A-League 1,000: The Star Wars VII Edition

@hamishneal

1,000-ish words, thoughts and musings on the A-League’s fourth round which commences in Melbourne on Friday and wraps up in the Victorian capital on Melbourne Cup eve.

 ninkovic

Melbourne Sheep Cow Whale Ships v Newcastle Jets, Friday – AAMI Park

After vanquishing the Victory, Newcastle will look to take another southern scalp on Friday, but I fear their

injuries might start to become problematic. Leonardo wasn’t involved in the main training group in the first half of the week, which wouldn’t be as much of a concern if the game was Sunday, so it could be another patchwork squad for Scott Miller. They will need to be more ruthless in front of goal as if they rely on a set piece coming off as it did on Friday, they may struggle here. Milos Trifunovic missed a hatful of chances in the first half as both sides stuttered in the final third and the big Serbian needs to find a ruthless streak in front of goal. The home side played their part in an entertaining fixture last weekend beating the Mariners, with Bruno Fornaroli netting twice in the second half after a frenetic start to the game when each side scored inside 13 minutes.

 

Big game for: Lachlan Jackson. The former Brisbane defender has been the beneficiary of early absences in the Newcastle defence this season and could get a chance to continue to show his worth. If not he will be pushing for a start at training in coming weeks.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: More from Corey Gameiro. The former Olyroo is in danger of entering the ‘Cernak Zone’ of a budding young hopeful that can’t settle. 22 years-old once of Fulham and now onto his third A-League club (yes one of those was on-loan), the New South Welshman has a big chance to prove his worth in Melbourne.     

Central Coast Mariners v Sydney FC, Saturday – Central Coast Stadium

After #tifogate when Sydney FC fans had their banner swiped, presumably by some juvenile Western Sydney fans, they swept to a late victory over the Wanderers on the back of Milos Ninkovic’s goal. Graham Arnold’s side leave the mansion this weekend and head to their weekender up the coast. Gone are the days of Arnold leading the Mariners with burgeoning youngsters like Tom Rogic; these days Tony Walmsley is in charge at Gosford but there is still the young talent. However, the side was beaten easily in the end in Melbourne despite providing a good contest. Walmsley won’t abandon his attacking style and his best hope may be try to exploit any weaknesses by using the width as they did in their round one over Perth. That Ninkovic has managed to find form early for Sydney is hugely beneficial for Arnold. Compared with visa signings elsewhere, it’s exactly what Arnold would have expected.

 

Big game for: Paul Izzo. The deputy ‘keeper could have done better with the third goal, which pretty much put the light blues in control last week. With the future of Liam Reddy uncertain, it’s worth remembering Hume City keeper Chris Oldfield did trail with the Mariners recently, so former Adelaide man Izzo needs a solid effort here.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Nick Fitzgerald starting to become more significant. Another ex-Roar player, the Mariners forward did well with his 13th minute strike but needs to have a more consistent impact.

  

Brisbane Roar v Adelaide United, Saturday – Suncorp Stadium

Brisbane’s short passing and possession game worked for most of Saturday in the New Zealand capital, until the Phoenix started taking their small chances, but two goals will probably be enough to see off Adelaide, so if their midfield can continue to cut off supply to the opposition forward line, John Aloisi’s side have the forwards in the likes of Jamie Maclaren to see them pick up the three points. Last week we looked at how Adelaide had logged only 17 attempts on goal for their opening two games, and it didn’t get much better against Perth on the weekend; despite having 69 per cent possession, Guillermo Amor’s side have now registered just five shots on target in their first three games. For all the possession, Adelaide play with as if they hit a virtual force field 25 metres from the opponent’s goal. The Red’s strike force will need to awaken because if they wait until Star Wars VII opens, they will be well adrift.

 

Big game for: Adelaide’s bench. Bruce Djite wasn’t deemed fit to play in the end for the game in Perth and the Reds bench was virtually faceless, with Michael Marrone the only player of note. Adelaide’s starting eleven are struggling but without people screaming out to make a difference on the bench it makes things harder.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Thomas Broich has not been to the fore for Brisbane in the first three games but he is key in holding this side together from defence to attack.

Isaias+League+Rd+3+Perth+v+Adelaide+vq5qk9hr3Cyl

Western Sydney Wanderers v Perth Glory, Sunday – Pirtek Stadium

For all their dominance in attack, 12 shots to Sydney’s four, the Wanderers left the Sydney Derby empty handed (oh except for The Cove’s tifo they pinched). To make matters worse, Romeo Castelen will be missing for Tony Popovic’s side this weekend who are still yet to find the key in their link from midfield to attack. They did get the link working between Mitch Nichols and Jashua Sotirio once, but had a goal ruled out for off-side. More of that is needed. Kenny Lowe’s gamble to bench two of his key visa players on the back of the FFA Cup triumph paid handsome dividends, as both Diego Castro and Guoyn Fernandez scored against Adelaide, and the squad rotation may be in affect again ahead of the trip to Sydney with the FFA Cup final in Melbourne the following Saturday. A multiple goal-scorer in recent weeks, Gyorgy Sandor turned provider for Sidnei Sciola and was again one of Perth’s best.

 

Big game for: Missing from the start of this game after his early departure from the Sydney Derby Castelen’s absence is huge for the red and blacks and makes the work of Nichols more important.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Perth’s team line-up will be interesting again given they are now playing in Melbourne for the FFA Cup instead of in Perth against the Victory.

Melbourne Victory v Wellington Phoenix, Monday – Etihad Stadium

After returning from their footballing Bermuda Triangle in Newcastle, the Victory got back in the winner’s circle with a 3-0 FFA Cup triumph over Hume City. That score line flattered the Victory, who benefitted from two penalty calls, one which they scored and one which was denied to Hume, and jagged two goals late on. This is not (yet) the Victory of 2014/15, but they are still capable as evidenced by Wednesday’s result. Wellington go in search of their first win in Australia since they were officially told their ongoing A-League future is in severe doubt, but Ernie Merrick will no doubt be able to get the side to focus given his vast experience. Melbourne were limp in attack in Newcastle and not a great deal better against Hume, and given Wellington’s ability to win from behind even an early goal to the home side won’t phase the visitor’s. With both sides boosting multiple goal-scorers already this season, it promises to be an entertaining game. Wellington’s Michael McGlinchey will be salivating over any free kick options given Melbourne’s failure to read the play for David Carney’s goal for Newcastle on Friday last weekend.

 

Big game for: Wellington’s defence. Andrew Durante’s absence from the game would make things harder even allowing for their recent form without him.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: If the home side do go behind early can we have an in-game interview with Kevin Muscat please?

 

The betting bit – One serious one not:

Our call last week for a famous Sydney FC fan to be on the tifo was taken too literally last week by some fans who maybe tried to do that themselves without telling The Cove. This week we ride with Brisbane ($2.10) into some form of refereeing controversy in Melbourne Victory’s favour just to cap the weekend for Wellington fans. Actually no, that’s not funny I did not mean that!

Profit: 13.95 units (ten units per investment)

Record: 2/3

Images via zimbio.com and smh.com.au

FFA v Phoenix: Time for Trans-Tasman transparency

@hamishneal

“Is it getting colder

Or is it just me

Who’s taking the control of this frivolity

 

Am I getting older?

A little run down

Or maybe I’m tired of being pounded into the ground”

 

The Adults – Nothing to Lose

 

New Zealand A-League team, Wellington Phoenix, appear to be on borrowed time after a maelstrom of activity behind the scenes and in public in the last week culminated on Monday when Football Federation Australia confirmed the club’s owners (the Welnix group) would not be granted the 10-year license extension they had applied for. Currently only licensed to the end of this season, concerns about the future of the Phoenix were heightened when it was reported on Wednesday October 21 that the Phoenix’s licence extension could be denied with the side from the New Zealand capital to make way at the end of this season for another, Australian-based side, most likely from southern Sydney.

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LICENCE STATUS

The licence saga has been ongoing for some time, with the Kiwi side never having the surety of other clubs in terms of their duration, but now time is of the essence as contractually Phoenix players could start signing elsewhere if the dispute is not resolved by the new year. However, a resolution, one way or the other, seems likely to occur well before then.

On Tuesday morning, the Welnix group confirmed they would be seeking an explanation which outlines the reason for their rejection with “game development, player pathway, commercial factors, broadcast rights, and the long-term success of the Hyundai A-League” the highlighted points.

The FFA’s own release on Monday stated “the application for a 10-year extension to the licence does not meet the requirements we see as fundamental to the future growth of the Hyundai A-League,” but that is where the release ends – it does not detail the requirements.

Whilst I would be upset as a fan if the Phoenix were axed, if the business case/game development aspect was made it would make the blow more palatable. At the moment, it’s a collection of excuses from ‘the TV deal isn’t enough’, ‘the AFC/FIFA doesn’t like it’ and ‘the Phoenix add nothing to Australian football’ aren’t enough as the relative importance and business aspects of each requirement haven’t been outlined.

Despite the fact the FFA’s Whole of Footbll Plan alludes (somewhat loosely) to A-League requirements for new franchises, the details around current franchise requirements are not spelt out. Broadsides thrown by officials of football tournaments which try to bully people in potential new markets to go to other football events to ensure they get an A-League side at some undetermined time in the future have been the only statement made recently on new teams. The only aspect from the WFP that new A-League sides must meet is that they must be made up from areas with a population catchment of 500,000 people. Clearly ‘commercial in confidence’ and business aspects are in play but the outline of the requirements should be known in a more detailed form.

We will look at the aspects the Welnix have identified and how they related to Wellington’s status in the A-League.

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WHAT ARE THE ISSUES AND WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MYTHS?

GAME DEVELOPMENT

A constant of the Phoenix ‘adding nothing’ to the A-League hones in on the fact they reside in New Zealand, which is in the Oceania Football Confederation and not the Asian Football Confederation where Australia currently plays, and does quite well in. Now the confederation structure aside (my short view is Oceania shouldn’t exist as a confederation, it should be merged with Asia) if this status was such a show-stopper how exactly have the Phoenix clung on so long? If the AFC or FIFA (under whatever regulation) didn’t like it surely they would have vetoed anything no matter what agreements were in place when Australia moved to the AFC? What’s changed? The Phoenix, for the integrity alone of the A-League, should be allowed to compete in the AFC Champions League if they qualify. The AFC also want promotion/relegation and that won’t be viable in the A-League anytime soon, most likely decades. How does the AFC feel about that?

The lack of ACL participation opportunities already restricts the Phoenix’s chance to make money via not having the ability to win the ACL, so in affect they already pay a tax for the privilege of the playing in the A-League. That puts to bed some of the argument Phoenix should pay to be in the competition. In a way they already do.

Of the Phoenix themselves, Welnix underwrote two English Premier League clubs – Newcastle and West Ham – touring New Zealand in 2014. An international event, and financial risk, no other A-League club has done to date. They have taken A-League games to Auckland, Napier, Christchurch, and Palmerston North. In terms of game development, they have done a lot of growing elite level opportunities. New Zealand will never host a Real Madrid or a Liverpool any time soon so the EPL tour should have been applauded.

PLAYER PATHWAY

The Phoenix have a junior Academy with essentially their reserve side playing domestically in New Zealand, and have seen several players elevate from this to the senior team. As recently as Monday morning, New Zealand’s Under 17 side actually gave Australia a massive leg-up by beating Paraguay, which vaulted Australia into the knock-out phase of the Boys Under 17 World Cup. That youth Kiwi side has three players – Logan Rogerson, James McGarry, and Sarpreet Singh – who have senior Phoenix deals. A further three – Joe Bell, Ben Stroud, and Sam Wilson – are in the club’s Academy, so in a short period of time they are giving opportunities to local young players – the essence of player development.

In terms of an impact on player pathway for Australia players, yes the Phoenix have a focus on New Zealand Football initiatives with players competing in senior and junior sides on occasion, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t work with the FFA on other initiatives. Maybe, in the absence of A-League sides in their own areas, the Phoenix could offer specific places for elite junior players in the Academy from Canberra and/or Tasmania.

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COMMERCIAL FACTORS

Gareth Morgan is the most significant face behind the Welnix Group, with Rob Morrison chairman. Morgan in particular has well-publicised independent wealth and the capacity to buy a marquee player. However, the club are yet to break open the piggy bank for such a move. Pushing the sustainability component of the business is the reason for this. Some might call this into question, but as I have written elsewhere no club in the A-League has a genuine foreign marquee (playing and off-field profile) this season, the clubs that do are just using the exemption to get a foreign payer off their normal salary cap. If you compare the impact of the Phoenix’s Jeffrey Sarpong to the Wanderers’ Federico Piovaccari, who is a marquee, the performance difference is in Sarpong’s favour three games into the current season. If the Phoenix were offered a longer licence maybe a proper foreign marquee player could be looked at? But again, with lack of tenure, why should Morgan make the investment when he can invest in local charities?

The long-term licence saga, which has meant the Phoenix have never even been offered a 20 year-license like all other clubs, is also worth exploring itself. The lack of long-term planning which would be afforded by a 20 year-license means many possible improvements have been scuppered previously because of short licence the club operates on. Why bother investing in a boutique venue for ten years only to see any return? The costs to update the venue are still the same but the duration to recoup the outlay is reduced. What businessman is signing up to that sort of uncertainty? The low-ball offer of a four-year licence is even more daft. This negates other initiatives the club were looking at, such as a purpose-built training facility or bringing out more European sides. Why go to that effort even if they were willing to accept a four-year deal?

Unlike the former owner of the Newcastle Jets, Nathan Tinkler, Welnix have expanded their sporting portfolio in a successful manner, taking a part share of the Wellington Hurricanes Super Rugby side. Morgan outlined the benefits of the deal on his websiteand this year the Hurricanes made the Super Rugby final. This sort of off-field relationship is something the FFA considered regarding the Wanderers but didn’t, or couldn’t, pull off. Morgan could.

By not giving the Phoenix a license as long as the other clubs, the FFA are already placing Wellington at a competitive disadvantage in terms of developing the club off the field. So essentially, they are already ‘taxed’ twice by their participation already, can’t play in the ACL, and can’t have the surety off the field to invest in football department etc.

BROADCAST RIGHTS

The biggie, we think (although, as has been outlined the importance of this has never been stipulated). The Phoenix are paid, as are the other A-League clubs, $2.55 million in revenue per year from the current TV deal which is meant to cover their salary cap.

Sky TV in New Zealand (who show the A-League on Sky Sports) do have issues with ‘cord-cutting’ (people leaving the provider) amongst other issues and their financial challenges have been outlined as recently as this week. The broadcaster would be loathe to lose the A-League which is their only remaining football product of note, having lost the English Premier League in 2014 to streaming service Premier League Pass. However, as a business, one would think they would consider it if there was no New Zealand-based team in the competition. Sky TV are rumoured to pay one tenth of what they pay for the NRL rights to cover the A-League so clearly there is scope for more but that’s any business negotiation. You can’t continue to complain after you sign a bad deal. That’s on you. However, as pointed out in the New Zealand Herald article above, pay TV has now hit a level of disruption which means profits and margins will likely contract. By extension, this means the money smaller operators like Sky NZ have to spend on rights probably decreases but the A-League is important for Sky in summer.

What doesn’t seem to be explored amongst TV options in New Zealand is other ‘add-ons’. For instance, the Super Rugby competition has it’s main home of Sky Sports but delayed games, the night of the game, offer some free-to-air coverage on Prime. Has a similar deal been explored around Phoenix home games? Maybe coverage on Sunday nights after the games?

If the A-League has run the numbers and can make up the difference they would lose from Sky (in a worst case scenario) out of any new deal that is probably the difference between the Phoenix been around or not, maybe they are willing to lose both the Nix and A-League coverage in New Zealand. However, it would be bold to risk losing coverage in another overseas market after the news Fox Soccer won’t be covering games this season. Fans can register to watch games online in places like the USA but fringe fans will no longer stumble across them. Sure it’s not a huge market, but you don’t want to go backwards in these sort of broadcast opportunities, even if people can still watch the games on a laptop.

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LONG-TERM SUCCESS OF THE A-LEAGUE

It’s illustrative that the AFC/OFC component of this debate has been long running and is often perceived as why the Phoenix should never have been in the A-League in the first place. In 2012, club chairman Morrison wanted the chance of the Phoenix playing in the Asian Champions League resolved that year. It still hasn’t happened and as Andrew Gourdie pointed out on the 3 News ‘4 4 2’ online show OFC President David Chung should be making more of an effort to discuss with his AFC counterparts about what initiatives OFC could be doing to assist the FFA/AFC. Could the OFC Champions League winner get direct entry to the group stage of the AFC CL? This wouldn’t preclude the OFC CL winner from also competing in the Club World Cup but exploring this option, and others, should be looked at. That said. I don’t know what the answer is but there don’t seem to be many solutions from any of the footballing authorities on this. Geographically, it’s to simplistic to say New Zealand don’t play in the AFC so therefore let’s exclude them, and others in the confederation, from involvement in competitions.

It’s worth noting the FFA saw fit to give money to a football centre in Trindad and Tobago once and they don’t play in the AFC either.

Another, possibly reasonable, excuse for axing the ‘Nix would be that at fully-funded and costed franchise(s) which meets the outlined requirements are queuing up to join the A-League. Recent reports had a Southern Sydney franchise as the option to replace Wellington, but like the first attempt at a Western Sydney side, there is no figurehead, or organisation, or financial plan which has been made public.

It’s also worth noting that around April 2009, when one of the first attempts at the Western Sydney franchise was mooted, no-one would talk publically. Whilst at the same time, the potential Canberra bid, which already had bi-partisan territory government funding, had a public face who would happily talk through their potential club’s plans. History shows the A-League eventually made it in Western Sydney, but in 2009 the FFA knocked back a single-city bid which would have been able to harness a population of 500,000+ in the surrounding area which is also home to many of Australia’s biggest companies. By knocking out the Phoenix, they would be doing the same with a similar situation when they ignored the former home of the Cosmos. Again we don’t know how important this is because no-one at Whitlam Street has made this clear.

 

Spreading the risk amongst a group of smart business-folk should be one of the primary business models for the A-League, especially given the FFA still owns/runs one club and had to drag representatives of Brisbane’s ownership group kicking and screaming, figuratively, to a recent fan forum to allay fears of the club’s viability.

Recently the FFA has (finally) taken the moral high ground on the appalling tenure of Sepp Blatter as FIFA President, largely due to alleged corruption, but also, significantly, because the organisation is run with little transparency. The FFA directly said they would not vote for Blatter at the last tainted election.

They were rightly applauded for this, but if the FFA is serious about pushing transparency at FIFA, they should be doing the same within their own operations and spelling out the A-League requirements in a clear sense. If the FFA truly don’t want the Phoenix, they should come out and say it. The truth hurts but to play a disingenuous game with successful business folk and passionate football fans is not a good reflection on your organisation.

In terms of the next steps, the Welnix group will likely come back with a counter offer which requests an automatic renewal, of say a further ten years, should they meet pre-agreed targets over the course of the next four years. Whether the FFA will be agreeable to that may depend on how fair along the FFA think new franchises could be to replace the Phoenix.

Personally, I’ve watched the Phoenix play live in Gosford, Sydney, Melbourne, Morwell, and Newcastle, plus followed them on TV. Before that, I was a Cosmos fan growing up in Canberra. I’ve paid the over-the-top player registration fees for Emu Plains SC, Belsouth JSC, the UCU Pumas, and Mountain Districts FC, which have supported Australia’s elite footballers and development programs, but I now face losing a second team as a fan in less than 15 years. It would be hyperbolic to say any axing of the Phoenix would mean I am ‘done’ with domestic football in Australia, but after a second break-up I would have to ask the question ‘what do I have to lose?’ by cutting this from my life.

“Falling, breaking up is what I do

And if you didn’t know that you never had a clue

And I can see you talking, talking not the truth

Don’t waste your lies on me

‘Cos I got nothing to lose”

Run The Cutter – #RWC2015 Weekend 6

@hamishneal

aac argentina

2011 tournament-winners the All Blacks will meet Bledisloe Cup rivals Australia in the World Cup final after the weekend’s two semi-finals. The Wallabies, who have experienced a turnaround less than 12 months on from the appointment of Michael Cheika as their head coach, held off Argentina and New Zealand came from behind at the break to beat South Africa. They will meet for the first time in a World Cup final whilst South Africa will hope to avoid defeat for the sixth time this year when they play Argentina for third.

KICK IN TOUCH

Throughout the pool stages in the World Cup in England, and Wales, our wrap touched on each team per their place on the pool ladder. In the knockout phase we will go match by match in review and look ahead to, in this case, to the final and much-maligned playoff for third.

South Africa v New Zealand – Twickenham

Steve Hansen’s side have given themselves a chance to create World Cup history with an opportunity to be the first side to defend their title after they snuck home 20-18 against the Springboks. All Black back-rower Jerome Kaino scored the game’s first try after Handre Pollard had piloted home a penalty goal for the Africans. Pollard’s boot became key as most of the early penalties New Zealand conceded in the first half were punished by three points and resulted in a 12-7 lead for the 2007 champs. Kaino’s yellow card just before the interval threatened to swing the game if the All Blacks continued to play in an ill-disciplined manner in their own half. Surprisingly a yellow card for either side made no material difference to the result with 3-3 the scores in each ten-minute period when first Kaino and then South Africa’s Bryan Habana in the second half were sanctioned. New Zealand looked assured as fly-half Daniel Carter wretched control of the game early in the second period and after sustaining some slight concerns that come with only a two-point lead in a knockout game were able to dominate territory and secure a fourth spot in a final.

Of the winners

Nehe Milner Skudder’s shoulder injury in the 49th minute changed the game with Hurricanes teammate Beauden Barrett entering the fray and dotting down not long after. If Milner-Skudder doesn’t come up for the final Hansen has an interesting dilemma with the ‘Ben Smith to right wing and Barrett to fullback’ option the first choice. Milner-Skudder wasn’t great under the high ball getting caught out so should he play it’s something the side in yellow with look to exploit. Probably the biggest concern for Hansen will be the penalty count. Whilst the second half infractions weren’t as major conceding 14 penalties in a knockout game is item one in the ‘ingredients to lose a knockout game’ receipe so the All Blacks need to do better in that regard. Referee for the final Nigel Owens isn’t afraid to march players if needed as the Welshman marched France’s Louis Picamoles in their quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks. One significant factor will be line-out plays with New Zealand pulling off two key plays around that set piece in the semi-final. Sam Whitelock will be crucial in this department.

What next for the beaten?

 

Chasing the game since Barrett’s 52nd minute try Heyneke Meyer elected to only use his first backline replacement 13 minutes later. In a game when South Africa never threatened the New Zealand line for a sustained period of time the lack of substitute backline depth spoke volumes. Even with a clutch of brilliant youngsters 23 years of age or younger like Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende a point of difference on the bench in the outside backs would have been useful. de Allende made way for Jan Serfontein at the very end of the game but it was in the last minute. Unless de Allende was injured what’s the point of that play? Meyer needs to give his wider group of 31 a run against Argentina but that will need to be balanced with the obligatory ‘farewell to senior players’ test.

beaudenb_rsa

Argentina v Australia – Twickenham

David Pocock’s return and Adam Ashley-Cooper’s treble helped lead Australia to a 29-15 win over Argentina but the margin of victory doesn’t show how well Argentina responded after threatening a France-like effort when down 19-6 after 32 minutes. Despite been 22-15 down with eight minutes to go after having suffered injuries to three key players during the game Daniel Hourcade’s side still threatened to grab an unlikely win. But, like South Africa the night before at the south-west London venue, one always felt the favourites would prevail especially given in an eight minute period from the 24th minute the Argentine’s lost Tomas Lavanini to a yellow card, lost skipper Agustin Creevy to injury and conceded a try. If Argentina had scored when hard on attack in the last minute of the first half instead of spilling possession things could have been different. Australia weren’t at their best throughout the game (see Will Genia’s box kick which went out of the full) but their ability to ‘kill the game’ in the final ten minutes showed why they are an improved side under Michael Cheika. They chased a try with five minutes to go after getting a penalty when Kurtley Beale could easily have gone for a long range penalty and pushed the margin out to 17 points. I wonder if they would have done that against New Zealand or South Africa.

Of the winners

Like All Blacks back Milner-Skudder Israel Folau was troubled in kick reception and hasn’t been as impressive as he is capable of in this tournament. Australia got lucky when Tevita Kuridrani wasn’t sin-binned for kicking the ball away and when halfback Genia failed to retreat before involving himself in a play. Wayne Barnes did see fit to sanction Lavanini but not the Wallabies duo. As noted Owens isn’t likely to take kindly to similar shenanigans in the tournament decider for either team. Australia’s ability to endure pressure from Argentina, who did have the weight of possession, without conceding a try is positive heading into the decider. Like New Zealand Australia’s ill-discipline (they gave up 12 penalties) would be somewhat of a worry but that is countered by the ability to get pressure at the breakdown highlighted by the ten turnovers they generated (three of which Pocock got in the first 18 minutes). By way of comparison the All Blacks picked up nine turnovers in their win.

What next for the beaten?

Daniel Hourcade rolled the dice with his decision to start Agustin Creevy and it came up snake eyes as the skipper hobbled off just before Ashley-Cooper scored his second try.

Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez probably won’t have a horror start like he did on Sunday when Los Pumas feature in the third-place playoff against the Boks. Sanchez served the ball up on a platter for Rob Simmon’s to open the cording. With some key players plying their trade in the UK and Europe such as Saracen’s Marcelo Bosch there will be a few club coaches and executives hoping for no major injuries in the game. Marcos Ayerza and Creevy, if he is fit, will feature on the World Cup stage for the last time so the South Americans will have equal motivation in terms of farewelling key players on this stage as their opponents will. In addition to Creevy’s injury Argentina will have concerns around winger Juan Imhoff and Juan Martin Hernandez, the former having left the game early on Sunday.

Final tip: All Blacks by eight. Dan Coles to get a try at some point.

Images via express.co.uk and bt.sport.com

A-League 1,000: The Concussion Edition

@hamishneal

1,000-ish words, thoughts and musings on the A-League’s third round which commences in Newcastle on Friday.

melbderby 

Newcastle Jets v Melbourne Victory, Friday – Hunter Stadium

With injured Jets keeper Mark Birighitti watching on eating mango and custard through a straw his side have an immediate chance to respond after a crushing home lose. Outplayed in most facets by Sydney the Jets at least clung on to a hope of a late goal, a vast improvement on last season. The Birighitti injury clearly shook his teammates and subsequent to the game they have also lost Labinot Haliti to a season-ending ACL tear. With a new defensive combination in action last weekend before meeting Melbourne Victory Newcastle’s coach Scott Miller looks set to have to shuffle his starting line-up again which isn’t ideal. After Melbourne had an emotional win coach Kevin Muscat will have to guard against complacency, and his team having an eye on their coming FFA Cup semi-final. Melbourne’s set pieces could be problematic for Ben Kennedy who plays his first full game for some time.

 

Big game for: Last week we asked for Berisha goal shenanigans and the Albanian delivered with a derby winner. Do we get another late winner here?

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Scott Miller has requested since we displayed clairvoyant powers last weekend re Berisha that none of his players cop an injury or suspension in this game.

 

Sydney FC v Western Sydney Wanderers, Saturday – Allianz Stadium

Shane Smeltz is very lucky to be available for the #sydneyderby. His intent was not to injury Birighitti but his tackle was reckless and deserved further sanctioning. The injury to Birighitti took the focus off Seb Ryall’s shenanigans and if we are going to lambast teams for similar, as we did last week with Adelaide, it’s only fair we say ‘Seb we are watching’ The Wanderers Andreu had an up-and-down game but as he beds in with Mitch Nichols and fellow Spaniard Dimas in the Western Sydney midfield he will continue to improve as the team does, at least that would be what coach Tony Popovic hopes for.

 

Big game for: Federico Piovaccari, The marquee needs a big game, and to score. With capable players on the bench how much leeway does the Italian get?

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Sydney’s braggadocio might be somewhat crushed with the news a third Sydney side could join the league in place of Wellington (obviously both are stupid ideas – getting rid of the Phoenix and adding a third Sydney side now.) But to retain their fans they need to keep winning, third Sydney team or not.

  

Wellington Phoenix v Brisbane Roar, Saturday – Westpac Stadium

A dramatic late winner to Vince Lia has got Ernie Merrick’s side off the mark in season 2015/16 but they face an in-form Brisbane side who have two strikers on song Jamie Maclaren and Brandon Borello have both netted twice in each of the last two games respectively but Wellington’s game will make it hard for Brisbane to get possession for sustained periods of time so Thomas Broich and Corona will need to be clinical in delivery when they get the ball. With international games coming up next month both sides need to bank points now before they lose key players.

 

Big game for: With Michael Theo out Brisbane’s defence doesn’t look at solid so this is a perfect game for Jeffrey Sarpong to open his account in with Jamie Young in goal for the home side.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: The irony of Wellington having a home game against a side with shaky ownership given the story from Wednesday isn’t lost on anyone. Yellow Fever go your hardest!

birighitti

Melbourne Sheep Cow Whale Ships v Central Coast Mariners, Sunday – AAMI Park

A big week for both sides for different reasons with the home side returning from their FFA Cup semi-final defeat in Perth on Wednesday and the Mariners facing accusations of standing down their keeper Liam Reddy without following due process. John van’t Schip will be able to call upon some rested troops but the Mariners will need to be clinical in finishing with Dane Thomas Sorenson in goal, although he was shaky as a substitute against the Glory. Mitch Austin and Fabio Ferreria’s ability to deliver in dangerous crosses or strikes might deliver the one or two chances they need for an upset.

 

Big game for: City’s fringe brigade. With Michael Zullo and Robert Koren out joining some long-term absentees the home side will delve deep into their squad. They still need to name a replacement for Tando Velaphi as back-up keeper after his concussion sustained in the FFA Cup tie ruled him out of the game.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: The drama surrounding the axing of Reddy from the match-day squad aside, Aurelio Vidmar will be happy Olyroos keeper Paul Izzo now gets more games of significance before the qualifying tournament in January. After several games for Adelaide last season the 20 year-old showed the ability to be a first choice keeper if given a chance.

 

Perth Glory v Adelaide United, Sunday – nib Stadium

Staying at home after their FFA Cup semi-final triumph which ended up a routine 3-1 triumph is a chance for Perth to go on a winning streak. Kenny Lowe’s side were really only troubled when City defender Matt Millar scored in the first half and a few times late in the second half. They now have a nice fillip after a muddling start to the A-League season with two defeats. Adelaide haven’t really fired a shot under Guillermo Amor and are yet to post a win but will be benefitted if Perth spent all their pennies on Wednesday. Interestingly, despite his head clash with Velaphi on Wednesday Guyon Fernandez is available for Perth in this game

 

Big game for: Gyorgy Sandor. Sandor is showing the benefits of arriving early in pre-season with the Hungarian scoring in the FFA Cup during the week. A lot of imports, marquee or otherwise, arrive late in the piece of pre-season but not in the case of the 31 year-old and this commitment is bearing fruit already. A chance for another big game here.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Some initiative from Adelaide. Their opening two games have yielded only 17 shots on goal and that’s not great. Shots aren’t everything but it’s been a pedestrian start for the men from South Australia.

The betting bit – One serious one not:

We don’t often get off a winner to back a side that lost their last league game but we are doing so here. Perth ($2.45) into a Tifo of a prominent Sydney FC fan at the #sydneyderby.

Profit: -.5 units

Record: 1/2

Images abc.net.au and theherald.com.au

Run The Cutter – #RWC2015 Weekend 5

@hamishneal

fourie-du-preez-south-africa-sam-warburton-wales

Dynamic tournament favourites the All Blacks mauled France in Cardiff on Saturday before Argentina got a big win in the Welsh capital as well on Sunday. Whilst in London margins of four and one point gave English fans (and the hordes of travelling supporters) plenty to get excited about as the tournament now turns it’s attention to the final four with three big games to come in the next fortnight, and a third place playoff.

KICK IN TOUCH

Throughout the pool stages in the World Cup in England, and Wales, our wrap touched on each team per their place on the pool ladder. In the knockout phase we will go match by match in review and look ahead to, in this case, the semi-finals.

South Africa v Wales – Twickenham

It was a close contest to the conclusion but the spectacle of the first quarter-final was spoilt with 22 penalties in the match won by South Africa. Wales looked to be in the box seat with a lead late in the game and with Springbok fly-half Handre Pollard having earlier missed two penalties it appeared that maybe this could be the day for Warren Gatland’s side. The concern came as well into the second half South Africa had more possession and were outgaining the Welsh. Heyneke Meyer’s side finished up with 543 metres gained to 294 for Wales and in the end that was probably why the Welsh forwards and then defenders were fatigued late in the game. Then the scrum happened. The South African pack got Wales at an angle before Duane Vermeulen, among the winners’ best, grabbed the ball having opened the space for Fourie du Preez to zip in and score to give them a 23-19 win.

Of the winners

South Africa haven’t really impressed in this tournament and whether the 2007 winners have enough firepower to see them past New Zealand is doubtful, especially given the improvement of the All Blacks, which we will get to, and if South Africa need 59% possession to beat Wales they are little hope of getting that much against the Kiwis.

What next for the beaten?

Wales can feel unlucky given they have suffered wretched luck before and during the tournament with injuries but when you get to this stage, the fifth match, of a tournament everyone has injuries to a degree so that is what it is. The men in red can look forward to the Six Nations with some positivity, they have won two of the last four editions of the European showpiece and only missed claiming this year’s title on points difference. They, with fellow beaten quarter finalists Ireland and Scotland, should fight it out in early 2016.

New Zealand v France – Cardiff

France was the bogey team. The All Blacks hadn’t beaten anyone of note in the tournament to date. Nine tries later those that tipped France had egg on their face and the fact knockout rugby union is win or go home was crystalised by the marauding men in black who won 62-13. France got themselves back in the game after the All Blacks had raced to a 24-6 lead when back-rower Louis Picamoles scored. But after the Toulouse player was sin-binned in the second half the 2011 winners cranked up a gear to hand France a humiliating defeat which saw then concede the most amount of points in their test history.

Of the winners

Aside from Julian Savea’s hat-trick, which saw the winger pass the great Jonah Lomu on the All Blacks try-scoring list, other key players like Jerome Kaino and Brodie Retallick who had not been at their best so far in pool play cranked it up. Aside from the return to form of that trio when try-scorer Nehe Milner-Skudder went off injured the transition of fullback Ben Smith to the wing with substitute Beauden Barrett going to 15 appeared seamless. Indeed everything about this game was seamless. The All Blacks returned to a more kick-based game at times with 38 kicks compared to the no more than 28 kicks they had made in each of their last two pool games. After challenging themselves in pool games to run at defences some deft kicks caused trouble for the French and it’s hard to see them falling to a South African side which lacks the sort of attacking nous Steve Hansen’s side has developed.

What next for the beaten?

Former All Blacks coach Graham Henry has slammed the French Top 14 competition as paying players too much within poorly-coached sides. This has led to compromising their national team and despite the fact they made the 2011 World Cup final Henry’s comments have merit as France hasn’t finished better than fourth in the intervening Six Nations tournament’s since 2011. With Frederic Michalak retiring and other key players surely out the door, via their own making or via sacking, France has a lot to do to improve.

scotlandtunnel

Ireland v Argentina – Cardiff

What a year it has been for Argentina. The side that has wins over Australia and South Africa respectively in the last edition’s of the Rugby Championship saw off an Irish side seemingly bereft of ideas when the pressure came on in the second half. 17 points for Argentina in the final 11 minutes saw Daniel Hourcade’s side kick clear to win 40-23 on the back of a superior kicking game in general play after Ireland had outgained them with ball in hand. Joe Schmidt will be left wondering about whether his squad outside his top 23 can match it at this level. Given their bans and injuries heading into the game Schmidt has to dig into his squad of 31 and they ultimately came up short. He second half subs were ineffectual but the early loss of Tommy Bowe to injury didn’t help either.

Of the winners

Argentina using the opportunity to rest players like captain Augustin Creevy in their last pool game has paid handsome dividends. Back-rowers Pablo Matera and Juan Fernandez Lobbe were again influential and their ability at the breakdown will be key if Hourcade looks to play Australia at their own game and spread the ball to their in-form backs.

What next for the beaten?

Paul O’Connell’s retirement leaves the winners of the last two Six Nations with a leadership void however the experience the fringe players have gotten in their final two games of the tournament will help immensely going forward.

Australia v Scotland – Twickenham

After Wayne Barnes blew the pee out of the whistle when South Africa won in London on Saturday Twickenham again saw a referee, this time Craig Joubert, heavily influence the last side into the semi-finals as Australia squeaked home 35-34 over Scotland in the English capital. The South African sin-binned Scotland’s Sean Maitland in what appeared unlucky on the former NZ Maori representative before Australia scored through Drew Mitchell to hit the lead they only relinquished via Mark Bennett’s late try. Bennett, one of Scotland’s best all tournament, scored to hand Scotland a 34-32 lead after Greig Laidlaw’s conversion five minutes from time. Then all hell broke loose. In a risky play Scotland threw to David Denton at back of their line-out when close to the line only for the forward to tap the ball back in a messy situation before it flew forward from Jon Hardie and came into contact with Wallaby Nick Phipps. Eventually Scotland’s Jon Welsh ended up with the ball, in an off-side position. Joubert, not able to refer to the Television Match Official, blew the penalty and fly-half Bernard Foley got Australia home. Joubert having seen the big screen replay afterwards subsequent to the incident legged it off the field at the end of the game which wasn’t a great look, however he did everything correctly leading up to that point. Procedurally he shouldn’t have left the field as he did but he couldn’t refer to the TMO and made the decision (essentially that Phipps was attempting to make the tackle and not get the ball) which at pace and real time he saw as correct. What Phipps says afterward about whether he as making an attempt is irrelevant. Whether decisions like that are added to the TMO’s remit seems a stretch too far.

Of the winners

Like South Africa Australia took an age to wear down their opponent despite having a greater amount of possession, Scotland had to make 117 tackles to Australia’s 86. But Australia’s lack of penetration in attack, despite the fact they ended up scoring five tries, will probably be negated by the return of David Pocock and Israel Folau. The duo will play a big part in getting the Wallabies over the line against Argentina, especially given Pocock’s work at the breakdown.

What next for the beaten?

Scotland, with players like Bennett, the inspirational Gloucester scrum-half Laidlaw and fly-half Finn Russell in-form could be a big chance in the Six Nations given England’s slide and the fact Italy appears to have stagnated. Anything is better than their zero wins earlier this year.

Images via irishtimes.com and sportsmole.co.uk

A-League 1,000: The Shin Edition

@hamishneal

1,000-ish words, thoughts and musings on the A-League’s second weekend for season eleven which commences on Friday in Adelaide.

royodonovanccm

Adelaide United v Western Sydney Wanderers, Friday – Beer Sauce Burger Stadium

After an opening round goalless draw against the champs Adelaide had bad news on Wednesday they will be missing goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic until December. The skipper had seven clean sheets in 26 games last season so this is a significant loss for Adelaide but given John Hall started with a clean sheet and they are playing the Wanderers who didn’t look great in round one the Reds do have an advantage here. As for Tony Popovic’s team between some disastrous defending and profligate attack, particularly from Federico Piovaccari, the Asian club champs really struggled in their home opener against Brisbane. Midfielder Mitch Nichols (92% pass accuracy and a goal) was doing his best on attack so that was a bright spot for the Parramatta-based side to build on.

Big game for: Tarek Elrich. The former Wanderer admitted he was sub-par in Amman and with only one game for the Socceroos in the latest international window the coming weeks will be key if the 28 year-old wants to retain his spot in the national team.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Now ordinarily I think fans overreact. Things are never normally as bad, or as good, as you think they are is my motto. However regarding cynical play, yeah, Adelaide. Consider this your first and final warning. We are watching you.

 

Newcastle Jets v Sydney FC, Saturday – Hunter Stadium

When Newcastle have played Sydney in recent years it has been the Harbour City side normally coming in with the winning form but this time the Jets are flying (sorry couldn’t help myself.) After an upset win in Wellington Newcastle comes into the game with key players in-form after new forward Milos Trifunovic and former Socceroo David Carney scored against the Phoenix whilst Sydney FC endured a frustrating night as they were repelled by the Melbourne City defence, chiefly goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen. Sydney will start to convert more of their chances so Newcastle, with skipper Nigel Boogaard suspended, will need to fall back a bit more in defence to support the defensive combination coach Scott Miller elects to use. Marquee Filip Holosko will have noted how often the Jets did let the Phoenix stride forward last Sunday and Sydney will also be looking to exploit the absence of Boogaard and Lee Ki-je.

 

Big game for: Trifunovic has a chance to shine in his home debut and we saw on Saturday night Sydney can be beaten but you must make the most of what is likely to be limited opportunities.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: At the moment the Australian Ice Hockey League champs the Newcastle North Stars are the steel city’s only winning sports team. History shows nine more victories is enough for an A-League finals spot. Is it too early to dream for a toilet seat to join the Goodall Cup in town?

Melbourne Victory v Melbourne Sheep Cow Whale Ships, Saturday – Etihad Stadium

#melbderby is upon us early in the season again and both sides started the season with a draw. However John van’t Schip’s side have big injury worries with international Ivan Franjic’s quad injury expected to keep him out for an extended period but Aaron Mooy is expected to play a larger part this weekend which should help the ‘away’ team in this game. Van’t Schip will need to weigh up his squad changes with an eye to the FFA Cup fixture in Perth whilst Kevin Muscat’s still has a week and a half until their Cup last four game.

 

Big game for: Erik Paartalu and Paulo Retre. The ‘visitors’ right flank will be in for a torrid night but if they come out on top it will stand them in good form for future weeks.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Berisha goal shenanigans. A derby-winning goal for his first league goal this season would signal a big Saturday night on the tiles for the navy blue faithful.

carney le

Brisbane Roar v Central Coast Mariners, Sunday – Suncorp Stadium

Two last-start winners meet on Sunday afternoon in Brisbane and it shapes as match of the round stuff with both sides enterprising in the opening round. Brisbane benefitted from some poor Western Sydney defending but were good value, as they say, for their win with La Liga veteran Corona slotting in well whilst Tony Walmsley kept up the promise of a fun Mariners in beating Perth. Walmsley wasn’t afraid to play so many A-League rookies or inexperienced players to start the season, the prime example was veteran defender Eddy Bosnar was on the bench on Sunday, and it paid immediate dividends.

The Mariners defence will do well to see themselves getting past Michael Theo in the Brisbane goal, with the multiple title-winning keeper now injury-free and after a frantic start last weekend he looked assured as the game wore on. Brisbane also get Matt McKay back from international duty.

 

Big game for: Roy O’Donovan. Again it’s about strikers but this time we offer some friendly advice to the Irishman. Roy, buddy, pal, like a penalty it’s not cool to celebrate a goal in such boisterous fashion as you did on Saturday when you have no idea about it. I was once in a club whose fourth grade side won a grand final after someone scored off their shin. The goal-scorer was roundly (comically) harangued for celebrating the ‘strike’ and this was by his own club-mates.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Before the A-League fixture the televised W-League action gets underway for the season. These double-headers are a good idea in October. But the game aligned to A-League fixtures and kicking off at 2pm in December and January are a terrible idea. There is still time to fix this. Maybe push the A-League game back an hour and start both fixtures later?

 

Perth Glory v Wellington Phoenix, Sunday – nib Stadium

The more things change the more they stay the same. The Phoenix lost 2-1 to start the season at home. This sentence could also have been used 12 months ago to describe the Phoenix’s defeat to Perth who they meet on Sunday after falling to Newcastle last weekend. The Glory were beaten by the Mariners in an exciting contest but one that flattered the visitors. Andrew Durante’s injury was costly for Wellington at home (and he will be out this weekend) but they had sufficient chances to draw the game even allowing for Roy Krishna’s penalty miss so that is a positive for the visitors. Perth will be disappointed they didn’t make more of a chance to grab a win against one of last season’s also-rans particularly as the Mariners haven’t played a meaningful game since August. Foreign recruits for Sydney and Newcastle netted in week one and Diego Castro needs to put away his chances here whilst Perth’s midfield could be torn to shreds if they don’t work better together.

 

Big game for: Krishna. Ernie Merrick has reiterated the Fijian is the side’s primary penalty-taker with Michael McGlinchey his number two. So what better way for Krishna to get back on the horse with a spot kick here. As a 91st minute winner just for fun.

 

The ‘I’m really looking forward to’ bit: Perth have a few big weeks at home coming up including hosting the second Melbourne side in an FFA Cup final so this game could be easy to overlook (or were they already doing that last weekend?) Two league defeats and a Cup exit could easily turn things sour in the West if they weren’t already given the fallout from last season’s rampant cheating.

The betting bit – One serious one not:

No one troubled the scorers in Adelaide so we started the season with a defeat but are backing up with the Victory ($1.95) to win the Mexican derby followed by a ceremonial paddling (ala the Simpsons) for the vanquished light blue fans.

Profit: -10 units

Record: 0/1

Images via ultimatealeague.com and perthnow.com.au

Run The Cutter – #RWC2015 Weekend 4

@hamishneal

argentinapjvanlill

It’s New Zealand, versus France, in a World Cup quarter final, in Cardiff. Ok breathe… Right we are cool yeah. Moving on… As we bid farewell to the minnows we hope some of them improve in the intervening four years. Perhaps some of the stronger nations should tour countries England more often to help them improve? The quarter finals offer north v south match-ups across the board with New Zealand favoured to meet Australia if there are no upsets in the next two games for each team.

KICK IN TOUCH

Throughout the World Cup in England, and Wales, our wrap will touch on each team with this order showing their final ladder position in the pool stage. For those heading to the quarter finals we also look at their knockout prospects.

Group A

Australia (v Scotland in QF) – Sean McMahon was good against Wales and coach Michael Cheika gets Michael Hooper back from suspension for the quarter final. After the 15-6 win over Wales there are injury concerns for veteran Matt Giteau, fullback Israel Folau and back-rower David Pocock. The Wallabies haven’t conceded more than 13 points in a game this tournament and desperate defending such as what we saw from Adam Ashley-Cooper late against the Welsh should be what carries them to the semi-finals.

Wales (v South Africa in QF) – Another game another injury, as Wales lost by nine points to Australia Liam Williams left the game with a foot injury. Number eight Taulupe Faletau was great and ‘man of the match’ Gareth Davies was solid. Trying to beat this South African side via just a penalty shoot-out courtesy of the #bootofbiggar might not be enough for Warren Gatland’s side. Japan showed the way to go around them in Brighton.

England (qualify directly for RWC 2019) – Rising star Slade scores in rout of Uruguay. It was a headline England coach Stuart Lancaster might have anticipated prior to the World Cup, but he probably didn’t think it would be in their final game of the tournament. A 60-3 triumph in Manchester was cold comfort for the locals who will be watching the knockout phase working out which of their Welsh or Scottish family connections to side with. Lancaster played, again, a different 9,10,12 combination. This one shone but it’s all in context. Would Henry Slade and winger Jack Nowell, who scored a hat-trick, done better if they had played the earlier games? Possibly. But the forward pack which was out-muscled against Australia never gave the backs a chance and Lancaster’s lack of team selection continuity was confounding.

Fiji – After a tournament punctuated by ill-discipline Fiji finally put it all together to win. They did still have a player sanctioned during the game but prop Campese Ma’afu escaped further action after the match for his scrap with Uruguayan scrum half Agustin Ormaecha who saw red after their encounter.

Uruguay – Conceding 15 penalties was always going to make things hard for Uruguay against Fiji but number eight Alejandro Nieto did well in a beaten side. Copping the wrath of England scorned was always going to be tricky and backs Gaston Mieres (fullback) and Rodrgio Silva (fullback) did well with limited chances on attack. The 25 and 22 year-olds, respectively, wouldn’t look out of place in the Argentinian Super Rugby side.

Group B

South Africa (v Wales in QF) – The Boks rounded out their pool play with a 64-0 triumph over the USA but were thoroughly unimpressive until they were awarded a penalty try in the 27th minute. They piled on eight tries in the second half but Heyneke Meyer’s side showed an inability to execute their attack and conceded five penalties in the opening 27 minutes (11 for the match.) Bryan Habana’s three ties does set them up in terms of team confidence though going into the match up against Warren Gatland’s side.

Scotland (v Australia in QF) – Pool B delivered again on Saturday and it was a frenetic opening to the game in Newcastle which eventually saw Scotland confirm a quarter final spot beating Samoa 36-33 after trailing 26-23 at half-time. Gregor Laidlaw’s 13 points in the second half lifted Vern Cotter’s team into a match-up against the Wallabies. With exciting backs like Mark Bennett, Tommy Seymour and former Crusader Sean Maitland the Scots have a chance to beat Australia if their forwards fire at the breakdown.

Japan (host nation in 2019, automatic entry) – The first side to win three World Cup pool games in the current format but not advance to the knockout phase, those dastardly bonus points giving Scotland second spot in the pool. Amanaki Mafi should be one of the first players signed by the new Japan/Singapore Super Rugby franchise. The former Tongan junior scored twice at Kingsholm in this tournament and dotted down late as Eddie Jones’ side beat the USA 28-18 on Sunday.

Samoa – Samoa went into the final pool game not been able to make the knockout phase which was a step back from 2011 when a win over South Africa could have put them into the final eight. Should really have been able to see off Scotland and Hurricanes back Rey Lee-Lo was one of the better players on thw weekend.

USA – They did well early against South Africa before getting run off the park 64-0 but they gave themselves a huge chance against Japan to level the game after skipper Chris Wyles late try got the game to within seven points. Samu Manoa enhanced his reputation in this tournament and fly-half Alan MacGinty steered his side around with guile as they chased they game in Gloucester. Still only 25, Dublin-born MacGinty would be a good Super Rugby recruit for a side needing a back-up/fringe fly-half.

Group C

New Zealand (v France in QF) – Similar to South Africa the All Blacks got going in the second half scoring five tries in the second stanza to beat Tonga 47-9 after leading 14-3 at the break. Hurricanes back Nehe Milner-Skudder confirmed himself with a wing spot for the knockout phase with another scintillating performance. Tony Woodcock’s World Cup, and likely his international career, is over after he left the game in Newcastle with a hamstring injury. Richie McCaw will come back into the line-up for the game against France.

Argentina (v Ireland in QF) – Had 36 points up on Namibia by half-time and were arguably the most consistent side in their last pool game of any team headed to the quarter finals. Missed only seven tackles in their 64-19 win in Leicester and Ireland’s injury toll (we will get to that shortly) gives Daniel Hourcade’s side a big chance in the quarter-final. Los Pumas have already beaten South Africa this year and with skipper Agustin Creevy to come back into the starting line-up anything could happen in Cardiff.

Georgia (qualify directly for RWC 2019) – Georgia’s 17-16 triumph over Namibia means they finish third in the pool and gain direct entry for the 2019 edition of the tournament. This will allow Milton Haig and his coaching staff to plan their lead-up with certainty for 2019 in Japan. Oh and in the interim someone in Super Rugby sign Merab Sharikadze the former Hartpury College student is better than division two in France. It’s worth giving the former student of the famed Gloucestershire institution a better option.

Tonga – Despite having 58% of the possession against New Zealand Tonga couldn’t get over the line, although they did have a good argument for a penalty try in the first half when things were tight. Mana Otai’s team finish the tournament with one win and their worst return for a World Cup since 2003 when they didn’t win a game, including a defeat to Canada in Wollongong. Is it fair to propose some Eastern European nations are now stronger than Pacific Island ones? If so it’s happened in under a decade. A great research piece would be ‘why?’

Namibia – Humbled in their final game against Argentina when beaten by 45 points, which was their largest losing margin all tournament. However they have improved on 2011’s edition of the tournament in New Zealand when they lost by an average of 55.25 points. This year’s average losing margin was 26 points and they scored eight tries as well. You can put down some of the margin of defeat in the final game to the absence of retiring skipper Jacques Burger who missed the final game due to concussion protocols after he played only ten minutes against Georgia.  Flanker Wian Conradie has a bright future.

Group D

Ireland (v Argentina in QF) – Whilst the result was notable against France, the first time Ireland had beaten Les Bleus in a World Cup, it couldn’t have been much worse for Joe Schmidt’s side. If losing skipper Paul O’Connell, fly half Jonny Sexton, centre Keith Earls and flanker Peter O’Mahony to injuries during the game in Cardiff wasn’t bad enough Sean O’Brien faces a ban for an inexplicable attack on Pascal Pape. O’Mahony has already been ruled out of playing again in the showpiece and the Irish reserves will need to muster something when called upon. Ian Madigan in particular if Sexton is out.

France (v New Zealand in QF) – Played the penalty see-saw with Ireland until Rob Kearney scored a try in the second half and Ireland skipped clear on the back of a possession (69%) and territory (72%) dominance. France only made paltry 250 metres when carrying the ball and Philippe Saint-Andre must be concerned players like Wesley Fofana aren’t getting a chance to shine in space given the team’s inability to put together phase-play in Ireland’s half.

Italy (qualify directly for RWC 2019) – Like 2011 Italy finish with two pool wins and third in their group but haven’t been able to pull off an upset of the higher tier teams. Jacques Brunel’s side will go through a period of big change post this tournament with Mauro Bergamasco (106 caps) retiring however they have an emerging backline with Perpginan’s Tommaso Allan (fly half) one of three 22 year-olds in the back-line leading that group.

Romania – Centre Florin Vlaicu was the hero against Canada kicking over the winning points but in the defeat in Italy he couldn’t quite muster the same effort. Romania scored two of their three tries in the last ten minutes, which probably speaks to more of the Italian inconsistency

Canada – A hugely disappointing end for Canada after leading against Romania 15-0. Kieran Crowley’s team needs more Jeff Hasler’s after another big effort from the Ospreys winger in the two-point defeat. There biggest problem remains the tyranny of distance, coach Crowley once travelled eight hours to scout a single club game. Maybe the next time Australia and New Zealand tour the USA they could send their B sides to Canada at the same time?

Image via smh.com.au