Wade to the NFL

Wade to the NFL

In the big news of the week, Christian Wade has left Wasps and rugby union as a whole with the intention of pursuing a career in the NFL. The winger, capped just once by England, could potentially have broken the Premiership record for tries in a career but appears to have played his last game (for now at least).

Since the news broke, I have not yet been able to find anything saying how he plans to enter the league: whether he plans to train with a view to entering the draft, or will he sign on directly with a team as an undrafted free agent in a similar way to rugby league star Jarryd Hayne.

Wade becomes the latest in a list of pro rugby players who have made the switch to the NFL in recent years. The aforementioned Hayne had an impressive preseason but struggled in the regular season and split his time between the active roster and practice squad before leaving for the Fiji rugby 7s team less than a year after signing for the 49ers. 2015 RPA Sevens Player of the Year came through the NFL’s International Player Pathway program and currently finds himself on the Atlanta Falcon’s practice squad. Former Worcester lock Christian Scotland-Williamson also finds himself on the practice squad, in case for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As can be seen from those players, it is not an easy transition from rugby to the NFL. The two sports may share many similar skills but they are also two very different games. Whereas rugby requires endurance to keep going for 80 minutes, the NFL is about 4-6 seconds of going flat out with rests in between. Roles are much more specialised and involve skills such as precise route running and blocking. On top of this, there is the extra equipment (a gumshield looks insignificant next to NFL pads and helmets) and also the extra physicality from more larger players and plenty of impacts that would be far from legal in rugby.

Assuming Wade can make the transition, where will he play? Personally, I see him playing offense due to his dangerous footwork and ability to make a player miss. With that footwork and pace, I expect his earliest contributions to be as a returner, much with Hayne in San Francisco. If he develops well enough to feature away from special teams, then I can see him at one of two positions.

My initial thoughts when I heard he was leaving rugby was to imagine him as a Wide Reciever. At 5’8″ it will not be easy for him especially in the redzone, but if he can run precise routes then he could become a dangerous slot receiver like Wes Welker, while his pace could also make him a dangerous downfield threat.

The other position I can see Wade would be in the backfield. Obviously he’s not someone that I would want to see running between the tackles regularly but in more of a scatback role – running outside the tackles and catching out of the backfield. My only worry about this position would be the need for him to learn to pass block and pick up the blitz, or his Quarterback could be in trouble.

How will he do? Well judging by the fact that Wasps look set to sign Malakai Fekitoa, Wade must have been on a pretty nice contact at Wasps, so to give that up he must be confident that he can make it in the NFL and, I would assume, have taken advice from people who know the league. The important thing will be getting a team that will be willing to take the time to develop him rather than expecting him to be an immediate star. It will also help to end up on a team with coaches who can scheme to take advantage of his skills while also trying to limit the impact of his weaknesses. Suffice to say, I will be following the progression of this story with great interest.

Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

The 2017/18 rugby season is coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been decided and there is only 1 more Champions Cup space still to be decided for next season. Thoughts now turn back to the leagues as the Pro14 and Premiership both had their semi-finals this weekend ahead of Saturday’s finals. Yesterday, I took a look at the Pro14, now here are my thoughts on the Premiership games.

Saracens and Wasps were breaking records left right a centre in a 55-7 thriller. Owen Farrell’s set a record for points scored in a semi-final (becoming the first player to break 100 points in Premiership semis), Chris Wyles scored his fifth semi-final try in 8 years in his final season before retiring and the combined 11 tries and 90 points were both records. In the other semi, defending Champions Exeter dominated Newcastle on their way to a 36-5 victory that sees them reach their third consecutive Premiership final.

semirefsNow you may remember I had a little rant yesterday about the performance of John Lacey and his officials. I generally feel that the quality of refereeing in the Premiership is better than the Pro14, however this weekend I was proved wrong. At Allianz Park, JP Doyle and TMO Graham Hughes both went temporarily blind watching the replays and disallowing as they agreed Elliot Daly had grounded the ball against the base of the corner flag, despite the replays clearly showing that the other end of the ball was clearly grounded on the line before the ball rolled against the flag. There were also a couple of tries (for both sides) that JP Doyle chose to award without checking with Doyle despite some questionable passes and some that were definitely forward. For one of the best leagues in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s just not good enough. I really hope the quality of officiating is better at Twickenham on Saturday (if it’s Wayne Barnes refereeing the final then I’m confident it will be).

Saracens 57 – 33 Wasps

When it comes to knockout rugby, it’s so hard to bet against Sarries. They may not have had the best of seasons by their standards, but they turned it on against Wasps to get the win. Owen Farrell has developed over the last few years from a good kicking and defensive 10 to a solid all-rounder who is now able to cause problems for the defence by taking the ball to the line and exploiting any gaps, as he did for Alex Lozowski’s opener. He was fantastic in his Man of the Match performance, nailing every kick off the tee to finish with 27 points (a record for a Premiership semi-final) almost had a try too, only to be held up over the line by Jimmy Gopperth. When you have such a metronomic kicker, having a defence as smothering as the Wolfpack almost makes playing rugby easy. What will peak Exeter’s interest though will be the way Wasps had some luck outside, with Gopperth and Daly both having tries disallowed in the corner and a number of other tries coming from beating the Sarries defence out wide. Given the way that Exeter have been playing recently (more on that later), I imagine that Sarries will be spending some time looking at their wide defence in the build-up to Saturday’s final.

sarwasWasps played some absolutely wonderful rugby in this match, but were simply too wasteful. Though Elliot Daly’s try should have been awarded but for a terrible call by the officials, Jimmy Gopperth should have scored and would have had he grounded the ball with 2 hands rather than putting an arm down to cushion his fall. Frequently they were turned over by a smothering Wolfpack defence as their support was too far away and they struggled at times to match Sarries in the set piece. What really killed Wasps in this match, though, was their defence. Owen Farrell exploited too large a gap between Joe Launchbury and Jake Cooper-Woolley for Lozowski’s try mere minutes into the match, while the Wasps defence struggled to get to terms with Saracens’ strong running close to the ruck, repeatedly losing ground when Sarries attacked the area 1-3 men out from the breakdown. Usually 33 points would be enough to win you a semi-final, especially away from home, but the Wasps defence is just not good enough to keep out the opposition on a regular basis. Can Wasps improve in this area next season? They will need to if they want to make it back to the final.

refscrap
Exeter’s dominant style of play is highly effective at inning games, but it’s not going to get much love from Scarlets fans apparently

Exeter 36 – 5 Newcastle

Some people may call it boring, but Exeter’s tactics are certainly effective! The Chiefs do the basics so well and run the ball so hard, they can dominate possession just by hitting the ball up repeatedly in narrow channels until the defence are all drawn in and they can be exploited out wide. This Exeter tactic made them completely dominate the halftime stats, as can be seen in the table below. While it may not be immediately high scoring, as the game wears down there is no way an opposition team cannot be tired out from such a constant defensive effort, and it showed as Exeter got the opening try right before half time through Nic White, before running away with the 2nd half 20-5. It may not be the sexy rugby of Scarlets, but it is effective and wins them games. When it comes to knockout rugby, that’s what matters.

dominant
The halftime stats show just how dominant Exeter were in this game

How could I not feel sorry for Newcastle watching this game? They did such a great job to break into the top 4 at Leicester’s expense and won the most away matches of any team in the Premiership this season, but they just couldn’t get into the game at Sandy Park! They barely touched the ball in the first half and star wingers Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti were starved of ball – the only time I remember Goneva getting the ball was an interception! Fair play to the Falcons, they got a few attacks in the second half and got a try on the board, but it summed up the game for them when Alex Tait dropped the ball over the try line after collecting a cross-field kick in acres of space. I fully expect them to be pushing for the playoffs again next season, but this match showed just how far they still have to go to break into the top 3.

Final thought

This looks set to be a cracking game. Both teams are very similar in the way they rely on solid defence and effective attacking, doing the basics very well. This really could come down to a couple of questions: How long can Billy Vunipola last? Can Joe Simmonds keep his cool on the big stage? Can the Wolfpack stop Exeter’s usual tactics. When these teams met in the semi-final last year, we were treated to a wonderful match ending with Henry Slade’s incredible penalty to touch to set up Sam Simmonds’ winning try. I expect another thrilling match but would argue that Exeter are a better squad than this time last year, so I am going for them to win.

Exeter to beat Saracens

 

Thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have any thoughts on the matches, let me know in the comments.

Eyes On: Saracens v Wasps

Sunday saw a battle between the defending European Champions, Saracens and last year’s Premiership runners-up, Wasps at Allianz Park. Both teams came in fielding weakened sides due to injuries – a common sight in the Premiership this season – but on the day Brad Barritt made his 200th appearance for the home side, Sarries’ strength in depth saw them run out 38-19 victors, despite a late fightback from Wasps. The bonus point win puts Saracens top of the table, while Wasps currently find themselves down in tenth, with only London Irish and Worcester below them.

 

Costly injuries

Among the list of unavailable player for Wasps were fly half Danny Cipriani and 2016/17’s player of the season Jimmy Gopperth. Despite spending much of his time at centre since Cipriani returned to Wasps, Gopperth is also their second choice at fly half, so to lose both their playmakers at the same point was always going to make things hard for Wasps, before even taking into account the effectiveness of the Saracens defence. Rob Miller was given the number 10 shirt for this game but rarely looked comfortable or dangerous against the Wolfpack. I’m not putting the blame solely on him as his forwards could not consistently get front foot ball and his backs outside him could not get anything going either, but it also felt that the Wasps attack was very basic, making it very easy for the home team.

Saracens were also missing their first choice 10, Owen Farrell, for this game, as he had to pull out of his position on the bench due to injury, but Alex Lozowski – a former Wasp – is well established in that position and the quality around him takes a lot of pressure off of him. Third choice Max Malins, who came on for the last 15 minutes is also a very impressive young player but did not have much to do by that point other than join the defensive effort.

Right now, the Wasps side looks like it relies on the fly half, whereas Sarries look like losing a fly half is just a matter of bringing the next person through to keep the ship steady and on course.

Get him in the England squad!

Regular readers of my blog will know that I rate Wasps scrum half Dan Robson very highly. I was gutted to see him leave Gloucester as he looked a real talent when he split time with Jimmy Cowan for Gloucester, but since moving to Wasps his game has gone to another level! I am probably a bit biased but I would argue that despite only being on the pitch for just over 20 minutes, Robson – who is himself only just returning from injury – was the best scrum half on show at the Allianz! After his introduction, Wasps’ attack went up in tempo and he was managing to find gaps for both himself and teammates that Joe Simpson had not been able to.

He started the season in such great form with 4 tries against Sale and I honestly think his injury has been a big factor in Wasps’ recent slump along with the injuries at fly half. If he can quickly get back to his pre-injury form, I think he has to be given the chance by Eddie Jones in the Autumn Internationals.

Tactical thinking?

With star players Nathan Hughes, Cipriani and Gopperth all missing and players like James Haskell and Elliott Daly not yet reproducing last season’s form – a result of a heavily shortened offseason following the Lions Tour? – I was shocked to see Christian Wade on the bench when the teams were named. This is nothing against Josh Bassett and Marcus Watson, but Wade has clearly shown himself to be one of the most exciting and dangerous wingers in the league. He is a match-winner in a team desperate for a result. I assume that he was benched as Dai Young felt the other wingers would be able to match up better against the opposition, but it seemed to contribute to an attack that was very limited in what it could do and the danger it could pose. Maybe he was being rested in readiness for Friday’s trip to Ulster – it is ridiculous that they have such a short turnaround – but if that result does not go their way either, then it leaves Wasps in a very poor position.

Hat-trick hero

I was unable to watch the game live as it was my cousin’s birthday, but had the match on record. When I received an email update from my fantasy rugby team stating that Jamie George was my highest scoring player this week, I thought that he must have had a decent game, but even I wasn’t expecting to sit down and watch him score 3 tries!

A while back I wrote about the way that the prop position has evolved, well hooker has also evolved in a similar way. To be one of the best hookers in the world, it is no longer enough to just be solid at the set piece. A top international hooker must be able to act like a 4th back row on the field, able to pass and run effectively in open play. In my opinion, Jamie George is up there with the best in the world and at just 26 probably hasn’t yet reached his peak! He may not have had many chances to prove his ability in open play at the weekend, but he was 100% at the line-out, leading to his 2 drive-over tries. The one chance he did get to show his ability in the loose was for his opening try, where he reacted quickest to Chris Wyles’ quick-tap penalty and ran an attacking line a centre would be proud of to cross the line unchallenged.

I am hoping that Eddie Jones chooses to start George during the Autumn Internationals. Dylan Hartley has been a great servant for England and has done a great job as captain under Jones, but George is much more dangerous in the loose and has earned the chance to stat for England. It can certainly be argued that England have the best 1-2 punch at hooker in international rugby. I honestly think that if given the starting job for England, George could soon compete with New Zealand’s Dane Coles for the title of the World’s best hooker.

I’m sure he won’t be given the chance to get a big head though, it would be shocked if he is not receiving at least a gentle ribbing from his teammates for being bumped off by Willie le Roux…