A Refreshing Change

A Refreshing Change

We all know that World Rugby are constantly tinkering, looking to improve the game. Well they’re at it again. Over the last couple of weeks, World Rugby confirmed that a number of global trials that have been taken place will now be written into law with effect from 1ˢᵗ July 2022 (the ones that we have got used to over recent years: 50:22 kick, goal line drop out, reducing pre-bounding) while the inclusion of the brake foot at the scrum—which we saw during the Six Nations—has now been expanded to a global trial.

But the big news came a few days later, with the announcement of a new global trial starting from 1ˢᵗ July that will limit non-playing personnel on the field to aid the flow of the game. Per World Rugby’s own news release:

For all competitions, including Rugby World Cup 2021 playing in 2022, Rugby World Cup 2023 or stand-alone matches that begin after 1 July 2022 the following adjustments to Law 6 will apply:

Medics

  • Can only provide water to players who they are treating
  • Cannot field or touch a ball when it is live in play (sanction: penalty kick)

Additional personnel

  • Teams are permitted up to two dedicated water carriers
  • Water carriers cannot be a Director of Rugby or Head Coach
  • In elite-level rugby, water carriers will only be able to enter the field of play twice per half at points agreed with the match officials – this can only be during a stoppage in play or after a try has been scored
  • A person bringing on a kicking tee may carry one bottle for the kicker’s use only
  • These water/tee carriers must remain in the Technical Zone at all times before entering the field of play as permitted. Any attempt to field or touch the ball while it is live in play, including the technical zone, will be sanctioned with a penalty kick
  • No-one should approach, address or aim comments at the match officials, save for medics in respect of treatment of a player. Should this happen, the sanction will be a penalty kick

Players on the field

  • May access water behind the dead ball line or from within their Technical Zone at any time

Personally, I love this! We have got to the point where rugby players have become behemoths, and the stop/start nature of the game is making it too much of a “bigger team wins”. Hopefully with less chances for water carriers to come on, we will see players having to adapt and improve their stamina to go longer without assistance.

Too often we see the game slowed down by a million non-playing personnel making their way on the pitch at the shortest of stoppages, unnecessarily drawing everything out. Hopefully this will bring a start to this, especially now that medics can only bring water for the player they are directly treating.

Hopefully along with this, we will start to see more efficient time management from officials. Some people will say I’m only making a fuss as the Springboks are World Champions and looking so strong, but their success comes from slowing the game down so much by drawing out stoppages, which allows their giant players to recharge and dominate. I pay money to watch rugby, not constant stoppages, so alongside reducing the impact of non-playing personnel coming on the pitch, officials need to start speeding up the game when a team tries to slow it down at the set piece.

Thirty seconds to form up for a scrum/lineout and restart play (unless the official chooses to stop the game for a legitimate reason), with a free kick against whichever team fails to adhere to this timing would speed the game up so much and make a massive difference t the quality of rugby we are all watching. Hopefully this is the first step in the right direction.

What do you think of this new law trial?

Top 5: Hookers

Top 5: Hookers

Welcome back to my “Top 5” rugby series. This 13-article series has been inspired by countless conversations among friends or other fans over the years and will see me selecting my top 5 men’s rugby players who are currently playing at each position.

With all of these lists, I am picking who I feel are the best 5 at each position, so there may be some surprises in there as I select the players who I feel are most appropriate to the position despite there being multiple ways to play many positions. I try to watch rugby from a broad range of leagues as well as plenty (or too much, depending how you ask) of Test matches, but I appreciate that I still have some blind spots, while a list like this is subjective; so while the majority of each article will be my list, I also set my good friend and occasional collaborator Phil the challenge to select his top 5, which I will include below. I’d also love to hear your picks, so go ahead and post them in the comments!

Today, we are looking at hookers.


Top 5


Julien Marchand

The conveyor belt of talent at hooker that Les Bleus have been able to field through the professional era must be the envy of most teams, and in current starter Marchand they have their latest superstar. As well as getting his basics right at the set piece, he is a willing runner with the ball with a good blend of pace and power, while also winning more than his fair share of turnovers.

Malcolm Marx

A regular in the South African “Bomb Squad” of late, Marx can occasionally have an off day at the lineout, but more than makes up for it around the park. With the way he carries in attack and jackals in defence, having Marx on the pitch is like playing an extra back row.

Codie Taylor

A close fight between Taylor and fellow Kiwi Dane Coles, but the Crusader just gets the nod here. Like Marx, he can be a little iffy at the lineout on occasion, but he makes the list by being a matchup nightmare in attack, as he will frequently find himself using his pace and power to break in midfield like a centre, making 0-40 metres before he is brought down.

Julián Montoya

The Pumas hooker was stuck behind Agustín Creevy for so long at Test level but has excelled since being given the starting spot and continues to also show his quality with Leicester as one of the best hookers in the Premiership. Exceptional at the set piece, Montoya is a strong carrier whose dynamism when he has space in front of him goes underrated, while in defence he can hit hard and jackal effectively.

Jamie George

Sometimes you can become one of the best just by doing the basics to a really high level. Such is the case with Jamie George. Super reliable at the set piece, George also has a great workrate in defence, while those who only watch him play for boring England probably don’t realise just how dynamic he can be in attack.

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Phil’s top 5: Malcolm Marx, Dane Coles, Folau Fainga’a, Bongi Mbonambi, Jamie George

Who makes your top 5?

Top 5: Loosehead Props

Top 5: Loosehead Props

Welcome to my new series, “Top 5”. This 13-article series has been inspired by countless conversations among friends or other fans over the years and will see me selecting my top 5 men’s rugby players who are currently playing at each position.

With all of these lists, I am picking who I feel are the best 5 at each position, so there may be some surprises in there as I select the players who I feel are most appropriate to the position despite there being multiple ways to play many positions. I try to watch rugby from a broad range of leagues as well as plenty (or too much, depending how you ask) of Test matches, but I appreciate that I still have some blind spots, while a list like this is subjective; so while the majority of each article will be my list, I also set my good friend and occasional collaborator Phil the challenge to select his top 5, which I will include below. I’d also love to hear your picks, so go ahead and post them in the comments!

Today, we are looking at loosehead props.


Top 5

  • Loosehead prop

Joe Marler

If you can’t scrummage, you’re not going to make it very far as a prop in rugby. Well Joe Marler has made a career of being an elite scrummager. While he may not be as visible around the park as some other names on the list and should never be throwing into a lineout again, Marler is super-reliable at the set piece and showed his quality in the RWC2019 Final when he came off the bench to shore up the England scrum against the Springboks.

Steven Kitshoff

Speaking of the Springboks, Steven Kitshoff was a part of that dominant pack in 2019. Often found these days as part of the “Bomb Squad”, Kitshoff is an elite scrummager, but what makes the Stormers loosehead stand out is his ability to get over the ball at the breakdown and jackal as well as any back rower.

Trevor Nyakane

As someone who has played both sides of the scrum at the lowest of levels, I know just how different tighthead feels to loosehead. As such, I have a degree of respect for anyone who can play both sides of the scrum to a good enough level for professional rugby. Nyakane is one such player, but his best performances have come in the number 1 jersey, where he dominated the British & Irish Lions at the scrum.

Cyril Baille

If I was having to pick a World XV right now, Baille would be getting my pick at loosehead. An elite scrummager, Baille can jackal almost as well as Kitshoff, but is arguably the most involved of these first 4 props in the attacking game, where he can not just carry hard but has the handling skills to keep the ball moving when contact isn’t the right option. In terms of all-round play, he currently has no match at the position.

Ellis Genge

Probably the most controversial pick on this list and I can already hear calls of English bias, but Genge crept into the top 5 off the back of some strong scrummaging displays. Where he really comes alive though is his dynamic carrying, where he has the power to bash over from close range or the pace to burst through a gap and make some big metres.

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Phil’s top 5: Steven Kitshoff, Ellis Genge, Cian Healy, Joe Marler, Ofa Tu’ungafasi

Who makes your top 5?

Seeing Red

Seeing Red

If recent reports are to be believed, World Rugby are considering expanding the 20-minute red card to more competitions. If they do this, it will just show how out of touch the governing body is with the sport and how it is putting the spectacle before player safety.

So let’s take a step back first and look at what the law is. Much like football, if a player is red carded, they are immediately removed from the field of play and their team plays the remainder of the game with a player less. However under the new variation that is currently being trialled in Super Rugby Pacific, while the red carded player’s match is over, the team is allowed to bring on a replacement after 20 minutes.

So what’s happening in Super Rugby. Well I think the only appropriate word would be “mayhem”! It’s not much of an overstatement to say that the majority of games are seeing at least one red card, generally for dangerous play that included contact with the head.

Red cards are surely at an all-time high worldwide, with amendments to the laws in recent years that have been intended to make the game safer by reducing contact with the head. And yet despite the increased sanctions with the risk of a red card—and despite stories in the news of James “Cubby” Davies recently retiring due to a concussion, having not played since November 2020, and former players Steve Thompson and Alix Popham’s revelations that they now suffer from early-onset dementia—players appear to be unwilling or incapable of adapting to the new laws.

The red card is meant to be a deterrent, a punishment to encourage better behaviour, but it has clearly not been enough and the arrival of a 20-minute red card is even less of a punishment, so it is no surprise to see Super Rugby matches turning into a contest of “who can crack a man’s skull open first?” And the reason that this 20-minute red card is being considered: because there is a group of people out there—unfortunately fuelled by a number of so-called “experts” in the media—who complain that red cards ruin the game. Newsflash: they don’t. What ruins the game is players suffering avoidable injuries.

So what should be done?

Well first of all, the 20-minute red card should be scrapped altogether rather than expanding. Current punishments are clearly not a sufficient deterrent, so reducing them will just make things worse, as we are seeing in the Southern Hemisphere.

Secondly, the post-match disciplinary process needs a complete overhaul. As it stands, different offences have different minimum entry points depending on the severity of the offence, while extra weeks may be added for repeat offenders. However, this is all ruined by having weeks taken off for such rubbish as accepting the charge, remorse, attending a “tackle school”, good behaviour in the disciplinary hearing and a previously clean record. You just need to look at the recent case of Axel Müller, whose horror tackle started at a 10-week entry point but ended up being just a 5-week ban once everything was considered! I would argue that any reasons to reduce a ban are removed, while a financial impact also be brought in, with both club and player receiving a fine dependent on the severity of the incident and the disciplinary history that season, with the money being spread among grass-roots rugby and charities focused on head injuries and player welfare. If bans haven’t been enough to encourage better behaviour, perhaps losing money will give players the impetus to improve their technique, or give teams the reason to focus on improving technique.

In line with this, World Rugby needs to enforce more consistency across the board, both from match officials and disciplinary panels. While nobody could argue Hame Faiva’s red card in the Six Nations against Ireland, Ireland’s Ryan Baird escaped even a citing for exactly the same thing later in the match. English referee Karl Dickson is accruing a horribly long list of incidents that he has adjudged to be a yellow card or less, which have then resulted in a citing and the disciplinary panel deciding the incident worth of a red card. Meanwhile, some of the decisions of the judiciary panels SANZAAR have put together have been questionable to say the best, as a number of red cards have been overturned, including a horror shot from Tom Banks on Toni Pulu that rightly ended in a penalty try and red card, but also left the Brumbies fullback requiring facial surgery. You need consistency in order to set a precedent, otherwise players will be able to cite previous incidents where players have escaped punishment for the same offence.

Finally, there is a law that I thin needs changing and that is the one that if a maul becomes unplayable, the ball is turned over. Instead I feel that whichever team was the more dominant right before it became unplayable should get the scrum feed. The reason for this is that the law encourages players to go high for the “man and ball” challenge that holds the player up and creates a maul, leading to a turnover. Look back at England’s match against Ireland and Charlie Ewels’ early red card. England went for a number of high tackles in those opening minutes in an attempt to hold up the ball, and it was a combination of this and Ewels’ inability to adapt to the tackle laws that led to him getting an early shower.

World Rugby has a big decision to make regarding the 20-minute red card. I just hope that they make the right decision.

Avengers XV

Avengers XV

Those who know me will know that as well as being a big sports fan, I am a massive geek. Star Wars has been an obsession as long as I can remember, Middle Earth became one when the release of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy introduced me to that world, and following a massive binge ahead of Captain Marvel to catch up on everything I had missed in time for Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Union has also secured a place in my heart.

These last couple of weeks have been big for me in my MCU fandom. With the home release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, I am finally back up to date with the MCU, and have loved the opening 2 episodes of Moon Knight, while me rewatch of the franchise with my mother (whois watching for the first time) is also getting close to being up to date. So with all that going on, it’s safe to say that I have had the MCU on the brain.

And so for a bit of fun this week, I decided to cross over the MCU with one of my other great loves: rugby. Imagine the the Avengers and their allies got together for a game of rugby, what would the team look like?

Obviously this is just a bit of fun and very tongue in cheek, so please don’t take this too seriously and let me know your selections in the comments, as you’ll notice I ended up leaving out some big names, while also stuck to the heroes rather than include the villains.

Loosehead Prop: Korg

MCU Thor Ragnarok Korg

The scrum is a vital part of the game, and with Korg packing down in the front row, it’s hard to imagine many people will be pushing him backwards. Not only that, but as such an easygoing character, he’s not likely to get too riled up by his opposition.

Hooker: M’Baku

MCU Black Panther M'Baku

A late addition to my team, the leader of the Jabari Tribe will provide some leadership in the front row and show a ferocious visage to unnerve his opposition. Strong but dynamic, he is everything you want from a modern hooker.

Tighthead Prop: Hulk

MCU Thor Ragnarok Hulk

Let’s be honest, props generally are the smartest members of the team, you just don’t notice as they hide that on the pitch behind a much more ferocious attitude… sound familiar? If you thought Korg’s side of the scrum was imposing, imagine the big green meanie packing down on the other side of M’Baku… then feel sorry for the opposition pack.

Locks: Groot & Ant-Man

We’ve got a huge front row and an even bigger second row! With Groot’s ability to grow on the spot and Scott Lang able to grow to at least 60ft, it’s going to be all-but impossible for M’Baku to overthrow them at the lineout. Let’s just hope Groot isn’t calling the lineouts or the only play will be “I am Groot”.

Blindside Flanker: Iron Man

MCU Iron Man 2 Tony Stark

Let’s be honest, blindside is an interesting position these days as there’s so many ways you can go, depending on the type of game you’re trying to play. You could go for an enforcer or a slightly more dynamic third lock.Well in Tony Stark, you have an all-rounder, as his suit has enough firepower to make him an enforcer, while also keeping him super dynamic in the loose and being able to take advantage of his suit’s rockets to be an extra jumper at the lineout.

Openside Flanker: Black Widow

MCU Black Widow Natasha Romanov Yelena Belova

Some people may be surprised at this pick, but the Black Widows have proved that they can hold their own, while they are also experts at covert infiltrations, exactly what you want at the breakdown. And just like with Sale’s Curry Twins, if Natasha isn’t available, her “sister” Yelena can do the exact same job just as well.

Number 8: Drax the Destroyer

MCU Guardians of the Galaxy Drax

It was probably pretty obvious that he’d be my pick here once he wasn’t named in my front row. Drax is a number 8 in the mould of Billy Vunipola and Duane Vermeulen: a big guy who will run at you hard and put the team on the front foot with some impressive carries.

Scrum Half: Rocket Raccoon

MCU Guardians of the Galaxy Rocket

Let’s be honest, a scrum half is just a small guy without the physicality to back up his big mouth, who the opposition hate all the time and his teammates hate some of the time.

Fly Half: Hawkeye

MCU Thor Hawkeye

One of the key members of the Avengers though often underrated (the Avengers have never lost with Clint Barton present). A highly experienced operator with a quiver full of tricks, and you know you can count on him for 100% accuracy.

Inside Centre: The Winter Soldier

MCU Falcon and the Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes

Centres these days need to be a jack of all trades, and as a supersoldier, Bucky Barnes certainly brings that to the role. Years of experience alongside his fellow centre (more on that shortly) makes for a reliable defensive organisation, while in attack Bucky uses his vibranium arm for some wicked handoffs and beautiful offloads.

Outside Centre: Captain America

MCU Avengers Captain America

Perhaps the most rounded player on the pitch, the 13 needs to have pace, physicality, good all-round skills, and be a leader and organiser in defence. Well, Steve Rogers is certainly all of that, and with his old pal Bucky at 12 they’ll have a strong partnership.

Wings: Pietro Maximoff & Spider-Man

Is there anything more scary than a wing with pure unadulterated pace? Nope, and that is why Pietro Maximoff was probably the easiest pick of the entire XV. Meanwhile how annoying is it for a team to put in some lovely build-up play only for the wing to knock the ball on? Well with Peter Parker and his sticky fingers on the wing, you have the safest hands on the pitch.

Fullback: Kate Bishop

MCU Hawkeye Kate Bishop

We’ve all seen it before: the seasoned veteran gets the start at fly half, while their successor starts at fullback to get first team experience in a similar position with slightly less pressure. Well, enter Kate Bishop for a taste of first team action as Clint Barton’s retirement nears.

2022 Six Nations: Team of the Tournament

2022 Six Nations: Team of the Tournament

You knew it had to be coming! With the 2022 edition of the Six Nations completed,there was only one thing left for me to do: pick my Team of the Tournament.

It certainly wasn’t easy this year, wit a number of impressive individual performances standing out in poor team performances, while some players may not have been quite so noticeable but actually played a key role in the success of their teams.

As always, I’ve picked my team on the feelings I got watching the matches, but I have included some stats (courtesy of the Six Nations website) that support their cause. Let me know in the comments who makes your team.


So without further ado, my Team of the 2022 Six Nations is:

1) Cyril Baille: Ellis Genge’s performances certainly had him in contention until his humbling at the hands of the French scrum, while Danilo Fischetti was a real stand-out for Italy, but Baille gets the nod here. An argument could certainly be made that Baille is one of the top 3 looseheads in the world right now. Part of the formidable French front row, Baille is a incredible player in the loose, dynamic and with impressive handling skills (he managed 8 offloads through the tournament). But what really impresses me is that he has the rugby IQ to know when to hit the ruck following a break and when to instead modify his run to instead take the crash ball on the next phase to further destabilise the defence.

2) Julien Marchand: Marchand is just one of the latest in a long line of elite hookers the French national team has been able to call on. In the loose, it is like having another back row on the pitch with his dynamic carrying and his threat at the breakdown. But not just that, he is super reliable at the breakdown, working with his props to form a dominant scrum while having a solid lineout despite Cameron Woki’s inexperience calling the lineouts.

3) Uini Atonio: Completing a French lock-out in the front row, Uini Antonio is anything but new to the international stage, but appears to have improved over recent years as he appears to have balanced his incredible physicality and scrummaging with some improved fitness, which has made him a much more dangerous player.

4 & 5) Maro Itoje & Paul Willemse: Cameron Woki and Will Rowlands were very close to making the list but just miss out. One of my major issues with Itoje over the years is how he ruins his incredible defence with some truly moronic penalties, but he appears to have cut this out and that has helped him reach a new level of quality. Meanwhile Willemse provided the hard carrying to help put the French on the front foot and the physicality behind Atonio to help the French scrum dominate.

6) Rory Darge: Made his Test debut during the tournament but honestly looked like a seasoned pro. carried well in attack and scored a deserved try, but where he really came into his own was at the breakdown. Darge finished the tournament with 5 turnovers, many of which were at crucial times.

7) Michele Lamaro: Who would have thought that sosoon after Sergio Parisse’ Italy career came to an end that the Azzurri would find another talismanic captain so quickly. Well enter Michele Lamaro. The young Benetton flanker leads by example and finished the tournament with a whopping 86 tackles—16 more than the next closest tackler. Topped off the tournament with Italy’s first Six Nations victory in Cardiff. At just 23 years old, expect him to be a regular contender for this list over the coming years.

8) Grégory Alldritt: A shout-out to Taulupe Faletau who was unbelievable in some of the matches, but Alldritt gets the nod here. The French number 8 was back to his best, carrying hard 65 times (9 more than the next carrier) and with 7 offloads that made his carries even more effective. But it wasn’t even just in attack that he excelled, finding himself in the top 10 for tackles (53) with 6 turnovers.

9) Jamison Gibson-Park: It feels like sacrilege not to pick Antoine Dupont after captaining France to the Grand Slam, but as good as he was, I don’t think he quite reached his lofty high standards. Gibson-Park meanwhile played a key role in the Irish attack, keeping a consistent high tempo that just accentuated the Irish ability to play from 1-23, while he finished the tournament with 4 assists and 390 passes (by comparison, the next-most passes was Ali Price’s 287).

10) Romain Ntamack: Dan Biggar had some wonderful moments in a poor Welsh team, but Ntamack gets the pick here. With Melvyn Jaminet taking the pressure off of him by dealing with kicks at goal, Ntamack controlled the French team with a great blend of kicking and attacking play, finishing the tournament with 4 assists.

11) Gabin Villière: Talk about taking your chance! Just a couple of years ago, Villière was splitting his time between playing for Rouen and the French national sevens team. Now he’s at Toulon and must be working his way up to undroppable status for Les Bleus. A dynamic and skilful attacker, Villière finished the tournament with 3 tries, but it was in defence where he really showed his quality, being one of only 2 backs in the top 10 for turnovers with 4 steals.

12) Jonathan Danty: On the subject of turnovers, Danty’s 5 steals were the most of all backs in this year’s tournament. As well as this, Danty secured himself as a key part of the French midfield by using his physicality to put France on the front foot in attack, while he combined wonderfully with centre partner Fickou to secure the French defence.

13) Gaël Fickou: Fickou has long been one of those super-underrated French players whose skills both in attack and defence have probably not got as much recognition as they deserved. However with Shaun Edwards now in control of the defence, the organisational quality of Fickou has really been highlighted as he helps make Les Bleus so formidable, while his attacking quality is not sacrificed at all.

14) Montanna Ioane: I usually try to stick to a left wing at 11 and a right wing at 14 as the positions do have some differences, but this year I had to pick 2 11s as their performances were so impressive. Despite not even scoring a try in this tournament—thanks to a great cover tackle from Josh Adams—Ioane was consistently superb for the Azzurri. With 51 carries (4ᵗʰ) for 498 metres (2ⁿᵈ) and 9 offloads (1ˢᵗ), Ioane played a key role in frequently putting Italy on the front foot, while his kick chasing continually put the opposition under pressure even if he couldn’t retain the ball himself.

15) Hugo Keenan: Freddie Steward was a positive at 15 in a dull England team but it was Hugo Keenan who had to get the nod here. The Leinster fullback was super reliable in the backfield and under the high ball, while his 47 carries (joint-5ᵗʰ) for 388 metres (8ᵗʰ) helped the Irish get on the front foot.

Guinness Six Nations

2022 Six Nations: France v England

2022 Six Nations: France v England

And so we reach the finale of Super Saturday and the 2022 Six Nations, as England travelled to Paris to face France. The French knew that a win would secure the Grand Slam and as a climax to the tournament, the crowd were ready to do their part to make the occasion one to remember. And with the Paris crowd roaring on their support, it was Melvyn Jaminet who opened the scoring off the tee following a scrum penalty. France were looking the stronger team with Grégory Alldritt winning some big turnovers, and when Gabin Villière took advantage of Freddie Steward’s inexperience on the wing, the French pulled the England defence from side to side and sent Gaël Fickou over in the right corner. England pulled things back slightly with a penalty from Marcus Smith and were incredibly lucky to see Jack Nowell stay on the pitch after taking Jaminet out in the air, as TMO Marius Jonker shockingly felt that Nowell had been impeded in his chase. Luckily for France, Jaminet was able to continue, and he and Smith each added another penalty, before one last attack from France saw them break down the English right wing to get on the front foot, and after Romain Ntamack was stopped just short by the despairing tackle of Ellis Genge, François Cros managed to get the ball to the line, with Jaminet adding the conversion for an 18-6 lead at the break.

England started the second half on the front foot, and after Joe Marchant broke through in the middle, some quick but calm handling from Courtney Lawes and Jamie George allowed Marcus Smith to put Freddie Steward over in the corner. However the French began to bring on the replacements and up the tempo in attack, which resulted in Aldritt carrying around the fringe and offloading to his captain Dupont to score on the hour. Down by 12 points, the English continued attacking but the closest they could get was with 10 minutes left as Alex Dombrandt was held up after crashing over from close range, and they held on to secure the 25-13 win and a Six Nations Grand Slam.

France

3 seasons of rugby have led to this. With Fabien Galthié taking over leadership of the team following the World Cup, the decision was made to basically drop everyone and start again with a team made up largely of young and inexperienced players. The idea was that by rebooting immediately after the World Cup they could start picking the players who they would expect to be playing in the 2023 World Cup, allowing what will likely be the vast majority of the future World Cup squad to spend 4 years playing together and growing not just as individuals but as a unit.

In starting this so early, it has led to a core team that has spent the last 3 seasons playing together, and allowed new faces like Melvyn Jaminet or returning faces like Jonathan Danty to come into a settled system that could then gratefully benefit from whatever this new player could introduce to the team, with the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup (where each French player was only allowed to feature in 2 matches, resulting in a 2ⁿᵈ/3ʳᵈ string team narrowly losing to England’s 1ˢᵗ team in the final) and the Summer Test series in Australia giving Les Bleus a chance to test their depth and see who was ready to step up into the main squad.

And so, with the World Cup a year and a half away, this team has built into a unit that has capably beaten the All Blacks and now won a Six Nations Grand Slam. With World Champions South Africa coming to Paris in November, that will be the next sign as to how ready they are to compete for the World Cup, but even then they will still have the best part of a year to grow and improve. I called it soon after France named their first squad under Galthié that France were my favourites to win RWC2023. Right now, everything is going to plan.

England

England went for a very interesting tactic in dealing with the French kicking, repeatedly dropping Ellis Genge back along with the usual kick coverage, with the intention to play the ball off to him and give him a 20+ metre run-up into contact.

I’ve seen dynamic carrying props used in a similar way before, with the Melbourne Rebels often fielding long goal-line drop-outs during Super Rugby AU and having Pone Fa’amausili or Cabous Eloff get a 20+ metre run-up charging back at the defensive line with ball in hand, much like we see off a rugby league kickoff.

So it’s nothing new to see a forward drop back to do this off open play kicks, but the issue here is the selection of Ellis Genge. While he is definitely a destructive ball carrier, he already had a big enough (no pun intended) challenge in the scrums facing Uini Atonio—a challenge which was proving too big for him—so should have been keeping his fitness for that. If Eddie Jones was so desperate to have a dynamic carrier doing this, why was he not starting Alex Dombrandt somewhere in the back row?

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Scotland

The middle match of Super Saturday saw Ireland hosting Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Ireland knew that they still had a chance of winning the tournament should England defeat France later that evening and after a free-flowing first 15 minutes, they found themselves just denied the opening try as Josh van der Flier was held up following a driving maul. However they were trying again with a m maul on the opposite side of the pitch just minutes later, and this time Dan Sheehan was able to splinter off and crash over to break the deadlock. As the half wore on, Ireland began to dominate possession and territory, and the next time they made it up to the Scottish try line, it was Cian Healy who forced himself the final couple of inches to cross the whitewash. However the Scots finally worked their way through some phases and Pierre Schoeman managed to reach out for the line and score, though the conversion from Blair Kinghorn—starting at fly half ahead of Finn Russell following his latest breach of team protocols—drifted wide of the posts to leave the score at 14-5 at the break.

The Scots had the chance to open the scoring after the break as a deflected kick bounced fortuitously off off Stuart Hogg’s thigh to beat his opposite man and allow him to regather, but with 3 men supporting inside, the Scottish captain decided that it had been too long since he had butchered a try and he instead held onto the ball and allowed himself to be tackled into touch just short of the corner by Hugo Keenan. His selfishness became even more costly just before the hour as the latest period of Irish possession in the Scottish 22 saw van der Flier go over for Ireland’s 3ʳᵈ try of the game. The Scots continued to attack, but despite getting some possession and territory, they could still find no way of seriously troubling the Irish defence, and a late yellow card for Ben White set the Irish up nicely for Conor Murray to go over with just a minute left on the clock to earn a bonus point and a 26-5. That result secured Ireland the Triple Crown, while the bonus point meant that a French draw (providing no bonus point) against England would be enough to send the title back to Dublin.

It’s been a while, but it feels like one of Ireland’s few weak spots over the last couple of years is finally sorted: hooker. While Rory Best was a leader, he often struggled at the lineout, and the man who inherited the number 2 jersey, Rob Herring, didn’t necessarily look bad, but was not the same quality as the team around him.

However over the last year or so, Rónan Kelleher finally seemed to win the number 2 jersey, while fellow Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan also took his chances to impress and take on the starting role following Kelleher’s injury. Both are fantastic modern-day hookers; they have the mobility of a back row, the handling skills to match anyone in this Irish team and (most importantly) they are reliable at the line-out.

At just 24 and 23 respectively, Kelleher and Sheehan look to be the go-to hooker pairing for Ireland for the foreseeable future. And the scary thing is that they will likely only get better over the next few years as they get more accustomed to Test rugby.

Now all the Irish lack is a replacement for Jonathan Sexton…

Scotland

While I questioned if it was time the WRU moved on from Wayne Pivac, I think it’s time that the Scots moved on from Gregor Townsend. While they have developed great depth and pulled out some big results, they still flatter to deceive and fail to put together a genuine challenge for the title.

Throughout the tournament their backs have struggled to put together much of note, and the decision to replace Finn Russell with with Blair Kinghorn didn’t help things either—arguably Kinghorn should have been replacing Stuart Hogg at 15, then maybe the team would have stopped butchering their best chances.

But while the aimless attacking has been bad, probably the last straw came following last week’s win over Italy, with 6 players (Ali Price, Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Darcy Graham, Sam Johnson and Sione Tuipulotu) breaching team protocols by leaving team premises to go to a bar. That’s 3 of your biggest leaders and all of your playmakers in the back line. If they’re doing this, it suggests that there is some disconnect between them and Townsend, while this is not the first time Russell has been disciplined for breaching team protocols. It seems Townsend has lost control of the team, and there’s no coming back from that.

But this should be an attractive side to potential replacements. The depth of this squad is better than I can remember it being in a long time, with Rory Darge, Ben White, Andy Christie and Ben Vellacott all earning their first caps and players like Schoeman, Tuipulotu, Josh Bayliss and Kyle Steyn all gaining vital international experience. With a decent number of Tests still to play ahead of the World Cup, this is the time to move on from Townsend and bring in someone who can turn this potential into results.

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Italy

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Italy

It feels like only a couple of weeks ago that the 2022 Six Nations was kicking off, and yet we already find ourselves at Super Saturday, the final day of the tournament. This year’s super Saturday kicked off in Cardiff, as Wales faced Italy. Avoiding the Wooden Spoon was mathematically impossible for the Azzurri, but they finally opened the scoring after 13 minutes through a Paolo Garbisi penalty after he was tackled off the ball, while Edoardo Padovani soon added a penalty of his own. An error off the restart gave the Welsh a period of possession in the Italian 22 which they repeatedly failed to exploit, but they finally took advantage of an Italian knock-on to break from deep in their half and stretched the defence to breaking point, allowing Owen Watkin to go over for the try, with Dan Biggar converting to put his side ahead on the occasion of his 100ᵗʰ cap. The lead lasted just a matter of minutes though as the Garbisi/Padovani pairing added 2 more penalties just after the half hour mark. As the clock ticked into the red, a strong Italian scrum in the right hand corner earned a penalty advantage and when Johnny McNicholl failed to hold Garbisi’s cross-kick in the air, Owen Watkin just beat Callum Braley to dot down the loose ball, and the Italian decision to go for a lineout with the penalty saw them held out, though they would still go into the break with a 7-12 lead.

Going into the second half and it was the Azzurri who had the first attacks of note, with a timely jackal from Josh Navidi saving them after Italy broke around the fringes with their forwards and a great cover tackler denying Monty Ioane in the corner. Wales finally got some possession, though and after a penalty at the scrum set them up with a 5m lineout, Dewi Lake managed to force himself over, with Biggar again adding the extras to put his side ahead. Things then went crazy as Ange Capuozzo and Monty Ioane chose to counter a kick into their in-goal under pressure, and ended in Danilo Fischetti leading a chase of Michele Lamaro’s kick to earn a penalty for sealing off beneath the posts, which Garbisi duly dispatched to restore the Italian lead. Wales made a umber of substitutions on the hour—including removing Alun Wyn Jones on his return to injury for his 150ᵗʰ cap, and moving Dan Biggar to fullback to allow for Calum Sheedy’s introduction in place of McNicholl—but they were lucky not to find themselves falling even further behind as Padovani’s next penalty drifted to the right of the posts. However the fresh players took their chance as Wales took advantage of a turnover on halfway to put together some phases of quick ball, and when Josh Adams cut back inside he found a gap between 2 tiring forwards to score the third try of the game. With just ten minutes remaining the Welsh appeared to gain so much confidence, and Wyn Jones soon thought he secured the result by crashing over from close range, only for the officials to decide that he was held up over the line by Braam Steyn, who was himself celebrating his 50ᵗʰ cap. With the clock ticking down it looked like another case of “so near but so far” for brave Italy, but with 2 minutes left, Ange Capuozzo found a gap in the kick chase and broke down the right wing, feeding the supporting Padovani to score beneath the posts and allow Garbisi to kick the simplest of conversions as the clock went red, securing a 21-22 victory, their first win on Welsh soil and first Six Nations win since they defeated Scotland in 2015.

While they may have finished the game with 3 tries, this was a poor attacking performance from Wales. Despite quality throughout the team, there did not seem to be much inspiration, and that has been an issue throughout the tournament, regardless of the personnel that Wayne Pivac has selected.

The backs stand too flat and are rushing the ball out to the wings in the hope that they can get around the outside, but either the rushed passes are inaccurate, or the ball is getting to the wings, only for them to find that the defence has drifted across with them. Meanwhile, the forwards are taking the ball standing still too often, which today allowed Italy to dictate the contact too often and put themselves in a position to slow the ball down or force a turnover.

With the World Cup just a year and a half away, this is a crucial moment for the WRU. Do they look to move on from Wayne Pivac, giving his replacement the Summer and Autumn Tests and 2023 Six Nations? Or do they keep faith in the man who coached the Scarlets to Pro12 glory in the 2016/17 season and hope things improve?

Italy

It’s something that I’ve been saying has been coming for a while, but despite Wales having looked shaky all tournament, even I didn’t see the win coming for Italy today. But this is a huge moment for Italian rugby.

While they may have been outscored by 3 tries to 1, the performance from Italy all around the park was huge, and on another day Ioane scores in the corner and they score off the cross kick or following maul just before half time. But while it’s been a long time since their last Six Nations victory, it has been a time of growth from the bottom up. And what shows this most is the quality of player missing today.

Legendary captain Sergio Parisse is gone, but in Michele Lamaro they have a new talisman to lead them through the next 10 years. Jake Polledri—arguably one of the few players who could be considered World Class—is still injured, while his fellow back row Seb Negri has also missed the last couple of games. And yet this has allowed Toa Halafihi a run of games in the number 8 shirt and he has grown into the role. In the backs, the absence of Tommy Allan and Carlo Canna has led to the introduction of Leonardo Marin, while Matteo Minozzi’s absence has led to a run of strong performances by players in the 14 shirt, and now the emergence of Toulouse-bound Ange Capuozzo. And as this all goes on, the U18s and U20s continue to not just be competitive, but win their fair share of games. And that quality will just continue to find its way into the senior squad over the coming years, allowing them to end up with a squad that has quality not just from 1-23, but throughout the wider squad and beyond.

This summer will see the Azzurri face off against USA, Canada and an Argentina team that has just seen head coach Mario Ledesma replaced by Michael Cheika. The timing could not be better for Italy to bounce on and put together a run of wins and potentially beat another Tier 1 nation.

2022 Six Nations: England v Ireland

2022 Six Nations: England v Ireland

The penultimate weekend of the 2022 Six Nations came to an end with England hosting Ireland at Twickenham. Both teams knew that a win would still keep their title hopes alive (assuming England beat France next week), but things became infinitely harder for England as Charlie Ewels was given a red card after just 82 seconds for a high tackle on James Ryan, Jonathan Sexton kicking the penalty for an early 0-3 lead. And just minutes later Ireland were over for a try, as Dan Sheehan and Josh van der Flier worked the blind side to release James Lowe. Ireland were taking full advantage of the extra space by drawing England in tight and thought they were over for a second try on 12 minutes through Caelan Doris, only for the TMO to find that Maro Itoje had forced a knock-on in the build-up. England grew into the game, but could only muster 2 successful penalties from 3 attempts by Marcus Smith, and as Ireland looked to dictate things in the closing phases of the half, a quick tap penalty from Jamison Gibson-Park sent Hugo Keenan over for a try, though Smith was able to add one more penalty before the break for a 9-15 halftime deficit.

The Irish came hard in the early minutes of the second half, but England’s defence held strong and Irish handling let them down, and it was the English who opened the scoring in the half as Joe Marchant forced a holding on penalty following a great kick chase from Freddie Steward. Ireland’s discipline was quickly disappearing as England dominated the scrums (with Jack Nowell in as a makeshift flanker) and increased in confidence, and Smith levelled the scores with another penalty on the hour mark. Sexton soon had the Irish back ahead by 3 points, and as the final 10 minutes approached it looked like the Irish may be about to score a crucial try as Caelan Doris broke through, only for Ben Youngs to make a good recovering tackle and his offload to the supporting Conor Murray to be a little too far behind him. However the exhaustion of playing a man down for so long was clearly starting to hurt the English and Ireland finally pulled them apart sufficiently for Jack Conan to crash over from short range, Sexton’s conversion stretching the lead to 10 points with 6 minutes remaining. The English resistance had been broken and the Irish secured the bonus point through Finlay Bealham’s first Six Nations try. Witht he match secured, Sexton was removed from what will be his last Test at Twickenham—having announced his intention to retire after the World Cup—and he watched on from the sidelines as his side held out one last England attack to keep their title hopes alive with a 15-32 victory.

England

While there were a number of heroic England performances following Charlie Ewels’ decision that he didn’t want to play rugby today, one man who deserves so much praise is Ellis Genge.

Known more for his play in the loose than in the set piece, the baby rhinoceros found himself packing down against arguably the world’s best tighthead in Tadhg Furlong, and rather than the reassuring bulk of Courtney Lawes pushing from blind side flanker, he instead had Jack Nowell. And yet somehow he not only held his own in the scrum, but actually dominated Furlong, winning countless penalties that allowed England to clear their lines, settle, get into Irish territory and kick points of their own.

While he has continued to make his name with his play in the loose, Genge has quietly matured into a solid all-round player. With this showing against Furlong, he has just sent out a message to opposition tightheads. Next week he will likely come up against the walking talking mountain Uini Atonio. Can he back up this performance with another strong day at the scrum? Time will tell…

Ireland

It’s a good job that the English fell away at the end of this match, as this was starting to look like we could be watching a very embarrassing day for Ireland. As great as England defended, the Irish should have been taking full advantage of their numerical advantage.

Instead, bar a few moments, the Irish either panicked and tried to score too quickly (resulting in errors) or took the pressure off England too much, allowing them to dictate the game for large portions. And as they struggled to finish off their chances, they began to panic and lose their discipline, with moments like their lineout being penalised for obstruction—ironically something Peter O’Mahony had asked the referee to watch out for from England earlier in the game.

At the same time, the scrum was pretty much a guaranteed penalty for England as Tadhg Furlong was second-best to Ellis Genge, and then even the breakdown started becoming a mess for them as player like Joe Marchant made up for their numerical disadvantage and the loss of Tom Curry to injury.

That’s 2 games in a row now that Ireland have found themselves struggling despite a numerical advantage. If they want to be considered one of the very best teams in the world, they need to become more clinical, urgently.