Brexit – Implications on Rugby Player Movements

Brexit – remember that topic from the summer of 2016? Well, it’s back and this time it’s all for real.

Recently, the UK’s man in Brussels handed over a letter to Donald Tusk, so signalling the UK’s formal withdrawal from the EU.

Prior to the EU referendum last year, theblitzdefence looked at several of the key rugby related risks facing the UK (player movements, flights, safety, health, duty free, sterling strength).  It could be argued the currency risk has already materialised, as travel and expenses in a Euro dominated country will cost you more today than pre-Brexit, but the other issues are still to be decided as part of the official negotiations.

This article will recap what the implications are for player, coach and staff movements for UK based rugby teams.

How does regulations around player movements currently work?

The primary implication for rugby is related to the potential restrictions around player (and also coach, physio and other back room staff) movements.

This is a pretty complicated area, but to simplify matters we can identify several ways a rugby player can legally work as a professional rugby player in the UK:

 (1)    Have a UK passport (this could be gained through a birth place, spouse/long term partner or parent)

(2)    Grandparent route – a grandparent born in the UK gives a player a 5 year ancestry visa

(3)    Have an EU passport (or spouse/long term partner)

(4)    Kolpak player (see explanation below)

(5)    Work visa – these will be granted depending on the level that the player has played at, with the aim to attract the best talent in to roles that can’t be filled by EU nationals.

The first 3 are self-explanatory but the forth category – Kolpak, may need a bit of explaining.

Kolpak players are those with a work permit from countries that have an Association Agreement with the EU – which are the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP countries). These individuals must be treated the same as player from UK or EU and are therefore deemed to be “not  foreign”. A large number of Pacific Island and South Africans have played in the UK utilising this route.

The final category – where access is via a work visa,  includes those from outside the EU who are also non–Kolpak. These are termed “foreign” players and could include Americans, New Zealanders and Australians.

What will happen in the event of Brexit?

When the UK withdraws from the EU and is therefore no longer party to any freedom of movement requirements there are two main potential impacts on UK rugby teams:

  • Players with a non-UK EU passport will not have an automatic right to work in the UK
  • Kolpak players will not have an automatic right to work in the UK, as the UK will no longer be part of the Association Agreements with the ACP countries

An example of the first category of players affected by the change includes Exeter’s Italian international Michele Campagnaro who would not be able to wave his EU passport as he entered Heathrow and automatically be able to ply his trade in the south west.

The same would be true of French players who may prefer the wine and weather on the UK side of the English Channel (not that there are many now but the days of Raphael Ibanez and Phillipe Sella are not that long ago!). Maxime Mermoz at Leicester would fall in to this category.

In reality though we are not talking about huge numbers of players who would be impacted by this change but a number of players (typically Argentinians) use an EU passport as a way to play for a UK team.

Taking this development on a step, it would be interesting to see if the EU nations would reciprocate the UK’s removal of the freedom of movement and apply it to UK citizens. This would mean that UK passport holders would not automatically have the right to right to work in EU countries. Players who fall in to this camp could include Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon) and Toby Flood (Toulouse).

The second category of players – those playing under the Kolpak banner, would also lose the automatic right to play in the UK. This would potentially mean a number of the more high profile signings from the southern hemisphere power houses would be no longer treated as “non-foreign” and would be classed in the same bracket as other “foreign” players. The problem comes because most UK teams play in competitions that have a limit of 2 “foreign” players in a match day squad.

What would happen in reality?

If EU and Kolpak players are now subject to the same visa requirement rules as current “foreign” players, we may find that some players would no longer be permitted a visa given the playing standards would be too stringent for them to be met.

Secondly, if the 2 “foreign” players per match day squad is still applied then a number of “foreign” players would be sitting outside the match day squads. This could lead to more demand for UK qualified players with a drop-off in demand for those from overseas. This could lead to a number of strong overseas players being forced to play in France, Ireland or Italy.

In a cross-border league such as the Pro12 the teams would be subject to vastly different employment laws with respect to non-nationals which could upset the spread of overseas talent.

In reality it could take at least 2 years to agree how the issue of work permits will be dealt with between the UK and the EU, and indeed what – if anything, will replace the current agreements by which KOLPAK players have a right to play in the UK. There may well then be a transitional phase after the 2 years of negotiations, in which we see the new arrangements being gradually phased in.

Any agreement will be subject to political scrutiny though. As an example, one of the main pillars of the Brexit campaign, was to control immigration, therefore would it be acceptable to have work restrictions in sectors such as the service industry but no such protections in the world of rugby?

Another proposal put forward in some political circles is that agreements will be put in place with a number of current and ex-Commonwealth nations, which will smooth the way for the movement of skilled people to a UK free from EU shackles. Given the strong link between the Commonwealth and rugby this could potentially make the path for players to move from the likes of Fiji, New Zealand or Canada even smoother than it is today.

We should have a clearer idea over the next 2 years what the final outcome will be as negotiations proceed, but until then the current uncertainty makes planning difficult for club management and players alike.

To follow us on Facebook like us here.

Why Professional Rugby is Impossible to Referee

In 2015 we wrote an article asking if professional rugby is now impossible to referee (read here); 18 months on and nothing has changed and there is a case to say that the referee’s job has become even harder.

If you read any rugby forum or Twitter conversation about a top end rugby game the comments always end up being focused on how poor the referee was – but how can this be the case when we have the best referees in the world officiating?

One of the main reasons that rugby watchers end up with this view is because they see infringements against their team, that the officials don’t pick up. The natural conclusion therefore is that the officials are incompetent? But how have we got to this position?

 

Rugby – the only sport that ignores infringements?

Rugby must be the only sport in the world where (at a conservative guess) more than 90% of infringements are ignored by officials. In every other sport, if a player infringes the rules or laws of the game they are penalised – but not in rugby!

This selective penalisation of offences is partly a function of the complexity of the game but in today’s world of professional rugby, it is more a function of the mass coaching of players to infringe, knowing referees can only penalise a small number of offences or they would render the game unwatchable.

To explain this concept in more detail let’s look at a 10 second clip from the 2017 6 Nations game between France and Wales. The clip shows the last second or two of a scrum, a penalty tap and the ensuing ruck.

Yes, this clip was in the dying stages of the game and the Welsh defence was hanging on but the offences are pretty common at any stage of a game at professional level. What the footage shows is replicated across all professional rugby on a regular basis.

To replicate the view of the respective supporters of each team, watch the clip again, firstly as a supporter of France and then as a Welsh supporter, and note down how many infringements you spot by the opposition in each case.

 

What’s an infringement?

When trying to spot the infringements, the first question that may pop in to a reader’s head is, what do you mean by infringement? Again, the complexity of rugby means we have perhaps 4 levels of laws and how they are officiated and applied:

  • The Law Book – the laws of rugby as written down. Sometimes these are followed, often they are ignored or “interpreted”
  • Law application guidelines and clarifications – these are official interpretations by World Rugby that are available on the website
  • Officials’ guidelines – if you are referee then you will receive coaching and information that helps you in your job. At the top level, the elite referees are given instructions by World Rugby that dictate how they adjudicate the game but these instructions aren’t made widely available to the rugby watching public
  • Individual referee’s interpretation – we still have referees interpreting laws differently, particularly across the two hemispheres

We won’t go in to this topic in any more detail now but it’s worth flagging the uncertainty we all have around what is or isn’t against the laws of the game.

 

The French View 

As a French supporter these are the Welsh infringements we spotted – there may be more you have seen that can be added to the list.

(1) Welsh loose head “hinges” with his head way below his hips, causing the scrum to collapse

 

(2) Welsh tight head collapses scrum under pressure – we can’t see what exactly happened given the camera angle, but this is what Wayne Barnes singles out as he penalises Wales

(3) Preventing a quick penalty tap – as Barnes signals for a French penalty, Rhys Webb tries to prevent or slow down the quick French tap by grabbing Picamoles.

 

(4) Failure to retreat from penalty – as Picamoles taps the ball at least 2 of the Welsh players in the camera view have not retreated to the try line.

 

(5) Not coming through the gate – as the tackle was made on Picamoles, Luke Charteris (number 19) approaches the tackle but fails to come through the Welsh gate, instead he flops on the tackled player on the French side in an effort to slow the ball down.

(6)  Not getting to feet or rolling away after a tackle – Liam Williams (number 11) assisted with the tackle but instead of getting to his feet or moving away from the tackle he attempts to play the ball (or at least slow it down) while still on his knees (he is the middle player in the screen shot below).

 

(7) Failure to release the ball while off feet – we can’t see who the player is but Barnes eventually penalises a Welsh player on the floor. We can just see the ball and the players arms as he belatedly tries to get away from the ball.

 

 

The Welsh View

Now switching sides and watching the events from a Welsh perspective there are a number of French infringements we spotted:

(1) The French tight head prop Slimani binds on the arm of his Welsh opposing prop pulling him downwards and causing the scrum to collapse.

 

(2) Penalty kick taken from the right place? It isn’t clear from the camera angle but it looks like Picamoles took the penalty tap in front of Waynes and not behind him or through the line of the mark.

 

(3) Offside at the tap – any players infront of the ball when the penalty is taken must immediately retire. In this case the French number 7 continues to move forward immediately after the tap rather than retreat until he was put onside.

 

(4)  Not joining the ruck at the back foot – Maestri (wearing 5) at the top of the image doesn’t join the ruck at the back foot but halfway down the ruck and ends up on the Welsh side (see second image where we can make out his number 5 shirt).

 

11 Infringements in 10 Seconds

If we sum these infringements we get 11 infringements in total, spread across the 2 teams. This total does not include other laws that are part of the law book but are not applied today, like having heads and shoulders no lower than hips when when joining a ruck or endeavouring to stay on one’s feet at the ruck. There are numerous examples of ruck laws that are just not applied any more.

Given the number of offences by each side that are ignored by the officials, we can easily see how supporters end up feeling their team has been hard done by and then blame the referee.

There isn’t an easy solution to the problem. The 3 possibilities are:

i) coaches and players back off and stop offending so frequently – which isn’t likely to happen given the win at all costs of modern rugby

ii) the officials start to penalise more offences

iii) we move towards the american football model of officiating, with a number of officials looking at different types of offences at any time

We will look at these options in a future blog, but for now it is easy to appreciate why supporters from all sides get frustrated during matches.  For those supporters who know the laws of the game, rugby can be a frustrating game to watch at the moment.

 

To follow theblitzdefence on Facebook like us here.

British & Irish Lions Squad – Our Picks

At the end of 2016 we had our first stab at the likely Lions’ squad to head to New Zealand to take on the reigning World Champions. Now the 6 Nations has finished it’s time to revisit our choices and see what changes we would make.

The 6 Nations was probably one of the highest quality tournaments for some time with the continuing resurgence of Scotland adding to the base of players to choose from.

One area Gatland and co. will have to think about is the range of styles played by the 4 nations and which approach they will use to try and get the best of the All Blacks. Scotland and England tend to play a higher risk brand of rugby than Ireland and Wales, who take a more pragmatic approach to the game.

The Lions will be a 37 man squad and we have tried to broadly follow the make up of the 2013 squad which was; 3 full backs, 4 wings, 4 centres, 2 fly halves, 3 scrum halves, 6 props, 3 hookers, 5 second rows and 7 back row.

The style of play we would adopt will be based on the current English approach of playing with an abrasive, powerful pack that has a number of ball carriers. These will be coupled with backs with pace, who can cope with the movement of New Zealand but also exploit the gaps our ball carriers will create.

Here we go…..

Full Backs

Full back is one of the positions with impressive strength in depth, with arguably each of the 4 nations having a top class option. The 2017 tournament wasn’t his best, with a number of uncharacteristic errors by his own high standard, but primarily for his world class goal kicking Leigh Halfpenny has to make the squad.

In 2013 Stuart Hogg travelled as a 15 but also provided back up at fly half. He has had an impressive season with ball in hand and was arguably one of the players of the 6 Nations , even though there are question marks over his defence. Hogg is the sort of player that can win a game with a bit of magic; he has to travel, but only as a 15.

The final spot is a straight battle between Mike Brown and Rob Kearney (we will come to Liam Williams in a bit). We are big fans of Mike Brown, not only for the way he plays the game but his frequent bit of niggly theatrics is also entertaining.  Kearney has come back to a bit of form as well so it’s a tough decision. For his stronger all round game we will go with Rob Kearney.

 

Wings

If full back was a position of strength, wing is at the opposite end of the spectrum with no real stand out options.

One player who really used the 6 Nations as a springboard for selection for the Lions is England’s Elliot Daly. The pace he hit the pass in England’s match wining try against Wales at Cardiff showed he has the pace for wing while also having the flexibility to revert back to outside centre if needed.

After having a very up and down tournament, George North should have done enough to travel with the squad.  Looking back at North’s form in 2013 it is probably fair to say North’s game has regressed. This may be due to his problems with concussion or perhaps because of the set up at Northampton, but his attacking game has diminished and his all round game has failed to improve.

We would also take his Welsh colleague Liam Williams. Williams has been one of the stars of Welsh rugby over the last season or so with his gung-ho attacking style. For all the undoubted upsides he does have defensive lapses and moments of madness. At wing his attacking skills can be utilised but his defensive frailties hidden.

The fourth spot goes to Tommy Seymour and not just because he would be the token Scottish choice! Seymour has been a potent force for Glasgow in recent times and his nose for the try line gets him a spot. He may have had a relatively quiet 6 Nations but his 2016-17 form warrants a place.

Others who are in the mix but we wouldn’t select are; Zebo, Trimble, Earls, Visser, Nowell, May and Watson.

 

Centres

Choosing 4 centres is pretty tough given the number of options, with the final decision greatly influenced by the style of play the team wants to adopt.

Our first choice is England’s Owen Farrell. His ability to slot in to 10, his strong defence and his goal kicking attributes give him the nod, while his growing leadership capabilities shouldn’t be overlooked.

Second up is Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw, who has matured nicely over the past year or so to provide not just a physical presence but an attacking threat, as we saw in his match sealing try against New Zealand.

Farrell’s England colleague Jonathan Joseph will also be touring in our squad. He may not be the abrasive physical type of centre that has become more popular in recent years, but his pace and movement are perfect for exploiting the space provided by our bigger ball carriers.

The last seat is given to Scott Williams. For a long time Williams has been in the shadow of his compatriots Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts, but no longer. His defence allied to his strong running lines makes him a squad member. Williams had a strong 6 Nations but needs to improve his passing off his wrong side and minimise the number of “ball rip” tackles he attempts.

Those in contention that miss out include: Jon Davies, Jamie Roberts, Gary Ringrose, Alex Dunbar and Ben T’eo.

 

Fly Halves

With Farrell covering 10 there are just 2 slots available and a number of strong contenders.

Although he may be the wrong side of 30 and seems to be continually being patched up, a place has to be found for Johnny Sexton. After a bit of dip in form after his French sojourn, Sexton seems to be getting back to his best where he controls the game superbly while providing a constant attacking threat.

Joining Sexton is Scotland’s Finn Russell.  This maybe a controversial choice but not since Gregor Townsend has Scotland been able to choose a 10 with such a natural rugby brain. He also brings something different to the Lions squad with his brand of high risk rugby and unpredictability; the sort of player who could quickly move his game to another level surrounded by players of top quality.

Those who just miss out are George Ford and Dan Biggar.

 

Scrum Halves

This is probably a unique position in that the 3 contenders are probably already known.

Although an excellent player, Greg Laidlaw, who was injured in the 6 Nations, misses out because of his lack of attacking threat so our first choice will be Conor Murray, a veteran of the successful 2013 tour. Murray’s kicking game is excellent and his big game experience will be crucial in the pivotal scrum half position.

Another 2013 touring party member, Ben Youngs is chosen for his lightening fast breaks around the ruck and maul. With some of the forwards punching big holes in the New Zealand defence, the likes of Youngs will be crucial in exploiting those gaps.

The final spot goes to Rhys Webb from the Ospreys. After injuring his ankle in the Autumn international against Australia, he has come back with a bang. He may give away silly penalties and not always make the right decisions, but his attacking threat outweighs these negatives.

 

Props

Previously held back by his poor scrummaging, Mako Vunipola has made huge strides in this department and it is no longer an area of weakness. Jack McGrath gets the nod over his Leinster team mate Cian Healy while the athleticism and ball carrying of Scarlet’s Rob Evans means he also makes the squad.

Tadhg Furlong’s impressive autumn series has been carried over in to the 6 Nations and it means he is in pole position to get the tight head Lions spot but he will face still competition from Dan Cole, who is another player whose game seems to have evolved over the last 18 months, to the point where he is not seen as just a scrummager.

Back in December we said the final tight head spot would be a shoot out between Scotland’s WP Nel and Wales’ Samson Lee. Unfortunately Nel hasn’t had any game time for Scotland and Lee has lost his Wales spot! Lee’s replacement Tomas Francis hasn’t convinced us yet he is test level material so he is out of the running.

Scotland’s impressive young prop Zander Fagerson comes in to the equation but with Scotland’s scrum a big area of weakness, a case for Fagerson is difficult. Attention then switches to Ireland’s John Ryan and England’s Kyle Sinckler. Given we want athletic, ball carrying forwards Sinckler gets the nod.

 

Hookers

Given Gatland is a gnarly, Kiwi hooker he surely isn’t going to turn down the option of choosing another gnarly, Kiwi hooker is he? Probably not, which is why we think Dylan Hartley will go, even though he has had a pretty average 6 Nations.

Pushing him hard in an England shirt is the Saracens’ hooker Jamie George, and we would also take him on the plane. He has been a dominant force in what is a very powerful Saracens pack this season and even though he lacks international experience his form warrants selection. He is arguably England’s best hooker.

The final place comes to a straight shoot out between Rory Best and Ken Owens of Wales.

He may be 34 years old but Rory Best seems to have found a new injection of energy and verve this year while his leadership credentials will also be a plus in his column. We shouldn’t also discount the experience he has of playing and beating New Zealand.

Ken Owens had his best series of games for Wales, and seems to have emerged from Scott Baldwin’s shadow. Is it a coincidence that this has occurred while Gatland has been on his gap year? We are not sure Owens is fully appreciated by Gatland which is why we think he will choose Rory Best.

Second Rows

A really tough area to choose from. Who is in contention? From England – Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Maro Itoje and George Kruis. From Ireland – Iain Henderson and Devon Toner. From Scotland – the Gray brothers, and from Wales – Alun-Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris. Selecting 5 from that lot isn’t easy.

We will start with 3 Englishmen – the rising star of Maro Itoje (who has played a fair bit at 6 in this tournament) who seems to be able to do everything, has to go. Joe Launchbury gets the 2nd spot due to his excellent 6 Nations. Launchbury does the hard work in hitting rucks and making tackles but his ball carrying game is underrated. Given George Kruis’ injury we will also take Courtney Lawes, with the caveat that a strong end of season for the Saracens’ star may see him regain this spot from Lawes.

Scotland’s Jonny Gray has been in great form this season and arguably usurped his brother as the best player in the Gray household. Our final choice is Alun-Wyn Jones from the Ospreys. If for no other reason, Jones is chosen for his force of character and ability to galvanise and push on those around him; important characteristics on a long tour to New Zealand. The full extent of his injury in the game against France should be known shortly.

 

Back Row

If we thought full back and second row were competitive spots, our options at back row are mind boggling. Where to start? Well, we want our team to be physical and abrasive but also they must be able to carry the ball. There are probably about 20 players in contention for these spots – too many to list, so we’ll dive in and say who we would pick.

From Ireland CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien have to travel. Stander has been a huge force for Munster in recent times, and brings South African power running with a good rugby brain. O’Brien continues to be a potent mix of a jackaling 7 with the barnstorming runs of a number 8.

In December we also had Jamie Heaslip in the squad but after a fairly average 6 Nations he has fallen down the pecking order. He may also find that come the Autumn his international place is under threat with the return of Peter O’Mahony to 6 with Stander moving to 8.

The Lions management will be hoping that Sam Warburton remains injury free, as he could be crucial in slowing the All Black ball and stealing the odd turnover or two.Bath’s Taulupe Faletau very rarely has a bad game and although he is returning from injury this consistency means he also gets a tour spot.

After an excellent 6 Nations Justin Tipuric should also be rewarded with a squad place. Tipuric doesn’t do as much of the hard graft as Warburton but he has become a leading lineout option for Wales and has the engine that will be needed against a mobile New Zealand team.

Billy Vunipola (another of the dominant Saracens pack) has arguably been the form player in the northern hemisphere this calendar year. He may also be coming back from injury but for a heavy man he moves very well and is difficult to stop off the base of the scrum.

The last selection is theblitzdefence’s favourite player James Haskell, who seems to have found a new lease of life under the Aussie Eddie Jones. As long as he focuses on the rugby his attributes will be a welcome addition to the back row mix.

Those that just miss out are: Jamie Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony, Nathan Hughes, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw, Hamish Watson, Ross Moriarty and Thomas Young.

 

Test Squad

15. Stuart Hogg

14. George North

13. Jonathan Joseph

12. Owen Farrell

11. Elliot Daly

10. Johnny Sexton

9. Conor Murray

8. Billy Vunipola

7. Sam Warburton (captain)

6. CJ Stander

5. Maro Itoje

4. Joe Launchbury

3. Tadhg Furlong

2. Jamie George

1. Mako Vunipola

 

16. Jack McGrath

17. Rory Best

18. Dan Cole

19. Alun-Wyn Jones

20. Taulupe Falateu

21. Rhys Webb

22. Robbie Henshaw

23. Liam Williams

To follow theblitzdefence on Facebook like us here.

Wales – France; a Timeline of the Controversial Prop Replacement

The 6 Nations game between France and Wales had been controversial from pretty much the first minute. The controversy was heightened late in the game as the French prop Atonio was replaced by the starting prop (Slimani), who had earlier been substituted in the game. The change was made under the Head Impact Assessment (HIA) protocols; brought in to protect players in the event of suspected head traumas.

Here is the timeline of events, with the focus on the player subject to the HIA (Atonio).

77.30  France have a scrum on Welsh 10m line and win their ball.

77.51  Atonio jogs over to ruck

77.56 Atonio clears Welsh player out at ruck

78.10 Atonio picks the ball up at French ruck and attacks Welsh defence. No obvious contact made with his head in the tackle and he gets up and back in French attacking line.

78.46  Atonio hits another ruck, no contact with his head and he immediately gets up

79.01 Atonio joins another ruck to secure ball (not to clear Welsh players out) and immediately gets up. Slimani is filmed in the stand in his tracksuit.

79.23   In a break in play, 3 French medics/water carriers come on to the pitch. Several French players are briefly spoken to by the medics/water carrier as the water is handed out; this includes Maestri who then walks over to Atonio and starts a conversation with him.

France choose a scrum. Would the French captain choose a scrum knowing his tight head has suspected concussion? Or has the incident that led to the suspected concussion not yet occurred?

79.27  The scrum forms but Barnes calls for a French free kick before the ball is fed. Maestri says something to Barnes about a shoulder but it’s not clear from the audio what he is saying. France choose to have another scrum

79.37  Atonio packs down for the scrum. Scrum folds and Barnes calls for a re-set. Atonio gets straight up.

79.47  The team doctor arrives at the scene and goes straight to Atonio. It’s not clear what was said but Atonio’s gesture seems to suggest he was fine. Just as the front rows go down Barnes blows his whistle and tells them to stand up.

Looking back at the footage, just as the front rows are binding together, Barnes’ eye is caught by something on the touchline that he looks at for several seconds:

barnes distracted

If we look at the wider view immediately before this scrum we can see a French doctor crouched down and an official (the “4th official”?), who are both roughly in Barnes eye line.

We can’t tell who Barnes is looking at but the 4th official looks back to the area of the replacements bench and seems to be putting his hand to his chest as if to turn on the officials’ microphone.

Immediately after Barnes blows his whistle he turns to Atonio and says “Are you injured?”.  This is surprising given Atonio himself is packing down for the scrum. The call for the injury must have come from the touchline, and probably from the 4th official who has come down towards the scrum.

Barnes asks Atonio again “Are you injured?”. Some of the conversation is inaudible but we can hear Atonio say he has a “sore back”, Barnes then says “You are OK, then fine” and steps back to reform the scrum.

Barnes then looks back to the touchline and says “He’s not injured”. We can’t say for sure, but it seems logical that he was saying this to the 4th official on the touch line. The camera then shows Slimani on the touchline ready to come on.

Barnes can then be heard saying “He’s just telling me he’s not injured”, which again is probably directed to the 4th official. The scrum then reforms with Atonio still on the pitch.

79.50 The scrum sets with Atonio still in play. The scrum slowly folds and Barnes blows for a reset. Atonio gets up straight away and receives a few words from Barnes about his scrummaging height.

80.02  The French team doctor is now back on the pitch and approaches the scrum. Barnes can be heard saying “He said he is not injured”. The doctor can be seen gesturing to his [the doctor’s] head, indicating a head injury. Atonio starts to walk off the pitch.

Our commentary team helpfully talk over the next bit of the conversation between Barnes and the medic, but Barnes can be heard saying “You are taking him off for a head assessment?”.

The doctor then tries to explain to Barnes (in English so there may be issues with translation), that Atonio had “a shock [touches his own head]….and I see him”…he then says “You see me” and points towards the scrum, probably with the intention of saying to Barnes he has been looking at this injury for a while.

Barnes then says to the medic “Do you think he needs a head assessment?”, with the medic glancing away and then responding “yes”. The change is then made.

Atonio is then seen heading down the tunnel on his own, without any medical support or assistance.

 

This incident needs to be immediately reviewed by World Rugby, with the French Rugby Union being asked to respond to the following questions:

  • When did Atonio suffer the head injury that required the HIA?
  • Who identified the need for the HIA and what symptoms did they observe in the player that meant he required an HIA?
  • If the signs of concussion were observed before the player was finally removed why wasn’t he taken from the field when concussion was first suspected, as per WR protocols?
  • If the concussion incident occurred before the final scrum why did France continue to allow a player with suspected head injury to scrummage?
  • Why did the player say he was not injured?

The issue of the long term impacts of concussion is arguably the most serious facing the game. Any breaches or exploitation of the HIA guidelines and protocols – brought in to protect the players, should be severally punished, whether this applies to coaches, players or medical staff.

 

To follow theblitzdefence on Facebook like us here.

 

 

Rugby’s New Global Calendar – A Damp Squib?

To much fanfare, World Rugby’s (WR) new Global Calendar was released this week – the first major initiative under the direction of WR’s Chairman Bill Beaumont. This calendar covers the period 2020-2032.

To most of us a ‘global calendar’ means a single harmonised season across both hemispheres or at the very least, a solution to the disjointed rugby season that sees us skip from test rugby, to no rugby to European rugby in the space of a few weeks. 

Unfortunately this Global Calendar fails to deliver on both counts; it’s more of a light evolution than the revolution that is required. Indeed most of the major tournaments will have little to no direct discernible changes to them.

We have pulled out the main changes to the season’s structure and looked at their potential implications.

 

(1) The June test window will move to July

What the northern hemisphere calls the end of season tour will now take place in the first 3 weeks of July, rather than the traditional June window. The reason for this is to allow the Super Rugby season to run uninterrupted. 

Implications? This is a good move for those in the south but it has potentially big implications for the north.

In 2016 England, Ireland and Wales all played their first tests in the southern hemisphere on the 11th June. Given the domestic league finals were on the 28th May (Pro 12 – Wales/Ireland and Aviva – England) this gave them  14 days’ preparation.

If we say the first game of the test window will now be on the 1st of July, there will be a whopping 33 days between the domestic league final and the first test match – with those players who aren’t in the final having another week or two added to this total.

This won’t work, so what is likely to happen is the opening game of the domestic leagues (Pro12, Aviva etc) will be pushed back by approximately 3 weeks. Instead of the first fixture being around the 2-5th September we could see this being moved to the end of September or even the start of October.

With European competitions starting in mid-October any movement in the start date of the domestic leagues will lead to disruption to these tournaments. We may see this as an opportunity for more radical changes to the calendar in the northern hemisphere to better align domestic, European and test rugby.

 

(2) The November test window will move forward one week 

The Autumn international test window will now comprise the first 3 weeks of November

Implications? In itself this doesn’t seem like a major change but it will potentially cause some problems in the schedule for domestic and European rugby in the north. 

 

(3) Tier 2 nations to have greater exposure to tier 1 during July and November test windows

Some of the specific initiatives that will contribute to this desire to increase the number of fixtures between tier 1 and tier 2 include:

  • A minimum of 110 tier one v tier two matches over the period (a 39 per cent increase on the previous schedule)
  • SANZAAR Unions committed to hosting tier two nations in July window
  • France and England to tour the Pacific Islands while USA, Canada and Japan will also host tours
  • Georgia and Romania to host matches against Six Nations unions within the July window
  • Six Nations unions to collectively host a guaranteed minimum of six tier two fixtures in each November window
  • Tours to SANZAAR nations immediately after a Rugby World Cup year will be reduced to two matches

Implications? On a positive note, any increase in the exposure tier 2 nations get to tier 1 teams has to be a good thing. Having commitments from the major nations to not just play the tier 2 nations but to take them on in their own back yard, in a step in the right direction.

Caveats apply though. WR has no real authority to mandate that the 6 Nations provide a route for the tier 2 nations to the top European table, and as a result of this, these reported changes still don’t give a clear direction for the tier 2 nations in Europe. The door is still closed.

Although we have greater commitments from the major nations, what we don’t know is what sort of strength team they will send. We may end up with “A” teams in all but name being sent to Bucharest and Tbilisi to satisfy the WR requirement. This is better than the status quo so perhaps it should still be applauded as a move in the right direction.

 

Final Thoughts

The changes do not deal with the fundamental structural problems that blight rugby in both hemispheres, primarily because WR doesn’t have the mandate to force change on the likes of the 6 Nations or European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), the custodians of elite European “club” rugby. 

Instead we have some relatively minor changes to the schedule which could cause major issues for the way northern hemisphere rugby is structured across the season. This may force both the domestic European leagues and the European competitions to revamp their schedule, which ultimately may lead to a change to the dates of the 6 Nations.

More change is on the way.

 

To follow theblitzdefence on Facebook like us here.

 

The Sexton Loop

Ireland started the game with some positive attacking plays and importantly they brought huge variety to their offensive ploys.

We saw the likes of Zebo coming off his wing in to midfield, inside balls trying to catch out lazy defence from the Welsh front 5, a strong maul and the likes of O’Brien carrying well.

After just 1 minute we saw a trademark Sexton loop, which to this day still catches out opposition defences.

Wales have plenty of numbers in defence but Sexton still manages to create space by passing to Stander and then receiving the ball back.

If we freeze the play we can see Scott Williams is defending Henshaw (top arrow) and Tipuric in the blue cap is marking Stander (shorter, bottom arrow), who is about to receive the ball.

As Stander takes the ball back in on the angle towards the Welsh midfield defence Tipuric follows him in. This seems logical as Tipuric is keeping an eye on his man and tracking him, but he is unaware that Sexton is going to run around the back of Stander and receive the ball.

sexton loop

Tipuric tackles Stander and Sexton then has a free run to release Zebo in space.

sexton loop 2.jpg

 

Later in the game, with Ireland pressing the Welsh line Sexton tries it again…and again it works!

 

Before every match against Ireland, opposition coaches will point out this move of his but it’s success rate shows how difficult it is to stop. The surprise is that more outside halves don’t use it.

 

To follow us on Facebook like us here.

Biggar, Webb and Flat Back Play

The Welsh coaching team has rightly had its critics over the last few years (including us), but they should be given credit for the way Wales beat Ireland in this weekend’s opening 6 Nations fixture in Cardiff.

Most of us were expecting Wales to suffer defeat against an Ireland team brimming with confidence after some big wins against the southern hemisphere over the last 12 months.

What we did see were the first positive signs of an evolving Welsh approach to the game; a couple of strong driving mauls, a willingness to run from deep if the pass was on and the second high quality try from a set piece this 6 Nations.

This article will focus on another area of the game Wales have been criticised for – their lack of creativity at outside half.

 

Biggar and flat play

Dan Biggar’s strengths are around his game management, his defence and his kick chase and collect, but his ability with the ball in hand is one of the reasons why the Welsh team struggles to create opportunities against the best teams.

Biggar traditionally receives the ball quite deep, which gives him time to get his kick in but makes it easier to defend against. The opposition know he rarely attacks with the ball and by passing to his team mates behind the gain line, he allows the opposition to line up the tackle.

His Ospreys’ colleague Sam Davies excels in playing flat to the opposition line and using his sharp hands and footwork and excellent “footballing” brain to put runners through holes and in to space.

The first half of the Wales – Ireland game was interesting in that Dan Biggar seemed to be playing much flatter to the gain line that he traditionally does with Wales. Here are a couple of examples.

In the first example, Wales turn the scrum to expose the Irish right hand defence. Biggar is already on the move and Webb’s pass to him is flat at best. This is simple, but effective rugby with Biggar hitting the ball at pace right on the gain line with the Irish defence struggling to come across.

biggar flat 1.jpg

In the second example, Wales are attacking the Irish line and Biggar takes the ball with about 3 metres to the Irish defensive line.

biggar 3.jpg

The important aspect is Biggar takes the ball right to the Irish line before releasing to Jon Davies (scrum cap), who runs at the gap and not the man.

biggar 4.jpg

The tactic though brought Wales some big problems as we can see in the next couple of examples.

With 7 minutes on the clock Webb finds Biggar who is back in his usual deeper position. Sexton comes racing out of the line but Biggar seems unaware of Sexton’s positioning and focuses on the play – a flat pass to Alun-Wyn Jones.

In the second example (below), we see pretty much the same pattern.

This time Biggar takes the Webb pass flatter and has his eyes on the ball to Moriarty who is hitting the gap. Perhaps the fact he is being asked to play an unnatural style of rugby plays on his mind because once again he is not aware of Sexton’s positioning – it’s as if he has lost that split second of additional time he would have had by playing a bit deeper.

The other interesting thing to note about this second example is that the ball was won at the front of the lineout, which means it has to travel a relatively long way before it even gets to Biggar. This means he has even less time to make his move and play the ball.

 

Wales playing off Webb

The Welsh coaches seemed to be nervous about the number of poor passes and interceptions from Biggar and the problems the Irish umbrella defence was causing, so in the 2nd half they changed tactic.

Instead of now playing Biggar flat and having runners off him, it was the job of Rhys Webb to be the primary decision maker and distributor. We now had forwards taking balls from set piece and phase play directly from Webb, with Biggar only used later in the move.

Wales also started to revert more to their traditional kick and press game as the clock ticked down, but using Webb as the primary kicker. Between the 60th and 63rd minute of the game Webb box kicked 3 times to try and pen back the Irish team.

The more expansive Welsh approach with Biggar on the gain line that we saw in the first half, had been replaced by a more pragmatic, territory-orientated game with Webb as the main play maker.

It is testament to how far Webb’s game has developed over the last few years, that he is comfortable taking on this responsibility for the game management. He gave away two cheap penalties and made some errors but his ability to change the game in an instant means he is now one of Wales’ most important players.

 

To follow us on Facebook like us here.