Challenge Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

Challenge Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

The pools for the 2019/20 Challenge Cup were announced on Wednesday and now teams can begin to plan for their campaigns. 20 teams are split into 5 pools, with each team playing the other 3 in their pool at home and away. Once the 6 rounds of pool matches are over, the pool winners and 3 best runners-up qualifying for the knock-out stages.

While the impact of the Rugby World Cup can’t be fully predicted yet, and the order of the fixtures currently remains unknown, predictions can be made over how each pool will play out as the teams aim to make it to the final in Marseille and a victory that could help them qualify for next year’s Champions Cup.

rugby Challenge Cup 2019-20 Pools

Pool 1

Castres, Worcester, Dragons, Enisei-STM

Let’s be honest, this looks like an easy group for Castres. Worcester will likely be fighting against relegation from the Premiership, the Dragons seem to struggle every year and Enisei are always going to struggle to compete in the competition until they get to play weekly against high-level opposition. If Worcester do choose to put in the effort with this competition, they do have the chance of winning home and away against Dragons and Enisei, which could give them a shot of a best runner-up spot.

Pool 2

Scarlets, Toulon, London Irish, Bayonne

If we don’t see 2 teams from this pool qualify for the knockouts, then I’ll be shocked! Bayonne and Irish are both here by virtue of being promoted into the Top 14 and Premiership respectively, so will likely focus on consolidating their league position. The Scarlets had a poor season but if they can get their squad back in fighting shape with no adverse effects from the World Cup, then I think they have every chance of topping the group given Toulon are losing a number of influential players. If Irish’s new stars can quickly gel and they put some effort into qualifying for the knockouts, then I think they have every chance of pushing Toulon down to 3rd.

Pool 3

Wasps, Edinburgh, Bordeaux, Agen

Given the strength of the Top 14, I can’t see Bordeaux or Agen putting too much stake in this competition given they both finished in the bottom 5 last season. Wasps has a poor season and have lost some stars this summer, but they have also brought in some quality replacements and will also have Jimmy Gopperth back from injury, while Lima Sopoaga will hopefully do better this year with a season of playing in the Premiership under his belt. Meanwhile, I expect further success from Edinburgh, provided the aftermath of the World Cup does not impact them too much. If these 2 play in the final week, it would not surprise me if the winner takes the pool.

Pool 4

Stade Francais, Bristol, Zebre, Brive

Like Bayonne, I don’t expect Brive to put any real focus into this competition as they will be looking to stay in the Top 14 following their recent promotion from Pro D2. Zebre showed some promise last season in the Pro 14, but I worry that they may struggle in the aftermath of the World Cup. Bristol and Stade Francais look the clear favourites in this group and if either of them can beat the other away from home, then I would expect to see them finish top.

Pool 5

Cardiff Blues, Leicester, Pau, Calvisano

Leicester had a torrid season but expect to see them improve this year and challenge for at least a best runner-up spot. Calvisano are a great example of the success Italy are beginning to have since Conor O’Shea came in to sort everything from the bottom up, but I think they will be lucky to get anything other than potential bonus points in this pool. Cardiff are on the up and have signed some dangerous wingers, but Gareth Anscombe will be a loss and they need to hope that Jarrod Evans continues to grow as he has been if they want to progress. Pau look to be the strongest in this pool, especially with Ben Smith, Luke Witelock and Dominiko Waqaniburotu joining, but I don’t expect Leicester and Cardiff to make it easy for them.

 

So, putting my neck on the line, I think the 8 semi-finalists will be:

Pool winners: Castres, Scarlets, Wasps, Stade Francais, Pau

Best runners-up: Edinburgh, Bristol, Toulon

Who do you think will make the knockouts? If you enjoyed this, you can also find my thoughts on the Champions Cup pools here.

Champions Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

Champions Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

The pools for the 2019/20 Champions Cup were announced on Wednesday and now teams can begin to plan for their campaigns. 20 teams are split into 5 pools, with each team playing the other 3 in their pool at home and away. Once the 6 rounds of pool matches are over, the pool winners and 3 best runners-up qualifying for the knock-out stages.

While the impact of the Rugby World Cup can’t be fully predicted yet, and the order of the fixtures currently remains unknown, predictions can be made over how each pool will play out as the teams aim to make it to the final in Marseille.

rugby Champions Cup 2019-20 Pools

Pool 1

Leinster, Lyon, Northampton, Benetton

Last season, Leinster had the challenge of emerging from a group that also contained soon-to-be Top 14 Champions Toulouse and did it with aplomb, qualifying with 5 wins and 25 points. This season it appears that things will be far simpler as I can’t imagine any teams here will be able to seriously compete against them over the pool stages, while their strength in depth means that they can also likely survive the impact of players returning from World Cup duty. Benetton did a great job to qualify on merit with the new qualification set-up, but I think that they will see qualification for the knockouts as a step too far this year, though I could see them potentially winning home matches against Lyon and Northampton. I’m not sure if either Northampton or Lyon will be able to separate themselves sufficiently enough to earn a best runner-up spot, but if one of them can win all 3 home games and at Benetton, they are putting themselves in a strong position.

Pool 2

Exeter, Glasgow, La Rochelle, Sale

Could this finally be the year that Exeter finally start living up to expectations in Europe? To me, there is a big drop off after the first 2 teams and I think that the matches between Exeter and Glasgow will decide the pool, while the loser has every chance of a best runner-up spot. That said, Sale and La Rochelle are not easy away matches and having to travel to one or both of them before they are mathematically eliminated could be a serious banana skin.

Pool 3

Clermont, Ulster, Harlequins, Bath

Clermont look the overwhelming favourites in this pool, but Ulster showed last year that they are a dangerous team and another season’s experience makes me confident that they can win their home games and pull off at least 1 victory away from home. Harlequins showed some good stuff in 2018/19, but I think that they may struggle to balance competing in the Premiership and this competition. Meanwhile Bath are an unknown prospect having moved on from Todd Blackadder as Director of Rugby, but I struggle to envision a club with a rookie DoR being competitive in this pool.

Pool 4

Saracens, Munster, Racing 92, Ospreys

Poor Ospreys! Wales’ only representative this season qualified by beating the Scarlets in a playoff, but it is hard to imagine them emerging with more than 2 home victories (and even that may be optimistic) from what is arguably the pool of death. It’s hard to imagine any of the other 3 losing away from home, but this could very much come down to how each team deals with the impact of the World Cup. Despite that, Sarries still have incredible depth and I expect them to come out with a victory, and Ospreys could prove crucial in determining who earns a best runner-up spot as a win at the Liberty Stadium will likely be a key component in separating Munster and Racing.

Pool 5

Toulouse, Gloucester, Connacht, Montpellier

Understandably the group that I was paying closest attention to during the announcement as it involved my beloved Gloucester Rugby. Toulouse will be the clear favourites in the group, but if they face Gloucester soon after the World Cup, then I think the Cherry & Whites have every chance of picking up a crucial win. I expect Toulouse to still earn to spot, but if Gloucester can win all their home games, I think that they can win in Ireland and if Montpellier is their final game, then a Gloucester victory is very possible if Montpellier are already out, which I think could be likely as I don’t think they will travel as well to Connacht.

 

So, putting my neck on the line, I think the 8 semi-finalists will be:

Pool winners: Leinster, Glasgow, Clermont, Saracens, Toulouse

Best runners-up: Exeter, Ulster, Munster

Who do you think will make the knockouts?

RWC2019: Predicting the Ireland Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Ireland Squad

With the Pro14 and Premiership over for another season, thoughts are turning towards the World Cup and who represent their countries in Japan. The final days of May saw Joe Schmidt announce a 44-man training squad to prepare for the tournament.

This will be Joe Schmidt’s last Ireland squad selection as he has announced that he will be leaving his role as head coach after the tournament. This time last year, Ireland were on fire following a Six Nations Grand Slam and were about to go to Australia for a series victory. However, a number of stars under-performed in this year’s Six Nations and suddenly they look a lot more beatable.

Having had the chance to look at the training squad and some of Ireland’s other recent squads, I chose to pick the Irish for my next squad prediction. To be clear, this is not a matter of picking the 31 I would take, but rather who I think Joe Schmidt will take, so I have tried to avoid any biases I have towards any specific players.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I think that Ireland’s 31-man squad will be…

Prop

No shock here if you have read my other squad predictions, but I am expecting Ireland to travel with 5 props. Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong are 2 of the best props in the world at this point and are almost certainly going to be the starters. Jack McGrath is a top-quality replacement at loosehead and though he has had some injury issues this year, I fully expect him to still make it onto the plane providing he proves his fitness, though I expect a 3ʳᵈ loosehead to travel as an insurance policy in the form of Dave Kilcoyne. As for the second tighthead spot, I expect that to go to Andrew Porter, who was the regular replacement for Furlong in the Six Nations.

Hooker

Joe Schmidt took 3 hookers to the last World Cup an I would expect the same again here given the much longer distance for a replacement to travel. Rory Best will be the clear favourite to start here and will be hoping to end his career on a high, while I fully expect Leinster’s Sean Cronin and Munster’s Niall Scannell to travel as his replacements.

Second Row

Ireland have an embarrassment of riches at lock, as shown by the fact that Quinn Roux does not make the 44 despite playing in 4 of Ireland’s 5 Six Nations games this year. Devin Toner is a key part of the Irish lineout so will surely travel along with Leinster teammate James Ryan. With some of the back rowers missing due to injury, I think that Tadhg Beirne will earn a spot off the back of a couple of great seasons with the Scarlets and Munster. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jean Kleyn takes the 4ᵗʰ and final spot, but I have instead gone for Iain Henderson due to his international experience.

Back Row

Peter O’Mahony has inherited Richie McCaw’s invisibility cloak and gets away with murder at the breakdown and constantly chopsing at the officials, so he is guaranteed a spot, as is CJ Stander, who had a poor Six Nations but is another quality player and experienced leader in this team, while he can also cover both flanker and number 8. Jack Conan is a different style of number 8 to Stander and in my opinion looked the better option earlier this year, so he will surely make the plane. The losses of Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy to injury are huge, so Josh van der Flier is all-but guaranteed a spot and Jordi Murphy gets my vote for the final spot, though I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Henderson was used as a 6 and a 5ᵗʰ lock (most likely Kleyn) taken.

Scrum Half

When he’s a his best, Conor Murray is one of the best 9s in international rugby, so there is no way Schmidt doesn’t take him. However this is where things get a little harder to predict. Given Murray has not been at his best this year, I considered taking 3 scrum halves, however Schmidt only took 2 to the last World Cup and seemed hesitant to take Murray off the pitch in the Six Nations despite his poor form, so I instead chose to pick just one other halfback. John Cooney did well when given the chance in the Six Nations and is also an option kicking off the tee, however I think that Kieran Marmion‘s performances for Ireland before injury will have been enough to earn him the spot. Honestly, any of the 4 scrum halves in the training squad have a good argument to make it onto the plane!

Fly Half

Like Murray, Johnny Sexton has been nowhere near his best this year but there is no way Schmidt will leave him out now. Joey Carbery has been the go-to replacement for Sexton and has had some great moments for Munster this season, so I expect him to travel, while his ability to also play at fullback adds to the versatility of the squad and opens up a spot for Jack Carty, who had a great Six Nations when given the chance.

Centre

Joe Schmidt often includes 4 centres in his squads and with me predicting that he will only take 2 scrum halves, that leaves enough slots open to do this. The first 3 largely pick themselves: Bundee AkiRobbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. I think the 4ᵗʰ spot will go to Chris Farrell, who took part in 2 rounds of the Six Nations this season.

Back 3

All the selections I have made have left space for 5 players in the back 3. Simon Zebo is of course ineligible due to playing in France, which is a real shame. I think that Keith EarlsRob KearneyJacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour are the obvious picks here and I think that Andrew Conway takes the final spot as he has been around the squad more often than Mike Haley and Dave Kearney in recent years and has 5 tries from 12 appearances so far.


So those are my picks for Ireland’s 31-man World Cup squad, who do you think makes the list?

Bigger Bench? Big Thumbs Up!

Bigger Bench? Big Thumbs Up!

The Northern Hemisphere club season may not be fully over yet (the Top 14 playoffs continue until mid-June) but eyes are already turning to international rugby with the beginning of the World Rugby U20s Championship today.

With my focus having been on the Premiership and Pro14 and already looking ahead to the World Cup, I must admit that the U20s fixtures yesterday caught me unprepared, so I was very surprised when I saw the matchday squads consist of all 28 players in the squad.

This is a change being trialled in the tournament. The number of possible substitutions remains at 3 in the front row and then 5 more, but the usual 8-man bench is extended to 13.

Personally, I absolutely love this trial and hope that it comes into practice through more tournaments in the next couple of years. With the way that the game has evolved in terms of player safety, substitutions have become more important than ever, so to have 4/8 positions on the bench filled by specialists (2 props, hooker, scrum half) is extremely limiting. Expanding the bench to 13 players means that you can have cover for every position (maybe just 1 winger and 2 back rows) which allows for much better reactions to injuries and also more tactical flexibility, without putting teams with less depth at too much of a greater disadvantage by still only allowing 8 total replacements.

While it’s still early days, I’m really excited by this trial and can’t wait to see how things go moving forwards.

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

The Premiership is over for another season and it is time for club rugby to take a step back in favour of the international game. Congratulations to Exeter, whose dominance in the regular season saw them earn a playoff spot earlier than ever, also to Saracens who followed up their Champions Cup victory over Leinster with a victory over Exeter at Twickenham to complete the double. Commiserations to Newcastle as well, who finished the season bottom of the league and will drop down to the Championship, with London Irish taking their place.

But before thoughts can move fully onto the internationals and the upcoming Rugby World Cup, it is time to make my picks for the 3ʳᵈ annual Eyes on the Ball Awards: a set of awards slightly different to what you will see at official ceremonies. Let me know what your picks would be for each award.


Eyes on the Ball Awards:


Individual Awards

Best Breakthrough: Alex Dombrandt

This award is pretty clear in what it represents: a young player who can look back on the season as the year he broke out and earned the recognition of the wider public as opposed to just those in the know about their specific club.

Honourable mentions here must go to Harry Randall, who took his chances well stepping up from the Championship to the Premiership, Bath’s Ruaridh McConnochie and Rory Hutchinson and his fellow Northampton youngsters, who took their chances when injuries gave them the chance to play. Some people have called Tom Curry and Ollie Thorley breakthroughs this season, but I feel that they were already relatively widely established. Even if I had been considering them though, my pick would go to Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt. The back rower only made his debut in November but went on to be a regular for Harlequins, with his physicality and underrated speed a hard combination for opposition defences, while he also finished the season 3ʳᵈ in the turnover charts with 19. He finished his season with a deserved start against the Barbarians and was arguably one of the best players in the game, so could find himself pushing for a spot in Eddie Jones’ World Cup squad.

Best Newcomer: Danny Cipriani

In both of the previous seasons that I have done the award, this has gone to someone new to the league, however this award is actually open to anyone new to their team, even if they have moved from another Premiership club. Such has been the case with this year’s winner, Danny Cipriani. Teammate Franco Mostert was also in the running, but international commitments meant that he did not feature until later in the season, whereas Cipriani’s golden wrists were making highlights from round 1. Johan Ackermann gave the keys to the squad to Cipriani and he took the club’s performance to a completely new level, firing them from 7ᵗʰ to 3ʳᵈ in the space of a year. Named Premiership Player of the Season and RPA Player of the Year, it’s crazy to think that he may not make England’s World Cup Squad.

Fond Farewell: Mathew Tait

The Fond Farewell award is for someone who is retiring at the end of the season after a career worthy of note.

This year, there were so many players that deserved a mention – James Haskell, George Smith, Marcelo Bosch and James Horwill amongst them – but this year I ended up going for Mathew Tait. Formerly of Newcastle and Sale, Tait has been at Leicester since the 2011/12 season, while his career has also seen him represent England in both 7s and 15s, becoming a runner-up in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and RWC2007. A highly talented and versatile player, injuries have interrupted his career far too often and it ended up that a failure to recover from a Achilles injury saw him announce his retirement in February.

I also want to take a moment to mention Wayne Barnes here, who will be retiring after the World Cup so has just refereed his final Premiership game with the final. In my opinion, he is currently the best referee in the world and will be greatly missed over the coming seasons. If England don’t make it to the final, then he should be finishing his career in charge of the biggest game of the year.

Bon Voyage: Santiago Cordero & Tom Savage

This award is similar to the last, but instead looks at players leaving the Premiership to continue their career in another league.

I could not pick between two players for this award, for vastly different reasons. Tom Savage has been such a big part of Gloucester since making his debut in the 2011/12 season and has been a loyal servant, including captaining the club for the 2013/14 season. He now moves to Japan to play for Suntory Sungoliath and I wish him the best of luck. The other player to earn this award is Exeter’s Santiago Cordero. Joning from Jaguares in February 2018, Cordero may not have spent anywhere near as much time in the league, but has been one of its stars. I remember him wowing crowds at the last World Cup and was very excited to see him enter the league. He did not have the best start at Exeter however, but I love that he then requested to play in the 2018 Premiership 7s tournament to help play himself back into form and he has been incredible this year. Had he not found himself out injured in the final weeks of the season, the trophy may now be on its way to Sandy Park rather than Allianz Park. Now as he heads off to Bordeaux due to Exeter being unable to keep him while remaining within the salary cap, the Premiership will be a less exciting place.

Cojones Award: James Lang

The Cojones award goes to someone who had the balls to do something at great risk.

I found this a hard one to think of this year, but a moment stuck in my memory from Harlequins’ final game of the regular season, away to Wasps. Down 27-25 and requiring a win to take the final playoff spot away from Northampton, Quins earned a penalty on halfway, though when the spot was given by the referee it was a few metres further back. Despite appearing to be limping slightly and having not kicked such a long distance all season, replacement James Lang took the tee and went for the three points with the final play of the game… only to see the ball drop just short – to the point that the ball may have gone over had the kick been from the spot of the offence! While the call may not have worked out in Harlequins’ favour, I love that Lang was willing to put the pressure on his shoulders and take the risk rather than try kicking towards the corner and trying to work another scoring opportunity.

Team Awards

Head-scratcher Award: The Matt O’Connor Debacle

This award is for a team decision that just left me wondering why it went how it did.

To me, nothing came close this year to matching the mess that was the start of Leicester Tigers’ season. Last season did not go well for them and saw them miss out on a playoff space for the first time in 13 years, while they never really looked deserving of a spot in the top 4. I personally felt that Tigers should have moved on from him over the summer, but they kept him in place only to move on after an embarrassing 40-6 opening round defeat, leaving Geordan Murphy to try (and fail) to pick up the pieces all season. This was such a poor season for Leicester and I can’t help think that sticking with O’Connor until the season started was a big part of that.

Biggest Disappointment: Newcastle Falcons

It was hard not picking Leicester here after narrowly avoiding relegation, but last season hinted towards issues and they had some awful luck with injuries to stars like Mat Tait and Telusa Veainu, while their England stars missed time due to international commitments.

While Newcastle also had their issues with injuries and internationals, I did not feel that it was to anywhere near the same degree and they in fact dropped more places than Leicester by going from 4ᵗʰ to last and being relegated with a match still to play. It’s a shame to see one of the few northern clubs drop out of the league and I hope they make an immediate return, but I feel they can have no argument about coming bottom.

Biggest Success: Gloucester Rugby

Exeter and Sarries obviously need a mention for their successes in the league and final respectively. I was very close to picking Bristol here after narrowly missing out on Champions Cup rugby in their first season back in the top flight, but in the end I couldn’t look away from my cherry and whites.

Despite clear signs of improvement last season, they still finished 7ᵗʰ with 56 points. This year, the addition of a few big names saw Gloucester finish safely in the top 3 with 68 points. All that despite injuries leaving the club with minimal options in the front row (full credit to Josh Hohneck and Fraser Balmain who had to play a ridiculous number of minutes this season), back row (Matt Banahan had to be the replacement lock in one Champions Cup match) and back 3 (Jake Polledri came on as a winger towards the end of the season) at different points in the season… something that could have ruined any team! Both as a Gloucester fan and also from a less biased perspective, I can’t wait to see how they do next season!

RWC2019: Predicting the Italy Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Italy Squad

With the Northern Hemisphere seasons coming to an end, thoughts are beginning to shift towards the World Cup and who will make the squads. While the announcement of the Wales and Scotland training squads understandably got the majority of airtime over recent week, Conor O’Shea also announced a 44-man preliminary squad ahead of the tournament.

Having really enjoyed testing myself predicting the final 31-man squads for Wales and Scotland, I decided to challenge myself to do the same for Italy. This one was definitely the hardest so far, as I found that some areas of the squad were full of talent so it was hard to narrow it down, whereas in other positions I found myself only knowing a couple of players. To be clear, this is not a matter of picking the 31 I would take, but rather who I think Conor O’Shea will take, so we have tried to avoid any biases we have towards any specific players.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I think that Italy’s World Cup squad will be…

Prop

As with the previous squads I have predicted, I have predicted 5 props in the squad, which appears to be a common number for World Cup squads. Simone Ferrari and Tiziano Pasquali were the starters at tighthead during the Six Nations so I think they will make the squad, along with Andrea Lovotti and Nicola Quaglio at loosehead. The final spot goes to Cherif Traore, who was on the bench for every game and added a real physical presence when coming on.

Hooker

Having picked 3 hookers in the 2017 and 2018 Six Nations squads, O’Shea only selected 2 this year, which I think is a sign towards him only taking 2 players at this position to Japan. Provided he can recover in time, Leonardo Ghiraldini is surely nailed on for a spot a part of the leadership group, while Benetton’s Luca Bigi will continue to back him up. Should Ghiraldini not recover in time, I expect Oliviero Fabiani to take his place as the more experienced of the remaining options.

Second Row

This was one of the hardest to pick as O’Shea has named 5 quality players in his extended squad, but I expect him to only take 4 of them with him to Japan. Dean Budd, David Sisi and Federico Ruzza covered the starting positions during this year’s Six Nations, so I have them nailed on, leaving just 1 spot. Marco Fuser is a talented and experienced international, but you don’t get much more experienced than Alessandro Zanni, who is also able to cover in the back row, which I think earns him the final spot.

Back Row

Captain Sergio Parisse is a definite, along with Seb Negri and Braam Steyn, who were heavily involved in the Six Nations. I also think that Jake Polledri’s strong performances for Gloucester will earn him a spot on the plane. Jimmy Tuivaiti gets the next spot for me, having been a physical presence off the bench in the Six Nations. Assuming that O’Shea chooses to take one more back rower, I think that Maxime Mbanda gets the spot, though I can also envisage a situation where O’Shea chooses to take Zanni as his 6th back rower and take Marco Fuser as an extra lock.

Scrum Half

Tito Tebaldi was the go-to starter during the Six Nations so looks an obvious choice for the squad, while I think his back-up Guglielmo Palazzani will also make it onto the plane. I initially had O’Shea only taking 2 scrum halves, but having gone through the rest of the back line, I found myself with 1 more spot to use here. One of my concerns about Italy during the Six Nations was how basic their attacking was off 9 as I don’t feel either of the scrum halves selected did the best job of controlling the game. Callum Braley has been called into O’Shea’s recent training squads and I think again his experience this year as a regular for Gloucester could just get him onto the plane as the 31st man.

Fly Half

Tommaso Allan appears to be the incumbent in the 10 jersey at the moment, earning his place in the squad. Ian McKinley was the man on the bench in the Six Nations, so I feel that his incredible story continues with a place in the World Cup squad. Due to McKinley being able to shift into the centre, I think this also opens up a spot in the squad for Carlo Canna.

Centre

If you’re keeping count, you’ll realise that I have only 8 spaces left on the plane to cover both the centres and the back 3. In a group of 5 talented individuals, I think that 4 of the players selected for the training squad make it onto the plane. Michele Campagnaro is one of the best backs in the squad so is a certain pick if he is fit, alongside Luca Morisi, who was impressive in this year’s Six Nations. Tommaso Castello also looked impressive when he came in for Campagnaro, so earns a seat on the plane. Marco Zanon has limited international experience and with the lack of numbers left for the back 3 and McKinley able to cover centre, I think Tommaso Benvenuti’s versatility sees him going to Japan.

Back 3

And so we come to the final 4 players. Matteo Minozzi was the star of the 2018 Six Nations so will make the squad, as will Jayden Hayward, who covered his absence this year and can also cover a range of positions in the back line. The final 2 spots go to Edoardo Padovani and Angelo Esposito, who were regulars in this year’s Six Nations starting XVs.


So those are my picks for Italy’s 31-man World Cup Squad, who do you think makes the list?

RWC2019: Predicting the Scotland Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Scotland Squad

With the Northern Hemisphere seasons coming to an end, thoughts are beginning to shift towards the World Cup and who will make the squads. Last week saw Gregor Townsend name a 42-man training squad ahead of the tournament, with the intention stated to bring in 2 more players later in the summer.

Though there are still a couple of months until the trimmed squad has to be announced,  I thought that it would be fun to test myself and try to predict the 31 players that will be representing Scotland in Japan, something I have also done recently with the Wales squad. To be clear, this is not a matter of picking the 31 I would take, but rather who I think Townsend will take, so I have tried to avoid any biases towards any specific players.


So without further ado, having tried to get inside Gregor Townsend’s head, I think that Scotland’s World Cup squad will be…

Hooker

Stuart McInally looks to be nailed on as the starter for Scotland, so the question is who will back him up? Fraser Brown brings the experience and can also pack down at flanker in an emergency, which is always beneficial in a squad with limited numbers. That likely leaves Grant Stewart and George Turner fighting for the final place, and I think that Turner’s time in the Scotland setup over recent seasons will see him take the spot.

Prop

In my opinion, WP NelZander Fagerson and Allan Dell are guaranteed spots if they are all fit. Given Nel’s injury history for Scotland and Fagerson having also missed time recently with injuries, I expect a third tighthead to make the list and that will be Simon Berghan. Gordon Reid brings experience at loosehead, but a season playing in the Championship for London Irish may count against him as he has not been up against the same quality of player, so I think Jamie Bhatti will travel as Dell’s backup.

Second Row

Sam Skinner was unlucky to get injured at the start of the Six Nations, but I think that his quality and ability to cover second row and back row will guarantee him a spot. Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray will also travel as specialist locks. I think that Skinner’s versatility will see Scotland take another specialist lock and while Ben Toolis has a very good chance of getting the spot, I think that Richie Gray will use Toulouse’s success as a springboard to take one of the 2 remaining spots in the training squad and convert that to a spot on the plane.

Back Row

The experienced trio of John BarclayRyan Wilson and Hamish Watson will surely make the list providing they are all fit. Jamie Ritchie had a great Six Nations, which I feel will earn him a seat on the plane. Despite Skinner and Brown both being able to cover the back row, I still feel that they will take another specialist in the back row. Blade Thomson is a highly talented player and gives something different to his rivals, but I think his concussion issues that ruled him out of the Six Nations and much of 2019’s action will count against him. Matt Fagerson is an impressive player but one for the future, while I think Gary Graham also needs a number of rivals to get injured in order to get the final spot in such a deep position. Josh Strauss gives experience, but questions over when Premiership clubs will release their players could hamper him here and I think Magnus Bradbury will get the final spot due to his ability to play 6 or 8 and his highly physical approach.

Scrum Half

Greig Laidlaw and Ali Price have become Gregor Townsend’s go-to pairing at 9 and the question is likely not “will they make the squad?” but “who starts and who comes off the bench?”. With matches coming thick and fast, I think that Townsend will take a 3rd scrum half and while Henry Pyrgos has the greater experience, I think George Horne will get the spot as he can cause a nightmare for a tiring defence and will gain great experience with a view to the next tournament in 2023.

Fly Half

With Laidlaw able to cover the position if needed, I think that Duncan Weir’s exclusion from the current 42-man training squad hints towards Townsend only selecting 2 specialist fly halves. If that is the case, they surely select themselves in the form of Finn Russell and Adam Hastings, who have been the clear choices at the position in recent international windows.

Centre

With just 2 specialist 10s being selected, I think that opens up a space for Peter Horne to join brother George on the plane, as he can work as a playmaker at in the centre or at fly half. Huw Jones has been one of the best 13s in internationals rugby and will surely make the squad, along with Sam Johnson, who had a great Six Nations. Due to Horne also covering fly half, I think Townsend will take the opportunity to take one more specialist centre. Duncan Taylor has the versatility to cover most of the back line but has not played all season, Rory Hutchinson has had a great breakout year with Northampton but is probably lacking the experience to make this squad and will be one to come in early int he next 4-year cycle. Both remaining options in the training squad are defensively adept individuals, but I think Chris Harris will miss out on this occasion in favour of Nick Grigg, who has the added benefit of playing with many of these players regularly for Glasgow.

Back 3

Stuart Hogg is an obvious pick here as one of the best fullbacks in the world, which leaves 4 more spaces. Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour have been so reliable for Scotland over the years, so I think that their experience will see them make the list, while I also think Darcy Graham has impressed enough to earn a spot despite his limited experience at this level. While all 3 of these players are able to cover both wing and fullback, I think that Hogg’s injury issues in recent years will lead to Blair Kinghorn taking the final spot as a second specialist fullback, who would also be equally adept on the wing if Scotland are facing a team who they expect to kick a lot.


So those are my picks for Scotland’s 31-man World Cup Squad, who do you think makes the list?