AFC musings 2019

Since I went full on crazy old guy at the bus stop on the NFC I really should try to get some thoughts down on the other side of the NFL too.

It has to be the Patriots to lise really and barring some drastic injuries they should cruise into the playoffs. The rest of the AFC East is going to be fairly interesting though, not least because last year the Dolphins finished second after winning 9 games and they’ve gone through a huge transition period and may well struggle this year. The battle for second between the Bills and the Jets could be fascinating, they both have young QB’s and experienced RB’s but neither have particularly star studded O-line (Ryan Kalil is a classy veteran for the Jets but he may be injured and the Bills have bought in Super Bowl winner LaAdrian Waddle from the Patriots) so consistency may be an issue for both. Adam Gase has become the Jets new Head Coach and that could be where the Bills have an advantage, Sean McDermott may not be everyone’s cup of tea but he seems to have the knack of getting his players to believe and play for him whereas Gase seems to struggle with player management and he’s at his 3rd different team in 5 seasons.

The AFC West could be a one horse race with the Chiefs looking to be clearly better than their opponents, the Chargers are struggling with a Melvin Gordon hold out situation and their best player last season Derwin James has a broken foot at the start of the season and is out “indefinitely”. The Raiders have suffered through Antonio Brown’s erratic behaviour and generally concerning conduct all preseason so nobody is really sure how they’ll perform but it’s unlikely to have a positive impact on the team. The Broncos are a really interesting team, they’ve suffered terrible tragedy with the loss of Pat Bowlen after a long illness but they have a chance to write a new page in the teams history with Vic Fangio taking over as Head Coach. Fangio’s arrival should make the Defence a very tough prospect but how the Offence goes under Rich Scangarello with Joe Flacco at QB is very much an unknown quantity.

The AFC South looked like it was going to be the Colts to lose and then Andrew Luck retired, but they still have enough pieces to make a charge for the top and after some frantic trades the Texans look to be their nearest rivals. Jacksonville are being talked about as a challenger too but Doug Marrone seemed to completely lose control of the locker room last season and despite a few roster moves there’s nothing to suggest he’ll be able to keep a lid on it this season either. Added to that Cam Robinson seems to be persistently bothered by knee injuries which will seriously hinder the Offence even with a different QB. The Titans are this division’s mystery team, they could have a QB controversy early on or they could serenely progress although their tough schedule suggests they’ll struggle to make the playoffs this season.

The AFC North will be box office if you believe the hype, the Browns, Steelers and maybe even the Ravens could be battling it out at the top although I personally believe its the Steelers division to lose. Freddie Kitchens seems to be a bit too highly strung to cope with the sudden rise to Head Coach and there’s a lot of personalities to manage in his locker room. The Ravens look to be running a Colin Kaepernick-esque Offence with Lamar Jackson as Greg Roman takes the reigns but whilst Lamar is a physical stand out he may not be the intellectual power house Kaepernick appears to be and that could become an issue. The Bengals certainly appear to be in a transition phase but they do have some stars especially on Defence.

So I’m expecting the Patriots, Steelers, Chiefs, Colts, Bills and Texans to make the playoffs

RWC Power Rankings (week 5)

In the final week of warm up games Connacht arose as a surprise dark horse as they beat Russia in Moscow (that’s 2 wins for Irish provinces against teams going to the world cup during the warm up games).

  1. New Zealand – George Bridge carried the ball 247 metres and scored 3 more tries against Tonga than Wales did against Ireland as the All Blacks romped to a 92-7 victory. They seem to be rounding into form nicely!
  2. Ireland – like every good church Ireland run a lot smoother when there’s a good Sexton around and they dominated territory and possession on their way to a 19-10 victory. The World Cup Final we’ve all been waiting for is back on.
  3. England – despise a fairly experimental backline Eddie Jones’ boys thrashed Connor O’Shea’s Italy who can only really take comfort in having Canada and Namibia awaiting them in Pool C.
  4. South Africa – they travelled to Japan to dish out a 41-7 whooping to the very convivial hosts. Just imagine Amanaki Mafi and Eben Etzebeth in the same car park, actually don’t.
  5. Australia – the Wallabies dominated their game over Samoa but didn’t put the game to bed until the 70th minute. Just to add insult to the Samoan injury Matt To’omua scored a try. no really, he did, I swear.
  6. USA – they look to be in a seriously good place at the moment, unfortunately they share Pool with England and France but they could have a very real chance of upsetting Argentina if they avoid too many awkward scrums.
  7. Scotland – 2 wins in 2 weeks for Gregor Townsend’s team doesn’t happen too regularly but they were both against Georgia!
  8. Wales – Ireland have given plenty of teams problem in the Aviva over recent years and while Wales won 100% of their set pieces against a strong pack their ineffectual breakdown work should be a concern.
  9. Japan – losing 7-41 at home is never ideal but when it’s to a team who have beaten and drawn with the All Blacks recently it’s not disastrous. They won 100% of their scrums, only conceded 7 penalties, beat 22 defenders and the brave blossoms snaffled 18 turnovers so there’s plenty of positives to take away.
  10. Samoa – if they had a 10 they’d be dangerous Tusi Pisi looks out of his depth in the Gallagher Premiership so in a Test match he’s a liability. Despite losing 6 line outs and missing 36 tackles they were within 7 points until the 69th minute.
  11. Tonga – they might have been pasted, but they got pasted by an All Black team going for a third successive RWC title. They did only concede 5 penalties (3 fewer than the New Zealanders) in the whole game which is a huge improvement for a traditionally “feisty” team. They will probably on the receiving end against England but there’s no clear favourite to finish second in Pool C so who knows.
  12. Georgia – they scored 9 points in Murrayfield but conceded 8 fewer points than they did last week, small victories an all that.
  13. Italy – even against a hot England team a 37-0 loss is pretty tough to polish.
  14. Canada – Sir Graham Henry seems to have had an instant impact, they lead 12-0 at half time against a very good USA team but tailed off as the substitutes rolled on. Their first Pool B game is against Italy on a short rest week for the Azzuri and their final game is against Namibia after the Welwitschias have played the All Blacks, so with a bit more Henry magic they could have some very close games ahead.
  15. Russia – Lyn Jones had already gone on record bemoaning how their late qualification has effected their build up but losing to a Connacht preseason team should set all the alarm bells ringing!

NFL thoughts, well NFC at least.

This is purely for own amusement and also because at the end of the NFL season I can never remember which teams I liked at the start of the season. Might get round to the AFC on Thursday (might not, who knows? It’ll probably just be the Steelers and Chiefs chasing the Patriots again). As the regular season (and fantasy football season) fast approaches I just had to record some thoughts for posterity. Some thoughts based on nothing more than my gut instinct and with absolutely no basis in fact.

I really like the West this season. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Seahawks will have a successful campaign and the Rams could push them all the way. I’m a big fan of the 49ers roster too, with Nick Bosa the Defence should difficult to score on and with Jimmy G and Tevin Coleman they should be able to score reasonably efficiently but after the last 2 seasons I don’t really have any faith in them keeping their stars fit all season.

The NFC South could be the second division to provide 2 playoff teams with the Saints and Panthers having some explosive players on Offence and potentially very strong Defences. The Falcons have got more than enough talent around Matt Ryan to score points quickly but at first glance they might not have the Defensive front to challenge their Divisional rivals.

The NFC North teams face one of the toughest schedules in the league and with a number of coaching changes in Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota they could all suffer which could benefit the Lions. The Lions however only won 6 games last season as Matt Patricia struggled to bed in.

Finally the NFC East, it appears it’ll be the Eagles to lose as they look to have the best Offensive line and a strong Defence. If Carson Wentz stays healthy all season they could finish quite far ahead of the Cowboys and the Redskins and Giants look to be in for rough old seasons.

I expect the Seahawks, Saints, Eagles, Rams, Lions and 49ers to make the playoffs (they’re not strong expectations though to be fair)

RWC Power Rankings (week 4)

Just the 4 games this week, but a few of them point toward who could be successful in Japan.

  1. Ireland – James Ryan comes back into the squad and Ireland win again (sunrise, sunset). But that hasn’t stopped Irish rugby twitter having a Jean Kleyn sized meltdown, well done everyone.
  2. France – they always beat Italy but they don’t always do it with 7 tries and a 28 point margin. 2 forwards binned for repeated infringements might be a concern though.
  3. Scotland – Townsend’s boys have discovered how to win away from home, play in Tbilisi in a half empty Dinamo Stadium.
  4. Fiji – another win for the Flying Fijians but only by 10 points against Tonga who are probably going to get a 60 point spanking in Waikato next weekend.
  5. Wales – Rhys Patchell dusted off his mercurial best and dragged Wales to within 5 points of an equitable draw with a bit of help from half back partner Tomos Williams. They now go to Dublin with Gatland weighing up whether or not to throw caution to the wind in his last 3 months or to stick to grinding opponents into a fine dust.
  6. Italy – Bellini (the 6 foot 3 winger, not the cocktail) and Polledri scored 3 tries against a resurgent French team. Bellini even managed to find time to get sin binned too, busy boy.
  7. Tonga – took an early lead against Fiji through Piutau but then allowed Fiji to score the next 22 points. Yikes!
  8. Georgia – They did score a try against Scotland but their overall performance was so alarming they dragged 35 year old Mamuke Gorgodze out of for retirement for a sweaty trip to Japan.

RWC Power Rankings (week 3)

Only 5 Nations played warm up games this weekend but in the spirit of fair play I have to continue the weekly rankings (although theoretically Leinster have half a chance at winning the RWC if this week is anything to go by)

  1. England – 57 points is a lot in any game even against an Irish team who were missing key players and are clearly in a different part of their conditioning schedule.
  2. Scotland – a win is a win and a bounce back win against France who thrashed them last week keeps things in Pool A potentially very interesting
  3. France – after a comprehensive win last week they lost by 3 points this week. To coin a phrase “France gonna France”.
  4. Ireland – Quite a few players struggled in defence but that’s usually a sign they’re in a heavy training cycle. The line out issues could be more worrying for Joe Schmidt.
  5. Canada – but only because Leinster’s touring side aren’t able to compete in Japan. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again what is Kingsley Jones doing (or not doing) to get such poor results? They did score 5 tries (against a very unsettled Provincial team) but they went 19-0 down inside 28 minutes and conceded 14 points in the last 7 minutes!

RWC Power Rankings (week 2)

  1. New Zealand – they’re back in black. They nilled the Wallabies in Eden Park a week after they lost in Perth.
  2. Wales – held England to just 2 penalty kicks even though England welcomed Maro Itoje back to the starting line up and had Owen Farrell on the bench.
  3. South Africa – another win for the Springboks, albeit controversially with some interesting refereeing decisions from Luke Pearce.
  4. Argentina – made 10 changes to the starting XV and could have beaten a changed Springboks team in Pretoria.
  5. England – well they did score 6 points.
  6. France – pummelled Scotland 32-3 as Fabien Galthie’s influence appears. But Scotland always struggle in France.
  7. Australia – missed Rory Arnold and still have a huge problem filling the 6 jersey
  8. Italy – scored 13 tries in an 85-15 thumping of Russia including 3 from Minozzi who was restored to the wing.
  9. Russia – they scored 15 points away in Italy even if it was against a changed Italian side
  10. Scotland – just 3 points against a relatively new French team, even for a team who struggle outside Murrayfield that’s quite worrying.

Ireland, Japan, Samoa, Namibia, Canada, USA, Tonga, Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay all avoided games this week.

RWC Power Rankings

As the World Rugby ranking algorithm seems to be at best “complicated” I thought I’d come up with a way of ranking the Rugby World Cup teams based on their most recent performance –

  1. Australia (there may have been a Scott Barrett brain fart involved but that’s the most points New Zealand have ever conceded)
  2. South Africa (winning away by 33 points is mighty impressive)
  3. England (winning at a canter with most of the stars on the bench has to be a positive)
  4. Ireland (5 tries in a 19 point win with only 1 first choice forward starting deserves plenty of respect)
  5. Japan (they beat a USA team but who had made a few changes by 14 points and they had made several changes too including positional switches)
  6. Fiji (held Samoa to 3 points without Tuisova, Yato or Murimurivalu in the starting XV)
  7. New Zealand (obviously still RWC favourites, but in terms of recency there’s not many positives in a 21 point drubbing)
  8. Wales (lost by 14 points at Twickenham which is pretty normal stuff but lost the Grand Slam winning 10 who brings the calm and confidence to the whole squad)
  9. Samoa (lost to Fiji’s changed team but only by 7 points)
  10. Argentina (Los Jaguares exploits in Super Rugby seem to be kicking in now and Nicholas Sanchez seems to be Ledesma’s Emperor’s New Clothes)
  11. Italy (picked a bit of a mish mash backline but losing by 19 to an underpowered Ireland seems cause for concern)
  12. USA (lost by 14 points to Japan but they’re trying to blend some new players and integrate 2 of the successful 7’s squad into the 15’s set up)
  13. Tonga (they made a few changes and actually won but they conspired to concede 23 points against Canada who hadn’t scored more than 20 points in a Pacific Nations Cup game since 2014)
  14. Canada (its a mystery how Kingsley Jones gets so little out of that squad).

Russia, France, Scotland, Namibia, Georgia and Uruguay all avoided games this week and therefore any unnecessary (see also heart breaking) injuries.

Super Rugby XV of the season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An alternative RWC prognostication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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