RWC2019: Pool Stage Predictions

RWC2019: Pool Stage Predictions

We are just weeks away from the beginning of the World Cup. 20 teams vying to become Champions and lift the Webb Ellis Cup. To date, only 4 nations (New Zealand x3, Australia x2, South Africa x2 and England) have won the tournament… Will we be seeing a 5th nation added to the list this year?

That is what I have set out to predict over the next 2 articles, as I continue my “Journey to RWC2019” series with a look at the tournament itself in an attempt to predict how the tournament will go. To make this more fun, I have also invited back 2 friends to also predict the tournament: Phil, who joined me for the England squad prediction, and Gez, who was involved in predicting the Wales squad.

Today we will be looking at the pool stages, and the knockout stages will follow in a few days. In the interests of fairness, I want to make clear that I asked Phil and Gez for their picks ahead of many nations finalising their squads, which could potentially have impacted some of their selections.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


How do you see the pool stages going?

rugby RWC2019 pools

Pool A

Ireland had a very disappointing Six Nations campaign as so many of their stars failed to hit form, but I think that they will be comfortable in qualifying for the knockouts even if they must grow into the tournament. Likewise, I think that Scotland have created a deep enough squad to comfortably qualify along with Ireland (despite a short turnaround before facing Japan), with their match deciding who tops the pool. Of the remaining 3, Samoa have been going through a bad period off the field, which is also impacting them on the field, while Russia do not get to play opposition of this quality often enough and have had some poor results in their warm-ups. As such, I think Japan will get third, while Russia and Samoa will be looking to avoid finishing bottom.

My prediction: 1st Ireland, 2nd Scotland, 3rd Japan, 4th Samoa, 5th Russia

Phil’s prediction: 1st Ireland, 2nd Scotland, 3rd Japan, 4th Samoa, 5th Russia

Gez’s prediction: 1st Ireland, 2nd Scotland, 3rd Japan, 4th Samoa, 5th Russia

Pool B

Let’s be honest… barring the mother off shocks, New Zealand and South Africa are guaranteed to qualify and their match (the opener for both of them) will decide who tops the group. South Africa have been one of the few teams to cause the All Blacks some real issues in recent seasons, and I think that they will start the tournament the stronger team and get the win here, especially with Brodie Retallick unlikely to feature in the pools. Beyond that, Canada are not as competitive as they used to be and Namibia again struggle to play regularly against other nations of this quality, so I see these 2 teams fighting for 4th while Italy take 3rd place and the final automatic qualifying spot for RWC2023.

My prediction: 1st South Africa, 2nd New Zealand, 3rd Italy, 4th Canada, 5th Namibia

Phil’s prediction: 1st New Zealand, 2nd South Africa, 3rd Italy, 4th Canada, 5th Namibia

Gez’s prediction: 1st South Africa, 2nd New Zealand, 3rd Italy, 4th Canada, 5th Namibia

Pool C

Boy do I feel sorry for the USA here. They are a team clearly on the up with the successes of the MLR and USA 7s team, while more players have been making themselves regulars in the top European leagues. Unfortunately, I can’t see how they are going to pull off a result against any of England, Argentina and France, while they have a short turnaround against Tonga in what will likely decide the bottom 2 positions. Moving to the top 3, Argentina have so much potential if they can get it together in the moment but are on a poor run of form and have left out some of their biggest stars due to a reluctance to pick players based outside of Argentina. France have a habit of getting things together in the World Cup despite being dismal ahead of time and England are in a place where one week they look like world beaters and the next look awful, you feel that they could (and should) be so much better if Eddie Jones picked the players that were on form. I think that England’s consistency (compared to the other 2) gives them the advantage over their rivals here, while some questionable omissions from Mario Ledesma and the time France have had together since their squad was announced gives France the advantage in the race for 2nd.

My prediction: 1st England, 2nd France, 3rd Argentina, 4th USA, 5th Tonga

Phil’s prediction: 1st England, 2nd France, 3rd Argentina, 4th USA, 5th Tonga

Gez’s prediction: 1st England, 2nd Argentina, 3rd France, 4th USA, 5th Tonga

Pool D

Wales’ Six Nations Grand Slam gives them the top spot here by a wide margin. Australia are well off their best and could be at risk in their opening match against Fiji, however I think their win over New Zealand showed enough to suggest they can come out on top in this fixture. Following on from that game, I think that a 3-day turnaround before facing Uruguay is doable for Fiji, who then have 7 days before taking on Georgia, giving them a good chance of putting 3 wins on the board before facing Wales in the final round. Assuming Australia beat Fiji, I see them having enough to make the top 2, but if they do lose to Fiji, I can’t see them beating Wales and the lack of momentum may see them struggle to put enough points on against Uruguay and Georgia (who will come in with an extra 2 days rest and less travelling) to take advantage if Fiji were to slip up against someone. As for Georgia, the short turnaround before playing Fiji probably kills their chances of finishing in the top 3 unless Australia completely fall apart, which leaves Uruguay likely to finish winless. Basically, the Wallabies could finish anywhere from 2nd to 4th!

My prediction: 1st Wales, 2nd Australia, 3rd Fiji, 4th Georgia, 5th Uruguay

Phil’s prediction: 1st Wales, 2nd Australia, 3rd Fiji, 4th Uruguay, 5th Georgia

Gez’s prediction: 1st Australia, 2nd Wales, 3rd Georgia, 4th Fiji, 5th Uruguay

 


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Eyes On: Scotland v France – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Scotland v France – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After last weekend’s mauling in Nice, Scotland were back at Murrayfield facing off against France once again in their warm-up towards the World Cup. Last week, France scored their opening try within 2 minutes and it happened again on Saturday as Damian Penaud intercepted Peter Horne to dot down under the posts. Penaud scored again before Sean Maitland crossed just before half time to make the score 10-14. Les Bleus failed to add to their score after the break, while Chris Harris burst over for the winning try and Greig Laidlaw kicked the conversion for a 17-14 final score.

 

Scotland

Ireland were not the only ones who struggled at the lineout on Saturday. George Turner is a great talent, but he was having a nightmare with his throwing in this match. While part of this can be down to French pressure and unfamiliar combinations in the Scotland squad, there were also some individual mistakes such as the quick throw to Ryan Wilson at the front, where he had placed himself too far over to the French side and threw directly to Wilson, making the skewed throw incredibly obvious.

The lineout is such a vital piece of professional rugby, Scotland will be hoping Fraser Brown returns from injury soon to give more options at hooker. That way, Scotland can rely on the experienced pair of Brown and Stuart McInally in the big games and take Turner as a 3ʳᵈ option to use in the easier pool matches.

France

The oft-said cliché about the France national team is that you never know which team will turn up on the day. While they were far from perfect on Saturday, there was enough on show to suggest that – if they can put such clichés behind them and remain consistent – they have the makings of a great squad to not just compete in Japan, but also work through the next 4 year cycle with a view to RWC2023.

Damian Penaud is one of the form wingers in international rugby at the moment, and at 22 years old will be around for a long time. Other starters on Saturday include, Antoine Dupont (22), Alivereti Raka (24), Thomas Ramos (24), Félix Lambey (25), Arthur Iturria (25), Grégory Alldritt (22), while Gaël Fickou (25) was also meant to start before having to pull out through injury. On the bench, it feels like Camille Chat has been around forever, but he is only 23, and he was joined by fellow youngsters Cyril Baille (25), Emerick Setiano (23), Yacouba Camara (25), Baptiste Serin (25) and Romain Ntamack (20). Straight away, we can see a great young core to base the squad around for the next 4+ years, while there were also plenty of players in the squad who are slightly older but would still only be in their early 30s come the next tournament.

This year’s tournament may be too early for them, but with the right organisation, they could be a great shout for RWC2023.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Centre Chris Harris may have to delay his Gloucester debut as he has likely moved himself up the pecking order for Scotland with a good all-round performance that was capped off with a try. Gordon Reid also put in a very strong performance in the scrum and his experience will likely see him make it onto the plane to Japan.

After having much of last season wrote off due to concussion issues, seeing Blade Thomson leave the pitch early with a head injury will have been concerning and I think has left him with too few opportunities to earn a spot on the plane. Likewise, Tommy Seymour will be worried for his place in a deep back 3 after an injury saw him replaced early.


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Eyes On: England v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: England v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

As we speed towards the beginning of the Rugby World Cup, Ireland made the trip to London for their 2ⁿᵈ warm-up match against an England side that had faced off against Wales home and away in the preceding weeks. Such is the state of the World Rugby rankings, a win would see the Irish take the top spot from Wales for the first time in their history, despite a poor Six Nations. However despite taking an early lead through Jordan Larmour, tries from Joe Cokanasiga, Elliot Daly and Manu Tuilagi gave England a 26-10 lead, before a further 5 tries in the second half resulted in a comfortable 57-15 victory.

England

Eddie Jones has (rightly, in my opinion) come in for plenty of questions and criticisms over the last couple of seasons. Following this match, there may be more coming his way. Ben Youngs’ form has been questionable both for club and country over the last year, yet he has continued to not only be picked by Eddie Jones, but be picked as the clear starter! Against Ireland, he had an awful match. His kicks were often off target so that Ireland could take the ball uncontested, a poor pass in open play brought an end to an overlap on halfway and a series of 3 bad passes slowed down and eventually ended a promising attack that had made it into the Irish 22. The last of these passes was exceptionally awful as he took the ball, held the pass before deliberately playing it into a retreating Cian Healy to try and win a penalty for offside (cynical play that I hate seeing) despite there not even being an offside line due tot he ball having been offloaded out of the tackle. Willi Heinz’s introduction was a positive for England as his first touch of the ball saw him put in a contestable box kick that allowed Manu Tuilagi to smash Jordan Larmour the moment he landed with the ball, while many of his actions felt much more accurate.

Heinz has the playing style to be the starter at the World Cup, but he has just 3 caps to his name compared to Youngs’ 90 Test caps (88 for England, 2 for the Lions), which makes me think it is highly unlikely the Gloucester captain is given the starting spot in the big games, despite being clearly the form option. Given how quickly Danny Care fell down the pecking order after a couple of bad matches, it is hard to understand how Youngs looks set to start at the World Cup while players like Danny Care, Ben Spencer and Dan Robson watch on from home.

Ireland

The Irish have been very lucky with the way the World Cup pools feel together as they look very beatable at the moment. They are usually so solid in defence, but in this match were finding it almost impossible to stop the men in white. Time and time again, England found themselves with an overlap and took advantage of Jacob Stockdale often shooting out to try and stop the attack with a man-and-ball tackle rather than holding back to try taking away the space.

While I think part of this was from the team often defending from out to in, I think part of it as well was due to not dealing with the England players earlier in the move. With playmakers at 10 and 12, a physical presence at 13, a ball-player at 15 and 2 wingers who are happy to come into midfield for England, not to mention a pack full of willing carriers, the Irish were just finding themselves overwhelmed in midfield and this was leading to them getting caught too narrow as they tried to plug the gaps in the middle.

With most top teams now playing with at least 2 playmakers in the back line, Ireland need to find a way to shore up their midfield defence while not compromising themselves out wide, otherwise they could find themselves still in search of a first World Cup semifinal in 4 years’ time.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

With second row being a position of depth for Ireland, a couple of turnovers – including one as an England lineout transitioned into a maul – will have helped Iain Henderson make his case for inclusion in the squad. The struggles in the lineout over this match (Rory Best and Sean Cronin completed only 10 of their 15 lineouts in this match) could have just opened up a spot in the squad for Munster’s Niall Scannell, either as a 3ʳᵈ choice hooker or instead of Cronin if Joe Schmidt chooses to take only 2 hookers.

With the forwards struggling to sufficiently impose themselves on the game, it was a hard day for Ross Byrne and I think that his best chance of making the squad will be as a 3ʳᵈ fly half if Joey Carbery fails to recover in time. Meanwhile, the sight of Cian Healy leaving the field just before half time will certainly have the selectors nervous.


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RWC2019: Predicting the Australia Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Australia Squad

With club rugby over for another season, the thoughts of many fans have been turning towards the upcoming World Cup and the squads that their teams will be selecting. However, for the teams of the Rugby Championship, their focus has had to be initially on a shortened version of their annual tournament.

Australia were not in a good place in the build-up to the 2015 World Cup, but Michael Cheika’s appointment a year before the tournament righted the ship and saw them make it out of a strong group to finish as losing finalists. Now, Australia are in a bad spot again with just 4 Test victories in 2018, while they have also lost one of their star players in Israel Folau after his social media outbursts. A huge win over New Zealand in the Rugby Championship suggested some light at the end of the tunnel, but questions remain after they were held scoreless at Eden Park a week later. In a pool containing Wales, Fiji and Georgia, they will need to get the selections right if they want to avoid embarrassment in the tournament.

As I have done with a number of other nations, I will be continuing my “Journey to RWC2019” series one final squad prediction: the Wallabies. With the Rugby Championship being so close to the World Cup, I am using the squads they have picked for this tournament as the basis for my squads, but I have also looked at some notable names who have not been selected to this point. To remind you, this is not the squad that I would pick, but instead the squad that I think Michael Cheika will take.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I predict that Australia’s 31-man squad for the World Cup will be:

Hooker

Folau Fainga’a had a huge season for the Brumbies, finishing with 12 Super Rugby tries (3rd most in the tournament). Tolu Latu has been a regular of late, but off field issues may hamper him here. I think that he will still make the squad, especially following his performance against New Zealand, provided that there are no further issues, but I also expect them to take Tatafu Polota-Nau, who may not have had the best of seasons with Leicester but brings a lot of experience to the squad, making it in ahead of Jordan Uelese, who has had limited chances in the national team.

Prop

Scott Sio has been a regular starter for the Wallabies of late, so will make the plane, while the other 3 regulars in the 23 have been Sekope KepuAllan Alaalatoa and the “Tongan Thor” himself, Taniela Tupou. Though there is already plenty of caps in this group, I think that the Wallabies’ recent struggles will see them look to another experienced operator for the final spot, which will lead to a spot on the plane for James Slipper, who had a strong Rugby Championship.

Second Row

So to start with, let me make it very clear: If Will Skelton suddenly returns to Australia, then he makes the squad as he has probably been in the best form of his career this season with Saracens. However as a return has only been rumoured, I will be basing this on the idea that he is not eligible. Adam Coleman and Izack Rodda have been regular starters, while Rob Simmonds has also been a regular in the 23. Rory Arnold takes the final spot, but he needs to hope that Will Skelton doesn’t get himself a contract back in Australia.

Back Row

Ned Hanigan’s omission from the Rugby Championship squad appears to suggest that he has dropped down the pecking order, despite his ability to also cover at lock. As captain, Michael Hooper is an obvious pick, as is the best 7 in the world, David Pocock, provided he recovers from injury in time. Pete Samu had a strong season for the Brumbies and will surely make the squad if he can recover from the injury that saw him come off at halftime in their Super Rugby quarterfinal. Jack Dempsey appeared to be the incumbent in the 6 jersey but appears to have dropped down the pecking order. Instead, it looks like Isi Naisarani and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto will be on the flight to Japan as they have made a strong trio with Hooper in Pocock’s absence. Should Pocock or Samu fail to recover in time for the tournament, I think that Reds jackal Liam Wright and Luke Jones (who is listed among the locks but was a regular on the bench in the back row position during the Rugby Championship) will come in to replace their respective stars.

Scrum Half

Such has been the Wallabies’ reliance on Will Genia, there is no way he doesn’t travel if he is not fit. Given how little time on the pitch any other scrum halves have been given in the national team over recent years, I think that Cheika will only take one other specialist at the position. Nick Phipps has usually been the go-to backup of late, but his omission from the Rugby Championship squad suggests that he is out of the reckoning. Joe Powell has been the other Australian-based option and benefits from a strong season for the Brumbies, however I think that his kicking game is questionable and could lead to him missing out on the biggest stage this time around. Instead, I think that Nic White’s return to his homeland and regular appearances in the Rugby Championship have secured his place in the squad, as he has a strong tactical kicking game and has spent recent season playing in a very successful Exeter side.

Fly Half

After a strong start to the season, things went downhill for Quade Cooper and his omission from the Rugby Championship squad and the subsequent announcement of his upcoming move to Japan means that we have likely seen the end of his international career. Bernard Foley has been the go-to at 10 for much of the current World Cup cycle so is certain to travel, while it looks like he may have lost the starting spot at the eleventh hour to the Brumbies’ Christian Lealiifano, who has made a great return to the squad.

Centre

The Wallabies have usually taken 4 centres to recent tournaments, but due to the versatility of some players, I think that they will take 5 in this squad. Samu Kerevi was one of the stars of this season’s Super Rugby and has carried his form into the Test matches, while Tevita Kuridrani brings experience and will be a good backup to him. Kurtley Beale’s versatility (being able to cover 10, 12, 13 and 15) will see him in the squad, along with Matt To’omua, who again provides cover at fly half. James O’Connor has revitalised his career with Sale and has likely earned himself the 13 shirt following a great return to the Wallabies starting XV in their win over New Zealand, despite a quieter performance a week later.

Back 3

Dane Haylett-PettyMarika Koroibete and Reece Hodge have all been regulars in recent squads, so I expect them to all travel despite Haylett-Petty appearing to have dropped down the pecking order. Beyond that, Folau’s sacking makes things very interesting for the final positions. Adam Ashley-Cooper is highly experienced and versatile, and his inclusion at Eden Park makes me think that he will earn a spot in the squad alongside Tom Banks (2nd in Super Rugby this season for carries and metres carried, 9th for defenders beaten), meaning that Jack Maddocks, (10 tries was the joint-5th highest in this season of Super Rugby) just misses out.

Who do you think will make it to Japan?


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Eyes On: France v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: France v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

France and Scotland kicked off their warm-ups for RWC2019 in Nice on Saturday evening with a match that quickly became a one-sided affair. Newly-capped winger Alivereti Raka crossed within 2 minutes to open the scoring, with Maxime Médard and Grégory Alldritt also crossing the line before halftime. All Scotland could muster in response was an Adam Hastings penalty, while they were held scoreless after the break as Médard scored a second and Antoine Dupont crossed on the hour to finish off a 32-3 victory.

France

As everyone else was naming their training squads this summer, France took the odd step of naming their 31-man World Cup squad straight away (hence why they won’t feature in the Winners & Losers section later), along with a 6-man reserve list. Having watched this match, I think it may have benefited them.

The cliché is that you never know what French team will show up on the day, but they have this crazy ability to often click when the World Cup begins and find themselves in the latter stages. Watching Saturday evening, it felt like they have clicked early. While Scotland players were still trying to put their best foot forward in this match to try and make Gregor Townsend pick them for the tournament, these players know that they are going to Japan and have been able to spend the time building chemistry. Considering this is their first match of the season, they looked in incredible for and if they are only going to grow from here, then England and Argentina need to beware!

Scotland

In my look back at Wales’ win over England, I mentioned how England needed a physical presence in the midfield. Scotland needs a physical presence, period.

Against France, they had some good moments in attack when they were able to get around or through the defence, but this did not happen often enough, due to the lack of physical options to put them on the front foot. The Scottish back line is heavily skilled but they are known as playmakers rather than physical crash ball runners. While England were able to still utilise Billy Vunipola, Scotland had nobody in the pack that could play the equivalent role. With the lack of options in the back line, they need to find the physical presence in the pack, which will likely guarantee Hamish Watson a starting spot and earn Magnus Bradbury a place in the World Cup squad.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Sticking with the above point, if Magnus Bradbury is to make the squad, it is likely to be at the expense of Josh Strauss, who missed 4 tackles in a largely anonymous performance. Duncan Taylor made a welcome return to international rugby after a couple of seasons ruined by injury, however I don’t feel that he was able to impose himself on the match enough to break into a position group that has plenty of strong options.

On a more positive side, John Barclay made a welcome return tot he back row and though it was far from his best game, he missed just 1 tackle on the night and carried more times than Strauss. Rory Hutchinson also continued his rise after a great season for Northampton with 6 carries for 45 metres and 1 defender beaten in the half hour on the pitch – though I previously ruled him out due to a lack of experience, this performance and the early cutting of Nick Grigg makes me thing he could be a bolter for the squad.


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Eyes On: South Africa v Argentina – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: South Africa v Argentina – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After winning the Rugby Championship in Salta last weekend, South Africa returned to Pretoria to take on Argentina in a World Cup warm-up match against Argentina. Last week, the Pumas were annihilated at home, but as both teams fielded heavily changed lineups this week, we had a much closer affair. S’busiso Nkosi put the Springboks ahead, only for an intercept try by Guido Petti to give the Pumas an 8-10 halftime lead. Nkosi and Matera traded second half tries to keep things close. With just a few minutes left and South Africa just 3 points ahead, Argentina scored through Lucas Mensa, only for the try to be disallowed for an obstruction early in the attack. Elton Jantjies kicked the resultant penalty to secure the win by a scoreline of 24-18.

South Africa

Having missed the Rugby Championship through injury, this match mas notable as the return to international rugby of Springboks captain Siya Kolisi. In a 53-minute appearance, the openside put in a timely reminder of just how important he is to the team, before we even account for his leadership skills. Off of just 3 carries, Kolisi made 14 metres and put the Springboks on the front foot, while defensively he made 6 tackles, with none missed and was unfortunate to be penalised for taking out the 9 at one breakdown where replays suggested that Felipe Ezcurra had already picked up the ball.

Most importantly though, he did not look at all out of place or off the pace despite having not played a match since May and he looks certain to reclaim the South African 6 jersey come the World Cup.

Argentina

The Pumas came so close to winning this match, but eventually were denied by a penalty that wrote off what would have been the winning try. While it was a disappointing way to end the competition (I think it was the right call, but I have also seen more deliberate and blatant obstructions allowed), it was a perfect way to sum up the game for Argentina.

ESPN’s stats page says that the Pumas conceded 11 penalties through the game and while they don’t break it down between the halves, I am comfortable in saying that the vast majority of those penalties – not to mention a couple of free kicks at scrum time – came in the first half. Giving away so many penalties in the first half stopped them from impacting the game as they were constantly finding themselves forced to defend back in their own half; once they cut down on the penalties in the second half it became more of a contest.

While Argentina are in a bad run of form and find themselves in a tough pool, their main rivals, England and France, both have a tendency to give away more penalties than a Tier 1 team should be, very similar to Argentina. If the Pumas can improve their discipline, it could potentially be the key to making it through to the quarterfinals.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

As well as the returning Kolisi, I think captain for the day Schalk Brits put in a strong performance with a couple of good runs and completing 17/18 tackles, while he was also very accurate at the lineout. I doubt that he will move ahead of Malcolm Marx or Bongi Mbonambi on the depth chart, but it was a timely reminder of his qualities and his playing style may get him on the plane as an extra option to allow the regular starter some time off. S’busiso Nkosi has often disappeared from games over the last months, only to suddenly appear with one impressive run for a try. This happened twice in this game with 2 very well taken tries, while he finished with 67 metres made and 5 defenders beaten from 5 runs. For the Pumas, debutant Lucas Mensa did not appear overawed at all on his first debut, putting in a solid performance and almost scoring the winning try, while Castres stand-off Benjamín Urdapilleta appeared to bring more to the Argentine attack after his introduction.

While Urdapilleta took his chance well, starting fly half Joaquín Díaz Bonilla once again failed to get anything going in attack and also struggled to organise the team structure before he was replaced. Bautista Delguy has not made it back into the Argentina squad since his season was derailed by injury despite a number of tries in the Currie Cup for the Jaguares XV. With Sebastián Cancelliere starting and Santiago Carreras coming off the bench for his debut, it’s looking like Delguy could find himself on the wrong side of the cut when the 31-man World Cup squad is named. For the Boks, Thomas du Toit has fallen down the pecking order over the last 10 months and I don’t think there was much in this case to help his case, as he failed to replicate the scrum dominance that South Africa boasted last week, while a failed HIA for Marcell Coetzee harmed his chances of making it into a strong back row.


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Eyes On: Wales v England – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Wales v England – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Wales and England’s warm-up for RWC2019 continued Saturday afternoon at the Principality Stadium with the reverse of last week’s fixture. 7 days earlier, England had ran riot to build up a score before Wales could even get going, but this week’s match was a far closer affair, with George North’s first half try –  when England had just lost Anthony Watson to the sin bin – and Dan Biggar’s conversion proving the difference as they emerged 13-6 victors.

This result meant that Wales rose to #1 in the World Rugby rankings for their first time in history, knocking New Zealand off the top spot for the first time in 509 weeks! Congratulations!

Wales

As someone who prefers a more attacking fly half, I may not be the biggest fan of Dan Biggar (especially when he’s appealing for everything and making a fuss), but I respect him as a top quality international 10. However, this week former Wales international J.J. Williams decided to undermine Wales’ World Cup preparations by saying that Wales would not win the tournament with Biggar at 10.

Biggar used his words as motivation this week and put in a great performance. Defensively, Biggar is one of the best at his position and there are very few players – at any position, not just fly half – who are as accomplished under the high ball. Whether kicking out of hand or off the tee, he is highly reliable. What he isn’t, however, is Gareth Anscombe. With both of them, it brought a great dynamic to the team, with Biggar coming off the bench to either seal the victory or put Wales int he right positions to get the wing. With Anscombe now out, however, Biggar is the only top quality 10 in the squad and the running of the entire game will likely fall to him. Biggar starting means that a change in tactics is required, but I think that sometimes this tactic becomes too much of a kick-first game, which can sometime feel wasted – as with some of the early kicks that Elliot Daly took unchallenged. He will not work the back line in the same way, but that does not make him a bad player. He showed as much when Anthony Watson was sin binned by immediately taking advantage of the extra man, catching England sleeping – don’t listen to Ugo Monye, it was entirely legal and he did not have to wait for Watson to leave the field – with a cross-kick to Josh Adams that took them into the England 22, before another cross kick back to the left wing for George North to catch with only Ken Owens anywhere near him.

What did surprise and worry me during this match was just how long Biggar was kept on the field. This was not an experimental lineup that needed to build chemistry, and after losing Anscombe last week I think Biggar should have been wrapped in cotton wool. When he injured his shoulder, he should have been straight off, but it seemed that Warren Gatland was again more interested in winning a nothing game for ranking points compared to protecting his star players ahead of the World Cup. Hopefully it doesn’t cost them in the coming weeks.

England

It feels like we have been saying this for years, but there are questions over the England midfield. George Ford looked good last week with a pack putting him on the front foot, but struggled to create anything in this match, while Piers Francis and Jonathan Joseph were anonymous. Even Joe Cokanasiga had a relatively quiet game in attack, rarely being brought into the midfield. As a result, England failed to muster any attacks of note and finished with just 2 penalties to their name.

While having a big carrier at number 8 in the form of Billy Vunipola is a big help, England need a physical ball carrier in the back line to give them regular front-foot ball. Even if they are not taking the ball every time, they will be an effective decoy as defenders will have to account for them, leaving gaps somewhere in the defensive line. England really need to hope Manu Tuilagi can stay fit.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Coming in late for his first Test appearance since the match against Australia that saw him get injured, Leigh Halfpenny had a solid game and put in a timely reminder of his abilities as a defensive 15, while Aaron Wainwright built on last week’s performance with a great shift at home, making good metres and keeping attacks going with some good offloads. With Faletau out of the tournament, I think he is a near-certain member of the squad after the last 2 weeks.

Wainwright’s place in the squad may come at the expense of fellow starter in this match James Davies. Cubby is an incredibly talented flanker whose 7s experience gives him a different skill-set to his rivals, however he has found his chances limited in such a deep Welsh back row and an enforced removal just 24 minutes into this match will have not helped his chances of making the 31. Anscombe’s injury may have opened the door for Jarrod Evans to make it onto the plane, however Gatland’s insistence at keeping Biggar on the pitch despite being visibly uncomfortable following an injury makes me think that he is hesitant to bring in the inexperienced Cardiff Blues stand-off this close to the tournament.


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