Eyes On: England v Barbarians

England kicked off their Summer tour on Sunday with a game against Vern Cotter’s Barbarians side. With a number of players unavailable for selection due to a combination of the Lions tour, Saturday’s Premiership final and Friday’s Champions Cup playoff game between Northampton and Stade Francais, Edie Jones gave debuts to a number of young players. At the end of an entertaining 80 minutes, England got back to winning ways with a 28-14 victory courtesy of tries from Nathan Earle, Nick Isiekwe and Danny Care.

Considering the number of players missing who will likely come back into the starting lineup against Argentina, it is a bit more difficult to judge what can be learned for the Test matches, but as many of these players will be pushing for international selection over the coming years there is still a lot that can be learned from this game.

 

The Barbarian Way

There’s no such thing as a boring game when the Barbarians are involved. While the Barbarians still want to win every game, the important thing for them is to entertain the crowd. Just one look at the official Barbarians Twitter feed shows you how their number one priority is to ensure everyone watching is having fun. This mentality could be seen from the early minutes when Timoci Nagusa was fed the ball on his own 5m line and decided the best way to clear his lines was to run back over his own try line, beat the England defence to the outside and break all the way to halfway. These guys will run the ball from anywhere! As if that wasn’t enough, they used the classic ‘wall’ formation for a tap and go penalty close to the England try line and also decided to switch backs and forwards around for a line-out, resulting in scrum half Kahn Fotuali’i being lifted (pay attention Bath – he did well up there). Another thing you can guarantee is that penalties will not be kicked for goal, but will instead be kicks to touch or a tap and go.

Unfortunately England under Eddie Jones are all about the result, so it was no surprise – though arguably disappointing – to see them calling for the kicking tee whenever they had a kickable penalty. I understand that it is important to get momentum, especially considering their last match was a disheartening loss to Ireland, but given the quality of opposition and the lack of experience in the squad, I think fans would have been happy with a loss providing the performance was good and the match was entertaining.

England Selections

Eddie Jones was understandably limited with his player selections, but there were still a few that surprised me.

George Ford has rarely performed well in an England shirt without Owen Farrell outside him, so this would have been the perfect chance for him to take the pressure on himself. Instead, Alex Lozowski was put at 12 as a like-for-like replacement for his fellow Saracen. I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of Ford as I feel that he requires another playmaker at 12 to cover for him, which limits the possible selections. I would have personally started a different style of player at 12 or perhaps even considered starting Lozowski at 10 to give him some experience at international level.

Mike Brown has remained Eddie Jones’ first choice fullback despite what I feel has been a drop in form in recent seasons, especially at international level. I understand that with so many uncapped players in the squad, Brown was probably picked due to his experience, but I would’ve liked to see Mike Haley given the 15 shirt for this fixture. Haley may have played the majority of the game due to Lozowski’s early injury, but this was at outside centre, a position that he is not so familiar with, so I don’t think we got a chance to see his real potential.

Why Richard Wigglesworth was selected as a replacement for this game is beyond me! I don’t think that he’s a bad scrum half, but his playing style is suited to a territory-based game and he does not produce the quick ball that England likes. With Ben Youngs having pulled out of rugby this Summer for personal reasons and many English scrum halves having played in the Premiership final the day before – including my pick for the England number 9 shirt, Dan Robson – I understand that Eddie Jones had limited options, but I feel that he should have continued to look towards youth and gone for Wigglesworth’s fellow Saracen Ben Spencer, who despite having been around the Sarries first team for years is still only 24! As it was, I think that Wigglesworth had a poor game when he was on the pitch and I struggle to imagine he will make many more appearances for the national team.

A Goode Day

Alex Goode has really fallen out of favour under Eddie Jones. Though he has often been on better form than Mike Brown in recent seasons (in my opinion) his style of play does not seem to match with Jones’ philosophy and he can no longer even make the touring squad. Given his chance by the Barbarians to go up against the man who considers him surplus to requirements, Goode played well and was arguably the better of the 2 fullbacks. He played the final pass for Adam Ashley-Cooper’s try and his chasing of kicks drew a number of penalties for the Barbarians. He was so close to capping things off with a try early in the game, but was unable to hold onto Nagusa’s pass that reached him around ankle height. If Goode can continue to put int he big performances, hopefully we’ll see him back in the white jersey again in the future.

A Bright Future

While this may not have been a capped game, this will have been a great experience for England’s uncapped players. I think that all the players had solid, if not spectacular games. England’s 6 front rowers came into this game with a total of 1 cap between them, yet stood up well against a vastly more experienced Barbarians front row, especially Will Collier who caused issues for Mikheil Nariashvili all day. Man of the Match Tom Curry impressed after coming on just before half time for Sam Underhill, who had been having a very good game too. He caused problems in the breakdown and was not overawed by playing against legends of the game like Thierry Dusautoir.

Nathan Earle was in my opinion the player most likely to have pushed himself into consideration for a starting spot. I remember being impressed by Earle in the U20s World Championship a few years ago and have been disappointed that he has not had more chances for Saracens. Against the Baa-Baas, his defensive positioning may not have been perfect but he seemed to be a more reliable – and harder – tackler than Anthony Watson, while also terrifying the defence with his incredible pace. Christian Wade and Semesa Rokoduguni both appear to be out of favour with Eddie Jones, so I feel that – assuming Elliot Daly does not remain on the wing – Jack Nowell, Earle and Jonny May could become Jones’ top 3 options for the wing, though it wouldn’t surprise me if he chose Watson ahead of May.

 

What were your thoughts game? Do you disagree with my opinions or think  that I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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Change Coming in the World Series?

Over the last couple of days I have been hearing rumours that England, Wales and Scotland are set to merge into a Team GB for the World Series as well as the Olympics. According to the reports, the team would then split into its individual countries for the World Cup and Commonwealth Games. Part of this has been driven by other nations not liking the way that Team GB have 3 chances of qualifying for the Olympics via the World Series under the current setup, whereas playing as Team GB would give them the same chance as any other nation. If this merger were to happen, it would be a big change to the Rugby 7s landscape, so I felt that the impact of this was worth having a look into.

Back in August, Team GB managed to completely prove my prediction that they would struggle at the Rio Olympics completely wrong by winning the silver medal as runners-up to Fiji. If the players were able to do that after only a couple of weeks together – compared to the other nations who had spent the best part of a year preparing for the tournament – then it is possible spending regular time together could give them an even better chance of victory in subsequent Olympic events. It could also lead to increased success in the World Series. England’s 2nd place in the overall standings of this season was the first time one of the Home Nations had finished in the top 3 since the 2011/12 season where England finished 3rd. By bringing in the top 7s players from Scotland and Wales, this will allow Team GB to be even more competitive in the World Series as they would have more top 7s players to pick from and they would also have a better chemistry than at Rio due to an increased time training together. It would also reduce much of the financial burden on the individual unions if they can all join together to fund one team. As has been noted by the media, it is not that long since the SRU considered cutting their 7s programme due to a lack of funds, but now they have won the London 7s 2 years running and are clearly a team on the up! World Rugby’s “School of Sevens” series of videos on YouTube also recently included a bit about the tactical use of different languages being used in 7s. In it, a number of English players mentioned how they were at a disadvantage as opponents could often understand them when they were speaking English, but they could not understand their opponent’s native tongue. It was also mentioned how Team GB used Welsh for the line out calls during the Olympics in order to stop other teams understanding them. Having a regular Great Britain team would allow them to start utilising the Welsh language and possibly also Gaelic to communicate on the field and have success against other nations.

While there are clearly a number of positives to merging the nations, in my mind there are also a couple of negatives that need consideration. Being able to pick a team from all 3 nations means that there are fewer places available for players, so we will probably see a potential development pathway – think New Zealand under Sir Gordon Tietjens – disappear as there will only be space for the sevens specialists. Perhaps even worse is the possible hindrance this merger could have on the individual nations’ chances in the Commonwealth Games and in the World Cups. If we look back to the 12-man Team GB squad that went to Rio, the squad consisted of 8 Englishmen, 2 Welsh and 2 Scots. Of those 4 players, only one will be expected to play in next year’s World Series due to 2 of them (James Davies and Mark Bennett) focusing on 15s and Mark Robertson retiring. I would expect a bit more balance in a Great Britain wider squad, but would still expect there to be an uneven balance between the 3 nations. While this may not necessarily cause problems when playing as Great Britain, it could put nations with fewer players involved at a disadvantage when they then split for the other tournaments as they would have less international experience than most other teams involved.

My personal opinion is that it would be good to see the nations merge for the World Series. However I think that it would benefit the nations to find a way to also keep their own individual national teams playing in some other tournaments outside the World Series so that there is still a decent degree of chemistry and experience for each individual national team.

 

As well as the prospective changes to the way these nations run their 7s programme, there is also talk that the World Series will be reduced from 16 teams to 12. I am not personally a fan of this. I know some people are worried that the quality of rugby would decrease if 2 spaces are freed up in a 16-team tournament by the Great Britain merger, but I feel that this could actually help the Series as a whole due to there being less chance of the promoted team being immediately relegated, which would allow emerging nations like Germany to improve by playing against the best teams in the world on a regular basis, but also being able to regularly compete with teams around their level so that they can still be competitive in matches.

 

What are your thoughts on the possible changes? Would you like to see either of these plans come to fruition, or do you have a better suggestion? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

The Evolution of the Modern Prop

Rugby has often been described as a game for people of all shapes and sizes. There are positions like winger that were perfect for the tiny lads who look like they’re in need of a good meal and there are positions for people – like myself – who look like they have had a meal too many. As the modern game has evolved since rugby’s turn to professionalism in the nineties, we have seen changes in the way that professional players look. Backs are now often the size that forwards used to be, while the forwards could often get away with changing their name to Goliath. Though the size of players may have changed, the basic expectations of each position remain very similar, but there are now many more expectations towards a prop in the professional game or at higher amateur levels.

When I was first introduced to rugby at the age of 11, I weighed 10 stone. As one of the biggest lads in the year at school it was a simple decision for the teachers to place me in the front row. Around this time, props were still very much the big lumps of the team. There was no real expectation for the props to be heavily involved in loose play, provided they could jog their way from scrum to scrum and hit the occasional ruck with enough force to make a defender regret entering the breakdown. No disrespect to players like Rodrigo Roncero, but their job was to pretty much only to push in the scrum and mauls and put in a couple of big hits in their 30-50 minutes on the pitch. If they had the ball in hand it was likely to be from a pick-and-go or from a crash ball off one of the half backs.

While reliability in the set piece is still a must for a modern prop, they are also expected to be much more heavily involved in the whole game. In recent years set piece specialists like Marcos Ayerza and Adam Jones have found their game time being reduced in favour of young props who are more of a threat in open play like Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler. They don’t need to necessarily have the same handling skills as a centre but they need to be able to keep a passing move going if they pop up in the middle of a pitch. Just look back to Joe Moody in the 2015 Rugby World Cup: he was the third choice in his position for the All Blacks, yet he had the ability and confidence to keep an attack going with an offload out the back of his hand! Mako Vunipola often appears in the Saracens midfield during an attack and his combination of strength and handling skills causes defenders no end of issues as they know he could either run over them or just draw them in and pass the ball to the next man. If you need more evidence, just look at the Blues’ most recent Super Rugby match against the Stormers, 2 of the final passes were by the man-mountain that is Charlie Faumuina!

Props are also becoming a bigger weapon in an attack due to their improved fitness. These aren’t just players making up numbers while preparing for the next set piece, these are athletes in their own right! Ellis Genge was frequently given the ball in Leicester’s Premiership semi-final against Wasps as he has the pace and fitness to carry on an attack if he breaks through the tackle, which he has enough power to do on a regular basis. He is also sometimes kept out in the back line at a shortened line-out, something that would usually be expected of the back row rather than the front row. For a man as big as a professional prop, if they can get up a bit of speed, the force that they will be putting into a collision is huge! They aren’t just expected to run into the nearest defender anymore either, but instead to run attacking lines with a view to breaking through the defence. Possibly the best recent example of this would be London Irish’s Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, who scored a beautiful try from about 25 metres out in the first leg of their Championship Final against Yorkshire Carnegie. A centre would have been happy with that line, instead it’s coming from a prop!

Not only are props now expected to have a good enough fitness to be heavily involved in a game, they are also being expected to be fit enough to last longer on the pitch. Though he was not one of the best performing in his position during the 6 Nations, Scotland’s Zander Fagerson managed to last the full 80 minutes in at least 2 of the games, a feat rarely seen in international rugby considering there must be a replacement for each front row position on the bench. We often see Mako Vunipola staying on the pitch for at least 70 minutes too, and you often get the feeling that he could play more but the coaches are instead just looking for fresher legs to finish off the game.

More than anything, the traits looked for in a modern prop are now more varied than they were in the past. Props are still not considered to reach their prime until much later in their careers once they have more experience. By this point, their impact in the loose may not be as big so they rely on their technical brilliance and dominance in the scrum. Meanwhile they younger props are almost extra back rows in the loose whilst still expected to be able to at least hold their own against more experienced scrummagers. As the game continues to evolve, I will be interested to see how the role of a prop continues to change…

 

What are your thoughts on how a player’s role has changed over time? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro12 semi-finals

What a weekend of rugby UK fans have been treated to! In the Premiership, the semi-finals were decided by a combined 3 points, with both games being won by tries in the dying minutes. Meanwhile in the Pro12, the Scarlets became the first team in tournament history to win a semi-final away from home, despite playing over half the game a man down! Munster also kept their remarkable story going by beating Ospreys to make the final in a season where they have had to deal with the passing of Head Coach Anthony Foley.

I was lucky enough to have this weekend off work so was able to watch the first 3 games live on TV and record the Munster game in order to watch later, even if this did mean I had to make do with an S4C broadcast with no English commentary. With the finals on Saturday and the Lions tour beginning soon after, here are my thoughts on the weekend’s semi-finals.

 

Leinster 15 – 27 Scarlets

What a fantastic (and thoroughly deserved) result for the Scarlets! Their performance could very easily be described as a game of two halves: In the first half the Scarlets took full advantage of every time they were able to rip through the Leinster defence with a combination of great support lines and exquisite handling. Steff Evans’ red card just before halftime meant that the Scarlets had to change their approach in the second half and their dogged defence was as impressive as their attack had been in the first 40! James Davies was rightly named Man of the Match after being a nuisance at the breakdown and using his sevens experience to help cover the wing in Evans’ absence. Leinster’s tactics may have played into the Welsh region’s hands, but to outscore them in the second half despite being a man down is no mean feat! Next week’s final may be a step too far, but if the Scarlets can pull out another performance like on Friday night, anything is possible.

One man who probably didn’t enjoy this game was Warren Gatland. With the first Lions game mere weeks away, Johnny Sexton had a thoroughly forgettable performance against the Scarlets and seemed to suffer a couple of knocks. If he can barely make it through a Pro12 match, how he can be expected to survive a Lions Tour to New Zealand is a mystery to me! As if that wasn’t bad enough, he also witnessed two of his selected props, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong, leave the field earlier than planned with injuries. Furlong is a likely Test starter for the Lions and McGrath has every chance of making the 23, so Gatland will surely be hoping that neither of these injuries is serious.

Munster 23 – 3 Ospreys

The score probably flatters Munster, but they were the better team on the day. Ospreys clearly came with the intention to play positive rugby but often couldn’t even do the basics right! So many attacks were over before they even began courtesy of handling errors or a lack of support. Possibly the worst moment from this perspective was a line-out that floated past an oblivious Alun Wyn Jones and hit Bradley Davies on his behind, somehow I doubt that was the move they called. Brendon Leonard, deputising for the injured Rhys Webb, had an evening to forget, failing to catch a relatively simple pass off the top of a line out early on and sailing a number of kicks too long, allowing the Munster players to call a Mark. Dan Biggar was largely ineffective too, so I was surprised to see the coaches replace him with Sam Davies so late in the game, by which point Munster’s victory was as good as confirmed.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that Francis Saili was named Man of the Match as he had a fantastic game. Despite being penalised early for a tackle off the ball (a penalty that I felt should have gone the other way as Biggar was in front of the ball carrier so technically obstructing Saili), the Kiwi continued to interrupt the Ospreys midfield with a number of big hits, whilst often looking dangerous going forward. His try in the first half was very well taken, to pick up a bobbling ball without knocking on and then have the strength to power over the line. With performances like this, it is crazy to think that Munster have chosen to let him go! I’m sure that, much like Ulster with Ruan Pienaar, if there was less strictness from the IRFU surrounding foreign imports then he would have still been with the province next year.

 

Exeter 18 – 16 Saracens

This was probably the day where Saracens’ success proved to be their undoing. With so many internationals in the squad and having gone all the way in this season’s European Champions Cup, it appears that this was a match too far for the defending Champions. Already missing defensive linchpin Brad Barritt, losing both Michael Rhodes and departing winger Chris Ashton in the opening 10 minutes was always going to make things difficult. Despite this, they still came within a minute of victory and if it wasn’t for such a ballsy kick from Henry Slade they likely would have held on. The introduction of Schalk Brits really improved Sarries’ attack, I just feel that if they had also replaced Richard Wigglesworth with the more attacking Ben Spencer midway through the second half then they could have caused the Exeter defence more issues.

Last May, it is fair to say that Exeter were somewhat overawed in the final and it took them far too long to get into the game. While it took them a while to get going again, they grew into the game much quicker and by the end of the first quarter were as competitive as Saracens. Possibly the most impressive thing about the Exeter performance was the way they kept their heads up after Mike Ellery’s late try. To win the big games, it is important to have clutch players, and Henry Slade proved how clutch he was with that penalty kick from his own 10m line to give the Chiefs a line-out just short of the Saracens 5m line. Even then, the forwards did a fantastic job not to get too excited and give away a stupid penalty on their way to crossing the try line. Wasps may be the favourites in the final, but write off Exeter at your peril!

Wasps 21 – 20 – Leicester

Before kickoff, I fully expected Wasps to run away with this game, a feeling that was strengthened when they took an early lead. However, Tigers proved me completely wrong and did so well to come within a few minutes of victory. It must be remembered as well the quality of player missing from the 23 through injury. When on form, Maxime Mermoz, Manu Tuilagi, Matt Toomua and JP Pietersen could walk into most Premiership teams. Tom Youngs’ personal issues would have been a fair reason to finish the season early, and it was a testament to his character to see him not just play, but also perform so well. What must also be mentioned is the reception that Youngs got from both home and away fans. The BT Sport commentary noted that the cheer for Tom Youngs was almost as loud as the ones for the home players when the teams were announced, and the way he was cheered when leaving the field made me proud to be a rugby fan.

The 2016/17 Wasps back line is possibly one of the most exciting things that I have ever seen in professional rugby. However for much of the game they played into Tigers’ hands by playing a tight game rather than the expansive rugby we are used to. In the last 20 minutes they finally began to spread the ball and were rewarded with the winning try. They will certainly be hoping that Kurtley Beale’s injury was nothing serious as he is a quality player who brings so much to the Wasps attack. Perhaps their biggest worry ahead of the final will be the scrum. They have struggled with injuries in the front row this season and this is arguably the weakest area of the squad. Tigers had some fortune in the scrum and Exeter looked very impressive in this area against Sarries, so Wasps need to do everything they can to get the ball out as quickly as possible or, better yet, avoid the scrums in the first place!

 

What were your thoughts on the games? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Simulate This!

The English FA have today announced a new regulation that should help to combat diving in football. Under the new rules, If a player is found to have dived in order to win a penalty or get a player sent off – either a straight red card or a second yellow – then he will be punished retrospectively for “successful deception of a match official”. Until now, the only punishment available to divers was a yellow card if the referee picked up on the simulation.

Diving has become such an issue in the modern game, it’s rare that we are able to go a week without seeing a commentator or pundit discussing whether a player dived to win a penalty or free kick. The most memorable one in recent months was by Middlesbrough’s Gaston Ramirez against Bournemouth, a laughable flop about 4 steps after the tackle that rightly saw him receive a yellow card (he was later sent off after receiving a second yellow).

It is good to see that the FA are taking steps to stop players diving. Though calling it ‘simulation’ may sound fancy, diving should be called what it is: cheating! So in this regard it is good to see that the cheaters will be punished from next season.

This can’t be the last move against diving though. ‘Successful’ divers will only be punished if their cheating wins their team a penalty or gets an opponent sent off, so plenty of successful dives will still go unpunished if they are outside the box and either don’t result in a card or only result in an opponent receiving a first yellow card. Therefore incidents like Alexis Sanchez’s embarrassing gymnastic routine after Christian Fuchs threw a ball at him would still not be picked up post-game by a panel (Sanchez did get a yellow but that was for not being far enough away at the throw-in rather than his theatrics). It also wouldn’t pick up if a player’s dive earned a defender their first yellow and they later got a second one for a legitimate foul. Perhaps worst of all, it wouldn’t pick up if a free kick was awarded due to a successful dive and a goal was scored, unless the defender was also sent off for the challenge.

This is a great first step but once this is up and running it should be extended to any clear dive that is missed by a referee can be punished. Otherwise players will just get smarter about how and where they cheat. Only once there is zero tolerance can this be properly removed from the game.

Hopefully this is the next step towards making the beautiful game beautiful again.

 

What do you think about the new regulation? Do you think enough is being done to combat diving? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Screwing Up on a Grand Scale

The Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España: the 3 Grand Tours of cycle racing. The best cycle teams in the world fighting it out over multiple stages spanning a couple of weeks for victory in a number of different classifications including Points, King of the Mountain and the all-important General Classification. Victory in these races would be a highlight of a professional cyclist’s career, a chance for them to compete against the best of the best. Yet far too often, we see results being decided by outside influences that are out of the competitor’s control, but could be avoided by the organisers.

When Geraint Thomas began Stage 9 of this year’s Giro on Sunday, he was 2nd in the GC, only 6 seconds behind leader Bob Jungels heading into a stage that could make or break a rider’s GC hopes. By the end of the day, bloody and bruised, he had dropped to 17th in the standings, 5 minutes and 14 seconds behind new leader and GC rival Nairo Quintana. This was not due to him struggling on the Blockhaus climb, but instead was the result of a completely unacceptable accident 13.5km from the finish. With the peloton spread across the road fighting for position, a police motorbike was stopped at the side of the road where it shouldn’t have been. Wilco Kelderman did not have the space to avoid it and in the resulting collision the majority of Team Sky, including Thomas, were brought down, along with Adam Yates of Orica-Scott, who has gone from 3rd (10 seconds behind the lead) to 16th (4 minutes and 49 seconds behind). Both of these riders were contenders for the General Classification but can probably now consider their chances over! Sky’s second GC contender Mikel Landa fared even worse in the incident, losing almost 27 minutes to the leaders.

While this can be considered an unfortunate accident, it is not an isolated incident of a rider being affected by outside forces that should not have been present. I have only started paying attention to the Grand Tours at last year’s Tour de France and in less than 12 months have noticed a number of incidents:

  • On Stage 7 on 2016’s Tour de France, Adam Yates’ attempt to gain time on his GC rivals was hit when the flamme rouge collapsed right in front of him. He had no time to stop before hitting the marker and ended up riding the rest of the Tour with a cut chin. This incident could have been much worse had this happened when the peloton was passing, but it still meant that Yates lost his chance to build an advantage against his rivals.
  • Yate’s trouble with the flamme rouge was quickly forgotten after Stage 12’s incident. After high winds caused the stage to be shortened, much of the last kilometre was left without railings to hold the crowd back. They duly swarmed all over the road, leaving a space barely wide enough for the riders to pass through. This led to an incident where 3 GC riders (Bauke Mollema, Richie Porte and yellow jersey Chris Froome) crashed into the back of a motorbike that was forced to stop by the crowds, leaving Froome’s bike unusable. As the Team Sky car was some distance down the road, this led to the famous images of the yellow jersey running up Mont Ventoux to reduce the hit on his finishing time while he waited for his team to catch up with a replacement bike.
  • Stage 5 of the 2016 Vuelta a España saw Steven Kruijswijk’s season ended early after a collision with a bollard left him with a broken collarbone. This bollard should never have been left in the way and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, was left at an angle pointing towards the oncoming riders. In truth, it is lucky that only Kruijswijk and Jan Bakelants hit the post as the peloton rode past.
  • Just a couple of days before this latest accident, Stage 7 of the Giro saw a miraculous near miss as riders came around a blind turn to find a marshal standing in the middle of the road flagging to warn of a traffic island. Somehow the peloton avoided hitting him, but that could have been a serious incident. Surely it would have been better to use barriers to block the road on one side of the island so that the island was part of the edge as opposed to being in the middle of the road?

4 incidents and a near miss. From just 3 races. And these are just the incidents that immediately came to mind, so there may be others that I have missed. All of these crashes have involved riders that would be hoping to compete in the General Classification, so the race results are being heavily impacted by each of these incidents.

Crashes happen, I accept that. Bad weather or riding too close to someone in a group can easily result in a number of riders going to ground, that is to be expected in the sport. What cannot be considered acceptable is outside factors that are wholly avoidable being allowed to affect the outcome of an entire race!

Would this be accepted in any other sport? If a fan ran onto a football pitch and booted the ball into the net, we would not count it as a goal, so why should we allow a rider’s GC standings to be affected by an outside stimulus? To continue the football analogy, clubs and tournament organisers do not wait for something to happen and then say it will not affect the result, they take steps to stop a match being decided by outside influences. That is why you see stewards and barriers all around the grounds to stop spectators getting onto the pitch. I appreciate that each stage of the Grand Tours is too long to have barriers every step of the way, but there are things that can be done to help. Having more spotters travelling in advance of the race to ensure there are no unsafe obstacles in the way would allow race directors and stewards to take appropriate steps to ensure that by the time riders get to that point in the road there is no chance of an issue.

Hopefully the riders affected will be able to minimise the losses over the remaining stages. More importantly, fingers crossed this is the last time we see a rider’s race ruined by something completely avoidable.

 

What were your thoughts on the accident? Do you think more can be done? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: Gloucester v Stade Francais

The 2017 European Challenge Cup final was a meeting between two teams whose historic greatness has fallen away somewhat in recent seasons, with 2016/17 being especially turbulent for both of them. Gloucester had to deal with the mid-season departure of Head Coach Laurie Fisher, whilst Stade had the shock of a planned merger with local rivals Racing 92, with the players going on strike and captain Sergio Parisse nailing his Stade colours to the mast whilst on international duty before the plans were eventually scrapped.

After an enthralling – and at times controversial – game, the Parisians ran out 17-25 winners, achieving their first ever piece of European silverware. Stade’s route to next season’s Champions Cup now comprises of a home game against Cardiff Blues, with the winner facing either Northampton or Connacht. Gloucester’s season is now over, as their 9th place finish in the Premiership meant that their only way of making it into the Champions Cup was to win last night, allowing them to take Northampton’s place in the playoffs.

I was paying so much attention to the game I completely forgot to take notes (rookie error!) so these are my thoughts on the game as well as I remember them after a couple of shifts at work. I am a Gloucester supporter so am understandably disappointed with the result and certain incidents within the game. However I have tried to be as unbiased as possible and to look at the game without my cherry and white-tinted specs.

 

Fond farewells

Man of the Match Sergio Parisse, Stade Francais captain and still arguably one of the most impressive number 8s in the world, will be leaving Paris at the end of this campaign for pastures new. Likewise, vice-captain Pascal Papé, who was banned for the final, will be retiring at the end of the season. Head Coach Gonzalo Quesada is also leaving Paris for Biarritz this summer. While there is still some real quality left at Stade, that is a lot of experience leaving and I worry that they may struggle even more next season.

Gloucester are also losing a number of players. From the 23 in the squad last night, they are saying goodbye to Darren Dawidiuk, Yann Thomas and club captain Greig Laidlaw, as well as other players not featuring: James Hook, Matt Kvesic and a number of promising youngsters. Though there are some quality young talents arriving to replace these players, the cherry and whites will be losing a lot of big game and international experience especially from Hook and Laidlaw. Head Coach Laurie Fisher has of course already left a few months ago and will be replaced by Johan Ackermann from the Lions, but it does look like Director of Rugby David Humphreys will remain, which I am not sure I agree with.

It will be very interesting to see where both these teams are by this time next year. Hopefully they will both be enjoying more success, but I would not be surprised to find them in similar positions to this year.

An unwelcome return

When Stade replaced prop Rabah Slimani at half time for ‘tactical reasons’, my colleague and I laughed along at home with the BT Sport pundits’ jokes that he would be back on for the last 10 minutes like in France’s 6 Nations game against Wales. I think we were all shocked when, with about 10 minutes left, he re-entered the fray as a blood substitution that quickly became a permanent replacement!

I’m no medical professional, but when seeing the treatment that the prop was receiving for his ‘blood injury’ it did seem that the injury was very minor and in fact something that we would usually see patched up on the field without any need for a replacement. It could have all been completely legitimate but after the French antics in that 6 Nations game, for a similar situation to arise mere months later was bound to provoke scepticism from many watching. To remove Slimani for ‘tactical reasons’ at half time when he had been dominating (admittedly not always legally) first Josh Hohneck and then Paddy McAllister seems an odd decision, which just adds to the suspicion.

I really hope that World Rugby look into this soon, as games will be ruined either by teams cheating in this way, or people accusing the teams of cheating. As I did back during the 6 Nations, I feel that the best way to sort this would be to have an independent medic assigned to each game to assess any injuries and agree that a substitution is needed in order to bring a player back on. This is the only way that I can think for player safety to still be protected, whilst also keeping the game’s reputation intact.

Questionable decisions

This is the section where I will probably be accused of Gloucester bias, so I want to start by making it very clear that I think the best team won on the night. That said, there were a number of instances where I questioned the decision of referee John Lacey and his officials.

Many Gloucester fans appeared to disagree with the penalty against Jonny May for tackling the man in the air, however that was one of the decisions that I do agree with, though it was very close. The yellow to Heinz was not a decision that I agreed with, however in this day and age I do understand why that decision was made.

However there were two occasions earlier in the match where Stade players dived off their feet at the ruck to tackle Willi Heinz as he picked up the ball – clear penalties, both given as Stade scrums for Heinz knocking on. I also didn’t see any problem with Lewis Ludlow’s clean out of Will Genia that sparked a mass brawl just after the yellow card, and honestly feel that the TMO should have jumped in to have a look at what appeared to be shoulder from Hugo Bonneval to the face of Billy Burns while he was on the ground right in front of the camera. Bonneval then got doubly lucky by not being penalised for a pull back on Tom Marshall as he tried to dot down a kick into the Stade in-goal area. Granted, it did appear to be the slightest of pulls but at the speed Marshall was going, and considering how close he was to scoring even after the pull, this was likely enough to cost Gloucester a try and in my opinion should have been at least a penalty, if not a penalty try.

I do not want to say that the officials cost Gloucester the game, as Stade were the better team, but if just a few of these decisions had gone the other way, we could have been looking at a completely different result.

Trust in the youth

Billy Burns may not have been at his attacking best on Friday night, but he still controlled the game well and continued to be accurate from the tee, as he has been all season. He also continues to put his body on the line for the team and is not afraid to tackle the opposition’s big boys. With Owen Williams joining this summer, I think Burns has done enough to make the battle for the 10 shirt a mouth-watering contest nest season.

Ross Moriarty has had a fantastic season! Voted Gloucester’s Young Player of the Season and also receiving the Chairman’s Award at last week’s end of season awards dinner, the former England U20 was a regular starter for Wales in the 6 Nations and was also picked by Warren Gatland to go on the Lions Tour to New Zealand this summer. Against Stade, he had a great game and it was nice to see him keep playing until the very end, supporting Darren Dawidiuk for a well-taken try to give Gloucester the slimmest of hopes with a couple of minutes left. When available, he is surely one of the first names on the team sheet and I hope Gloucester do everything they can to sign him to a new contract as soon as possible.

Perhaps even better than Moriarty on Friday night was his fellow flanker Lewis Ludlow. The 22-year old has done well this season when given the chances and in recent weeks seems to have been preferred over Jacob Rowan, who has often been the first choice at open side this season. In this match he was a constant nuisance at breakdowns and lineouts and was always looking to put in a good hit on the opposition. With classic 7s Matt Kvesic and Dan Thomas on their way out and Carl Fearns deciding to stay in France, it would not surprise me if Ludlow’s recent big-hitting performances have helped earn him a starting spot for next season.

 

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