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.

Lions 2017: The Review

The Lions tour of 2017 is now over. An enthralling trip to New Zealand ended with the Lions winning 5 games, losing 3 and drawing 2, including the deciding third Test to end the Test series in a 1-1 tie.

Right from the moment the initial touring party was named, there have been controversies all the way through to the final minutes of the last Test. There were also a number of big individual performances, some from players we’d expect but many from players who many fans likely didn’t expect to have a big part on the tour, especially in the Tests.

As we begin to look ahead to the 2021 tour of New Zealand, I felt it right to say goodbye to the tour with a look back at what has happened this summer and a couple of suggestions as to what I feel should happen in future tours.

My individual match write-ups:

  1. Win v New Zealand Provincial Barbarians 7-13
  2. Loss v Blues 22-16
  3. Win v Crusaders 3-12
  4. Loss v Highlanders 23-22
  5. Win v Maori All Blacks 10-32
  6. Win v Chiefs 6-34
  7. Loss v New Zealand 30-15
  8. Draw v Hurricanes 31-31
  9. Win v New Zealand 21-24
  10. Draw v New Zealand 15-15

The coaches

While the Lions forwards did not always have their own way in the Tests, on the whole they did seem to have an advantage in the pack. I feel that both Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree both come away from this tour looking good, especially Borthwick. Borthwick is still relatively new to coaching a top-tier nation, having joined England alongside Eddie Jones in late 2015, so if he continues to improve I think he has a great chance of being involved with the 2021 tour.

Though a couple of the kickers struggled with the Adidas ball early in the tour, Owen Farrell really seemed to improve his success percentages as the tour reached the crucial last couple of Tests, which eventually proved the difference in the second and third Tests. To my memory, Leigh Halfpenny was the only Lion not to miss a kick at goal during this tour and Dan Biggar also had one of the better kicking percentages, so I feel this shows the importance Neil Jenkins had on this tour. Will he make the trip to South Africa in 4 years? It will probably depend in part as to which kickers are in the squad but he’s certainly got the experience.

Of all the Lions coaches, I feel that Andy Farrell comes out looking best. There were a number of times when the Lions defence held impressive attacking lineups to a low number of points. In the Tests, especially the third Test, Farrell made good use of the blitz defence to minimise the effect of the crash ball on the Sexton/Farrell channel and also put the All Blacks under heavy pressure, leading to a number of uncharacteristic mistakes. If the defence had not been so impressive, the All Blacks could have legitimately finished with a 3-0 whitewash. I think a lot of teams will have been taking note of Farrell’s defensive tactics ready for when they play the All Blacks. Much like Borthwick, if he can continue to impress over the next few years I expect to see him involved in 4 years.

Though the Lions did start to score a few more tries as the tour wore on, I feel that the attack was on the whole a real disappointment. In many of the matches, the Lions left too many chances on the field, and I cannot even remember them creating anything resembling a try-scoring opportunity in the last Test. This reflects badly on Rob Howley, who also didn’t impress in charge of Wales for the 6 Nations this year.

Warren Gatland may have orchestrated an unlikely series draw in New Zealand to go with his 2-1 victory in Australia 4 years ago, but I feel there were too many controversies relating to his decisions on this Tour. I am not a big fan of Gatland, as I feel his Warrenball tactics are outdated yet he has not made much effort to evolve them. When you consider the Lions needed a late – and somewhat controversial – penalty to beat an All Blacks side that spent over half the game a man down in the second Test, you could say that Gatland is extremely lucky to not be the only Kiwi disappointed at a New Zealand series victory. There were also a number of selection controversies that were surely heightened by his involvement with the Welsh national team, as a number of times the Welsh players appeared to be preferred both in the 41-man touring party and in the 23-man squads if there was a 50/50 decision to make. Even worse was his decision to call up 6 nearby players partway through the tour – including preferring a couple of Welsh players who could not even be considered squad regulars for Wales ahead of internationals who impressed in the 6 Nations and were considered extremely lucky not to make the initial 41 – only to then make an abrupt U-turn after seeing the public reaction and decide not to play the ‘Geographic 6’ unless there was no other choice. Personally I would not like to see Gatland or Howley involved with the 2021 tour, and also feel Wales will benefit from replacing both coaches at the end of their current contracts.

While I have no problem with the assistant coaches coming from the Home Nations national teams, as this will help the chemistry of the squad, I personally feel that the Head Coach at least should be a neutral as opposed to one of the Home Nations coaches. My preference would be to have a British/Irish head coach, though I appreciate there may not always be someone with enough experience for this role. Looking ahead to 2021, Eddie Jones has already suggested that he will leave his position with England after the 2019 World Cup, so I can see the Lions looking to bring him in to lead the tour of South Africa, but I will also be interested to see the development of international coaches like Gregor Townsend and Conor O’Shea over the next few years.

The schedule

With the increasing focus on player welfare in an already long season, it is always going to be difficult to get the scheduling right for a Lions Tour. Without even counting clubs releasing players in the buildup to their European Cup finals for the Messy Monday meeting of the Lions squad, there were some clear problems with the scheduling of this tour.

The performance against the provincial Barbarians was so poor, jet lag was commonly used as an excuse, due to the Lions having only arrived in New Zealand mere days earlier. Considering the players involved in their domestic league finals were never going to be involved in the first game – in fact Gatland tried to not even use players who had been involved in the semi-finals either – it would have made more sense to me for the majority of the squad to fly out a week earlier, with any remaining players making the trip out once their club commitments were over.

The suggestions are that the South Africa tour will contain fewer games, and while I initially thought these games were required to help find the right 23 for the Tests, I wonder if less games but more consistently challenging could be better. I feel the Lions could also be used as a way to give extra experience to lower-tier nations. For 2021, I would love to see a game against the Barbarians, 1 or 2 against Namibia and a couple of games against South Africa A and/or a ‘Super Rugby All-stars’ made up of the best available players from the South African Super Rugby franchises.

There has also been talk of including a test against Argentina as a warm-up game. While I agree they deserve a chance to play the Lions and appreciate there probably isn’t enough of an infrastructure yet to host an entire Lions tour, I would not be against a tour of the Americas, with the main test series being against the Pumas but also games against nations from the Americas Rugby Championship (USA, Canada, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile) as this would be good international experience for teams not yet in the top-tier and would also be good to improve the hype and visibility of rugby in these countries.

Player of the Tour

He may not have featured much outside of the Tests but Jonathan Davies gets my vote. In the 6 Nations I was not at all impressed and felt that the injury to Huw Jones and poor performances of Jonathan Joseph were the only factors putting him in contention of a place in the squad. However playing for Scarlets in the playoffs of the Pro12 he looked absolutely fantastic.

Not used until the third game against the Crusaders, a head injury saw him come off in the first half but in that time he had already done enough to show that he was the best option at 13 for the Tests and had worked well with Ben Te’o. During the Tests he was often heavily involved in the Lions’ best attacking play, but he was also an important part of the defence and caused the New Zealand backs no end of trouble in the third Test. I bet Jordie Barrett is still seeing him in his nightmares!

Team of the Tests

I am basing this purely on the 3 Test matches, so though Reiko Ioane was impressive in the first Test and for the Blues, he misses out here due to his quiet second Test and his non-involvement in the tour finale.

  1. Joe Moody
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Brodie Retallick
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Kieran Read
  9. Aaron Smith
  10. Beauden Barrett
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Owen Farrell
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Israel Dagg
  15. Liam Williams

 

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

Lions 2017: The Final 23

The last year of rugby culminates in this weekend’s big match: the series-deciding (and series-defining) third Test between the British and Irish Lions and the New Zealand All Blacks.

After a demoralising 30-15 loss in the first Test, the Lions took advantage of Sonny Bill Williams’ first half red card to draw the series level with a 24-21 victory. Williams’ 4-week ban means that Steve Hansen will be forced into making a change at 12 – possibly a first start for Ngani Laumape of the Hurricanes – after having already lost Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty to injury in the first Test. Waisake Naholo also failed a HIA in the second Test but I have not heard anything to suggest that he will be ruled out of the final Test. The Lions have been fairly lucky with injuries on this tour, however they have lost Stuart Hogg, Ross Moriarty, Robbie Henshaw and George North as the weeks have passed. Jared Payne has also been struggling throughout the tour, first with calf injuries and then in recent weeks with headaches. They did receive a boost, though, with the news that Sean O’Brien will receive no punishment for his part in Naholo’s head injury.

On my recent write-ups of the Lions games, I have tried to predict the 23 man squad for the next Test. As this will be the last time I do so for this tour, I decided to do something a little different. As well as predicting Gatland’s selections, I will also be showing the 23 I would pick if I was in his position. Obviously many of the positions will be the same, but there will also be some differences that could drastically affect the way the Lions play.

My Lions 23:

  1. Jack McGrath
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Iain Henderson
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Mako Vunipola
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. Peter O’Mahony
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Jack Nowell

My predicted Lions 23:

  1. Jack McGrath
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Alun Wyn Jones
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Johnny Sexton
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Owen Farrell
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Mako Vunipola
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. Iain Henderson
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Ben Te’o
  23. Jack Nowell

 

In both these squads, Mako Vunipola drops to the bench in favour of Jack McGrath. The coaches have already mentioned the importance of discipline – had Beauden Barrett been more accurate with his goal kicking, this weekend’s game would be a dead rubber – and Vunipola gave away almost a third of the Lions penalties, including a stupid late hit on Barrett and the illegal clean out that earned him a yellow card. His talent and his ability in the loose will keep him in the squad, but I see McGrath being given the chance to get at the All Blacks scrum from the start.

In the second row, Maro Itoje has to start, but there is a tough fight for the number 5 shirt. Alun Wyn Jones had a much better second Test and brings a lot of experience to the pack – which I think will give him the start in Gatland’s squad – but I worry that he could struggle if the game becomes as open as the first Test. Courtney Lawes has played well when given the chance but I feel that he will be kept as reinforcements from the bench. His yellow card aside, Iain Henderson was one of the best performers against the Hurricanes and brings a great combination of strength and dynamism tot he side. In my 23, I have paired the Ulsterman with Itoje, with Courtney Lawes ready to come on from the bench. Gatland has surprised us with at least 1 selection for each Test (Williams at 15 for the first, Farrell at 12 for the second) and I feel that the selection of Henderson on the bench alongside Courtney Lawes will be his surprise this time. His selection of Stander over O’Mahony last week suggests that the captain of the first Test has fallen down the pecking order, despite Stander having not had the best of tours. Itoje, Lawes and Henderson all have experience of playing 6 at international level so I think Gatland may pick two of them on the bench to give him more options inboth the second row and back row.

In the backs, I expect Gatland to stick with the Sexton/Farrell axis that won at the weekend, however I feel that this leaves the Lions too lightweight in the centre with players like Jerome Kaino, Naholo, Laumape and Ardie Savea likely to attack the 10/12 channel on a regular basis. Before going off in the second Test, Kaino had already successfully ran over the top of Farrell to make extra metres and as Laumape grew into the game, he and Savea were having some success making metres through the centre of the Lions defence. I therefore decided to pick Te’o at 12 to combat the All Blacks’ physicality, as he did when he kept Sonny Bill Williams marshalled in the first Test. Having a runner as strong as him in the back line also gives the Lions extra options in attack.

 

Regardless of the 23 men that Warren Gatland picks, you can be sure that they will be fired up and looking to do everything they can to win the series 2-1. Good luck to them!

 

What do you think of the squads? How do you feel each would do in the third Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

International Rugby Ramble

Farewell to a legend

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

A hairy situation

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

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

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

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

 

Lions tour disciplinary results

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

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

 

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

 

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

Eyes On: New Zealand v British and Irish Lions – Second Test

After New Zealand’s 30-15 last weekend, the Lions knew they needed a win in order to keep their hopes of a series victory alive. For this game, Warren Gatland made a number of changes – some expected, some surprising – to the 23-man squad, whereas Steve Hansen chose to limit his changes to those necessitated by the injuries to Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty.

In a game that started in awful conditions, the big talking point of an exciting but low-scoring first half was the red card shown to Sonny Bill Williams on 25 minutes for a shoulder to the head of Anthony Watson. The Lions went on to score 2 unanswered tries in the second half as conditions improved, but discipline issues allowed Beauden Barrett to keep the game tightly poised, before a late penalty from Owen Farrell gave the tourists a 21-24 victory.

With no midweek games remaining, both teams now have a week to recover and prepare for next Saturday’s third Test, which is now a winner-takes-all showdown. As we begin to look ahead to next weekend, these are my thoughts on today’s game.

 

The big moment

Where else could I start other than the red card? With the scores at 3-3 25 minutes into the game, Anthony Watson took possession of a high ball and was grabbed by Waisake Naholo as he came inside. Sonny Bill Williams came in to help complete the tackle but there was contact between his right shoulder and Watson’s head. After reviewing the replays, referee Jerome Garces made the decision to show the centre a red card.

The replays did not look good, but I do not feel that this was at all deliberate or an attempt to injure the player as some people have suggested, but instead an unfortunate accident. Despite Stuart Barnes’ insistence otherwise, Watson was not upright, but instead bent over due to Naholo tackling him around the torso and trying to drag him down. There was some force in the hit (would you expect anything else from a tackle by Williams?) however Watson passed a HIA in approximately 7 minutes, so the collision possibly looked worse than it felt. There was also the slightest attempt to wrap the left arm, however this was minimal enough that I feel the hit could still be considered a no-arms tackle, something that we arguably see too often in union from Williams and likely due in part to his switching between union and league.

I am not saying the punishment was harsh, when you look at the directives relating to high tackles this was clearly a reckless tackle and there were not enough mitigating factors, so there was no other option for Garces. It would not surprise me to see Williams fall foul of the citing commission and receive a ban.

The impressive thing is how well the All Blacks continued to play despite being a man down for 45 minutes (Mako Vunipola’s yellow meant that the numbers were even for 10 minutes of the second half) and they still created a couple of try-scoring chances and would have won the game had both kickers finished with 100% records (Barrett missed 3 penalties, Farrell a penalty and a conversion).

What did surprise me, though, was Hansen’s decision to immediately replace Jerome Kaino – an experienced operator and real physical presence – for the inexperienced Ngani Laumape. This is nothing against Laumape – he carried his form from the Hurricanes game into this match – but the decision to go down a man in the pack when the weather was resulting in a territorial game with a number of scrums baffles me and I wonder if the All Blacks would have done better delaying that substitution until conditions improved later in the game.

Justified selections?

I was very surprised to see Alun Wyn Jones retain his place in the starting lineup after a poor tour, however the conditions led to a less expansive game which appeared to suit him and he had a much better performance before being replaced by Courtney Lawes just before the hour mark. His partner in the second row, Maro Itoje, fully justified his promotion from the bench with a great performance. Despite his youth, Itoje led the line out with aplomb and the only real error I remember from him was a knock-on in the New Zealand 22 in the first half.

Due to the way the conditions were played, it was harder to judge how successful Gatland’s other changes were, though it must be noted that the Sexton/Farrell combination was highly influential in Taulupe Faletau’s try, which actually came when both teams were playing with 14 men. However towards the end of the game Ardie Savea and Laumape did begin to have some luck making big metres in the centre of the pitch, so I was a bit surprised Gatland refrained from bringing on Ben Te’o in the latter stages. I was also quite surprised not to see Rhys Webb introduced late on to take advantage of the extra man, but Conor Murray took his try well and controlled the game well with experienced play, including pulling an angry Kyle Sinckler away from Charlie Faumuina as Garces gave what ended up being the match-winning penalty, ensuring that there would be no reversal of the penalty for retaliation.

Given the weather and the man advantage in this game, it will be interesting to see what changes Gatland decides to make for next week.

Ill-disciplined Lions

Beauden Barrett was 100% from the tee last week, but Lions fans will be very happy to have seen him miss 3 penalties today. The discipline from the tourists today was absolutely shocking! The All Blacks had 10 shots at goal in this game and would have won the game had Barrett been a bit more accurate. Mako Vunipola alone gave away 4 penalties, including a stupid late charge on Barrett after he kicked downfield (Barrett nailed the kick at goal from where the ball landed) and then a silly clear out of Barrett at a ruck mere moments later, where he clearly used the shoulder as opposed to wrapping an arm. Admittedly this sort of challenge happens frequently in a game without punishment, but it was far too obvious from a player the referee is already paying attention to and Barrett did also take a while to get back to his feet following the challenge.

The Lions played with an extra man for 45 minutes, scored 2 tries to nil, yet still only won by 3 points. If they are to win the third Test, they will need to improve their discipline considerably

 

As next weekend is the final game of the tour, I have decided not to rush to name my final 23 today, but will instead have a post dedicated to it over the next few days, so keep your eyes open for that!

 

What were your thoughts on the second Test? Do you think I missed anything? How do you think the Lions will do next week? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eddie’s Forgotten Men?

With a large number of regulars unavailable for selection due to injury, suspension or being on the Lions Tour, I’m sure that many players who have been playing for the England Saxons or on the fringes of the Elite Player Squad felt that this summer’s tour to Argentina would be the perfect chance to show Eddie Jones they deserve a place in the EPS next season. I expect many of them, along with a number of fans, were surprised when Jones selected a number of young, uncapped players, many of whom were likely expecting to feature for the England U20s in Georgia this summer.

It is possible that Eddie has decided to use this tour against one of the ‘weaker’ top tier nations as a chance to blood youngsters with the pressure largely off them, as some of them could possibly be competing for a place in the 2019 World Cup Squad. Regardless of the reasoning, these players impressed against the Barbarians and in their games against the Pumas, winning all 3 games this summer, with many of the debutantes putting in great performances.

However, it does feel that there are some players who were overlooked for this squad that are young enough to still be around for the foreseeable future and also have performed well enough at club level to feel they should have been selected ahead of some of the youngsters. I will be the first to say that Eddie Jones’ record with England so far means that he has much more of an idea about who deserves selection than I do (he has stated that he has over 60 players who are competing for a spot in the EPS), so this is by no means a rant about players who should have gone or an attack on players who have been selected, but instead a look at some players who will surely be hoping that they are given a shot in the near future.

 

Dan Robson

Every time I see Dan Robson play for Wasps, a bit of me dies inside remembering how Gloucester let him leave to pursue more game time. Gloucester’s loss has certainly been to Robson’s – and Wasps’ – gain, as he has in my opinion become one of, if not the best, English scrum halves. His competition with Joe Simpson has brought out the best of both players at Wasps and with them having topped the Premiership table and come so close to winning the final, you would have expected at least one of them to be in contention for an England call-up. With Ben Youngs taking the summer off for family reasons, I felt that this would be the perfect time for Robson (who impressed for the Saxons in South Africa this time last year) to get a chance in the first team, however he instead missed out to 20-year-old Jack Maunder, who may be a good player (I haven’t seen enough of him to be able to form an opinion) but was not included in Exeter’s matchday 23 for either of their playoff games at the end of the season and barely featured against the Pumas.

After the Premiership final, James Simpson-Daniel tweeted that Robson should be in the England matchday squad “every game next season”. As a Gloucester fan, I may be biased towards our former player, but I find it hard to agree with that sentiment.

Matt Kvesic

After the season that Matt Kvesic has had, I am not surprised that he was not included in this squad. Finishing last season with the most turnovers of any Premiership player was not enough to get him into the squad so there was no way that he would feature this summer after dropping behind Lewis Ludlow and Jacob Rowan in the Gloucester pecking order. Moving to Exeter should be good for Kvesic, but he will be up against fierce competition for the 7 jersey even at club level from the impressive Don Armand, who fully deserves his international call-up.

With England missing 3 players from their back row this summer (Billy Vunipola, James Haskell and Tom Wood), Eddie Jones took the chance to blood some young talent in the form of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, who both excelled when on the pitch. Zach Mercer, who was fantastic leading the U20s in Georgia, will surely also come into consideration as another back row option (I would rate him above the Curry twins) and has the versatility to play multiple positions. I feel that the changing of the guard may have begun at 6 and 7 for England, however I do not think that Matt Kvesic will be high on Eddie’s list next season.

Danny Cipriani

Cipriani’s return to Wasps has not had the positive impact on his international career that I’m sure he was hoping for. Though he has spent some time training with England, his last cap was in August 2015 and he has not been included in Eddie Jones’ squads so far. The decision to call up Alex Lozowski – Owen Farrell’s backup at Saracens – in recent squads as a third fly half option suggests that Cipriani is not in Eddie’s immediate plans. Furthermore, having Henry Slade (recently classed as a centre but with plenty of experience as a fly half) in the squad gives Eddie Jones another option and the selection of Piers Francis (currently at the Blues but about to move to Northampton) means that things are not looking good for Cipriani, especially considering Max Malins will soon be graduating from the England U20s and will be looking to increase his playing time over the next few seasons.

Alex Goode

I really feel for Alex Goode as he has been a quality player for Saracens over the last few years. Unfortunately his style of play does not seem to match what Eddie Jones wants from a fullback, so he has been unable to make the squad despite Mike Brown’s drop in form over recent seasons (though he looked much more like his old self in the second Test against the Pumas). Further to this, Mike Haley seems to be the second choice at 15 these days for England, though even he was deemed surplus to requirements for the summer tour, so it looks like Goode will find his international chances limited while Eddie Jones is in charge.

Luther Burrell

Burrell quickly fell out of favour with Eddie Jones after a poor start to 2016’s summer tour to Australia. A strong runner, Burrell is fighting with Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi (when fit) for at best 2 places in the EPS, and when you consider the go-to England centre pairing recently has been Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph, there is no guarantee any of the 3 would make the starting lineup – though I would personally pick Te’o/an on-form Tuilagi over Joseph. Much like with Cipriani, I think Jones’ willingness to play a fly half in the centre will make it hard for the 29-year-old to add to his caps in the near future.

Christian Wade & Semesa Rokoduguni

I doubt many people are shocked to see these names on the list. Christian Wade equalled Dominic Chapman’s record for Premiership tries in a season but continues to be considered surplus to requirements by Eddie Jones. Semesa Rokoduguni has not featured for England since his Man of the Match performance against Fiji in November 2016 but is another great talent and finished joint third on the list of try scorers in the 2016/17 Premiership season with 10 tries, behind only Wade and Exeter’s James Short – who could also consider himself unlucky to not be selected.

There have been questions previously about their work rate in defence but it has appeared to me that they have both improved in this area, and they both clearly bring a lot to their club’s attacks – both are full of pace and where Wade is elusive, Rokoduguni is strong – so I am very shocked that they are continually overlooked for the EPS.

With Nowell, Watson and Daly all away on Lions duty, I was sure that these two would have been given a chance to prove themselves against Argentina, however Eddie Jones continues to pick Marland Yarde – for reasons that I can’t understand – and handed debuts to Denny Solomona and Nathan Earle, while also calling up Joe Cokanasiga from London Irish. Solomona is no surprise at all as he was one of the stars of the season on the wing and much like Wade and Rokoduguni his potential in attack outweighs his possible defensive frailties (as we saw in the 1st Test). He also needed to be capped soon in order to be eligible before World Rugby’s new residency laws take effect. I haven’t seen Cokanasiga play so can’t comment on his ability, but to play for England after making your Championship debut this season is a huge step up. Nathan Earle impressed me for the U20s a couple of years ago, but his game time has been very limited for Saracens and I was therefore surprised to see him called up. That said, I was highly impressed by his performance against the Barbarians and I hope that he gets regular time for Saracens next season in order to push for a regular England spot – though I will be happy if he misses the Gloucester games!

Another player who could easily come into the mix in the next few seasons will be Gabriel Ibitoye of Harlequins. A contender for the World Rugby Junior Player of the Year award alongside his U20s captain Zach Mercer, Ibitoye often looked a real danger in Georgia and will only improve as he gets more game time.

Eddie Jones is not the kind of man to bow down to fan pressure, so I feel that it may be a while before we see either Wade or Rokoduguni as regulars in the EPS. I think their best chance to play for England over the next few years would be to have a word with Simon Amor about featuring on the 7s circuit.

 

What do you feel about this list? Is there anyone that you think I missed? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: England v Barbarians

England kicked off their Summer tour on Sunday with a game against Vern Cotter’s Barbarians side. With a number of players unavailable for selection due to a combination of the Lions tour, Saturday’s Premiership final and Friday’s Champions Cup playoff game between Northampton and Stade Francais, Edie Jones gave debuts to a number of young players. At the end of an entertaining 80 minutes, England got back to winning ways with a 28-14 victory courtesy of tries from Nathan Earle, Nick Isiekwe and Danny Care.

Considering the number of players missing who will likely come back into the starting lineup against Argentina, it is a bit more difficult to judge what can be learned for the Test matches, but as many of these players will be pushing for international selection over the coming years there is still a lot that can be learned from this game.

 

The Barbarian Way

There’s no such thing as a boring game when the Barbarians are involved. While the Barbarians still want to win every game, the important thing for them is to entertain the crowd. Just one look at the official Barbarians Twitter feed shows you how their number one priority is to ensure everyone watching is having fun. This mentality could be seen from the early minutes when Timoci Nagusa was fed the ball on his own 5m line and decided the best way to clear his lines was to run back over his own try line, beat the England defence to the outside and break all the way to halfway. These guys will run the ball from anywhere! As if that wasn’t enough, they used the classic ‘wall’ formation for a tap and go penalty close to the England try line and also decided to switch backs and forwards around for a line-out, resulting in scrum half Kahn Fotuali’i being lifted (pay attention Bath – he did well up there). Another thing you can guarantee is that penalties will not be kicked for goal, but will instead be kicks to touch or a tap and go.

Unfortunately England under Eddie Jones are all about the result, so it was no surprise – though arguably disappointing – to see them calling for the kicking tee whenever they had a kickable penalty. I understand that it is important to get momentum, especially considering their last match was a disheartening loss to Ireland, but given the quality of opposition and the lack of experience in the squad, I think fans would have been happy with a loss providing the performance was good and the match was entertaining.

England Selections

Eddie Jones was understandably limited with his player selections, but there were still a few that surprised me.

George Ford has rarely performed well in an England shirt without Owen Farrell outside him, so this would have been the perfect chance for him to take the pressure on himself. Instead, Alex Lozowski was put at 12 as a like-for-like replacement for his fellow Saracen. I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of Ford as I feel that he requires another playmaker at 12 to cover for him, which limits the possible selections. I would have personally started a different style of player at 12 or perhaps even considered starting Lozowski at 10 to give him some experience at international level.

Mike Brown has remained Eddie Jones’ first choice fullback despite what I feel has been a drop in form in recent seasons, especially at international level. I understand that with so many uncapped players in the squad, Brown was probably picked due to his experience, but I would’ve liked to see Mike Haley given the 15 shirt for this fixture. Haley may have played the majority of the game due to Lozowski’s early injury, but this was at outside centre, a position that he is not so familiar with, so I don’t think we got a chance to see his real potential.

Why Richard Wigglesworth was selected as a replacement for this game is beyond me! I don’t think that he’s a bad scrum half, but his playing style is suited to a territory-based game and he does not produce the quick ball that England likes. With Ben Youngs having pulled out of rugby this Summer for personal reasons and many English scrum halves having played in the Premiership final the day before – including my pick for the England number 9 shirt, Dan Robson – I understand that Eddie Jones had limited options, but I feel that he should have continued to look towards youth and gone for Wigglesworth’s fellow Saracen Ben Spencer, who despite having been around the Sarries first team for years is still only 24! As it was, I think that Wigglesworth had a poor game when he was on the pitch and I struggle to imagine he will make many more appearances for the national team.

A Goode Day

Alex Goode has really fallen out of favour under Eddie Jones. Though he has often been on better form than Mike Brown in recent seasons (in my opinion) his style of play does not seem to match with Jones’ philosophy and he can no longer even make the touring squad. Given his chance by the Barbarians to go up against the man who considers him surplus to requirements, Goode played well and was arguably the better of the 2 fullbacks. He played the final pass for Adam Ashley-Cooper’s try and his chasing of kicks drew a number of penalties for the Barbarians. He was so close to capping things off with a try early in the game, but was unable to hold onto Nagusa’s pass that reached him around ankle height. If Goode can continue to put int he big performances, hopefully we’ll see him back in the white jersey again in the future.

A Bright Future

While this may not have been a capped game, this will have been a great experience for England’s uncapped players. I think that all the players had solid, if not spectacular games. England’s 6 front rowers came into this game with a total of 1 cap between them, yet stood up well against a vastly more experienced Barbarians front row, especially Will Collier who caused issues for Mikheil Nariashvili all day. Man of the Match Tom Curry impressed after coming on just before half time for Sam Underhill, who had been having a very good game too. He caused problems in the breakdown and was not overawed by playing against legends of the game like Thierry Dusautoir.

Nathan Earle was in my opinion the player most likely to have pushed himself into consideration for a starting spot. I remember being impressed by Earle in the U20s World Championship a few years ago and have been disappointed that he has not had more chances for Saracens. Against the Baa-Baas, his defensive positioning may not have been perfect but he seemed to be a more reliable – and harder – tackler than Anthony Watson, while also terrifying the defence with his incredible pace. Christian Wade and Semesa Rokoduguni both appear to be out of favour with Eddie Jones, so I feel that – assuming Elliot Daly does not remain on the wing – Jack Nowell, Earle and Jonny May could become Jones’ top 3 options for the wing, though it wouldn’t surprise me if he chose Watson ahead of May.

 

What were your thoughts game? Do you disagree with my opinions or think  that I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge