Super Rugby XV of the season

I saw an absolutely hideous “team of the season” from Super Rugby today (seriously, there were 5 Crusaders in and only 1 Jaguares representative) so I thought I’d come up with a better one.

1. Lizo Gqoboka – the Bulls Loose-head made 122 tackles, ran, 430 metres, made 7 linebreaks and scored 2 tries in an epic 1,038 minutes played this season a whole 60 minutes more than his nearest competitor.

2. Folau Fainga’a – the Brumbies hooker benefited from playing for a team who perfected the rolling maul this season whilst scoring 12 tries but he also won 18 turnovers, made 128 tackles and bust 18 tackles, exactly what Cheika needs in his Wallaby squad.

3. Sekope Kefu played 1,012 minutes in 15 games this season and ended the season with a 92% tackle success rate! He also made 4 tackle busts and 8 offloads whilst averaging 5.3 metres per carry. (Allan Ala’alatoa was in the team I saw and he played more minutes, concede fewer penalties and won more turnovers but his tackle % was just 91% and averaged under 4 yards per carry so it’s 50/50)

4. Marcos Kremer – he’s just 21 but he made 19 tackle busts, ran for 624 metres (28 more than any other lock) scored 2 tries and made 194 tackles (85%)

5. Adam Coleman – mostly because he’s Adam flipping Coleman but also because the Rebels season died when his shoulder got injured. When he he was on the pitch he made 1 tackle every 7 minutes, had a 90% success rate and made 4 turnovers.

6. Lachlan Boshier – the 24 old should have a long and successful All Black carrier ahead of him, he’s the smartest backrower I’ve seen all season. He scored 5 tries from just 60 runs (1 in 12), it took Pete Samu 74 runs to score his 5 (nearly 1 in 15), Shannon Frizell scored 6 from 91 runs (over 1 in 15). Kwagga Smith actually scored once every 12.1 runs and he appeared at 8 in the team I saw, but he conceded more penalties and missed 4 more tackles in 68 fewer minutes than Boshier. Boshier’s tackle success rate was a mind bending 92% (Smith’s was 84%).

7. Du’Plessis Kirifi – another youngster with a huge future. He’s just 22 and an absolute menace at the breakdown, he made 2 more turnovers than Matt Todd in less than half the minutes Todd was on the field! Kirifi made a turnover for every 47 minutes of game time, Todd 1 for every 113 minutes! Kirifi also scored the same number of tries as Todd (1) and averaged 6.8 metres per carry compared to Todd’s 4.1 metres.

8. Michael Wells – the Waratahs number 8 is a David Lyons clone. He doesn’t look like your “modern back row forward” but he’s an incredibly effective 8. He averaged 5.6 metres per carry and carried on average (Daniel du Preez averaged 5.1 metres). He also had a tackle success of 93%, the same as Ardie Savea.

9. TJ Perenara – he has to be the unanimous choice if only for competitive edge and general spikeyness, he’s also lightning fast. He scored more tries than any other 9 (6), averaged 8 metres per carry (Will Genia averaged 6.78, Ross Cronje 7.1) and had an 82% tackle success rate the same as Aaron Smith.

10. Richie Mo’unga – you could argue for Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, but he seemed slightly overcome by the occasion in the final while Mo’unga looked like he was ready to take the All Black 10 shirt away from Beauden Barrett although his 62% tackle success is a pretty big red flag for opposition attack coaches. Hayden Parker had a pretty sensational season with the boot for the Sunwolves but didn’t do much else. You could argue that Damian McKenzie was the most important 10 because when he got injured the Chiefs hopes really evaporated and he wasn’t at his vintage best when he was fit.

11. Rieko Ioane – Sevu Reece’s tries might have got the headlines but Ioane made 23 linebreaks and 37 tackle busts. He also averaged 10 and half metres per run and scored 20% of his teams tries this season.

12. Samu Kerevi – he was the only shining light for Australian rugby this season. He carried for 1,546 metres (226 more than any other Centre), bust more tackles than any other and made more offloads than any other Centre too (29). His tackle success rate of 73% isn’t the best but his line breaking ability is so good he gets a pass.

13. Ngani Laumape – you can’t ignore someone who scored 13 tries. I loved watching Matias Moroni and Matias Orlando but they’ve been swapping between the 13 channel and the wing and Jack Goodhue still looks like the best 13 in world rugby to me, but Laumape is an absolute workhorse, he averaged 9.4 metres per run, made the most linebreaks (16), bust 66 tackles and had an 81% tackle success, absolutely monstrous.

14. Ben Lam – he bust more tackles than any other winger (51), averaged 10.6 metres per run and made 16 linebreaks on 108 runs, so 1 linebreak every 7 runs. His 75% tackle success seems to put Steve Hansen off but he looks the business to me.

15. Melani Nani – he puts the sexy in sexy rugby. He only scored 5 tries (still 11% of the Blues total tries this season) but he averaged 10 and a half metres per run, bust 47 tackles and made 16 linebreaks from 152 runs so less than 10 runs per linebreak. Technically David Havili had some better numbers; more tries & tackle busts but he had a lower average per run and fewer offloads. Havili also missed more tackles, Nani just missed 8 all season (85%) and Nani is so fast he’s great to watch. Worcester have got a bright shining star next season.

An alternative RWC prognostication

Rugby World Cup 2019 doesn’t start until the 20th of September and there’s a Rugby Championship, Elgon Cup, Pacific Nations Cup and World Cup warm up games to squeeze in before then too. Coaches don’t have to name a final 31 man squad until the 2nd of September and with so many games to be played injuries are virtually guaranteed so it’s far too early to make sweeping predictions about who will definitely make the final so here’s a “what could happen if the underdogs come good” view.

Pool A only had two teams who are currently ranked inside the top 10 in Ireland and Scotland but in Japan they have the team ranked 11th who drew with France in November 2017 and who lead England after 56 minutes at Twickenham last autumn, so there’s definite upset potential with a home crowd behind them. The brave blossoms have the enviable task of playing Russia in their first game (Russia are ranked 20th and have win – loss record of 8 – 9 since 2017) while Ireland and Scotland get to battle it out in the most brutal conditions the tournament promises to provide. Then Japan have a shot at an Ireland team coming off 6 days rest (Japan have an 8 day rest since they open the show) while Scotland take on a Samoa team who are always physical and look to have some incredibly large humans in their Pacific Nations squad. Japan v Scotland will be the final pool game so Japan have a very real chance of qualifying for the Quarter Finals and for the purposes of this highly imaginative story let’s say they do (outside Murrayfield where Scotland look like world beaters and terrified the All Blacks in 2017 Scotland have a pretty dodgy record). Historically Ireland have had mixed results at World Cup’s but its difficult to see them losing a pool game even in a fantasy land scenario.

Pool B is more of a forgone conclusion than all the other pool’s, really only New Zealand and South Africa can qualify, Italy did beat South Africa by 2 points in 2016 but they have only won 3 games since) and Canada and Namibia are the two lowest ranked teams in the competition.

Pool C is the polar opposite of B with England, France and Argentina all incredibly close as England seem to be stalling slightly under Eddie Jones, France have had to parachute new coaches in to save them and Argentina appear to be on the rise as they welcome back their overseas stars. USA can’t be completely ruled out of the running either as Major League Rugby seems to be developing their talent pool and they’ve called 3 of their 7’s stars into the training squad. USA are actually afforded the luxury of taking on England just 4 days after England’s bruising encounter against Tonga in what will be the Eagles first game of the tournament. USA’s fixture list actually throws a lot of opportunities for them to cause some upsets, their second game is 6 days later against a France team coming off an 11 day break (imagine France spending 11 whole days in each others company, what could possibly go wrong), then they have a whole week off before they play Argentina just 4 days after the Pumas take on England. The USA’s short rest week is before they play Tonga and by then they could have already qualified for the next round. Purely hypothetically let’s say Argentina top the pool and USA qualify second.

Pool D is also far from simple, Wales are currently ranked second in the world rankings, Australia are sixth and Fiji are 9th but as their name suggests the Fijians are currently flying on the pitch (they’ve won 5 of their last 7 and only lost to Ireland by 3 in 2017) even if they appear to be having a few issues with money and coaches leaving their camp. Australia appear to have the kindest schedule with 8 days rest before they play Wales, 6 days before they take on Uruguay and another 6 rest days before they face Georgia (although Georgia’s scrum could cause some issues for everyone especially the Wallabies). Wales get the luxury of resting most of their starters in the first game against Georgia while Australia have the tricky task of keeping a lid on Fiji (and that could be a particularly feisty encounter with a few Fijians opting to represent Australia). Wales and Australia meet in their second game of the pool so the pool could realistically be decided by how Fiji perform at the start of the pool games, but we’re not here to be realistic so let’s imagine Fiji top Pool D and Australia overcome their “annus horribilis” (take that republicans) and sneak into second place.

That would provide the unlikely Quarter Final matchups of Argentina v Australia, New Zealand v Japan, Fiji v USA and Ireland v South Africa (actually not that unlikely).

In the spirit of creativity let’s go with Argentina v New Zealand in Semi Final 1 (and they traditionally serve up absolute belters at world cups) and Fiji v Ireland in the Semi Final numero deux which could lead to the tantalising prospect of Argentina and their contingent of Los Jaguares playing possession rugby against the flying Fijians, sexy rugby all round! I reckon the Pumas would probably sneak it by virtue of having a better place kicker but it would certainly be fun to watch.

Reasons to be cheerful if you’re Eddie Jones

Luke Hamilton is a strange place to start a post about England’s ruck issue, but he’s a Welsh man who has bolstered Scotland’s back row options in the last few months. Hamilton played for Wales U20’s at the Junior Rugby World Cup in South Africa and made 36 appearances for Cardiff Blues but after two seasons spent in France with S.U Agen Hamilton signed for Leicester Tigers

Saracens v Gloucester

Parkway Drive once declared “Romance is Dead” on their 2005 album Killing with a Smile and they may very well have been predicted the 2019 Gallagher Premiership season. The top 4 teams finished exactly as predicted here back before a ball had been kicked in anger but if there is one glimmer of hope that Parkway Drive’s declaration may have come prematurely its that Gloucester can be absolutely scintillating on their day and if all 22 hit their straps on the same day it could be absolutely glorious to watch.

Gloucester certainly appear to have an edge in the front row battle largely because there’s no Mako Vunipola for Saracens and since he is one of the best Loose-head props in the world any replacement is going to be a step down. They’re also Titi Lamositele, Juan Figallo and Christopher Tolofua who are all capped internationals. They are replaced by Ralph Adams-Hale who is fresh out of the Academy, Christian Judge who is on loan from Cornish Pirates and Joe Gray who only signed for Saracens in September 2018. Gloucester have also got a relative newbie in the front row ranks too with Mike Sherry, who is on loan from Munster, appearing on their bench but apart from him the Cherry & Whites front row are all familiar faces. In actual fact personnel could very little influence on how the scrums go, referee Luke Pearce proved last week that he will penalise effect over cause at scrum time. He was an assistant referee at Sandy Park where he seemed to take a sudden dislike to the Northampton scrum even when it appeared to most impartial observers that the Saints prop’s were struggling to maintain a bind and hold the scrum up because their Exeter counterparts weren’t driving particularly square.

Gloucester have been particularly successful at line outs this season with the play of Franco Mostert being particularly revelatory. The 28 year old Springbok has been one of the stand out locks all season, he’s been indefatigable around the park and he’s stolen 10 line out in 13 games which lead to him being selected in the dream team. Saracens line out has been outstanding this season too when Jamie George has been throwing it in and he may well play the whole 80 minutes this week but how the unfamiliar combinations effect the set piece later in the game will be interesting to see.

There will be a lot made of the Cipriani v Farrell matchup but the main reason that both 10’s are so successful is because they only use the ball when they are convinced that the big lads ahead of them have sucked in enough defenders for them to exploit the resulting space. If this is going to be the slug-fest Gloucester are expecting (they’ve got 6 forwards, even if Polledri has appeared on the wing this season) then neither 10 will be seeing much of the ball. Gloucester have also selected their 2 best defending wingers who are both great kick chasers. Tom Marshall is one of the most underrated players in the Gallagher Premiership, if Cipriani can get Marshall in the space between Lozowski and his opposite number Sean Maitland then Marshall’s physicality could make a bit of space for Gloucester’s right wing Charlie Sharples.

My head says Saracens at home is a huge mountain to overcome particularly at the business end of the season but my heart says Cipriani has the keys to unlock any door that appears to be shut in front of him it’s just all about how his pack stand up to the physical onslaught they’re bound to be subjected to.

And who keeps Luke Pearce on their good side will have a huge influence too.

Franco Mostert to win Man of the Match and Gloucester to win by 2.

Super Bowl LII speculation

Betting against the Patriots is a fool’s errand, so there’s no point trying to predict who will win. There are however a few areas that the Rams can attack the Patriots so I thought I’d guess at what might work for Sean McVay as he returns to Atlanta.

The Rams have been running a lot of fake jet sweeps all season to distract Defensive lines and outside Linebackers and the one are that of the Patriots Defence that could be considered a weakness is the lack of speed that their front 7 have, but they are very disciplined and rarely over pursue. The Patriots also bolster this weakness by playing DB’s as Linebackers, but if Jared Goff spots this he may be able to audible to a short pass play to a tight end or Todd Gurley out of the backfield (if Todd brings his catching hands this week!). Even if the Patriots do use Patrick Chung et al closer to the line of scrimmage it only takes one missed tackle or one great block from the always impressive Rams O-line to bust Brandon Cooks for a decent rushing gain. It wouldn’t be a huge shock if McVay dials up a few slight variations on the jet sweep they’ve been running during the rest of the season. They could try a Wide Reciever reverse or even a Reciever pass.

During the regular season the Patriots Defence allowed 4.9 yards per carry so the Rams might not try anything too exotic early on against them but the Patriots were very difficult to score against on the ground so there maybe some “trickeration” in the Red Zone. Time of possession for the Rams will be vital because if they can keep Tom Brady off the pitch there’s a very good chance they’ll outscore the Patriots, the Patriots returned 1 interception for a touchdown, 1 fumble for a score, 1 kick off for a TD and scored once from a blocked punt so they’re heavily reliant on Brady for their points.

For their part the Rams Special Teams are always worth keeping an eye on. John Fassell has been coaching for 20 years and like McVay is from a football dynasty (McVay’s Grandfather was the 49ers Director of Football operations from 1980 when Bill Walsh was winning more Super Bowls than you can shake a stick at), Fassell’s dad Jim was a football coach between 1974 and 2012 and the NFL coach of the year in 1997. Added to Fassell’s experience and creativity in coaching the Rams have a superhero Punter, Johnny Hekker was a high school Quarterback (he’s also 6 feet 5 inches tall so ideal height for an NFL Quarterback) and they often use him to fake punts but he’s the holder for field goal’s too so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fake field goal if they find themselves in a particularly sticky spot. Another Fassell speciality is the “fake” return that they used to run mainly on punt returns when they had Pharo Cooper and Tevon Austin. One of them would run toward the opposite side line that the punt was going to attract the gunners and if they fell for it then the guy who was actually returning the punt would have almost half a field to run into.

If the Rams do win the Super Bowl then it will be because their coaching staff have out thought their opposition and if that happens it should be a fascinating watch. 3 sacks from Aaron Donald wouldn’t go a miss either but during the playoffs the Patriots O-line has seemed reborn and Gronkowski’s new role as an extra Tackle has had a lot to do with it (but maybe that’s all a ruse and he’ll be 100+ receiving yards Gronk tonight)?

6 Nations preview – abridged version

There’s been a lot of overthinking from pundits and alleged experts in the build up to the 2019 6 Nations so I thought I’d offer an alternative perspective –

  1. Ireland – they’ve James Ryan, everyone else is fucked. (Tadgh Beirne, Sean Cronin and Jacob Stockdale are in some frightening form too)
  2. England – if they had Underhill they’d be my favourites to win it but they don’t so the speed of their ruck ball depends on the erratic Ben Youngs
  3. Scotland – Finn Russell is as likely to throw a spectacular misspass as he is to miss touch from 35 yards so they’re right in the middle (ish)
  4. Wales – Gatland looks like he’ll pick an 8 who hasn’t played since the Autumn Internationala and a 9 who was injured yesterday. This is strictly RWC prep time for the wiley old Kiwi
  5. France – if they all shared Guilhem Guirado’s intensity and focus they’d terrify every opponent in world rugby. They don’t and Cami Lopez is their experienced 10!
  6. Italy – less direction than a Gatwick drone hunt, but a pack who work their collective socks off. God love them. If they ever find a 10 who marries Claudio Canna’s flair with Tommaso Allan’s pragmatism there’ll be hell to pay.