Lions Tour 2017: Winners & Losers from the 6 Nations

Now that the 6 Nations is over for another year, it is time to start looking ahead to the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand this summer. With the squad being named on April 19th, there is very little time remaining for players to prove to Warren Gatland they deserve a place on the flight. Though Gatland has name-checked a number of individuals who have missed the 6 Nations through injury this year, it is likely that the vast majority of players picked will have been featuring in the 6 Nations over the last couple of months. While this is a great chance for players to prove they deserve to be there, a poor tournament could also see players dropping down the pecking order and now being at risk of missing out a place in the Test matches, or missing out on selection completely.

 

Winners

Finn Russell: Owen Farrell is in my opinion the best fly half available for the tour, but his performances at inside centre for England have been so good he is likely being considered for the 12 shirt in the Test matches. If this is the case, you would expect Johnny Sexton to be Gatland’s Test fly half, but he will likely pick at least one other fly half to take on tour. Dan Biggar had a poor 6 Nations and George Ford may miss out due to his lack of physicality making him a target for New Zealand’s gargantuan centres. Though I doubt he would make the Test squad, Finn Russell would provide the expansive style of play that conditions in the South would encourage, but he has also developed enough as a player to be able to control the game with his kicking from hand and is also a reliable goal kicker. I can’t see him featuring in the Test squad unless there were injuries, but think he could get a lot of game time in the widweek team.

Elliot Daly: With the Lions playing 10 games in just over a month, it helps to have a couple of players versatile enough to cover a number of positions. Step forward Elliot Daly! A regular at outside centre or full back for Wasps and now apparently England’s first choice winger during the 6 Nations, his versatility and reliability reminds me of Ben Smith. In my opinion he was the best performing winger in the 6 Nations this year, so I feel that he has to be on the plane and could even propel himself into the 23 for the Tests with some good performances midweek.

Billy Vunipola: If there was ever a bad time to miss a 6 Nations through injury, it’s in the year of a Lions tour. Yet this absence may have actually helped Billy Vunipola. Before the tournament, it’s fair to say Taulupe Faletau was his closest competition for the number 8 shirt in the Test matches. However with Ross Moriarty – perhaps himself a bolter for the Lions squad – keeping the starting spot for Wales, and with Jamie Heaslip’s surgery possibly ruling him out of the tour, it looks like Vunipola’s place in the Test 23 is almost guaranteed. He didn’t have the best of days against Ireland (did anyone in white?) but I feel that this was due to his quick return from injury and I’m sure we will see him desperate to impress for Saracens over the next few weeks.

Rhys Webb: After the Autumn Internationals, it’s fair to say that Ben Youngs, Conor Murray and Greig Laidlaw were likely the favourites to travel to New Zealand. Laidlaw’s injury and Youngs’ drop in form this season has blown this selection wide open and Rhys Webb, back in the international fold after a number of badly timed injuries, certainly took his chance in the 6 Nations. He was one of the best performers in the Welsh team during the tournament and I fully expect him to be in the 23 to face the All Blacks. Depending on what Gatland wants from his scrum half, it’s very possible he could even be the starter.

 

Losers

Taulupe Faletau: He may be arguably one of the best number 8s in the world, but the 2016/17 season has so far been one Faletau will want to forget. A series of injuries have limited his appearances for Bath and he was unable to get his starting spot in the Welsh team back from Ross Moriarty during the 6 Nations. Gatland certainly knows what he can do from his time with Wales so he will almost certainly still be on the plane, but with a number of players impressing in the back row over the last 2 months his chances of a place in the starting XV for the Tests may be in jeopardy.

Ben Youngs: After winning the Grand Slam in 2016 and having been named England’s player of the Autumn Series, it looked like Youngs was in prime position to challenge for the number 9 shirt against New Zealand. However a drop in form for both Leicester and England has put him under real pressure and his England rival Danny Care outscored him 3 tries to 1 while generally providing quicker ball during the 6 Nations. Barring injury, Webb and Murray are surely to top 2 scrum halves, Youngs will likely need to fight against Care, Gareth Davies and Greig Laidlaw (if he recovers in time) for the final spot in the touring party.

Dylan Hartley: He may have just captained England to back-to-back 6 Nations titles but Hartley’s place on the plane to New Zealand is anything but assured. Ken Owens and Rory Best had arguably better 6 Nations and Jamie George could feasibly be preferred to his captain. It’s not to say that Hartley is a poor player, he is very good at what he does and is reliable in the set piece, but he does not appear to bring as much to the team in open play as his rivals do and his disciplinary record could also count against him.

 

The good news is that we do not have to wait much longer to see who Warren Gatland chooses for his touring party. It will be interesting to see how many players are picked on form and how many appear to be picked on their reputation. It’s almost impossible to accurately guess the Lions selections due to the sheer number of eligible players that have featured for their national teams. There is also the potential for a bolter who has impressed for his club but not really featured for his country, which is highly possible with players like Semesa Rokoduguni and Denny Solomona looking very good in the Premiership this year.

 

Do you think that I missed anyone? Who do you think improved or hampered their Lions chances during the tournament? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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6 Nations 2017: Combined XV

Now that the dust has settled on the 6 Nations for another year, there is just one thing left to do: add to the thousands of ‘Team of the Tournament’ articles going around. I have not based this on statistics at all, but have instead tried to put together the team that I felt performed best, though If I do have a stat to back a selection I will be sure to include it, as it makes me sound smarter!

 

Props: Joe Marler & Tadhg Furlong – The French scrum may have felt the most dominant, but I have avoided picking any of their props as they seem very much interchangeable, so it is rare that we see one of them given a chance to dominate his rivals for his spot in the starting lineup. The Irish were the only team to win 100% of their own scrums so at least one of the Irish props had to feature in here. As well as Zander Fagerson played in the absence of WP Nel, I felt that Furlong’s ability in open play gave him the edge here. For the same reason as the French props, Jack McGrath’s competition with Cian Healy cost him the number 1 jersey in this team. Joe Marler helped anchor the England scrum despite having only just recovered from a broken leg, and also managed to hold onto the starting position in the England line-up once Mako Vunipola returned from his own injury.

Hooker: Guilhem Guirado – Dylan Hartley may have just led his team to back-to-back 6 Nations titles, but he was frequently replaced early in the second half of games and is arguably not even the best hooker in the England squad. Ken Owens quietly went about his business and has been many people’s pick, but I have chosen to go with the French captain here. As well as being part of a dominant French scrum, he was also infulential in the loose, being one of France’s strongest ball carriers alongside Louis Picamoles and Kevin Gourdon.

Second Rows: Joe Launchbury & Jonny Gray – What a difference a year makes for Joe Launchbury! This time in 2016 it looked like he would be fighting for a place on the bench behind the pairing of George Kruis and Maro Itoje. With Kruis out injured and Itoje moved to the back row, the Wasps lock seized his opportunity to show what he could do and was arguable one of the best forwards in the tournament this year. Jonny Gray is just a tackling machine. The Scottish defence soaked up a lot of pressure over the tournament and Jonny Gray was typically at/near the top of the tackling stats on a weekly basis. Aged just 23, I’s likely that he hasn’t even reached his best yet… now that’s a scary thought!

Flankers: CJ Stander & Sam Warburton – Kevin Gourdon was very unlucky to miss out here – especially considering both the players I have picked played on the open side this year – but I could not ignore the performances of these two Lions contenders. Stander broke the record for the number of carries in a 6 Nations tournament (104) and only missed 1 tackle over all 5 games! His performance against Italy was incredible, showcasing his full range of skills whilst becoming the first forward to score a hat trick in a 6 Nations game. This tournament was the best I can remember seeing Warburton play in a while. Freed from the burden of captaincy, the Welshman was able to focus on his own game and proved a nightmare for the opposition at the breakdown. If they can both continue like this for the rest of the season, it would not surprise me if they were in the running for starting the Lions Tests.

Number 8: Louis Picamoles – Ross Moriarty was impressive in the number 8 jersey for Wales this tournament (most notably against England) and Sergio Parisse had his usual moments of brilliance, but Picamoles was arguably the best in this position. With the French scrum often marching forward, his pick-ups quickly put the French on the front foot. And you could always rely on him to make some hard yards, before often offloading when the opposition finally managed to bring him to a halt. With Picamoles missing most of 2016’s tournament and Billy Vunipola missing much of this year’s, I’m sure plenty of fans will be looking forward to the competition between the two of them in 2018. If they face off against each other in Le Crunch next year, we may need to prepare for an earthquake!

Scrum half: Conor Murray – Baptiste Serin impressed in his first 6 Nations and Rhys Webb was hugely influential for Wales, but both (especially Webb) caused problems for their teams with the odd stupid penalty. So I chose Conor Murray for my team. As conditions worsened against France, he took control of the game with his tactical kicking and his influence was clearly missed against Wales after he picked up an injury. He may not be as mobile as the other 2 scrum halves mentioned, but his strength still gives him a good chance of getting on the score sheet and he will always fancy himself from the back of a ruck close to the try line. I have found some positions hard to pick due to the lack of players putting their hands up for recognition, but this was probably the position with the most competition for a spot in my line-up.

Fly half: Finn Russell – Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson both impressed for Ireland and Camille Lopez was the tournament’s top points scorer this year, but in my opinion the clear winner here was Scotland’s Finn Russell. Though he didn’t have the best of days at Twickenham (I don’t think anyone in a Scottish shirt did), he really impressed me in the rest of the tournament with his attacking play. After the injury to Greig Laidlaw, he stepped up well and controlled the back line, whilst also being highly reliable off the tee (not counting that kick against France). He is really maturing as a player and is doing a great job of deciding when is the right time to kick for territory rather than starting another attack.

Centres: Owen Farrell & Garry Ringrose – I’ll start by admitting that I don’t see Farrell as a centre, but as a fly half. That said, he was in my opinion the standout centre in the 6 Nations by a country mile (other than against Italy). His kicking both from the tee and out of hand is so consistent and he makes killer passes look easy, like for Daly’s try against Wales. He is also not afraid to put his body on the line and is a surprisingly strong tackler given his (compared to many international centres) slight frame. After the first 3 weeks of the tournament, I was planning to include Huw Jones as the 13, but a poor defensive display from Scotland at Twickenham and an early injury against Italy made me look elsewhere and I hit on Ringrose. Touted as the next Brian O’Driscoll, he may not yet be lighting the tournament up to that degree, but has become a reliable cog in the Irish team and was not phased playing in the Grand Slam game against England. At just 22 years of age and with only 8 senior caps to his name, Ringrose will just continue to get better over the next few years.

Wings: Elliot Daly & George North – One of the few bright sparks in a generally dull England performance this year, Daly is the second player on this list who you could say has spent the tournament playing out of position. Daly used his pace, kicking and handling skills to benefit England, as well as being reliable in defence, which can be something of a weak point for many wingers. His try at the death against Wales was a thing of beauty, where he backed himself against former Lion Alex Cuthbert and beat him to the outside. I really struggled picking the other winger for this list, as I did not feel that anyone else really stood out from the crowd. After playing through injury against Italy (including scoring a long-range try with only one good leg) and with improved performances against Ireland and Wales, George North was the player I eventually settled on. We definitely didn’t see the best of him in this tournament yet he still managed to score 3 tries, putting him as one of the 8 joint-top try scorers . His first try against Ireland, where he seemed to drag half the opposition over the line with him, was an indication of the quality he has, hopefully he can put his concussions and injuries behind him and get back to being the beast on the wing the fans love to watch!

Full-back: Stuart Hogg – Could it really be anyone else? With 3 tries and 3 assists to his name, it’s no massive surprise to see Hogg has been voted Player of the Tournament for the second year running. He has always been a talented player but over the last couple of seasons has taken his game to a new level. He is picking his moments to attack and if it does not look on uses his rocket of a boot to help Scotland win the territory game. He also saved Scotland from conceding twice against Italy with some well executed tackles. He’s been around so long, it’s crazy to think that he is only 24 years old! If he carries on performing like this, it would be hard to argue against him being the best full-back in the Northern Hemisphere.

 

Do you think I missed anyone? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2017 – Week 5

Though it may not have been as high scoring as in recent years, Round 5 of the 2017 6 Nations left us with a lot to talk about. From Scotland shutting out Italy in Vern Cotter’s last game in charge to Ireland denying England consecutive Grand Slams, all via a stunning 100 minute marathon in Paris.

England’s first loss under Eddie Jones may have denied them the Grand Slam, but they still ended the evening lifting the 6 Nations trophy, having been confirmed as winners a week earlier. There was still plenty to play for further down the table, with 2nd to 5th place still up for grabs and, more importantly, places in World Rugby’s rankings ahead of May’s World Cup draw.

Now that the dust has settled on the tournament for another year, here are my thought on the final day of matches.

 

Scotland 29 – 0 Italy

They may be 2 of the most exciting players in the tournament, but there have been questions about Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg’s ability to control a game. Though it may not have been against the best of opposition, they certainly took control of the game with their kicking for territory in wet conditions. There was nobody on the pitch more influential than these two, with 2 try-saving tackles from Hogg and many of the tries being scored or assisted by one of them – I’m sure Hogg will try to claim an assist for Matt Scott’s try – as well as 3 conversions from Russell and a monster penalty from Hogg to open the scoring. When these two guys are on fire, Scotland will be hard to beat. Hogg is the popular pick for the Lions 15 jersey and, though he may not make the Test squad, I can imagine that Russell will be joining him in New Zealand this summer.

Once again I found myself watching Italy struggle to perform and found myself reminiscing of the players they have had in the past that they are clearly missing now. I focussed on the forwards last week so will let them off the hook this time (though Ornel Gega needs to massively improve his consistency at the line out) and talk about the backs. Though I feel Edoardo Gori and Carlo Canna are the half back pairing to see Italy through to the World Cup, Canna seemed to lose his confidence off the back of 3 missed penalties that an international kicker really can’t afford to be missing. Between the kicking performances of Canna and Tommy Allan the last 2 weeks, Italians must be looking back favourably on the kicking of former winger Mirco Bergamasco, whose unconventional style helped them pull off some big results in the past. Luke McLean has not seemed as impressive at inside centre as he used to in the back 3, and it felt like they missed him in that area. Giovanbattista Venditti struggled all day under the high ball – which Russell took full advantage of – and fullback Edoardo Padovani fumbled a couple of relatively simple balls at crucial points… something he has done in a number of matches this tournament. Angelo Esposito twice had chances to score in the corner but was unable to finish either chance. Granted, he was forced to check his run due to a bad pass on the first attempt, but I still feel that an international winger should be finishing at least one of these chances. Outside of the half-backs and Campagnaro, there do not seem to be any players stepping up to replace the likes of Bergamasco, Andrea Masi and Gonzalo Garcia. This needs to change soon, otherwise the calls for relegation will just continue to grow.

France 20 – 18 Wales

I had real sympathy for Wayne Barnes as the clock ticked its way through 20 minutes of added time. With player safety so important in this day and age I don’t want to outright call the team medic a liar in his decision that Uini Atonio needed a HIA, but it was suspicious to say the least. Barnes has shown in the past that he values the wellbeing of players and having seen the medic speaking to him, he was quick to check Atonio was OK, being told by the prop that he had a ‘sore back’. And yet one reset scrum on the Welsh try-line later, the medic was running on declaring he needed a HIA, allowing Rabah Slimani (a better scrummager) to come back on. It’s arguable that Barnes could have awarded a penalty try in the 96th minute with the Welsh collapsing a scrum the French had the ascendency in, but I wonder if Barnes chose not to award this due to the dubious circumstances surrounding Slimani’s return. This feels very much like the 2017 equivalent of the Bloodgate scandal so it is very good to see officials are looking into this. Maybe future games should have a neutral medic who makes the calls on HIAs, to ensure that player safety is still paramount, but also not being used as an excuse or a tactical substitution.

During the Autumn Internationals, the big talk was about Wales changing their style of play under Rob Howley, but has this really worked? The Welsh defence has been typically solid – they did hold the French out for over 25 minutes on their 5m line – but the attack has not really stepped forward in the way that fans would have hoped. Against a French team that was ripped apart in midfield by the Irish just a few rounds ago, the Welsh had to rely on the boot of Leigh Halfpenny and rarely looked like scoring a try. Players like Dan Biggar and Jamie Roberts are quality performers, but their style of play suits the old Warrenball tactics rather than the more expansive game that Howley is trying to encourage. Meanwhile Jonathan Davies, so often in contention for being named the best 13 in the tournament, looked a shadow of the player that we have seen in recent years. Regardless of whether Biggar is selected for the Lions this summer, maybe it is time to give Sam Davies a chance to start. With Halfpenny there for the goal kicking, there is less pressure on Davies and he would be able to focus on his natural open game, which could help the Welsh change their style of play in the way they want.

Ireland 13 – 9 England

What a result for Ireland! Already missing Conor Murray and Rob Kearney after a devastating loss to Wales, when the news went out that Jamie Heaslip was a late withdrawal I thought that any chance of an Irish victory was gone. But the replacements stepped up well with Kieran Marmion and Peter O’Mahony being among Ireland’s top performers and Jared Payne also having some big moments. As a rugby fan, it was great to see O’Mahony back in the starting lineup as he is a great talent and consistently puts it all on the line for both club and country. Jamie Heaslip has been the de facto number 8 for the national side for donkeys years, but with Sean O’Brien, O’Mahony, CJ Stander & Josh van der Flier (many of who are able to play multiple positions in the back row) among his rivals for a place in the Irish back row, we may be reaching the end of Heaslip’s time in the Irish jersey.

18 wins on the bounce… Unbeaten under Eddie Jones… It had to end sometime for England! The writing has been on the wall for the team all tournament, with the ‘finishers’ delivering the great escape against France and Wales and their game against Scotland being the only real 80 minute performance. As much as I would have loved back-to-back Grand Slams, I don’t think this England team would have really deserved it this season. Hopefully the loss will make the coaches look critically at the lineup ahead of the summer tour. Dylan Hartley’s early removal in games suggests that his days as captain may be numbered. If he goes on the Lions tour, it would not surprise me if Jamie George’s performances in his absence earn him the number 2 shirt. The balance in the back row did not look right for much of the tournament, with the Irish dominating us there on Saturday evening, though this probably wasn’t helped by Billy Vunipola not looking 100% fit. Jonathan Joseph, fresh off a hat-trick against Scotland, was back to the anonymity of the first 2 rounds. Mike Brown is still a very reliable fullback, but does not really bring much to the England attacking performance any more. If Elliot Daly is not selected for the Lions, then I feel this summer would be the perfect chance to try him at 15, where his pace, handling and monster left boot could take England to a new level.

 

What were your thoughts on Saturday’s matches? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Backing the Pack

The 2017 Kingston Press League 1 kicked off a few weeks ago, with one notable new addition. Founded in 2016, the Toronto Wolfpack are Canada’s first professional rugby league team. Having been denied the chance to go straight into the Super League, they are starting in the third tier of the RFL’s leagues, but as 12 of their 15 opponents are part-time, they are expected to quickly rise up the ranks and soon be competing for a place in the top tier.

I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of rugby league is somewhat lacking. Having lived all my life in Gloucestershire or Wales, I’ve grown up a fan of rugby union, but in recent years I have begun to enjoy watching league and am starting to learn my way in the sport. As I have previously commented on the thought of the NFL introducing a UK-based franchise, I thought it was only fair to give my ten (Canadian) cents on the reverse being done.

 

Toronto clearly have no plans to stay in League 1 long-term. The acquisition of former Great Britain head coach Brian Noble in the Director of Rugby role suggests that they want someone with experience of winning the top competitions (Noble is one of only two coaches to have won 3 super League Grand Finals and has also won 2 Super League Leader’s Shields, 1 Challenge Cup and 3 World Club Challenges).

They have also recruited well for the playing squad, with a number of players with Super League or Championship experience. A large proportion of the squad have signed from Bradford Bulls and Leigh Centurions, most notably former New Zealand and Tonga prop Fuifui Moimoi. They also have players who have been capped for the USA, Canada, Ireland and Wales. Granted these are not ‘top’ teams in international rugby league, but any players with international experience will bring some real quality to the Wolfpack.

I do feel a bit sorry for the teams in the league who have to deal with the step up in quality when playing the Wolfpack, but I feel that for the future of the franchise it was right to put them a few leagues down rather than start them in one of the top 2 tiers. It will never be easy to build up a fan base for a new team in an emerging sport, but for a market like Toronto that is already saturated with professional teams – they have franchises in the MLB, MLS, NHL, NBA and other leagues that I am less familiar with – it is important that the team be successful immediately in order to keep the fans engaged and build up a fan base, especially as their ‘local’ away games still involve a trip across the Atlantic.

 

When I looked at the potential issues of setting up UK-based NFL franchise, I mentioned that the amount of transatlantic travel throughout the season could put them at a disadvantage. I hope the NFL are taking note, as the Wolfpack’s travel plans may hold the answer. The Wolfpack will be playing their home and away matches in blocks of 4 or 5 games. They will also be staying in the UK during these ‘away’ blocks, sharing a training ground with Brighouse Rangers. This will mean that players are less effected by jet lag or other issues relating to regular travel. Having blocks of games will likely also help them keep the fans engaged both in the UK and Canada, as if they enjoy going to a game one week, they will often be able to back that up by going the next few weeks as well. The one potential issue that I see here relates to the team’s involvement in the Challenge Cup. Cup games are allocated specific weeks in which to be played, if the Wolfpack are drawn at home in the middle of their away block – or vice versa – I will be interested to see what impact the extra travel will have on them, as I’m sure they would not want to sacrifice home advantage for a knockout cup game.

Travelling to Canada and back will not be a cheap trip for part-time teams, so it is also really good to see that Toronto’s sponsor Air Transat are providing free travel for their opponents’ playing squad and staff and also subsidised travel for any English fans making the journey. It will be interesting to see if this is something that continues as they move up through the leagues and start to face fully professional opposition. This would be of great expense to the league if they were to do this themselves, so it would not surprise me if this was a huge factor in Toronto’s pitch to join the leagues.

 

Toronto Wolfpack being in the English leagues may be the start of a North American love affair with rugby league. Rugby union is slowly taking off, with much more interest in 7s and a professional league set up in the USA last year. I can imagine that league is a game that Americans and Canadians can get into, as it is arguably more exciting for someone new to the sport to watch than 15-a-side rugby union due to the faster pace and the lack of rucks (and especially reset scrums).

While there are only a few players from the USA or Canada in the current Wolfpack squad, they are running trials to identify players who have not made it in the NFL or the CFL (Canadian Football League). This seems to be working well for the USA rugby union (look at Perry Baker in the 7s) so I’m sure some real talent will be developed by the Wolfpack over the next few years, which will only benefit the USA and Canadian national teams.

Any improvement in the quality of North American rugby league can surely only be a plus for the sport. While union has seen participation increasing right around the world and the top Northern Hemisphere teams catching up with their Southern Hemisphere opponents, there is a huge gulf in the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) World Rankings between the top 3 teams (Australia, New Zealand and England) and the best of the rest (Scotland, Samoa and France). Surely becoming more widespread and even at international level can only benefit the sport, or we could see more players choosing to follow Denny Solomona to union or seeing if they can have more success in the NFL than Jarryd Hayne.

 

It may take us a while to see the full impact that the Wolfpack have on rugby league, but I’m sure that if given the chance it will be a positive one. If nothing else, I’m sure there will be a lot of fans and players using the fixtures list as an excuse to renew their passport and book a trip to Canada! They’ve started the season well, winning their first 2 league games (away from home) and making it through the 3rd round of the Challenge Cup. Next up is their 4th round game against London Broncos on Friday, then 2 more league games in the UK before finally playing their 1st League 1 game in Canada in early May.

Best of luck for the rest of the season Toronto, I’ll be watching with great interest!

 

What do you think of Toronto Wolfpack? Have an opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2017 – Week 4

Week 4 saw the teams who will finish top and bottom of the table confirmed, with England’s victory over a hobbled Scotland side confirming them as champions and Italy’s loss to France guaranteeing them the wooden spoon. Everything is all to play for in between, with just 1 point the difference between 2nd and 5th.

As we begin to prepare for Super Saturday on March 18th, here are my thoughts from Round 4 of 2017’s 6 Nations.

 

Wales 22 – 9 Ireland

Friday night’s game was a tale of 2 scrum-halves. Ireland’s control of the game began to disappear after Conor Murray’s arm injury, but Rhys Webb ran the show for Wales. Where Murray pulls the strings, Webb makes things happen with his support runs and his sniping around the breakdown. His support line and his long pass to Leigh Halfpenny were instrumental in George North’s first try and he expertly guided the maul before drawing in Simon Zebo to put North over for his second. He needs to work on his discipline a bit, having conceded silly penalties in consecutive games, but will certainly be going to New Zealand with the Lions this summer. He could even get the starting job if Warren Gatland decided that he prefers his playing style to that of Murray’s. If nothing else, it’s good to see him getting a run of games in the Welsh shirt after a number of injuries in the last few years.

In the last round, I discussed how a couple of poor decisions seriously hampered the French’s chances of victory. Robbie Henshaw proved that again this week. I feel for him, he is a very reliable player in the Irish midfield and doesn’t make too many mistakes, but the ones he made on Friday night were costly. His entrance to the maul was not from the back foot, so what looked to be a certain try instead became a penalty – hats off to Wayne Barnes for making and feeling confident enough to not involve the TMO. He also picked up a ball from an offside position after a knock-on from a colleague deep in the Welsh 22. As if cancelling out a definite try was not bad enough, both these offences allowed the Welsh to clear their lines and left Ireland with nothing to show for their efforts.

Italy 18 – 40 France

The Italian team of the last 2 weeks has been almost unrecognisable to the one that played in the opening 2 rounds. Italy combined timely use of their no-ruck tactic and wheeling attacking mauls to try to nullify the strength of the French pack. This is clearly a team benefitting from the minds of coaches Conor O’Shea, Brendan Venter and Mike Catt, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. They still fall off far too much as the game goes on and fell off far too many tackles (33%) during the match. Campagnaro looked dangerous when given a chance, but he was underutilized and the way he was holding his arm when going off did not look promising for the next round. Unfortunately the dominant pack that Italy have been able to boast in the past has been reduced by retirement to many of its most influential players (Castrogiovanni, Lo Cicero, Bortolami, Bergamasco etc.), their replacements need to step up soon to allow the team to build their game around a reliable set piece once again.

France’s greatest strength all tournament has been the power of their pack. While the Italians were able to nullify this at the line out by wheeling the maul to one side, the true power of the pack came to the fore in the scrums, as Italy were constantly pushed backwards. This, combined with the strong running of players like Louis Picamoles and Guilhem Guirado helped to get Les Bleus on the front foot and allowed the back line to attack a defence that was still retreating. Their dominance at the scrum has been there all tournament, and their impact in open play has been improving as the weeks have gone on. Historically strong performers following a Lions tour, this is a team that could be pushing for the title in 2018.

England 61 – 21 Scotland

Finally, we got a first half performance from England! Nathan Hughes put in his best performance of the tournament, and his teammates in the back row and second row joined him in making their presence known against the Scottish defence. It’s no real surprise then to see that finally with some quick ball, Ben Youngs looked like the man who was named Player of the Series in the Autumn and the entire back line, most notably George Ford and Jonathan Joseph, looked the best they had all tournament. Though Scotland’s defence will have been affected by the reshuffle due to injuries, many of England’s best attacks came through a midfield that was unchanged, with a myriad of running lines from the backs causing havoc for the Scots. It’s fair to expect that Billy Vunipola will be back in the starting line-up for the Grand Slam game against Ireland, so it will be interesting to see if the backs can perform to the same level again.

You can’t help but feel sorry for Scotland. 2 weeks of preparation for their best shot of a victory at Twickenham in years, only for the game to be over as a competition within 15 minutes. Fraser Brown’s early yellow card rattled the Scots and put the at an immediate disadvantage. Soon down by 2 tries and with a makeshift back line following early injuries to superstar fullback Stuart Hogg and his replacement Mark Bennett (Scotland have had awful luck with injuries this season), Scotland’s chances of getting anything from the game were all but gone, especially with England in such clinical form. Fair play though to captain John Barclay refusing to blame injuries for the team’s performance when interviewed after the game, but you’ve got to imagine that it will have impacted the performance. What really impressed me is the way that the team didn’t give up and continued to push on for the full 80 minutes. I feel that this was a clear argument in favour of bonus points, as even with victory impossible, the Scots continued to push on for a 4-try bonus point. The chance of a bonus point – not to mention Scottish pride – helped the team to keep going and helped keep the game entertaining as a spectacle for the neutrals.

 

Do you think I missed anything? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Time for Change at Gloucester Rugby

What a time to be a Gloucester Rugby fan! After yet another heart-breaking home defeat in the dying minutes, this time against Harlequins, the club have announced that Head Coach Laurie Fisher has left his role with immediate effect. After his post-match tweet saying is was ‘time to make room for someone else’, it seemed just a matter of time until we got this announcement. But it’s fair to say that the writing has been on the wall for a while, with many fans saying for a while now that both Fisher and Director of Rugby David Humphreys should walk away. As a Gloucester fan, I hate to see us going the way of football and getting rid of the coaching staff during the season, but in this case is change necessary?

 

When Humphreys and Fisher joined Gloucester Rugby at the end of the 2013/14 season, they were replacing Nigel Davies after what was considered a poor season: 9th in the Premiership with 44 points, out at the pool stages of the Anglo-Welsh Cup after a 2nd place finish and out in the quarter finals of the old Challenge Cup. Since they took over, Gloucester’s results in the same competitions have not really changed much:

  • 2014/15 – 9th in the Premiership (48 points), 2nd in their Anglo-Welsh Cup pool, won the Challenge Cup but lost in the playoffs for Champions Cup qualification
  • 2015/16 – 8th in the Premiership (49 points), no Anglo Welsh Cup, lost in the quarter finals of the Challenge Cup
  • 2016/17 so far – 9th in the Premiership (35 points),  2nd in their Anglo-Welsh Cup pool, awaiting a home quarter-final against Cardiff in the Challenge Cup

Other than their Challenge Cup victory in 2015, there is no real improvement in the team’s final standings compared to those of Nigel Davies’ last season in charge. If he was let go due to poor results, should the current staff not follow suit?

Gloucester Rugby is a club with a great history, and should be regularly featuring in the Champions Cup. As it stands, there are a number of players who I would not blame if they chose to leave for a team playing regularly in the top tournament so as to improve their international chances, such as Ross Moriarty, Jonny May and Matt Scott. Other players like New Zealanders Willi Heinz, Jeremy Thrush and Tom Marshall could easily decide to leave in order to show their considerable talent at a higher level.

So looking at the figures above, it is fair to say that action is advisable, if not necessary. But does the fault lie with the coaching staff?

 

It is fair to say that the coaches have not been wholly at fault. A number of influential players have spent significant periods out injured this season, including the aforementioned Thrush, May and Marshall, but also Henry Trinder and Sione Kalamafoni, who have only recently come back from long-term injuries and now club captain Greig Laidlaw. Further to this, there have been a number of top players who have not performed to the expected standards this year. While he has still been Captain Fantastic for Scotland, Laidlaw’s form for Gloucester has been less impressive this season, to the point that I believe Heinz deserved the number 9 jersey on form. Richard Hibbard has looked good on the whole but is far too prone to stupid brain fades like his costly yellow card at the weekend, which undo all the good work he has done to that point. The 2015/16 season put Matt Kvesic on the England radar and many people felt that he was unlucky not to be getting picked by Eddie Jones for England, having finished top of the Premiership for turnovers. However this season he has struggled to start on a regular basis, with Jacob Rowan having moved ahead of him in the pecking order at openside flanker.

Gloucester have also been unfortunate with a couple of important refereeing decisions at the end of games this season. Dave Lewis bought his team a penalty at the end of their 27-27 draw at Sandy Park by passing the ball into the Gloucester tackler who was attempting to get himself off the ground and back onside. While the Gloucester player was definitely offside, there was no attempt to pass the ball to a fellow Chief, the sole intention was to win a penalty – one of my biggest hates about rugby at the moment. The penalty was kicked to the corner and Exeter scored off the resulting line out with a rolling maul. The Cherry and Whites were also in the ascendency at the end of Big Game 9. Having come back from 28-10 down to 28-24, they found themselves just short of the Harlequins try line in the dying minutes. The chances of victory were ended by a stray boot from a player on the floor kicking the ball out of Heinz’s hands (itself an illegal offence) and then and interception from Danny Care, who appeared to be at least a couple of yards offside, but both these offences went unpunished by JP Doyle. While I am not trying to say that Gloucester are the only team to have been on the wrong end of the referee’s interpretation this season, Gloucester’s season could look so different had these calls gone their way.

That said, too often Gloucester have been in a position late in the game where they are unable to see off the opposition and hold onto their lead. As well as the matches against Exeter and Harlequins that I have mentioned already, they also shipped 2 tries in the last 5 minutes to gift Leicester a 31-38 victory in the opening round of the season, having led 31-7 soon after half time. They also conceded a penalty try in the 73rd minute to lose 12-13 at home to Northampton in Round 12 of the Premiership. Further to this, they conceded a try at home late in their loss to Bath, ending their chances of getting anything from that game. Their wins at home against Saracens and Wasps show that this a talented team capable of competing against the best, they just seem incapable of getting themselves up to play a full 80 minutes against the teams around them. Whether this is a psychological barrier or down to a lack of fitness, this is something that the coaches should have dealt with now, especially as it was not something new to this season. They have also struggled in recent years to drive line outs on the opposition 5m line over for the try, while often struggling to stop the same move being used against them, again an issue that has shown little improvement as time has gone on. Sometimes you have to wonder what the coaches are actually trying to improve!

Their personnel decisions this season have also been baffling at times. Tom Marshall is a fantastic talent but has had a string of injuries since signing for us, so it seems very odd to have him as the only specialist fullback in the squad. James Hook’s chances in the number 10 jersey have been oddly limited this year – granted Billy Burns has impressed, but Hook is still a quality operator – and most of his appearances have been at 15. He also appears to be well down the list of the coaches’ preferred goal kickers, with Billy Twelvetrees often kicking after Burns has been replaced recently. The signing of Salesi Ma’afu was in my mind an odd decision too. He has not really brought much to the Gloucester performances, and is arguably taking up a place that one of our many other front rowers could be covering, especially as a number of them can play on either side of the scrum.

 

While I don’t feel that Gloucester’s problems lie solely with the coaching staff, I feel that the lack of improvement over the last 2 and a half seasons means that change is needed at the top. With the potential investment from Mohed Altrad, and with a number of high quality players like Owen Williams, Carl Fearns and Val Rapava-Ruskin moving to Kingsholm this summer, I feel that – barring a monumental improvement now Fisher is gone – David Humphreys should leave at the end of the season. With silverware still a possibility courtesy of the Challenge Cup it would be crazy to remove both men at the top at this stage in the season, but the need to improve next season means that action must be taken this summer. Whatever happens, as a Gloucester fan I will be keeping a keen eye on events and hope that things go well with Jonny Bell as Head Coach until the end of the season.

 

While it didn’t work out, I also want to take a moment to thank Laurie Fisher for his time and effort the last few years.

Fingers crossed the future is bright for the Cherry and Whites

 

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