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 2

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

After last weekend’s early start for a number of teams, the Autumn Internationals kicked off in full force this weekend. The match between England and New Zealand that people wanted years ago finally took place and, despite England’s struggles in 2018, the match went right down to the final minutes. Wales finally ended years of hurt with a low-scoring win over Australia, while the USA got their first win over Samoa to continue their record of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018, though that will likely come to an end soon as they face Ireland in a few weeks.

The Week 2 results were:

  • Brazil 3-35 Maori All Blacks
  • France 26-29 South Africa
  • Ireland 28-17 Argentina
  • USA 30-29 Samoa
  • Wales 9-6 Australia
  • England 15-16 New Zealand
  • French Barbarians 38-49 Tonga
  • Scotland 54-17 Fiji
  • Italy 28-17 Georgia

England

The first 35 minutes against New Zealand was probably the best I have seen England play all season. Players were tackling as if their lives depended on it and if someone missed a tackle, there was someone else there to put the carrier down. The rucks were being hit with a desire to get the ball back on the English side and the backs were pinning the All Blacks back with their tactical kicking. And that maul for Dylan Hartley’s try was like porn for a former prop like me!

Unfortunately, the team could not keep it up for the full 80 minutes and they struggled to have the same impact in the second half. While it could be said that England were handed the match against South Africa by Malcolm Marx’s throwing, this time it was England throwing he game away in the second half as Jamie George managed to connect on only 5 of his 10 throws, with a number of them being pilfered by Brodie Retallick. While the throws were by no means perfect as they did not seem to be hitting the golden “double top” (top of the throw, top of the jump), I do not want to put the blame fully on George as the lineouts were continually called to Maro Itoje (I got the feeling he was the one calling the lineout but am not certain) despite Retallick covering him at the set piece.

If England are to win the tight games, they need to make sure their set piece is flawless on their own ball.

New Zealand

Damian McKenzie was wonderful on Saturday. While I don’t rate him as an international fly half, he is a fantastic attacking fullback. Despite his small stature, he popped straight back up after numerous big hits from Sam Underhill and the rest of the England back row, while his footwork, vision, pace and ability to pick an attacking line played such a big part in New Zealand’s resurgence. He may not be the best yet under the high ball, but this is an area of his game that he can develop. If he’s given the number 15 shirt on a regular basis over the next year, he could be one of the best at his position in the World Cup.


Wales

Alan Wyn Jones was a lucky man on Saturday, as he probably should have seen a red card for leading with a forearm into Bernard Foley. While the incident didn’t look much, leading with the forearm is considered a red card offence. Alafoti Fa’osiliva received a red card for when playing for Worcester against Gloucester a few years ago and just the night before this match, USA’s Megan Rom was shown red for the same offence, which I would argue was even softer as she appeared to initially attempt to hand the player off in the shoulder – something Jones didn’t. Meanwhile in the Pro14, both Uzair Cassiem and Kieron Fonotia have both been banned this season for similar offences. All we ask for in the rugby community is consistency, and going by previous examples, the Ospreys lock should have been taking an early bath, but not even a penalty was given.

Australia

Jones wasn’t the only player who probably got lucky not to be penalised in this game, as Samu Kerevi also escaped punishment for a collision with Leigh Halfpenny that saw the fullback ft with concussion. This to me is a really difficult one and even after a couple of days thinking about it and discussing with a few friends, I still can’t decide what the outcome should have been.

Kerevi does leave the ground in an attempt to charge down the kick, which is the only reason I can imagine Ben O’Keeffe was willing to call it a “rugby incident” and play on – similar to Andrew Conway’s attempted charge down of Gareth Steenson’s conversion in the Champions Cup. However, it did not look like a wholly committed attempt to block the kick and he did end up leading into Halfpenny with his shoulder as opposed to an arm. Later that night, Faf de Klerk had a penalty given against him for a late hit on Camille Lopez that looked like a much more committed attempt to block the kick and a considerably less nasty looking contact with the kicker. What makes this incident even worse is that Kerevi’s shoulder appears to make contact with Halfpenny’s head, which is backed up by his concussion as his head does not bash against the floor as he drops. In this current climate, it is a shock that there was not even a penalty given for something that was at best reckless and at worst dangerous. Like with the Jones incident, all we ask for is consistency, there does not appear to have been much this weekend.


USA

They still have some way to go to take on the Tier 1 nations, but this USA team is one that’s on the up. Despite missing 2 of their stars in AJ MacGinty and Samu Manoa, and having captain Blaine Scully leave the field early, the Eagles impressed with some wonderful play from back rows Cam Dolan and Hanco Germishuys and powerful running form Joe Taufete’e and Paul Lasike. These two guys kept the Eagles on the front foot throughout the game and the Worcester hooker even continued his scoring run form the Summer Tests. Lasike, though really impressed me. The former NFL fullback, now playing in the Premiership for Harlequins consistently made ground when given the ball, but was not a one-trick pony (or shire horse given his size) and also worked the Samoa defence well by drawing them in expecting the crash ball but then playing the ball off to the men now in space outside him. If they continue to grow as a team over the coming years and more players like Psalm Wooching choose rugby over a career in the NFL, then the sky could be the limit for them.

Samoa

I really don’t understand the tactical decisions made in this game. Despite an experienced 10 in Tusi Pisi and players outside like Ahsee Tuala, JJ Taulagi, Alapati Leiua and Ray Lee-Lo, the Samoan strategy seems to have been to kick first. While it is great to see them playing a more structured style (something that has not always been seen with the Pacific Island teams), I really don’t think it played to their strengths. I have no problem with a tactical kicking game, but this should have been more interspersed with crash balls and spreading the ball wide to keep the defence on their toes. For so long, Samoa appeared to be the best and most well-rounded of the Pacific Islands, but now they are slipping down the World Rankings, which is a massive shame to see. They need to sort out their tactics soon if they want to start winning again on a regular basis.


Italy

Italy are a team on the up once again. Conor O’Shea has been improving Italian rugby as a whole and it is starting to show. They have some experienced internationals in captain Sergio Parisse (rested for this match), Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni (who has converted from flanker to lock), but they also now have a generation of quality young players coming through. Michele Campagnaro has been on the scene for an number of years but is only 25, while Jake Polledri and Seb Negri have taken the back row to a new level and consistently give the team front-foot ball. Add in the currently injured Matteo Minozzi, who was a star in the 6 Nations, and the signs are positive for the national team. The important thing is to give O’Shea the time as this is not a short-term plan, but instead a long-term reboot of Italian rugby to keep them competitive.

Georgia

Talk for a number of years has focused on whether Georgia should replace Italy in the 6 Nations. While I do agree that they are at a stage where they are too good for their current competition, this game showed that they still have a way to go to compete in the 6 Nations. After this match, I had a look at both the Georgian and Italian squads for the Autumn Internationals to see how they compared in their top flight experience. The entire Italian squad play in top 3 European leagues, with Parisse and Ghiraldini in the Top 14, Campagnaro and Polledri in the Premiership and the remainder of the squad playing for Benetton or Zebre in the Pro14. In contrast, the Lelos have 1 player in Super Rugby, 1 in the Premiership and 9 in the Top 14. Beyond that, the team has 1 player in the Championship (English second tier), 2 in the Professional Rugby League (Russian top flight), 7 in Rugby Pro D2 (French second tier) and the remainder of the players (all backs) are playing in the Georgian top tier. To make the next step, the Lelos need to be able to pick a squad full of players who are in the top European leagues and therefore playing weekly against other internationals. Now I’m not suggesting an exodus from Georgia, but instead a Georgian franchise in the Pro14. They may not have immediate success, but if they can start to bring through the next generation then they could begin to reach the next level much as Italy are currently improving again.


Scotland

The Scots may have ran away with the match in the end, but the match remained tight for the best part of an hour. Part of that was due to Scotland missing chances. Fraser Brown may have scored towards the end of the first quarter following a series of pick-and-go drives from the pack, but the try should have been scored a number of phases earlier when Peter Horne drew the last defender and had a chance to put Tommy Seymour over in the corner but instead chose to dummy the pass and appeared lucky to avoid a knock-on decision as he was tackled just short. Later in the game, Horne made a break through the middle and again held onto the ball rather than play it back inside to Greig Laidlaw who had a chance to keep the move going. Horne is a good player, but as someone in as a second distributor, he missed the chance to distribute the ball too many times and will need to improve to hold his spot in a competitive midfield.

Fiji

It will come as no surprise when I say that Fiji play some beautiful rugby. Add to that a improving structure to their play and they are really beginning to turn heads in international rugby. Unfortunately they still have a way to go to regularly compete against the Tier 1 teams and a big part of that comes down to discipline. The Fijians conceded 12 penalties in this match, which is too many against a Tier 1 nation, and lost both Tevita Cavubati and Leone Nakarawa sin binned, with the 10 minute periods overlapping to leave the team with only 13 men for about 5 minutes. Against a team as dangerous in attack as Scotland, it is hard enough to defend with 15 men on the pitch; it becomes pretty much impossible when 2 men down. Even worse, it will make it harder for the other players to keep going for the full match as they need to work harder during the sin bin periods to cover the extra space. The have a talented team but will not win regularly if they can’t keep the penalty count down.


France

35 minutes in with the score at 9-9, Teddy Thomas broke out from his own 22 down the right wing. Getting up towards the South African 22, he had only Willie le Roux to stop him but numerous teammates in support to put over for the try. Instead, the winger chose to keep the ball and was well tackled by the South African 15. Luckily for France, they scored a few minutes later after the Springboks failed to clear their lines, but it is criminal to not finish that chance by being selfish.

After finishing the first half on a high with Guirado’s try, France continued to build the momentum with a try for Matthieu Bastareaud just 95 seconds into the second half. However they then shot themselves in the foot at the restart and lost all momentum as Sébastien Vahaamahina attempted to catch the restart over his shoulder while moving towards his own line, but fumbled, allowing S’busiso Nkosi to go over for possibly the easiest try he will ever score. This was a stupid mistake from a player who should have known better. One of the first things I remember being taught about catching a high ball is that if you are moving towards your own line and have a teammate coming forwards able to take it, they should leave it for the player coming onto the ball, yet this was not done by Vahaamahina despite Camille Lopez being in position to take the ball. As well as letting the Springboks back into the game on the scoreboard, this also shifted the momentum firmly in the direction of the away team.

Despite all this, with just 1 minute remaining on the clock, the French found themselves with the lead and a scrum inside the South African 22. There was no way they could lose from there… but they did. With half a minute remaining, they gave away a penalty at the breakdown and when the Springboks put a bit too much length on the kick, Damian Penaud caught the ball in play, but then stepped into touch just before the 80 minutes was up, giving the Boks one last chance in the French half. From here, a series of French penalties gave South Africa the chance to win the game by driving over a lineout from close range.

Typical France. This is a game they should have won but they managed to throw it away with stupid mistakes.

South Africa

This was not a good match for the South African backs. Faf de Klerk’s kicking game was nowhere near the level of his recent appearances, while conversely the back line struggled to adapt to France’s kicking game as they heavily varied their kicks from chips to cross-kicks (Penaud was mere inches from collecting one for an early try) to high bombs like the one that led to Bastareaud’s try. In attack, the back line seemed nowhere near as effective as against England, while on one of the few times they did beat the French defence, Cheslin Kolbe did not protect the ball well enough as he went over the try line, leading to a try being disallowed – which should have cost them the game if not for the French errors. There has been a clear improvement in the Springboks since Rassie Erasmus took over, but they still have some way to go to be more consistent.


Ireland

Ireland did not look at their usual level against the Pumas. Jordan Larmour surely knows that he will be put under some pressure with the high ball, but at this point there is a clear difference in how well Ireland deal with the opponent’s kicking game when he is at 15 compared to Rob Kearney, who is arguably one of the best in the world under the high ball. But it wasn’t just Larmour who struggled, as Jacob Stockdale also fumbled a number of high balls and the team also failed to deal with a couple of restarts. Heading into the coming match against the All Blacks, Ireland will have to do much better in this area if they are to beat the World Champions.

Argentina

In recent seasons, the best part of the Argentinian team has been their back 3. Bautista Delguy has been fantastic since coming on the scene and in my opinion should have been nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year 2018 and along with Ramiro Moyano and Emiliano Boffelli they have formed one of the most exciting and dangerous back 3s in World Rugby, yet they didn’t get much ball in this game other than when they were collecting Irish kicks and I think this limited the Pumas’ effectiveness during this game. I can’t help but wonder if the reticence to spread the ball was a worry as to Ireland’s effectiveness at the breakdown, so it will be interesting to see if their tactics will be any different this weekend against France, especially considering how good Bastareaud can be at the breakdown.


 

A Good Move?

A Good Move?

On Friday, it was announced that Utah Warriors captain Paul Lasike would be joining Harlequins for the upcoming season. A former NFL player with the Arizona Cardinals and Chicago Bears, Lasika is the newest star of USA rugby and has so far earned 6 caps during the Eagles unbeaten run this year. However, being so new to the sport and with the MLR having recently set up, is this the right move for him?

First off, I do not doubt that he has the ability. He clearly has the physical aspect from playing fullback in the NFL (a very different position to the rugby variant of the position) and when I have watched him play for the USA he has looked impressive. However, so far he has not had many tests against top quality opposition in the same way that he will playing in the Premiership and in Europe. It is a big step up and for every Samu Manoa and Chris Wyles who go on to forge strong careers in the Premiership, there will also be other players who are unable to make the cut. Danny Barrett and Seamus Kelly are both talented players, yet were unable to make the Gloucester squad following a 1-month trial at the start of the 2014/15 season. And it’s not as if Quins are light in the midfield, with Francis Saili, Ben Tapuai and Joe Marchant already competing with him and James Lang – now a Scottish international – also able to feature at centre. That’s a lot of quality competition for regular minutes.

Playing in the Premiership may also limit his availability for the national team. The Eagles will no always field their big stars based in Europe due to the timing of their matches falling outside the usual international windows. With just over a year until the World Cup, Lasike can surely not be guaranteed of a spot in the national team and if other players come in and impress, he could be at risk of missing out.

As for the MLR, with the league being so new, they will not want to lose any of their big stars as their top players – especially USA internationals – as they will be a huge draw when trying to entice fans in. Lasike was not only Utah’s captain, but as a USA international and former NFL player he was instantly marketable for the franchise. As great as it will be to see the top USA players getting offers from more prestigious leagues, I would hate it if the MLR began to struggle as a result.

That said, even if Lasike only plays a limited number of minutes this season and chooses to return to the MLR in time for next season, the chance to train regularly alongside experienced internationals like Mike Brown, Tim Visser, James Horwill and Chris Robshaw could be of great benefit to Lasike moving forwards in his career. There are some top quality coaches at the Stoop and if Lasike takes the chances available to learn from them, it could develop him so much as a player and in turn help him to develop his fellow Americans when training with the national team or if he does return to the MLR.

Is this the right move for him? It may limit him in the short-term, but I would say that centre is not one of the Eagles’ deepest positions currently, which will probably help his chances of World Cup selection even if the move to London doesn’t work out. But in the long-term, this could be just the move that he needs to take his game to the next level and thrive on the biggest stages. As a fan of USA rugby, I hope this works out for him and look forward to seeing him in the Premiership this season.

July 2018: A Rugby Ramble

July 2018: A Rugby Ramble

Change coming in Wales

The Warren Gatland era is nearing an end for Wales. We now know for certain that his tenure with the national team will come to an end after the 2019 Rugby World Cup. I may not be a fan of his and feel that some of Wales and the British and Irish Lions success over the last few years has been despite his presence, but his tenure has brought Wales 3 6 Nations titles, including 2 Grand Slams, and they were only 1 long-range penalty miss and a Sam Warburton red card away from making the final of the 2011 World Cup. The focus on fitness and solid defence int he early years, along with the adoption of “Warrenball” and a number of big ball carriers paved the way for competition for a number of years, but I don’t think he has done enough since then to adapt as the game has caught up and passed his tactics, often sticking with tried and tested players rather than give chances to people who many would argue should walk into the team.

There will be a big change coming at the end of next year though as he is replaced by countryman Wayne Pivac. Pivac has been a huge part of the development of the Scarlets, first as an assistant coach to Simon Easterby, then as Head Coach following Easterby’s move to Ireland. Over the last couple of years, the Scarlets have consistently thrilled fans with their tendency to play exciting attacking rugby and have tied this in with getting the results, becoming the last Pro12 Champions and making the final in the first season of the Pro14, while also bringing through an number of players into the national squads -not just for Wales, John Barclay has become a regular in the Scotland squad and Tadhg Beirne is surely set to do the same for Ireland now that he has moved to Munster. Personally, despite being an Englishman, I am so excited to see how the Welsh team plays once Pivac takes over and think rugby fans are in for a real treat.

One player who will not be involved moving forward, though, is Sam Warburton. The Cardiff Blues flanker announced his retirement from rugby aged 29 as he felt that his body was unable to allow him to play to the level he wanted. It is a sad way for his playing career to end as he has been sidelined since the final Lions Test, whereas a player of his quality deserved the chance to bow out on the big stage at the World Cup. Despite such an early retirement, he was still able to amass 74 Wales caps (49 as captain), captain 2 Lions Tours (a win in Australia and a draw in New Zealand) and play in 5 Lions Test matches. He learned from the best behind Martyn Williams but arguably surpassed his mentor and became a star. Much like Gatland, I have not always been a fan of him and think that he has been at his best in recent years playing at 6, allowing him to focus on his tireless tackling while nabbing the turnovers when the chance comes. However, I’m sure that he won’t be done with rugby as his knowledge of the game is so good I expect him to be a regular pundit if not going into coaching. The good news for Wales right now is that he has retired at a time when the national team in enviably deep at flanker. Ross Moriarty could feature at 6 but has so far been considered an 8, but that still leaves new Cardiff Blues captain Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Aaron Shingler and James Davies to name just a few. Hell, Thomas Young has been a star for Wasps and can’t even get near the squad! While it is a shame to see Warbuton’s career on the pitch come to a premature end, it will be great to see how the young Welsh back row develops ahead of the World Cup.


An American Tale

The inaugural season of Major League Rugby came to an end this month with Seattle Seawolves and Glendale Raptors meeting in the final. Despite coming out second best both times these teams met during the season, the Seawolves came away winners with a 19-23 victory.

rugseawolves
The Seawolves celebrate winning the inaugural MLR season – image from the MLR YouTube channel

I’d been really excited for the season and stupidly didn’t realise until just before the playoffs that the matches were all available to watch back on YouTube – needless to say I’m subscribed for the next year! From what I have seen though from watching match highlights and the full video of the final, things are looking very promising for the league and rugby in the USA in general. As much as I liked what I saw of PRO Rugby, when I compare to the MLR, the 2 competitions are poles apart. Despite being new, the teams feel established, probably helped by the kits from XBlades that blew the old Champion System kits out the water. The MLR also didn’t feel like it was relying on marquee names and instead focused on the teams as a whole, while teams still managed to bring in experienced players to help build the quality in the competition like 7s stars Osea Kolinisau and Mat Turner. The league season may have been short – 8 matches per team over 10 weeks, 2 semi-finals and the final – but that is in keeping with the American sporting formats and as Ben Foden pointed out recently, the players may actually benefit from a short season as they do not get burned out in the same way players might in the longer leagues that we are used to over here in Europe.

Will the league suffer a sophomore slump? I don’t think so. The league will surely grow in quality as the players get used to the competition, while Rugby United New York are set to join the league and boast a couple of experienced USA internationals, not to mention Foden! There are also plenty of other teams interested in joining over the coming seasons. It looks like this is a league and a sport that is set to take off and that is great news for USA rugby and the sport in general. I’m already looking forward to next season.


A step too far

Sponsors on kits… a difficult balance. Rugby obviously doesn’t have the money that football does and needs to get money wherever it can, but I must admit that some wonderful kits are brought down by the sheer number of sponsors. My own team, Gloucester, have arguably gone a bit sponsor-heavy at times to the detriment of some lovely kits, while the Scarlets’ new home kit reminds me of a Formula 1 driver’s overalls, there are that many sponsors on there!

rug20180731_215253
They may be more sponsors than I would ideally like, but at least Gloucester still have the (new) crest where it belongs

While sponsors are important and can be done right (full credit to Mitsubishi who allowed Gloucester to use a different version of their logo to improve the look of their kits after their first season as main sponsor) but some decisions on the kits are horribly wrong.

Enter Racing 92, who this season have tried to fit so many sponsors into visible spots, they have now relegated the club badge to just above the waistline. Nope, I’m not joking! Call me old fashioned, but I think that the club crest should always be somewhere on the chest in ride of place. Putting the badge down by the waist seems just 1 step away from taking it off the shirt altogether and not respecting the history of the club itself. I really hope the powers that be at Racing realise their mistake and put the badge back where it belongs next season, and I really hope that this idea doesn’t catch on with other teams.

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.

eng23
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.

nzfra
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.

International Rugby Ramble

Farewell to a legend

This weekend saw the USA national rugby team make history by qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup as the top American qualifier for the first time ever. Their win over the Canadians in San Diego – on Canada Day, no less! – was by no means perfect, as they frequently struggled at the scrum, but they frequently impressed in open play and scored some beautiful tries on their way to a 52-16 victory. This result has confirmed the USA’s place in Pool C alongside England, France, Argentina and the currently unconfirmed Oceania 2 qualifier.

While there was a lot to celebrate at full time, the moment was also bittersweet, as it signalled the international retirement of the USA’s most-capped player. Rugby’s very own Captain America, flanker Todd Clever made his international debut in 2003 and has gone on to amass 76 caps, as well as appearing for the USA in the World Sevens Series on a number of occasions. For a number of years, he was the face of USA rugby, and even with the emergence of a number of talented Americans, he has remained a key part of the national team. I can’t help but wonder if the USA would have been more successful in the 2015 World Cup had he not been left out following a disagreement with then-Head Coach Mike Tolkin.

Clever was the first American to play in Super Rugby (for the Lions in 2009) and has even competed against the British and Irish Lions on their tour that year. He spent 5 years playing in the Japanese Top League and also played in the Aviva Premiership for Newcastle in the 2015/16 season.

Now back in America, he is a player and co-owner for the Austin Huns, who will be part of the inaugural Major League Rugby. Though PRO Rugby did not work out, I have heard a lot of promising things regarding the MLR and I look forward to seeing how things go once the league begins. I still feel that the USA have the potential to be the next rugby superpower and seriously hope that players continue to come through to take Clever’s place.

 

Clever is not the first captain to announce his international retirement this summer, as he is joined by Geogia’s Mamuka Gorgodze, who has similarly helped to put Georgian rugby on the map. I am sure that both of these players have been inspirations not just for their teammates, but for the children who will now want to grow up to represent their country on the rugby pitch. Though the big names may be stepping down, I fully hope and expect both national teams to push on and continue to improve without them.

 

A hairy situation

Over the weekend I read an article on Pundit Arena stating the Japanese Rugby Union raised the hairstyle of hooker Shota Horie as a topic of discussion and expressed their disapproval at a recent board meeting.

The hooker has won over 50 caps for the national team and plays for the Sunwolves, so should be considered an inspiration for those looking to get into rugby in Japan. From what I have read, the union seem to be citing the idea of integrity, yet does a players hairstyle really constitute such a problem? It’s not like he’s got a cock and balls shaved into the side!

Maybe its something to do with me being follicly challenged, but I would never imagine playing rugby with the hairstlyes that some of these pros do. That said, I do not see any problem with players having their hair as such and if I’m completely honest I couldn’t imagine players like Todd Clever or Richard Hibbard playing with close-cropped hair.

Even if they are going to be strict on a player’s personal appearance, are there not more important things for the JRFU to be worrying about right now? The World Cup they are hosting is just over 2 years away and the Sunwolves have only managed 2 wins and a draw in their first 28 Super Rugby games and are on track to finish bottom of the combined table for the second year running. I think the JRFU need to get their priorities right, quickly!

 

Lions tour disciplinary results

When I wrote about Saturday’s second Test between the Lions and All Blacks, I mentioned that I would not be surprised to see Sonny Bill Williams receive a ban for his high tackle on Anthony Watson. I was proved right as it was announced yesterday that the cross-code star had received a 4-week ban.

It would appear that the commission felt the same as me, that the incident was more reckless than intentional. I was however a little surprised at the length of the ban. The incident was considered a mid-range offence, which has a starting point of 6 weeks, however the ban was reduced to 4 weeks after considering mitigating factors including his early admission, disciplinary record, good character and remorse. The mention of his good disciplinary record surprised me as there have been other occasions in the past where he has been penalised for not wrapping in the tackle, so considering how strict World rugby are being with contact to the head I would have expected the entry-level 6 weeks to stand, possibly with an extra week added as a deterrent.

 

Williams wasn’t the only player attending a hearing over the weekend though, as Sean O’Brien was cited for a forearm on Waisake Naholo. I was surprised when the citing was announced as to me the incident looked accidental rather than reckless. Had it been picked up during the game I feel there would have been some justification for a yellow – harsh perhaps, but there was enough force for Naholo to fail a HIA – but I did not feel that there was enough to warrant a red card. The case was dismissed, which shows the commission felt that no action was required, as they could have issued a Citing Commissioner Warning if they felt the challenge was worthy of a yellow. This will be a huge boost for the Lions as they prepare for the series-defining third Test this Saturday.

 

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