A Slap In The Face For Georgia

After one round of the Six Nations most people’s predictions, if they haven’t already fallen off, are teetering on the edge of a cliff. England, so majestic throughout much of 2016 looked slow and ponderous during most of their match against France, whilst a lot of people’s favourites, Ireland, suffered an agonising defeat against Scotland at Murrayfield. Even Wales, whose 33-7 victory against Italy on paper looks impressive, had to wait until the Italians were down to fourteen men before they pulled away in Rome.

Yet whilst most people would say that Ireland were the big losers at the weekend I would suggest that Georgia may be the nation who are rueing most the competiveness shown by all teams in a tight fought opening weekend. Georgia are by far and away the seventh best rugby team in the Northern Hemisphere, having one the last six “Best of the Rest” Northern Hemisphere rugby championships and a disappointing display by Italy or Scotland would have furthered their argument to be allowed to play off with the bottom placed team for a place at the top table. Yet what this weekend showed us is that whilst Scotland are not going to win the Six Nations and Italy may struggle to win a game, they can both be competitive on their day.

So where does this leave Georgia? Like the Pacific Islands and Japan, smaller “tier 2” nations need to be able to play the big boys more often than they do, not just every four years at the World Cup. Every “tier 1” nation should be committed to playing at least one of the smaller nations once a year. What harm would it do if England preceded their summer tour with a stopover in Japan or Fiji and surely instead of playing money grabbing friendlies in America, wouldn’t the grass roots of the game be better served if the All Blacks warmed up for their Autumn tour by playing the likes of Western Samoa? They could even play the game here in New Zealand if they were worried about the travelling!

Finally, on the subject of “tier 1” and “tier 2” nations I have been amused that as England close in on New Zealand’s record of consecutive wins the Kiwi press have started to follow the All Blacks record of 18 with the words “against tier 1 nations”. Surely a win is a win and if England do manage to get to 19 by completing a second consecutive grand slam their achievements should be recognised and not diminished because they had the temerity to play Fiji! And if they do fail will the Kiwi press remove the addendum?

If they do I am afraid they will have to add another because between 2008 and 2014 Cyprus won 24 consecutive rugby matches, 6 more than the All Blacks managed and a total which would mean England would have to win every match until the end of the year!

Rugby’s Team Of The Year

With the Autumn Internationals coming to an end so does the international rugby season and after an eventful year I thought I’d put together my team of 2016. Not surprising, since they only lost one match between them, England (with 5) and New Zealand (6) make up the majority of the team, whilst Australia (2), Wales (1) and Ireland (1) are also represented:

Loose Head – Mako Vunipola

Jack McGrath had and impressive Autumn but Vunipola just edges it for his performances over the course of the whole year.

Hooker – Dan Coles

It really pains me to admit the Hurricanes hooker is the best in the world at what he does because I think he is also one of the nastiest players in the game at the moment but his all round game sadly does make him the stand out player in his position.

Tight Head – Owen Franks

The best scrummaging front row in the world easily gets the nod at tight head.

Lock – Brodie Retallick

In my opinion the most important player for the All Blacks.

Lock – Maro Itoje

Probably the toughest decision because I believe Sam Whitelock is almost as important to the All Blacks as his fellow lock but Itoje gets the nod for a fine six nations and a sensational tour of Australia. Has to be considered the most exciting young player in the game and I can’t wait for Itoje to come up against Retallick next summer.

Flanker – Elliot Dixon

I admit this one may be considered left field but as a Highlanders fan I feel Dixon is one of the most underrated rugby players in New Zealand. Similarly, Ardie Savea is another who may not be as well-known as his older brother but he plays for the Canes!

Flanker – Sean O’Brien

Normally David Pocock would nail down this slot but I was underwhelmed with the Wallaby this year so O’Brien gets the nod.

Number Eight – Billy Vunipola

The second Vunipola in the team and Billy must thank Eddie Jones for his inclusion. Since Jones took over as England coach the younger Vunipola has been the player who seems to have benefited the most. Some would argue for Kieran Reid’s inclusion but he is not the player he was two or three years ago and players like Vunipola and Wales’ Faletau have now caught him up.

Scrum Half – Aaron Smith

As this is a team of 2016 Smith has to get the nod for the way he was playing before he got caught in a hospital toilet. His performances after that incident have shown that the media scrutiny has affected him and, as a Highlander fan, I hope it is the pre-toilet Smith that returns next year.

Fly Half – George Ford

I know this is sacrilege here in New Zealand but whilst Beauden Barrett, the gut kiwis think god looks up to, he does not have the game management that Ford has.

Inside Centre – Owen Farrell

Perversely Farrell’s inclusion could have opened the door for Barrett because the Englishman’s kicking accuracy would make up for Barrett’s limitations when it comes to goal kicking. Farrell may not be the most physical centre but a place has to be found for him simply because of his goal kicking.

Outside Centre – Tevita Kuridrani

I could have gone for Farrell’s England team mate in Jonathon Joseph but whilst the Englishman just wins in attack it is the Wallabies defence which earns him a place in the team

Wing – Liam Williams

Finally, a Welshman made the team! One of the few players who shone in what can only be described as a depressing year for Welsh rugby.

Wing – Ben Smith

I don’t personally think playing on the wing is his best position but he is still in the top two. Amazing under the high ball and breaking from deep it often overshadows the amount of defensive work he gets through in a game.

Full Back – Israel Folau

I think it is neck and neck between Ben Smith and Folau as to who is the best full back in the game at the moment but Smith’s versatility enables both to be included. Like Smith he is one of the best, if not the best, under the high ball and a real threat both breaking from deep and injecting himself into the line.

People In Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Rugby Balls – Part II

A recent, rather thoughtful, article in the New Zealand Press highlighted that the British Lions had to win the first test otherwise they would end up losing the series 3-0. Whilst I disagree with this statement, Warren Gaitland demonstrated in Australia he is up to the task of rotating his team to fulfil a gruelling schedule, I do agree that the two blocks of friendly internationals, in June and November, are timed such that the home team will always have the advantage.

The article then went onto call for a global season yet I fear this is always going to be impossible. Whose season would you adopt, north or south? Or if you met half way what happens to the traditional season highlights? Would you want to watch the Six Nations in October or the New Zealand Championship in January? The only solutions I feel would be acceptable to both sides would be minor yet even minor tweaks might level the playing field no matter how unpalatable they are for Rugby’s authorities.

Firstly, the northern hemisphere would need to finish their season earlier and perhaps not make the Heineken Cup the culmination of the season. The teams which make up the final usually have a greater proportion of players going on the summer tours and most of these players are usually unavailable or unfit for the first international of the tour. And secondly push the dates of the summer tour back a week, this would give a two week break between high intensity matches which would be on par with what the All Blacks faced between a dead rubber in South Africa and money spinning match against Ireland in Chicago.

Finally, the author of that article finished implying a global season would never happen because England are too focused on revenue to care about the rest of the global game. Their reasoning being Fiji were only paid $172,000 dollars for their game at Twickenham! I have previously stated in this blog the gap between Tier 1 nations and the rest need to be addressed but the implication that this is England’s fault or responsibility is just another example of the All Black Presses sour grapes and hypocrisy.

If New Zealand Rugby really do care about the Pacific Island rugby playing nations on their doorstep, then they need to do something about it. Instead of trying to break the American market, and with it scoop up all of those Trump dollars, New Zealand could have kicked off their Autumn tour with a match against Fiji, Tonga or Western Samoa but that would be bad for revenue, sound familiar to you? Are we talking about the All Blacks or England?

Instead Fiji played England whilst Tonga played Italy, Samoa played France, Japan played Wales and Georgia played Scotland, yet can you recall when one of the SANZAR teams played any of these nations outside a world cup?

Maybe that article was correct and we should consider a global season but instead of the northern hemisphere teams touring one country they could share the love, and the revenue, around. England could play one match against the Wallabies then one against the All Blacks before finishing their tour by playing one of the Pacific Island nations, which would provide much needed revenue for these nations!

Of course this is not going to happen because the rugby super powers, including the All Blacks, don’t want to lose revenue so I would suggest, once more, to the New Zealand rugby press that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw rugby balls.

End Of The Autumn Internationals

With one last match the Autumn Internationals ended on Saturday, and what a match of contrasts. For all of Australia’s attacking intent, in the first half, you always got the feeling the Wallabies were in the match because England were not playing as you knew they could and how that theory was proved in after the interval.

Who won the battle of the scrum?

It is fair to say one of the biggest highlights of the build up to the match was the bickering in the press between the two head coaches, with both complaining the opposition infringed on the rules when the two packs went into battle. In reality I feel this was a pretty even exchange, with the biggest moment actually arising from a bad hook by the England captain which cannoned past the legs of his gleeful opposite number.

Did England deserve to win?

Put simply yes. Sure they were fortunate to be in touching distance at half time, thanks to a poor pass from Nick Phipps, which was further compounded by Kepu and gratefully pounced upon by the grateful Joseph. But after the restart England showed why they were unbeaten in over a year with a mental fortitude which has not been seen in a major England men’s team since Sir Clive and the boys lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy

Who was Man of the Match?

It has to be the aforementioned Joseph. Not only did he score two intercept tries but his deft kick into the corner provided Yarde with the try which surely knocked the stuffing out of the Wallabies. An honourable mention has to go to England’s other try scorer, Ben Youngs, who showed once more he is as good as anyone else on his day.

How Good is this England team?

Eddie Jones said after the match his team is not as good as the world cup winning team from 2003 and I have to agree with him but they are close. Reading the Kiwi press this morning one comment jumped out was that England do not have any players who would get into the All Blacks team and even though, as I have mentioned before, you have to take anything written about the New Zealand rugby team in their own papers with a very large pinch of salt, I would take this as a massive compliment to the current England team because their press are not only wrong but scared. Whilst Aaron Smith is undoubtedly the best scrum half in the game at the moment he has been out of form and Ben Youngs is just as good, if not even better than TJ Perenara. Moving outside Ford might not have the explosive skills of Barrett but he is better at managing the game and Owen Farrell is surely the premier goal kicker in the world game at the moment. Both teams have yet to decide on their best midfield partnerships and the players in line are pretty much of a muchness, it is only when you reach the back three that New Zealand are clearly dominant.

In the pack Coles would get my nod over Hartley but the best of the front rowers is again English with Marko Vunipola. Even the back row, usually an area of Kiwi dominance is well balanced with Read, Cane and Vito being matched by Robshaw, Haskell and Billy Vunipola with each team also having impressive back up players. In the second row once more New Zealand are dominant with Retallick and Whitelock the best pairing in world rugby, yet England’s Itoje clearly showed in the summer he has the potential to match them.

So would England have beaten the All Blacks?

Honestly I don’t know. At the moment I think the All Blacks are the better team but not by much and the fact these matches are played at the end of the southern hemisphere season arguably does have an effect on the southern hemisphere teams. But not as big an effect as kicking off a southern hemisphere the week after the Heineken Cup Final!

Finally, Tevita Kurindrani

Of course I wanted an England win, and a convincing one, but after that I was really hoping Kurindrani could have crossed to score the try which would have given him a personal slam by scoring in each of Australia’s Autumn International matches.

Autumn Internationals Round Up

Another round of the Autumn Internationals has come and gone and once more there are a few talking points and for once talk of dirty play and refereeing doesn’t centre on the All Blacks, who finished their year with a hard fought win over the French.

The All Blacks Finish Their Year Off With A Win

Although the All Blacks left Paris with a win and despite what he says to the press, Steve Hansen has to be a little concerned at the apparent closing of the gap between the All Blacks and the Northern Hemisphere teams. Coming off a dominant defence of their Rugby Championship no doubt the Kiwis were expecting to blast away their Northern Hemisphere opponents but, Italy aside, this has not been the case. Yes, the All Blacks got revenge against the Irish at the Aviva but this match is going to be remembered as a collection of what ifs. Fast forward a week to Paris and again, although the All Blacks were victorious, more questions than answers were raised, most notably:

  • Are the All Blacks as dangerous if both Israel Dagg and Ben Smith are missing? In my opinion no, they need at least one of these players on the pitch to provide the spark which can unpick opposing defences.
  • How important are Brode and Sam Whitelock? These two locks are going to go down as amongst the best who have ever played the game and it is a testament to their characters that they don’t complain when the ball players get the limelight. Along with Kieran Reid they are the reason why the All Black defence is so impressive. Like Dagg and Ben Smith, if they both get injured the All Blacks will find themselves missing a key component to what makes them so daunting
  • Has the Aaron Smith airport fiasco affected the player? Without a doubt but here at least there is some good news for the Kiwis. TJ Perenara, whilst not of Smith’s quality when the Highlander is at his best, is a more than capable replacement and would walk into most international sides.
  • Has this been a good year for the All Blacks? Not really. They may have won the World Rugby team of the year but in the last few weeks their aura of total dominance has slipped. Last year most people would have been surprised if France had run the All Blacks so close, at the weekend I don’t think too many people were surprised at all.
  • Should the All Blacks have won team of the year? Let’s wait and see what England do against Australia

The Red Cards and Penalties at Twickenham

England’s match against Argentina had more plot twists and considerably better acting than Shortland Street but what it also had was a group of officials who, in the main, had a good game and were not afraid of making the big decisions.

To send a player off after only five minutes takes balls as this could have completely ruined the game but Pascal Gauzere got the decision spot on. Elliot Daly may argue, and it must be noted that neither Daly or anyone associated with England are complaining about the decision, that the contact was accidental but it was foolish and most importantly dangerous and he deserved to be sent off because it was dangerous and not because of how the Argentinian player landed.

Later in the game there was a similar incident with Johnny May being taken out in the air but this only resulted in a penalty because May landed on his side. This is a ludicrous rule where the outcome of an act of dangerous play is taken into account when deciding on the punishment. A dangerous tackle is a dangerous tackle, intent may be considered but it doesn’t matter if one injures an opponent more than another, they should be both receive the same punishment. It is these types of grey areas in the game which I feel are letting the match officials down and allowing modern players to manage the referees.

Has the Northern Hemisphere pulled level with the Southern Hemisphere?

It is fair to say South Africa and Argentina will be heading home shell shocked by their performances on tour. To lose to England was perhaps expected, as the current incarnation of the Springboks is not even an average team compared to their predecessors, but to return to South Africa without a win has got to send shockwaves through the country.

Argentina may not have expected to win all of their matches they would have felt confident of beating Scotland and let’s be honest they lost against England despite playing against a team reduced to fourteen men after only five minutes.

Despite the soundbites Steve Hansen gives out he will not be too pleased with how their Northern tour panned out which just leaves Australia, who may yet claim to have had a successful tour if they manage to beat England at the weekend.

For years the Rugby Championship has been applauded whilst the Six Nations has been derided on this side of the equator but in the last month England, Ireland and even Scotland and Wales have shown that when they play their games against the supposed Southern Hemisphere heavyweights they can compete and win. These game plans may not always be successful all of the time but they will be more successful more often than trying to play the likes of New Zealand and Australia at their own games.

Team of the Week

After all I have just written about the Southern Hemisphere teams you may be surprised I am nominating one as my team of the week but Tonga deserve to be mentioned for their thrilling last minute win over Italy.

It has been well documented in the press about how Tier 2 teams don’t get the big games they deserve so to see Tonga get the win in Padua was fantastic. Italy being in the Six Nations hasn’t really worked for them yet, and I would be great to see the likes of Georgia being able to challenge for their place but the lack of matches the Pacific Island teams play is an injustice. I know there will be financial constraints but expanding the Rugby Championship to include the winners of a pre-tournament, tournament amongst the likes of Japan, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga would allow these countries to have more games and provide a carrot to strive towards.

World Rugby Got It Wrong Again

The World Rugby’s independent judiciary recently met to review the citing’s of Sam Cane and Malakai Fekitoa and I have to admit I am shocked by one decision and sadly unsurprised by the other.

Firstly, Sam Cane and his tackle on Rob Henshaw. In their wisdom they have decided that this was accidental and as such Sam Cane has no case to answer! Prior to the Autumn Internationals World Rugby stated they would be taking a zero tolerance towards tackling above the shoulders and dangerous tackles, this obviously was nothing more than a soundbite and clearly the suits at World Rugby cares nothing about the welfare of the players who provide them with a living.

Sam Cane led with his shoulder and as Henshaw was not stooping for Cane’s shoulder to connect with Henshaw’s face he had to be aiming to hit the player high, a tactic the All Blacks use consistently to try and reduce the player being tackled ability to offload the ball, although most of the time it is below the shoulder as they want to wrap the attacker’s arms up.

Similarly, Fekitoa comes in high on Simon Zebo, again if you watch the All Blacks regularly this is by design, yet whilst Fekitoa’s tackle is deemed worthy of censure by World Rugby, Sam Cane’s is not. Is it because Fekitoa connects with the forearm? Personally I would prefer to be hit with someone’s forearm rather than be shoulder charged in the face!

Which leads to the length of Fekitoa’s ban, one week!

Again this is not consistent with the edicts which World Rugby have been issuing. If you really want to eradicate these types of tackles make the punishment more severe than giving the player a week off because I can tell you this punishment does no damage to the All Blacks and very little to the player involved. I am not saying Fekitoa’s tackle deserved a six month ban but if he was banned for a number of internationals how would Steve Hansen feel if players started becoming unavailable for the Lions Tour next year?

And to the All Blacks, you defended heroically in Dublin but this will not be remembered instead this game will always be recalled as one where you overstepped the marks of what is acceptable. This may be the game plan that you were given before the match but I ask you to consider how would you feel if the opposition started trying to take your head off.