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.

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.

Gallacher Premiership prediction 2018/19

  1. Exeter
  2. Saracens
  3. Gloucester
  4. Northampton
  5. Newcastle
  6. Bristol
  7. Wasps
  8. Bath
  9. Leicester
  10. Harlequins
  11. Sale
  12. Worcester

The top 2 are pretty interchangeable, I think that Saracens are more likely to be affected by injuries but I can’t see anyone else beyond both sides when it comes to home semi-finals.

Gloucester are definitely on an upward curve and Johan Ackermann has had time to settle in and bring in a few fellow South Africans (Gerbrandt Grobler and Franco Mostert should provide some mobile grunt and Jaco Kriel linking up Ruan Ackermann in the back row should be all sorts of fun) not to mention Danny Cipriani’s arrival, if he can focus on rugby they could rip defence’s apart on a weekly basis.

Beyond that it’s all a bit of a muchness to be honest, Quins link up with the NZRU seems to have provided absolutely diddly squat so far but Alex Dombrandt is great to watch in full flight and Ben Tapuai should be a great foil for Marcus Smith but they haven’t strengthened their tight 5 enough. Wasps have lost Jimmy Gopperth for the season and Lima Sopoaga is certainly not a direct Danny Cipriani replacement. Northampton are a bit short on depth (especially up front) to challenge the top 4 in Chris Boyd’s first season in charge but with the additions of Ben Franks and Dom Barrow they definitely have a chance to win enough ball for Boyd’s new charges to resemble a passable facsimile of his Hurricanes team (Dan Biggar certainly isn’t a Barrett brother but if Boyd can persuade him to use the talent outside him they will be great going forward) Andy Symonds (if he can stay fit), Andrew Kellaway, Taqele Naiyaravoro and Harry Mallinder will be a nightmare for defenders if they get quick ball to work with. Bristol may have lost Charles Piutau with an injured shoulder but they can replace him with an Australian international in Luke Morahan (who is arguably a better kicker than Piutau) and should the worst happen and the Bristol are possibly the only team in the league who could afford to tempt another Southern Hemisphere star to the Premiership on a short term contract. There’s a very real possibility that the bottom 9 teams in the league are separated by about 20 points and with no obvious whipping boys relegation shouldn’t be the foregone conclusion it has been in the past. Worcester have actually made some exciting signings in the shape of Ashley Beck and Michael Fatialofa but they both have checkered pasts when it comes to serious injuries and I have a real fear that Worcester’s scrum (particularly the front row) will be such a weakness it will see them relegated.

Summer tours, the final chapters (continued)

England will be delighted to play a game at sea level to end what has been a fairly inauspicious tour against a Springbok team very much in transition. Rassie Erasmus is yet to lose a Test since he took the reigns and his influence is being felt both on and off the field in South African rugby, unlike his predecessors he’s been able to pick the players that he wants instead of selecting players who fit within a tight set of parameters laid out by people outside the coaching set up and the results have proved his approach is a beneficial one.

However now he’s won his first Test series Erasmus has given some players on the periphery of his squad the chance to shine in the third Test with Elton Jantjies starting at 10, Chiliboy Ralapelle and Frans Malherbe come into the front row and a Centre combination of Andre Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel make an appearance. The new inside backs could take a while to find their feet as a combination especially defensively and that might give England a bit of joy in attack.

England themselves have made a few changes and one in particular smacks of desperation, Joe Marler’s inclusion at Loose Head could be a huge weakness particularly at scrum time as he gives up a stone and a half to Malherbe. Chris Robshaw comes into the backrow as Brad Shields has fallen ill, Robshaw was one of the players who really suffered at altitude in the first Test and couldn’t even command a spot on the bench for the second Test. Billy Vunipola re-breaking his arm in the second Test leads to Nathan Hughes starting his 17th Test and he’s yet to be the dominant force that Eddie Jones needs from his number 8. Danny Cipriani starts a Test for the first time in 10 years (coincidentally the last start was against the Boks in Twickenham) and this is where Eddie Jones’ logic seems particularly difficult to follow. If Cipriani was starting because the Test series is over and George Ford is too important to risk in a dead rubber then why aren’t Jason Woodward and Dan Robson getting starts too? If Eddie believes that Cipriani is the creative force who can conjure tries from nowhere when his pack is getting a bit stuffed (like it has been on occasion at Wasps) why didn’t he start him ahead of Ford before now? Its all a but muddled, but it is what it is I can see Cipriani being a driving force for England in attack but I think even at sea level England will struggle to dominate the Bok pack. Elton Jantjies is always a potential weakness and more often than not will crumble under pressure so Ben Curry (who has been England’s best player so far on this tour) has a vital job, if he can get to Jantjies then Cipriani might get some all important turn over ball to work with.

Only 1 thing is certain about this game, with new half back combinations and squally weather predicted for Cape Town it won’t be the prettiest 80 minutes of rugby you’ve ever seen. If England can start as quickly as they have in the previous 2 weeks and continue their intensity then they might finally get the win Eddie Jones needs (he doesn’t really, he’s not too bothered about what happens now provided his conditioning team have scheduled their program so his team in November 2019 but he’s fed up of answering questions from clueless journalists). If the weather is wet and windy then England’s pack have got a long Saturday evening ahead of them and with Willie Le Roux, Jean-Luc Du Preez, Handre Pollard and the “retired” Schalk Brits to come off the bench the Springboks should have enough firepower to complete an increasingly comfortable whitewash

Summer tours, the final chapters (continued)

Australia and Ireland are playing the only live Test series this weekend after Ireland’s victory in the second Test last week. Australia’s tight 5 have been a real thorn in the side of an Irish team who rolled over opposition seemingly at will during the 6 Nations and along with Marius Van Der Westhuizen’s laissez-faire approach to tacklers rolling away (or not) they provided David Pocock with a near perfect return to Test rugby as he turned over Irish ruck seemingly at will (Ireland conceded 21 turnovers in all on that occasion). In the second Test however they conceded just 9 as specialist 7 Dan Leavy replaced Jack Conan and CJ Stander returned to his natural position of number 8 (although it should be mentioned that kiwi ref Paul Williams’ penchant for whistle blowing made for a much more staccato game and cleaner rucks for Conor Murray to walk with).

This week Ireland have gone back to the back row that struggled in the first Test but with Pascal Gauzere in charge of the whistle this week team selection maybe a secondary factor in terms of the outcome of this game. Gauzere refereed the Top 14 semi final between Montpellier and Lyon and the home certainly appeared to benefit from a few decisions as Montpellier were awarded 13 penalties compared to Lyon’s 8.

The Irish backline is bolstered by the return of Jacob Stockdale who was missed last week especially when Ireland found themselves hammering away at the Australian try line and missed the rapier like Stockdale, instead they had to repeatedly use the blunt instruments like Stander and Furlong who eventually crashed over for the winning try. Ireland also welcome back the defensive wall who is Bundee Aki at 12, which moves Robbie Henshaw out into the 13 channel where he looks far less comfortable than Garry Ringrose and that is the key indicator of where Joe Schmidt and this Ireland squad are just 15 months out from a World Cup.

I think Schmidt is trying to get new combinations to dovetail to improve the depth of his squad, the only slight surprise is that the 2 most important people in his squad start this weekend in Murray and Jonny Sexton but after the chasing Australia gave Ireland when Schmidt rested Sexton in the first Test maybe he’s hoping Sexton can inspire the unsettled players to a higher level of performance than Joey Carberry could.

Ireland are the bookmakers favourite for this game and Gauzere’s Northern Hemisphere interpretations at the breakdown may well benefit the tourists but I think Hooper, Pocock and the man mountain Lukhan Tui in the backrow should cause chaos that Peter O’Mahoney alone won’t be able to counter.

Summer tours, the final chapters

Thus far New Zealand v France have provided 2 Tests where officials “interpretations” have been more important than any rugby played. The first Test saw Remi Grosso recieve a double skull fracture in a tackle that referee Luke Pearce didn’t deem worthy of just a penalty because he believed Grosso to be falling into the tackle. In the second Test French fullback Benjamin Fall recieved a red card from Angus Gardner after 12 minutes (which was later rescinded) when France led 3-0 and the contest was largely finished. The depleted French team did manage to hold the All Blacks to just 26 points, half the number they wracked up against a full strength Les Bleus side the week before (save for Paul Gabrillagues 10 minutes in the sin bin).

Scoring has been an issue for France however as they’ve only managed 24 points in the 2 games, strangely with 14 players last week they dominated possession with 58% (against 34% the week before) but line-outs have been their Achilles heel in both games as they’ve won less than 66% of their own throws over the 2 Tests.

Selection wise both coaches have tinkered with the starting lineups this week, New Zealand are starting Damian McKenzie at 10 in what some Kiwi fans have christened an “experiment”, he’s joined in the backline by Jack Goodhue who makes his debut at 13 outside Sonny Bill Williams who hasn’t started a Test yet this season. A new look backrow sees Ardie Savea at 7 and Shannon Frizzell (who’s brother is an Australian Rugby League International) starting at 6 with a true open side in Matt Todd on the bench.

France have jiggled their backline around too with Gael Fickou, usually a 13, starting on the left wing as Wesley Fofana starts at 12 after an injury ravaged season at Clermont and alongside Fofana his Clermont teammate Remi Lamerat starts at 13. Meanwhile France have gone for mobility in the pack with Bernard Le Roux moving from his usual position in the backrow to the second row and 2 24 year olds (Kelian Galletier and Mathieu Babillot) as flanker’s and one of the lightest number 8’s playing International rugby in Kevin Gourdon they must be hoping to tire the more physical All Black pack out.

There’s a very real chance that John Lacey will be the most accurate referee to take charge of a Test in this series and even though his interpretations may favour the French and their desire to have quick rucks I can’t see New Zealand losing this one, especially if the French set piece continues to struggle. It may well be a more respectable score for the tourists than the first 2 games have been though and with strike runners like Fofana, Lamerat and Fickou able to break tackles Teddy Thomas should have some space to run into.

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.