Six Nations 2021: Wales v England

Six Nations 2021: Wales v England

With Sunday’s match between Scotland and France postponed, Round 3 of the 2021 Six Nations came to a premature end in Cardiff as Wales hosted England. The Welsh had a number of key players returning from injury and they took an early lead through the boot of Dan Biggar, but almost immediately threw it away as Maro Itoje charged down Kieran Hardy’s box kick from the restart, only for Liam Williams to just beat him to the ball as it bounced in-goal. England were soon on the board through an Owen Farrell penalty, but hey were having their own disciplinary problems that would soon prove costly. With quarter of an hour gone, Farrell was penalised for not rolling inside his own 22, and referee Pascal Gaüzère put the team on a warning and told the England captain to talk to his team. The French referee gave the team time to have a talk, but the moment they came out of their huddle blew for time on and the ever-alert Dan Biggar took advantage of the defence all being clumped under the posts and kicked the penalty out to the left wing for Josh Adams to catch and score. Farrell soon cut the deficit with a penalty, but Wales scored again on the half-hour mark, once again in controversial fashion. Josh Adams slotted a grubber in behind the England defence and Louis Rees-Zammit beat everyone to the ball. However the speedster was unable to collect cleanly, knocking the bouncing ball forward, only for it to hit his leg before it hit the floor, which gave the ball some degree of backwards movement as it bounced fortuitously into the hands of Liam Williams who dotted down over the line. To anyone who has seen a game of rugby (and Rees-Zammit himself), it was a clear knock on, but Gaüzère, his AR and TMO Alexandre Ruiz all unbelievably agreed that there was no knock on and allowed the try to stand. Biggar added his second conversion of the match, but England still had time to respond before halftime, with Anthony Watson forcing himself over in the corner and Farrell kicking a penalty with the final play of the half to cut the Welsh lead to 17-14.

Farrell had a chance to level the scores early in the second half, but his attempt siled wide, and this soon proved costly as Jonny Hill gave away a penalty on the edge of his 22 for entering a breakdown from the side. Kieran Hardy was alert to the chance and took a quick tap, scything through the retreating English defenders to go over for Wales’ third try, which Callum Sheedy converted. England continued to fight and keep the game close with another Farrell penalty, and when England finally put together a couple of phases of quality attacking play to make a break down the left wing, Ben Youngs managed to snipe over for a try, which Farrell converted. That was as close as things got for England though, as their discipline fell apart in the final quarter. Callum Sheedy broke through the English line and grubbered to the corner, but Anthony Watson just beat Kieran Hardy to the ball, but a raft of England penalties allowed the Welsh to add 9 points from the tee. England went on one last attack, but Dan Robson’s pass was intercepted by Sheedy, who booted the ball downfield. Louis Rees-Zammit gave chase but the ball would not sit up nicely for him despite a couple of kicks on, allowing the England defence to get back and cover, though they knocked on in the process. From the resulting scrum Wales went through a couple of phases and Cory Hill crossed beneath the posts for the bonus point try, which Sheedy converted for a 40-24 victory that secured the Triple Crown for Wales – something most Welsh fans could only dream about going into the tournament.

Wales

Who would have thought that Wales would be unbeaten after 3 games? Granted, they have been given a hand by 2 red cards and a couple of questionable calls, but the performances have clearly been improving and the injuries they have had to deal with are creating options for them. The rise of Kieran Hardy has just created even more depth at 9, while Callum Sheedy is solidifying his place in the 23 and providing a great alternative to Dan Biggar, with 1 playing a more territorial, defensive game and the other opening the game up in attack. The experiment of moving George North to 13 is working better than I expected, and while Jonathan Davies is still an obvious pick when fit, Ulisi Halaholo, Johnny Williams and Nick Tompkins all look at home on the international stage and bring something different to the game. In the pack, Elliot Dee put in a great performance replacing Ken Owens after an hour, while Taulupe Faletau’s return to form is a massive boon for the back row as they try to find the right balance.

Anything other than a bonus point victory over Italy in 2 weeks would be a shock, and then it is just the French standing between them and the unlikeliest of Grand Slams. Personally, I don’t feel that the Welsh are ready to defeat Les Bleus yet, but if their squad is still being affected by COVID in 3 weeks, that final match of Super Saturday could get very interesting.

England

Don’t be shocked if those in the England camp try to focus on the shoddy officiating. Don’t let them off if they do though, as it was their own indiscipline that cost them the game.

Whether it is due to players thinking they know better than the officials (in the case of the French officials they probably do, but you still have to play to the man with the whistle) or players off the pace from not playing rugby this season, England’s discipline has gone down the drain. Maro Itoje, the darling of England fans and pundits, always plays as close to the line as he can and often crosses it, but he was not getting away with it in this game, giving away a whopping 5 penalties on his own. What was even more worrying is that he gave away an early penalty for jumping across the lineout, and instead of cutting that from their game, the team went on to give away 2 more penalties for this in the final quarter as they lost all control of the match.

Do England have a right to gripe about the first try? Yes, Gaüzère was pathetic, but it must also be highlighted that England were already at the stage of being put on a team warning for the number of penalties after just 15 minutes, and it could arguably have come sooner!

England have 2 weeks to sort out their mindset. However, just like Eddie will keep ignoring players on form, I doubt that there will be any difference when England host France in 2 weeks, and that could lead to another devastating result.

Lions Watch

Taulupe Faletau‘s return to form has come at the perfect time to force his way back into Lions contention, and with CJ Stander able to also cover 6, he could even force his way into the starting XV, while Callum Sheedy will also be drawing Warren Gatland’s attention with some great attacking play without looking weak in defence. For England, Anthony Watson continued to make some key plays at either end of the pitch, while Ben Youngs had one of his better showings at a time when most of the Home Nations’ regular scrum halves are being forced to fight for their place.

After another week of dreadful handling skills and inexcusable defence (including turning his back when the penalty was given against Jonny Hill for the Hardy try), Elliot Daly should be hoping that he gets a chance to add to yesterday’s 50ᵗʰ cap. Meanwhile, George Ford‘s inclusion as England’s supposedly best attacking fly half was summed up by an aimless kick that drifted into the Wales 22 for an easy mark – with players like Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds excelling in the Premiership, he should be nowhere near the England squad, let alone the Lions!

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

After a week off from the competition, the 2021 Six Nations returned with just 2 of the 3 scheduled matches following an outbreak of COVID-19 in the French squad. First upon Saturday was a trip to the Stadio Olimpico, where Italy were hosting Ireland.

The Azzurri were already missing a number of players coming into the match and lost scrum half Stephen Varney to injury in the warm-up, but took an early lead through the boot of Paolo Garcia. Ireland soon drew level through Jonathan Sexton, before Iain Henderson thought he had scored the opening try of the match, only for referee Mathieu Raynal and TMO Romain Poite to both decide that he had lost control during the grounding. This only delayed the inevitable though, as a series of phases just short of the line drew in the Italian defence, allowing the ball to be spread to Garry Ringrose, who crossed next to the posts, giving Sexton an easy conversion. Sexton added another penalty and then on the half hour match found themselves over for another try, with a break downthe blind side of a maul from Jamison Gibson-Park, Sexton and Keith Earls, and when the ball came left, Garry Ringrose offloaded to Hugo Keenan on a great line to go in unchallenged, leaving Sexton with another easy kick for the extras. Just a few minutes later, some silky hands from Ronan Kelleher, Sexton and Jordan Larmour saw Will Connors put over for a try out wide with Sexton scoring a much more difficult conversion. The game was at risk of getting away from the Azzurri, but a penalty at the end of the half gave them a lineout 5m out, and after bringing the ball infield for a couple of phases, Garbisi attacked the blind side and managed to get his arms through the tackle to offload to Johan Meyer for the try, which the young fly half converted for a 10-27 halftime deficit.

That was pretty much the last time that the Italians looked like scoring in this game, while Italy soon found themselves securing the bonus point as CJ Stander powered over just a couple of minutes after the restart, Sexton again converting. The rest of the third quarter was a dull affair as the replacements stared to break up the game, but all that changed on the hour mark as replacement prop Giosuè Zilocchi was sent to the bin for going off his feet at a ruck. From the resulting penalty, Kelleher took the tap and go, and a couple f phases later CJ Stander had his second try, though this was ruled out when the TMO found a knock on in the build-up. This as just a brief reprieve however, and after captain Luca Bigi was also sent to the bin, the Irish pack used their numerical advantage to control a 5m catch and drive, pushing Will Connors over for his second of the day, with Sexton once again adding the extras. The Irish thought they had another try just minutes later as James Lowe came onto a Craig Casey pass at pace to burst through the Italian line, but a TMO referral eventually decided that the replacement scrum half’s pass had gone forwards. There was time for one more try from the Irish, as one final attack ended with Sexton throwing a flat miss pass to send Keith Earls over in the corner, and the Irish captain kicked the conversion to secure a 10-48 victory.

Italy

This was the most disappointing performance so far in this year’s competition from the Azzurri, but it’s almost understandable. While they have been playing some great rugby at times, they are seriously missing the spark that some of their absent stars create.

While Johan Meyer can be relied on to make a couple of impressive carries per game – usually out on the wings – he and Michele Lamaro have so far failed to replicate the impact that the injured Jake Polledri has on a game, while Danilo Fischetti’s impact was missed in and around the breakdown today. Meanwhile in the back line, injuries have ruined what looked to be a bright future for Michele Campagnaro, while Matteo Minozzi’s 11 tries in 22 Tests have been severely missed as he ruled himself out of the tournament, describing himself as “physically and mentally tired, a bit too much to live another two months in a bubble.” And then to add to this, livewire scrum half Steven Varney was forced to pull out with an injury in the warm-up, leaving Italy with more experienced, but less deadly options.

Sometimes all it takes is one spark of magic to turn something into nothing, and these are the players who would usually be providing it. Paolo Garbisi is certainly trying his best to provide it when playing with ball in hand, but then lets himself down with his kicking game that invites the opposition to counter. Seb Negri can always be relied on to run hard, but Polledri’s absence is allowing defences to put more focus on stopping him, while Montanna Ioane has shown glimpses of the danger he possesses, but has generally been well marked by defences so far.

This spell of playing without so many gamechangers will benefit Italy in the long term, as it will force other players to step up and create those chances, leading to even more dangerous options when the usual stars return, as defences will have more stars to account for and will not be able to double up on them. If Franco Smith could find a way to convince the currently uncapped Paolo Odogwu to switch allegiance to Italy, that would be another player that defences would need to account for in their defensive planning.

Ireland

When it comes to the British and Irish Lions, the second row position is always going to be a tough call, with all 4 countries boasting such talent at the position. One person who is surely securing his place in the 2021 Lions squad (assuming there is one) is that of Tadhg Beirne.

Finally enjoying a spell of consecutive games in the Irish starting XV, Beirne has fully settled into Test rugby and is now showing the level of performances that those who have watched him play regularly for the Scarlets and Munster knew he was capable of. He’s a huge player and can use his physicality well, but is also so fleet of foot in the loose and has such impressive handling skills, while he is also an expert at jackaling over the ball while still supporting his weight. With this wide skillset and an incredible engine, he is one of the few players who is successfully managing to play both lock and back row to such a high quality.

With this Man of the Match performance, it is becoming all but impossible to drop him from the XV, putting him at 6 if you want a bit more ballast in your pack, or moving him into the second row if you want to add a different dynamic into your back row. Against the Springboks’ giant pack, don’t be surprised to see a dual-position player like Beirne earning a spot in the Lions squad, and potentially even pushing for a spot in the XV.

Lions Watch

So I’ve already waxed lyrical about Tadhg Beirne above, but I think that the entire starting back row for Ireland enhanced their chances of making the Lions squad, with CJ Stander continuing to highlight a return to form with another try, while Will Connors showed his reliability in defence as well as scoring 2 tries.

While nobody really stood out as having a bad performance, another solid performance from Jamison Gibson-Park and a great increase in tempo from replacement Craig Casey will surely be making it difficult for Conor Murray to earn his spot back when fit, while the continued form of Hugo Keenan means that Jordan Larmour is becoming somewhat of a forgotten figure, having a largely quiet first half today before being replace by Keith Earls.

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Round 2 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Dublin on Sunday as Ireland hosted France. Ireland were missing 4 experienced players from Round 1 through injury and suspension, but after both Billy Burns and Matthieu Jalibert missed early kicks at goal, Billy Burns broke the deadlock on 20 minutes with a penalty. A few minutes later, France found themselves temporarily down to 14 after Bernard Le Roux was caught tripping Keith Earls as they chased an Irish kick downfield. The Irish kicked the penalty to touch and thought they had taken an immediate advantage of the extra man as the spread the ball wide on first phase to James Lowe, who powered through Brice Dulin’s tackle to score in the corner, only for a TMO referral to find that his toe had brushed the touchline before he touched down. This let off appeared to galvanise the French, who immediately went on the attack and a series of offloads brought them into the Irish 22. With the Irish defence in disarray, the ball was spread wide to Charles Ollivon, who was able to outpace CJ Stander as he tried to get across to cover and score the opening try. Jalibert kicked the conversion and then a penalty with Le Roux back on the pitch to take a halftime lead of 3-10.

Les Bleus started the second half on the front foot and almost had another try straight away as Julien Marchand broke into the 22, only for Antoine Dupont’s attempted wide pass from the base of a ruck to be blocked by the face of dummy runner Paul Willemse. This attack cost Ireland Billy Burns, who went off for a HIA that he failed, while just a minute later, Cian Healy and captain Iain Henderson clashed heads and were required to leave the pitch for their own assessments. With so much leadership off the pitch, the French were able to get themselves into the 22 again, and when Jalibert reversed the play back to the right, his wide pass drew in James Lowe, who was stepped inside by Dulin, with the fullback drawing the final Irish tackler and popping the ball off to the looping Damian Penaud to extend the lead, Jalibert missing the conversion. The Irish desperately needed the next score and got it almost immediately, winning a penalty from the restart and kicking the ball up tot the French 22. Replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher’s first action of the game was to throw into the lineout, and the ball was stolen but not cleanly, bouncing in the 5m channel, and the Irish hooker reacted fastest to collect the ball and scamper in unchallenged. Ross Byrne kicked the conversion and added a penalty with 15 minutes remaining, but the Irish could not make any further breakthrough and after Jalibert struck the post with a late attempt at goal, the game fizzled away to a 13-15 win for Les Bleus.

Ireland

I can imagine that many people were nervous as to how Ireland would perform in this match with Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony all missing. I would argue that the team actually performed better without them on the whole.

With Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns controlling the game, the pace of the Irish attack was so much better, which allowed the Irish pack and midfield to get into the French early on, while Burns’ high bombs were putting Brice Dulin under incredible pressure. Unfortunately, the quality appeared to be missing on the bench, with Craig Casey not even trusted to come on while experienced and talented 9s like Kieran Marmion, John Cooney and Luke McGrath were all ignore. Similarly, Ross Byrne once again looked a passenger (and not in a good way) after replacing Burns and I think that it cost them. We all know what Sexton and Murray can do. Now is the time to leave them out for the rest of the tournament and look at other options, with one of the aforementioned 9s coming in to compete with Gibson-Park for the staring job and Ian Madigan coming in to replace Ross Byrne, as his ability to cover both 10 and 12 would allow him to either replace Burns or come in at centre to give the midfield a different shape late on.

At lock, I understand that James Ryan is the darling of Irish rugby, but he has always seemed to be a good workrate but little more, while this weekend’s pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson brought that and more. Capable of turning out at lock or 6, the pair brought dynamism with their carries, were dangerous at the breakdown and were also tireless workers in the tighter parts of the game, while Henderson certainly led by example from first minute to last.

Finally in the back row, I have always found O’Mahony to be a penalty risk if a referee is doing their job right, and while I’m not sure Rhys Ruddock was the right pick at 6, I would argue that Will Connors had a great impact in defence when he was brought on later in the game, while Caelan Doris will also provide a great carrying option once back.

France

I dare you to find me a better player in World rugby right now than Antoine Dupont. The Toulouse scrum half is a walking highlights reel! Every match, you can almost guarantee that if a player makes a break, he will be there on their shoulder to keep the attack going, while he has the pace and footwork to exploit the tiniest of gaps – and even highlighted in this match that he has a decent fend despite being one of the smaller players on the pitch.

Even when he’s not able to be so attacking, he’s still showing a range of skills, with a cultured boot – and the calmness to not rush under pressure – while his defence is also an underrate part of his game. And the scary thing is that at 24, he may not have even quite reached his peak yet, while he has a legitimate chance of starring at both the 2023 and 2027 Rugby World Cups. In the meantime, let’s just sit back and enjoy the show.

Lions Watch

Only the Irish to focus on here, and captain Iain Henderson put in a great performance all over the park, and was unlucky to not steal an attempted short lineout and long throw by the French on the own 5m line. Meanwhile, Hugo Keenan looked assured once again at the back and appears to be making the Irish 15 shirt his own, but will have to go a long way to beat out Stuart Hogg.

It wasn’t such a good day for James Lowe, who is currently getting limited chances to run at the defence like he would like to, and his disallowed try in a week where a number of wings shone for the Home Nations will hurt.

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Scotland

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Scotland

Round 2 of the 2021 Six nations saw a match-up between the 2 countries still able to win the Triple Crown, as Scotland hosted Wales at Murrayfield. After an impressive 2020 and an historic Calcutta Cup win at Twickenham last week, Scotland came in as the favourites and after both Leigh Halfpenny and Finn Russell kicked early penalties, Scotland got the early try as Darcy Graham reacted quickest to Ali Price’s clever chip from the back of a ruck to go in untouched under the posts, giving Russell an easy conversion. The Scots soon extended their lead as they spread the ball wide to the right on first phase ball. Stuart Hogg waited for the defence to commit to him before chipping in behind, and Leigh Halfpenny on the turn could not control the ball as he went to ground, allowing Hogg to dive on the loose ball and slide over in the corner, Russell again nailing the kick. Wales were coming into the game with an extensive injury list and desperately needed the next score, and they got it just before half time as they spread the ball wide following a 5m lineout, getting the ball to Louis Rees-Zammit, who stepped inside Graham and went over for the try. With Leigh Halfpenny off following a failed HIA, Dan Biggar was unable to land the kick from wide right and he half ended 17-8.

Scotland were in the ascendency soon after the break, and thought they had scored through Gary Graham after turning down a kick at goal for a 5m tap-and-go penalty, however the try was ruled out due to Scott Cummings running a blocking line right in front of him. This loss of points was exacerbated as a couple of penalties saw Wales deep in the Scottish half just seconds later, and after a catch and drive went 20 metres to deep in the 22, Rees-Zammit came on the loop as the ball was spread left to hit a gap in the Scottish defence out wide and timed his pass perfectly to send Liam Williams over, with replacement fly half Callum Sheedy converting. Things got even worse for the Scots just minutes later, as Zander Fagerson was given a red card for a cleanout to the head of Wyn Jones, very similar to the Peer O’Mahony dismissal last week. From the resulting penalty, Wales kicked to touch and after another big driving maul brought them to the Scottish line, they went through the phases before Wyn Jones forced his way over for the go-ahead try, with Sheedy missing the conversion. The Scots recovered and got some momentum back, eventually earning a penalty between the posts 5m out from the Wales line. Again, they turned down the easy 3 points and went for the scrum – having replaced Darcy Graham with WP Nel to keep a full 8-man pack – and after a couple of resets, the ball was spread to the right and Hogg fended off the challenge of Owen Watkin to go over for the try, with Russell converting. The game really opened up in the final 15 minutes and a Callum Sheedy grubber to the corner flag saw Stuart Hogg just beet Rees-Zammit to the ball to dot down for a 22 drop-out, however just a minute later Rees Lightning got his chance to shine again as he chipped over Stuart Hogg and won the footrace to score the bonus point try. The Scots didn’t give up even with the clock in the red, and created one final chance as Finn Russell forced an offload out the back of his hand under pressure from multiple tacklers to release Duhan van der Merwe down the right wing. The powerhouse wing was flying but a last-ditch tap tackle from Owen Watkin brought him down, and Liam Williams just got a finger to the offload ahead of Stuart Hogg, allowing the Welsh to recover the ball and put it into touch to secure a 24-25 victory.

Scotland

Scotland have never won a Six Nations Championship (their last tournament victory was in the final season before Italy joined) and it has been a long time since they have looked this strong. However, as a result of this, they are now finding themselves in positions that they are not used to, being able to overcome a numerical disadvantage and have a legitimate chance to still win a game at the death.

In games like this, there will always be one or 2 moments where a player’s decision will win or lose a team the match. Unfortunately, that moment belonged to Ali Price in this game, as with just minutes left on the clock and with Scotland going through the phases just inside the Welsh half, he put in an aimless kick with nobody chasing, that Louis Rees-Zammit was not only able to take his time to recover, but also then smashed back downfield to deep in the Scottish half. Of course, he almost got saved by his team with the break at the death, but in any games, that aimless kick would have been game over.

There are very few Scotland players who have been in those high-stakes moments in big games over the last couple of seasons, and they will learn from this heartbreak. They have a week off now before facing France, which now becomes a must-win game if they want to win the tournament. I don’t see them pulling off a win in Paris this year, but as long as the team learn from this weekend, then it will be a benefit in the long run.

Wales

Wayne Pivac made a big call with less than 10 minutes gone in the second half, taking off both his halfbacks in Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar. That was 148 caps coming off the pitch, with their replacements Kieran Hardy and Callum Sheedy combining for just 9 caps (including the 2 they were coming on to earn).

Such a big call could have ruined the team, when you consider that they already had a centre on the wing and an inexperienced centre pairing, but it worked to perfection here as it changed Wales’ attack to a more possession-based game rather than a territorial fight. By keeping hold of possession, Wales were able to start finding the gaps in the Scottish defence as Sheedy moved his backs around – something we see all the time when he plays for Bristol – and this forced the Scots to give away a number of penalties.

It’s no surprise that the Scots only gave away a handful of penalties against an England team that were afraid to play attacking rugby, but faced with a team looking to take the game to them, the penalties returned, while Fagerson’s red card merely added to the gaps for Wales to exploit.

Will Sheedy and Hardy et the star in 2 weeks? It’s unlikely, as Wayne Pivac should have a number of players return from injury, but watching back the highlights from the Italy game will show that England were not as comfortable as you would expect against an expansive attacking game, so don’t be surprised to see Sheedy making an early appearance off the bench if the game is close.

Lions Watch

The Springbok scrum will always be a weapon, so a strong performance by Wyn Jones will have done the loosehead a number of favours, not just securing his spot in the Welsh number 1 shirt, but also pushing him into contention for the Lions’ Touring Party. Meanwhile on the wing, Louis Rees-Zammit shone with 2 tries and 1 assist to highlight his attacking quality. For Scotland, Duhan van der Merwe continued to show his unique blend of size, power and pace, while Chris Harris put in a solid performance going both ways in a position that looks up for grabs with Jonathan Davies’ limited gametime in recent years.

On the flip side, the early removal will be just what Dan Biggar didn’t want with many of his rivals for the Lions 10 jersey underperforming, while Zander Fagerson struggled in the scrum before his red card.

Six Nations 2021: England v Italy

Six Nations 2021: England v Italy

Twickenham played host to its its second consecutive week of rugby as England hosted Italy to kick off Round 2 of the 2021 Six Nations. The Italians showed a much more expansive attacking game in their loss to France last week, but it soon gave them the lead today as they worked the overlap down the blindside following a series of phases around the England 22, releasing Montanna Ioane to score in the corner, Paolo Garbisi missing the kick from out wide. England soon got on the board through an Owen Farrell penalty and took the lead on 14 minutes as a series of pick-and-go phases from the forwards on the Italian line came to an end when Jonny Hill was pushed over the line, though Farrell missed the conversion under heavy pressure from the Italian charge. A third penalty against England at the breakdown allowed Garbisi to level the scores, but it didn’t last long as England countered a loose kick. The ball went to ground in midfield, but the men in white shirts reacted fastest and spread the ball to Anthony Watson, whose hard step inside found a gap that he dashed through to score under the posts, though a couple of questionably forward passes from England in the preceding phase were conveniently ignored by referee Mike Adamson and TMO Joy Neville. England looked to have another great chance towards the end of the half as Billy Vunipola charged down Garbisi and the ball fell to Henry Slade. Ioane managed to stop the Exeter centre, but his offload to Anthony Watson lacked any sympathy or weight and it died on the winger, resulting in him knocking on with a clear run to the line. However, there was still time for one more attack and with advantage for a penalty, George Ford reversed the play back to the left and a couple of quick passes found Jonny May in space on the touch line. The Gloucester winger quickly got up to speed before diving high and early under pressure from Luca Sperandio, dotting down the ball just before his body hit the floor to make the score at halftime 20-8 following Farrell’s missed conversion.

Italy kicked off the second half the more dangerous team again, and when a Garbisi cross-kick set up Monty Ioane to beat Elliot Daly round the outside and make it 60m down the pitch, England were soon pinged for another breakdown offence, allowing Garbisi to kick the first points of the half. Italy continued to attack and made it back into the England 22, but Garbisi found his pass to Seb Negri intercepted by Anthony Watson, who fended off Carlo Canna before going the length. The try was sent for review due to a late challenge by Farrell on Stephen Varney in the build-up, but the inept officiating of Adamson and Neville focused only on the legality of the hit and ignored the lateness, so the try was allowed to stand and Farrell duly kicked the conversion. This try proved to be the catalyst for a number of England changes, and they played a key role in England’s next try on the hour mark. England won a penalty at the scrum 30m out and Dan Robsn took a quick tap and scythed through the retreating Italians, finally being tackled just short of the line. England reset with a handful of pick-and-gos, before Jack Willis snuck over, riding the tackles of Varney and Garbisi, Farrell again adding the extras. Wllis had only been on a couple of minutes, but only lasted a couple more, suffering a horrible looking knee injury on Italy’s next attack as the Italians tried to roll him out of the breakdown. England had gone for a 6-2 split on the bench but had no other options available to cover the back row, leading to Max Malins coming on and Watson packing down in the scrum, and the unfamiliar formatin had an immediate impact, as the Azzurri scrum wheeled to the blind and Federico Mori crashed through a couple of challenges before offloading to Tomasso Allan, who went over for the try and kicked the conversion. England replied immediately, finding a gap around the breakdown to get back onto the Italy line, and when a wide pass was tipped by an Italian hand, it fell to Daly, who tiptoed over out wide, with Farrell kicking the conversion for a 41-18 scoreline. Both teams had one more chance, with Italy exploiting Daly’s pathetic attempt at defending out wide to break down the right through Luca Sperandio, but his bass back inside to the supporting Jacopo Trulla was cut out by the retreating Owen Farrell, while a late George Ford dart to the line down the blind side following a lineout 10m out saw the Leicester stand-off held up on the line to deny them one final score, though this would still finish England’s biggest win since they played the USA in the Rugby World Cup.

England

This was an improvement from last week by England insofar as that they actually played attacking rugby. Unfortunately for them, months of being trained to not play with the ball meant that they struggled to do anything truly of worth.

Half the team couldn’t even do the basics right, with passes going everywhere, and many of those that did go to hand were then promptly dropped! Against an inexperienced Italy team – and with the officials ignoring the majority of your errors and offences – England could get away with these errors and still win. But against a more competent defence – let alone an elite defence like France, play of this quality will be easily snuffed out.

Between his poor passing and his consistently questionable defence, this game should have been the end of Elliot Daly’s tenure in the XV, while the pace that Dan Robson brought to the game after his introduction should finally earn him the number 9 shirt. However, just like the idea of a back row made of form players (imagine the quality of a Curry, Earl, Simmonds trio), we can be sure that 2 weeks from now, Eddie Jones will pick the same solid but unspectacular line-up. The only real question will be if they have learned to do the basics well enough over the next 2 weeks to trouble the Welsh.

Italy

While the Italian attack has improved so much from last season, there is one area that seriously needs looking at over the next 2 weeks: the kicking game. Paolo Garbisi has a big left boot, but he doesn’t use it to the best of effect, generally just booting the ball downfield, making it easy for the back 3 to run it back.

England showed just what Italy need to do in this game, with a variety of different kicks, including the deep balls but also high bombs and other contestable kicks. Sometimes territory isn’t always the option if the opposition is allowed to counter, so a more contestable kick will put the opposition under more pressure and potentially lead to you winning the ball back while the opposition is disorganised. And simply by varying the types of kick, it makes it harder for the opposition to predict what you will do and get in the right prediction.

There is a lot of responsibility on his shoulders with both scrum half Stephen Varney and fullback Jacopo Trulla being attacking players rather than tactical kickers, but that means that Carlo Canna needs to get more involved in the kicking game if he is to be used at 12. Canna did in fact get a little more involved with the kicking in the second half, while an early cross-kick from Garbisi also paid dividends. If they can add that variety to their kicks over the next 2 weeks, it will take them a big step closer to that elusive win.

Lions Watch

Just one team to look at from this game, and in the front row, Kyle Sinckler put in a Man of the Match performance, lasting until the 73ʳᵈ minute while performing well in both attack and defence. Meanwhile, out wide, Anthony Watson put in a superb performance, with a crucial interception in defence, while he repeatedly showed the danger that his pace and footwork will present to defences.

On the other hand, Elliot Daly‘s defensive struggles will be a big red flag against a physical South African team, especially with other talented ball-players playing much better at the moment. Meanwhile in the pack, Billy Vunipola‘s impact on the game was extremely limited and it is hard to imagine him beating out CJ Stander for the number 8 jersey.

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Ireland

Round 1 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Cardiff with Wales hosting Ireland at the Principality Stadium. Neither team had a 2020 campaign to be proud of, but it was the Welsh who had the better start, with Leigh Halfpenny kicking an early penalty after Peter O’Mahony was caught entering a ruck from the side. O’Mahony clearly needs to work on his ruck entry, as he was penalised again 10 minutes later for tucking in the arm and making contact with the head of Tomas Francis, leaving Wayne Barnes with no option other than to send him off. The Welsh were buoyed by the man advantage and soon doubled their lead after Jonathan Sexton was penalised for a high tackle on Johnny Williams. They let the Irish claw themselves back into the game however, and Sexton kicked 2 penalties to bring everything level. Then with just a few minutes left in the half, Robbie Henshaw ran a reverse and found a gap in the Welsh defensive line to break into the 22 before offloading to Josh van der Flier. The flanker was stopped just short, but a solid clean-out from the Irish allowed Tadhg Beirne to pick from the base and cross for the opening try, which Sexton converted for a 6-13 halftime lead.

The Welsh came out looking to play a bit more positive rugby after the break, and when they won a loose ball deep in the Irish half, Josh Navidi picked up from the base of the ruck and offloaded to outside centre George North, who used his support me to dummy his way past James Lowe to score in the corner, Halfpenny missing the conversion. 10 minutes later, wales found themselves in a similar position, and some soft hands under pressure from Halfpenny released Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing, who quickly got up to speed and dived in for the go-ahead try under pressure from Tadhg Furlong. Halfpenny added the conversion and a further 3 points just a few minutes later when Tadhg Beirne was harshly adjudged to have entered a ruck from the side. However the Irish hit back and with Jonathan Sexton off the pitch, Billy Burns kicked a penalty to cut the deficit to 5 points. The clock entered the red with Ireland in possession and making their way downfield, eventually winning an 84ᵗʰ minute penalty. Billy Burns went for the corner but overcooked his kick on a tight angle and the ball went out of play over the dead ball line, securing a 21-16 victory for Wales.

Wales

Wales should consider themselves very lucky to have won this game despite having a man advantage for over an hour of the game, because they played this game completely wrong.

With Ireland going down to 14 men so early in the match Wales should have been looking to keep the ball in hand as much as possible, probing along the defensive line to find the gap that will inevitably appear due to the 1-man advantage, whether it is by creating a hole in the middle or catching the defensive line too narrow to create space out wide for Rees-Zammit. In doing this, not only would it have created chances, but it would have also tired the Irish out, creating even more gaps to exploit as the game wore on.

Instead, Wales entered into a kicking duel with the Irish that on the whole they lost, while the Irish would then utilise their own possession and territory to work the Welsh defence as Wales should have been doing to them. It was only a couple of moments in the second half when Wales really played this right – and they finished both of these occasions with tries!

At the end of the day, a win is a win, but for me there are still a lot of questions about the way Wayne Pivac has this team playing.

Ireland

Ireland have such strength in depth throughout this squad, with almost all of the 15 men starting all able to be replaced by someone of similar quality. However, there are 2 key positions where the Irish are struggling to do this: in the half backs.

Though both Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray are in the twilight of their careers and hold the team back against top quality opponents, they are still given all the minutes by Andy Farrell, exactly as was the case under Joe Schmidt. Meanwhile, players in the form of their lives are lucky to make it onto the bench and get just a handful of minutes, usually once the result is secured. If they’re lucky, they may get a start against a team like Italy, but usually in a team so heavily changed that they build no chemistry with the first team players. This lack of chemistry with the first team and lack of minutes in key international matches leads to performances like today, where Billy Burns is brought on with just 10 minutes left and expected to change his natural game to fit into the scheme that has been made to get the best out of Sexton, and leads to extra pressure on their shoulders in situations like today’s final kick to touch, where they know they must be inch-perfect in order to to even stand a chance of being given minutes over the incumbents, and that extra pressure in an unfamiliar situation leads to mistakes.

At some point, Sexton and Murray will be unavailable, either through injuries or retirement. When that moment comes, Andy Farrell may regret having not given the players just below them in the depth chart more time with the first team.

Lions Watch

Tadhg Beirne and Robbie Henshaw were the standout players from this game and were very unlucky that being n the losing side meant they were not considered for Man of the Match, while CJ Stander looked more mobile than last season without losing any of his power. For wales, Alun Wyn Jones put in a true captain’s performance, carrying hard and repeatedly leaving Irish bodies crumpled on the ground following his tackles.

Arguably the biggest loser from this weekend will be Peter O’Mahony, whose red card just highlighted once again that he is not the player he was a few years ago due to the changed interpretations at the breakdown, while larger players like Beirne and Iain Henderson’s ability to cover the back row as well as lock will make them look more attractive against the massive Springbok packs. Similarly, Johnny Williams has a potential to be a bolter for the squad but needs the minutes at international level, so a failed HIA would have been the last thing he wanted, and he will be hoping that he is fit to face Sotland next weekend.

Six Nations 2021: England v Scotland

Six Nations 2021: England v Scotland

England kicked off the defence of their Six Nations title by hosting Scotland. Gregor Townsend’s team showed a vast improvement in 2020 but almost found themselves going behind in the opening seconds as Maro Itoje charged down Ali Price’s clearance, only for Jonny Hill to be penalised for sealing off 5mfrom the line. The Scots cleared their lines and took the game to the Auld Enemy and a series of penalties saw them work their way down the pitch and open the scoring with a Finn Russell penalty. The English indiscipline continued and led to Billy Vunipola being sent to the bin on 24 minutes for persistent offending by the team. Scotland looked to take advantage of the extra man by kicking to the corner, but Hamish Watson was held up on the line and 5 minutes of reset scrums resulted in a Finn Russell cross-kick that bounced just a little too high for even Duhan van der Merwe to claim. The Scots soon got the try they were looking for though, as Sean Maitland beat Jonny May to a high ball on the edge of the England 22, and when the ball was spread wide to van der Merwe, the wing powered through tackles from Elliot Day, Owen Farrell and Mark Wilson to score the only try of the game. Russell was unable to score the conversion from out wide, and when Rory Sutherland gave away a penalty for not rolling away, Owen Farrell kicked the 3 points to get on the scoreboard, before adding another penalty right before the half as Russell was sent to the bin for a trip on Ben Youngs, leaving the halftime score at 6-8, a scoreline that flattered the English.

The Scots had to see out the first 9 minutes of the second half a man down, but did so with aplomb by keeping the ball tight and drawing England into giving away more penalties, which allowed Russell to come back on and immediately kick the team back into a 5-point lead. The rest of the half saw England try – and fail – to produce anything that even resembled attacking play, while the Scots held firm in defence, and though Stuart Hogg’s team missed a couple of kicks at goal and began making a few errors, they were able to hang on for an historic 6-11 win to regain the Calcutta Cup.

England

This was a result that has been coming for England, and Eddie Jones has nobody to blame but himself. Over the last couple of years, he has created a team that actively discourages any form of positive rugby and instead focuses on defensive solidity, forward dominance, accurate kicking – both from hand and at goal – and taking advantage of their opponents errors in order to put points on the board. That’s all well and good, until your pack gets outplayed and you’re the team giving away all the penalties.

Of course, the selection can’t have helped either, with half the team having not played in months due to either the league not playing (the Saracens players who make up a key core of the team) or COVID outbreaks in the squad. This was a team coming in missing crucial rugby fitness and it showed, with flat performances across the board. Owen Farrell looked shell-shocked, Billy Vunipola could only make it just past the hour despite having a 10-minute break in the first half, while Ollie Lawrence and the backs outside him must have been wondering who they had insulted to get so little ball.

An when England so desperately needed an attacking spark coming off the bench, they replace Mark Wilson – a solid defensive player but not an attacking star – with Courtney Lawes, leaving Ben Earl on the bench. For so long, Eddie Jones has got away with his ridiculous selections and tactics by drawing out wins; now that their opponents have rebuilt, England are going to have a much harder run, and it’s time to move onto a coach that selects players on form and looks to play attractive and effective rugby at the same time.

Scotland

In an alternate reality, Cameron Redpath could have been playing for England today, instead he was making his debut for Scotland and playing a key role in the victory. Aged 18, he was called up to Eddie Jones’ England training squad but an ACL injury ruled him out for months. Tied in with the arrival of big names at Sale, he found his chances limited, but a move to Bath has really worked out for him and I feel that switching allegiance to Scotland will work better for him than staying with England as Townsend will do a better job getting the best out of him that Eddie Jones would.

In this match, he really showed England what they were missing, running brilliant lines and always being willing to take the ball on, while also earning a key turnover penalty on halfway that would have stretched the lead to a 2-score claim had Stuart Hogg not kicked wide. He will certainly face bigger challenges in defence, but he already looks like an established international rather than a debutant, and that is the highest of praise.

Could he be in with a shot of a place on the Lions Tour, assuming t goes ahead? I think that this Tour may have just come a little too soon for him, but if he can carry on performing like that, he could certainly push his way in as a late bolter.

Lions Watch

And so with the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa due to take place this summer, it is the return of Lions Watch, looking at players whose chances of making the squad were helped or harmed by this game.

As well as Redpath, fellow recent Scotland call-up Duhan van der Merwe showed his quality in attack, with his size and power giving an extra dimension out wide. Hamish Watson continues to shine every time he puts on a Scotland shirt and it’s hard to imagine that his power carrying and doggish determination at the breakdown would not see him make the plane. As for England, Maro Itoje was probably one of the few players to not do himself harm with a performance that saw him solid in defence and putting heavy pressure on Ali Price whenever he was kicking from the base of a ruck. Finally, Stuart Hogg put in such an assured performance including some inch-perfect kicks to touch that really highlighted his quality at a moment when the fullback shirt looks up for the taking.

On the flip side, Owen Farrell‘s struggles may lead to a worry that a lack of top flight rugby will see him fail to reach his heights this summer if he can’t turn things around quickly. Finn Russell had some moments of quality, but his trip on Ben Youngs was a timely reminder that he is not the most solid option in defence, while Ellis Genge may have taken a hit as his struggles against Zander Fagerson in the scrum may outweigh his carrying in the loose when you consider how dangerous a weapon the Springboks scrum is. Finally, Billy Vunipola looked far from fit and very rarely looked a threat with ball in hand – is his time at the top of the game over?

Guinness Six Nations

Lions Tour 2021: Predicting the Squad

Lions Tour 2021: Predicting the Squad

It’s hard to believe, today sees us reach the one year mark before the British & Irish Lions’ first match of their 2021 South Africa tour. This time next year (barring any delays given the current state of the world) the Lions will be taking on the Stormers in Cape Town as the first of 8 matches on their tour, culminating in a 3-Test series against the World Champions South Africa.

In honour of this day, I have decided to try predicting the players who will make up the Lions touring party. The last 2 touring parties have been just either side of the 40-man mark, but I have gone a little larger due to Warren Gatland’s decision in 2017 to add 6 extra players midway through the tour to help keep the Test team fresh. The “Geography 6” did not get a great reception when they were announced, which led to Gatland largely backtracking and keeping them as unused substitutes. With player welfare having become even more important over the last 4 years and the 5 games before the Tests being spread over just 15 days, I can see Gatland picking a larger squad this time around, so I have gone on the idea of a 46-man touring party, which would allow Gatland to put out 2 completely different matchday 23s without any overlap of players.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has not made selection easy for Warren Gatland, as it has left the Six Nations unfinished and also ruled out the Summer and Autumn Test windows, so 2021’s Six Nations will be huge, but players may also find that their form in club matches is given more consideration this time due to the lack of international rugby. So, who do I think will be travelling to South Africa?

Hooker

With 46 players going, I would expect 40 of them to be specialist hookers. Ken Owens is probably in prime position to start the Tests and I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him captain some of the early matches. Owens is such a reliable player and was an ever-present for Wales under Gatland. With such limited time together, that familiarity will be key for the Lions. Next up is Jamie George, who has had control of the England number 2 shirt for a couple of years now. While he doesn’t seem as flashy as in his earlier years, he is super reliable at the set piece and will tackle all day long. For the other 2 spots, things get very interesting. Rory Best’s retirement has left Ireland lacking experience at the position and the lack of matches between now and the squad announcement is likely to count against them. Scotland have seen the number 2 jersey split between Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown, so it is highly possible that they could take both remaining spots, but I think that the strong carrying of Luke Cowan-Dickie will earn him a spot in the party,leaving space for just one of the Scots. While McInally brings a more open attacking game, I’m not sure that’s what Gatland will be looking for on this tour, so I can see him picking Fraser Brown, who can also cover as a back row in an emergency.

Prop

When I started looking at props, I must admit that I was surprised just how many players immediately clicked into place, leaving me only a few slots to fill.

At tighthead, Kyle Sinckler has become one of the best in the world, with good hands t go with his incredible strength and refusal to take a backwards step. It’s fair to say that his early removal in the World Cup final was a huge loss for England. I expect Sinckler’s biggest rival for the 3 shirt in the Tests will be Tadhg Furlong, who is another that can make a positive impact in both the set piece and the loose. 3 years ago, Tomas Francis was one of the infamous “Geography 6” but this time around I expect him to be a part of the initial squad as he has become a force in the scrums and is arguably another 3 whose removal benefited the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup. And for the final spot, I can see Zander Fagerson getting the nod, as he has become a regular for Scotland and impressed in a scrum that was improving during the Six Nations.

Moving over to the other side of the front row, I think that the current lack of a nailed down starter for Wales will leave them without representation at this position. Joe Marler had such a positive impact off the bench during the Rugby World Cup final, that I expect him to get a call-up alongside England teammate Mako Vunipola, who is arguably one of the best all-round looseheads when on top form. Cian Healy is another of the top looseheads and will provide plenty of experience. By the time the tournament comes around he will be 33, so I can see the tour being his international swansong. As for the final spot, strong performances over the net year could see Ellis Genge squeeze in as a physical carrier against the Super Rugby and Invitational teams, but right now I think the more likely player is Rory Sutherland, who was having a strong Six Nations before the pandemic brought it to an early end.

Lock

When initially starting my selections, I set aside 6 spots for the second row, but by the end I increased that to 7, as I noticed that a number of the locks I was picking were also experienced at playing in the back row, and with the strength of the Springbok pack I can imagine Warren Gatland going for a large pack. First off is the likely pick for the captaincy: Alun Wyn Jones, who brings so much experience and leadership to the team, as well as very rarely having a bad game. Next up were the youngsters that have quickly become key members of their teams, Maro Itoje and James Ryan. It wouldn’t surprise me to see these 3 making up the lock contingent for the first Test, but if anyone was to put themselves in contention, I can see it being Iain Henderson, especially as he could also provide a super physical option at 6. At this point I should probably make clear that I have excluded Geroge Kruis due to his upcoming move to Japan that will bring an end to his England career. Completing the group of specialist locks, I have Jake Ball getting in due to his larger size helping to bring some balance in the scrums. And then we come to Courtney Lawes, who in recent years has spent almost as much time at 6 as lock (though I personally think he is somewhat wasted at 6 internationally) and bolter Tadhg Beirne, who as well as being a large unit capable of covering lock/back row, has great ability in the loose and will be a big threat at the breakdown.

Back row

It’s probably no surprise that taking an extra lock came at the expense of a back row spot due to the players able to cover both, leaving me with 7 spots to fill here.

Personally, I feel that Taulupe Faletau could find that the pandemic leaves him with too little time to prove himself back to top form, so I can see him missing out here in favour of Billy Vunipola and CJ Stander, who can also cover openside flanker and will be keen to shine in the Test squad to show the Springboks just what they missed out on. They are the only specialist 8s I have going, with Ross Moriarty finding himself too far down the list with so many options at back row, however Josh Navidi has experience playing the position at international level and has the strength to hold his own against larger players. Navidi can be used at 8 due to the inclusion of fellow opensides Justin Tipuric and Hamish Watson, who both bring a lot to the attacking game in open play as well, while Sam Underhill can come in to fill the role of reliable tackler that Gatland used to see filled by Dan Lydiate, while he can also pick his moments to attack the breakdown. With so many other similar options, Jamie Ritchie and Tom Curry both see them missing out this time around in favour of Aaron Shingler, who provides a lineout option and more ballast at 6 to nullify the size of the South African packs.

Scrum half

Moving into the backs and scrum half was probably the hardest position for me to fill, just because I think that a lot of the current starters have serious questions about them. Wales are in the early days of trying to figure out their depth chart at 9 under Wayne Pivac, but Gareth Davies was so successful under Gatland that I’m confident he will go, while Rhys Webb was another Gatland favourite until his move to France made him ineligible.

For the other 2 spots at the position, I considered the Scottish pair of Ali Price and George Horne but don’t think Price has done enough to stand out from the crowd, while I see Horne being considered too small and not enough of a game manager to make the party this time around. Tomos Williams has been largely impressive for Wales, but I also see him missing out as I can’t see Gatland picking 75% of the scrum halves from the same nation. So that brings us on to England and Ireland, who wee both going through the Six Nations with players who were in the 9 shirts through the strength of their name and history rather than their recent performances. If we’re looking at the form performer before the pandemic, that was clearly John Cooney, and I think that he will get the recognition from Warren Gatland if he can continue the performances once rugby returns, especially as he also provides an option off the tee. This leaves a race between Conor Murray and Ben Youngs, and I think that based on current form, Ben Youngs has the slight edge, while he also has the running game to complement his tactical kicking that Murray lacks.

Fly half

So at fly half, I felt comfortable that Gatland would look to go for 3 specialists, with the potential for a couple of selections elsewhere in the back line also being able to cover the position in an emergency.

So immediately this throws up the question of where to class someone who will clearly make the squad: Owen Farrell. Farrell is perfectly capable of playing both fly half or centre, so could very easily be classed as a centre, allowing for another specialist fly half to be called up to the squad. However, for reasons that I will discuss shortly, I see him being looked at more as a fly half. Dan Biggar also makes the list as he continues to put in great performances that may not lead to super flashy attacking play, but effective, pragmatic play. Both Farrell and Biggar were picked alongside Jonathan Sexton in New Zealand, but I can see the trio being broken this time as Sexton’s poor form will see him left out in favour of Finn Russell, who probably won’t make the Test 23 but will prove a great attacking talent for the midweek games.

Now, on the off-chance that Farrell does make the squad but is considered more as a centre, I still don’t see Sexton getting picked barring a massive upturn in form, which leaves that final spot to be fought between Gareth Anscombe, Adam Hastings and George Ford. For me, Hastings loses out due to his lack of experience leading a team at this point, so it then comes down to the fitness of Gareth Anscombe. It’s worth remembering that he was set to be the starter for Wales at the Rugby World Cup before his injury against England, so if he can prove himself fully fit and back to top form, then I think his ability to also cover 15 will earn him the spot over George Ford, while any questions over Anscombe’s readiness will see Ford get the nod.

Centre

Owen Farrell being classed as a centre means that there are 5 spots to fill at the position in this squad. Now, when picking his centres, I think that Warren Gatland will take a moment to consider the opposition they are likely to face and choose to go for a highly physical set of midfielders to combat the Springboks.

As arguably one of the best 13s in the world, Jonathan Davies seems certain to make the squad provided he is fit, while I also think that Manu Tuilagi will be guaranteed a spot if fit. Hadleigh Parkes’ move to Japan has made it unlikely that he will be selected. The Scottish midfield seems somewhat unsettled at the moment, which I think will hinder them getting any representation at the position. For Ireland, I think that the physicality of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, combined with their experience playing together, will see the pair selected.

Now, these 4 players will do a good job bringing physical parity to the match, but there’s not much in the way of playmaking ability. This could be answered by utilising Farrell alongside one of them, but I can instead be the form of Henry Slade being rewarded with a spot in the touring party, as he has the extra playmaking ability from his time as a fly half earlier in his career, while he has also demonstrated surprisingly impressive physicality over recent years to make the England 13 shirt his own.

Back 3

And so we come to the back 3 and if you were counting, you’ll know that I’ve left 8 spots free to cover this area.

Stuart Hogg is the first person named here as an obvious selection at fullback and will be hoping to get his shot in the Tests after being forced to leave the tour of New Zealand early. Also joining him will be fullbacks Liam Williams and Anthony Watson, who will also be able to play on the wing if Gatland desires. Jonny May and Josh Adams have been 2 of the form wingers in the Six Nations in recent years so will be hoping to secure the wing spots for the Tests. And that leaves 3 spots for players who I think can have hugely positive impacts on the tour but will need some incredible fortune to make the Test squad as things stand. Darcy Graham has looked highly impressive for Scotland and will benefit from the experience of being on this tour with a view to competing for a Test spot on the next tour. Andrew Conway has taken over from Jacob Stockdale as the top Irish winger at the moment, while Stockdale will actually miss out on the final spot to bolter James Lowe, who becomes eligible through residency later this year and has averaged a try every 1.7 games though his time with the Chiefs and Leinster.


So, that’s my prediction. Who do you think Gatland will take with him?

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

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

What an 80 minutes of rugby! With the Test series tied at 1-1, the entire Northern Hemisphere rugby season had been building to the series-deciding final Test… which ended up deciding nothing! Though the All Blacks crossed for 2 tries, the metronomic kicking of Owen Farrell and the monster boot of Elliot Daly kept the Lions (who never created a try-scoring chance of note) in the game and some last-ditch Lions defending held the All Blacks just short in referee’s time to end the game 15-15 and end the series in a tie. While this felt like something of an anti-climax, the game itself was a fantastic affair and even though I knew the result by the time I was able to watch (I was at work when the game was played), I was still completely hooked on the game.

With the series now over, it feels odd not having to predict the next Test team, but I still wanted to carry on the tradition of putting pen to paper (finger to keyboard?) on my big thoughts from the game.

 

Controversy again

Ken Owens in my opinion is a very luck boy. At the final restart of the game with mere minutes left, Liam Williams fumbled the kick-off under pressure from Kieran Read and the ball bounced into the arms of the Welsh hooker, who was making his way back from an offside position. Romain Poite initially gave a penalty for offside and appeared to stick to this decision after speaking to the TMO, but by the time he spoke to the captains, he had changed his mind and ruled it an accidental offside, resulting in a New Zealand scrum that Rhys Webb was able to turn over.

The sections of World Rugby’s laws that would be applicable here is as follows:

11.6 Accidental offside

(a)

When an offside player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate carrying it, the player is accidentally offside. If the player’s team gains no advantage from this, play continues. If the player’s team gains an advantage, a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.

(b)

When a player hands the ball to a team-mate in front of the first player, the receiver is offside. Unless the receiver is considered to be intentionally offside (in which case a penalty kick is awarded), the receiver is accidentally offside and a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.

11.7 Offside after a knock-on

When a player knocks-on and an offside team-mate next plays the ball, the offside player is liable to sanction if playing the ball prevented an opponent from gaining an advantage.

Sanction: Penalty kick

To be fair to Poite, this does leave a grey area that I feel this incident has fallen into, as it was almost impossible for Ken Owens to avoid the ball, however on viewing, he did appear to initially grab for the ball – a reflex action in my opinion – and then let go the moment he realised he was offside. Going on similar previous incidents, my opinion is that had the ball simply bounced onto Owens then a scrum for accidental offside would have been fair. However by actively grabbing the ball, even for a moment, he has played the ball so it should have been a penalty. We will never know for certain whether Beauden Barrett would have been successful with the kick (he finished 2 from 4 on the day) however the penalty was in such a good position I feel it would have been the game winner.

Next off the conveyor belt…

Among the changes that Steve Hansen made for this third Test were the introduction of the inexperienced Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett tot the starting XV. Jordie especially had a mixed game, with some great moments like his involvement in both New Zealand tries, but he was also put under a lot of pressure by the Lions’ defence (more on that later). I have faith that he will improve with more experience and he certainly looks like a player for the near future.

Laumape, however, looks like a player for right now! After his impact (literally in many cases) on the Hurricanes game and the second Test, I was not surprised to see the Hurricanes centre given the 12 shirt in place of the suspended Sonny Bill Williams. After the way he played, I wonder how easy it will be for Williams to earn the shirt back. He may not be the fastest, as we saw when Jonathan Davies was able to chase him down, but he makes up for it with his strong direct running – just ask Dan Biggar! He read the intentions of both Barrett brothers to take his try well on 15 minutes, and his part in the second try just before half time could only be described as Williams-esque: drawing in both Farrell and Davies to make the tackle on the second phase, before offloading the ball while on the way down to Anton Leinert-Brown who duly put Jordie Barrett over. At 24, he will just be starting to hit his prime, and to play regularly alongside so many All Blacks for the Hurricanes will only improve the chemistry of the national team’s back line.

Lions defence

In the Disney film Remember the Titans, during a stirring team-talk with his defence, assistant coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) tells them “I don’t want them to gain another yard! You blitz all night!” I get the feeling the Lions were given a similar speech pre-game. While Sam Warburton led the harassing of the breakdown, the Lions defensive line were constantly up in their opponents’ faces as quickly as possible, forcing them into a number of mistakes that you would not usually expect from the All Blacks. Passes were off target, catches were fumbled and kicks were put out on the full, most notably from Jordie Barrett who was frequently targeted by Jonathan Davies. As I worried about earlier in the tour, there were a couple of occasions where Beauden Barrett took advantage of the narrow blitz defence with cross-kicks. Luckily for the Lions, their pacy back 3 were fast enough to recover and then willing to put their bodies on the line to make the necessary tackle (Liam Williams becoming a human speed bump for Julian Savea sticks in my mind). When next series of Test matches comes around for New Zealand, it will be interesting to see if their opponents try to emulate the Lions’ defensive tactics.

 

What were your thoughts on the final Test? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge