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?

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?

RWC2019: Predicting the Wales Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Wales 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. As April came to an end, Warren Gatland announced a 42-man World Cup training squad, while players currently omitted due to injury still have a chance to make it into the list of 31 players who will jump on the plane.

There may still be a couple of months until the trimmed squad has to be announced, but I thought that it would be fun to test myself and try to predict the 31 players that Gatland will take with him to the tournament. To make it even more fun, I challenged a good friend and cross-border rival, Gez (who supports Wales and the Scarlets), to see who he was predicting so that we could see how similar our thoughts were. This is not a matter of picking the 31 we would take, but rather who we think Gatland will take, so we have tried to avoid any biases we have towards any specific players.


So without further ado, having tried to get inside Warren Gatland’s head, we think he will select…

Hooker

Ken Owens was a clear selection for both of us here. One of the best hookers in the UK, he is a proven leader and I would imagine one of the first names on the team sheet. Both of us agreed that Gatland would only take 1 other hooker (injury replacements can be brought in during the tournament) and the consensus pick was Elliot Dee, who has become Owens’ backup at international level this season.

Prop

The top 4 rather picked themselves here by being the regulars in the matchday squads. Gez and I were in agreement that Rob EvansTom FrancisSamson Leeand Nicky Smith would be the main 4, but we had differing opinions on who would take the 5th spot (both of us are predicting 5 props, in line with Gatland’s 2011 and 2015 squads).

It appears that our difference has come down to which side of the scrum they expect to give extra reinforcements too. Gez has picked tighthead Leon Brown, whereas I think that Wyn Jones scrummaging ability at loosehead will earn him the spot.

Second Row

Having spoken to Gez a little about our picks here, it would appear that we both initially went for 3 locks, but on finding our totals reaching 30 men, chose to select a 4th player at this position. Alun Wyn Jones is the captain of the squad so an obvious pick here, while his Ospreys partner Adam Beard also earns a spot along with Cory Hill. We both found that when selecting a 4th lock, Jake Ball was getting the selection over Bradley Davies, who has fallen down the pecking order at the Ospreys.

Back Row

A harder group to pick due to the number of players currently out injured or just returning from injury. Assuming they can prove themselves fit, both of us selectedJosh NavidiJustin TipuricRoss MoriartyTaulupe Faletau and Ellis Jenkins, which gives a good balance to the position.

Both of us felt that there would be 1 more back row selected, but we had different players in mind. My pick was Aaron Shingler, who was playing so well before picking up an injury in last year’s Pro 12 final. He is still on his way back, but if he can prove himself fit, adds a different dynamic with his ability in the lineout. Perhaps Gez has inside information on Shingler’s health as he omitted him from the 31, but went for his fellow Scarlet James Davies, which would leave Wales with a dangerous set of jackals to pick from each match.

Scrum Half

Both of us were in agreement that Gatland will take 3 scrum halves with him to Japan and it appears that neither of us are expecting some shock early return to Wales for Rhys Webb. With just 3 scrum halves in the training squad, it made it easy for both of us to select Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams and Aled Davies, though I must admit I was a little surprised not to see Scarlets’ Kieran Hardy in the training squad as reward for such a good season.

Fly Half

After combining to win the Grand Slam earlier this year, Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar are nailed on as the main fly halves. However, it appears that both myself and Gez think that Rhys Patchell will also make it onto the plane as both him and Anscombe are able to also provide cover at fullback and could also step in at centre if required.

Centre

It’s no real surprise that both of us have Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies nailed on as they have become the go-to centre pairing during Wales’ recent success. With Patchell/Anscombe able to slot in as a second playmaker in an emergency or George North (more on him shortly) able to fill in at centre, Gez and I were in agreement that only one other specialist centre will make the 31.

Gez picked Owen Watkin, who looked good when given the chance in recent Tests, however I went for the more experienced Scott Williams given his experience pairing with Parkes/Davies from his days at the Scarlets and previous internationals.

Back 3

Anyone good at maths or with an abacus to hand will have figured out that both Gez and I have 5 spots left to fill with players from the back 3. Leigh Halfpenny has not been at his best since a lengthy layoff with concussion issues, but he is still a premier defensive fullback and goal kicker, so makes the list alongside Six Nations starters Liam Williams, George North and Josh Adams. And that leaves just 1 spot…

Owen Lane has looked really impressive whenever I have seen him play for Cardiff Blues, but injuries have hit at the wrong time and stopped him gaining any international experience, which I think rules him out here. Hallam Amos is a reliable option but has never been able to hold down a regular spot in the national team and I think the poor form of the Dragons will have hampered his chances. Jonah Holmes gets my vote off the back of his strong performances for Leicester and Wales this season, while he has the versatility to cover the entire back 3 if required as well as being an emergency scrum half. Gez, however has gone for Steff Evans, which I think may have been a twinge of Scarlets bias coming through as he has had a roller-coaster season, but his attacking talent could certainly come in handy against Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay.


So on the whole we had very similar squads, with just a handful of differences between individuals at the same position to round out the squad. I think part of this could be down to Gatland not being quick to change his squad and having quite a large degree of loyalty to players who have been big for him in the past even if they are going through a difficult stage. But will this be the time Gatland decides to shock us…?

Who do you think will make the squad?

Alternative England 23

Alternative England 23

With just 2 rounds of the Premiership and the playoffs left following this weekend and the European cups down to the finals, there is not much time left for a player to push themselves into contention for a place in his nation’s World Cup squad.

This close to the tournament, you must imagine that Eddie Jones will not be making drastic changes from the squads he has used in the last couple of international windows, but there is always a chance that someone could be a late bolter and make the plane.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to try creating an England 23 using players who have not recently played for England. My initial plan was to include anyone eligible (playing in England) who had not played for the team during this season’s internationals (the Autumn Tests and Six Nations) but as I was looking at the number of players available, I chose to also rule out anybody who featured in the 2018 Summer Tests so that I am looking at players who have gone at least a season without being capped.

Starting XV

  1. Beno Obano: Someone who made it into my Uncapped XV 13 months ago and was unlucky not to be capped over the last year, Obano was called up to an England camp last May, where he picked up sever damage to his knee ligaments that saw him out of the game until March this year. A strong scrummager, Obano became a huge part of the Bath defence last season with a series of huge tackles. With the depth England have at loosehead, it will be interesting to see how long he has to wait for another chance in the national team.
  2. Jack Singleton: The Worcester hooker has been unfortunate to find himself behind Jamie George, Dylan Hartley and Luke Cowan-Dickie in a position where Eddie Jones rarely rotates his players, but did get a start in the 45-63 loss to the Barbarians last May. Part of the new breed of hookers coming through that are equally adept in the loose and at the set piece, it will be interesting to see how his England chances are affected by going from the starter at Worcester to competing with George at Saracens next season.
  3. Will Collier: The tighthead spot does not appear to be as deep as loosehead at the moment, but Collier gets the nod here. Collier is Kyle Sinckler’s deputy at Harlequins but impressed on his 2 appearances against Argentina in the 2017 Summer Tests, where he proved himself capable of holding his own against a strong Pumas scrum.
  4. Dave Attwood: I honestly don’t understand why Dave Attwood appears so far down the pecking order. A strong all-rounder in the set piece, he is also a strong ball-carrier who comes to life when given a bit of space. Injuries appeared to drop him down the pecking order at Bath, but he excelled when on loan at Toulon and I’m sure he will star at Bristol next season. Unfortunately at 32 years old and with so much depth in the England second row, I find it unlikely we’ll see him add to his 24 caps.
  5. Ed Slater: I remember being very disappointed when it was announced that Ed Slater and Jonny May would be swapping teams given his injury history, but almost 2 years on I cannot imagine him not being part of the Gloucester squad. Another who plays a big role in the set piece, he has been a key part of a Gloucester pack that has got back to its best under Johan Ackermann. Slater captained England against the Crusaders in 2014 but considers that the day his international career faltered as he injured his ACL in that game.
  6. Sam Simmonds: A player who missed his chance to play in the Six Nations due to a ruptured ACL, it is unclear if the Exeter back rower would have featured anyway due to Eddie Jones seeing him as too small to viably play number 8 unless both Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes are unavailable. However, Simmonds is deceptively strong for his “small” size and also very good in space. Capable of playing at 8 or flanker, and with 20 tries from 28 Premiership games, his versatility may help him with the limited squad size in a World Cup.
  7. Don Armand: One of the players that it could be argued has been done dirty by Eddie Jones, it’s crazy that Don Armand has only appearances off the bench to his name (June 2017 in Argentina and the 2018 Six Nations match against Ireland). He has been one of the stars of the Exeter squad in recent seasons and would bring extra physicality to the back row.
  8. Ben Morgan: Matt Kvesic has performed so well in Sam Simmonds’ absence this season and was so close to making it an all-Exeter back row, but there was no way I could leave out Ben Morgan. The Gloucester 8 went off the boil a little bit following England’s RWC2015 nightmare (his last appearance for England came in that tournament against Australia), but he has been rejuvenated under Johan Ackermann and been one of Gloucester’s biggest stars this season.
  9. Willi Heinz: Scrum half was one of the harder positions to pick due to the heavy reliance on Ben Youngs and Danny Care recently being broken with appearances from Dan Robson, Ben Spencer and Richard Wigglesworth all making appearances for England this season. My Gloucester bias may have come to the fore a little here as I picked Willi Heinz. The kiwi was invited to train with England in 2017 but was never capped. Heinz has great experience of both the Premiership and Super Rugby now and has a great all-round game.
  10. Freddie Burns: Danny Cipriani was set to wear the 10 shirt until I chose to leave out players who featured on the 2018 Summer Tour to South Africa, which left me with a difficult choice. Billy Burns’ move to Ulster took him out of the running and Joe Simmonds has not pushed on as much as I expected after breaking out last season, which left me picking between Freddie Burns and Marcus Smith. Burns eventually got the nod here for his experience and his recent performances, where he has been keeping Rhys Priestland on the Bath bench. He may not be such a “maverick” as in his younger days but is now a great game manager with the ability to still beat an opponent with a moment of magic. Plus his chip and chase over a defensive line is still one of the best in the league.
  11. Ollie Thorley: What a season Thorley has been having. November’s Premiership Rugby Player of the Month was called into the England squad during the 2019 Six Nations but did not make it into any of the matchday squads. Injury saw him unavailable from February 2018 to November 2018 and he is currently out again, but he has still amassed 16 tries in 30 appearances in all competitions over the last 2 seasons with a number of teams struggling to deal with his combination of strength and speed.
  12. Brad Barritt: Another player who hasn’t featured for England since the World Cup disaster against Australia, Brad Barritt has continued to be a star for Saracens. A great defensive option at inside centre, he is someone you always know will put his body on the line and give everything for his team. A former British and Irish Lion, it could be argued that at 32 years old he could still do a job for England.
  13. Billy Twelvetrees: Another British and Irish Lion, Twelvetrees has not played for England since August 2015. Another Gloucester player who saw a drop in form, he has looked back to his best this season and has formed a great partnership with Danny Cipriani and Mark Atkinson in the Gloucester midfield. A strong runner and good defender, Twelvetrees also has the ability to fill in at the stand-off position and is also an accurate kicker off the tee.
  14. Anthony Watson: The Bath speedster looked like he could be the person to replace Mike Brown in the England 15 shirt, an Achilles injury picked up in the 2018 Six Nations match against Ireland has kept him out until this weekend’s match against Sale. Capable of playing wing or fullback, I was not sold on his defence before his injury but his speed and elusiveness is a huge positive and he has managed 15 tries from 33 England Test appearances. He is the player I think has the best chance of making it into this year’s World Cup squad.
  15. Alex Goode: Another who has been ignored by Eddie Jones in recent seasons, Goode’s last cap came against Fiji in November 2016. A talented playmaker and another who would be able to feature at 1st receiver, Goode has been arguably one of the best fullbacks in the Premiership over recent seasons but does not appear to have the style of play that Jones is looking for at 15.

Bench

  1. Harry Thacker: I don’t understand how Thacker fell out of favour at Leicester and was allowed to leave for Bristol! There are very few hookers I would rather have in my team when we are attacking in open play than Thacker. He came back to haunt the Tigers yesterday with a late try to down his former club – his 7ᵗʰ of the season in the league.
  2. Val Rapava-Ruskin: A player who recently featured in my Premiership Rugby XV Challenge, Tbilisi-born Rapava-Ruskin is also eligible for England. He is an incredible talent who comes to life in open play, while at the breakdown he is like an extra back row. If he can put his injuries behind him, I can imagine him moving up the England pecking order in the coming years.
  3. Nick Schonert: The South Africa-born prop came off the bench for Kyle Sinckler against the Barbarians but is yet to receive a Test cap. A regular for Worcester, he is probably one of the most under the radar players on this list, but a couple of injuries at tighthead could see him pushing for his first cap.
  4. Jonny Hill: A player who has become a regular for Exeter, Jonny Hill is probably the second row on the list most likely to play for England again due to his age and his team’s continued success. A good ball-carrier and a key part of the lineout, Hill has 6 tries from 45 Premiership appearances.
  5. Guy Thompson: I was so close to picking Alex Dombrandt for this role, but at 21 years old and in his breakout season, I decided to go instead for a more experienced player. Such have been the performances of Guy Thomson over the years for both Wasps and Leicester, it is crazy to think that he has never received any international recognition. Able to play across the back row, he is so dangerous at the breakdown and can make a team pay if they give him too much space with ball in hand.
  6. Joe Simpson: Simpson has 1 cap to his name – coming off the bench in the 2011 World Cup against Georgia – but has found himself unfortunate not to feature more recently due to some badly timed injuries. A player who was always regarded as one of the pacier 9s back in the day, Simpson has amassed 181 Premiership appearances for Wasps, scoring 26 tries. He may have lost a step but he has replaced that with experience and his battle with Dan Robson for the starting spot over recent seasons has brought out the best in both of them.
  7. Marcus Smith: He may not have been capped but he has been called up to train with England on a couple of occasions. He’s only 20 year old but has already clocked up 316 points in 40 Premiership appearances following his Harlequins debut in September 2017. A star for Quins in his debut season, he’s not been as impressive this year but I would still guess that it is a matter of “when” not “if” he gets his first cap.
  8. Jason Woodward: Woodward gets the final spot in the squad courtesy of his versatility, being able to play fullback, wing and outside centre. A player I have rated for years, he scored 11 tries in 44 Super Rugby appearances for Melbourne Rebels and the Hurricanes and even kept Julian Savea out of the ‘Canes’ starting XV for their 2016 final victory against the Lions. He’s continued those great performances with Bristol and Gloucester, scoring 13 tries in 46 Premiership games despite arriving in England after the 2016/17 season had already started.

Do you think any of these players will make it on the plane to Japan? Who would make your squad if you had been picking this list?

He’s At It Again…

He’s At It Again…

Oh dear, here we go again…

Back in April last year, Waratahs and Australia star Israel Folau got himself in hot water for a comment on Instagram stating that God’s plan for homosexuals was

HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God

Fast forward a year and he is at it again. His first remarks were on Twitter, where he appeared critical of Tasmania no longer legally requiring gender to be included on birth certificates, with the following tweet:

The devil has blinded so many people in this world, REPENT and turn away from your evil ways. Turn to Jesus Christ who will set you free.

He then returned to Instagram to post a picture that said:

WARNING    Drunks   Homosexuals   Adulterers   Liars   Fornicators   Thieves   Atheists   Idolaters   HELL AWAITS YOU   REPENT!   ONLY JESUS SAVES

As I mentioned at the time of his previous comments, I have no problem with freedom of speech and while I don’t share his views I will not condemn him for having them. However as one of Australia’s star players and one of the biggest names in rugby, he is a role model for so many young fans and as a result should be much more responsible as to what he posts on his social media.

I have a couple of problems with these social media comments:

  • He makes these comments against homosexuals and hides behind his religion, however he has a number of tattoos, which appear to go against the bible (“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you” – Leviticus 19:28)
  • If these comments were about people of colour rather than homosexuals, then there would be uproar and he would be punished instantly. Why should this be any different? Whether race or sexuality, discrimination is discrimination

Last time, the Rugby Australia chose not to punish him as he used his religion as a shield – conveniently he was nearing the end of his contract and had not yet committed to staying with the the Wallabies, so they were afraid to push him away. Following that incident, Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle said “There’s no doubt we’ve had conversations with Izzy about continuing to present his views in a respectful way. He is walking the line, we’ll continue the dialogue with him.”

Rugby Australia gave him the benefit of the doubt and now he has thrown that back in their faces with his latest comments. In a statement released earlier, they said:

Rugby Australia is aware of a post made by Israel Folau on his Instagram account this afternoon.

The content within the post is unacceptable. It does not represent the values of the sport and is disrespectful to members of the Rugby community.

The Rugby Australia integrity unit has been engaged on the matter tonight.

But how far will Rugby Australia go? In my opinion, he has had his chances and a significant ban is required – if not a ripping up of his contract. However, with the Wallabies in disarray and the World Cup just around the corner, will they be willing to make the big call or are they willing to risk losing face by trying to keep one of the sport’s biggest names available for the tournament?

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

With the Six Nations over for another year, there is just one more important job to do: picking a team of the tournament. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and this was probably the hardest so far as injuries and Jacques Brunel’s inability to settle on a team meant that some players had limited game time, while poor matches or halves of rugby harmed the chances of others. And yet despite that, at some positions I was spoiled for choice and could have picked from 4 or 5 players!

So without further ado, my team of the tournament is:

1- Allan Dell: Mako Vunipola was the choice early in the tournament and I genuinely think England missed him after his injury. Rob Evans has been getting a lot of love but the player who stood out to me was Allan Dell. Dell topped the tackle charts for Scotland with 76 (putting him 5ᵗʰ overall in the tournament) but what really impressed me was his carrying in the loose, which was so important for them given the number of carriers they lost to injury.

2- Jamie George: Did the Saracens hooker do enough to cement the number 2 shirt ahead of regular captain Dylan Hartley? In my opinion, yes. George was reliable in the lineout and a big part of the England defence, finishing the tournament joint-3ʳᵈ in the tackle count with 78, alongside Mark Wilson. What really stood out for me though was his pass to set up Manu Tuilagi for a try against Italy… I’m sure there are centres who would be proud to give a pass like that!

3- Demba Bamba: There wasn’t really any standout performer for me in this position and if I’m honest, I changed my mind as I was writing this. Kyle Sinckler was so close to getting the nod, but I swapped to Bamba at the last moment. At just 20 years old and not even playing in the Top 14, Bamba did not look out of place at all in senior international rugby despite having to take over the starting role early in the tournament following Uini Atonio’s injury. Bamba carried 42 times for 54 metres with a whopping 22 gain line successes (4ᵗʰ most of anyone) and 14 defenders beaten. He may have given away the most penalties in the tournament (8, level with Tom Curry) but this will improve as he gets more experience at this level. Watch out for him over the coming years.

4- Alun Wyn Jones: There have been people wondering if Jones has just played his last Six Nations game. If so, then he has gone out on a high. Despite all the off-field distractions surrounding Project Reset, Jones led the team to a deserved Grand Slam and led by example. He fronted up when he needed to and finished joint-6ᵗʰ in the tackle counts with 71 made and just 4 missed.

5- George Kruis: I wasn’t really enthused by Kruis’ selection at the start of the tournament, however he looked back to his best this year. Kruis was 4ᵗʰ for tackles made in the England squad with 67 (joint-11ᵗʰ overall). But his key point was his work solidifying the England lineout, amassing 17 catches himself to finish joint 3ʳᵈ in the table.

6- Josh Navidi: This was one of the hardest to pick from the quality of performances. Mark Wilson was Mr Reliable for England and Braam Steyn was a big presence for Italy. Peter O’Mahony was going to get the spot until his anonymous performance against Wales. Navidi gets the spot here and I would argue he is one of the most underrated players int he Wales squad. The Cardiff Blues back row finished 2ⁿᵈ overall with 83 tackles and 4 turnovers saw him just miss out on a spot in that top 5 list. He does not look huge but he is so strong and smart, leading to him playing a key role in the Welsh defence with a number of choke tackles and I would argue that his ability attacking in open play is underrated, making 45 metres from 30 carries.

7- Tom Curry: Jamie Richie had a great tournament being thrust into a starting role but in the end the 7 shirt has to go to Tom Curry. Sam Underhill’s injury gave Curry the chance to start and it is hard to imagine him handing the shirt over to anyone else now. Curry’s 86 tackles saw him top the charts and he was joint-4ᵗʰ for turnovers with 5. It has been rare that England have had a proper jackal at 7 under Eddie Jones and Curry has been a real breath of fresh air here. 2 tries didn’t harm his chances either.

8- Billy Vunipola: This was a shootout between Vunipola and Louis Picamoles, but Vunipola’s greater consistency over the tournament. Vunipola’s 71 carries was more than anyone else in the tournament and he finished with more metres than any other forward (231m) and 27 gain line successes (3ʳᵈ behind Braam Steyn and James Ryan). England seriously missed him last season.

9- Antoine Dupont: Not involved in Round 1 and on the bench in Round 2, Dupont took his chance and ran with it. He still has areas of him game to work on, such as controlling the game when his pack aren’t on the front foot, but he brought some great attacking quality to the French attack, finishing with 8 clean breaks (joint-5ᵗʰ overall), 17 defenders beaten (joint-4ᵗʰ) and 7 offloads (joint-2ⁿᵈ). Shockingly, he was also joint-2ⁿᵈ in the turnover charts with 6, going really under the radar with his defence.

10- Owen Farrell: This was probably the hardest pick for me. Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar split their time which made it hard to pick between them, while Finn Russell had some great moments in a struggling Scotland team. However Farrell gets the nod for me as I feel that – other than the second halves against Wales and Scotland – he was the most consistent of the 10s, while he finished with 2 assists and was the top scorer in the competition with 59 points.

11- Jonny May: I’m a big fan of May so to have seen him grow into one of England’s most reliable players in recent years has been wonderful! May carried 52 times (the most of any back, joint-6ᵗʰ overall) and made 284 metres (4ᵗʰ overall) and 11 clean breaks (2ⁿᵈ overall), while beating 9 defenders. He also played a big part in the kicking game, with his pace allowing him to outrun defenders chasing back to deep kicks and finishing with 23 kicks caught – 3ʳᵈ overall in the tournament. Oh, and there’s the small matter of his 6 tries making him the top try scorer and 4ᵗʰ highest points scorer.

12- Hadleigh Parkes: The stats may not back this selection up as much as some others, but Parkes gets the nod here over other impressive 12s Manu Tuilagi, Sam Johnson and Luca Morisi. The Welsh defence was the cornerstone of their tournament success and Parkes was one of the linchpins of that defence, putting his body on the line to protect the Welsh try line. Man of the Match against Scotland, he was involved in 2 of the Key moments against Ireland, scoring the early try and then bringing down Jacob Stockdale when he looked set to break away and score.

13- Henry Slade: When England were playing well, Henry Slade was shining. Despite having not played alongside Manu Tuilagi before this tournament, the pair worked great together and Slade’s range of skills helped him keep defences guessing and resulted in him carrying 38 times for 271 metres (8ᵗʰ overall) with 12 clean breaks (1ˢᵗ overall) and finishing with 3 tries and 2 assists. Outside centre is a difficult position to defend, but Slade was generally impressive at the position and did a great job of shutting down the channel.

14- Josh Adams: I heavily considered putting Josh Adams into my 6 to watch article ahead of the tournament but in the end he just missed out to Gareth Anscombe. Leigh Halfpenny’s concussion left room for Adams to come into the starting lineup and he grabbed the ball with both hand – just like his try against England! Adams’ 257 metres made (9ᵗʰ overall) and 9 clean breaks (4ᵗʰ overall) were the most of any player in the Welsh squad and he scored tries against Italy, England and Scotland.

15- Liam Williams: Elliot Daly and Jayden Hayward both had their moments in the tournament and Blair Kinghorn was certainly in with a shot of making the 15 spot until he got injured. Liam Williams gets the place after taking over the Wales 15 shirt in Halfpenny’s absence. He may have had a quieter tournament than we are used to, but he was so assured under the high ball (his 24 kicks caught was 2ⁿᵈ behind Daly) and this helped nullify an England team that was looking unstoppable at that point.

So there’s my XV, who makes yours?