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Ranking the 10 best Premiership signings of 2022

https://record.revmasters.com/_LKUn9zI7CY2h_7RUBh20pWNd7ZgqdRLk/1/

With the dust still settling on an historic seventh Premiership title for Leicester Tigers all eyes are turned upon the challenge of the new season, a chance for glory and consolidation for some and a chance for redemption for many others.

After arguably the most erratic and headline-grabbing year of player movements the Premiership has ever seen, there will be many of the biggest stars donning new colours and potentially creating new dynasties. The heart of that title-winning Leicester team has already been poached through the loss of stars such as George Ford and Ellis Genge however they will hope their own new signings can keep them at the head of the pack.

I compiled this list based on my own personal opinion of which players will have the biggest impact on their respective new clubs. Therefore, teams that performed well last season will suffer because they have little room for improvement, whereas, teams that underperformed, such as Bristol and Sale, rank higher because they are expected to improve because of their signings.

Honourable Mentions:

Albert Tuisue will add some serious aggression and intensity to Gloucester’s already extremely physical pack and could well give them the push they need to secure a Top 4 finish. Niall Annett is an extremely underrated player who will likely cement himself as Bath’s starting hooker next season. Recently crowned Premiership champion, Matias Moroni, is another underrated player who will add a new dimension to Newcastle’s attack. While many would have expected Anthony Watson to be on this top 10 list only time will tell whether his move to Leicester is worth his wage bill considering his fitness problems and possible England commitments.

10. Tom O’Flaherty -> Sale Sharks

Speaking of underrated players, few fly lower under the preverbal radar than Tom O’Flaherty. An English and Welsh qualified winger, O’Flaherty is consistently at the top of the metres made and defenders beaten charts and punches significantly above his weight for his 5’9 stature. He is not only strong but also one of the fastest players in the league and notably efficient under the high-ball. Exeter Chiefs will be gutted to lose the elusive winger, he has been integral to their recent success, starting in their famous 2020 Champions Cup Final win over Racing. He will be a regular starter for Sale and will be vital for them as they look to expand and develop on their attacking structure which was dull and blunt in 2021-22. O’Flaherty was third in the entire league for metres made last season with 1773 and eleventh in the entire league for defender’s beaten with 60.

Defenders BeatenMetres MadeTries ScoredClean Breaks
Tom O’Flaherty (2021-22)601773m513

9. Magnus Bradbury -> Bristol Bears

The 18-time capped Scottish international is an extremely shrewd signing by the usually unsubtle Bristol Bears. The Number 8 is a hard-worker who is very explosive and fast for his size and, significantly, is comfortable playing across the back row so will strengthen an area where the Bears are weak after the loss of Nathan Hughes and with talisman Steven Luatua going on his 32nd birthday. The makeup of the Bears backrow next season will be extremely interesting with Bradbury, Luatua, Harding and Jeffries all being fluidly interchangeable between the 6,7 and 8 jerseys and all extremely mobile and skillful. Bradbury, however, will add some much needed physicality to Bristol who, at times last season, were guilty of overplaying and too often looking for a miracle play when structure and game-management were necessary. Bradbury had a successful 2021-22 with Edinburgh, finishing with the fourth best tackle success rate across the whole league with 98% from 101 tackles made. He was also tenth for turnovers won with 14 and seventh for carries made with 158.

Tackles MadeTackle SuccessCarriesTurnovers Won
Magnus Bradbury (2021-22)10198%15814

8. Danilo Fischetti -> London Irish

While it would be naïve to suggest that Irish are carried by their backs and are let down by their forwards, you could say that they are one or two forwards away from being a regular top 4 team, and Fischetti may well be one. The prop has 20 caps for Italy at just 24 years of age and had a very impressive 2022 Six Nations campaign. He is dynamic and deceivingly powerful and has the potential to be a regular starter for Italy for years to come. Irish have good depth at loosehead prop with Will Goodrich-Clarke and Facundo Gigena but expect Fischetti to be in the matchday 23 every week that he is available. The Italian perfectly suits the Irish style of play with his nice balance of brawn and heads-up rugby nous.

Tackles MadeTackle SuccessCarriesTurnovers Won
Danilo Fischetti (2021-22)7996%552

7. Lukhan Salakai-Loto -> Northampton Saints

The 25 cap Wallaby will fit into the Saints DNA seamlessly with his ability to slide between lock and blindside flanker, not too dissimilar from current Saints stars Courtney Lawes and Alex Coles. Salakai-Loto is in the beneficial position of not being in the current Wallabies setup despite arguably entering his playing prime, meaning he is available to Saints for more games, adding to his value to the team. The Lawes and Salakai-Loto comparisons do not end at their versaility, Lukhan is a devastating blend of raw power and freakish athleticism and speed for his size, eerily reminiscent of the England captain. His carrying is to an elite standard and his soft hands lend to his value as a solid lineout option. The Wallaby did not play many games last season for the Reds due to injury however over an impressive nine seasons of Super Rugby he played a total of 69 games, scoring 4 tries. He will be a good replacement for the departing Api Ratuniyarawa, a very underrated piece of the Saints team the last few years.

6. Hugh Tizard -> Saracens

More than a few eyebrows were raised when Harlequins allowed Hugh Tizard to leave for arch-rivals Saracens. The Quins academy product had a thoroughly impressive breakthrough season in 2021-22 and looked like one of the best locks in the league for long periods, and at just 22 years of age. I would personally suggest that he will go onto to be a 50 cap England international and it could be said that but for his injury, he would be on the plane to Australia this summer for England’s summer tour. Tizard will have staunch competition for places at Saracens with Maro Itoje and Nick Isiekwe in the mix, however, Tim Swinson’s retirement should assure him a regular place in the matchday 23. The lock made 168 carries last season for 785 metres made, an average of 4.7 metres per carry. He also had a 89% tackle success rate from 240 tackles made. Saracens, known for their shrewd signings, really have secured a nugget of gold with this one.

Tackles MadeTackle SuccesTriesCarriesMetres Made
Hugh Tizard (2021-22)24089%3168785

https://record.revmasters.com/_LKUn9zI7CY3BkgpoV0de5mNd7ZgqdRLk/1/

5. Handre Pollard -> Leicester Tigers

Possibly lower than many of you reading this may have expected. The World Cup winner will miss a fair portion of the start of the season through the Rugby Championship and when he returns, will have a fight on his hands to dethrone the impressive Freddie Burns for the 10 shirt. Add to this that he has consistently struggled with injury problems and spent much of last season on the bench for Montpellier behind Paulo Garbisi. Despite all this Handre is obviously one of the best fly half’s in the business. A consummate professional and meticulous tactician, Pollard did not get his World Cup winners medal for nothing and Leicester certainly do not hand out big money for any old player. He will have big shoes to fill replacing George Ford who was arguably Tigers best player last season on the way to their title, however, Pollard is well suited to the Tigers kick-heavy, possession-less style of tactical rugby and will no doubt excel in the English Midlands.

4. AJ MacGinty -> Bristol Bears

Controversial above the World Cup winner, purely because I think overall he will add more value to his respective team. A slightly confusing signing when it was first announced considering Bristol have Wales international fly half Callum Sheedy. However, I can see how both can work in tandem in dual-first-receiver roles with one possibly playing at 15 or 12 or coming off the bench and with both possibly missing time for internationals. AJ may be the stronger of the two 10s so I would expect him to start. Despite a quiet end to his final season at Sale, AJ had an extremely impressive time in Manchester, infinitely multiplying his market value and reputation after moving from Connacht in 2016. The American international played 108 times over 6 seasons for Sale scoring 878 points including 9 tries and you could see the value he added to the team especially in the games when he did not feature. He is extremely well-rounded, causing headaches for defences because he is equally effective distributing the ball through his short and long passing and kicking and as a running threat. His vision and knowledge of the game is at the very top level, as is his goalkicking which rarely waivers below 85% on average. AJ has the potential to be the best 10 in the league on his day.

Metres MadeTry AssistsPointsClean BreaksDefenders Beaten
AJ MacGinty (2021-22)4324110619

3. Vincent Koch -> Wasps

Another World Cup winner and Springbok stalwart, Wasps have bagged a gem with the 28-time capped tighthead. Wasps have been weak at tighthead for a few years and will lose Jeff Toomaga-Allen next season, however, Biyi Alo has somewhat emerged this season as a potential England tighthead, meaning they now have good competition there. Koch is elite in just about every area around the park, he is a strong carrier, a brick wall in defence and one of the best scrummaging tightheads in the world. Koch played 109 times over 6 seasons for Saracens and can boast a staggering array of trophies, winning the Premiership twice and Champions Cup twice and being integral in every campaign. Koch’s experience and consistency will be vital for what is a young and inexperienced Wasps squad looking to build from being a underperforming, inconsistent, mid-table back to the regular top 4 threats that they once were.

CarriesMetres MadeMetres Per CarryTackles MadeTackle Success
Vincent Koch (2021-2279421m5.3m22294%

2. Ellis Genge -> Bristol Bears

The 36-time England international needs no introduction or hype and his Bristolian homecoming has been well documented. An extroverted and controversial character off the field, his confidence is more than matched by his consistent performances on the pitch. He has already cemented himself as one of the best loose heads in the world and the firm owner of the England number 1 shirt and, scarily, is still improving. Leicester’s decision to make him club captain last season, although controversial at the time, turned about to be inspired as he flourished as a natural and inspirational leader and was overall a great gesture by the club for a man who gave his all every week during his tenure. There is no doubt that he will continue to improve at Bristol and will re-affirm himself as a strong leader in the South West. Bristol, as previously mentioned, crave direction and game-management which come from experienced leaders like Genge and his blend of power and dynamic intensity will nicely compliment Bristol’s style of free flowing rugby. I would be very surprised if Bristol do not return to the top 6 of English rugby next season.

CarriesMetres MadeMetres Per CarryDefenders BeatenTackles Made
Ellis Genge (2021-22)132687m 5.2m35111
  1. George Ford -> Sale Sharks

Unequivocally the single best player in the Premiership last season, Ford was instrumental in Tigers Premiership title last season, steering the ship like a captain at sea. Sale will have to overhaul and re-design their attack next season after an underwhelming 2021-22 campaign and no doubt the game plan will be scrupulously designed and detailed around the Manchester-native Ford. Unlike MacGinty, Ford prefers not to run the ball unless the opportunity presents itself to him, preferring to invited his teammates onto the ball, inviting them into gaps in the defence with his razor-sharp vision. His kicking game is devastating and unpicked numerous teams last season. He can find space in the backfield effortlessly and his bombs give opposition fullbacks nightmares the night before gameday. On form he is the current best 10 in England, however, Eddie Jones preferring Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell just adds to his value, meaning he can devote all his time and effort to Sale’s Premiership effort. Although he will miss the start of next season with the injury he sustained in the Premiership final, Ford has immense effect on every game he plays in and does so much to influence winning. He finished this last season with the most points of anyone in the Premiership with 220 and picked up two Player of the Month awards. You can read my analysis on how Ford will change the Sharks here:

Try AssistsKicks From HandMetres MadeMetres Per CarryDefenders Beaten
George Ford (2021-22)7250349m5.8m13

I hope you agree with my list, if you do not agree be sure to tweet me @bennurse8 and tell me why.

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Why the Six Nations coverage is an embarrassment to year-round rugby fans

The problems with rugby media and questions of meritocracy.

There are many things which make the Six Nations Championship great. The rivalry, the passion, the competition. Rugby fans all over the world look forward to the annual showcase and rumours about changes to the format will remain speculation for the foreseeable future. Rugby’s higher-ups wouldn’t dare tinker with their prize tournament.

However, just like any good thing in this world, with the good comes the bad, and the Six Nations is no exception. Year-round rugby fans would be lying if they said that the annual influx of casual fans was not tedious and recently the heated rivalry, that we all so desperately love, has become slightly too heated, especially on social media. But for me the crux of the issues with the Six Nations is the media.

Year-round rugby fans will be familiar with the ever-improving BT Sport coverage of Premiership and European rugby, which is both inclusive and detailed in its portrayal of the weekend’s rugby, continuing to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience and the flagship for rugby coverage. The characters on BT are a wonderful balance between likeable personalities and meticulously knowledgably rugby brains with Monye, Kay, Flatman and, dare I say, Healy, breaking down the game we love in a signature entertaining and comprehensive style. Furthermore, although I am not a regular consumer, Amazon Prime, Premier Sports, RTE, S4C and Stan are all great options for rugby viewing.

The BBC and ITV coverage is in direct contrast of this experience. The pundits are boring, and the commentators are frazzled and neither of them really know anything about rugby. This is nothing new, “jobs for the boys” and the nostalgia-ridden hiring process of former players has been in rugby, and all sports, for years. However, the aforementioned Monye, Kay, Flatman and Healy are all also former players and happen to also be brilliant rugby-minds.

The problem with these characters is that despite being great players and coaches in their day, they simply don’t understand the modern game at all. Instead of bringing in people who genuinely understand the complexities of the game, the BBC and ITV choose to have these has-beens pretend to know what they are talking about.

What is worse about these characters is that many of them are not only ignorant to new developments but they seem to have a phobia of them, frequently criticizing new laws or tactics that would make themselves even more outdated than they already are. Furthermore, they clearly have no intentions to actually engage with the fans who are watching or contribute to topical debates, something that BT do so well.

It should not be needed to be said that if you do not pay attention to a craft for 15 years + that you are not an expert in this field anymore. I achieved an A in my Maths GCSE but less than five years later I can confidently say that I have forgotten all of it.

Furthermore, rugby is not set in stone, the game is fluid and there are not definitive ways of doing things. The game changes faster and faster all the time and modern progressions and evolutions are making the game unrecognisable to the game played in the early 2000s. Add to this technological advances which increase the circulation of information and statistics and I believe it is safe to assume that modern coaches know far more about the game of rugby than their noughties counterparts.

Maybe it is just me, but this years’ soap opera was particularly tedious and hard to listen to, you couldn’t count on two hands how many times the commentators completely got a players name wrong, an unforgivable sin on the international, test stage. The comical combo of Butler and Jiffy, both Welshmen, were particularly hard to listen to with their tournament highlights including: “Gareth Biggar”, “Ross Harris”, “Johnny Nicol”, “Willis Halahola” and my personal favourite, “Monty Eye-Oh-Knee”, Not to mention Jiffy’s painfully over-simplified recommendation for Wales to “pick and go” and proceed to use the word ‘lateral’ over 10 times in one game.

If it is your job to comment on 46 men playing a game then it is the bare minimum of professionalism and courtesy to learn to say the player’s names correctly.

Meanwhile, the studio teams managed to repeatedly speak for 30 minutes after every game without actually making a single coherent or interesting point throughout the whole tournament. This could be forgiven if the coverage wasn’t intensely bias, despite this year showcasing one of the most exciting Italian teams of all time, I don’t think a single Italian player was mentioned in the analysis through the whole tournament, one can only assume the ‘analysts’ in the studio didn’t know any of their names.

To put it extremely bluntly, there are 15-year-olds who know more about rugby than these ‘pundits’ and it has become tedious to the point where it is almost a running joke. I can no longer watch a Six Nations game without cringing or being embarrassed for the game that this is the best we have to offer in our flagship tournament.

An even more confusing element to this narrative is that the BBC and ITV continue to ignore the genuinely knowledgeable an interesting former professionals. Ugo Monye and Maggie Alphonsi are very intelligent and articulate pundits who have both previously been employed by BBC or ITV and who were dropped for this years Six Nations coverage, Monye taking a backseat role on the highlights show.

You only have to look at the BBC Sport rugby homepage and you will see a who’s-who’s of 2003 World Cup Winners and 1990s coaches with opinions that match the years of their primes.

When I complain about this issue the usual retort is that because the Six Nations brings a significant viewership of casual fans, the coverage needs to be dumbed down to help the new and less knowledgeable fans understand the game.

No wonder the game doesn’t grow if we choose to dumb down and simplify the game for casual fans. This not only alienates the year-round fans but also will not interest new fans who will never know the nuances and delicacies of the test game. Surely no one can truly believe that Clive Woodward’s nonsensical ramblings are more interesting and appealing for new fans than a detailed Squidge Rugby analyst video.

Speaking of Squidge Rugby (Robbie Owen), he is probably the best case study we have for a real knowledgeable fan subverting tradition and breaking into the mainstream having written for BBC Sport an appeared on Scrum V. Why mainstream outlets do not pursue Robbie and other talented rugby minds to make content for them I do not know. A common retort is that it does not get viewership because casual fans don’t understand it. Well how the hell do we know that if we haven’t tried anything different from the same thing we have been doing for 40 years? I think I speak for the whole rugby community when I say we are proud of you Robbie and we want to see more.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/av/rugby-union/51747412

While we are on the topic of people living off their previous career. Influential rugby journalist and 2021 rugby journalist of the year nominee, Stephen Jones, was in the news this week for demanding Eddie Jones, the coach who has been to three of the last five World Cup finals, be sacked and replaced by Clive Woodward, who hasn’t coached international rugby for over 17 years. I will let you form your own opinion about that. As a general rule of thumb, any ‘journalists’ who demand that coaches be sacked are not worth your time, simply because clearly they do not have anything interesting to write about.

My head was spun this week by a tweet in response to a tweet about this very subject, “It’s when you realise that writing professionally isn’t remotely a meritocracy.”

As I previously mentioned, nepotism and “jobs for the boys” is nothing new in rugby, but the idea that rugby media is not a meritocracy is a slightly more unsettling concept. Particularly for those in the industry or aspiring to be so, like myself, it is a disheartening thought that our hard work could never be rewarded simply because we didn’t play the game internationally in the 1990s and instead these over-the-hill “run it straight” merchants will get all the good gigs at the top level.

The popular media platform JOE uploaded a video this week which really exposed how backwards rugby is and what a tiny place it currently holds in the sphere of global sports. The video in question involved asking ‘rugby fans’ what they would take from the game of football into rugby. Football is the biggest sport in the world and the only true global sport, raking in billions of profits in multiple countries. However, these are rugby fans and so sure as day various Schoeffel and brogue-clad private school alumni stepped up and spouted the usual nonsense about how football is beneath them with one even completely committing to the tired stereotype by using the line which makes every real rugby fan cringe and cower in embarrassment “football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans and rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen”. (He has clearly never watched Bakkies Botha, Peter O’Mahony or Israel Folau play). I could write another article on this topic so will keep my views short, but it is this snooty superiority complex which means that rugby doesn’t grow as a sport. Rugby is in no position to look down on other sports and currently has a severe image problem.

The intention of this article is not to incite a revolutionary overhaul of rugby media, more to criticize it. However, I feel it is my duty as a responsible journalist to offer some resolutions and alternatives to accompany my criticisms. Rugby media is in fact not all bad, lower down the tree there are many shining lights that display the beautiful sides of rugby.

The aforementioned Squidge Rugby makes consistently quality YouTube videos which show the analysis required and used at the top level of test rugby, but in a fun and easy to understand format.

Sam Larner makes extremely interesting Twitter threads breaking down individual moves and passages of play as well as his popular series, Whiteboard Rugby which explains complex laws and rugby nuances with just a whiteboard and a pen.

Murray Kinsella and the team at The42 make fantastic rugby content while Charlie Morgan at The Telegraph is one of the best rugby analysts in the community

The team at WalesOnline including Simon Thomas make extremely intellectual and engaging Welsh-themed content.

Other interesting characters on YouTube include TwoCents rugby who spends copious amounts of time researching to ensure that he understands the game and can comment with complete responsibility and impartiality. More than can be said for many of the pundits at the highest level.

To conclude, despite there being shining lights and silver linings to the mindless drivel that is mainstream rugby media such as BT and the popular social media creators who uphold our integrity and sanity as a rugby community. The annual coverage of the Six Nations continues to be an embarrassment and cringeworthy experience for hardcore fans. I beg anyone with any power or influence to take a step out of the dark ages and employ someone who knows about rugby past 2005 because we as rugby fans, certainly deserve better.

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Why AJ MacGinty is the Best 10 in the Premiership

Alan Leon MacGinty is a Dublin born, American international, fly half. After only playing a total of 502 Premiership minutes last season AJ has experienced a rugby renaissance of sorts and already has 772 Premiership minutes so far this season after just 11 games and has nailed down the 10 shirt. Despite his mercurial form this season, I don’t think anyone would consider AJ the best fly half in the Premiership, but this is because the nuance and style of MacGinty’s game can often go over people’s heads. The intention of this article isn’t to play down the ability of any other 10 but to appreciate the ability of AJ and maybe convince everyone reading this that he is the best 10 in the Premiership.

Role

To understand why AJ is so good you must first understand how modern rugby attacks function. Successful rugby teams will have one dominant halfback and one non-dominant halfback, simply so that one of them can control the pattern of the attack and manage the attacking options. Think of a kitchen, you can’t have two head chefs because this would create conflict and confusion, one of them must have ultimate control to create the best end product. For example, in the France attack, Antione Dupont is the dominant halfback while Ntamack and Jalibert are the non-dominant half backs however in the Scotland attack Finn Russell is the dominant half back and Price is the non-dominant half back. You want to give the ‘stronger’ of your two half backs more control so that they make the correct decisions. Once you understand this you must then understand that modern rugby teams either play off 9 or off 10. Teams that play off 9 play a tight, forward-orientated game that is designed to wear down defenders (e.g. Exeter) while teams that play off 10 play a more wider game designed to engage more defenders and create gaps (e.g. Bristol). How does this relate to AJ? Well Sale play with Faf De Klerk as the dominant half back and AJ as the non-dominant half back and they also play off 9 more than any other club in the Premiership with 63% of ball off 9 (2nd is Leicester with 62%) and against Bristol in February this stat peaked at 87% off 9 which is insane. This means that for every 100 passes Faf De Klerk made, less than 13 of them went to AJ. Therefore, AJ has to be more efficient than any other 10 in the league because he consistently has less possession and chances with the ball. In addition, Sale’s forward orientated game plan means that Sale rarely spread the ball into the wide channels and prefer to play tight amongst the forwards when they get a try scoring opportunity. I feel safe in the assumption that in a game plan more directed towards attacking in the wide channels, and with more control, AJ could thrive and double his attacking stats.

Playmaking

AJ excels at creating chances out of nothing, he often receives the ball off a tip on from a forward pod well behind the gain line and is superb in deciding whether to distribute or to dummy and carry the ball for metres. He reminds me of George Ford in that he appears to play in slow motion when he is making decisions and is always calm and composed in possession. In the Premiership AJ is more efficient than any other international 10, in 2020 AJ made 48 carries for 169 metres, an average gain of 3.5m, while George Ford had an avergae gain of 1.7m, Dan Biggar had an average gain of 2.2m, Owen Farrell 1.4m and Callum Sheedy 2.4m. What this stat is essentially saying is that when AJ decides to run rather than pass, this is the correct decision because he makes metres on these runs consistently. Furthermore, AJ is clinical in how he finishes try scoring opportunities, he is excellent in reading the defence and calling for the ball when a chance is on, this has been seen recently through Luke James’ winning try vs Bristol when AJ makes a late run to the blindside when he sees Sale have numbers, calls for the ball, and fires a miss pass to an unmarked James (note that Cliff was the 9 at this point). This season AJ has 51 carries and 6 try assists and 1 try, that’s a conversion rate of 14%. Compare this to teams that play similar game plans to Sale, Bath and Exeter, and Priestland has a rate of 4% and Joe Simmonds has a rate of 5%. In this stat, AJ only trails Smith, Sheedy and Umaga who play for teams that play predominantly off 10 and score far more tries. Also important to note that those three play inside supreme finishers such as Marchant, Green, Radradra, Morahan, Naulago, Bassett and Kibirige while AJ has played the majority of this season without Van Rensburg, Solomona or Mcguigan and so has been assisting the likes of Doherty, Roebuck and Reed with far less finishing pedigree.

Kicking

A Twitter account called “Goal kicker PLUS Rankings” has created a formula which combines goalkicking success percentage with average kick difficulty to create a metric called ‘value added’. Up to round 12 this season AJ is 5th in kicking percentage in the Premiership with 84% however he is joint 3rd in value added with Sopoaga and only behind Smith and Priestland. Furthermore, AJ has taken the 2nd most kicks at goal of any player which gives him more margin for error and therefore makes him more consistent than even these stats portray. AJ being in the top 3 10s for goalkicking is significant because, while Smith does, Priestland does not offer the same quality of play making that AJ can offer. Add to this that AJ has a top tier kicking game from hand and has an uncanny ability to recognise when there is space in the oppositions backfield and find the corners with kicks. In fact, according to OptaJonny on Twitter, AJ is 2nd in the whole league (Simmonds 1st) in kick retention with 28% from his 38 kicks retained. This means that AJ not only kicks into the right areas but his technique in hanging the ball and accuracy in finding his chasers is the some of the best in the league.

To conclude it cannot be argued that AJ is one of the most well rounded fly half’s in the league as he competes with Smith in play making, Priestland in goal kicking and Simmonds in kicking from hand. You may or may not agree with the title of this article which is fine, the important thing is that you recognise the ability that AJ has showed in recent weeks and how talented and accurate non dominant fly half’s have to be.

Credit for stats go to: RugbyPass, ESPN, Goal kicker PLUS, OptaJonny and BT Sport.

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Rugby’s Roots- How Colonialism Shaped Rugby

Have you ever wondered why the Rugby World Cup and the IRB World Rankings are occupied by tiny Pacific Island nations and world sporting minnows such as Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Namibia and yet world superpowers and sporting powerhouses such as Spain, Germany, Brazil and China are completely absent? Everyone knows the story of Rugby schoolboy William Webb-Ellis picking up the football and running with it in 1823 but what fascinates me is what happened afterwards, how did rugby go from Rugby to Buenos Aires, to Toronto, to Tokyo and to Tbilisi and become the cultural presence and geographical mismatch that we see today.

The most common way rugby was spread was through colonialism. Simply put, British ex-pats introduced the game to members of the British Empire while living there. This can be seen transparently today as 12 of the 20 top teams in the rugby world rankings were part of the British empire including dominant nations such as Australia, New Zealand and the USA. However, the most interesting example is Fiji, one of the most miscellaneous and arbitrary nations to the untrained eye but familiar to the common rugby fan and a dominant force in world rugby. Fiji are not only one of the few countries in the world to not have a national football team, they also only have one Olympic medal in their history, a gold one, in Rugby Sevens. So is it that Fijian’s don’t like other sports? No, it is simply that they weren’t exposed to other sports. Rugby was first played in Fiji in 1884 by British soldiers stationed on Viti Levu Island at the Native Constabulary at Ba when they noticed how genetically perfect the Fijian soldiers were for the physicality and pace of the new game. After that rugby took off on the pacific island, initially it was just played by Fijian soldiers and British ex-pats but soon a Fijian Rugby National Governing Body was formed and they played their first international vs Samoa in 1925 which kicked off at 7am so that the players had enough time to shower and change and be in work on time and the field also had a giant tree on the halfway line. Today Fiji are 11th in the rugby world rankings with recent competitive victories over Wales, Scotland, France and Italy and they dominate the Sevens circuit with 3 series wins in its 20-year existence. A similar story occurred in Namibia where rugby was introduced due to British and allied victory in World War One when the British commonwealth nation South Africa took control of Namibia which had been a German colony.

However, rugby wasn’t just spread through colonialism, Uruguay recently broke into the top 20 of the rugby world rankings and competed in the last two Rugby World Cups and they were introduced to the game by Christian missionaries from the UK who came to enforce religion. Furthermore, the Eastern European country of Georgia adopted rugby because it was so similar to the traditional Georgian game of ‘Lelo’ in which men of rival towns competed to carry a ball over a large field into the opposing team’s creek, hence why the nickname of the Georgian rugby team today is the ‘Lelos’.   

To conclude, if you asked an average person, say a football fan, to find Fiji or Namibia on a map they would undoubtedly fail, they probably wouldn’t even know that Samoa and Tonga even exist, however a common rugby fan could find Fiji on a map, tell you it’s capital city and tell you the names of 20 famous Fijian’s. There is a native Fijian in almost every major tier one rugby nation with England’s recent examples including Joe Cokanasiga, Nathan Hughes and Semesa Rokodunguni while Fijian’s litter every major rugby league with around 34 in France’s Top 14 in 2017 and over 20 in the English Premiership including this summer’s big money signings of Semi Radrada and Nemani Nadolo. How many Fijian’s play football in the English Premiership? I don’t think you need me to tell you it’s 0. In summary Fijian’s are core blocks that hold together the world of rugby, not just Fijian’s but also Samoan’s, Tongan’s and New Zealander’s and none of this would have happened if a British colonist hadn’t one day passed them a rugby ball (and yet the Kiwi’s, Aussies and Saffa’s still have the cheek to beat us at every World Cup). Rugby today is defined by those early Victorian colonies and without them maybe rugby might have never left the shores of England.

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The Stuart Hogg Paradox

Stuart Hogg is the current Scotland captain with 20 tries in 76 international caps as well as two British and Irish Lions tours and two Six Nations player of the tournament awards. However, he has never been the unarguable best player in the world in his position and unless things change in the closing years of his career he will not go down in history as one of the world’s greatest fullbacks; in this article I will underline the reasons why.

The first main reason that Stuart Hogg’s legacy will forever be mired is down to his country of heritage, in other words, the fact he plays for Scotland. Throughout Stuart Hogg’s career Scotland have been an average to disappointing Six Nations side with a wooden spoon title, two 5th place finishes and having never finished above 3rd. Furthermore, during Hogg’s tenure Scotland have never broken into the top 5 in the IRB world rankings and haven’t advanced further than the World Cup quarter finals with a group stage exit to boot. This mediocrity has served to continually dampen and undermine the stunning individual performances of Hogg who seems to nearly always score great tries or have man of the match performances in losing efforts, in the two years he won Six Nations player of the tournament Scotland finished 4th. This raises the question, can a player truly be great, a legend, on a poor team? The question has been raised in relation to Italian Sergio Parisse for years and doesn’t seem to have a clear answer however off the top of your head think of the most well-known and obvious rugby legends in history; Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter, Richie Mccaw, Martin Johnson, George Gregan, John Smit, what do all these players have in common? They are all World Cup winners of course. After all, personal accolades create respect but team accolades create legacy. It can be argued that Hogg will never be recognised as a true great of the game because of the fact he played for a mostly poor Scotland side however i believe that Hogg performs far better when he is the leader and the shining light of a poor team when the system and the game plan is tailored to his style of play and he has the freedom to play as such. Furthermore, there is evidence that Hogg does not perform in teams full of stars when he is not the leader or the main offensive outlet and thus has less freedom. This is the Stuart Hogg paradox; he will never be recognised as a true legend just playing for average teams but when he plays in good teams full of stars he can’t perform as well. Which brings us to the tragedy that is his British and Irish Lions career. The 2013 tour to Australia came too early for a young 20-year-old Hogg well before his peak and he played 5 warm up games failing to make a test team but when the 2017 tour came around Hogg was in his peak and the nailed on starting fullback for the majority of fans and pundits alike. In a cruel twist of fate Hogg had an underwhelming first game and a half before being injured by an accidental stray elbow from team mate Connor Murray instantly ending his tour and his chance to prove himself on the big stage in a star studded team. Hogg himself must have realised this strain on his legacy as after 9 years at an average Glasgow Warriors team that he led and was the shining light for for many years (granted he won one Pro 12 title) he moved to English champions Exeter this past summer to play with other stars such as Henry Slade, Nic White and Sam Simmonds and to compete for titles in England and Europe. However, he has struggled to reciprocate his Glasgow and Scotland form for the Chiefs this season only showing glimpses of his class and in another cruel twist of the fate the season was postponed/ cancelled with Exeter in the top spot poised to go to the final and probably win another premiership. It is possible that Hogg could have gone on to have a man of the match performance in the final which probably would have put to bed the doubts of his quality but sadly not yet, we will have to wait.

If you are still sceptical simply think back to all of Scotland’s best performances and biggest wins in recent years; the narrow loss to Australia in the 2015 World Cup quarter final, the 2017 summer and autumn tour wins over Australia, the destruction of England in the 2018 Six Nations and the following 38-38 comeback draw with England, Hogg was quiet by his standards in all of these games. What else do all of these games have in common? Finn Russell was immense and ran all of the games. When Scotland run their game through Russell Scotland win, or at least play very well, and Hogg steps to the background. Russell is someone known for performing under pressure, it seemingly doesn’t affect him, look at his recent performances under the bright lights of Racing Metro’s ‘Paris La Defense Arena’, is it possible that Hogg can’t perform under pressure, even wilts underneath it? And he only plays well when the pressure is off and his team is losing hence giving him more freedom? History would tell us so. Need any more evidence? Simply look to this year’s incomplete Six Nations with Russell banned and out the team and Hogg first handed the captains armband it was his chance to lead one of the better Scotland teams and they were poor, losing to England and Ireland with Hogg even dropping the ball over the line for a game winning try vs Ireland, of course this was a mere lapse of concentration, an anomaly, but the point is valid. The 2019 World Cup is another good example as Scotland had decent expectations for the first time in years with a solid squad going to Japan but they crashed out losing with bad performances to beatable Ireland and Japan teams and Hogg was metaphorically absent in both games.

There is no doubt that Stuart Hogg is a world class player but it remains to be seen whether he is a world class individual or world class team player, he still has many years left in his career at a powerhouse Exeter team and with a Lions tour to South Africa next year and i hope he proves me wrong.

Why Sale Sharks and George Ford are a perfect match

It has been a turbulent season for intra-Premiership transfers. This season has seen more mid-season club switches than ever before, with the player movements more closely resembling an NBA-style draft than a traditional English rugby transfer window.

There is much to be excited for for almost every Premiership fan base, Bristol will gain the mercurial AJ MacGinty, Tigers will be bolstered by World Cup-winner Handre Pollard, Wasps will get one of the best tightheads in world rugby in Vincent Koch, while Bath’s pickup of Niall Annett could prove to be particularly shrewd and underrated. However, in my opinion, the best mid-season signing has to be the man from Oldham finally finding his way back home to the North West of England. Ford has arguably been the best player in the Premiership this season, picking up two player of the month awards and leading Tigers to the top of the table. Putting them in a serious position to steal the whole crown at Twickenham on the 8th June, the most unlikely of prospects considering their position at the foot of the table just two years ago. No doubt the Tigers renaissance has been pioneered and epitomised by Ford.

But the big question, and the one I will answer in this article, is how the new Sale Sharks will look next season with Ford in the 10 shirt, and indeed a few other personnel alterations.

Playmaker Distribution:

To understand this, first we need to understand how the current Sale Sharks team play. A significant element of the current Sale team is the over-reliance of ball off 9. In the article I wrote about AJ MacGinty, almost a year ago:

I highlighted how, at the time, Sale played more off 9 than any other team in the league. This is because Faf De Klerk is central to the current gameplan, he is given free reign to control the tempo and pace of the game, taking almost all the pressure off AJ MacGinty at 10. Compare this to Leicester Tigers who play more off 10 than any other team in the league, for the simple reason that, when George Ford is your 10 you give him the ball and let him decide what to do with it, he is one of the best in the world at game management and controlling a game with the ball in his hands. This is why, although many would have been surprised at Faf De Klerk’s departure from Sale, I knew it was a foregone conclusion as soon as Ford was announced, because the two could never play together because both need to be the dominant halfback in their respective teams.

Look at this graphic from BT Sport’s Ross Hamilton to help visualise this (bottom right), in the recent European Quarter Final’s, Sale played 61% off 9 and just 21% off 10 while Leicester played 38% off 10 and just 57% off 9.

Therefore, expect Sale’s playmaker ratios to flip and for their attack to be ran almost entirely through the number 10 shirt.

You may be wondering what this means for what you actually see on the pitch. Well expect the ball to get to the wide channels far more and far less tight forwards play, attacking with one-out runners off the edge of the ruck. The centres and wingers will get far more touches of the ball.

For this reason, a player who is set to have a career season is Raffi Quirke. It is widely agreed that Raffi’s strength is running with the ball and being a threat to the fringes of rucks with his pace and vision. He is not necessarily elite at game management or kicking. With Ford demanding these responsibilities it will take all the pressure off Raffi and allow him to focus on his offensive running game. It sounds strange to say now, but Raffi is very reminiscent of a young Ben Youngs, who first asserted himself in newspaper headlines at the age of 17 as a wily ball runner with freakish speed and agility. Youngs didn’t his elite game management nous until his mid-20s when he already had a handful of England caps under his belt. It wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest that Raffi could have a similar career trajectory.

Ford and Raffi mould together perfectly in terms of complimenting each others strengths and weaknesses. Ford is not known for being an aggressive defender, while Raffi is one of the best defensive 9s in the league and punches 3 times his weight when rushing up on opposition ball carriers.

Possession:

Sale build their success on their defence, they have a number of seriously physical and aggressive loose forwards, as well as a physical inside centre, and they attempt to choke the opposition into making errors through line speed and collisions. Sale are happy to let you have the ball because they are confident in their defence. Sale, who currently sit in 7th, have conceded the 5th least tries in the league with just 60, 2 less than Gloucester in 5th and 13 less than Northampton in 4th. To help visualise this further, here is a helpful graph from Sam Larner showing the metric “try equivalents conceded”, I have linked a definition for this metric, however, in short, it is how many tries a team should concede based on defensive statistics such as tackles missed and linebreaks allowed.

As you can see by the graph, Sale, by this metric, have the best defence in the league, and arguably are underperforming by leaking as many tries as they have. Furthermore, Sale’s attack is distinctly below average, which is supported by the fact they are 9th in the league for tries scored with just 68.

League PositionTries Scored Tries Conceded
Sale Sharks (as of 20.05.22)7th9th5th

An important thing to note is that, although Ford loves the ball in his hands, he also loves to play without possession. Another graphic from BT Sport’s Ross Hamilton shows us that Leicester had the fewest carries and the most kicks in the whole Champions Cup this season. This is because Ford bases his gameplan on kicking teams to death, he is the master of tactical kicking and has meticulously picked apart many of the best teams in the Premiership with barrages of bombs and territorial grass-cutters.

This is confirmed further by this graph, also from BT’s Ross Hamilton, which shows that, in round 1 of the Champions Cup, Ford, just himself, actually kicked more than every other team in the tournament except Bordeaux.

So what does this all mean for Sale next season? Well the main reason Ford and Sale are a match made in heaven is that, as we have established, Ford loves to play without the ball and Sale love to play without the ball. Sale have arguably the best defence in the league so Ford can have free reign to let his kicking game flourish, with the knowledge that Sale back their defence. Add to this the fact that, when one or even two of the Curry twins are on the pitch, attacking teams rarely make it past 10 phases before the ball is stolen or disrupted.

Furthermore, because Ford loves the ball in his hands, but he doesn’t necessarily like to run the ball, he absolutely loves a big physical ball carrying 12 next to him. With Rohan Janse Van Rensburg on the way out this means Manu Tuilagi will be vital next season. This is a combination we, of course, have already seen for both Leicester Tigers and England and I am sure both parties are anxious to reignite. Tuilagi has struggled for fitness recently but if he does stay fit next season I wouldn’t be surprised if he has the best season of his career.

Not to mention that, with all due respect, Ford isn’t known for his big tackles or for stepping out the defensive line to put in a big collision. So a large, defensively intelligent 12, is vital to pair next to George. Alternatively, this season we have seen Leicester defend set pieces with Ford on the wing to protect him from big ball carriers. We could expect Sanderson to do the same with Tuilagi, Rob Du Preez or even Raffi defending in the “10” position.

Kicking Game:

Now we have established that Ford kicks a lot lets analyse his kicking game in detail. Leicester Tigers winger Harry Potter has gone from the Australian 2nd division to one of the best wingers in the Premiership and a big reason for this is because he is seriously elite on the kick chase. With serious speed and a 6’1 stature he is so good at getting underneath Ford’s bombs and either winning the ball in the air or making a dominant collision on the catcher.

Sale winger Arron Reed is slightly shorter at 5’10 but has demonstrated the same elite ability to win the ball in the air or smash a stationary catcher, making significant territorial gain. Expect Reed to become Ford’s best friend next season chasing kicks up and down the pitch and terrorising opposition fullbacks all over the country. Arron arguably already “broke through” this season but he could really cement himself in the upper echelons of Premiership wingers with Ford at the helm next season. The same can be said for Roebuck and O’Flaherty who are both also elite operators on the kick chase.

Who could forget Roebuck’s score vs Leicester or Reed’s score vs Northampton, both nominated for try of the season.

Finally, one of the areas Sale have struggled the most this season is goalkicking, frequently leaving points out on the park and missing chances to win, or draw, because of missed kicks at goal. Ford has been one of the best goalkickers in the league for many years, regularly averaging between 80-90% success rate and currently sitting 3rd on the Premiership top point scorers list with 176.

To conclude, despite my previous controversial claims about AJ MacGinty, who is still a fine player, you can assume that Sale’s game will improve infinitely with George Ford next season, especially in attack. Rugby is a game increasingly dominated by the biggest, strongest and fastest players in the world with physical ability often valued over general rugby knowledge and know-how. However, there is no doubt still a place in todays game for a mini-marshall who can win games by simply out-thinking his opposite, George Ford is that man.

6 players to watch in the 6 Nations

Twitter: BenNurse8

It is nearly that time of year again when rugby’s most bitter and competitive tournament re-commences. The time of year when teammates become fierce rivals and fierce rivals become teammates, the beauty of the Six Nations is often hard to describe but easy to feel and extremely infectious. As an England fan nearly every single matchday is a titanic clash, steeped in the history of past feuds and geographical and nationalistic hatred. In simpler terms, everyone wants to get one up England. For all the talk of the tournament becoming tired and exciting new formats there is nothing better in the domestic or international calendar than a Six Nations Saturday, nothing gets rugby fans out of their seats and switching on their TVs like a mid-February trip to a hostile Murrayfield, or a visit to Twickenham from the noisy neighbours in red. Increasingly it appears this year’s competition will be one of the most competitive for many years after all six European powerhouses had extremely successful Autumn campaigns. England walked over Australia and beat the world champions South Africa while both Ireland and France convincingly beat the mesmerising All Blacks, the number one ranked team in the world. Calling a championship favourite at the current time is nigh-on-impossible and would be more closely based on luck than forecasting ability with the French, Welsh, Irish and English all expecting to win and (say it quietly) the Scots also holding an outside chance for their first title since 1999.

With the 2023 World Cup now just one year away we are officially over half way through the World Cup cycle and so head coaches and directors of rugby alike should now be finalising the 30-or-so players they want to take the France and beginning to masterplan tactics and gameplans. However, this does not mean that the window for dark horses has closed and we can expect to see many breakthrough talents in this year’s games. In the 2018 tournament, a year before Japan 2019, we were first introduced to World Cup stars such as Josh Adams, Matthieu Jalibert, Jordan Larmour and Blair Kinghorn. So here is my list of one player from each competing nation who could breakthrough to be a star for their respective nation and go on to dominate future Six Nations tournaments and next year’s World Cup in France.

England: Ollie Hassell-Collins

Position: Wing Club: London Irish Age: 22 Caps: 0

Comparisons: Ben Lam / Dane Haylett-Petty

The London Irish wing is long overdue his international debut and has a scary combination of devastating Premiership form and unlimited international potential. The man is a statistic machine, currently sitting in 6th in the Premiership try scorers list with 6 tries, 2nd in metres gained with 992, 2nd in defenders beaten with 40 and top in clean breaks with 13. Statistics aside he is seemingly the full-package collaborating a 6’2 frame with blistering speed, agility and footballing skill, as well as being a significant defensive presence. England will be without the injured Anthony Watson for this year’s campaign and with Jonny May struggling to find form at Gloucester it looks as if a new winger will have to be blooded, most likely Joe Marchant or Max Malins who both played on the wing in the Autumn, however, Hassell-Collins is far and away the most in-form winger in the Premiership, even dwarfing the statistics of South African Tyrone Green.

Honourable Mentions: Luke Northmore, Alex Dombrandt, Tommy Freeman, Raffi Quirke

StatPremiership Rank
Games Played11N/A
Tries Scored66th
Defenders Beaten402nd
Clean Breaks133rd
Metres Gained9922nd

Scotland: Sione Tuipulotu

Position: Centre Club: Glasgow Warriors Age: 24 Caps: 1

Comparisons: Manu Tuilagi / Andre Esterhuizen

Scotland are developing an extremely frightening young core with the likes of Jamie Dobie, Ross Thompson and Rufus Mclean coming through, however, with the 9, 10 and wing positions all stacked with established talent it is Sione who gets my nod in this list. The Australian-born centre, who qualifies for Scotland through his Scottish grandmother, has been a key piece for Glasgow since joining in 2021 and is in the form of his life so far this season. He sits joint 4th on the URC top try scorer’s list with 4, 7th for successful carries with 36 and 8th in defenders beaten with 19. Furthermore, with Huw Jones out of form and out of favour at Harlequins and Cam Redpath just now returning from a long-term knee injury, it looks likely that Sione will add to the one cap he won vs Tonga in the Autumn. There is no doubt he perfectly fits Glasgow’s flamboyant and exciting attacking style and so would fit equally as perfectly in the organised chaos conducted by the likes of Ali Price, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg.

Honourable Mentions: Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Dobie, Ross Thompson. Rufus Mclean

StatURC rank
Games Played10NA
Tries Scored44th
Clean Breaks67th
Successful Carries367th
Defender’s Beaten198th

Ireland: Gavin Coombes

Position: Flanker/Number 8 Club: Munster Age: 24

Comparisons: Ardie Savea / Josh Navidi

Ireland are blessed with an abundance of talented, young back rows, mainly through the Leinster contingent of Jack Conan, Caelan Doris, Will Connors and Josh Van Der Flier, however it is the Munsterman who has been making the most noise in the URC the past two seasons. Although he has only played five games in the URC so far this season (he still sits in 2nd for both carries and successful carries with 90 and 44 respectively) Coombes lit up the Pro 14’s final season before the inaugural Rainbow Cup. A firm, pioneering member of a new age of explosive and dynamic back rows, Coombes is equally as prominent in defence and attack. In the Pro 14 in the 2020/21 season he led the league in successful carries and was 3rd in the whole league in tries scored and 6th for turnovers demonstrating his wide range of skills. There will be fierce competition in that Ireland backrow with the aforementioned Conan, Van Der Flier and Doris all in great form and Connors returning from injury, Ulster back row Nick Timoney has also been in incredible form, however, Coombes deserves his place and offers great versatility from the bench, able to competently cover both blindside flanker and number 8.

Honourable mentions: Nick Timoney, Craig Casey, James Hume, Mack Hansen

StatPro 14 Rank (2020-21 season)
Games Played15N/A
Tries Scored83rd
Successful Carries861st
Turnovers Won96th
Carries1482nd

France: Yoan Tanga

Position: Flanker/ Number 8 Club: Racing 92 Age: 25 Caps: 0

Comparisons: Pablo Matera, Rob Valentini

Be sure to take a moment to observe the effortless beauty of Melvyn Jaminet, currently one of the best 15s in the world who played all of last season in the Pro D2 for Perpignan. Although he will make his Six Nations debut, he is an established member of the current France team after stunning performances all through the summer and autumn of 2021 so isn’t applicable to this list. Therefore, my pick here goes to the Racing 92 back row Yoan Tanga who has excelled since joining the Parisian club from Agen in 2019. There is fierce competition in the French back row with mainstay starters Cros, Jelonch and Aldritt al assured a place. However, Charles Ollivon’s injury opens up a spot for a new backrow to be introduced and Tanga will be fighting for that spot with the likes of Ibrahim Diallo and Sekou Macalou. Tanga is thriving at Racing this season, sitting 3rd in the entire Top 14 for tackles made with 121 as well as having 2 tries and 3 line breaks to add to 588 total running metres. At such a young age, Tanga already has elite level athletism and skill and, like Coombes, can affect the game in attack and in defence, if he gets onto the pitch this tournament expect him to make an immediate and significant impact.

Honourable Mentions: Yoram Moefana, Maxime Lucu, Antoine Hastoy, Matthis Lebel

Games Played13
Tries Scored2
Tackles Made121
Metres Made588
Line Breaks3
Offloads5

Wales: Taine Basham

Position: Flanker Region: Dragons Age: 22 Caps: 6

Comparisons: Hamish Watson / Justin Tipuric

Unlike others on this list, it could be argued that Basham has already established himself on the international scene. The Dragons openside played all three of Wales’ summer fixtures during the Lions tour before grabbing headlines in the autumn with two mounumental performances vs New Zealand and South Africa putting him firmly in contention for a place in Wales’ back row this Six Nations. Therefore, it is fair to say that everyone is excited to see what Taine can do in the upcoming Six Nations, not least because he is unlucky enough to be approaching his peak during a golden age for Welsh flankers, with the likes of Basham, Jenkins, Lewis-Hughes, Wainwright, Morgan, Young, Faletau and Navidi and Tipuric all vying for the three starting back row spots. However, with the latter two of those confirmed to be injured for this year’s tournament the door is open for Basham to shine. Although he has not appeared much in the URC this season, Basham has attributed numerous great performances in the Challenge Cup, in fact he has beaten more defenders than anyone else in that tournament (15) as well as making 133 metres in 20 carries. Also make sure to keep an eye on Ellis Jenkins, a fantastic flanker who, although more established an international than Basham, is still relatively unknown on the world stage.

Honourable Mentions: Seb Davies, Uilisi Halaholo, Christ Tshuinza, Kieran Hardy

Stat (Challenge Cup only)
Games Played 2
Defenders Beaten15
Metres Made133
Carries20

Italy: Tommaso Menoncello

Position: Centre Club: Benetton Treviso Age: 19 Caps: 0

Comparisons: Jordan Petaia, Joe Marchant

Another promising graduate of an increasingly prominent and successful Italy u20s pathway. At just 19 years of age the centre has been ripping up the URC with Benetton and has already appeared for Italy A. There is plenty of competition in the Italian midfield with the likes of Ignacio Brex, Luca Morisi and the highly rated Marco Zanon to contend with so Menoncello will be lucky to appear in this years tournament, however, there is a chance he could also be utilised on the wing, a position he has also played for Benetton. Menoncello has a more than impressive statistical resume for his age, he is 4th in the whole URC for try’s scored with 4, 7th for clean breaks with 6 and 17th for turnover’s won with 5. Only Monty Ioane has better stats of all the Italian’s in the URC. Even if the centre doesn’t appear in this year’s tournament Menoncello perfectly encapsulates the myriad of talented young players coming through the Italian national system right now and the exciting brand of rugby they are building and promoting.

Honourable Mentions: Michele Lamaro, Marco Zanon, Paolo Garbisi, Federico Ruzza

StatURC Rank
Games Played7N/A
Tries Scored44th
Clean Breaks67th
Turnovers Won517th

Regardless of if these six players get their time to shine, this year’s Six Nations will be an excited festival of top tier rugby which will undoubtedly have a tense and dramatic climax. Could we see a situation where five teams are still in contention for the Championship going into the final matchday? The quality and talent in the squads suggests we could. I for one feel blessed and excited to have a tournament with such parity and competition, gone are the days of Scotland and even Italy being the annual ‘whipping boys’ and we are now very close to the point where anyone can beat anyone. It will require a script worthy of a West End pantomime to top the drama of last year’s tournament, who could forget Scotland beating France in Paris, then France beating Wales in the last minute to rob them of the Grand Slam. But something tells me that the 2022 Six Nations could eclipse anything we have ever seen before.

Why Finn Russell v Saints was the best ever performance from a 10

If there is one detail of rugby discourse that i hate the most it is the unfounded and deluded perception that so-called “flashy” and “highlight” players are nothing more than their skills and tricks. Often people see players who specialise in flair and assume that they don’t have the solid general all-round game that others do. Is Cheslin Kolbe just a flashy stepper? No he is also one of the best defensive wingers in the world. Is Ardie Savea just really fast and skillful? No he is also elite at the breakdown and consistently tops tackles made statistics.

This is the same with Finn Russell. Just because he is unique in his ability and bravery to pull off an audacious cross-field kick or an outrageous offload that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the vision or the phase-play to match the likes of Ford and Biggar. Luckily, i don’t need to tell you this, because he proved it (once again) last weekend against Northampton Saints and the very same Dan Biggar that i just mentioned. Where does Finn Russell rank in your top 5 fly half’s in the world? Unless you live north of Carlisle I’m willing to bet that Russell doesn’t feature in your list, however, i am unashamed to admit that Finn sits in my top 3 and has done for many years now. The man possesses certain rare traits, he is a catalyst and a gamebreaker, he can change an entire game with a single swing of his boot or flick of his wrist and the best thing about him is that he knows this. In a world of media trained robots and “credit to the boys” clones Russell brings refreshing and invigorating confidence and personality. Taking to the field at a hostile Franklins Gardens, against the current third best team in the Premiership, with a grin on his face, fully aware of his capability to single-handedly unpick the green and black defence.

And that is what he did. Let me guide through the key seven moments that inclined me to write the title of this article (possibly an over exaggeration) and then i will allow you to draw your own conclusions.

Moment 1:

The first Racing try comes from really basic analysis and a nice set play. They key man here in the Northampton defence is Dave Ribbans. He is what rugby coaches call “the guard”, the very first man in the defensive line out from the ruck. His role is to watch for the scrum-half sniping around the fringes or for a forward looking for a cheeky pick and go. Significantly, Ribbans most important job is to not move, ask any coach, semi-pro or professional and they will tell you that Ribbans has to stand still. This is because it takes a long time for defenders to wrap around the ruck and so the space he is defending cannot be filled quickly if he drifts. I couldn’t tell you if Racing noticed this weakness from film work before the game or if Russell noticed this in the opening 10 minutes of the game but it is likely that they prepared the move because Northampton play a drift defence, in other words, they defend in-to-out rather than out-to-in. Either way, Racing exploit this weakness magnificently. Russell steps back and runs directly at the gap between Ribbans and Ludlam in order to engage Ribbans and draw him away from his post at the fringe of the ruck. After this, it is a really clever line from Beale who comes from the other side of the ruck and the defenders “blind-spot” to glide through the hole. Russell is then on-hand to receive Beale’s offload and put Lauret under the posts in a beautiful try which Racing make look far too easy. Russell, in this example, is demonstrating his ability to execute a game plan rather than demonstrating his incredible ad-lib potential, but we will get to that.

Moment 2:

Fly half’s are always looking for space. Most 10s, think of Ford, Pollard, will always be looking at corners, they notice when wingers aren’t deep enough and kick in behind them, while others, think of Barrett, Mo’unga, look for space on the wings when wingers are too narrow and they can execute a crossfield-kick. Russell is one of the best in the world at finding space in behind the defensive line and in front of the fullback. He loves the little chip over a rushing defence for his centres to chase and gather. But this isn’t just about pulling off a flashy, good-looking play. It is about making the defence second guess themselves. Northampton play one of the best and fastest rush defences in the Premiership and have, so often this season, killed attacks through this. Through Russell pulling off two early chip kicks over the rushing defence, now the defence is hesitating and will not come up so fast, therefore giving Russell more space and time on the ball for the rest of the game. People think Russell is unreliable and does flashy things because he cant execute a game plan when the whole time he is playing 3D chess and is already five steps ahead of you.

Moment 3:

Now the Northampton defence has lost all it’s line speed Russell is just picking runners and watching them make easy metres. The Saints whole USP is that they have big-hitters such as Lawes and Ratuniyarawa who love to rush out the line and target 10s but Russell is untouchable. He takes a carry himself in the play before this and makes an easy five or six metres. Then the strike play. Saints fall for the exact same play as the first try and, this time, it’s Matavesi who drifts too far from the ruck and Imhoff who slices through gap. Here we can see in practice, the concept of creating space instead of finding space. While the likes of Ford can look up and see exactly where the space in the defensive line is, Russell uses his movement to create a gap where he wants it to appear.

Moment 4:

This is the ad-lib stuff i was talking about. The two tries have come straight up the middle so now Northampton are defending more narrow, so Russell just casually hits his winger in the chest with a 40-metre crossfield kick. This is less of a game-breaking play and more of Russell just toying with the defence, telling them that whatever way they set up and whatever way they defend that he will find the space. I’ve seen people accuse Russell of being one-dimensional but his box of tricks is truly endless. And once again, this is not flair for the sake of flair, this is meticulous unpicking of one of the best defences in the northern hemisphere. Watch Skosan fly up off his wing to cover the threat of Thomas and watch Russell recognise this in milliseconds before executing the pin-point perfect kick.

Moment 5:

This one is my favourite. I love how Thomas is stationed on Russell’s right shoulder to tease the same play as the first two tries and to encourage the defence to stay narrow. But the best part about the play is that they completely mess it up. The line of Vakatawa is supposed to hold Dingwall so that Russell can receive the pass and drift outside him. However, Dingwall doesnt buy the bait and gets round the dummy line and is about to smash Russell before the Scotsman throws the most outrageous pass perfectly over the head of Freeman and into the hands of Beale. Look at this freeze frame, the defence is actually over numbered, four defenders defending three attackers, how the hell do Racing score here? The only answer is the pass by Russell. Which other 10s in the world can throw this pass? I think i can confidently say that i can count them on one-hand. Freeman makes the defensive error here by jamming in too hard and leaving the space outside him but it still required Finn to make that split-second read to notice they were too narrow and throw the pass before Dingwall got to him.

Moment 6:

This one is quite brilliant. Russell knows that Skosan chased the last kick and so his wing is empty, so now when Furbank comes up to chase his kick the backfield is severely under-manned. Any kick is only as good as it’s chase and the chase on this kick is poor, only Furbank makes an effort to reach the catcher, while Dingwall watches the threat of Thomas. Finn knows that if he can beat Furbank 1v1 then it’s a free run into the backfield where only Mitchell is waiting as Skosan is still in no-mans land. The offload to Lauret is equal parts outrageous and skillful. I love how Russell chooses his moments to run, knowing that if he bides his time, the defence will switch off to the threat of his running game and only look at the possible passing options. In this try, when Russell takes two steps infield, the whole defence drifts and focuses on Imhoff, leaving the short side as the weakness.

Moment 7:

There isn’t really much to analyse here. It’s just really nice to watch.

How Russell didn’t win man of the match in this game i will never know. Instead they gave it to Lauret who scored three tap-ins to open goals after Russell set up all three on his own. I could make a comment here about casual fans not knowing a world class performance if it happened right in front of their eyes but I’ve been pretentious enough in this article.

Rugby semantics and media often depend on certain running narratives. Where these narratives are born i don’t know, often it comes from the fans, often it comes from major media outlets such as BT Sport. All it takes is one package on Rugby Tonight to convince the more gullible casual fans that a mundane average player is the best player in the world. One way or another, there is a narrative that Finn Russell is a “highlight merchant” who is only good for pulling “a rabbit out the hat” and can’t do the things that other elite 10s do. This is pure nonsense and based on no evidence. In this game Russell single handedly created 4 tries and also made a couple of mistakes from wayward passes and kicks. It doesn’t take a high level mathematician to calculate that 4 tries + 2 errors = 4 tries. Finn is unique in his ability to do unusual things but don’t pigeon-hole him as someone who is only capable of offhand and spontaneous moments because meanwhile, he is controlling and managing the game as good as any fly-half in the world. For every nutmeg grubber kick or banana spiral is 79 minutes of world class offensive tactics and organisation. Was his game vs Northampton the best performance by a 10 ever? Possibly, but probably not, Dan Carter, Jonny Wilkinson, Beauden Barrett among others would have something to say about that but the point remains. Next time you have a conversation about Finn Russell, whether it be in real life or over the internet, don’t use any phrase along the lines of “rabbit out the hat” or “flashy” and see where it gets you. Ask yourself, if Biggar or Ford had set up 4 tries in a similar way, would the reaction from the fans and pundits after the game be proportional to the reaction Russell got? Don’t hold Finn’s passion and ambition for an outrageous highlight play against him and taint his reputation and legacy as one of the very best in the world and one of the very best we’ve ever seen.

I’ll leave you with this, Saints have conceded an average of 25 points per game in the Premiership this season, 21 points per game if you remove the 55 points they conceded to Leicester in October (an anomaly). Racing, led by Rusell, had scored 28 points by halftime at Franklins Gardens, and ended the game on 45 points. Furthermore, Saints have only conceded 27 tries in 9 games in the Premiership so far, that’s an average of 3 tries conceded per game. Racing Metro, led by Finn Russell, had scored 3 tries by halftime at Franklins Gardens and scored 5 tries in the whole game.

Why Tuilagi on the wing was a stroke of genius

Apprehensions and anxiety were extremely high for me personally going into the 2021 Autumn Series. As a general rugby fan, the 2020 ‘Autumn Nations Cup’ involved some dire rugby while last summer’s Lions tour was a monumental disappointment. As an England fan, we were coming off said Lions tour loss and a 5th place finish in the 2021 Six Nations. Rugby was very much on it’s knees, in need of a saviour. But, oh, did the Autumn Series deliver. Game after game of stunning rugby, fierce rivalry and incredible atmosphere. A lunchtime showcase at a packed out Murrayfield immediately followed by an afternoon blockbuster at a rocking Twickenham, topped off by an intense contest under the bright lights and raucous noise of the Principality. For three weeks straight. The Autumn Series was everything we could have ever hoped it would be and had rugby fans like myself on the very tips of our seats, engrossed in the action for eight hours every weekend.

Dare i say that the added spice of three in form Southern Hemisphere giants, recreated, if not topped the annual Six Nations spectacle.

From an England point of view, we had no idea what to expect. Lets start with Marcus Smith. When he was first named in the squad, after my initial elation, i spent weeks racking my brains wondering how he would be incorporated into this England gameplan, not just incorporated, but how would he run the gameplan? How would Eddie Jones transform a gameplan dominated by tactical kicking into one that revolves around a running 10 who needs ball in his hands. The answer was an absolute stroke of genius from Eddie Jones and his team and so painfully simple and obvious that it was beautiful.

They used Smith as bait.

Smith was constantly standing out the back (behind the lead runner) and occasionally received the ball to create chances. But more often, he was used as bait to draw out the senior defenders in the opposition defensive line (Paisami, Am, Hooper, Vermuelen etc.) so as to exploit and abuse flat passes at the line to explosive runners such as Lawes, Underhill, George, Curry and Tuilagi. Another beautiful thing about this is that vs Australia (when Farrell started at 12) Farrell was standing at first receiver and Smith was the second pair of hands, which gave him more space to move and more time to think.

Harlequins use Smith in a very similar way, at second receiver, but they strike off this platform rather than the one before it. Quins get Smith the ball in space and run a combination of in and out lines in order create linebreaks with big men such as Esterhuizen and Dombrandt running flat lines on Smith’s shoulder and the pace of Lynagh, Marchant and Green on the outside. Look at this example of Smith scoring against Saracens from this exact platform, as the second set of hands.

Therefore, when Australia and South Africa did their homework on Smith before the Autumn Series they would have expected and prepared for England to use him in this exact way. Look at this perfect example of Hunter Paisami reading the same play as before and flying out of the line and nailing Smith.

Once this read has been made, however, it is far too easy to draw the defenders out the line to Smith and to use the space they have left. Here it works versus Australia for a Jamie George line break which leads to Tom Wright going to the sin bin for his tackle. Watch how Hunter Paisami is completely disinterested with Jamie George as he has both eyes firmly on Smith.

And here, the piece de resistance, the same move works versus South Africa for Raffi Quirke’s game-winning try, watch how Lukhanyo Am lines up Smith and completely misses the line of Joe Marchant who goes through without a hand laid on him.

However, the single most fascinating element of England’s gameplan this Autumn was the use of Manu Tuilagi on the wing. Many fans, including myself, were baffled when they saw the Samoan-native named at 14 rather than his usual 12 or 13. As it happened, the pure genius of the decision quickly became apparent.

Eddie, and England, were essentially playing with 16 men.

Manu was used to great effect off set-piece in the midfield when the set piece originated from his wing. While traditionally blindside wingers would stay on their wing to defend against a turnover and counterattack, Manu was used as a ‘crashball’ option in midfield to create mismatches and overlaps. Senior defenders such as Paisami were now having to guard against the threat of Tuilagi rather than focusing on the threats of Smith, Slade and Steward. Therefore, when Tuilagi was used as a dummy-runner it was absolutely devastating. Look at this example where England create space out wide and Jonny May should really score. The Australian defence is so compact to defend against the threat of Tuilagi’s crash-ball and the dummy line completely kills their drift.

Furthermore, Tuilagi is a massive defensive presence. Many fans and pundits were confused as to why Manu was picked on the wing over the raw pace of Adam Radwan. Well that’s because Eddie Jones is all about getting his best players on the pitch, what you lose in pace, you gain in experience and defensive presence. What we saw this Autumn, especially vs Australia, was almost completely position-less rugby in which every single player on the pitch had the skills to slot into any role and to execute any play.

Tuilagi doesn’t even have to make big tackles it is more that no one in their right mind wants to run down his channel, this massively cuts down space. Furthermore, Eddie’s decision to move the behemoth to the wing blessed us with the beautiful sight of Tuilagi bringing the ball back at full tilt from the backfield. They even orchestrated a lovely set play incorporating Dombrandt in which Tuilagi hit a flat line from the defender’s blind spot, leading to a nice linebreak.

The only problem with Tuilagi on the wing is his weakness under the high ball, a massive role for wingers in modern rugby. Early in the game vs Australia James O’Connor dropped the perfect kickoff infront of Manu forcing him to chase it and knock it on. But Eddie even hid this weakness beautifully. In situations in which it was obvious that Australia were going to kick to Tuilagi’s wing he would swap with Henry Slade, Slade being two inches taller and with experience at 15 for England and therefore more comfortable under the high ball. This meant Australia could not exploit Tuilagi’s weakness under the high ball.

Remember that Eddie is a master of hiding his weaknesses, he hid George Ford in defence to great success for five years. Expect him to do a similar thing with Smith in the coming years.

My immediate reaction after Tuilagi got injured early on vs South Africa was panic and worry, as i believed the gameplan was ruined and that we would have to revert to plan B (a famous weakness of the England team). What i didn’t realise is that Eddie Jones had a plan A.2, Joe Marchant. Marchant, initially named vs South Africa at 14, was forced to move mid-game into 13 to go against arguably the best 13 in the world right now, Lukhanyo Am, and he was absolutely immense. The Harlequin outperformed Am in almost every statistical category including carries (4 to 2), linebreaks (1 to 0), defenders beaten (3 to 1) and equalled Am’s tackle count (7 to 7). I’ve been a huge fan of Marchant for a long time and have wanted him in the England 13 shirt for just as long, there is no doubt that this game massively raised his international stock and surely now he must be part of Eddie Jones’ long-term plans.

To conclude i’ll leave you with this table showing the current ages of certain players who broke through into the England side this Autumn, or earlier, and their ages during the 2023 World Cup in France. What we can see is a core group of young and hungry players, in tremendous Premiership form, who will all peak around the 2023 tournament.

Current AgeAge in 2023
Bevan Rodd2123
Tom Curry2325
Alex Dombrandt2426
Harry Randall2325
Raffi Quirke2022
Marcus Smith2224
Joe Marchant2527
Max Malins2426
Freddie Steward2122

A Letter to BT Sport

@BenNurse8

The relationship between fans and the media has long been a complicated and tense affair. Fans frequently go after various broadcasters and pundits for any opinion which infringes on their personal agenda while the media, although bound by professionalism, often let on that sometimes they wish fans didn’t exist. However the relationship is one of mutual benefit, the fans need the media to broadcast and report on their games while the media need fans to pay to watch games. It could be argued that both parties despise each other, however, it cannot be argued that both parties need each other.

There is a theory in sport called the Golden Triangle theory which dictates that sport, the media and sponsors all work together in order to maximise each others financial gain. Sports clubs and players benefit from increased commercialism through wages and fame, the media benefit from commercialism through larger audiences, exposure and narratives while the sponsors benefit from commercialism through increased revenue. Each point of the triangle feeds into the next and relies on the one before it. This creates a system of checks of balances, if one point of the triangle steps out of line they can be punished by the others.

Credit: https://www.slideshare.net/peshare.co.uk/pesharecouk-shared-resource-11282187

Seems perfect right? However there is one group missing, the group which makes the whole triangle run in the first place. The fans. In a modern world of increased commercialism and financially driven goals and decision making, the fans are often the ones who get left behind. Their hearts full of passion for their team, their pockets empty.

Which brings me to BT Sport, the broadcasters in possession of the rights to all Premiership rugby in England, a massive responsibility and honour which often i believe they take for granted. BT, at least recently, seem intent on exploiting the fan’s boundless, naïve love and passion for their teams by rinsing each fan base for every penny they are physically willing to give up. Why do i say this? It all started in the 2019/2020 season, the COVID season, when BT announced that due to the national lockdown which banned fans from attending live games, that they would show every single Premiership game live on a red button system for games which clashed. This was an honest and kind gesture which won the respect and gratitude of many fans such as myself, the lockdown was painfully hard on everyone so for passionate rugby fans to be consoled with almost constant rugby from Friday to Sunday was massive, bigger than any non-sports fan can ever comprehend. This continued through the 2020-21 season until the lockdowns ended and fans began to be allowed back into the stadiums. This is when BT announced that they would return to showing just three games a weekend for the 2021/22 season and that fans could no longer watch their teams live every week.

Their reason for this? They claim that they don’t want to reduce stadium attendances by showing every game live. I don’t need to tell you how preposterous and outlandish this excuse is as no honest fan has ever refused the chance of being in the ground because the same game was being shown on BT Sport. Furthermore, this excuse holds no weight to me as i don’t believe broadcasters at BT care at all about stadium attendances as this doesn’t affect their own business. The real reason is that BT don’t want the expense of broadcasting six games a weekend, but still want to collect the same monthly fee from their loyal subscribers. Don’t just take my word for this, the average attendance at Ashton Gate in the 2019/20 season was 17,916, in their first home game of 2021/22, live on BT Sport, there was 19,003 at Ashton Gate and two weeks later, live on BT again, 23, 438, an increase of 5,522 fans. Furthermore, Kingston Park has hosted two games so far this season, one live on BT Sport was attended by 6,114, the other, not on BT Sport, was attended by just 5,337.

But at least they shared out the live games equally so everyone gets to watch their team right? Well no actually, some teams are heavily favoured in terms of live games while others are essentially not shown meaning that whole fan bases will be paying to never watch their team play. Are you a Saracens fan? Good news, you can watch your team play eight times in the first 10 rounds. A Worcester fan? Hard luck, you can only watch your team once in the first 10 rounds.

But that’s not all. After the social media backlash from fans who were asking why they couldn’t watch their team play every week and were paying to watch other teams there was a rumour going round that BT Sport were thinking of introducing a Pay Per View system so fans could pay extra to watch their teams play. So after failing to provide the product they had already promised and that consumers had already subscribed to for the season they believed they could rectify this issue by asking fans to pay more for the product they were already paying for and not receiving. Which makes me wonder what the price would be if such a system were introduced. If each game cost £5 i would then be paying £45 a month just to watch my team play every week and for 2 other Premiership games a week. BT seem to believe that the pockets of rugby fans are bottom-less, or if they don’t, they simply don’t care. Every game of every weekend is recorded with broadcast quality commentary for the Premiership Rugby highlights packages, therefore, there is absolutely no reason why BT can’t show every game of every weekend except for their own financial gain. They have shown they have the means to introduce a red button style system because they did it for a season and a half already. At the very least they could introduce an online streaming service for the remaining games they don’t show on TV.

Lets get one thing straight. The rugby coverage on BT Sport is very good. The pundit team they have, led by the likes of Dallaglio, Kay, Flatman, Healey, Monye, Doyle and Elgan is superb every time and programmes such as Rugby Tonight consistently push the level of quality we have for rugby broadcasting. However, it seems the wider BT Sport corporation simply does not care about rugby. This is a problem because BT have bought the rights to exclusively show Premiership rugby in England until 2024 in a deal worth a rumoured £110 million. Meaning no one else can show the remaining games that BT refuse to show and i am left scouring Russian streaming platforms every weekend when i want to watch Sale. The other issue is that there is very little else on BT Sport which is worth the subscription, aside from the rights to 52 Premier League football games this season BT don’t show much else of interest for rugby fans. As i am writing this i have just checked the BT Sport TV guide and they are currently showing Spain v Austria in cricket, badminton and Eastleigh v Boreham Wood in non-league football.

The gravity and outrageousness of this whole situation is summed up by the fact that Stan Sport, an Australian streaming platform, is showing every Premiership game in Australia however in England we can only watch three games a weekend for paying more money a month. If we lived in Australia we would have better access to the rugby in our own national league.

This is also coming at a time when being a rugby fan is increasingly expensive. With the introduction of Amazon Prime as a rugby broadcaster of the Autumn Nations Cup, rugby fans in England now need to be subscribed to three different services to watch just their club and England, at a cost of over £60 + per month. And for that you can only watch three Premiership games a week and maybe not your own team. Say what you want about stereotypes of rugby fans, i don’t know anyone that can spare that kind of money every month.

The primary focus right now for everyone involved in rugby should be to attract and engage new and younger audiences, something we are currently failing to do, and making it harder and more expensive to watch games is the opposite way to do this. Young people have no income so cannot afford to be shelling the likes of £60 a month on a pastime especially if they are only new or casual fans. Essentially, broadcast and subscription services such as BT Sport can do whatever they like in exploiting fans and the fans have no checks or balances in order to stand up for their own rights, even though they are such an essential part of the function of sport and sports broadcasting. Broadcasters know they need us, but they also know we will never go ‘cold turkey’ and just abandon our love for the sport.

The hardest part about this for me is that the product is improving. The Premiership has become arguably the best league in the world and the large majority of games are absolutely stunning contests with constant entertainment. We just need more exposure. Now is not the time to be gatekeeping the sport and forcing the audience to watch a certain game when another game on at the same time might be far more entertaining.

I implore BT Sport to resolve this issue and do the right thing by making all the weekends games available to view, whether it be on TV or just simply streamed online.

Here is a selection of tweets from fans who share my sentiments.

The Premiership’s Top 5 Signings of 2021

The 2021/22 Premiership season started last weekend and many of the league’s new stars were on show. It has been a busy summer transfer window in the Premiership with Worcester, Northampton, Wasps and Leicester among others spending big and making headlines with new recruits. This gave me the perfect idea to rank my favourite 5 of all these summer signings. There is no metric for this list, nor any significant rationale, it is simply my personal favourite 5 signings and how excited i am to watch them in England. If you are reading this, list your 5 favourite signings in the comments below this post.

Honourable Mentions I feel it’s necessary to mention a few underrated signings which may have flown under many people’s radars. Wasps signed former Saracens winger Ali Crossdale who has incredible potential and has looked extremely dangerous in all of his Saracens appearances. He has already been named in an England squad and i wouldn’t be surprised if he is near the top of the try scorers list this season if he gets game time. Northampton among many other quality signings this summer have signed Number 8 Juarno Agustus from the Stormers. At just 23 years of age he was one of their stronger players so expect him to make an impact on the Premiership. Finally Worcester signed Wales hooker Scott Baldwin from Quins, a very underrated player who will significantly improve their pack.

5. Courtnall Skosan

Northampton Saints had arguably the best summer transfer window and this was the highlight. Capped 12 times for South Africa, Skosan is an immensely exciting signing. He scored 38 tries in 84 games in Super Rugby for the Lions from 2014-2021, a strike rate of 0.45 tries per game and in the Currie Cup in the same period he scored 22 tries in 40 games, a strike rate of 0.55 tries per game. In 2021 so far (for club) he is averaging 3.5m per carry and has beaten 14 defenders, compared to the top wingers in the Premiership, Anthony Watson is averaging 5m per carry and has beaten 12 defenders and Louis Rees Zammit 4.7m per carry and 8 defenders beaten. There is no doubt that Skosan is a top tier winger and because he is no longer in the South Africa international set up, Saints will get their moneys worth by having him all season. For this reason i believe he is a shoe-in to be at the top of the try scorers list come the end of the season.

4. Huw Jones

Harlequins have demonstrated a masterclass on how to follow up a Premiership winning season. After signing Nick David and Italy international Tommy Allan they secured Scotland star Huw Jones, who was on the verge of signing for Pro D2 club Bayonne but pulled out of the contract to move to London. Jones is a deadly attacker from outside centre, he has scored 12 tries in 30 games for Scotland and scored 12 tries in 49 games for Glasgow. In 2021 for Glasgow he averaged 3.7m per carry and beat 8 defenders, compared to the top centres in the Premiership Semi Radradra averages 4m per carry and has beaten 5 defenders while Joe Marchant averages 4.1m per carry and has beaten 26 defenders. Jones is a scary attacking weapon and will also add much needed depth to a Harlequins back line that may be short during international periods, with Smith, Esterhuizen and Marchant possibly unavailable.

3. Duhan Van Der Merwe

Probably the most high profile, blockbuster of all the 2021 Premiership signings, Duhan is fresh off of being crowned top try scorer of the 2021 Six Nations and a subsequent Lions tour in which he started all 3 tests. The Scottish winger’s stats very much speak for themself, he scored 5 tries in 5 games in the Six Nations and has 8 tries in 10 total caps for Scotland, a strike rate of 0.8 tries per game. He also scored 32 tries in 67 games over 4 seasons for Edinburgh. In the Six Nations he beat 19 defenders and ran for 142 metres while Anthony Watson beat 10 defenders and ran for 191 metres and Louis Rees Zammit beat 3 defenders and ran for 150 metres. Duhan’s balance of speed and destructive power and size makes him currently one of the best wingers in the world, however, his impact on Worcester, the team who finished bottom last season, scoring just 39 tries, will be fascinating. I don’t doubt Duhan will be as destructive as always however the decision to sign him for a team that usually plays with 2 crash ball centres, Venter and Lawrence, and no secondary ball handler is slightly perplexing.

2. Vaea Fifita

A signing i am unduly excited about, Fifita is a combo lock/flanker from the Hurricanes in New Zealand who will make a massive impact on Wasps. With Jack Willis and Joe Launchbury out for the start of the season and Will Rowlands off to Wales, Wasps required depth and quality at 5/6 and have it in Fifita. He is a powerful runner with surprising speed for his position as well as a strong defender and safe lineout option. Fifita spent 7 seasons with the Hurricanes playing 69 times and has been capped 11 times for New Zealand, scoring 2 international tries. In the year 2020 he made 1.8m per carry and had a 79% tackle success rate, compare this to his new teammate Joe Launchbury who made 1.1m per carry and had a 96% tackle success rate. Fifita is a pure athlete at lock who offers shades of Ardie Savea and Akira Ioane, he will add a significant amount of flair to the Premiership.

1. Adam Hastings

The clear winner of this list in my opinion. Hastings is still very much in the Scottish international set up as their second choice 10 behind Lion Finn Russell. Although this means he may miss time in the Autumn and Six Nations it is also an assurance of his quality. He scored 385 points in 48 games over 4 seasons for Glasgow and att just 24 years of age he has already racked up 23 caps for Scotland, scoring 4 tries and 98 total points. His goalkicking is not his strong point, sitting at around a 70% success rate, however, his general attacking game is superb. In 2021 so far he has made 4 clean line breaks and 9 try assists, compare this to AJ MacGinty who has made 1 clean line break and 13 try assists and Marcus Smith who has made 8 clean line breaks 15 try assists. Hastings is an exciting mix of quality and untapped potential and no doubt a shrewd piece of business by Gloucester who will savour the injection they will get from Hastings after years of underachieving. I whole-heartedly believe that, if he can stay fit, Hastings will get Gloucester over this hump and this will not only be great to watch, to see him link with the likes of Rees Zammit and Carrerras, but will also make the top 8 race extremely interesting.

The Best Rugby Club in Every English County

Twitter: BenNurse8

English rugby is a wild landscape of various hotbeds and epicentre’s. Whether or not the regions are represented equally in English rugby there is no doubt that every region of England loves rugby, a vast reach and connection which is only reflected in one, maybe two other sports in this country, however rugby’s popularity can waver from town to town. With circa 1900 total rugby clubs in England the title of being the best rugby club in your respective county is not to be taken lightly. In saying this, some counties have more fierce competition than others. 2 of the Premiership clubs are not represented on this list while another county can only boast a team in the 9th tier of the English rugby pyramid, representing the irregular and divergent nature of rugby’s popularity across England.

The way i have compiled this list is by using the rankings from the end of the last season of rugby. For the Premiership and Championship these are the finishing places from the 2020/21 season however, due to COVID, for all the league’s below it is the 2019/20 season. Obviously if two teams in the same county are in the same league the team who finished higher in the last season wins. I pinpointed where each club is based by using the location of their stadium/ground. This was far more difficult than i thought as many towns exist in two counties, one historic and one metropolitan, so i have tried my best but i may have made mistakes, feel free to message me informing me of any mistakes.

Bath: Bath (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

Bedfordshire: Ampthill (Championship) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 2

Berkshire: Rams RFC (National 1) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Bristol:
Bristol Bears (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

Buckinghamshire:
Amersham & Chiltern RFC (London 1 North) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Cambridgeshire: Cambridge (National 1) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Cheshire: Chester RUFC (National 2 North) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Cornwall: Cornish Pirates (Championship) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

Durham: Darlington Mowden Park (National 1) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Cumbria: Kirkby Lonsdale (North Premier) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Derbyshire: Derby (Midlands 1 East) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Devon: Exeter Chiefs (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

Dorset: Bournemouth (National 2 South) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Sussex: Worthing RFC (National 2 South) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Essex: Westcliff RFC (National 2 South) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Gloucestershire: Gloucester (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 2

Greater London: Harlequins (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 6

Greater Manchester: Sale Sharks (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

Hampshire: Havant RFC (London & South East Premier) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Herefordshire: Luctonian’s RFC (National 2 North) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Hertfordshire:
Bishop’s Stortford (National 1) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Isle of Wight: Sandown & Shanklin RFC (Hampshire Premier) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Kent: Canterbury RFC (National 1) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Lancashire: Fylde RFC (National 2 North) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Leicestershire: Leicester Tigers (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

Lincolnshire: Scunthorpe RUFC (National 2 North) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Merseyside:
Caldy RFC (National 1) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Norfolk: North Walsham RFC (London & South East Premier) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Yorkshire: Doncaster Knights (Championship) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

Northamptonshire: Northampton Saints (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

Northumberland: Tynedale RFC (National 2 North) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Nottinghamshire: Nottingham (Championship) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

Oxfordshire:
Chinnor RFC (National 1) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Rutland: Oakham RFC (Midlands 3 East (South)) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Shropshire: Newport Salop RUFC (Midlands Premier) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Somerset: Taunton RFC (National 2 South) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Staffordshire:
Burton (Midlands Premier) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Suffolk: Bury St Edmonds RUFC (National 2 South) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Surrey: Esher (National 2 South) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Tyne & Wear: Newcastle Falcons (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

Warwickshire:
Nuneaton RFC (Midlands Premier) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

West Midlands: Wasps (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 2

Wiltshire:
Swindon RFC (Southern Counties South) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 0

Worcestershire: Worcester Warriors (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

Ranking Every Premiership Fly Half From 1-13

Fly Half is seen by many in the rugby world as the most important position on the pitch. Nicknamed the ‘pivot’, the number 10 acts as a link between the backs and forwards and often makes headlines as the primary kicker on the team, both in open play and for goal. Many of the games all-time greats played with the number 10 on their back and many of the current best players in the world do too, many of them in the premiership. With the 2020/21 season wrapped up and the 2021/22 season on the horizon i thought it would be fun to rank every Premiership club’s starting number 10 to see who comes top of the pile. The way i am ranking this is with a heavy dose of recency bias. Meaning players who performed well last season have a major advantage and players such as Owen Farrell, who spent last season in the Championship have a major disadvantage. Look at it as a fair 50-50 split when analysing a player between last seasons form and the players all round ability having equal significance.

  1. Marcus Smith (Harlequins)

No contest here. Smith was the undisputed best 10 in last seasons Premiership. The Harlequin had his best season to date, scoring 286 points, the most of any player in the league and 98 more than 2nd place MacGinty. Add to that he scored the most tries of any 10 with 8 and scored the most kicks at goal of any 10 with 104 on an 82% success rate. Visually he is the complete package, oustide of his fancy stepping and speculative passing he is the perfect modern 10 in the way he brings the ball to the line and puts players into space. His kicking game in open play has gone to a new level this year and his pace and ability to beat any defender gives him consistent assists and tries. Smith belongs on the big stage and he proved that this year by leading Quins to a huge semi final win over league-leaders Bristol and followed that up by beating Chiefs in the final a week later. An underdog story and a coming of age story rolled into one, Smith crowned his season with a deserved place in the Premiership team of the season.

2. Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints)

There is a reason Biggar is starting for the Lions this summer. The Welshman could be accused in the past of not translating his Wales form into Premiership form however, this doesn’t resonate this season. Despite only playing 7 games due to Wales commitments and injury he was immense in pretty much all of them. He is one of the best in the world in controlling a game and is in elite in pretty much every area, including distribution, open play kicking, goalkicking, defence and under the high ball. He also suits Northampton very well, he has a nice understanding with Mitchell and feeds off the momentum he gets from their powerful forward pack. Outside of the East Midlands Biggar is consistently one of, if not the, best fly half in the Six Nations every year and matches up to any international 10 in the world.

3. AJ MacGinty (Sale Sharks)

Possibly a controversial one. However, towards the latter stages of last season’s Premiership, no one was in better form than AJ MacGinty and if he can recreate that same form when he returns from his knee injury in September, he will be deserving of this ranking. The American was Sale’s best player last season and drove them to a 3rd place finish by encapsulating the definition of an all round player with elite distribution and kicking game and relentless defending. He scored the second most points of any player with 188 and was one of the most efficient goalkickers with an 82% success rate. MacGinty dominated nearly every matchup he faced at the end of last season and turned a lot of heads, who knows what could have happened if he was fit for the Exeter semi final….

4. Owen Farrell (Saracens)

A slightly harsh ranking for the England fly half who was a victim of Sarries salary saga and spent the 2020/21 season in the Championship. We all know what Farrell can do on his day and he may show that in this summers Lions tour. However, at the moment he remains an enigma as we haven’t seen him at his best for over 12 months due to his relatively poor Six Nations for his standards. He will more than likely regain his form in next years Premiership, however, for now, he sits in 4th.

5. George Ford (Leicester Tigers)

The other current England fly half, George Ford, who was a victim of Tigers’ poor form in the 2019/20 season, didn’t have a much better season this time round. Having only played 9 games he struggled to find form outside of one outstanding game vs Ulster in the Challenge Cup semi final. However we know Ford is world class, this is a guy who wore a 10 shirt in a World Cup Final after an immense tournament and who has driven the England team from 10 for over 6 years now. He is one of the best in the world at controlling the game and building an attack and is a top tier goalkicker, achieving the 4th best efficiency of any kicker this last season with an 84% success rate. Tigers could finish anywhere between 4th and 8th in the 2021/22 season and a lot of that comes down to whether Ford regains his form.

6. Callum Sheedy (Bristol Bears)

Sheedy has been one of the best 10s in the Premiership for about 3 years now and he recently had this form recognised with a deserved callup to the Wales squad where he had a successful Six Nations campaign. He perfectly suits the Bristol style of play which favours free-flowing, attacking rugby and playing through 10 which gives Sheedy a lot of ball to show what he can do. He is great at using the wide channels through long passes or cross-field kicks but is equally adept at making breaks the middle. This ability to play both fast and slow is so valuable in modern Premiership rugby and is why Sheedy is so highly rated. One area he needs to improve is goalkicking with just a 74% conversion rate last season.

7. Joe Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs)

One of the most underrated players in the league, i would have put good money on Simmonds getting an England callup this summer, however, Eddie Jones had other ideas. He has been pivotal in Exeter’s recent success as someone who can play slow for 79 minutes and focus solely on distribution and then make a line break and score out of nowhere. However, after being one of the best 10s in the league in the 2019/20 season, appearing on the player of the season shortlist, Simmonds didn’t recreate this form in the 2020/21 season, hence why he has slipped down this ranking. One area this can be seen is goalkicking, in 2020 Simmonds’ goalkicking was his strongest point and in the 90% success range, this season his success rate slipped down to 75%.

8. Paddy Jackson (London Irish)

Another highly underrated player. Jackson was one of Irish’s best players in a season where they started strong and were 6th after 18 rounds. In a team of players pulled together from around the world in the last couple of seasons Jackson is effective in holding the team together and makes good decisions in attack. Furthermore, Irish play off 10 more than nearly every other team in the league which shows the trust they have in Jackson and his significant role in the team. He is also a fantastic tactical kicker and is one of the best in the game at finding space with kicks.

9. Jacob Umaga (Wasps)

Umaga has the potential to be top 5 on this list and often shows glimpses which prove it. However last season wasn’t his best in yellow and black and he struggled, especially in the first half of the season. However, Umaga still got 15 try assists and his goalkicking significantly improved, rising to 80% from 60% last season. The recent England debutant plays with no fear and is never afraid to roll the dice with a miracle offload, dummy or chip kick, however, it is safe to say that his game is far more well rounded than last season, despite him making less headlines. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Umaga ascend these rankings in the coming seasons.

10. Adam Hastings (Gloucester)

This is a very harsh ranking for a 23-time capped Scottish international who suffers purely because he is yet to play in the Premiership or for Gloucester. I have no doubt he will be a star for the cherry and whites, however, he has his work cut out for him after Gloucester’s 11th place finish last season.

11. Danny Cipriani (Bath)

A similar situation to Hastings, there is no questioning Cipriani’s unfiltered talent however his arrival will surely completely change the way Bath play who have lost two of their biggest leaders this summer in Mercer and Priestland. At the age of 33, Cipriani is facing an uphill battle to recreate his Sale, Wasps and Gloucester form with Orlando Bailey breathing down his neck.

12. Brett Connon (Newcastle Falcons)

2020/21 was a successful first Premiership season for Connon who led Newcastle to a solid 10th place finish. However, with all due respect, he doesn’t have the talent or reputation of the players above him on this ranking. At least not yet

13. Fin Smith (Worcester Warriors)

It remains to be seen whether Smith starts over Billy Searle for Worcester but the 19 year old had a strong end to the 2020/21 season with a good string of performances. Furthermore, he had a very good u20s Six Nations campaign, starting 5 of England’s 6 games in their Grand Slam win. Smith has great potential and a great future but his 6 total career appearances don’t get him above 13th in this ranking.

Written and compiled by Ben Nurse (@BenNurse8)