Gloucester v Wasps – Key Matchups

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Gloucester and Wasps are two of the most exciting teams in the Aviva Premiership with ball in hand, with skilful back row players on both sides and the 2 fastest backs in the country in Jonny May and Christian Wade on show this promises to be a thrilling encounter.  I suspect that Gloucester’s edge in the tight 5 and the home advantage provided by the vociferous occupants of “the shed” should see them to a victory, but I thought I’d outline some of the mouth watering one on one matchup’s that could occur at Kingsholm on Saturday.

Wasps and Elliot Daly may only be 19 but he has 10 England Under 20 caps and he’s started the season very well, he is one of the reasons that Wasps wingers Tom Varndell and Christian Wade, of whom more later, have scored 7 tries in 3 games, Daly’s foot work and acceleration have made defenders step inside and leave Wasps wingers with more or less a free run to the line.  Opposite Daly this weekend will be one of last season’s most exciting discoveries in 23 year old Henry Trinder.  England Saxon Trinder has bags of pace and with the potential pairing of Freddie Burns and Billy Twlevetrees inside him Trinder could find himself with more than enough space to pose Daly and Wasps outside defenders some difficult questions.  Defensively Daly has not been as outstanding as he has with the ball in hand, although defence is a team exercise more than an individual one and having conceded an average of 24 points per game this season Gloucester have also failed to excel in this area too.

The wide men for both teams have the potential to win a game for their respective teams on any given day; sadly injury to Charlie Sharples robs us of the chance to see him up against Christian Wade in what would have been almost an England trial.  On the opposite wing though there will still be a mouth watering clash between 2 of the more experienced wingers around, but with the 30 year old James Simpson- Daniel up against 27 year old Tom Varndell there will be no lack of pace.  When he’s fit Simbad as he’s known is one of the best finishers in the Premiership and if he gets a chance to turn a defender inside- out he never fails to take it.  Varndell will need to use all of his powers of concentration, something which he has traditionally not always done to make sure his feet are pointing toward the touchline, if Simpson- Daniel squares him up then there’s a very good chance Varndell will finish up behind the posts waiting for a conversion.  On the other hand Varndell has shown at the start of this season that he can take of any gap in a backline and for 40 minutes at Twickenham, on the opening weekend of the season, he, along with fellow speedster Christian Wade, tore the defending Champions Harlequins defence to shreds, so the communication between Trinder and Simpson- Daniel will be essential to the result on Saturday.

In the back row’s on Saturday will be 2 of England’s most destructive ball carriers and in the wider context of this season 2 possible contenders for a Lions Test shirt in Wasps’ number 8, the behemoth that is England Under 20 squad member, 19 year old, Sydney born Billy Vunipola.  Vunipola stands an impressive 6 feet 4 inches tall and tips the scales at an astonishing 20 stone 6 lbs.  Not only is he a giant of a man he’s also quick enough to pop up in the backline and carry the ball effectively in the open field.  Gloucester’s number 8 is current England squad member Ben Morgan, he in comparison is just 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs a miniscule 18 stone 3 lbs, one criticism of Morgan has been that while he’s probably England’s best ball carrier he doesn’t always work as hard as he might around the park and at breakdown time, if he doesn’t then Vunipola will have a field day, Vunipola usually only lasts 60 minutes, but with his replacement being the near 17 stone South African Ashley Johnson there is no let up from Wasps destructive carriers.  Also appearing the back rows will 2 of England’s brightest young talents at blind side, with Gloucester’s 23 year old Tom Savage likely starting against Wasps 21 year old Joe Launchbury, both are tall, 6 feet 5 and 6 feet 6 respectively but Savage is nearly a stone and half heavier than Launchbury at 18 stone 1 lb compared to 16 stone 7 lb, so Launchbury may be the more mobile of the 2, which could be decisive when it comes to recycling ball.

There will be a very absorbing battle at the scrum half position as Wasps 24 year old Joe Simpson, another English qualified Sydney native has recovered from the niggly injuries he seemed to suffer most of last season and looks to be back to his best, making sniping runs and providing the quick ball that Wasps have needed to score 11 tries in 3 games.  Opposing him will be England Under 20’s scrum half Dan Robson, Robson has been holding off competition for his place from 23 year old Dave Lewis but he won’t have had a tougher challenge than Simpson so far this season.

Finally the versatile Billy Twlevetrees deserves a mention, he is one of the best ball distributors currently in the Aviva Premiership, he’s an excellent kicker out of hand, can place kick from an alarming distance and at 6 feet 3 inches tall he’s a considerable presence in the midfield for Gloucester, he’s already started in both the 12 and 10 shirt for the Cherry and Whites this season, so picking which Wasps player he will line up against on Saturday is a fairly tricky business, but one thing is for sure he’ll be a threat in attack and if Wasps concede too many penalties, which has been known to happen already this season then he can punish them from long range.

NFL Contenders – NFC South

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The NFC South has been the focus for most of the NFL’s controversy this offseason with the “Bounty- gate” scandal hitting the New Orleans Saints resulting in numerous suspensions, including to Head Coach Shaun Peyton, the first NFL Head Coach to be suspended.  Three coaches and GM Mickey Loomis were suspended by the NFL, the person who suffered the harshest penalty defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had already left the organisation for the St. Louis Rams, so his lifetime ban will have less effect on the Saints, but with their Head Coach missing all season and their “interim Head Coach” Joe Vitt missing for the first 6 games of the regular season this is bound to impact the team.  Despite this the Saints are still favourites to with the bookmakers to top the NFC South at 6/5.  The Saints are a team who thrive on adversity and with the news that four players involved in the case, including the talismanic linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who had initially been suspended had their suspensions revoked in time for them to feature in the opening round of the 2012 season then the impact of the scandal could be a motivating one for players who will want to win for their coaches. 

Offensively the team won’t look much different to last season’s team who lost out to San Francisco in 32-36 point thriller in the play offs, with the possible exception of Nick Toon at Wideout for the departed Robert Meachem.  The defence under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will be interesting to watch, they have three exceptional players in Vilma, Barrett Ruud and Curtis Lofton but they all play in the middle linebacker position and in their base 4-3 only one middle linebacker can be on the field at once.  Traditionally Spagnuolo’s defences have relied on “exotic blitzes”, a concept he learned whilst assisting the legendary Jim Johnson at the Eagles, however if the Saints continue to give up more than 5 yards per run as they did last year and struggle to get any push from their front four then their blitz packaged could be largely redundant.

The Falcons are the bookmaker’s second favourites for the division title at 5/4 and a brief look at their schedule this season they have a very good chance at making the playoffs.  They have avoided the offseason controversy that seems to have been prevalent among a large section of the league.  On the field a lot will rest on the shoulders of Matt Ryan, who in the past has shown that he is a perfectly capable Quarterback during the regular season, but his Tony Romo- esque quality to crumble in the post season could be a major stumbling block on the Falcons path to the Super Bowl.  Ryan is 27 now and this season, with the Falcons generous schedule, could be his break out season, Tony Gonzales certainly thinks so as the record breaking 36 year old Tight End has the belief the Falcons can go all the way and has extended his career for yet another year.  On the other side of the ball the Falcons have not really made any moves that make you sit up and pay attention, they should have a solid defence, but with the exception of Brent Grimes in the backfield they seem to lack the explosiveness that championship sides have and with their front seven they may struggle to pressurise opposing Quarterbacks with any consistency.

The Carolina Panthers may prove to be the team who run the Falcons closest n their pursuit of the division and with Head Coach Ron Rivera having a whole offseason to prepare his players and stamp his mark on the defence they have the potential to surprise more than a few of the so called “big boys” this season.  Their first draft pick Luke Kuelchy looks to be one of the most explosive and exciting defensive players drafted this year and having won not only the Butkus award for the best college linebacker, but also the Bronko Nagurski award for best collegiate defensive player in 2011 they have seriously upgraded their defence from last season.  They also drafted Frank Alexander a Defensive End from Oklahoma to add depth to their front four and if the defensive line can afford Kuelchy & his fellow linebackers John Beason and James the Anderson the fraction of a second they need to get into the backfield a lot of Quarterbacks will have problems against the Panthers this season.  Offensively the biggest question is will Cam Newton suffer the dreaded “sophomore slump” or “second season syndrome” as teams adjust to his ability to throw and run equally well.  Not everybody expected him to be as successful as he was last year but the Panthers offensive line did a very good job of protecting him and with solid pass catchers like Greg Olsen and Brandon Lafell combined with the explosiveness of Steve Smith and Louis Murphy the passing game looks like it should function more than capably.  The Panthers added Fullback come Running Back Mike Tolbert from San Diego in the offseason and in combination with stalwart backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart added to Newton’s ability to move the chains with his legs the Panthers have the ability to adopt a very balanced offense and since they averaged 25.4 points per game and 389.8 offensive yards per game opposing teams will do well to keep up with them.  The key for the Panthers will be the first 4 weeks of the season, they play 3 divisional games in the first month of the season and if they surprise the Falcons in the Georgia Dome they could start the season with a 3-1 record overall and a 3-0 record within their division.