Lions nonsense 

Back in August I picked a wildy inaccurate Lions team but with the 19th of April fast approaching I thought I’d highlight a few players who might be on the plane to New Zealand despite not featuring heavily during the 6 Nations. 

This is very much a dream of mine, but it’s not entirely out of the question, nobody has scored more tries in European competition this season than the Ospreys Keelan Giles and given the All Blacks flagrant disregard for any opponents (who could forget Brodie Retallick having no idea who Courtney Lawes was in 2014) Giles could be just the secret weapon the Lions need. Plus who doesn’t love seeing a teenager make experienced opponents look daft?

On the subject of young players who shine at the Ospreys despite a seeming maelstrom of malaise engulfing the Liberty Sam Underhill might not be far from Gatland’s thoughts. There are a ridiculous number of candidates for backrow places (Ireland alone have about 8 players who fit the bill) but not many of them tackle as hard as Underhill and have the ability to make correct decisions in the backline too. 

Like Underhill my next candidate is playing his rugby on the foreign side of the Severn. Richard Hibbard has undergone a transformation in about the 10 months, he’s shed pounds and he looks to be the fittest player at Gloucester (which is some achievement when they have 6 Kiwi’s in their squad and one of them is John Afoa). He’s also become one of the most accurate line-out throwers in the Aviva too, he was over 90% last time I heard a statistical breakdown, and set piece efficiency will be vital to even compete in the land of the long white cloud.

Back to wingers (and there’s plenty of them to go round too) in terms of British qualified players there are 2 close to Keelan Giles in the European try scoring stakes and they are Chris Ashton (who I think will be going if only to bring a bit of levity to a tour that will be close to 2 months long with the training camp) and Clermont’s very own Nick Abendanon but I think players based in France will struggle to be released because the Top 14 season is seemingly eternal! 

Another winger who is scintillating form is Sale’s Denny Solomona, the former rugby league player isn’t quite the the miraculous “convert” some seem to blindly believe. Having grown up in Auckland Solomona attended and represented the first XV at St. Peter’s College the alma mater of Pat Lam and brothers Peter and Francis Saili (amongst others) so he’s hardly come from out of nowhere to notch up 9 tries in 9 starts! 

On the subject of players born in Auckland who could be popping back for 5 weeks in the summer Ireland’s Joey Carbery brings all the poise you’d expect of an international inside back but he can also play 15 and he could probably slot anywhere along the backline in an emergency. Unlike Solomona Carbery moved from New Zealand when he was just 11, now aged 21 he was selected in the touring party when Ireland travelled to Chicago to beat the All Blacks in 2016.

Another Aucklander who could hoping a business class flight to the other side of the Tasman Sea is Ben Te’o, he did feature heavily during the 6 Nations, but he only started once. Gatland will definitely be interested in the possibility of Te’o renewing his acquaintance with one of his old NRL combatants Sonny Bill Williams (see here – http://thebiglead.com/2014/03/06/new-zealand-rugby-league-match-delivers-most-vicious-clean-hit-of-2014/ben-teo-hit-on-sonny-bill-williams/

And finally, and most definitely most tenuously Simon Berghan has only made 3 appearances for Scotland but the Christchurch born Tight-Head is a man mountain. He’s 6 feet 4 inches tall and tips the scales at just over the 20 stone mark. If Tight-Head wasn’t such a problem area he’d have absolutely zero chance (but Tomas Francis does lack anything that resembles athleticism, Zander Fagerson is about 18 months away from being a top class 3 and Samson Lee hasn’t been at his devastating best this season) so the former Crusader Knights player could be headed home for a flying visit. 

6 Nations round 5

Attempting to predict the 3 winners today would be absolute guesswork so I’m going to try and highlight a few players and matchups to watch out for instead. (Although after Jonathan Joseph found his dancing shoes last weekend and Ireland failed to score a try against Wales an English Grand Slam appears a foregone conclusion)

Joseph and Ringrose is one of the big battles this week and whilst the forwards will have a big say in how well both backline’s perform England will be looking to exploit Ireland’s new Centre pairing. When Scotland beat Ireland in week 1 Alex Dunbar and Stuart Hogg made hay in the wide channels and while Wales favoured the less subtle approach of ploughing into defenders until George North (& inexplicably Jamie Roberts) got the ball and just dragged tacklers across the try-line the Irish backline defence has conceded 6 tries already in the tournament. 

Jonathan Sexton nearly made 2 game changing interceptions early on against Wales last week so how England combat his ability to read flat passes whilst they try to attack the wide channels will be interesting (but the English forwards could negate his effectiveness if they can dominate the gainline battle).

How Jared Payne goes will be interesting as his versatility could make him attractive to Lions selectors but he hasn’t played for a long time. Iain Henderson has got a bit of a thankless task being parachuted in to take on a high flying England pack too.

Italy look completely devoid of confidence and lacking in skill this year so gauging how Scotland players are playing against them will be tricky, but Huw Jones could make himself feel a lot better against Tommaso Benvenuti after the tough time he had last week against England (although the players alongside him largely left him on an island to defend a rampant English backline)

Wales should be able to make France run around enough to win a scrappy affair in Paris but the battle of the 9’s should be a classic. The immaculately coiffed Rhys Webb against the man who looks like he just woke up and ran on the pitch Baptiste Serin. Both can make defenders look silly, both talk far too much and both are quality 9’s.  There’s a few Welsh forwards who need stand out performances to guarantee a ticket to New Zealand and Alun-Wyn Jones needs to stamp his authority on the game if he’s going to be a serious contender to skipper the Lions in the summer 

Calcutta Cup and Garibaldi Trophy 

England v Scotland seems to be a foregone conclusion, I seem to be the only person who’s been seriously underwhelmed by England. Italy proved that if you can knock them off their stride they can be beaten. Scotland could knock them off their stride by starting like a house on fire because England have been far stronger in the last 30 minutes of games than the first 30 minutes. They left incredibly late to beat Wales, they didn’t put France away until the 70th minute and it was the 47th when they took the decisive lead against Italy. Scotland on the other hand have scored tries in 2 of their first 3 games and against Wales they took the lead on the 44th minute and didn’t conceded another point in the game. 

England should have an advantage at scrum time but with Mathieu Raynal refereeing that may not count for anything, I saw him referee Argentina v Australia at Twickenham and he was at best inconsistent and when it came to scrum time he was almost always wrong! Joe Marler wins his 50th cap today and he could find himself on the receiving end of the Frenchman’s whistle. The battle between the hookers could be fascinating, Dylan Hartley hasn’t really hit his straps after his prolonged pre-tournament ban and Fraser Brown has continued the good form he’s displayed for Glasgow Warriors but he is considerably smaller than the Kiwi opposite him. That’s a microcosm of the entire game, Scotland have the form but England generally have the size and power, however in the Second Row where Scotland’s Gray brothers (who sound like they’d make a great bespoke tailors) outweigh their opposite numbers by about 4 stone! The Scottish Centre pairing outweigh their English counterparts too (not on the bench, Ben Te’o is built like a house and weighs 2 stone and 9 pounds more than Mark Bennett) and after a pretty “intense” i.e devoid of skill 80 minutes of smash ’em, bash ’em rugby in Cardiff last night there’s a chance for all 6 Centres to put their hands up for Lions selection today. 
You can get odds of 4-1 on Scotland turning the Sassernach’s over on their own patch today and there is a chance that all 3 of the underdogs could win this weekend so it could be worth a fiver. If Vern Cotter is feeling particularly mischievous then he’ll tell Scotland to stay well away from the first potential ruck situation, but he’ll have absolutely pilling in at the second one. John Barclay always seems an incredibly measured and level headed guy in interviews so whether or not he can whip his team up into the sort of frenzy they’ll need to shock England early doors will be fascinating. 
Italy and France are 2 teams who are so incredibly inconsistent in terms of both confidence and accuracy that it’s impossible to know how this one will play out. The smart money is on France and you have to think they’ll win by virtue of just having a truly enormous pack of forwards, but England showed that they will fatigue and if Italy can move the ball (and Carli Canna definitely has the vision to see holes in defences) then Italy could sneak the win late on.  The weather in Rome looks glorious so France won’t have to worry about the forward dominated, slow, turgid whistle-fest they endured in Dublin two weeks ago and they might be able to play the Barbarian style, free-flowing, offloading rugby that Guy Noves seems to be craving (they probably won’t, because their accuracy hasn’t been the greatest in recent times) but with individuals like Serin, Fickou, Vakatawa, Nakitaitaci and the newly restored Brice Dulin there should be some tries. From an Italian point of view Campagnaro and Venditti both have the power and pace to make defenders look incredibly silly so it’s really only Kiwi referee Ben O’Keefe standing between us spectators and an bucket of  meat-pies!

2017 6 Nations week 3 preview 

It’s difficult to come up with anything too insightful for Saturday’s games, so far all I’ve got is Scotland have conceded more than 20 penalties in their 2 games so far and wide John Lacey on the whistle today that may well be the deciding factor. Wales won’t mind a staccato affair with plenty of shots at goal for Leigh Halfpenny but Scotland will be hoping Lacey allows a free flowing game and if he does then their outside backs could make their opponents look like leaden footed donkeys.

Wales are always keen to talk about how they have a gameplan which involves “attacking wider” but the problem seems to be to me that they simply don’t have enough speed to threaten International defences. The 3 fast players in the squad are Justin Tipuric, who they appear to have a really convoluted way of using in a pod of forwards in the midfield alongside Alun-Wyn Jones (who admittedly does carry ball like a back, but usually gets crunched by defenders when he runs in bolt upright or surrenders to the first tackler having moved about 8 inches forward) and both the wingers George North and Liam Williams who are unbelievable attacking threats but are woefully neglected by the inside backs who either take contact and kill any momentum or kick the ball away. Scotland on the other hand have attacking threats all along the backline and on the bench too. Huw Jones has a real chance to put up his hand for a Lions spot today with Jonathan Davies struggling to start for his regional side and Jonathan Joseph and Garry Ringrose yet to really hit their straps either. Tim Visser comes in for the injured Sean Maitland and with him and George North there’s potential for some huge collisions and a few serious knocks as they 2 of the most injury prone players in Test rugby.

Wales forwards were absolutely heroic last time out against England in Cardiff and if they can match that level of combativeness they should give the undersized yet dynamic Scottish pack som problems at scrum time, although Wales really did struggle to stop England’s rolling maul so expect Jonathan Humphreys steer’s to focus on that as way of slowing down their Welsh opponents. Incidentally if Wales scrummage well and Scotland maul well then John Lacey will have a field day and the penalties and cards will be flowing, how he referee’s the rucks will be important with both backrows looking to scavenge for scraps on the floor, Lacey is usually pretty hot on tacklers not rolling away and doesn’t allow defenders to compete for the ball for very long, so set-piece dominance may well decide this game. 
Wales conspired to lose from a winning position against England and had it not been for some fairly obtuse refereeing, the abysmal decision making of some of the backs (and what appeared to be a total lack of communication in defence) compounded by a coach who thought that substituting THE besy player on the pitch after 53 minutes they would still be chasing a Grand Slam. As far as this game goes I think Scotland should snap their 9 game hoodoo against Wales provided they can score 3 tries or more and with Ali Price, Jones, Visser, Seymour and Hogg starting allied to the impact Bennett, Swinson and Watson will bring from the bench they should be able to move the Welsh defence all around the park and it could be another late heartbreak for Wales.
Ireland should be absolutely raring to go in Dublin, this will be the first home game of their 2017 tilt, the crowd will be well oiled since they’re not kicking off for 8 and a bit hours but they’re probably “warming up” already and last time out they rattled up 63 points at a canter in Rome (although it’s nearly impossible to extrapolate anything from games against Italy because they’ve been atrocious lately) the Scottish backs cut the Irish defence to pieces out wide and that might be a more relative comparison. 

France are a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, shrouded in a cloak of misdirection buried in a garden of confusion. They’ve played very well in patches lately and they look to have an incredibly strong scrum (they should have since their pack weighs several metric tonnes) but this week they’ve benched Uini Atonio (let’s hope it’s a strong bench an all that with the big clocking it at close to 22 stone) this means France have gone for the ball carrier Rabah Slimani, he’s 5 stone lighter than Atonio but France’s replacement front row tips the scales at around 58 stone so expect some set-piece dominance late on and a few rolling mauls. All in all France have got a pretty exciting bench with Machenaud, Ollivon, Ben Arous, Chavancy and Camara all pretty nippy around the park and Christopher Tolofua is an absolute wrecking ball. Ireland on the other hand have gone for boom off the bench, Trimble, Henderson, Healy and most of all O’Mahony all have tremendous power but might not be as fleey footed as their French counterparts (although Kieran Marmion would definitely have a chance of injecting some pace at 9 late in proceedings).

I think the Irish pack should be on top early on and if the returning Sexton can pull the strings for the Irish backline then they could be out of sight by the time Guy Noves empties his bench. However France have developed the ability to hang around and make their opponents uncomfortable to the very end, so I’ve got a feeling their impact players will have the desired effect and clinch an important away win.

The mixed up world of the 6 Nations 

Usually when beginning one of these flights of fancy I have a rough handle on what will happen over the next 9 or so hours but, largely due to events in Rome on Sunday I’m absolutely bamboozled. I’d guess at 2 comfortable away wins because Ireland will be fired up after their indiscipline cost them the chance to snatch a result in Edinburgh at the death last week. In a similar fashion Italy could have won their opening game against Wales had they been able to capitalise on their large periods of territorial domination, but instead they allowed the Welsh to get a foothold in the game (not until about the 60th minute mind you) and Wales proceeded to open them up like a tin of beans on the way to a 33-7 win.  Ireland had 59% of the possession against Scotland and an even more impressive 63% of the territory and if it hadn’t been for a missed conversion they would have won.  Italy only had 39% possession and 38% of the territory, so you really feel they could be on the receiving end of a hiding this week. Even the weather seems to be conspiring against Italy, it should be a balmy 16 degrees at kick-off time but if the Italian forwards can slow down what will surely be a ferocious effort from the Irish then it could be closer than Joe Schmidt would like. If the Irish team bus gets caught in Rome’s notorious traffic then all bets are off though after a week of hearing about Ireland’s late arrival was responsible for last week’s loss (which is absolute cobblers, if you know your pre-game routine is so intricately mapped out then you should be aiming to be there an hour earlier so the players can do their own preparation before you start the process!).  If there’s one area where Italy could look to have an edge it’s in the backrow, Italian number 7 Simone Favaro has been a bit of a powerhouse for Glasgow Warriors this season and Sean O’Brien opposite him has not looked like an out and out 7 this season, alongside Sergio Parisse and Maxime Mbanda Favaro will form a very dynamic backrow and as long O’Brien, Heaslip and Stander remain on the pitch together Ireland’s will be unbalanced.  Stander is probably the form number 8 in world rugby and plays at 6 like an 8, last week Heaslip’s major contribution was to give away 2 penalties so he needs a big game to compensate for that but he won’t play like a 6 either and that’s where a problem could arise. 

Wales v England is one those games were both teams talk big but are secretly nervous as hell. Eddie Jones has had verbal diarrhoea all week, either in an attempt to infuriate everyone in Wales or in a series of very careless press conferences he’s questioned if Wales is a country (if Japan is then Wales definitely is Edwardo), he’s claimed that the Welsh are cunning referencing the possession of daffodils as evidence (that bathtub must have given his head a hell of wallop). Wales on the other hand seem to have swerved any similar stream of thought (nobody has questioned England’s actual existence) instead Rhys Webb said that Wales were only concerned with Wales, which appears to be an admirable plan.  As usual it’s Wales’ team selection that is a huge worry, in fact the idea that they might not make a final team selection until 40 minutes before kick-off seems borderline negligent. England have known their team all week and will be settled, Wales with a day less preparation time have been training under the assumption both George North and Dan Biggar are fit but won’t know until just before the game. It won’t be a problem for the players who come into the team (Sam Davies showed last week he’s Mr Cool on the pitch and Alex Cuthbert who I presume would replace North has over 40 caps) but it will for the other players around them, although Rhys Webb knows Sam Davies from the Ospreys Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies don’t play with him week in week out. There’s the potential for a ramble about 10,000 hours of practice to make an elite performer here, but it’s not 100% transferable even if the basic principle remains; fail to prepare, prepare to fail (or the 18+ version Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance) and I’m just not sure Wales’ preparation has been good enough to win a Test match. 

There has been some murmurings about how England didn’t play that well against France last week and whilst it didn’t look pretty and they dominated territory against a monstrous French pack and split possession 50-50 so they weren’t as terrible as some are claiming. They also only conceded 8 penalties (which is always more to do with the referee than the team, but still). For Wales the worst news is they missed 25 tackles last week so they will have been hitting tackle bags all week. 

I personally can’t see Wales winning this game and just like the Italian game it’ll only be close if the home side’s pack play out of their skin. People will point to Jack Clifford being rushed back to counteract Warburton and Tipuric but I don’t think Steady Eddie would risk a player as young as Clifford if there was a chance he’d breakdown. The inclusion of 2 backrower’s on the English bench show how determined England are to win quick ball and Jack Nowell and Jonathan Joseph could potentially tear the Welsh defence apart if that happens. 

The briefest of Super Bowl meanderings 

Matt Ryan has never beaten the Patriots, but Matt Ryan has never been MVP before this season so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this could be his year.

Steve Young recently said that Tom Brady will be licking his lips at the prospect of facing the Falcons defence in the Big Show, but I think if the Falcons can keep their Offence on the field this could be quite a close game (particularly compared to last year’s 24-10 thrashing the Broncos dished out to the Panthers).  How successful the Falcons are in keeping Brady on the sidelines will depend on how much they lean on their run game and how explosive Julio Jones is. Last time out against the Packers he light their depleted Defensive backfield up, but he has history against the Packers (in 2014 he caught 11 passes for 259 yards) but Logan Ryan will be playing for the Patriots and he has been one of the form Cornerbacks in the league this season. Safety (but former Cornerback) Devin McCourty will probably be spending a lot of time in the vicinity of Julio Jones too which could lead to the Falcons making a lot of shorter throws that could allow them to chew up the clock more easily. 

The Patriots have got some great players but their 3 key ingredients are the coaches, obviously Bill Belichick is an NFL legend (even if you don’t like him he’s won 6 Super Bowls as a coach) but Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia make the dream team of Head Coach and Coordinator’s. McDaniels has won 6 AFC titles and 4 Super Bowls and Patricia has won 2 Super Bowls in the 13 years he’s been associated with the Patriots.  The Patriots Offence is probably the most balanced in the league and if the Falcons try to take away Tom Brady’s receiving options then they will just run the ball with LaGarrette Blount or Dion Lewis but if the Falcons pack the box Brady will find Edelman, Amendola, Bennett or Hogan (if he’s fit).

The Falcons have their own Super Bowl winner in Head Coach Dan Quinn, he won it as the Seahawks Defensive Coordinator in 2014 (he also won 3 NFC titles) so he knows what it takes to be successful in the post-season.

I do think the Patriots will run out winners but it should be a more exciting game than last year. The key for the Falcons will be to try and be as balanced on Offence as the Patriots are, even if they have to chase the game abandoning the run will just play straight into Patricia’s hands and then they could be blown away. My main hope is that the officials leave the eccentricity and controversy to Lady GaGa in the halftime show, I wonder if she’ll be able to avoid politics for 20 odd minutes? 

6 Nations musings 

This isn’t really a blog, it’s more a list of things that have popped into my mind lately, a random train of thought if you will.

Scotland v Ireland should be all about which front row can get the upper hand and Ireland have 2 props who are nudging the 19 stone mark and a hooker who is an excellent scrummager. You’d imagine Rory Best will get the chance to captain the Lions in the summer and if he can find his line-out throwing accuracy it could even be in the Test series. However (and it’s a big however) Romain Poite is reffing and he’s not known for facilitating flowing rugby, so even if Ireland can generate momentum through their pack it may well be negated by the whistle. If it does become a staccato whistle-fest then Scotland have the individual brilliance to create unlikely tries, with Finn Russell, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg (Russell and Hogg could nail down Lions shirts in this game, but both are well known <by me and a few others at least, if not the TV commentators> to be wildly inconsistent when it matters) starting and Mark Bennett and Ali Price on the bench Ireland could be in for a torrid time if it becomes fast and loose. And if the Irish pack can’t keep a choke-hold on the game then the Scottish front row will come into their own because they may not be as powerful as their green shirted counterparts but Zander Fagerson and Fraser Brown in particular can maraude around a rugby pitch like few others can, this could be a real Lions trial for front rowers. 

England and France should be much less interesting mainly because England come off the back of an undefeated 12 months (13 wins)  and France only won 4 of their Test matches last season. However England didn’t start their Autumn Tests very well, early in games they missed kicks and managed to pick up a red card early against Argentina. France on the other tend to fade in the last 20 minutes so if they can capitalise early on and open a 2 or 3 try lead then it will be a true test for a England, a test of how they perform under pressure. If France start slowly too then there’s a chance they could be blown away and out of the game by the 50 minute mark.  The real Wildcard in this game though is referee Angus Gardner who refereed Rosslyn Park last week where Eddie Jones was spotted keeping a beady eye on him. The thing about the new high tackle directive is that each referee had struggled to adapt it’s use to their own personal style and since the directive was put in place for the new Super Rugby season which hasn’t started yet Gardner has had minimal time to get to grips with it. Either he’ll ignore it completely which has been a Pro 12 adaptation of the new directive, or he’ll get himself in a right old tizzy and he and the TMO will watch every single contact on the big screen ad infinitum, which has been the approach a few Aviva Premiership referee’s have taken. 

Another point of interest at Twickenham will be how England adapt to not having Mako Vunipola (Wales have the same issue without Gethin Jenkins) often the loose-head will take the ball at first receiver to give George Ford more time to assess the defence and Mako is very good at offloading in contact, or carrying effectively or distributing the ball out the back to the backs. I’m not sure they’ve got another tight 5 forward who can do that, so they may have to use the backrower’s and that may effect the speed of their ruck ball. How the officials interpret Joe Marler’s scrummaging will be interesting (to me at least, I don’t get out much you see) there hasn’t been a concerted PR effort to tell everyone that he drives straight this time and he’s starting against the behemoth Uini Atonio, who is not only a gargantuan 21 and a half stones (!) but he’s also 6 feet 5 inches tall, so any slight angle will be exacerbated with a huge body opposite. Another thing I’ll be looking for is how Elliott Daly approaches kick chases, his last one in an England shirt saw him sent off as he didn’t jump and he ran into the player who had jumped and claimed the ball.