Wales’ 2022 tour of South Africa

In a move very in keeping with the current regime the WRU have organised a summer that should benefit Welsh Rugby in the long whilst simultaneously infuriating the Welsh rugby public in the short term. A tour to play the reigning World Champions and the nation who defeated Gatland’s Lions last summer is mission impossible for a team who have largely looked unable to challenge Southern Hemisphere sides (and Italy last time out) under Wayne Pivac so it’s difficult to find much to be optimistic about but it should play a vital part of the build-up to a World Cup that begins in France next September. The return of Rhys Patchell, Johnny Williams, Sam Parry and Dan Lydiate alongside the first call up for Premiership winner Tommy Reffell should give Pivac options that he was sorely missing during the 6 Nations. Playing two Tests against the Springboks at altitude will be absolutely brutal so expectations are rightly low however it will provide a valuable chance to test Wales’ inconsistent set piece against a team who traditionally have strong forwards and are able to pick players who have very successful domestic seasons.   

But who will Pivac select to take on this monumental task? The first Test could be the best chance for Wales to run the Boks close so it would be unlikely the coach would try an experimental team first up, I imagine there’ll be a return for experienced heads and as many settled combinations as possible – 

  1. Rhys Carre. He’s finished the season well but more importantly he’s huge 
  1. Ryan Elias, He’s a physical presence and with no Ken Owens he seems the preferred starter 
  1. Tomas Francis. He’s the safest pair of hands on the tight-head side and also massive 
  1. Adam Beard. One of the best maul defenders in the world and a line-out specialst. You guessed it, he’s also massive. 
  1. Alun-Wyn Jones. It would be odd to take a 36 year old former captain and not play him. He’s always hugely influential too. 
  1. Dan Lydiate. Another experienced campaigner who’s always willing to put his body on the line. 
  1. Tommy Reffell. Josh Navidi’s versatility makes him the perfect player to have on the bench and Reffell is the only out and out jackaler n the squad (which seems odd) 
  1. Taulupe Faletau. Been there, seen it, bought the t-shirt, still looks cool as a cucumber. A calming presence and able to do pretty much anythong on a rugby pitch 
  1. Tomos Williams. Questionable facial hair but the ability to make things happen even if the pack are struggling. Pivac seems to favour his mercurial streak over Hardy’s ability to make a break. 
  1. Dan Biggar. He’s the captain, if he’s fit he starts and Anscombe or Patchell’s versatility would be great from the bench. 
  1. Alex Cuthbert. He can finish tries better than pretty much anyone else in the squad. Another one who is also massive. 
  1. Nick Tompkins. If Pivac is worried about Andre Esterhuizen (he shouldn’t be, he should be worried about everyone) why not start someone who played opposite him 3 weeks ago? 
  1. George North. He’s back, he’s integral in getting the ball over the gainline and another one who is (yes, you’ve guessed it) quite massive. 
  1. Josh Adams. He’s a very good defender on the wing (not at 13) and he can score a try if he get’s even the smallest chance. 
  1. Liam Williams. Pivac likes a spark plug at 15 more than he likes a tactical kicker so it’d be a surprise if Anscombe started there in the first Test (and with no Protheroe, Lloyd or Collins in the squad there aren’t many options) 
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2022 Heineken Cup Quarter finals

If Munster are European rugby’s aging rockers, slightly past their prime but with a pedigree that proves they know their way around a decent guitar solo then their opponents this weekend reigning Champions Toulouse are very much the stadium rock gods at the peak of their powers.  But much like rock and roll knockout rugby is a fickle beast who can rear it’s ugly head at any time, so a Quarter Final is never a forgone conclusion.  Munster have only lost once at home so far this season but this “home” game is 128 miles away from Thomond Park and that might be a problem, in fact a direct flight from Toulouse to Dublin arrives 20 minutes before a car driving from Limerick to Lansdowne Road and that’s without any serious traffic.  It’s not all bad news for the home team though, Luke Pearce will be on the whistle for this game and he’s never one to upset home fans so if the Munster Roar is in full effect Toulouse will have to be on their best behaviour to get any favourable decisions.  Toulouse’s away form has been a bit patchy this season, they lost away to Toulon two weeks ago and despite winning in Ravenhill they conceded 6 tries against Ulster over two legs whilst only scoring five of their own.  It would be a surprise if this isn’t one of the most intense games of the weekend and I would be surprised if either team ran away with it but I would also be surprised if Toulouse didn’t find some individual flair to decide this game.

Leicester have redefined the word “resurgent” this season after a few seasons struggling for stability off the field and searching for their true identity they are now top of the Premiership and they’re yet to lose at home.  For their part Leinster are also top of their domestic league and while they have lost 3 games away in the United Rugby Championship two of those were on their South African tour after they’d all but guaranteed a play off spot, the other was in Cardiff when a lot of their squad were preparing for Ireland’s 6 Nations campaign.  The intrigue in this match-up comes in the forwards, Leicester have found a lot of joy this season through their hooker Julian Montoya and the lineout has been particularly important to their attacking play on the other hand Leinster’s second row has attracted some concerns as they’re very athletic but lack a bit of bulk.  Leicester also have more athletic forwards than bulky forwards too though so it would be slightly surprising if they chose to try attack the heart of Leinster’s pack directly, technique and physical strength has been key for them this season.  I’ve been convinced that Leicester’s point of difference this season has been the recruitment of Aled Walters as their Head of Strength and conditioning, he previously worked with the Springboks and lead their S&C program when they won the RWC in Japan and one of the most memorable parts of this Tigers season has been how many games they have won at the death.  Leinster undoubtedly have the deeper squad and their stars like Jonny Sexton won’t have played as many games as their opposite numbers this weekend but the Tigers have the best conditioning coach in the business so if Leinster haven’t put them away early on then I think there’s a very good chance the home team perform even more heroics after the clock has turned red.

There’s no fun way to travel 410 miles and that’s exactly what Montpellier have to do for their game against La Rochelle and the weather looks like it’ll be perfect for running rugby on France’s West coast tomorrow which could turn this game into something resembling a game of basketball.  At the end of January Montpellier won in La Rochelle having already beaten Ronan O’Gara’s charges when they hosted them back in October on the back of seven Garbisi penalties.  Over the course of both games Montpellier have scored 50 points and four tries compared to La Rochelle’s 34 points and three tries so this promises to be a close affair, recently though La Rochelle have really tightened up their defence so I would expect them to move on to the semi-finals.

Racing 92 host Sale Sharks in the final Quarter final of the weekend and there is absolutely no reason the boys from the North West should win, but then there was absolutely no reason that Sale should even be in the Quarter finals and that is why this game is a nightmare for Racing.  The metropolitan elite should win this at a canter and that’s the sort of situation that brings untold amounts of pressure, Racing have won their last five games, but three of those were against their neighbours Stade who are struggling in eleventh place in the Top 14 table and the other two were against bottom of the table Biarritz and Pau who sit tenth.  The last game Racing played against reasonable opposition was in La Rochelle (who are only seventh in the league) on the 26th of March and they lost 19-0.  Sale haven’t exactly been ripping teams to pieces recently either mind you but they excel in games that have become staccato and scrappy which turn into error strewn affairs and with a coach in Alex Sanderson who understands how to pressurise opponents with defensive line speed and frantic counter-rucking.  If Racing can keep their heads and create a stable platform to attack from they will be in the Semi-finals again, but with Andrew Brace and his vociferous whistle it’ll be difficult for anyone to keep their cool and build momentum.  Brace officiating should negate any distinct advantage Racing would have in the scrum too, there’s a good possibility that as much as Racing want to play champagne rugby this game will be decided by place kicks and with Joy Neville TMOing alongside and Irish referee in a game that will may well decide who Leinster play in the Semi-finals there could be a large amount of controversy under the roof of the La Defense Arena.  I quite fancy this will be the most memorable game of the weekend and if anyone can benefit from some incomprehensible nonsense it’s Alex Sanderson’s Sharks outfit, they did score three of their four tries in the Quarter final after they had been reduced to 14 players after all.

Team of the 6 Nations so far

It would have been easy to select the entire French team as they’ve all been playing at a consistently high standard all the way through but that would be quite boring –

  1. Cyril Baille – Only Monty Ioane has made more offloads in the tournament and Monty doesn’t have to push in scrums
  2. Jamie George – He’s in with a chance of leading the try scoring chart by the end of the tournament, he’s one behind Villiere, Penaud and Lowe
  3. Tadgh Furlong – technically he’s been relatively quiet compared to his own meteorically high standards, but 28 carries is the most by a prop and behind only Sheehan, Elias and Marchand for front rowers.
  4. Adam Beard – (If Jonny Gray could stay fit he’d be in the running) he’s only missed in 3 tackles in 4 games.  He’s one of only 3 forwards to have played every minute so far (more on that to follow)
  5. Maro Itoje – Another who has played every minute and he’s carried 30 times, won 6 turnovers and won 21 lineouts (shout out to Federico Ruzza or winning the most, 24)
  6. Michele Lamaro – he’s made 69 tackles (19 more than anyone else), he’s 23 and when he’s on the pitch Italy look a different team.  Technically he’s a 7 but he definitely plays like a 6 for me.
  7. Josh Van Der Flier – the other forward to have played every minute so far. He’s carried 36 times, made 43 tackles and if he scores a hat-trick today he’ll lead the try scoring chart.
  8. Gregory Alldritt – nobody has carried more in the tournament, his 52 is 5 more than second placed Garry Ringrose.  He’s made 5 offloads and broken 7 tackles and he’s made 44 tackles and won 4 turnovers.  What an absolute machine!
  9. Antoine Dupont – He’s definitely the best 9 in the world today if not the best rugby player, even when he wasn’t at his best in Cardiff, he didn’t really make any costly errors and his team still won.
  10. Johnny Sexton – It seems counterintuitive to select someone who Ireland are trying to rely on less and he’s only played 170 minutes (and his goal kicking has been a bit shaky) but he’s got 2 try assists, broken 7 tackles, made 5 offloads and won 2 turnovers.  Big players play big games an all that.
  11. Gabin Villiere – He’s also not played all the games and he just looks like a little geezer in a scrum cap but I’m always going to select a winger who can dominate a ruck and he’s won 3 turnovers (the same number as Francois Cros). He also scored a hat-trick that beat Ireland and he’s broken 8 tackles and made a dominant tackle, that tacks some physicality when you weigh about 14 stone.
  12. Jonathan Danty – (this could have been Gael Fickou too as the French backline has been generally excellent) He’s won 4 turnovers (the same as Alldritt) and he’s only missed 2 tackles in 216 minutes and he’s also broken 7 tackles on his 20 carries.
  13. Garry Ringrose – His 321 metres from 47 carries is a lot more than any other 13 in the tournament and while he’s not been at his best defensively (missed 6 out of 27 tackles) he has broken 6 tackles and he has a try assist to go with a try of his own.
  14. Mack Hansen – he got Ireland’s tournament up and running by running circles around the Welsh defence in Dublin and he scored the most audacious try you’ll ever see in a Test match in Paris. A try, an assist, 4 broken tackles and 4 offloads is a tidy return in your first tournament, especially when you’re 23 and only landed in the Northern Hemisphere about 9 months ago!
  15. Hugo Keenan – It could have been Melvyn Jaminet but his nightmare in Cardiff was difficult to watch.  Keenan has made just one mistake in the tournament that sticks in the memory, even when Ireland were under the pump in Paris, he looked like he was just playing a game with some friends in the park. He’s broken 6 tackles, made 2 offloads and scored a try.

Ones to watch in Round three

Scotland v France

Scotland are riddled with changes as a result of their annual injury crisis but they still have a reasonable chance of winning this game, France have lost in Edinburgh four times since 2016 and they won’t be looking forward to a lunchtime kick off in a gusty Murrayfield whoever is or isn’t available to Gregor Townsend.  Despite the changes Scotland are still able to select their resident fun machine Darcy Graham who gets to line up opposite someone who played in the 12 shirt against Ireland in round two, the 21 year old Yoram Moefana.  Fabien Galthie has named a regular winger on the bench in the form of Toulouse’s Matthis Lebel so France may not yet be sure Moefana is a Test winger who can cope with Graham just yet (they also have their defensive leader Gael Fickou in the 13 shirt so they could swap if it’s all going a bit wrong), of course it was the threat Darcy Graham competing for a cross kick that led to Luke Cowan-Dickie slapping the ball off the Murrayfield pitch to concede the game winning try in round two.

Other than the pairing on the opposite wing (Damian Penaud is a challenge for anyone to defend) there aren’t many interesting match-ups.  Ben White against Maxime Lucu may well be important late on if the game is close, but that will all depend on their respective forward packs and an important part of that should be how the second-row pairings match-up, Grant Gilchrist and Sam Skinner have made 44 tackles between them in the tournament and missed none between them whereas Paul Willemse and Cameron Woki have made 29 between them and just 5.  Obviously, you don’t have to make as many tackles if you’re team is retaining possession but Scotland may well have some joy attacking close to the ruck and it’d be great to see Darcy Graham have a run at either Willemse or Woki. When it comes to ball carriers Nick Haining is a personal favourite and if the Scotland forwards can set a platform, he could have some real impact off the bench late on.

 

England v Wales

Courtney Lawes returns as Captain and Wales have British and Irish Lion Taulupe Faletau back from a lengthy injury break too but the real interest here is in the backlines, Max Malins has provided opposing defences issues all season against Italy his ability to stretch a defensive line provided a lot of gaps for England to attack.  Even though Malins is lining up on the wing and will cause problems out wide the space he creates will be in central areas as defenders are dragged away from the areas they’re responsible for and how Wales’ Centre pairing manage the defence in the middle of the pitch will be vital.  Nick Tompkins often abandons “gap discipline” to coin an NFL phrase in favour of pursuing the ball carrier and Owen Watkin (who carried the ball particularly well against Scotland) hasn’t played at 13 an awful lot for his region the Ospreys (who have been particularly poor defensively this season) so it would be understandable if he were to get to distracted or find himself slightly out of position against England’s “hybrid backline” (which is a terrible name by the way, they’re all rugby players hybrid makes it sound like they need to be charged up at halftime).  It’ll be interesting to see if Henry Slade appears as a first receiver as much as he did against Italy or if England decide to play a more structured game and kick more often (only Wales have kicked from hand on fewer occasions than England thus far).  A lot has been made of Harry Randall starting for England but it’s the forward battle that has more talking points for me, Tomas Francis and Ellis Genge really don’t get on very well after Genge tried to head-butt his opposing prop at a collapsed scrum in Llanelli back in 2020, Gareth Thomas and Will Stewart’s battle off the bench should be one area where Wales look to have an advantage, Stewart had a torrid time in Rome and was substituted before half time while Thomas has been quietly excellent so for Wales.  Alex Cuthbert will be looking forward to lining up opposite his former club teammate Jack Nowell too and both have suffered some serious injury woes over their careers so if they can both complete 80 minutes it’ll be a victory for both.

Ireland v Italy

Ireland have really mixed it up for the Italian’s visit but strangely there are more interesting players in the Italian team and changing so many players for Ireland looks like very much like the sort of selection that will lead to a disjointed performance from Andy Farrell’s charges.  There are some good players in the Italian team who have put up some impressive statistics despite being on the receiving end of two comprehensive losses and strangely the players who are expected to be the leading lights are the ones who have performed the worst.  Paolo Garbisi and Stephen Varney have looked like they have been given far too much responsibility for two players with just 26 caps between them.  The Italian back-row, particularly 23 year old Michele Lamaro who’s 41 tackles leads the tournament and this week’s second row pairing of Federico Ruzza (who’s made 19 tackles without missing one in just 136 minutes so far) and Niccolo Cannone who has put in 27 tackles of his own and has missed just 2 have been particularly impressive.  If the Italian halfbacks continue their profligacy with the ball then all the Italian forwards can do is tackle and Ireland have got more than enough firepower in their 23 to stumble through the entire 80 minutes and still win comfortably but given they need to win by more than 30 to keep in touch with the table toppers this team seems an odd choice.  Italian hooker Epalahame Faiva (who was a “Dream Team nominee in the 2019 Pro 14 season) always brings plenty of energy with him off the bench but he can overstep the line and concede careless penalties which could be costly, however if he can channel his energy he could be a match for Rob Herring on Ireland’s bench.

 

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6 Nations 2022 Team of Round 2

Wales won in unconvincing fashion in Cardiff in what may well be an indication that Pivac’s Wales will be more functional and effective than dominant and attractive.  France demonstrated their overwhelming power and undoubted ability with the ball in hand but still looked fallible in defence and for their part England looked very workmanlike as they overcame Italy without really translating their dominance onto the scoreboard, but which players starred this week?

  1. This is actually a tricky pick; Andrew Porter is always impressive (maybe it’s the barnet?), Ellis Genge threw an outrageous pass which led to Jamie George’s second try and Cyrill Baille didn’t concede a penalty but at the risk of showing my own bias (my game, my rules) I’d have to pick Wyn Jones.  He was the only loose-head to not miss a single tackle and he didn’t concede any turnovers or penalties.
  2. This one’s pretty easy in comparison, Jamie George scored almost a third of England’s points and whilst he did miss one tackle, he didn’t concede a penalty or a turnover and managed to win 2 turnovers.
  3.  It wasn’t exactly a stellar weekend for tight-head props either, Tomas Francis did score a try and Uini Atonio did rumble for 20 metres from his two carries whilst not missing a tackle in 55 minutes but W.P Nel was the standout performer with a 100% success rate on his 9 tackles, 13 metres made and even a successful pass.
  4. This one is really a two-horse race (with an honourable mention for Tadgh Beirne’s 50-22 kick that he performed with such ease that his halfbacks just looked daft), Will Rowlands made 11 tackles and carried for 64 metres in his 75 minutes on the pitch against Scotland but his opposite number Jonny Gray made a whopping 17 tackles in just 62 minutes and made 24 metres from just 6 carries and you could argue that Scotland really stalled after he left the field.
  5. Adam Beard was a giant in the Welsh lineout with 5 takes but James Ryan’s shift was the most impressive in a 5 jersey during round 2.  He managed 11 tackles, missed none, made 6 carries and the most line-out takes of the weekend with 6 and he made 3 passes (only Ewels made more with 4).
  6.  Francois Cros managed to steal a lineout for France but he only managed to take one on France’s own throw and Itoje carried but he only had to make 5 tackles and he missed one of them so Sam Skinner was the most impressive blindside of the weekend with 18 tackles made, none missed, 3 line-out takes and 27 metres made with ball in hand with two passes and no handling errors.
  7. It’d take something very special for me not to pick Jac Morgan for his debut in a Wales shirt when he carried for 78 metres and made 13 tackles but Michele Lamaro was pretty special.  He carried the ball 8 times and managed 48 metres, kicked it for 23 metres, he made 2 offloads, won a turnover and mad an absolutely whopping 20 tackles!
  8. It was a rough old week for 8’s with two of them not making it to halftime and Ross Moriarty making his first start since the Autumn so it was no surprise he was replaced after 58 minutes.  There was one outstanding performer though, Alex Dombrandt carried the ball 18 times for 128 metres and made 8 tackles without missing one.  His most impressive statistic though was the 4 turnovers he made which sees top if the tournament charts despite only playing n one game so far.
  9. In this tournament how well a 9 plays really depends on what the coach ahs asked them to do, Tomos Williams made 12 tackles (almost double any other 9), Harry Randall really didn’t seem to fit Martin Gleeson’s plan, Jamison Gibson-Park played quite well but made two handling errors and failed to record a try assist (even though he scored one himself) so this (and every) week’s top 9 was Antoine Dupont with a try, a try assist, an offload and broke 3 tackles.
  10. Well Marcus Smith scored a try and recorded an assist but Dan Biggar scored 75% of Wales’ points and dragged Wales to a much needed win as they look to defend their title.
  11. This is a close one between Mack Hansen and Monty Ioane.  Hansen made 89 metres, scored one of the most audacious tries you’ll see in this tournament and made an offload but he was playing for a team who had 53% possession and averaged 4.2 points per visit to their opponent’s 22.  Ioane’s team on the other hand had 41% possession and averaged 0 points per visit but despite his team struggling Ioane still carried for 104 metres, broke 2 tackles and made 2 offloads.
  12. Not many inside centres shone this week, only Bundee Aki recorded a 100% tackle success rate and since he didn’t concede a penalty or turn the ball over he’s the best of the bunch.
  13. It’s tempting to give this to Jonathan Davies for his 15 minute virtuoso performance as he martialed Wales’ defence when it really mattered but he only hade to make 3 tackles himself so it has to be Chris Harris.  He made 10 tackles, made an offload, broke 2 tackles and carried for a whopping 100 metres on 9 carries.
  14. Personally I’d give it to Alex Cuthbert who managed to look very good despite the rest of the Wales team struggling to find him with the ball. Max Malins on the other hand ran for 121 metres as both England and Italy managed to feed him the ball, he broke 3 tackles, made 2 offloads and made the only tackle he had to attempt.
  15. Hugo Keenan looks like a man for a crisis, he was the coolest man in a green shirt while France were ramping up the pressure in the first half in Paris and Melvyn Jaminet looks increasingly impressive as a 22 year old playing Test rugby, likewise Freddie Steward who is a year younger and ran for 191 metres (fullbacks always run more since they catch the opposition’s clearance kicks) but Liam Williams’ 156 metres from 17 carries, 1 broken tackle and 1 turnover were vital in settling a very shaky looking Welsh defence in the first 60 minutes against a dangerous Scottish outfit.

Ireland v Wales 2022. It’s all uphill from here

Assessing Wales hopes in this game almost involves more qualifiers than you’ll see at the next US Open Golf tournament (156, come on people read a book), more “If’s” than an anthology of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry but I’ve got a spare 5 minutes, so here goes -#

  • If the Welsh tight 5 can match their Irish opponents they’ll give the exciting backline to play on the front foot. However, there’s no Owens, Alun-Wyn, Navidi, Tipuric or Faletau so that will be tough.
  • If Ryan Elias can channel his inner Ken Owens and defend as well as he carries the ball it will allow Taine Basham and Ellis Jenkins to disrupt the breakdown which could provide turnover ball for the backs.
  • If Dan Biggar plays in the same postcode as the gain-line it will do the forwards a massive favour as our ball carriers repeatedly being stopped 10 metres behind the gain-line lead to numerous penalties being conceded in the autumn as we struggled to sufficiently resource rucks.
  • If Tompkins and Adams are the new Gibbs and Bateman (no laughing at the back, it could happen) Wales could prove a serious threat to a very organised Irish backline.
  • If Wales actually attack toward the left-hand side of the field then Louis Rees-Zammit won’t have to go looking for the ball and that should provide him with more opportunity to attack against isolated defenders.
  • Conversely when Johnny McNicholl appears in the middle of the pitch it really causes opposing defences issues because he can ride tackles and has an innate ability to find space amongst the traffic.
  • If Liam Williams can recapture his vintage form he is one of the most devastating attackers in rugby but recently he’s looked someone who is battling his body.

So, it’s not impossible but you’d have to be very optimistic to believe 7 things are likely to have concurrently in one of the two biggest games of the year for all of these players.

NFC Championship game 49ers @ Rams

6 is the smallest perfect number and 6-0 is Kyle Shanahan’s perfect record against Sean McVay’s Rams, but in the last two Rams’ home games they have only lost by 3 points and in the game at SoFi earlier this year the 49ers needed overtime to finish the job, so that’s an upward trend for McVay, right?  The 49ers should have confidence going into this game but Matt Stafford only arrived in Los Angeles in 2021 and he seems to be improving with every game so the first 4 games in those 6 wins are fairly irrelevant going into this game.  For his part Stafford does have a slightly better record against the 49ers than McVay with one win but that happened in 2015 so that’s probably not that relevant either since Jim Tomsula was the 49ers Head Coach back then.

The aggregate score between these teams this season is 57-34 in favour of the 49ers and Deebo Samuel has caught a touchdown pass, rushed for 2 touchdowns and thrown a touchdown pass in those games so there’s no prizes for guessing who the Rams Defence should be focused on this evening. However, across those two games Elijah Mitchell has run for 176 yards at an average of 3.9 yards per carry.  The much-maligned Jimmy Garoppolo has also caused the Rams so problems this season too as he’s thrown for 498 yards and 3 touchdowns, he has only run for the grand total of 2 yards in both these games though and if Shanahan wants to try to confuse the Rams Defence, he might want to try some run option plays or to substitute Garoppolo for the younger, more mobile Trey Lance on a couple of plays.  Garoppolo has thrown 2 interceptions and fumbled against the Rams this season though (although at least one of those was tipped to a defender by his own receiver) and in the most recent game he was sacked 3 times and hit a further 6 times so the Rams definitely know how to pressure him into mistakes.  Trent Williams should be the key man for the 49ers, his absence in SoFi last time out led to the heat that Garoppolo faced, when he played against the Rams in Levi Stadium Garoppolo was sacked once and hit once so if he can play any snaps today the 49ers future looks a lot brighter.

 

Last time out the Rams allowed 5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits as Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa absolutely menaced the Rams offensive line in the second half of the game.  If Stafford gets any time at all he can dissect the 49ers defensive backfield and his arm strength should cause them all sorts of issues, last week against an injured Buccaneers backfield he threw 38 passes for 366 yards (so he might have a sore arm after all that) and Cooper Kupp recorded 183 receiving yards on his 9 catches but if the 49ers pass rush can affect the pass Offence the Rams could have a huge problem.  Last week they only averaged 2.4 yards per carry on the ground and if you disregard Van Jefferson’s 15-yard rush (as he may not play today) they averaged a measly 2 yards, in the last game at SoFi they also averaged 2.4 yards per carry and Cooper Kupp recorded 18 yards on a single carry in that game so if the Rams are to win this game it’ll be largely on Stafford’s shoulders.

 

The 49ers appear to have a key player in their kicker Robbie Gould who has never missed a kick in the playoffs but his longest this year is 52 yards which is 3 yards shorter than his Rams counterpart Matt Gay so if the Rams can keep it close and they have to final possession of the game they will have a slight advantage because they won’t need to move the ball as far down the field as their counterparts would, having said that the 49ers did block a 39 yard attempt on the frozen tundra last week. The Rams are favourites to win this by 6 points or fewer which seems odd to me because whoever wins this should do so quite comfortably you can only hope that it’s as a result of a great play rather than as a result of an error or unfortunate injury.

Some thoughts on the 49ers @ Rams pt. 3

Robbie Gould has never missed a kick in a playoff game and he’s played in 12 post-season games during his 16-year career and Special Teams won the 49ers the game in frozen Green Bay last week so they should be looking forward to the opportunity to play in the more benign conditions of Los Angeles this week.  Kyle Shanahan has beaten Sean McVay’s Rams the last 6 times they’ve played them and like Packers coach Matt LaFleur McVay is one of Shanahan’s former colleagues so it’s safe to say the 49ers and Rams are familiar with each other and as we all know familiarity breeds contempt.  The challenge for the 49ers coaching staff will be to prevent any contempt creeping into this performance and they only need to point out how they were 17-3 down at halftime when the teams last played on the 9th of January.  How Shanahan goes about keeping the Rams Defence off balance and on the field will be interesting partly because the 49ers have two high draft picks who have scarcely played this season, Trey Lance and Trey Sermon could certainly add an element of surprise to the 49ers Offence (Sermon in particular as Eli Mitchell looked very fatigued last week and Jeff Wilson is probably out) and they’re highly unlikely to hold any contempt for the Rams as they’ve only played 11 snaps against L.A between them.

  Cooper Kupp has been the most consistent and impressive player for the Rams Offence this season but last week it was more a story of how good Matthew Stafford can be when he’s allowed to operate in a clean pocket.  The Buccaneers really struggled to pressure Stafford, only getting to him 10 times and sacking him just twice, however Joseph Noteboom will probably be missing for the Rams this week having suffered a chest injury in Tampa and that would not only affect the Offence (as he played every down) but also the special teams (played 20% of their snaps too).  Andrew Whitworth will return at left tackle for Noteboom but he missed last week with an injured ankle and a 40-year-old left tackle with mobility issues sounds like Nick Bosa’s dream Sunday night out. In addition to injuries at left tackle the Rams are also unsure if Van Jefferson will be able to line up opposite Cooper Kupp and if he’s unavailable that would make 4 injured receivers so McVay may be forced to lean on the run game or short passes more than he would like to as the 49ers defensive backs look to have a serious weakness covering receivers deep downfield.

AFC Championship 2022 Bengals @ Chiefs thought dump

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.

Bills @ Chiefs NFL Divisional round 2022

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.