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.

NFL Playoffs – Conference Championship games, Patriots @ Chiefs

Tom Brady is 18 years older than Patrick Mahomes so DSC_0198Brady played his first game of College football when Mahomes was 1 year old, there’s not really much relevance in that statement beyond the fact that playing your 19th game of the season will inevitably be more challenging when you are 41 years old than playing it will be when you’re a mere 23 years of age.

To counteract Brady’s age you have to imagine the Patriots are going to use his intellect more than they are going to rely on his athletic prowess (or lack thereof). I’m expecting them to use the options they have at Running Back to do most of the heavy lifting, last week 5 Patriots gained positive yards out of the backfield, Brady also threw passes to 4 players who rushed the ball too and I think that’s largely what they’ll be doing this week, if the Chiefs decide to load the box with defenders then Brady will audible at the line of scrimmage and throw a short pass to keep the chains moving. The one thing that will affect the Patriots passing game is pressure up the middle and if Chris Jones can collapse the pocket around Brady then the Patriots might have to rely on their Defence making big plays. The Patriots Defence has been very much a Jekyll and Hyde affair this  season, it was 6th at home but in the bottom away home from. If they continue that trend in Arrowhead today they’ll be behind the 8 ball.

The Chiefs have been beaten at home once this season and that was a one point defeat to the team the Patriots absolutely destroyed last week, the Chargers. On that occasion fumbles cost the Chiefs and the Chargers threw for 313 yards and 2 touchdowns. With temperatures set to be well below freezing tonight it would be surprising to see either Quarterback attempting 38 passes like Philip Rivers did back in week 13. The weather promises to be the key factor in Kansas City, the sub-zero temperatures will make it hard to throw, kick and catch the ball and should favour the team with the most experience of playing high pressure games in adverse conditions. However last week penalties  especially offside penalties were big factors in both the  Chiefs and Patriots games, Mahomes repeatedly made the Colts Defence look like schoolboys by drawing them offside and the Patriots Defence jumped more than you’d expect a Bellichick coached team to.

If I had to make a prediction for this game it would be that the team who possess the ball as the clock ticks down to zero will leave Arrowhead with the win. It would be a fairytale for Mahomes to make the Super Bowl in his first full NFL season but I wouldn’t bet on it happening.

 

NFL Playoffs – Conference Championship games, Rams @ Saints

In the last 5 NFL seasons home teams are 10-0 in Conference Championship games so all indicators point toward the Chiefs and Saints meeting in Atlanta on the 3rd of February. Statisticians will tell you however that every game is an “individual event” and that as such what has previously happened means nothing in terms of the outcome of these future “events”. This purely mathematical approach does rather exclude the fact that humans are not robots and therefore are totally unpredictable! Obviously how every player involved reacts to external factors like expectations and, in the case of the AFC game, weather will have a baring on the result but just because a road team hasn’t progressed to a Super Bowl in the last 5 years doesn’t mean they won’t this time.

The Rams have travelled to New Orleans twice since August and they’ve lost twice (28-0 in week 4 of preseason and 35-45 in week 9) so they have had more than enough game tape to watch and learn from in the last week. The preseason game largely featured backup players from both sides but the Saints still held the visitors scoreless and in the week 9 meeting both teams had more success throwing the ball than they did running it. The Rams threw for 483 yards and 3 touchdowns (with 1 interception), the Saints 487 and 4! The Quarterback comparison is quite interesting, especially considering how similar their stats were in November – Jared Goff will be playing his first road playoff game tonight whereas Drew Brees will playing his 6th playoff game at the Superdome and he’s yet to lose. Brees has started 322 games since his College days at Purdue while this will be Goff’s 78th start since his College career began in 2013. Goff has thrown 162 touchdowns and 56 interceptions so far in his short career and Brees has 641 TD’s and 288 picks. However this game probably won’t be decided by Quarterbacks, it should be determined by running backs (both teams have a tandem running back attack) or by how the Head Coaches decide to use their Quarterbacks (since both teams relied on the passing game during the regular season it would be brave or a bit mad to try exactly the same again). If the Saints try to throw deep and often they could be playing right into the hands of the Rams best player Aaron Donald and given how Andrus Peat underwent surgery on a broken hand this week it would be prudent for Sean Payton to try and get the ball out of Brees’ hand as quickly as possible. That would also give his receivers the opportunity to attack the weakest area of the Saints Defence, the Linebackers. Alvin Kamara, Benjamin Watson and even the underused Wide Recievers like Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr, Tommylee Lewis or Tre’Quan Smith who didn’t catch passes in week 9 could be secret weapons for the home team. Taysom Hill is also a weapon for the Saints but he’s certainly not a secret, he can play Quarterback, Running Back and Wide Reciever but since his versatility and speed are well documented he might find himself in a new position this week, decoy. If Sean Payton wants to prove a point he might stick to his guns and the plan from week 9 which was to torch Marcus Peters in the Rams secondary, but this could be a tricky prospect since Aqib Talib is back healthy now so Peters shouldn’t have to defend Michael Thomas who racked up 211 yards last time he played the Rams.

The Rams will want to run the ball a lot this time out and with Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson taking on a new Defensive front minus Sheldon Rankins there’s a strong chance they’ll have success doing it. Their Offence still misses Cooper Kupp and if Sean McVay puts the Rams fate on the shoulders of Goff the Saints Defensive backs’ eyes will light up, in particular Marshon Lattimore who picked off Nick Foles twice last week.

Last week the Rams brushed aside the Cowboys with a 17 point 2nd quarter and once they had opened up a 23-7 lead it was all over. The Saints conversely had to battle back from 0-14 at the end of the first quarter against the Eagles and I think facing down adversity will make them battle hardened and that should see them through to the Super Bowl. If the Rams can find a big play early on and set the home crowd on edge it will be fascinating to watch though.

2019 NFL Playoffs, Divisional round – Game 4 Eagles @ Saints

Saint Nick turned into Super Nick last week in Chicago as his Eagles team saw off the “best defence” in the NFL by 1 point as Cody Parkey performed the rare “double doink”. In fairness to Parkey his attempt was tipped by an Eagles defender and that faint touch altered the ball flight enough to cause the ball to fade away and cannon off the left upright and then in the cruelest twist of fate bounce off the top of the crossbar and somehow land in the end zone.

It’s that outrageous combination of Special Teams play and the slings and arrows of misfortune, to paraphrase Hamlet that makes it impossible to predict what the Eagles will do this week. All you can say is that Doug Pederson is a hell of a coach and he shares some sort of special symbiosis with Nick Foles, Pederson has yet to lose a playoff game as a Head Coach and Foles hasn’t lost one since 2013.

The Saints were the second highest scoring NFC team and with a rested Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas and Drew Brees on Offence and a hopefully healthy Marcus Davenport alongside Cameron Jordan and Sheldon Rankins Nick Foles could face his toughest playoff test so far. Back in week 10 the Saints beat the Eagles 48-7 in New Orleans but the Eagles have got some players back fit since then and bedded in some new guys so it would be a huge surprise if there’s a repeat performance. Except some controversy and some very angry Eagles with a point to prove.

2019 NFL Playoffs, Divisional round – Game 3 Charger @ Patriots

“Mental disintegration” was a phrase attributed to Steve Waugh when the Australian cricket team used to regularly thrash England way back in the 1990’s but it could just as easily be applied to the Ravens display against the Chargers last week. A combination of Lamar Jackson failing to rise to the occasion in his first NFL playoff game and the Ravens coaching staff failure to adapt the teams approach to help Jackson saw the rookie Quarterback sacked 7 times and fumble the ball 4 times whilst throwing an interception.

The Chargers Defence on the other hand completely schooled the Ravens playing personnel and coaching staff by totally changing their approach to an Offence that had beaten them by 12 points just 2 weeks earlier. They contained the Ravens dynamic Quarterback by playing 7 Defensive back’s instead of 4 and 3 Linebackers. This week they face a completely different threat from Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, he is definitely not dynamic and usually defeats opposing Defences with his brain so how the Chargers adapt to completely new challenge will be interesting.

The Patriots haven’t lost a home game all season and the Chargers haven’t lost a game outside Los Angeles all season either so they won’t mind having to travel, but at some stage all that travel must catch up with a team who have flown nearly 5,660 miles in the last week. Tom Brady hasn’t lost a Playoff game in Foxborough since the Ravens beat him in 2012 and Phillip Rivers hasn’t beaten a Tom Brady lead Patriots team ever! But if the last week proved anything it’s that the Chargers have a coaching team that doesn’t mind thinking out of the box and if their Defence can keep causing turnovers they’ll have a chance to make history. The one area that the Chargers will need to improve from last week is turning their turnovers into Touchdowns instead of Field Goals but the Patriots Defence is not the Ravens Defence so they should not find it as difficult to punch the ball in if they get the chance.

Personally I think this is the end of the Chargers run, so far this week the bye week teams have proven that rest is crucial at this stage of the season. Both the Chiefs and Rams could muster some extra physicality that their opponents couldn’t match. It should be a close game though, the Patriots scored just 8 more points than the Chargers during the regular season and the Chargers conceded 6 points fewer over those 6 games