Aviva Premiership playoff preview Exeter v Newcastle

Sadly the Falcons at the Chiefs isn’t a Super Bowl matchup where we get to Vic Beasley chasing Patrick Mahomes around Mercedes Benz Stadium, it’s yet another game of rugby in the unnecessary playoffs that administrators love and players suffer through because generating revenue is far more important than any player welfare concerns that anyone might have.

This game seems particularly unnecessary when you consider Newcastle have got an aggregate score of 99-37 when they’ve played the top 3 teams this season! For their part Newcastle do have the joint top try scorer in the league in the shape of Vereniki Goneva (13 alongside Josh Adams) but Goneva has very often been the Falcons only incisive runner and it will take more than 1 attacking threat beat Exeter at home.

Exeter have only been beaten at home once this season and that was during the 6 Nations when they were without all of their International players, the weather also had a part to play in that result as Gareth Steenson’s conversion to win the game was blown off course and Worcester ran out 6-5 victors. That was back in February and after their early exit from European competition Exeter have had a comparatively sparse fixture list, with just 3 games since the end of March, Newcastle’s foray into the knock out stages of the Challenge Cup saw them play 5 over the same period.

Whilst it is impressive that Newcastle have returned to the playoffs their mixed form away from home, largely caused by a questionable defence, they’ve conceded on average 24 points away from home this season (although Exeter put 34 past them back in October). Actually Newcastle and Exeter have played 3 times this season (but who counts the Anglo-Welsh Cup?) but Exeter won that game at Sandy Park too.

Sandy Park is a bit of a fortress, Exeter have scored on average 32 points each game this season and barring some inexplicable weather conditions (which are entirely possible in their part of the world) I can’t see Newcastle being able to stop the foreboding doomsday device that is the Exeter pack. It might not be the prettiest game Exeter’s season ticket holders have seen all season as the Falcons are bound to everything humanly possible to stop them but with Gareth Steenson and Joe Simmonds there to punish the inevitable penalties it should be a fairly smooth passage to Twickenham for the Devonians.

Aviva Premiership playoff preview Saracens v Wasps

Wasps one saving grace this season is that they aren’t Northampton. Northampton had the misfortune of being in Saracens Champions Cup group and so had to suffer 4 thrashing’s at the hands of their not too distant neighbours conceding 237 points in the process (an average of 60 points per game)! Wasps only conceded on average 38 points per game in their 2 games against Saracens this season (38-19 & 15-38), so while others have faired worse against the other men in black Wasps chances are razor thin.

For their part this season Wasps have played some exceptional attacking rugby and most of what has been good about them this season has been anchored by Danny Cipriani and pivoted on Willie Le Roux. Cipriani has this uncanny knack of narrowing defensive lines and Le Roux has the pace to exploit any gaps out wide. But its not just Le Roux’s ability to run that shreds defences, his flat passes have provided a few tries for Christian Wade and he can thread through pinpoint grubber kicks too (although he has been known to put in a few heavy one’s too that allow defenders to recover). Whether or not Lima Sopoaga can provide enough of a threat to narrow defences next season remains to be seen, he’s more of an attacking kicker than a running threat so Wasps might be a different team to watch in the future (or Jimmy Gopperth might be Wasps’ future 10).

Saracens have been missing various different ball carriers all season (Skelton, Koch, Billy Vunipola, Rhodes, Tolofua, Itoje, Clark, Earl and Sione Vailanu who was only signed on a temporary deal have all missed games) Jackson Wray has been an almost ever present though and must be top of the list when it comes to player of the season honours. Unfortunately for Wasps Itoje, Rhodes, Koch, Skelton and Earl we’re all in Saracens match day squad at the weekend and the team carried the ball for 588 metres on their way to a 9 try 62-12 demolition of Gloucester. While Wasps defence will surely be better than Gloucester’s was on Saturday it will take a monumental effort from the Wasps forwards to stop Saracens at source.

It might not be another 38 point performance from Saracens as they will surely be more intent on accumulating points than scoring tries, there’s no bonus points to play for after all, but I’m expecting Saracens to have too much for a Wasps team who have struggled to put together an 80 minute display together of late. For Wasps they just have to hope it’s a case of where there’s a Willie (Le Roux) there’s a way.

Bold predictions for 6 Nations week 2

Ireland v Italy bold prediction – Ireland to win by 40 points

Last week Ireland did the whole ruthless efficiency thing as they squeezed past France with the last kick of the game in atrocious conditions (some would say very Irish conditions) in Paris. Whilst they did fail to score a try and Johnny Sexton was their only points scorer virtually the whole team outplayed their opponent. Ireland had 68% possession and territory (70% and 72% in the first half!) which is pretty spectacular for a team playing away from home. This domination was built on the solid foundation the forwards provided, they won 18 of 19 set pieces and won 162 out of 166 rucks alongside 4 of the 4 mauls they attempted. They only conceded 6 penalties (although it would be prescient to point out that Nigel Owens was on the whistle and he has definitely his own laid back approach to the laws of rugby), the only part of their game that was less than excellent was their defending as they missed 15 tackles, about 4 of which came as Teddy Thomas scorched in from 60 metres out.

For their part Italy endured a tough opening game at home against the doomsday device that is Eddie Jones’ England and while their scrum showed a similar consistency to panna cota they didn’t go down without a fight. Italy won the territory and possession battle against England with 52% of both and they did cross for 2 tries but ultimately their disorganised defence which lead to a complete lack of line speed meant England could dance over for 7 tries of their own (if Italy had managed to keep a lid on Sam Simmonds and Anthony Watson the final score would have been a more respectable 15-26). I can’t imagine Italy will be able to dominate either possession or territory against Ireland’s efficient pack and if Johnny Sexton can get some quick ball he will pick Italy’s passive defensive line apart.

England v Wales bold prediction – Wales leave west London with their 100% record intact

England haven’t lost at Twickenham in 14 games but the last 6 Nations team to win there were Wales. To paraphrase Phil Collins – I can feel it coming in the air this morning, even if it would be a huge upset. Although here’s a few reasons why Wales could do it:

  1. England are coming off a 6 day turn around so Wales have had an extra preparation day
  2. England had to fly back from Italy but Wales only had to travel down the M4
  3. Wales only made 98 tackles (they missed 15) compared to the 136 England had to put in (they missed 17) as they lost the territory and possession battles in Rome
  4. Last year in Cardiff England really struggled with the Welsh physicality until Ross Moriarty was substituted (well done Mr. Howley)
  5. England conceded 9 penalties and 1 free kick in Rome, Wales only gave away 7 and 1
  6. Wales made 18 clean breaks and 13 offloads against a Scotland team who tackled well but were very disorganised. England made 14 clean breaks and 11 offloads against a defence that ultimately conceded 46 points
  7. Eddie Jones has provided Wales with enough motivational material for about the next 7 seasons over the last few days. Calling out an inexperienced 10 is pretty bog standard bully boy stuff but ripping into a Lions captain with 123 Test caps is either desperate or nonsense.
  8. Jonathan Joseph replaces Ben Te’o to face the same Centre combination that beat his Bath team 35-17. And both Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams scored tries in that game.

Confidence is going to be the deciding factor in this game and it’s technically impossible to determine who will have the most once the game kicks off but the Scarlets have won 15 games in the league and European Champions Cup which is more than any English team in their respective competitions and this Wales team has 10 Scarlets starting so they shouldn’t be short on belief.

And for what it’s worth I personally can’t get on board with the whole “Test rugby is a big step up” platitude mainly because playing rugby (or any sport) is exactly the same when the ball is in play. Uncontrollable variables like who you’re representing or how big the stadium is or what the opposing coach said about you on Thursday are exactly that, uncontrollable. The ball is the same size, the rules are the same (although do vary from referee to referee) and the aim is the same, control yourself, keep a clear head and communicate with your team mates.

Scotland v France bold prediction – Good Finn Russell turns up and absolutely shreds the French defence

Not only did France have to make a lactic acid inducing 238 tackles against Ireland they also missed 15, conceded 10 penalties (plus 1 free kick) and spent more than two thirds of the game in their own half. They also suffered some controversial injuries too which have caused 3 changes in their starting XV with 32 year old Lionel Beauxis being recalled to start at 10 for the first time in six years.

Scotland weren’t terrible last week and on the stats sheet they were relatively close 48% territory (60% in the first half), they beat 19 defenders and they did score a consolation try in the 79th minute. A confused selection (Huw Jones at 12 wasn’t great) and Ali Price starting badly and descending into some sort of shame spiral were pretty fatal but Greig Laidlaw and his stoic solidity are starting this week. Scotland have scored 19 tries in their last 9 6 Nations games at Murrayfield including 3 the last time they played France there so I can’t see them repeating last week’s lacklustre showing. The return of Simon Berghan from a ban should bolster the scrum too, provided he keeps his cool a 6 foot 4, 19 stone Tight-head prop should bring enough physicality to trouble a French team who are still having nightmares about relentless Irish forwards running into them.

6 Nations bold predictions

Every dog and their man has come up with their own 6 Nations preview this week and since the final standings all seem the same (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy) I thought I’d try something different, hopefully humorous and, in a break from the norm, remotely interesting.

Wales v Scotland

Bold prediction – this one finishes as a draw

On paper this game involves 2 teams full of skill and attacking intent and a referee who has very little time for either of the above. Pascal Gauzere can be one of the most frustrating referees to watch because he doesn’t appear to have any feel for the game and has no hesitation in checking as many incidents as possible with the TMO (who is David Grashoff and he has been known to take an interminable length of time just to make incorrect decisions).

Josh Adams makes his Wales debut on the wing meaning that Wales have a back line comprising of 5 Scarlets and a former Scarlets academy winger but Rob Howley insists they are not going to play Scarlets rugby. Rob Howley was an excellent scrum half in his playing days but scrum halves rarely make good backs coaches and it must have something to do with how playing at 9 mainly involves what sport psychologists call “closed skills”, you box kick, you snipe around the fringes or you pass to the first receiver and let them do the fancy stuff. Everyone else in the back line has to respond to external stimuli such as defenders, support runners, their proximity to the touchline as well as the decisions the 9 has to make (kick, pass or keep running) and generally scrum halves who coach backs have no appreciation for any of these factors at all, my own personal belief (and concern) in this was reinforced by Howley’s use of the phrase “Welsh play book” this week because you can really only have a play book for closed skills.

All the talk about Scotland this week has been about how injured their front row is but they have selected one of the best props from the 2017 6 Nations and the stand out hooker from the Autumn Internationals in Gordon Reid and Stuart McInally, Scotland will presumably be looking to play like Glasgow Warriors have been in the new Pro 14 league this season (they’ve 12 out of 13 and recorded 10 bonus points too) and that’s why everyone has great expectations for this game.

I’m expecting fraught defensive coaches on both sides because for all the attacking talent on display (Adams, Evans, Davies for Wales and McGuigan, Harris, Seymour, Hogg in particular for Scotland) there are a number of new combinations and inexperienced Test match players who will provide opportunities for their opponents to expose. If the Welsh fowards can get the upper hand then Scotland will have to wait longer than 16 years to win again in Cardiff, but I can’t see Gauzere and his cohorts allowing anyone to dominate this game.

France v Ireland

Bold prediction – France’s noveau riche start like a house on fire and build a big enough lead to hang on to.

Jaques Brunel isn’t going die wondering in his first game as France coach, he’s starting an 19 year old at Fly Half and if that doesn’t work he’s got a 21 year old to come off the bench to save the day. He’s also got a 21 year old scrum half on the bench (who is seriously quick), two 23 years old’s in the pack and 4 24 year old’s on the bench alongside him so maybe (just maybe) the excitement is back in French rugby?

Now, on paper Ireland should crush these French youngsters like great, big, experienced things crush new, smaller, younger things but since 2008 Ireland have only once in France (by 2 points in 2014) and they’ve drawn once whilst losing 4 times. In fact since 1954 Ireland have only won 3 times in France so Ireland at 2/5 on with the bookmakers almost seems to be a minor oversight.

Brunel has gone for an injection of youth because France are perceived to be one of the unfittest teams in the 6 Nations and Ireland are almost mechanical in their dedication to strength and conditioning work so they should be able to outlast their hosts and with both Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens on officiating duty at the Stade de France the chances that this one is decided by an error are pretty slim. Nigel Owens does like a game to flow though so rucks will be hotly contested and there may be some bodies flying in all directions. If France make a good start, and they do have a team full of ball carriers who like to offload, this game could be a real nail biter but if Ireland can keep their heads (and they rarely do in Paris) the bookies are right.

Italy v England

Bold prediction – it’s hard to make any prediction that doesn’t involve England winning, but how about England winning with 14 players on the pitch.

This is the game where England always look a bit scratchy, don’t thrash Italy as conclusively as they should but Owen Farrell will make sure they win by at least 30. In theory the relentless, spirit crushing threshing machine that is the England tight 5 should provide England with enough clean ball to win this by 100 points but Italy are always ul for their first game at home and something weird usually happens, it snowed one year!

Italy are in a seemingly perpetual “transition phase” possibly because they appear to pick their team out of a hat, admittedly they’re missing players like Venditti (who doesn’t love a 17 stone winger? <well Dean Richards didn’t, but I’m talking about normal people>) and Leonardo Sarto (who doesn’t love a 6 foot 3 winger?) but they do have players like Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Gori and Maxime Mbanda on the bench when they should all be starting.

The one hope Italy have is that Eddie Jones’ England and discipline are rarely easy bedfellows and English discretions may give the Azzurri a glimmer of hope, but they usually kick at the post with all the accuracy of a North Korean missile launch so even that’s a slim hope.

Not such great expectations 

I am all too aware that expecting Wales to win a Test match can lead to the sort of soul crushing disappointment that can only be caused by combining a forward pack coached by a Druid with a backline coached by a scrum half but I fully expect Wales to continue their winning streak against the Springboks this afternoon (granted it’s only 2 games, but Wales have only beaten 2 teams ranked in the World Rugby top 10 in the last 12 months)

Expecting a win when Wales first 3 choices at Tight-Head is borderline insanity too but the major part of Wales’ gameplan is their line speed in defence so even if South Africa dominate the set piece and win a ridiculous amount of possession they should struggle to dominate territory with the same ease.  New boy Hadleigh Parkes alongside the wiley old head that is Dan Biggar should actually provide a level of organisation and communication that hasn’t always been evident from Wales’ inside backs in recent years and if the Welsh backs can keep Jesse Kriel contained and get him to floor I really fancy the Welsh back row to dominate the ruck area which should provide enough penalties to keep Wales in the game.

The Springbok back row has got 2 fantastic ball carriers in it, if Siya Kolisi gets the ball in space he is faster than most of Wales’ defenders and Daniel Du Preez is huge number 8 who played under 13 rugby for Natal while he was still in primary school (he’s got a twin brother Jean-Luc who got injured in the Currie Cup final and an older brother Robert who has been an outstanding 10 for the Barbarians) but the balance of their back row is thrown slightly off-kilter with the selection of Pieter-Steph Du Toit. Du Toit is a very mobile second row but when you have Eben Etzebeth and Lood De Jager (both 6 foot 7 plus giant’s) as your starting lock combination you’re not really looking for a 6 foot 5 lock so Du Toit becomes a pretty average blindside as the Springboks try to get all their good players on the pitch at once. Wales have got a 6 foot 5 blindside of their own and if Shingler finds himself in a 1-on-1 situation with Du Toit it could be a very interesting foot race. Incidentally if Josh Navidi continues the sort of form he found against the All Blacks last week (and let’s not forget the Springboks got rolled over 57-0 when they travelled to New Zealand earlier this year) then Navidi’s cameo as a Test player may become more of supporting cast role (they won’t pick over a fit Warburton but Gatland is hardly a Tipuric fan at the best of times).

My biggest reason for the uncommon optimism I’m feeling is because this will be the Springboks 13th Test of the year and some of their squad have played in every single one! Due mainly to injuries Wales have got through a hell of a lot of players and really only Faletau, Alun-Wyn and Biggar have played major role for both Wales and the Lions this year. There’s also the Jerome Garces factor at play, he’s refereed the Springboks on something like 17 occasions and they’ve only won 3 Tests, it should be interesting, it could be ugly but if Wales’ defence can finally win them a Test who cares?

Rugby Championship round 1 matchups 

If I was going to write a preview of Australia v New Zealand I’d find it pretty hard to get away from the fact that the All Black tight 5 should be too strong for their Wallaby counterparts. I’m almost expecting a replay of the first Bledisloe game last season where Australia had plenty of opportunities to score early but they made 3 errors and the All Blacks lead 32-3 at half time. The one thing the Wallabies have got on their side is that they should be well rested because none of them have played for 3 weeks and the ones who aren’t Brumbies have had am extra week with the rigours of a Super Rugby game. 

Since I can really only see an All Blacks victory on the cards in Sydney (they’re favoured to win by at least 13) I thought I’d look at a few player matchups that should be interesting to see (at least they will be for a geek like me).

Liam Squire at 6 for the All Blacks against 22 year old Ned Hanigan who made his debut against Fiji earliethis season looks a particular interesting battle. Squire is just 26 and only has 8 caps, but 3 of them have come in Bledisloe games and he’s yet to lose one. Squire is more at home as an 8 but he’s a great line-out jumper and he’s not afraid to clean out rucks, so he Michael Hooper should probably be keeping one eye on him. Hanigan on the other hand is more known as a Lock, so he may have been picked to add an extra option at line-out time, he is slightly smaller than Squire so Cheika might be hoping he can be more nimble around the park than his opposite number but Squire is no slouch and if the All Black tight five do dominate Hanigan might spend his evening chasing an auxiliary number 8 around ANZ Stadium.

Sean McMahon against Kieran Read will be fun to watch too, McMahon is a great and destructive ball carrier but if the guys in front of him can’t get him front foot ball he’ll be tackling and scrabbling around at ruck time way more than Cheika would like. Read always performs best in the biggest games and winning away in the Bledisloe will require a big game, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he scored the winning try in this one.

Kurtley Beale against Sonny Bill Williams in the 12 channel is definitely going to be fascinating because they’re totally different players. I’m a huge fan of Sonny Bill as a person and as one of the most talented athletes to ever grace this earth, but I think I actually prefer Ryan Crotty at 12 (although the number on the shirt of these All Blacks backs is only really a guide, expect Crotty, Smith and McKenzie to all pop up at first receiver at some point) if Sonny Bill spends 80 minutes just charging towards Beale then you’d frankly fear for the Wallaby vice-captain’s safety! How the All Blacks use Sonny Bill will be the most fascinating part, he’s an excellent dummy runner as well as distributor but he’s not a great kicking option. Beale on the other hand is a great kicker and runner but can sometimes throw wayward passes and with a 4 inch difference in height and about a 3 stone disparity on the scales it’s tough to see the Wallaby dominating the gainline. 

Rieko Ioane is always box office in attack and with Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie’s lightning fast feet in the backfield the Wallabies will need to kick extremely well of they’ll just be giving tries away for free. Ioane lines up against Henry Speight who like Ioane is an expert finisher with great acceleration and a commanding physical presence (he’s over 6 feet tall and weighs more than 15 stone) but Ioane is taller and heavier than Speight! Ioane can have a tendency to wander off in defence so if the Wallabies can get the ball in Speight’s hands early (which they don’t always manage) he’ll definitely fancy his chances. Ioane on the other hand can finish from anywhere and the All Blacks tend to spot the space quicker than their Australian counterparts. 

If opposing Fullbacks Damian McKenzie and Israel Folau clash at any stage of the game it could be fairly hilarious, purely based on the fact that McKenzie is 5ft 9 (probably with his long studs in) and weighs about 12 and a half stone while Folau stands a gargantuan 6ft 4 and tips the scales at over 16 stone. On a serious note the All Black back 3 don’t have anyone as tall as Folau and the Wallabies might fancy their chances with cross kicks in the All Black 22 so keep an eye on Kieran Read who will probably end up man marking Folau if the Wallabies get close enough to their opponents try line

A Lion’s pride?

The Lions strength is in the collective whilst the All Blacks are without doubt the most talented group of players assembled in the professional era (if not ever, they’d certainly give Gareth, Barry, JPR and the gang a run for their money) and in a high pressure, one off game you have to imagine outrageous talent is more beneficial. 

However the individual talent can only shine if the forwards collective effort affords them enough possession and momentum to do so and, statistically at least, the All Black pack have had the better of this series so far, but last time out the Lions managed to generate that most precious of things, quick ruck ball in the opposition’s 22.  And here’s where it gets interesting, Romain Poite is the man in the middle and he makes some pretty strange decisions at rucks, at the recent Top 14 final he hardly penalised any tacklers for not rolling away and this lead to a succession of turn overs and not a whole load of tries (just 1 for each team). Poite is also not the greatest when it comes to working out who committed what offence at scrum time so this promises to be a game with a lot of penalties and turnovers in it, probably not what the All Blacks are after.

Even so the All Blacks are still favourite to win comfortably and without the assistance of some pretty unfortunate circumstances they would have won last week (Sonny Bill Williams arriving just as a tackled Anthony Watson was struggling to escape from a defender’s clutches has to be a once in a lifetime sort of coincidence) but for quite a few of the Lion’s players they will feel that they can play better and they will all want to prove that the criticism they have suffered as a touring party is wholly unreasonable. 

The bookmakers have apparently made an All Blacks win by 11-14 the most likely outcome but that seems to be a fairly large gap given the Lions motivation and fact that Poite is likely to award both teams a similar number of penalties (12 to Clermont who had a dominant scrum and 10 to Toulon who had Liam Gill at the breakdown in the Top 14 final).

The Lions made 6 clean breaks to the All Blacks 1 last week and despite being down a player for about 60 minutes the All Blacks still had 61% of the possession! The Lions will need to get the ball to Anthony Watson, Taulupe Faletau and Jonathan Davies if they’re going to pose an attacking threat and they must kick well out of hand because the new All Black back 3 of Dagg, Jordie Barrett and Julian Savea will round and straight over the top of defenders if they get any space at all. 

Last week really did illustrate the stark difference between the coaching set up’s too as Gatland trusted the starters for as long as humanly possible and eventually they pulled through while Steve Hansen showed no signs of hesitation, when decisions needed to be made he threw the subs on (all 8 had a run out, compared to the Lions 2 tactical ones and 3 forced). The intensity of this whole series will take a toll at some time and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the management of the players will lead to who wins the series. Bringing back an angry Julian Savea after 2 weeks on the side could be a master stroke by Hansen, but a rested Ken Owens and CJ Stander could explode in the last 20 minutes for the Lions. 

Ultimately the Lions have outperformed most expectations with a few commentators questioning if they’d even win a game with less preparation time than they’d have wanted. I can’t see anyone else beating the All Blacks in New Zealand this year, or maybe even for the next few years and watching other Rugby Championship teams so far this year I’d be surprised if any of them get within 25 points of the All Black machine. I’ve gone for a 1 point win to the All Blacks, but pressure does funny things to people and with 99% of their team (Jordie Barrett might still be knocking about in 12 years and Anton Lienert-Brown, Ardie Savea and Scott Barrett have got outside shots too) knowing they’ll never play the Lions again it’ll be one hell of a pressure cooker!