Summer Roundup

Welcome back to blog number 2 - I recently read an article by Henry Ker of the recently drawn Lions tour to New Zealand that caught my attention.

Basically, it offered a few headline thoughts or lessons from the Lions and these are my opinions of his article.

Drawn series?

I agree with those that argue the ‘3rd Test’ should have gone into extra time to get a winner which would have given the winning team ownership and bragging rights to either team going into their next series. As the guys lay everything on the line for their perspective teams I would have thought these players would have wanted to satisfy their competitiveness by getting a result either way, a win or lose edge to the games but now there’s kind of an anti-climactic feel to this fascinating series. Maybe a cheeky repeat of the Leicester v Cardiff Heineken cup semi-final when Leicester beat Cardiff 7-6 on penalties after extra time with in front of the posts shots at goal. 

I do think both the Lions and New Zealand can be extremely proud of their performances! by the sounds of family, friends and the Dragon contingent in New Zealand it was a hell of a month-long party for all those that travelled to NZ. Awesome Lions supporters and ‘Kia Kaha’ for the Kiwi public showing the world how to host a tournament again!

The All Blacks are beatable? 

Before the loss to the Lions in the 2nd Test in Wellington the All Blacks had only lost on 2 other occasions in 27 Test matches spread over 3 years (Losses to Ireland in 2016 & Australia 2015). During that time NZ racked up a world record 18 consecutive wins. (A record currently shared with England)

So, no doubt the All Blacks are dominant and their dominance lies in a style of rugby that produces gazillion points and stifles the opposition. (Average score for and against roughly comes in at 41 – 14 for the latest 23 All Black wins) 

What I think is the exceptional record within their stats is their defensive strength, they always seem to be one step ahead in their thought process, they cover well for each other, communication is superb, they are usually reading plays and shutting down potential opposition strike moves. What I really enjoyed about the Lions though is that NZ miss-read or couldn’t read the Lions in attack. The Lions conditioning was superb, there was a real purpose in their structure, ambition to counter attack, there were offload’s, decoy runners and continuity in their attack which caused New Zealand lots of problems. 

This Lions series has revealed a few chinks in New Zealand’s amour and offered hope to the other fancied countries come the 2019 World Cup in Japan, if you play with purpose and execute well with ambition there is opportunity. New Zealand’s discipline and strength in depth will be tested too, 1 or 2 big players’ injured or missing due to recklessness on the field can affect even the ‘best’ team in world rugby as shown after losing Sonny Bill Williams in ‘Test 2’. 

The Lions also showed it is possible to get under New Zealand’s skin. The AB’s always tread that fine line of physicality, but this at times boiled over – Williams’ red card, Jerome Kaino’s yellow, combined with a number of uncharacteristic handling errors cost them points they would have converted in the past. 

Missed kicks, missed opportunity will also come back and haunt even the ‘Best’ team in world of rugby. In Beauden Barrett the AB’s have a player that has all the skills and trickery, but he needs to nail kickable points ‘ALL’ the time especially against good opposition. If NZ want to remain at the top of the tree points matter. Points were left on the field that would have won NZ both the last two tests. Barrett is the ultimate poacher, he has an uncanny ability to pop up at the right time, he creates scores and punishes opposition mistakes as he is super quick in his thought process and lightning fast across the field to take those chances he creates.

Standing in Barrett’s and the All Blacks way was a well-structured and mean Lions defence. So, even when the Lions were disciplined for infringements they weren’t punished on the board and that will be a concern for the Steve Hansen and the AB’s. Jordie Barrett was bought into the side for the third test and potentially he may have been handed the kicking duties – that never happened but doesn’t mean he might not be an option in future matches.

A few other pieces of the puzzle for the All Blacks to solve are which mid field, wing and fullback positions are they going to stick with? Replacing the retired Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith is proving difficult. 

For all the quality and talented young players NZ have there was a chop and change mentality rarely experienced within the AB’s before. 

Jonathan Davies (The Lions player of the series), made a series of telling breaks and found space down the outside channel, with Sonny Bill Williams taking a red card and the last being suspended, Ngani Laumape his replacement was good in attack but needed to keep his defensive shape. Then when they lost Ben Smith, Steve Hansen had to decide where he wants Israel Dagg, is Dagg only a winger now? the young Hurricane Jordie Barrett got the nod and was promoted to fullback in game 3 of a Lions series (Gee tough ask but he took his chances well!). Were they then going to go with the pace of Rieko Ioane or the physicality of Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo was brought in and then discarded for the next game. Again, there was a lot of tinkering by the AB’s which I have not seen for a long time and there were mistakes within this group, they are not quite the finished product yet; there is opportunity to exploit that inexperience, if teams are prepared to take the All Blacks on.

The AB’s lost hundreds of caps when the core group of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Nonu and Smith retired after the 2015 World Cup and this could be costlier than initially thought for NZ. Although it must also be exciting for the young core crop coming through that they can write their own legacy and look to maintain that awesome All Black winning percentage (No pressure boys!)

The north has world-class players!

This series has really proven what type of player and what type of rugby is being produced in the northern hemisphere competition. The All Blacks are the current standard that all rugby players and teams are compared to. There is a quirk of the media (and it is a particular favourite of Sir Clive Woodward) that whenever the northern hemisphere sides do well, they write ‘this is all very well, but how many of the English/Welsh/Irish/Scottish players would get into the All Blacks team?’

Well, on this series evidence quite a few. Maro Itoje (my player of the series) Jonathan Davies, Sean O’Brien, Connor Murray, Owen Farrell, Tadhg Furlong and Toby Faletau, to name a few, all have a case to make a theoretical All Black XV.

That is not to mention a handful of players out injured at the moment, like Billy Vunipola and Stuart Hogg, the future is looking bright for the home nations.

The Offside law needs a review!

High-profile games mean the rules and referees get far more attention, and the final minutes of the third test have led to a lot of debate.

Should the All Blacks have been given a penalty against the Lions? 

I thought the referee Romain Poite got his final decision right at the time. (He initially indicated penalty then changed his mind to accidental offside and awarded a scrum to the AB’s) 

Sam Warburton needs a medal for having a quiet word to the ref, I’d love to know what he said? maybe Craig Joubert’s Scotland/Australia world cup semifinal game incident was playing on Poite’s mind?

According to the current consistently applied interpretation of the laws, that probably was a penalty. The ball didn’t just unavoidably hit Owens, he briefly saw it coming and caught it, before realising his mistake and dropping the ball. (Which was actually very comical it’s like he was caught red handed in the cookie jar!)

This is where I agree with Romain Poite’s final decision, I’m not sure anyone in world rugby would not have reacted as Ken Owens and instinctively caught the ball. It ricochets into Owens lap, Owens who is standing at the feet of the jumping players, did he know which player the ball had bounced off less than a few feet from the mass of players? Now after 78 minutes of battle and grafting themselves to exhaustion, for one player to costs a whole series on an accidental ricochet? I think what it does show is that this rule needs revisiting.  It is such a strong instinct for players to catch a ball when it flies right at them, surely it is time for a bit of understanding and change the offence to result in a scrum? I agree maybe it’s thought of as an accidental forward pass. There is possibly the danger if that happens we could see a rash of deliberate obstructions following a knock-on to prevent the opposition gaining an advantage, so the other option would be to clarify what constitutes ‘deliberate playing of the ball’ – i.e. the player would have had to change direction and moved towards the ball maybe? Akin to when players are judged to have blocked (altered their line) into someone chasing a kick.

Either way, something needs to be done – it should not be the kind of offence that could have potentially dictated the outcome of such important matches twice in two years?

Next up will be a Blog about what’s going on with the Dragons and Rugby in the UAE at the moment!!! Look forward to it see you then! 

 

Cheers HP!

A season in review

to the first coaching blog from me in 2017!

The 2016 – 2017 was a season full of promise, hope and potential. As a club we proved a lot to the wider UAE rugby fraternity and demonstrated that the Dragons are a force to be reckoned with again by coming agonisingly close in terms of silverware: 2 finals (Dubai 7’s and UAE) and a semi-final (West Asia Champs). Our 2’s side went 9 games undefeated during the season while our 3rd team won the UAE competition at Sports city underlying the strength throughout the whole club at all levels. 

It was a massive pleasure to coach and be involved with all the guys across the 3 teams and various competitions. As a club we have such a varied group of guys that play to win but do it in the true spirit of amateur rugby, where having a laugh and a few beers go a long way in creating a hugely enjoyable and integrated culture. 

Personally, I need to say a massive thank you to our sponsors. Without them the boys would probably still be running around in heavy duty cotton flannel shirts without water and match balls! Hamish Russell, Global Business Manager from our main sponsor Hesco epitomises what a leader should be about, dedicating his valuable time and resources while reinforcing the hard earned value of being ‘Fearless’ - as the Dragons have been known for on and off the field. I have to also acknowledge the time and effort our coaches put into making training enjoyable and giving the sessions purpose - J Mac, Buisty, Harty, Robbie, Mikey, Jonesy huge respect! 

The new season looms quickly around the corner and with the last couple of months off, having time to reflect on our efforts of last season there is definite optimism regarding what lies ahead. No less than 8 Dragons players represented the UAE national team at the recent Asian Rugby Championship. Proudly the match reports reflected huge contributions from our guys in these games, the only sour note being the early tour ending injury to Dan Bell (Wishing you speedy recovery Dinger!).

As a club we will definitely miss some guys that featured prominently during last season, due to various reasons whether it was family or work, these players couldn’t stay in Dubai. Your efforts on and off the field will be remembered fondly and you will be missed!

A special mention and sad goodbyes to a few Dragon legend players that are leaving Dubai. Dan ‘Minsky’ Minks, Neil ‘Wally’ Walmsley, Jake ‘The Snake’ Downes and Matt ‘Fester’ Searle. You guys well be impossible to replace but... we’ll give it a real shot ;-) No just kidding, Dragons family for life! 

So much rugby going on at the moment with the Lions touring New Zealand and England and the home nations all on their perspective tours it’s easy to get hold of the results but hard to keep track and up to date on the performances during all these games.

I try and watch as many games as possible because with my coach’s hat on I like to see how different teams are developing their style of play and I’m always thinking about pinching class set piece plays! I try and read articles too to get a sense of how I am seeing the game compared to other interpretations. I recently read a not so journalist article on the Lions game v Highlanders, which started like this:

 

It was very much a second string team who came to Dunedin to face the Highlanders in the perfect conditions enclosed by the vibrant Forsyth Barr stadium. It was a game for Gatland to experiment and to play the players he’s still not sure about.” 

 

You have to laugh at hacks like this that call any Lions players and the team “second string” - c’mon guy these are experienced internationals that are battling to make the 22 for the tests series. I certainly don’t think Gatland is “experimenting” at all, he is definitely rotating his squad to give guys opportunity to rest and then others to represent themselves and force the Lions coaching staff into some tough decisions. Gatland knows these players inside and out after several years coaching in the northern hemisphere, he is plotting and manoeuvring this squad to see how different combinations work.

As the Lions come off the back of a complete performance in a rugged ‘Test’ against the New Zealand Maori, and also after the attacking show they dished out to the chiefs, I think the Lions can approach this series with hope and optimism that they have the weapons to cause the All Blacks problems. They are going to have to execute to perfection though as the AB’s side are a formidable opponent especially in NZ!

I can’t wait to get back on the newly laid Jebel Ali pitches and push the boys through the rigours of a fresh season, it will be great to see new faces and old friends back in the mix challenging each other again!

 

.......Cheers HP