Blog

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.

Inflation and Sporting Success: The Rugby and Football Stories

It seems a long time ago that West Bromwich Albion signed Hungary captain Zoltan Gera for £1.5 Million. That was in July 2004. Gera played just over 250 games for the Albion and Fulham in a ten-year stint in England’s top division, and was consistently one of the league’s most reliable and entertaining players. Thirteen years on, football clubs couldn’t buy a teenager from Colchester for the same amount of money, inflation in football having reached epidemic levels. The most recent example being the £43 Million that Manchester City have shelled out for Bernardo Silva. Do not mistake me, Silva is a good player, but that is an exceptional amount of money for a 22-year-old whose reputation is largely built on one good season at Monaco. Compare that with the £7 million fee paid by Chelsea in January 2012 for Gary Cahill. True, this was a truly brilliant piece of business from the London end and a particularly disastrous one for the Wanderers, but it does show that value could be had until very recently for the top drawer of players; Cahill having been named in the PFA Team of the Year three times and having won every domestic and European trophy open to him since arriving at the Bridge.

It is not as if teams did not pay over the odds in earlier times, Fernando Torres’ £50 Million move to Chelsea in 2011 and Andy Carroll’s switch from Newcastle to Liverpool on the same day come to mind, but what is worrying is that it has become far more common and it is squeezing the bottom of the market. Take West Brom again, a team run on a very secure financial basis with a tight wage structure and no superstars. Amongst the team that finished 10th in this year’s Premier League, Claudio Yacob and Gareth McAuley were signed as free agents and Ben Foster joined for a reported £4 Million. This represents huge value for money in a market where the very best players are beyond the reach of the vast majority of teams and finding hidden gems is a continual preoccupation.

Compare this to Rugby Union. The best teams are not always those with the most money. Look at Toulon, even though the Mediterranean team have imported numerous foreign superstars on big money deals since the start of the decade, they have only won one Top 14 title, although they have secured three European Champions Cup triumphs. If it was entirely down to money, Toulon or some other French spender would have won the Champions Cup in the last two seasons as well, but instead Saracens have taken the crown. Why? Because once you reach a peak in sport there is only one way to go and that is down. The All Blacks have proved exceptional in sustaining themselves at the peak of international team sports longer than virtually anyone else, but the same does not apply to Toulon. They had their time, and they still have the playing quality, but desire and teamwork often count for more and having won it three times you can understand a dip in drive.

Moving from France to Devon, the greatest current example of team work and desire overcoming money and superstardom lies with the Exeter Chiefs. This year’s Aviva Premiership Champions following a close fought final against Wasps, the Chiefs have retained several players from their promotion success seven years ago and it was fitting that one of those, Gareth Steenson, kicked the winning points on Saturday. They have focused primarily on local and British talent, bringing through the likes of Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie, with a few foreign signings along the way. But it is the squad cohesion and enthusiasm that makes this team better than the sum of their parts. Opposition teams continually underestimate Exeter because of their lack of pretence, but Exeter have proved they can deliver on the biggest stage against teams with seasoned internationals and years of European experience. And long may it continue.

West Brom are unlikely to emulate Exeter because of the financial imperatives of the Premier League. Football has strayed too far from it roots to the point where players receiving £150,000 a week feel that they are being underpaid. Rugby, thankfully, still retains a measure of its amateur ethos and has not entirely succumbed to commercialism as football did under Sky, but it needs to be wary of following a similar path. Thankfully they have an example of how not to do it.

Lions Tour: Scheduling Expectations

With any ten test Lions tour, Warren Gatland and his coaching staff will need to be mindful of player fatigue and its implications for the tests when selecting his sides for the earlier matches against the New Zealand Barbarians, the five Kiwi Super Rugby franchises and the Maori All Blacks. Saying that, Gatland will want to give his leading squad players time to play against high quality opposition in readiness for the All Black onslaught, a scenario open to the Lions coaching staff with Steve Hansen allowing his All Black players to play for their domestic teams during the warm up games. There is no question that this tour is going to be among the most punishing of modern times, with the Australian tour of four years ago having been relatively comfortable against a fairly week Wallaby team.

3 June – New Zealand Barbarians – Whangarei

The opening game for the Lions and almost certainly the easiest one they will face. With the game coming only weeks after major domestic cup finals in the Northern Hemisphere, it would be a surprise to see the likes of Jonathan Davies, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Courtney Lawes featuring, but Gatland will be looking to give a run-out to more inexperienced members of the team to allow them to acclimatise to the Kiwi style of rugby, and perhaps to players who haven’t played for an extended period due to injury. I would therefore expect to see Anthony Watson, Ben Te’o and Iain Henderson featuring alongside the experience of Rory Best, Taulupe Faletau and Sam Warburton.

7 June – Blues – Auckland

A real test for Gatland’s men in their second match. The Blues have been average this season in the Australasian Group of Super Rugby having recorded 6 wins from 11 so far, but that does include the demolition of the Rebels in the opening week and wins against the Bulls, the Brumbies and the Force. The Lions will need to be particularly mindful of the Ioane brothers who have been regular try scorers this year and the All Blacks, Steve Luatua, Patrick Tuipulotu and Sonny Bill Williams. Gatland will have the luxury of having had his full squad together for a more reasonable period for this game and will therefore probably name a strong side of test hopefuls including Murray, Jonny Sexton, Maro Itoje, George North and Stuart Hogg.

10 June – Crusaders – Christchurch

A test match all but officially considering the sheer quality available to the Crusaders and their dominant form that has seen them win every game of the season so far including hugely impressive wins against the Highlanders, the Waratahs, the Sunwolves and the Bulls. Numbered among their ranks are World Cup winners Kieran Read, Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Sam Whitelock, Joe Moody, Luke Romano and Israel Dagg and they have several other All Blacks in addition to those. This match will be a real indicator of the Lions chances and reasonable expectations on this tour. If Scott Robertson names a full-strength side (probably minus the injured Read) and the Lions struggle, then it is indicative of the Lions likely struggles against the full All Black team a month ahead, but if the Lions play effectively as a team and isolate the inexperienced members of Robertson’s team then it could be a truly terrific contest. Gatland would be a fool to name anything but his strongest team in Christchurch: Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Stander, North, Itoje, the lot.

13 June – Highlanders – Dunedin

By this point in the tour Gatland will be looking at squad rotation and will likely have picked up injuries. This is unfortunate because in the Dunedin-based Highlanders, the Lions face one of the strongest New Zealand teams of the last five years and one packed with current All Blacks. Gatland’s men will therefore have to contend with the likes of Aaron Smith, Liam Squire, Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith. The South Islanders also have a large and aggressive pack that will need to be neutralised before the ball can be played out wide. Expect Ross Moriarty, Taulupe Faletau, Alun Wyn Jones and Robbie Henshaw.

17 June – Maori All Blacks – Rotorua

An unknown quantity as an invitational side, but still providing a real test, the Maori All Blacks last played in November in tests versus Harlequins, Munster and the USA. Gatland will probably use this match as an opportunity to rest some of his bigger names and give those on the edge of test selection the opportunity to press their claims. With the possibility of fringe All Blacks such as Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie getting the call, it will be interesting how Gatland tries to nullify their hard-running threat and may try to match up like-for-like by selecting Anthony Watson, Rhys Webb and Jamie George.

20 June – Chiefs – Hamilton

It doesn’t get any easier for the Lions as they journey across the North Island to Hamilton to take on the Chiefs. The Waikato franchise won two Super Rugby Championships on the bounce in 2012-13 and are still a real threat, currently sitting third in the New Zealand conference and sixth overall. Amongst the stars that Dave Rennie may be able to select include current All Blacks Sam Cane, Liam Messam Brodie Retallick, Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden and several other players with experience of wearing the shirt. Leinster-bound James Lowe has been a try-scoring machine this season and Tim Nanai-Williams is electric with ball in hand. With the first test against the All Blacks only four days away, Gatland probably won’t field a full-strength team, but will want a strong performance and may well select Dan Biggar, Ben Te’o and Lawes to do the job.

24 June – New Zealand – Auckland

The first test and a crucial one in dictating a successful tour. Of the last three Lions tours, the team that has won the first test has gone on to win the series and the Lions can’t afford to give the All Blacks an inch. In the absence of injuries, it can be imagined that the First Test team will comprise Murray, Farrell, North, Warburton and Itoje with the other spots filled on performances earlier in the tour. Lining up against them will be the likes of Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick and Aaron Smith and it will be the fine margins that dictate the outcome. But make no mistake, if the Lions find themselves on the backfoot early, chances are this will be less a battle and more a siege.

27 June – Hurricanes – Wellington

The current Super Rugby Champions and fifth in this year’s competition so far, the Hurricanes are unlikely to have all if any of their All Blacks playing due to the scheduling of this match between test matches. In their absence, Gatland will probably give his charges a well-deserved rest, handing playing spots to non-test players such as Ken Owens, Kyle Sinckler, Greig Laidlaw, Te’o and Henderson. Even without their All Blacks, the Hurricanes will still be gunning for success on home turf with Jordie Barrett, Reggie Goodes, Chris Eves and Brad Shields likely to get game time.

The final two tests

There is no question that the Lions are going to throw the kitchen sink at the All Blacks but will it be enough? There will likely be a high attrition rate during the test considering the size of the All Black team and therefore it is possible that players who no one saw starting tests at the beginning of the tour may get their opportunity. Dan Biggar, Tommy Seymour and Joe Marler may fall into this bracket. It is also possible that players not currently selected to tour may make the Test team following earlier injuries, an eventuality that occurred four years ago when Alex Corbisiero replaced Cian Healy and started the first and third tests.

Transfer Talk: Premier League Squad Overhauls this summer

It may not have been the contested end to the season that Sky and BT wanted, but that only enhances the performance of the league’s best team this year. Chelsea have dominated this season, largely thanks to Antonio Conte’s inspired tactical switch following defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool in September, as other teams have faltered or fallen below expectations. Having benefited from the lack of European football following last season’s tenth place finish, the Blues have won 29 out of 37 matches and will record the highest score in a Premiership season of 93 since 2004-05, with a win against Sunderland on Sunday. But this summer’s transfer dealings will alter the balance of the league once again with those unsuccessful members of Premier League royalty looking to reclaim the title next year. For the happily mid-table, the off-season will offer an opportunity to sign reinforcements and shore up problematic positions and for those in the lower reaches, it will be a battle for bargains and real talent in a hugely inflated marketplace.

The Big Movers

Manchester City: Pep Guardiola has yet to put his mark on the Manchester club having recorded a disappointing first season in the North West. Pablo Zabaleta had an emotional send-off last weekend and will likely be followed out of the door by Bacary Sagna, Jesus Navas, Gael Clichy, Willy Caballero, Nolito, Joe Hart and possibly Yaya Toure, Kelechi Iheanacho and Aleksandar Kolarov. Guardiola will be looking to build his team around the quality of Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane whilst enhancing his defensive and goalkeeping options after being exposed in Europe and against the likes of Everton and Leicester in the league. Although their pressing style has proved fairly effective against lower level teams, this squad has gotten to the end of its shelf-life with many of those leaving over thirty. Guardiola will need to replicate that experience in his signings, but crucially will need players capable of performing against the very best and inspired to win domestic titles in arguably the world’s toughest league. Keeping Sergio Aguero is a must and signing Kyle Walker would also be a step in the right direction.

Swansea: A deeply disappointing season for the Swans and one which they will be thankful to leave behind. Having secured safety on 38 points, Paul Clement will be looking to considerably improve his squad for the following campaign with defence a particular concern. In the triumvirate of Federico Fernandez, Alfie Mawson and Mike van der Hoorn, Clement does not have a centre-back partnership capable of surviving another Premier League season and therefore needs to look for experienced alternatives who can mentor the inexperienced Mawson and restore the defence to its position whilst Ashley Williams was at the helm. Off-loading some of the dead weight in Borja Baston, Marvin Emnes and Bafetimbi Gomis would be beneficial although it is crucial that Gylfi Sigurdsson, Ki Sung-yeung and Fernando Llorente remain with the team. Despite Swans’ chairman Huw Jenkins claiming it would be “dangerous” to make serious squad alterations, I would expect there to be movement at the Liberty Stadium, and John Terry may be one of those incoming.

Stoke: Largely under the radar once again, but having struggled to get the best out of their talented squad, Mark Hughes needs to reassess his playing staff having dropped from a ninth place finish last season to the (current) obscurity of fourteenth. Of those who haven’t performed, it is likely that Giani Imbula, Stephen Ireland and Ibrahim Afellay could be headed for the door, whilst Lee Grant may leave in search of first team football following Jack Butland’s return from injury. Glen Johnson has been confirmed as staying, but Wilfried Bony will return to Manchester City following his loan spell. Hughes would do worse than integrate Philipp Wollscheid back into the team following his loan spell at Wolfsburg and work hard with Saido Berahino over the off-season, but it will be a surprise if there are not some incomers. He may well push the panic button this summer, off-loading long-serving strikers such as Jonathan Walters and Peter Crouch in favour of younger models such as Bournemouth’s Josh King or Southampton’s Shane Long.

A few changes:

Southampton: Southampton have not had a bad season by any means, they are the leaders in the middle-pack of Premier League teams ahead of West Brom and Bournemouth and look likely to finish in the top half. But, the ownership are not convinced that Claude Puel has achieved this season’s objectives and with a managerial change in the offing its likely there will be some changes in the playing staff. If Southampton want to better this year’s league position it will likely take major investment, as they are fifteen points off Everton in 7th with a game of the season to go, but it is more likely they will try to improve the squad on margin in order to maintain a top-half finish. For this, the Saints will once again reply heavily on their academy and may let bit part players such as Jeremy Pied and Shane Long leave St Marys. But keeping Virgil van Dijk and Ryan Bertrand is crucial.

Leicester: Craig Shakespeare has done an excellent job in revitalising Leicester following the club’s collapse under Claudio Ranieri mid-season. He has instilled the steel needed for the team to remain in the league, but refortifying will be required to ensure what happened this season doesn’t happen again next year. Leonardo Ulloa and Bartosz Kapustka are likely to leave although it is likely Shakespeare will retain the core of the squad that took the title twelve months ago. He will be looking to get the best out of Jamie Vardy once again, but may well freshen up his defence with Robert Huth and Wes Morgan ageing. Maya Yoshida, Ben Gibson or Calum Chambers may well be on the cards.

Everton: A positive season for Ronald Koeman’s men has culminated in a seventh place finish way ahead of the chasing pack. But although Koeman has a squad he is happy with and that surpasses that of many of their Premier League rivals, the threat of Romalu Lukaku and Ross Barkley leaving means that the Toffees may need to reinforce. Fortunately, were Lukaku and Barkley to depart, then Koeman would have considerable funds with which to bolster his squad with Gylfi Sigurdsson and Ajax captain on his wish list. Everton will still be unable to attract the very best talents, but with a £70 Million price in the offing for Lukaku, they should be able to sweep up most others.

Pretty quiet:

Spurs: For Spurs this summer will be about maintaining squad cohesion following a brilliant campaign in which they trumped more heralded names. They look likely to lose Kyle Walker to Man City, but it would be a shock were Eric Dier, Christian Eriksen or Hugo Lloris were to depart. Mauricio Pochettino is constrained by the club’s wage policy and there will be interest from abroad, but I expect Spurs to dig in their heels during negotiations as they have a contented squad with Champions League football ahead of them. If Spurs felt they did require new signings it would likely be up front with Harry Kane having borne a disproportionate scoring burden this season.

Burnley: Not a team known for their high-spending or slapdash nature in the transfer market, Burnley will likely remain stoical while others bid over the odds for players who will get little game time. Not that that means Burnley do not need improvements. They have defended well this season, but losing Michael Keane would be a mighty blow and in front of goal they have struggled, having scored the fewest number of goals in the league other than the three relegated teams. Expect Dyche to dabble in the transfer market with Jermain Defoe likely near the top of the list.

Bournemouth: The unheralded Southerners have proved the doubters wrong once again, improving on last season’s 16th place and providing entertaining football having scored and conceded more goals than any other middle table team. Eddie Howe is not blessed with extravagant amounts of cash at the Vitality Stadium and will be hugely satisfied with the club’s progression, but will be looking for a few new names to replace the departing Jack Wilshere. He will also have to be mindful of others seeking the likes of Josh King and the impressive Ryan Fraser. Defence has to be Howe’s priority in the off-season with Stoke’s Marc Muniesa, Ben Gibson and Calum Chambers all options. A smart move would also be to bring Marc Wilson back from his loan at West Brom and integrate him within the team. Others tipped include Dijon’s Lois Diony and the Chelsea pair of Nathan Ake and Asmir Begovic.

Summer Tours in a Lions season: Where the home nations are touring and which players can take advantage

The Lions year is always an unusual one in the rugby calendar, as each of Britain and Ireland’s international teams take second-string squads abroad halfway through a World Cup cycle. For many, it is an opportunity to put their name in contention for continued international honours and for some, it may be their only chance of getting international recognition. Pleasingly though, it also points to the squad depth of our international squads in the northern hemisphere and shows we can still compete with international rivals, even when the cream of our players are in the Antipodes, or South Africa. This summer, Ireland are playing Japan, England face Argentina, whilst Wales and Scotland travel to the South Pacific and Oceania. It is to be hoped that it will be a summer of shocks and revelations, with lesser-known players stepping up in foreign environments and the Tier Two teams giving the established giants a run for their money.

 

Scotland: Tour Schedule

V Italy (10 June)

V Australia (17 June)

V Fiji (24 June)

In his first tour as Scotland coach, Gregor Townsend has selected three new caps and is missing Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Grieg Laidlaw to the Lions. Those three new caps are centre Nick Grigg, hooker George Turner and tight-head prop D’Arcy Rae. He will also have the benefit of the return of Willem Nel and Peter Horne from injury after they both missed the Six Nations and has relative experience across the board due to the lack of Lions absentees. What should Scotland set out to achieve on this tour? Two wins out of three as a minimum, playing Australia in Sydney may well be a stretch too far, but wins against Italy in Singapore and Fiji in Suva are a must in order to build on a very encouraging Six Nations campaign. Of those selected, the Gray brothers need to ensure they recapture their form of a couple of seasons ago to keep themselves in contention should any injuries befall the Lions squad and Finn Russell will be looking to prove Warren Gatland wrong. Of those who could really make a name for themselves, Ali Price should have free-reign at scrum-half with Laidlaw not available whilst Ben Toolis and Zander Fagerson may well catch the eye.

 

Wales: Tour Schedule

V Tonga (16 June)

V Samoa (24 June)

Only a two-game tour for Wales this summer (not including a warm-up game against RCF 1404 in Colwyn Bay), but it will provide a true touring experience for the Welsh players  whom Robin McBryde is expected to name tomorrow. Gethin Jenkins has already been ruled out due to a knee injury, but it would be a surprise not to see established names such as Scott Williams, Luke Charteris and Samson Lee in the squad considering the number of players selected for the Lions tour. In particular, McBryde will need to reconstitute a back-row that is missing four major stars to Gatland’s team and at full-back, with both Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny unavailable. This could be the tour for Thomas Young, Jake Ball, Tomas Francis and Sam Davies to really make their mark in the Wales jersey and give Gatland, Howley and co. something to think about before the visit of Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa in the autumn. Following his selection in the Pro12 team of the year, James Davies is also likely to make the squad as are Dan Baker and Rory Thornton. For Wales, anything other than two victories will be considered a backwards step on this tour, although they do have form in this department, having lost one of their two test matches to Japan this time four years ago.

 

England: Tour Schedule

V Barbarians (28 May)

V Argentina (10 June)

V Argentina (17 June)

Probably the most difficult tour schedule of all the home nations, even though the Barbarians game will be more a festival of rugby than a truly competitive test-match. Eddie Jones was very quick following the Lions squad announcement to name his selections for the tour and includes fifteen uncapped players in a thirty-one man touring party. The most eye-catching of the newcomers include London Irish winger Joe Cokanasiga, Bath flanker Sam Underhill, Sale winger Denny Solomona and Harry Mallinder of Northampton. There are also some surprising omissions in the form of Christian Wade and Semesa Rokodoguni, but the squad still contains established talent in the form of Dylan Hartley, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown even with Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph, Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje missing, amongst others.  The match against the Barbarians will be an opportunity for the uncapped players to get accustomed to the England jersey before the flight to South America but expect players such as Danny Care, Henry Slade and Tom Wood to get the nod over Jack Maunder, Sam James and Nick Isiekwe during the tests themselves.

 

Ireland: Tour Schedule

V USA (10 June)

V Japan (17 June)

V Japan (24 June)

A competitive tour schedule awaits Ireland as they return to the US to face the Eagles for a single test before they journey to Honshu to play two successive tests against Japan. With the second largest contingent in the Lions squad, the Irish management will need to welcome several new faces to the touring party alongside established stars such as Simon Zebo, Garry Ringrose, Paddy Jackson and Devin Toner. This tour will be particularly exciting for the new generation of Irish backrowers competing for the position, especially Dan Leavy and Jack Conan who were both named in this year’s Pro12 Team of the Season. Joey Carbery will also get the opportunity to replicate his sterling domestic form in a green jersey with Jonny Sexton’s absence, whilst for others such as Zebo, it will allow them to work on their game following the disappointment of being overlooked for the Lions. The opening game will likely see an established team taking the pitch with Schmidt exercising increased flexibility as the tour goes on. Expect to see three wins, or questions will be asked.

The Worcester clear-out: 18 out and who Gary Gold needs to replace them

With the announcement that Worcester Warriors are overseeing the departures of eighteen first team players ahead of next season, it appears that the club are once again prepared for a major rebuilding project in the hopes of improving the club’s repeatedly poor league position. With the release of players such as Ryan Lamb, Tom Biggs, Na’ama Leleimalefaga, Gary Gold has proved himself willing to overhaul experienced members of the playing squad who have been underperforming, whilst the loss of Val Rapava Ruskin, James Johnston and Tevita Cavubati speaks to a team that is unable to retain its leading players, or potential future stars. But what does Gold need to do to revolutionise a team that has finished eleventh, tenth, twelfth, eleventh and tenth in their last five Premiership seasons and have been unable to generate title-winning traction in the European Challenge Cup and its predecessor?

Fly-Half

A crucial position in any team and one that disproportionately affects the team’s result due to the catalytic nature of the position. For this season, Worcester had Connor Braid, Tiff Eden, Tom Heathcote and Ryan Lamb to call upon in this position, with James Shillcock and Ryan Mills stepping up on occasion due to injuries. Of those, Braid, Eden and Lamb are all leaving in the summer, although Mills has been persuaded to stay. If Worcester are serious about growing the team and becoming a regular top-four contender then they need a quality fly-half to partner Francois Hougaard in the half-backs and although Heathcote is a good player, he is injury prone and cannot compete against the likes of Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jimmy Gopperth or Freddie Burns. If Worcester have the money, and the ambition, then they could do worse than look at Gopperth if he can be prized away from Wasps, although the more likely options are Morne Steyn from Stade Francais or Tyler Bleyendaal at Munster.

Lock

Currently, the Warriors have six second-rows on their books, Darren Barry, Tevita Cavubati, Donncha O’Callaghan, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Will Spencer and Chris Vui. Of those, Cavubati and Vui are both leaving this summer, whilst interim captain O’Callaghan has just signed a new deal at the age of 38. Successful teams are built around enterprising lock play, it is no longer good enough to have players who can just scrum and call the line-out, you need warriors in the second-row who raise the level of their forward colleagues, as Alun Wyn Jones does for the Welsh national team. Worcester have already signed Pierce Phillips from the Jersey Reds to partially fill the gap, but another established performer would be a big bonus in this position.

Flanker

Not an area of particular strength for the Warriors currently, and one in need of strengthening regardless of the loss of Phil Dowson and Sam Betty to retirement. Huw Taylor has been promoted from the academy, but Gary Gold will be looking to add real talent to an unimaginative back-row that has been unable to compete at this level previously. Bath’s Dave Denton may be a possibility, as would David Sisi, whilst overseas options include Ulster’s Robbie Diack and the Cheetahs’ Henco Venter. Worcester will also have GJ van Velze back from a long-term injury at the start of new season which will feel like a new signing and have secured Dewald Potgieter, their most impressive performer in the position this season.

Wing

Even though the wing position has changed considerably in the last decade, having quality wingers can still guarantee tries, as Christian Wade and Denny Solomona have proved this season. Worcester haven’t had that luxury though and are losing Tom Biggs and Cooper Vuna as part of this year’s cull. There is no doubt that Perry Humphreys is a huge talent and should be used to build a side around, but he is still young and would benefit from real quality to learn from. Unlikely admittedly, Craig Gilroy may well welcome a new challenge at Sixways in England as his Ireland chances continue to diminish or Tim Visser would be a very useful signing. Beyond them, the uncertainty surrounding the future of Stade Francais and Racing Metro could work in the Warriors’ favour, allowing them to poach Waisea Nayacalevu or Mark Andreu from the Parisians, whereas the Ospreys’ Hanno Dirksen would be a more conservative buy.

All considered the Warriors have a major image problem that prevents them from signing more attractive players and moving up the league as a result. As an unflashy team away from a traditional Rugby heartland, and one constantly fighting against the drop, the players that the top six can attract are often out of the reach of Worcester, whilst the Warriors lose their best players to the teams above them. With Gary Gold in charge though, it is hoped that Worcester can be revived as an exciting Premiership team capable of competing on multiple fronts and not just a must-win in the minds of the current rugby powerhouses. If Worcester were to secure the signings of Bleyendaal, Gilroy and Venter, it would at least go some way in making that dream a reality.

Top 5 Forgotten All Blacks since 2000

The All Blacks, one of the world’s foremost sporting properties and one of the most successful. A team known for the longevity of its players and fastidiousness in team selection, most rugby fans would be able to name an All Blacks team since 2000 without batting an eyelid, with players such as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Brodie Retallick, Jerry Collins and Julian Savea featuring heavily in many fans memories. But not all All Blacks were as successful or are as well known as those listed above, and although the All Blacks have been ranked the world’s best team for ten of the last 12 years, there are times in recent memory when the All Blacks were not the force they are considered to be today. For many, that includes the underperforming years of the early-mid 2000s and it is unsurprising that many of the names on this list are from that time period.

1. Leon MacDonald
A rangy utility back with 56 caps and 141 points in international rugby, Leon MacDonald deserves to be better known. An able goal kicker, but unfortunate to find Mils Muliana and Dan Carter blocking his path to the starting XV, Macdonald was a reliable workhorse for the Crusaders for many years and won many Super Rugby titles with the Canterbury outfit, but never experienced the same level of success at international level, playing in two Rugby World Cups but never lifting the trophy.

2. Greg Rawlinson
Largely unheralded with only 4 caps to his name and no points, second-row Greg Rawlinson came into the team in 2006-07 after impressing for the Blues. A traditional, workhorse, lock-forward Rawlinson never made the headlines but saw action against South Africa and Ireland, in the process becoming only the second African-born All Black. Later in his career Rawlinson played for the Worcester Warriors where he played up until 2010.

3. Keith Robinson
Another second-row, but one with a slightly longer All Blacks career than Rawlinson, Keith Robinson gained 12 test caps for the Kiwis between 2002 and 2007, recording no points scored. A member of the Chiefs franchise in Hamilton, Robinson was unfortunate with injuries during his career and having to compete with Chris Jack and Ali Williams for a place in the XV, but was part of the 2007 Rugby World Cup squad.

4. Angus Macdonald
A tough back rower from a Rugby playing family, Angus Macdonald gained 2 caps for the All Blacks in 2005 after impressing for the New Zealand Maori during that year’s Lions Tour. Having played against Wales and Scotland, Macdonald suffered a serious knee injury in 2006 and never regained his place in the All Blacks team, but did later return to Scotland to play briefly for Glasgow.

5. Richard Kahui
The only Rugby World Cup winner on this list having been part of the All Blacks’ 2011 Rugby World Cup squad, Richard Kahui is often overlooked in favour of other wingers such as Sitiveni Sivivatu and Rico Gear, but proved himself in 17 caps for the Kiwis, scoring 50 points. Also capable in the centres, Kahui’s final international cap came during the 2011 Rugby World Cup final and he went on to play in Japan having left the Chiefs in 2013.

The End of an Era: Serena Williams’ pregnancy and those who will attempt to fill the vacuum

Since the Millennium, one name has dominated professional women’s tennis. The name Serena Williams has become synonymous for sporting success with 23 Grand Slam singles titles securing her legendary status within the history of the women’s game. If she’s not winning a tournament that she’s competing in, it’s a surprise. Compared against other extremely talented women’s tennis players of the same era such as Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova, Williams has dominated on an unprecedented scale, marking her out as a ground-breaking sportswoman who should be considered greater than her male compatriots.

But having announced that she is pregnant with her first child this week with her fiancée Alexis Ohanian, it appears that Serena’s time at the peak of women’s tennis is finally drawing to a close. Even if she does return to professional competition, an eventually unlikely to occur before May 2018 at the earliest, Serena will have trouble matching the form of her earlier career, as injuries, ageing and family considerations will impact upon her play. But for a women’s game that has come be dominated by one player (39 major titles in singles and doubles), it is difficult to see who is going to step up and dominate the women’s game in the near future. For sure, there are many talented women’s players who have been there or there about since the turn of the decade, but for players such as Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska this has resulted in not a single major title, whereas others such as Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova and Garbine Murguruza have picked up the odd title on favoured surfaces, but have failed to overhaul Serena across all four surfaces.

Looking at the current rankings, the players listed above are still very much in contention for the world number one spot (indeed, Angelique Kerber currently holds the position) but to make it theirs in the same way Serena did looks like an improbability. Even when Victoria Azarenka returns after the birth of her son, and Petra Kvitova recovers from the traumatic home invasion in which she sustained hand injuries, it appears there will be greater variety at the top of the women’s game, which will likely make the tournaments more exciting and unpredictable, but will suffer with the loss of Serena. So who are the candidates to dominate women’s tennis in the next five years?

Simona Halep

A one-time French Open finalist who has also reached at least the quarter-final stage in the other three Grand Slams, Simona Halep is a very different player to Williams in that her movement around the court and her variety are her core weapons. Nonetheless, on her game, Halep is a very dangerous player who tires opponents out, even if she sometimes lacks real power on her groundstrokes. Currently ranked fifth in the world, Halep would benefit from moving up the rankings a couple of places to secure easier routes through the draws of this year’s remaining Grand Slams, but is already well placed to mount a charge with Serena absent.

Victoria Azarenka

Although not currently playing, Azarenka intends to return to competitive tennis this summer, six months on from giving birth to Leo. Azarenka is one of the few players who has been able to beat Williams on multiple occasions previously (although their head-to-head record is still 17 – 4 in Serena’s favour). Her playing style is also one of the closest to Williams’ on the women’s tour, using aggressive baseline strokes to weaken her opponents. Azarenka also has four Grand Slam titles under her belt (two singles, two doubles) and has reached the semi-finals is every Grand Slam tournament during her career. What impact having a child will have can only be conjecture at this point, although it seemed to advantage Kim Clijsters, who won three Grand Slams after the birth of her first child. What is more certain though is that Azarenka will win more titles, the question is how many?

Garbine Muguruza

Muguruza is a relative newcomer to the elite level of women’s tennis, having won her sole Grand Slam title at the French Open in 2016 having got to the Wimbledon final the year before that. Her playing style is amongst the most attractive on tour, but the power she generates in her groundstrokes often is mirrored by inconsistency that has seen her lose to opponents ranked well below her (such as to the Qualifier Jana Cepelova in the Second Round at last year’s Wimbledon). If she can find form on hard courts, she could be a contender for the no. 1 ranking, but she’ll need to be more decisive to achieve this.

Petra Kvitova

Another Grand Slam winner, and one with a respectable record against both Azarenka at Grand Slams, Petra Kvitova is another player who may benefit from Williams’ absence. Although currently absent from the sport, Kvitova is looking to return for this year’s French Open and will be hoping to recreate her dangerous serve that has long been a core element of her game. Although it will no doubt take her time to bed back in following hand surgery, if she can add mental toughness to her game as it was before Christmas, she will have a very good chance of adding to her Grand Slam haul in the future.

Angelique Kerber

The current World Number One and a two-time Grand Slam winner who favours hard courts, Kerber is not known for her devastating groundstrokes, but for her defensive tenacity and mobility on court. Having experienced success in Grand Slams against Williams, Azarenka, Kvitova and Halep, Kerber is a resolute competitor and late developer who had her best season to date in 2016 and will be looking to build upon it.

Maria Sharapova 

Probably the second most consistent player on the women’s tour still playing after Serena since the turn of the century (with five Grand Slam singles titles), but also the player with the most baggage following her suspension for taking Meldonium in March 2016. That suspension finishes this month and it will likely take Sharapova time to get up to speed after so long out of the game, but she is a proven winner who is likely to be given wild cards at this year’s majors in part due to Serena’s absence. A further factor that will count against her though is her relative age, as at 30, she is older than all other players on this list.

The wildcard: Dominika Cibulkova

The current World Number Four and a popular player following her the charge to the quarter-finals at last year’s Wimbledon, Dominika Cibulkova is an outside bet for titles in Serena’s absence. With her energetic playing style and positive on-court temperament, Cibulkova is a fierce competitor who will not roll over easily against better known opponents although she does occasionally lose composure in the final stages of tournaments (such as losing the second and final set of 2014 Australian Open final to Li Na, 6-0). But with more experience she may yet become a Grand Slam winner, as at 27, she still has many tournaments ahead of her.

Lions Squad Announcement: Selection, National balance and merit

Shocks! Joy! Jubilation! As Warren Gatland and his coaching staff announced this year’s Lions team, the immediate future of many of the northern hemisphere’s rugby elite was confirmed, and for many, it was a dream dashed. With a larger than expected squad of forty-one, many have questioned the nationality balance across the board, with only two Scots featuring alongside twelve Welshman, who as a team underperformed at the Six Nations. Personally, although I am surprised neither of the Gray brothers made the squad, I do not think two Scots is fundamentally wrong and despite Austin Healey’s belief in the power of rugby politics, it does seem that Gatland and his coaches have chosen largely on merit.

I wrote two blogs either side of the Six Nations concerning the composition of Gatland’s squad and its worth addressing the consistencies and the anomalies. At full back, Gatland has opted for Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams. This position was always going to be tightly fought by the above three and Rob Kearney and Mike Brown. Gatland has never been a fan of Brown with his lack of a scything counter-attacking ability, whereas Kearney sustained an injury during the tournament and has failed to hit the heights of previous years. The Irishman was on my squad list, but I can easily see why he has been left out. On the wing there are a glut of Englishmen, more than expected. In Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly, Gatland has an axis of players who know how to play together and complement each other with their skill sets. For Nowell to make the squad ahead of Simon Zebo talks to the latter’s poor Six Nations and Nowell’s work rate, if not his scoring record. Tommy Seymour and George North were always close to selection and if I had anticipated that Gatland would select five wingers Seymour would have made my team, but North is the leading candidate for the test squad with his all-round game and close relationship with Gatland putting him in pole position.

The Centre position did throw up a couple of surprises. I believed that Jonathan Joseph, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne were going to be selected, even though it did appear that Joseph had lost his spot according to the supposed omniscience of social media. I am particularly excited though  by Payne’s inclusion. Not only is he a native Kiwi and knows the terrain, but has experience of beating the All Blacks and has that wonderful Antipodean quality of having more time on the ball than others twice as quick. His is a fitting inclusion. The other two are shock choices. Ben Te’o is an effective player and proved his worth as an impact sub during the Six Nations, but he is a relative novice on the international rugby stage and did not appear to be in Gatland’s thinking. The other surprise selection is Jonathan Davies. Gatland is a big fan of the Scarlets’ centre and despite his match-altering error in the loss to England in February, he offers experience in attack and defence, but the cutting edge appears to have been blunted in the last couple of years. It would be a surprise if he made the test team.

At fly-half, Owen Farrell, Jonny Sexton and Dan Biggar were unsurprisingly selected. This appeared a likelihood from last year’s autumn internationals and Biggar confirmed his big-match credentials against England when he was desperately unfortunate to be on the losing team. For Finn Russell and George Ford, they were unable to differentiate themselves from their more heralded colleagues and Russell’s struggles against England at Twickenham condemned him to touring Oceania rather than the land of the long white cloud.

At scrum-half, there wasn’t much surprise in the selection of Connor Murray and Rhys Webb, although Ben Youngs snuck in as the final choice. Danny Care would always have been classed as a bolter were he to make the team ahead of his England colleague, but with former and current England coaches in Steve Borthwick, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell part of the touring party, it is to be hoped that they recognise the benefits of selecting one over the other.

For the forward pack, Gatland has chosen to overlook Jamie Heaslip, who suffered an injury in the Six Nations and has failed to replicate his form earlier in his career in favour of Taulupe Faletau and Billy Vunipola. Although the latter missed much of the Six Nations, at his best he is one of the world’s best back-row forwards and is devastating when running into contact and close to the line. I believed that Faletau would miss out due to his recent injury record and the impressive form of Ross Moriarty that denied him a permanent spot in the Wales team, but Gatland has obviously seen enough in his domestic form for Bath and knows that he will be a very capable squad player.

At flank, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Ross Moriarty have all been selected. I am slightly surprised by O’Mahony and Moriarty and think it unlikely they will play in the test team, but O’Mahony proved against England that he is a warrior who is unrelenting in the face the opposition and Moriarty was arguably the in-form British Number Eight during the tournament. The Second Row is where many of the ruptions in the media have occurred. Joe Launchbury, as pointed out by Wasps’ Twitter account, gained two Man-of-the-Match awards during the Six Nations and was on the list for player of the tournament. He is hugely unfortunate, but the position is such an area of strength for England at the present that three of the five selected wear the Red Rose. Launchbury has to be first reserve in the case of injury or suspension. I am also slightly surprised to see Iain Henderson selected in the place of Jonny Gray, whose domestic form I felt would have been enough to grant him a place on the plane.

In the front-row are a few encouraging surprises. Samson Lee has been left out following an ineffectual Six Nations and the number of Englishmen reflects Gatland’s desire for a competitive scrummaging platform. Kyle Sinckler and Ken Owens are the major surprises. Even though Owens won plaudits for his Six Nations performances, he was part of a losing team and could easily have been overlooked in favour of Dylan Hartley; whilst it seems that Sean Cronin has been overlooked altogether. In his place though is Jamie George, who offers real forward dynamism and is an outside shout for the test team.

Ultimately, I believe Gatland and his coaching staff have made more than they have missed. They weren’t blessed for choices at tighthead and on the wing and many will point to Launchbury’s omission, but the purpose of the tour is to win, not for national parity in player selection. Gatland was quite right to choose on merit irrespective of nationality, and it is heartening to see that his rugby bosses have supported him rather than imposing restrictions in the name of ‘balance’. Can Scotland feel themselves hard done by? Yes. But let’s not kid ourselves, even though Scotland had an impressive Six Nations, they were obliterated by England in London and their strengths lay in their team work and Huw Jones (who’s injured and should have been on the tour). As for Hamish Watson, Grieg Laidlaw and the Grays, they did not impress enough against established quality in the form of Ben Youngs, Taulupe Faletau and Alun Wyn Jones who pipped them to positions in the squad.

Is this the strongest Lions squad in a generation? Probably not, I still believe the 2005 squad was stronger, but suffered for its bloated numbers and the age of many of its stars. The 2009 tour was an opportunity missed, but was undermined by the large number of injuries and withdrawals of key players (such as Brian O’Driscoll, Halfpenny and Adam Jones). The 2013 squad was a good mix of experience and youth, and benefitted for the relative weakness of the Australian team, but also featured a core of in-form players such as North, Halfpenny and Alex Corbisiero.

Glory at Augusta: How the Masters charms the doubters

I am not a golf fan per say. I enjoy sports in general and closely follow several including Rugby Union, Football, American football and Tennis, but there is one long weekend in early April every year where I overlook Premiership clashes and rackets in favour of the stunning scenery and nastily challenging course at Augusta National. Having never actually picked up a golf club, I am nonetheless intrigued by the battle of wills that takes place on the fairways at the world’s most beautiful golf course. As the pictures dot between Amen corner and the do or die at the 16th, those whose interest in golf is limited during the rest of the year to the question “is Tiger playing?” are swept up with the emotional tension of the course and the ability for players to rise and sink in an instant.

Why does the Masters stand out as the golf event for those who couldn’t tell between a putter and a nine iron? Firstly, it never gets boring. In the last five years, only once has the golfer finishing ahead at the end of the first day ended up winning the tournament outright (Jordan Spieth, who swept the field in 2015). In each of the others, the lead has changed hands on several occasions, with 2012 particularly exciting with Lee Westwood, Fred Couples, Jason Dufner and Peter Hanson all holding the lead at one stage with Bubba Watson ultimately triumphing in the play-off against Louis Oosthuizen. And although certain players are Masters specialists (I would place Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson in this bracket), the course can never be taken for granted and demands respect. Mickelson tied for second at Augusta in 2015 only to fail to make the cut last year, whereas last year’s winner Danny Willett shot a disastrous 78 in his second round this year and similarly was cut.

The tradition that surrounds Augusta is also deeply appealing, the non-existence of fans, only patrons, the Champions Dinner that usually involves dishes native to the previous year’s winner and the lack of outside buzz. In football, many fans are just as interested in the personal lives of their favourite players as their ability to strike the ball, whereas at Augusta, ability is the over-riding concern. The exposure the tournament generates for players who often fall off the radar is also hugely beneficial for the sport as a whole. I had never heard of Charley Hoffman, John Rahm or William McGirt before the tournament began, but now I am willing them on and will likely hear their names again in the future. As for old timers such as Westwood, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey, there is always the hope they will succeed at the Masters for the first time, having battled the course on and off for over a decade. There is still the possibility that their travails of previous years will eventually come good.

And of course the weather. Everyone wants to see challenging golf, but no one wants to see it being played in gale force wind, in a rainstorm, on a Scottish hill side. Augusta usually provides a serene and engaging visual spectacle based upon the beautifully maintained greens and fairways, the charming but perilous water features and the perfectly cut bunkers. It is truly satisfying when golf collides with these features, players having to play out from behind the trees, stand on slopes to chip balls nestled dangerously close to the water or getting it right on the first try and hearing the roar go up from the watching crowds. Long may it stay this way.