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GLOS TAKE BIG SCALP, BATH RUN LEINSTER CLOSE AND WELSH DIP

Gloucester managed to upset all the bookies with a scintillating victory down in Sandy Park in a game where they were on top of the home side. The Exeter Chiefs are quite rightly admired across the land as one of the best teams in the Premiership and had set out their stall before the start of the season. Rob Baxter stated quite firmly that this season was the time for Exeter to be a serious challenger in the Heineken Cup. It is that publically announced ambition which makes Exeter’s set of results in the competition look quite alarming.

 

THE R WORD, TIGERS RED FACED AND EXETER CHOPPED DOWN
THE R WORD, TIGERS RED FACED AND EXETER CHOPPED DOWN

Calculators are already out for this season’s Premiership totting up points required to avoid the dreaded drop. It seems quite mad that the majority of teams in the league are sitting much closer to relegation than they are to Top 4.  From 5th to 12th no one is actually safe.

It is showing the strength of Exeter and Saracens that no one is taking points off them just a sneaky 2 taken away from Chiefs by Quins which is about as good as it has got for the rest of the chasing teams. It also shows quite clearly that all the teams from 3rd to 12th place are actually relatively strong being able to take points off each other despite struggling for consistency.

Interesting weekend’s results with three big traditional powerhouses of rugby Bath, Leicester and Northampton all losing to less established sides. It is going to be a bun fight this year and already there are whispers in the corridors of power about ring fencing and I suspect a lot of very, very nervous club owners are desperately trying to get this up and running by the end of May next year.

There are arguments on both sides about relegation and I do have sympathy with club owners who have invested millions of their own money in trying to grow the game and yet whatever they do someone has to go down. In a tight season featuring just 12 teams it could be someone relegated on points difference - so one missed penalty or a ruled out try could turn out to be calamitous. And yet - relegation gives this league bite and interest forcing teams to dig deep and play under huge pressure. More dead rubbers is not going to bring the fans flocking. Maybe the answer is to drop the Premiership Cup competition and increase to a 14 man league. This would bring the most competitive teams into the Premiership and mean everyone has to still fight to stay up whilst reducing the jeopardy. The Championship absolutely needs to still be given a crack at the big time but perhaps a play off with the team finishing bottom would be the way to ensure the team coming up is sufficiently strong. 

The league leaders Exeter hit a very slight road bump on Friday night. With the returning Internationals putting their feet up the Chiefs sent a team up to London missing some star names. The road bump turned out surprisingly to the Harlequins. The team mixing it at the bottom of the table and struggling to get points suddenly looked as if all the pieces suddenly clicked firmly in place. London’s supposed fancy dans played with a hardnosed defensive effort that put all kinds of pressure on Exeter. Gustard is starting to see some real return from the undoubted massive focus he has put on the defence and indeed it was ‘Wolfpack’ like in its intensity and execution. 

Exeter Chiefs would not have been too worried - as shorn of some big stars they still were able to come away with a couple of points tucked under their shirts. Exeter’s tried and very trusty go to weapon - the 5m line out and rolling maul - proved as effective as ever and indeed was the only weapon that worked for them. Quins line speed cut off virtually every attacking opportunity and meant the Chiefs had to rely on Quins giving away penalties to give them kicks for territory.

Quins played some smart rugby in the second half. Recognising that the equally efficient Exeter defence was also cutting off their attack Quins eventually started to put more kicks through. I felt in the first half Quins should have kicked a bit more as they were often playing out of their own half and were always in danger of letting Chiefs into the game with a penalty kick to the corner. One player creating a stir is Quins forward James Dombrandt. Fresh from University the 21 year old looks the real deal and put in a barnstorming performance that has already seen him being touted as a dark horse for the World Cup!

Gloucester are certainly doing their level best to make a statement this premiership season, and 9 games in they are doing very nice job of it. The tables tell all the story you need to know about Gloucester being the “best of the rest”, as the only team outside of the top two that have had less than 200 points put past them and a comfortable lead in the “for” column as well. This shows a real cohesion of the team this season and actually gives the Cherry and White faithful something to cheer about! We’ve been in this table position in many previous seasons, but often thanks to some iffy results elsewhere and a couple of scalps that maybe should not have occurred, but this season, you can well and truly say that they deserve the spot!

As for Saturday’s game against Worcs, it is always a pleasure to watch the local Derby’s and with the exception of the deep-rooted rivalry between Gloucester and Bath, there is nothing like the Warriors game to get the blood pumping. It was a crackerjack of a game and although there was the expectation that the away team may have been on the receiving end of a ‘thumping’ they actually held Gloucester admirably, with just one point to split the teams at the rest, but magic happened in the second half; Gloucester made good on the warriors losing Chris Pennell and punished the remaining 14 men and crossed the wash four more times in the second half.

Had it not been for an “average” Cipriani performance (let’s not forget the average Cipriani, is very good for everyone else) then Gloucester could have been angling for a cricket score by the end of the game, but Worcester have proved time and again this season that they are not to be trifled with in defence, only letting in 16 more points than Gloucester over the first nine games. Had Worcester been able to field Hougaard and Te’o in this game, it could well have been a different story.

Special mention must go to Charlie Sharples, who is cutting loose with the tries and managed to rack up another one on Saturday to put him joint leader on touchdowns so far this season. Hats off to that boy, footwork, pace and vision”

A slightly threadbare Wasps would have pitched up at Allianz Park with more hope than expectation but as often happens when the pressure is off they put in a sterling effort. It looks like their defence is finally working for them but their attack surprisingly failed to spark. The Saracens attack also spluttered and although they never looked seriously under pressure Wasps made them work for their points and it meant the home side failed this time to collect their customary try bonus point. I liked how the Wasps scrum stood up and it was great to see Nathan Hughes once again thundering around bashing holes in the defence. With the amount of walking wounded Wasps have at the moment I am sure there is some quiet confidence that a fuller strength side will soon be putting the frighteners on some very good teams.

The Rec in Bath is one of the prettiest places to play rugby but the surroundings did not transfer to the game when bottom strugglers Sale arrived in town. It was a game neither side wanted to lose and demonstrated the point that relegation does not always give you excitement - Bath and Sale slugging it out to a 7 all draw. Those two points Bath squeezed out from a turgid performance however shot them up the table in this crazy season.

It was good news for Newcastle who picked up a last gasp win at Franklins Gardens to stun the home crowd. Mark Wilson - who you just want to drape a red cape around and be done with it - was the hero with an 87 minute try. That win got the Falcons home by a couple of points but more importantly sprang them off the bottom of the table. Mark Wilson’s 2018 is the stuff dreams are made of.

It has become mesmerising, in the same way a car crash is, to watch Leicester Tigers implode. Geordan Murphy looks set to be appointed head coach permanently and I genuinely hope the guy is given a bucket load of support from the Board of Directors to turn things around. The pack to me just has to be strengthened to enable the multi skilled backs a chance to play the ball. It was sad to see quality half backs like Ford and Youngs simply unable to control the game with no front foot ball. Tigers for relegation? It could happen. Bristol Bears benefitted from a red card dished out to Kyle Eastmond which was one of the rare ones where there seems to be no debate – looked horrible and clearly under the current interpretations if was ‘off with you my son’. However Bristol would have won this game anyway and just looked hungrier, more intense and more likely to score throughout the whole match.

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Our (tongue in cheek) Christmas Gift Guide For Rugby Players*

*Stereotypes were definitely used in this article.

 

Front Row

 

Dean Farmstock has ears that could be planted in a field and chest and thighs that are permanently trying to escape normal clothing...

Q&A with Show Jumper Johnathan Bowman!
Q&A with Show Jumper Johnathan Bowman!

Johnathan Bowman is a successful international showjumper and runs his own Riding School and Academy. He is also an ambassador for Raging Bull and loves nothing more than getting the chance to slip on one of our Tweed jackets.

 

ENGLAND CHARIOT TRUNDLES OVER WALTZING WALLABIES
ENGLAND CHARIOT TRUNDLES OVER WALTZING WALLABIES

The crowd were in fine voice at Twickenham on Saturday and Swing Low Sweet Chariot would have taken off the roof if there was one.  I was so fortunate to be there as a fan and what an atmosphere there was throughout the game. I truly think our sport at international level is the best in the world and the Home Nations’ fans the noisiest, most passionate and good humoured of the lot!

The Raging Bull gift guide for him this Christmas 🎁🎄
The Raging Bull gift guide for him this Christmas 🎁🎄

I know, we're not even in December yet and we're talking Christmas and gift guides but here at Raging Bull, we like to get in there nice and early and ensure that you're all set for the big day. We ...

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LAWES AND THE LAW BOOK

LAWES AND THE LAW BOOK – ENGLAND CLOSE THE GAP

An ex All Black was interviewed recently and he talked about the magic of playing at Twickenham ‘the home of rugby’. He waxed lyrical about the gates an...

Q&A With Celebrity Chef Marcus Bean!
Q&A With Celebrity Chef Marcus Bean!

Why did you become a chef?

I grew up in pubs and my mum is a chef, but I never wanted to cook or needed to, We lived in flats above the pubs I grew up in and didn’t have a domestic kitchen so if I was every in the pub kitchen it was a case of jumping in the sink to help out. One thing it did was gave me a great pallet as myself and my sister got to choose what we wanted to eat every night from a full menu and the specials board, and it was great to have friends over for dinner, they loved it!

DOES LADY LUCK PLAY RUGBY?
DOES LADY LUCK PLAY RUGBY?

So was that a lucky win for England at Twickenham or not?  Some finer rugby minds than mine are still squabbling over the answer to that one.  My view is there is always some luck involved in a game of rugby. 

We play with a very odd shaped ball and to a set of hugely intricate laws.  We have all seen those balls that either bounce perfectly and land into the winger’s arms or bobble viciously around a player’s feet.  Many a time a ball has just unluckily squirted out of a ruck on the wrong side and an opposition player gratefully scoops it up for a fortuitous try.  We see players making split second decisions at huge pace sometimes catching an intercept ball and haring the length of the field or picking up a yellow card for a deliberate knock on.  In a game full of thunderous physicality - trying to execute perfect skills for the whole 80 is almost impossible.  And then there are our laws with their various interpretations often causing long convoluted debates over referee decisions and teams sometimes benefitting, sometimes losing out.  

The All Blacks, as the most  naturally skilful team in the world,  probably make the least mistakes but we  have seen them on both the right and wrong side of luck.  The final decision in that drawn Lions game in New Zealand is a case in point where it could be argued that it was the boys in red who got the luck that day.

The 80 minute referee decision with Owen Farrell is being talked about purely due to the point in the game it happened.  South Africa fell on the wrong side of that one but as we know there are always penalties throughout a game that could be questioned either way.  There was a similar scenario earlier in the game which was actual contact to the head against George Kruis which was not given as a penalty so in the referee was at least consistent. 

You can tell by the total mixed bag of opinions on social media on ‘that tackle’ that it is not totally clear cut.  To me it means as players, fans, teams you take those ones on the chin.  Most of the debate centres on whether Farrell wrapped his arms.  This all happened at such high speed and most players do lead with their shoulder as it gives you a stronger contact when someone is running hard at you – just trying to wrap only arms around Esterhuizen  I felt Faz would have been shrugged off.  However we all know, warrior that he undoubtedly is,  Faz still has  a tendency to tackle at chest height.  He certainly does not favour the chop tackle!    With the new law emphasis on height of the tackle he is going to have to adapt his technique because we really do not want to have to revisit this again!

In truth, however,  South Africa lost that game for other reasons than not being given a final penalty.  They would,  when they sat down in the changing room at the end of the game,  have admitted that they were not at their best and totally failed to take their opportunity against an injury depleted  England.

The Boks failed to execute some simple skills which should have led to points.  It is a head scratcher why their quite rightly lauded hooker Malcom Marx made such a pigs ear of his line out throwing especially when kicks at goal were turned down.  The reality is luck did not play a part in the way the England scratch back row tackled heroically and contained the treats of Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen.    Luck also had nothing to do with South Africa’s inability to get the ball out often enough to their wingers and their insistence on route 1 for most of the game.  To be fair it worked in the first half when England could not stop their forwards getting over the gain line.  However the England defence was organised and reactive and did not panic when under the cosh.  South Africa without the genius and playmaking of a Willi Le Roux and Faf De Klerk lacked ideas and creativity.  

The plus side for South Africa is they will get a lot better and it looks likely they will have their talisman Faf de Klerk back for the rest of the series.  Damien De Allende was a force of nature and really troubled our mid field defence.  Steph De Toit was monstrous in his tackling and physicality and Handre Pollard looks a real proper Bok outhalf – strong, fast, good hands and a superb boot. 

As for England you have to give credit for such a gutsy, ballsy performance.  Lots of pundits were predicting an England loss and if we admire other sides for scrapping a win in a tight attritional  game we can do the same for England.    Overall South Africa did not win because fundamentally they struggled to score against England and I thought our defence looked improved despite a few mistakes.  A massive encouragement too was our work at the breakdown where we did not concede the same number of turnovers as usual -  so hats off to Steve Borthwick who apparently has been focussing on this part of England’s game.

I loved the whole fairytale of the Mark Wilson selection  - out of the blue being parachuted in at number 8 and then going on to pick up a MOM performance.  It was like an episode out of a Dandy comic! The award was richly deserved and Wilson bought a work rate and intelligence to the position and was the glue in the pack.    He looks like he could,  when Billy Vunipola comes back,  be an ideal 6 or a bench option to cover the back row.

I was lucky to be at Twickenham so had a fantastic birds eye view of the scrums.  From what I could see they were mixed from an England point of view but given the size disparity we held up well even gaining a crucial scrum penalty of our own.    For me Kyle Sinckler should come off the bench as he adds so much impact in the loose and Harry Williams offers a bit more solidity.   Ben Moon, the Exeter Chief,  who usually starts in front of his mate Alec Hepburn at his club got on straight after half time and looked the stronger scrumager.  A big positive from Eddie having so many injuries is he may now have found out who can and can’t step up.  I would like to see him reverse the starting props against the All Blacks and go with Moon and Williams.

The bench contributed hugely with Zach Mercer looking class and George, Moon and Ewells all adding something.     Chris Ashton looked so dangerous for the bit of time he got and I would love to see him get a full game to give him more time to sniff out those opportunities.   A selection dilemma if Manu is back fit as Eddie has got plenty of back line talent at his disposal.  Jonny May was terrific.  I could only gawp at his athleticism in the air and madcap running lines that bamboozled the Springbok defence.

A disappointment was how much Elliot Daly struggled as I was willing him to do really well.  He seemed hesitant in defence and got out jumped significantly by the Springbok backs.  He is such a class rugby player I am sure he can put that performance behind him but the fact he does not play week in and week out as a 15 makes it so tough at test level when all your skills are put under severe pressure.  As a squad we lack any real back up to Mike Brown so Eddie needs to find out pretty sharpish who that is for the World Cup.    If Anthony Watson is back from injury  for the Six Nations we may well see him in the shirt but it would not surprise me to see Eddie reverting back to the tried and tested Brown as his man to do the job.

For England fans nervous about this coming weekend it is worth remembering that there have always been odds-upsetting, out of the blue, underdog victories in rugby.  No-one thought the Springboks stood a chance against the All Blacks recently and they should really have beaten them twice.  The England team were written off the last time they played New Zealand in 2012 and look what happened then.  Playing the best brings out the best.  England will be better I believe on Saturday and will face the All Blacks with some self belief and a willingness to put their bodies on the line.  We can ask no more.  Oh -  and may Lady Luck smile on them too…..

TOON ON TOP, RED FOR CIPS, TIGERS SNARLING AGAIN
TOON ON TOP, RED FOR CIPS, TIGERS SNARLING AGAIN

The story of the weekend – no wait - the story of the season must be the wonderful fairytale success of the Newcastle Falcons in the Champions Cup. No one gave them a prayer out in Toulon last week and some wrote that win off as Toulon underestimating Falcons. 

BURNS, STINGS AND BLOODBATHS - EUROPE IS BACK!
BURNS, STINGS AND BLOODBATHS - EUROPE IS BACK!

Intensity, passion and ferocity all got dialled up several notches this weekend as European Rugby strode into town. You could just see a change in players’ body language and the hits got bigger, colli...

GLOS STING WASPS, HONEST BILLY AND THE SIXWAYS MASSACRE
GLOS STING WASPS, HONEST BILLY AND THE SIXWAYS MASSACRE

Just what we needed this weekend with upsets at The Ricoh, a tight and niggly affair at the Stoop and a brutal crushing at Sixways.

The Exeter chiefs side marches on with yet another bonus point tuck...