Sale Sharks, top 4 material?

dsc_0454.jpgA former Saracens physio once told me that Steve Diamond is mad and Diamond’s assertion that Sale Sharks “expect a top 4 finish” this season certainly appears to back that theory up (that really did happen, you meet some pretty interesting characters when you’re snowboarding in Canada)!  Sale have just been taken over by CorpAcq Ltd (led by Jason Orange’s brother Simon) so positive intent and saying the things the money men want to hear surely lead Diamond to make such an outlandish statement.  As an aside CorpAcq Ltd are, according to Bloomberg a “private equity firm specialising in buyouts and industry consolidation investments”, so a move into sports team ownership seems a little incongruous but that’s by the by.

 

Stability is a big part of building a successful team in any sport, the NFL’s New England Patriots have won have won 4 Super Bowl’s in the last 16 years under Bill Bellichick’s stewardship and with Tom Brady picking up 4 MVP awards and while Sir Alex Ferguson was manager at Manchester United they collected 38 trophies in 27 years, since his departure they’ve won just 2.  Stability, or in Sale’s case lack thereof is a very relevant issue going into the new season, they will have to bed 9 new players into their 016-17 squad and to compound the difficulties that they may bring the end of the 2015-26 season saw the departure of 10 players.  Of the 9 arriving players 5 of them have never played in England and only Dan Mugford has experience of playing for a Premiership team having been a member of Exeter Chief’s academy before moving to London Scottish.  The other 4 have a remarkable 292 Aviva appearance between them but Rob Webber lays claim to a whopping 170 of them and Halani Aulika weighs in with a hefty 89 of his own, so all in all they’ve got a fairly inexperienced group to integrate.  The most inexperienced of the group is without a doubt Josh Charnley who joins from Wigan Warriors Rugby League team, although at 25 he has plenty of time to learn and as a winger (an exceptionally good winger in the 13 man code) I can’t see adapting to union being a problem for the Chorley born try machine (149 in 151 appearances since you asked), he’s also a goal kicker and with the departure of the inconsistent boots of Danny Cipriani his ability could come in handy.

Cipriani’s departure could in itself be a problem since they’ve signed USA International Fly Half AJ MacGinty who will compete with Mugford for the 10 shirt, MacGinty is the more senior of the two at the ripe old age of 26 (Mugford is just 24) and after winning the Pro 12 with Connacht last season MacGinty will be full of confidence, but it’s hard to compare the Aviva Premiership and the Pro 12.  With Nick MacLeod returning to Wales to play for the Dragons and Joe Ford moving to Yorkshire Carnegie Sale have technically lost 3 Fly Halves and signed just 2 so young prospect Tom Morton could find himself pressed into duty but having represented England at under 18 and under 20 level he may well prove to be Sale’s secret weapon in the upcoming season. Another promising player Diamond will be looking forward to working with is Laurence Pearce, the former Leicester Tiger is a rampaging back rower but in TJ Ioane, Daniel Braid, Magnus Lund, David Seymour, Cameron Neild, the hotly tipped George Nott and most importantly the even more rampaging Josh Beaumont Sale have quite a queue of talented back rowers just waiting to play.

Sal may well improve on their 6th place finish this season but with at least 4 teams who have gone much less upheaval during the offseason (including Saracens, Exeter Chiefs, Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers <even Bath have only signed 7 new players, although their coaching situation is becoming comical> and Harlequins although they have new coaches joining their staff too) it will be an incredible achievement of they manage to crack the top for the first time since they finished as Champions in 2005-06.

The most interesting 2016 NFL offseason moves part 1 – Josh Norman

DSC_0198Salary cap issues have meant that there have been multiple free agent moves in the NFL since Super Bowl 50 back in February and of course with the Draft happening in April there will be some intriguing new faces in different places come September, here’s how so of the moves may pan out.

 

Josh Norman becoming a Washington Redskin has to be the most interesting free agency move for a number of reasons, firstly (ignoring the perpetual storm of controversy surrounding Dan Snyder and what appears to be his total indifference to the offence his team’s name causes <any offence is too much, right?>) because Norman was regarded by some as the best Cornerback in the NFC, if not the league last season.  Secondly the Panthers didn’t decide that they had to rescind the franchise tag and release Norman  until late April, by which time several teams who would have been interested in his signature had spent too much money to be able to afford an All Pro defensive back.  Finally the price that Washington paid for Norman’s signature, a massive $75 million (with $50 million guaranteed) for the next 5 years makes him the league’s highest paid Cornerback over the first 3 seasons of his deal!

The mere fact that the Panthers released Norman was shocking to most people, with Yahoo.com posting an article entitled “Five reasons why the Panthers screwed up in dumping Josh Norman” but some others have questioned whether the system and the players around him in Carolina made him look better than he really is.  One thing for sure is the numbers don’t lie, he combined with teammates to make 56 tackles last season which ranked him outside the top 30 Cornerbacks in the league (25 behind the league’s top tackling CB, Bashaud Breeland from Washington), however his 4 interceptions were the 7th most for a Cornerback and the 3 fumbles he forced were only bettered by the Cardinals Justin Bethel.  So Norman is a very well rounded defender and he should fit in well to Joe Barry’s system but it’s doubtful that he’ll be able to perform to the level he’s paying paid i.e. the best Cornerback in the NFL.  Veteran defensive back DeAngelo Hall has been moved to Strong Safety for the coming season which should allow Breeland to concentrate on life as a Cornerback in the NFL and with the addition of Norman to Chris Culliver Washington go into next season with 2 Cornerbacks with Super Bowl experience.

Washington won the NFC East last season by 2 games, after ending the season with a 4 game win streak which saw them finish with a winning record (the only team in the division to do so).  In such a tight conference a strong defence will be crucial for the upcoming campaign and while nobody could accuse the NFC East of being one of the strongest divisions in football a Cornerback who made 4 interceptions last year is an excellent investment, particularly when you realise that the other 3 teams competing with Washington this season conspired to throw 54 interceptions last year!  Away from the rollercoaster that is the NFC East Norman can look forward to a meeting with the Panthers in week 15 when his former team visit FedEx Field on Monday Night Football and in week 8 International Series fans may well have the chance to see him matched up against AJ Green as Washington host the Cincinnati Bengals at Wembley Stadium.

Because it’s never too early to be wrong about the 2016 NFL Season…..

DSC_019817 weeks might seem like a long time to most people but to us NFL fans who are running out of NBA playoffs to watch it’s almost football season.  The Draft happened a whole week ago and some of the first rounder’s have already signed (about 8 at the last count, but hey-ho) so there’s something to talk about, well sort of.

The Jaguars massive offseason rebuild of the Defence is a good starting point, ESPN journalist Mike DiRocco has predicted that the Jags could only have 2 starting Defence players remaining from the 11 who started on the 7th of September 2014 against the Eagles (although 2nd year Strong Safety James Sample will have to go some to beat out Johnathan Cyprien who is a pretty talismanic member of the Jags backfield, 326 tackles in 44 games is not to be sniffed at).  The Jags drafted 6 defensive players and just 1 offensive player this year having drafted a mere 3 defenders in 2015 (one of whom Dante Fowler Jr. didn’t play at all after he blew his knee out on the first day of mini-camp) and 5 on the offensive side of the ball (now might a good time to point out that in January of this year they fired their Defensive Coordinator, tough break there Bob Babich. I bet he would have liked 6 new players to work with instead of just 2).  Dante Fowler Jr. should he make it out of preseason, will essentially be an extra 1st round pick for the Jags this season and when you realise they managed to snaffle Myles Jack (a projected 1st round linebacker whose athleticism allowed him to play at Safety and once at Cornerback during his college career) in the 2nd round after Jack was quoted as saying “Down the line, possibly I could have microfracture surgery – potentially”.  Jack said his fall from the 1st to 2nd round was “humiliating” (so he’s not lacking in motivation) and for the Jaguars drafting him was a calculated risk, if he’s healthy in the short term they’ve upgraded their linebacker corps but if he does require surgery they have 3 excellent linebackers in Posluszny, Skuta and Telvin Smith and the possibility of Dante Fowler playing as a stand-up edge rusher in certain situations.

So new Defensive Coordinator Todd Wash (alongside the 76 year old Monte Kiffin who has been named as “Assistant head coach of Defence”) certainly has a lot of toys to play with and the shiniest of all is first round pick Jalen Ramsey, but how he chooses to use him will be very interesting.  Ramsey himself said “I can play where they need me too.  I feel like I can work outside, in the slot or play deep”.  It’s that sort of humility that’ll hold him back you know!  To be fair to him he did suffix that quote with the old timey cliché “I have a lot to learn”, Ramsey ended his college career as a Cornerback but in his first year he also played Free Safety and became what Florida Sate call a “STAR” defender switching between Safety, Slot back and Linebacker.  Since the Jags have signed former Browns Safety Tashuan Gipson (who lead the NFL in interception return yards in 2014) Ramsey will probably line up opposite another new boy Prince Amukamara at Cornerback, but the Jaguars will certainly have the depth to rotate and interchange their Defensive backs regularly.  Personally I think Ramsey’s potential to become an Ed Reed style ball-hawking Free Safety is huge and since he ran on the FSU track team he could rattle up even more interception return yards than Gipson in the coming seasons, ally this with the fact that Sports Illustrated called him a “Force wrap tackler who thrives in the physical facet of the game” and I don’t think he’d be out of place at Safety in the NFL.

Rookie Defensive End Yannick Ngakoue broke the school record at Maryland last year for the most sacks in a season as he notched 13.5 in 12 games (he also forced a fumble and defended a pass), alongside Super Bowl 50 winner Malik Jackson, the already mentioned Dante Fowler Jr. and Miles Jack should assist Jared Odrick who lead the team in sacks last season should add much needed grunt up front for a team who recorded a pitiful 36 sacks last season (20th in the NFL).  They also drafted Tyrone Holmes in the 6th round who they have signed to a 4 year contract and they believe he could play in the Defensive line or as a strong-side linebacker their other 6th round pick was Johnathan Woodard who is a whopping 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 217 pounds so he may have some impact although his University of Central Arkansas College team were far from imposing during his career.

One slightly incongruous thing stands out from the Jags recent Defensive splurge though, Monte Kiffin is the man (along with Tony Dungy) known for developing the “Tampa 2” defence which is largely predicated on zone coverage and speedy, often undersized players (particularly Defensive backs).  The undersized part is already out of the window with this Jags defence, the linebackers and defensive backs are all fairly big but do fit incredibly speedy criterion.  Tampa 2 seems a strange Defence to lean toward in the AFC South where the main deficiency has traditionally been Offensive lines (the Jaguars themselves are no exception to this rule).  Between the 4 teams they allowed 178 sacks last season and all 4 teams finished in the bottom half of the league standings in terms of how well they protected their Quarterbacks so adopting a Defensive system where pass rush is key would seem a wiser decision as oppose to one where a premium is put on defending passes once they have been thrown and trying to make turnovers by hitting receivers hard instead of strip sacking the Quarterback which lead the Broncos to a Super Bowl victory.  Obviously a strong pass rush will assist the DB’s task when it comes to making turnovers, but to fully adopt the Tampa 2 Defence in a division that includes DeAndre Hopkins, Braxton Miller, T.Y Hilton and Dorial Green-Beckham certainly appears to be tempting fate even with the big hitters the Jags have accumulated in the defensive backfield.

In addition to the peculiar recruitment of the Tampa 2 guru the question marks over the Jags own Offensive line remain and if they are to have the dominant Defence they crave they will need a strong running offence to build long drives and allow the Defence to rest.  Signing Chris Ivory, who rushed for 1,070 yards last season (the most in the AFC) to work alongside with last year’s leading rusher TJ Yeldon (and hopefully my personal favourites Jonas Gray and Denaruis Robinson) is an excellent move (and they will need to share out the carries because all four of them have injury effected career’s) but with Kelvin Beachum (who is recovering from a left knee ACL injury) likely replacing Luke Joeckel and former Cowboy (the Dallas kind) Mackenzy Bernadeau likely to replace Zane Beadles who has joined up with another former Jaguar Blaine Gabbert in San Francisco at left guard there may well be a bedding period for the new combinations.

There’s certainly a lot to deal with for Jaguars Head Coach and with so many big names arriving in north-eastern Florida one would imagine the pressure to get almost immediately would be immense but GM David Caldwell was quoted recently saying that Gus Bradley’s job does rest on recording a winning record in 2016.  This came after Jaguars owner Shahid Khan claimed that a winning record was “everybody’s reasonable expectation” for the coming season.  While Caldwell’s view that the Jaguars are looking to the long term is commendable with the players the team have acquired and the coaching team they have in place the Jaguars should be looking for more than just a 9-7 record this season.  Although that record did win the AFC South last season they should reasonably expect 10 wins from a Head Coach who they signed to a one year contract extension in January even if Gus Bradley’s overall record is a less than convincing 12-36.

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AL East 2016

I’ve always thought it’s totally impossible to even attempt to predict what will happen over the course of a season that lasts about 7 months and includes 162 games (before the playoffs even start) but since I recently realised that I’ve been a Blue Jays fan for 25 years I thought I could try to make some sense of what could happen in their division.

There’s 2 causes for concern for Blue Jays followers this season, the biggest being that David Price (who won 9 regular season games and lost just 1 last season) signed for the Red Sox during the offseason (so they could potentially have to face him 4 times this season), the second is that GM Alex Anthopoulos upped sticks and moved to LA to become the Dodgers Vice-President of baseball operations.  His decision may well have been motivated by money, the Dodgers were valued at $2.4 billion in 2015 (the Blue Jays are valued at a comparatively small $900 million), or maybe he’s discovered a new found passion for surfing at the ripe old age of 38, but the more likely explanation is that he foresaw a tricky period ahead for the Blue Jays after he moved heaven and earth to sign Price and Ben Revere last season and both left as free agents in the offseason.  Acquiring those 2 players meant losing 5 pitching prospects, he also traded 2 young pitchers to the Rockies as part of the deal to bring Troy Tulowitzki to the Rogers Centre all of which now means that the pitching rotation will be lead by a 24 year old with just 24 career starts to his name and will include a 41 year old knuckleballer with a 100-93 career record, a 23 year old who has made just 11 career starts and a 33 year old who has allowed 985 hits in 196 games.  They also lost Liam Hendriks who put in some stellar performances from the bullpen last season and LaTroy Hawkins who was the stabilising influence at the of end of the regular season has retired so relief pitching could prove to be a stumbling block.

Everyone will preface the Blue Jays with phrase “loaded batting line up” but even with megastars like Donaldson, Encarnacion and Bautista hitting and defence from Tulowitzki alongside the underrated Pillar and Goins repeating last season’s success within the division could be just out of reach.  Personally I think the loss of Ben Revere will be tricky to cover and with his slated replacement Michael Saunders coming off a season where a lingering knee injury reduced him to just 9 starts it’s possible that leftfield may become a bit of a carousel. 23 year Dalton Pompey was expected to compete with Saunders for the role but he’s been shipped to Buffalo, former Phillies outfielder All-Star Dominic Brown signed a minor league contract in February but he also struggled for fitness last year and played just 63 games.  Winning the division isn’t totally out of the question for the Blue Jays but they’ll need more than a slice of good fortune, I think a mid-table finish is more likely with the transition going on within the pitching staff and 3rd place would signify a reasonable season.

 

The Yankees outperformed pretty much everyone’s expectations last season off the back of a resurgent Alex Rodriguez and the power of Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann who hit 90 homeruns between them.  The infield for the Yankees doesn’t look anywhere near as dynamic as the Blue Jays does even with their offseason signing of short stop/ 2nd baseman Starlin Castro.  Ironically Castro has consistently struggled achieve a level of consistency during his 6 year career but he’s always flashed brilliance and if he can manage to settle in New York and perform near his best on a regular basis he could form a good pairing with Dutch short stop Didi Gregorius who finished his first season as a Yankee looking more assured than he began it.  The potentially lacklustre Yankees infield is more than compensated by the stability their pitching rotation provides, lead by Mashahiro Tanaka who even though he may have lost some of his initial pop due to a troublesome elbow injury is still a class act.  He struggled with a partial tear to his ulna collateral ligament in his right elbow back in 2014 and last October he had a bone spur removed from the same elbow, despite these issues he still managed to win 25 of his 44 starts in the last 2 years.  Even though he’s the Yankees Ace only 1 of their rotation has fewer wins than him in MLB, 23 year old Luis Severino who has 5 but he’s only started 11 games in his young career.  With CC Sabathia expected to return following his stay at an alcohol rehab centre in October (he checked himself in a week before their Wildcard game) the Yankees figure to have a veteran presence with 214 career wins to bolster a talented rotation with an average age of just 25.  Signing Reds closer Aroldis Chapman whilst he was embroiled in an alleged domestic violence controversy might have seemed like a strange decision at the time but he threw at over 100 mph and struck out 3 of the 5 batters he faced in a recent spring training game so he’ll definitely benefit the team on the field once his 30 game suspension ends in May.  Even without Chapman the Yankees have 2 pitchers who recorded 46 saves between them last season, the imposing 6 feet 7 inch Andrew Miller and the absolutely monstrous 6 feet 8 inch and 265 lb Dellin Betances. With such a strong pitching rotation I expect the Yankees to make a return to the playoffs this season and if their veterans like Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and of course A- Rod can produce the goods they should win the division.

 

The Orioles, Rays and Red Sox all finished within 3 games of each other last season with the Red Sox 78-84 record being the division’s worst (although it would have seen them finish 3rd in the NL East) and this season they all fit into the same category, the “could win the division but then again could finish bottom” category and that’s why this division is so interesting and exciting.

 

The Red Sox certainly have a lot of talent at their disposal, probably more than any other team and if their players match their potential then they will not only be difficult to stop within the division they could easily be back in the World Series for the first time since they won it 2013.  They suffered from a real lack of power last season with their best 3 hitters (David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez and Mookie Betts) mustering just 74 homeruns between them (27 fewer than the Blue Jays top 3), the plus side for the Red Sox is that they have a particularly young team with 4 of their 8 starting hitters all being 25 or under.  Last season they experimented with Hanley Ramirez playing left field where he ended the season with the lowest defensive ranking at that position in the league, so this year they have resolved to move him to a different position (1st base where he’s never played before and therefore another gamble).  If it pays off and Ramirez can improve on the 18 homeruns he scored in an injury effect last season and veterans Pablo Sandoval and Dustin Pedroia can remain healthy the Red Sox see an increase in the number of homeruns they score.  The arrival of David Price as an Ace pitcher and Craig Kimbrel as a tried and tested closer have definitely improved the Red Sox but with 2 pitchers in the starting rotation who have career ERA’s above 4 and a relief pitcher with an ERA above 5 they will give opponents opportunities to score runs.  It would be a surprise if a 29 year old Sandoval struggled as much this season as he did last and if Hanley Ramirez can resettle in Beantown (10 years after they traded him to the Marlins) as their youngsters begin to feel increasingly comfortable in the big league I can see the Red Sox finishing second in the division and even making a Wild Card spot.

 

The Orioles were tipped to win the division last season and they excelled at hitting homeruns, only the Blue Jays scored more than their 217 with 1st baseman Chris Davis hitting a league leading 47.  They did however seem to lack a certain amount of speed and aggression in running the bases, they only stole 44 bases last season, half the number the Blue Jays managed and 18 fewer than their opponents stole.  The Orioles have an interesting mix of youth and experience in their batting line-up with 23 year old homerun machine Manny Machado and 24 year old Jonathan Schoop who is tipped to have a breakout year added to the veterans like Matt Wieters and Adam Jones.  The signings of the powerful Pedro Alvarez and the 28 year old Korean Hyun Soo Kim (after his 9 year career playing in his home country) make them a team who could do big things this season but the arrival of Alvarez will likely see Mark Trumbo who is used to playing 1st base or as a DH move to right field which could weaken their defence.  The pitching rotation for the Orioles has not been particularly economical recently and last year they had a collective ERA of 4.05, they lost last season’s Ace Wei-Yin Chen to the Marlins and for the final and for the final 4 months of last season Miguel Gonzalez had an ERA of 6.06!  Just like the Blue Jays losing Price the Orioles will struggle unless they can get some help for that pitching rotation (and they do have plenty of prospects who could blossom or be involved in a trade) I think they’ll be locked in a battle for 4th place in the division with the Rays but they have got the power hitters to keep them off the bottom of the table.

 

The Rays pitching was the best in the division last season with the lowest ERA at just 3.74 and the most shut outs, 12. They were also 3rd in the league (and lead the division) when it came to opponents batting average with opposition hitters recording an average of .240.  They weren’t quite as good when it came to defence and the 95 errors they committed left them 21st in the league with only the transitioning Red Sox team below them in the AL East.  Their fielding percentage was .984, just .004 below the highest in the league but still the worst in the AL East and 21st overall in the league.  They were however 2nd in the AL East with 4,360 putouts, only the Yankees recorded more with 4,373.  Their Ace pitcher Chris Archer was recently voted 8th best right handed pitcher in the league and centre fielder Kevin Kiermayer was voted the 9th best in his position so they are not without serious talent.  They had the opposite problem to the Orioles last season, while they stole 87 bases they were only able to hit 167 homeruns with nobody in their line-up able to hit more than 21, to compound this problem Asdrubal Cabrera who hit 15 of them whilst knocking in 58 runs last season has joined the Mets.  With such a good pitching rotation the Rays shouldn’t have to score many runs to win games but if they’re going to try to squeeze their opponents and succeed in low scoring affairs they’ll need to tighten up their fielding.  In James Loney, Corey Dickerson and Evan Longoria they do have players who hit a long ball but whether they have the depth to challenge the big guns in the division remains questionable.  I think the lack of power will be the Rays undoing again this season and they might not be able to finish as high as they did last season.

The most exciting thing about the AL East is that all the teams have some very special players who can drag their teammates along with them and with a very long season ahead anything really could happen.  Whoever progresses to the playoffs will have some unbelievably impressive teams to compete with, they’ll likely have to meet the Royals in the ALCS but the Rangers and the Astros and possibly even the Tigers could well have something to say about that.  And that’s just in the American League!

Super Bowl 50 an irresistible force meets an immovable object

DSC_0198Cam Newton scored was responsible for 270 points during the regular season (35 touchdown passes and 10 rushing touchdowns); it took the Broncos 14 weeks to break that number of points! As a collective the Panthers scored 500 points in their 16 regular season games, so roughly 31 points every game. So there’s the irresistible force right there, the immovable object comes in the form of the Broncos Defence who conceded just 296 points during the regular season (or roughly 19 points per game), the 4th fewest in the NFL and the 296 yards per game they allowed was the lowest in the league and gives an idea of how they made it to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos have made suffocating defence an art form this season, they recorded 52 sacks in the regular season and with edge pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller (who combined for 18.5 sacks during the regular season and recorded 3 of the Broncos sacks on Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game) alongside Derek Wolfe (who had 5.5 sacks during the regular season) they’ve redefined quarterback pressure. 14 different players have recorded at least half a sack for the Broncos this season so Wade Phillips isn’t afraid to send any of the defence to rush opposing Quarterbacks, one of the results of pressurising Quarterbacks is that they throw inaccurate passes and as a result 9 Broncos have made Interceptions this season.
The antidote to a good pass rush is the ability to run the ball well and the Panthers have used their running game effectively this season, Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula said that he’s never had a playlist with so many different running plays on it before and his NFL coaching career began in 1988). The Panthers have used 4 Running Backs this season who have combined for 1536 yards, Quarterback Cam Newton has carried for 636 yards too and Wide Receivers have chipped in for 114 yards too (with Ted Ginn Jr recording a 43 yard rush, so look out for that in the Super Bowl). The Panthers 19 rushing touchdowns during the regular season tied 1st in the NFL and with an average of 4.3 yards per attempt the Panthers could just use the run game early on as they attempt to suss out the Broncos Defence (they won’t though, you don’t earn the nickname “Riverboat Ron” for conservative play calls).
Denver’s rush defence was the 3rd best in the league but it was nowhere near as stifling as the pass defence and they allowed on average 3.3 yards per carry, they did recover 13 fumbles though as part of their 27 takeaways and had their Offence not conspired to give possession away 31 times they would have ended the season with a much healthier +/- ratio. The Broncos Defensive Back’s were (and have been all season) incredibly physical when it came to pass coverage and Rob Gronkowski in particular was the victim of a lot of grabbing and jersey pulling which could be called by official’s in a showpiece event such as the Super Bowl (about 114 million people watched last year).
Carolina’s Defence rattled up a very impressive 39 turnovers, 24 of which were Interceptions and 4 of those were returned for touchdowns with All Pro Josh Norman recording 2 scores during the regular season and general all round superstar middle linebacker Luke Kuelchy adding 2 postseason return touchdowns to the 1 he made during the regular season. Kuelchy is going to be vital with Thomas Davis Jr suffering a broken arm in the NFC Championship game (he will probably play, but how many snaps he can play is not entirely clear yet) and Peyton manning loving to throw to Broncos Tight End Owen Daniels, particularly near the end zone (both of Daniels catches against the Patriots were also both of the Broncos touchdown receptions) Kuelchy’s ability to ball hawk and break on any loose passes may well win the game.
Last week the Broncos progressed to the Super Bowl on the back of a Stephen Gostkowski missed extra point even though their Defence was the dominant faction of the game, their Offence were forced to punt 9 times and as the game wore on a miracle recovery by the Patriots looked increasingly possible. The Panthers on the other hand have dominated the NFC playoffs and have scored 80 points in 2 games whilst conceding just 39 so they should favourites, right? Well they are favourites but the Broncos close call last week will definitely focus their minds and with Peyton Manning possibly playing his last NFL game (or maybe his last as a Bronco) they will definitely be up for it.
It’s impossible to predict who will win this game before it’s started largely because whoever scores first will be vitally important, if the Broncos score first they’ll just send as much pressure as possible at Cam Newton because he hasn’t seen this much pass rush all season but if the Panthers score first the Broncos will have to break their usually ultra conservative game plan in order to catch up and they will make for a fun game and possibly a nail biting finish.

A chaotic 6 Nations preview

RBS-6-NationsBacking Scotland is always a risky business because they usually thrive when they’ve been written off and not after they’ve been within a hare’s breath of beating Australia (incidentally Craig Joubert has been appointed to referee England v Wales at Twickenham, what could possibly go wrong?) and making a RWC semi final, but I’ve just got a feeling that Vern Cotter might finally have a squad that can win the 6 Nations (they’re last win was in 1999 when it was still the 5 Nations).
W.P Nel and Ben Toolis added to the Gray brothers should provide a solid front 5 and if the Scottish pack is able to even attain parity against their opponents then a back row which should include John Hardie and could include David Denton and Josh Strauss will be more than a match for anyone. Greig Laidlaw is one of the safest pairs of hands in European rugby at scrum half and with the possibility of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne coming off the bench to test tired defenders it’s hard to imagine Cotter’s side won’t score tries. Scotland do have a few injury concerns (as all the Nations do after a gruelling International season) and while Alex Dunbar will miss the first 2 games and Mark Bennett may not be available to play England Scotland are in the unusual position of having about 5 Centre’s who could start. With Peter Horne, Matt Scott, Duncan Taylor and Sean Lamont desperate to play if Vern Cotter needs to call up reinforcements Scotland have more than a few options to cover those missing. For a change Scotland have even got 2 contrasting Fly Halves to call upon with the steady Ruairidh Jackson having a good season for Wasps (he kicked 13 points as Wasps won in Dublin & scored 15 as they beat Toulon) and the exciting Finn Russell who is renowned for getting a backline moving.
Scotland are 4th favourites for the Championship behind England who have a new coach and seem to be making some inexplicable selection decisions and France who, despite having a new coach haven’t made wholesale changes and have selected 7 Toulouse players (Toulouse are 2nd in the Top 14 but won just 1 European Champions Cup game and finished bottom of Pool A, below Oyonnax with a -88 points difference) so they’ll be looking to rely more on individual flair than on collective performances, “plus ca change” an all that.
England are actually the bookmakers favourites, which would rather contradict Eddie Jones’ assertion that Scotland are favourites to win the Calcutta Cup on Saturday and Warren Gatland’s statement that Ireland must be favourites (that one actually makes sense since Ireland do have 3 home games against Wales, Italy and Scotland). Eddie Jones called up a number of talented youngsters to his training party but then sent most of them back to their club sides late last week so who knows what he’s got planned? If England win in Scotland then they will have a solid base to build from but with consecutive home games against Ireland and Wales Eddie Jones hasn’t got much time to settle on a squad and if he doesn’t trust the younger players to stand up to pressure then it might be a long 2 months for him. As a slight aside in the last 5 years England have scored 97 tries at home and 51 away from home (21 more than Ireland who were second of the 6 Nations teams) so Stuart Lancaster was hardly the albatross around the English rugby that some would have you believe.
Wales’ last 2 Grand Slams have been won in season’s were they had 3 home games and visits to Ireland and Twickenham to contend with but even my most optimistic parts can’t see that happening this season. The residual damage from the ill fated “condition programme” they undertook pre- World Cup will have a big impact on their chances. Scott Williams will be a big miss because he was the only real try threat Wales possessed in September and October (Cory Allen was the other but with Jonathan Davies fit and Gatland’s bizarre belief that George North can play 13 Cory’s not getting a sniff any time soon). Wales have averaged roughly 1.8 tries per game in the last 5 years and that’s not going to be enough to win the Championship, let alone a Grand Slam.
Ireland would be my second favourite for the Championship but they’ve got a slight injury crisis and with Paul O’Connell retiring from international rugby (he would have been injured too if he hadn’t retired) Ireland will start the tournament without Cian Healey, Mike Ross, Ian Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry and with Fly Half Jonny Sexton seemingly ever only 1 heavy blow away from a HIA Ireland will face an uphill struggle to beat England in Twickenham and France in Paris.
Italy are 500-1 shots to win the Championship and you’d have to imagine that’s largely down to their witting duck status with everyone knowing their coach will leave return to France at the end of the season. Their seemingly eternal struggle to find an Outside Half who can both kick and run doesn’t help but if their pack is as strong as it has been in the past they’ll cause some teams problems (Wales particularly) and I can’t imagine Guy Noves will get much sleep this week knowing that Italy love to pull out all the stops when they arrive in Paris.
Rather interestingly you can odds of 40-1 on France finishing bottom of the table which isn’t totally out of the question, under Noves Toulouse (with the exception of Theirry Dusautoir) have often had questions raised over their conditioning and if they’re not ready to battle for 80 minutes they could find themselves on the receiving end of nail biting results. You can also get 10-1 on France winning a Grand Slam, which seems almost impossible to me since they’ve only won 8 of their last 28 away games (29%) and they’ve average 1.4 tries per game away from home in the last 5 years (2.03 per game at home).
In conclusion, just keep your money in your pocket and enjoy the ride, with so many newcomers to this 6 Nations (some from other continents and with Guy Noves maybe even from different planets) a Grand Slam hasn’t been won since Wales did it 2012 and it’s highly unlikely anyone will do it this year but I’m still backing Scotland to win an exciting Championship.

AFC Championship Game New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos

DSC_0198Tom Brady and the Patriots don’t give opponents many chances to win games against them so the fact the Kansas City Chiefs could have had 2 interceptions against Tom Terrific last weekend was rather surprising. Even more surprising was how the team who had made 22 interceptions during the regular season didn’t force a single turnover in Foxboro, Sean Smith and Tamba Hali both had chances to cling on to wayward passes and if Hali had hauled in his chance it would have been a race to the end zone between him and the 38 year old Brady.
The Patriots were the 3rd highest scoring team in the NFL during the regular season (with only Carolina and Arizona scoring more the highest scoring the AFC, 42 points ahead of the Steelers) scoring almost 30 points per game while the Broncos Offence was the 19th highest scoring in the league, averaging just over 22 points per game. The Broncos Defence on the other hand was the 3rd tightest in the AFC allowing just 296 points all season (18.5 per game) while the Patriots allowed almost 20 points per game and were ranked 6th in the AFC.
Similar to the NFC Championship game both these teams have different approaches to Offence, particularly since LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis got injured the Patriots have largely relied on the ability of Tom Brady to pass teams to death (his pass yards make up 77% of their total yards on Offence) and with 36 touchdown passes they lead the NFL. In addition to leading the league in scoring passes the Patriots also threw the fewest number of interceptions in the league with just 7 during the regular season (the Broncos’ 23 was the most). The Patriots have been susceptible to good pass rushes though, they allowed 38 sacks in the regular season and the 52 sacks the Broncos made was 3 more than the 2nd ranked team in the NFL (the Patriots) so Wade Phillips will fancy his chances of getting some pressure and forcing some mistakes on Brady. The Broncos on the other hand will look to their Running Backs C.J Anderson (who loves the cold weather) and the speedy Ronnie Hillman who have been responsible for 27% (and 33% of their Offence’s touchdowns) of the Broncos Offensive yards this season to move the ball. The Broncos Defence scored 6 touchdowns during the regular season to take some of the pressure off the stuttering Offence but Chris Harris Jr who has a touchdown from one of his two interceptions this season and also forced 2 fumbles has an injured shoulder and even if he can play won’t be fully fit (some reports suggest his injury is so bad that he’s unable to brush his teeth). Former Patriot Aqib Talib has made 3 interceptions and returned 2 of them for touchdowns this season so Tom Brady will do well to avoid his side of the field.
Brady and Manning have met 16 times during their NFL careers and Brady leads the head to head battle 11-5 including winning all 4 times they’ve been pitted against each other in the playoffs, however Brady hasn’t win an away meeting since 2007. If the Patriots take the lead in this game then I think it’ll be difficult for the Broncos to fluster Brady, with Amendola, Edelman, Gronkowski and even bit players like White, Chandler and LaFell the Broncos just won’t have enough players who can pass cover (who knows the Patriots might even try to run the ball with Steven Jackson) and the “Evil Empire” as some Jets fans like to call the team from Foxboro should make yet another Super Bowl. However if the Broncos Defence can get on top early and maybe even score a touchdown or 2 the pressure is bound to get to the Patriots as the game goes on. If the Broncos can build any sort of lead then Wade Phillips will surely unleash blitz after blitz in Brady’s direction making it tricky for the Patriots to keep the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands and he could well get the fairytale Super Bowl ending he’s so obviously dreaming of.