Football Ramble – Premier League 2017/18 Round 2

It feels like we have waited forever for the Premier League to return, but 2 rounds of matches have been completed in the blink of an eye. Round 2 brought us almost everything that we could have asked for: goals, cards, penalties, own goals… you name it, this weekend had it.

Manchester United backed up their opening victory to West Ham with another 4-0 victory, this time against Swansea, while the Hammers will rue their lack of discipline as they had a player sent off and conceded 2 silly penalties on the way to a 3-2 loss at Southampton.

For this week’s round-up, I’ve decided to stay away from talking about transfer speculation as that got plenty of focus last week.

 

Consistency please

There is no doubt that Marko Arnautovic deserved his red card for his elbow on Jack Stephens, however West Ham could consider themselves lucky to have still had 11 men on the pitch at that point, as Mark Noble had earlier put in a tackle that looked very similar to the one that earned Gary Cahill a red card in Round 1.

Like Cahill against Burnley, Noble went into contact with his studs showing and with his foot having come over the ball. I felt that Cahill’s red was a soft card, but by the letter of the law the decision last week was spot on. I can’t understand why one tackle results in a red while the other doesn’t even get a yellow. Eric Dier received a yellow for a similar challenge against Chelsea, but in my opinion this tackle was not as bad as Noble’s as, even though he was high, he was not directing his studs towards the player and instead made contact with the top of his boot.

I think that referee Lee Mason had a good game on the whole and got most of the big decisions (both Southampton penalties and the red card) correct, however it would be nice to see more consistency across the league from the referees.

The Little Pea

As a United fan, I was very disappointed by the way Javier Hernandez was treated by Louis van Gaal first sending him to Rea Madrid on loan before selling him to Bayer Leverkusen. Considering how hard United found it to score under the Dutchman, a prolific finisher like Chicharito could have come in handy.

I have remained a big fan of the Mexican and was so happy to hear that he was returning to the Premier League with West Ham, as this would be the first chance for him to lead the line in attack while also a great chance of regular football – which he often seemed to need in order to be at his best for United. Considering the stupid money being paid for players this summer, £16m looks an absolute steal and the way he played against Southampton, including his first 2 goals for the club suggests that he will be worth every penny.

He may not have the all-round ability of some strikers in the league, but he is probably one of the best poachers in the game at the moment (all 39 of his Premier League goals have come from inside the box) and he reminds me of another United great Ole Gunnar Solskjær. With the players around him to provide chances, I will be very surprised if he doesn’t finish the season with 15-20 goals.

Superstitious Spurs

Last season, Tottenham went unbeaten in the league during their last season at White Hart Lane, amassing 17 wins and 2 draws. Unless they win all 18 of their remaining home games this season, Spurs will not be living up to that record in Wembley. Since Wembley was rebuilt, Spurs have played 11 games there, winning only 2, drawing 1 and losing the other 8! This figure will be somewhat skewed by many of these games coming in the latter stages of competitions against other big clubs, however their ‘Home’ record in Europe wasn’t that great either last season. I’m not a superstitious person, but that doesn’t bode well for their home form this season.

As if that wasn’t enough, they are still waiting for Harry Kane to find his scoring boots in August. In 12 August games for Spurs, Kane has managed 34 shots on target but is yet to find the back of the net. He is making chances on a regular basis but just can’t seem to finish them. I still full expect him to end up pushing for the golden boot again, but if he doesn’t start banging them in soon, Spurs could have a mountain to climb to catch up to their rivals.

Leave it out

Probably the oddest moment of the weekend came in Watford’s game at Bournemouth. The ball was pulled back to Nathaniel Chalobah who looked set to strike from the edge of the box, but at the last moment let the ball roll past him to the feet of Bournemouth’s Harry Arter. Watching back on Match of the Day, it appears that he heard a call from Arter to leave it, pretending to be one of his teammates. This should have really been a free kick in a good position for Watford and a yellow card to Arter for unsporting behaviour, but I assume the officials missed the incident at the time.

I hope we don’t start seeing this on a regular basis as Premier League footballers are role models for children, who could see Arter getting away with this and think that means it is acceptable to do in a match.

That said, I couldn’t help but laugh at this successful piece of s***housery!

Building Hype for the Vuelta

The 2017 edition of the Vuelta a España gets underway on Saturday and the provisional starting list has been announced. It’s time to begin the hype! With the Giro and the Tour out of the way this year, this is the final chance for teams and riders to prove their worth in a Grand Tour in 2017. This will also be the last time we see some of these riders in their current team colours as some will be retiring or moving to different teams after the season.

With this in mind, here are a few things to watch out for over the 3 weeks of racing:

 

Making history

Only 2 riders have ever won the Tour de France and the Vuelta in the same year: Jacques Anquetil in 1963 and Bernard Hinault in 1978. Chris Froome will be hoping to add his name to the list. Sky’s 4-time Tour de France winner has never yet won the Vuelta, finishing second three times, including last year when Nairo Quintana denied him the double by just 83 seconds. There is no Quintana this time, so despite a strong set of competitors including Vicenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador (more on him soon), Tour rivals Romain Bardet and Fabio Aru and the 2017 Tour’s King of the Mountains Warren Barguil.

Froome may not have often looked at his best in the Tour, having not raced much before the event, so you wonder if he has timed everything to give him the best chance of winning both races as opposed to just the one.

He may not have his star lieutenants from the Tour – Geraint Thomas, Michal Kwiatkowski road captain Luke Rowe and the departing Mikel Landa – however he still has a strong team around him including Wout Poels, who was a big part of his 2016 Tour de France victory.

Getting the double isn’t going to be easy, but I think this could be the year that Froome finishes in the coveted Red Jersey.

End of an era

This will be the last Grand Tour that Trek-Segafredo’s Alberto Contador races before retiring. The Spaniard is bringing an end to a 14-year professional career that has included controversy due to doping allegations (he had victories in the 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia voided) but despite this still has victories in 2 Tours (2007 & 2009), 2 Giros (2008 & 2015) and 3 Vueltas (2008, 2012 & 2014) to his name. His recent results (he hasn’t made a Grand Tour podium since his 2015 Vuelta triumph) hint that finishing on the ultimate high of a final victory will be beyond him, but expect to see him pushing for a couple of stage victories and having a big impact on the race.

Three-pronged attack

The depth of quality that Orica-Scott have for General Classification is scary! For the 2017 Vuelta, Orica have decided to name Esteban Chaves and Adam Yates as co-leaders, while also giving Simon Yates the freedom to attack in the mountains. Chaves has not had the best of seasons as he recovers from injury but has done well in the last 2 Vueltas, finishing in the top 5 both times. The Yates twins are both very impressive young riders (Adam won the white jersey on the 2016 Tour, Simon did the same this year) and Simon also looked very good on a number of breakaways during last year’s Vuelta. I look forward to seeing the dynamics of the team as the race goes on and would not be surprised to see the twins go on an attack together on at least one stage. I don’t know how well Chaves will do this year, but I would not be surprised to see a least one Yates pushing for the podium.

Predicting the podium

I’m very much going out on a limb here but I think that with my increasing understanding of the Grand Tours it’s about time to start throwing out some predictions. This is a very difficult race to judge until we see how racers are performing (Quintana certainly didn’t live up to expectations on the Tour this year), but as of now my predicted podium is:

  1. Chris Froome
  2. Vincenzo Nibali
  3. Adam Yates

Football Ramble – Premier League 2017/18 Round 1

Football is back! The Premier League kicked off this weekend with a number of big results. Defending champions Chelsea lost at home to Burnley, finishing with just 9 men on the pitch. Newly-promoted Huddersfield gave their fans the perfect start to life in the top tier with a 3-0 win at Crystal Palace and Manchester United gave evidence that they could be back to their best with an impressive 4-0 win against West Ham.

I wasn’t able to watch any of the matches live this weekend, but just from watching Match of the Day I was able to notice a few things:

 

Still Building

I was surprised to see how few of the big squads appeared so far off a completed squad this weekend. While the big money and the recognition will generally go to the attacking players, there is a big need to have a complete squad. New star strikers Alvaro Morata, Romelu Lukaku and Alexandre Lacazette all opened their accounts in the league in their first match, while Wayne Rooney also marked his return to Everton with a goal. However while many of these teams looked good in attack, the defences often seemed questionable at best. Both Arsenal and Liverpool proved this weekend that they have strength in depth going forward, but both also conceded 3 goals, which proved costly for Liverpool. Chelsea also appeared to struggle at the back, though this may have been in part due to losing Gary Cahill to an early (and correct) red card.

A look at the matchday squads for each of the big 6 will make grim reading for a number of fans. United and, to a lesser degree City, probably had the strongest balanced benches, while Arsenal had a strong bench in terms of attacking quality but less so in terms of defensive solidity. Chelsea’s bench especially looked remarkably weak, with Morata the only outfield player that you could imagine being a regular starter. With the league, 2 domestic cups and Europe all on offer, a deep squad will be vital and I expect many of these squads to be adding players before the transfer deadline.

I think that Liverpool need to sign a 20+ goals-a-season striker like Arsenal have with Lacazette, especially considering Philippe Coutinho seems set for a move to Barcelona, but I think that both should look to get reliable defenders in order to take the pressure off the attackers. Spurs need to find a striker that can be relied upon to ease the pressure on Harry Kane, while Chelsea look like they need options in pretty much every position. Keep an eye on those transfer rumours…

 

On their way

It’s not just transfers in that clubs will be looking at over the next few weeks, as there are a number of clubs trying to hang onto star players. Coutinho, Diego Costa, Danny Rose, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Ross Barkley, Alexis Sanchez and Virgil van Dijk are all key players for their squads but were all missing from this weekend’s matches. Many of these players were cited as having injuries, however it seems convenient timing considering some are likely unsure as to whether they want to play for the club, and some have actively requested a move away.

In my view it is the right decision to not select a player who does not want to be at the club. People who read my article a few months ago regarding the transfer saga between Carl Fearns and Gloucester Rugby will already know that I would always rather have a group of players on the pitch who want to play for the shirt and will put in 100% effort. I understand that football is a business and clubs want to get a decent fee for star players, but surely it is better to get £20m for a £30m player and get his wages off the books, as this is money that can be used to get a player/players to strengthen the squad. Come September, it will be interesting to see how many of these players are still at their current clubs…

Forced into a bad move

Back in April we got the announcement that Super Rugby was being cut from 18 to 15 teams, with 2 South African franchises and 1 Australian franchise being cut from the competition. The worst kept secret in rugby was officially announced recently that the Kings and Cheetahs would be leaving Super Rugby to join the Pro12 (now Pro14). Now the news has dropped that the Western Force will be the 3rd casualty of the Super Rugby Cuts.

Those who read my article at the time the planned cuts were announced will know that I am not happy with the way SANZAAR have been running Super Rugby in recent years, first with the format after expanding the league and then the way they quickly jumped ship and forced SARU and the ARU to cut teams. I have not been overly happy with the decision to add South African teams to the Pro14 but I am willing to give it the chance. However I am very unhappy with the cutting of the Force.

It has already been said that the decision to cut the Force was primarily due to financial reasons. That is understandable as this is a business, however I wonder if this could have a negative impact on Australian rugby. The axing of the Western Force means that all 4 of Australia’s franchises are to be found in the East or South East of the country. With no top-level rugby union franchise in West Australia, there is a distinct possibility that fans will leave the sport, depriving the national team of support and young players who could have grown into future superstars.

The geographical argument may have held more sway if the Force had been poor this season, however they finished 12th overall in 2017 with 26 points, ahead of fellow Australian franchises the Reds, Waratahs and Rebels (21, 19 and 9 points respectively. Australian Rugby is not in a great place at the moment but the Force were one of the only franchises that the ARU could conceivably be proud of. They have also contributed 6 players to the Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship, the same number as the conference-topping Brumbies and 1 more than the Melbourne Rebels.

It’s never nice to see a team cut and players lose their job, but I feel that the entire situation has been handled appallingly. The expansion of the competition was handled poorly leading to a controversial cutting of teams by SANZAAR. It was always going to be tough for the ARU to look good coming out of this, but the way they have handled the situation since it was announced they have had to cut a team has been shocking.

It would appear that every step of the way money has been the motivator. At the end of the day, it’s rugby that will be losing out.

2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back

What a summer it is turning into for women’s sport in England! The Cricket team won the World Cup and the Football team made back-to-back semi-finals in a major tournament before losing to host nation the Netherlands in the Euros. Now attention turns to the Rugby World Cup, where the Red Roses begin the defence of their title in Ireland. The title defence begins on Wednesday against Spain, with further group games against Italy and the USA following in order to earn their place in the semi-finals.

Recent results suggest that the Red Roses are in fine form so, despite a couple of late injuries, they will consider themselves in with a good chance of winning consecutive World Cups for the first time ever. The build-up will have been greatly helped by 50 players spending the last season on professional contracts on either a full- or part-time basis. To go alongside this, the RFU have created a new top-tier league, the Premier 15s, as the new top tier in English club rugby, due to start in September. While this all looks like a big step forward for Women’s Rugby, things may not be as perfect as it seems.

 

With the Premier 15s having 2 teams more than its predecessor the Women’s Premiership, it would have made sense for all 8 of those teams to be included along with 2 other teams, however Lichfield were unsuccessful in their application – the only Women’s Premiership team to be excluded – as there was a team considered a better option in their geographical area (Loughborough Students), despite 3 of the 10 teams coming from the South West and a further 4 from London. This is nothing against Loughborough Students, but this is a step up in level for them, whereas Lichfield have been in the Women’s Premiership since 2003 and have boasted a number of current England internationals, who are now going to have to leave clubs that in some cases they have spent their whole rugby career at in order to keep pushing for the national team.

But it’s not just the selection of clubs that has seemed questionable from the RFU. The much-lauded 50 professional contracts will be reduced back down to just 17 full-time professional contracts, with the RFU’s international focus switching from 15s to 7s after the World Cup. This seems like a huge step backwards for a couple of reasons:

A number of players gave up their jobs for these professional contracts, now many of them are going to have to go and seek employment again, simply because they are only considered suitable for the 15-a-side game as opposed to 7s. This is not fair on the players who every couple of years will have the chance of a 15s contract but are then left to fend for themselves after the World Cup, but will still be expected to turn up and perform for the national team during the 6 Nations and other internationals. The 50 contracts spread over 15s and 7s was brilliant and really helped put England at the forefront of women’s rugby. The danger is that a focus on 7s could see the current World Champions begin to struggle, much like they did in the first 6 Nations when most of their stars were playing in the World Sevens Series.

What makes this even worse is that the RFU are switching the focus between 15s and 7s, but expecting some of the players to also switch focus. 7s and 15s are very different variations in the game, to the point that they could be considered different sports! The basic skills are the same, but there is much more focus on speed and fitness in 7s and the tactics are very different. We saw how few stars of the men’s 15 sides made it into the 7s sides for the Olympics simply because it’s something very different to what they usually play. The RFU cannot focus on just one of these variations as it will be to the detriment of the other. As I mentioned above, the 15s team struggled in a 6 Nations tournament the first season that their stars were moved to the 7s side. With many of the stars back in the 15s side in preparation for the World Cup this season, the 7s team finished outside the top 6 of the World Sevens Series for the first time in the tournament’s 5-year history. Players should be allowed to focus on one variation of the sport to be the best that they can, with perhaps a couple of players who’s skillset makes them perfect for both playing in whichever format is required.

 

Given the funding that the RFU puts into the women’s game, England should be competing near the top of both disciplines of the game rather than focusing on 1. If they were able to hand out 50 professional contracts this year, then the player base is clearly there and will just continue to grow if the Red Roses can continue to be successful. Women’s Super Rugby will help towards this, but I hope the RFU change their decision to focus on one discipline at a time. After all, we all want to see England winning tournaments, don’t we?

Welcome to the Pro14

The worst kept secret in rugby was confirmed yesterday as it was announced that the Pro12 will be expanding to the Pro14 with the inclusion of dropped South African Super Rugby franchises, the Kings and the Cheetahs. It was also announced (weeks after the story originally broke) that the league will be split into 2 conferences.

 

For those who haven’t yet seen the new league structure I recommend watching the video on the Pro14 YouTube page, but I will try to explain it here.

The league has been split into 2 conferences, each containing 2 teams from Wales & Ireland and 1 from Scotland, Italy and South Africa. Each season the conferences will be reorganised according to last season’s results. For the 2017/18 season, the conferences will be:

Conference A: Ospreys, Cardiff Blues, Munster, Connacht, Glasgow, Zebre, Cheetahs

Conference B: Scarlets, Dragons, Leinster, Ulster, Edinburgh, Treviso, Kings

Each team will play home and away fixtures against everybody in their conference (12 games), and then either home or away against each team from the other conference (7 games). Derby games are being protected, so there will be a further 2 games per team to ensure that they play home and away against every team from their country. In the case of the Scottish, South African and Italian clubs, they will play their derby match 3 times in total to make the same total of 21 games due to there being less derbies than for the Welsh/Irish.

The playoffs will span 3 weeks, with the quarter-finals and semi-finals staying within the conference and the final being the only time the conferences play against each other in the playoffs. The quarter finals will see the 3rd placed team play at the 2nd placed team, with the winner playing at the 1st placed team in the semi-final.

Still following what I’m saying?

The Kings and Cheetahs will not be able to qualify for Europe. Champions Cup qualification will go to the top 3 non-South African clubs from each conference, with the final qualification spot going to the team that has not already qualified with the highest points tally. The remaining non-South African teams will qualify for the Challenge Cup.

Phew, there we go! That was not easy to describe, but still easier than Super Rugby has been since its last expansion!

 

People who have read some of my previous articles or spoken to me will know that I’ve not been a fan of the expansion into South Africa, but I do understand that the money it will bring to the league will be important when trying to compete against the Premiership and the Top 14. Some of my biggest worries have been about the logistics and the effect on European qualification, but it looks like some of these things are being dealt with.

As South Africa are only a couple of hours ahead, the plan is for teams to fly overnight and have a full week between matches in order to reduce the chance of jet lag. I have also heard that when possible the fixtures will be arranged so that European clubs can do both South African away matches in one trip, similar to the way Toronto Wolfpack’s home and away fixtures were arranged in blocks. It may not be ideal, but it’s good to see that officials have thought about this before going ahead.

I’m a bit surprised that for European qualification the 2 conferences have not been combined into an overall table, as under the planned qualification process it is possible that if one conference is stronger, teams from the weaker conference could qualify for the Champions Cup instead of more successful teams from the stronger conference. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is something that is looked at in future years once the structure is settled and clearly working.

I do also worry about how the South African clubs will perform. While they may benefit from other clubs losing players during the 6 Nations, they will instead be missing their internationals near the start of the season during the Rugby Championship. Both franchises also supply squads to the Currie Cup, which is played from June to October. To be playing Southern Hemisphere rugby competitions during the Northern Hemisphere preseason and the start of the season will put a large strain on the Kings and Cheetahs players, which could seriously limit their effectiveness. If there was a global season then I don’t think this would be such an issue, however with the different seasons for the 2 Hemispheres this could cause some issues!

 

Right now my biggest worry is the way the Pro14 already seems to be looking to grow. There have already been mentions of this as laying the foundations for years to come and being the first phase of expansion. The league has only just been announced, they have no guarantee it will be a success and yet they already seem to be looking for extra teams. Even the YouTube explanation mentions how a conference makes it easier to add new teams! Super Rugby have proved that expansion done wrong can be an awful idea, Pro14 need to take a couple of years of this format to ensure that it is working before looking to expand any further. If things don’t work out financially for Zebre this year (it’s been a difficult summer for them) then I can see them being replaced – hopefully by a European franchise – but the league needs a settled set of clubs to get the fans on board with the new structure.

Most importantly… When they do expand again, they need to make sure it’s sorted much earlier than a month before the season starts!

 

I may not be fully on board with the Pro14 yet, but I will give it every chance to succeed. For the sake of the clubs and the fans, I really hope it does.

Worth every (Half)penny?

If all reports are to be believed, Leigh Halfpenny is on his way back to Wales. Though reports about a week ago suggested that he was going back to Cardiff, it would now appear that he will be playing his home matches at Parc y Scarlets next season on a dual contract, having apparently take a pay cut to return to the principality. It’s rare that a 3-time tourist with the Lions and a regular for Wales would struggle so much to find a team following their release from Toulon, but Halfpenny has and to be honest I thought his options were quite limited this summer:

Due to his late release from Toulon while he was away in New Zealand, Halfpenny was not able to enter serious negotiations with other clubs until the Tour was over, by which points many clubs will have finished business. Combined with this, there would have also been questions over his wages and his availability.

Though by no means the most expensive player in the world, Halfpenny will have been on some considerable money at Toulon, a figure that probably only a few Premiership and Top 14 clubs would have considered coming close to. However the fact that Halfpenny will frequently be away with Wales (and possibly the Lions again in 4 years), not to mention his injury history (it’s great to see a player willing to put his body on the line but the tackle technique isn’t always quite there) means that this would be a substantial amount of money to be paid for someone who would probably not even be considered in the top 6 at his position – either at wing or fullback.

Coming back to Wales would be ideal for both the WRU and Halfpenny himself, as this means that he will be available for Wales under Gatland’s Law. However the WRU and the Regions do not have the same budgets as other leagues so would struggle with his salary, which is why the WRU’s national dual contract – with the WRU covering 60% of his salary – makes sense in this case. While it would have been nice to see him return to his former club, they already have a number of quality players in the back 3, including Alex Cuthbert, Gareth Anscombe, Matthew Morgan, Tom James and Blaine Scully. From a personnel perspective, one of the other Regions made more sense, and my opinion was always that he should move to Scarlets as they were losing 2 experienced internationals (Liam Williams and D.T.H. van der Merwe) from their back 3 this summer.

My mate from uni is a Scarlets fan and didn’t seem overly enthused with the news as he thinks that will be all of the Scarlet’s budget gone. While this may be the case, I have faith that he will be worth it, both for his reliable goal kicking and the experience he will help bring to the back 3.

I hope the move works out for him and as a Gloucester fan, I look forward to hopefully seeing him in preseason later this month.