South Africa v Lions first Test preview

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.

A pride of Lions

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.

Lions chatter

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.

2021 NFL Wildcard weekend – Colts @ Bills

As a big fan of lazy tropes I can’t shake the feeling an aging Phillip Rivers will struggle in freezing temperatures at Bills Stadium on Saturday afternoon and it’s not just the Quarterback who has a tough task ahead of him in western New York, Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship has only made 1 field goal of 50 yards or longer this season having attempted just 3. Now part of that is because the Colts have converted 61.5% of their 4th downs this season so Frank Reich hasn’t felt the need to attempt long range shots very often. Tyler Bass for the Bills on the other hand has made 4 field goals over 50 yards from 6 attempts and his longest successful attempt this season is a 58 yarder, although that was kicked indoors against Arizona.

As much as focusing on both kickers seems incongruous in a win or go home playoff game there’s a very real possibility the result will be determined by the effectiveness of the special teams. Both teams have had very efficient Offences this season who have leant on their passing games to score the majority of their touchdowns.

The Bills have scored 40 TD’s through the air as opposed to 16 on the ground and the Colts have 24 pass TD’s and 20 with the running game. On the other side of the ball the Colts Defence appears to be tougher to break down than their hosts this week have, the Colts have allowed 500 fewer yards than the Bills and five fewer rushing TD’s, however the Colts have allowed 160 more yards through the air and 1 more touchdown reception than the Bills. So it should be a very even matchup, however according to the strength of schedule of their opponents the Colts had the easiest schedule in the NFL this season and their last loss was a road game in a cold, clear Pittsburgh on boxing day.

Bookmakers have set the points spread at 6.5 which seems quite high to me, the Colts Defence has really only been overrun once and that was back in week 12 when the Titans scored 45 points against them when a lot of players were missing including the talismanic defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. I’m expecting a Bills win but it would be a surprise if it will be as comprehensive a win as their last 10 games have been (by at least 10 points).

AFC East 2020 preview

Based on each team’s 2019 win percentages the AFC East have the toughest 2020 season of all 8 NFL Divisions and of all the teams in the division the Patriots have the toughest schedule. Combine that with the fact they’ve lost their starting Quarterback and really struggled to generate any Offence last season with someone as experienced as Tom Brady trying to run the show behind a porous Offensive line and with little help from his receiving corps and this has to be the time to count out the Patriots, doesn’t it? Well, sort of. They’ve got a real chance to go into their bye week with a winning record but their bye comes in week 6 and I’m expecting them to be 3 and 2 as they have to travel to Seattle and Kansas City in the first 4 weeks (although if both of those stadiums are empty then they could have a better chance of surprising away wins). It’s the tail end of the season where their tricky games come thick and fast with a road game in L.A against the Chargers coming on the 6th of December followed by a game in the same new stadium on Thursday the 10th of December against the Rams after which they have 10 days off and a trip to Miami with a Monday Night Football outing 8 days later against the Bills. Their final game is in Foxborough against the Jets which is virtually a guaranteed home win but by then they could already be staring down the barrel of a losing season. I’ve got them finishing with a 7-9 record but in this toughest of divisions they should still finish second.

So how are the other 3 teams going to shake out? Well while the Patriots seem intent on testing out the maxim that “Defence wins Championships” by having a suspect Offensive line and inconsistent skill players the Bills are taking an opposing stance on Offence, they’ve got a solid Offensive line and some very good receivers with Steffon Diggs joining Cole Beasley and John Brown in their receiving corps and Dawson Knox and Devin Singletary giving Josh Allen plenty of assistance they have no excuses not to produce on the Offensive side of the ball. Allen is the big question mark for the Bills he’ll be in his third season and if he continues to improve his stats from second year to third as he did from first to second he’ll throw 40 TD’s and 6 INT’s but as Defences have more tape to watch and everyone is now aware he’s historically struggled with accuracy on deep passes so keeping the Interceptions down may be a problem. Personally I feel that with the tools he’s got at his disposal the Bills should top the division with a 9-7 record and I’ve got them winning their last 3 games so they could be one of the hot teams come playoff time.

“Tagovailoa” is the word on everyone’s shirt in Miami (seriously, the Dolphins QB has the two highest selling NFL jerseys this year) but how many games he starts this season seems to be an unknown quantity at the moment, it would however be a surprise if he starts all 18 and what would be an even bigger surprise is if Ryan Fitzpatrick goes undefeated as the Dolphins bed in a new Offensive Coordinator and 4 other Rookies not named Tua and a new Running Back (or two as both Jordan Howard and Matt Breida both arrived in the off season). Personally I have a few misgivings about bringing in so many new faces on and off the pitch (they could potentially have 10 rookies on the Defensive side of the ball too) but the middle of the Dolphins season looks pretty ugly, I’m expecting them to only win 3 games from the 8 surrounding their bye week. Mid-season struggles with new coaches and a rookie QB waiting in the wings could spell disaster for a relatively new Head Coach employed by a volatile ownership but I don’t think Flores will find himself on a hot seat unless something goes horribly wrong, I’ve got the Dolphins finishing the season third with a 6-10 record.

Bringing up the rear of the division has to be the Jets, not because they lack playing talent but because the coaching staff, front office and ownership is such a convoluted, tumultuous muddle that it will be incredibly difficult for a Quarterback who is yet to complete a full regular season to overcome. This year though the Jets have added some experienced veterans to the mix who are more than likely to back up their QB and hang Adam Gase out to dry if the Offence stutters. Newbies Frank Gore, Brashad Perriman and Joe Flacco alongside the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Le’Veon Bell know what an NFL Offence should look and feel like so they won’t hesitate to ask questions if the Jets are below par. They have bought in Mekhi Becton to help bolster the Offensive line and keep Darnold upright but if the Offensive Coordinator isn’t calling the right plays then the personnel running those plays is largely irrelevant. I can’t see them winning more than 3 games this season and that would surely see them ending up with a very high Draft pick and a new coach next season.

Fantasy football

So it’s nearly time for the first online NFL Draft which could could provide some hilarity and more than a few very frustrated and bamboozled middle aged coaches and GM’s. The NFL have said that for the first time in the history of the Draft they will stop the clock if there are unforeseen circumstances which cause team’s issues when making picks so it could also be one of the most protracted first rounds ever, so there’s something to look forward to! Last week I tried to predict (although in fairness I readily admit that I guessed wildly) so this week I thought I’d think aloud about which players I’d like to see with different teams even if there’s no chance of them actually ending up there.

I’m a big fan of Jalen Hurts and I think there’s a very good chance he will surprise a few of the experts and be a success wherever he lands but I would really like to see him in Indianapolis. Hurts looked very good in patches at Alabama but had a fairly big hiccup in the National Championship game and was bailed out by Tua and that seemed to be held against him despite him returning the favour in the 2018 SEC Championship game against Georgia. Last season he played for Oklahoma and while he wasn’t exactly Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray he actually looked to be playing at quite a high level in a team that wasn’t as star studded as it had been in the previous two seasons. They finished the season with a 12-2 record and lost in the Peach Bowl to eventual champions LSU, Hurts threw 32 TD’s with 8 interceptions and ran for another 20 and even caught a TD so hardly a terrible season but he’s still not projected as a high pick with Tua, Herbert and Jordan Love ahead of him.

The Colts have already signed Phillip Rivers as a stop-gap for one season so a young QB to learn from such an experienced campaigner the way Patrick Mahomes did behind Alex Smith would be ideal. Two more major plus points for any young QB who the Colts draft are that GM Chris Ballard has made a speciality out of building a team to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, possibly as a result of seeing Andrew Luck take so much punishment during his career the Colts now have a very sturdy Offensive line and Head Coach Frank Reich who was a QB in the league for 13 years and has developed a reputation as something of a Quarterback whisperer as a coach and he was the Offensive Coordinator in Philadelphia when the Eagles beat the Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII. There’s almost no chance Hurts does land in Indianapolis and as they’ve already traded away their first round pick a project QB won’t be anywhere near the top of their list but they do have 2 picks in the first 12 of the second round.

A more pressing need for the Colts is probably Wide Receiver with T.Y Hilton approaching his 31st birthday and the strain of being the major receiving threat in Indianapolis since 2012 starting to take its toll whoever takes over from Rivers could use a consistent number 1 receiver and unless they trade up for one of the most promising prospects Michael Pittman could be a very useful guy who will probably be available when the Colts first pick comes around at number 34.

Speaking of high end WR talent I would personally love to see at least 2 of the best 3 land with top QB’s but that is highly unlikely unless there are some blockbuster trades happening in the top half of the first round (which seems highly unlikely), but this is my fantasy world remember so we live in hope. It would be great to see the Packers actually try to help Aaron Rodgers and giving him another elite receiver like CeeDee Lamb to pair with Davante Adams would go some way towards doing that but it’s highly unlikely they will. For a team who won 13 games last season the Packers have a lot of needs in this Draft and they’ve only got 2 picks in the first 93 (!) they do have 8 picks in the later rounds though so they could trade up to try and at least solidify the O-line.

Carson Wentz is another QB who needs more reliable receiving options, the Eagles ended last season with former College QB Greg Ward playing as a receiver and after an injury crisis they had 9 different WR’s who caught passes. Going into the 2020 their most established WR is DeSean Jackson who will be 34 in December and hasn’t played a full season since 2013! Jerry Jeudy would be really interesting to watch in an Offence with Carson Wentz and coached by Doug Pederson. With a real deep threat to clear space for Zach Ertz, Miles Sanders and Boston Scott the Eagles could return to the sort of high powered Offence that saw them overpower the Patriots not so long ago.

British and Irish Lions 2021 (too soon) part 2

The half back pairing is probably going to include 2 players who are teammates at Test level because with 6 games and so little time to practice together (especially if Gatland continues to put so much emphasis on strength and conditioning) it will be incredibly tricky for a new scrum half and fly half to find some chemistry.

9. Ben Youngs – he was due to go to New Zealand before a family emergency saw him choose to stay home and he would be quite a controversial pick but he has played a decent amount of rugby with Billy and he’s the best kicking option at 9 outside Conor Murray who will be 32 next summer.

10. George Ford – if familiarity is key then you can’t really ask for more familiarity than club mates guiding the team around the park and when Youngs and Ford are given a solid platform by their forwards they control a game like very other half back combos. In the third Test in New Zealand Jonny Sexton took the reins but he’ll be 36 by the time the first Test in Johannesburg kicks off and his physical ailments seem to be starting to impact his ability to control games the way Ford can. Dan Biggar will be 31 but with a new Wales coach and a long injury list of Welsh 10’s the future half back pairing is far from clear so it’s not unthinkable Rhys Webb and Biggar line up to start the first Test but it seems a long way off right now.

11. Josh Adams – if he continues the form he’s showed in the 2019-20 season he could be the difference between winning and losing the Test series. Elliot Daly wore the jersey last time out but he’s been playing at fullback for England and Adams is 3 years younger. Interesting outside chances for a return to their ancestral homes are Kyle Steyn who was born in Johannesburg and made his Scotland debut against France a matter of weeks ago or former South Africa U20’s winger Duhan Van Der Merwe who becomes Scottish qualified this June. James Lowe will be Irish qualified by next summer so if he impresses during the 6 Nations he could well be a Lion in the summer.

12. Owen Farrell – sticking with the theme of very little preparation time and familiarity being vital along the spine of the team the England 12 who already has 4 Lions caps would have to be the favourite to orchestrate the midfield at this stage. Hadleigh Parkes would be 33 and unless Wales learn to become less dependent on the veteran Kiwi he’ll be lucky to make it through next season unscathed. Bundee Aki would be interesting leading the defensive line and at 31 he’ll be right on the cut off age wise. From a purely personal perspective I think it’d be interesting to see what Sam Johnson could do against the South African inside backs but I’m not sure he provides the kicking option or the level of communication Gatland would want at 12.

13. Manu Tuilagi – he may be a bit of a worry in terms of defensive positioning but against a team who will presumably place a great emphasis on forward power an outside back who brings as much physicality as most back row forwards do would provide the Springboks with a unique challenge in defence. Jonathan Davies started last time out but he’ll be 33 and the last time we saw him his knee looked very unhealthy. Jonathan Joseph would provide a very different challenge and he has the uncanny knack of playing very well in just about every imaginable situation, Eddie Jones selected him on the wing against Ireland and he looked more than comfortable. Rory Hutchinson looks like a physical presence with the ability to make an outside break but somehow Scotland prefer Chris Harris at 13. Gary Ringrose is arguably the most exciting outside centre in Britain and Ireland but he’s battled a lot of injuries recently and Robbie Henshaw started at outside centre for Ireland in their last two 6 Nations games. Rory O’Loughlin would be a complete bolter but the ease with which he rounds off tries has seen him play at both 13 and on the wing for Leinster.

14. George North – Gatland seems addicted to the 27 year old who he handed a Test debut to back in 2010 and if he’s fit he’ll have to start. There aren’t really a whole lot of specialist right wingers who leap off the page as viable Test options, Joe Cokanasiga would be an option if he can return to fitness in time to string together a run of games next season, likewise Jack Nowell if Gatland would be happy to pick a left winger out of position. If he is happy to play someone out of position it wouldn’t be out of the question to see Stuart Hogg or Lee Halfpenny starting. Anthony Watson started on the right wing last time out but I have a feeling he’ll be wearing a different shirt next time out.

15. Anthony Watson – it has to be a straight shoot out between Watson and Liam Williams at 15 they both have the ability to turn attack into defence in the blink of an eye and they can both be very secure in defence but I think Watson has a better kicking game so I think he’ll get the first shot at starting. There aren’t really many outside bets but Henry Slade does have the sort of tactical kicking game that could appeal to Gatland’s belt and braces approach or, if he can return to fitness Gareth Anscombe is a very astute tactical 15 but at the moment he seems a long way from being back on a rugby pitch.

British and Irish Lions 2021 (too soon)

With the current financial turmoil all clubs and presumably Unions are facing given this global situation it is absolutely unconscionable to worry about who will be playing for the Lions in the first Test in Johannesburg next July, but I have a lot of time on my hands and a wild dream where I think maybe one day someone would pay me to do something I really enjoy, so here goes.

One of my favourite Warren Gatland traits is the stubbornness he exhibits in his selections so it shouldn’t be too difficult to project who he’ll want to pick (there will probably only be 6 warm up games and depending how the current season is resolved there might be a matter of days between the squad meet up and departure dates), it’s reasonable to believe Gatland will lean on the spine of the 2017 tour for the biggest games ahead. For the purposes of this exercise you have to assume everyone is fit and healthy and not many players over the age of 35 will still be playing in a year’s time.

1. Mako Vunipola – Despite being the oldest of heads Mako will only be 30 next summer. His work rate is always impressive and if, as has been rumoured, Joe Marler retires Gatland will be missing another of his favourite Loose-heads. Cian Healy will be 33, Jack McGrath will be 31 and while Rory Sutherland has had an impressive break out season this year and will be 28 it would be quite a surprise it Gatland picked a prop with about 12 caps to take on the Springboks. If Gatland were to go with a real shock selection he could always start a 26 year old Ellis Genge, but England use him more as a “finisher” and detonating the Test series from the off would be an unusually risky move.

2. Jamie George – he started the last Test in New Zealand and there’s not really much to persuade you there will be a better option for Gatland than a 30 year old with 50+ Test caps. Fraser Brown will 32 by then, Stuart McInally would be a reasonable candidate for the back up role since Ken Owens will be 34 and Elliott Dee might be considered a bit undersized to start against the beefy Springbok pack.

3. Tadgh Furlong – scarcely believable as it may seem he’ll only be 28 next July and he’ll have over 50 caps by then including 3 starts on the last tour. Kyle Sinkler would have to be favourite for the spot on the bench, although Zander Fagerson has looked good this season and he’s a year younger than them.

4. Maro Itoje – he’s one of the contenders for the captaincy, his 71% winning percentage in Test matches is hard to argue with and after a bit of a dip last season he’s been back to his best since the World Cup.

5. Alun-Wyn Jones – it could or should be James Ryan (but it could possibly be Joe Launchbury, Cory Hill, George Kruis or Scott Cummings) there’s no way this isn’t going to be controversial but after working with him for 12 years it will be incredibly tough for Gatland not to put the Test team on Alun-Wyn’s shoulders even if he’ll be 35 by the time the rolls around.

6. Josh Navidi – one thing is for sure it won’t be Sam Warburton this time out (he might be carrying the water bottles) but the closest thing to Warburton is Navidi, he’s not as big but he’s certainly not far off being as strong as the former Wales and Lions skipper. And he lives for physical contact, he’s definitely a better ball carrier than Warburton and he’ll tackle a lot, he also won’t think twice about throwing himself into a ruck when the gargantuan South African forwards are lining up to smash him. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility Aaron Wainwright gets a shot, he’s the new Dan Lydiate and Gatland had a pretty long standing relationship with him. Sam Underhill could also be close as he’s an absolute tackle machine who worked with Lydiate at the Ospreys. Personally I wouldn’t even count out Lydiate if he continues the form he’s flashed this season in an improved Ospreys team. Yes he’ll be 33 but Gatland loves a safety blanket and Lydiate is a very big, very safe blanket.

7. Tom Curry – Curry and Navidi would be a dream pairing for a Gatland defence, if one of them doesn’t make a tackle they’ll be straight over the ball and vice versa. Eddie Jones might be the only person who thinks he’s a number 8 and it’ll be interesting to see if he still thinks that when Billy Vunipola is fit. Hamish Watson will only be 29 so he may well be in with a shot, there’s a seemingly endless list of interesting Welsh flankers who could be outside chances with Tommy Reffell and Jac Morgan yet to even feature for the national side. If and it’s a big if since he hasn’t played a Test since 2018 Dan Leavy would be right in Gatland’s wheelhouse but he’d need a hell of a 12 months.

8. Billy Vunipola – obviously he and his cousin Taulupe have had their injury issues for what seems like a very long time but I think Gatland would love the chance to start a 20 stone number 8 against the threshing machine that is the South African pack but if he prefers the option of making the Springboks ran around in open spaces he could go with the C.J Stander option or maybe even the way out of left field Sam Simmonds plan. There’s an outside chance Ross Moriarty could be in with a chance but starting Moriarty alongside Genge would be like trying to put out a chip pan fire with a gallon of petrol.

Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit part 2)

Back in 1996 the Propellerheads collaborated with Shirley Bassey and released “History Repeating” and that should be this game’s theme tune, the Seahawks travelled to Philadelphia just 6 weeks ago and despite a few alleged experts claiming they would struggle with the travel and the time difference they won 17-9. There a few differences in personnel from that game and the Seahawks demonstrated last week that they can quite average and incredibly exciting to watch in 2 halves of the same game so there is a chance that this is the wild Wildcard game.

In week 12 had Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson to combine for 155 rushing yards and a touchdown and this week it looks likely that they’ll be relying on Travis Homer to carry most of the load in the run game with occasional bursts of veteran Marshawn Lynch and another veteran Robert Turbin on third downs. That may sound like a pretty serious problem, but back in week 12 the Seahawks had 14 players either “limited” or completely missing from practice this week that number is just 8 although 3 of them are Offensive lineman and that could have a bigger effect on the run game than the combination of running backs they’re using. The Eagles themselves have missed running back Miles Sanders and left tackle Lane Johnson during practice this week although Sanders says he fully expects to play on Sunday.

It’s been a messy season for the Eagles especially in terms of injuries and they’ve only won 5 games at home this season compared to the Seahawks 7 road games, the Eagles are ranked 12th in the league for passing touchdowns (averaging 1.7 per game) and 8th for interceptions (23rd in overall turnover percentage) and 13th for rushing touchdowns (averaging 1 per game) so they’re going to need their Defence to hold the Seahawks to less than 14 points if they’re going to win this game. The Seahawks have averaged a nice, round 25 points per game on the road this season although the 17 they scored in Philly last time out was the fewest points they’ve scored outside Seattle this season. If Eagles fans are searching for hope they can look to the fact that the Seahawks lost their last 2 games of the season against divisional opponents, so teams who have already played them this season can be problematic although both those teams were considerably healthier than the Eagles figure to be this week.

It’s difficult to see how injuries don’t decide this game, even if both teams start the game with the majority of players who have missed practice there’s a very real possibility the injuries will rear their ugly heads again during the game. Unless something drastic happens the Seahawks should be buoyed by the ending of last week’s battle with the 49ers and should progress serenely into the next round with a 10 point buffer.

Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit)

It seems amazing that any team from the NFC North made the playoffs so the fact that two teams are still playing in January is absolutely inconceivable. Conversely the only thing surprising about the Saints appearance in the playoffs is that it’s happening so early with many expecting them to be one of the first two seeds and on a bye week.

Frankly its hard to envision a scenario whereby the 10-6 Vikings even get remotely close to the 13-3 Saints, even if both teams finished with similar final records there’s no getting away from the fact that Kirk Cousins is an absolute basket case in big games, he’s 7-15 over his entire career in prime time matchups and 6-29 against teams with a winning record! Obviously this isn’t all on Cousins, it’s a team game so obviously the rest of the team need to contribute to decide the outcome of games and the Vikings do have a playoff victory over the Saints in recent years back in 2018 in what became known as the “Minneapolis Miracle” when Saints Safety Marcus Williams completely whiffed on his attempt to tackle Stefon Diggs and actually ducked straight underneath him allowing Diggs to complete a game winning 61 yard touchdown. Unfortunately for the Vikings the cliché “once bitten, twice shy” spring readily to mind, Williams certainly won’t be beaten as easily this time round and as Hollywood often seems to write the script for these NFL redemption stories it wouldn’t be a surprise if he starts the game with a pick 6. As if history and a shonky QB weren’t enough reason to doubt the Vikings they currently have 11 players on the Injury Report and although 6 of them practiced in full today it still concerning.

Statistically this should be the most entertaining of the 4 games this weekend with the Saints being second in the league in terms of passing touchdowns scored and 21st when it comes to the number they’ve allowed. Alternatively the Vikings prefer to run the ball and being 6th in the league for rushing touchdowns. The one thing in the Vikings favour is that they may well be able to keep the ball away from the Saints pass first Offence by running the ball against the Saints leaky run Defence but if Dennis Allen decides to load the box then at some stage Kirk Cousins will have to take the team on his shoulders and we all know that rarely ends well.

There’s a real chance this becomes a huge blowout win for the Saints as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill seem to be finding some very impressive form of late and the Saints haven’t lost a game on the road since week 2 but the Vikings have been averaging 24 points per game at home this season and the Saints have been nearer 29 points per game away so the Total Points set at 49.5 seems far too low. Saints by more 12 points seems like a realistic outcome.