Friday, 31 January 2020

Erm...George Who?

Congrats to Northampton's George Furbank who will win his first cap at fullback for England vs France on Sunday.
For many, however, it is a case of "George who?" - Furbank having not featured previously for England at age-group level, having only made 29 first team appearances for the Saints and having only really risen to prominence this season.
It's a very unEddie-like selection - Jones being, despite his unothodox maverick image, actually quite conservative when picking an England team is concerned. 
Having said that, the selection of Charlie Ewels ahead of George Kruis, selecting Tom Curry at number 8 and leaving Mako Vunipola out of the match day squad altogether does suggest that Jones is prepared to gamble...

Thursday, 30 January 2020

A look ahead to the Six Nations 2020...

What with the Rugby World Cup having only just concluded (or that's how it seems to me) and with one or two other matters dominating the rugby headlines of late, the 2020 Six Nations appears to have caught me slightly unawares, having snuck up on me somewhat, like a sneaky ninja blindside flanker ready to charge down my ridiculously telegraphed box kick.

And yet here we are, about to embark on another seven weeks of Northern Hemisphere international action and, with four of the six participating teams featuring brand new coaching teams, who knows what lies ahead?

Still, it remains incumbent upon me to at least try to make sense of what is ahead, so what follows is my utterly objective and fair analysis (of course) of what we might expect to see over the coming weeks.

In no particular order:

WALES
With Warren Gatland now gone, I am intrigued to see how Wayne Pivac's new Wales team will perform. Will Warrenball - taken to extremes by Wales in the World Cup Semi Final - be consigned to history to be replaced by the free flowing style favoured by Pivac at the Scarlets? Or will the Welsh players revert to type? Tough away trips to Dublin and Twickenham mean that it is highly unlikely that Wales will manage to repeat last year's Grand Slam, so the three home fixtures vs Italy, France and Scotland will be critical. If I was a Welsh rugby fan - which i'm not - talk of George North being re-assigned to the number 13 shirt would worry me, but it will be great to see Toby Faletau back playing at international level.

SCOTLAND 
One of only two teams to have retained their head coach post-World Cup, although I would imagine that Gregor Townsend must be skating on slightly thin ice after his team failed to make it out of the group stages in Japan. His fall out with fly half Finn Russell will almost certainly hang over Townsend and this Scotland campaign but a win in the opening fixture vs Ireland will go some way to vindicating the head coach and cementing his authority. Lose and play badly, however, and the knives will begin to be sharpened. Realistically Scotland can beat any of the other teams on their day, but are maddeningly inconsistent, veering from awful to sublime (and on occasion in the same match as witnessed at Twickenham last March). Still, I'm confident that they will fancy their chances of another Calcutta Cup win at Murrayfield this year.

ITALY 
A new coach (Franco Smith) and new captain (Luca Bigi) for Italy but prospects remain the same as ever as it is expected that the Italians will once again claim the unwanted prize of the Wooden Spoon. It will an unusual championship for Italy, with legend Sergio Parisse not involved for most of this Six Nations but set to return to the team for a farewell performance in the final game against England. That in itself is a strange call and possibly a huge distraction, but Italy do have to move on from the great man at some stage and, whilst unorthodox, this is one way of doing it. Italy start against Wales in Cardiff as massive underdogs and deservedly so. Best hope for a victory is probably at home to Scotland.

FRANCE 
Nineteen new caps in the French training squad means that the phrase "You never know which France will turn up" is as true as it ever was. With new head coach Fabien Galthie in charge it impossible to know what to expect, other than it looks as if he will give youth a chance and - with France having won the last two World U20 Championships - it is clear that there is talent available in abundance. I would be surprised if youth and talent alone will be enough triumph over age and treachery to win this year's Six Nations but, as part of long-term planning for the World Cup in 2023, I have to say Galthie's selection policy makes a certain sense. And you never know - victory in the opening fixture at home to England could just generate the confidence and momentum that sees the French spring a major surprise.

IRELAND 
Another team with a new man in charge - step forward Andy Farrell. There is no doubt that 2019 was massively disappointing for Ireland - 12 months ago many had the Irish down as potential World Cup winners. What followed was a poor Six Nations followed by an even worse World Cup, defeat to Japan in the group stages being the pre-cursor to a thumping at the hands of the All Blacks.  Farrell's challenge with this Irish team is now to attempt to remove the tactical straightjacket that appeared to restrict them under Joe Schmidt and allow some of their undoubted talent to flourish. If Ireland can reproduce some of the form shown by Leinster in Europe this season then they won't go far wrong but my instinct is that this might be a difficult tournament for the men in green.

ENGLAND 
If England fail to impress during this year's tournament Eddie Jones can justifiably turn to a number of excuses, including an almost inevitable hangover from losing to South Africa in the World Cup Final as well as the after-effects of the recent salarygate scandal on England's numerous Saracens players. The reality, however, is that there is no reason why England shouldn't be ale to reproduce the form that saw them see off Australia and New Zealand in successive weeks in Japan. If they can do that, then results will look after themselves. If their standards dip, however, as occurred under the intense pressure applied by the Springboks in the Final, then who knows? What seems clear is that Eddie Jones is willing to risk not refreshing the scrum half stock and not picking a recognised number 8 in the squad, thus challenging (intentionally or not) the England squad to win it the hard way.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Saracens - the last word (for now)


So, the Premiership rugby report into Saracens' salary cap breaches was finally released this week and leaves little doubt that Saracens did, at the very best, bend the rules as far as they could possibly go.

One can argue whether, technically, Nigel Wray's co-investments with certain players was a breach of the cap but, by not disclosing all such investments, it does very much look like as if the club were trying to pull the wool over PRL's eyes.

And there can be little doubt that paying over the odds for a slice of a leading player's image rights, or paying him via a related company for hospitality appearances, whilst at the same time paying him a salary below the going rate for a player of his stature, is a slam dunk case of trying to manipulate the salary cap rules.

The big question remaining for me, however, is why and how Saracens were able ultimately to opt for relegation as a punishment rather than being made to open their books for a full audit, an action which suggests that there is more to hide.

As far as I can see, the only way to draw a satisfactory line under the whole sorry saga is for a full, independent audit to occur. And not just for Saracens. For there to be true transparency this should apply to ALL Premiership clubs.

Without such an audit of the finances of all of the clubs there remains the suspicion that Saracens' main crime here was to be caught and that there remain plenty of financial skeletons lurking in various clubs' filing cabinets.

Such a comprehensive Premiership-wide audit will, of course, never happen as it would destroy the narrative that Saracens' success over the years has purely been as a consequence of financial doping and would also require turkeys voting for Christmas on an unprecedented scale.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Finn Russell drinks himself out of Six Nations?

It takes quite something to keep Saracens out of the headlines these days (more on that later) but Scotland's outside half Finn Russell has somehow managed it.

Russell appears to have fallen out spectacularly with Scotland coach Gregor Townsend after having, it's being reported, turned up at the Scottish training camp last Sunday evening and headed straight to the hotel bar to get on the lash!

Consequently Russell finds himself out of the Scotland squad for the opening fixture against Ireland next Saturday and, unless his relationship with Townsend can be repaired, possibly out of the entire Six Nations.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Saracens - time to bare all?


Woke up this morning to reports that, in another dramatic twist to the salary-gate scandal, Saracens now face automatic relegation from the Premiership in June unless they prove within a week that they will comply with the £7million salary cap this season.

Apparently Saracens were told at a Premiership Rugby meeting on Tuesday that unless they could prove compliance then they either had to hand back their titles won in the last three years or be relegated to the Championship at the end of the season, with the latter seeming the most likely outcome.

And all this without a single detail of the club's alleged breaches of the salary cap being made public.

It may well be that Sarries are completely bang to rights, but all this "behind closed-doors" stuff does neither the club or Premiership Rugby any favours.

If the reports are accurate and Saracens are to be relegated (which would potentially have cataclysmic consequences for the club, players, the Premiership and England Rugby) then surely it is imperative that a full disclosure of all of the facts surrounding the matter now occurs?


Thursday, 16 January 2020

International rugby eligibility rules are an ass

The selection of Nick Tompkins for the Wales Six Nations squad sits somewhat uncomfortably with me.

Whilst delighted for the player - the Sarries centre has been exceptional for the past couple of seasons and deserves his chance at international level - his selection for Wales just doesn’t feel quite right.

I say this both as an England rugby fan who is disappointed to lose a player of the ability of Tompkins to another country, and also as someone who thinks that the current eligibility rules are just plain daft.

Look, Tompkins is English, he’s come through the English system and played all his rugby in England and has represented England at both U20 and Saxons level - and yet by virtue of the fact that he has one Welsh grandparent he is somehow eligible to play for Wales? That's just nuts.

I know the argument - under the current eligibility rules he can be selected by Wales. Well, sorry, but the single grandparent rule is an ass.

And yes, I know that England have pulled a similar stunt in recent times with the selection of Brad Shields (although at least he had committed to join an English club), but that doesn’t make it any less farcical.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

If you can't beat 'em...

I'm loving the fact that England, having had their forwards routed by South Africa in the World Cup final, have just appointed Matt Proudfoot - who has coached the Springbok pack for the last 4 years - as the new England forwards coach.

A matter of "if you can't beat 'em, employ 'em!"

Big things are therefore expected of the England pack this Six Nations, not least at the lineout where Steve Borthwick - lineout geek extraordinaire - can now focus 100% in his new guise as skills coach.

I'm also encouraged by the appointment of national 7s coach Simon Amor as England's new attack coach. Having previously suggested Ben Ryan - who led Fiji to Olympic 7s glory - for the role, I'd say that Amor - who coached GB to a silver medal in Rio - is probably the next best choice.

Now, all we need is for Eddie to announce the England squad to get really excited...!


Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Salarygate: the story that refuses to die

With Nigel Wray having stepped down, new Sarries CEO Edward has admitted that the club face a period of instability as they try to demonstrate beyond doubt that they are currently operating within the Premiership salary cap rules.

What seems obvious to most (but not, it seems to Premiership Rugby) is that it is becoming increasingly essential that full details of the salary cap breach judgment against Saracens are released. as, without such full disclosure and transparency, the matter is bound to rumble on, with advocates on both side of the argument left unsatisfied.

Likewise it would be useful to understand what audit procedures Premiership Rugby has in place to police the salary cap across the league if we are to rid ourselves of the suspicion that one club is being scapegoated here. Let's not forget that it was a Daily Mail investigation that ultimately led to Saracens being punished, and I'm not convinced that the integrity of our game should be reliant on the whim of a national newspaper editor.

Again, a little transparency wouldn't go amiss.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Perspective

This blog's thoughts are with Worcester Warriors lock Michael Fatialofa, who remains in intensive care having suffered a serious neck injury in a collision against Saracens at the weekend.

Our sincere best wishes go out to him and his family...