Eyes On: 6 Nations 2017 – Week 3

Week 3 of the 6 Nations was the week of the home teams. Scotland managed their first win against the Welsh in a decade, Ireland continued their unbeaten run at home in the tournament against France and England overcame some early struggles to beat an inventive Italian team. With just 2 rounds left, England remain on course to defend their title, with remaining opponents Scotland and Ireland the only teams who could dethrone them.

I would usually stick to just 6 thoughts from the weekend’s action, but I felt that the performance of a couple of the Scottish players required a special mention. With this in mind, here are my thoughts from Week 3.

Scotland 29 – 13 Wales

Wales may have deserved their lead at half time, but it doesn’t mean that they were playing great. Their physical defence was halting the Scottish in their tracks but the attack was rarely looking that dangerous, with Liam Williams’ from Rhys Webb’s quick-tap penalty one of the few stand-out moments. The Welsh had made a clear decision to keep the ball off the floor, offloading on many occasions, not always when the opportunity was actually there. If Jonathan Davies’ offload to Webb had been collected cleanly, then this result could have been very different, but too many offloads were forced and resulted in turnovers.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking that Scotland could struggle without top players like Sean Maitland, Josh Strauss and captain Greig Laidlaw. Things certainly weren’t helped by the forced removal of John Hardie for the second game in a row. However, the Scots kept themselves in contention in the first half, before scoring 20 points without reply in the second half. With scrum-half Ali Price making his first start at this level, there was a lot of extra pressure on Finn Russell to marshal the team in Laidlaw’s absence. It’s safe to say he stepped up to the task, controlling the back line as part of a Man of the Match performance. He also showed that he is an international quality kicker with a 100% success rate on his 7 attempts.

As someone who used to play prop, I’ve been impressed with how Zander Fagerson has performed so far in the tournament. At only 21 years old, the injury to WP Nel has meant Fagerson is having to learn international rugby on the fly. Though he has struggled against some of the stronger scrummagers, his work rate has been impressive and it has been good to see him complete the full 80 minutes twice in this tournament already, something that is rarely seen of an international prop.

Ireland 19 – 9 France

Conor Murray is surely the favourite to start at scrum-half in the Lions Tests. Regardless of who plays at fly-half, he can always be relied upon to pull the strings and control the game. He has one of the best all-round games of all the Home Nation’s scrum-halves, with a good pass and a strong kicking game, which he used to devastating effect in his Man of the Match performance this weekend. He may not be as lively round the park as his Welsh rivals, but give him a ruck on the try-line and the chances are that he will be strong enough to push over for a try. I have some real sympathy for his replacement Kieran Marmion, as Murray is such an important part of the team it is rare to see him come off much before the 70 minute mark.

As impressive as Ireland were on Saturday, I feel that France were the architects of their own downfall. Johnny Sexton is well-known for looping outside his centre to get the ball back and help generate an overlap. To watch the French defence, you’d think he’d never tried it before. Gael Fickou and Remi Lamerat were frequently caught out by this ploy, allowing the Irish to quickly make their way downfield. Despite this, they still lost by only 10 points, but just a couple of moments could have changed the game if they were replayed differently. After a period of concerted pressure on the Irish try line, Yoann Huget collected a cross-field kick just short of the line. With the outside defender committed, a quick pass to the looping Scott Spedding would have resulted in a try. However Huget cut back inside and in the resulting play, Fickou just knocked the ball on while trying to collect it. With the score at 7-6 early in the second half, Louis Picamoles attempted a pick and go off the back of a scrum right in front of the posts, but Nigel Owens penalised Baptiste Serin for a pull back on Conor Murray that even a blind man could blatantly see. These 2 brain-fades cost the French a swing of at least 8 points, a different outcome at either of these moments could have given them the momentum to go on and win the game.

England 36 – 15 Italy

2 weeks ago, Italy put in an embarrassing display as they were routed by the Irish. Though they left Twickenham with nothing, the performance from the team was so much better. Full credit to the coaching staff who completely outwitted the English with their decision to employ ‘the Fox’ at the breakdown. I know many people – including Eddie Jones and Matt Dawson – did not like this tactic, but as someone who has seen it performed by teams as far back as 2012, I thought it was brilliant to watch. To successfully perform that tactic, the team’s discipline has to be at a very high level, so I was impressed that Italy only conceded 3 penalties (by my count) when doing this. England were completely rattled in the 1st half but started to deal with it after half time. It was great to see Italy try something different (but completely legal) to win the game. The only disappointment that I had with this was that they didn’t appear to have a Plan B for once England eventually figured out how to counteract the tactic, as it is something that is very easy to deal with once a team has identified what is going on. I can guarantee the French will be spending some time devising a plan to deal with this ahead of the next game.

Some players are so good, you just can’t leave them out of your starting team, so have to find a way to fit them in, even if it’s not in their regular position. Elliot Daly is fast becoming one of those players. A regular at 13 or 15 for Wasps, he’s got a left boot that is capable of both cultured nudges and also long-range drives. He has impressive handling skills and on the whole his defending is of a high enough level to not be found wanting at international level. He may not be Usain Bolt, but he’s fast enough to have made his home on the wing for England so far in this tournament. He has a good work rate both in attack and defence, as seen by his attempt to get back and stop Michele Campagnaro’s try and his race to score a second try that was only denied by a last second intervention from Carlo Canna, and is always looking to chase kicks and compete in the air when possible. Whilst he may be performing well, I don’t see him staying on the wing for England long-term, as I expect him to either move inside to 13 or follow a similar route to All Black Ben Smith and replace Mike Brown as full back, as neither Jonathan Joseph nor Mike Brown has set the world alight so far in this tournament.

Did I miss anything? Fan of the Fox? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2017 – Week 2

Week 2 of the 6 Nations was the week of the bonus point. Wales and Scotland both came away from heart-breaking losses with losing bonus points, while the Irish made history by earning the first ever 4-try bonus point in their rout of Italy. Though the Italy v Ireland game was a disappointing way to start the weekend – if you can consider a game with 10 tries disappointing – the remaining games were tight throughout and could have gone either way even going into the final 5 minutes.

With that in mind, here are my thoughts as we wave goodbye to Week 2 and start looking ahead to the next round in 2 weeks’ time.

 

Italy 10 – 63 Ireland

CJ Stander has all but ruined my chances of defending my title in work’s fantasy rugby league. I am one of the few people out there who spent the weekend regretting that I had not chosen to include him in my squad for the weekend, damn the weekly transfer limit! So even as I write about how good he’s played, I’m holding back tears.

The Munster back row was surely already pushing for a place in the British and Irish Lions Test team, but his performance against Italy has surely put him in possession of the 6 shirt. He finished the game with some incredible statistics to go with his Man of the Match award:

  • 22 carries
  • 73 metres made
  • 2 line breaks
  • 3 tries
  • 1 assist
  • 11 tackles completed (100%)
  • 1 turnover

These stats don’t even show half the story, as he looked dangerous every time he got the ball, and was stopped inches short of a 4th try late in the game. His 2nd try was a short-range drive for the line carrying half the Italian team with him, while he showed a lovely turn of pace for his 1st and 3rd try, also picking a lovely line for the latter to cut through the defence. I doubt he meant for his kick downfield to end up in a try for Craig Gilroy, but I’m sure if anyone asks he’ll say it was deliberate! Granted, Italy did not put up the sternest of defences, but I’m sure if he continues to play like this, it won’t be his last Man of the Match award in this tournament.

There’s not much good that can really be said about Italy’s performance this weekend. Often thought of as a 50 minute team, Italy didn’t even manage that against the Irish, with a penalty try from a driving maul about the only highlight of the game. It’s hard to believe that this is the same Italy who beat the Springboks in the Autumn Internationals. The pack has always been an area of dominance for the Azzuri, yet they could not even manage that, and the backs were starved of anything even resembling good ball. I don’t understand why Michele Campagnaro continues to only make the bench; he is about the only person in that backline who has caused any danger for the opposition over the last 2 games and is also one of the few players in the squad used to winning on a regular basis at club level. It is possible that the physicality provided at 12 for many years by Gonzalo Garcia is being missed; as neither Carlo Canna nor Luke McLean has managed to get the men outside looking dangerous in attack. The week off has come at an important time, with England up next the Italians need to reset and find a way to be competitive, or the calls for promotion and relegation will increase.

Wales 16 – 21 England

The England bench got the team out of jail for the second week running. Throughout the game, Nathan Hughes was going into contact too high and struggling to make the big metres that England needed to break through the red wall. Jonathan Joseph has not lit up the tournament like in recent years and Mike Brown is looking merely solid rather than the spectacular we have come to expect, so it is now more obvious when he chooses to keep the ball for himself rather than pass to his wingers. Dylan Hartley was taken off early in the second half and replacement Jamie George had a much more visible impact on the game. James Haskell and Ben Te’o once again added an extra physical dimension after their inclusion and Kyle Sinckler won the penalty that gave England the chance to see the game out, as well as putting pressure on Jonathan Davies for that kick leading to Elliot Daly’s try. Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes also swapped positions during the game. The mark of a good coach is to know when something isn’t working and bring on replacements who will change that, Eddie Jones has done exactly that so far this tournament. With England’s next match against Italy, I would love to see England give Te’o and Sinckler starts, while also moving Daly to 13 or 15.

It wasn’t just the English substitutions that helped England get on the front foot, but also one of the Welsh ones too. I may be biased towards Gloucester players, but I feel that Ross Moriarty was in the running for Man of the Match until he was replaced by Taulupe Faletau. Moriarty brought a physical edge to the back row that has rarely been seen in recent years. So many England attacks were thwarted by a Moriarty tackle pushing their big boys back, and he also left his mark on Owen Farrell with a tremendous – if slightly late – hit. While Faletau is a fantastic player and arguably one of the best back rows in the world, this was his first game of rugby since Christmas Eve, as he returns from his second injury of the season. A tight game against England is not the return to rugby that you would want in those circumstances. This is nothing against Faletau at all, but the decision to bring him on for Moriarty, at such a crucial time in the game as England’s strong runners were coming off the bench was absolutely baffling.

France 22 – 16 Scotland

I felt so sorry for Scotland in this game. Already without experienced props Alasdair Dickinson and WP Nel, the Scottish scrum struggled against a hefty French unit all game, with a number of penalties gifting the home team territory and points. As if things weren’t hard enough, they lost inspirational captain Greig Laidlaw before the half hour mark and his replacement as captain John Barclay was also off by half time. As if the loss of over 100 cap’s worth of experience was not bad enough, they soon had to replace John Hardie – Barclay’s replacement – for Tim Swinson, limiting the Scot’s effectiveness in the back row. Against all the odds, Scotland still managed to stay competitive throughout the game and come away from Paris with a losing bonus point. They have come so far under Vern Cotter and if they continue to improve at this rate under Gregor Townsend, they could be peaking just in time for the World Cup.

He may look tiny behind such a gargantuan French pack, but Baptiste Serin has really impressed me in his first 2 tournament appearances. All too often we see quick ball ruined by a scrum-half taking too long to decide what he wants to do, and then taking even longer to actually do it – see Dan Biggar’s interception of Ben Youngs on Saturday. Serin however was frequently moving the ball on the instant he got to the breakdown, creating such a high tempo attack that any team would struggle to defend against it for too long. The decision to place the kicking responsibility on the shoulders of Camille Lopez has allowed Serin to focus on the rest of his game for now, but I’m sure that once he has a bit more experience under his belt he will start taking on more responsibility in this team. At only 22 years old and currently training with Dimitri Yachvili, the former U20s captain could be one of the top scrum-halves come the 2019 World Cup.

 

Did I miss anything? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

The New England Patriots – Greatest Franchise in Modern Sports?

Well my sleeping pattern is well and truly ruined at the moment after staying up to watch Super Bowl LI (51 for those of you not fluent in Roman Numerals), but it was totally worth it! What looked set to be a huge victory for the Atlanta Falcons turned into the largest comeback ever by the New England Patriots. Down 21-3 at half time and looking a shadow of the team we’d seen dominating the AFC all season, the Pats were soon 25 points down courtesy of Tevin Coleman’s touchdown. Despite this, they managed to turn the game around to draw level with less than a minute remaining on the clock, and won it with James White’s second rushing touchdown of the night on the opening drive of overtime. This late comeback from the Patriots turned an OK Super Bowl into probably the greatest Super Bowl ever, with 24 records being set and 7 equalled over the course of the game.

When the Falcons went 25 points up, I said to my cousin that if any team could turn this around it would be the Patriots, though I admit even I didn’t think they would be able to do that. In a league designed to keep teams as equal as possible (drafting in reverse order, salary caps etc.) the Patriots still manage to dominate. Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach ahead of the 2000 season, New England have only failed to make the postseason on 3 occasions (also the only seasons they have not won their division) and have made it to 7 Super Bowls, winning 5 of them. Throughout this, they have constantly updated their squads, with new, unheard of players coming in to replace the veterans. The one position where they stayed the same (barring injuries or suspensions) is at Quarterback, where Tom Brady has been the starter ever since taking over for the injured Drew Bledsoe in the second game of the 2001 season.

The Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era New England Patriots are clearly one of the greatest dynasties in the history of modern sport, up there with Fergie’s Manchester United. Below are the reasons that I have picked out as to why they deserve this recognition.

 

Who’s he?

Throughout the years, it has become commonplace for fans to look at the Patriots’ receiver corps and wonder who is actually going to stand out. Since Belichick took over, the Pats have only drafted 2 receivers in the 1st round: Tight Ends Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson. New England has become famous for picking up receivers that no-one else wants, either late in the draft or in trades where their current team considers them surplus to requirements.

Wes Welker was an undrafted free agent who lasted 1 game with the San Diego Chargers and spent 3 seasons at Miami before being traded to the Pats. During his time in New England, he caught more passed than any player in the league (led the league in receptions in 2007, 2009 and 2011) and also ranked top 5 in yardage. He was also selected to at least one of either the Pro Bowl or the All-Pro Team in every season with the Patriots. Though he scored more touchdowns in his first season with the Broncos, he never managed as many catches or yards in a season after leaving New England.

Julian Edelman was the 232nd pick of the 2009 draft, going to New England in the seventh round. Often used as a kick/punt returner, and even spelling as a defensive back, Edelman was frequently used as a replacement for Welker when he was not available. Since Welker left, Edelman has often been Brady’s favourite wide receiver, and it was his highlight reel catch that kept their game-levelling drive going at the weekend.

An undrafted free agent in 2008, Danny Amendola spent the 2008 season on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, and started the 2009 season on the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad, before being signed by the St. Louis Rams in late in September 2009. One of the more recognised receivers in the Rams squad, he would not be considered a star at the WR position. Though he may not be as hyped as Welker and Edelman have been in the Patriots offense, he was probably their star receiver in Super Bowl LI, making 8 catches for 78 yards, a touchdown and 2 point conversion.

Chris Hogan was another undrafted receiver, failing to make the roster with the 49ers, Giants and Dolphins before finally making the Buffalo Bills active roster after some time on their practice squad. In 3 seasons with Buffalo, he started only 6 games, but in his 1st season at the Patriots he started 14 and appeared in 15. He posted a number of personal bests in his first season in New England, including a franchise record 180 yards in a playoff game against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game (his highest yardage in an entire season with the Bills had been 450 in the 2015 regular season). A player Bill Belichick saw as having major potential, Hogan did a great job of helping the Patriots cope with the loss if injured tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Unlike the other receivers mentioned, Randy Moss was a 1st round pick (21st overall) to the Minnesota Vikings in 1998. He posted impressive stats for the first 5 seasons but then 3 seasons of injuries saw a decline in his stats, even after moving to Oakland in 2005. He was traded to the Patriots in 2007, with a number of legal controversies to his name and critics saying his skills had deteriorated. However he starred over 3 full seasons, including New England’s 16-0 campaign. After leaving the Patriots in early 2010, he never again managed to reach 30 catches of 500 receiving yards in a season.

This doesn’t even just to apply to receivers, all across the roster, New England have gone for players that no-one else considers to be valuable or who have question marks surrounding them. These players will frequently become stars in the Patriots team, often not performing to the same level if they go to another team. The Patriots, better than anyone, seem to find players who can fit into their system rather than going out and getting the big names. They are not afraid to let big players go – see Jamie Collins’ trade to Cleveland this season – as they know they will find players who can fill the void. This is very much a team rather than a group of individuals like you may find in some organisations.

The GOAT

The 1st quarterback to win 5 Super Bowls, Tom Brady is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. Many critics will follow the same line as Osi Umenyiora that Brady is a very good quarterback in a very effective system. It is a fair point, considering Matt Cassel managed an 11-5 season in 2008 with Brady injured, and this season New England opened 3-1 with a combination of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. However, the way that Brady helped lead the Pats back from the brink on Sunday night showed the true quality that he has. Even earlier in the game, many of the incomplete passes were dropped by the receivers. He may be benefiting from the system, but it takes a great player to win as much as he has – 25-9 in the postseason – especially as he has been named Super Bowl MVP a whopping 4 times and league MVP twice.

Let’s consider some of Tom Brady’s stats as if he was a franchise (comparisons excluding New England):

  • Franchise Brady has won 5 Super Bowls. Only the Steelers and Cowboys (6) and 49ers (5) can boast as many Super Bowl wins.
  • Franchise Brady has appeared in 7 Super Bowls. Only the Steelers, Cowboys and Broncos (8) have appeared in as many.
  • By my calculations, Franchise Brady’s 25-9 postseason record works out as 0.735. The highest all-time postseason winning percentage for a franchise belongs to the Baltimore Ravens, who hold a record of 0.652

Not bad for a player picked in round 6 (pick 199) in the 2000 NFL draft, the 7th quarterback to come off the board!

While it is true that Brady hasn’t done this on his own, he has been one of the few recurring pieces in the puzzle over the past 16 seasons and is clearly a clutch performer. He has always performed at a high level, and when he has then been given a top quality receiver like Moss or Gronkowsi, his stats have gone to another level. Matt Ryan was rightly named the League MVP this season, but if Brady had not been suspended for the first 4 games, things could have been hugely different. His completion percentage this season (67.4%) was second only to the 16-0 season of 2007 and his 28:2 TD:Interception ratio rightly put Brady second on this year’s MVP list.

He may be 39 now, but Brady shows no signs of slowing down in his quest for greatness. His ability to read the defense is second to none and his all-round game just seems to be improving as he learns when to scramble effectively, as noticed with the 1st down he gained on the ground late in the Super Bowl comeback. As long as he can stay healthy and keep the motivation, there is no reason Brady cannot continue to dominate the league for a number of years.

The puppet master

Throughout the above sections, I have mentioned about how the Patriots manage to maintain their success despite a constant replacement of top players with new, unheard of talent. Perhaps the only person who has been more of a constant over this time is head coach Bill Belichick.

Often surly and keeping his cards close to his chest when speaking to the press, Belichick chooses to let the team’s performance on the pitch speak for him. This is a player who would rather get a number of later-round draft picks rather than one top-round pick, so that he can find the players with potential who fit into the system of football that he wants to play. He also seems to know the rules of the game better than almost everyone and will often push the rules to the limit and find any loophole he can to get an advantage over the opposition, as we have seen with his use of elligible and inelligible receivers.

Vince Lombardi got a trophy named after him. John Madden got a video game series. What will Bill Belichick get when he retires?

Haters gonna hate

Only the top teams get to the point where they are almost universally hated by every other team’s fan. The Cowboy’s reputation as “America’s Team” and the Patriots’ decade and a half of dominance have led to almost all other fans having a deep hatred of them. Much of this will be down to jealousy, but of course, any little misdemeanour will be picked up on by others. I’m not saying that Spygate and Deflategate were little misdemeanours, but they have led to many fans trying to suggest (hopefully tongue in cheek) that any success is due to devious methods and league conspiracies.

The top franchises will always end up with negative press, but they can come through this and continue to not just impress, but also dominate.

 

It may not be until Belichick and Brady are gone that we realise just how impressive a dynasty this was. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester United have not just struggled to be at the top, they have struggled to compete enough to get near the top! Will the Patriots go in the same direction? I’m sure Patriots fans will be hoping they don’t have to find out for a number of years yet.

 

What are your thoughts on the Patriots? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2017 – Week 1

So “Tim’s Thoughts” has finally got a decent (well… better) name moving forward: Eyes On! I’ll be honest; I was never happy with the original name but was going through a horrible patch where my creative juices had well and truly dried up. Now I don’t feel quite so ridiculous each time I try to write one of these articles.

 

Week 1 of the 6 Nations certainly didn’t go as planned. A fantastic win by the Scots against the favoured Irish kicked off the tournament in a style that was unfortunately rarely matched either in England’s ‘Le Crunch’ victory or Wales’ win against the Italians. Bonus points didn’t seem to have much of an effect on the games, other than Wales’ frantic attempt to get the 4th try in the dying seconds against Italy, but there were hints in the open play styles of some teams that we could be looking forward to plenty more tries in the upcoming weeks.

With this in mind, here were my thoughts on each Week 1 match.

 

Scotland 27 – 22 Ireland

In my recent article about players to watch this tournament, I wrote about Tadhg Furlong’s ability in the loose. On Saturday, he also showed that he’s a high quality scrummager. Poor Allan Dell was given a horrid time at the scrums, especially in the 1st half. The Scottish scrum was frequently in retreat and a number of penalties were given, mainly on Furlong’s side. If he can continue in this form for the rest of the tournament, I think he will be a shoe-in for the number 3 jersey on the Lions tour.

Sean Maitland has had an up-and-down couple of years. Since touring with the Lions while at Glasgow, he has been in and out of the Scotland squad courtesy of injuries and poor form in a struggling London Irish squad. Now at Saracens, he is getting back to top form and had a great performance against Ireland. Though his chances in attack were limited, he chased kicks well and made 2 try-saving interventions, with an interception of Jamie Heaslip stopping a dangerous break and a tackle on Rob Kearney denying Keith Earls a try. His interventions are as important as the tries scored and Laidlaw’s kicks. Many wingers these days are fantastic attacking threats, but lack the ability or the will to get back and defend effectively. When you’re the only player on the pitch wearing luminous yellow boots, you need to play well; Maitland did exactly that on Saturday.

England 19 – 16 France

I was at work on Saturday and rushed home to make sure I didn’t miss the England game. I might as well have not bothered. This was the worst English performance I can remember since the World Cup debacle. Granted, injuries have robbed the squad of some top players, but the players left did little to impress. In the absence of the Vunipola brothers, there was limited success up front, and when the ball got to the backs, the decision was often to kick downfield or take contact. Not a single player in white made over 100 metres. Nathan Hughes has unfortunately not yet managed to have the same impact for England as he has for Wasps, but did seem to be improving as the match went on. When the subs came on, including the physical James Haskell and Ben Te’o, England suddenly looked much more dangerous, and eventually scored their only try of the game. It will be interesting to see how much Eddie Jones looks to change for the trip to Cardiff.

In contrast to England, France had the ultimate strike runner in Louis Picamoles. It is not often that a player on the losing team will win Man of the Match, but the Northampton number 8 was the clear – if not only – option for the award. His strong running helps France make big yards, and his ability to find an offload out of the tackle can cause problems for even the greatest defence. The quality of number 8s in the tournament is very good, but I fully expect King Louis to make my team of the tournament, and it also wouldn’t surprise me if gets named Player of the Tournament.

Italy 7 – 33 Wales

Much like England, the Welsh attack really struggled to get firing on Sunday afternoon. Whether it is that they are struggling to figure out the style of play they want, or were taking aback by the strong start from the Italians, it wasn’t until the second half that Wales started to look dangerous. Even then, it required the loss of Italian prop Andrea Lovotti to the sin bin before they started to get across the try line. In the pack, Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric had quiet games by their own standard, and with George North looking to be struggling with a leg injury for most of the game there was no-one really picking up the slack to get the Welsh attacking on the front foot. Dan Biggar is a very reliable fly half, but he is not the sort of player that will get an attack firing without front-foot ball. Credit where it’s due, Sam Davies appeared to improve the attack when he came on a half time. If Biggar recovers from the rib injury that forced him off in time for the England game, it will be interesting to see who gets the nod to start at 10. If this tournament ends up being as close as early results suggest, the lack of a bonus point against Italy could prove damaging to Welsh hopes of winning the title.

Having gone in 7-3 up at half time, there were thoughts that Italy had finally turned a corner. Though they had limited possession in the first half, they took their chances and arguably deserved their lead, courtesy of Edoardo Gori’s try and Calo Canna’s conversion. Unfortunately the second half was a much more familiar tale, with a number of infringements giving the Welsh territory and points on the board, before Lovotti’s sin binning opened the floodgates in the Italian defensive line. Conor O’Shea may have had a point when talking about the referee’s perception of the team. Italy conceded 16 penalties to Wales’ 5, but there were some decisions from referee JP Doyle that were understandably questioned by fans on twitter, most notably the penalty against Braam Steyn for what appeared to be a textbook dump tackle on Moriarty, or the decision to tell Rhys Webb that if he appealed for a penalty again he would be the one penalised… Only to allow him to continue doing so for the rest of the game, and in fact penalize Sergio Parisse for doing exactly that later in the game! While I’m not saying there was a bias in the refereeing, there does appear to be a perception that Italy are an ill-disciplined team, much in the same way that Pacific Islanders are perceived to be more at risk of sanctions under the new tackle directives. When playing a Tier 1 team, it is enough of a challenge to match the level of the opponent’s play, without also having to fight a preconceived idea of how you will play.

 

Did I miss anything? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

6 Nations 2017: 6(ish) Players to Watch

With just 1 more sleep until the beginning of this year’s 6 Nations Championship, the eyes of the rugby community are being drawn to Europe. With the introduction of bonus points, and with places on the Lions tour to New Zealand up for grabs, the 2017 tournament is shaping up to be an exciting and interesting affair.

With this in mind, I have compiled a list of players who I think are worth keeping an eye on this tournament. I’ve tried to stick to younger players who are not necessarily so established to the wider community (hence no Maro Itoje or other well-known players). My knowledge of the French and Irish players is sadly lacking at the moment, so there isn’t much mention of them in here, but I’m sure we will find some gems in those squads too.

 

Jack Nowell – England – Wing

What a difference a year can make. This time last year I was wondering why Jack Nowell was getting so much love from fans and the England coaches, a year on I see him as the best all round winger in the England squad and a likely Test starter for the Lions. Eddie Jones has thrown us a curveball by picking Elliot Daly ahead of him to face France, but I’m sure he will be back in the starting line-up soon enough. His elusiveness and handling skills make him dangerous in broken play and he is also strong enough to stay on his feet in the tackle until support is with him. His recent performances with Exeter have highlighted not just his attacking prowess, but also his defensive work rate, something that many top attacking wingers seem to ignore these days. I expect Nowell to cause problems for tired French legs when coming off the bench this weekend and to soon be carving teams up from the kick-off again.

Suggestions for how long it takes the commentators and pundits to mention his new streamlined look having shaved the beard and rat-tail now club mate Matt Jess is back playing? Get your bets in quick.

Carlo Canna – Italy – Fly half

One of the real talents to emerge from last year’s tournament was Italian outside half Carlo Canna. A player who made Italy’s World Cup squad without having played a minute of professional rugby, Canna started the 2016 tournament in fine form with a full house against France, but unfortunately missed the latter stages of the tournament through injury. Now with Conor O’Shea as head coach and with an improving calibre of players around him, this could be the next chapter in a great story for the former policeman. His half-back partnership with Edoardo Gori is probably the best 9-10 combination the Azzuri have had in years.

Michele Campagnaro – Italy – Centre

The second Italian to feature on the list, Michele Campagnaro is probably one of the best players in Conor O’Shea’s squad. Injury and competition in the centres has limited his chances at Exeter this season, but 5 tries in his last 2 games for the Chiefs has been a stark reminder of his ability. With a combination of pace and power, he is comfortable on the wing or at 13. He is only on the bench this weekend against Wales, but much like Jack Nowell I expect his impact on the tournament to increase as the weeks go by.

Huw Jones – Scotland – Centre

Raised in England, playing rugby in South Africa and with a name that wouldn’t look out of place in the Wales squad, Edinburgh-born Huw Jones was one of the breakout players of the Autumn Internationals. With 2 tries from 3 caps so far, the early signs are good for the centre, who can also play in the back three. Playing for the Stormers in Super Rugby did not seem to harm his cohesion with his Scottish-based teammates, and may in fact be a benefit to him, as it means that fewer players in the 6 Nations are going to be used to playing against. It may also benefit his Lions chances due to his extra experience against the New Zealand players in Super Rugby. Scotland suddenly has strength in depth in the centre with Jones, Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor all impressing for Scotland recently and Matt Scott’s resurgence at Gloucester, so I’m sure the competition will help push Jones to the best of his abilities, which can only help the team’s chances.

Tadhg Furlong – Ireland – Prop

Mike Ross is not an easy player to replace, but Leinster tight-head Tadhg Furlong has done a great job so far for the Irish. A reliable scrummager, Furlong’s real forte is in the loose. I’m sure many of us by now have seen the clip from the Autumn Internationals of Furlong breaking out of tackles from Brodie Retallick (twice) and Kieran Read, two former Players of the Year. Furlong’s physicality gives Ireland an extra player to break through the defensive line, similar to Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler with England. With WP Nel missing the tournament through injury and Dan Cole less of a factor in the loose, a strong tournament could propel Furlong into the Lions number 3 shirt for the Test matches.

The Welsh Back Row

Yes, this is a cop-out. No, I won’t apologise. For years, the Welsh back row under Warren Gatland has all but picked itself, with captain Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau starting and Justin Tipuric on the bench. With Faletau & Lydiate currently injured, Warburton no longer captain, and Rob Howley taking Wales away from the classic ‘Warrenball’, suddenly the options in the back row open up. Ross Moriarty was one of Wales’ best players in the Autumn Internationals, Justin Tipuric is fast becoming one of the best international 7s in the Northern Hemisphere and Thomas Young has been lighting up the Premiership with Wasps on a regular basis. Rob Howley has gone for Warburton, Tipuric and Moriarty this week with James King of the Ospreys on the bench, but I’m hoping to see a back row combination of Young, Tipuric and Moriarty by the end of the tournament. That combination of pace, power, handling and breakdown expertise would be both effective and entertaining to watch. With just 2 and a half years until the next World Cup, could this be the beginning of the changing of the guard in the Welsh back row?

 

Did I miss anyone? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge