2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

As both Super Rugby Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere club rugby season come to an end, it’s time to switch our attention from club rugby to the international game as a number of the Northern Hemisphere nations go on tour:

  • England to Australia
  • Ireland to New Zealand (facing both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks)
  • France to Japan
  • Wales to South Africa
  • Scotland to Argentina (while a Scotland “A” side will also face Chile in an uncapped match)
  • Italy to Portugal, Romania and Georgia

Now regular readers will have guessed what’s coming here, as I look at the majority of the teams above (in this case all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams) and pick a player from each team to watch out for during this tour. Often they will be someone relatively new to Test rugby, sometimes someone with a point to prove as they face the pressure of depth at their position, and sometimes a player who may have already made a name for themselves, but finds themselves now switching to a different position.

Of course these are just my picks, and there were certainly some other options that I could have gone with, so feel free to chuck who you would have selected in the comments!

Argentina

Starting off this list with someone who firmly falls into the third category I mentioned with Santiago Carreras. You may have noticed that I have began a series of my picks for the top 5 players in the world at each position and (SPOILERS) the Gloucester back will be appearing in one of those articles down the line. But it will not be the one about fly half, and that is where he has found himself playing in recent Tests. He certainly has the skillset to excel there, but he lacks the experience, having never started a professional club match at the position and not likely to anytime soon at Gloucester. With Michael Cheika having taken over leadership of the Pumas, will he stick with the Carreras experiment to take advantage of the depth Argentina have in the back 3, or will he look to play his best players in their best positions?

Australia

With 16 caps to his name already at the age of just 22, Angus Bell looks to be around for the long haul. A dynamic loosehead, he is becoming a much more solid scrummager and will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on the English tighthead crop with Kyle Sinckler missing. If he can cause some damage at the set piece, England could be in trouble.

England

There were so many ways to go with this pick and I was very tempted by returning players like Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga or the inexperienced Joe Heyes, but instead I have gone for Care’s Harlequins teammate Joe Marchant. The centre has always had great attacking quality but had added a super reliable defence to his game, while he also has the ability to move out to the wing. He may have a fight to make the starting XV when everyone is available, but with both Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade missing this tour, Marchant has a chance to push for that starting spot. His familiarity with Marcus Smith will certainly help things in attack, while he will play a big role in helping shut down an exciting Australian back line.

France

As if France weren’t dangerous enough, they may have found another future star just in time for the World Cup in the form of Yoan Tanga. The 25-year-old Racing 92 back row really stood out to me with his consistent carrying in the tight for the Barbarians in their humiliation of England last weekend, which repeatedly drew in multiple tacklers to finally get him down. The French backline is dangerous when given space, and Tanga’s carrying will just give them even more to work with.

Ireland

Sticking with the pack here, I’m going for Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan. It feels like in an ideal world with everyone available, the Irish hookers in the matchday 23 will be Sheehan and Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher, with the big question just being who starts. However with Kelleher out injured, Sheehan will surely be the clear first choice ahead of Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan and with the World Cup just a year away, he has a legitimate chance to secure the number 2 shirt.

Italy

I was initially going with Six Nations hero Ange Capuozzo here but a second glance at the scrum half position made me change my mind. With Stephen Varney left out after a poor Six Nations that ended with injury and limited minutes for Gloucester, Callum Braley’s retirement from international rugby leaves the Azzurri short of experience at scrum half this summer. Step forward Alessandro Garbisi! Paolo’s younger brother has shone with the U20s and has been racking up the minutes for Benetton in the URC. He may not be the finished product yet, but a summer facing 3 of the top 4 teams from the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship will be a great way for him to gain experience in the senior team.

New Zealand

What a difference a season makes. Last year, the All Blacks were seriously lacking centres, whereas now they seem almost spoiled for choice. And while part of this is down to the return of Josh Goodhue from injury and another year of experience for last year’s crop, they are also helped by the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from rugby league. The centre played 20 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code alongside almost 200 appearances in the NRL, and has grown into the 12 position in his first season with the Blues. With a great range of skills, clever footwork and good strength, Tuivasa-Sheck has the chance to be the new Sonny Bill Williams.

South Africa

Evan Roos was going to get my pick here until I realised that André Esterhuizen only had 8 caps! The Quins centre is arguably one of the best inside centres in the world, but has the challenge of being in the sae national team squad as Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, while South Africa’s recent favouring of a 6-2 split on the bench has led to them usually going for a more versatile player on the bench rather than a specialist centre. However his form has been incredible over recent seasons and he is fully deserving of a return to the national team and will be looking to put in some big performances against Wales to solidify his spot in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Scotland

Another in a similar spot to Santi Carreras, Blair Kinghorn may not be as entrenched in the Scottish XI, but he was clearly in the reckoning for a spot in the back 3. However his skillset has recently been used more at fly half, and with Finn Russell given a summer off and Adam Hastings forced to pull out of the touring squad through injury, Kinghorn looks likely to wear the 10 shirt against the Pumas. With Scotland underperforming of late and resting some key players this summer, and facing an Argentina team looking to climb back up the rankings under a new head coach, the pressure will be on Kinghorn.

Wales

Finishing off this list with a potential debutant in Tommy Reffell. Many would argue that the Leicester flanker should have been capped well before this, but he now goes into the South Africa tour off the back of a strong performance in the Premiership final. Back row is an area where Wales have plenty of quality but don’t seem to give anyone a long enough chance to secure a spot. But with Reffell’s all-round ability in the loose and real danger at the breakdown, can he prove himself worthy of an extended run in Wayne Pivac’s 23?

England v Barbarians

England v Barbarians

With Freddie Burns kicking Leicester to a late victory over Saracens, the Premiership Rugby season came to an end and the eyes of English fans turned to the Summer Tests as England kicked off the action at Twickenham with a match against the Barbarians, which saw the invitational team win 52-21 despite playing the entire second half a man down following a red card to WIll Skelton.

Of course the Baabaas are always going to be tough to judge as the are full of quality individuals but have little time together as a team, and similarly this was an England team missing its Leicester and Saracens players, so we can expect a very different team when England kick off their tour, but what can England learn from this match?

England: 21

Tries: Joe Cokanasiga (36′), Jonny May (51′), Marcus Smith (60′)

Penalties: Marcus Smith (16′, 35′) 

Barbarians: 52

Tries: Penalty (18′), Charles Ollivon (24′), Damian Penaud (38′,55′) Baptiste Couilloud (46′), Louis Carbonel (67′), Max Spring (74′), Antoine Hastoy (79′)

Conversions: Antoine Hastoy (25′, 68′), George Kruis (47′, 75′, 80′)

Toothless

It’s not easy being an England fan these days.

There are some bad teams in rugby, but very few look as toothless or lost in attack as England. Eddie Jones has made a big thing of this “formationless rugby” that he wants to play, but too often when they have played this year, they have just looked lost.

Today was another such occasion. England made a couple of midfield breaks through the forwards in the early minutes, but there was no cohesion in the play, and it’s notable that their sole try in the first half came from countering a kick rather than going through the phases. It wasn’t really until the introduction of Danny Care early in the second half (by which point Will Skelton’s red card had left England with a 1-man advantage) that England started to find some shape and cohesion, scoring a couple of tries. But even then, many attacks came to dull endings or saw England letting men get isolated and turned over.

Granted it is probably an attacking style that benefits from a group of players who are used to playing together (which would of course hamper this cobbled together team) but with the World Cup just over a year away and a lot of questions still regarding the England line-up, are they running out of time. Can Owen Farrell’s experience get this attack working, either alongside Marcus Smith or in pace of him? Or is it time for Eddie Jones to consider this another failed experiment and go back to a more conventional attack.

Awful day for Atkinson

With Manu Tuilagi’s inability to stay match fit, something that England have continually lacked under Eddie Jones has been an answer for when he is not available. While Eddie Jones has usually chosen to go for a more lightweight and playmaking midfield in his star’s absence, one player whose club performances over he same timeframe should have earned him more chances was Mark Atkinson.

Well the Gloucester centre got his chance today, but it couldn’t have really gone much worse for him. England’s complete lack of structure and fluidity limited his effectiveness, which was then made even worse playing against a centre pairing of heavyweights Levani Botia and Virimi Vakatawa and a defence coached by Shaun Edwards. Meanwhile in defence, the normally solid defender fund himself falling off a few tackles and being outpaced to the outside by Damian Penaud for a break midway through the first half. Watching him today, it was sadly obvious that he hadn’t played any competitive rugby for a couple of months. And then to make it even worse, a 50/50 pass in his 22 failed to loft over Penaud and allowed the French wing to go over for a try right a England started to get back in the match.

He certainly started showing his quality more in the second half, with a couple of involvements in the build-up to Jonny May’s try, but given that’s against 14 men following Will Skelton’s red card, you can guarantee that it won’t get the recognition that it deserves.

While Atkinson’s form over recent years and his status as the only crash ball 12 available to England right now (with Tuilagi, Worcester’s Ollie Lawrence and Leicester’s Dan Kelly all out injured) should be enough to put him on the plane to Australia, it wouldn’t surprise me if this match is the excuse Eddie Jones will use to leave him out.

Welcome returns

Well there was little to be happy about for England today, fans should be pleased with the returns of Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga. Cokanasiga was playing for England for the first time in just over a year, while Care had become one of the many whose face didn’t fit in Jones’ England, having not played since November 2018, despite having been arguably one of the best 9s in the world in recent years.

And while England lost badly, there were certainly positives to take from their performances. Cokanasiga looked to be troubled a little by an ankle injury sustained midway through the first half, but made a couple of good breaks and finished off Tommy Freeman’s stunning kick counter with a strong carry to the line with a tackler hanging off of him. With his size and power, he provides a different option out wide that could be especially useful with Manu Tuilagi missing the tour, if they can get him coming in off his wing and find some holes to punch him through in midfield.

And as for Care, well his experience and quality certainly helped England bring some shape to their attack. Will he be given the chance to show his quality Down Under? Or was he just brought in as Eddie wanted an experienced 9 in camp while Ben Youngs was still with Leicester. If care isn’t on the plane to Australia, it may be time for a riot.

Upward Trajectories

Upward Trajectories

After a highly impressive victory over Toulouse in the semifinal, many were expecting Leinster to once again win the Champions Cup final last weekend. However, La Rochelle had different ideas, and Arthur Retière’s late try helped secure a 24-21 victory for the Top 14 outfit.

And while many people will be celebrated for the victory, one notable name is really adding to their legacy: Ronan O’Gara. The Munster and Ireland fly half had a legendary playing career which has seen him inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, but his coaching career is taking him to even higher levels. After retiring from playing in 2013, O’Gara joined Racing 92 as a defence coach, who won the Top 14 once during his 4-year spell. From there, he moved to New Zealand to join Scott Robertson’s Crusaders team as a backs coach, and during his spell there, the Crusaders won back-to-back Super Rugby titles. After this success, O’Gara jumped up to the top spot as head coach of La Rochelle. Having been promoted to the Top 14 in 2014, the team had been developing some consistency in making the playoffs, and O’Gara built on that, with the team losing in the finals of both the Top 14 and the Champions Cup (both to Toulouse), before taking the step forward to win the ultimate European prize this season. And while results have generally gone well, it is also the performances and O’Gara’s way of thinking that has drawn praise from players, pundits and fans alike. It’s hard to imagine anyone else being the frontrunner for the Irish job if Andy Farrell were to step away right now, and in fact probably the bigger question is whether he comes back to lead a province beforehand, especially with Munster going through somewhat of a rebuild this summer and also seeing Graham Rowntree come in as head coach.

With O’Gara’s growth and development surely making an international appointment just a matter of “when” rather than “if”, it got me thinking of some other coaches whose success surely has them deserving of—or well on their way to—an international head coaching gig.

Scott Robertson

If I’d been in charge of selecting Steve Hansen’s successor, Robertson would already be the head coach of the All Blacks. While the All Blacks have faltered, the Crusaders have continued their success, and Robertson has been key to it. After the dark days of the end of Todd Blackadder’s reign, which saw the team finish as low as 7ᵗʰ in the 2015 and 2016 Super Rugby seasons, the team won 3 Super Rugby tournaments in a row and were running 3ʳᵈ when the 2020 Super Rugby season was halted by COVID. However, they then won back-to-back Super Rugby Aotearoa titles, while a 3ʳᵈ-place finish in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman saw them miss out on a spot in the final by just 6 points (which must have hit them hard as they conceded a try at the death in 2 wins, one of which even denied them a bonus point). However, they once again finished in the top 2 of the table in the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season and (at time of writing, ahead of the quarterfinals) will be looking to earn that title over the coming weeks.

Robertson is (in my opinion) one of the top coaches out there, and I’ll be shocked if he is not appointed the All Blacks head coach following the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

 Steve Borthwick

Another player whose quick turnaround of a struggling team to return them to greatness, Steve Borthwick already has experience in an international coaching setup as England forwards coach, before moving to Leicester. Tigers had just finished 11ᵗʰ in back-to-back seasons, but Borthwick immediately turned things around and got the team back into the top half of the table in the 2020/21 season, before topping the table in the 2021/22 season to secure a home semi-final.

Though he has limited experience as a head coach, he has showed that he can get a team united in one vision and turn around a team with high expectations in a tough league, while his experience at Test level both as a player and forwards coach would set him up as a great option for many international teams, perhaps he will even be Eddie Jones’ replacement after RWC2023.

Stuart Lancaster

The former England head coach has the ignominy of leading England to their pool-stage exit at RWC2015, but it is clear that other parties were interfering with that run—highlighted by the Sam Burgess saga. However his move to Leinster, where he is a senior coach, has seen him earn praise across the board, while Leinster have won 4 consecutive Pro14s, a Champions Cup and at time of writing are probably the favourites to win the inaugural URC having topped the combined table.

Such has been his success, it’s time that he gets another shot at Test level, perhaps with a nation that has slightly lower expectations than England (how much would an Italy/Georgia/USA benefit from a coach of his calibre) while teams like Wales and Scotland may also want someone reliable to steady the ship following the disappointing (so far) reigns of Wayne Pivac and Gregor Townsend.

Shaun Edwards

The best defensive coach in World Rugby. The former Wigan rugby league star has become known for his time as defence coach of Wales, the 2009 British & Irish Lions and now France, where he has solidified himself as one of the best coaches in the game. But he also has plenty of head coaching experience, having led Wasps (then London Wasps) from 2005-2011, having started there as a defence/backs coach in 2001. Edwards’ trophy cabinet speaks for itself:

  • Wasps assistant coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 3 Premierships
  • Wasps head coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 1 European Challenge Cup, 1 Premiership
  • Wales assistant coach: 3 Six Nations
  • France assistant coach: 1 Six Nations

Edwards sets a culture within the team, which helps lead to success. If the RFU aren’t looking at him as Eddie Jones’ replacement following the World Cup, it will be a crime!

Who else would you add to this list?

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.

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

The penultimate Saturday of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off with Scotland’s trip to Italy. The Italian’s las win in the competition came at Scotland’s expense, and the Azzurri took an early lead through a penalty from Paolo Garbisi. However it was the Scots who got the opening try on 17 minutes after a loose Italian kick allowed them to counter; George Turner broke down the right wing and as his supporting men kept the ball alive, Finn Russell was able to spread the ball wide to send Sam Johnson over in the left corner. Italy soon found themselves on the attack, but Ali Price intercepted Callum Braley’s pass just 5 metres from the Scottish line and broker away with Kyle Steyn, and as the wing ran out of space he chipped back inside for the supporting Chris Harris to finish. The Italians were not deterred by such a blow though, and after Garbisi missed a penalty, a sweeping move to the right saw Pierre Bruno dominate contact with Stuart Hogg and offload back inside to Callum Braley for the try, with Garbisi’s touchline conversion bringing them back within 2 points. However an Ali Price break put the Scots into the Italian 22, and after a head injury forced a stoppage, the Scottish back ran some clever lines to send Harris crashing over for his second, with Russell kicking the conversion for a 10-19 halftime lead.

The game remained close after the break, but the Scotland attack appeared to be growing in confidence, and when an inside pass from Finn Russell put Darcy Graham through just inside the opposition 22, the wing stepped his way over to secure the bonus point. As the hour approached, Italy made a number of changes, but this arguably interrupted their play and as Garbisi missed another penalty, a comeback was looking unlikely. That “unlikely” became “almost certainly not” as Man of the Match Ali Price broke the line on the hour and mad plenty of ground before sending captain Stuart Hogg over in the corner, while Monty Ioane was beaten by the bounce of the ball just minutes later as he ran onto a grubber kick with the line at his mercy. However Italy kept on the pressure and forced another try through Ange Capuozzo, just 22 minutes into his debut off the bench. This score appeared to invigorate them and with 7 minutes left were perhaps unlucky not to get a penalty try as their maul was collapsed just short of the line, but they refused to give up and with the clock 2 minutes into the red, Capuozzo stepped over for another try and a 22-33 final score.

Italy

One player who doesn’t get talked about anywhere near enough in this Italian squad is Monty Ioane. While the 14 shirt has been somewhat a revolving door of players, Ioane has deservedly made the 11 shirt his own.

A strong and willing carrier, he rarely gets the chance to find himself with the ball and clear air in front of him, but he continually still makes metres, with a great combination of strength and footwork to beat defenders and break tackles. Meanwhile in the kicking game he runs his heart out and competes well, while also popping up in the midfield to provide an option to get a move going by taking an inside pass through a gap or to chase a cheeky chip (as we saw from Braley today) if the kick defence is too deep.

At 27 years old, he is in his prime and will benefit as Italy continue to improve as a team, as it will create the space out wide for him to exploit rather than forcing him to make the space himself, and as this next generation of stars comes through from the U18s and U20s, he will be an experienced mentor to take his replacements to even higher levels.

Scotland

This was a big match for Scotland. After a big start to the tournament with victory over England, things have gone downhill and they took a shellacking 2 weeks ago. With stars Jamie Ritchie and Duhan van der Merwe missing, there was always a risk of the Italians becoming a banana skin today.

But the Scots got things right today, going back to their kicking game and relying on the quality of their defence to limit the Italian opportunities, and then taking advantage of any poor Italian kick chases or gaps in the Italian defence with the quality of attackers like Ali Price, Finn Russell, Darcy Graham and Stuart Hogg going the length of the field in just seconds.

2 weeks ago, Scotland threw out their gameplan as soo as they found themselves behind… and lost. This week, they stuck with it, and if they continue to do so, they will be a challenge for many teams.

2022 Six Nations: Wales v France

2022 Six Nations: Wales v France

The penultimate round of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off with a rare Friday night fixture as Wales hosted France. Both Melvyn Jaminet and Dan Biggar were able to land early penalties in a scrappy start, but when Jaminet and Gabin Villière countered a kick from Liam Williams, les Bleus got on the front foot and soon created the space to put Anthony Jelonch over for the opening try. The French continued to be frustrated by the Welsh defence though, and as the home team grew into the game, a pair of penalties from Biggar narrowed the French lead to a point, while a last minute drop goal attempts from Melvyn Jaminet dropped short for a 9-10 halftime score.

Jaminet kicked an early penalty after the break, but a Welsh penalty soon had them with a lineout 5 metres out from the French line, only for Ryan Elias to become isolated and held up over the line. It was the Welsh who has the next chance just after the hour as Dan Biggar found Taulupe Faletau on he wing with a deft cross-kick, only for Jonathan Davies to fumble the number 8’s pass back inside with the line at his mercy. As the French ill-discipline continued, Wales continued to enjoy the territorial advantage without being able to get over the line and when Peato Mauvaka stole the ball with the clock in the red, the game came to an end with a 9-13 result that keeps hopes of a French Grand Slam alive.

Wales

It was yet another new back row combination for Wales in this tournament, as Josh Navidi returned to Test rugby, with Seb Davies being promoted to join him and Faletau. But what an impact they had. Navidi and Faletau did what they always did, but it was Davies who had a huge impact on the match.

One of those huge physical specimens at 6 who has a surprising amount of ball skills, his introduction gave the Welsh a physical answer to the power of the French pack, but where he really proved important was at the lineout.

The French have used the lineout to set up a number of their tries through the tournament, but with Davies joining locks Adam Beard and Will Rowlands as lineout jumpers, the Welsh were able to limit French options at the set piece and cause Cameron Woki a nightmare in picking the right option resulting in a number of opportunities being ruined as the usually-reliable lineout struggled to function.

Such was the performance from Davies, it was a shock to see him replaced by Ross Moriarty, especially so early in the second half. And it was clear to see that the French appreciated the reduced pressure as a crucial late lineout saw them call for a ball to the tail from Peato Mauvaka. Could things have gone different had Davies been kept on for the full 80 minutes?

France

The old cliché is that you never know what France will turn up, but under Fabien Galthié they have generally been much more reliable. However, tonight’s performance was especially odd.

While the lineout struggles certainly didn’t help the French attack, it also felt somewhat tame, with far too much kicking that was often very poor—either kicks down the middle that the Welsh kicked back with interest or high balls that the Welsh won with ease.

It was almost as if the team was allowing Wales to have the ball and daring them to attack, trusting in the quality of Shaun Edwards’ defensive coaching, but this almost cost them as they gave away far too many penalties, while better handling from Jonathan Davies would surely have seen him go over for the go-ahead try just after the hour.

When the French did attack like we expect, they scored within a handful of phases, while they also managed to look dangerous in a spell of Harlem Globetrotters rugby that saw them offloading in contact with regularity and getting in behind. Had they done more of this, the Welsh defence looked like they would be in serious trouble.

Now, with only England between them and the Gran Slam, expect a week of questions as to which France turns up next week.