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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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 Bears (Premiership) Clubs in top 2 leagues: 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

The Regional Disparity in English Rugby

By Ben Nurse

Rugby prides itself on being a game for all shapes and sizes and for every type of person. A game that transcends occupation and ethnicity to unite everyone under one mutual passion. Every region in England loves rugby equally but unfortunately rugby doesn’t love the regions equally.

The regional distribution of professional rugby in England is extremely unequal. In England’s top two leagues, formerly the two professional leagues before the RFU stopped funding the Championship, 13 out of the 23 teams are located in the South of England, 7/23 in the Midlands, leaving just 3/23 located in the North. This directly contradicts the franchise systems seen in New Zealand and Ireland in which one team represents a region, creating an equal dispersion. New Zealand just recently played a North vs South match which finished 38-35 after being 31-35 in the final minutes, showcasing the immense equilibrium and parity they have on regional talent. The regional disparity in clubs is not reflected in other areas, northern schools and Universities are consistently successful, in the University rankings 3 of the top 10 Uni’s are located in the North (Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria) and Sedbergh is arguably the best rugby school in the country, consistently producing England talent and going unbeaten for two years from 2018. In fact, i (painstakingly) found how many clubs are in each English county and made a spreadsheet to see how many total clubs are in each region. As you can see Yorkshire and Lancashire lead the country in total clubs with 94 and 83 respectively and with the 3rd most clubs being Gloucestershire with 74. Therefore, if anyone tries to tell you that rugby is more popular or dense in the Midlands or South they are wildly incorrect.

Although the south has more total clubs, by my calculation there are 17 counties in the South and 11 in the North. What is surprising is how little total clubs are in the Midlands, although the regions of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire are rugby hot-beds the ratio of total clubs to professional clubs is disproportionate.

Region Professional Clubs Total ClubsPercentage

Of England’s initial 28-man 2021 Six Nations squad just 3 of the 28 were born in the North of England (Farrell, Ford, Wilson). In fact, of England’s 2019 World Cup squad of 31 there was again just 3/31 born in the North. Here I am reminded of the paradox of the chicken and the egg, is it that there is less professional northern clubs because there is less northern-born players or is that there less northern-born players because there is less northern clubs?

The regional disparity is perfectly demonstrated in the academy set up in England. The country is split up into 14 catchment areas in which every area falls into just one catchment, these catchments are the 12 premiership clubs plus Saracens and Yorkshire Carnegie. Carnegie who were formerly an established Premiership club under the guise of Leeds Tykes and then Leeds Carnegie and have now been removed from the Championship for failing to pay their debts and have had their academy funding from the RFU pulled and their academy disbanded. This has created a huge chasm in the English academy system as the huge catchment of Yorkshire is now without a professional academy. This is a huge issue as the list of current Premiership players from Yorkshire is huge: Zach Mercer, Jacob Umaga, Danny Care, Matt Postlethwaite etc. not to mention the England legends from Yorkshire like Jason Robinson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Brian Moore. Now that Carnegie have disbanded their academy, the biggest academy in Yorkshire is Doncaster Knights who operate on a shoe-string budget with no funding from the RFU. This means that a rising young talent in the North might have to travel a long way for academy coaching and may end up being lost to the game. A perfect example of this is England international Mark Wilson who is known as a product of Newcastle’s academy but actually didn’t grow up anywhere near Newcastle, he was born in Kendal in Cumbria, a two hours’ drive from Newcastle.

Another heart-breaking story is the one of Orrell RUFC, a famous club in Wigan that formerly played in the first division. Orrell simply couldn’t survive the turn of professionalism and a team that was stacked with great players suddenly couldn’t afford to pay them. The club went into administration, the players were sold and even the training ground and clubhouse were sold as Orrell accepted amateurism and allowed themselves to freefall through the leagues. Orrell was once a hub of talent, producing players such as Dewi Morris, Austin Healy, Nick Easter and Dan Luger but now is just an amateur club with fond memories of the top division. Some may recall a similar thing happening to Richmond although they managed to rebuild and are now in the English Championship, the 2nd tier, while Orrell are currently in the 7th tier.

And i already know what everyone is already typing out in the comments of this post. ‘Its because of Rugby League’. Well actually there is 58,000 registered rugby league players in England and there are about 2,000,000 registered football players in England and an estimated 11,000,000 total players including Sunday league. As a percentage of the population of England, 3.5% of people play football and 0.1% play rugby league. So in a conversation about rugby union competing for participation in England, rugby league is not a factor. If London can compete with 12 professional football clubs including Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham to produce 3 Premiership rugby clubs then Yorkshire can compete with rugby league to produce 1 Premiership rugby club.

This week as i’m writing this, RugbyInsideLine shared this map on Twitter of the geographical radiuses surrounding Premiership clubs which reinforces my point.

The comments seem to focus on the gaps in Norfolk and Southampton, glossing over the gaping holes in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. They then posted the same map with the Championship clubs added and the gaps in the North are immediately evident. Furthermore, while there are open holes in the North, numerous areas in the Midlands and the South have 2 or 3 clubs overlapping.

In terms of a solution to this issue there is no obvious solution, the only obvious thing is that northern clubs clearly lack finances and resources and need to be supported by the RFU or the RFU risks further and permanently alienating the North. Clubs that rise from the lower levels to the Premiership success don’t do so by coincidence. Exeter and Bristol found success due to significant financial injection and the same is currently in progress at Ealing. In 2020 two northern clubs, Rotherham and Yorkshire, were both relegated after financial issues, demonstrating an obvious trend. Obviously the pandemic has hit everyone hard financially and the RFU are no exception, this contributed to their decision to cut funding to Yorkshire Carnegie. However the retention of the North should be seen by the RFU as an issue of upmost priority. Recall my earlier reference to the 2019 England World squad with just 3/31 born in the North, what if there was an equal split of players between the North and South 15:16 assuming that an extra club in the North would provide more England internationals that would have previously been lost to the game due to lack of resources or alienation. For every Mark Wilson in this world there is 3 Cumbrian’s or Yorkshiremen who gave up the sport or turned to league. We all know how well England did in 2019 but in this hypothetical scenario they could become a consistent super power. The South has long been a stronghold of rugby union but this doesn’t mean that the North has to be neglected. It is not a coincidence that there is 4 West Country clubs in the Premiership and 0 from Yorkshire even though there is 94 total clubs in Yorkshire and just 48 in Devon and 57 in Somerset. Not to mention the 140 total clubs in Cumbria, Lancashire and Durham for 0 in the top two English leagues.

My Favourite Premiership Teams Ever

Twitter: BenNurse8

I am seemingly in a niche minority among rugby fans as i am far from partisan or monogamous with one single club and i tend to go through phases of supporting clubs that i enjoy watching as an impartial neutral whether it be due to their cast of characters or exciting brand of rugby. Some may call this glory hunting, however my allegiances are not based on success or wins as the teams in this list aren’t all Premiership winners. Having said this, when a team is playing entertaining, attacking rugby this tends to correlate with success in the league table. What can be seen in this list is unexpected eruptions of form in which mid table teams became title challengers apparently overnight rather than extended periods of domination (Saracens and Exeter) which become boring with time.

Northampton Saints 2013-2014

The title winning Northampton team more closely resembled a Barbarians team than a Premiership team (a common theme in this list). The physicality of Lawes, Wood and Dickinson was compounded by the freakish Samu Manoa and this was balanced by a clinical back line including Kahn Fotuali’i, Luther Burrell, George North, George and Ken Pisi, Ben Foden and most importantly, the criminally underrated Stephen Myler. After losing the previous years final Saints played attractive rugby all season and finished 2nd with the 2nd most points scored. They would have been worthy of this list purely for the iconic last minute Tom Wood try in the semi final-cum-derby vs Tigers but went one better and beat Saracens in the final with an Alex Waller try under the posts in extra time in one of the most outrageous finals to date. The combination of Manoa, North and Pisi squared created weekly highlights and i enjoyed every game of it.

Bath 2014-2015

What do you get when you combine the breath-taking breakout season of a young George Ford, a prime Jonathan Joseph, and a destructive Sam Burgess in his first (and only) Union season? Well add in Leroy Houston and a young Anthony Watson and you get an attacking juggernaut providing weekly highlights. Rokoduguni and Banahan ran the flanks, Louw was the breakdown threat and Stringer brought it all together. This Bath team was a crecendo of players in their prime as Joseph, Louw, Houston, Eastmond and Rokodguni arguably never played as well as they did this year and the team seemed to regularly put up to 30 points on opposition. They finished 2nd just one point behind Saints, battered Tigers in the semi and then sadly lost in the final to a resurgent Sarries team.

Leicester Tigers 2015-2016

The end of the Tigers playoff dynasty, this Tigers team was inconsistent but when they turned up they were both unstoppable and unbelievable to watch. Behind a stereotypically powerful Tigers pack was a collection of some of my favourite backs ever in Ben Youngs, Manu Tuilagi, Vereniki Goneva, Peter Betham, the highlight machine Telusa Veainu and a perfect microcosm for this team, the unpredictable Freddie Burns who could be average one week and prime Dan Carter the next. The team exited the Premiership playoffs in the semis but partook in one of my favourite games ever in a 41-13 dismantling of Stade Francais in the Champions Cup quarter final featuring a Tuilagi score inside 90 seconds, a Goneva double, a Veainu beauty and a Freddie Burns intercept that he ran in from 50 metres.

Wasps 2016-2017

Probably my favourite of the lot, this Wasps team had no intention to be as successful as they were, they were a collection of the most exciting players on the planet who went out every week looking to run the ball from every part of the pitch and put up 50 points, regardless of the opposition. Unlike other teams on this list, Wasps weren’t balanced, they were all speed and creativity. Cipriani thrived in his relaxed, unrestricted role and along with Wallaby Kurtley Beale, Kiwi Jimmy Gopperth, and future World Cup wining Springbok Willie Le Roux, consistently served tries on platters to the pace of Wade, Bassett and Daly. It seemed like every time i watched Wasps highlights in this period either Thomas Young, Dan Robson or Daly would run in a try from 70+ metres out. The team finished top of the Premiership with 89 tries and 13 try bonus points in 22 games including a 70-12 win over Bristol and a 47-18 win over Quins. If this wasn’t enough Wasps partook in one of the all time great Premiership finals vs Exeter in which Gareth Steenson brutally levelled the scores with a penalty on 80 minutes and then won the game in extra time on 98 minutes.

Bristol Bears 2020/2021

The culmination of attacking innovation and a game plan built over 3 years and tailored for an all-star team of Barbarians. Pat Lam has created a team which is an anomaly in modern English rugby which relies on offloading, pace and most significantly the use of the wide channels and he has the perfect roster to do it with. In the forwards he has players that are comfortable with ball in hand and can create tries from anywhere on the field in Afoa, Thacker, Vui, Luatua, Hughes and Harding. The backs are a mix of unbearable pace and freakish skill which consistently create highlights more suited to a 7s game than a cold Sunday afternoon Premiership game in Exeter. Every position compliments the next with Randall and Sheedy constantly looking to push the pace and Radradra and Piutau constant threats in the wide channels running the outside arc. Add to that the outrageous finishing of Naulago and Morahan and Purdy. Lam has two of the best players in the world in Semi and Charles and has essentially given them the ultimate green light to play like they are in their back garden back home. Bears are currently top of the Premiership and may be on their way to a title this season and if not they will have many more opportunities in the coming years.

Using Statistics to Find the Best Rugby Player Ever

Rugby is uniquely different from other major sports in that it is hard to measure how good a player is in relation to his peers. In nearly all other sports there is a single statistic that can more or less be used to compare players, goals in football, runs/wickets in cricket, points in basketball, homeruns in baseball. However using tries as a statistic in rugby isn’t reflective of a players rugby ability. Furthermore, in the rugby community there is a distinct lack of consensus on who the best player ever is, if you ask the question to anyone in the game the same few names will come up however no one will agree on one player. Therefore, i have made it my duty to create a formula that can measure who is the best ever so i can settle thousands of pub arguments and social media wars. After looking at many articles on the best player ever i have created my own list of 10 players based on who came up on the lists the most.

  • Richie McCaw
  • Dan Carter
  • Jonny Wilkinson
  • Zinzan Brooke
  • David Campese
  • Gareth Edwards
  • Jonah Lomu
  • Martin Johnson
  • Brian O’Driscoll
  • Joost Van Der Westhuizen

So here is the formula: every player will be ranked on each individual statistic and this ranking will correspond to a value of points, e.g. 1st gets 10 points and and 10th gets 1 points. The statistics they will be ranked on are: total international wins, international win percentage, tries scored, domestic trophies* and international Trophies**. So without further ado here are the numbers:

Player Total International Wins Points
McCaw 13110
Player International Win PercentagePoints
McCaw 89%10
Player Total International TriesPoints
McCaw 275
Player Domestic TrophiesPoints
McCaw 46
Player International TrophiesPoints
McCaw 1310


I came into this project with a completely open mind and no idea how it would turn out. My intentions were to do something fun but also maybe settle a few arguments on the way. I also wondered at the start why no none had done anything like this before and i quickly realised why. There are a number of factors which make each of these tables unfair in a certain way. It is extremely unfair that two of the players in the list played for the same team as their win statistics are massively inflated. Furthermore, i couldn’t give any credit to Carter and Wilkinson for their goal kicking because the other 8 players didn’t kick for goal. The total wins statistic is unfair on the older players as players play more games in modern rugby. The try scoring statistic is obviously unfair on the forwards and advantageous towards the wingers, Campese and Lomu. While the international trophies stat is also unfair on the older players who played before The Tri Nations, i considered counting Bledisloe Wins for Lomu, Campese and Brooke but decided this would compromise the integrity of the project and would be unfair on Westhuizen. I also wanted to do a ‘Player of the Year’ stat but this would have been wildly unfair as the award was invented in 2001. In conclusion, if i did this again i wouldn’t change anything however i have learned that it is almost impossible to compare players from the 2000s to players before professionalism at the turn of the century because there was less competitions and less games. Therefore, take from this what you will. Here is the final table:

PlayerTotal Points
Richie McCaw41
Dan Carter 41
Brian O’Driscoll33
David Campese31
Martin Johnson31
Jonny Wilkinson23
Jonah Lomu23
Joost Van Der Westhuizen21
Gareth Edwards21
Zinzan Brooke19

The Final Tiebreak:

PlayerPlayer of the Year (Wins) Nominations
Richie Mccaw(3) 8
Dan Carter(3) 5

Written and compiled by Ben Nurse using statistics from Wikipedia and ESPN. Follow me on Twitter @BenNurse8

*: Only Premiership, Super Rugby, Top 14, Pro 12 and Champions Cup and National competitions before Super Rugby. No Mitre Cup or Currie Cup after Super Rugby and no Powergen/Premiership Cup or Challenge Cup.

**: Lions Tours included

What if the Premiership was split into Regions?

A lot has been made of the future of the English Premiership and specifically it’s format after recent rumours that a ringfenced, 14-team Premiership is imminent. But what about the hypothetical possibility that England follows in the footsteps of it’s Western neighbours, Wales and Ireland, and create a a 4-team league based on regions? This is how, in my opinion, it would look. Take a look at my teams and message me on Twitter who you think would win the league.

North: (Sale Sharks, Newcastle Falcons)

  1. Bevan Rodd (Sale)
  2. Akker Van Der Merwe (Sale)
  3. Will Griff John (Sale)
  4. Jean-Luc Du Preez (Sale)
  5. Lood De Jager (Sale)
  6. Mark Wilson (Newcastle)
  7. Tom Curry (Sale)
  8. Dan Du Preez (Sale)
  9. Faf De Klerk (Sale)
  10. AJ Macginty (Sale)
  11. Adam Radwan (Newcastle)
  12. Manu Tuilagi (Sale)
  13. Rohan Janse Van Rensburg (Sale)
  14. Byron Mcguigan (Sale)
  15. Luke James (Sale)

16. George Mcguigan (Newcastle) 17. Ross Harrsion (Sale) 18. Logovili Mulipola (Newcastle) 19. Sean Robinson (Newcastle) 20. Ben Curry (Sale) 21. Michael Young (Newcastle) 22. Sam James (Sale) 23. Matias Orlando (Newcastle)

Midlands: (Leicester Tigers, Northampton Saints, Wasps, Worcester)

  1. Ellis Genge (Leicester)
  2. Sam Matavesi (Northampton)
  3. Nick Schonert (Worcester)
  4. Joe Launchbury (Wasps)
  5. Courtney Lawes (Northampton)
  6. Alfie Barbeary (Wasps)
  7. Jack Willis (Wasps)
  8. Jasper Wiese (Leicester)
  9. Ben Youngs (Leicester)
  10. George Ford (Leicester)
  11. Nemani Nadolo (Leicester)
  12. Ollie Lawrence (Worcester)
  13. Malakai Fekitoa (Wasps)
  14. Ollie Sleightholme (Northampton)
  15. Matteo Minozzi (Wasps)

16. Tom Cruse (Wasps) 17. Alex Waller (Northampton) 18. Ethan Waller (Worcester) 19. David Ribbans (Northampton) 20. Hanro Liebenberg (Leicester) 21. Alex Mitchell (Northampton) 22. Dan Biggar (Northampton) 23. Freddie Steward (Leicester)

West: (Exeter Chiefs, Bristol Bears, Bath, Gloucester)

  1. Beno Obano (Bath)
  2. Luke Cowan Dickie (Exeter)
  3. Kyle Sinckler (Bristol)
  4. Jonny Gray (Exeter)
  5. Jonny Hill (Exeter)
  6. Toby Faletau (Bath)
  7. Sam Underhill (Bath)
  8. Sam Simmonds (Exeter)
  9. Harry Randall (Bristol)
  10. Callum Sheedy (Bristol)
  11. Louis Rees Zammit (Gloucester)
  12. Semi Radradra (Bristol)
  13. Henry Slade (Exeter)
  14. Anthony Watson (Bath)
  15. Stuart Hogg (Exeter)

16. Tom Dunn (Bath) 17. Val Rapava Ruskin (Gloucester) 18. Will Stuart (Bath) 19. Chris Vui (Bristol) 20. Jake Polledri (Gloucester) 21. Ben Spencer (Bath) 22. Joe Simmonds (Exeter) 23. Charles Piutau

London: (Saracens, Harlequins, London Irish)

  1. Mako Vunipola (Saracens)
  2. Jamie George (Saracens)
  3. Vincent Koch (Saracens)
  4. Maro Itoje (Saracens)
  5. Rob Simmons (Irish)
  6. Ben Earl (Saracens)
  7. Will Evans (Harlequins)
  8. Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins)
  9. Danny Care (Harlequins)
  10. Marcus Smith (Harlequins)
  11. Tyrone Green (Harlequins)
  12. Owen Farrell (Saracens)
  13. Curtis Rona (Irish)
  14. Ben Loader (Irish)
  15. Elliot Daly (Saracens)

16. Agustin Creevy (Irish) 17. Joe Marler (Harlequins) 18. Wilco Louw (Harlequins) 19. Stephan Lewies (Harlequins) 20. Billy Vunipola (Saracens) 21. Scott Steele (Harlequins) 22. Andre Esterhuizen (Harlequins) 23. Ollie Hassell Collins (Irish)

(This is purely my opinion and a bit of fun, we all prefer certain players over others and i tried my best to give every team representation)

Rugby’s Understudies

Written by Ben Nurse – https://twitter.com/BenNurse8 and Olly Wallace: https://twitter.com/LastWordOlly

The traditional career path for an international rugby player is to come into the squad as a young player and work up through the reserves and the bench and become a starter. Players will sit behind a more experienced player in the pecking order and learn from them until their international career winds down and the natural replacement process ensues. However, there are some players in rugby’s long history who never got the chance to consistently wear their nations starting shirt and instead spent their whole careers racking up appearances off the bench. For example, players who were unfortunate to be born at the same time, and play the same position, as one of rugby’s greatest ever players. Merriam Webster defines the noun ‘Understudy’ as: “one who is prepared to act another’s part or take over another’s duties”.

Aaron Cruden

The long-time Chiefs fly half has a strong claim for rugby’s unluckiest player, he was not just an understudy to one of the game’s greatest players, but two. Cruden’s seven year All Black career over-lapped with both the Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett eras in New Zealand rugby and you can only assume that Cruden would have led New Zealand to their two World Cup wins in 2011 and 2015 had a certain Mr Carter not been born. Similarly, Cruden would have led the All Blacks in the starting 10 shirt in the 2017 Lions tour had a Mr Barrett never been born. Cruden had an incredible club career, particularly in his first Chiefs stint from 2012-2017 where he amassed 826 points in 100 games and was the top points scorer in Super Rugby in 2012 and won two Super Rugby titles in 2012 and 2013. He was also Chiefs’ top scorer for five out of his six years as well as being the teams’ co-captain from 2014. So, based on this club form you would be forgiven for being confused as to why Cruden has started just 26 games for the All Blacks over his seven-year international career and you’d be even more surprised to learn that Cruden has 50 total caps, meaning he has more or less started in only half games he’s played. Furthermore, Cruden has only started in 16 combined Rugby Championship and World Cup games with his other 10 starts coming in friendlies. The reason for this is obviously that the All Blacks starting 10 shirt was held by arguably the greatest fly half of all time, Dan Carter, until the 2015 World Cup and then it was taken over by two-time World Player of the Year Beauden Barrett. The cruel part of this story is that Cruden had his chance for glory in the 2011 World Cup when Dan Carter was injured in the group stages, Cruden was brought in and started the quarter final before being injured in the semi and subsequently missing the final where his replacement, Stephen Donald, scored the winning penalty. If there is ever an award for unluckiest man in rugby, my money is on Cruden.

Super Rugby GamesAll Blacks Caps

Sean Cronin

Cronin may be a lesser-known rugby understudy, but he was still one of rugby’s unluckiest players. The former Leinster hooker spent much of his international career wearing the number ‘16’ shirt as he substituted for Ireland legend, Rory Best. This situation was born from the fact that Cronin and Best are of a similar age, Cronin currently 34 and Best currently 38, but more so from the fact that Best had such an unusually prolonged international career, he didn’t retire until 2019. This meant that Cronin couldn’t replace Best in the starting line-up when he hung his boots up, as is the tradition and the norm, because Sean was also winding down his international career at the same time. Cronin, to this day, has played a total of 154 professional club games over 16 years for Munster, Connacht and Leinster and has 49 career tries, from hooker. However, this has not transferred into international form. Even though Cronin has 72 caps for Ireland, he only…..are you ready for this? He only started 10 of them. This discrepancy cannot be attributed to performance as Cronin consistently made a huge impact off the bench and has 6 international tries for Ireland, however, he could never dethrone the fan favourite and long-time captain, Rory Best. Although Cronin is still playing for Leinster, and Best is retired, it is unlikely that Sean will add to his caps as Ireland have created a new look since the 2019 World Cup when Andy Farrell replaced Joe Schmidt as Head Coach and Rob Herring and Ronan Kelleher seem to currently be in favour.

Matt Todd

The former Crusaders flanker has a very similar story to that of Cruden, both played in the same generation as one of the greatest All Blacks ever in their position. In the case of Todd it was of course the great Richie McCaw who locked down the New Zealand number ‘7’ shirt for about 10 years post 2005. Todd has been haunted by McCaw his whole career, they played together at Christchurch and then for the Crusaders and then for New Zealand and it could be argued that Todd has never been able to shine without McCaw as he has been forced on many occasions to play, out of position, at ‘6’, alongside McCaw. An absolutely mind-blowing statistic is that Todd only played 5 less games than McCaw for the Crusaders in 7 less years (140 to 145), however Richie has 123 more All Blacks caps. Unlike the previous examples, Todd didn’t rack up caps off the bench, he simply didn’t get the chance to play for his country, only receiving 25 career caps with only 7 of those being starts. Similarly to Cronin, Todd was a victim of the longevity of McCaw’s career as he didn’t retire until 2015 when he was 34 years old, at which point, Sam Cane became the hot new number 7 in New Zealand and stole the All Blacks shirt and captaincy as his youth and therefore potential were far more appealing than Todd who is now 32 years old. There is no doubt Todd would have shone had McCaw not existed, Todd was first called into the Crusaders squad due to an injury to McCaw, he then made his All Blacks debut when McCaw was injured, Matt scored more tries for the Crusaders than Richie in less games, he became Crusaders co-captain when McCaw retired and won 3 Super Rugby titles, only 1 less than McCaw. Who knows what Todd could have achieved had McCaw never been born.

Alex Goode

Now out on loan at the Green Rockets in the Japanese Top League, Saracens stalwart Alex Goode has long been considered one of Europe’s best fullbacks. From making his club debut in 2008, to winning his 5th Premiership title in 2019 and being anointed European Player of the Year he really has done and won it all. Goode has played in all 5 of Saracens’ Premiership winning finals as well as all 3 successful European Champions Cup campaigns, even scoring the winning try at Twickenham in the 2016 Premiership Final. His consistent sublime form has kept him as a regular at his club and cries for his inclusion in an England shirt have been constant throughout his purple-patch filled career. It should be noted that Goode does actually have a moderate collection of England caps to his name, having pulled on the white shirt twenty-one times since his debut in 2012, but these came predominantly in his earlier career and only 4 caps were awarded to him as a result of his prime form in 2016. At first, ahead of him in the pecking order sat Mike Brown; England and Harlequins legend and 72 time international. This lasted for a solid five years, Brown only losing his spot at fullback during the 2018 tour of South Africa. Here it appeared clear that Alex Goode was the natural successor to Brown, having performed exceptionally in the Premiership that season and hopes for his inclusion in the England squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup grew. However it was not to be as his future Saracens teammate, Elliot Daly, dominated the shirt for the entirety of the competition and continues to do so now. This is probably best demonstrated in a statistic from Opta which really highlights the point; ‘Since the start of England’s summer tour in June 2018 until the end of 2019, Daly missed just 80 minutes of action for England (v Italy in September 2019), playing 1,680 out of a possible 1,760 minutes’ and this was all at 15. This then continued into the 2020 Six Nations and beyond, Daly only missing out on several games in last year’s tournament but featuring at fullback for the entirety of the Autumn Nations Cup and majority of the 2021 Six Nations too. Clear then is that Alex Goode was never really in contention for the English 15 shirt, with England Head Coach Eddie Jones preferring to convert the once sensational outside centre, Daly, into his first choice fullback. It must be said that Daly has performed brilliantly for the majority of his time in this position, but even when taken on tour with the British & Irish Lions in 2017 he was selected by Warren Gatland on the wing for all 3 tests. This begs the question of whether Daly would have been better suited at 11 for all of those years but what we will ultimately and unfortunately never know is what really was Alex Goode’s potential in an England shirt?

Credit: Andrew Forde

Who did we miss? Message me on Twitter with who you think is Rugby’s biggest or most notorious understudy.

The Transition to Position-less Rugby

The rugby community loves to laugh at Eddie Jones’ comments about ‘hybrid players’ after he famously suggested that Jack Nowell could play flanker or that Ben Curry could play scrum half. However, behind the satirical and sarcastic façade there is far more truth to Eddie’s theories than first appears. The way that modern rugby is progressing I can see a not-so-distant future where the number on a player’s back becomes irrelevant as every player has a similar skillset and everyone can do every rugby skill to an elite level.

The last few years in rugby have seen an astronomical increase in player’s mobility and fitness to the point where many influential figures have said that players today are too well conditioned and too fit. An article by the Irish Times in 2019 mirrors these exact sentiments, “Has rugby to regress to ensure its future? It’s a counterintuitive concept, against all of sport’s higher-faster-stronger aspirations. But progress has taken the game to a point where it is getting too big, too strong and too dangerous. The weekend’s Six Nations action once again exhibited what much of elite rugby has become, play after play of superbly conditioned athletes crashing into each other with at times near-heroic levels of commitment.” Rugby is constantly looking to become faster and stronger and recently the increase in strength and speed has been breath-taking, vs Wales in the Six Nations Jonny May peaked at a top speed of 10.3m per second which means if he kept up that pace for 100 metres, he would have had a time of 9 seconds, Usain Bolt’s World Record. And in the same game he got absolutely smoked in a foot race by Louis Rees-Zammit. But it isn’t just wingers that are faster, these days it is not unusual for forwards to be significantly faster than backs, as at my club, Sale Sharks, where our hooker Akker Van Der Merwe and our flanker Ben Curry are arguably our fastest players but significantly are also two of the strongest. Vice versa, we are seeing more and more 110kg + backs that should probably be playing in the back row such as Manu Tuilagi, Josua Tuisova and Taqele Naiyaravoro. This has created a fluidity between the forwards and backs and has blurred the lines of what we call a back and a forward. For example, in the Top 14 in France both Mathieu Bastareaud and Levani Botia fluctuate between being centres and flankers/number 8. In addition, these days, every player on the pitch is a competent jackaler and you will see jackaling penalties won by props, wingers and even scrum halfs. For example, if you look at the current top 20 for turnovers won in the Premiership, you will see loosehead prop Bevan Rodd with 7, scrum half Francois Hougaard with 6 and winger Zach Kibirige with 6, showing that the breakdown isn’t limited to back rows and that every player is elite in certain skills.

Former Wales player Ryan Jones once said that Justin Tipuric has the skillset to play outside centre, which to you may sound like a throw away comment but to me opens up a world of possibilities. It may seem counter intuitive but I have no doubt that countless back row players could be outstanding centres if given the chance, Toby Faletau, Ben Earl, Tom Curry, Sam Simmonds, Ardie Savea and Justin Tipuric all have the speed, agility and soft hands required for the 12 and 13 shirts and would add significant physicality to the position. Furthermore, this would mean that teams could play an extra back row in their place creating more threat at the breakdown.

If you look at how modern rugby teams attack, then you can already see the progression to a position-less game. International teams will order their forwards across their attacking line in a specific way to get their faster and more agile forwards in the wider channels. For example, many teams play a 1-3-3-1 formation in which they have their two fastest forwards on each wing and also a pod of three forwards on the open side that can distribute the ball. You may have noticed this as back rows often pop up on the wing to finish tries, think of Faletau’s try in the second Lions test in 2017 or Michael Hooper scoring a double on the wing vs England in 2016.

Recently, Wales have attacked in a 1-3-2-2 formation with Faletau and Tipuric in the middle two pod because they have superb vision and outstanding offloading skills. Therefore, you can already see the use of forwards in the backline in 2021 and how both Faletau and Tipuric could comfortably play 13. Many people argue that Sam Simmonds can’t play for England because he doesn’t suit Eddie Jones game plan which has the number 8 playing centrally rather than in the wide channels. This theory is regressive because the wide channels are exactly where you want Sam Simmonds, he is often the fastest player on the pitch, has outstanding offloading skills and can outmuscle the majority of backs if he is matched up against them.

Credit: Squidge Rugby on YouTube

I’m also an avid NBA (basketball) fan and I can’t help but think rugby is going down the same road as the NBA, just 10 years later. 10 years ago, in the NBA, players were assigned roles that they had to stick to, they were either a shooter or a rebounder or a passer. Now in the NBA everyone can do everything, everyone is fast, everyone is strong, everyone can shoot, everyone can pass and everyone can rebound. The NBA is a position-less game and teams are scoring on average around 20 points per game more than 10 years ago and they have a better product. Maybe rugby is destined to do the same.

My prediction for rugby isn’t that flankers will start wearing the 13 shirt, but that the number on a players back will become more and more irrelevant as players become faster and stronger and better conditioned. This will create a further reduction in the skills gap between backs and forwards. Soon every player on the pitch will be able to execute every skill to a high level and so we won’t have players on the pitch that specialise in a certain skill. Furthermore, we will see less rigid arrangements in attacking and defensive lines as coaches will become more comfortable with forwards being in the wide channels. Rugby has always been a game for all shapes and sizes but at the moment I think that game plans are too restrictive to player’s skills. Sam Simmonds shouldn’t be restricted to just being a number 8 because he isn’t just a number 8, he’s a rugby player, so if he wants to stand out wide and step 4 guys then he should be allowed because that is his skillset. And that goes for every player, no one should be defined by their position. If i made the statement “Sam Simmonds would be England’s best 13” your immediate instinct tells me i’m wrong but if you really think about it, am i wrong?

What do you think? Comment on this post or message me on Twitter with your thoughts.