Oceans Apart

Oceans Apart

Welcome to Sport on the Silver Screen. In this series, I will be looking back over sports movies that I have recently watched/re-watched and giving my thoughts on them. Getting into the Schmoedown and starting to follow a number of the personalities from the show has given me a much greater appreciation of movies and seen me starting to watch more.

Being a fan of both movies and sports, I have taken the chance to start highlighting the sheer volume of sports movies out there. For each movie I will be giving some details about the movie and then a quick review, including a section giving a sports fan’s perspective of the action’s realism.

Now, today I’m doing something a little different, by looking at a recently released documentary that is currently available to watch on Amazon Prime: Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal and Pacific Island Rugby

Ocans Apart Cover

Directed by Callum Drummond & Axel Haudiquet

Released in 2020

Starring: Dan Leo

Synopsis: Former Samoa captain Dan Leo looks at the issues faced by Pacific Islands rugby players to see why these nations that are responsible for so many of the game’s superstars are struggling so much on the world stage.

documentary Oceans Apart

This was a fantastic documentary and a real eye-opener. As a fan of rugby in general, I have been so disappointed to see the way that the Pacific Islands – especially Samoa and Tonga – have struggled over the last couple of decades as rugby has gone professional. So many times, I’ve been disappointed to see players from the Pacific Islands choosing to play for Tier 1 nations where they may earn just a handful of caps, rather than playing 40-odd times for the country of their birth – a notable example being Charles Piutau, who won 17 caps for New Zealand but had not played international rugby since 2015. Watching this though made me really begin to understand why the players choose to play elsewhere as there is limited financial incentive to play for the Pacific Island nations.

As the documentary explains, Dan Leo was the captain of Samoa when the team threatened to boycott a match against England at Twickenham in 2014 due to financial discrepancies within the Samoan Rugby Union, as publicly-funded money was not reaching the team. The game eventually went ahead with the promises that everything would be investigated, but nothing ever came of it bar a few headlines at the time, and Leo found himself omitted from the squad moving forwards. Leo was not the only influential Samoa player to be dropped from the national team following criticism of the union, which is headed by the Prime Minister, and the way that funds are used.

In this 1 documentary, Leo really highlights the impact of the lack of funding – showing a player who has been left to fend for himself in Romania after losing his contract due to a kidney issue while also updating us on what happened to Fijian wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca, who was one of the stars of RWC2003. As we follow his investigations, which also involve interviews with a key members of the rugby community, including James Haskell (who played in the 2014 match against Samoa), Ben Ryan (who coached Fiji to Olympic Rugby 7s Gold), outspoken Samoan centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and a number of Pacific Islanders who play in the Premiership and Pro14, the issues become clear.

As the documentary shows, many of these unions are led by people who could be considered problematic due to their role in the nation’s government, but as the documentary shows, the issues go beyond the national unions and to the way that the nations are treated by World Rugby, who clearly favour the “Tier 1” nations, with Brett Gosper (who was at the time CEO of World Rugby, but will now be stepping down to take up a role within the NFL in the New Year) coming across very poorly in an interview.

I won’t say any more about this, except that this should be a must-watch for all rugby fans, and that hopefully this will lead to pushes for change that will give more support to nations outside of Tier 1.

 

What did you think of the documentary? Let me know in the comments. Until next time!

Change for the Best?

Change for the Best?

Interesting news came out of Paris late last month as a three-day Player Welfare symposium suggested 8 change proposals to be put forward to the Law Review Group next month. World Rugby regularly make amendments to the laws with a view to improving player safety and the quality of the game itself, but this close to the World Cup there will be no changes brought in ahead of the tournament.

There is understandably a need for change: as money has come into rugby, players have got bigger and fitter, which has led to more and larger collisions. The danger of head injuries has become clearer to everyone, while a number of other players have suffered serious injuries at the breakdown.

But are these proposed changes the right way to go? I’ve taken a look at some of the suggested changes to give my thoughts on the idea.


50-22 kick

Probably the most widely publicised of the suggestions, this is a variation of the 40-20 kick from rugby league. The suggestion is that if a team kicks the ball from within their own half and bounces it into touch inside the opposition 22, then the throw-in at the lineout would belong to the kicking team rather than the opposition.

I can understand the reasoning behind this, as it will likely lead to more players covering in the backfield to deal with the potential kick, which will lead to more gaps in the defensive line, reducing collisions and promoting more attacking rugby. However I am not a fan of this change as the kicking team already has an advantage at the lineout due to the pressure of playing rugby in your own 22, so they will often be fielding a kick within a couple of phases anyway. With the way the lineout and maul are currently refereed to benefit the team throwing in, bringing in this law would make it far too easy for teams to kick into the 22 and then maul it over. Even as a former front row who can enjoy a forwards battle, I’d soon begin to find that boring!

Sin-bin reviews

The suggestion here is that when a player is yellow carded, the citing commissioner will review the incident during the 10-minute sin-bin period and would be able to upgrade the sanction to a red card.

We all want to see the right decisions made on the pitch and a post-match ban is no help to a team who should have played with a numerical advantage for half the game, so I generally like the suggestion. That said, I hope that the referees will still continue to call the red cards if they see them, rather than play it safe by giving a yellow card and allowing the citing commissioner to make the big decision.

It will also be important to find a way for this to be clear to fans watching both in the stadium and at home, which has been one of the main criticisms of VAR in football so far.

The tackle

A number of the prospective law changes (unsurprisingly) centre around the tackle.

One is to expand the ‘high tackle warning system’ from last year’s World Rugby U20 Championship into another elite competition. This system gave players a post-match warning following any challenges that result in a HIA or contact with the head of either player if the tackler was found to be upright (not bent at the waist) when tackling. Each warning is classed as a strike and 2 strikes in the tournament would lead to a 1-match ban. Early tests in the U20 Championship saw concussion incidents reduced by 50% so I would be very interested to see this tested further. If brought in to a league, I will be interested to see if the 2-strikes rule remains or if further strikes are required due to a longer format. Personally, I think sticking with 2 strikes will be a good deterrent without being too harsh, as no players reached the 2-strike mark in the U20 Championship.

2 others that are going to be trialled by amateur clubs in France next season are lowering the height of the tackle to the waist and also eliminating 2-man tackles. I am all for eliminating the choke tackle and reducing the tackle height, but to lower it all the way to the waist seems to be a drastic change and will need a big shift from players. It will lead to more offloads and potentially a more exciting game but at this moment I need to see this in action to be won around to such a drastic change.

I am firmly against outlawing the double tackle, though. I understand that there is a risk of players clashing heads when both tackling the same player, but this is generally down to poor communication as players are taught to tackle 1 high and 1 low. While single-man tackles only will again increase the chance of offloads and better attacking play, it could also make things hard for defenders if an attacker targets the space between them and they are hesitant to risk giving away a penalty for both making a tackle. Again, though, seeing this in action could change my mind.

The ruck

The last potential change I will mention is to ban the use of hands in the ruck, leading to defenders having to win the ball back by driving over the ball.

I’m not a fan of this at all. The jackal has become such a great part of the sport, but it is seen as bad for player safety due to the number of injuries, especially to the back and neck. I would counter that this would not be an issue if the laws were applied correctly as we consistently see jackals clearly off their feet but not being penalised – in fact often praised by commentators for such a great jackal – and players going off their feet to clear them out. Doing this and banning the crocodile/judo roll (as former England and Fiji 7s coach Ben Ryan has spent years campaigning for, as it leads to a number of serious knee injuries) will make the breakdown a much safer place without making and serious changes.


What do you think of these potential changes? Are there any changes you would like to see made to the laws?

World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year 2018: The Shortlist

World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year 2018: The Shortlist

Last week, World Rugby announced their 5-man shortlist for the World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year 2018. This year’s list surprisingly omits Tadhg Furlong (a prop has still never been nominated) and David Pocock despite impressive seasons, leaving Malcolm Marx as the only forward on the list, while Ireland’s Johnny Sexton is the only representative from the Northern Hemisphere.

So who deserves the award this year? I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the 5 nominees and see who I feel should be named Player of the Year.

Beauden Barrett

The New Zealand fly half has been the winner the last 2 years and has the opportunity to match Dan Carter and Richie McCaw as the only players to win the award 3 times, but honestly I think he has made the list this year on the strength of his previous seasons and his role as the All Blacks’ starting 10 rather than on the strength of his performances.

While he is still an above average fly half, I think that this season he has benefited from the quality of his supporting cast and I think that his goal kicking has been too unreliable. I may be in the minority here, but I would love to see Richie Mo’unga to be given the starting 10 role for a while to create a fight for the coveted position.

Barrett is undeniably a talent, but I think both David Pocock and Tadhg Furlong have done more this year to justify a spot on the list.

Faf de Klerk

The Springboks turnaround under Rassie Erasmus has been phenomenal and a big part of that has been the play of de Klerk. The Sale scrum half is probably the form 9 in World Rugby at the moment and does a wonderful job of hassling the opposition (just ask Aaron Smith during the Rugby Championship and Nathan Hughes in the June Tests). Not only that but in attack he has done a good job of keeping the ball coming to the backs quickly and has also given an extra dimension to South Africa’s play with his tactical kicking.

Though I may be an England fan, I really wish the weekend’s Test match against South Africa had been inside World Rugby’s Test window so that he and Willie le Roux could play, even though that would have likely given them the victory.

Rieko Ioane

Ioane has played in 8 matches for the All Blacks this year and amassed 11 tries, 2 assists, and 771 metres off 35 carries with 36 defenders beaten and 26 clean breaks.

Like Barrett, while he obviously benefits from being in a fantastic team, Ioane is a real talent with incredible space and footwork but is also deceptively strong in contact. This year has been no fluke as he has 22 tries from 21 Tests for New Zealand in his career and I will not be surprised to see him pushing for the record of most tries in a World Cup, currently held by Brian Habana, Jonah Lomu and Julian Savea.

Malcolm Marx

The second South African on this list, I am a big fan of Marx and recently picked him in my World XV Challenge. He is a powerful ball carrier and in defence it is like having an extra flanker on the pitch. When South Africa have a lineout within 10 metres of the opponent’s line, I have just got to the point now that I expect to see Marx at the back of a driving maul going over for a try.

Unfortunately for Marx, he does have a weakness at the moment – his unreliable lineout throwing – which proved costly against England at the weekend and will probably stop him from winning this year’s award.

Johnny Sexton

What a year Ieland have had! A 6 Nations Grand Slam and a series victory against Australia in the June Tests represents on of their best ever years, and Sexton has been at the heart of this.

He may not be the most reliable kicker off the tee, but his command of his back line is incredible and even though everyone knows his classic wraparound move is coming, they still seem incapable of stopping it. Add in his willingness to play a high bomb into the opposition 22 and his supremely accurate kicking out of hand and he is arguably one of – if not the best – 10s in the world right now, especially when he can stay in one piece as he has done more so this year.

If he can earn Irleand the victory over New Zealand later this month, then he is surely a shoe-in for the award!

 

So who gets the vote? I decided to ask a couple of friends for their opinions having looked at the shortlist. Phil is a colleague from work and an England fan, while Tino is an old uni friend and former Pistol Shrimps teammate who supports England and Italy.

Phil’s vote: Faf de Klerk

Tino’s vote: Johnny Sexton

As for me? While I want to give the award to Ioane for such a prolific season, I think the run of 6 consecutive awards for Kiwis is coming to an end. De Klerk very nearly got my vote and could still get it if he can help lead South Africa to victories over France, Scotland and Wales. But for me, this year’s winner has to be Johnny Sexton, irrespective of the result against the All Blacks.

Who gets your vote?

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 1

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 1

November is here and for rugby fans that means one thing: the Autumn Internationals are here. Following up on their Bledisloe Cup whitewash, the All Blacks fielded a much-changed XV against Japan to begin their journey to the Northern Hemisphere, while the Home Nations all kicked off their month, including a trip to Chicago for Ireland to face Italy.

The results from Week 1 were:

  • Japan 31-69 New Zealand
  • Wales 21-10 Scotland
  • England 12-11 South Africa
  • USA 22-59 Maori All Blacks
  • Ireland 54-7 Italy

Now unfortunately due to where certain games were televised, I was only able to watch the England and Wales games so this week I will be focusing on these 2 matches. But first a couple of other points that I felt necessary to mention…


Calendar issues

People may be surprised by the lack of international matches this weekend, but there is an important reason for this: World Rugby’s window for Test matches did not cover this weekend. For this reason, teams were not required to release players to the national teams, which is why players like Liam Williams and Dan Biggar were not involved in the Doddie Weir Cup game at the Principality Stadium and a number of influential South Africans like Willie le Roux, Faf de Klerk and Franco Mostert did not feature against England.

I do not understand for one moment why World Rugby are allowing these games to go ahead. Yes, players missing gives coaches a chance to test players on the fringe of the squad but they could do that in their other matches anyway. It’s just yet another match where players have a chance of getting injured (as happened to Tom Curry against South Africa and Ben Morgan & Manu Tuilagi in the preceding week) and in a time when many people would already argue that players play too much, this is yet another risk to those taking part.

I understand the unions need to generate revenue, but in a week where the WRU and SRU have had to be publicly shamed into donating to the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, it just feels like this is another example of the greedy unions putting money before player well-being.

That tackle

Watching the England match at home with my colleague Phil was a roller coaster of emotions, and none more so than in the final moments of the game as Owen Farrell put in a huge hit on André Esterhuizen. Next to me, Phil was yelling out a slightly less polite variant of “what a hit!” and while I initially began to cheer, the moment quickly caught me as I began to wonder if the hit was legal, not helped at all when I saw that referee Angus Gardner was speaking with the TMO. My heart was in my mouth and the relief when Gardner announced he was happy with the challenge and ended the game was overwhelming.

Unsurprisingly, this became the most talked about moment of the weekend’s action, but I must admit I was shocked by how many fans, reporters and pundits felt that the hit was illegal, with people throwing out sanctions from just a penalty all the way to a red card! My personal feeling when I saw the replays along with the officials was that it was a legal hit.

I saw some people online comparing this to Danny Cipriani’s red against Munster and – while I didn’t agree fully with that call – I don’t see how that comparison can be made here as Cipriani clearly did make contact with the head, whereas Farrell’s shoulder made contact with the head. To me the question about legality came down to whether this was a tackle or a shoulder charge. Farrell hits with his right shoulder and I won’t argue that his right arm is down by his side, but the angle from behind Esterhuizen showed that his left arm did attempt to wrap and he in fact almost managed to rip the ball out, but the force of the hit pushed them apart.

What I have not seen many people mention online was that South Africa’s penalty to go 9-11 up came after Thomas du Toit and RG Snyman tackled George Kruis together, each with the arm they were tackling with down by their side. If you say Farrell’s was illegal then so are those hits, so the blame cannot be put on Angus Gardner or the officials for “blowing” the call at the end. Gardner has been consistent on his rulings in this match, it is now up to World Rugby to ensure this consistency continues. Farrell may have avoided a citing, but I doubt we have heard the end of this just yet.


England

Back when I was playing junior rugby, I remember being constantly coached that the first tackler should go low to stop the ball carrier, then the second man should go high. It seems that not many of the England team remembered this at the weekend. Going into the game, I was worried by how the pack would front up against the Boks and I would argue that the answer was all too often not very well. Players continually went high and it allowed players like Eben Etzebeth and Damian de Allende to continually make ground and put the Springboks on the front foot for much of the match. One of the few times that someone went low on Etzebeth, Kyle Sinckler stopped him in his tracks and dumped him on the floor. While I understand going for the ball, the important thing must always be to stop the carrier first.

Looking ahead to the next match against the All Blacks, I think Eddie Jones has to make some changes. While I thought Alec Hepburn was unfortunate to be pulled at halftime, I think Ben Moon did very well off the bench and would in fact suggest starting Moon and Williams (probably the stronger scrummagers) then having the more mobile Hepburn and Sinckler come off the bench in the second half. I have been critical of Mark Wilson’s selection previously, but I think he went about his business well and think he has earned his spot for the next match. I would also give Zach Mercer an overdue first Test start as I feel he made a really positive impact off the bench and (assuming Tom Curry is fit to face New Zealand) I would drop the largely ineffectual Brad Shields to the bench. I don’t think there should be any changes to the back line – though I do wonder if Elliot Daly’s struggles under the high ball may see a return for Mike Brown – but if Manu Tuilagi is fit then I would love to see both him and Ashton on the bench in place of George Ford as they would probably be bigger game changers, while Henry Slade can play 10 if something happens to Farrell.

South Africa

Regardless of your thoughts on Farrell’s tackle, that one moment did not lose South Africa the game. Malcolm Marx is a fantastic player – he recently made my team in my World XV Challenge – but he had a poor game at Twickenham and overthrew a number of crucial lineouts. In the 10 minutes that Maro Itoje was in the sin bin, England won 3-0 despite the Boks starting the period with a penalty 5m out from the England line. Perhaps even worse, they made the same mistake that New Zealand did against them in the Rugby Championship by not going for the drop goal. They had Handrè Pollard and Elton Jantjies both on the field and had the ball pretty central int he England 22 with just minutes left, yet neither made an attempt to get in the pocket or set up for a match-winning drop goal and instead Lood de Jager allowed Owen Farrell to rip the ball away. Had England been a little smarter with their time management and held onto the ball for just a few phases after this, that would have been the match over and the debate about Farrell’s tackle would have never begun. This South Africa team has come a long way since Rassie Erasmus took over and they wee arguably missing a number of key players due to European clubs not releasing them, but if they want to take the next step then they need to start managing the game better in the key moments.


Wales

With Warren Gatland having returned to New Zealand ahead of the Doddie Weir Cup following the passing of his father, I can’t help but feel that Shaun Edwards took charge of training in his absence. This was a vintage performance from the Welsh reminiscent of some of their most successful seasons with Gatland at the helm.

The Scottish forwards were unable to get on the front foot, such was the physicality of the Welsh defending, and this then allowed the defence to hassle Adam Hastings and make it all but impossible to get the back line working effectively on a regular basis. I was surprised and disappointed when I saw Dan Lydiate had been named in the starting XV as I was really looking forward to seeing Ellis Jenkins get a shot in the team but the Ospreys flanker rolled back the clock with a wonderful performance and with so many back rows currently unavailable he may have just put himself back in contention for the World Cup squad.

Scotland

Despite the dominance of the Welsh defence, Scotland still had some great chances and could potentially have come away with victory. George Horne (who did a wonderful job off the bench) put in a lovely little chip into the Welsh in-goal area for his brother Peter, but the centre just couldn’t quite get hold of the ball and dot it down. Jonny Gray did actually dot the ball down over the line but the try was rightfully disallowed and a penalty given against the lock for a double movement.

While the Horne drop was unfortunate, it was by no means an easy catch to make, but to me the Gray penalty was so stupid as he knows that he is making a double movement (I have been in a similar position before where I have started reaching for the line and realised that I will be short, so instead presented the ball to my team) and his support is clearly there. It is not a matter of reach for the line or get turned over, if he presents the ball back, Scotland keep the pressure on and potentially score a couple of phases later. Instead, a penalty allows the Welsh to not just clear their line but also get possession back. This was a costly mistake from one of the most experienced players in the squad.


 

May 2018 Rugby Ramble

May 2018 Rugby Ramble

Legend of the game

It was announced right at the start of the month that England fullback and legend of the game Danielle “Nolli” Waterman would be retiring from international rugby. A star of the women’s game, Nolli made her England debut in 2003 and went on to earn 82 caps for the Red Roses, playing in 4 World Cups and scoring in the 2014 final. Having also spent some time with the England 7s team, her time with the 15s has been a little more limited in recent years, but she has still been consistently one of the best players on the park whenever she has featured and finishes her career with only 1 loss in the 6 Nations to her name – against France this year. She has been an outstanding servant to England Rugby and women’s rugby – in fact rugby as a whole! – and it will be a shame to no longer see her representing England. With the Barbarians having now created a women’s team I sincerely hope she becomes a regular in this while she continues to play at club level.

The good news for England fans is that her replacement already seems to be in place. Ellie Kildunne has had a wonderful season for Gloucester-Hartpury and England. She has pace, footwork, good handling skills and is also strong enough to hold her own against larger opposition. Having trained and played alongside Nolli with England this year, she will have learned so much and it is possible that in 15 or so years we may be looking back on an equally impressive career.

Congratulations Nolli and thank you for everything!


Qualification nightmare

It feels like every time I write one of these recently we end up coming back to the absolute ****storm caused by Vlad Iordachescu’s refereeing of Spain v Belgium’s Rugby Europe Championship match that denied the Spanish qualification to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

It was eventually announced this month that the match will not be replayed as Belgium successfully argued that having Romania officials for this match is no different than a team of officials from 1 country in the 6 Nations refereeing a match in the tournament between 2 other teams. In my eyes, that is absolute bollocks as this wasn’t just any old match, but a match that decided whether Romania or Spain qualified for the World Cup. When there is such a prize at stake, neutrality is a must and I would not call Iordachescu and his team wholly neutral in the circumstances.

On top of that, Spain have been deducted 40 points from the Rugby Europe Championship, with Belgium and Romania being deducted 30 points each, for fielding ineligible players. This means that Russia have qualified automatically, while Germany – who were due to have a playoff to avoid relegation – will now have a playoff with Portugal to play Samoa in the next round of qualification.

While I agree that punishments must be meted out for fielding ineligible players, it just shows how difficult World Rugby have made player eligibility in the past. Moving forward something needs to be done to make sure someone else doesn’t unknowingly play for an international team as they were not aware they were already captured by another nation.


Get low

The above nightmare was not the only announcement from World Rugby this month, as they also announced recently that they will be trialling some new laws relating to high tackles in the upcoming U20s tournaments. There will be 2 separate trials taking place, 1 in the World Rugby U20 Championship and 1 in the World Rugby U20 Trophy. Per World Rugby’s announcement:

WORLD RUGBY U20 TROPHY

Law 9.13 The acceptable height of the tackle is reduced from the line of shoulders to below the nipple line.

The law will now read: A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the nipple line even if the tackle starts below the nipple line.

WORLD RUGBY U20 CHAMPIONSHIP

Tackles that increase the risk of head injury will be cited.

The match citing commissioner will issue a “High Tackle Warning” to THE TACKLER WHO IS DEEMED TO BE UPRIGHT (NOT BENT AT THE WAIST)

A tackler will be deemed to be upright when:

  • They are in an approximate upright standing position
  • They have made no clear attempt to lower the height of contact with the ball carrier to avoid the head or shoulders of the ball carrier
  • There is no knee flexion and minimal bending at the waist which brings the head into a dangerous position for collision with ball carrier’s head or shoulder
  • The high tackle warning will be issued in one of four types of incidents:
    • All HIGH-CONTACT PENALTIES, irrespective of sanction, during matches
    • All TACKLES THAT RESULT IN AN HIA, irrespective of whether to tackler or ball-carrier
    • High tackles that are missed during the match
    • Accidental clear and obvious head to head and head to shoulder contact

Sanctions:

The High Tackle Warning is issued ONLY IF THE TACKLER IS UPRIGHT, AND THERE IS CLEAR AND OBVIOUS HEAD CONTACT for either player

Each High Tackle Warning carries ‘one strike’. When ‘two strikes’ (two High Tackle Warnings) have been issued, a player will receive a one-match suspension (a right to appeal will operate)

High Tackle Warnings also form part of the usual accumulation of sanctions, including Citing Commissioner Warnings (CCWs) and yellow cards. A strong education element will be run in parallel, explaining that this player welfare initiative protects the tackler and their opponents.

While I understand the need for increased safety both at professional and grassroots level, I think the lowering of the tackle height will become a difficult one to police, while it is already hard enough for the tallest players to get low enough to tackle the shorter player as they try to step around them. The idea of a “High Tackle Warning” from a citing commissioner seems a good idea though as it will encourage better technique whilst it also appears to be fair to the tackler by looking at the effort they have made to lower the tackle. I just wonder if 2 strikes for a ban will be a bit too strict over a season of weekly club rugby, though if this works well in the World Rugby U20 Championship then I would be interested to see how well this works over a season of club rugby.

Jared Payne has not played since the Lions Tour due to repeated headaches and it has now been announced that he has been forced to retire aged 32 and take up a coaching role with Ulster, this is a timely reminder of how important player safety is. It may be softening up the game to a degree, but players are larger, stronger and faster than ever so anything that improves a player’s safety should be considered.


WRUWelsh woes

I was so happy when the Welsh squad for the June Tests was announced with Josh Adams included. He had such a good season for Worcester, finishing joint top try scorer in the Premiership, but was not given enough of a chance by Warren Gatland before being dropped during the 6 Nations. I was hoping that this June, he would get the chance to prove himself. Unfortunately, that chance will have to wait as he has been dropped from the squad along with Tom Francis and Luke Charteris.

The reason the players were dropped? As Wales are playing their opening match of the tour outside the international window, Premiership clubs are not forced to release their players, so the 3 players will be unavailable for the 1st Test and as such Gatland does not see the point in taking them. While I feel it is a bit pathetic of the Premiership Clubs to not release their players, especially considering Adams and Charteris have not even had any club matches to play the last couple of weeks, I put the blame firmly on the WRU.

The international windows are clearly defined, yet for some reason the WRU continue to arrange matches outside these periods and then complain that their players are not available to them. It is not a hard job to stick to a designated period of time, but for them it seems near-impossible. I really sympathise with Adams especially and hope that he is a regular in the Welsh XV soon.

Rugby Rambles – the March 2018 News

Rugby Rambles – the March 2018 News

Qualification nightmare

I’ve been planning this post for over a week but deliberately held off writing it while I waited for a resolution to this to discuss in full. However, the entire process appears to be dragging on indefinitely and I could not hold off writing this any longer.

As a fan who has pride in the values of rugby, the whole mess between Spain and Rugby Europe these last few weeks has been a shock to the system. With Georgia already qualified for the 2019 World Cup courtesy of finishing 3rd in the pool in 2015, the final European automatic qualifying spot for 2019 would go to whoever won the 2018 Rugby Europe Championship (or whoever came second if Georgia won). So often it would be expected that Romania would take the final spot, but their loss to Spain in Round 2 meant that Spain went into the final round of matches needing a win against Belgium – who had 1 win and 3 losses to their name – in order to take the final qualification spot, which would consign Romania to a play-off against first Portugal and then Samoa.

The game ended 18-10 in favour of the Belgians and all hell broke loose. The referee had to be escorted off the field at full time as a number of Spanish players surrounded the referee in outrage of his performance. Was this win due to biased refereeing? I wasn’t there so can only go on the word of people who were there, but Spain had a poor game, however it has also been noted that the referee did have a poor game. While that alone does not imply a bias, what makes this an issue is that both the referee and his touch judges were all Romanian. Considering Romania stood to benefit from the outcome of this match, to have set of Romanian officials is always going to put that seed of doubt in people’s minds. Granted the officials were picked well ahead of the tournament, but it doesn’t look good that Rugby Europe – whose president is Romanian – chose not to change the officials when requested by the Spanish Rugby Federation, despite South African Marius van der Westhuizen being removed from running touch during Ireland’s Grand Slam victory over England on the same weekend for a perceived conflict of interests having spent time with the England camp in the build-up. It’s going to be all-but impossible to prove something untoward happened here, but it certainly leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

The story has since taken another turn as Romania, Spain and Belgium have all been accused of fielding ineligible players during the tournament, which could lead to all 3 countries being disqualified from World Cup qualification – as happened recently to Tahiti. If this happens, then Russia (who finished 4th) would be the automatic qualifier and Germany (who face relegation from the Championship) would go into the play-off. These questions of eleigibility all centre around a stupid idea of when a player is considered “captured” by a country’s second team. The teams that “capture” players can change by the season but are generally an U20s team or a second team like the England Saxon. Then it also depends on the tournament the player was involved in or the team they were playing against to decide if they are captured. To consider a player captured because they played a couple of games for a U20s team years ago but also not players like Henry Trinder and Mike Haley (who have featured for the England first team in uncapped matches against the Barbarians) is absolutely ridiculous and far too complicated! In my opinion it would be much better for everyone involved if a player was only captured once they have been capped for their country.

With all this going on, European qualification for the World Cup is currently a mess and I think regardless of the results, there will be some who feel the team that qualifies does not deserve their place in the tournament. With World Rugby now involved, I’ll be interested to see the fallout from all this… once we finally get a decision!


Increasing availability

Though nothing has been confirmed as of yet, there are rumours that Argentina will relax their eligibility criteria for the national team to allow European-based players to feature for the Pumas. The rumours suggest this may be in place for the Summer Tests but more likely the Rugby Championship.

To me, this is wonderful news, as under the current rules, they are basically limiting themselves to the Jaguares squad and players in a domestic competition that would likely be too large of a step up to international rugby. Picking European-based players would strengthen the national team as players like Facundo Isa, Juan Figallo, Juan Imhoff, Santiago Cordero and Marcelo Bosch could all come back into consideration. Los Pumas have gone backwards since they hammered Ireland in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup. Hopefully this relaxation of the law comes in and we can get back to having a strong competitive Argentina team.


Going 4 the Champions Cup

Possibly the news that excited me most in March was that Channel 4 have bought the rights to show Champions Cup matches for the next 4 seasons. Fans will be able to watch one match from each round of the pool stages, one quarter-final, one semi-final and the final all on free-to-air TV.

This is great news for the sport as it means that top-level club rugby is becoming more accessible to more people and with the World Cup happening next year as well it will only help to grow the fanbase. Granted the Premiership matches on Channel 5 have not been quite up to the standard of BT Sport, but they have been good enough to draw in fans, hopefully having the top teams in European Rugby facing each other will draw the crowds. What is important is they get the right pundits involved, so that we get enthusiasm as well as good explanations from them to entice in new fans. I often find myself thinking the BBC panels during the 6 Nations are a little stale, but if Channel 4 can get pundits like David Flatman on board it will certainly help.

We are entering a golden age of rugby broadcasting, hopefully the amount of free-to-air top flight rugby just continues to grow. Now I just need to hope Gloucester qualify for the top competition…

WRWC2017: A Tournament in Review

Hi guys, sorry for the delay in getting this one out, I’ve been planning this since the start of the tournament but the last week has been pretty busy with work and my personal life! Hopefully the wait will have been worth it.

 

Last Saturday saw the end of the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup. The first tournament since the 4-year cycle was brought forward by a year to line up with the Olympics and Sevens World Cup, this was a great advert for women’s rugby that finished with the top 2 teams in the world playing each other in a thrilling final. New Zealand ran out eventual winners – their fifth time as World Champions – to continue the record of England having never beat the kiwis in a senior Rugby World Cup in either the men’s or the women’s game. The final standings in the tournament were:

  1. New Zealand
  2. England
  3. France
  4. USA
  5. Canada
  6. Australia
  7. Wales
  8. Ireland
  9. Italy
  10. Spain
  11. Japan
  12. Hong Kong

Due to the coverage moving from Sky to ITV, I was able to see much more of the tournament this time around (though not as much as I’d have liked) and as such, these are my overall thoughts on the tournament:

 

As good a game as the men’s

Oddly in this day and age, the idea of women playing rugby still seems amusing to some people. Hopefully they watched a couple of matches while the World Cup was on and took note of how wrong they are.

Though the strength of some of the lesser teams in the tournament may have been lacking, the top teams were throwing themselves into tackles every bit as hard as the men would, with Australia’s opening match against Ireland full of big hits. During the tournament I heard the play described as being similar to Colts rugby. While this may initially sound like an insult, the reasoning behind it made sense to me, as the women’s game still relies heavily on talent and passing skills rather than a team’s ability to hit someone hard, kick for territory or land every penalty kick within 45 metres of the posts.

The important thing now is that the women’s game continues to push on. England were the only team all on professional contracts, yet even they are now reducing down to professional contracts for the 7s team only, which is what we currently see for many of the top teams like New Zealand and Australia. Imagine how much better these teams could be if they were able to focus on rugby as a profession, the game would just get better and better! England’s strength in depth was making them look almost unbeatable until the second half of the final. Australia won the gold medal for 7s at the Rio Olympics, just imagine the quality that they could bring to 15s if given the funding by the ARU. Hopefully by the next tournament, we will have at least a couple of fully professional teams.

Disappointing Irish

Everything that I have seen or heard suggests that the host nation got everything right in the way the tournament went, from the organisation to the behaviour of the local supporters. The only thing the hosts didn’t get right was the performance of their own team. Having made the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup courtesy of a group stage win over the Black Ferns and, more recently, facing the Red Roses in a Grand Slam showdown at the end of this years 6 Nations, the Irish only managed narrow wins over Australia and Japan before a loss to France denied them a place in the semis. In the knockouts, they lost to the Wallaroos and then Wales to finish outside the top 7, meaning they will not automatically qualify for the next World Cup.

The hosts could consider themselves unlucky, as they did lose captain Niamh Briggs to injury not long before the tournament and they were also in arguably the Group of Death as with both France and Australia in their pool, Pool C was the only team with 3 real possibilities for the semis. Regardless, much more was expected from the women in green and they will be understandably disappointed by the way things went.

The also-rans

I felt so sorry for Hong Kong in this tournament. This was the first time they had qualified for the World Cup and they end up in Pool A alongside possible semi-finalists New Zealand and Canada and an improving Wales team. I watched their match against New Zealand and if truth be told the one-sidedness was at times painful to watch. This is not a criticism of Hong Kong, but more a comment at the difference in quality across the tournament.

A look back through the results shows that Japan were the only team to manage competitive results whilst finishing bottom of their pool, yet even they did not manage a bonus point. Neutrals are more likely to watch competitive games, so I have 2 possible ways in which we could increase the number of competitive games as the tournament moves on:

  1. Change the pool format: One option would be to spread the 12 nations over 2 pools of 6 rather than 3 pools of 4. Not only will the lower-ranked teams have more competitive games, but so will the higher ranked teams, meaning that there will be more importance to strength of the entire squad as there will be more competition throughout the tournament. This format also leads itself nicely into the current format for the playoffs, where the top 4 teams go into the semi-finals, the rest of the top 8 go into another playoff and the bottom 4 go into a final playoff.
  2. Expand the tournament: Another option would be to expand the tournament to 16 teams, allowing 4 pools of 4. While there is such a gap in quality, this may make it easier for the top teams to cruise through the pools, it would allow the lower ranked teams more competitive matches. By doing this, World Rugby would then have option as to how they want to do the playoffs. The playoffs could have 4 tiers, with the pool winners competing in the semis, second place from each pool in the next tier and so on. Alternatively they could expand the playoffs to include a quarter-final stage, with the top 2 from each pool qualifying for this (they could increase the automatic qualifiers to be the 8 teams who make it into the quarters) while the other 8 teams go into a playoff of their own.

I think of the 2 options, the first would be better in current circumstances due to the money available to women’s rugby, however I would love to see the tournament expand to include more teams. Scotland, Fiji, Samoa and Brazil come straight to mind as other possible competitors, and I’m sure there are other nations out there who feel they would be able to compete at this level.

Give us more!

While I was happy that the tournament was being shown on free-to-air TV, I was disappointed that we did not see more of the matches on live TV. With all games within a round being played on the same day, I can understand why not all the games were shown, however I was surprised that on Saturdays we often only had England’s match being broadcast, I would have thought we could at least get coverage of all the home nations’ games!

Yes these games may have been available online, but that will not grow the fan base as much as having the games on live TV. Would people really have missed their re-runs of Storage Wars that much for just a couple of weeks?

I was also very disappointed that there was no highlights show for the tournament. During the U20s World Championship in the summer, the only game shown live was the final, however there was a highlights show for each round of the tournament. With the quality of punditry ITV had – David Flatman is probably one of my favourite pundits and Maggie Alphonsi has transitioned well from pitch to studio – a highlights show would have been the perfect way to draw in new fans to the sport.

Laws Made Simple

World Rugby have been busy bees this year. Usually there will be a couple of amendments to the laws of the game ahead of the next season, but for teams in the Northern Hemisphere, there are a whole lot of changes all coming together. Some of these you may already be familiar with as some have been trialled in the Southern Hemisphere since January (the Lions Tour went by these laws) but you may not have heard of the newer ones as they will only take effect below the equator at the start of the new year – though some of these were used during the recent U20s World Championship in Georgia.

Many of these law amendments are aimed to make the game simpler for fans, players and officials alike, but in some cases have they gone too far? Below are the law amendments as described on a Powerpoint presentation available from the World Rugby website, along with my thought on these amendments:

 

Definition – Possession – This happens when a player carrying the ball (or attempting to bring it under control) or the team has the ball in its control; for example the ball in one half of a scrum or ruck is in that team’s possession

I have no idea what the wording was before this amendment as this just seems like common sense to me!

Law 3.6 Number of Players – The Team – Uncontested scrums as a result of sending off, temporary suspension or injury must be played with 8 players per side

This seems fair to me. How often have we seen a dominant scrum negated due to uncontested scrums, giving less disadvantage to the team that should theoretically be getting punished for a yellow card. While the advantage in the scrum is still lost, this means that there should be an overlap for the attacking team’s backs to exploit.

Law 5.7(e) Time – If a penalty is kicked into touch after time has elapsed without touching another player, the referee allows the throw-in to be taken and play continues until the next time the ball becomes dead. To end the half, the ball must be tapped before the kick to touch

Personally, I love this amendment to the law as it gives a team chasing the game the choice of kicking a penalty to touch beyond 80 minutes to gain territory rather than having to run the ball the length of the pitch. In the past we have often seen teams defending a narrow lead willing to give away penalties deep in the opposition half as their opponents are forced to run the ball out, but now they will have to be more careful.

Players will have to be careful in the opening weeks of the season that they remember to tap the ball before kicking the ball out to finish the game – Conor Murray was caught out on the Lions tour this summer – but I imagine that we will only see this mistake a few times at most.

Law 8.1(a) Advantage – When there are multiple penalty infringements by the same team, the referee may allow the captain of the non-offending team to choose the most advantageous of the penalty marks

Much like the rule above, this is something I like as it forces teams to be more careful with their discipline whilst also allowing the team who have been impeded the option of which penalty to take, allowing them to better play to their strengths and the needs in that game (scrum, line-out, kick to touch). This may also encourage teams to use the advantage more, as even if they don’t score during it, they may win a more advantageous penalty.

Law 9.A.1 Method of Scoring – penalty Try. If a player would probably have scored a try but for foul play by an opponent, a penalty try is awarded. No conversion is attempted. Value: 7 points

Now this rule has come in, I’m surprised that it hasn’t been done sooner. Not only will this speed up the game, but it also removes the chance of an offending team being let off 2 points by a kicker slipping.

Law 15.4(c) Amended Tackle – The player must get up before playing the ball and then can only play from their side of the tackle gate

I can understand why this has been amended as often it could be difficult for both the tackler to determine if he could play the ball or if the ruck had already formed. Now it is clear that a player must come through the gate, there is no excuse for a player getting this wrong and will hopefully reduce what could often look to be somewhat of a grey area.

Law 16: Amended Ruck Law – A ruck commences when at least one player is on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground (tackled player, tackler). At this point the offside line is created. A player on their feet may use their hands to pick up the ball as long as this is immediate. As soon as an opposition player arrives no hands can be used

I can understand why this has been changed as Italy’s no-ruck tactics against England caught out so many players and fans who were unaware of the law. However, I am not a fan of this at all as it feels like a reaction to Italy’s performance – and England’s inability to deal with it! While I am all for rugby being made easier to understand, the rule was actually quite clear-cut and it was a way that players could gain an advantage by knowing the laws and taking advantage of them.

What also interests me here is the wording that no hands can be used once an opposition player arrives. As it stands I don’t know if this means that they are allowed to keep hold of the ball if they already have hands on the ball, or if they must release the moment there is opposition.

Law 16.4: Other Ruck Offences – A player must not kick the ball out of a ruck. Sanction: Penalty kick. The player can only hook it in a backwards motion

This makes sense to me as this is effectively the same rule that we have in scrums. More importantly, this will improve player safety in the rucks. We have had instances in the past where players have suffered injuries after being caught by a player trying to kick the ball out, so hopefully we will see less incidents during games.

Law 18 Definition Mark – To make a mark a player must have one or both feet on or behind that player’s 22-metre line and catch a ball that has reached the plane of the 22-metre line

Law 19 Touch Definition – If the ball has passed the plane of touch when it is caught, then the catcher is not deemed to have taken the ball into touch. If the ball has not passed the plane of touch when it is caught or picked up, then the catcher is deemed to have taken the ball into touch, regardless of whether the ball was in motion or stationary. If a player jumps and knocks the ball back into the playing area (of if that player catches the ball and throws is back into the playing area) before landing in touch or touch-in-goal, play continues regardless of whether the ball reaches the plane of touch

Law 19.1(c) – No Gain in Ground – If a player, with one or both feet on or behind the 22-metre line, picks up the ball, which was outside the 22, or catches the ball in front of the 22-metre line and kicks it directly to touch from within the 22, then that player has taken the ball back inside the 2, so there is no gain in ground

Again these amendments make sense as they simplify things to ensure that the ball must cross the plane of the lines on the pitch under its own momentum. I quite liked players using their spacial awareness to catch a ball infield but with a foot already in touch to earn a line-out in good position, but this will make things so much easier for officials trying to catch up with play and with fans who are newer to the game.

Law 20.5 Throwing the ball into the scrum – No signal from referee. The scrum must be stable and there must be no delay once the ball has been presented to the scrum

Law 20.6(d) How the scrum-half throws in the ball – The scrum-half must throw the ball in straight, but is allowed to align their shoulder on the middle line of the scrum, therefore allowing them to stand a shoulder width towards their side of the middle line

Law 20 Striking after the throw-in – Once the ball touches the ground in the tunnel, any frontrow player may use either foot to try to win possession of the ball. One player from the team who put the ball in must strike for the ball. Sanction: Free-kick

Law 20.9(b) handling in the scrum – exception – allow the number 8 to pick the ball from the feet of the second-rows

Yet again, more changes to the scrum! However these changes I feel could have a positive impact. The ruling that there must be no delay with the feed will mean that the engagement of the front rows is no unnecessarily prolonged, which will also be helped by allowing any member of the front row to hook whilst penalizing a team for not attempting to hook when putting the ball in. There’s nothing I hate more at the scrum than both teams pushing against each other but not making any ground while the ball sits untouched in the tunnel, only or the scrum to eventually collapse as someone gives out – and I played prop so I can’t imagine how bad it is for other fans!

I also really like the number 8 being allowed to pick the ball up from within the scrum as it allows us to get on with play even if the scrum is going backwards at an alarming rate. Hopefully these rules lead to more rugby and less reset scrums/penalties.

Initially I didn’t like the new alignment of the scrum half when I first heard about it during the U20s World Championship, however the more I think about it, the more I have changed my view. The important thing here is that crooked feeds MUST be penalised, as this should be a way of giving the team putting in an advantage, whilst also making the scrum a fair contest.

Law 22.9(b) Defending Player in In-goal – If a player with one or both feet on or behind the goal line picks up the ball from within the field of play, or catches the ball in front of the goal line, that player has taken possession of the ball in the field of play

Law 22.9(d) Defending Player in In-goal – If a player with one or both feet on or behind the dead ball line picks up or catches a ball that has not reached the dead ball line, or touch-in-goal line, that player is deemed to have made the ball dead

These are basically an extension to the amendments in Laws 18 and 19 above, so I won’t bore you by saying the same thing again.

 

On the whole I am happy with these amendments, with the exception of what defines a ruck but I would be interested to hear your view on these changes. Do you think these amendments are the right way to go or are we simplifying the game too much? Are there any other laws you would like to see amended? Let me know in the comments or tweet me @PS_tetheridge