Uncapped XV

Uncapped XV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tackling the school rugby debate

Over the last couple of weeks there has been a lot of debate on whether school rugby should involve full contact or if it is better to just teach tag rugby in schools. When the debate began, my immediate thought was to keep the contact, but I’ve given myself a bit of time to think about it and thought it was about time to try to put together a balanced argument both ways on the matter.

Against the tackle

The main argument to ban the tackle is the risk of injury to the children playing. This is a valid concern, rugby is first and foremost a collision sport. At each contact, especially the ruck, the tackle and the scrum, there is a chance of a player getting injured. I have always been lucky to avoid any serious injuries, but I certainly developed enough cuts and bruises over my time to look like someone had been giving me a good beating. I’ve known plenty of people when I was at school who missed time due to injuries.Broken bones, sprains and dislocations are always a risk when going into contact.

On top of this, recent years have made a big focus on the risk of concussion. George North has missed significant playing time in recent seasons following a series of concussions, but this is not a risk limited to just the pros. I’ve helped out a bit in Junior level club rugby the last few years and seen kids pick up concussions.

There is no guarantee that playing tag rugby would completely eliminate all chance of injury, but it would certainly lead to a reduction in injuries, especially the more serious ones.

For the tackle

Rugby is a contact sport, plain and simple. That is a big part of what makes it such a popular game to watch and play. Would Twickenham or Murrayfield fill up for international tag rugby games? Call me a cynic, but I doubt it.

Furthermore, it’s not as if rugby is the only sport in schools that contains a risk of injury. Football is in itself a dangerous sport, there is plenty of chance to get injured from a poor football tackle. There is also a concussion risk in football from players attempting to head the ball, to the point that there were discussions of banning this for under 11s in America. Hockey is another sport played in schools that again naturally has a risk attached to it. Give a bunch of kids a big wooden stick and make them run around trying to hit a ball, what could possibly go wrong…?  As I said earlier I’ve been lucky with injuries, to the point that my worst injury (barring one unfortunate knock to the knee) was a broken nose doing the high jump of all events (I’m a certain kind of special). If rugby should be changed at school due to injury risk, then why should all of these other sports stay as they are?

One of the big arguments to not change rugby is that it is character building. As an 11 year old, I weighted 10 stone and was seriously unfit, I didn’t mind a kickabout with friends but would not have considered playing sport seriously. Fast forward a few months and I was a regular starter form my school’s rugby B-team. One of the big selling points of rugby is that it’s a game for everyone – tall, short, big or small – there’s a position for everyone.  If I hadn’t started playing when I did, I am pretty certain that I would be a very different person. Rugby has always prided itself on its values of respect and camaraderie, it certainly helped bring me out of my shell as a kid, and helped me through university too. Tag rugby puts ball skills, elusiveness and running lines at a premium, not a bad thing in itself, but certainly not a sport that 11 year old me would have felt comfortable in.

There is also the argument that if we delay the teaching of tackling, we will be making it harder for our pros to compete at the top of the game. Maro Itoje is only 21 years old but has 3 senior international caps (2 of them in the starting XV) and a man of the match to his name. Martyn Williams has already described him as a future British & Irish Lions captain. If he hadn’t been tackling in school, how long would it have taken him to break into the national team, or would he have missed out completely? While England as a rugby nation is certainly behind some of the top countries in terms of ball handling ability – just look at the New Zealand props during the World Cup – would delaying the introduction of tackling put us even further back in our battle to reach the top of the game?

Time to compromise?

It’s impossible to deny that playing full contact rugby will run the risk of injury. The real debate should be how can the risk be minimised so that the game can continue to expand whilst also protecting the players.

Proper coaching is vital. I lost count of the number of times I heard coaches say that it was important to go into contact with complete conviction, as being hesitant was more likely to result in injury to the players involved. A lot of the head injuries we see are at least in part down to poor tackling technique, players putting their head in the wrong place when making a tackle, or going for the big man-and-ball tackle so clashing heads. Incidents like this need to be shown as how NOT to tackle as well as careful coaching of correct and safe tackling technique. There also needs to be a greater focus on avoiding the big collision, running at a tackler’s arms and shoulders or, even better running at space, rather than running head on into a tackler front-on. Not only should that reduce the chance and severity of injuries, but it should also improve the quality of rugby played.

The good news is that the media is improving in how it deals with these incidents during a match. A few seasons back players would be applauded by commentators for carrying on playing after a knock to the head that had clearly caused them issues. They were warriors who would put their body on the line for their team, nothing was more important than the result. Now commentators are quick to discuss player safety and point out instances of poor and dangerous tackling technique, even if the incident itself hasn’t led to a noticeable injury. This shift in focus during match broadcasts will only help to educate kids in safe and proper technique.

I feel that tag rugby does have a place in the school curriculum, but not at the complete expanse of contact rugby. When I was at school, the boys were split into 2 groups for rugby: the team and the rest. Maybe the ‘rest’ category needs to be split into 2 groups, one for contact rugby and one for tag rugby. The team and the contact group should still play tag rugby to improve their rugby skills, but then at least there is a group available for any kids who do not want to play contact or whose parents don’t want them to play contact rugby.

But this is just my personal opinion. The people who get paid to make the big important decisions need to look at all the evidence and options available to make sure they are coming to the best possible outcome for all parties. Ministers, medical officers and RFU officials, its over to you…