Building for the future
Since taking over the England head coach job after their abysmal group stage exit from the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Eddie Jones has done a fantastic job of making England competitive again, to the point that they have only lost 1 game in 2 years!
When he named his first squad, the players picked were for the most part the same ones that Stuart Lancaster had called on, but as each subsequent squad has been named we have seen more and more young players earning their first caps as Jones looks to build towards 2019’s tournament in Japan. While I’m sure he would have done this anyway as he has talked about his desire of having at least 60 players to pick his EPS from, he has also had his hand forced somewhat by injuries, suspensions and this summer’s Lions Tour.
In the back row, Billy Vunipola is arguably one of the best number 8s in the world, but his England appearances have been limited recently due to a succession of injuries, which has given Nathan Hughes the chance to develop into a more-than-able deputy a international level. Chris Robshaw’s move from 7 to 6 has seen him become an integral part of the team despite Jones’ misgivings about him before taking up the role. James Haskell also played some of the best rugby of his international career early in Jones’ tenure, but has struggled to regain that form since injury. Tom Wood, a former contender for captaincy under Lancaster, was brought back into the fold for a while to help give the team some experience, but his ban at the end of last season has pushed him down the order as the Australian has looked at other options.
Maro Itoje and Courtney Laws are regulars in the England squad and are generally considered as second rows, however Jones has not been afraid to move one of them to 6 in order to give the team more physicality – though I personally prefer them at lock. Jack Clifford was one of the first young players to be given a chance under Eddie Jones and certainly brings more pace to the back row in attack when compared to most of his rivals, but he has also suffered with a series of injuries that have seen him drop down the order. At only 24 though, he has plenty of time to force his way back into the squad. Ben and Tom Curry are both on Jones’ radar but at 19 it is probably slightly to soon for them to be regulars, though they could still force their way in before the World Cup, as could Zach Mercer whose form for Bath and England U20s over the last season and a half have seen him join the senior squad as an apprentice player.
People have been looking forward to Sam Underhill’s return to England for a coupe of years and he has not really disappointed when given a chance in the England back row so far, showing himself to be a tackling machine in his first couple of starts. Sam Simmonds has broken through in the Premiership this year in a way similar to Mercer last season and certainly deserved his debut this autumn. He had a quiet first half against Samoa but really grew into the game. Compared to many of the players around him he seems quite small, though he runs stronger than many bigger players. He also has that extra turn of pace that many of his rivals (other than Clifford) don’t have.
With so much young quality coming through, it will be interesting to see how much longer Robshaw can hold onto his place in the squad. At 31, you can imagine that RWC2019 will be the end of his international career at the latest, but Jones may decide that he has the quality to leave him out before this, so that the world cup becomes just the next stage in a quest for dominance rather than the end of a cycle. I have nothing against Robshaw, but his big draw outside of his experience is his tireless tackling, which is now able to be covered by Underhill. I enjoy a back row with a balance of speed, strength and defensive capability, so would love to see Jones start to focus in on combinations containing Vunipola, Hughes, Clifford, Simmonds and Underhill going forward.
The Pacific Island problem
I’m not going to write much about this because I am no expert on Pacific Island rugby and the issues that Samoa in particular are having. Every day in the build-up to this weekend’s game there seemed to be a different story coming out about the state of Samoan rugby: the head of the SRU says their bankrupt, World Rugby says that’s not the case. Regardless, rugby benefits from strong Pacific Island teams and currently only Fiji makes the top 10 and Samoa aren’t even in the top 15!
Samoa showed they have quality against England, with Jack Lam especially having a good game, but I felt that Tim Nanai-Williams was wasted at fly half as he is at his best further out where he can take advantage of space.
So many players are lost to the Pacific Islands due to choosing to commit to other unions who can provide more financial security. Just this morning I read that former All Blacks Charles Piutau and Frank Halai are considering switching allegiance to Tonga in time for the World Cup, as they will have both gone long enough without playing for New Zealand’s representative teams so will be eligible if they play a couple of Olympic qualification 7s tournaments for Tonga. While I would rather players committed to these countries straight away rather than as a second option once being deemed surplus to requirements by the Tier 1 nations, having players of this calibre in the national team can surely only help the Pacific Islands.
What World Rugby needs to do though is find a way to stop the talent drain away from the islands in the first place. It is far too rare that a Tier 1 nation plays one of the Pacific Island teams in that country and if the vast majority of the revenue goes to the home team then that is not fair on the Islands. I feel that having a Pacific Island team in Super Rugby would also help as players would not have to leave for Tier 1 countries in order to play top flight rugby.
While rugby continues to grow in countries like Georgia, Japan and the USA, it would be a shame if this was at the expense of countries that have given fans so much to cheer about over the years.
Return to greatness
Those days are past now,
And in the past
they must remain,
But we can still rise now,
And be the nation again,
That stood against him,
Proud Edward’s Army,
And sent him homeward,
To think again.
The final verse of Flower of Scotland, which along with the first verse is sung as part of the national anthem before matches.
As someone who did not get into rugby until late 2002/early 2003, I have no memories of Scottish rugby success, but Gregor Townsend’s men are rising again. They were clearly improving in recent years under Vern Cotter, but Townsend seems to have taken the players to another level again.
After a win against Samoa that left them disappointed with their leaky defence, they put in a great performance against New Zealand and lost by just 5 points despite playing much of the second half with a hooker in the back row, and even then could have won the game had Kieran Read’s cynical playing of the ball on the floor been picked up with less than 10 minutes less, or if Stuart Hogg had not lost the ball forward at the death. In many years past, I feel that such disappointment would have resulted in them getting hammered by Australia in their final match, yet instead they ran out 53-24 winners. They were certainly helped by Sekope Kepu’s red card just before half time, but I feel that they had already shown enough to suggest they would beat Australia for the second time in 2017, despite losing Hogg in the warm-up.
Probably the most impressive thing about these results is that they have done so well despite a number of players – including Richie Gray, Ross Ford, Fraser Brown, Matt Scott, Duncan Taylor, Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg, Alasdair Dickinson, Allan Dell, WP Nel, Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar and captain Greig Laidlaw – missing some/all of the games through injury. For a nation with only 2 pro teams, that should be a crippling injury list, yet they have had probably the most impressive Autumn Series of all the Home Nations.
If Scotland can continue this trend that they’re on and get as many of their players available as possible, I fully expect them to finish at least top 3 in the 6 Nations and possibly even push for their first title since the last season of the 5 Nations in 1999.