Uncapped XV

Uncapped XV

With a number of players missing at least part of the 6 Nations due to injury, this tournament was a chance for a number of players to make not just their tournament debuts, but also win their first caps. Matthieu Jalibert was unable to take much of his chance following an injury in his first half of senior international rugby, but other players like Jordan Larmour, James Davies and Jake Polledri really shone when given their chances. With the World Cup on the horizon early next season, a number of other players have also made their international debuts in the last Autumn and Summer Test windows – such as 2018 6 Nations Player of the Championship Jacob Stockdale, who made his Ireland debut in June 2017.

Thinking of all the players who have impressed after making recent debuts, I started thinking of the players who haven’t even got caps to their name that could impress if given the chance. This list will be a combination of young players who likely have long international careers ahead of them and other players whose chance of getting capped is likely all but gone. As you read you’ll probably notice a slight bias towards players based in the UK, especially Premiership-based players. I have tried to be as fair as possible, but as the Premiership and Pro14 are the leagues I know best there are bound to be players I have missed – especially at less glamorous positions like the tight five – so feel free to let me know if you think I’ve missed someone.

Loosehead prop – Beno Obano: Obano could quite possibly have been capped at the start of this year’s 6 Nations tournament due to Ellis Genge’s injury and Joe Marler’s suspension, but was unfortunate to get injured himself in the build-up. A strong carrier and tackler, the 23-year old cousin of Maro Itoje is developing into a key player for Bath and will likely be challenging for a spot in the England squad after the World Cup. Honourable mentions: Thomas du Toit, Ox Nché

Hooker – Asafo Aumua: Aumua has the distinction of playing for the All Blacks twice before even making an appearance in Super Rugby, but is still eligible for this list due to the games being uncapped matches against the Barbarians and a French XV. Aumua’s pick here comes from the incredible talent he showed during the U20s World Championship on the way to winning the title. His record with the Baby Blacks stands at 7 tries from 14 games, incredible figures for any layer, let alone a hooker. His ability in the open is what really draws the eye and similar to Dane Coles his pace is going to be a real weapon that will catch opposition players out. Honourable mentions: Tom Dunn, Santiago Socino

Tighthead prop – D’Arcy Rae: Another player who almost made his debut in this 6 Nations due to players in front of him being absent, Glasgow prop Rae made 18 appearances for the Scotland U20s including 2 World Championships and 2 6 Nations tournaments. The lack of Scottish Pro14 sides may be limiting his chances of getting capped in the near future, but he is someone to watch out for after the World Cup, especially considering WP Nel is 31 years old and has missed a number of internationals over the last couple of years. Honourable mention: Nicky Thomas

Second rows: Tadhg Beirne & Matt Garvey: I will be shocked if Beirne remains on this list much longer. He has excelled for Scarlets in recent years and has signed for Munster on a 2-year deal. He is able to play in the back row as well but is definitely at his best in the second row and I can see him striking up a dangerous partnership alongside Iain Henderson in the middle of the Irish scrum. At 30 years old, I will be shocked if Garvey gets capped, but he is an extremely reliable lock who can also play flanker. He has good leadership experience and his physicality is a big part of the Bath team. Unfortunately for him, second row is one of the deepest positions in the England squad, with the current crop all younger than him, so it would likely take a monstrous injury list to see him wear the rose. Honourable mention: James Gaskell

Blindside flanker – Akira Ioane: Reiko Ioane is firmly entrenched in the All Blacks squad now and I think it is a matter of time before his brother Akira joins him in the black shirt. The flanker has started the season so well for the Blues and is one of the leading try scorers with 5 from 4 games. Vaea Fifita has impressed for the All Blacks recently, if he and Ioane push each other to be the best they can, I feel sorry for their opposite number! Honourable mention: Brad Shields, Lewis Ludlow

Openside flanker – Kwagga Smith: a superstar on the 7s circuit, Kwagga Smith has been an increasing part of the Lions’ success over recent years. With Commonwealth gold and Olympic bronze medals to his name, his pace and elusiveness is something different to the classic behemoths that are often seen representing the Springboks. Playing for the Barbarians against the all Blacks at the start of November, Smith was one of the best players on the pitch. Hopefully with Rassie Erasmus taking over from Allister Coetzee we will soon see Smith starring for South Africa. Honourable mention: Luke Wallace, Mike Williams

Number 8 – Zach Mercer: Regular readers will already know that I am a massive fan of Zach Mercer. He is such a good technical player and makes up for his lack of bulk with good footwork and handling skills. He has been a superstar for the U20s and for Bath over the last couple of years and has already been involved in the England squad, first as an apprentice player and then as a regular squad member following injuries to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes. Unfortunately, illness robbed him of the chance to make his debut against Italy, but I expect him to become a regular in the England squad after the World Cup, if not beforehand. Honourable mention: Ruan Ackermann

Scrum half – Dan Robson: I don’t know how Robson has gone so long and not been capped by England! A star for Gloucester and more recently Wasps, the scrum half has featured for the Saxons and attended some England camps, but has generally fallen foul of Eddie Jones’ policy to only name 2 halfbacks in the England squad. His attacking play is outstanding and he also controls the game so well, hopefully with Ben Youngs currently injured he will be given his chance to impress in the Summer Tests against South Africa. Honourable mentions: Ben Vellacott, Ben Spencer, Willi Heinz

Fly half – Gareth Steenson: Ireland’s loss has been Exeter’s gain as Steenson’s decision to play outside Ireland has denied him to represent the country of his birth. The Exeter fly half controls the game so well and is a highly accurate goal kicker (he won the Premiership Golden Boot award in the 2016 awards) with nerves of steel, as shown by his kick in extra time to win the Premiership Final in 2017. He would have had solid competition for the 10 jersey against Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan, however I think his reliability would have been enough to see him potentially make the bench for Ireland. Honourable mentions: Damian Willemse, Marcus Smith, Brock James

Inside centre – Jimmy Gopperth: OK, maybe I cheated a little with this pick, but Gopperth has often played 12 for Wasps when Danny Cipriani has also been available and I don’t see that changing with the arrival of Lima Sopoaga next season, plus there were clearly enough other talented fly halves to try picking from! To think that last season’s Premiership Player of the Season would probably not get a look-in with the All Blacks shows the quality of New Zealand rugby, but his quality compared to other Kiwis is a moot point as he has been playing outside New Zealand since 2009 with Newcastle, Leinster and currently Wasps. A reliable kicker, Gopperth has also shown how good he is in an attacking sense playing outside Danny Cipriani over the last couple of seasons. I look forward to seeing how Wasps’ Kiwi 10/12 axis works next season. Honourable mention: Bill Meakes

Outside centre – Vince Aso: Whether on the wing or at 13, Aso has been dynamite for the Hurricanes. His partnership with Ngani Laumape was huge for the Canes last season and saw him finish with 14 tries in the last Super Rugby campaign – with only Laumape (15) scoring more! He has started the 2018 season well with 2 tries and will surely love to join his cousins Akira and Reiko Ioane in the national team. The centre positions are very much up for grab at the moment, whether before or after the World Cup, I will be shocked if Aso doesn’t get a chance in the next couple of years. Honourable mentions: Joe Marchant, Izaia Perese, Henry Trinder, Robbie Fruean

Wings – James Lowe & Nathan Earle: 25 tries in 52 Super Rugby matches for the Chiefs puts Leinster winger Lowe on this list. Lowe has featured for the NZ Maori team – he was at fullback against the British and Irish Lions – but found himself competing in too deep a position to make the All Blacks squad before moving to Ireland. One of the last players able to qualify using the 3-year residency rule, if he continues to match this sort of form over the next couple of seasons we could see him in the green or Ireland soon enough. Earle is another player who has already turned out for his country but only in an uncapped match. I remember seeing Earle play for the U20s and thinking at the time what an incredible talent he looked. With Sarries focusing on bigger names like Ashton, Williams and Maitland, Earle’s opportunities have been limited but he has taken his chances well over the last 2 seasons and got himself firmly on Eddie Jones’ radar. With bags of pace but also deceptively strong, a move to Quins next season will hopefully give him the chance to play more regular rugby and prove he deserves to be in the England squad. Wing is a very deep spot for England at the moment with a number of young individuals. I won’t be shocked to see him capped within the next year, but think he may need to wait until after the World Cup to push for a regular starting spot. Honourable mentions: Ben Lam, Keelan Giles, Alex Lewington, Joe Cokanasiga, Gabriel Ibitoye

Fullback – Jason Woodward: I’ve talked about Woodward’s quality before (he was selected ahead of none other than “The Bus” Julian Savea for the Hurricanes in their 2016 Super Rugby final victory) and he has backed it up for both Bristol and Gloucester. Capable of playing at outside centre or across the back 3, Woodward’s made the 15 shirt at Kingsholm his own with a series of wonderful performances. A former New Zealand U20s player but also qualified for England, Woodward was called up to a training camp in May 2017, but has not yet been named in a squad. With Mike Brown likely nearing the end of his England career, Mike Haley off to Ireland and Anthony Watson injured, could a strong end to the season propel Woodward into the squad for the Summer Tests against South Africa? Honourable mentions: Mike Haley, Melani Nanai, Phil Dollman

Forced into a bad move

Back in April we got the announcement that Super Rugby was being cut from 18 to 15 teams, with 2 South African franchises and 1 Australian franchise being cut from the competition. The worst kept secret in rugby was officially announced recently that the Kings and Cheetahs would be leaving Super Rugby to join the Pro12 (now Pro14). Now the news has dropped that the Western Force will be the 3rd casualty of the Super Rugby Cuts.

Those who read my article at the time the planned cuts were announced will know that I am not happy with the way SANZAAR have been running Super Rugby in recent years, first with the format after expanding the league and then the way they quickly jumped ship and forced SARU and the ARU to cut teams. I have not been overly happy with the decision to add South African teams to the Pro14 but I am willing to give it the chance. However I am very unhappy with the cutting of the Force.

It has already been said that the decision to cut the Force was primarily due to financial reasons. That is understandable as this is a business, however I wonder if this could have a negative impact on Australian rugby. The axing of the Western Force means that all 4 of Australia’s franchises are to be found in the East or South East of the country. With no top-level rugby union franchise in West Australia, there is a distinct possibility that fans will leave the sport, depriving the national team of support and young players who could have grown into future superstars.

The geographical argument may have held more sway if the Force had been poor this season, however they finished 12th overall in 2017 with 26 points, ahead of fellow Australian franchises the Reds, Waratahs and Rebels (21, 19 and 9 points respectively. Australian Rugby is not in a great place at the moment but the Force were one of the only franchises that the ARU could conceivably be proud of. They have also contributed 6 players to the Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship, the same number as the conference-topping Brumbies and 1 more than the Melbourne Rebels.

It’s never nice to see a team cut and players lose their job, but I feel that the entire situation has been handled appallingly. The expansion of the competition was handled poorly leading to a controversial cutting of teams by SANZAAR. It was always going to be tough for the ARU to look good coming out of this, but the way they have handled the situation since it was announced they have had to cut a team has been shocking.

It would appear that every step of the way money has been the motivator. At the end of the day, it’s rugby that will be losing out.

International Rugby Ramble

Farewell to a legend

This weekend saw the USA national rugby team make history by qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup as the top American qualifier for the first time ever. Their win over the Canadians in San Diego – on Canada Day, no less! – was by no means perfect, as they frequently struggled at the scrum, but they frequently impressed in open play and scored some beautiful tries on their way to a 52-16 victory. This result has confirmed the USA’s place in Pool C alongside England, France, Argentina and the currently unconfirmed Oceania 2 qualifier.

While there was a lot to celebrate at full time, the moment was also bittersweet, as it signalled the international retirement of the USA’s most-capped player. Rugby’s very own Captain America, flanker Todd Clever made his international debut in 2003 and has gone on to amass 76 caps, as well as appearing for the USA in the World Sevens Series on a number of occasions. For a number of years, he was the face of USA rugby, and even with the emergence of a number of talented Americans, he has remained a key part of the national team. I can’t help but wonder if the USA would have been more successful in the 2015 World Cup had he not been left out following a disagreement with then-Head Coach Mike Tolkin.

Clever was the first American to play in Super Rugby (for the Lions in 2009) and has even competed against the British and Irish Lions on their tour that year. He spent 5 years playing in the Japanese Top League and also played in the Aviva Premiership for Newcastle in the 2015/16 season.

Now back in America, he is a player and co-owner for the Austin Huns, who will be part of the inaugural Major League Rugby. Though PRO Rugby did not work out, I have heard a lot of promising things regarding the MLR and I look forward to seeing how things go once the league begins. I still feel that the USA have the potential to be the next rugby superpower and seriously hope that players continue to come through to take Clever’s place.

 

Clever is not the first captain to announce his international retirement this summer, as he is joined by Geogia’s Mamuka Gorgodze, who has similarly helped to put Georgian rugby on the map. I am sure that both of these players have been inspirations not just for their teammates, but for the children who will now want to grow up to represent their country on the rugby pitch. Though the big names may be stepping down, I fully hope and expect both national teams to push on and continue to improve without them.

 

A hairy situation

Over the weekend I read an article on Pundit Arena stating the Japanese Rugby Union raised the hairstyle of hooker Shota Horie as a topic of discussion and expressed their disapproval at a recent board meeting.

The hooker has won over 50 caps for the national team and plays for the Sunwolves, so should be considered an inspiration for those looking to get into rugby in Japan. From what I have read, the union seem to be citing the idea of integrity, yet does a players hairstyle really constitute such a problem? It’s not like he’s got a cock and balls shaved into the side!

Maybe its something to do with me being follicly challenged, but I would never imagine playing rugby with the hairstlyes that some of these pros do. That said, I do not see any problem with players having their hair as such and if I’m completely honest I couldn’t imagine players like Todd Clever or Richard Hibbard playing with close-cropped hair.

Even if they are going to be strict on a player’s personal appearance, are there not more important things for the JRFU to be worrying about right now? The World Cup they are hosting is just over 2 years away and the Sunwolves have only managed 2 wins and a draw in their first 28 Super Rugby games and are on track to finish bottom of the combined table for the second year running. I think the JRFU need to get their priorities right, quickly!

 

Lions tour disciplinary results

When I wrote about Saturday’s second Test between the Lions and All Blacks, I mentioned that I would not be surprised to see Sonny Bill Williams receive a ban for his high tackle on Anthony Watson. I was proved right as it was announced yesterday that the cross-code star had received a 4-week ban.

It would appear that the commission felt the same as me, that the incident was more reckless than intentional. I was however a little surprised at the length of the ban. The incident was considered a mid-range offence, which has a starting point of 6 weeks, however the ban was reduced to 4 weeks after considering mitigating factors including his early admission, disciplinary record, good character and remorse. The mention of his good disciplinary record surprised me as there have been other occasions in the past where he has been penalised for not wrapping in the tackle, so considering how strict World rugby are being with contact to the head I would have expected the entry-level 6 weeks to stand, possibly with an extra week added as a deterrent.

 

Williams wasn’t the only player attending a hearing over the weekend though, as Sean O’Brien was cited for a forearm on Waisake Naholo. I was surprised when the citing was announced as to me the incident looked accidental rather than reckless. Had it been picked up during the game I feel there would have been some justification for a yellow – harsh perhaps, but there was enough force for Naholo to fail a HIA – but I did not feel that there was enough to warrant a red card. The case was dismissed, which shows the commission felt that no action was required, as they could have issued a Citing Commissioner Warning if they felt the challenge was worthy of a yellow. This will be a huge boost for the Lions as they prepare for the series-defining third Test this Saturday.

 

What are your thoughts on these stories? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Not-so-super Rugby?

Over the weekend it was announced that from next season Super Rugby will be reducing in size from 18 teams to 15, with 1 Australian and 2 South African franchises set to be cut. This is clearly a less-than-ideal situation and there will be a number of players and fans upset (not to mention angry) with the decision while they wait to see if their franchise is one of the unlucky 3.

Back in 2016, when the tournament was expanded to include a 6th South African team and franchises in Japan and Argentina, SANZAAR made the mistake of making the tournament format overly confusing, spreading the teams over 4 conferences within 2 groups, rather than simply adding an extra team into each of the existing 3 conferences. I am, to put it lightly, a rugby nut, so if I found the format difficult to understand then I hate to imagine how it was for more casual fans!

While the job of picking the franchises to be cut falls to the affected unions, it will be interesting to see how the teams are picked. The Western Force are widely tipped to be the ARU’s sacrificial lamb, but if that is the case, all 4 remaining franchises will be located in eastern Australia, alienating a large number of Australian Rugby fans. What will annoy Force fans even more if this goes through is the knowledge that they have been more successful (4 wins from 21 games) than the Sunwolves (2 wins & 1 draw from 21 games) since the expansion, yet the Sunwolves are guaranteed their place in the competition due to SANZAAR’s “strategic plan for the future”. This plan for the future supposedly relates to the potential of the sport to grow in Asia off the back of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but you have to wonder how much the decision also relates to money. We still appear no closer to getting a Pacific Island franchise even though they would arguably be more ready for the quality of opposition than the Sunwolves have been so far. It seems that the potential for rich new markets matters more to the people at the top than retaining the traditional rugby heartlands and you wonder if some of the national teams will begin to struggle down the line as a result.

It could be argued that some of the national teams are struggling already. The Pacific Islands continue to lose potential internationals to other countries and now only Fiji can be found in the top 10. Tonga and Samoa (13th and 14th respectively) are now both below not just Japan (11th) but also Georgia (12th). Even more noticeable to the casual fan has been South Africa’s drop to 7th in the world rankings after only 4 wins in 2016. Between the Springbok’s poor form and arguments over racial quotas, the last thing SARU needed was one-third of their Super Rugby franchises being cut! Cutting these 3 teams will also not help the ARU and SARU stop the migration of talented players to richer European leagues, so unless they tighten the election policy for the national teams they could see more prospective internationals choosing to play outside the control of their national union.

At first glance, the only ones who benefit from these changes next season are those whose unions are not being required to cut teams. The Japanese and Argentinian national teams will be able to continue to grow alongside their respective franchises and the NZRU will be able to continue to churn out the next batch of superstars through their 5 franchises, whilst continuing their recent dominance in the competition (7 of the last 12 finalists, 4 of them tournament champions). The New Zealand franchises may have generally performed better than the other countries’ franchises in recent years – the Blues are currently the only one not in the top half of this season’s combined table – but it does feel harsh that they will have more franchises than South Africa, who have over double the number of clubs and 4 times the number of registered players.

There was no way that everyone was going to be happy once it was clear teams needed to be cut from Super Rugby, but I can’t help but wonder if the format of the tournament these last 2 years was part of the issue. Hopefully if SANZAAR look to expand the tournament again in the future they will look at keeping a simpler format. Or perhaps 15 is the perfect number of teams in the competition. If they do decide to stick to 15, I will be very interested to see how SANZAAR deal with future expansions, either to have more Argentinian/Japanese franchises, or to include franchises from other nations such as the Pacific Islands or the USA.

Maybe SANZAAR need to look at the creation of a second tier within the tournament, with the champions of the lower tier being promoted at the end of the season in order to replace the team in the top tier that came bottom of the table. This may make the geographical conference structure more difficult, but it would allow each of the original 3 unions to field 5-6 franchises over the 2 tiers, whilst also allowing franchises from other nations to compete on a level playing field. If they could get 20-24 franchises over the two tiers, they would be able to go for 10-12 per tier, cutting down on the travel costs.

 

These are just my personal views on the matter, so I would be very interested to hear your opinions. What do you think of the current 18-team format and the plans for next year? Where do you think Super Rugby should go after this? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge