Premiership Rugby 2019/20: 6 to Watch

Premiership Rugby 2019/20: 6 to Watch

While the World Cup is in full flow, fans will be starting to split their focus over multiple competitions as the Premiership begins shortly. The Premiership Rugby Cup is well underway and we have started to get an early idea of how teams may look this season, but this is something at we will not know for certain until the league begins.

As I have done the last couple of years, I have taken a look at the players new to their teams this summer and tried to narrow everything down to 6 players to watch this season. Like with my recent look at the Pro14, I have chosen to limit myself to a maximum of 1 player per club. With a number of players set to arrive after the World Cup, the quality of player coming into the league this season is incredible (before we even begin to look at players moving from other Premiership clubs), so much so that some high quality players like Elliot Daly made the shortlist but found themselves cut when picking my final 6!

Who are you excited to see with a new club this season?

Dave Attwood (Bath – Bristol)

Starting this list off in the pack and to me, Dave Attwood has been the best second row on Bath’s books in recent seasons but has never seemed to get the minutes he deserved since returning from injury, despite an impressive loan spell at Toulon. Now moving to Bristol, he will be looking to form a top-quality partnership with Chris Vui. Attwood is a great all-rounder, dangerous when given too much space but also a highly physical player that will cause you problems at the ruck and maul, while his experience will be invaluable for a team hoping to make it into the Champions Cup.

Stuart Hogg (Glasgow – Exeter)

One of the best 15s in the world is on his way to Sandy Park. Exeter are often talked about as a “boring” team who just pick and go through their forwards repeatedly, but they are so much more than that and a joy to watch attacking. While fans will likely still miss Santiago Cordero, Hogg brings his own great attacking talent, while his style of play will also help control the game as he can come into the line to cause mayhem or work as a second fly half. Add in his monster boot and opponents won’t want to give away a penalty anywhere near their own half.

Dan du Preez (Sharks – Sale)

From one set of Sharks to another, Dan du Preez was initially coming on loan but has now signed perfectly alongside older brother Robert and twin Jean-Luc. Able to cover lock or the back row, Du Preez was a star for the Sharks in this year’s Super Rugby, scoring 7 tries (joint 2nd among forwards, level with Kwagga Smith and behind Folau Fainga’a) and coming 1st among forwards for carries (168) and 3rd among forwards for metres made. With the Du Preez and Curry twins, Jono Ross and Mark Wilson all fighting for 3 starting spots, Sale may have just got themselves one of the strongest back rows in the league.

Matteo Minozzi (Zebre – Wasps)

One of the starts of the Italy squad, Minozzi made my Six Nations Team of the Tournament in 2018 but missed this season’s tournament through injury. At just 23 years old, he is still to reach his prime, but has shown himself to be able to consistently find the try line, which will be helped even more by an increase in the quality of the players around him.

Paddy Jackson (Perpignan – London Irish)

Perhaps the most controversial signing of recent years, I’m not going to get into my thoughts on the morals of signing Jackson but instead look from the rugby perspective. With a raft of internationals arriving (including Allan Dell, Sekope Kepu, Sean O’Brien, Nick Phipps and Waisake Naholo), it looks like Irish are trying to emulate Bristol last season by not just avoiding relegation, but pushing for a Champions Cup position and potentially even a playoff spot. One thing that will be crucial to success is a top quality fly half and Jackson is certainly that. Before off-field issues brought an end to his Ireland career, Jackson was looking to be a high-quality backup for Johnny Sexton and while he didn’t get the chance to shine in the Top 14 for a Perpignan team that were relegated, he will be hoping to show his quality in one of the strongest leagues in the world.

Melani Nanai (Blues – Worcester)

Fans who don’t follow Super Rugby may not be familiar with Melani Nanai, so let me give you some figures. Despite playing for the Blues (5th in New Zealand Conference, 13th overall in 2019), Nanai finished the season with 178 carries (5th), 60 defenders beaten (5th), 1204 metres carried (1st) and 22 offloads (5th). Assuming he can quickly adapt to the change of scenery, if Worcester can get him the ball with a decent amount of space, he is going to be a thrill to watch in the league and potentially one of the signings of the season!


I will be running a fantasy rugby league for the Premiership on The Rugby Magazine, and you are all welcome to join! You can find the league here and using the unique token 429eb544c2c9

Pro14 2019/20: 6 Players to Watch

Pro14 2019/20: 6 Players to Watch

For the last couple of years, I have been previewing the new Premiership Rugby season with a look at some of the players new to their clubs who I think you should keep an eye on this season. While I will be doing that again this summer, I decided that it was time to branch out to the Pro14 as well. As with the Premiership articles, I will limit myself to just one player per team, which definitely leads to some difficult decisions – looking at you, Cardiff Blues! I will also add that Gareth Anscombe was a shoe-in for this list, but the injury suffered in Wales’ Rugby World Cup warm-up against England will see him miss the vast majority of the season, so I took him off the list.

Let me know which new transfers you’re looking forward to watching this season.

Ruan Pienaar (Montpellier – Cheetahs)

The South African scrum half was a fan-favourite at Ulster but fell afoul of the IRFU’s selection policies, which led to a move to France. Now he is making his way back to the league, but this time will be based in his home country with the Toyota Cheetahs. At 35 years old, this 2 year contract will likely take him to the end of his professional career, and that top-level experience will be vital for the Cheetahs if they want to push for the playoffs.

Josh Adams (Worcester – Cardiff Blues)

Between Will Boyde, Hallam Amos and Josh Adams, it was hard to narrow it down to just a single player from Cardiff, but Adams eventually got the nod. After a couple of strong seasons with Worcester – who are generally competing to avoid relegation from the Premiership – Adams has done well for Wales and knew that a move back to Wales was required to remain in the national team. A proven try scorer, Adams is a great attacking winger who is also able to play fullback, but is also a strong defender who has got used to dealing with some of the larger wingers of the Premiership. Provided he gets the help from his teammates, I think that he will be a star once he returns from World Cup duty.

Sam Davies (Ospreys – Dragons)

Go back a few seasons and Sam Davies was competing with Dan Biggar for the starting job with Wales. Now, injuries and a drop in form have seen him fall behind Biggar, Gareth Anscombe, Rhys Patchell and Jarrod Evans. With Anscombe coming to take control of the Ospreys, a move to perennial underachievers the Dragons could be a career-defining move for the 25-year-old. With Wayne Pivac taking over as Wales head coach after the World Cup, a fresh start at the Dragons could be just what Davies needs and if he can pull them up the standings then it could bring him back into contention for the national team, however if the Dragons continue to struggle (it wouldn’t be the first time) then he could find himself struggling to earn another cap anytime soon.

Charlie Walker (Harlequins – Zebre)

After years of good performances, it was a shock to see Charlie Walker leaving Harlequins. What was even more shocking was the moment his new team was announced as Zebre. This was a player I fully expected another Premiership team to pick up and I even discussed with friends how happy I would be with him moving to Gloucester! At 26, he has pace to worry defences and years of Premiership experience that will be a big help for a team that finished bottom of the combined table in 2018/19.

Demetri Catrakilis (Harlequins – Kings)

When Catrakilis moved to Quins from Montpellier, it looked like he would be the main man in London. However a throat injury early in the season kept him out for months, leading to the rise of Marcus Smith. Once he returned, he was never able to recapture his pre-injury form and a change of scenery back to the Southern Kings will hopefully do wonders for his career. The Kings have been the worst team in the Pro14 since its inception, but bringing in an experienced fly half who was in the Springboks training squad ahead of the 2015 World Cup could be just what they need to become more competitive and potentially pick up some wins in the opening weeks while teams are without their internationals.

Sam Lousi (Hurricanes – Scarlets)

After 5 backs, I needed to make sure that the forwards have some representation on the list. Last season’s signing from the Hurricanes, Blade Thompson, showed some real promise for the Scarlets before his season was ruined by concussion issues. This summer sees another signing from the ‘Canes in the form of former rugby league player Sam Lousi. The Scarlets have a quality back line but 2018/19 saw them struggle as their pack was ravaged by injury and the loss of Tadhg Beirne to Munster. Adding a physical presence like Lousi at lock will be a huge factor in them trying to get back into the Champions Cup.

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?

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!

Premiership XV Challenge

Premiership XV Challenge

When it comes to rugby, I’m a sucker for a pick a XV challenge and watching the Premiership recently I decided to set myself a new challenge: picking a Premiership XV with no more than 1 player per nation. I did something similar a while back in picking a World XV, but at first I was nervous that I would be able to find players from enough different nationalities in the league. Going through all the squads though, my fears were easily quashed and I found myself also able to add in the caveat of not including an England player and still find myself leaving some nationalities out.

So without further ado, let’s look at the team:

  1. Val Rapava Ruskin: The Gloucester loosehead has had more than his fair share of injury issues, but when he is fit is a quality operator. A former Georgia U19 captain, he is one of the more mobile props in the league and is like an extra back row at the breakdown. He is yet to play at senior international level which does leave him eligible to play for England, but such is the depth at this position right now, I can’t see him playing for them anytime soon, so I couldn’t leave such a talented player off the list.
  2. Joe Taufete’e: The USA international may find his playing time at Worcester limited with Jack Singleton also on the roster, but he is a quality hooker. A strong runner, at just 26 years old, he already has the most international tries of any player in the tight five, with 20 tries from 22 matches.
  3. Vincent Koch: One of the few Premiership-based Springboks likely to feature in the World Cup, the Saracens tighthead combines reliable scrummaging with good ability in open play. At time of writing this, no prop has been selected by more players (28%) on the Rugby Magazine Premiership Fantasy Rugby game, 7th overall of any position.
  4. Andrei Ostrikov: Not many Russian rugby players have made it outside of their own domestic league at the moment but Ostrikov is one of the success stories. A regular for Sale since the 2013/14 season, he has to date made 146 appearances for the Sharks, scoring 7 tries.
  5. Chris Vui: A former Blues and Worcester player, Vui moved to Bristol ahead of the 2017/18 Championship season and made the league’s Team of the Season. Now playing for the Bears in the Premiership, he is a regular and reliable contributor in the second row. Vui become the youngest captain in World Rugby when he began skippering Samoa in 2017.
  6. Sam Skinner: Capable of playing at lock or in the back row, Skinner became the latest Exeter player to gain international honours when he made his Scotland debut in November, receiving the Man of the Match award in the same game. Injury severely limited his playing time in the Six Nations this year, but at 24 years old, he looks like he will be a regular fixture in the Scotland squad over the coming years.
  7. Thomas Young: The fact that he struggles to even make it into the Wales squad, let alone the 23, shows the quality the Welsh have in the back row at the moment. Things didn’t work out for him at Cardiff Blues or at Gloucester, but a move to Wasps (where dad Dai is Director of Rugby) for the 2014/15 season has seen him become a star. Dangerous in the loose, Young comes alive around the breakdown and is a turnover king.
  8. Renaldo Bothma: South African-born, Bothma qualified for Namibia through his mother and has gone on to be one of their star players. A highly physical back rower, Bothma has scored 8 tries in 17 Tests since making his debut against Kenya in June 2018.
  9. Nic White: With only Australia caps to his name, White’s decision to leave the Brumbies for Europe brought a premature end to his international career. Now at Exeter, he brings experience and a cultured kicking game to the Chiefs’ scrum half corps and has been known to rock some exquisite facial hair.
  10. Gareth Steenson: He made it onto my Uncapped XV and now he makes another list. Playing for Exeter has made him ineligible for Ireland but he is a quality player regardless. One of the most accurate kickers in the league, he controls the Exeter back line so well and makes sure his team are playing in the right areas of the pitch.
  11. Vereniki Goneva: He may be 35 now but you wouldn’t think it when you watch him play. A star at Leicester, the Fijian has carried on his form since moving to Newcastle. He may have lost a step of pace but has the footwork and experience to still cause the defence major issues.
  12. Jimmy Gopperth: Another player who makes it onto both this list and my Uncapped XV, the fact that Jimmy Gopperth has never played for the All Blacks shows the quality of players available to New Zealand. Things didn’t really work out for him with the Hurricanes or Blues in Super Rugby, but he has been a star in the Premiership, first for Newcastle then more recently Wasps. Equally dangerous at 10, he comes alive at 12 where he plays the second playmaker role with aplomb. Wasps have sorely missed him this season as he recovers from an ACL injury.
  13. Michele Campagnaro: One of Italy’s real stars in the back line. Injuries have really hampered his career but he has an undeniable talent. Stuck in a highly competitive Exeter back line, Campagnaro got his chance with a move to Wasps and next season will be calling the Stoop his home. Also able to play wing, he has good pace and elusiveness but also the strength to keep going through tackles.
  14. Santiago Cordero: Cordero on form is box office! The Argentine first came on my radar with his stunning performances in the 2015 World Cup, but his move to Exeter in 2018 has stopped him from featuring for the Pumas. Able to star on the wing or at fullback, his pace and footwork makes him a nightmare for opposition defences. A casualty of the salary cap, Sandy Park will miss him when he moves to Bordeaux this summer.
  15. Telusa Veainu: Another player who has missed the majority of the season through injury, Veainu is almost unstoppable when on form. A great counter-attacker, he has 22 tries in 52 appearances for the Tigers and 5 tries in 9 matches for Tonga. It’s crazy to think that despite great try-scoring records for Canterbury, Hawke’s Bay and Melbourne Rising, he only made 16 appearances (3 starts) in 5 seasons of Super Rugby.

Who would make your XV?

Major Change Incoming

Major Change Incoming

Big news came out of the USA today as Major League Rugby announced the format for the 2020 season, with new teams and a brand new format.

Season 3 of the USA’s professional league sees the total number of teams in the competition increased to 12, with 3 new expansion teams: the New England Free Jacks (Boston), Old Glory DC (Washington D.C.) and Rugby ATL (Atlanta).

The expansion has lead to a change in format, as the league splits into 2 conferences. The Western Conference will be home to Austin Elite Rugby, Houston Sabercats, Glendale Raptors, San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves and Utah Warriors. The Eastern Conference comprises the 3 new franchises along with NOLA Gold, Rugby United New York and Toronto Arrows.

Starting in mid-February, each team will play home and away against the other 5 teams in their conference and 6 games against teams in the other conference (3 home, 3 away). Once the regular season is over, the top 3 teams from each conference will enter the playoffs, where (like in the Pro14) 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ will play each other with the winner taking on 1ˢᵗ to be declared the Conference Champion. June 28ᵗʰ will see the Conference Champions face off in the MLR Final.

First off, I’m really happy and excited to see the league continuing to grow and bring in more expansion teams. I really hope that rugby takes off in the USA and becomes its next big sport, so to see the MLR go from strength to strength after the way PRO Rugby fell apart is great to see. It’s also great to see the spread of the franchises over the country (and also spreading into Canada).

I’m not the biggest fan of a conference format but in the circumstance of such a new league that is still expanding and finding its feet, I think that this is a smart idea as it makes it easy to add new expansion teams without dramatically altering the league. I do however have some gripes with the timing of the competition as a February start means that some teams will still be struggling with cold weather for the first half of the season, while teams will also be losing players to their international teams during the Americas Rugby Championship.

Though I do have some issues, I am largely positive about how things are going in the league. The quality of rugby appears to be improving from what I have seen and having players of the calibre of Ben Foden out there will only be helping the league and USA rugby in general. With the next season starting after the World Cup, I will be interested to see if any players retire from international rugby and move over to give the MLR a go, which could push the league forward to the next level.

Suffice to say, I will be watching on with great interest.