For all the talk that the Bengals have run their race they just seem to get better as the pressure gets cranked up and three players who seem to love it more than any are Burrow, Chase and McPherson the players who are responsible for scoring most of their points, that’s some great roster construction right there. Those three combined for 28 points the last time they played the Chiefs which would usually beat most teams in the NFL but it is really more like a decent start against Mahomes. However, if the Bengals let Burrow get sacked 9 times like they did last week then it’ll be impossible for them to win but last week the Chiefs only sacked Josh Allen twice and allowed one player to accrue 200 receiving yards for the second time in January after Chase went for 266 yards in week 17 and that suggests the Chiefs have a real problem stopping pass attacks. With Mahomes at quarterback you don’t really need a whole lot of defence, it took him less than 13 seconds to get Harrison Butker in range to kick a game winning field goal last weekend and he has thrown 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions (a new record for him) this season, he’s also rushed for 2 touchdowns which is the same number he’s rushed for each season since he became a starter, he hasn’t had any passes thrown his way so far this season though after they targeted him twice last season so that maybe something to look for tomorrow (although he dropped both of those passes so maybe they’ve given up on that idea?). Mahomes has been sacked a career high 28 times this season and he’s been forced to scramble a career high 46 times but when he has scrambled he’s run for an average of 8.7 yards each time so the Bengals need to find the balance between pressuring him and containing him or he will make them pay with his arms and legs. It looks like Clyde Edwards-Helaire is out injured and he was Kansas City’s leading running back last week although Mahomes lead the team in rushing yards, but Darrell Williams lead their rushing attack last time round against the Bengals and scored 2 touchdowns on the way to 88 yards on the ground and 19 receiving yards. In the wildcard round Jerick McKinnon lead the team with 61 rushing yards and 81 receiving yards against a pretty exhausted Steelers defence, so their not short of options at running back but they’re certainly not as settled as the Bengals Offence seems to be.
52 weeks since they last met in the playoffs the Bills and the Chiefs go at it again in Arrowhead, this will be the second time they’ve played each other in the last year and the aggregate score is currently 62-58 in favour of the Bills, so this should be a pretty even matchup. In the two games Bills quarterback Josh Allen has thrown 5 touchdown passes and a single interception compared to Patrick Mahomes’ 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, Allen has been sacked 4 times in these games (all coming in last year’s AFC Championship game) and Mahomes has hit the deck 3 times, oddly the Chiefs have fumbled 3 times in these games and the Bills are yet to lose the ball so that’s something to keep an eye on.
Buffalo haven’t lost since week 14 when they faced the Buccaneers in Florida and Tom Brady threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman in overtime. Kansas City lost to the Bengals in week 17 as Evan McPherson kicked a last second field goal at Paul Brown Stadium, but that was their only loss since the 2nd of November. Another reason this matchup is so unpredictable is that the teams who take the field tomorrow will have key personnel changes from October, when the Bills won that game, the Chiefs were without Defensive Tackle Chris Jones which largely contributed to Josh Allen rushing for 59 yards and scoring a rushing touchdown, Allen’s ability to scramble on 3rd down is key for the Bills to extend drives and fatigue opposing defences. Jones omission was indicative of a season which saw the NFL change it’s rules regarding injuries and illness to allow players to return midseason, a number of Bills players missed that game in October too, however Dawson Knox who lead the team in receiving yards last week against the Patriots was once again at the fore of the Bills Offensive effort. In October s he notched up 117 yards and a touchdown on just 4 targets which was even more than the 89 yards and 2 touchdowns he hauled in last week as Allen looked for him 5 times.
The most impressive part of the Bills 2021 season has been their pass defence, they only allowed 12 touchdown passes during the regular season which is 15 fewer than Kansas City and the Bills made 19 interceptions during the regular season which is 4 more than the Chiefs. So, this may not be a great matchup for either quarterback as the Bills excel in pass defence and the returning players on the Chiefs defence should make them more stout against Allen’s scrambles, the Chiefs however won’t be phased by a strong pass defence after their performance last week when they rushed for 106 yards as a team and Jerick McKinnon and Patrick Mahomes notched up 90 of those yards at an average of 6 yards per carry. The 19 rushing touchdowns the Bills allowed during the regular season was the 4th highest amount in the league and whilst the Chiefs only scored one of their 6 touchdowns on the ground last week, they score 16 rushing touchdowns all season while the Bills allowed 14 touchdowns to running backs over the course of the season.
This should be the most intriguing game of the weekend and it’s very unlikely to be decided until late on, on one hand the last road team to win in Arrowhead were the Bills and if they can force the Chiefs to turn over the ball as they have done in their last two meetings, I think they have the balanced offence needed to neutralise the returning Chris Jones but if the Chiefs can eradicate their fumbling issue they could be headed for yet another AFC Championship game. If I had to make a prediction I’d go with the Chiefs and I wouldn’t be surprised if history repeats itself and they win 38-24 again.
Tennessee like to the run the ball, even without Derrick Henry, who is injured in week 8, they have scored 23 rushing touchdowns third in the league to only the Eagles and Patriots and the Bengals have been battling injuries on the defensive line all season and placed defensive tackle Larry Ojunjobi on the Injured Reserve list this week so it’s going to be very difficult for the Bengals to turnover the number one seed this week. One way that they could negate the Titans offence is to keep their own offence on the field for the majority of the game but that’s not really how Joe Burrow likes to operate, they scored 36 touchdown passes and were ranked 7th in the league compared to their 16 rushing touchdowns that saw them ranked 14th in the league. Conversely the Titans defence was more successful at preventing the run than they were at defending passes so Burrow, Chase et al might put up some points but they’re unlikely to do it slowly so the Titans offence should have plenty time to score points of their own.
This should be a very watchable game but it would need a monumental performance from the young Bengals offence to beat a Titans team who have had a bye week. Turnovers have been an issue for the Titans offence but the Bengals turnover ratio for the season is net 0 as they’ve made 21 takeaways and they’ve relinquished possession 21 times too and the discipline stats heavily favour the Bengals though as they have only conceded 72 penalties for 602 yards compared to the Titans 103 for 973 yards but I would still be surprised by a Bengals win tonight.
Aaron Rodgers has dug the Packers out of more holes than a top of the range earth mover would have and there’s a very big chance he does exactly that again tonight against the 49ers. The 49ers big weakness is their defensive backfield and a healthy Davante Adams could make absolute mincemeat of it. If Jimmie Ward is anywhere near one of his favourite receivers Rodgers won’t hesitate to throw in their direction, he got lost in coverage a couple of times last week in Dallas and he’s had a pretty inconsistent season defending the pass. The 49ers only made 9 interceptions during the regular season whilst allowing 25 touchdown passes which is music to Rodgers unvaccinated ears, the 49ers have been much stronger against the run allowing 17 rushing touchdowns. The 49ers have sacked the opposing quarterback 48 times this season, 9 more times than the Packers have and the Packers offensive line might not be 100% healthy this week but the 49ers haven’t always turned this pass rush success into touchdowns and I think a lack of clinical finishing could be their downfall tonight. One thing to keep an eye on tonight in Flambeaus though is Mason Crosby, the Packers kicker is only kicking field goals at a 66.7% this season and if the 49ers can put enough pressure on Rodgers to send jitters throughout the Packers team this could be decisive. The Packers coming off a bye week have to be the favourites against a 49ers team who went out to a big lead in Dallas last week and thanks to a Jimmy G shoulder injury and a Cowboy resurgency they almost conspired to go into overtime.
Traditionally rookie quarterbacks struggle in the playoffs, technically the last quarterback to win their first playoff start was John Wolford last season for the Rams in Seattle and while he was ably assisted by Cam Akers 131 yards of rushing Wolford also got injured and didn’t finish that game so there’s really only one part of that story the Patriots want to reproduce here. When the Patriots played in Buffalo back at the start of December they ran for 226 yards and that may or not be significant this time round since the Patriots are just as likely to complete ignore the run game this time round as they are to heavily lean on it and let history repeat. History is highly unlikely to put on a repeat performance this time round though as the weather back in week 13 was pretty unique, gusts of winds approaching 50 miles an hour prevented either quarterback from throwing the ball and lead to Mac Jones ending the game with 2 completions for 19 yards, Josh Allen on the other hand had a 50% success rate through the air as he threw 15 completed passes for 145 yards, whilst the weather isn’t due to be as windy this time round the conditions should be inclement enough to make this one a complete lottery. There should be light gusts of wind but an ambient temperature of around -13 degrees Celsius (6 degrees Fahrenheit) is going make kicking the ball very difficult and catching it pretty tricky too, so running forward and running hard should be the order of the day and if recent history is any indication of who can do that better it has to be the Patriots.
One surprising feature of the last game in Buffalo was that Josh Allen only ran 6 times for 39 yards and 21 of those yards came on 1 attempt so Buffalo may have not wanted hi to do too much against a divisional opponent, when they played in Foxborough in week 16 he ran 12 times for 64 yards (might be 18 times for 90 odd yards this time then) and the Bills rushed for 115 yards in total which would suggest they can be more direct when they need to be, but for that to happen they’ll need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and if there’s one thing teams coached by Bill Bellichick don’t do easily it’s lose battles up front.
The Bills are short odd favourites to win this game but the more you look at it the more this looks like it’s going to be a low scoring battle of wills and that makes it very even and appointment viewing. It might not be pretty, but it is going to be good, tense and not particularly clean fun. Either Josh Allen will put the team on his back and drag them into the next round or another ingenious Bellichick plan will come to fruition and Mac Jones will get the rare rookie playoff win.
Cincinnati have already beaten the Raiders once this season but that was in Vegas back in week 11 before Joe Burrow’s tough December when he suffered both a “high knee injury” and a “gruesome looking finger injury” too so leading into the Quarterback’s first NFL playoff game he might not be feeling 100%. Everyone expects to be slightly banged up by the end of the season and after an extended season it would be pretty surprising if any player was 100% fit right now, Burrow did appear on the Bengals Injury Report this week along with 12 other players but Burrow was listed as having taken a full part in practice every day as did Kicker Evan McPherson but a kicker with a slight groin problem is a bit of a red flag, especially when today’s game is going to played in temperatures below freezing. The Raiders have 13 players on their Injury Report this week and Jonathan Haskins looks set to miss the game with an injured back and a knee injury but Tight End Darren Waller could be back from his knee injury although he has been limited in practice this week so it would be slightly surprising if he can play the majority of the Offensive snaps and with backup Tight End Foster Moreau recovering from an abdomen injury and an ankle problem Derek Carr could be short of receiving options. Haskins’ injury could be the biggest problem for the Raiders though as cold weather at the Paul Brown Stadium on the banks of the Ohio river would seem like ideal weather for Joe Mixon to handle most of the Bengals Offensive work and Hankins has been a premier run stuffer in the league since he left Ohio State in 2013 and when the two teams met in November Mixon ran for 123 yards and scored twice and that was with Hankins playing.
Back in week 11 the Bengals ran out 32-13 victors and in addition to Mixon’s efforts Burrow went 20 of 29 and in what was quite a muted display by his standards threw for 148 yards and one touchdown, he was sacked 3 times however and if he’s got a bad knee the Bengals won’t want that happening this time out. The Raiders didn’t have the same success running the ball with Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake only getting 14 carries between them and managing 60 yards on those carries, Carr threw 27 passes and managed 215 yards through the air with Darren Waller accounting for 116 of those yards while Foster Moreau caught Carr’s only touchdown pass in that game.
Theoretically this game should be a comfortable home win but the first game came just weeks after the Henry Ruggs incident and Damon Arnette’s release by the Raiders and was just the 5th game of Rich Bisaccia Head Coaching career (albeit in a temporary capacity) so it’s highly unlikely this game follows the same path as their previous meeting. There are two things that are virtually guaranteed in the NFL when January rolls around and those things are wild weather and equally wild officiating decisions. The weather is set to be seasonably chilly in Ohio today and if the officiating matches the conditions this may well be the upset of the weekend, particularly if the Bengals are short of a fully fit kicker come the end of the game. Bookmakers are offering 2/1 on a Raiders win and who knows how Burrow will play in the biggest game of his professional career to date? Carr might be 5 years older than Burrow but he is also yet to start a playoff game and his record in cold weather games is a cause for concern especially if the Raiders run game can’t get going or if the Bengals take an early lead, Carr is 0-5 in games where the temperature drops to 37 degrees or below (today the temperature shouldn’t rise above 33 degrees F) so I’m expecting the Bengals to progress but it might not be as straight forward as their last 19-point victory.
Injuries (and schedule adjustments due to the pandemic) were important in determining which teams qualified for the playoffs and had success in January last time out and while it would be churlish to expect them not to have an impact this season too there are reasons to expect they won’t be as decisive this year. With the experience of last season’s truncated preseason to provide every coaching staff with data from which to adapt training schedules, a new adapted Injured List protocol plus a new, longer regular season teams should be able to reduce the intensity of the training and increase the duration instead to lessen the stress on player’s bodies. This is the NFL though so there will be impact injuries and freak accidents on the training field as well as the pitch.
When it comes to trying to make sense of who will be contending at the end of a new, extended regular season two things stand out for me; experience of competing at the latter stages of recent seasons and strength in depth of team rosters. Experience in the Postseason is very much a double-edged sword, obviously having players and coaches who have proven they are good enough to compete at the highest level is vital but recent extended playoff runs are not always helpful.
Seven of the 2020 playoff teams made the playoffs in 2019 and it’s difficult to see how the current Super Bowl Champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t make the playoffs again this year but in order to successfully defend their title they will have to play 40 or 41 games in something like 74 weeks, which may seem a relatively simple task but given the impact of fatigue in increasing the likelihood of players getting injured it’s a tough ask and no team has defended the Lombardi trophy since the Patriots managed it in 2005!
Schedule alterations effected the AFC playoffs more than the NFC last season as the Ravens and Titans caused a fair amount of chaos within the Conference and the Steelers seemed to be the unfortunate ones who paid the price as they ended up playing 5 games in 25 days in December! They still qualified for the Playoffs but unsurprisingly the fatigue caught up with them as they succumbed at home in the Wildcard game 37-48 to the Browns who they beat 38-7 at Heinz Field during the regular season. I’m not sure the Steelers will have the chance for redemption this season as the Bengals, who were hampered by a season ending injury to rookie Quarterback Joe Burrow last season and they should take their Divisional rivals place in the postseason this time out. I think the AFC North should be the strongest division in the Conference again this year with 3 playoff teams in the Browns, Ravens and Bengals, the AFC South may well provide two playoff teams in the form of the Titans and the Colts who appear to have two of the stronger Defence’s in the Conference (although the Colts deal for Carson Wentz seems to be a big gamble). The other two divisions in the AFC look like the most unpredictable divisions in the league, the Chiefs will need to be befallen by some pretty catastrophic circumstances to not win the AFC West but how the other 3 teams in West perform is tricky to calculate, the Raiders are prime example, last season they won 6 of their first 9 games but then crumbled to a final record of 8-8, similarly the Chargers lost 4 of their first 5 game in 2020 and then won their last 4 so I find it very difficult to predict anyone else making the postseason form the western conference. Josh Allen has looked remarkably calm in preseason for the Bills and while it’s only practice the Bills have played the Packers and the Bears who have strong rosters even without all of their starters in their lineups. The Bills should win their division comfortably and while all the other teams have made changes that should improve their fortunes from last season, I think the settled nature of the Bills will provide them with enough dominance to dampen their rival’s playoff chances.
In the NFC two teams seemed to really suffer the injury curse the 49ers ended the season with 18 players on Injured Reserve and another 9 on their Injury Report and the Giants lost the mainstay of their Offence Saquon Barkley in after 19 carries in 2020 so it’s hard not to believe they will both be determined to make up for lost time this season and I can see both of them making the postseason. I expect the Packers and Saints to be the two best teams in the Conference again and the Buccaneers have managed to retain most of their Super Bowl winning roster so it’s difficult to imagine they won’t still be in the mix by January too. The NFC East is an interesting Division in as much as the Washington Football team have the only dominant Defence so they should be favourites to finish at the head of the pack but with the other 3 teams all having the potential to score points in bunches there may well be a Wildcard team in the East and if Saquon can stay healthy the Giants Offence should be the most consistent in that Division. I think the final Wildcard team will be from the North and as they made the playoffs last season and as they appear to have two viable Quarterbacks, I think the Bears should still be playing come January.
Statistically speaking the more phases an attacking team goes through in their opponent’s 22 the less likely they are to cross the try line, that was a big problem for the Lions against South Africa ‘A’ and that perfectly illustrates what the Springboks do so well. They have an almost innate ability to dominate the gain-line without conceding penalties, even without much game time in the last 18 months that’s not an ability you can easily lose and attacking with any sort of tempo and fluency against a team who can do that is always an uphill struggle. Selecting a starting 15 made up of partnerships and combinations who have next to no experience together seems like the sort of the thing that will just compound that issue, only Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly in the Centre’s have started a game on this tour together (and the half backs Ali Price and Dan Biggar featured together for 20 minutes against Japan in Edinburgh), so the back play may be more cohesive than the forward unit but if the forwards can’t provide a platform the backs will have scarce opportunity to demonstrate any cohesion.
The Lions team selection can partly be explained by how compromised the entire tour has been by COVID, firstly they had to name a smaller squad than they would have liked to have and with the Bulls COVID outbreak they had to play a very young Cell C Sharks side twice (resulting in a combined 128-38 point victory), Josh Adams was unable to return home to be with his partner as she gave birth to their first child and the Springbok camp has suffered it’s own major COVID outbreak with more than 20 people returning positive test results including Head Coach Jacques Nienaber, Fly Half Handre Pollard and Captain Siya Kolisi and that’s where this game becomes as much of a conspiracy theorist’s delight as it is a sporting contest.
There’s very little information on how COVID effects elite athlete’s and just 5 days ago it appeared highly unlikely Kolisi would have recovered enough to take part in this game but South Africa moved the announcement of their squad forward in order to unveil his messiah like recovery. It was almost as if in response to Lions Captain Alun-Wyn Jones recovering from a shoulder injury their own totemic leader is sensationally back, so the squad’s that were named may very well not be the actual one’s who take the field (And as I type it’s been reported that Lions prop Wyn Jones won’t play).
With such uncertainty around the personnel who will actually be available for the Springboks it appears that the Lions lack of familiarity is an almost deliberate ploy from Gatland, the experimental feel of the starting 15 rather suggests that he’s using this first Test as an extra tour game they so sorely missed in this constricted tour. They know Kolisi and Pollard will be lacking game time (particularly as Pollard only recently recovered from a serious knee injury) so big ball carriers like Jack Conan and Luke Cowan-Dickie will be making sure that the Fly Half isn’t going to shirk any tackles. However Cowan-Dickie does have a tendency to feel the pressure when it comes to lineout time and I believe that’s what has lead to the selection of a 6 feet 7 inch blindside flanker in the form of Courtney Lawes (who is arguably the 3rd best English blindside flanker behind Jack Willis and Sam Underhill). Lawes’ selection appears to provide a serious imbalance in the back row, with a dynamic open side in the form of Tom Curry requiring an equally dynamic 6 who can intelligently manage a ruck to maximise his skill as he did against the Stormers and with no Wyn Jones the breakdown is certain to be an area of real weakness for the Lions. If, as expected, the Springboks dominate the gain-line Kwagga Smith and Kolisi will easily outnumber poor Curry as the rest of the Lions forwards lumber behind him and it’ll be left to the likes of Henshaw and Daly to help out the Sale Shark. The selection of the two wingers who are the most awkward to tackle in Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson (and even Liam Williams on the bench) ahead of the two wingers who are most likely to ghost into space in Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit rather leans toward the coaches worrying about the attacking ruck speed, if they were expecting a fluid, open attacking game they’d have gone with guile over brute force. If van der Merwe and Watson can cross the gain-line and give Price and Biggar a slightly disorganised defence to work against then the Lions backline has pace power in Henshaw, Hogg and Daly to exploit any gaps on offer but the Springbok backline are one of the most solid defence’s in world rugby so the Lions may end up kicking the ball away more than they would like to. The Springbok back 3 and whichever member of the back row they choose to drop back will eat up any loose kicks and as the ‘A’ team demonstrated they’ll score from anywhere on the pitch. The concern with the Lions kicking game is that Gregor Townsend usually has Russell or Hastings at 10 and they have an almost creative kicking game where they sometimes sacrifice distance in order to manipulate the opposition back 3 and allow the kick chasers a better chance of containing any counter attack chance but that’s not really something Biggar, Henshaw or Hogg (and especially Daly) don’t often try, they would all rather kick so they can compete for the ball or just clear their lines which would make Cheslin Kolbe in particular very happy.
Missing Wyn Jones could be a real problem for the Lions as he’s the most well rounded of the loose-head props in the squad and while Rory Sutherland will undoubtedly provide plenty of muscle and aggression he’s not the ball player the Welshman is and whilst Mako Vunipola’s inclusion on the bench provides some destructive ball carrying and a lot of intelligence he hasn’t been in the best form at scrum time, so unless the game is played at a frightening pace and there are some very tired Springbok forwards on the field a ball carrying loose-head might not be the order of the day.
If the Lions can dictate the pace of the game and test the host’s conditioning in the last 15 to 20 minutes they could come away with a healthy victory but if it’s a typically South African disjointed and gritty game then the home team should be the favourites to grind out an ugly win.
Warren Gatland and his coaching team are facing the prospect of the most complicated British and Irish Lions tour in history (and the Lions have toured South Africa during the days of Apartheid and played a 35 game tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1888 that involved playing games of Aussie Rules. A tour which departed Gravesend on the 9th of March and returned on the 11th of November! So they have a pretty high bar when it comes to complicated tours). Even without the current pandemic situation organising 4 separate Unions and hoping for cooperation from regional and club teams under the 4 separate umbrellas was always going to be awkward, not to mention expensive. However, the most complicated part has to be selecting the squad and hoping that the players are as enthusiastic about the tour going ahead as the accountants are, Ben Youngs has already decided that the imminent birth of his third child is a priority and Youngs coach at Leicester has politely declined an invitation to go on another tour as part of Gatland’s coaching team so the Kiwi’s job becomes increasingly intricate day by day.
Luckily I haven’t got to worry about the intricacies, I’m just going to pick the 36 players who I think will be in the touring party, so here goes nothing-
Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones, Joe Marler (who may decline the offer, then it may be Rory Sutherland or Ellis Genge)
Ken Owens, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Scott Baldwin (although the 3rd sport is wide open. Rob Herring would be an interesting selection)
Tadgh Furlong, Kyle Sinkler, Andrew Porter
Maro Itoje, Alun-Wyn Jones, James Ryan, Iain Henderson
Tadgh Beirne, Hamish Watson, Josh Navidi
Justin Tipuric, Sam Underhill
CJ Stander, Taulupe Faletau
Conor Murray, Ben Spencer, Tomos Williams
Jonny Sexton, Dan Biggar, George Ford
Robbie Henshaw, Owen Farrell
Garry Ringrose, Chris Harris
Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams, Duhan Van der Merwe
Anthony Watson, Stuart Hogg
Traditionally this would be the bit where the “bolters” get a mention but I would be very surprised if there are any shocking selections. There are 3 areas where there isn’t much depth so there could be some unpopular picks at hooker, scrum half and lock but other than that Gatland has players he is more than familiar to pick from.
Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future!” and he had a very good point (probably not quite as good a point his father, Christian, who discovered the Bohr effect) but I’m always up for a challenge and no stranger to looking silly so it’s time to talk Lions squad selection.
Warren Gatland is one of the most succesful Lions coaches for a reason, he’s incredibly single minded and puts his faith in players who share his intense focus on winning so I think you can split the potential squad into 2 seperate parts, the core which will consist of players he knows and has previously coached and the wider talent base (it’s not completely impossible there will be one or two complete wildcards in the 36 but since it has been reported they are taking a “streamlined” there won’t be much room for “bolters”). There has also been a lot of talk about Gatland selecting “on form” but that rather implies that he doesn’t believe he, along with his coaching team, can get the best out of players who have been struggling in what has, lets face it, been a particularly trying last 10 months for everyone. According to the current schedule there will be 5 games in South Africa leading into the first Test in Johannesburg plus a pre-tour warm up game against Japan so I can’t imagine selection will be limited to players who hasve been absolutely outstanding in the last few weeks or months.
The core players are pretty easy to predict (he said foolishly), so here goes –
- Mako Vunipola, I think he’s the loose head prop Gatland would want if he were still playing hooker.
- Ken Owens, he’s been a driving force in solidifying the Welsh set piece during the 6 Nations and he has 84 Test caps.
- Tadgh Furlong, if he’s not the best tight head in rugby he’s in the top 2.
- Maro Itoje, has to be the most annoying player to play against in world rugby, or he might be second to
- Alun-Wyn Jones, he’s got 157 Test caps and 9 of them are for the Lions. At this stage he’s a living, breathing rugby instruction manual.
- James Ryan, he’s started 32 Tests and won 26 of them, whatever he does it undeniably works.
- Tadgh Beirne, possibly a controversial choice for “absolutely nailed on” but he can play 5, 6 or 8 in an emergency and he’s a phenomonal athlete, he’s played 22 Tests and won 15.
- Sam Underhill, there’s a reason heplayed 22 Tests and won 18, he is one of those people who looks like a normal human but has superhero strength (like a lot of the Springbok squad).
- CJ Stander, there’s a reason he isn’t retiring until the International window has closed, he made 6 appearances on a 10 game tour of New ZealandA so it’s safe to say Gatland is a fan.
- Taulupe Faletau, he’s got 90 Test caps, 4 for the Lions and nobody has ever looked so sangfroid whilst playing International rugby.
- Conor Murray, he’s not been in vintage form but if Gatland thinks he can get 2 decent Test starts from him he’s on the plane.
- Johnny Sexton, he’s flashed some of his talent this season but has mostly been battling his decrepid body but similarly if he can stay upright for 100 minutes he’ll be there.
- Owen Farrell, literally everyone who isn’t related to him will be furious (hello Mike Brown) but Gatland loves an angry bloke and he’s actually a decent communicator in midfield.
- Robbie Henshaw, probably Ireland’s player of the 6 Nations and one of the best Centre’s in the tournament, he’s started 47 Tests and won 33 plus he can play 12 or 13 and he’s massive.
- Liam Williams, Gatland loves an angry bloke remember and his versatility will help “streamline” the squad too.
- Stuart Hogg, he’s quick, he’s bigger than he was when Gatland picked him to tour New Zealand, he can kick the ball a mile and he can play 15, 10 and possibly 13 if nobody else can.
- Anthoy Watson, probably the best athlete in the England squad and another one who can play two postions, his attacking threat was key in stretching the All Black defence 4 years ago.
Predicting the wider squad will be much trickier but after this weekend’s European rugby there may be some stand out candidates, so that’ll probably be a job for Monday then. Can you leave the 6 Nation’s top try scorer at home though? Especially if he’s a manimal born in South Africa. Just imagine Duhan having to tackle Akker in the corner late in the 3rd Test, that would surely be something.
So Wales have won 2 consecutive games under Wayne Pivac and seem to have accelerated the transition he was claiming had started during the Autumn, however both of those games have seen their opponents have a Forward sent off for an illegal clear out at a ruck, so is there reason to be optimistic? Well, purely based on the last two games it’s very tricky to tell, but here goes –
Wales have really struggled to get their hands on the ball (under Gatland they essentially allowed opponents to have posession because they trusted the defence to force penalties or turnovers in scoring positions but Pivac insists that the cornerstone of his transition is a move away from permanent defence), against Ireland they had just 36% of the ball and in Edinburgh 38%. If England finish the game having had almost 70% they will more than likely score over 30 points and that should be enough to win convincingly.
Another area where Wales have struggled is gaining ground when they do have the ball, against Ireland they had 190 carries and only managed 2.1 metres per carry and whilst they improved against Scotland it was only by 20 centimetres per carry to a similarly unimpressive 2.3 metres. The inclusion of Jonathan Davies at 12 and the return of Josh Navidi should add some extra dynamism to the attack though. For their part last time out England allowed Italy to make 3.5 metres per carry a full metre more than they allowed Scotland in the Calcutta Cup match so the insignificant statistics definitely trending in a Welsh direction.
England have conceded 27 turnovers in the first two games which is 5 more than Wales have and once again the return of Josh Navidi alongside Tipuric, Wyn Jones, Alun-Wyn and Faletau suggest that Wales will be aiming to disrupt as many breakdowns as possible while England will be without one of their arch-disrupters in the form of Jack Willis but in Tom Curry, Mark Wilson and Maro Itoje (and Ben Earl on the bench) England have more than their fair share of scrappers plus Jonny Hill is always good for a few law bending infringments when the ball is on the ground.
On the theme of bending laws instead of breaking them the team of officials are bound to have a huge influence on the result of this game and while Pascal Gauzere’s interpreatations at ruck time are going to be interesting the scrum seems to be the most contencious area and with two Irish assistant referees it’s difficult not to see them being a complete free for all. Andrew Brace seemed to take a real dislike to the Welsh scrum against Scotland in the Autumn and as a former scrum half Frank Murphy isn’t exactly what you would call a front row maven so expect some inexplicable decisions there. One area that England should probably target is the Welsh back 3, Louis Rees-Zammit could win any game of rugby almost single handedly and none of the English backline will want him to get any space or time so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he’s singled out for some special treatment and if he is I’d expect the entire Welsh team to take exception to it with Liam Williams never backwards in going forwards when there’s a potential fracas.
Despite not really having much ball or doing much with it Wales have been looking to keep it alive a lot more than England have, they have offloaded 10 times in the tournament so far compared to England who have managed just 6 and it might be Wales’ desire to promote the ball and find players in space that has caused opponents to attack rucks when Wales look to be turning the ball over?
So it looks like this could be a close game and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if it is decided in the last 10-15 minutes and if that is the case a quick Gareth Davies could exploit some tired defenders and with Callum Sheedy and Willis Halaholo on the bench for Wales they would be more than happy to into the closing stages 5 points behind (don’t think the fans would be though). The old “no fans in the stadium levels the playing field” trope doesn’t really hold much water with me, England have won in Cardiff with fans in the stadium so I don’t think it’ll be the deciding factor here. The deciding factor will probably be that Wales are still a team in that “transitional” phase and Eddie Jones has been drumming his ideas into his England team since 2015.