Rugby Union
Star signing Suliasi Vunivalu stood down by Reds for off-field incident
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A Set small text size A Set the default text size A Set large text size High-profile Queensland Reds recruit Suliasi Vunivalu has been dropped from what would have been his Super Rugby AU debut for allegedly pushing a security guard in a Brisbane pub. The champion NRL winger had arrived at Ballymore fresh off a premiership with the Melbourne Storm as Rugby Australia’s big-ticket item. But on Tuesday the winger copped a club-imposed $10,000 fine alongside suspension from Friday’s season opener at Suncorp Stadium against the NSW Waratahs. The matter is before the court and will be reviewed by RA and Queensland Rugby Union once it is resolved. It is understood the security guard was not injured during the incident, which was considered minor and occurred earlier this month. Vunivalu was implicated in an NRL integrity unity investigation in 2019 when he was allegedly a victim of a coward punch at a Bali nightspot that sparked a brawl that included former Storm teammate Nelson Asofa-Solomona. The 26-year-old had already spent time in camp with the Wallabies and is considered an immense talent likely to feature in national coach Dave Rennie’s plans ahead of the 2023 World Cup. It’s an early setback for a Reds outfit hunting their first silverware since 2011, having lost the Super Rugby AU decider to the Brumbies last year. © AAP
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Back-row opportunities in Australian rugby have never been greater
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Between retirements, overseas departures, Michael Hooper’s Japanese sabbatical, and unfortunate pre-season injuries, it’s hard to think of wider back-row race in Australian rugby going into a season. Around the teams, the turnover of players quickly provides a gauge on how wide the contest for the 6-7-8 jerseys really is. The Brumbies were rocked by the sudden retirement of Will Miller as they were preparing to ramp up pre-season preparations. Jahrome Brown didn’t play at all in 2020, but started Tuesday night’s trial against the Western Force in Canberra, and will be in a battle with Tom Cusack for the no.7 jersey. There are some quality youngsters coming through the ranks that may get opportunities this year, but the Brumbies look well served with Rob Valetini and Pete Samu ready to go again. In Queensland, confirmation that captain Liam Wright will miss most of the Super Rugby AU competition only proves the value of having the great depth in this area as the Reds do. On paper, Fraser McReight starting the year on the openside and the experienced Angus Scott-Young coming back onto the blind looks the obvious solution. The Reds captaincy might not be so easy to resolve, but they have got the players to fill in behind Wright. They may not even miss him, from a pure back-row output sense. Fraser McReight. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images) But Sam Wallis and Seru Uru in the Reds squad will ensure that the frontrunners are kept on their toes. Both have been around the Reds setup for the last few years and both played with Brisbane City in the National Rugby Championship. Now is a great opportunity for them players to get a foothold in Super Rugby as well. Hooper’s departure opens any number of scenarios for Waratahs coach Rob Penney, with Lachie Swinton at blindside the only player you would consider a lock for 2021. Ned Hanigan spent most of his time in the second row last season, but is no longer an option for Penney at no.6, having departed for Japan. We mention that only because while Charlie Gamble, Hugh Sinclair, Carlo Tizzano, and Will Harris were in last year’s squad, only Tizzano and Harris got limited opportunities early in the 2020 Super Rugby AU campaign. Jack Dempsey has been mentioned as an option at seven, which seems curious with both Gamble and Tizzano known to be quality on-ball openside players. If anything, Dempsey needs to own number eight and lead the team like a player with as many Super Rugby and Test caps as he has should. That all said, we cannot rule out the possibility of Hooper wearing an NSW jersey in 2021. The Top League in Japan has been delayed already this season, and is currently scheduled to start on February 20, the same weekend as Super Rugby AU. The first four rounds of the season were cancelled when the season was first delayed. Thankfully, Japan’s COVID-19 numbers are declining and are around the same levels from last November, before their second wave took hold and sharply increased. Their situation is looking much better now, but the possibility remains that another national outbreak could still yet impact the season. If Hooper found himself well short of match fitness, or the Japanese season was again put on hold, it does not seem that big a stretch to see him returning to Australia early to get some game time ahead of the international season. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images) The widest back-row races appear to be at the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels. The Force have gained Australian sevens player Tim Anstee and Argentinean international Tomás Lezana to strengthen their stocks in 2021, but have held onto the quality of the Brynard Stander and Kane Koteka as well. Fergus Lee-Warner is listed as a lock again this season, but spent plenty of time at blindside in the Force’s return to the Super Rugby fold last. Lezana is a known quantity with more than 30 Tests for Argentina, and nearly 50 appearances over five seasons with the Jaguares. He is going to bring a different kind of passion and physicality to the Force pack, and he will be a handful. Anstee will be interesting. He trained with the Force during the 2020 Super Rugby AU campaign, and then went back to club rugby and helped Sydney club Eastwood to a Shute Shield grand final. If his transition back to 15s rugby can take the next step, there will be no doubting his athleticism. The Rebels’ situation is the curious one. They lost Luke Jones back to France and Angus Cottrell has headed to the US after effectively being exiled at home last season, unable to leave Victoria and join his teammates. In return, they have gained a sevens star as well, with Jeral Skelton signing on late last year. But their squad still contains Richard Hardwick, Josh Kemeny, Rob Leota, Michael Wells, Brad Wilkin, and Isi Naisarani! Some handy players are going to be missing out every week. Despite endless options available to Dave Wessels, it’s hard to pin down any definite starters beyond Naisarani. Hardwick hasn’t really been the same player since leaving the Western Force years ago, Kemeny was excellent in limited opportunities last year, Leota and Wilkins both showed glimpses when fit, and Wells has years of experience at this level and on the international sevens scene. Further, they are yet to play a trial game, and have the bye in Round 1 of Super Rugby AU. How Wessels addresses this conundrum will remain unsolved for a little longer. What do you make of all these back rows? Which team looks best equipped? Who looks light on options? And who is your tip for a big season, among the widest field of loose-forward options we can remember?
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New law changes confirmed for another season of Super Rugby AU
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A Set small text size A Set the default text size A Set large text size Rugby Australia has kept most of last year’s Super Rugby AU law changes for the 2021 edition, as well as adding a further two variations. The regulations regarding kick-offs from rugby sevens have been adopted, meaning any infringement from the restart will result in a free-kick being awarded, and that the kicking team has a 30-second limit to take the kick. And while up to ten minutes of extra time will once again be used to find a winner if teams are level after 80 minutes, a golden-try system will be used rather than last year’s golden point. The side which scores the first five-pointer of the additional period will win the match. Teams can still opt to kick for goal either from penalties or via a drop-goal attempt, but the game will continue in the event of a successful kick until a try is scored or the ten minutes elapse. The kick-off changes have been made to speed up the game and reduce the number of scrums, while the alterations to extra time have been introduced to encourage attacking play and avoid a repeat of a clash between the Rebels and Reds which saw both sides play out a dour, conservative final ten minutes of their drawn match in Round 2 last year. The introduction of goal-line drop-outs, replacements for sent-off players, and 50-22 and 22-50 kicks are all rule changes from 2020 which have been retained. In addition, referees have been directed to police the breakdown more stringently in an attempt to speed up the play, particularly in regards to Law 15.17, which states: “When the ball has been clearly won by a team at the ruck, and is available to be played, the referee calls ‘use it’, after which the ball must be played away from the ruck within five seconds.” “These variations have the capacity to enhance the capabilities of our players, and the general entertainment value in the game as well,” RA director of rugby Scott Johnson said. “There were some terrific, robust discussions that were had, and some great left-field ideas proposed, but we believe we have struck a great balance in preserving the integrity of the competition, developing our players for the Test arena later this year and enhancing the spectacle of the game. “The variations were all unanimously agreed, and everyone also indicated a desire for referees to ‘speed up the game’ with a general reduction in scrum resets, and a greater onus on the attacking team to use the ball from a ruck when available.” Super Rugby AU 2021 law changes When an attacking player carrying the ball is held up in the in-goal or knocks the ball on Play restarts with a goal-line drop-out. When a kick enters the in-goal area and is forced by the defending teamPlay restarts with a goal-line drop-out. A red-carded player can be replaced after 20 minutes, unless the team has already used all their substitutions. A kick taken from within the defending team’s 50-metre area that travels into touch within the opposition’s 22m having first bounced in the field of play results in a lineout throw to the kicking team. A kick taken from within the defending team’s 22-metre area that travels into touch within the opposition’s 50-metre are having first bounced in the field of play results in a lineout throw to the kicking team. Kick-offsi. After a team has scored, their opponents restart play with a drop-kick on or behind the centre of the half-way line. The restart kick must be taken within 30 seconds from the time a conversion has been taken or declined, or from the time a penalty goal or dropped goal is kicked. Sanction: free-kickii. When the ball is kicked, teammates of the kicker must be behind the ball. Sanction: free-kickiii. The ball must reach the ten-metre line. Sanction: free-kickiv. The ball must not go directly into touch. Sanction: free-kickv. If the ball is kicked into the opponents’ in-goal without touching any player and an opponent grounds the ball without delay or it goes into touch-in-goal or on or over the dead-ball line, the non-kicking team is awarded a free-kick Extra time: in the event of a drawn game, the teams will play out two five-minute periods of extra time to decide a winner.i. The team that kicked off at the start of the game will start the first period of extra timeii. The first try scored in any of the extra time periods wins the match for that teamiii. No conversions of tries will be takeniv. The losing team receives a bonus point for being within seven points
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Hosanna for Hosea: Is Trevor the second coming of John Eales?
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Forget the headline, forget John Eales for just one moment. The player who sprang to mind when I first viewed Trevor Hosea in action was Springbok second row Victor Matfield. Matfield is probably the greatest lineout player of the professional era. One of my first deep digs into his modus operandi occurred on the Scotland tour of the Republic in 2006. I was preparing for Wales’ 2006-07 international season at the time, and one of the focal points was the spring-heeled Scotland lock, Scott Murray. Murray was probably the best defensive lineout poacher in the northern hemisphere, so his match-up with Matfield promised to be one for the set-piece connoisseur. In the event, it was a no-contest. It was not that Murray did not try to challenge for the throw in the opening half of the first Test at King’s Park – he did. He just could not get near Matfield and after half an hour he threw down his tools and stopped competing. I had never seen Murray looking so helpless in such a strong point of his game. He was replaced after an hour and was not selected for the second Test in Port Elizabeth at all. The ultimate lineout challenge turned into a damp squib. Matfield had that effect on any number of opponents during his career. His subtle movements up and down the line, the absence of ‘tells’ (preparatory movements before the jump) and above all, his sheer speed into the air made a genuine contest for the ball well-nigh impossible. Melbourne Rebels lock Trevor Hosea fits the Matfield mould. He is taller (2.04 metres to Matfield’s 2.01) and has the same effortless ability to leave terra firma, defy gravity and pick off the pigskin at the top of his jump. Trevor Hosea at Wallabies training. (Supplied photo by Andrew Phan/Rugby Australia) In Super Rugby AU 2020, Hosea won 30 of the Rebels’ 111 own throws and was top of the steals with four out of 11 total turnovers – mostly from the mid to back-end of the line. Geoff Parling told me recently that Hosea will not be calling the Rebels’ lineout in 2021 in Matt Philip’s absence, but that is probably an attempt to defuse the level of expectation building about his outstanding ability. “Well, you never know do you until someone’s actually in there, but everything I’ve seen with Trevor so far is ‘Yes’,” Parling says. “He made his Super Rugby debut this season, we brought him off the bench against the Reds and he belted some people and whacked some people and did really well. “These guys love playing so as long as you can give them gradual intros. I think he had 20 minutes off the bench to start with, I certainly think he’s ready.” Three Rebels games from last season’s Super Rugby AU (Round 7 against the Reds, Round 9 versus the Waratahs and the qualifying final against the Reds) tell the tale so far. It is not so much the fact that Trevor Hosea won all of the lineout ball directed towards him that stood out, it is the fact that he won it without any serious challenge from the opposition. As Parling pointed out in his recent interview on The Roar, the lineout has an impact well beyond the number of throws won and lost. “I like the psychological factor a solid lineout adds to a team – the confidence it adds to your side, or takes away from the opposition,” he says. “A good defensive lineout has the power to change an opponent’s entire game-plan. It has a real impact when they can see you are solid and reliable there.” When your lineout functions smoothly, without any hitches, it is a huge bonus to the overall plan. You can choose whether to drive the ball or take it off the top, your backs can rely on the timing of the passes from the halves, your moves can be translated from blackboard to the green, green grass of home: In the first example, the Waratahs’ premier lineout poacher (Ned Hanigan) barely leaves the deck before Hosea has popped the ball off the top for the Rebels to project Isi Naisarani into midfield on the first phase: Isi’s initial penetration means that most of the Tahs’ tight forwards have been caught on the shortside of the first ruck, and some attractive attacking spaces are already beginning to open up on the wide side of the breakdown. Trevor Hosea was the Rebels’ go-to target as they approached the opposition red zone. A quick drive off ball to Hosea at the tail creates much the same effect on the Waratahs defence at the first ruck: At least Tom Horton had made it around to the openside of the first example, in this instance none of the Tahs’ tight forwards have been able to wrap and help out Lachie Swinton and Michael Hooper. Hosea’s imperious ability to win the ball at the back half of the lineout, under no challenge and with full control of his body in the air and his delivery off the top, was an impressive feature: Angus Blyth cannot get further than halfway up Hosea’s body to contest in the air, and the Rebels prospect drops the ball into exactly the pocket where his scrumhalf wants it. On second phase, the Rebels have an inviting opportunity to shift the ball wide with the Reds’ defence forced to back off across the field: The Queensland defenders have been forced to slide rather than rush and their fullback, Jock Campbell, will shortly be presented with a difficult choice as the last man, with both Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete bearing down upon him. Hosea’s speed of elevation into the air, and his body control at the top of the jump, is Victor-like in quality: At the apex, Hosea’s knees are well above the heads of both of his lifters, who have a full arm extension. He is looking at the target, and he is passing the ball down with two hands, under full control: Hosea also won three of his steals at the tail of the line, making it hard for opponents to win blue-ribbon lineout ball: ‘Two-hands Hosea’ would be an appropriate nickname, given his facility with both hands on the ball – not just at lineout time, but when he is required to make decisions as a forward first receiver: Carrying the ball in two hands allows the ball-carrier to remain flexible, and make a late decision between running and passing. In this instance, Hosea sees a back in front of him, Hamish Stewart, and decides to run over the top of him. He can also earn the hard metres in contact against king-hit forwards like Lukhan Salakaia-Loto: Facing towards the passer, and presenting two hands out in front of him represents excellent technique for a receiving forward. It encouraged Hosea to explore his options, either sweeping the ball wide into the second line of attack: Or dropping off a sympathetic in-pass to a support player in space: All the agility and soft hands in the world will not cut much ice if a lock cannot perform his core tasks, like the scrum: Hosea stays impressively low in this long scrum from the qualifying round match against the Reds. It lasts for more than ten seconds in total, but the youngster stays in the sweet spot behind the prop on his side (Cameron Orr) throughout: Hosea is flat and low, in fact lower than Matt Philip (in the headband) on the tighthead side. As a result, as the set-piece develops it goes forward on his side, with the power applied through Orr and Jordan Uelese against the formidable Taniela Tupou. SummaryWill there ever be a second coming of the iconic John Eales, the athletic big-man who represented Australia so well both on and off the field in the 1990s, including in two World Cup wins which bridged the amateur and professional eras in 1991 and ’99? Probably not. But the Melbourne Rebels’ Trevor Hosea has the raw talent to come close – either to Eales, or to the best lineout exponent of professional times, Victor Matfield. He is bigger than both of them and has comparable natural agility, soft hands and body control in the air. He may even be able to give Australia the lineout presence they have lacked since Eales’ day. Lineout authority always used to be the main gateway to the Wallabies’ signature attacking style back then. It may still be now. With a strong lineout, everything looks so much easier. You can get either your forwards into play (via the maul) or the backs (off the top). You can run your set-piece attacks and beat the defence to the first ruck, and dictate phase play thereafter. The current situation in the Australian second row is fluid and there is a great opportunity for Hosea to state his case – especially in the absence of Matt Philip for the duration of Super Rugby AU. If he can grasp it, Australian supporters will probably not lay down palm leaves underneath his feet and acclaim him as their lineout saviour. But they may mutter a few quiet “hosannas” under their breath. It may be impossible to clone John Eales, but the era of lineout dominance associated with him can definitely be repeated.
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What you missed: Australian rugby’s off-season report
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Every year when the summer draws to a close and we start preparing ourselves for the cooler months, one thing brings warmth to my heart – the promise of a new season of rugby to watch. Last year we were nearly deprived of this rite of passage as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world, but from the ashes a new era of rugby was born in Australia. The introduction and success of a domestic Super Rugby season, a new Wallabies coach, as well as massive administrative changes created some semblance of hope. More Rugby What you missed: Australian rugby’s off-season report Tim Horan floats young captaincy option at Reds ACT Brumbies vs Western Force: Super Rugby AU pre-season trial live scores, blog Australian rugby needs to kick goals in 2021 Liam Wright and the Reds back row can be stronger for his injury Rugby But if there is hope, there is also despair, which came in the form of the Wallabies winning only one of six games from a revamped Tri Nations. This left us with questions: what will Super Rugby look like next year? How will moving on from Fox Sports work? Who will be the new CEO of Rugby Australia? The off-season provided some answers but I would forgive you for missing them, as news coverage (as expected with such a public breakup between Fox Sports and Rugby AU) has been sparse. I am here to fill you in on what you missed and get you back in the mood for the game they play in heaven. Therefore, this is the Spruce Moose – hop in! We begin with the Super Rugby season. Like last year, we will see a domestic Super Rugby AU season take place alongside New Zealand’s own season, with both opening in February (Super Rugby AU on 19 February and Aotearoa a week later, on 26 February). Unlike last year, however, there will a trans-Tasman competition with five rounds and a final, which will start on 14 May and run until 19 June. For Super Rugby AU there are two objectives: grow on the solid base that was set last year in trying circumstances and prove to our trans-Tasman cousins that a combined competition can be both entertaining and competitive. The ultimate goal for Australia will be to get a team into the final (which is a simple first versus second) out of the five rounds. If Australia really wants to put a stake in the ground and show their worth, as well as the competition format’s worth, the final needs to feature teams from both nations. Some other call outs for the Super Rugby AU season is a celebration of First Nations people and culture in Round 4 and the Anzac Round on 23 and 24 April. Also, keep an eye out for what has been dubbed the ‘Super Round’, Round 3, of the trans-Tasman competition, when all games will be played at one venue. It is also important for the newly formed partnership with Stan and Nine Entertainment Co that both the domestic and trans-Tasman competitions display an exciting and engaging brand of rugby. (Ashley Feder/Getty Images) More is to be revealed about the exact specifics of the look and feel of the sports extension to Stan but we now have the pricing, which is $10 on top of a regular Stan subscription. So Stan will be a minimum $20 a month with sports and a maximum $29 a month with a premium subscription. What is disappointing is the general lack of promotion in Australian media. Given the breakup with News Corp and the general financial struggles, this isn’t wholly unexpected but in future more has to be done to promote the sport and create a sense of anticipation. What I do find exciting, however, is a game a week on free-to-air TV in prime time. Sure, it is on GEM and not the primary channel but for those who have been crying out for greater free-to-air exposure, this is a big win. Couple this with a nearly all-new coverage team made up of Roz Kelly and Nick McArdle as the lead presenters, with Tim Horan, Morgan Turinui, Drew Mitchell, Justin Harrison, Andrew Mehrtens, Allana Ferguson and Sean Maloney, as well as Andrew Swain as the commentary leads, and there is a fresh feel. The change in team is the correct move here and although the previous hosts and commentators such as Greg Clark, Greg Martin, Rod Kafer and Phil Kearns deserve thanks for their years of service, it was time for a change. Phil Kearns. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images) The biggest challenge for this new team is to effectively communicate the game to the audience and not assume that everyone has played or even seen rugby union before. Rugby presents a unique challenge in this respect as so much of the game can be confusing to a non-informed viewer – or sometimes even a seasoned fan. Also, being a bit more impartial would be nice. There have been a few changes at Rugby Australia as well this off-season, the major one being the announcement of new CEO Andy Marinos. The former head of SANZAAR, Andy is a Zimbabwean-born, eight-Test Welsh centre who has the experience for the new role and is saying all the right things about growing the game, creating a winning culture, driving commercial value, and connecting with grassroots. Talk is cheap though and he faces one of the biggest challenges in Australian sport – growing rugby union and getting the Wallabies to win. It has undone a number of CEOs before him. The biggest surprise this off-season has been RA’s offer to host the Lions tour against South Africa. Jeez that is weird to write. South Africa is obviously still in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, with a new variant making it especially dangerous to host international tours there, as shown by the Australian cricket team’s cancellation of their Test tour. The idea from RA would be to give all the profits to the Lions and South African rugby, less the hosting costs. This is a strategic move by Rugby Australia, who are currently underway with a bid to host the 2027 World Cup. It is also an olive branch to South Africa, who have been somewhat burnt by their exclusion from Super Rugby, as well as an opportunity for one of the highlights of the international rugby calendar to be used in Australia to bolster domestic interest. I would certainly make my way to a game to see the World Cup winners against the best of the British Isles. I do not really expect this proposal to get off the ground but it shows RA’s willingness to think outside of the box and, for a struggling sport, ideas like this are key to growing the game and creating good international alliances. A final note on Rugby Australia is a call out for the incredible job that outgoing interim CEO Rob Clarke did in the midst of the hardest period ever in Australian rugby. A stakeholder network at each other’s throats, a global pandemic and extreme monetary issues were dealt with an astute attitude, good strategic thinking, and a willingness to be flexible. Props to Rob. Sports opinion delivered daily function edmWidgetSignupEvent() window.roarAnalytics.customEvent( category: 'EDM', action: 'EDM Signup', label: `Shortcode Widget`, ); The match schedule is now out for the women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand this year, with some blockbuster matches including an opening day Australia vs New Zealand match. The tournament kicks off on 18 September and the final will be held on Saturday 16 October. Strap yourself in for a feast of international rugby, with 12 teams competing. Carn Straya! Finally, I would like to call out Queensland Rugby Referee Association (QRRA) stalwart Thomas Ryan, who was awarded an Order of Australia Medal on Australia Day for his services to both rugby union and medical research. The volunteers and people at club rugby level are the lifeblood of the game. Too often these people go without mention so it is good to see Thomas get the recognition he deserves.
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Australian rugby needs to kick goals in 2021
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2021 has been drawn up as the season which Australian rugby draws a line in the sand. The first 25 years of professionalism was then, this is now. New direction, new competitions, new trans-Tasman focus, new broadcasters. New future. It is a big season for the game, for the five Australian teams, and it’s a big season for fans both of the rusted variety and especially those who have lost contact with the game over time for whatever reason. But this is not about the game kicking metaphorical goals off the field in 2021. Rather, we’re talking about the literal goals on the field. You don’t have to look very far to find something in the game that needs fixing in Australian rugby, but goal-kicking has been an issue for a long time. While the Owen Farrells and the Johnny Sextons and the Dan Carters and whichever kicking machine is wearing the Springbok no.10 jersey at the time have regularly existed in the truly elite measure of 80 per cent or better, Australian kickers have only ever been temporary visitors. Owen Farrell. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images) Bernard Foley was, for a time after the 2015 World Cup, referred to Australia’s “iceman”, but the reality is that he was never that consistently good. One strong year from the kicking tee could easily be followed by a disappointing year. Equally, a disappointing Super Rugby season for Foley could just as easily be followed by an excellent Test season within the same year. He certainly wasn’t alone. For a long time, it has felt like Australian kickers were happy to land three in every four, while at the other end opposition kickers knocked over eight in ten. But there were signs this was changing in 2020, and maybe even changing for the good. If we cast back to first seven rounds of Super Rugby before the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, Australian kickers trailed the competition leaders. He didn’t start every game on return to the Bulls, but Morne Steyn was still kicking at 80 per cent. Aaron Cruden slotted back in with the Chiefs and hit them at 82. Otere Black and Jordie Barrett converted 17 from 20 attempts (85%) for the Blues and Hurricanes respectively. Western Force fans will take heart from Argentinean flyhalf Dominic Miotti kicking a competition-leading 90 per cent (18 from 20) of the regular kickers. Of the Australians, though, you need to scroll further down the list. Brumbies scrumhalf Ryan Lonergan did kick eight from eight across three games, but he only started one of them. Reece Hodge kicked one from one in Round 1 for the Rebels and didn’t have another attempt over the next six rounds. After that, Bryce Hegarty kicked 14 from 18 (78%) for the Reds, Matt To’omua kicked 16 from 22 (73%) for the Rebels, and Will Harrison kicked 13 from 18 (72%) for the Waratahs on debut. Will Harrison. (Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images) Noah Lolesio managed only 14 from 23 (61%) for the Brumbies in their first six games of 2020, though it is worth considering where the Brumbies score most of their tries. He also made his one and only penalty attempt. It all represented a typically Australian return, and was typically off the pace. Once Super Rugby AU began in July however, Harrison, To’omua, and James O’Connor for the Reds all broke through the 80per cent barrier: Harrison 37/40 (93%), To’omua 37/43 (86%), and O’Connor 35/44 (80%). Most of O’Connor’s kicks were conversions, but both Harrison and To’omua were roughly 50-50 in their split of conversions and penalties. Over in the west, Ian Prior and Jono Lance kicked at a combined 67 per cent for the Force, while the Brumbies had four kickers combine for a 62 per cent success rate, again noting the number of tries scored out wide and that they attempted only four penalties for the tournament. Hodge landed two of three penalties, but carried on in the international season, particularly once he found himself starting in the Wallabies no.10 jersey. Reece Hodge. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images) Curiously, we noted during and immediately after the Tri-Nations was completed some criticism of Hodge’s kicking during the series – quite likely a conclusion drawn after his three missed penalty attempts to win games. Even now, you can still find “Hodge off target again in Wallabies draw” headlines from the time to influence perceptions. But he did land 12 of 16 penalty attempts for the tournament, and 14 from 19 kicks overall. Seventy-four per cent overall marks a jump up on his Super Rugby AU success rate, and proof that he can be far more than a long-range specialist when given the opportunity to be the first-choice kicker. The more he kicks, the better his success rate. The Reds will start 2021 as one of the favoured teams, even after the trial loss to the Waratahs on Friday night, but the Waratahs and Rebels will both find themselves in competitive positions in games if these kicking success rates can be maintained. The Force will be boosted by the inclusion of Miotti and will remain well-served by Prior and Lance whenever they are on the field. If the Brumbies youngsters start landing more sideline conversions, they will find themselves as frontrunners again in 2021. It is true that goal-kicking is unlikely to make the highlights reel, but it is a crucial skill that the best teams do well. It’s equally true that nothing builds attendances and viewing numbers like winning rugby. Good kickers win more games than they lose. 2021 does loom as an important year for Australian rugby. But it is just as important that the Aussie teams start kicking as many goals on the field as they look to kick off it. Data sources: Goal-kicking stats sourced from a mix of matchday scorecards and listed stats pages, from sites including the official SANZAAR Super Rugby page, RUGBY.com.au, and Fox Sports.
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Six Nations opening weekend: What we really saw
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Before a ball was kicked, word was out that World Rugby’s new match officials supremo, Joel Jutge, had spoken to the refereeing panel to ensure both the five-second law and the breakdown directives of 2020 (which had largely been ignored at international level last year) were correctly officiated. Nigel Owens, now ex-Test referee, joined the discussion in public, stating that the way forward to a faster game was to simply enforce the laws currently on the books. Who would have thought, eh, Nigel? Good to have you aboard. He made particular note of the advantage line, slowing ball at the ruck and illegal formation of attacking mauls from line-outs as areas where enforcement of the laws had fallen down in the past. Italy vs FranceLet’s deal with the negative elephant in the room first. This Italian side has been through more rebuilds than Jerusalem, and yet again, a bunch of young Italians were sent into a mismatch to continue their run of defeats, which is as long as anyone can remember. This side is considered tier one and therefore holds three votes at World Rugby votes, hmmmm. Wonder why they are still there? France, now everyone’s second favourite side, are physical upfront and have pace to burn outside. When one of the most promising flyhalves in the global game is not available, Matthieu Jollibert steps in and looks to the manor born, they are spoilt for choice across the park. They offload with impunity and halfback Antoine Dupont is a major beneficiary, as he runs those middle of the park support lines with real aggression. Dupont is an interesting study – a look at his highlights is notable for the lack of traditional halfback stuff he does. Antoine Dupont (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images) He is a running nine, topping the metres in this game, scoring one off a midfield support line, throwing an offload in a tackle for another score and didn’t mind sticking a shot on two to three channels off the ruck. If he didn’t have a number on his back, it might be difficult to pick what position he is playing much of the time. But the beating heart of this side is its loose forward trio, by some distance the best combination in world rugby now. I suspect we will be hearing the names Dylan Cretin, Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt for a few more seasons yet. France won this in a canter and eased up as the game went on. England vs ScotlandThe game that was going to be the litmus test for Mr Jutge’s instructions. An England side built to play in the NFL like vignettes against a Scotland team with real pace in its loose forward trio and a couple of talented, but flawed, characters out the back. While referee Andrew Brace started down the right road, he disappointingly pulled the throttle back as England slowed the game at every possible opportunity and if I am correct, he issued two further yellow card warnings to England early in the second stanza without pulling the trigger again. With England down to 14 men in the first half, one scrum sequence took a full three minutes to complete. You’ve got to be tougher on this, Sir. Scotland took England head on upfront, got to the lead early and never looked like being headed. Jonny Gray (who surely must have been man of the match), Hamish Wilson and the Fagerson family all dominated their opposites and played with a level of aggression in contact that stayed just the right side of the line. For England, this performance has been there simmering away, just hidden beneath the surface in their performances post-RWC. This game highlighted the lack of attacking threat and invention in this team. The debutant at centre, for example, had only one touch of the ball and that was on the hour. This wasn’t a particularly quick game, but I wonder whether player size has reached a zenith as Jamie George and Billy Vunipola both looked the wrong side of, shall we say, optimal conditioning for the amount of ball movement. Vunipola interestingly did not register a single run metre – almost unheard of. The much-vaunted battle for the Lions 10 jersey produced two losers. Owen Farrell looked lost once behind on the scoreboard and his usually effective kicking game was totally trumped by Stuart Hogg returning Exocets. (Kaz Photography/Getty Images) I suspect this is what Warrens Gatland’s scorecard looked like for Finn Russell: one foot trip, one sin-binning, three points needlessly conceded, one kickable penalty missed, five turnovers conceded and a brain snap going for a ‘look at me’ drop goal, which gifted the ball back to the opposition with the clock gone. Hardly British and Irish Lions stuff, is it? Scotland were good value for every inch of this win, dominating all the key battlegrounds of the contest. There is a balance in this Scottish side which hasn’t been there for a while and a trace of steel running through the pack, which will ensure they will be competitive against all comers this year. This result makes the rest of the season very interesting for both sides. For the record, I backed Scotland, and so I don’t look like Harry Hindsight, here’s the evidence. Wales vs IrelandA match where both coaches must have been looking over their shoulder – one in the process of changing up a restrictive game plan with tools not fit for the purpose, and the other, well, not sure what it is the Ireland coach is trying to do, other than replicating what didn’t work for them at the end under the previous regime. The sending off of Peter O’Mahoney in early order looked like being the death knell for this one, but it was anything but. It signalled the best period of the game for Ireland as they scored 13 consecutive points, as Conor Murray served a far flatter attack with Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Beirne prominent and Ireland held that lead through to oranges. Both sides would have discussed the need for ball security with the combined lineout count for the opening stanza being four from nine. Ouch. The second half saw a more controlled effort from Wales, and they did a far better job of finding the space left by only 14 men and scored two nice tries wide out. Then came the last 10 minutes. Can anyone remember a game with poorer decision making and execution down the straight? Wales got turned over taking a maul to ground; with the clock on the cusp of 80 minutes, Welsh halfback Gareth Davies meekly grubbered the ball away, allowing Ireland one last chance to steal the game, and perhaps fittingly for the end of this match, the game ended as Irish replacement 10 Billy Burns missed touch kicking for an attacking lineout which could have won them the game. You really couldn’t write this stuff. So, it was great to have international rugby back, even without crowds. We saw the sea change in officiating we’d hoped for, and it delivered the desired outcomes in speed and space. It wasn’t perfect, of course, as it is early days, and it will remain to be seen whether the French refereeing crew toe the line when they join later in the tournament. I think World Rugby will declare weekend one a success. Now, they only need to show the intestinal fortitude to keep this focus going; what could possibly go wrong?
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If The Avengers played rugby
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A Set small text size A Set the default text size A Set large text size They saved the world, twice… so what? The real question for me is: how would they fare against the mighty All Blacks on a rainy night in Christchurch? With this line-up, I think any rugby team in the world are in for a long night – maybe there will be some problems under the high ball. Let’s get to it. 1. ThanosI don’t think there is much to debate here. Absolute unit and you bet ya he will never forget to remind you of that one linebreak he had that made him feel like a wing on his way to the try line. 2. KorgWhat a nice bloke. This guy has a heart of gold and would never let any of his teammates get hurt, so in a free-for-all situation, you know who’s got your back. 3. The HulkIn more recent times he has learnt to control his emotions more and his hissy fits have been limited, so that is probably up for debate. But he has got brains now, which will improve his handling skills. 4. GrootGroot is exactly what you want in a lock. Doesn’t have much to say and can reach any ball in a line out just by extending his index finger. Also, a very hard man to tackle, so you would definitely want him as first receiver. 5. VisionI honestly did not know where to put this guy, but I want him on my team. With the ability to lift 90 tonnes, who wouldn’t want to square this guy up against Maro Itoje? 6. Bucky BarnesThe guy is as tough as nails and has a metal arm. You know he will be winning you every single ball at the breakdown. Also has the ability to turn into an absolute killing machine if need be. 7. War-MachineBasically Iron-Man without Tony so he can fly and shoot stuff by just using his palm. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images) 8. ThorIn an interview once, a reporter asked him how it feels to be the strongest man in the universe, upon which he answered: “I don’t know, maybe you should ask Duanne Vermeulen?” Unfortunately, Duanne is not an Avenger so we will have to settle for second best, which is the god of thunder. 9. DeadpoolSo, I know he is not an Avenger and all, but he just as well could have been one if he didn’t look like an avocado with skin cancer without his suit on. But I know this guy will be cheeky as hell with the other team’s forwards come scrum time. 10. HawkeyeThe most accurate man in the universe – the transition from bow to boot won’t be too hard for Clint. He also has shown that he can take control, and with his backline full of egos, you know he will have to. 11. Ant-ManHe can change the size of his body by pushing a button, so he will only be caught if he wants to be. I do have concerns with his capability under the high ball, so maybe a guy like Loki isn’t a bad shout either? 12. Iron-ManI had to put him in – I mean, there is no way you can leave a superstar like him out of the first XV. The man is a genius, so he will be no doubt spotting gaps before they even open with the help of F.R.I.D.A.Y (if you don’t know who that is, look it up). 13. Captain AmericaThis guy will be captaining this team and I couldn’t really pick anyone else here, could I? He gives me Brian O’Driscoll vibes just by looking at him and that’s why he’s my captain. Wouldn’t you get goosebumps if this guy comes on at halftime when you’re 20 points behind and he gives a heartwarming speech and then ends it with… Avengers ASSEMBLE! 14. Black PantherHe could just as easily have been picked at 12 or 13 because of his strength, but we need pace in the wide areas. Imagine you give this guy a little space with the ball in hand – he’ll never stop running! 15. SpidermanQuick feet, can leap from buildings and can steal the ball out of the air with his webshooters – it’s a no brainer for me. The kid from Queens rounds out my team.
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Queensland Reds dealt massive injury blow for Super Rugby AU
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A Set small text size A Set the default text size A Set large text size Queensland’s hopes of claiming the Super Rugby AU title this year have taken a massive hit after Liam Wright was ruled out for ten weeks with a syndesmosis injury. The Reds captain sustained the injury to his left ankle in Friday night’s trial loss to the Waratahs. A ten-week recovery would see Wright available for the pointy end of the season – he’d be back in time for the final round of the regular season as well as the finals. However, his absence for almost all of the home-and-away season is a major blow for the side. The 23-year-old has established himself as one of the most respected leaders in Australian rugby since being handed the Queensland captaincy, as well as one of the country’s top flankers. Along with Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson, Wright formed the most potent back row in Super Rugby AU last year. Angus Scott-Young seems the most likely replacement for Wright on the side of the scrum, having started a number of games at blindside flanker in 2020, however the Reds’ other captaincy options are somewhat limited. James O’Connor emerged as one of the side’s leaders last year, however off-season reports that he was exploring a move to Super Rugby Aotearoa with the Chiefs may have scuppered his chances of taking the captaincy. Given the Reds had no qualms making Wright skipper at such a young age, they may opt to give McReight the job on an interim basis. While just 21, the number seven captained the Junior Wallabies to the final of the Under 20 World Championship in 2019, and has been touted as a future leader. Wright’s injury is the second major pre-season casualty of the weekend, after Brumbies speedster Tom Wright was ruled out for six weeks. The winger, one of the leading try-scorers in 2020, suffered bone bruising at training and will miss the first half of the season as a result.
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Six Nations talking points: Round 1
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While the Super Rugby sides go through their final trials ahead of the new season, the Six Nations kicked off this weekend with three entertaining games. Although the World Cup might be a good three years away, the British and Irish Lions are hopefully touring in just a few months, and the Six Nations is one of the best chances to catch the eyes of the selectors. What was missing because of the absence of crowds was made up for with some exciting games, including two away wins and a couple of nailbiters. So what were the big talking points from the weekend? Finn Russell winning the race to be Lion KingAll rugby fans should be hoping that the British and Irish Lions get to tour this year and play the Springboks. Of course we all want it to happen safely, but we really want it to happen! The competition for spots on the tour will go down to the wire in many cases, and one of the most hotly contested will be for that first-choice flyhalf jersey. Owen Farrell, George Ford, Finn Russell, Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar will all feel that they would do the Lions proud. But only one can get the slot, and after the first round Finn Russell and Johnny Sexton have got their noses ahead in the race. Sexton delivered a really good controlled performance against Wales. He didn’t set the game alight with creativity, but he directed his team around the park like a master. His team were 0-6 down and had a man sent off in the first half, but Sexton led his team back and guided them to a lead that they really could have, maybe even should have, turned into a win. Russell is in even better form at the moment. He’s always been known for his attacking flair with ball in hand, and then on Saturday he used his boot to great effect with some beautiful chips and grubbers that not only created chances for Scotland but also forced England’s defence to work hard and keep guessing. The white wall that is so often used as a brutal battering ram was on the back foot as Russell put doubt into their mind. In the cons column on Warren Gatland’s notepad would have been the yellow card that Russell picked up for tripping Ben Youngs just before halftime. But the thing is that with Russell you sort of know that you’re going to have to cop something like this if you want to benefit from all the pros – he’s just that sort of player. And in the last year or so he’s started to reduce the number of those incidents, making him more and more attractive to coaches. Finn Russell (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images) Speaking of Scotland…In The Roar’s Six Nations preview there was discussion about how Scotland continued to be a mystery team and how crucial the first game against England was going to be to their tournament. Many didn’t expect a win, but it was essential that they put in a good performance and build from there. Well, forget all that! They played England off the park and showed a combination of skill and wisdom that England neither expected nor adjusted to as the game unfolded. In the post-match interviews Owen Farrell looked like the journalist had asked him to do quantum equations in his head – confused, frustrated and wishing someone would make it all go away. And that was how England looked for most of the 80 minutes thanks to Scotland’s style of play and execution. Yes, England were poor, but Scotland won this and won it well. The scoreline was tight but the gap between the two teams was far greater, and the rest of the competition should be quite concerned now about what Scotland could do to them. The older heads such as Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Hamish Watson are playing well and leading by example. The youngsters like Cameron Redpath and Duhan van der Merwe are looking very much at home on the big stage and outshone their opponents every step of the way on the weekend. England are not the messiah; they’re very naughty boys!England not only lost against Scotland at home in Twickenham, but they also played some of their worst rugby for a very long time. There are plenty of excuses to reach for – poor conditions, no rugby for many of their players for a few months – but none of them should be used to explain this defeat. England were poor all over and Scotland played really well. One of the biggest issues for England on the day was their discipline – they gave away ten penalties in the first half and then 15 by the final whistle compared to Scotland’s six in total. That behaviour from England caused them plenty of issues and really highlighted how off the pace and out of sorts they were. Considering the fact that Scotland had so much possession in the opening half – well over 70 per cent – England should have the experience to know that it was crucial that they didn’t make things harder for themselves by giving away penalties. But give them away they did, over and over and over again. Some of England’s best players – Maro Itoje, for example – have always played right on the edge of the laws and we all know that some of the greatest in the game have built a reputation on being able to test the flexibility of the rules. But England were getting pinged from the first few minutes and should have realised that today was not the day to test the referee. Some have even commented that the lack of a crowd led to the penalty count against England being higher – or should that be more accurate? – but again, England are wanting to be classed as the best team in the world. You can’t achieve that if you’re not going to be able to adjust to the game as it unfolds. England must address this issue immediately and for the rest of the tournament have to be on their best behaviour. Owen Farrell (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images) Discipline not the only issue for shackled EnglandThe loss to Scotland should have big ramifications for England. They didn’t just lose; they really had so little to offer at any point in the game, and fans and pundits alike have been left wondering if Eddie Jones has run out of ideas as a coach. Far too often England have been shown to have little attacking quality or natural creative instinct. Any that is displayed seems to be quickly wrestled back into the box and the kicking tactic is brought back. Jones brought in youngster Ollie Lawrence to start in the centre, heralding his attacking prowess. Lawrence certainly didn’t show much of that ability on Saturday and to be fair it wasn’t easy to do so when you consider the ball wasn’t passed to him until the 63rd minute. The England team can scare people with their physicality, but this weekend the Scots showed that if you give it back to them while remaining disciplined, the English don’t really have a plan B to try and score points. Looking ahead, Jones should not start Farrell at No. 10 again. It just doesn’t work. Furthermore, Jones has got to stop viewing attacking play as some sort of accessory that you might add to a core of a strong defence. He’s got to get his attack firing and make teams worry about England when they’ve got ball in hand. A home game against Italy in Round 2 is a good time to let the boys play! Eddie Jones. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images) The old and the youngOne of the highlights of the opening weekend was how some of the youngest and oldest involved shone. When it comes to the newbies, Cameron Redpath looked right at home playing in the centres for Scotland while Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi were exciting to watch as the halfbacks pair for Italy. Meanwhile, the old dogs didn’t let the pups have all the spotlight. Alun Wyn Jones – who has more caps than the entire Italian team put together – did his usual job of leading from the front and helping his team get their heads right to win against Ireland. On the other side of that match, Johnny Sexton and his halves pairing Connor Murray also played well and showed coach Andy Farrell that any move to transition them out would be premature. Can Antoine Dupont still be classed as young or new? He’s only 24, but he’s now picked up 28 caps. Whatever group he is classed in, one thing is for sure: the guy is insanely good. In the destruction of Italy, Dupont was involved in so many of the best things that France did all afternoon, and the engraver wouldn’t be blamed for starting to engrave the best player of the tournament trophy with his name already. To win the whole championship teams are going to need both young and old to continue to perform. One-off appearances catch the eye, but a Six Nations-winning side needs consistency from the entire team. It’ll be interesting to see if we’re still speaking about these names come the final rounds. Wales win but no-one is convincedWayne Pivac probably thought he was in for a good day when the referee pulled out the red card and sent off Peter O’Mahony in the first half. His Welsh side were 6-0 up and would enjoy a man advantage for most of the game – surely the home side would bag a good win against a tough Irish side and go into Round 2 with momentum. But as Ireland got ready for a penalty kick to touch that would give them a chance to win the game with 83 minutes on the clock, Pivac’s blood pressure must have been through the open roof of the Cardiff stadium. Wales got the win and, yes, of course that matters. But they were not convincing at all, and even Italy will be looking at them as a chance for a victory later in the competition. Wales are struggling to settle into their new Pivac style, and just to make things a little bit more challenging, no-one seems entirely sure what that style actually is. With a six-point lead and one-man advantage, Wales had plenty of opportunity to put the game beyond doubt before halftime. But they let Ireland into the game and the home side really struggled to wrest back control. Even when they picked up a couple of tries there was something that just wasn’t convincing about the Welsh performance – you never felt like they had the result in the bag. Their line out was fragile again and there was no-one who grabbed the game and took control. Wales go to Edinburgh in Round 2, and although both sides will start with an unbeaten record, you’d be surprised if Wales keep that intact come the end of the match against Scotland. So that’s Round 1 all done and dusted. There was plenty more that could have been discussed, such as France’s impressive performance or the concerning lack of energy from Italy, but there’s plenty of time to discuss these two teams at another time – it’s a long competition (well, not as long as the Big Bash League, but nothing is!).
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