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English Rugby: Thoughts for the New Boss

With Steve Brown replacing Ian Ritchie as RFU Chief Executive, English Rugby’s organising body has seen the transfer of power at a crucial time in the current World Cup cycle. With questions remaining over England’s ability to compete in 2019 following the fiasco of 2015 and with serious doubts over Eddie Jones’ successor in two years time, he will need to establish himself in the role quickly and build upon his predecessor’s recent performance. Fortunately for Brown, he inherits a healthy governing body, both on the balance sheet and on the field. Eddie Jones has revitalised an underperforming national team, leading them to two successive Six Nations titles and a series win against Australia in 2016. The Aviva Premiership is also in a strong position, with Saracens having been crowned back to back European Champions in the spring and the gap to France’s Top 14 of five years ago, having been closed sufficiently to compete.

Financially, the RFU and the Premiership are stronger than many of their European counterparts and following the redevelopment of the East Stand, will have formidable corporate hospitality potential. But what are the issues that Brown, and Jones, will have to face in the next two years?

Jones’ replacement

The notable clause in Eddie Jones’ contract on signing in 2015 was that he would only coach England during the next World Cup cycle, up until the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Following that tournament, and largely irrespective of the result (If England triumph, Jones will have nothing further to achieve; If England fail, a change in coaching may not be such a poor option), Jones is expected to leave the role. With that expectation, Brown will be thinking ahead, looking at the possible candidates for the job in two years time, and may well be shocked by the lack of stand out talent he is presented with. Yes, English domestic sides have been successful in recent years, but many Premiership coaches aren’t English and I would be surprised if Brown opted for another foreign appointment unless a standout candidate emerged. In all likelihood, Brown will choose between Saracens’ Mark McCall, Exeter’s Rob Baxter and possibly Dean Richards of the Newcastle Falcons. Each has considerable coaching experience at the domestic level and the latter two both have championship wins under their belt, but beyond these the elite coaching landscape in England appears sparse.

Changes on the field

Mike Brown has been a warrior for England since making his debut in 2007. He has over 60 appearances for the national team and has won three Six Nations titles. Although overlooked for successive Lions’ tours, he has been an ever-present in the England backline, seeing off the challenge of Ben Foden and Alex Goode and will be missed for his tackling and defensive bravery as he enters the latter stages of his career.

Similarly to Brown’s plight over Jones’ successor, the current England coach has issues with his full-back selection. Many of those who have international experience and can play in the position, such as Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly, play elsewhere across the backline for their club sides. There is no doubt that any of these could carve out a career in the position, although Daly has explicitly stated his preference in the centres and neither Nowell or Watson are the strongest at kicking in open play. An additional quandary lies in the lack of English qualified players who start week-in-week-out for their club sides. Take the weekend just gone. Leicester, Exeter and Northampton all fielded ineligible full-backs for the England team, Alex Goode started for Saracens (who isn’t perceived to be good enough under the current regime) and Wasps selected Rob Miller ahead of Willie Le Roux. Only Bath broke the mould in selecting Anthony Watson at full-back, a position that until recently had been the preserve of Tom Homer.

 

 

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Aviva Premiership 17-18: Day 1 Review

The Under-Achievers:

Worcester, Exeter, Harlequins

Worcester

What do you say about a team who only gained 33 points last year and would have been fit for relegation had Bristol not been up to the necks beneath them. Regardless, it doesn’t look like it’s getting any better for the Warriors this year. With only a 33% kicking success rate and an 81% successful tackle rate in Friday night’s game, it appears that the Worcestershire side are in for another very difficult season, after shipping four tries to the middle-table Falcons. It didn’t help Worcester that Wynand Olivier was forced out of the side during the warm-up and that they lost his replacement, Ben Te’o early as well, but they just seemed unable to turn the tide of the game which was within their grasp at half-time. Returning to the missed tackle count, experienced forwards Nick Schonert, GJ Van Velze and captain Donncha O’Callaghan each missed two or more tackles with eleven cumulatively given up by the backs in addition. That stat far outweighs the number of defenders beaten by the Warriors (11) during the game and explains how Alex Tait and Juan Socino both scored successfully through line-breaks. Gary Gold said after the game it was “a very difficult pill to swallow”, but the Warriors’ need a remedy otherwise the trapdoor beckons.

Exeter

The league’s enigma and last year’s champions came out of the blocks in this campaign with a chastening loss following an unsuccessful arm-wrestle against Gloucester at Kingsholm. In a game that the Chiefs would have expected to saunter through last year, Johann Ackermann’s Gloucester showed previously unknown steel in repelling the Devon side. Worryingly for the Chiefs, much of their attacking intent was displayed through one man, Sam Simmonds, who looked really dangerous with ball in hand, scoring two tries. That the Chiefs have a second wrecking ball Number 8 behind Thomas Waldrom is merely another part of the picture, but it was that with Gareth Steenson off and Henry Slade forced to play at ten that the Chiefs became disjointed in attack and unaware in defence. The Chiefs are traditionally slow-starters, having won only two of their opening five games last season, but Rob Baxter will hope that his charges will find the renewed energy that put their title challenge on course last year in the next couple of weeks against London Irish and Worcester, otherwise they can waive goodbye to their dream of back-to-back titles.

Harlequins

Similarly, to the Chiefs, Harlequins don’t have a terrific recent early season record, recording the same two-in-five winning record as Exeter at the beginning of last season. But rather than playing a rejuvenated Gloucester team, the Quins were playing newly-promoted London Irish, a team largely fancied to return back from whence they came in the spring. Harlequins cast doubt upon that belief though in conceding four tries against the Berkshire side. Joe Marchant, Marland Yarde and Danny Care all scored tries for John Kingston’s men before Charlie Walker’s late effort gave them hopes of victory, but the Quins never had control of the game and lost the gainline more often than not, shipping twenty-one turnovers in the process. The London side also gave away eleven penalties, five of which were successfully executed by Irish’s Tommy Bell. There is no question that Quins miss the injured Luke Wallace to injury and are still adjusting following the retirement of Nick Evans last season, but they will need far better direction behind the scrum if they are to be successful this season.

Par for the course:

Saints, Saracens, Newcastle

Northampton Saints

Par for the course, but not in a good way. The Saints had an atrocious season last year by their own high standards, finishing seventh and barely scraping into the European Champions Cup. For large parts, the Saints appeared toothless in attack, offering nothing but disjointed cross-field running and individual charges from the forwards, which the Saracens defence easily repelled. But it was in defence that they really came unstuck. Having lost leaders such as Louis Picamoles and Lee Dickson over the summer, the Saints lacked any real organisational authority when the ball was in Sarries hands and this accounted for the shameful bunching that allowed the 2015-16 Champions to score seven tries before half-time and another two subsequently. Northampton did at least manage to score three tries in the second half, with Lewis Ludlam’s effort particularly impressive, but Sarries had taken their foot off the gas by that point and were well deserving of their 55-24 victory.

Newcastle

During last season, the Falcons emerged from their usual mediocre force to something resembling a truly competitive team. They finished an impressive eighth, helped by the signings of Vereniki Goneva and the hugely impressive Sonatane Takulua and have begun this season in exactly the same spirit. Admittedly they were playing Worcester, who on viewing London Irish’s stellar performance against Harlequins will be steeling themselves for an extremely competitive, nay, unsuccessful relegation fight, but they still managed to get a bonus point after a particularly underwhelming first half. Even more encouragingly, the Falcons weren’t fielding many of their big names, with Maxime Mermoz, Toby Flood, Goneva, Sinoti Sinoti and DTH van der Merwe all missing out. It will be interesting to see if the Falcons can build upon this at Sale on Friday with Richards acknowledging that it is “a very happy changing room” after their opening day success.

Saracens

To put Northampton and Saracens in the same bracket following yesterday’s obliteration may seem misguided, but it’s difficult to improve upon a season in which you took Europe by storm and were minutes away from making a fourth successive Aviva Premiership final. The Sarries-Saints match bore many of the hallmarks of the opening Bledisloe Cup clash between Australia and New Zealand in Sydney last month, as the Saracens laid continual siege to the Saints line in the first half, only to relax somewhat once the game was one, allowing the opposition to regain a little face in the final forty. Take nothing away from Saracens though, this was a hugely impressive performance featuring a team without Owen Farrell and a handful of other Lions, and it will provide the benchmark for the team and others throughout the season. It is clear that Saracens’ off-season trip to Bermuda was no lads holiday and Northampton would do well to go back to basics to avoid being humiliated like this again.

The Over-Achievers:

Gloucester

Gloucester were very poor last season finishing ninth having only won seven matches all season. But things are looking up at Kingsholm following the arrival of Johann Ackermann from the Lions. Gone is the brittle mentality that saw Gloucester lose eight matches by seven points or less last season as they stood up to the Chiefs and were largely effective in repelling them except in the case of Sam Simmonds and an Olly Woodburn opportunist effort. They were deserving of their victory, having the better of Exeter in terms of metres run, clean breaks and turnovers conceded. Indeed, the Cherry and Whites seemed comfortable in soaking up pressure and made good use of their opportunities, whereas Exeter squandered 51% possession and 54% territory and came away with only a losing bonus-point. Harlequins await at the Stoop next Saturday, and it will give Gloucester fans great heart that they still have Ross Moriarty and Charlie Sharples to reintroduce back into the team.

The Surprise Package:

London Irish

This wasn’t in the script. Hadn’t even made the fanciful first draft. All the expectations were for Irish to buckle like Bristol did last season and return to the Championship with a whimper and regrets of what might have been. On yesterday’s evidence, that seems a fateful miscalculation. Instead, the Reading-based team had the better of the exchanges, with Blair Cowan and Mike Coman particularly impressive in the tackle and they were thoroughly deserving of their 39-29 victory. They were fortunate to be up against a largely rudderless Quins team, but whether their tries were scored through skilful interplay, as with Topsy Ojo’s try, or with a decent helping of fortune, as was the case in Brendan McKibbin’s match-winner, they deserved their day in the sun following a wretched campaign two years ago. In James Marshall, they have a fly-half who can really play and Alex Lewington looks a real threat once again. Very encouragingly, they weren’t overwhelmed at scrum-time by a Quins pack comprising seasoned internationals in Chris Robshaw, Joe Marler and James Horwill and could have won by a greater margin if they hadn’t slackened in the final twenty minutes. Nick Kennedy certainly has a competitive team to work with, although next week’s visit to Sandy Park will be a far harder test.

Aviva Premiership 2017-18: Players to watch

On 1 September, the Aviva Premiership season begins once again with a Friday night double with Gloucester hosting current champions Exeter, whilst Worcester travel to Kingston Park to play rivals Newcastle. Although perhaps not the two most glamourous games to start the season with, the English rugby-watching public eagerly await the return of the domestic game following a summer of success on the international stage. The Chiefs, coming off the back of their first title will be in the crosshairs of all competitors, particularly Saracens and Wasps who have both signed astutely during the off-season, even if the latter have lost Kurtley Beale. It looks likely that Leicester, Bath and Harlequins will compete for the final play off spot once again, although Sale could force their way into that bracket. More hopeful seasons at Gloucester and Northampton are to be expected, although I expect the fortunes of London Irish, Newcastle and Worcester to be par for the course down at the lower reaches of the table. More excitingly, the league will welcome a new generation of recruits following an entertaining, if front-loaded transfer period in which Gloucester, Newcastle and Worcester have seen the greatest overhaul. Here are my players to look out for ahead of kick-off.

Marcus Smith – Harlequins

Not a glitzy new signing from overseas nor a canny purchase from the lower leagues, Marcus Smith is, at least in Eddie Jones, a future English fly-half whose pace and willingness to play at the gainline draws comparison to New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett. Although relatively untested at this level, the eighteen year-old showed real intent during the Singha 7’s tournament and has played for both the England U18s and U20s this season. It is also likely we will get opportunities to see his quality, with Quins stalwart Nick Evans having retired at the end of last season, leading the Number Ten shirt open to competition with Demetri Catrakilis and Tim Swiel also in the running. It will be fascinating to watch Smith’s progression as long as he isn’t relegated to the Anglo-Welsh Cup and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him in Eddie Jones’ squad for the Autumn Internationals if Alex Lozowski were to sustain an injury.

Liam Williams – Saracens

A player who needs very little introduction for northern hemisphere rugby fans. Having been part of the Scarlets’ title winning team last year and the successful Lions tour earlier this summer, Williams is a perfect fit for Saracens’ model following the departure of Chris Ashton to Toulon. As a mazy-runner and gifted counter-attacker, Williams could also be utilised a full-back, but I believe Mark McCall will utilise him alongside Alex Goode, rather than instead of him. It is to be hoped that the Lions’ tour hasn’t taken too much out of Williams who has admitted his motives for moving to London were partly personal, although no one can doubt his commitment on the field, especially in the air.

Faf de Klerk – Sale Sharks

A stand out signing for the Sharks, who in previous years have struggled to attract top-quality talent to the North-West. Not only has de Klerk forsaken his fledgling Springbok career to play in England, but he is also likely to be pared alongside James O’Connor in an all new half-back partnership at the AJ Bell. Quick around the breakdown and crucially approaching his prime, de Klerk’s signature marks a change in emphasis from Steve Diamond who will be looking for more dynamic performances this season following last season’s disappointing tenth place finish. Having a younger scrum-half, as opposed to Peter Stringer and Mike Phillips, should promote speedier ball distribution and de Klerk’s experience of playing against the giants of Southern Hemisphere should see him bed in nicely amongst the Sharks’ sizeable forward pack.

Rob Horne – Northampton Saints

It says a lot about the current state of Australian rugby that Rob Horne has decided to transit across the planet from picturesque Sydney to understated Northamptonshire. But this is not a transfer of convenience, nor a misstep from the Saints’ hierarchy, as Horne offers considerable talent in his 6 foot 1 frame, including the experience of 34 tests for the Wallabies, many of those against England, New Zealand and South Africa. He also won the 2014 Super Rugby final with the Waratahs and was part of the squad that reached the Rugby World Cup final a year after that. Considering the Saints’ woes behind the scrum last year, Horne provides the dependable quality that Luther Burrell could not and also has the capability of playing on the wing should the need arise. Considering that the Saints’ have been drawn against Saracens, Clermont and the Ospreys in this year’s challenge cup, Horne could be crucial in Northampton’s attempts to navigate the group.

DTH van der Merwe – Newcastle Falcons

The Canadian could make a real impact in the North East with his devilish running and anticipation on the field. After a stand out couple of seasons with the Scarlets, Dean Richards has convinced him that the Falcons offer the sort of entertaining running rugby that suits his playing style. Alongside the already exciting triumvirate of Vereniki Goneva, Sinoti Sinoti and Maxime Mermoz, van der Merwe will have plenty of talent to play alongside behind the scrum. His knack for intercepting the ball off loose passes and grubber kicks will also add another string to the Falcons’ bow, offering counter-attacking potential that has often been lacking in the past. Although an exciting signing, the Falcons could really have also done with bolstering the pack after successive seasons of losses to the league’s traditional powerhouses.

A Tale of two halves: Bledisloe I, and expectations for this year’s Rugby Championship

6-40 at half time! Not a score that would bring any comfort to Australian rugby supporters following a tumultuous week where the Western Force were summarily removed from the Super Rugby Championship for ‘financial’ reasons. Not that anyone expected the Australians were going to have parity in this test match. The Australians have won only two of their last five international games, and they were against Italy and Fiji. In the same period, the All Blacks have played three Test matches against the British and Irish Lions, and although the All Blacks were unable to win the series due to the Lions’ strength of character and some debatable refereeing in the final test, they were still hugely impressive at times and were playing a far better team than the 2017 Wallabies.

The Daily Telegraph published an interview with Australia’s Bernard Foley this morning, who described how disappointing the current situation for Australian Rugby was and how the Wallabies, in their previous match against the All Blacks, believed that they had prepared well and were up to the task. In the event, they lost 42-10 and it doesn’t remotely surprise me that a similar outcome resulted in this match. The Australians were completely outmatched in the first half, even though they appeared to have the bulk of the possession (they did, for the entire match the Wallabies had 57% possession). But the All Blacks were utterly dominant with the ball in hand, recording their first try ten minutes in through a breakaway on the far-side of the field by Liam Squire. It was at this point that the Wallabies needed to rethink their defensive alignment and not overcommit at the tackle area and whilst rushing out of the defensive line. What actually happened was that the Australians became increasingly flustered by the All Blacks superiority at the gainline, and shipped a further five tries before the end of the half, with Rieko Ioane’s effort in the corner particularly bearing note.

But as the second-half began, the All Blacks took their foot off the gas alarmingly for Steve Hansen. They did, initially, continue in the same vein as they had done in the first half, scoring tries through Damian McKenzie and Ben Smith, but the final half hour belonged entirely to the Australians, who scored four tries without response and demonstrating a fight and cohesiveness that had been sorely lacking in the early massacre. The All Blacks had by this point replaced key names such as Ryan Crotty, Joe Moody and Aaron Smith with Anton Lienert-Brown, Wyatt Crockett and TJ Perenara, but they were unable to find any real rhythm from this point on, even when Beauden Barrett came close to scoring a try having charged down Bernard Foley. And many of the Australian points came from Kiwi carelessness, Folau’s try on 69 minutes resulting from a scrappy Foley pass that could have been intercepted, only for the ball to bounce into Folau’s hands as a path to the line beckoned. Kurtley Beale’s try was of a similar vein, Damian McKenzie getting caught in possession with the ball allowing Beale to sprint away with Barrett in a close, but unsuccessful pursuit.

It was clear by this point that the All Blacks knew the game was one, but for a team who previously prided themselves on putting games out of the opposition’s reach in the 45-65-minute bracket, this was a major wake-up call and will lead Hansen to doubt the commitment of some of his replacements. I would also be surprised if McKenzie were not relegated to the bench. For the Australians, the defensive system needs a thorough overhaul before next week’s rematch, but it was exciting to see the Australian’s effort in the second half in a lost cause, and Michael Cheika will be particularly pleased with Beale, Adam Coleman and Tevita Kuridrani.

Within the context of the tournament itself, having seen South Africa beat Argentina, I can’t see any team other than New Zealand winning the title again, even if they let leads slide in the second half. Their strength in depth is better than any of the other teams in the competition and they have world class names throughout. For the Australians, their big tests will be the matches against South Africa and Argentina in Bloemfontein and Mendoza, because winning those, will likely confirm their second-place status.

That is under serious threat from the Springboks, though, who will be looking to build upon an encouraging summer test period where they triumphed over France 3-0. Although this team has much to work upon and has very few heralded names to compare against the great Victor Matfield generation, they do have real talent in Jesse Kriel, Tendai Mtawarira and Eben Etzebeth. It will be telling though to see if the likes of Siya Kolisi, Raymond Rhule and Ross Cronje can impose themselves during the tournament, because currently these are areas in which the Boks are lacking. The Argentinians are under a similar type of pressure to the Boks, in that they have been underperforming since the 2015 Rugby World Cup and are currently attempting to integrate a large number of inexperienced players into the team. Besides the experience of Nicholas Sanchez and Leonardo Senatore, the Pumas really need to step up behind the scrum rather than relying on forward-power alone. Joaquin Tuculet is a capable full-back, but those inside him have never truly performed on the world stage and were unable to effectively repel the Springboks quick handling game.

Ultimately, we all want to see a competitive Rugby Championship that isn’t a procession in black. It’s time for the three other competitors to step up and re-establish themselves as rugby powerhouses, but this year’s tournament may be too early to expect the toppling of the dynasty.

The ARU, The Force and Litigation in Australian Rugby

‘Cowards’, ‘a terrible decision’ and ‘the biggest mistake the ARU could have made’. Safe to say that the announcement that the Western Force were to be kicked from Super Rugby has not gone down well with current and former employees of the franchise, and the wider rugby world. For months, this saga has dragged on since Sanzaar announced in April that they were to cut two South African and one Australian team in order to rebalance Super Rugby after the introduction of the Jaguares and the Sunwolves. In regard to the ARU, the whole process appears to have been bungled, having initially promised a quick decision within days of Sanzaar’s declaration. Instead, the wrangling impacted upon the remainder of the Super Rugby season, with both the NSW Waratahs and the Reds recording dreadful seasons with only eight wins cumulatively, knowing that they were safe from Bill Pulver’s axe.

Of the other three teams, the Brumbies came second in the Australasian group behind the Crusaders (but recorded fewer points than any of the five New Zealand teams) and were subsequently humiliated at home by the Hurricanes in the Qualifiers (having also been summarily dispatched 56-21 in Napier by the same opposition in April). As a traditional rugby powerhouse and the capital club, their status was never in serious doubt. The two teams in the firing line were therefore the Force and the Rebels. You wonder the ARU’s long-term planning in founding the Melbourne based team in 2010 and then very nearly cutting them within the decade. As it is, the Rebels dodged the guillotine in favour of the far less deserving Force, who, aware that the franchise were under threat recorded a 6-9 season, finishing as the second best Australian team including beating their Victoria opponents during their sole match this season.

What does this mean for elite Australian Rugby? It means that it will be confined to the West Coast and Melbourne, where traditionally Aussie Rules has been dominant. By axing the Force, the ARU has ensured no team further west than Victoria State and condemns Western Australia to sporting second-class status, which was part of the reasoning as to why Super Rugby expanded in that direction initially. Perth does have other sporting avenues to explore with two AFL teams and a handful of cricket and association football teams, but losing Rugby is a hammer blow to a region, which although largely unsuccessful since joining the competition, has built up a strong following and trumpets the sport away from traditional rugby heartlands.

In terms of Australian success in the Super Rugby competition, there is absolutely no guarantee that cutting the nation’s second-best team will improve the prospects of the national side or of the individual teams themselves. It is clear that Australian Rugby Union has been suffering for an extended period, but culling one of its most vibrant franchises is not the way forward.

The Best of Wimbledon 2017

Wimbledon, the premier tournament in the professional tennis calendar has come to a close once again with Garbine Muguruza and Roger Federer winning amidst the greenery at SW19. Every year, the tournament throws up surprises; Rafael Nadal knocked out in the fourth round having won the French Open at a canter, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki failing to reach the Quarter-finals, the spate of injuries that claimed Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Equally assured are brilliant matches between closely matched opponents where only those who can keep their nerve survive to the next round. The best six are contained below:

Rafael Nadal v Gilles Muller (3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 13-15)
A hugely entertaining match that should have been a comfortable win for the two-times winner. although Nadal’s body may be letting him down more often than it once did, you cannot doubt his courage. In the face of an onslaught from the unheralded Luxemburger, Nadal fought back having been two sets down and was constantly under the heel of his opponent in the fifth, but refused to relent for over four and a half hour before hitting a forehand long, handing the match to his opponent!

Svetlana Kuznetsova v Garbine Muguruza (3-6, 4-6)
One of the matches caught up in the controversy over the number of women’s matches played on the centre court and judging against any number of factors, this should have been. Ranked fourteen, the eventual champion Muguruza overcame her Russian opponent ranked twice as high as her through her clinical groundstrokes from the back of the court and an unrelenting set of service games. Both sets only saw one break of serve, but Kuznetsova was unable to cope with Muguruza’s intensity and accuracy from the baseline. The Russian arguably had the best of the rallies at the net, but found herself unable to break the Spaniards momentum in a match that only lasted an hour and fifteen minutes.

Simona Halep v Johanna Konta (7-6, 6-7, 4-6)
The WTA’s most tenacious player played the quiet, unassuming Brit in this dramatic quarter-final clash. Having beaten Victoria Azarenka in the previous round and with the draw opening up with the loss of Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova, Halep was tipped by many as a potential champion, but was unable to match Konta in the rallies despite defending doggedly. With the first two sets decided by tie-break, the third opened up as Halep’s resistance was finally broken in her third service game and Konta was able to hold serve for a spectacular win in just over two and a half hours.

Angelique Kerber v Garbine Muguruza (6-4, 4-6, 4-6)
A titanic clash between the World No.1 and the 2016 French Open Champion. Kerber looked on course to progress having won the first set 6-4, but was unable to match Muguruza’s power in the second and third sets. The match made for an interesting spectacle between two competing tennis styles, Muguruza’s aggressive attacking play versus Kerber’s ability to counterpunch after soaking up pressure. Ultimately, the stats told the course of the match with Muguruza completing 50% of her breakpoint chances to Kerber’s 30% with the Spaniard also recording more aces and wins on her second serve.

Any mixed doubles match involving Henri Kontinen and Heather Watson
For many, the appeal of Wimbledon lies in seeing the world’s best singles players compete in titanic battles on centre court, under the gaze of thousands of lucky ticket holders and VIPs, but for me, the best games have often been those just off the peak of the tennis world, with players attempting to win their first titles or demonstrate their flamboyance to adoring crowds. The mixed doubles competition also falls within this bracket, with an injection of fun into the usually steely gaze of professionalism. This is most clearly demonstrated in the partnership of Henri Kontinen and Heather Watson, who having won the title last year, lost in this year’s final against Martina Hingis and Jamie Murray. Even amidst the tension of close matches, Kontinen and Watson always found a way to smile and enjoy the game, the peculiarities of doubles creating both greater opportunities for skilful players whilst requiring close coordination. For Kontinen and Watson the latter might not have always been the case, but it was their attitude that stood them out and allowed them to weather the pressure as few others could.

Looking to the future: The Lions Tour in 2021

Hallelujah! Whatever the doubters may say, and there have been many, the Lions tour will continue to be a highpoint in the international rugby calendar following a pulsating tour which saw an unheralded side ridiculed by elements of the Kiwi press and written off by many of their own supporters. To achieve a draw versus the sport’s greatest team and to achieve parity against the most enterprising rugby nation on the planet is a huge achievement and a worthy achievement for a group of unrelenting professionals who refused to buckle under the pressure. But now that the tour in four years time has been assured (to be honest, it was going to happen whether the Lions got eviscerated or not, although with this year’s result, it is to be hoped that a more favourable tour schedule can be arranged for South Africa ’21), we can speculate on those likely to make the tour in four years time.

Of course, this is largely a subjective exercise and there will be players who make the tour who currently don’t even exist on our radar (Who would have named Ben Te’o in the test team this time four years ago) and others for whom their international careers will take off in the intervening four years (Zander Fagerson? Kieran Marmion?). But there are many of this year’s vintage who will likely return in four years time, with many hoping to gain their first Lions triumph after this year’s dead rubber. This article will therefore be split into three separate areas regarding the forwards, backs and the longer view on which positions look particularly weak at the current moment and are resultantly there for the taking.

The Forwards

It would not be a huge surprise if the same front-three that lined up against the All Blacks in the drawn third test are the same as those who start the first test in South Africa four years from now. Tadhg Furlong, Mako Vunipola and Jamie George all had hugely impressive tours, even though George felt he had let the team down with his line-out throwing during the final test. But looking at the alternative options available, there aren’t many who stand out to compete against this established triumvirate. The Welsh front-row does not look particularly strong in the near or mid-future, with Tomas Francis, Scott Baldwin and Samson Lee failing to convince Gatland of their worth this year and will need to step up their form dramatically to gain consideration. Zander Fagerson, Allan Dell and Fraiser Brown all show promise with the Scots, but they’ll need to build on this year’s Six Nations successes rather than repeating their defeat to Fiji. The Irish currently have a dearth of hooking options, but England do present options with Sinckler and Marler having previous Lions experience, Ellis Genge tipped by the Daily Telegraph and Tommy Taylor an outside shout if he can establish himself as George’s understudy as Hartley ages.

In the second row, the English also present strong options. Each of this year’s triumvirate of Lawes, Itoje and Kruis will be within the right age range in four year’s time and Joe Launchbury, who was hugely unfortunate to miss out this year, will also be in his prime at thirty years of age. The Irish will likely gain representation with Iain Henderson and possibly either Ultan Dillane or the upcoming James Ryan. The Welsh again seem largely bereft of future second-row talent although Rory Thornton and Cory Hill may surprise us, but the Scots do have options in the two Gray brothers, although it looks like the second-row will be heavily contested once again.

In the backrow, we are likely to see change considering the age of Warburton, O’Brien and Haskell, but it would not be a surprise if Billy Vunipola, having withdrawn this year, finally made his Lions bow against what is likely to be a monster South African pack. England Under-20 captain Zach Mercer, Jack Clifford and Sam Underhill could all be in contention, whilst the Welsh should have representation in at least two of Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Thomas Young and Justin Tipuric. The Irish have real talent in the Leinster pair of Jack Conan and Dan Leavy and Peter O’Mahony will likely be looking to improve upon his Lions experience following his demotion following the first test loss. Apart from perhaps Hamish Watson and Magnus Bradbury, the Scots cupboard looks bare.

The Backs

Murray, Webb and Laidlaw will all be thirty-two or older when the next tour comes around and scrum-halves need to be quick around the fringes, particularly against the lumpen Springboks. It is possible that none of these three will make that tour, although Murray probably will, but the other positions are very much up for contention. For Wales, Gareth Davies presents another option if he manages to supplant Webb in the Welsh national team and the same applies for Ali Price north of the border. For England, neither Ben Youngs or Danny Care are likely to get another opportunity considering their ages and so a whole new cohort of scrum-halves will be required for the national team. Jack Maunder is a possibility, although I think his Exeter colleague Stuart Townsend is the bigger talent, although Wasps’ Dan Robson could be set for a late career surge. For Ireland, there is a veritable chasm created in Murray’s wake and it will be up to either Luke McGrath or Kieran Marmion to fill it.

At fly-half, both Owen Farrell and George Ford will be approaching their prime in 2021, but will likely have to battle each other for the England shirt in the meantime. Dan Biggar will be thirty-one in 2021, but his experience would count in his favour and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he filled the third spot in the position. Finn Russell needs to cut out the inconsistencies in his game, but is definitely in the mix. The other two leading contenders are the Irish pair of Paddy Jackson and Joey Carbery. I’m not convinced Jackson can improve to the extent required and Carbery may jump ahead of him in the intervening years. Mick Cleary believes Carbery could also be an option at full-back. The options at centre also look a little sparse with Jared Payne and Ben Te’o unlikely to feature again. In their stead, expect Elliot Daly and Robbie Henshaw to appear once again and Garry Ringrose and Henry Slade to compete. Scott Williams may well get his day in the sun representing Wales and Huw Jones, who could easily have made the squad had he not got injured during the Six Nations, could represent Scotland in a country he knows well.

In the back-three, England have contenders in Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and potentially Denny Solomona, whilst Simon Zebo will be looking to add to his sole Lions experience in 2013. George North will only be twenty-nine in 2021 having experienced his first Lions tour at the age of 21, although the Scarlets’ Steff Evans could pip him to a spot if he cements his place in the Welsh national team. Scottish contenders seem slightly light on the ground aside from Stuart Hogg who was so unfortunate to get injured so early in the tour. He could be joined at full back by Liam Williams and/or Leigh Halfpenny once again, although Halfpenny will be thirty-two at the time. Tiernan O’Halloran is an outside bet for Irish representation whilst a fog of mystery surrounds Mike Brown’s successor for England. Anthony Watson could be utilised as a specialist full-back or Jonny May?

The Longer View

Full Back for England? Hooker for Ireland? Second-rows for Wales? Wingers for Scotland? Staring into the future is a fraught exercise based on guesswork and subjective assumptions, but there are positions where each of the home nations will need to gain resolution, if not improvement in their squad selection. For the English, the positions of fly-half, second-row and prop appear strong for years to come, but with Mike Brown, Ben Youngs and Danny Care approaching retirement age, there are openings at full-back and scrum-half. As discussed briefly above, both Anthony Watson and Jonny May have played full-back at times during their careers, but neither are expert full-backs, particularly in regard of their kicking ability. The other likely options appear to be the Saracens duo of Max Malins and Nathan Earle. Malins was part of the England team who came second in this year’s U20 World Cup whereas Earle played for England against the Barbarians in May on the wing. At scrum-half, I think Stuart Townsend has the maturity of a man twice his age.

The Irish have major issues at hooker. With Rory Best on the verge of retirement and Sean Cronin already thirty-one, the options look sparse. For this summer’s tour to Japan, Joe Schmidt selected Dave Heffernan, Niall Scannell and James Tracy, none of whom has more than seven international caps and Tracy, the most experienced, only has one full year of international experience under his belt. Ireland will likely continue with Best and Cronin in the short-term, but eventually, new blood will be required. The Welsh have a similar issue at second-row. With Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris ageing, players such as Jake Ball, Cory Hill and Rory Thornton need to step up if the Welsh are to achieve Six Nations success once again. The issue isn’t helped by the Welsh Regions’ appalling record in European competition and so it could benefit players like Hill to move to England or France in the short-term.

Finally we have Scotland. The Scots look particularly bare at Number Eight, Wing and Flank going forward with Seymour and Maitland ageing and the likes of Rob Harley and Ryan Wilson unable to make the grade. There are deeper issues in Scottish Rugby that have been addressed in far greater depth than can be here, but suffice to say that the Scots would hugely benefit from a crop of dynamic back-row forwards and youthful energy close to the touchline. And another hooker wouldn’t go a miss either. The Scots finished fifth at this year’s U20 World Cup with Robbie Nairn and Darcy Graham scoring against Wales and Australia, but whether they can be effectively integrated into the national team is yet to be seen.

My team for 2021

FB Hogg

WG Watson

CT Daly

CT Ringrose

WG North/Evans

FH Farrell

SH Townsend

N8 Vunipola

FL Tipuric

FL Leavy

LK Itoje

LK Launchbury

PR Vunipola

HK George

PR Furlong

Final Call: British and Irish Lions

At the end of the most compelling Lions tour in a generation, a number of Lions stalwarts have participated in their final tour wearing the red jersey. For some, such as Rory Best, Alun Wyn Jones and Sean O’Brien, the Lions has been an important and repetitive part of their professional sporting careers, with seven tours between them. It will be bittersweet for these players not to have won their final Lions tour considering the successes of four years ago in Australia, but drawing away to the All Blacks is a huge achievement, and should be considered as such. The fact that the Kiwi media no longer treat the concept with disdain is evidence enough. Beyond the seasoned campaigners, Jared Payne, Ben Te’o and James Haskell all added something to the tour, but are unlikely to be able to repeat the experience due to their age and the influx of new talent that heralds an exciting new era for Northern Hemisphere Rugby. But before we speculate on the potential players four years from now, we should salute those who were valued warriors in the field, but will likely have to settle for spectating during South Africa 2021.

Alun Wyn Jones

A true warrior, and one for whom losing is the ultimate anathema. Alun Wyn Jones has been the cornerstone of the Lions pack under Warren Gatland’s leadership and has played all nine test matches in the last three Lions tours. At the age of thirty-one though, he is unlikely to make the squad for South Africa and even if he were, it would be a surprise if he made the test team with the likes of Joe Launchbury, George Kruis and Iain Henderson snapping at his heels. For Jones, representing his country is the ultimate honour and as captain during the Lions’ victory in the Third Test in Sydney four years ago, he gained the honour of lifting the trophy with Sam Warburton. His influence on the dressing room will be missed, but others will step into the breach.

Sean O’Brien

One of the players of this year’s tournament and a singular pain to opposition forwards both at the breakdown and in the loose. Currently thirty years old, O’Brien will be too old at thirty-four to perform the dynamic role required of an Openside Flanker against the expected marauding Boks pack. With two successful Lions tours under his belt though and five test caps, the stalwart Irishman can be hugely proud of what he has achieved in the jersey and will add to his burgeoning reputation as one of the best forward to emerge from the Leinster set-up. With him gone, expect to see continuing Irish representation in the form of Dan Leavy and Jack Conan.

Rory Best

Tipped as a possible captain before the squad announcement and a consummate professional at the age of thirty-four, Rory Best has been a credit to the shirt even though he never achieved a test cap during his two tours. It is too his credit though that he has dominated the Ireland no.2 shirt for so long, so much so that the position looks rather bereft with his retirement looming in the next couple of years. He may have regrets over his lack of test caps, something largely down to his lack of carrying dynamism and erratic line-out throwing, but he will be long remembered as a gentleman of the game and no doubt will go on to influence the next generation of Irish international hookers.

Jonny Sexton

Another two-timer whose age will preclude any further Lions appearances. Jonny Sexton has been the heartbeat of the Irish side since the start of the decade and his proved his international class having appeared in all of the last six Lions tests, starting five. He didn’t have the strongest domestic season with Leinster in 16/17 and struggled at the start of the tour after a long season, but grew into the tour and proved crucial in his axis with Owen Farrell which stretched the All Blacks defenders and allowed the Lions to gain a foothold against a team known for pulling away in the second half. It is not as if the Lions will be lacking for fly-halves in South Africa in four years times, but Sexton’s experience will be missed, even if Owen Farrell was the man with the golden boot.

James Haskell

A man for whom overseas tours is his key motivation in rugby. James Haskell had previously never managed to secure a spot on the flight on a Lions tour and only succeeded this year when Billy Vunipola ruled himself out with an injury. Even though he failed to make a test appearance, he added a semblance of experience to the midweek side appearing in four matches, including the win over the Chiefs. He was regarded as integral to the squad dynamic off the field and instilling a relaxed atmosphere when the squad could have adopted a siege mentality. If Gatland gets the chance to coach the team again, he will need players like Haskell to shape the dressing room against the Boks, but at thirty-six in 2021, that is unlikely to be Haskell himself.

Dan Cole

There is a possibility that Dan Cole could make a third Lions series in 2021. As a thirty-four year old prop, Cole wouldn’t necessarily be out of place against the Springboks against whom the battle in the scrum will be crucial. He was unable to build upon the three caps won against Australia four years ago during this year’s tour, but other than Tadhg Furlong was the team’s strongest scrummager and will have benefited his younger compatriots with his knowledge and judgement. He will likely go one playing for Leicester and England for many years to come, but with the front-row evolving into a more athletic position, Cole will probably miss out on completing a clean sweep of all three Southern Hemisphere giants.

Talking points of Wimbledon 2017 so far

Lack of grass courts specialists

This is nothing new in modern tennis terms, but it does appear that the slow but unremitting death of serve and volley and the sheer lack of experience on the surface has rendered grass courts an anathema in both the men’s and women’s tours. There are exceptions, but Roger Federer is almost 36 and players such as Gail Monfils and Dustin Brown although brilliant to watch, don’t have tournament winning quality and thus the title more often than not ends in the hands of players who favour alternative surfaces.

Within the women’s game, aside from Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova is a stand out name having won two Wimbledon titles since the turn of the decade and will hopefully regain her status as a regular contender following the traumatic year she has suffered. Other players who were tipped to be successful on the surface, such as Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska, but women’s tennis hasn’t had a grass court trailblazer like Federer since 2000 (Williams is just a trailblazer on any surface).

What does the future hold for grass court tennis? It has been reported in certain papers that players feel the balls are slower this year than previously, thereby closing the gap between grass and the other playing surfaces. Additionally, without an increased number of grass court tournaments on tour (Rosmalen, Queens and Halle being some of the few), the cycle will continue with upcoming players developing on hard and clay courts without learning acquiring the skill set suited for grass.

Openness of the women’s draw

One of the most exciting things about this year’s Wimbledon is the openness of the women’s draw. With Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova not competing and Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka still adjusting to rejoining the tour, the door is open for a whole new raft of hopeful to stake their claims this year. Of those, Jelena Ostapenko may fancy her chances having won the French Open although I believe the draw favours the likes of Garbine Muguruza and Dominika Cibulkova. Every year throws up its surprises but with Angelique Kerber having struggled this season and Simona Halep still trying to master the mental part of her game, the next champion could be a true dark horse.

What of Jo Konta? She successfully navigated her first round tie against Su-Wei Hsieh (who she lost to at the same stage at this year’s French Open) and is up against the relatively unknown Croatian Donna Vekic in the Second Round. Konta should dispatch the world number 57, but if she manages to get past the third round she’ll likely meet Kvitova early next week and recovering or not, Kvitova knows what it takes at Wimbledon.

The resurgence of Rafa Nadal

In his heyday, Nadal was a ferocious competitor, able to play Roger Federer of the court on grass! But his extremely physical style of play took a major strain on his body and his last three Wimbledon appearances have been uninspiring with the fourth round marking his furthest progression. But, he has achieved two grand slam finals this year for the first time since 2014 winning the French and put on a bravura display to dispatch Australia’s John Millman yesterday 6-1, 6-3, 6-2. It appears that the Majorcan has rediscovered his game this season at a time when his other competitors are waning. For all those who believe that Roger Federer will win this year’s men’s competition (as indicated by a BBC poll), it would not be a surprise to see Nadal lifting his third Wimbledon title on this form.

Lions Update: Who’s performed well and who’s likely to be in the test team in 11 days’ time?

With four matches played and two wins for and against, the Lions tour to New Zealand has begun with a bumpy start and several performances that have not been up to scratch against highly-motivated Kiwi teams on their home soil. Starting with the win against the Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei, the Lions have recorded losses against the Highlanders and the Blues, but secured a win against the previously unbeaten Crusaders in Christchurch. In these first four games, Gatland will have gained an appreciation of the players he wants for his test team and has given each player the opportunity to demonstrate their talents. Here is a list of those who have and have failed to likely impress the coach so far.

In the reckoning:

Conor Murray

A concern before the tour due to injury concerns and has only played one game on tour so far, but Conor Murray outshone his teammates against the Crusaders with a consummate performance that nullified much of the Crusaders’ attacking threat and allowed the Lions to gain a firm grip on a game that could easily have slipped away. His kicking from open-play is a huge asset considering the type of wingers Gatland has selected for the tour and his mental resilience will allow him to go toe-to-toe with Aaron Smith. Gatland will need to be mindful of managing his workload though and we may only see him once more before the first test in Auckland.

Liam Williams

A player who complements Murray’s kicking game and would have been a useful addition against a Highlanders team who kicked more than expected. Although he got a costly yellow card against the Blues in the second game, he was a star performer against the Crusaders where his aerial ability came into its own. Depending on how Gatland wants to play, he would be advised to get Williams into the game more because of his propensity for Tommy Bowe-esque running lines and his commitment in challenging for the ball and in the tackle. He may not be the quickest, but then Anthony Watson is in the squad for that reason.

Mako Vunipola

Forwards are often unheralded in Rugby Union and fail to receive the plaudits as flashier colleagues behind the scrum often do. Not the elder Vunipola brother. Appearing against the Barbarians and the Crusaders, Vunipola has been hugely influential in giving the Lions a strong platform from which to impose themselves upon their Kiwi hosts. As referenced below, the Lions are currently struggling to get numbers to the breakdown before their opponents, resulting in needless penalties caused by a lack of communication and understanding. Vunipola is useful in this regard, in that unlike other front row colleagues, he not only makes ground more often than not, but he is also adept at retaining the ball and stealing it when defending.

Need to step up their game:

James Haskell

Haskell has appeared against the Blues and the Highlanders so far and has struggled to assert himself in New Zealand. In his most recent match in Dunedin, Haskell made a couple of handling errors and was unable to win the breakdown battle against Luke Whitelock and Gareth Evans. At times he also looked lost with ball in hand and does not appear to have the speed to effectively counter opposition attackers. Gatland will likely give him one more game to prove himself before the tests, but Haskell will need to re-evaluate his game and put in a big performance if he is to be considered.

Jonathan Joseph

Having appeared against the Barbarians and the Highlanders, Joseph has scored one of the Lions’ few tries on tour and has demonstrated a couple of neat touches and command under the high ball, but has not been able to tear enemy defences apart as he did during the Six Nations and often finds himself targeted by opposition attackers who are aware of his defensive frailties. Admittedly, in the Highlanders game, he did manage to catch and tackle Malakai Fekitoa having been stepped, but he was also bumped off in the tackle by Richard Buckman with relative ease in another phase and seems unable to escape the clutches of enemy defenders when an opportunity presents itself.

Elliot Daly

Daly has appeared against the Blues and the Highlanders so far on tour and has been unfortunate in being denied the clinical service that presented him with opportunities during the Six Nations. Like many of his Lions’ colleagues, he has been unable to fully adapt to the playing patterns that Gatland favours and has therefore been at a loose end in attacking phase play. Additionally, and not that this is fatal to his chances of selection, Daly missed the final penalty that would have won the Lions the game against the Highlanders. Owen Farrell had missed an earlier kickable penalty that would likely have had the same result and Daly’s was from a far greater distance, but it won’t count in his favour even though the Lions have lost another long-range kicking specialist in Stuart Hogg to injury.

Of course there is time for players to turn their fortunes around and for the test team to change its dynamic considerably based on injuries and form, but it does appear that Gatland already has an understanding of his favoured team with those playing against the Barbarians and the Crusaders more likely to walk into the test team. The differing interpretations of northern and southern hemisphere referees may also play a part in Gatland’s selections with two French referees potentially giving the Lions an advantage in the test series.