Eyes On: La Rochelle vs Gloucester

Gloucester and La Rochelle met for the third time this season on Saturday night in the semi-final of the European Rugby Challenge Cup. After a tense 80 minutes full of deft offloads and huge impacts, the cherry and whites booked their spot in the final with a 14-16 victory over the Top 14 leaders, their only loss at home all season.

For a relatively low-scoring game, there was actually quite a bit to discuss, so I’ve tried to limit myself to what I felt to be the main talking points from the match.

 

Taking chances

Before kickoff, the BT Sport team mentioned that one of the keys to La Rochelle’s success this season has been having the majority of possession. Gloucester stopped this in the first half, but in the second half the home team had 70% of possession and 77% of territory (though I’m sure most Gloucester fans will agree that it felt like much more than that!). Over the course of the game, they also made over 300 more metres, 6 more clean breaks and beat twice as many defenders as Gloucester! Yet it was Gloucester who came away from the Stade Marcel Deflandre with the victory, as the French were far too wasteful with the ball.

When La Rochelle broke through the Gloucester line, it often felt like the defence was all over the place, but they would quickly recover once the tackle was made and put the home team back under pressure with a quick, physical defensive line, which often led to turnovers or errors from the attackers. Henry Trinder (it’s so good to see him playing regularly again after all his injury issues) was fantastic on the night, winning a number of turnovers and penalties at the breakdown and almost scoring a try.

Despite this, La Rochelle will still feel that they should have won the game, as Brock James – one of the most experienced players on the pitch – left 8 points on the field through missed kicks, as well as throwing the pass that Billy Burns intercepted for Gloucester’s try.

Burns night

Brock James may not have had the best of nights, but his opposite number Billy Burns had a great game. With older brother Freddie watching on in the BT Sport studio, Burns Jr. scored all 16 of Gloucester’s points courtesy of the aforementioned try and a 100% kick success rate , despite the home crowd’s vocal attempts to put him off. Even many of his shakier moments in the game seemed to end up working in his favour, such as a poor cross field early in the 1st half that conveniently bounced into touch when the La Rochelle winger completely lost his bearings.

Gloucester also did a good job of looking after him in this match. At one of the line outs, Ugo Monye pointed out that Burns was lining up in the 5m channel as opposed to in the fly half’s usual position, so that he was not a target for La Rochelle’s gargantuan strike runners on the first phase. Yet he fronted up whenever necessary and was more than happy to get in the way of the big men, one tackle on a charging Levani Botia off a stolen line out specifically sticking in my mind.

With Owen Williams arriving from Leicester this summer, Billy is certainly doing everything he can to prove that he deserves the number 10 jersey ahead of the Welshman next season.

Dealing with the opposition

As Gloucester played La Rochelle in the pool stages (winning 35-14 at Kingsholm before going down 42-13 in France) they had a good idea of how La Rochelle were going to play this game. It just takes one look at players like Uini Atonio and Jone Qovu in the pack to know that they pride themselves on physical dominance to help them win games. Gloucester knew this and worked their tactics around this. John Afoa scrummages so low, it becomes difficult for a larger opponent to compete against him at the scrums. Josh Hohneck and Paddy McAllister also did a very good job of holding their own against the French team’s props. But more importantly, Gloucester tried to make sure that scrums on their feed were over as quickly as possible by feeding the ball as directly as they could to the number 8 (it wasn’t even done slyly) and getting the ball out as soon as it reached his feet. This meant that provided they could withstand the initial engagement they were generally able to get the ball away without a problem, though they did not necessarily have the platform for the backs to create much on the first phase.

They also did a good job of keeping possession in the first half (61%) and spreading the ball from side to side as much as possible in an attempt to wear out La Rochelle’s big boys, which seemed to work as a number of them were replaced relatively soon after half time. In the second half, when La Rochelle began to take control, Gloucester used their line speed to stop the strike runners before they could get going and were happy to clear the ball downfield to force the home team to run back towards their own line while the cherry and whites reorganised their defence for the next attack.

French discipline

As much as Gloucester can consider themselves lucky that Brock James left his kicking boots at home, La Rochelle can also consider themselves lucky to have only spent 10 minutes playing with 14 men!

Jone Qovu’s elbow drop on Willi Heinz got worse with every viewing and was arguably deserving of a red card on its own. But he didn’t stop there and was lucky the officials missed his punch to the midriff of Richard Hibbard, who was unbelievably warned about simulation by the referee! Granted, Hibbard may have – in my opinion accidentally – grabbed the Fijian in a sensitive area, but that is no excuse for his actions. Either of these incidents is worthy of a suspension, so I will be flabbergasted if Qovu plays again this season.

Captain Uini Atonio was also probably lucky to escape sanction during the game, with one late – and possibly high – hit on Heinz quickly followed up by a hit on Hibbard that was so far off the ball it wasn’t even visible on the live transmission, yet neither of these incidents even resulted in a Gloucester penalty!

I can’t really say much more on the Atonio incidents, and I also have a lot of sympathy for the match officials, as the French broadcasters in charge of the pictures we see are notorious for avoiding replays of anything that could result in a home player being sent off. The BT Sport commentators even mentioned this when they expressed surprise at the fact we got to see replays of Qovu’s elbow. Meanwhile, the footage of his punch on Hibbard was not picked up on until the end of the game and I am yet to see a replay of either of Atonio’s challenges!

 

This was a stunning game, and with so much on the line it was good to see Gloucester hold on under such heavy pressure. The last few seasons under Director of Rugby David Humphreys have not been the success anyone would have hoped, but Gloucester have generally pulled it together for Challenge Cup games, having only lost 2 in the last 3 seasons (at home to the Dragons in last season’s quarter-final and this season’s pool match at La Rochelle), while they are now appearing in their second Challenge Cup final in 3 years. Hopefully they can go on to repeat their heroics at Murrayfield, when they take on Stade Francais!

 

What did you think of the game? Have I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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Tennessee Titans: the 2017 Schedule

After plenty of articles focusing on rugby recently, one of my colleagues has been begging me to do one about the NFL. I feel I know the sport relatively well, but not enough to come out with many smart comments during the offseason. However with the release of the regular season schedule, I felt that this was something I could finally write about.

I have decided to keep this specific to the team that I follow, the Tennessee Titans. After 4 consecutive losing seasons, the Titans finally showed promise last season, finishing 2nd in the AFC South with a 9-7 record (tied with Divisional Champions the Houston Texans) despite losing star QB Marcus Mariota to injury in Week 16. In a division that tends to underwhelm, the Titans will be hoping that 2017 will see their first trip to the playoffs in almost 10 years.

While writing this, I will be judging it on the whole by teams’ performances from last season. This may not be wholly representative of how teams will perform this year, as they will have evolved throughout the offseason and, with the Draft still to come, will not yet be the finished article until the season starts.

 

The Titans’ 2017 Regular Season schedule is as follows (team records from last season):

Week 1 vs Raiders (12-4)

Week 2 @ Jaguars (3-13)

Week 3 vs Seahawks (10-5-1)

Week 4 @ Texans (9-7)

Week 5 @ Dolphins (10-6)

Week 6 vs Colts (8-8)

Week 7 @ Browns (1-15)

Week 8 BYE

Week 9 vs Ravens (8-8)

Week 10 vs Bengals (6-9-1)

Week 11 @ Steelers (11-5)

Week 12 @ Colts (8-8)

Week 13 vs Texans (9-7)

Week 14 @ Cardinals (7-8-1)

Week 15 @ 49ers (2-14)

Week 16 vs Rams (4-12)

Week 17 vs Jaguars (3-13)

At first viewing, this actually looks like a relatively kind schedule for the Titans, with only 4 matches against teams who finished with double-digit wins last season. 2 of these teams (the Seahawks and Raiders) are faced in the opening 3 weeks of the season, which may make it difficult to get a positive start to the campaign, but both of these fixtures are at home which will improve the chances of a Titans victory. Miami away is a winnable game – this same fixture at the exact same point in 2016 ended in a 30-17 victory – and a trip to Heinz Field could easily go either way, with the Steelers of recent years dangerous in attack but not always so reliable on defense.

Looking at other teams outside the division that I expect to be pushing for the playoffs, I think the Titans have again been rather fortunate with home games against Baltimore and Cincinnati and a Week 14 trip to Arizona. All 3 of these teams, especially those in the AFC North, play in tough divisions so will be looking to put in 100% for every win they can get. However with all these games in the second half of the season, it is possible that the rigours of the season could be taking its toll on those teams by this point.

Divisional game are so much harder to predict as form goes completely out the window. As I mentioned at the start, the Titans and Texans both finished the season with 9-7 records. What won the division for the Texans was their respective records within the AFC South: the Texans went 5-1 whereas the Titans could only manage a 2-4 record! As it stands, there is no team who look ready to break away and take control of the division, so these matches could easily go either way. The Texans have one of the best defensive front sevens in the NFL and a star receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, but they are missing a star QB at this point, with only Tom Savage and Brandon Weeden on the depth chart. For this reason I think it could be beneficial for the Titans to visit Houston in Week 4 as I feel they will be more vulnerable earlier in the season. For similar reasons I am looking forward to the trip to Jacksonville in Week 2. On paper the Jags are a very strong team but they seem to struggle to put it together on the field regularly. Blake Bortles looks to be a franchise QB but there are definitely questions over his performance, especially after his regression last season, so it will be good to face him in Florida while he is still relatively early in his redevelopment under the new coaching team.

In my opinion, the Titans bye week comes at a great point in the season. As mentioned above, I feel that the opening 5 games are certainly winnable, as will be a home game against the Colts and Week 7’s trip to Cleveland. It is possible that the Titans could enter their bye week with a 7-0 record (unlikely, but I can dream!). The next 6 weeks will also be arguably the hardest stretch of the season for the Titans, so a bye week immediately before this gives the team a chance to rest up before the hard fight.

After this stretch of harder matches, the Titans will finish with a trip to San Francisco and home games against the Rams and Jaguars. While I expect all 3 of these franchises to be better than in 2016, the Jags are the only one I can really imagine pushing for the playoffs. If the Titans are still fighting for a playoff position – or a higher seeding in the playoffs – then this relatively easy end to the regular season could push the Titans over the line.

With Week 1 still over 4 months away, there is still plenty of time for everything to change. There is still plenty of time for teams to bring in veterans through trades or free agency (such as Marshawn Lynch to the Raiders), while we still have the Draft to come later next week. As it stands, I can imagine the Titans getting 10+ wins this season, and think they should be disappointed by anything less than a 9-7 season and a return to the playoffs.

 

How do you feel the Titans will do this year? What do you think of the schedule for the team you follow and how do you think they will do? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Lions 2017: The Squad

Warren Gatland has today announced the 41 players that he will be taking with him to New Zealand. As befits a Lions squad, there are a few shock call-ups and omissions.

The full squad (sorted by their main international positions) is as follows:

Prop Dan Cole, Tadhg Furlong, Joe Marler, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola

Hooker Rory Best, Jamie George, Ken Owens

Second Row Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes

Back Row Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, Billy Vunipola, Sam Warburton (captain)

Scrum Half Conor Murray, Rhys Webb, Ben Youngs

Fly Half Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Sexton

Centre Jonathan Davies, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Joseph, Jared Payne, Ben Te’o

Wing Elliot Daly, George North, Jack Nowell, Tommy Seymour, Anthony Watson, Liam Williams

Fullback Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg

I am sure people will spend hundreds of hours debating these selections over the next few weeks. Now that I have had a chance to take a break from work and properly look at the squad, I thought I would post my initial thoughts on the selection.

Notable absentees: As the man who captained England to consecutive 6 Nations tournament victories, Dylan Hartley is arguably the highest profile absentee from Gatland’s squad. It must be even more disappointing for him that his international understudy Jamie George will be going to New Zealand while he tours Argentina. However due to recent form and disciplinary problems, I don’t think this was the shock that it may have been this time last year. More startling was the omission of Joe Launchbury. The Wasps second row was arguably the best in his position in the 6 Nations and one of the best players overall in the tournament this season, winning Man of the Match twice in 5 games. He is a reliable tackler with the work rate of a back row. It was always going to be difficult to select from such a deep pool of second rows, but I also feel that the Gray Brothers, Jonny especially, can consider themselves unlucky to have missed out, especially considering they have more international experience than Ireland’s Iain Henderson (though I do rate him as a player).

Where are the Scots?: Scotland’s improved performances in this year’s 6 Nations (other than the game against England) led to them missing out on second place in the tournament by nothing more than points difference. Scottish fans will have therefore been bitterly disappointed to see only Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour representing the nation in New Zealand. As mentioned above, I would have expected Jonny Gray to feature in place of Iain Henderson, but I would have also considered Finn Russell to be more suited to the back line Gatland has picked. I’m sure that Greig Laidlaw would have been in contention had he not been injured, likewise Huw Jones and Willem Nel, however I don’t feel that there was anyone else in the front row or back row who definitely deserved a spot ahead of one of Gatland’s selections. Alex Dunbar was superb for Scotland in the 6 Nations and is defensively solid but I feel that he was likely overlooked as Te’o and Henshaw can provide that physical presence in the centre combined with more of an attacking game, while the other centres picked are more natural ball-players.

Versatility is key: Injuries will happen during the tour, that’s the harsh reality. While it is possible to call up a replacement, it may take time for them to get up to speed with the squad’s tactics. As well as selecting a couple more players than expected, Gatland has also selected a number of players who can cover multiple positions. Taulupe Faletau is probably the only member of the back row who doesn’t cover multiple positions and even 3 of the second rows (Itoje, Lawes and Henderson) have played internationally at open-side flanker. In the backs, I hope Owen Farrell is used at 10 in the Test matches, but I expect him to slot into the centre to allow them to also play Sexton. Most of the wingers selected also have experience at full back, as does Jared Payne in the centre. Leigh Halfpenny, considered a fullback for Wales, is probably better suited to playing on the wing too! And then we have Elliot Daly: centre or fullback at Wasps, wing for England; it really wouldn’t surprise me if his versatility gets him a place in the Test 23. None of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises are likely to roll over meekly for the Lions, nor are the Maori All Blacks, so such versatility will allow Warren Gatland to keep the team fresh while they play 10 matches 5 weeks.

Bolting for the plane: Almost as traditional as the red jerseys and cuddly toy lion, it’s not a Lions Tour without a couple of ‘bolters’ – surprise selections who often have a limited amount of international experience compared to their rivals for a spot on the plane. When I look at this squad, I personally consider Ross Moriarty and Kyle Sinckler to be the biggest bolters. Moriarty had a fantastic 6 Nations, keeping Faletau out of the starting XV after his return from injury. His performance against England was especially noteworthy, but I felt that his lack of international experience, combined with the strength in depth available to Gatland in the back row would count against him. I’m so glad to have been wrong on this count and look forward to seeing Gloucester represented in New Zealand. Sinckler’s inclusion may have been rumoured in the days leading up to the announcement, but I was still surprised to see him selected. He has really impressed for Harlequins and I’m sure that he will soon be ousting Dan Cole form the starting front row for England, but I was fully expecting him to be touring Argentina with Eddie Jones due to his lack of international experience, especially in the starting XV. I’m sure that Willem Nel would have gone in his place had it not been for his injury setbacks this season, but Sinckler has also benefited from a Welsh scrum that struggled in the 6 Nations. Perhaps the more experienced youngster, Zander Fagerson can perhaps feel disappointed to miss out, but he also struggled at the scrum in a couple of games.

 

Is this a team capable of beating the World Champions? I think they can, but it will by no means easy. I may not agree on all the selections, but now the squad is announced, it is time to start looking towards the initial game at Whangarei against New Zealand Barbarians. Good luck lads!!

 

What are your thoughts on the squad? Who would make your match day squad? How do you feel the Lions will do in New Zealand? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

The Rugby Hokey Cokey

Back in November it was announced that Gloucester Rugby had signed flanker/number 8 Carl Fearns onto a 3-year contract ahead of next season. Being a Gloucester fan, I was thrilled by this news as he is a physical player who had been getting great reviews for his performances in the Top 14 with Lyon. However in recent weeks there have been rumours that his move may be off and that he will instead be re-signing with Lyon for next season.

What we know at the moment is that Lyon have approached Gloucester about allowing him to stay in France, but that Gloucester have so far stood their ground and made clear they are not willing to accept financial compensation in order to release him from the contract he has signed. While I certainly hope that Fearns does move to Gloucester this summer, I thought that it was worth taking a look at the situation and what could be affecting the relevant parties’ decisions.

 

Why do both teams want him?

At 27 years old, with no senior England caps to his name and having moved to a team in the French second tier after losing his place in the Bath team to Sam Burgess, Fearns may not immediately look like a player teams should be so determined to have, but there is much more to him than that history suggests. When Fearns left Bath, they had great strength in the back row and even though he frequently performed at a high level, his performances often went under the radar with the impressive Francois Louw at 7 and the media fawning over Sam Burgess. Given a chance at Lyon, he has been able to show his true quality, being named Supporter’s Player of the Season as they won promotion last season. This year he has continued to impress, having carried the ball considerably more than any other forward in the Top 14 and also being the top scoring forward with 7 tries, which also puts him joint 7th overall in the league try scoring table. England boss Eddie Jones has apparently been interested in him returning to England – making him eligible for the national team – and Lyon’s consultant coach Dave Ellis has also suggested he should be considered for a Lions spot this summer.

Why come to Gloucester?

When Gloucester broke the news for Fearns signing, he was quoted as recognising Gloucester’s history as a powerhouse in English rugby. That may not have been the case in recent seasons but they have still often been competitive against top opposition and simply struggled with their consistency through the whole season. With the potential investment from Mohed Altrad, alongside the appointment of Johan Ackermann as Head Coach from next season, there is renewed optimism that Gloucester could get back to fighting for the playoffs in 2018. There is also good enough depth in the back row for Fearns to have to fight for a place, but at the same time he would also be expected to make the starting XV when Gloucester put out their best team. Having played for local rivals Bath for a number of years, Fearns will also be well aware of the passion that fans have for rugby in the South West and will be familiar with the impact the fans in the Shed can have on a match at Kingsholm. Most importantly if Fearns harbours international aspirations, he will be playing in England so would be available for selection by Eddie Jones.

Why stay at Lyon?

Even though Fearns will be used to the Premiership from his time at the Rec, there is no guarantee that he will be able to transfer his form from Lyon to Gloucester. It may be that his style of play is perfectly suited to Lyon’s game plan but not to the cherry and whites, however I find this unlikely due to Gloucester having a number of physical back rowers in their squad this year – Ross Moriarty, Ben Morgan and Sione Kalamafoni – as well as blonde-haired wrecking ball Richard Hibbard at hooker. It could unfortunately be argued that it is hard to make the England squad when playing for Gloucester, with Matt Kvesic unable to make Eddie Jones’ match day squads despite rave reviews from almost everyone last season. Jonny May (when fit) has been the only regular in the England Elite Player Squad since the Australian took over, with Ben Morgan having fallen behind Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Josh Beaumont in the pecking order. Hopefully, Gloucester’s attractiveness to England selectors will increase if they become more competitive under Ackermann, but as there has been little improvement in results over the last 3 seasons, there can be no guarantee of this.

It is possible that the U-turn may not even be for purely rugby reasons. Top 14 clubs are well-known for offering big money to entice players, it could be that they are offering a much more lucrative contract than Gloucester can. It may even be that the decision may be for family reasons, as he may have decided that he does not want to uproot his family so soon after 2 years in Lyon.

 

This is all purely speculation at the moment, as far as I have seen there have been no comments from Carl Fearns confirming whether he wants to come to Gloucester or stay in Lyon for the next year, though it would be great if we could get some clarity from him.

As a Gloucester fan, I want Carl Fearns at the club next year as I feel that he will be a real asset. As an England fan I also want him back in the Premiership so that he can at least be considered for the national team. However, if he wants to stay at Lyon then I would rather he did, as I would prefer players who are 100% committed to the club and the compensation from Lyon could benefit the club in their search for a replacement… Sergio Parisse perhaps if rumours are to be believed.

 

What are your thoughts on the whole saga? Gloucester fans: would you rather Fearns or the compensation? Which club would you choose if given the chance? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Not-so-super Rugby?

Over the weekend it was announced that from next season Super Rugby will be reducing in size from 18 teams to 15, with 1 Australian and 2 South African franchises set to be cut. This is clearly a less-than-ideal situation and there will be a number of players and fans upset (not to mention angry) with the decision while they wait to see if their franchise is one of the unlucky 3.

Back in 2016, when the tournament was expanded to include a 6th South African team and franchises in Japan and Argentina, SANZAAR made the mistake of making the tournament format overly confusing, spreading the teams over 4 conferences within 2 groups, rather than simply adding an extra team into each of the existing 3 conferences. I am, to put it lightly, a rugby nut, so if I found the format difficult to understand then I hate to imagine how it was for more casual fans!

While the job of picking the franchises to be cut falls to the affected unions, it will be interesting to see how the teams are picked. The Western Force are widely tipped to be the ARU’s sacrificial lamb, but if that is the case, all 4 remaining franchises will be located in eastern Australia, alienating a large number of Australian Rugby fans. What will annoy Force fans even more if this goes through is the knowledge that they have been more successful (4 wins from 21 games) than the Sunwolves (2 wins & 1 draw from 21 games) since the expansion, yet the Sunwolves are guaranteed their place in the competition due to SANZAAR’s “strategic plan for the future”. This plan for the future supposedly relates to the potential of the sport to grow in Asia off the back of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but you have to wonder how much the decision also relates to money. We still appear no closer to getting a Pacific Island franchise even though they would arguably be more ready for the quality of opposition than the Sunwolves have been so far. It seems that the potential for rich new markets matters more to the people at the top than retaining the traditional rugby heartlands and you wonder if some of the national teams will begin to struggle down the line as a result.

It could be argued that some of the national teams are struggling already. The Pacific Islands continue to lose potential internationals to other countries and now only Fiji can be found in the top 10. Tonga and Samoa (13th and 14th respectively) are now both below not just Japan (11th) but also Georgia (12th). Even more noticeable to the casual fan has been South Africa’s drop to 7th in the world rankings after only 4 wins in 2016. Between the Springbok’s poor form and arguments over racial quotas, the last thing SARU needed was one-third of their Super Rugby franchises being cut! Cutting these 3 teams will also not help the ARU and SARU stop the migration of talented players to richer European leagues, so unless they tighten the election policy for the national teams they could see more prospective internationals choosing to play outside the control of their national union.

At first glance, the only ones who benefit from these changes next season are those whose unions are not being required to cut teams. The Japanese and Argentinian national teams will be able to continue to grow alongside their respective franchises and the NZRU will be able to continue to churn out the next batch of superstars through their 5 franchises, whilst continuing their recent dominance in the competition (7 of the last 12 finalists, 4 of them tournament champions). The New Zealand franchises may have generally performed better than the other countries’ franchises in recent years – the Blues are currently the only one not in the top half of this season’s combined table – but it does feel harsh that they will have more franchises than South Africa, who have over double the number of clubs and 4 times the number of registered players.

There was no way that everyone was going to be happy once it was clear teams needed to be cut from Super Rugby, but I can’t help but wonder if the format of the tournament these last 2 years was part of the issue. Hopefully if SANZAAR look to expand the tournament again in the future they will look at keeping a simpler format. Or perhaps 15 is the perfect number of teams in the competition. If they do decide to stick to 15, I will be very interested to see how SANZAAR deal with future expansions, either to have more Argentinian/Japanese franchises, or to include franchises from other nations such as the Pacific Islands or the USA.

Maybe SANZAAR need to look at the creation of a second tier within the tournament, with the champions of the lower tier being promoted at the end of the season in order to replace the team in the top tier that came bottom of the table. This may make the geographical conference structure more difficult, but it would allow each of the original 3 unions to field 5-6 franchises over the 2 tiers, whilst also allowing franchises from other nations to compete on a level playing field. If they could get 20-24 franchises over the two tiers, they would be able to go for 10-12 per tier, cutting down on the travel costs.

 

These are just my personal views on the matter, so I would be very interested to hear your opinions. What do you think of the current 18-team format and the plans for next year? Where do you think Super Rugby should go after this? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Change Please!

After Italy’s ‘no-ruck’ tactics against England, there were a number of fans and pundits who were unhappy with the tactic and felt that there was no place for it in rugby. There were also rumours that World Rugby would look into amending the rule at the end of the season. I seem to have been in the minority that actually really enjoyed watching the Italians use such a different tactic so well and will be disappointed if World Rugby outlaw this just because the England players weren’t able to adapt to the Italian game.

Though I have no problem with the no-ruck tactics, I do feel that there are some rules and situations that World Rugby do need to have a look at changing to improve the game:

 

Scrums

As someone who has regularly played in the front row, it would be fair to expect me to enjoy watching scrums. I really don’t! So much of the 80 minutes is wasted on constant reset scrums, only for the whole debacle to finally end in a penalty or free kick 5 minutes after the scrum was initially awarded. If I’m not enjoying this part of the game, then I hate to imagine how someone who is less of a fanatic feels. I think this could be improved by taking a similar approach to that of PRO Rugby in the USA, where a free kick would be awarded if a team delayed formation of the scrum within 30 seconds, set up incorrectly, didn’t crouch ear-to-ear, bound incorrectly, did not remain square and steady or fed the ball into the scrum at an angle.

I think it would be great if this was taken on board as it is infuriating watching teams taking forever to get ready correctly. These are professional front rowers and yet they are having to be coached by the ref as to how to scrummage properly, this should not be the case! Anything that can speed up the scrum while keeping it safe is surely better for the game.

If nothing else, the feeding at the scrum needs addressing. The only thing rarer than a straight feed in professional rugby is a scrum half getting penalised for feeding at an angle! The whole idea of the scrum is for it to be a contest as well as a means to restart the game. Though I don’t agree with everything Brian Moore says, I firmly believe his assessment that straight feeds would help stabilise the scrums, as the defending team would not have to push early in order to have a chance to steal the ball. A straight feed would also encourage the hookers to hook the ball back through the scrum (hence the name of their position), so this would also help reduce the number of scrums that end up collapsing after the ball has got stuck half way back to the number 8.

So not only would this stricter approach to scrums improve the quality of play, but it may also improve the safety of the forwards, especially those in the tight five.

Buying penalties

If there’s one thing that annoys me more than scrums at the moment, it would be scrum halves buying offside penalties by deliberately passing the ball into a retreating defender. I understand that the defender is technically offside, but is he really interfering with play if the pass is not going anywhere near a member of the attacking team? In my opinion, buying a penalty is no different to diving or flopping at minimal contact. Under World Rugby’s amended laws from last summer, ‘Any player who dives or feigns injury in an effort to influence the match officials will be liable for sanction’ so why should throwing a pass into a retreating player in an effort to influence the match officials be treated any different? I have noticed a couple of referees recently give penalties for offside but then give the scrum half a warning that next time they would be the one penalised, so it is good to see referees are paying attention to it, but why should the scrum half get away with cheating in the first instance, as that could be the instance that decides the outcome of a game?

Forward pass

When is a forward pass not a forward pass? Apparently, the answer is ‘when the hands go backwards’. I can understand the logic behind this, as momentum and high winds could cause the ball to go forward even if the hands have gone backwards, but surely we should not be getting to a point where we are having to rely on cameras far from the action and atless-than-ideal angles in order to decide whether a player’s hands went backwards. It’s not as if the quality of attacking play was poor before a forward pass was judged by the direction of the hands – just watch that Gareth Edwards try for the Barbarians in 1973 – and would make the job of the officials a lot easier!

Obstruction

Law 10.1 (c) & (d) states that ‘a player must not intentionally move or stand in a position that prevents an opponent from tackling a ball carrier/playing the ball’ and yet every time we see a scrum half preparing to clear their lines with a box kick, we see a number of players fanning out either side of the ruck to stop the opposition getting close enough to charge the kick down. Anywhere else on the field this would be a penalty but at a breakdown officials will turn a blind eye. The vast majority of the time the player can’t even use the excuse that they were in the ruck as they have not entered through the gate as they should, so there is no reason that this should be allowed.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I have noticed a lot of games recently where players have successfully cleared out a ruck and then grab hold of a defender near the breakdown to prevent them moving away into a position to counter the next attack. If anything, this is even worse than blockers at a kick as rather than buying a player an extra half a second to get a kick away this could potentially lead to a gap for a player to break through and lead to a try.

 

Though some of these, such as the forward pass rule would require World Rugby to amend the existing laws, many of these are already in the laws but do not get penalised by the officials. I appreciate that there is a lot for the officials to watch out for, but many of these offences are so blatant from players it would be relatively simple to take a zero tolerance approach to these actions. Hopefully doing so would help contribute to a safer and more exciting game of rugby for players and fans alike.

 

If you could change one law, what would it be and why? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Does relegation need to be kicked into touch?

As happy as I was seeing Gloucester take the full 5 points from their trip to Ashton Gate recently, there was a part of me that was disappointed to see Bristol’s relegation back to the Championship all but guaranteed. I was quite surprised and disappointed when I saw a story quoting their chairman as saying they would “walk promotion” next season if they are relegated. However after thinking about it for a moment, I realised that rather than arrogance this is probably just stating a fact. Last season’s relegated team, London Irish, were unbeaten in the league until a recent loss at Jersey. With Pat Lam as coach and a number of high-profile new signings (including internationals Ian Madigan and Alapati Leiua) and current players committing (Siale Piutau & captain Jack Lam) all on the books for next season it is very likely that Bristol will finish top of the league, thereby benefitting from the playoffs being scrapped as of next season.

This got me thinking if we should have promotion and relegation between the 2 leagues, or if the calls to ring-fence the Premiership are justified. Up to now I have firmly believed that it is right to have promotion and relegation, but I have tried to look at this objectively in order to generate a fair opinion. In doing so, I have realised how little I actually knew of the Championship, so this has been a bit of a learning curve for me too as I have looked into this.

 

Something worth fighting for

My main argument in favour of relegation has always been that it gives the teams at the bottom an incentive to keep fighting until the end of the season, even once it is clear that they will be unable to make the playoffs of qualify for the Champions Cup. Fans pay good money to watch their teams play, if they turned up and saw the team experimenting with new combinations or blooding too many academy players ahead of the next season, then some fans would likely feel short-changed if the team did not get the desired result. By having the fear of being relegated from the league if they are not getting the results, it means that the teams must continue fighting right to the very end to ensure their safety. It makes the league more exiting for fans too when they can be looking at teams throughout the league table still fighting for something important, whether it is a place in the league playoffs, a chance to play against the top teams in Europe or even just survival in the league.

Conversely, the need to fight until the end could have a negative effect. The need to win every game in order for teams to stay up means that it is harder for them to bring up youth players. With Bristol having Gavin Henson and Tusi Pisi on their books this season, I doubt they had any plans for Billy Searle to have played such a big part in their league campaign this year. Likewise Worcester with Jamie Shillcock. A look at the England U20s EPS for this year’s 6 Nations does not throw up many names instantly recognisable from the Premiership. Many of these players, though undoubtedly talented, are playing in the Championship, or feature for their Premiership clubs mainly in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and A-League games, unless there are injuries or international call-ups at their position. Though the quality players are constantly coming through at youth level, they are often then struggling to break into the senior match day squads on a regular basis. There will be the odd freak of nature like Maro Itoje or Zach Mercer who becomes a first team regular at a young age, but for many players there is a period between graduating from their academy and getting regular first team rugby. With the money starting to come into the league, this is only likely to get worse as top international players are signed from other countries with huge wages that force coaches to pick them over the young prospects.

This need to play the top players as often as possible could also be detrimental to their long-term wellbeing. Between the domestic season (regular appearances in the Premiership and European Cup), the 6 Nations and International windows in the summer and autumn, there is not much time for an England International to have a break – and this isn’t even taking to account years where we have a Lions tour or a World Cup! There have been plenty of grumbles from fans at the amount of games internationals in the Pro12 miss, but the lighter schedule for these players must allow them to remain at peak fitness for more matches rather than carrying little knocks over a couple of weeks. The last thing you want is for a match between 2 of the top nations is for half the team to be below par as they are carrying minor injuries or are completely burnt out from a long season. Removing relegation means that teams can manage all their players better, allowing internationals the rest they need while letting the young players gain valuable experience in the first team, a plus for everyone involved.

Money talks

The Greene King IPA Championship is a professional league, but that does not mean that it is necessarily sustainable. London Welsh were liquidated back in December and just a quick search on Google found me a number of stories of other Championship teams struggling financially: Jersey sold their assets in November to ensure they made it through to the end of the season, Richmond’s players are part-time and Bedford have recently been given full relief of business rates by the local council on grounds of financial hardship. Jersey may have just defeated London Irish in back-to-back games, but over the course of a season, it is going to be difficult for teams struggling financially to compete against the money that a team relegated from the Premiership will have, not to mention the quality of players they will bring if they can convince a number of their players to stay with them despite the drop as Bristol have.

In the last 11 seasons, the team relegated from the Premiership have won promotion in the next season 8 times, which also looks set to happen this year barring a playoff collapse from London Irish. The only teams to have not made it back into the Premiership since their last relegation in this time frame are Leeds in 2011 and London Welsh in 2016. With the increase in the Premiership salary cap, the quality of players coming down to the Championship with a relegated team is improving, so it is becoming even easier for a team to make an immediate return following relegation. When it gets to the point that the promotion from the Championship is a given and the only question is who will be relegated, is there any point having promotion?

If another team does manage to beat the odds and win the Championship, is there even any guarantee that they will be able to gain promotion? Rotherham (2002) are so far the only team to have been denied promotion to the Premiership due to their grounds not meeting the league’s minimum standard, however there have been years where Cornish Pirates have been competing in the playoff final knowing that they will not be promoted even if they win convincingly. When London Welsh won the league in 2012, they were only confirmed of their Premiership status in late June following an appeal after their plans to play at the Kassam Stadium were initially deemed unsuitable by the RFU. This delay severely hampered their recruiting, likely contributing towards their immediate return to the Championship. It doesn’t seem fair that a team can win the league but not be promoted if other teams in the league do have that extra incentive. It only seems fair that the RFU either get rid of the minimum requirements (which I wouldn’t be against at all) or ring-fence the league.

Picking the teams

So let’s assume that the RFU does decide to ring-fence the league, it would be very harsh if a team got relegated in the final season and were then stuck in a league where they are clearly of a higher quality. For this reason I think that the Premiership would need expanding. Unless the RFU wanted to introduce bye weeks into the season, they would need to keep the number of teams even, so it would make sense to expand the league from 12 to 14 teams in this circumstance. The important question then becomes which teams are selected. I feel that Bristol’s consistency at reaching the playoffs in the Championship since their last relegation means that they still deserve a spot in an extended Premiership alongside London Irish and the other 11 current Premiership clubs. But who would deserve the last spot?

Yorkshire Carnegie (formerly Leeds) would be the obvious choice to make the step up as the 14th Premiership team. Since their last relegation in 2011, they have never finished lower than 6th and will have finished in the top 4 on 4 of these occasions, including this season where they currently lie second with enough points to guarantee a top 4 finish. They also have a stadium capable of holding just over 21,000 supporters, which is considerably more than most of the other Championship teams. There would also then be the added benefit of having another top flight team based further North, especially as most of the current Premiership teams are found in either London, the South West or the Midlands.

Doncaster Knights were runners-up in last year’s playoff final after finishing second to Bristol, but their stadium’s capacity (5,000) is half the size of the smallest currently in the Premiership. They have also not been as consistent as Carnegie over the same period of time, having been relegated in 2013 and winning an immediate return the following year, but finished 2nd last year and are currently 4th.

Cornish Pirates are hoping to get a new stadium that would allow them to meet the Premiership’s minimum standard, so it would be very harsh to not consider them for the last Premiership place. However, though their finishing positions since 2012 have been more consistent than Doncaster they have not made the top 4 since 2012’s playoff final loss to Bristol and currently find themselves 6th in the league, 4 points behind Doncaster.

 

When I first considered writing this, I really felt that promotion and relegation between the Premiership and Championship was right, but looking into this has really made me rethink my stance on the matter.

If the Championship can be made more financially stable so that teams are able to compete against those being relegated from the Premiership, then I feel there is a place for relegation, so long as whoever the winner is can be promoted regardless of the size of their home ground. However, until the RFU can get the Championship in this position, I feel that it would be unfair on everyone involved for a team to be relegated to a league where their team can easily consider winning the competition with a couple of months to spare, while other teams in the same league struggle to stay afloat financially.

My personal opinion is that the Premiership should be expanded to 14 teams and then ring-fenced, with teams moving up from lower leagues to replace those moved up. If I was the one making the decision, I would pick London Irish and Yorkshire Carnegie to join the 12 current Premiership Clubs. With this ring-fencing, the RFU can make the decision between putting more finances into the Championship or to step it back to a more sustainable semi-pro/amateur competition. This does not have to be the end of the matter, I would be more than happy for the Premiership to reintroduce relegation if the Championship can get to a level where it is can compete with teams dropping down from the top league. As the league season would require more matches, the Anglo-Welsh could possibly be removed, with Premiership teams playing their youth or ‘A’ teams in a revamped British & Irish Cup, allowing them to play against other Premiership ‘A’ teams and Championship-level clubs.

 

What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you agree with promotion and relegation? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge