Ruthless Wales make England pay the penalty after referee takes centre stage

By Sports Desk February 27, 2021

As ruthless Wales celebrated winning the Triple Crown, Eddie Jones might have been regretting saying the pressure would be on referee Pascal Gauzere in Cardiff.

Wales head coach Wayne Pivac endured a difficult start to his reign after succeeding Warren Gatland, but his side are two victories from a Grand Slam after beating the defending champions 40-24.

England, on the other hand, saw the Six Nations title all-but slip through their fingers as they were left to rue poor discipline and two controversial first-half tries for Wales.

Red Rose boss Jones has previous with Gauzere and spoke to World Rugby about an incident involving the French official during Wales' win over Scotland in 2018.

The Australian was his usually outspoken self ahead of Saturday's clash at the Principality Stadium.

He said: "Unfortunately, there are no fans but the intensity of the clash I think over the last four or five years, the games I have been involved in, the points difference is six points. They always go down to the wire, so the pressure is going to be on the referee to make the right decisions."

So when Gauzere twice took centre stage in the first half by awarding tries for Josh Adams and Liam Williams, Jones may have been thinking he had made the wrong decision by putting the spotlight on the referee.

Jones should also be pointing the finger at his players, who he said had become more "street-smart" than they were when losing to Wales at the same stadium two years ago.

They were their own worst enemies, conceding 14 penalties as they lost for the second time in three matches, but Gauzere left them up against it and resurgent Wales took full advantage.

Owen Farrell has come in for criticism for having too much to say to referees, but he was understandably aggrieved when Adams was awarded an opening try 16 minutes in.

Gauzere had called time out after instructing the skipper to warn his team-mates about their indiscipline, only to give Dan Biggar the green light to pick out Adams with a pinpoint cross-field kick soon after with the majority of Red Rose caught out in a huddle.

Farrell exchanged words with Gauzere before reducing the deficit to 10-6 with his second penalty, yet the French official took centre stage once again when he raised his arm to signal a try for Williams with half an hour on the clock.

Louis Rees-Zammit was shaking his head in frustration after knocking the ball forward prior to Williams dotting down, but Gauzere opted against changing his decision after consulting the TMO as the ball struck the wing's leg prior to hitting the ground after he knocked it forward.

Rees-Zammit raised eyebrows over the verdict and England responded with a well-finished try from Anthony Watson before Farrell made it 17-14 just before the break.

Kieran Hardy caught England napping early in the second half with a sharp turn of foot to score a third Wales try but Farrell made it a seven-point game when he was on target with the boot again.

England were showing the sort of inventive play they were so badly lacking in the defeat to Scotland and the quick-thinking Ben Youngs nipped in for a superb try, which Farrell converted to level at 24-24 with 17 minutes to go.

The Red Rose continued to give away far too many penalties, though, and Callum Sheedy punished them on three occasion to put Pivac's men 33-24 up with six minutes remaining.

Cory Hill put the icing on the cake as it was Wales who proved to be more "street-smart”, with Pivac celebrating gleefully as his side took a big stride on the road towards another title.

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    Then Kyle Shanahan's reported interest in the Alabama quarterback prompted a reappraisal of his talents.

    If the Niners were willing to make a blockbuster trade, parting with two future first-round picks, just to move into position to take Jones, how good must he be?

    Plenty around the NFL still are not convinced, while the smoke and mirrors surrounding the draft means there remains no guarantee Jones goes at number three or even in the top 10.

    But what would the 49ers or any other suitors be getting if they selected the Heisman Trophy finalist? And how does he compare to his rivals in a potential five-QB first round?

    With the aid of Stats Perform data, we take a look at one of the most polarising prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft.

    The raw numbers

    Jones played in all 13 games for Alabama in 2020 as they went 13-0, succeeding Miami Dolphins first-rounder Tua Tagovailoa at the QB position.

    En route to the National Championship, Alabama boasted the outstanding offense in college football.

    Jones threw for 4,500 yards, the most in the FBS, and trailed only Florida's Kyle Trask (43) with his 41 passing touchdowns.

    He also led the FBS in completion percentage. Of his 402 throws, 311 were caught - another high - for an exceptional 77.4 per cent.

    These figures could have been even more impressive, too, with 323 of his balls considered 'catchable'.

    Jones did benefit from playing with the best receiving corps in the game, however.

    DeVonta Smith caught 23 TD passes from 117 receptions for 1,856 yards, yet just 919 yards came through the air, with Smith adding 937 after the catch.

    Jones ranked 44th in the FBS for air yards per attempt at 8.43. Indeed, Jaylen Waddle - who played just six games - averaged 21.1 yards per catch but only 11.0 at the point of reception, his dynamic ability with the ball in his hands significantly boosting Jones' output.

    Trust the system

    At the helm of an excellently designed offense and on a team with elite receiving talent like that possessed by the Crimson Tide, Jones' merits are obvious. That is why he is said to suit the 49ers.

    Jones completed 77.6 per cent of his play-action passes - a staple of the Shanahan scheme - last year, and Shanahan is widely regarded as having an affinity for quarterbacks who can digest his offense and deliver accurately from the pocket.

    Kirk Cousins, drafted during Shanahan's time in Washington, ranks third all-time in the NFL for completion percentage (67.0).

    Atlanta Falcons starter Matt Ryan completed 69.9 per cent of his passes working with Shanahan in the 2016 season en route to an MVP award and a Super Bowl appearance, while the Niners' Jimmy Garoppolo threw at 69.1 per cent in 2019 as they came within minutes of lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

    Fellow draft prospects Zach Wilson (73.5 per cent, third), Justin Fields (70.2, seventh) and Trevor Lawrence (69.2, 10th) joined Jones in the top 10 in the FBS in completion percentage, though.

    Meanwhile, Trey Lance - restricted to a single game last season - ranked fourth in the FCS in 2019 with a mark of 66.9 per cent.

    But where Jones particularly stood out was with his throws in pressure situations.

    The Crimson Tide star led the FBS in completion percentage when blitzed (76.9) and also in red zone completion percentage (75.9). On third down, he ranked fourth, connecting on 71.6 per cent of his passes.

    Mac lacks mobility

    Despite his consistency as a thrower, there is a reason Jones was not previously considered a challenger to Wilson, Fields, Lawrence and Lance.

    If the 49ers look elsewhere, Jones could yet fall a long way to find another team confident they have the system and surrounding personnel to make the move worthwhile.

    And even then, few NFL coaches in 2021 are likely to be willing to overlook his shortcomings as an athlete.

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    At Alabama, where he could palm the ball off to FBS-leading running back Najee Harris, Jones had just 35 carries last year and scored a single rushing touchdown.

    The majority of these runs were short bursts to steal first downs, averaging 0.4 yards per attempt, with a longest carry of 14 yards.

    It is in this area that Jones lags a long way behind the rest.

    Wilson averaged 3.6 yards and scored 10 TDs. Fields played just eight games but had 81 carries, averaging 4.7 yards. Lawrence averaged 3.0 yards and scored eight times.

    In the inferior FCS in 2019, Lance blew each of those performances away. He had 169 carries for 14 TDs at an average of 6.5 yards per carry.

    Without the same ability to open up the game with his legs, Jones would need to be a truly generational talent with his arm.

    Only three NFL signal-callers averaged under 0.4 yards per carry over 10 games last season: Tom Brady (0.2), Drew Brees (-0.1) and Philip Rivers (-0.4).

    Brady and Brees are each in their forties and among the greatest of all time. Brees and Rivers have also both since retired.

    The NFL is eschewing the traditional quarterback in favour of the athletically gifted dual-threats whose skill sets are more conducive to elite production in the modern game. Regardless of where he is selected, Jones is going to have buck that trend to succeed at the highest level.

  • European Super League: Players and fans still hold the key in football's moment of reckoning European Super League: Players and fans still hold the key in football's moment of reckoning

    As claim, counter-claim and another news bombshell thudded into one another regarding the purported launch of a European Super League on Sunday, many football supporters and those involved with the game expressed wishes for a simpler time.

    One of those was Mark Pougatch, esteemed anchor of ITV's UK coverage of England matches, who was probably wondering what side Gareth Southgate might be able to put out given UEFA's threats to ban players from the 12 Super League clubs from representing their national teams.

    Pougatch asked whether the chairmen of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham in the 1980s and 1990 – local figures rooted in their communities – would have let such tawdry antics occur on their watch.

    A glance at his Twitter replies showed the consensus was, "Probably, yeah".

    One claimed Peter Swales, the vainglorious and hubristic ex-Manchester City chairman, would have sold his kidneys to take part in a Super League. Martin Edwards, his Manchester United contemporary whose family ploughed their fortune from butchery into the club, would probably have bought Swales' kidneys and put them into sausages.

    Gallows humour among supporters often speaks football's more enduring truths and this was no different. Sunday's cloth-eared land grab from England's 'big six', Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Milan, Juventus and Inter is shocking because of its scant regard for the sporting competition all of them pretend to crave. But it is entirely in line with the actions of those clubs over the past three decades, which have always spoken louder than their vapid platitudes.

    Edwards, Swales and their contemporaries were around at the time super league talk first emerged, when gate sharing in English football was abolished in 1983 and the so-called Heathrow Agreement gave half of the television rights money available to the top division at the expense of the other three in 1985.

    These were all precursors to the 1992 Premier League breakaway, which enshrined the basic principle that has driven all the developments of the past 24 hours: the more successful a team is, the greater share of the game's wealth it deserves at the expense of all others, widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

    A shrinking privileged few see how cold it is outside of their exclusive set and have since taken every measure they can to ensure they do not fall out of that elite. What better way to lock that down than to come up with a closed shop drowning in hedge-fund billions? The Super League is as much a natural conclusion as it is a radical departure.

    But what now?

    Baddies and baddies

    The multi-layered PR disaster of the Super League roll out, not to mention the threat of endless litigation, means understandably upset fans should still have confidence the vision of Florentino Perez and his allies will not prevail.

    But picking good guys and bad guys in this scenario is a selection process as tricky as sending a Spain team to a European Championship without Barca, Madrid or Atleti players.

    We've seen numerous examples over recent years of fans being played off against one another in sinister fashion. Take the framing of new-monied City and Chelsea, trying to unseat the deserving greats of English football – United, Arsenal and Liverpool (sorry, Tottenham) – with their ill-gotten gains. Oil money and plastic clubs versus institutions with values, doing things the "proper" way.

    Turns out they are all the same side of an utterly fetid coin. They deserve complete contempt and suspicion at all times. They have proved they do not care about you or your club and you never owe them your obedience.

    So who are the goodies? Absolutely not UEFA.

    Aleksander Ceferin spoke with impressive passion, clarity and controlled anger when addressing the challenge to his organisation and its tournaments on Monday. But UEFA's new Champions League format is a horrible pile of bloated rubbish.

    There will be more games, more dead rubbers, less jeopardy and more guarantees – in financial and sporting terms – for the elite. It's the closed shop of the Super League with a few of the windows and doors left open. Probably as well to let out the smell.

    UEFA are the far lesser of two evils here but unquestioningly backing them as righteous saviours and guardians of football is a dead end.

    The Premier League's lost generation

    Similarly, concern proclaimed for "match-going fans" should not be allowed to pass by in England without action being taken once the dust settles.

    High ticket prices have served to effectively leave a generation of fans behind in the Premier League. In the 2017 BBC Price of Football study, 82 per cent of 18-24 year olds said the cost of tickets was an obstacle to them attending matches.

    Within that context, Monday's survey for BBC Sport by polling company Savanta ComRes that showed 48 per cent of 18-34-year-old fans were "happy" about the Super League plans – against an "unhappy" 18 per cent - should come as little surprise.

    For all the understandable outrage among those with an emotional stake in the traditions of the game, there is an entire demographic who love and consume football but feel little connection to the "fabric" of its century-old culture that has failed to lend them so much as a stray thread.

    The breakaway clubs are motivated primarily by vast financial gain, but a younger generation left to find their own way into the game by the establishment – in thrall to online clips, video games and viral superstars – will have come into their calculations.

    German football's stronger connection to its fan culture, demonstrated both by more affordable ticket prices and the 50+1 rule enshrining member ownership, feels like a huge factor in Bayern Munich not being along for the joyride.

    Much as they might feel taken for a ride by various stakeholders, supporters will still be influential over the direction of travel to come and those chastising the Super League must now do more than pay lip service. Slash admission prices and open up the people's game once more.

    "We came from Cheltenham"

    Those fan groups already engaged are starting to mobilise and it will be interesting to hear how the biggest names in the sport react, especially in light of UEFA's hardline threats that seemingly include immediate Champions League expulsion. Without them this cannot happen.

    Speaking to Kicker in 2019, Jurgen Klopp said: "I hope there will never be this Super League. I also don't feel like my club has to be seeded [in the Champions League].

    "Of course, it's economically important, but why should we create a system where Liverpool can play against Real Madrid for 10 years in a row? Who wants to see this every year?"

    Pep Guardiola has also rubbished the idea to which his club has now committed to – although City are among those involved yet to issue a public statement on the matter – and spoke warmly of the value of football's pyramid structure before an FA Cup tie at Cheltenham Town this season, when his players had to get changed in the stadium bar at Whaddon Road.

    "Everyone comes from the lower divisions or do you believe when we are under-16 or under-18 we fly in private jets?" he said. "We play in these stadiums all our careers, we don't play in big stadiums all the time, we came from [places like] Cheltenham. People cannot forget that and it is a pleasure to play there.

    "We were there many times and we changed in bars as boys and we play football with incredible joy. We love this game and we change in these changing rooms for most of our careers most of the time."

    Guardiola depicted a romance entirely absent from the Super League, UEFA's reforms and, in truth, most of his employers' operations. But for all the distance between the millionaire superstars of the modern game and the supporters shown such contempt by the hedge fund class, there lies a common bond.

    Klopp stood by his previously stated position ahead of Liverpool's game with Leeds United amid fan protests outside Elland Road. He and Guardiola will speak again about this serious fracture in the sport over the coming hours and days and their words will carry considerable weight. The Super League owners have used the uncertainty of the global pandemic to push their agenda, but the tragedy and tumult of the past year has also shown how much power still lies with players and fans.

    It can be seen before every single Premier League game, when players continue to take a knee in protest against police brutality. It was there when Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson led a fundraising effort for the NHS after he and his fellow professionals were goaded by a UK government that Marcus Rashford continues to hold to account over child poverty.

    It was also felt by would-be Super League clubs, when City and United were persuaded to donate £100,000 to foodbanks in Greater Manchester amid rising demand due to the pandemic. Or when Liverpool and Tottenham U-turned on their risible decision to furlough non-playing staff.

    Players and fans, still the heart and soul of the game we love, might have to shout a little louder this time, but they can definitely be heard. It feels like a moment to line up alongside one another as opposed to backing the least-bad option in a pin-striped suit stuffed with self-interest and empty promises.

  • European Super League: What the domestic leagues will look like if the 12 are expelled European Super League: What the domestic leagues will look like if the 12 are expelled

    Sunday's announcement of a long-feared European 'Super League' raised the possibility of unprecedented change in football, with the 12 founding clubs seemingly at threat of being kicked out of other competitions as a result.

    The Premier League's so-called "big six", Spanish giants Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid and Serie A trio Juventus, Milan and Inter have broken ranks and agreed to the formation of the breakaway competition.

    Sunday's uniform announcement from most of the clubs involved confirmed the Super League will be made up of 15 founding clubs – with three to be added to the initial 12 – and unconfirmed guest teams.

    It will run as a midweek tournament alongside the teams' respective domestic leagues and guarantees the founding clubs a share of €3.5billion "solely to support their infrastructure investment plans and to offset the impact of the COVID pandemic".

    But, pre-empting the announcement following widespread media speculation, UEFA released a statement co-signed by the national associations of England, Spain and Italy, and those countries' respective top-flight leagues. It reiterated a threat to ban players and teams involved from competing in other competitions.

    While that is a debate that will rage on for some time, with the legality of such measures unclear for the moment, it raises the possibility of a Premier League without its "big six", a LaLiga missing Barcelona and Real Madrid, and Serie A expelling Juve, Milan and Inter.

    With that in mind, we looked at what those three divisions would look like in the – admittedly unlikely – event that the 12 Super League clubs are expelled and results involving them are expunged…

    Premier League

    Who'd have thought in 2013 when he was appointed as Alex Ferguson's successor at Manchester United that David Moyes' first Premier League title would come as West Ham boss?

    Well, if the "big six" were expelled and their results were void, it would be the Hammers sitting at the top of the pile – and by some distance.

    Moyes' men would be on 49 points from 21 matches having suffered just two defeats.

    Curiously, the exclusion of the Super League clubs would seemingly harm Leicester City, as they have lost just three matches to them in 2020-21 – West Ham have been beaten seven times by "big six" opposition.

    Nevertheless, Leicester would still be on course to get back in the Champions League. Leeds United (1.8) and Everton (1.6) would appear to be the favourites to join them, by virtue of their better points-per-game record than Aston Villa (1.5).

    LaLiga

    Fair play to Real Betis, who have already embraced a future without Madrid, Atletico and Barcelona by deleting them from the Liga table that sits on their website.

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    In fact, Sevilla probably shouldn't be ruled out of the real title race just yet given they are actually only six points behind leaders Atletico and still have to face Zinedine Zidane's Madrid.

    In our LaLiga table excluding the "big three", Sevilla have 60 points from 26 games, giving them a 13-point lead over Villarreal.

    It also highlights just how bad Los Nervionenses' record against Madrid, Barca and Atletico is, as they have taken just four points from them this term.

    Rounding off the top four would be Betis in third and Real Sociedad in fourth.

    Serie A

    Juventus' stranglehold on Serie A looks set to end regardless of any action from UEFA and the league. Having won each of the previous nine Scudetti, the Old Lady have been dire under Andrea Pirlo for much of the season.

    So, helping establish a new semi-closed competition under the guise of needing better opponents is the logical step…

    While Atalanta would sit top of a Serie A without Juve, Inter and Milan, technically it's Lazio who would be on course for title success.

    The Biancocelesti have played a game less than Atalanta but would only be behind them on goal difference – their points-per-game record is 2.24, slightly more than the Bergamo side's 2.15.

    Napoli (2.12) and Roma (1.96) would remain in the running as well were the "big three" to be dumped out of the competition.

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