was a dismal failure! The computer systems seemed unable to differentiate between the pitch itself and the players, with the players constantly disappearing as they ran “over” the sponsors. If this is technology they plan to use for the World Cup, they have a lot of work to do!

World XV Challenge

World XV Challenge

Following the 6 Nations, I found myself putting together my World XV but only containing players that had not been capped internationally. I really enjoyed putting the team together and had some really good conversations around it with a number of friends.

As I was watching the early rounds of the Rugby Championship, I found an idea forming in my mind of another World XV, this time picking the best possible XV while only selecting one player from each country. When I initially told a few friends of my intentions, I thought that it would take a long time to select the team, however I shocked myself by getting the XV together in just 2 days. However, having then discussed it with a few friends as I was about to write it, they suggested a couple of players that I had completely forgot and I ended up spending the next week switching the odd player to make a stronger line-up. I’ve given it a couple of weeks now to make sure I’m happy with my squad and now I feel confident enough to lock it in on here.

Obviously there are some nations I don’t know that well so I may have missed a few names. Let me know what you guys think and what your XV would be!

1: Rabah Slimani – The Frenchman can play both sides of the scrum and is arguably one of the most dangerous scrummagers in the 6 Nations. Add into that good ball skills in the loose and he’s a solid selection to start off the front row

2: Malcolm Marx – The Lions hooker is arguably one of the best in the world at his position, being a strong carrier but also like an extra flanker at the breakdown. How do the Springboks follow up legends like John Smith and Bismarck du Plessis? With Malcolm Marx!

3: Tadhg Furlong – Arguably the best tighthead prop in the world at this moment, Furlong is a destructive scrummager and ball carrier, while also having the deft hands to keep the play alive

4: Brodie Retallick – Some people may be surprised by me using my New Zealand representative in the tight five, but Retallick is head and shoulders ahead of everyone else at his position. Great in the tight and the loose, even given New Zealand’s strength in depth they miss him when he’s unavailable

5: Leone Nakarawa – For a long time I was certain my Fijian representative was going to be in the backs (for obvious reasons), then I remembered Nakarawa. A Gold medal winner at Rio 2016, the Racing 92 lock provides a slight of hand that no other player in his position can provide. There may be better players at his position, but none as fun to watch!

6: Jake Polledri – Perhaps this is my Gloucester bias coming through, but Polledri quickly became my obvious Italian pick when I looked at the positions they could legitimately contribute to this squad. He may only be 22 years old and in his second year of professional rugby, but you would not think that if you watched him play. I’ve seen a number of his games for Gloucester and Italy and can only remember a couple of occasions where I have seen go backwards in contact, while he also has the pace to cause trouble when he breaks through the defensive line

7: David Pocock – The 7 shirt was always going to be filled by an Australian when I started making this list, the question was “who?” Pocock’s versatility means that he often plays elsewhere in the back row to accommodate Michael Hooper, but I would consider he Zimbabwe-born openside the best in the world at his position. When he gets over the ball, it’s all but impossible to (legally) get him off it!

8: Samu Manoa – Realistically, fly half or number 8 were the only positions where I felt the USA could contribute, however I felt that I had a better option that AJ MacGinty at 10 so chose to include Samu Manoa. One of the stars of the Northampton team when he was there and part of the Toulon galacticos, he is another strong runner and tackler while his experience at lock allows him to also contribute at the lineout. Now at Cardiff, I’m looking forward to seeing how he does in the Pro14

9: Sonatane Takulua – This was going to be Greig Laidlaw’s spot until a last-minute change elsewhere in the back. While he may not have the best kicking game in open play, Takulua is a dangerous attacker and will always be a threat if given a little space

10: Nicolás Sánchez – Had I been compiling this team following the Summer Tests, this positions would have been filled very differently, however Sánchez looked back to his best in the Rugby Championship. A reliable goal-kicker and a talented playmaker, I would argue that the Argentinian is often overlooked when discussing the best fly halves in the world

11: DTH van der Merwe – A player I expected to shine at Newcastle but who never got a chance, the Canadian has been a prolific scorer for Glasgow and the Scarlets as well as for his country. Despite Canada exiting RWC2015 at the pool stages, van der Merwe still managed to score 4 tries in the tournament, only 6 players scored more in the entire tournament that year!

12: Owen Farrell – I would argue at the moment that there is a lack of top quality talent in the centres. Hadleigh Parkes was close to getting the nod, however the Welsh selection was needed elsewhere, so Owen Farrell gets the nod. Despite being a natural 10 (arguably one of the bet in the world) he has spent much of his recent international career at inside centre, where he uses his talents as a second playmaker to aid the 10 in the running of the backline and put his fellow backs through with pinpoint passes and kicks

13: Jonathan Davies – In my eyes the best outside centre of recent years, Davies was the clear selection for me at this position. Effective in attack and defence and with a cultured left boot, Wales and the Scarlets both benefit heavily from his involvement on the pitch

14: Tim Nanai-Williams – Nanai-Williams has played for Samoa at 10 but is much more dangerous further out, most notably on the wing or at 15. He is by no means the biggest player on the pitch, but he has a blend of pace and footwork that will punish any defender who commits to early

15: Stuart Hogg – Telusa Veainu was set to take the 15 spot until I realised that his last cap was in 2016! A quick switch at 9 freed up a spot for Stuart Hogg who was on the list for a long while previously. With ball in hand, Hogg is one of the most exciting and destructive attackers and his monster boot adds another string to his bow. Had he not got injured at the start of the tour, he would have likely been pushing to start the Lions Tests

Finding a Fly Half

Finding a Fly Half

The Scarlets’ Champions Cup campaign has not started how they would have hoped. After a late penalty try gave Racing 92 the victory at Parc y Scarlets in Round 1, they were blown away at Welford Road by Manu Tuilagi’s Leicester Tigers and currently find themselves bottom of their pool with just 1 losing bonus point to their name. While they have undoubtedly been hurt by the loss of injured duo James Davies and Aaron Shingler from the back row (combined with Tadhg Beirne’s move to Munster), I would argue that their biggest struggle over the opening 2 rounds has been at fly half.

Rhys Patchell has missed both matches due to injury and his replacements Dan Jones and Angus O’Brien have not come close to effectively filling his boots. Against Racing, O’Brien looked nervous in poor conditions and was then unfortunate enough to suffer an ACL injury just before halftime which has likely ended his season. Jones was a big part of the team’s success last year but at the moment does not appear to be in a good run of form and does not appear to be able to get the back line going – something crucial to the region’s recent success. Between injuries and international duties, Patchell is likely to miss time this season and with O’Brien also out, there are no other recognised 10s in the Scarlets squad, centre Steffan Hughes coming on towards the end of the Tigers match.

Watching the Tigers game, I couldn’t help feel that the Scarlets need to get another 10 in for the rest of the season, either on a permanent basis or even just a loan. They could potentially go for a player from the Welsh Premier Division, but if they want continued success I think they would do better finding a player already used to top-tier rugby, so have pulled together a couple of potential options.

Matthew Morgan/Steven Shingler – Cardiff Blues

If you are looking for experience of the league, these woud be the best bets. With Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe the preferred options at 10, it leaved limited minutes for Morgan and Shingler. The sheer number of quality fly halves may even make the Blues willing to part with one of their talents as they have the depth to cover the position even when Anscombe is away with Wales. For Shingler, it would be an opportunity to play alongside older brother Aaron, while Morgan is a talented attacker who could shine in the Scarlets back line.

Jason Tovey – Cross Keys

I was honestly shocked when I found out Tovey was currently playing in the Welsh Premier Division! At 29 and with experience playing in the league for the Dragons (two stints), Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh, he clearly knows the league well and can still bring something to the Scarlets. While he may not be as attacking as Patchell, he is a reliable 10 and his tactical kicking could be just what they need in a harder match. The only problem here is that the Scarlets may have left it too late, as it is looking increasingly likely that Tovey will be starting a third stint with the Dragons as they look to cover their own injuries at the position.

Demetri Catrakilis – Harlequins

Brought in to the Stoop from Montpellier to replace Nick Evans, the South African was unfortunate to pick up an injury early in his Quins career that led to the emergence of Marcus Smith. Add to that the further development of James Lang and Catrakilis looks to be third choice this season having struggled somewhat when he got on the pitch. Now aged 29, could a change of scenery be just what he needs to revitalise his career? He is a highly experienced player and featured in a few South Africa training camps when younger and his experience of playing in South Africa could benefit the Scarlets when they are facing the Kings and the Cheetahs. However, considering Smith has featured in the England squad as an apprentice player and Lang was capped by Scotland in the Summer Tests, I doubt they would want to let Catrakilis go and risk leaving themselves short in the case of international call-ups.

Owen Williams/Lloyd Evans – Gloucester

Like with Cardiff, Gloucester have options at 10 with Danny Cipriani looking set to get the majority of the minutes and still not in line for an England spot, while Billy Twelvetrees looks back to form and can also cover the position. Gloucester were willing to let Billy Burns go to Ulster and could potentially afford to let either Williams or Evans to go. Williams would be the more attractive signing due to his experience and big boot from the tee (handy when Leigh Halfpenny is unavailable) while he has also spent a lot of time at 12, allowing the Scarlets some flexibility during the internationals. Not only that, but it would likely be an attractive move for the player too, as the increased minutes and playing in Wales may help to put him back on Warren Gatland’s radar. Evans may not have the experience of the other names on the list, but he is also training as part of a Gloucester team that it looking to play attractive rugby anywhere on the pitch – sound familiar Scarlets fans? The one issue right now would be the potential unavailability of Cipriani as he is likely to receive a ban following his red card against Munster and could still come into the England squad, so Gloucester may not be willing to spread themselves too thin in the midfield.

Max Malins – Saracens

Potentially the England 10 of the next generation, Malins will find his first team opportunities limited this season with Owen Farrell, Alex Lozowski and Alex Goode all seeing time at the position. He has a good all-round game and has impressed when given a chance with the first team while excelling with England U20s. The issue here would be that I can’t see Sarries wanting to let go of such a talent on anything more than a season-long loan, while I doubt Malins would want to leave England long-term as this could push him back on his pathway to the senior England squad.

Jamie Shillcock – Worcester

At just 21 years old, Shillcock already has a decent amount of Premiership experience due to Worcester’s issues at 10 in recent seasons. Now with Jono Lance and Duncan Weir both at Sixways and depth in the centre allowing Ryan Mills to also cover 10, suddenly opportunities look more limited for the youngster. With so many players in front of him and none of them likely to disappear during the internationals a move away to a team like the Scarlets could be just what he needs to further his career, either in a short- or long-term capacity.