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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.

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)

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
North3c.3380.9%
Midlands7c.2692.6%
South13c.6422%

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
Carter999
Wilkinson584
McCaw 13110
Lomu442
Campese676
O’Driscoll828
Brooke453
Westhuizen605
Edwards401
Johnson717
Player International Win PercentagePoints
Carter88%9
Wilkinson70%5
McCaw 89%10
Lomu70%5
Campese67%2
O’Driscoll60%1
Brooke79%8
Westhuizen68%3
Edwards70%5
Johnson78%6
Player Total International TriesPoints
Carter296
Wilkinson42
McCaw 275
Lomu377
Campese6410
O’Driscoll479
Brooke173
Westhuizen388
Edwards204
Johnson21
Player Domestic TrophiesPoints
Carter68
Wilkinson46
McCaw 46
Lomu24
Campese68
O’Driscoll710
Brooke03
Westhuizen03
Edwards03
Johnson710
Player International TrophiesPoints
Carter129
Wilkinson56
McCaw 1310
Lomu35
Campese12
O’Driscoll35
Brooke12
Westhuizen23
Edwards88
Johnson67

Conclusion

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