Obligatory #Lionswatch Squad post

T’was the night before Gatmas,

and all through the house:

Twitter was salty

Because their favourites lost out.

I’m somewhat glad I waited until now before posting my #LIONSWATCH squad (genuinely amazed that #squadgoals hasn’t been misappropriated by the Lions’ social media team, do they not hire millenials or something?), because some of the rumours about Gatland’s squad tomorrow are delicious, and by that I mean I’m struggling not to get full on triggered by them.

Let’s quickly run through the list (in no particular order or grouping):

  • George Ford, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw & Jonathan Joseph to miss out
  • Ben Te’o and Jamie Roberts are in
  • Dylan Hartley is 50/50
  • Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler are in
  • Donncha Ryan and George Kruis are in

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen a huge amount of the Premiership players in action this season, I’ll mostly be going off what I’ve seen of them in the champions cup and 6 nations. Screw you BT Sport.

ENGLAND STARS MISS OUT #OUTRAGE

To be fair to Gatland, I can understand a lot of these calls. Ford is very much a confidence player, and hasn’t seemed to function well without Owen Farrell this season (bear in mind I haven’t paid a huge amount of attention to Bath but if they’re looking to swap him for Freddie Burns he can’t be going that well can he?)

Chris Robshaw I think is sadly destined to be the guy who led England out of their home world cup. He’s been rehabilitated fabulously under Eddie Jones at international level, but being out injured for the 6 Nations hasn’t given him the opportunity to show form.

Not taking Joe Launchbury is an interesting call, and where I think things get a little more nuanced in terms of the squad. The expectation is that Ulster’s resident llama/NWJMB (h/t @whiffofcordite), Iain Henderson is set to make the plane, along with another shock inclusion from Ireland’s second row stocks (more on that later). Henderson has spent a lot of time at both second row and blindside flanker (the former for Ireland, the latter for Ulster) this season, and that versatility seems to give him the nod.

The one call I don’t hugely agree with is Jonathan Joseph. I think he’s pretty solid defensively, and one of the best attacking threats at 13 the Lions could call upon. By the sounds of things Elliot Daly seems to have gotten in ahead of him, and they’re very similar players, but the Wasps man has howitzer-range goal kicking and versatility in his favour. In my ideal world, I’d take the pair of them, but…

WARRENBALL IS BACK, BABY

Oooooh boy. Jamie Roberts and Ben Te’o. If ever there were an encyclopedia on what epitomised what type of centre Gatland wants for his daring, not-five-years-too-old-at-all-shut-up-gameplan Warrenball, these two lads would be on the front page. I think the biggest gripe people have is that neither is starting for their country currently, which kinda falls flat when you consider how many people are clamouring for Jamie George over Dylan Hartley.

Look, I probably wouldn’t take either, but you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and with Gatland in charge with Howley dealing with the backs, what else would you expect? Jamie Roberts knows their systems inside out, and while his impact when their team is trailing (again, haven’t seen a huge amount of Quins or Worcester) is questionable, Roberts did push Wales ahead against Ireland. And Big Ben is practically Irish anyway. Of the two, I think Te’o will be much more likely to make the Test squad, and that depends on whether there’s two playmakers at 10/12.

Coin Toss for Hartley

If it’s taking this long, Hartley won’t make it. If Gatland’s job is to make sure players buy in to each other, Hartley won’t be able to do that for the Irish, Scottish or Welsh players. Even if he had the form, there’d be a bunch of players potentially in the squad that he’s gotten bans for going in on. As much as rugby is about respect and putting things behind you, that’s a lot of baggage (over a year’s worth!) to bring along straight up without the reason/excuse of an injury.

Let that Sinck in

Ok that pun didn’t really work let’s move on. Not gonna lie, I wouldn’t have a clue what TH props to take other than Tadgh Furlong except for maybe John Ryan, but Kyle Sinckler seems as good an option as any? Joe Marler seems to be going as well, which might be harsh on Cian Healy, but the man who four years ago was probably the best loosehead in the world hasn’t really hit anywhere near those heights since his injury woes of the last couple of seasons.

Donncha wish your locks Kruised very slow like him?

The man who probably savoured Ireland’s win over the All Blacks in Chicago the most seems to be getting the nod after a renaissance season. Donncha Ryan looks to make the plane, along with George Kruis, further squeezing out Joe Launchbury. Ryan is an absolute mongrel, and has probably always been the Tipperary flavoured Paul O’Connell, sort of like Fanta to Coke? I dunno, it’s a great shout!


 

Overall, as EXTREMELY OFFENSIVE AND WRONG #OUTRAGE-OUS as these rumours can seem to rugby fans of various home nations, you can see the logic behind them. There are a couple of different calls I’d have made though:

Mongrel’s Lions Squad

(with director’s commentary)
  • LH Props: Jack McGrath, Mako Vunipola, Rob Evans

McGrath and Vunipola have been vying for the starting loosehead jersey since the first day of the season, and haven’t let up. They’re streets ahead of anyone else, but Rob Evans has gone pretty well for Wales and the Scarlets this season so I’d take him as backup.

  • TH Props: Tadgh Furlong, Dan Cole, Kyle Sinckler

My only regret is that we can’t just clone Tadgh Furlong a couple of times. Keep the rosary beads handy to ensure he doesn’t get injured.

  • Hookers: Rory Best, Jamie George, Ken Owens

Look, I just don’t like Hartley, ok?

  • Locks: Maro Itoje, Alun-Wyn Jones, Iain Henderson, Donncha Ryan, Devin Toner, Joe Launchbury

Itoje could still be a great shout for captain. Himself and Llama will be tried out at 6 as well as in the engine room, with the latter probably making the bench. Toner is in because why would you not take a beanpole like him?

  • Back Row: Billy Vunipola, CJ Stander, Sam Warburton, Peter O’Mahony, Hamish Watson, Ross Moriarty

Moriarty and Watson are pipe dreams, I know, but for me Sean O’Brien hasn’t shown enough consistent form. He was pretty good against Wasps but in the 6N and latter autumn internationals he seemed off the boil.

  • Scrum Halves: Conor Murray (ideally with a new bionic shoulder/arm please), Rhys Webb, Danny Care

I’m still fuming that Conor Murray was allowed to play for fifteen minutes when it was obvious his arm was about to fall off. He’s the biggest doubt of the tour for me right now. Danny Care goes in ahead of Ben Youngs because I think he’s the better impact player.

  • Fly Halves: Owen Farrell, Jonathan Sexton, Finn Russell

Owen Farrell is my starting 10, believe it or not. I think he’s the form out half in Europe right now and will be able to get more out of an unfamiliar backline than Sexton can. Russell goes ahead of Kamikaze Dan for his all-round game management, and because the Osprey’s are in a race to the bottom with Ulster to make the Pro12 playoffs right now.

  • Centres: Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Joseph, Elliot Daly, Luke Marshall, Scott Williams

Yeah, I said it. Luke By God Marshall. Deal with it. As good as Robbie Henshaw has been at 12, I think he’ll be more effective at 13, and with Farrell at 10 I think Marshall or Scott Williams would work best as a second playmaker.

  • Back Three: Stuart Hogg, George North, Liam Williams, Jack Nowell, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Anthony Watson

It’ll take something serious to make Gatland not select Hogg at 15. Munster’s Simon Zebo and Keith Earls were criminally under-rated in the 6 Nations, even outside of Munster, and if at least one of them doesn’t go I’ll be surprised. Zebo might not make it since Watson and Williams can already cover both wing and full-back, but LET ME DREAM DAMNIT.

So there. Just 12 hours to go until we can all froth at the mouth before smiling through gritted teeth that we’ll give it a lash whilst muttering curses at our targets of outrage under our breath. I can’t bloody wait.

Sure at least Theresa May gave me another reason to be glad I’ll be going on the whole bloody tour.

Fantastic Mr 6 Nations Round 3: Italian Job

If you need a reminder of what the craic is with 6 Nations fantasy rugby, have a gander over here.

The Bloodbath to Come

Let’s just get straight to it: England are hosting Italy at Twickenham. That alone should make you try and pick as many Englishmen as possible, because for all their protestations around improvements, it’s highly doubtful that Italy will provide anything more than the training ground exercise that they’ve served up in the previous 120 minutes of rugby.

Meanwhile, those pesky Scots are travelling to Cardiff after shipping a few injuries, key among them being Greig Laidlaw and Josh Strauss. The latter has been replaced by John Hardie, who’s hardly a slouch, but the loss of Laidlaw could well impact Scotland’s gameplan significantly, which may not be the worst thing! Wales meanwhile will be wondering why rugby matches still are more than 75 minutes long, after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against a higher ranked team again. George North is back, and no doubt Wales will want to get back on track against their celtic cousins.

Sandwiched in between those matches has Ireland and France battering each other into submission, with the big headline being that Jonathan Sexton is back, baby. Wee Paddy Jackson fans (myself included) will no doubt be disappointed that he’s dropped to the bench, but it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion when the guy coming back has the resumé of Sexton’s. France have a relatively settled team, bringing in Yoann Huget on the wing and Bernard Le Roux along with Rabah Slimani to give their pack some beef.

The Heavies

skysports-cj-stander-ireand-try_3889067

There’s a new sheriff in town, and he’s ballooned his price tag.

As tempting as it is, I’m not going to recommend an all-English front row. While there could be some fatman tries against the Italians, I think it’s better to bank on some more solid performers and expect fireworks from elsewhere. If you are going to get an English prop in there, Joe Marler is your man, or if you’re feeling brave, throw in Mako Vunipola and hope that he’ll barrel his way to the try-line from the bench. Otherwise, it’s hard to go against usual suspects Tadgh Furlong, Rabah Slimani and Rob Evans.

  • Mako Vunipola (England) 13.4 cost/0 points scored in last round
  • Rob Evans (Wales) 11.3/8.7
  • Tadgh Furlong (Ireland) 13.9/36.5

At hooker, again, you could take a punt on Jamie George, who’s shown some great impact off the bench for England. It isn’t hard to imagine busting through some tired Italians late in the game, and Dylan Hartley is being benched relatively early in games, although this might change against the Italians to give him gametime. Rory Best returns for Ireland, and will hope to have built a more robust lineout unit, but his open field game is usually pretty on point. Ken Owens is a tough aul nugget of a man, and I reckon he could go well against a depleted Scotland.

  • Jamie George (England) 12.5 cost/18.3 points scored in last round
  • Rory Best (Ireland) 12.5/10.5
  • Ken Owens (Wales) 10.8/10.6

In the “middle row” (™ Scottish Rugby Union) things are fairly settled. It’s hard to bet against guys like Gray, Launchbury or Itoje right now, but Donncha Ryan is making a decent fist of it.

  • Joe Launchbury (England) 13.9 cost/52.5 points scored in last round
  • Maro Itoje (England) 15.15/37.5
  • Donncha Ryan (Ireland) 10.9/44.2

In the back row, the Fridge with a Head™ himself, James Haskell is back in a starting jersey. If he can avoid running into the posts, dude has the game to score a short-range try or two against the Italians. Elsewhere, Sam Warburton is enjoying a career resurgence as a result of being unburdened by captaincy. While CJ Stander picked up the headlines in Italy with his hat-trick, I think he’ll be an increasingly marked man and might find points a little harder to come by, not to mention his price has ballooned. Someone who had a quietly brilliant game two weeks ago in Rome was Jamie Heaslip and if attention is going to be on the more “obvious” ball carriers in Ireland’s team, he could sneak in.

  • James Haskell (England) 13.45 cost/15.6 points scored in last round
  • Sam Warburton (Wales)  14.25/7.5
  • Jamie Heaslip (Ireland) 15.85/63.5

The wee(ish) fellas

js119722452_ben-teo-sport-large_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwbl81bmgapxy5o5wvjcadsy

It could be Te’o Time in Twickers, with Ben earning his first England start

While he wasn’t at his best against the Scots, Conor Murray will be hoping for an improved performance against the French. He has a tendency to show up for big games, and loves to score short-range tries in the 6 Nations so it could be time for him to earn selection. Danny Care is a guy I have found a lot of time for over the last 6 years or so, and I think he’s a little better at sniping than Ben Youngs would be, and with him starting against Italy he could be a solid pick. In the all-celtic affair, it’s hard to see past the class Rhys Webb has shown, but if you’re looking a bargain, Ali Price is great value.

  • Conor Murray (Ireland) 15.45 cost/45.9 points scored in last round
  • Danny Care (England) 12.15/6.3
  • Ali Price (Scotland) 8.85/6.7

At 10, there’s plenty of choice, especially for anyone who’s been on the Paddy Jackson hype train. Do you go straight in and pick Jonathan Sexton, knowing he’ll probably play the fewest minutes out of the fly-halves in action? There’s no doubt he’s a class act, but for me it’s a question of whether he can last long enough to make an impact. I think this weekend’s celtic smackdown game might be made for Finn Russell. Unless Wales make a big change in gameplan and stop kicking downfield, Russell will have a lot of opportunities to counter. And then there’s the weekly conundrum of George Ford or Owen Farrell.

  • Jonathan Sexton (Ireland) 13.4 cost/0 points scored in last round
  • Finn Russell (Scotland) 14.3/10.9
  • Owen Farrell (England) 15.4/40.5

Down to the centres and there’s a new kid on the block with Ben Te’o getting his first start for England. After scoring a match-winning try against France off the bench and being consistently robust against Scotland, this could be painful for the Italians, who have promoted from the bench themselves with Michele Campagnaro starting for the first time in this year’s tournament. Big Mick has a tendency to do wonderful things no matter how much Italy are getting walloped, so he could be worth a pick if you can’t pick from the other nations (or you’re a sadist or something). Keith Earls could still be a pretty good shout to bring in from the wings, as he’s in try-scoring form with Ireland, but with Ireland’s midfield being somewhat leaky it could also be an opportunity to give French flair a go with Gael Fickou.

  • Ben Te’o (England) 11.9 cost/11.3 points scored in last round
  • Gael Fickou (France) 14.65/42
  • Michele Campagnaro (Italy) 12.35/-6.8

On to the fliers, and George North is back after resuscitating his dead leg over the last few weeks. Opposite him will be Tommy Seymour, who’s as good as Dan Biggar under a high ball and at least 80% less suicidal and is probably quietly underrated outside of Scotland. Against Italy, you’re looking at Jonny May hoping to run straight rather than crab across, but if he can find a gap it’d be hard to bet against him scoring.

  • George North (Wales) 15.4 cost/61 points scored in last round
  • Tommy Seymour (Scotland) 14.1/5
  • Jonny May (England) 14.45/4.3

Finally, at full back, it’s still pretty much a choice between Stuart Hogg eyeing up the try-line or the boot of Leigh Halfpenny. For arguments sake let’s throw Mike Brown in, because he’s playing against Italy.

  • Stuart Hogg (Scotland) 15.85 cost/28 points scored in last round
  • Leigh Halfpenny (Wales) 15.15/10.5
  • Mike Brown (England)  14.45/35.5

Fantastical 6 Nations Round 2: The Irish (Hopefully) Strike Back

If you need a reminder of what the craic is with 6 Nations fantasy rugby, have a gander over here.

Gotta get that impact

One quirk I’ve noticed about the way that players are scored is that players on winning teams generally earn a lot more points than those that don’t. At a guess it’s down to the “team points” earned by each player, where players earn a huge chunk of points (18 at home, 24 away) for a win, with 0.5 points added or deducted from scores depending on if that player’s team won or not. I hadn’t paid too much attention to this before round one, but after seeing the Welsh players dominate the standings after their big win over Italy, it’s hard to not recommend just picking players from teams more likely to win – with 5 players vs Italy going to be a must, despite Conor O’Shea and Sergio Parisse promising that they’re getting better.

Having said that, let’s have a look at some potential picks for this week! One thing I’m going to change going forward is that I’ll only be picking three players for each position, even if you can have two/three players selected there. Mostly this is because by now you should have a full team and only need to swap out one or two here and there, but also because I’m lazy. So there.

Here’s the team selections (and by nature of the pics, the fixtures)

The Heavies

image

All Hail King Louis

Taking their Italian opposition into account, Cian Healy (2.5) and Tadgh Furlong (10.3) are bound to bring their ball carrying prowess to the prop positions, while Rob Evans (15.8) and Joe Marler (18.8) will no doubt look forward to butting heads in Cardiff, where I have a sneaking suspicion Wales might have a trick up their sleeve. Meanwhile, Rabah Slimani (20.1) is a hard man to overlook for the impact he had against England last week and was far and away the highest scoring prop in a losing side. Despite having a torrid time at the scrum, Zander Fagerson (29.5) and Allan Dell (21.1) enjoyed plenty of points on the back of the Scots win over Ireland.

  • Tadgh Furlong (Ireland) 12.9/10.3
  • Rabah Slimani (France)  13.5/20.1
  • Rob Evans (Wales) 11.35/15.8

At hooker, Irish fans and fantasy players looking to max out front row stocks against Italy will be sweating over the fitness of Rory Best (10.5) who’s down with a stomach bug. It could be an opportunity however to swap in a cheap hooker in Niall Scannell to afford a bigger name elsewhere. I think it might still be better to persist with a hooker like Guilhem Guirado, as I think at home he and France will be a much tougher opposition for Scotland, but it could also be a great shout to throw Ross Ford (26.1) or Fraser Brown (7.4) in if you think those pesky Scots could – whisper it – build momentum.

  • Dylan Hartley (England) 14.25 cost/17.2 points earned in previous round
  • Guilhem Guirado (France) 13.8/8.2
  • Niall Scannell (Ireland) 0/9.7 may not play

At second row, the hamstrung Iain Henderson (20.2) isn’t available with a hamstring injury (although he just wasn’t at 100% in general admittedly). He was the highest scoring lock who didn’t have his numbers padded out with the team winning, only being 4.2 points behind Joe Launchbury (24.4). To replace him, Joe Schmidt has recalled Donncha Ryan, anthem and death-starer extraordinaire. Meanwhile, the Gray brothers Jonny (34.5) and Richie (32.5) tackled everything that moved and made some good yards as well. To look outside the home nations, France’s Seb Vahaamahina didn’t score a huge amount of points, but he was pretty solid and threw some nice offloads so could maybe bust his way over.

  • Jonny Gray (Scotland) 14.7 cost/34.5 points earned in previous round
  • Maro Itoje (England) 15/29.5
  • Sebastian Vahaamahina (France) 12.65/5.2

Finally in the back row, as I mentioned, Louis Picamoles (39.5) absolutely dominated despite being on the losing side. He was only 5 points away from the top loose forward in Justin Tipuric (44) who along with Sam Warburton (42) and Ross Moriarty (40.8) had the advantage of being on the winningest team of the week to boost his points tally. Ridiculous stats really. The Ireland players will be chomping at the bit to show more of their mettle against Italy, and while CJ Stander (12.5) contributed the fewest points to the fantasy rugby cause, I have a feeling that he’ll be making the biggest impact, although Sean O’Brien (15.2) might have something to say about that.

  • Louis Picamoles (France) 14.9 cost/39.5 points earned in previous round
  • Justin Tipuric (Wales) 15.1/44
  • CJ Stander (Ireland) 14.4/12.5

The wee(ish) fellas

skysports-rugby-stuart-hogg-scotland_3884608

Happy Hoggy, especially since he’s the leading try scorer!

Rhys Webb (40.8) showed that some players don’t need a huge amount of gametime to get back into peak form – although again, playing against Italy helps. Greig Laidlaw (34.5) showed that a different style of play (and winning) can earn you just as many points though, earning a good few points with the boot. Maxime Machenaud (6.8) had decent impact, but I’m going to persist with backing Baptiste Serin (3.8) to grow as the tournament goes on. If he wasn’t facing Ireland, Eduardo Gori would be since he managed to sneak onto the end of a midfield Italian maul – a thing of beauty, rarely seen these days from any team – to score a nice wee try.

  • Rhys Webb (Wales) 15 cost/40.8 points earned in previous round
  • Greig Laidlaw (Scotland) 14.7/34.5
  • Baptiste Serin (France) 10.75/3.8

At 10, things are interesting. Owen Farrell’s (36.5) metronomic boot and silky game management helped England win over France and brought him to the top of the standings for fly halves, but only two points behind Paddy Jackson (34.5) was one of the best performing players on a losing side and is a decent bit cheaper. Since he’s facing the Italians today he’s a sound choice to be in your squad. I can hardly mention wee PJ without giving a word to his opposite number Finn Russell (27) who pulled the strings magnificently for Scotland, but along with Dan Biggar (22.5) and then Sam Davies (26) was hampered by not being his team’s kicker. Wales are currently sweating on Biggar’s fitness, so it’s kind of hard to give him a plug when there are other fellas who are locked in to play.

  • Owen Farrell (England) 15.15 cost/36.5 points earned in previous round
  • Paddy Jackson (Ireland) 12.7/34.5
  • Finn Russell (Scotland) 14.45/27

In the centres, the Welsh lads showed up again versus their Italian counterparts – with Jonathan Davies (61) earning the most points with Scott Williams (39.8) just the two points behind – and the much-lauded Leinster/Irish tandem of Robbie Henshaw (13.5) and Garry Ringrose (11.5) failed to really ignite. The real star for me though (and making me feel like an utter hipster for picking him last week) was centre-cum-lineout-infiltrator Alex Dunbar (43.5) who along with probably the easiest try of his career was all over the Irish last week. My final choice though is going to be an Irishman who’s listed as a centre currently, but Keith Earls has a tendency to get on the end of tries while playing on the wing, as he showed against the Scots to kickstart the failed Irish comeback.

  • Jonathan Davies (Wales) 15.65 cost/61 points earned in previous round
  • Alex Dunbar (Scotland) 12.1/43.5
  • Keith Earls (Ireland) 12.2/19.3

On the wings, while it’s hard to ignore George North (61), he’s also currently facing a fitness battle to make it onto the pitch so might not be the most prudent of selections. Interestingly that makes him the only bonefide wing to score a try last weekend, with other wings being categorised in the fantasy league as full-backs or centres. The other wing that caught my eye were France’s Virimi Vakatawa (19.5) who caused England all sorts of trouble, and seems bound to get some meat at some point in the tournament. I’m going to parachute in a player that Eddie Jones has parachuted in for England in Jack Nowell (3.9). Kid’s probably one of the most balanced wingers in the game right now, and while he doesn’t have the out and out pace or power to straight up beat someone, he has the all-round skillset to still beat defenders and make it to the try line. If North doesn’t make it – and I don’t think he will, Simon Zebo (11.5) could be a decent shout to rack up some points.

  • Virimi Vakatawa (France) 14.7 cost/19.5 points earned in previous round
  • Jack Nowell (England) 13.05/3.9
  • Simon Zebo (Ireland) 12.85/11.5

Finally, at fullback, Stuart Hogg (71.5) stole the headlines, but Leigh Halfpenny (72) pipped him as the best fantasy fullback on account of dat boot, and Liam Williams (60) isn’t far behind. However, Scott Spedding (20.5) impressed me with his counter attacking, while Mike Brown (33.5) is a solid choice somewhere in between.

  • Leigh Halfpenny (Wales) 15.85 cost/72 points earned in previous round
  • Stuart Hogg (Scotland) 15.85/71.5
  • Scott Spedding (France) 13.15/20.5

That’s all for this week! See y’all early next week when hopefully I’m not dissecting why Ireland lost because they got to the stadium too early or something.

Hogging the Limelight

 

Well that didn’t go to plan.

Joe put the Irish performance best:

‘We arrived at the stadium 10 or 15 minutes late. We were late for most things in the first half’

It’s hard to point at any one failure that cost Ireland the match, mostly because there were so many of them. Overrunning plays, poor breakdown work, squiffy lineout, the only real advantage we had was the scrum and we didn’t really make the most of that.

To be honest, the two Hogg tries I can forgive because the man is just ridiculously good (and ruined my hopes for Liam Williams outscoring him this weekend for fantasy rugby). However, the Alex Dunbar try was a shambles in my eyes. The fact that the Irish pack weren’t paying enough attention to notice a back sneaking into their domain is sacrilege. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t notice it either, but these lads should have twigged something funky was going to happen.

Fair play to Scotland though, their lineout was varied all day and to call that sort of play against a team you haven’t beaten in a good few years takes guts.

Overall though, Ireland gave a much better showing of themselves in the second half, and nearly completed a comeback, but Scotland managed to squeak through with a couple of penalties. All told, it was a pretty great starting point for the Six Nations, with plenty of back and forth between the two sides. While it’s been nice to enjoy a one-sided rivalry with the Scots over the last few years, a more competitive edge to this head-to-head is definitely welcome.

If you’re gonna do it, do it with Flair

After the 5-try slugfest that Ireland and Scotland treated us to, and considering England’s 2016 form, you’d have been forgiving for expecting more of the same in Le Crunch.

While there weren’t any tries in the first half, the French gave me plenty to be hopeful/fearful for when they come to Dublin. Whisper it, but French flair may be seeping back into their rugby. There were at least four or five occasions where France had England on the ropes, and only fell short because of poor execution or great England scrambling. Even though the score was 9-9 at the break, it was fascinating to watch.

Also, this happened:

Welcome back Dylan, glad to see you’ve got that match fitness back.

France managed to pull away slightly with a lovely fatman try, but England unleashed Ben Te’o and James Haskell from the bench and nearly immediately scored and took the win by 3.

Overall, you’d have to say France brought much more endeavour but weren’t clinical enough, whereas England were very scrappy but were able to take their one gilt-edge chance efficiently using the bench.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Eddie decides to rejig the backs to include Big Ben from the start or if he’ll persist with his dual playmakers in George Ford and Owen Farrell. As for Haskell, I reckon he’s a cert to start this weekend against Wales.

When in Rome…

Finally, Italy and Wales faced off in a sadly half full (although that could have been down to the horrendous weather) Stadio Olympico.

Italy started the brighter of the two teams, and even showed a bit of verve by scoring the only try of the first half and taking a 7-3 lead into the break. It was some try as well, beautifully setting up a midfield maul on the Welsh 5m line and then driving over, but there were enough signs in terms of dropped balls and poor decision making to point to Wales working their way back into the game.

Sure enough, Sam Davies replaced Dan Biggar at half time and was an absolute revelation. I haven’t seen too much of him in the Pro12/Challenge Cup, but dude was managing to tie the Italian defence up in knots. He had a direct hand in Wales’ first and last tries, the latter of which was George North getting close to peak George North and going a good 60 metres to score. All we needed for peak North was him to empty someone along the way or carry them for a few metres as well.

Wales couldn’t secure the bonus point, but they certainly went hell for leather for it, nearly getting it at the death.

On We Go

Despite the disappointing result for Ireland (and the Falcons, sigh), I think there’s a lot to look forward to in this Six Nations. France are threatening to be resurgent (watch them throw up some utter dross against Scotland this weekend to prove me wrong), the Scots are showing signs that they might have developed the mental toughness to go with their physical toughness.

And on top of that, you’d have to hope that Ireland will show up to Rome (preferably on time) and vent all their frustration on the poor Italians to the point where we’re questioning whether we need promotion/relegation again.

England and Wales both have work to improve on, but since it’s in Cardiff it’s bound to be a cracker.

I’ll be back on Friday to talk about more fantasy rugby picks, see ye then!

Let’s Get Fantastical: RBS 6 Nations 2017 Edition

I’m back! Not that I ever left, but I had a bit of a period of writers block/procrastination. Anyway! A lot has happened since last time I posted.

Ulster managed to leave Europe as they came in, stuttering and limping worse than I am with a sprained ankle, while Connacht, while they continued to show more of their never-say-die attitude, contrived to fail to progress into the Champion’s Cup knockout stages. Meanwhile, Leinster just crossed the line in a pretty dross draw away to an empty stadium in Castres and Munster got over the line against Racing 92 in workmanlike fashion.

Oh, and Ireland beat the All Blacks.

A lot can change in a few months can’t it?

I thought it might be an idea to have a gander at the RBS 6 Nations fantasy game that’s been set up. I’ve always had a vague interest in fantasy leagues but with a few friends who are relatively new to rugby or maybe wouldn’t know a huge number of players I’ve decided to give my rundown of top 2-3 picks (more or less depending on how many you can select per position) in each position for each round of the 6 Nations. It’ll kind of be like Buzzfeed’s Worth It, but hopefully less hipsterish. (If you want to skip all the fluff that I’m including to explain the rules/fixtures etc, just hop down to the bottom to see my picks)

Ja Rules

For those of you who don’t pore over reams of spreadsheets for fantasy football leagues etc, the jist of it is that you pick a team of 18 players (15 starters, 3 subs who earn half points) to try and earn as many points as possible. You can’t pick a full team from one nation (there’s a limit of 5 players per nation), so unfortunately you can’t just pick a full team of whichever country is playing Italy that particular week. You also have a limited budget to work with, so you can’t just pick a bunch of star players either.

You accrue points as a result of both your players’ nations and their individual performances (points breakdown nicked from the 6N Fantasy site):

fantasy6npoints

Round One Fixtures

It’s the battle of top vs bottom of the table in terms of the table last year, and while round one could throw in a surprise, it’s hard to see it actually happening.

Scotland, while they have some confidence, still seem a little brittle mentally, with their Great Hope™ Finn Russell failing to take control of Glasgow’s Champions Cup game against Munster to drop a goal to take a game-winning lead. They still made it to the quarters, but that was on the back of those pesky English and French teams just rolling over and devaluing the competition as a whole.

France could just as easily show up and dance around England and serve up some rugby akin to their 2015 shootout, or concede a couple of tries and have a gallic shrug and not bother. Hopefully the carrot of a bonus point can keep them competitive. England aren’t fully stocked with their Grand Slamming, Australia whitewashing Test Match Animals™ either, so there could be something there for the taking. Maybe just throw high balls at Elliot Daly and see if he’s learned how to contest for them safely.

Finally, Italy are at home off the back of a historic first ever win against South Africa (and a not-so-historic loss to Tonga the week after)  against Wales being led by Not Warren Gatland. Conor O’Shea looks to be experimenting a little, and a lot will depend on Wales knowing what their gameplan is and how to execute.

Round One Picks

The Heavies

Three front row slots to pick from, two props of either flavour and a hooker. Looking at who to select in my front row, there’s a couple of things to think about: How likely is the hooker to score off the back of a maul? Is your prop a broken field wrecking ball or does he just bury the head and hit the try line from a yard out?

Tadhg Furlong, Joe Marler and Guilhem Guirado are pretty fearsome ball carriers, and will probably pick up a decent number of points for metres made and defenders beaten. Rory Best and Jack McGrath are more of your workhorse type players who won’t make a ton of flash yards, but might end up on the end of a maul to pick up a try.

Here’s the three hooker’s I’d consider for my squad:

  • Dylan Hartley (England) 14
  • Guilhem Guirado (France) 14
  • Rory Best (Ireland) 13

And props:

 

  • Tadhg Furlong (Ireland) 14
  • Joe Marler (England) 13
  • Uini Atonio (France) 11
  • Allan Dell (Scotland) 11
  • Jack McGrath (Ireland) 14
  • Samson Lee (Wales) 12

 

In the second row there’s plenty of competition, from wily grizzled veterans in Alun Wyn Jones to unsung heroes to athletic young upstarts like Jonny Gray who just can’t miss tackles. Second row tries are rare enough these days, but guys like Joe Launchbury and Iain Henderson have the athleticism to bust their way in. Interestingly, Maro Itoje is locked in as a second row despite playing at 6 this weekend, and is only one of two to cost the maximum of 15 points to select. He’s certainly an interesting pick, as you would effectively have 4 back-row players in your team

  • Jonny Gray (Scotland) 14
  • Courtney Lawes (England) 11
  • Iain Henderson (Ireland) 13
  • Joe Launchbury (England) 12
  • Alun Wyn Jones (Wales) 15
  • Maro Itoje (England) 15

The back row is where you can have a lot of fun in terms of selection. Do you throw in a wildcard like the 6 Nations own Xander Cage, Sergio Parisse of Italy? Do you go down the ball-carrying route of the South African born duo of CJ Stander (Ireland) and Josh Strauss (Scotland)? Someone less flashy but solid in Tom Wood (England)? Here are my top picks:

  • Sean O’Brien (Ireland) 14
  • Justin Tipuric (Wales) 14
  • CJ Stander (Ireland) 15
  • Louis Picamoles (France) 14
  • Sergio Parisse (Italy) 15
  • Ryan Wilson (Scotland) 10

The wee(ish) fellas

Backs obviously aren’t as small as they used to be, with Wales arguably kick-starting the trend of just putting giants all over the field. That said, while they aren’t as huge, there is a bit of a trend back towards smaller, faster backs which is bringing some diversity back to styles of play.

At scrum half, there’s plenty of talent on display. Conor Murray is currently regarded as world class and the leading contender for the Lions 9 jersey. Ben Youngs looked pretty good in the Autumn, but I felt was flattered by his opposition and hasn’t exactly shone in Tigers colours since. Baptiste Serin is the new kid on the block, but that didn’t stop him from making some New Zealand defenders look like mugs in November, and he’s kicked on nicely since then for Bordeaux. Meanwhile, Rhys Webb is facing off the Italians, but it’s his first game back in a few months.

  • Conor Murray (Ireland) 15
  • Baptiste Serin (France) 11
  • Rhys Webb (Wales)  14

At 10, things are very interesting this week, with Paddy Jackson once again in harness with Johnny Sexton’s legs still giving him some issues (and the meedja still seemingly confused by Joe Schmidt not parachuting Ian Madigan in from France). Opposite him, Finn Russell will be hoping that Scotland don’t need to manufacture a drop goal, but his all-round game is pretty great and being outside Greg Laidlaw should hopefully give him a bit more confidence. Meanwhile, England are blessed in being able to play both George Ford and Owen Farrell, who are both given the highest cost of 15. Wales continue with the high-ball kamikaze king Dan Biggar while Camille Lopez of France is typically French in that he could have a brilliant game or a terrible one.

  • Owen Farrell (England) 15
  • Dan Biggar (Wales) 14
  • Paddy Jackson (Ireland) 12

From the centres out there’s bound to be fireworks. Stacks of talent everywhere. Ireland have Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, Scotland have Huw Jones and Alex Dunbar (the latter of which is a steal at 11 points), England have Jonathan Joseph (and a masquerading Elliot Daly hopefully not nearly killing anyone on the wing). France, even without the ridiculously talented Wesley Fofana have Gael Fickou on hand to light things up while Wales’ Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies aren’t exactly slouches either. An interesting pick might be Italy’s Tommaso Benvenuti, who’s keeping a personal favourite of mine – Michele Campagnaro – on the bench.

  • Robbie Henshaw (Ireland) 14
  • Jonathan Davies (Wales) 15
  • Jonathan Joseph (England) 15
  • Garry Ringrose (Ireland) 13
  • Tommaso Benvenuti (Italy) 12
  • Alex Dunbar (Scotland) 11

The wing positions have scope for plenty of variation in terms of playstyle. Do you go with someone with out and out gas like Jonny May of England? Perhaps someone who’s fantastic countering from kicks like Scotland’s Tommy Seymour? How about the flair of Simon Zebo of the Irish parish? Or do you have faith that Wales can bring out the bullocking best of George North without getting him concussed again?

  • Jonny May (England) 14
  • George North (Wales) 14
  • Tommy Seymour (Scotland) 14
  • Simon Zebo (Ireland) 13
  • Virimi Vakatawa (France) 15
  • Giovanbattista Venditti (Italy) 12

Finally we come to the last line of defence: Full back. Again there’s plenty on show here, with Wales being represented by Leigh Halfpenney and his metronomic boot and Liam Williams elusive running. Stuart Hogg will electrify any pitch that he sets foot on for Scotland while Ireland’s Rob Kearney and England’s Mike Brown will forge away nicely in the backfield (although the latter might just run straight into a defender). You can also fit Italy’s Luke McLean, despite him lining out at 12 this weekend.

  • Stuart Hogg (Scotland) 15
  • Liam Williams (Wales) 14
  • Scott Spedding (France) 13

So that’s that!

 

Two Rounds gone, but it’s just a game

It’d be remiss of me to not write about the tragic passing of Anthony Foley before getting to anything else. I heard about Foley passing away at half time of Ulster’s match against Bordeaux, and was stunned. Having lost the first person close to me the week before, I was emotional enough, but seeing a father, husband and someone who has so obviously touched many lives taken so young just doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t think I can say anything that hasn’t already been said – and Munster gave the best tribute to the man on Saturday – I do find solace in the fact that the rugby world has come together to remember someone who gave his life to the game, in a number of touching ways. Rest in Peace Axel.

After two weeks of European rugby, Ulster find themselves in the unfortunately familiar position of ruing missed opportunities, and a somewhat concerning trend.

Round 1: Bor-d’oh

Against Bordeaux, Ulster started strong with a nicely worked try for the returning Andrew Trimble, before going on for the guts of fifty minutes against some seriously heavy-looking Bordeaux ball-carriers with only a penalty or two whenever they could break into the UBB half. Despite a – relatively – valiant display, they conceded a try courtesy of Sébastien Taofifenua and the floodgates opened. It has to be said that the Ulstermen happened to open the floodgates themselves, in something that you’d imagine Lemony Snicket had written rather than a rugby team coached to win a game. That first Bordeaux try came thanks to poor execution on a defensive scrum, and missing a number of elementary tackles at the restarts thereafter, Ulster managed to concede a penalty try which – while unfortunate – wasn’t going to be the worst of Ulster’s problems.

With the score sitting at 22-13, Ulster were a single score outside bonus-point territory, and did a good job to move in close to the Bordeaux posts to hit a drop goal or a penalty to earn themselves that crucial losing bonus point. Sure enough, on 78 minutes JP Doyle obliges with a penalty against Bordeaux, but unfortunately Paul Marshall – that man again – decided to do his best Morgan Parra impression and took a quick tap, despite Ulster most likely not having enough time to try and work their way down the field again and needing a good 10 metres to score. Sure enough, Bordeaux turned the ball over and went the length of the field, ensuring Ulster would go home without a thing.

ulster

Round 2: Chief Concerns

This week, Ulster welcomed the also winless Exeter Chiefs to Belfast, with Ulster natives Gareth Steenson and Ian Whitten being welcomed home, alongside their English stars Geoff Parling, Henry Slade and Thomas Waldrom. Ulster were able to welcome back human highlight reel Charles Piutau and included Tommy Bowe on the bench.

While not as fluent as they started against Bordeaux, Ulster managed to take the lead thanks to a brilliant run through a bamboozled Exeter defence by Piutau, with Reidy on hand to bust through to score the try on 30 minutes. While they couldn’t add any further tries, they showed some good endeavour to keep the Chiefs under pressure.

For minutes 50-70 though Ulster seemed to be their own worst enemies, losing a lot of their attacking edge and letting Exeter back into the game with a series of penalties, and consistently proving to struggle with handling the restarts, compounding on the pressure. You got the sense that Ulster were happy to defend their lead, and it was telling that they only seemed to come to life when Exeter came within two points and then took the lead with a sweetly struck drop-goal from Steenson.

Being a point behind seemed to finally wake Ulster up, winning the restart and busting down the field to set up Paddy Jackson to play “anything you can do…” and nail a drop goal of his own, saving Ulster’s blushes.

Moving on…

As it stands, Ulster sit third in the pool, behind pool and competition leaders Clermont Auvergne – who have set the pace by earning 10 match points out of 10 – and Bordeaux who earned themselves a four-try bonus point at the Stade Marcel Michelin. I don’t think it would be harsh to say that they’re not looking like a pool-winning side, or even a best-runner up side at the minute. While the attacking shape looked better against Exeter, it looked more pretty than effective for large portions of the game, with Exeter adapting to the oncoming rain more effectively.

After the shambles of a last ten minutes against Bordeaux, Ulster needed their leadership players to step up, and the likes of Rory Best,  Franco van der Merwe, Jared Payne, Charles Piutau and Andrew Trimble certainly did that. One concern was that Iain Henderson only lasted 40 minutes, and that likely contributed to Ulster losing some attacking edge.

Paddy Jackson hasn’t had his best games, but he certainly didn’t cost Ulster the Bordeaux game, and he showed great composure to hit the drop goal with the Exeter game on the line, which may prove crucial when Ulster travel to Exeter in round 5.

Next up for Ulster will be Munster, fresh off of visiting 2006 to put in a performance Axel would have been proud of. Not much to say other than it’ll likely be some game!

 

 

 

It’s Champions Cup Time!

So the Pro12’s first #BIGWEEKEND brought us a set of derbies that seemed to fall into one of two categories: closely fought battle (Connact vs Ulster and Scarlets vs Dragons) or largely one sided (Ospreys vs Blues and Leinster vs Munster). The first #LARGEENDOFTHEWEEK was positioned as the lead-in to the first two rounds of the European Champions Cup, and after watching the two Irish derbies at the weekend I actually thought that all four provinces came away in a – relatively – good place. Let me explain while I preview their first round matches.

Connacht (Pool 2: Toulouse, Wasps, Zebre)

So the Connacht of last season have finally finished their pre-season, just in time to beat the ever-living snot out of Ulster in front of a raucous Sportsground crowd (which included yours truly). I won’t go into the technical details of how they won (I’ll leave that to the excellent Murray Kinsella over at The42.ie), but in general, you could see that Lam’s men  essentially played keep-away on attack, while working extremely hard at the breakdown on defence to win the ball back. As became their hallmark last season, they generally refused to kick the ball unless absolutely necessary, and made Ulster defend for vast portions of the game. Combined with their exceptional handling and support lines, Ulster were by and large chasing shadows for the game.

Coupled with their win over Edinburgh last week, the Westerners now have momentum going into their home clash with Toulouse and will be full of confidence. Coupled with their excellent social media campaign calling back to their huge win over the European Royalty:

The French side have generally been a shadow of their former selves in the last few years, and they have lost Louis Picamoles to Northampton Saints. However, they’re only sitting one win off the pace in the Top 14 and they’ll always have a huge pack to try and shove around.

Connacht added a couple more casualties to their roster in the win over Ulster, but their forte has been to make the best use of their squad and to recruit intelligently, so I think they’ll be able to edge this battle. If they can throw the ball around like they did against Ulster and run Toulouse off the park, they’ll have a great chance.

Ulster (Pool 5: Bordeaux-Bègles, Clermont Auvergne, Exeter Chiefs)

charles-piutau-europe

Yer man seemed to enjoy Europe last season for Wasps, hopefully he does it again for Ulster

Obviously Ulster will be disappointed to have lost the game on Friday, and I would actually say that they were lucky enough to earn the losing bonus point that they managed to grind out when they were able to catch Connacht cold at the beginning of the second half to score a couple of tries to keep in touch.

By and large though, I saw a lot of good things from Ulster, despite the horror-show they had in defence and there should only be a couple of tweaks that need to happen as they travel to Bordeaux.

Firstly, that defence. Joe Bakarat has talked about how Ulster missed 28 tackles, 9 of which were in the first 90 seconds in the lead-up to Cian Kelleher’s first try. Obviously, you can’t do that against any team, especially with the prospect of Ian Madigan running hard and looking for holes in the Ulster defence for Bordeux.

Secondly, on attack, Ulster made some good ground, but then spoiled it by letting ball carriers get isolated and allowing Connacht to get in over the ball for turnovers and penalties. At a professional level that sort of thing is just unacceptable, you can be sure that it’s an area that Les Kiss & company will have been taking a look at this week.

While the loss of Louis Ludik and Darren Cave this week will have been a blow, Ulster will be hopefully be welcoming back some players from injury, including Charles Piutau – who seemed to enjoy himself in Europe last season for Wasps – and Andrew Trimble, who will hopefully be making his seasonal debut. Likewise, Ruan Pienaar will likely be returning to action this week and Ulster have stated that they’re hopeful that Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall will be good to go this weekend as well.

Leinster (Pool 4: Castres, Montpellier, Northampton Saints)

2015-01-20_wex_6287076_i1

Leinster will be looking for more happy memories against Castres on Saturday

The boys in blue seemed relatively comfortable against Munster, but weren’t totally convincing either. They had a couple of gilt-edge chances that went wanting, most notably Garry Ringrose’s knock-on with the ball and line at his mercy. However, they got the win against the Auld Enemy, and now sit level with Ulster at the summit of the league.

While last season’s European campaign was nothing short of disastrous, they did recover somewhat to reach the Pro12 final. A lot was made of Leo Cullen’s inexperience in his first season as head coach, and he’s made strides to build his experience and give himself some support with the visit of Graham Henry in preseason and the recruitment of Stuart Lancaster into the backroom staff. Adding to this the quality in the Leinster squad, and the fact that their pool is a lot easier than last season, you’d expect them to go a long way.

Hosting Castres at the RDS on Saturday, Leinster have an interesting challenge first up. While they don’t have any pedigree in Europe, Castres have been known to upset teams in the past, especially in early rounds when they still have something to play for. The last time they visited Dublin in January 2015, they were already well out of the competition and Leinster ripped them to shreds. Considering as well that Castres are sitting down in 11th in the Top 14, while relegation isn’t an immediate danger for them right now, Europe might not be their highest priority, especially in an away game.

Munster (Pool 1: Glasgow, Leicester Tigers, Racing 92)

ronan-20-752x501

Sure he’s coaching against his old side, but doesn’t he wear a suit well as a pundit?

To the Brave and Faithful, anything is possible. Munster fans will be hoping that classic refrain is the case when they travel to the Top 14 champions on Sunday. They took a bit of a beating to Leinster, only managing to score from a maul and a late consolation effort.

A lot of the problems for Rassie Erasmus’ men were self inflicted, especially in the handling and decision-making departments. Three Red Kings and The42.ie both have great articles going into more detail on this, but by and large Munster were the architects of their own downfall.

However, Munster have had a decent season so far, and while they’ll obviously be disappointed to not be going into a trip to face a team coached by one of their former players (you may have heard of him) with the momentum of a win, I don’t think they have any huge changes that need to be made just yet. That doesn’t mean I think they can win against the squad of Galacticos that Racing have assembled – not least reigning World Rugby Player of the Year, World Cup winning former All Black Daniel Carter – it’ll be a huge challenge, one which Erasmus is aware of in being happy to name Munster the bottom team of the group.

However, Munster systematically aren’t in the doldrums, and they’re a good enough side to know how to play smart rugby. Having Peter O’Mahony back with 80 minutes under his belt will be a huge plus, and if they can get their midfield firing more positively than it did against Leinster, they might be able to cause a problem or two. That said, a losing bonus point will be about as much as they could hope for in Paris.