Bigger Bench? Big Thumbs Up!

Bigger Bench? Big Thumbs Up!

The Northern Hemisphere club season may not be fully over yet (the Top 14 playoffs continue until mid-June) but eyes are already turning to international rugby with the beginning of the World Rugby U20s Championship today.

With my focus having been on the Premiership and Pro14 and already looking ahead to the World Cup, I must admit that the U20s fixtures yesterday caught me unprepared, so I was very surprised when I saw the matchday squads consist of all 28 players in the squad.

This is a change being trialled in the tournament. The number of possible substitutions remains at 3 in the front row and then 5 more, but the usual 8-man bench is extended to 13.

Personally, I absolutely love this trial and hope that it comes into practice through more tournaments in the next couple of years. With the way that the game has evolved in terms of player safety, substitutions have become more important than ever, so to have 4/8 positions on the bench filled by specialists (2 props, hooker, scrum half) is extremely limiting. Expanding the bench to 13 players means that you can have cover for every position (maybe just 1 winger and 2 back rows) which allows for much better reactions to injuries and also more tactical flexibility, without putting teams with less depth at too much of a greater disadvantage by still only allowing 8 total replacements.

While it’s still early days, I’m really excited by this trial and can’t wait to see how things go moving forwards.

Bringing Rugby to the Masses

Amidst the copious write-ups of the 6 Nations and stories about the sad passing of both Joost van der Westhuizen and Sione Lauaki, one story that probably didn’t get as much attention as it deserved last week was the announcement that ITV have secured the rights to broadcast the 2019 and 2023 Rugby World Cups. Well it is great to see such a big tournament still being kept visible to such a wide audience on free-to-air TV, probably the best bit of the story was that this year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup and the U20s World Championships 2017-2019 will also be broadcast on ITV.

One of my earliest ever articles on this site was rather critical of the amount of broadcasting that the women’s game gets, and it looks like some of the people at the top agreed, as this year has so far been very promising for the broadcasting of the women’s game.

Though there are not just one or two broadcasters showing the Women’s 6 Nations tournament in the UK as it is for the men’s game, all the England matches are being shown live on Sky Sports. Likewise many of the Wales games are also featuring on S4C or BBC Wales, so it is good to see that, even if it is not on free-to-air TV, broadcasters are becoming more willing to show this tournament. Hopefully this will be the first step in a process that will end with all games in the tournament being broadcast by the same company, or spread over just a couple of broadcasters, allowing people to watch more of the tournament as a whole.

The BBC have also created a 30 minute weekly highlights show for the Women’s 6 Nations. This is part of the reason that I have held off writing this for a week, as I wanted to watch this show for a couple of weeks to properly judge it. I have been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the program, with decent highlights being shown – it does tend to focus more on England, but that is almost to be expected – and also a good calibre of guests giving analysis. There is no point getting the usual BBC pundits if they have no knowledge of the women playing, so I have been very happy to see big names from the women’s game like Gary Street and Non Evans on the show so far. In recent years, we have had to rely on the BBC giving a quick montage of any games that had been played up to that point in the week, or games from the week before, so it is good to now have these highlights in more detail and on free-to-air TV. Some people may be unable to watch games that are on Sky, or may not yet be big enough fans of the women’s game to consider it worth 2 hours of their time to watch live, so this highlights show will help keep fans up to date and hopefully help to build up a bigger fan base for the women’s game.

It is great to see that the Women’s World Cup is getting the same treatment as the men’s by broadcasting it on ITV. ITV already have the highlights show for the Premiership and broadcast half the 6 Nations as well as all of the men’s World Cup, and will also be showing a number of live Premiership games from next season. It certainly feels as if they are trying to become the definitive free-to-air broadcaster of rugby union, and I think they have realised that the women’s game is an area of the sport that is growing at an impressive rate, especially after the performance of Team GB in Rio. With the (now professional) Red Roses defending their title so close to home, the interest in the tournament will stretch outside its usual group of fans, so free-to-air broadcasting will help spread women’s rugby to the masses. The agreement only seems to be for the 2017 tournament at the moment, but hopefully if this goes well we will see future tournaments being added to this.

While I was very happy to see the Women’s World Cup picked up by ITV, I was extremely surprised, but not in a bad way, to see ITV also pick up the next three U20s World Championships, starting this summer. Many of the games that I have seen in recent years have been entertaining affairs, with England’s regular success again likely increasing the interest in the tournament. We have also seen a number of recent graduates from the U20s featuring at the top levels, including Baptiste Serin, Jack Clifford, Ross Moriarty, Jack Nowell and Maro Itoje all starting games in the opening rounds of this year’s 6 Nations, and current members of the England U20s like Zach Mercer and Sale’s Curry twins regularly playing top-level rugby for their clubs. As we begin to build towards Tokyo 2019, some of these players may be making it into the senior national teams in time for the World Cup, and I’m sure many more will be making the step up in the years following, it’s never to early to start watching the stars of the future.

I may not be the biggest fan of ITV sports coverage in general – I hate the regular ad breaks – but the quality of the rugby broadcasts have generally impressed me over recent years. I can only see this new deal with ITV as a positive. Current and new fans will have more access to live rugby, the sport will be able to reach a wider audience and ITV will have the chance to increase their viewing figures during these tournaments, whilst improving their monopoly over a number of free-to-air sporting events. Next thing on the list: get the Women’s Premiership televised!


What are your thoughts on the new broadcasting deal? Are you enjoying the increased coverage for the Women’s 6 Nations? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

The Stars of Tomorrow: A few takeaways from England U20 v Italy U20

While many people are focusing on England’s upcoming June Tests in Australia and the Saxons’ Tour of South Africa, it is also time to look at the international stars of the future in the World Rugby U20 Championship. The England boys had a poor 6 Nations, finishing in 5th place with a win in Italy their only victory in the campaign. At this year’s tournament, being hosted in Manchester, the Italians were England’s first opponents ahead of future group fixtures against Australia and Scotland. After a tense 1st half, the hosts ran away with the game in the 2nd half to win 48-10 and top the group after Round 1.

Below are a few takeaways from last night’s game:

  • Though England ran away with it after half time, the 1st half was a tight affair, with both teams making errors and struggling to take advantage of any areas of dominance. With the squad having only assembled a week previously, I think this poor start was more due to players having to gel together so should not be too much of a worry. 4 of the starting XV were making their débuts at this level (3 of those in the back line) and a further 2 players came off the bench for their 1st U20s appearances, so it will take a bit of time for players to get used to unfamiliar combinations and tactics to what they are used at their clubs. In this regard, it is very lucky that Italy were the first opponents as, being the weakest team in the group, this gave England the chance to still win comfortably whilst not playing the best rugby. However, England must play with much more accuracy in their remaining matches to give themselves the best chance of victory.
  • What a season it has been for Harry Mallinder! He’s had a great season with Northampton and looked very impressive on his U20s début. With team captain Jack Walker on the bench, Mallinder was picked to captain the side last night, but if he felt any extra pressure, he certainly didn’t show it, even after the early substitution of fly half Theo Brophy-Clews. Much of England’s best play involved Mallinder, most notably his inch-perfect kick for Sam Aspland-Robinson’s try. He also nailed 5 kicks off the tee, including a beautiful touchline conversion, and was rightly named man of the match. If he continues to play like that I would be very surprised if he is not in the running for the honour of being named World Rugby Junior Player of the Year. As was mentioned in the commentary last night, a number of players have graduated from the U20s to the senior England team in recent years, including Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and former U20s captains Jack Clifford and Maro Itoje. With such a wide variety of skills, if Mallinder can continue to build on this season, I doubt it will be long until he is getting capped at senior international level and I look forward to seeing him impress over the next few years (though I’d appreciate it if he has poor games against Gloucester).
  • England’s line-out performance was poor for much of the match. Especially in the 1st half, a number of line-outs were either turned over or were inaccurate, hampering the team’s ability to get anything going off the first phase and almost gifting Italy a try. Even England’s second try only came about as a result of Brophy-Clews reacting quickly to an overthrow in the Italian 22, though this did lead to him going off injured. My hope is that this was just down to limited time training together, so it was good to see Martin Haag keeping faith in starting hooker Jack Singleton until late in the 2nd half, by which point the lineout appeared to be functioning much better. The set piece is such an important area of the international game, so I’m sure there will be work done to make sure this doesn’t happen again in later matches.
  • Though Engalnd’s line-out may have struggled for much of the match, the scrum was much less of an issue. Although the English pack weighed less than the Italians, they held their own in the early stages and by the end of the match had almost complete dominance, even winning a penalty try from a 5 metre scrum. Once the lineout began to function better, this strength was also seen in the power of the English driving maul, which led to Singleton’s try.
  • As in every tournament, strength in depth is vital. England picked up a number of injuries during this match, hopefully none of them serious. It shows the strength in this squad that their captain was able to be left on the bench for the majority of the game. Zach Mercer has a great impact on the game after coming off the bench and I thought that substitute scrum half Harry Randall looked lively on his début as was unfortunate not to score a try of his own just before the penalty try. Not only is this good to see for the team in this tournament, but with many of these players being available for the next couple of seasons, it bodes well for the future prospects of the U20s team, and also the senior team in the future.


For an opening match, I think there was much for the coaching staff and fans to be happy about. While it must be taken into account that Italy are not at the same level as England, this was a good match to prepare for the tougher tests to come. Next up is Scotland on Saturday, a match that could decide who tops the group. Good luck boys…