Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 1

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 1

November is here and for rugby fans that means one thing: the Autumn Internationals are here. Following up on their Bledisloe Cup whitewash, the All Blacks fielded a much-changed XV against Japan to begin their journey to the Northern Hemisphere, while the Home Nations all kicked off their month, including a trip to Chicago for Ireland to face Italy.

The results from Week 1 were:

  • Japan 31-69 New Zealand
  • Wales 21-10 Scotland
  • England 12-11 South Africa
  • USA 22-59 Maori All Blacks
  • Ireland 54-7 Italy

Now unfortunately due to where certain games were televised, I was only able to watch the England and Wales games so this week I will be focusing on these 2 matches. But first a couple of other points that I felt necessary to mention…


Calendar issues

People may be surprised by the lack of international matches this weekend, but there is an important reason for this: World Rugby’s window for Test matches did not cover this weekend. For this reason, teams were not required to release players to the national teams, which is why players like Liam Williams and Dan Biggar were not involved in the Doddie Weir Cup game at the Principality Stadium and a number of influential South Africans like Willie le Roux, Faf de Klerk and Franco Mostert did not feature against England.

I do not understand for one moment why World Rugby are allowing these games to go ahead. Yes, players missing gives coaches a chance to test players on the fringe of the squad but they could do that in their other matches anyway. It’s just yet another match where players have a chance of getting injured (as happened to Tom Curry against South Africa and Ben Morgan & Manu Tuilagi in the preceding week) and in a time when many people would already argue that players play too much, this is yet another risk to those taking part.

I understand the unions need to generate revenue, but in a week where the WRU and SRU have had to be publicly shamed into donating to the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, it just feels like this is another example of the greedy unions putting money before player well-being.

That tackle

Watching the England match at home with my colleague Phil was a roller coaster of emotions, and none more so than in the final moments of the game as Owen Farrell put in a huge hit on André Esterhuizen. Next to me, Phil was yelling out a slightly less polite variant of “what a hit!” and while I initially began to cheer, the moment quickly caught me as I began to wonder if the hit was legal, not helped at all when I saw that referee Angus Gardner was speaking with the TMO. My heart was in my mouth and the relief when Gardner announced he was happy with the challenge and ended the game was overwhelming.

Unsurprisingly, this became the most talked about moment of the weekend’s action, but I must admit I was shocked by how many fans, reporters and pundits felt that the hit was illegal, with people throwing out sanctions from just a penalty all the way to a red card! My personal feeling when I saw the replays along with the officials was that it was a legal hit.

I saw some people online comparing this to Danny Cipriani’s red against Munster and – while I didn’t agree fully with that call – I don’t see how that comparison can be made here as Cipriani clearly did make contact with the head, whereas Farrell’s shoulder made contact with the head. To me the question about legality came down to whether this was a tackle or a shoulder charge. Farrell hits with his right shoulder and I won’t argue that his right arm is down by his side, but the angle from behind Esterhuizen showed that his left arm did attempt to wrap and he in fact almost managed to rip the ball out, but the force of the hit pushed them apart.

What I have not seen many people mention online was that South Africa’s penalty to go 9-11 up came after Thomas du Toit and RG Snyman tackled George Kruis together, each with the arm they were tackling with down by their side. If you say Farrell’s was illegal then so are those hits, so the blame cannot be put on Angus Gardner or the officials for “blowing” the call at the end. Gardner has been consistent on his rulings in this match, it is now up to World Rugby to ensure this consistency continues. Farrell may have avoided a citing, but I doubt we have heard the end of this just yet.


England

Back when I was playing junior rugby, I remember being constantly coached that the first tackler should go low to stop the ball carrier, then the second man should go high. It seems that not many of the England team remembered this at the weekend. Going into the game, I was worried by how the pack would front up against the Boks and I would argue that the answer was all too often not very well. Players continually went high and it allowed players like Eben Etzebeth and Damian de Allende to continually make ground and put the Springboks on the front foot for much of the match. One of the few times that someone went low on Etzebeth, Kyle Sinckler stopped him in his tracks and dumped him on the floor. While I understand going for the ball, the important thing must always be to stop the carrier first.

Looking ahead to the next match against the All Blacks, I think Eddie Jones has to make some changes. While I thought Alec Hepburn was unfortunate to be pulled at halftime, I think Ben Moon did very well off the bench and would in fact suggest starting Moon and Williams (probably the stronger scrummagers) then having the more mobile Hepburn and Sinckler come off the bench in the second half. I have been critical of Mark Wilson’s selection previously, but I think he went about his business well and think he has earned his spot for the next match. I would also give Zach Mercer an overdue first Test start as I feel he made a really positive impact off the bench and (assuming Tom Curry is fit to face New Zealand) I would drop the largely ineffectual Brad Shields to the bench. I don’t think there should be any changes to the back line – though I do wonder if Elliot Daly’s struggles under the high ball may see a return for Mike Brown – but if Manu Tuilagi is fit then I would love to see both him and Ashton on the bench in place of George Ford as they would probably be bigger game changers, while Henry Slade can play 10 if something happens to Farrell.

South Africa

Regardless of your thoughts on Farrell’s tackle, that one moment did not lose South Africa the game. Malcolm Marx is a fantastic player – he recently made my team in my World XV Challenge – but he had a poor game at Twickenham and overthrew a number of crucial lineouts. In the 10 minutes that Maro Itoje was in the sin bin, England won 3-0 despite the Boks starting the period with a penalty 5m out from the England line. Perhaps even worse, they made the same mistake that New Zealand did against them in the Rugby Championship by not going for the drop goal. They had Handrè Pollard and Elton Jantjies both on the field and had the ball pretty central int he England 22 with just minutes left, yet neither made an attempt to get in the pocket or set up for a match-winning drop goal and instead Lood de Jager allowed Owen Farrell to rip the ball away. Had England been a little smarter with their time management and held onto the ball for just a few phases after this, that would have been the match over and the debate about Farrell’s tackle would have never begun. This South Africa team has come a long way since Rassie Erasmus took over and they wee arguably missing a number of key players due to European clubs not releasing them, but if they want to take the next step then they need to start managing the game better in the key moments.


Wales

With Warren Gatland having returned to New Zealand ahead of the Doddie Weir Cup following the passing of his father, I can’t help but feel that Shaun Edwards took charge of training in his absence. This was a vintage performance from the Welsh reminiscent of some of their most successful seasons with Gatland at the helm.

The Scottish forwards were unable to get on the front foot, such was the physicality of the Welsh defending, and this then allowed the defence to hassle Adam Hastings and make it all but impossible to get the back line working effectively on a regular basis. I was surprised and disappointed when I saw Dan Lydiate had been named in the starting XV as I was really looking forward to seeing Ellis Jenkins get a shot in the team but the Ospreys flanker rolled back the clock with a wonderful performance and with so many back rows currently unavailable he may have just put himself back in contention for the World Cup squad.

Scotland

Despite the dominance of the Welsh defence, Scotland still had some great chances and could potentially have come away with victory. George Horne (who did a wonderful job off the bench) put in a lovely little chip into the Welsh in-goal area for his brother Peter, but the centre just couldn’t quite get hold of the ball and dot it down. Jonny Gray did actually dot the ball down over the line but the try was rightfully disallowed and a penalty given against the lock for a double movement.

While the Horne drop was unfortunate, it was by no means an easy catch to make, but to me the Gray penalty was so stupid as he knows that he is making a double movement (I have been in a similar position before where I have started reaching for the line and realised that I will be short, so instead presented the ball to my team) and his support is clearly there. It is not a matter of reach for the line or get turned over, if he presents the ball back, Scotland keep the pressure on and potentially score a couple of phases later. Instead, a penalty allows the Welsh to not just clear their line but also get possession back. This was a costly mistake from one of the most experienced players in the squad.


 

Picking the England Back Row

Picking the England Back Row

Without wanting to sound dramatic, England are reaching crisis point in the back row ahead of the Autumn Internationals. Billy Vunipola’s broken arm – mere weeks after returning from another injury – means that he will have to wait until the 6 Nations to make his return to the England squad. Sam Simmonds is potentially done for the season following an injury to his ACL, while Vunipola’s usual backup Nathan Hughes looks set to be unavailable after being cited for a punch on Lewis Ludlow which he has likely made worse by moronically tweeting out his displeasure during the hearing. The last 22 Tests have seen one of the above 3 players fill the number 8 shirt so Eddie Jones will be venturing into uncharted territory with his selection. To add to his troubles, regular starter Chris Robshaw, Joe Launchbury, Nick Isiekwe, Ellis Genge and Mako Vunipola are all out injured, while Joe Marler has also recently retired from international rugby.

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Chris Robshaw has been almost an ever-present in the England squad under Eddie Jones

Eddie Jones is going to have some big decisions to make in the back row, which will likely also be affected by his selections elsewhere. Jones has clearly favoured a larger, more physical presence at 8, which has limited Sam Simmonds’ chances so far, and often this year England have looked short of physical runners with a lightweight back line and Vunipola missing from the squad.

With this in mind, I will attempt to give my options for each position in the back row for the Autumn Tests. Due to Launchbuy’s absence, I will not be considering Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes in the back row as they will be needed in the tight 5, not to mention I have yet to be convinced they are international quality blind-side flankers.

 

8 – Judging by previous selections and current form, the next man up at number 8 would be Bath’s Zach Mercer. Anyone who regularly reads my blog will know I am a big fan of the former England U20s captain and I am sure that he would excel if given his first cap (his only appearance so far was a non-capped game against the Barbarians). At 6 foot 3 and 111kg, he is very similar in both physique and playing style to New Zealand’s Kieran Read and if he gets a good run in the team it will be hard to oust him from the XV. However given the need for a physical presence, another option would be a recall for Gloucester’s Ben Morgan. Morgan has not played for England since the 2015 World Cup and we already know that Eddie Jones is loath to pick Gloucester players no matter how well they are playing, but he is in the best form I have seen him in for a couple of the seasons and earned a timely Man of the Match award in Gloucester’s win over Castres with Jones in attendance. Morgan is more of a like-for-like replacement for Vunipola and Hughes, so with the lack of physical options currently available he would look to be the preferred option.

7 – While Sam Underhill is probably the most similar to Robshaw – he will tackle anything that moves in front of him – I think that Tom Curry is likely in the driving seat here following some impressive performances during the tour to South Africa. The Sale flanker has been around the squad for a couple of years and starting him in these Tests would be the logical progression. However, he could come under pressure from Matt Kvesic, who has been in incredible form so far this season after revitalising his career in his second season at Exeter. The former Gloucester flanker is a great nuisance at the breakdown, much like Curry, but has also really developed his game in open play. It has been a torrid couple of seasons for him since he was last in contention for an England spot, but this is probably the best chance he has had of a cap in years!

6 – The selection at 6 is very reliant on Jones’ selection at 8. Should Morgan get the nod at that position, I would pick Zach Mercer here as he is too good a player to leave out of the XV, while his versatility allows him to cover the entire back row. Should Mercer wear the 8 shirt, a more physical presence will be required at 6. EnterDom Armand, who really should have more than 2 caps to his name after a stellar couple of seasons for Exeter. The Zimbabwe-born flanker has had a limited effect from the bench against Argentina and then in the dismal performance that saw them lose to Ireland in the 6 Nations, but from the start he would be able to establish himself in the game as a solid runner while also providing a lineout option. If anyone but Jones were selecting the squads, he’d likely have a lot more caps to his name by now and at 30 years old, he would provide a more experienced head in a young back row alongside Mercer and Curry.

 

So those are my options and if I was the one making the picks, then I would go for a combination of Armand, Curry and Mercer with Morgan on the bench. Do I think Eddie will agree with me? Not at all, and I won’t be surprised to see players like Michael Rhodes, James Haskell, Brad Shields or Mark Wilson all selected ahead of at least a couple of these names. But I think we’ve come to expect that by now.

With the World Cup just a year away and only the 6 Nations and warm-up matches remaining following these Tests, Thursday’s squad announcement could potentially be the most important so far in Eddie Jones’ tenure…

England Rugby: September Training Squad

England Rugby: September Training Squad

With 3 matches down in the Premiership, Eddie Jones has named a 36-man training squad who will meet from 23rd September to 25th September ahead of their Autumn Internationals, where they will play against South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Australia. The players announced in this squad are:

Forwards

Front Row: Jamie George, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler, Nick Schonert, Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola, Harry Williams

Back 5: Tom Curry, Nathan Hughes, Nick Isiekwe, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Zach Mercer, Michael Rhodes, Chris Robshaw, Brad Shields, Billy Vunipola, Mark Wilson

Backs

Scrum-halves: Danny Care, Dan Robson, Ben Youngs

Midfield: Owen Farrell, George Ford, Alex Lozowski, Henry Slade, Ben Te’o, Manu Tuilagi

Back 3: Chris Ashton, Mike Brown, Joe Cokanasiga, Elliot Daly, Nathan Earle, Jonny May, Jack Nowell

Notable Absentees

It appears that the Gloucester curse continues as once again the club have no representation in the training squad (newly-promoted Bristol are the only other team not to be supplying a player). Though I may be biased, I would argue that Ed Slater, Jason Woodward Lewis Ludlow and Henry Trinder could all feel hard done by for not being selected on their form last season and since the summer. One person who will feel absolutely gutted to miss out though is Danny Cipriani, who turned down more lucrative offers to come to Gloucester and stay eligible for England. After the incident in Jersey during preseason, Eddie Jones said that Cips would be judged on his rugby, yet despite leading Glaws to 3rd place, unbeaten in 3 games, with 2 Man of the Match awards, he has missed out yet again. Jones has said that it was 100% a rugby decision but I call bollocks on that as this means he has suddenly decided that Owen Farrell is a 10 again, despite having barely any options in the centre, while it was Cipriani who was at 10 when England finally remembered how to win in South Africa. Not just that, but if these selections were based purely on the rugby they’re playing, how are Ben Te’o and Chris Ashton (who have not appeared in a squad this season through injury and suspension respectively) involved? Jones is playing a very dangerous game by continuing to rely on George Ford – who has still not fully won me over – and Farrell, if one of them were to get injured on the eve of the World Cup, how much will he regret not getting Cipriani in in the squad more often? With the mixed response to John Mitchell being brought in as defence coach, leaving out Cipriani will not help get the fans enthused about the team after a disastrous 2017/18 season.

It’s not just Gloucester players that I feel have been hard done by though, as 2 of the best players in the Premiership last season (Sam Simmonds and Don Armand) have been left out. Armand especially seems to be one of those players like Cipriani or Alex Goode that could be the best in their position and still left out, while I can only imagine Eddie Jones is looking at Simmonds as a number 8, where he already has Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes. However Simmonds could easily feature on the flank and with Robshaw’s struggles last season, I can’t fathom how Simmonds brings less to this team the former captain or Mark Wilson. Brad Shields is selected and he’s injured at the moment, how does that make sense?! But even if Jones wants to just consider Simmonds at 8, I would have him in there. He offers something different to Hughes and Vunipola with extra pace while still being strong enough to hold his own. Vunipola has only just returned from injury while Hughes may have started the season well, but has never really lived up to his Wasps form when he pulls on the red rose. Once again it feels like Eddie Jones is sticking very much to his favourites and I worry that if they get injured or a loss of form makes them unselectable, he will have to look at players with just a handful of caps.

He’s Back!

Given his injury history, I don’t want to get carried away, but it is so great to see Manu Tuilagi back in the squad. He has had the worst time with injuries (he hasn’t played for England since the 2016 6 Nations) but has been looking good this season for Leicester. When on form, it is hard not to consider him one of the best centres in the world and his combination of pace and power will help England get the balance that has been sorely missing in their midfield. Now we just need to cross our fingers and hope his injury worries are behind him – though I wouldn’t mind if a little niggle made him conveniently miss matches against Gloucester.

The Back 3

Looking at the options available in the back 3 if Eddie Jones were to pick on form, I think Mike Brown will struggle to make a matchday squad. Elliot Daly may not have had the best summer at 15, but he has been looking much more comfortable there recently for Wasps. Joe Cokasaniga is in top form in a struggling Bath team. Jonny May is a shoe-in for one of the wing spots after his recent England and Leicester performances. Jack Nowell is a Lion and in my opinion possibly England’s best overall winger when on form. Add to that Nathan Earle’s speed and Chris Ashton’s top-quality support lines and it’s hard to see how Mike Brown will be able to get much time on the pitch.

The scary thing is the quality of options that haven’t been picked too. Anthony Watson may be down my pecking order but he is still a British & Irish Lion, but he is currently out injured. Denny Solomona and Christian Wade will always be looking to get on the scoresheet, while Matt Banahan and Jason Woodward have started the season strongly for Gloucester. And let’s not forget Alex Goode, who has consistently been one of the best 15s in the Premiership over recent seasons but can’t get a shot under Eddie Jones! If Jones can get the right team and they can play near the best of their ability, they have the players out wide to cut teams to shreds.

Risky Warm-up

Risky Warm-up

We are just over a year out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup and England, Ireland and Wales have been announcing their warm-up matches. To my memory, recent World Cups have usually seen teams have 3 warm-up matches, but this time England, Ireland and Wales have announced they will be playing 4 matches each:

Ireland v Italy – 10/8/19
England v Wales 11/8/19
Wales v England 17/8/19
England v Ireland 24/8/19
Wales v Ireland 31/8/19
Engand v Italy 6/9/19
Ireland v Wales 7/9/18

Now I’ve got to be honest, I am not a fan of the decision to play 4 matches. I understand that the players will need some warm-up matches to prepare following the summer, but to be playing 4 matches so close to the World Cup (Ireland and England play their first matches on 22/9/18, Wales a day later) is in my view very risky.

Assuming one of these teams reaches the final on 2/11/19, these teams will be playing 11 international matches in just under 3 months. Even though it does not have to be the same players involved in every match, the squad sizes mean that most players will be involved in the majority of matches, which will take a massive toll on them. There is also a very high chance that players will pick up injuries that could rule them out of the tournament. I can’t help but remember Morgan Stoddart’s broken leg against England in 2011 – an injury that ended his international career and caused him to retire from rugby having played just a few matches following his Scarlets return. Rugby is a contact sport and every time you take to the pitch you know there is a chance you will get injured, but if players do not go in with full commitment during these matches in an attempt to protect themselves for the tournament then they are more likely to do damage. Adding a fourth match just presents another chance for someone to get injured. Just imagine if Farrell or Sexton misses the World Cup courtesy of an injury picked up in one of these matches…

To me, this just feels like a chance for the unions to make a bit more money from ticket sales. Hopefully this is just me being a bit of a cynic and my worries come to nothing, but when these matches come around, I may have to watch them through my fingers.

2018 Summer Tests Week 2: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 2: A Rugby Ramble

Wheels coming off the chariot

England slumped to another disappointing defeat with a 23-12 loss to an improving South Africa which leaves them unable to win the June series. The team have now lost 6 matches in a row (yes Eddie, I’m counting that Barbarians match!) and if I’m completely honest I don’t see that streak ending next week..

billyvWhat has gone wrong for this team? From an outsider looking in, things don’t look great. Players continue to get long-term injuries in training sessions. Eddie Jones is moaning that he has 25 players unavailable for selection – I’d love to hear the list and see if it includes players he continues to overlook like Don Armand and Alex Goode – which makes it sound like he doesn’t trust the players (many of them regulars) that he has with him. Ben Youngs is giving one of the rudest post-match interviews I’ve ever seen – he later apologised but it still left a nasty taste in the mouth – while Mike Brown and Joe Marler got into a row with fans in the crowd. And all the while Eddie Jones appears to feel that discipline is not an issue, despite a ridiculous penalty count, a stupid infringement from Nathan Hughes – who so frequently looks out of depth at this level – that left England a man down for 10 minutes, a positively brainless penalty from Mako Vunipola for a slap on Pieter-Steph du Toit and a kick that Maro Itoje appeared to aim at Faf de Klerk at the exact same ruck as the Vunipola slap. Players who star every week for Saracens are repeatedly poor for England recently and in some cases are actually liabilities with their lack of discipline. George Ford has had his moments where he has looked great but has largely disappeared from games once the Boks started getting into the game, while Billy Vunipola did not look fit enough in either match (possibly not being helped by not training at altitude, not that Eddie feels this is an issue) and is now out again with a broken arm. Is Eddie the man to take us through to the World Cup? Right now, I have my reservations about him, but with just a 6 Nations and a handful of other Tests remaining, I’m not sure there is someone who could come in and get the team ready in time.

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The 23 I would pick for the final Test against South Africa

With the series lost, changes should be made for the final Test, if only to rest some players and give others a fair chance to show what they can do. I would have selected Ellis Genge at 1, but he is returning to England injured and Mako is also returning for family reasons, Alex Hepburn is flying out and while I would love to start him I think the space needs to go to Marler, who has been training with the squad. Jamie George’s form has not been up to the level everyone expected when given his chances to start and I think it is time to give Luke Cowan-Dickie a chance to prove he can move ahead of the Saracen. Kyle Sinckler is another who has not backed up his form from the Lions Tour and I think it may benefit England to start the stronger scrummager Williams, leaving Sinckler to come off the bench when the Boks get tired. I’m dropping Itoje from my starting second row as he has been a penalty machine and has been lucky not to be penalised more with the way he has targeted Faf de Klerk over the 2 Tests, so I would bring Nick Isiekwe back in to partner Joe Launchbury, with Itoje on the bench, no more of this going without a specialist lock replacement. Curry and Shields both impressed me in this game so I would keep them, while I would begin to look away from Hughes as an international number 8 and look at giving Sam Simmonds some more international experience, though I see his international future on the flank. Ben Youngs was poor at scrum half and it is time Dan Robson and Ben Spencer got their chance to prove themselves. I would happily start either of them, but I have gone for Robson to start due to his experience playing with Danny Cipriani, who I have picked at 10. He looked good in his 12 minute cameo on Saturday and now deserves the chance to depose George Ford. Owen Farrell keeps his place at 12 to give Cirpiani the same help Ford has had, while Slade keeps his place at 13 for consistency in the midfield. In the back 3, Elliot Daly has not had the best of games defensively at 15, but is bringing so much with his attacking lines and deserves a chance to grow into the role. Jonny May has been one of the better players over the last 2 matches and has been involved in so many of the team’s best moments so keeps his place at 14. I’ve been critical of Mike Brown on a number of occasions in recent years but I thought he had a good game in this match, though I still worry about him if he is forced to defend normally against a specialist winger rather than coming across to make cover tackles as in this game. I would rest him for the final game and give the 11 shirt to Jason Woodward. Admittedly I am perhaps biased as a Gloucester fan, but this is a guy who has started for the Hurricanes ahead of Julian Savea in a Super Rugby final and his ability to play both on the wing and at fullback allows him to help Elliot Daly similar to how Mike Brown did at the weekend.

Awful Argentina

To say watching Argentina over the last couple of weeks has been disappointing is possibly the understatement of the century. They have been awful! Wales rested a number of players on this tour and have been chopping and changing the lineups to make sure everyone gets decent gametime, so their performances have not necessarily been great, but they still never looked like losing in either match against the Pumas.

A couple of years ago I would have had Nicolas Sanchez as one of the best fly halves in the world, but he has been dreadful over the last 2 weeks. The team have not done well enough at the breakdown,the forwards have not been able to control the set piece in the way they used to and the backs looked shorn of the flair we have got used to seeing over recent years. Taking off Pablo Matera and Agustin Creevy – often 2 of their best players – so early in the second half felt like the coaches were throwing in the towel for this match. In fact head coach Daniel Hourcade did throw in the towel, announcing that he will step down after next week’s game against Scotland.

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Despite an early red card for fullback Benjamin Fall, France looked much improved from last weekend in their match against New Zealand, though the All Blacks lost Beauden Barrett early and struggled to adapt to Angus Gardner’s refereeing of the breakdown

Hopefully new leadership will start the turnaround in fortunes, but the team needs more than that. As it stands, only players inside Argentina are selected for the national team, which means that the entire squad are from the Jaguares team – even though it has looked as if the guys had never played together before the last couple of weeks! While the familiarity should help the team, it cannot be easy to jump from Super Rugby to international rugby. There were rumours a few months ago that overseas-based players will be available for selection again soon, this needs to happen immediately so that stars like Facundo Isa can help this team get back to the level they were at.

The next megapower?

Massive congratulations to the USA who ran out 30-29 victors against Scotland last night to win their first match against Tier 1 opposition. Though it was by no means Scotland’s strongest squad, there was still enough experience to go with the talented youngsters to think the Scots would win and while they did miss a couple of kicks at goal and have a try disallowed for a knock-on by Mark Bennett, the USA were good value for their historic win to continue their unbeaten 2018.

Just over 2 years ago, I wrote about how PRO Rugby could be the next stage of a revolution that could see the USA become the next rugby superpower. While PRO Rugby may not have worked out as hoped, things seem to be going better with its replacement Major League Rugby (MLR). The majority of the squad are based in the MLR, with a handful of overseas-based players like Samu Manoa (Toulon), AJ MacGinty (Sale), Joe Taufete’e (Worcester) and Blaine Scully (Cardiff Blues) supplying a high level of top-quality experience despite the recent retirements of Todd Clever and Chris Wyles. The expansion of MLR (Ben Foden is rumoured to be joining expansion team Rugby United New York) will continue to help the development of the local players, while other players like Danny Barrett will continue to gain experience as part of a successful team on the World Sevens Series. And all the while the success of the national team (They have won the last 2 Americas Rugby Championships) and the MLR will draw in new talent, like centre Paul Lasike, who played fullback in the NFL for the Cardinals and Bears.

Qualification for the 2019 World Cup saw the USA qualify as Americas 1 for the first time. If their rise continues, it is possible they may soon start to qualify for the finals by finishing top 3 in their pool. 2019 may be too soon for that, but 2023 is certainly a possibility. In fact, if the USA’s love of rugby can continue to grow, then they could be the next team to break into the top tier. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Eyes On: England v Barbarians

Eyes On: England v Barbarians

Sunday at Twickenham saw the start of the latest Summer Tests window with Engalnd’s annual fixture against the Barbarians. England were missing a number of players due to their appearances in the Premiership final the day before, and a handful of other players were either rested or unavailable through injury, but Eddie Jones was still able to put together an attractive looking squad, however it paled in comparison next to the big names Pat Lam had pulled together to represent the Barbarians. Whereas Saturday’s final would be described as solid play, this was certainly spectacular, with the Barbarians scoring 9 tries to win 45-63, a record score against England at Twickenham.

The squad

Before anything, I must admit I was surprise by some of Eddie Jones’ selections for this match. I have really wanted to see Elliot Daly given a chance at 15 and was thrilled to see him given the shirt when the team was announced. That thrill did not last long as I realised that Mike Brown was still in the XV, playing on the wing. Brown has been a wonderful servant for England over the years, but I don’t understand why Eddie Jones seems to consider him almost undroppable. In this match, he did not have the pace to cope with Josua Tuisova and did not provide much in attack to merit his inclusion. It’s not as if he was even the only option available as Denny Solomona was on the bench and Jason Woodward was left out of the 23 altogether. The Mike Brown as a winger experiment needs to stop now, hopefully Eddie realised this.

I was also really disappointed to see Ben Youngs, George Ford, Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler starting this game given the options available on the bench. I appreciate the 4 of them, along with Brown, made up most of the experienced contingent, but what better game to blood young talent like Robson, Cipriani, Genge and Wilson than against the Barbarians, in a match where the result is less important so the pressure is (somewhat) off. Ford had a good game in attack, but against a Barbarians team that is never going to have an incredibly organised defence I would expect nothing less from him. The real disappointment in this game was Robshaw. A man who has always been considered such a reliable tackler and defender, Robshaw missed a number of tackles in this game and many of them proved costly on the scoreboard. With Billy Vunipola returning to the England fold and a number of younger back row players impressing when given the chance, Robshaw’s days in the starting XV could be numbered.

lobbe
This match was Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe’s last before retiring. He led the Barbarians to a record victory and even got on the scoresheet by taking the final conversion

Odd subs

Tying in somewhat to the last point, I thought some of Eddie Jones’ replacements were odd. Henry Trinder may not have had the best start to the game defensively, but let’s be honest no one in an England shirt did! However as England started to improve, it looked like he was beginning to grow into the game, until he was removed for a Head Injury Assessment after 27 minutes, with Cipriani coming on at 15 and Daly moving into the centre. Daly had started the game relatively well but I felt his influence waned after this positional change, while Cipriani had a couple of good moments but not enough to really catch the eye as an option at 15 in the Tests. It was reported by the Sky Sports commentary that Trinder passed his HIA, yet Jones decided not to bring him back onto the pitch. For someone who has had such a torrid time with injuries and finally put together a wonderful season, to be yanked off so early after the whole team started poorly is awful and I really hope that the commentary was wrong and Trinder in fact failed his HIA. I’m starting to get the feeling that he will not be given a fair shot at the England 13 shirt while Eddie Jones is in charge, much like Alex Goode and the 15 shirt.

I was also shocked to see Zach Mercer removed so early in the second half by Eddie Jones. In case you haven’t noticed from previous articles, I am a big fan of the Bath number 8 and thought that while he was having a relatively quiet game – aside from his try, where he ran a brilliant support line as Daly went through a gap – he was not struggling in the same way Robshaw was. Mark Wilson looked decent off the bench and I do not begrudge him the game time, but I just feel that England would have benefitted more both on the day and long term from keeping Mercer on the pitch and replacing Robshaw.

Making a splash

The scrip almost wrote itself here: Chris Ashton rejected by Eddie Jones so moves to Toulon, breaks the Top 14 record, starts at fullback against England at Twickenham and scores 2 tries in the opening 10 minutes on the way to a 25-minute hat-trick.

Though his defence wasn’t at the best in this game (whose was if we’re being honest?), his attacking play was wonderful and after being gifted the first try by Josua Tuisova he scored 2 wonderful tries, the first a lovely chip over Daly and the second a classic Ashton try getting on the shoulder to take an offload. His great running lines also set up Finn Russell for his try and he was close to a 4th try but couldn’t get downward pressure on the ball, while George Ford also tracked back well to make a last ditch tackle in the first half.

I would argue that he is a better player now than he was in his heyday with England and it is a shame that Eddie Jones did not consider him before his move to Toulon. That said, now that he is at Toulon I completely agree that he is ineligible to play for England. I know a lot of people are clamouring for him to play, but if he can’t guarantee release to England whenever we need it why should he be picked? The rule about playing in England has been clear for years and, as good as he is, I would not consider his form an exceptional circumstance given the options available throughout the back 3.

South Africa Tour: The England Squad

South Africa Tour: The England Squad

This morning, Eddie Jones named his 34-man squad to tour South Africa this summer. Coming off 3 consecutive losses in a disappointing 6 Nations campaign, Jones has decided to include a number of regulars despite having played long seasons (some have barely had a break since the start of last season due to the Lions Tour), but he has also rested a number of players.

As per every Eddie Jones squad, there were a few surprises, including a heavily publicised England recall (more on that shortly) and 8 uncapped players as the England boss continues to look at his options less than 500 days before the World Cup. In this article I will be looking at the players selected and giving my thoughts on the Australian’s decisions. There was also a 31-man training squad announced for training in Brighton ahead of the Barbarians match. As this squad will contain replacements for the England players still involved in the Premiership playoffs, I will not discuss it too much, but there may be some moments I refer to it to get a better idea of Eddie’s mind.

So without further ado, let’s look at the squad…

Front Row: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Jamie George, Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola, Harry Williams

A bit of a mixed bag here for me. No real surprises in the selections other than some of the players who weren’t given a rest. Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola are both well established in the England squad, so given they both featured for the Lions I thought that they would be rested to give Beno Obano and Alex Hepburn (who have both been in fine form of late) a chance along with Ellis Genge to break the established one-two punch at loosehead.

Jamie George is another I thought may have been rested, but with Dylan Hartley missing, this is his chance to prove he deserves the number 2 shirt, while Luke Cowan-Dickie will be dangerous in the loose.

At tighthead, Dan Cole is getting a ell-earned rest and Kyle Sinckler will finally have the chance to wrest the number 3 shirt from his grasp as he did on the Lions Tour. There may not be the same depth at 3 as there is at 1 but Harry Williams has impressed for Exeter in recent seasons and is rightfully the next in line for England.

Back Five: Tom Curry, Ben Earl, Jonny Hill, Nick Isiekwe, Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw, Brad Shields, Sam Simmonds, Billy Vunipola, Jack Willis, Mark Wilson

While it’s great to see Billy Vunipola named in the squad after such a long absence, after his recent injury history I would have quite liked to see him given the summer off just to rest and fully recover, similar to Sam Underhill. Chris Robshaw is another I was surprised to see included as everybody knows what he can and can’t do, so I felt this was the perfect time to rest him.

Brad Shields is a highly controversial call here but I have no problem for it. He has been a big part of a successful Hurricanes back row and has captained the side, so brings a lot of experience to the team. A lot of people feel that he has been fast-tracked in but I think he has earned hist shot with his performances in Super Rugby, while his move to Wasps next summer makes him eligible in the same way Piers Francis’ move to Northampton allowed him to be selected last year (yet I don’t remember the arguments against him being selected despite a lot less top-level experience).

Curry, Earl, Willis and Wilson have all had wonderful seasons but I cannot understand how Zach Mercer has dropped out of the squad. Simmonds was a great option at number 8 but I still see his international future on the flank, whereas Mercer’s natural ability gives England a completely different option at the position to Vunipola. More than that, the omission of Don Armand despite being one of the best players in the Premiership this year baffles me. He brings a strength that was missing in Vunipola’s abscence and has been a vital piece in Exeter’s run to the playoffs.

Moving into the second row and I am a bit surprised at the inclusion of Launchbury and Itoje, though with Kruis, Lawes and Ewels unavailable I can understand the need to get some experience in there. Isiekwe could potentially be the next big thing in the second row, but the selection of Jonny Hill admittedly surprises me. He may have won the most lineouts in the Premiership, but Dave Attwood has been in such good form while on loan at Toulon and has previous international experience, so I thought this may be a chance for him to break back into the squad.

Inside Backs: Danny Cipriani, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Alex Lozowski, Cameron Redpath, Dan Robson, Henry Slade, Ben Spencer, Ben Te’o, Ben Youngs

And now we come to the biggest shock of the entire squad: Eddie’s taking 3 scrum halves! OK, I kid, that’s not the biggest shock, but it is a big change for Eddie Jones and one I’m not sure I fully understand. It’s great to see Robson and Spencer in there finally, but the selection of Ben Youngs makes me worry that they will be reduced to a handful of minutes each. Youngs is clearly the starting 9 for the World Cup as it stands, so why risk him picking up another injury and instead give Robson and Spencer all the minutes so that they can get used to the international game. They both have the ability to start for England in Japan so should be given every chance possible to compete with the established options of Youngs and Care.

I was shocked to see Farrell named in the squad as he was another I was sure would be given a well-earned summer off. However in my eyes he is the clear successor to Dylan Hartley as captain so I think Eddie maybe taking him to prove himself in the leadership role in case he does decide to move on from Hartley come the World Cup. The decision to take 3 other fly halves (Cipriani, Redpath and Ford) suggests to me that Farrell will again be used as a centre rather than at 10.

Cipriani’s return to the England squad is understandably getting the headlines. He is an incredible player especially in attack, but as it stands his future is unknown as he is leaving Wasps but his next club has not yet been announced. If he decides to move to France now, this will have been a wasted opportunity to give a younger player some experience. What interests me a lot is Eddie Jones commenting about him as a 10 or a 15. With the aforementioned other 3 fly halves and Alex Lozowski and Henry Slade both experienced at 10, it would seem very odd to select Cipriani as a 15 considering Alex Goode has had another stunning season for Saracens, making a record 1,808m over the gainline in the Premiership this season (according to Opta stats).

Cameron Redpath’s inclusion is an odd one for me. I would have personally selected Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds over Redpath, and I can’t help feel that Redpath is being capped so quickly to capture him before Scotland can (which then surprises me as to why Ben Vellacott only made the training squad). I assume that Smith’s omission means that he will be allowed to take part in the U20s World Championship this summer, which is a highly exciting prospect and may work out better for hi in the long term.

With Slade, Lozowski and Te’o joining Farrell in the centre, I can’t help but feeling there are too many centre/fly half hybrids. Slade has looked fantastic for Exeter at 13, but has not yet lived up to the expectations when wearing the rose, while Lozowski is clearly a good player but I do not see what he brings to the squad different to the other hybrids. Ben Te’o clearly gives a more physical option at either 12 or 13, and I feel that another specialised centre should have been included at the expense of Lozowski/Farrell/Redpath. How Henry Trinder has not been included in either the touring squad or the training squad is beyond me as he appears to have put his injury issues largely behind him while also being one of the form 13s in the Premiership. With Eddie Jones bringing in Scott Wisemantel as attacking coach for the tour, we will hopefully see more from the midfield in South Africa, but I still worry about this area of the pitch as we near the World Cup.

Full Backs: Mike Brown, Elliot Daly, Nathan Earle, Jonny May, Denny Solomona

Why is Mike Brown in this squad? Nothing against him, but we already clearly know what he can do in this squad. I imagine were Anthony Watson avaialable, Brown would have been given the summer off. Elliot Daly has been one of the form wingers in recent internationals, so unless he is to be played as a fullback (unlikely given Brown’s inclusion and Jones’ mention of Cipriani as a 15) I do not see the point of taking him following his exertions on the Lions Tour. This would have been the perfect time to bring Alex Goode back into the fold, or even to test Jason Woodward, who is clearly in Eddie Jones’ thinking judging by his place in the training squad, but apparently experience and reputation once again counts for more than form.

On the wings it will be interesting to see Jones’ selections on the wing for the First Test. May and Earle have bags of pace, as does Daly, whereas Solomona is adept at finding the try line. If I was picking the starting lineup for the First Test, I would be going for May and Solomona on the wings, with Daly at 15, so I can pretty much guarantee Eddie Jones will select something completely different!

 

What are your thoughts on Eddie’s selections? Is there anyone missing you would have selected? How do you see this squad faring in South Africa? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.